Chisson & Atschba Present “20th Century Feminine”

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L. BOULANGER: Nocturne. D’un matin de printemps. BACEWICZ: Violin Sonata No. 4. USTVOLSKAYA: Violin Sonata. HIGDON: String Poetic / Louise Chisson, vln; Tamara Atschba, pno / Hänssler Classic CD HC20044

French violinist Louise Chisson and Russian pianist Tamara Atschba appear to be two very earnest young women who care enough about music to present such an unusual program as this, works by four well known but still not often played female composers of the 20th century. They have been performing as a duo since 2008 and, in addition to such standard fare as Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Poulenc and Debussy, they like to include music by Lutosławski, Szymanowski and Shostakovich as well.

The sad thing about the two Lili Boulanger pieces presented here is that, although they are well-crafted as usual, they give only a hint of the even greater music she wrote for orchestra and/or chorus, which remain undervalued and seldom performed. Nonetheless, it’s always nice to hear good versions of her music, and Chisson clearly loves this music, digging into it with great feeling.

The emotional commitment of the two performers boded well for the remainder of the program, particularly the music of Bacewicz and Ustvolskaya which demand all-out performances. The former’s Violin Sonata No. 4 is perhaps more often played and recorded than the other four sonatas, and their performance of it here is really splendid, as good as that of Magdalena Ziarkowska-Kolacka on Divine Art.

I was particularly interested to hear how they would play Ustvolskaya’s Violin Sonata, since I was only used to the performance by Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Markus Hinterhauser. Although Chisson is a violinist who uses a light vibrato in sustained notes, whereas Kopatchinskaja uses straight tone almost all the time, the former played the music with very good feeling, though the duo’s performance is a bit swifter in tempo and just a bit less bleak than that of Kopatchinskaja-Hinterhauser. This brings the music more in line with the other pieces on this CD although I still think that Kopatchinskaja gets a bit deeper under the skin of this strange, bleak piece. Perhaps it’s the difference between French sensibility and that of a Russian. On the positive side, however, Chisson and Atschba bring out the structure in the music somewhat more clearly. Kopatchinskaja-Hinterhauser play it more subjectively, Chisson-Atschba more objectively. (Ironically, for an album that focuses on women composers per se, Ustvolskaya was dead set against being separated from other composers by reason of gender.)

Jennifer Higdon’s music is primarily noted for being lyrical yet modern, but in the opening movement of String Poetic the music is atonal and edgy, opening with the pianist thumping on her instrument, followed by strange upward phrases played by the violinist. This is clearly one of her most interesting and edgy pieces, despite the temporary lull into the second-movement “Nocturne” which is still much sadder than most of her music. Besides, Higdon returns to her uncharacteristically edgy mood in the third piece, “Blue Hills of Mist,” where the pianist plays soft, low notes and chords with one hand while plucking some of the inside strings of her instrument with the other, which creates a very strange effect even though the violinist plays a slow, arching bitonal melody above it. Late in the movement, it is the violinist who plucks some strange notes on her instrument.

The fourth movement, “Maze Mechanical,” is a moto perpetuo for the two instruments using bitonal and modal harmony that never quite resolves itself. “Climb Jagged,” the last movement, also begins with thumps from inside the piano, this time in the contrabass range, but the music becomes quite swift as the two protagonists constantly challenge one another.

Thus what began with music of the early 20th century French school ends with one of the most stunning and original pieces that Higdon has ever written. A remarkable journey, with excellent playing from both musicians and first-class sound.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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