There are quite a few discs with titles similar to this one, exploring the twentieth-century violin tradition: American Scenes and the American Album are just two. This latest entrant fuses two concepts - the twentieth-century and Americana - in its title. Four composers are featured, with two major sonatas book-ending the programme.
Tai Murray and Ashley Wass start with Copland’s 1943 Sonata, a work that will be for many associated with Isaac Stern but which has in recent years had a distinguished number of recordings to its name. Gil Shaham and André Previn’s traversal as well as that by Anne Akiko Meyers and André Schub, for RCA on their American Album, are two of the more durably recommendable. However, the Murray-Wass duo prove to have a well-characterised instinct for this music, with the violinist unafraid to bring a little grit into her tone. This gives the music a fulsome quality, as well as a taut charge in the finale that will prove appealing. The other sonata is John Corigliano’s immensely likeable 1963 work, cast in four movements. Again the duo has a resolute sense of rhythm. They enjoy Corigliano’s extrovert, driving material, relishing in particular the long-lined lyricism of the Andantino, which prefaces the slightly more uneasy third-movement Lento. The most engagingly played movement is probably the finale where the pawkily singing lines and witty exchanges between the colour-conscious piano – all bass and treble glint – are matched by the fiddle’s flightiness.
It is invariably a challenge to balance a programme such as this and for the central pieces the duo has selected Elliott Carter’s Four Lauds and John Cage’s Six Melodies. Carter’s piece was written over a number of years, from 1984 – a piece dedicated to Petrassi – to the Rhapsodic Musings of 2000. These brief virtuosic pieces are at their best when reflective and slow. The notes suggest the second (the Petrassi piece) is aggressive but whilst there are elements of unease it seems to me more, in this performance at least, allusive and full of spare paragraphs. The most overtly romantic, unusually so in fact for Carter, is the third Laud. If you submit to Cage’s Six Melodies of 1950 you will find that the composer’s instruction to play without vibrato and with little bow weight creates a breathy gamut of inflexions, under the spell of which you will fall. Less sympathetically, you may find the performance rather jagged, and the lack of structural design of the piece a hindrance.
The studio recording was made quite close-up but it certainly captures the rapport between the two musicians quite as much as their energising commitment.