Borissova Plays Vladigerov, Poulenc & Seabourne

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WP 2019 - 2VLADIGEROV: Violin Sonata No. 1. POULENC: Sonata for Violin & Piano. SEABOURNE: A Portrait and Four Nocturnes / Irina Borissova, vln; Giacomo Battarino, pno / Sheva Contemporary SH226

This is an interesting program by the young (b. 1985) Bulgarian violinist Irina Borissova: the Poulenc Sonata, a new work by the enterprising and highly talented British composer Peter Seabourne, and a fairly obscure work by late-Romantic Bulgarian composer Pancho Vladigerov (1899-1978). What works in Borissova’s favor is her very passionate playing. This is not an artist who coasts through anything: for her, every note and phrase is imbued with passion, and this helps particularly in the Vladigerov work, which is resolutely tonal and sounds like something written in 1880 rather than 1914, but when you realize that he was only 15 years old at the time, it’s a pretty fine achievement.

Vladigerov was clearly influenced by Brahms, though his soaring melodic lines are, naturally, more Bulgarian than German. Borissova spins the music out in fine form, and Italian pianist Giacomo Battarino is just as passionate in his playing as she is. Like Brahms, Vladigerov was adept at taking a fairly brief motive and working it skillfully into the succeeding material. Like so many Slavic violinists, she has a very brilliant tone, the kind that can cut through an orchestra when playing concerti with ease. One thing that impressed me is that the fast passages are played smoothly and with equal feeling as the broad melodies. She is not the kind of performer who tosses things off perfunctorily. Naturally, the slow second movement is the most “Romantic” of all, and here I was less impressed by the young composer’s ability to make something interesting out of it. Nearly every phrase ended in predictable fashion. The final third movement, however, is not only quite lively but has some interesting extended chords and chromatic changes.

It will, undoubtedly, come as a shock to many listeners to hear Borissova playing the music of the whimsical but often cool-sounding Poulenc with similar Slavic passion, just as there are listeners who’d be shocked out of their minds to hear Jascha Heifetz and Toscanini romp through the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in a similar fashion, but I loved it. Borissova, in fact, is even more passionate here than in the recordings by Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Arabella Steinbacher, both of whom I admire. She plays the tricky first movement at white heat, the second with smoldering feeling, and the third with a combination of both.

Seabourne’s A Portrait and Four Nocturnes is his tribute to Frydryk Chopin, but don’t expect too many hearts and flowers here. Seabourne is too good a composer to fall into the echt-Romantic trap, and in fact I would have thought less of him if he had. The opening section, titled “Chopin,” is far more harmonically sophisticated than anything the Polish composer ever wrote; rather, as Seabourne tells us in the notes, he used as inspiration the composer’s “ill-fated visit to Majorca in 1838 with George Sand,” and admits what I must admit, that “this composer’s music is not particularly dear to me.” (The Chopin recordings I recommend in my Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide are mostly faster, more vital performances than the usual flowery goop we get over and over again on the radio.) Indeed, Seabourne modeled this opening section after Schumann’s Carnaval, and as he admits, “With the possible exception of the second, the following four Nocturnes are far from gentle dreamsongs. Instead they paint a quartet of night terrors.” Take THAT, Chopin! But I enjoyed every moment of them.

The self-described “dreamy” second nocturne is more harmonically conventional than the second. I hope Peter realizes that THIS is the one they’ll play on classical FM radio ad nauseum because it’s accessible. Well, almost: at the 2:21 mark, Seabourne indulges in some rather modern harmony for a few bars. (Maybe the radio show host will warn everyone not to get scared and turn off their radios at this point.) But he makes up for it with the next two “nocturnes,” titled “Nightmare” and “Invictus.” Be forewarned, Chopin-lovers!

I was so engrossed in the music as such that I almost forgot to “review” Borissova’s violin playing, but here, in music where she has less to show off and more interpretation to be concerned with, she acquits herself beautifully. Both she and Battarino sound as if they are very deep into the music, and in fact the stranger it becomes the deeper they go. I was absolutely riveted by their playing.

This is clearly one of the most interesting violin discs of the year, Highly recommended!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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