Semenenko & Belogurov at the “Crossroads”

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PREVIN: Violin Sonata No. 2. SCHEMMER: Violin Sonata. GAY: Violin Sonata / Aleksey Semenenko, vln; Artem Belogurov, pno / Bis SACD-2545

This album presents violin sonatas by three American composers who normally don’t get much exposure on disc, of which the only one I’ve heard of (but haven’t heard any of his music before) is André Previn. Of Tony Schemmer and Paul Gay, I know nothing except for what the liner notes tell me, that the first is a New Yorker who loved musicals, operas and Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts and “pursued jazz and conducting at the New England Conservatory,” and that the second hails from New Brunswick, Maine, also studied at the New England Conservatory and later in London, played the trombone and pursued conducting.

To be honest, I never thought very much of Previn as either a jazz pianist or a conductor; to me, he was just OK, nothing really special, yet this Violin Sonata is a surprisingly creative piece, leaning a bit here and there towards modern harmonies but largely tonal. Yet the music is highly creative and unpredictable, and both Semenenko and Belogurov play the heck out of it. Semenenko has the kind of lean, bright, razor-sharp timbre that is very much in vogue nowadays; he plays with a very light, quick vibrato and has impeccable control of phrasing, technique and rhythm, all of which work splendidly in this piece. Belogurov isn’t quite as exciting a player, but he’s not bland, either, the result being a very satisfying performance. I can’t say how this compares to other recordings of this work since I’ve not heard any, but on its own merits I’d say it’s up there with any rival recording.

Even better is the violin sonata of Tony Schemmer, which is steeped in jazz devices and calls for the performers to swing. Belogurov does pretty well in this respect but Semenenko is even better, curving and shaping his lines with the insouciance of Stéphane Grappelli. A shame that the famed French violinist never played it—it’s clearly his cup of tea. Moreover, Schemmer keeps the listener on his or her toes by constantly shifting the meter and taking the music into very unexpected side roads as it develops; this is clearly a first-rate and very American piece. I especially liked the brief passage at 4:45 in the first movement where Schemmer has the violin and the piano running figures in opposite directions. The second movement has strong hints of the blues, reminding me of some of William Grant Still’s compositions, while the third is a real swinger in asymmetric rhythm, with both artists giving it their all. But there’s also a fourth movement, and here Schemmer writes in a surprisingly formal 4/4 for the piano introduction, only bringing in a bit of jazz swing once the violin arrives, playing simple figures until the piano starts to swing, leading both instruments into a nice little duet in 5/4 which later leads into a two-voiced fugue. A really fun and interesting piece!

Gay’s sonata opens with an echt-Romantic figure played by the solo violin; after the piano’s entrance, the music moves along with a nice melodic line that is not too surgary, and the music develops in an interesting manner. The tempo picks up around the three-minute mark as the movement fairly gallops along for a while before slowing back down for its conclusion. The second movement opens with violin pizzicato, the piano also playing clipped single notes for a while; this is a graceful but still interesting waltz. The waltz tempo continues into the third movement, titled “Idyll,” and here I was a bit bored since the music just ruminated and didn’t really go much of anywhere despite a switch to march time in the middle. Fortunately the last movement, titled “Games and Epilogue,” is more interesting and unexpected.

All in all, then, a surprisingly interesting collection of pieces, of which only the Gay sonata has any real structural weaknesses. I really liked this disc because at least these musicians took some risks for a change.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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