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Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Violin Sonata No. 1 in F major, Op. 8 (1865) [22:53]
JEAN SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Humoresques:, Op. 87, No. 2, Op. 89, Nos. 2, 4  (1917) [2:33 + 3:43 + 2:58]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Sospiri, Op. 70 (1914) [4:58]
Violin Sonata in E minor, Op. 82 (1918) [23:35]
Isabelle van Keulen (violin)
Ronald Brautigam (piano)
rec. 8-10 February 2006, Galaxy Studios, Mol, Belgium. DDD

This is a recording of such high quality that it should have been one of my Recordings of the Year for 2007 but it arrived too late. This happened to me last year in 2006 with a disc from James Ehnes on Onyx of violin concertos by Korngold, Barber and Walton; and it’s happened again. Not to worry, the high quality of the music won’t diminish.
On this Challenge Classics release charismatic Dutch performers, violinist Isabelle van Keulen and pianist Ronald Brautigam demonstrate that they clearly deserve their distinguished status in the classical music world. In August this year I had the good fortune to attend an memorable recital in Kendal, Cumbria where van Keulen led the Leopold String Trio (with violist Lawrence Power and cellist Kate Gould) with such accomplishment. I am more familiar with Brautigam from seeing him perform so adeptly at the fortepiano.
The first work is Grieg’s Violin Sonata No. 1. The Norwegian composer said of his three violin sonatas, “They represent periods in my development … the first naļve, rich in ideas; the second is nationalistic and the third has a wider horizon.” This sonata was composed in the summer of 1865 during an especially happy time in the life of the young Grieg when living at Rungsted in Denmark. He played the piano part at the premiere in 1865 at Leipzig; where he had been a student at the Conservatoire. One feels that the fledgling Grieg was strongly influenced by the spirit of the great masters of the German tradition: Mendelssohn; Beethoven and Schumann but also mixed in are impressions of Norwegian folk music and suggestions of the Hardanger fiddle. 
The opening movement Allegro con brio is performed here with a summery, good-humoured character. One notices contrasting episodes of affecting reflection; such as at point 6:40-7:00. Forthright and robust playing in the Allegretto quasi andantino feels wonderfully controlled. The final Allegro molto vivace is given a warmly romantic and boldly energetic performance, expertly held together with a highly secure ensemble playing.
My clear first choice in the Grieg is the highly dramatic and energetic performance from Augustin Dumay and Maria Joćo Pires. It was very closely recorded in 1993 in Berlin and can be found on Deutsche Grammophon 477 525-2 (c/w Grieg Violin Sonatas No.2, Op.13 and No.3, Op. 45).
Elgar composed Sospiri, Op. 70, a work for strings; harp and organ in 1914. I understand that the title of Sospiri is Italian for ‘sighs’ or ‘sighing’. Sospiri was written shortly after the death of Julia Worthington, an American who was a close family friend. The score aptly reflects Elgar’s grief and the anxious times when the storm-clouds were gathering as Europe was on the threshold of war. It was dedicated to his close friend W. H. (Billy) Reed. Sir Henry Wood conducted the premičre at the Queen's Hall, London in 1914.
A shortish score lasting around five minutes, Sospiri is a dark and heartfelt Adagio. In the absence of any information I assume that this violin and piano arrangement of Sospiri is the one that according to the booklet notes was prepared by Elgar. I was not aware that Elgar had made an arrangement of Sospiri for violin and piano but I knew of one credited to Eirian Griffiths that Marat Bisengaliev and Benjamin Frith recorded on Black Box BBM1047. Of other Sospiri arrangements I have recently seen a transcription by John Pickard for string quartet and also a version for cello and orchestra by Julian Milone. In this performance who could fail to be moved by such an intense declaration of deep sadness. This is conveyed here with considerable emotional sensitivity.  
Elgar's Violin Sonata in E major, Op. 82 is an unashamedly romantic and deeply serious work that deserves to be heard far more often. It was written in little over a month in 1918 at Brinkwells, Elgar’s country cottage near Fittleworth in Sussex. This was the year before his celebrated Cello Concerto; a score that employs the same key. Now in his sixties with his reputation securely established Elgar concentrated on chamber music composing virtually simultaneously three remarkable works: the String Quartet, Op. 83 the Piano Quintet, Op. 84 and the Violin Sonata, Op. 82. The three movement Violin Sonata was dedicated to Marie Joshua, a family friend, and was premiered by Billy Reed and Landon Ronald at the Aeolian Hall, London in 1919.
Elgar’s Violin Sonata has a conspicuously Brahmsian feel. The first movement Allegro that Elgar described to his intimate friend Alice Stuart-Wortley ‘Windflower’ as “bold and vigorous” is handled here with spellbinding confidence and perfect dramatic weight. Elgar explained that the remarkable central movement Romance was, “a fantastic, curious movement with a very expressive middle section; a melody for the violin...” Here the partnership effortlessly provides assurance and intensity in a movement that cleverly communicates the contrasting emotions of joy and sorrow. In the “broad and soothing final movement marked Allegro, non troppo van Keulen and Brautigam convey an intensely satisfying and passionate climax of unbridled optimism.
This quite exceptional performance becomes my first choice version. Another excellent recommendation is the gloriously poetic account from violinist Daniel Hope and pianist Simon Mulligan, recorded in Wyastone, Monmouth in 2000 on Nimbus NI 5666. I also value the assured and passionate 1985 account from Lorraine McAslan and pianist John Blakely and I still own the vinyl record on ASV digital DCA 548. The McAslan and Blakely recording was, I believe, reissued on CD on ASV Quicksilva CDQS6191 and then on Sanctuary Classics ‘Resonance Series’ CDRSN3060. Another admired account that has been described as having “rapt and concentrated playing” is from violinist Lydia Mordkovitch and pianist Julian Milford on Chandos CHAN 9624. Of the non-digital recordings of the Violin Sonata I have received much satisfaction from the 1971 Abbey Road, London version sensitively performed by violinist Hugh Bean and pianist David Parkhouse on EMI Classic for Pleasure 5859082 (c/w the violin concerto, piano quintet, string quartet, serenade for strings and concert allegro).
Sibelius was a talented violinist who dreamt of becoming a virtuoso on the instrument and at one time unsuccessfully auditioned as a player for the Vienna Philharmonic. Given his affection for the instrument it is not surprising that Sibelius went on to write numerous works for the violin; the highpoint undoubtedly being his outstanding Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 (1903, rev. 1905). Between 1916-17, at the time of the struggle for Finnish independence from Russia, the fervently nationalistic Sibelius composed six Humoresques for violin and orchestra. These six miniatures range from a couple of minutes playing time to just over four minutes. This release contains pared-down versions for violin and piano of three of the Humoresques; only vague information is provided about the origin of these arrangements. Superbly interpreted by I experienced the Humoresque, Op. 87, No. 2 is bold and fervently agitated; Op. 89, No. 2, amiable but just failing to soothe and Op. 89, No.4 is evocative of an ebullient family outing.    
With regard to the presentation of this release a total playing time of just over an hour is meagre by today’s standards and the cover photograph of swans swimming at night seems rather dull and esoteric. The booklet notes were only marginally informative and not without error. It seems careless not to have provided more information about the Elgar and Sibelius transcriptions. Recorded at the Galaxy Studios at Mol, Belgium the close and vivid sound is of a high standard with an especially agreeable balance.
On this release the violin and piano music of Grieg, Elgar and Sibelius is given the finest service. These are top class performances from players at the top of their profession. The duo’s performances of Elgar’s Violin Sonata and Sospiri have a towering emotional intensity and mesmeric attraction.
Michael Cookson


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