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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Sonata for Violin and Piano Op.9 [1904] [22:17]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Sonata for Violin and Piano Op.134 [1968] [31:20]
Frédéric Bednarz (violin), Natsuki Hiratsuka (piano)
rec. Music Multimedia Room, McGill University, Montreal, Canada, no date given
METIS ISLANDS MUSIC MIM0004 [53:58]

This is a well recorded and technically accomplished disc which couples - uniquely as far as I can tell - two major twentieth century violin sonatas. Both works have been recorded many times before so the decision for collectors will be dependent upon whether these performances, and indeed this coupling, appeals. Not that every and any works must relate to others with which it is paired on a disc but I must admit I am struggling to find a link in any respect between these two fine works.

I had not heard the work of Canadian violinist Frédéric Bednarz before. As so frequently these days, he is a prize-winner in international competitions so it goes - pretty much for granted - that he is a technically highly capable player fully able to cope with the considerable technical demands of both works. Likewise his accompanist Natsuki Hiratsuka is very good not just at 'playing the notes' but also encompassing the expressive range. This spans from the confident Romantic rhetorical gestures of the Szymanowski to the sparser elusive and troubled ways of Shostakovich. Indeed, in that regard, I find her more impressive than her violinist colleague.

Curiously, I had never heard the early Szymanowski Sonata before. Written in 1904 this is an impressive and dramatic work albeit one that is a world away from the strikingly original music that Szymanowski would achieve a decade later from his Symphony No.3 'Song of the Night' onwards. The liner-note points to similarities with and even references to the Franck Sonata. Undoubtedly that is true but, much the same as Bartók, at this early point in his career, Szymanowski was influenced by Richard Strauss. If you are familiar with his Op.12 Concert Overture written at much the same time you will know just the kind of broad-sweeping heroic writing that inspired him. So, once one accepts that there is little of the mature genius of the composer on display here there is much to enjoy in both the music and the performance. The opening Allegro moderato starts impressively and the recording captures the richness of Hiratsuka's piano and Bednarz's violin very well. As becomes clear in the later work, Bednarz is not a player to force his instrument to the outer limits of its expressive potential. His tone is attractive and as mentioned before his technique unfussily skilled. There is a brief central passage in the middle movement Andantino tranquillo where, with the use of extended strumming pizzicato chords, Szymanowski looks forward to the later violin works including his best-known chamber piece for violin, the 1915 Mythes. Out of curiosity, I jumped across to the two violin concertos to compare how he treated the violin in the later works. The Second Concerto is an acknowledged masterpiece and the gulf is wide but that should not deter the listener from enjoying the earlier work on its own terms.

If the Szymanowski is early and displays few of its composer's characteristic musical fingerprints, the Shostakovich is late and displays them all. The very opening is sparse elusive, almost mindlessly meandering but laden with an emotional potential that epitomises his extraordinary late compositions. The Op.134 places it between Twelfth String Quartet - the one where he toyed with serial composition - and Fourteenth Symphony. The date of its composition - August 1968 - is the same month as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Intended as a birthday gift for David Oistrakh it has become common, as with so much Shostakovich, to give it extra-musical quasi-socio/political intent. I am uneasy at leaping on the Shostakovich-as-political-conscience bandwagon but it is impossible to deny that even in this group of late masterpieces this work is particularly bleak and oppressive. Fine though Bednarz's playing is - he negotiates the skittering passage work of the central Allegretto with insouciant ease. I do feel he pulls away from the brutal near ugly essence of the music and ultimately it suffers.

I compared this version to the performance on Erato from Shlomo Mintz with Viktoria Postnikova. To my ear, while they match Bednarz and Hiratsuka note for note in terms of technical address they leave them far behind in their grasp of the work's emotional landscape. The opening movement is one of those typical late-Shostakovich works which seem initially to wander aimlessly before imperceptibly building to music brimming with grief and rage. The skill is in the transition; slowly drawing the listener forward - gradation and musical line is all. Mintz and Postnikova are masterly here; the new performance far less so. The central Allegretto - quite why Shostakovich delighted in using such a diminutive term with its implications of something light and airy for such brutal unforgiving music eludes me - is disturbingly ferocious. Even within the genre of implacable nightmare scherzos that Shostakovich made his own this is possibly the most unrelenting of all. It's a long movement too - both versions run to the seven minute mark - and a far from comfortable listen. However, to flinch from the brutality leaves the music in a kind of no-man's-land pulling its emotional punches but left as something of an ear-bashing experience. There are technical considerations too; Mintz is able to generate that heavy, into the string, bow contact so characteristic of Oistrakh and the generation of players he influenced; it's a very authentic sound. Bednarz - quite legitimately - does not play in that way, but somehow this music demands it. In isolation, because he is a very fine player, Bednarz's version is perfectly acceptable but once the comparison is made it feels rather two-dimensional.

As mentioned, the engineering is good and complements the playing well. Presentation is poor. A simple cardboard double gatefold opens out to reveal a pocket into which the disc is tucked. The 'liner' consists of a single paragraph each in French and English for the two works and another single paragraph for the performers. Worse still, a very small font is used and it is printed in white over a coloured background of composer portraits rendering it all but illegible. Playing time at just over fifty-three minutes is another reason to give the disc a guarded welcome. A disc that for all its competence lacks the special insights that demand attention.

Nick Barnard