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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Violin Sonata (1903) [27:19]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Violin Sonata op.18 [28:37]
Levon Ambartsumian (Violin)
Anatoly Sheludyakov (Piano)
rec. Hugh Hodgson Hall, University of Georgia Performing Art Centre, Athens, Georgia, 2005. DDD
PHOENIX PHCD166 [55:56]

The Richard Strauss violin sonata was the last of his early chamber works. It is most definitely his finest and has received deserved attention. Whilst it is tempting to group it with the cello sonata, piano sonata, string quartet and piano quartet, the work for violin shows a greater maturity than its bedfellows and displays many of the melodic and harmonic characteristics of the later tone poems and operas. There is an abundance of lyricism and a multitude of quasi-operatic climaxes. In short, it is a wonderfully exhilarating and passionate work. Or should be.
There is little amiss about this performance by Ambartsumian and Sheludyakov. Most admirable is their faithfulness to the letter of the score in terms of dynamics and articulation. They also appear to understand the finer matters of period performance practice, a relatively new area when it comes to late nineteenth century string music. Ambartsumian plays with a narrow vibrato, employed as an expressive device rather than as a matter of habit. He makes frequent and tasteful use of portamenti, and the repeated stopped chords in the stormy centre of the second movement are played on the string rather than spiccato. Sheludyakov turns in a very good rendition of the fiendishly difficult piano part. Every note is in place and the tone is consistently beautiful. Yet both players seem intent upon ‘civilising’ the music to the point that it is frequently robbed of its expressive potential.
The first movement begins with laboured phrasing. True, Strauss indicates allegro ma non troppo. In principle the present performance does not begin at a particularly slow tempo. Rather, the frequent (unmarked) rallentandi create a fragmented, ‘stop-start’ effect that destroys any sense of forward momentum. Some of the early passage work in the violin part feels tentative and also suspect in terms of intonation - perhaps a side effect of the approach to vibrato. Ambartsumian’s tone is pleasingly rich in the lower register but somewhat thin above the stave. The recapitulation is handled very well indeed, almost flawless in execution - why not do a re-take to cover the slips earlier on in the movement? - but the final climax simply refuses to take wing. Strauss specifically asks for this moment to be played molto appassionato. Neither player does so, nor do they produce anything equating to a fff.
By way of contrast, the second movement receives an exceptional performance. Ambartsumian produces some seamless legato playing and phrases beautifully. The aforementioned, stormy central section is as passionate as one could hope for and the unexpected modulations throughout are exquisitely managed.
Unfortunately the final movement suffers in the same way as the first. The piano-led introduction, sounding very much like early Scriabin, is suitably mysterious, but the allegro proper lacks brilliance. This performance is earthbound when Strauss wants to launch us and the performers into the stratosphere. There is no joy in the music, both musicians holding back at all the big climaxes. For example, in the lead in to the second subject, Sheludyakov affects both a decrescendo and a rallentando - neither indicated in the score - thereby undermining the appearance of the theme; this is no accident, as the same idiosyncrasy occurs in the recapitulation. Likewise, the poco stringendo towards the close of the movement stubbornly refuses to take place.
It would be remiss to dwell on the deficiencies of this performance, as it is a highly musical, thoughtful and well-played account. However, it does the music no favours. The 72 year old Heifetz performed this sonata at his final recital in Los Angeles and imbued it with a life-enhancing sense of excitement and ecstasy. Despite frequent lapses of intonation, that performance displays exactly the spirit of the piece that the present recording somewhat lacks.
Bartók’s Sonata for Violin and Piano Op.18 receives a far more idiomatic performance. The quasi-romantic harmonies combined with typically Hungarian folk-inflections appears to suit these performers well. Despite the influences of Brahms, Liszt and Strauss, the opening of the first movement with its pizzicato violin places us firmly in familiar Bartók territory. Ambartsumian’s tone and vibrato are well suited to this music, as is the duo’s generally restrained approach. Whilst the movement has its playful moments it is predominantly lyrical, even ruminative. The more angular, fugal development has the occasional moment of suspect intonation but it is given a growing sense of intensity that is highly appropriate. One would perhaps wish for less inhibition in the major key return of the opening subject towards the close of the movement, but this is a minor caveat.
The theme and variations of the second movement are well characterised, and ensemble is to be commended, particularly in the tempo fluctuations of the second variations. The stark counterpoint of the final variation - foreshadowing Shostakovich - is also well realised. In the third movement it would be possible to imagine more energetic performances but the result is thoroughly idiomatic.
Not an exceptional disc, then, but worth listening to. The Bartók particularly receives a worthy performance. The performance of the Strauss sonata shows signs of intelligence and is highly musical, but misses the sense of abandon that others convey.

Owen Walton




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