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Henri VIEUXTEMPS (1820-1881)
Sonata for Viola and Piano Op.108 [32:31]
Unfinished Sonata for Viola and Piano Op. Postume No.14 (pub.1884) [28:03]
Pierre-Henri Xuereb (viola)
Angéline Pondepeyre (piano)
No recording details given
TALENT DOM 2910 122 [61:33]

Experience Classicsonline

I must admit to being a little puzzled by this release. The Sonata for Viola and Piano Op.108 is in fact not a work by the well known second-best violinist of the 19th century after Paganini, but is a faithful transcription of the even better known W.A. Mozart’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings. This being the case, surely it would have been better to announce the work as such, rather than tempting the casual purchaser of new romantic repertoire into looking forward to an evening of romantic chamber music. This transcription is not even usually listed as part of Vieuxtemps’ ‘complete works’ for viola and piano, with the Sonata in B flat, Elegy and Capriccio in C minor usually sufficing.

This transcription was uncovered in Hamburg in 1979, and is indeed a useful addition to the viola repertoire. Vieuxtemps treats Mozart’s beautiful work with great sensitivity, keeping the harmonies of the string quartet intact and unadorned with romantic extras. The musicians in this case also play with a pleasant unpretentiousness and admirable lightness of touch, though the slightly scratchy sound of the viola takes a little getting used to. The usually effortless clarinet figurations in the opening movement come across as a little scrabbly, lying less naturally on the viola fingerboard. The beautiful Larghetto is sublime in just about any setting however. The recording is rather dry, set in what sounds like a fairly small studio, so any imperfections of tone or intonation are horribly exposed. These are thankfully few and far between however, and I doff my hat to the skill of these musicians in this most demanding of composers.

Vieuxtemps’ own Unfinished Sonata for Viola and Piano Op. Postume No.14 is very much in the idiom of its time, with grand themes, developments, sequences and tricks of contrast and modulation holding few real surprises. The ‘Unfinished’ appellation is now considered to be a misnomer, having been published in 1884 under the title "Allegro and Scherzo for concertante piano and alto", which leads to the assumption that the work only ever had two movements. The first movement is an inventive Allegro, but the rather laboured Scherzo can’t really be rated among Vieuxtemps’ best work. Unfortunately there is a small production problem: the two movements are marked as being on two tracks, but someone has forgotten to put access point 6 onto the master.

This release gives Vieuxtemps the more anglophile ‘Henry’ where I would have expected the usual spelling ‘Henri’, but this is a small point. Another small point is the rather clunky English booklet note, which is rather disorientates the reader by being set in the present tense: "Henry Vieuxtemps is one of the most brilliant violinists of the 19th century." There is also one particularly life-enhancing typo, as pianist Angéline Pondepeyre has apparently worked under the direction of the famous conductor James Colon.

Enough pickiness: this disc provides us with two relatively unknown pieces, one an interesting and effective version of one of Mozart’s greatest chamber pieces, and the other a neglected but charming representative of late romanticism in the 19th century. The recording is not an unalloyed pleasure – the rather grainy and choppy sound of Pierre-Henri Xuereb’s viola and some difficulties with an easy sounding legato here and there making some aspects of this release more of an academic duty than a blissful addition to one’s chamber music shelves. There are a few desperate papery noises from the poor page turner in the Op. Posthume work as well. If 19th century transcriptions and the less well-trodden paths of this era’s music is your thing, this is another disc which may or may not reward exploration: your call.

Dominy Clements





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