Lin Plays American Sonatas

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SCHOENFELD: Violin Sonata. STUCKY: Violin Sonata. HARBISON: Violin Sonata. BERNSTEIN: Canon for Aaron / Cho-Liang Lin, vln; Jon Kimura Parker, pno / Naxos 8.559888

Fame is fleeting. Go back about 30 years, and Cho-Liang Lin was one of the hottest violin properties in the classical business, but nowadays it seems as if he only surfaces occasionally. But here he is, giving world premiere recordings of the Schoenfeld and Harbison sonatas as well as the little Bernstein piece.

I think I was most surprised by the opening of the Paul Schoenfeld sonata, mostly because I am so familiar with his ever-popular Café Music. Here, he gives us edgy bitonal chords and biting rhythms in the first movement, which opens with a bang and never really lets up. Yes, there is a trace of Café Music in some of the piano accompaniment writing, but the violin sounds like he’s had a really bad day riding the subway and missing all of his connecting trains. A bit later on in the same movement, one hears the patented Schoenfeld ragtime style taken to a new level harmonically, with the violin part remaining quite edgy. And do I detect a snippet from Con Conrad’s 1931 song, “Yes Yes, My Baby Said Yes Yes”? Why yes, I think I do!

The second movement is slow and a bit lyrical, but Schoenfeld also uses some very dark chords here which gives the music a sad-and-weary feeling. Then, in the “Romanza,” Schoenfeld suddenly turns tonal and Romantic, albeit with a few harmonic twists in the middle. The last movement is a bitonal “Freilach.” Although I liked the component parts of this sonata, I didn’t think that the four movements really had anything much to do with one another, particularly the last two. Sometimes a composer can simply substitute cleverness for inspiration.

Steven Stucky’s violin sonata from 2013 opens with an attractive if somewhat elusive bitonal theme, played rhapsodically by Lin with Parker providing a fine accompaniment. We then move into a cat-and-mouse game, with the piano leading with sharply-attacked chords and the violin answering with phrases and motifs of his own. It’s a very interesting first movement, followed by a querulous, almost playful final “Scherzo – Finale.” This was a much more unified piece, which I enjoyed very much.

John Harbison’s violin sonata also begins in a much edgier vein than I expected, but since it’s from 2011 I suppose that he decided to join the edgy-classical crowd. All kidding aside, however, it’s a very well written and interesting piece, full of unexpected twists and turns, including a very lyrical theme in that same first movement after all the hubbub is over. The second-movement “Intermezzo” is an odd piece with a stop-start sort of progression, as if Harbison either wasn’t quite sure how to proceed or wanted to tease the listener a little, but he manages to make the hesitating melody work in his favor during the development section, and he even carries this routine a bit into the third-movement “Aria.” The last two movements, “Rondo” and “Poscritto,” are rather livelier and based somewhat on ragtime.

Aaron’s Canon is a 1970 piece by Bernstein. It’s pleasant and innocuous. Lovers of Copland’s Americana period will love it.

So there you have it. Two excellent sonatas, one with a great first movement and weak ones after that, and a real in-one-ear-and-out-the-other piece.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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