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