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Signature: Music for Solo Violin
Bent SØRENSEN (b.1958)
The Lady of Shalott (1987) [6:59]
Rafal AUGUSTYN (b.1951)
Cyclic Piece No.1 (1986) [13:51]
Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
A Paganini (1982) [14:27]
Pierre BOULEZ (b.1925)
Anthèmes (1992) [10:21]
Luciano BERIO (1925-2003)
Sequenza VIII (1976) [13:09]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Chaconne (1720) [14:09]
Christine Pryn (violin)
rec. Sorgenfri Kirke, Denmark, 2014/15

I jumped in at the deep end and moved the CD player to Pierre Boulez’s Anthèmes. I was not quite sure what to expect. What I discovered is a masterpiece of musical design and sound. Boulez has balanced a variety of themes with ‘intense moments of silence’. He has virtually emptied the orchestrator’s box of playing devices for the violin.

The work was commissioned by the Yehudi Menuhin Violin Competition and is dedicated to Universal Edition's director Alfred Schlee to celebrate his 90th birthday. The liner-notes explain that the title is a hybrid of the English word ‘anthems’ and the French ‘thèmes’. The inspiration for this music came from boyhood memories of texts for the Lenten services in the Roman Catholic Church. These used Hebrew letters to enumerate the verses, which themselves were recited in Latin. He used this to create two ‘sonic blocks’ of music – the first has ‘quiet, suspended, gliding harmonics announc[ing]’ each new section of the music, and the second where the main exposition of the material takes place. I understand that the work does not have any allusions to the content of the liturgical text as such: it is simply the contrast of the Hebrew/Latin ‘blocks’ of sound. It is an extremely satisfying work that is challenging without being off-putting.

For my second exploration, I went ‘back to Bach’. This masterfully-played Chaconne is the final movement of the composer’s Partita No.2 in D minor. It is such a well-known piece that little comment is required save to quote Joshua Bell, who stated that the Chaconne is ‘not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It's a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect.’ (Washington Post, 8 April 2007).

It is appropriate to listen to Luciano Berio’s Sequenza VIII after the Bach. The composer has called this piece, ‘a tribute to that musical apex which is the Ciaccona … where, historically – past, present and future violin techniques coexist.’ He regarded his essay as a personal debt to the violin, which is ‘one of the most subtle and complex of instruments.’ This is a hugely dramatic and multi-faceted composition that explores a vast variety of mood, gestures and polyphony. It is a work that seems to defy categorisation with a sound-world that boldly fuses contemporary and historical expression. It is an undoubted ‘modern’ masterwork which is played to perfection by Christine Pryn. Sequenza VIII was composed in 1976 for the violinist Carlo Chiarappa.

I have not heard any music by Bent Sørensen; nor anything approaching his evocative portrayal of The Lady of Shalott. This work, written in 1987, was inspired by John William Waterhouse’s (1849-1917) eponymous painting (1888) in the Tate Britain. The Lady herself sings a song of lamentation as she drifts down the stream towards Camelot castle. Sørensen’s music is dreamlike, almost timeless in its development and makes use of a wide variety of sound effects on the violin. It is a piece that is particularly effective on CD as the introspective nature of the music needs an undisturbed atmosphere to work its undoubted magic.

Rafal Augustyn’s Cyclic Piece, no.1 is another wonderfully suggestive work that seems to bend the passage of time. This music does as it says on the tin – it is cyclical, everything that is heard seems to reappear in one form or another. The music does not develop as such, but seems to go from side to side. The liner-notes point out that the Hindu philosophy of time underlies the working out of this piece. There is an excellent balance between vibrant ‘active’ music and reflective and meditative passages. The act of breathing seems to be a major part of this piece. The repetitive patterns are derived from Indonesian gamelan. However, the listener does not need to be aware of these philosophical underpinnings to relish accompanying the composer on what is a long and interesting journey.

The last piece I listened to was Alfred Schnittke’s A Paganini. This was composed for the 1982 Paganini Festival in Italy. The notes explain that this piece gave the composer the opportunity to 'reinterpret Paganini’s virtuoso violin pieces, the 24 Capricci (1820).' Schnittke’s methodology here is to create a musical collage which ‘integrated fragments from the caprices … where virtuoso passages and disconnected quotations collide with unexpected outbursts and dissonant chords.’ Is this music nostalgic, demonic, clichéd or chaotic? I am not sure but I certainly enjoyed every moment of this complex work.

The liner-notes are useful although a little more information on the less-well-known composers may have been helpful. The analysis of each work by Erik Christensen is thankfully not overburdened with technicalities and elaborate philosophical speculation.

Christine Pryn specialises in modern music: she has premiered more than one hundred works. Her recitals are usually planned to explore old and new music together. Pryn is involved in Danish music-making as artistic director of the Danish Festival Rudersdal concerts which she instituted in 2010 as well as a being a founder member of the Northern Lights Ensemble.

I was concerned when I received this CD. Seventy plus minutes of solo violin music was certainly not something I could assimilate at a single sitting. The only work that I knew was Bach’s Chaconne. All the other compositions were new to me. However, I need not have worried. This is one of the best CDs I have reviewed this year. The quality of the playing matches the sheer imagination of the programme. Do not allow yourself to be put off this CD if you feel that you are not a big fan of Pierre Boulez or Luciano Berio. Their contributions will absolutely amaze you.

John France



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