Waley-Cohen Plays Modern Music

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BARTÓK: Sonata for Solo Violin. BENJAMIN: 3 Miniatures for Solo Violin. PENDERECKI: Cadenza. CARTER: Four Lauds: I & III. KURTÁG: 6 Miniatures: Signs, Games & Messages for Violin / Tamsin Waley-Cohen, vln / Signum Classics SEGCD416

I’m embarrassed to say that I only became aware of violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen when reviewing the CD of Richard Blackford’s Kalon, on which she plays as a member of the Albion String Quartet, and then discovered her as a soloist in Blackford’s violin concerto, Niobe. And the reason I’m embarrassed to say this is that, in addition to being a technically brilliant fiddler, Waley-Cohen is daring and adventurous as a programmer of modern music, far more so than her more famous foreign rivals (Anne-Sophie von Mutter, Rachel Barton Pine, etc.). This CD came out in 2015, but in that year I was writing reviews for a noted classical music magazine that kept feeding me endless supplies of Chopin, Liszt, and other old-timey composers whose music I’d gotten thoroughly sick of, so I didn’t know it existed.

She begins this recital with Bela Bartók’s solo violin sonata, and quite an impassioned performance it is, too. I liked her performance as much if not a bit more than that of Barnabás Kelemen on Hungaraton; to my ears, Waley-Cohen has just a bit more “juice” to her violin tone, and her interpretation is first-rate. I was particularly fascinated by the way she handled the second-movement fugue, a piece that uses a continually moving chromatic line that defies tonality even as it sounds as if it is continually heading in that direction. Fascinating music, brilliantly played.

Next up are the 3 Miniatures 3 Miniatures by George Benjamin, a composer I knew nothing of. A pupil of both Olivier Messiaen and Alexander Goehr, Benjamin has been writing music since age seven. Between 1992 and 1994, he also helped pianist Yvonne Loriod complete Messiaen’s last work, Concert à quatre, and in 1993 spearheaded the first Meltdown Music Festival in London. His music as represented here lies somewhere between Messiaen and neo-Romanticism, being less angular and more lyrical than his mentor yet excellently crafted and very interesting. Benjamin tends towards what I call “crushed chords,” i.e. chords in which the intervals within are sometimes a half-tone, and occasionally uses microtones in moderation. In the first piece he also sets up a rocking motion in the lower range of the violin, contrasting this with light, rapid motifs played in the upper reaches of the instrument. In the second piece, A Canon for Sally, he uses a sort of echo effect with short, rhythmic motifs that bounce off once another. Lauer Lied features short pizzicato notes played in an almost brusque style, later contrasting this with a very lyrical bowed line. How on earth Waley-Cohen was able to play both pizzicato and bowed simultaneously is a mystery to me when you just have two hands, and one of them is holding the violin!

Normally I don’t care much for Penderecki’s music, but this particular Cadenza for solo violin is well written while avoiding his usual ugly-sounding musical style. This music is chromatic and atonal but also lyrical; perhaps because he was writing for the violin, he bypassed his usual methods. The only trouble is, it doesn’t really go anywhere, but gets hung up on repeated patterns that keep bringing it back to the beginning like a musical Mobius strip.

Next up are two pieces by one of the worst modern composers in the world, Elliott Carter. When Carter was alive and celebrating his 100th birthday, people actually applauded when he appeared at concerts that included his music, but the word within the classical community was that they were only applauding because he made it to 100, not because they liked his music. One fellow critic, who shall remain anonymous, once said “I don’t even think that Carter really likes his own music.” And I certainly don’t. It was, and remains, pointlessly ugly and goes nowhere.

Happily, the CD ends with six pieces by the excellent modern Hungarian composer György Kurtág, his Signs, Games & Messages for Violin, titled “In Nomine all’ungherese,” “Anziksz Kellerannanak [Postcard to Anna Keller],” Hommage a John Cage” (one of the biggest hoaxes ever perpetrated on the classical community), “Thomas Blum in Memoriam,” “,,,féerie d’automne” and “Hommage a JSB.” Like his model and mentor Ligeti, Kurtág writes in an atonal style but, at least for the violin, with a great feeling of lyricism. Most of these pieces are less angular than the Bartók sonata that began this disc, although the “Postcard to Anna Keller” (lasting only 31 seconds!) is quite angular. One interesting aspect of this suite is that every piece in it was written in a different year, and some in several decades, the “Hommage a John Cage” dating from 1987, the Keller piece from 1993, and three of them written between 2001 and 2005, yet somehow they all hang together. The last piece is surprisingly tonal as well as lyrical, quite a contrast to the preceding works.

This is a fascinating disc, one that I strongly recommend to all fanciers of modern violin music.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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