This is an occasionally stimulating but mostly disappointing
set. Evidently the timing just overshot the quota for a single
disc, so the combined discs come in at less than 86 minutes,
but neither goes over 46 minutes (it appears to retail at the
price of a single full-price disc).
A good choice to begin with, Messiaen’s Thème et Variations,
an early piece that nevertheless contains many of the composer’s
fingerprints. The theme itself is gorgeous - based on the composer’s
Third Mode of Limited Transposition. The delicate chords on
the piano subtly underpin Josefowicz’s sweet sound. The increasing
subdivision of pulse through the first four variations sets
into relief the final and longest of them, a ‘Lent’ that lasts
4’05. The sense of arrival is nicely there at the beginning,
as is a determined strength of line from Josefowicz.
Listeners new to this work could do worse than to read
the pianist’s notes to this recording. He covers all the pieces
except those of living composers, who are able to speak for
themselves in the booklet. His writing speaks of depth of repertoire
knowledge and clear respect for the music he plays.
The French link is very clear between the Messiaen and
the Ravel, firstly because we are dealing with ‘early’ Messiaen
and secondly because the Ravel Sonata begins at a slight ‘remove’
before entering more overtly impressionistic waters. The Ravel
emerges out of a long silence between the two works effortlessly.
It is clear both Josefowicz and Novacek relish the clarity inherent
in Ravel’s writing but after a while the question of stylistic
truth raised its head. Of the two players, Novacek seems the
more persuasive performer (note his ‘keening’ alternations at
around 3’30). Josefowicz is more at home in the Blues movement,
projecting the Gershwin-ness of the solo line well. Finally
both players hit form in the buzzing perpetuum mobile finale.
However in the final analysis this could have benefited from
even more abandon.
Finally on disc 1 is a piece by Mark Grey (born 1967)
written for this violinist. Tellingly, Grey says he composed
the work entirely on guitar with its four middle strings tuned
the same as the violin, a statement that implies a sort of tinkering
about that evidently made itself felt in the finished product.
The evocative movement titles are probably the best thing about
this work for solo violin (‘Wonder Years’; ‘Clear Lake’; ‘Eruption’). The second movement, the composer
says, ‘reflects the Asian influence so deep within the San Francisco
Bay Area music scene’. An attempt to evoke Asian timelessness,
it is a woefully failed attempt that merely delivers tedium.
The final movement apparently ‘explores the energy grind of
rock music’. My eye it does. I’m sorry I evidently don’t get
the connection at all and while Josefowicz gives the music her
all, it all seems so much effort for so little musical value.
Nice that the two discs are linked by solo items, one
finishing the first, and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Lachen Verlernt
starting the second. The work uses a theme from Salonen’s orchestral
Insomnia - itself recently issued with the Finnish Radio
Symphony Orchestra under the composer on DG 477 5375. Lachen
Verlernt is a quote taken from Schoenberg’s Pierrot
- the narrator has ‘unlearnt’’ the skill of laughing. Musically
the work is a chaconne and indeed moves with the slow inevitability
of that form. Salonen refers to the piece as a ‘mini-drama’,
a term that encapsulates its essence perfectly. Immediately
this work is more gripping than the Grey, and it remains so
until its final note. Salonen’s fertile mind is, evidently,
not held in check by idle strumming on a guitar, electric or
otherwise. Josefowicz plays the work with clear dedication,
working the music towards an impressive climax.
The elegant Beethovenian G major simplicity that opens
the Sonata Op. 96 works supremely well after the Salonen. Josefowicz
and Novacek are in restrained mode for this, letting the work
flow along easefully. But possibly not easefully enough. As
far as Josefowicz is concerned, there is the distinct feeling
she has not yet lived with this music enough and so is trying
to artificially project her own persona too much on Beethoven.
The final section of the first movement, that explores darker
harmonic regions, could be more rapt. Again for the second movement
concentration is on the low side and here Novacek is guilty
of some uncharacteristically ‘plonked’ chords. Worse still,
the Scherzo sounds like a practice run-through it is so careful
and literal while the finale aspires towards the simplicity
it so requires. It contains, however, the most Beethovenian
playing so far and its Adagio section is good-ish, almost but
not quite drawing this listener in.
Brahms’ C minor Scherzo is more attempted-elfin than
Brahmsian energy held in check waiting to explode (and indeed,
exploding on occasion). The more lyric parts of this work are
the most successful, but there is little of Brahms the Granitic
Very mixed. Parts of this recital may well bring enjoyment,
and it is good to see Josefowicz working the music of living
composers into her programmes. She should just be more careful
who those composers are, that’s all.