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Leila Josefowicz
Theme and Variations (1932) [10’20].
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Violin Sonata in G (1927) [18’32].
Mark GREY (b. 1967)
San Andreas Suite (?) [11’51].
Esa-Pekka SALONEN (b. 1958)
Lachen Verlernt (2002) [10’40].
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Sonata No. 10 in G, Op. 96 (1812) [29’16].
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Scherzo in C minor (1853) [5’19].
Leila Josefowicz (violin); John Novacek (piano).
Rec. American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York. 22-25 Jan 2005. DDD
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61948-2 [85’47: 40’37 +  45’10]



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This is an occasionally stimulating but mostly disappointing set. Evidently the timing just overshot the quota for a single disc, so the combined discs come in at less than 86 minutes, but neither goes over 46 minutes (it appears to retail at the price of a single full-price disc).

A good choice to begin with, Messiaen’s Thème et Variations, an early piece that nevertheless contains many of the composer’s fingerprints.  The theme itself is gorgeous - based on the composer’s Third Mode of Limited Transposition. The delicate chords on the piano subtly underpin Josefowicz’s sweet sound. The increasing subdivision of pulse through the first four variations sets into relief the final and longest of them, a ‘Lent’ that lasts 4’05. The sense of arrival is nicely there at the beginning, as is a determined strength of line from Josefowicz.

Listeners new to this work could do worse than to read the pianist’s notes to this recording. He covers all the pieces except those of living composers, who are able to speak for themselves in the booklet.  His writing speaks of depth of repertoire knowledge and clear respect for the music he plays.

The French link is very clear between the Messiaen and the Ravel, firstly because we are dealing with ‘early’ Messiaen and secondly because the Ravel Sonata begins at a slight ‘remove’ before entering more overtly impressionistic waters. The Ravel emerges out of a long silence between the two works effortlessly. It is clear both Josefowicz and Novacek relish the clarity inherent in Ravel’s writing but after a while the question of stylistic truth raised its head. Of the two players, Novacek seems the more persuasive performer (note his ‘keening’ alternations at around 3’30). Josefowicz is more at home in the Blues movement, projecting the Gershwin-ness of the solo line well. Finally both players hit form in the buzzing perpetuum mobile finale. However in the final analysis this could have benefited from even more abandon.

Finally on disc 1 is a piece by Mark Grey (born 1967) written for this violinist. Tellingly, Grey says he composed the work entirely on guitar with its four middle strings tuned the same as the violin, a statement that implies a sort of tinkering about that evidently made itself felt in the finished product. The evocative movement titles are probably the best thing about this work for solo violin (‘Wonder Years’; ‘Clear Lake’; ‘Eruption’). The second movement, the composer says, ‘reflects the Asian influence so deep within the San Francisco Bay Area music scene’. An attempt to evoke Asian timelessness, it is a woefully failed attempt that merely delivers tedium. The final movement apparently ‘explores the energy grind of rock music’. My eye it does.  I’m sorry I evidently don’t get the connection at all and while Josefowicz gives the music her all, it all seems so much effort for so little musical value.

Nice that the two discs are linked by solo items, one finishing the first, and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Lachen Verlernt starting the second. The work uses a theme from Salonen’s orchestral Insomnia - itself recently issued with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under the composer on DG 477 5375. Lachen Verlernt is a quote taken from Schoenberg’s Pierrot - the narrator has ‘unlearnt’’ the skill of laughing. Musically the work is a chaconne and indeed moves with the slow inevitability of that form. Salonen refers to the piece as a ‘mini-drama’, a term that encapsulates its essence perfectly. Immediately this work is more gripping than the Grey, and it remains so until its final note. Salonen’s fertile mind is, evidently, not held in check by idle strumming on a guitar, electric or otherwise. Josefowicz plays the work with clear dedication, working the music towards an impressive climax.

The elegant Beethovenian G major simplicity that opens the Sonata Op. 96 works supremely well after the Salonen. Josefowicz and Novacek are in restrained mode for this, letting the work flow along easefully. But possibly not easefully enough. As far as Josefowicz is concerned, there is the distinct feeling she has not yet lived with this music enough and so is trying to artificially project her own persona too much on Beethoven. The final section of the first movement, that explores darker harmonic regions, could be more rapt. Again for the second movement concentration is on  the low side and here Novacek is guilty of some uncharacteristically ‘plonked’ chords. Worse still, the Scherzo sounds like a practice run-through it is so careful and literal while the finale aspires towards the simplicity it so requires. It contains, however, the most Beethovenian playing so far and its Adagio section is good-ish, almost but not quite drawing this listener in.

Brahms’ C minor Scherzo is more attempted-elfin than Brahmsian energy held in check waiting to explode (and indeed, exploding on occasion). The more lyric parts of this work are the most successful, but there is little of Brahms the Granitic about it.

Very mixed. Parts of this recital may well bring enjoyment, and it is good to see Josefowicz working the music of living composers into her programmes. She should just be more careful who those composers are, that’s all.

Colin Clarke




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