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Claude Loyola ALLGÉN (1920–1990)
Sonata for solo violin (1989) [161:12]
Ulf Wallin (violin)
rec. September 2002, August, December 2004, April 2005, Länna Church, Sweden
BIS-CD-1381-82 [3 CDs: 73:23 + 59:01 + 27:46]

No, there is no misprint in the heading. This sonata has a running-time of more than 2½ hours, which makes it by some distance the longest work of its kind; probably the longest of any instrumental work. The first movement alone is longer than the first act of Die Walküre or the complete Cavalleria rusticana. But the physical size of a work of art – whether cm², number of pages or length in minutes – is no measure of quality in itself. The first questions one poses concerning this particular work are: What substance can there be? Can the composer keep the listener’s attention alive during so long a time-span? The answer is, quite simply: Yes, he can. Admittedly I wasn’t able to play the whole work at one sitting and I doubt that a live performance would be practicable, considering the enormous technical demands on the soloist and, not least, the sheer stamina it requires. Ulf Wallin says in his liner notes, that this was by far the most taxing task he had ever tackled. As can also be seen in the heading the recording involved a great number of sessions, spread over a period of 2½ years. This was preceded by years of study and practise.

I gave an outline of Claude Loyola Allgén’s life and work when reviewing his second string quartet a while ago (review). Let me just say that the more I hear of him – and the opportunities are few and far between – the more fascinating this most personal and original of composers becomes. The sonata was one of his last finished compositions and miraculously survived the fire that ended Allgén’s life. It is constructed in the traditional three movements: I. Allegro moderato [73:23] – II. Largo [59:01] – III. Finale: Rondo [27:46]. Within this frame-work he creates his very personal world, which can most easily be described as kaleidoscopic. He ranges "from major and minor to atonality. He exploits the entire chromatic scale without being bound to serial technique. An important principle is his striving for consistent use of the total-chromatic – to fill an interval or step of the scale with the notes in between so that all twelve tones are used." I am quoting Peter Holmberg’s detailed analysis in the booklet, where he also mentions the importance of number symbolism, which was natural to Allgén who was trained in theology. What is also immediately noticeable is the amount, the flow of notes, a kind of restless need to fill out any silence. Holmberg also refers to the very last composition by Allgén which was given the title Horror vacui (fear of empty spaces). There are, however, resting points where the music finds new directions so in practice each movement is divided into several subsections. The first movement has nine cue points, the second has six and the finale has three. Not all of them are easily noticeable but many are and this also makes it possible to start listening ad libitum. For practical listening it is not necessary to have a deep knowledge of the compositional principles behind the work. This is in much the same way that Berg’s Wozzeck, which is so formally strict-designed but of which the composer himself said that the listener shouldn’t be aware of the method.

Without actually being in any way descriptive – Allgén stated that ‘music is incapable of expressing anything extra-musical, but this is at the same time "a possibility of manifoldness, of ambiguity, which certainly, fundamentally is based on the freedom which is characteristic of the human mind"’ – the sonata leaves the field open for the individual listener to experience pictures, colours, actions or just wallow in the melodic, rhythmic, harmonic and architectonical riches. Harmonically it is partly very daring with cringing dissonances. Though written for a single melodic instrument the frequent use of double stops gives the music a grandeur and fullness that makes the heavenly length possible to digest. Other characteristics are big leaps, sudden changes in mood, lovely cantilenas, almost singable. Musicweb reviewers are advised to give references and draw parallels with other composers to give readers a gist of what the music sounds like. In the case of Allgén I am at a loss, just as with his string quartet. Bartók? His sonata for solo violin may have been an inspiration but there is not much similarity. The Hungarians always writes music that breathes; Allgén always conveys a feeling of breathlessness. At the same time this also creates a sense of hypnosis. Listening with headphones, and thus being cut off from the outer world, this impression was reinforced. The closeness to the instrument made me even more aware of the tremendous playing of Ulf Wallin. Having lived with this music for so long there is such conviction about his playing that even if I hadn’t liked the music I would have appreciated it in terms of outstanding musicianship. The instrument literally glows, the horsehair of the bow seems aflame and the beauty of tone, combined with the intensity of the playing makes this one of the most enthralling musical experiences I have had for a very long time. Every phrase, every note, sounds ‘lived in’ almost like a religious revelation.

The sonata comes in a box with 3 CDs although it is allotted only a two disc number, which means that one disc is free. The recording, made in a small 14th century church north of Stockholm, is warm and atmospheric. The booklet has, besides Peter Holmberg’s penetrating analysis, a very personal essay by Ulf Wallin about his struggle from the first glimpse of the manuscript to the finished recording. The whole project became a labour of love and it is good to be able to report that the finished result is every bit as successful as he could ever have hoped.

As I also said about the string quartet, this is no easy listening assignment. It sometimes makes you feel quite exhausted but renewed listening pays dividends.

Göran Forsling



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