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Viktoria Mullova - Recital - Katia Labèque
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Suite Italienne
(transcribed in 1933 for violin and piano by Stravinsky and Samuel Dushkin from ballet Pulcinella, 1919-20) [15:06]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797–1828)
Fantasy for violin and piano in C major, D934 (1827) [24:26]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Sonata for violin and piano (1923-27) [16:51]
Clara SCHUMANN (1819-1896)
Romance No. 1 in D flat major (Andante molto) from the Three Romances for violin and piano, Op. 22 (1853) [2:29]  
Viktoria Mullova (violin)
Katia Labèque (piano)
rec. 10-13 April, 2005, IRCAM, Paris, France. DDD
ONYX 4015 [59:25]
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It is with no intended disrespect to the superb French pianist Katia Labèque that I have initially focused on the talents of Russian-born violinist Viktoria Mullova. I have followed her colourful career with great interest since she came to world attention in 1983 when she defected from Soviet Russia in a daring dash from a recital tour in Finland to claim political asylum in Sweden. Mullova’s prowess in the great violin concertos of the repertoire is well known and I treasure her Philips recordings of the two Mendelssohn concertos under Neville Marriner; the Brahms Violin Concerto under Claudio Abbado; the Shostakovich Violin concerto No. 1 and the Prokofiev Violin concerto No.2 under Andre Previn; the Sibelius and Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos under Seiji Ozawa and others. 

In the last four years or so her conversion to authentic instrument performance, using gut strings and period bows, has been a revelation. Commencing with her marvellous recording of Mozart’s Violin Concertos Nos. 1, 3 and 4 both playing and directing the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in 2001 at Hampstead, London on Philips 470 292-2; the Beethoven and Mendelssohn Violin Concertos with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique under John Eliot Gardiner from Watford, England in 2002 on Philips 473 872-2 and her 2004 Cremona, Italy recordings of five Vivaldi Violin Concertos with Il Giardino Armonico under Giovanni Antonini on Onyx 4001. 

If I include Mullova leading the Mullova Ensemble in a performance of the Schubert Octet, D803 this recording is, I guess, her third Onyx release. Here she has joined with recital partner Katia Labèque for a recording of an attractive programme that they have been and are currently touring with. This spans a hundred years from the infrequently performed Schubert Fantasy of 1827 to Ravel’s Sonata of 1927 and a 1933 arrangement of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella.

The first work is Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne which was arranged from his ballet Pulcinella. Pulcinella was composed in 1919-20 on a request from Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes in Paris for a work that used both the choreography of Massine and Picasso’s designs for scenery and costumes. Sometimes known as a ‘ballet with songs’ the score draws on the melodies of Giovanni Pergolesi and uses Baroque dance structures with neo-classical rhythms. In 1922 Stravinsky transcribed the score into a Concert Suite for small orchestra. He also drew on Pulcinella for two separate suites for violin and piano; the first a Suite in 1925. Later, in 1933, together with the violinist Samuel Dushkin, he transcribed a second suite in six movements entitled Suite Italienne.

One is immediately struck by the confident attack and bite that Mullova and Labèque display in the opening movement. In the serenata: larghetto they do not linger, placing plenty of air around the music. I experienced the pizzicato section between point 1:12-1:22 (track 2) as closely caught by the microphone. Mullova dances through the music in the tarantella: vivace at breakneck speed, maintaining complete control and in the gavotte they provide courtly rhythms, played with style and poise. In the scherzino the partnership gallop along with vivacity and vigour and are secure and expressive amid the contrasting moods of the final movement minuetto.                   

Schubert composed his four movement Fantasy in C major in 1827 for the Czech violinist Josef Slawjk, not long before completing his Symphony No. 9. As with the Trout Quintet and the Wanderer Fantasy Schubert incorporates one of his own songs. Here he uses his song to a Rückert text Sei mir gegrüsst (I greet you) D741 from 1822 in the extended third movement andantino.

In the opening movement andante molto Mullova and Labèque supply gentle and refined playing, with feather-like delicacy and in the allegretto they display considerable vivaciousness, staying impressively light on their feet. With the lengthy and melodious andantino Schubert has composed a showpiece movement to entertainment a recital audience. I loved the way the duo provide necessary episodes of poignancy contrasted with playing of boisterous playfulness. In Schubert’s high-spirited concluding movement the players gradually develop an impressive intensity with effervescent and buoyant playing.

Composed between 1923 and 1927 Ravel’s Sonata is, it seems, becoming increasingly popular both in recital and in the recording studio. Earlier this year I attended a positive and personable performance of the score played by the promising Jennifer Pike, the 2002 ‘BBC Young Musician of the Year’ and pianist Gordon Black. Ravel’s score had a chequered evolution. At the time of its composition he was ill from depression and the work’s dedicatee violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange was unable to play owing to a disorder that affected her movement. Eventually Georges Enescu premiered it evidently from memory after reading through the score only once. Enescu's protégé the young Yehudi Menuhin was in the audience to witness this tremendous feat. 

In the extended opening allegretto Mullova and Labèque play with deep concentration, expertly navigating a resolute course through Ravel’s tricky and complex writing. Any doubts I harboured about how Mullova would interpret the jazzy central movement blues: moderato were immediately dashed. She turns in a remarkable performance that reminded me of jazz legend Stéphane Grappelli (1908-1997). In the final movement marked perpetuum mobile: allegro the partnership perform with verve and dazzling technical assurance.        

There are a whole host of recordings of Ravel’s Violin Sonata in the catalogues. My preferred version is the stylish and sensitively expressive reading from violinist Renaud Capuçon and pianist Frank Braley, recorded in 2001 in Sion, Switzerland, on Virgin Classics 5 45492 2. Other recordings that are likely to be encountered are those from Arthur Grumiaux and István Hajdu, from, I believe, 1962, on both Philips 4541342 and also Australian Philips Eloquence 468 306-2. There’s a reading from Christian Tetzlaff and Leif Ove Andsnes on both Virgin 5 45122- 2 and Virgin Classics 6020162 and there’s also an interpretation from Vadim Repin and Boris Berezovsky in 1996 in Berlin on Erato 0630-15110-2.

The final work on this Onyx release is Clara Schumann’s Romance No. 1 from a set of three that she composed in 1853 for the eminent soloist violin Joseph Joachim. The short D flat major Romance marked andante molto, the first of the Three Romances, is pleasant if unremarkable. Mullova and Labèque provide fine playing amid episodes of growing tension soon to be alleviated. One wonders why the two remaining movements Romances were not included as the rather ungenerous timing allows plenty of space.   

I note that Katia Labèque was the executive producer for this disc. I experienced a clear and well-balanced sound containing a cool and rather dry quality. 

The annotation is of a high standard, although I would have liked more detailed information.

This is an excellently performed and recorded recital worthy of considerable attention, that was received too late for my list of ‘records of the year’. I wonder if Mullova and Labèque have considered exploring any of the sonatas; suites and elegies for violin and piano of the British late-Romantics such as Elgar, Eugene Goossens, Vaughan Williams, Delius, Finzi, Parry, Bantock, Bowen, Dunhill and Walton. 

Michael Cookson 

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