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A Violin’s Life - Music for the ‘Lipiński’ Stradivari
Giuseppe TARTINI (1692-1770)
Sonata in G minor, The Devil’s Trill (c.1749) [13:34]
Julius RÖNTGEN (1855-1932)
Violin Sonata No.2 in F sharp, Op.20 (1879-83) [19:26]
Karol LIPIŃSKI (1790-1861)
Caprice, Op.29 No.3 [4:20]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Violin Sonata No.2 in D minor, Op.121 (1851) [30:19]
Frank Almond (violin)
William Wolfram (piano)
rec. August 2012, Youth Arts Centre, Milwaukee
AVIE AV2279 [67:37]

Frank Almond plays on the ‘Lipiński’ Stradivarius of 1715, one of the master’s most illustrious fiddles, and the instrument forms the spine of the recital conceit, which is to trace its musical life and specifically the works written ‘for’ it. This is not a unique concept on disc but it is still unusual enough.
 
Tartini owned the violin until his death in 1770. Robert Schumann knew and admired Lipiński and wrote music for him, but not - it has to be said - the D minor sonata. The lineage trail thus runs a bit cold hereabouts. The fiddle eventually came into the possession of Engelbert Röntgen, later leader of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig and his son, Julius, inherited the violin in 1897.
 
Such a valuable pedigree is always important in a violin’s standing but when it comes to recorded music, interpretation trumps such matters. Almond and his regular sonata partner, William Wolfram, have constructed a programme that charts the course of the violin’s history, starting with Tartini and ending chronologically with Röntgen. Is it the violin itself, or is it an interpretative consideration - or maybe a conflation of the two - that dictates that Almond plays the Devil’s Trill in an almost determinedly anti-heroic fashion? Not for him the Romanticised pressure cooker of a performance so in evidence in the first three-quarters of the twentieth-century. Instead he applies quite a slim, indeed slender tone - with non-electric trills - to the performance. Despite a few decorative moments, the playing remains cautious and withdrawn. It’s precise and clean but strangely unconcerned with grandeur and self-assertion; tepidly done, to be truthful. And the fiddle’s tone is somewhat glassy, from time to time.
 
It’s much better to turn to Röntgen’s Second Sonata, composed between 1879 and 1883. Some emotive finger position changes enliven the playing and Almond and Wolfram catch the witty late-Romantic badinage of the central movement with its elegant and contrasting trio. The finale, though, could do with more resinous drama: though Almond plays with controlled elegance, it’s slightly soft-grained playing for an Agitato finale. Naturally he and Wolfram essay a Lipiński Caprice - surely a riposte to Paganini - with some style. They finish with Schumann’s D minor Sonata. The recording venue hasn’t changed but there’s rather more echo, a halo, around the violin sound stage, certainly as things get underway. Almond and Wolfram tend to stress more the intimacy and lyricism of the writing, rather than its more volatile qualities. In so doing one can note in passing that two composers in particular may have lent quite an ear to the work; Elgar - maybe he played it, I’m not sure - seems to have mined a good deal, especially the piano writing, for this own much later Violin Sonata: and Brahms, who drew on a few passages in the second movement for his own Violin Concerto.
 
Those keen to hear the sound of the ‘Lipiński’ - I can’t imagine that that constitutes an especially large number - can do so in this disc. Interpretatively, the recital remains uneven.
 
Jonathan Woolf