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Alwyn, Grace Williams, Arnold, Wordsworth. Searle, Joubert

Van Dieren Chinese Symphony
Searle Symphonies 3, 5
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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Violin Sonata in A major (arr. Jules Delsart) [25:00]
Nocturne (arr. Alexander Kniazev) [4:28]
Eugène YSAŸE (1858-1931)
Berceuse, Op.20 (arr. Alexander Kniazev) [5:11]
Poème élégiaque, Op.12 (arr. Alexander Kniazev) [13:47]
Alexander Kniazev (cello)
Plamena Mangova (piano)
rec. Salle Ravenstein, Brussels, 26-28 October 2010
FUGA LIBERA FUG587 [55:10]

The notes for Alexander Kniazev’s disc of borrowed music open with an incomprehensible justification for the practice of transcription. In truth, no argument is necessary: if these musicians wish to take music written for violin and play it on the cello, they are welcome. In practice, some works transfer better than others, as demonstrated by this recital.
Kniazev is far from the first cellist to play César Franck’s evergreen Violin Sonata and, as a transcription, it works well. The long lyrical lines of the Sonata, composed for the young Eugène Ysaÿe in 1886, are rendered well on Kniazev’s instrument and there isn’t too much rapid fingerwork to get caught up in. Kniazev’s performance slows the opening Allegretto to a grandiose showcase of his remarkable sound, a torrent of extraordinarily rich legato tone redolent of Oistrakh and Rostropovich. It really is something to behold - whenever the Sonata obliges, Kniazev opens the taps and that sound comes out. It results, however, in a monolithic performance, basking in the glory of these edifices but revealing disappointingly little of the music’s drama and narrative. Pianist Plamena Mangova often has to make do with unsympathetic tempos which disrupt the flow of Franck’s keyboard writing.
Franck’s song Nocturne of 1884 is successful without the words, but two pieces by Ysaÿe reveal the more problematic aspect of transcription. Both the Berceuse and the Poème élégiaque were composed for violin and orchestra, though both are more commonly encountered in versions for violin and piano. Ysaÿe’s often virtuosic writing pulls Kniazev away from his comfort zone and, in all honesty, the transcriptions sound uncomfortable. In addition, Ysaÿe’s music was often specifically composed around the possibilities of his own instrument. A funereal episode in the Poème élégiaque is a case in point: Ysaÿe asks the violin to detune the bottom string by a whole tone, producing an unexpected and unusually deep sound. This section lies well within the reach of the cello, and the effect is lost.
The disc is very clearly recorded, somewhat to the detriment of the impressionistic Berceuse. While I’ve no problem with musicians looking further afield for repertoire, I really wonder why Kniazev and Mangova chose to record two of Ysaÿe’s violin works, when both his Sérénade and Méditation for cello and piano have, to the best of a my knowledge, never been recorded. Then there’s a darkly intense Sonata for Solo Cello, which Kniazev might have excelled in. Maybe next time?
Andrew Morris
Remarkable playing doesn’t always make for a remarkable performance.