George ENESCU (1881-1955) Impressions d’enfance, (Impressions of Childhood) op.28 (1. Ménétrier (Minstrel) [3:44]; 2. Vieux mendiant (Old Beggar) [3:12]; 3. Ruisselet au fond du jardin (Stream at the bottom of the garden) [2:37]; 4. L'oiseau en cage et le coucou au mur (The bird in the cage and the cuckoo on the wall) [2:18]; 5. Berceuse (Lullaby) [1:44]; 6. Grillon (Cricket) [0:21]; 7. Lune ŕ travers les vitres (Moonlight through the windows) [2:38}; 8. Vent dans la cheminée (Wind in the chimney) [0:32]; 9. Tempęte au-dehors, dans la nuit (Storm outside, at night) [2:14]; 10. Lever de soleil (Sunrise) [3:50])
Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894-1942) Sonata No.2 for Violin and Piano (1927) [16:15]
Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945) Sonata No.2 for Violin and Piano, SZ 76 [20:39]
Peteris PLAKIDIS (b.1945) Two Grasshopper Dances for Solo Violin [2:03]
Gidon Kremer (violin); Oleg Maisenberg (piano)
rec. Teldec Studios, Berlin, January, May 1996
WARNER APEX 2564 67391-2 [62:57]

This is the third outing for this music, first released on the Teldec label in 1997, then in Warner’s Elatus edition in 2004 and now again on Warner Classics. I hope it has been successful on each occasion as it certainly deserves to be. The music is very typical of the period in which it was written (1921—1940), a period of much experimentation and innovation.

Enescu was a violinist and teacher among whose pupils were Yehudi Menuhin, Christian Ferras, Ivry Gitlis, Arthur Grumiaux and Ida Haendel. It was his devotion to teaching that prevented him from being a more prolific composer. His Impressions of Childhood was written in 1940, the most recently written piece on the disc - apart from the bonus track. It is a beautifully constructed set of miniatures lasting from a mere 21 seconds to just under four minutes and is full of gorgeous melodies shared equally by each instrument, save the first which is for solo violin. I’ve never heard birds more convincingly portrayed in music than in track 4 The bird in the cage and the cuckoo on the wall, including Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux and Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus for birds and orchestra, evocative though they both are. The same goes for the little cricket of track 6. Folk influences were always a feature of Enescu’s work and are amply demonstrated here right from the first piece entitled Minstrel which easily brings to mind the Romanian gypsy violinists so typical of that country. Lullaby is, I’m sure, a folk-song pure and simple and would be recognized by most of his compatriots. Each piece moves seamlessly to the next giving a musical unity to the whole set, finishing with Sunrise that concludes with, as the liner-notes describe “an ecstatic outpouring from both violin and piano”.

Erwin Schulhoff, whilst being the lesser known of the three main composers on the disc is, I’m glad to say, becoming better known each year and rightly so. An extremely talented composer, born in Prague, his ability was recognized early in his life by Dvorák no less who recommended that he pursue a musical career. However, as a Jew and a communist his fate was sealed once the Nazis occupied Prague and following his arrest in 1941 he died in the Wülzburg concentration camp in 1942 of tuberculosis. His violin sonata of 1927 shows what a huge talent the world lost in the Holocaust. It is a muscular work of complexity and inventiveness which, once again owes much to the folk music of his native land. It opens with a powerfully stated theme that is developed throughout the movement, and is as “impetuous” as Allegro impetuoso implies. The second movement is calm and introspective with the piano taking a ‘backseat’ role. The third movement’s title Burlesca: Allegretto again amply describes its content with notes tumbling out before fading away and the Finale: Allegro risoluto brings the music back to the beginning. The opening theme is treated to a gentler approach, the promised resolution occurs and the work comes to a satisfactory conclusion.

Bartók’s two violin sonatas were written in 1921-1922. The second is a superb work typical of the composer. It owes its influences to folk music of which Bartók was an inveterate collector. A work of its time yet ahead of it, the sonata was written only two or three years after Elgar’s Cello Concerto; it couldn’t have come from a more different sound world – what would Elgar have made of it I wonder! The work is as “contemporary” as anything composed today but is often playful and capricious and cannot fail to make you smile at times. It begins in a reflective mood but the music becomes disturbed and restless before settling down towards the end of the first movement. The second movement begins with some plucked passages before Bartók tests the abilities of the performers with some tough challenges that the two artists here meet with consummate ease – listen to the second movement from 7 minutes in to see what I mean.

All the works on the disc require expert hands to deliver the performances the music must have to make it speak to its audience with conviction. It is difficult to imagine that they could be bettered. Gidon Kremer is, after all, an exceptionally gifted violinist who understands everything he tackles every which way and can contrast powerful playing with the most delicate touches. Sometimes, when required, he is able to make his violin whisper at the very margin of audibility, whilst Oleg Maisenberg is a brilliant and musically sympathetic partner who perfectly complements his colleague.

The disc is rounded off with two short pieces by Kremer’s Latvian compatriot Peteris Plakidis’ Two Grasshopper Dances for Solo Violin. These once again sound folk-inspired, and are a fitting way to come back down to earth after some wonderfully robust music.

This disc represents a wonderfully musical celebration of three major works for violin and piano from the first half of the twentieth century. It will have you reaching for it often.

Steve Arloff

A wonderfully musical celebration of three major works from the first half of the twentieth century.