WALTON: Sonata for Violin & Piano. BRITTEN: Suite for Violin & Pianoforte / Wanchi Huang, vln; Robert Koenig, pno / Centaur CRC 3681
Wanchi Huang, professor of violin at James Madison University, here presents two violin pieces by British composers who hated each other. Britten thought Walton’s music, Façade excepted, to be “stodgy” while Walton hated Britten because he was gay. But hey, music is blind to personal animosities!
As it turns out, the Walton sonata is indeed a rather reactionary, late-Romantic work, but one full of surprising harmonic twists and one that is exceptionally well-crafted. Huang clearly has a very lovely tone and a fine technique and plays it about as well as one could imagine, but to my ears her accompanist is on autopilot throughout. She might as well have programmed a MIDI to accompany her, but at least he’s competent and doesn’t get in the way.
The sonata is divided into two large movements, an opening “Allegro tranquillo” that runs about 13 ½ minutes and a theme-and-variations that runs close to 14. It is in the first that one can fully admire Huang’s rich, burnished tone, somewhat similar to that of the late David Oistrakh, to its fullest. She plays with an almost constant legato feel, even in the quicker passages, and has a very lovely sound indeed. In the second movement, a theme with seven variations (some quite short) and a coda, Huang maintains her legato feel and makes several of them (note particularly the end of the sixtt variation) really sing, but she is also concerned with showing us the structure hof the work and does this extremely well. In the seventh variation, her playing in the extreme upper register lacks the usual “thin” tone one hears from most violinist (what I refer to as the “whistle sound”) but is able to maintain fullness. That is some kind of control. She also opens all the stops in the Coda, playing with a combination of great energy and wonderful sound.
The Britten Suite is an early work (Op. 6) but surprisingly modern in its harmonic language, clearly showing the strong influence of his teacher, Frank Bridge. Yet the music also contains some of the whimsy that one would occasionally hear from the mature Britten as well, i.e. in the “March” with its humorous, upward-rising figures tossed off so insouciantly by Huang. This music is very good indeed, and Huang makes it sound even better. Once again, alas, pianist Koenig sounds as if he just phoned in his part, and in this case it’s really a pity because, as we know, Britten was a truly great pianist who played with energy and drive in everything he did. One could compare this to the Lyrichord recording of the work with violinist Gerald Tarack, whose playing is very fine but no match for what Huang does here, with the far superior pianism of Thomas Grubb. How I wish that Huang could have recorded this with a pianist like Stephen Spooner or Simone Dinnerstein! But of course there are compensations. No violinist in my memory has played the “Lullaby” (fourth movement) the way Huang does, and the “Waltz” is given a real Viennese “kick.” If there is such a thing as a violin tone that melts like honey in your mouth, this is it.
A bit of a split review in two ways, then: I much preferred the Britten work to the Walton and loved Huang while just tolerating Koenig. Worth getting to hear how Huang plays the Britten, however; I guarantee that you won’t forget it!
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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