Berthomé-Reynolds Plays Bacewicz Sonatas

Bacewicz cover

WP 2019 - 2BACEWICZ: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-2. Sonatas for Violin & Piano Nos. 1-5. Partita for Violin & Piano / Annabelle Berthomé-Reynolds, vln; Ivan Donchev, pno / Muso MU-032

My regular readers know that I am extremely fond of the music of Graziela Bacewicz, a Polish conductor who somehow fell through the cracks of time until recently when her music is being revived. Atonal yet emotionally powerful, extremely well-structured and moving, her music lies somewhere between Bartók, Stravinsky and Szymanowski, with elements of each composer fused to her own sense of lyricism.

In these performances of her complete violin sonatas, French violinist Annabelle Berthomé-Reynolds and her accompanist, pianist Ivan Donchev, pierce the very heart of the music in such a way that, as long as you are listening to it, you can’t imagine it being played any better. In recent decades, there hasn’t been quite as much of a difference between French violinists and those from other countries, although by and large German violinists tend to have a warmer, thicker tone (think of Anne-Sophie Mutter), yet despite her studying in England Berthomé-Reynolds harks back to such earlier French violinists as Jacques Thibaud, Henry Merckel and Daniel Guilet in her lean, singing tone on the instrument. The difference is in her intensity, and this she may have picked up from listening to such later French violinists as Ginette Neveu, whose playing was equally passionate in approach.

Since the violin was her own instrument, Bacewicz knew how to write for it. Her own teachers included her father, Józef Jarzębski and inevitably Carl Flesch, one of the great violin pedagogues of the 20th century. (A footnote: how many of my readers know that Larry Fine, famous member of the Three Stooges, once played the violin so well that his father was saving up money for him to go to Europe and study with Flesch? Unfortunately, it never happened.) Having not heard how Bacewicz herself played the instrument, I can’t say how much the German Flesch might have impacted her own tone.

Despite the uncompromising atonality of the outer movements, the slow movements of the violin-piano sonatas have a lyrical quality about them in which the shifting harmonies play a part but do not interfere with the instrument’s ability to sing. Listening to this CD on my computer speakers, Berthomé-Reynolds’ upper range tends to sound a bit thin, typical of the old French school, but not without good support. Yet it is her superb command of staccato and spiccato effects that makes her a perfect fit for this music: listen, for instance, to the third movement of the Sonata No. 3 for a perfect example of what I mean. She attacks every bar and phrase of this music with uncompromising energy and passion, and Donchev partners her perfectly, infusing his own part with passion even in the quiet passages.

There was a complete set of Bacewicz’ complete violin & piano works by Piotr Plawner and Ewa Kupiec on Hänssler Classic, but although that set contained pieces not included here—the Concertino, 3 Dances, Caprice, 2 Oberki, Melodia, Witraz, Kolysanka and Humoresque—it did not include the two sonatas for solo violin. In addition, a side-by-side comparison shows Plawner playing with far less energy and commitment than Berthomé-Reynolds. The difference in intensity is striking, as if one left a room with indirect lighting to suddenly walk out into bright sunlight. Obviously, I prefer Berthomé-Reynolds’ approach.

The second solo Violin Sonata from 1958 is presented first in sequence here. The opening of the first movement is striking: after an intense chord, the soloist plays portamento slides that immediately put the tonality into question. The music is wholly remarkable, featuring fast bowed passages alternating with lyrical moments and more atonal portamento. But if you think that’s wild, wait ‘til you hear the rapid last movement with its moto perpetuo of staccato bowing. A real killer for many violinists!

We don’t get much relief from the 1955 Partita, here played by pianist Donchev as if he were tolling the bells for a funeral as the violinist soars lyrically but atonally above him. The “Toccata” in this piece is almost as wild as the finale of the second solo Violin Sonata, only here the fiddler has a pianist to play around with. The slow third movement is one of the eeriest that Bacewicz ever wrote, a haunting piece that could give Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio a run for the money (and several other pieces as well).

As one goes through the sonatas, one is continually amazed at Bacewicz’ powers of invention as well as her commitment to emotionally powerful music. Of course, all of these works come from her prime, the post-War years up to 1958, but it was still a remarkable good and consistent period for her. One could go on for whole paragraphs trying to describe the wonderful things in these sonatas, but listening is more revealing and far more fun. The first solo violin sonata, which is the earliest work in this set (1941), shows her using certain devices that Bach pioneered within an entirely new musical framework, mixing them in with new devices of her own.

This is an outstanding release, one that I recommend highly!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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