Though the literature for that most popular of professional
and amateur duo combinations, violin and piano, contain some of the
world’s greatest and most profound music, there is always room for lighter
fare. Gathered together here are what might be termed ‘encores’, highly
tuneful, disarming pieces that would sit perfectly in a small group
or at the end of a ‘heavy’ recital. One only has to look at the violinists
who have programmed them over the decades to see in what affection many
of these items are held; Heifetz, Elman, Huberman, Stern, Vengerov,
and many more, have at some time included Dvorak’s lovely miniatures
in their concerts. It probably all started with the man who did much
of the arranging and promoting in his own recitals, the great Fritz
Kreisler, and with that sort of endorsement, success is virtually guaranteed.
I didn’t catch Volume 1, and I’m not sure how much
more material there is to unearth (though I suspect quite a bit), but
this instalment is very well performed, and is a greatly enjoyable ‘pick’n’mix’
entertainment. One feels time and time again that an old friend is calling,
such is the familiarity of some of these tunes. Obvious candidates include
the Slavonic Dance arrangements, which many will know in their
original piano duet form, and Songs my mother taught me, which
are part of a bigger set of Gypsy Songs of 1880, and, due to
their popularity, have been arranged in several other forms.
Of course, the Humoresque Op. 101, could be
considered (along with the slow movement of the New World Symphony)
to be Dvorak’s most famous tune. Oddly enough, this is one of the few
items where I was less than satisfied with the performance here. The
talented young Chinese violinist, Qian Zhou, perhaps takes her cue from
an older style of portamento playing, where the player freely slides
from note to note, but unfortunately her phrasing suffers in the process,
and the result is a stop –start disfiguring of the melodic line. The
older maestros, who had this style of playing in their blood, show how
it should be done.
That said, Zhou’s playing in some of the less familiar
pieces, such as the rather melancholy opening Ballade, suffer little
in comparison. This piece was written in 1885, after a conducting trip
to London, and was a sort of compositional ‘light relief’ after the
tiring concert tour. The long romantic phrase that opens the piece is
beautifully handled by the two players, and the more dramatic narrative
of the central section is not lost on them either. Here Zhou’s partner
Edmund Battersby (a name new to me) comes into his own, and though none
of the pieces tax his technique to the full, it is good to hear them
dispatched with such flair.
Another piece which almost goes beyond the ‘encore’
tag is the Capriccio, thought to be originally for violin and
orchestra (a version now lost), and tentatively dated to 1878. I disagree
with Keith Anderson in his booklet note when he says the piece is "lacking
the distinctive features of Dvorak’s mature style" It is a quite
substantial piece of wide contrast and variety, and the melodic content
is full of echoes of more familiar Dvorak, including the Sixth Symphony.
The performers appear to enjoy themselves enormously here (and for that
matter throughout) and the partnership shows great unanimity and understanding.
It’s easy to be superior and dismissive of discs whose
contents do not plumb the depths, but a lot of this material is delightful
and, at its best, memorable, and I guarantee will nag away in your memory.
The recording is very good, with balance between instruments
well judged, and though the playing time is not particularly generous
(there could have been another half-dozen items to give the disc greater
appeal), it is a perfect ‘dipper’ and well worth a fiver.