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Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)
Sonatine VI for Violin and Violoncello in e minor (1932) [14:05]
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Duo for Violin and Violoncello No. 1, H. 157 (1927) [13:34]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Canon alla Duodecima in Contrapunto alla Quinta (from Kunst der Fuge) [4:47]
Matthias PINTSCHER (b.1971)
Study I for “Treatise on the Veil” (2004) [11:26]
Johann Sebastian BACH
Canon in Hypodiapason (Canon all Ottava) (from Kunst der Fuge) [2:47]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Sonata for Violin and Violoncello (1922) [18:21]
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
Heinrich Schiff (cello)
Rec. August 2004, Propstei S. Gerold and January 2005, Festeburgkirche, Frankfurt am Main (Pintscher)
ECM NEW SERIES 1912 4763150

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The combination of just two instruments – a violin and a cello – might not seem such an attractive proposition for an entire CD. Looking at the seriously heavyweight programme on offer will provide some reassurance, but you have to hear Zimmermann and Schiff to really appreciate what a rich soundworld can be created with this instrumentation.

Frank Peter Zimmermann and Heinrich Schiff both make their ECM debuts on this CD, with an involving duo recital recorded in the gorgeously resonant monastery of St. Gerold and Frankfurt’s Festeburg Church. “A whole series of outstanding masterpieces have been written for this format,” Heinrich Schiff tells us, “works that are outstanding not only in the oeuvres of the composers concerned but in the chamber music repertoire altogether. This applies especially to Honegger and Martinů, whose chamber music is under-acknowledged. Evidently the combination of violin and cello spurs composers to master the huge challenges of two-part writing, whether as one oversize solo instrument (in duplicate, so to speak) or with an almost orchestral richness, so that we seem to be hearing a string quartet in miniature.”

Indeed: take Honegger’s Sonata VI and play it to even a fairly knowledgeable friend. I’m willing to bet that, other than in places where the two instruments are sparring contrapuntally, many will take more than a little convincing that this is no less than a trio. Those of you who find Honegger’s orchestral work less appealing will be instantly charmed by the graceful lyricism and unassuming, playful nature of much of this music.

The relatively open nature of the Honegger plays well against the pungent, plangent and intensely close-knit harmonies of the first of the two movements of Martinů’s Duo No.1. After this typically involved Preludium there are some fascinating effects to be heard in the chasing lines of the Rondo. Like the Honegger, this is superbly well written for the combination, and this also being from the vintage of such pieces as ‘Revue de Cuisine’ there are also some light touches of jazz as well.

This programme is one which was chosen to span the centuries, and with various kinds of polyphony and counterpoint on offer from the other composers it does seem logical to take some movements from J.S. Bach’s Kunst der Fuge. The only problem with this is that, with so much going on in the other pieces, Bach’s pure canonic writing sounds – dare I say it – a little thin. In a way these movements form a little light relief in the programme, framing Matthias Pintscher’s grim Study I for “Treatise on the Veil” like crusty farmyard loaf on a sandwich of black light. Frank Peter Zimmermann gave the premiere of Pintscher’s ‘en sourdine’ for violin and orchestra 2003 in Berlin, and with Schiff sharing a high opinion of the young composer’s music it was logical that this would result in a commission. The piece was inspired by the often calligraphic art of American artist Cy Twombly, and the two instruments are in a constant state of veiled flux, with barely a conventional note in the whole piece between them. Whispering col legno effects, muted strings, whistling flautandi and flageolet sounds disorientate the listener, creating an unusual and interesting atmosphere, but giving little on which to gain a foothold. ‘It’s all decoration and no cake’ said my mate Frank the sanguine cellist, and I have to say I can but agree.

Zimmermann and Schiff have been playing together for over twenty years and, having performed the Brahms Double Concerto together frequently, realized that “we simply had to play duos, especially the Ravel Sonata, one of his best and most adventurous works, almost verging on Schoenbergian terrain. It exploits every stylistic device to the utmost, it’s inventively written throughout, and it’s extremely demanding.” This is indeed a virtuoso showcase for any duo, and these two players revel in the piece’s depth, tuning the most complex of passages with pinpoint accuracy and defining each phrase with expressiveness beyond logic. Ravel stated, “I believe this sonata marks a turning point in the evolution of my career. Reduction here is pushed to the extreme. Renunciation of harmonic charm; an increasingly marked reaction towards melody.” This is not to say that the music is particularly ‘difficult’ for an audience, though is does lack the overt Gallic attractiveness of the Honegger. As with any composer confronted with creating substantial work from minimal resources, Ravel explores, refines and searches – discovering new terrain before our very ears. The journey reads like a novel, with an abundance of lively character, a wealth of emotional turmoil and a satisfyingly rousing conclusion.

The origin of the instruments used by the players here gives this excellent recording some added allure. Both men play Stradivarius instruments dating from the year 1711 – Zimmermann a violin formerly owned by Fritz Kreisler, Schiff the renowned ‘Mara’ cello. This is one of those rare discs which comes out and surprises you every time. The sheer technical brilliance of the musicians is fundamental, but by no means the raison d’être of the programme. Each work has its own strength, function and contribution to make, allowing both for a pleasurable home concert or some in-depth dipping, either of which will prove potently rewarding. You can stuff the luxury of string quartets - this is the CD which proves that less can be more.

Dominy Clements



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