Juozas GRUODIS (1884-1948)
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1922) [22:14]
Piano Sonata No 2 [17:23]
‘Joys and Sorrows’ A Suite of Songs arranged by Christopher Horner and John Lenehan [13:14]
Four pieces for Violin and Piano [12:19]
Christopher Horner (violin); John Lenehan (piano)
rec. 25-27 September 2013, Wyastone, Monmouthshire, Wales DISCOVERY DMV113 [65:12]
According to the excellent, and highly-informative sleeve-notes by Algirdas Jonas Janatjeva, Juozas Gruodis was one of the most eminent and original Lithuanian composers of the first half of the 20th century. His is yet another in the ever-growing list of new composers’ names hitting CD catalogues, especially as smaller European countries surface from former relative obscurity. Janatjeva goes on to say that Gruodis’s emergence into the musical life of the time was as a promoter of progressive artistic ideas. As such, he was determined to raise the level of the budding Lithuanian professional music scene to European standards.
Gruodis began his career as an organist, working in remote villages and small towns up until he had turned thirty. Initially self-taught, as far as music theory was concerned, he went on to study in Moscow, first taking private lessons before finally entering the Conservatory there in 1915. However, he was conscripted into the Russian army as a military bandmaster and, with failing health, visited Yalta several times to receive treatment at the Sanatorium. This consequently somewhat prolonged his studies, but he eventually obtained a diploma in 1920. After returning to Lithuania and receiving a state scholarship, he continued his composition studies at Leipzig Conservatoire. Returning to Lithuania, he was firstly appointed second conductor at the State Theatre in Kaunas, before becoming Director of the Kaunas State Music School. He was instrumental in the School becoming a Conservatoire in 1933, where he was granted a professorship three years later. Declining health saw him concentrate on teaching, rather than administrative duties, and he died in 1948.
His artistic output is relative modest in quantity, but he was among the first to compose large-scale works in Lithuania. He was more productive in minor genres, and especially in arrangements of folk-songs from the countryside. Generally-speaking his musical style is late-romantic, but with the addition of some quite significant impressionist, and even expressionist traits in some of his later works. He attempted the synthesis of modernity, to some degree, with national character, by seeking to combine special elements of Lithuanian folk music — especially the ‘sutartinės’, ancient polyphonic songs — with contemporary expressive measures such as some dissonant harmonies that seemed daring at the time.
The Sonata for Violin and Piano in D minor is one of Gruodis’s major works and the first-ever contribution to this genre by a Lithuanian composer. Overall the Sonata combines sincere lyricism, moments of dramatic passion and even mischievous playfulness. For a work from the composer’s Leipzig student-days, it bursts with youthful ardour and joie de vivre. In all four movements, in fact, Gruodis uses entire melodies or elements taken from his country’s folk-songs. The first movement presents the violin with an intense romantic melody, after a short piano introduction, and this sets the tone for the movement as such. Chordal juxtapositions and resolutions often seem slightly unusual, though never disconcerting, and, in fact, as the CD progresses this becomes a fingerprint of the composer’s writing, especially on those occasions where modal harmony is encountered. Here the second theme is apparently based on the authentic melody of a lyrical folk-song. The slow movement is particularly attractive, not so much heart-on-sleeve emotion for pure effect, but rather founded on simple sincerity, and where folk origins are never that far removed. As the sleeve-note points out, the ensuing scherzo focuses on rhythm instead of melodic invention, and consequently it can appear angular and unpredictable, giving it a decidedly more contemporary feel than the sonata as a whole. Again an authentic melody from the sutartinės forms the principal subject of the finale, essentially a good-humoured movement interspersed with more lyrical episodes. This culminates in a particularly impressive coda where chromatic harmony gives way to a more-solidly diatonic close.
The Piano Sonata No. 2 is also a Leipzig student-work where the given academic assignment dictated a strict three-movement form and somewhat less complicated writing. The conventional sonata-form first movement therefore contrasts energy and passion with simple lyrical expression, all still imbued with a certain mild harmonic piquancy. The middle slow movement is based on a popular Lithuanian folk-song, which the composer later published as a separate piano piece ‘Lietuvoj’ (‘In Lithuania’). The sonata concludes with a cheerful dance-like finale, almost with shades of Percy Grainger at times. As befits a work that started out as an assignment, there is some impressive contrapuntal writing along the way, and the cheeky ending is appropriate for this fairly short closing movement.
The sleeve-notes go on to say that in most of the composer’s solo songs, he sought to emphasize the meaning of a poetic text, certain phrases or even separate words. The result is that his vocal lines are somewhat contrasting in nature, switching between broad singing cantilenas and recitative. Melodic features also derive from harmonies within the quite independent piano accompaniments. Joys and Sorrows is a suite of original songs arranged for violin and piano by the two performers on this CD. The quality and emotion of the original text is exceptionally well captured in Gruodis’s scores. The relatively short seven-piece set contains much descriptive music, which suits the now wordless violin and piano ensemble to perfection.
In fact Gruodis himself transcribed some of his pieces, originally in other genres, for this combination. The CD finishes with four of these. Oriental Dance was written as a piece of incidental music for a play about the life of a Jewish religious and political figure of the 17th century. It conveys an effectively appropriate air of exoticism. À la Chopin is the composer’s transcription of ‘Variation No. 6’ from his ‘Variations in B flat major for piano’ – again composed during his Leipzig days. Given that it dates originally from 1921, the piece seems strangely more like ‘Homage to Piazzolla’, rather than to Chopin, given its harmonic flirtations and melodic directions, even though the Argentinian tango-composer was born only that same year. The final two pieces are arrangements of two numbers from the composer’s only ballet, and represent scenes from a wedding celebration at the bottom of the Baltic Sea – Waltz from Jūrate and Kastysis and Song of the Sea, respectively.
The recording and presentation are first-rate, and Horner and Lenehan are certainly excellent advocates for the cause. They clearly show a passion for, yet innate sensitivity to the composer’s quite individual style of writing. Gruodis was, in fact, a competent player of both violin and piano, and seems to have applied this knowledge to get the best out of each instrument. In such a partnership where the musical content is so equally shared between the players, pianist, Lenehan, scores just marginally higher in the quality of his technical performance overall than his violin-playing partner, Horner.
If you are looking for something new, and decidedly refreshing, and aren’t especially well versed in music from Lithuania, or specifically by Juozas Gruodis, then this charming and interesting addition to the repertoire would make an excellent purchase. No doubt it will lead to some further investigation of the composer’s, and his country’s music.