Collins’ Violin Works Lyrical, Original, Haunting

Collins front

COLLINS: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. Sonata for Oboe or Violin. Sette Invenzioni. Oriental Fantasy / Duo Ardorè (Rebecca Raimondi, violinist; Alessandro Viale, pianist) / Sheva Contemporary SH 175

Just when you come to feel that there’s nothing new under the sun, here comes this stunning new album of violin works by little-known but obviously talented composer David Collins. Born in 1953, Collins had violin lessons as a boy but never went very far as the thought of composing music became his overriding goal. Nonetheless, he went into other occupations, only returning to his boyhood dream years later after studying with Anthony Gilbert at the Royal Northern College of Music. He supported himself by working two full days a week while studying.

David Collins2

David Collins

Listening to the Violin Sonata No. 1, I was struck by the elegance, simplicity and yet deeply felt emotion of Collins’ writing. It is so refreshing to hear a modern composer who can express himself in just a few notes and gestures, yet never become maudlin, sentimental or lightweight. There is a certain intensity in his music that continues as it moves and develops, in its own slow pace, without losing the listener in folderol or trivialities. Moreover, he maintains this quality even in slightly faster and busier movements, such as the second movement of this first sonata. He simplifies his message by breaking it down to a few rhythmic gestures, introducing a number of pauses that interrupt the music’s flow, yet never loses the listener who sits enraptured, carefully following all of his changes and permutations. I’ve included a couple of pages from this second movement below to give you an idea of Collins’ method. In this movement, particularly, he starts out with simple, spaced out notes, then doubles them, and then finally doubles them yet again:

Vln Con 1a

Vln Con 1b

The second work on this CD was composed for either Oboe or Violin, but of course is played by violin here. The first movement of this brief two-movement work (less than eight minutes) follows the same pattern as the second movement of the first Violin Sonata, with changes and permutations, while the second, marked “Allegro ritmico,” plays cat-and-mouse with the listener as violin and piano toss little musical cells back and forth between each other. You may compare this to either a game of ping-pong or, in musical terms, a “chase” chorus between two jazz musicians; there is a great deal of mirror-imaging going on, and I don’t think the comparison to jazz is all that much out of line as the piano part in this movement becomes very syncopated indeed. A little more “swing” from our pianist, and it would indeed sound jazzy! At one point the violin plays pizzicato for several measures above the piano; I have no clue what an oboe might do at that point.

The Sette Invenzioni or Seven Inventions are played a cappella by our intrepid violinist, and here Collins modifies his approach somewhat. He still uses space imaginatively and remains relatively simple, but without the keyboard he gives much more in terms of rhythmic movement and counterpoint, modernizing the techniques developed by Bach and Ysaÿe for solo violin music. There is also more dissonance in some of this music, moving not only chromatically but sideways harmonically to provide considerable variety and interest. In the third “invention” Collins utilizes two separate rhythmic figures, one in the upper range and one in the lower (see score page below), as alternating passages played by the violin with rests of varying lengths in between to break up the rhythm. The composer describes them in the liner notes as “studies in technique and sonority, inspired by short poems of Kathleen Raine, evoking natural sounds and movements.” This third invention he describes as simulating “the flash of a lighthouse” while the fourth represents “the flight of birds.” No. 5, however, is simply emotional while No. 7 is “purely musical.”

Invention 3 ex

The second sonata also begins with the violin playing alone, and when the piano enters it is with upward-running scale figures that quickly move into dissonant chords. This has an entirely different feel from the first sonata, showing us that Collins is not a one-trick pony but, rather, has several different methods of operating up his sleeve. He also increases the emotional intensity here to match the increased dissonance, and breaks up the rhythm in such a way that although it is a reular pulse it is tricky to follow. In the longer second movement, titled “Air and movement,” we suddenly revert to the style of the first sonata but are in a more rarefied atmosphere, one in which the violin soars on high-lying, long-held notes while the piano introduces chime-like sprinkles of chords hither and yon. (Hey, when’s the last time you saw “hither and yon” in a record review? Huh?) This evolves, but differently from the first sonata, moving little by little into edgier and more chromatic passages with lyrical interludes. This, in turn, changes into what sounds like an Italian tarantella, only with plenty of dissonance and an eventual break-up of the rhythmic pattern. Collins explains that it is “structured as a palindrome, where the ideas return in reverse order after the slow middle section.” Strange stuff!

In the finale, Oriental Fantasy, the music doesn’t sound particularly oriental to begin with due to the dissonant chords and chopped rhythm of the piano interjections. Here, the toccata from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo is “re-imagined in different oriental styles and scales,” including Indonesian gamelan music and the Japanese koto. The strong rhythmic pulse is redoubled by having the piano play even deeper and more strongly rhythmic figures in the bass clef. Oriental or not, this is fascinating music, playful and serious at the same time. The variation at the seven-minute mark, at which the violin imitates the Chinese erhu, is the most oriental-sounding of them all.

back tray insert better quality

Of course, no music is going to play itself, and Collins was indeed fortunate to have such outstanding interpreters as Duo Ardorè. Pianist Alessandro Viale understands the timing and rhythmic push of this music, and violinist Rebecca Raimondi (no relation, alas, to either of the famed singing Raimondi families) plays with an edge-of-the-seat intensity that fits in beautifully with Collins’ conceptions. I sincerely hope that this disc whets the appetite of other record companies to lure this talented duo to their studios; they certainly deserve wider recognition. If you enjoy modern tonal classical music, or just modern music with a twist, you won’t want to pass this one up. The Penguin’s Girlfriend gives it six fish!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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