Nurit Stark Plays 20th Century Music

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BARTÓK: Solo Violin Sonata. LIGETI: Solo Viola Sonata. VERESS: Solo Violin Sonata. EÖTVÖS: Adventures of the Dominant Seventh Chord / Nurit Stark, vln/vla / Bis SACD-2416

I couldn’t find any information online or in the booklet accompanying this CD as to whether or not this is Nurit Stark’s debut album, but if not. it is clearly a coming-out party for the young Israeli violinist-violist, for here she tackles no easy, standard-repertoire items but, rather, four powerful, difficult pieces by four Hungarian composers. The Ëotvös piece, the only one written in the 21st century, is also the lone “first recording” on this set.

Stark is well named. She has a very bright, astringent tone, as sharp as a tack and focused as a laser, which she applies to this music. This is surely appropriate when you consider what most Hungarian violinists sound like, including Bartók’s friend, Joseph Szigeti, or the modern-day Barnabás Kelemen, whose performance of this sonata I have on a Hungaraton disc. She is also an emotional performer who gives her all to this music. Although Bis’ SACD sonics don’t really make a big difference in a solo instrument recital such as this, I felt there was a bit too much reverb around her instrument which distracted me from appreciating some of her playing in fast passages.

The Ligeti sonata for viola is somewhat atypical for him since it pursues a lyrical line more often than edgy effects, but the kicker is that the viola plays pitches that are just slightly out of tonality. The first movement, in fact, is to be played entirely on the viola’s lowest string, the C string, which doesn’t exist on the violin, thus giving the music a darker sound, and the pitch bending makes it sound even stranger than that. Stark’s handling of the technically fiendish second movement, “Loop,” is simply astounding.

The Sandor Veress violin sonata was new to me, and I enjoyed it very much. The liner notes claim that Ligeti’s sonata is closer in form to Baroque style than Veress’, but I heard much more Baroque rhythm in the Veress piece, which also contained a lot of the same kind of self-accompanying techniques that Bach used. Only in the third movement did I feel that the music sounded more “Hungarian” than Baroque, with its odd modal harmonies and fast-paced figures that resembled Magyar folk music.

Ëotvös’ Adventures of the Dominant Seventh Chord was in fact dedicated to Nurit Stark, who gave the world premiere of the piece in 2019. The dominant seventh is introduced very slowly, one note at a time, at the beginning of the piece before moving into some truly wild figures. Although in this piece the dominant seventh is never resolved, Ëotvös does move, sideways, into tonal figures played quite slowly, The composer also uses some Eastern European dance forms; he says that the purpose of the piece is “to surprise the good old dominant seventh by making a big leap every time we leave the Western-European culture for the Eastern-European one.” Thus there is a certain amount of sly humor in the piece, something Ëotvös is known for, and this in itself makes this piece stand out from its very serious fellows. Stark also seems to be enjoying the underlying humor of the piece; her playing of it is full of life and evident affection.

Despite all of the interesting things in this program, however, I found it a hard slog to listen to simply because every movement of each piece was a supreme challenge to the ear and mind. Even the most finely attuned musical listener needs a little breather now and then, and this program gave the listener of this SACD absolutely no musical “breathing room.” It was intense, harmonically dense and rhythmically difficult music to listen to from start to finish, and even I, who like all these composers and listen to their music somewhat frequently, found it difficult to keep my concentration level up. I would recommend taking at least a 10-minute break between each sonata presented here in order to maintain your musical equilibrium. Otherwise, this is an excellent album all round.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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