Schubert sonatas

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William BOLCOM (b. 1938)
Complete Violin Sonatas
First Sonata (1956, revised version) [21:54]
Second Sonata (1978) [17:59]
Third Sonata (Sonata Stramba) (1993) [21:46]
Fourth Sonata (1994) [15:13]
Solomia Soroka (violin); Arthur Greene (piano)
rec. Britton Recital Hall, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, January 2005. DDD
NAXOS 8.559150 [76:52]


There have been three previous recent releases of music by William Bolcom in Naxos’s American Classics series covering songs (review 1, review 2) and music for two pianos (review). Now we have the four violin sonatas in fine-sounding performances from Michigan. Violinist Solomia Soroka was born in Ukraine and studied with Heifetz. She is here partnered by her husband Arthur Greene in performances which Bolcom says “have brought special insight ... emphasising the traditional qualities at their core”. The composer’s notes are a considerable bonus which bring fascinating insights into the derivation of these works but leave the music to speak for itself. With such a recommendation for the playing, no humble reviewer could disagree. The recorded sound too is very fine, so what of the music?

The First Sonata was written when Bolcom was a freshman at University in Seattle. For some reason the original dedicatees never performed it but it was premiered by violinist Joy Aarset and the composer in 1957. Bolcom retained his affection for the work and revised it many years later, indicating that this was mostly a question of excising repetition. The first movement is a Legend in which a brooding opening leads to faster passages in which considerable demands are made on the pianist. The music eventually builds to a climax which comes at the very end. A mostly ethereal Nocturne follows but this too becomes impassioned before leading with hardly any break to an extended third and final movement marked “Quasi-Variations: Scenes from a young life”. The opening theme comes as something of a shock as it sounds like a quote from a Beethoven piano sonata given the folksy treatment. Its development is imaginative and leads to calm ending. Notwithstanding the effect of the later revisions, this work was a remarkable achievement for an 18 year old.

The Second Sonata was written more than 20 years later, and was partly inspired by the jazz violinist Joe Venuti who died whilst it was being written. The atmospheric opening of this work seems to directly follow-on from the last movement of the First Sonata. Entitled Summer Dreams this movement is a mostly serene-sounding modified blues. A highly contrasting brief movement marked brutal, fast is then followed a deeply felt Adagio. The bittersweet finale was specifically written in memory of Joe Venuti and Bolcom describes it as “a sort of Venuti salsa”.

According to Bolcom, the subtitle of Third SonataStramba – means “something like weird” in Italian but I didn’t find this particularly weird. The first movement is oppressively dark and dramatic and the following Andante almost as disturbing despite lacking the violence of the opener. A very brief Scherzino marked “like a shiver” precedes a memorable finale which was partly inspired by the tangos of Astor Piazzolla and also has Arabic influences.

The Fourth Sonata is the most concentrated of the cycle. It opens with a sparky Allegro followed by a slow movement called White Night – an evocation of insomnia. The third movement is an arabesque with added wooden percussive sounds that surely didn’t come from the violin? The finale is marked Jota – a lively Spanish dance with Moorish undertones.

Overall, Bolcom’s violin sonatas are an imaginatively varied and powerful series, and a major contribution to the genre reflecting his affinity for the instrument (even though he took the piano part in all the premieres). Following a tradition started in Mozart’s time, the piano is no mere accompanist and the music frequently sounds technically demanding at every level.

On the evidence of the series so far, Bolcom is one of America’s finest living composers. If you have yet to hear any of his music, this could be the place to start. Memo to Naxos – I hope you have some of Bolcom’s orchestral music in hand.

Patrick C Waller


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