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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Violin Sonata (1914-21) [16’03]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

Violin Sonata No.1 in F minor, Op.80 (1946) [27’05]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)

19 Preludes, from Op.34, transcribed for violin by Dmitri Tsiganov [23’19]
Kai Gleusteen (violin)
Catherine Ordronneau (piano)
Recorded at Crear Studios, Scotland, 2-4 September 2002. DDD
AVIE AV0023 [67’00]

 

This is an enterprisingly planned recital that contains one out-and-out masterpiece, one near masterpiece and some very worthwhile ditties. The main works are, of course, the Prokofiev and Janáček sonatas and competition is hot in both pieces. In the Prokofiev the young artists on this Avie disc find themselves up against Perlman/ Ashkenazy, Mullova/Canino, Kremer/Argerich, Mintz/Bronfman and, best (or worst) of all, Repin and Berezovsky, whose 1995 Erato disc won great acclaim. In the Janáček competition is slightly less fierce, but we still find the likes of Christian Tetzlaff (with superb partnering from Leif Ove Andsnes), Kremer and Argerich again and a superb historic Supraphon disc from the inimitable Josef Suk and Jan Panenka.

So the planning of this new disc is important. All the competition listed above puts the two Prokofiev Sonatas together with lighter couplings, but general consensus is that the first is the finer piece (some might argue otherwise) so the Avie disc puts its eggs in this basket and gives us the Janáček and quirky Shostakovich as fillers. It makes a good sequence, starting with the Janáček and ending with the much weightier Prokofiev. It’s unlikely that the Shostakovich transcriptions will really sway the issue, so it’s down to the two sonata performances to convince the listener of the merits on offer here.

The first thing to get used to is the recording. The booklet picture shows an empty studio, with polished wooded floors, as one might expect of a modern recording space. The trouble is, for such intimate music it sounds a shade too reverberant for my liking. There is a considerable echo delay, as if they are in an empty church, but the miking is close, so the aural sound stage takes a bit of adjusting to, especially in louder piano passages. Having said that, one does get used to this and the quality of the playing more than compensates. All the usual hallmarks of late Janáček are in his Sonata, and these artists are alive to its many nuances and subtleties. This music comes off best when it sounds improvised, as here, and there are many examples where the spontaneity completely wins the listener over. The lovely central ballade is one such episode, and the final adagio is most moving.

The Prokofiev needs a muscular tone, and the composer was the first to admit that the piece had a rather serious, almost severe character, especially compared to the second sonata. This is in evidence from the very start, where the sombre mood is precisely gauged by these artists, Gleusteen’s steely tone having a suitably ‘Russian’ edge. The playing here has one thinking of the somewhat spurious programme that has been attached to the piece over the years (the struggle of the Motherland, a young girl’s lament etc), and such is the intensity of the performances that one soon forgets other players. The difficult rhythmic finale comes off superbly, with Ordronneau’s piano playing worthy of special mention.

I may have seemed dismissive of the Shostakovich prelude transcriptions above, but they do make delightful fillers, working surprisingly well for violin and piano. The wit and irony suit the move to violin, with the piano able to play much of its original material intact. The individual preludes are full of character, and keen-eared listeners may recognise No.15 as the theme tune to the popular Richard Briers comedy Ever Decreasing Circles.

This disc is worth considering, though whether it would displace favourite versions of the main works is questionable. It works well on its own terms as an enjoyable recital, and the slightly cavernous sound may bother others less than me. Good notes by Julian Haylock, though the blue print against light blue background makes them very hard to read.

Tony Haywood

Jonathan Woolf has also listened to this recording

 

This is an attractively programmed disc but it’s been badly recorded. The Crear Studios are highly resonant and the spatial separation that’s also a noticeable feature of this recording leads to balance problems, not least on a number of occasions where the piano overpowers the violin or covers it. This is a pity because this is clearly a sympathetic duo pairing, young musicians of discrimination and taste, and they do manage to emerge from the unsympathetic acoustic with some honour.

As for the recital two powerful and movingly intense twentieth century sonatas frame Dmitri Tsiganov’s transcription of the Op.34 Shostakovich preludes. Of the two it’s the Prokofiev that is the better understood. The Janáček is not a work that plays itself and nor is it one that responds well to over febrile characterisation – it has more than its share of contrast and toughness as it is. The Gleusteen-Ordronneau duo is unfailingly eloquent technically but tends to exaggerate incident, not least in the first movement where they are much quicker than, say, the classic pairing of Suk and Panenka. The effect of the young duo’s abruptness and convulsive phrasing is, ironically, to smooth over the fissures inherent in the music and the jerky violence sometimes descends to gabble. I don’t mean to sound indifferent to their playing, which is of itself fine, but the slow movement lacks colour and etching of lines – too much of it sounds inactive, even, dare I say it, generalized late Romanticism. I’m sure the boomy acoustic doesn’t help their cause. They try far too hard in the Allegretto, attempting to characterise each passing incident, though this is genuinely involving playing. My criticism centres rather on the lack of integration of passages and also a certain lack of authentic strangeness. The concluding Adagio is taken at a good tempo and the playing here is considered and highly musical though I should add that time will give Gleusteen the chance to widen the subtlety of his vibrato usage and for the duo to take their chance with some rubati – both of which devices are underused. I can’t recommend this performance, obviously – and thinking about it I wonder how long they have had the sonata under their fingers. It sounds as if they recorded it far too early and I’d like to hear what they make of it in a few years time, with some recital performances under their belts.

The Prokofiev sounds rather better. I thought that they indulged in too many ritardandi and accelerandi in the first movement however. Gleusteen is an elegant and persuasive player but he rather lacks as yet the tonal heft for this kind of writing and I missed the remorseless logic and long bowed power of Oistrakh and pianist Frieda Bauer in this work. The distant mike placements and acoustic are a price to pay in the Allegro brusco – it makes assertion difficult and rather diffuse. But the lyrical sections are deeply romantic, even Brahmsian, though one might prefer Oistrakh’s simplicity and refinement, his touching delicacy. I felt in the Andante much as I did in the Janáček – this duo is strong on local incident but not yet on the broader canvas. I wish they would shape phrases in slow moments more compellingly and it’s no coincidence that although Oistrakh and Bauer in their live 1968 recording are by some way slower than the younger pairing they sound hugely more incisive. I enjoyed the duo’s way with the finale – fizzing and excellent ensemble work, though maybe the reflective passages weren’t as well subsumed as they should be. The Shostakovitch Preludes make a good central panel. They respond well to the miniatures – No 3 blessed with an excellent trill, No 10 veiled and solemn, No 15 flecked with humour and No 17 genuinely elegant.

I’ve rather laboured the duo’s relative failings – or what I take to be their failings – because I think they are genuinely talented musicians who have not lived quite long enough with the repertoire to do it, and themselves, justice. The recording is also against them. I’d like to hear them in a proper acoustic next time, recording some Debussy.

Jonathan Woolf


 



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