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William BOLCOM (b. 1938)
Works for violin and piano
Third Sonata (Sonata Stramba) (1993) [19:51]
Second Sonata (1978) [17:36]
Fourth Sonata (1994) [14:19]
Graceful Ghost Rag (1979) [5:33]
Renata Artman Knific (violin)
Lori Sims (piano)
rec. 4-6 June 2006, Dalton Centre, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan.
MSR CLASSICS MS1197 [57:20]

Audio samples available

A fine recording and very good playing.

Competing with a recent Naxos release of the complete violin sonatas (8.559150 - see review), this CD is missing the First Sonata of 1956, but includes the Graceful Ghost Rag by way of compensation.
Enthused by the excellent music for two pianos CD (Naxos 8.559244 - see review), I looked at a couple of years ago I was looking forward to seeing what he had done in these works. The music is still very much the eclectic and wide-ranging collection of styles and references both challenging and attractive, but the strength of William Bolcom as an individual voice is always more than the sum of its parts. In a personal note which introduces this disc, Bolcom’s friend and colleague C. Curtis-Smith sums up this phenomenon well: “…his music is not eclectic in the accepted definition of that word (as in a grab-bag of styles). He sees straight through a musical choice, and chooses a technique or style as an expressive imperative.”
These expressive imperatives range from the drama of the first movement of the Third Sonata, which, not for nothing, is marked dramatico – Allegro con fuoco. Bolcom’s markings are often descriptive, Like a shiver for the fleeting third movement, which moves straight into a kind of funereal march; Moderato, risoluto. This last movement has a resonant, simple idea which could have turned into a miniature, but is instead given nearly seven minutes of variations, which might be too long, but given Bolcom’s inventive nature not by much.
The Second Sonata begins with a more easygoing movement called Summer Dreams, which ambles along in the piano but with a sometimes almost polytonally independent violin part. The dreams become more angular and disturbing later on, finally settling into the mood of the opening towards the end. Brutal, fast characterises the second movement, which is less of a dialogue than an argument between piano and violin. The subsequent Adagio is expressive and elegiac while maintaining a tonal ambiguity, and the finale, In Memory of Joe Venuti, is, perhaps unexpectedly, in a catchy and swinging jazz idiom.
The Fourth Sonata is more compact than the others, and Bolcom seems less willing to explore more slender musical ideas through longer time spans. The first movement is terse and intense, contrasting with the gestural sweeps of the second movement, marked White Night. This is followed by an Arabesque in which the rhythms of the piano are punctuated by taps on the wood of the violin. This is the miniature which the final movement of the Third Sonata could have become, revolving around the ‘musette’ of a single tone. This movement connects directly to the finale, Jota, which at first weaves and dives like gannets flying and plunging for fish. An eloquent central section develops and grows through chromatic steps towards a dramatic climax and close.
The Graceful Ghost Rag is one of those timeless tunes which one feels should have been around for at least a hundred years, mixing the identifying turns and mood of Scott Joplin with the elegance of a 19th century salon setting. There were one or two moments where I felt the ‘jazz’ idiom might have been given a little more freedom in the violin here, but this is a minor quibble. 
With the Naxos CD hogging the market for these pieces and having the First Sonata as an extra selling point, this disc may find it hard to make its way in a competitive market. There is no information on the individual pieces in the booklet either. With a fine recording and very good playing from both musicians however – both seasoned and prize-winning professionals – it would be a shame if this release were to sink without trace, and with the quality of music and musicianship on offer I can only urge you to give it a chance.
Dominy Clements         


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