Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Sonata for violin and piano in G minor, L 140 (1917) [14:16]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Sonata for violin and piano in E minor, op.82 (1918) [24:39]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Six humoresques for violin and piano, op. 87/89, arr. Ekman (1917-18) [20:16]
Efi Christodoulou (violin)
Margaret Fingerhut (piano)
rec. 21-23 May 2010, Potton Hall, Suffolk
GUILD GMCD7358 [59:11]
The three violin works on this disc are as contrasting as you would expect French, English and Finnish music to be. Played together, they turn out to have some unexpected similarities. The Debussy and Elgar sonatas and the Sibelius Humoresques were written between 1917 and 1918. They all turn out to be violin-dominated, rather than the piano being an equal partner as in the Kreutzer Sonata of Beethoven or the three violin sonatas of Brahms. In addition, each in its own way is somewhat elusive. The young Greek-born violinist Efi Christodoulou and her accompanist Margaret Fingerhut deserve praise for assembling such an enterprising collection.
The Debussy sonata which begins the disc is his last completed work. He intended to write a set of six sonatas, of which he was able to achieve only the Cello Sonata, the Sonata for Flute, viola and harp, and this work. The composition of the Violin sonata was overshadowed both by his final illness and the horrors of the Great War, which casts a shadow over its mood. The work is flighty, austere, elliptical and rather fragmentary in its thematic material.
On a first hearing I found Christodoulou and Fingerhut’s performance a bit lacking in direction. After revisiting a couple of earlier performances from Kyoko Takezawa and Dmitri Sitkovetsky, I found I liked it more; It is however the weakest performance on the disc. Christodoulou is rather deliberate in the first movement, taking between 30 and 40 seconds more than the other performances: not a great difference in itself, but quite a lot in a movement that runs to about 5 minutes. The Intermède was better, but still rather sluggish and literal in places, needing more lightness and fantasy. The finale begins with a burst of feverish animation which is well done. Christodoulou shows off the warmth on her G string in the later episodes and Fingerhut plays the repeated notes episode cleanly. The pulse is still fitful, however; both Takezawa and Sitkovetsky have a better understanding of where the music is going. They also bring more variety to the dynamics - Sitkovetsky starts the sonata in a particularly hushed fashion - and this brings a greater sense of light and shade.
The Elgar Violin sonata was also part of a late group of works, being written concurrently with the String quartet and Piano quintet over 1917-18. Like all of Elgar’s major works it is strongly emotional, but in quite an ambiguous way, so that it is difficult to put one’s finger on just what the feeling is at any time. In this way it rather resembles the Brahms Violin sonatas. It is written on the conventional three movement structure, the second having the character of an intermezzo, and the finale intended to be broad and relaxing after the intense first two movements.
Elgar’s Romantic phrases suit Christodoulou better than Debussy’s shorter motifs. She and Fingerhut play the unsettled beginning passionately; above forte, however, her tone can become harsh. The long arpeggio passage starts in a rather unvaried way, but builds to an impressive climax. The skittish beginning of the second movement lacks mystery, but Christodoulou plays the long phrases of the middle section with great concentration. The finale is expansive, but the sense of relaxation that Elgar intended is in short supply. Christodoulou tends to hit her straps a bit early in the crescendos, and the hard tone over forte again intrudes. This is not a recording that displaces Kennedy or Vengerov, but is a full-blooded reading and persuasive in its way.
The Sibelius Humoresques were originally written for violin and orchestra; the present recording is of the arrangement made by Sibelius biographer Karl Ekman in 1923 for violin and piano. They lack both the Romantic feeling of the Concerto, and the sense of hostile natural forces that underpins much of Sibelius’ music. In their insistent rhythms the faster pieces look forward to Bartók and Stravinsky; some others reminded me occasionally of Kreisler encores. Overall the work has a rather impersonal quality.
The episodic structure of the Humoresques lends itself well to Christodoulou’s straightforward approach, and the virtuosic writing allows her to show off her fine technique. She weaves an expressive line over the minimalist accompaniment of the first piece, and the double-stopping is cleanly done. The alternation of pizzicato and arco in the next piece is well managed, as is the bitten-off ending. Christodoulou indulges in some well-judged portamenti in the third, and the harmonics ring out nicely. She holds back the pulse with sensitivity in the fourth piece, and the high-lying phrase is well characterised. The fifth is a moto perpetuo with a rather Spanish flavour. Christodoulou’s agility is put to the test in the final piece, to which she responds in style.
There are several performances available of the original version of the Humoresques, but this arrangement has not previously been recorded. Christodoulou and Fingerhut make a good case for the Sibelius; while the Debussy is not an unqualified success, the Elgar is good enough for merit your attention.
The Sibelius Humoresques are the standout in this interesting and enterprising program of early 20th century violin works, and the Elgar is pretty good.