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John CORIGLIANO (b. 1938)
The Red Violin Caprices (2002) [9:33]
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1963) [23:08]
Virgil THOMSON (1896-1989)
Three Portraits (1944) (arr. Samuel Dushkin, 1947) [6:12] (I. Barcarolle, A Portrait of Georges Hugnet [1:53]; II. Tango Lullaby, A Portrait of Mlle. Alvarez de Toledo [2:17]; III. In a Bird Cage, A Portrait of Lies Deharme [2:02])
Five Ladies (1983) [8:29] (I. Cynthia Kemper, A Fanfare [1:08]; II. Anne Miracle [1:12]; III. Alice Toklas [3:03]; IV. Yvonne de Casa Fuerte [1:43]; V. Mary Reynolds [1:24])
Eight Portraits (1928-1940) [17:23] (Georges Hugnet – Poet and Man of Letters [1:33]; Señorita Juanita de Medina Accompanied by her Mother [2:12]; Madame Arthe-Marthine [2:09]; Miss Gertrude Stein as a Young Girl [1:47]; Cliquet-Pleyel in F [2:22]; Mrs Chester Whitin Lasell [1:46]; Sauguet, from Life [1:14]; Ruth Smallens [4:19])
Philippe Quint (violin) (all); William Wolfram (piano) (all but Caprices)
rec. 27 January 2008, St. John Chrysostom Church, Newmarket, Canada (Caprices); 10-11 June 2007, Glenn Gould Studio, CBC, Toronto, Canada.
Experience Classicsonline

John Corigliano is a man of many talents – composer, teacher, record producer. This enterprising disc showcases both his earlier work (the violin sonata) and a set of variations based on his score for François Girard’s 1997 film The Red Violin. Sensibly, Naxos have paired them with violin vignettes by Virgil Thomson, perhaps best known for his film scores The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River.
The Russian-born violinist Philippe Quint may not be a household name on this side of the Atlantic but he has made quite an impact in his adopted homeland. Apart from winning a slew of prestigious awards he is dedicated to performing American music. He is partnered here by the charismatic pianist William Wolfram, who made an impact of his own with a fine disc of Donizetti opera transcriptions [see review].
Briefly, The Red Violin traces the travels of the eponymous instrument from Italy in the late 1600s to 19th-century England, China during the Cultural Revolution and finally to Canada in the 1990s. The conceit will be familiar to anyone who has read Accordion Crimes by Brokeback author Annie Proulx.
Corigliano won an Academy Award for the original score, which he has reworked as a set of five variations. From the outset it’s clear we are in the presence of a very fine fiddler. Quint produces a lovely warm tone in the elegiac opening to Variation 1, not to mention some scintillating passagework in the ensuing Con bravura. But it’s in the third variation that he really surprises, with an almost throaty sound. He seems perfectly in control at all times, especially in the quick, rhythmically precise writing towards the end of this variation. In Variation 4 he is wonderfully eloquent, too, and the instrument’s upper registers really sing. He also imbues the music with a meditative quality that is most attractive, notably in the final variation. Even in the more agitated passages he bows with great precision and bite, the engineers capturing the weight and character of sound very well indeed.
For anyone looking to sample Corigliano’s work this is an excellent place to start. His music is described as ‘neo-tonal’ but as so often the label doesn’t tell you a great deal about what to expect. Lightweight it may be but this is skilful music adroitly played. Ditto the violin sonata, where Quint is joined by Wolfram, whose first imperious entry is a sign of what’s to follow. Both soloists are warmly recorded, the violin tone nicely balanced by a weighty piano.
Wolfram proves he can play quietly and with feeling in the Andantino, in marked contrast to his jaunty Allegro. They both respond well to this meanderingly beautiful movement. But even here the music has a habit of modulating into something a little wilder before returning to its gentle wanderings. Indeed, there are times when one is reminded of Korngold’s violin concerto. But whatever the echoes it’s delectable stuff and superbly played.
The third movement – Lento – is more austere than anything we’ve heard thus far; Wolfram restrains the violin’s attempts to break free with darker more declamatory music. The tension is never fully resolved – shades of Shostakovich’s piano trios, perhaps – the movement ending in an enigmatic violin fade.
The final Allegro has a rollicking, silent-film quality that conceals writing of some subtlety and skill. Wolfram springs the rhythms with real affection, Quint shooting the musical rapids with ease. It’s a witty and engaging conclusion to a delightful work, helped by playing of rare commitment. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine this performance being easily trumped.
Virgil Thomson, like his contemporary Aaron Copland, belongs to that small group of composers whose work captures the spirit of America, whether in rousing tributes to the Wild West or evocations of its landscapes and rivers. But the works recorded here are altogether more urban – sophisticated, even – dating as they do from Thomson’s years in Paris.
The Three Portraits, arranged for violin and piano by Samuel Dushkin, are charming vignettes. It’s not essential to identify the subjects, who are rendered here with obvious insight. The first is a tipsy barcarolle, the second a haughty tango, both essayed with rhythmic subtlety and an artist’s eye for defining detail. The bird-like third portrait, complete with trills, is for violin alone. Fresh, open, never sly or knowing, these pieces are little gems.
Five Ladies, written in the 1930s but only published in 1983, offers more of the same but this time without the intervention of an arranger. If anything these pieces are more focused, the writing more distinctive than before. They really are the simplest of sketches, a series of telling musical pencil strokes. The soloists echo this disarmingly simple style with playing of lightness and grace.
The Eight Portraits, written between 1928 and 1940, give Quint another chance to demonstrate his skills. At first they can seem a little dry, almost like a set of practice pieces, but Quint individualises each of them with a range of mood and colour that is most impressive. That said, the material is overstretched at times. Minor caveats aside this really is playing of a high order, self-possessed yet never self-regarding.
Such fine performances of rarely heard works are what make the American Classics series indispensable. Indeed, this is one of the most consistently satisfying projects in the entire Naxos catalogue. And while this disc doesn’t qualify as mould-breaking or profound, it’s well worth hearing.
Dan Morgan


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