There have been
three previous recent releases of music by William Bolcom in
Naxos’s American Classics series covering songs (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?
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.
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 Sonata – Stramba
– 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.
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.
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.