Judith Ingolfsson’s “Happiest Years”

Ingolfsson cover

SCHNABEL: Solo Violin Sonata. ERDMANN: Solo Violin Sonata / Judith Ingolfsson, vln / Genuin 20711

When this CD was first released in May 2020. I tried my best to review it. I downloaded the music files from Naxos’ secure website for critics and happily began listening…only to discover that the second movement of the Schnabel sonata stopped playing after only 50 seconds. And the same was true of the third movement.

So I complained to my contact at Naxos, who assured me that it would be fixed online. It never was. Even worse, when the CD showed up on the Naxos streaming site, the same problem occurred…and it occurred again when they uploaded the sound files on YouTube later on. (Update: I just checked and the first two movements of the Schnabel now play their normal length on the Naxos streaming site, but the third movement, which runs 11:27, cuts off after just 2:26, so we still have problems.)

Unfortunately, at the time I couldn’t connect with the artist via her Facebook page, but after giving a rave review to her latest CD she contacted me, I told her the problem, and she was gracious enough to mail me a physical copy of the CD from Germany, which I received yesterday afternoon, so here is my review of it.

The title of the CD does not refer at all to the second composer on here, Eduard Erdmann, but to the first. Artur Schnabel later said that the years 1919-1924 in Berlin were his happiest because he could cut back on giving concerts and devote more time to composition, which he loved. Yet oddly, it wasn’t necessarily because he “loved” his own music! To quote the liner notes, “He was ‘happy’ composing and considered it ‘a kind of hobby, or love affair.’ He was not interested in the ‘value’ of his compositions, rather in the ‘activity.’”

Schnabel & Schoenberg

Schnabel & Schoenberg

A century on, and much (but not all) of Schnabel’s music is now highly valued for its musical content—much to the consternation and irritation of conventional music lovers who can’t stomach it because it is atonal. For me, Schnabel’s best music is that written for the piano (his instrument), his String Quartet, the few songs which he wrote for his wife, mezzo-soprano Therese Behr-Schnabel, and this solo Violin Sonata. I find his orchestral works, which he wrote in the late 1930s, to be heavily congested musically and somewhat incomprehensible. When Dmitri Mitropoulos gave the American premiere of Schnabel’s First Symphony with the New York Philharmonic in December 1946, it was roundly booed by the audience and panned by the critics, and with justification. But this didn’t stop Mitropoulos from also performing Schnabel’s equally indigestible Rhapsody for Orchestra  two years later, in November of 1948, to equally derisive comments. I don’t think it is just coincidence that none of Schnabel’s orchestral works are programmed nowadays. (Yes, I know, some reader in Bad Gestomachache, Germany will post a comment that some visiting conductor programmed one of them back in 1998 or 2015 or something, but you get my point.)

My sole experience with this work is the very fine performance given by violinist William Harvey on Centaur 3678, but Ingolfsson plays it just as well if not better. What I find so attractive about these solo works (and the string quartet) that I do not find attractive in Schnabel’s orchestral music is that, when he was writing one line of music, he alternated between harmonic edginess and extreme lyricism, which was in his blood, whereas in his orchestral music it seemed as if he was always trying to out-Schoenberg Schoenberg and it just didn’t work. Ingolfsson plays this sonata with a light, fast vibrato which adds luster to her tone, yet she does not shy away from the strong emotion in those louder, edgier passages where the soloist is asked to attack the instrument more forcefully. Nonetheless, she finds a way of folding those edgier moments into the overall lyricism of her playing. It’s had to describe, but you can hear it when you listen to the performance.

As I mentioned when reviewing the Harvey performance (February 2019), the relatively brief second movement surprised me because it “sounds like a cross between modern violin music and something that Fritz Kreisler might have written. This is also, considering Schnabel’s penchant for tightly-constructed music with little in the way of flash, a surprisingly virtuosic piece.” Interestingly, Ingolfsson’s performance de-emphasizes the Kreisler-like effects, concentrating more on the angularity of the musical line. Touches like this make her performance sound, at times, considerably different from Harvey’s.

The Erdmann sonata, although in the same vein, is less than half as long, clocking in at 18:30 compared to the Schnabel sonata at 46:39. The opening is lyrical but atonal, using much more widely-spaced intervals and quite a few pauses after which the tempo changes considerably. This sonata was inspired by the composer’s close friendship with violinist Alma Moodie, one of Carl Flesch’s prize pupils. After a pause at 10:06, we hear a bouncy sort of tune, albeit one in bitonal harmony, and the tempo becomes even faster a bit later on. Erdmann’s second movement, though an “Allegretto scherzando,” emerges in bits and pieces which the listener must put together in his or her head while listening to the music—yet somehow the music coalesces. Thus this piece is not as easy to assimilate as the Schnabel because the listener must work harder to catch everything that is going on, but ultimately it is rewarding. A perfect example is the bouncy (but very atonal) fourth movement, marked “Lebendig” (“Lively”) with its serrated atonal melodic line and occasional strange dead stops in the music.

I think that both Harvey’s and Ingolfsson’s performances of the Schnabel sonata are of equal value because both violinists bring out different things in the music and in different ways. I’m a little more ambivalent about the Erdmann sonata, not because it isn’t good but because it’s more cerebral and sometimes a bit confusing as to what the composer was driving at, but her performance of it is excellent.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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