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Paul JUON (1872-1940)
Music for Two Violins and Piano

Silhouettes Op. 9 [25:45]
Silhouettes Op. 43 [17:33]
Seven Small Tone Pictures, Op. 81 [24:24]
Malwina Sosnowski and Rebekka Hartmann (violins) Benyamin Nuss (piano)
rec. 8-12 March 2015, Radiostudio Zurich, Switzerland

Often the problem with obscure romantic-era music is a lack of memorable melody. That is not the case here: these works for two violins and piano are all melody, virtually a collection of songs without words. And, in fact, they are utterly charming and affectionate. This CD is a terrific surprise.

Paul Juon was a Russian composer who’s recently been getting some attention on the CPO label, and who might be best known as the orchestrator of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 4. A student of Arensky and Taneyev, and an admirer of Tchaikovsky, Juon taught a generation of composers in Berlin, then retired to Lake Geneva in his old age, which is why his music is appearing on the Musiques Suisses record label.

The two series of Silhouettes are charming pieces written for his first wife and for his mother. There are amusing titles here, like “Conte mystérieux” and “Bizarrerie,” and also gentle songs which have relaxing or refreshing effects. I love the opening idyll almost as much as the “Chant d’amour,” a gorgeous love song which really should not be in the set dedicated to his mother. Juon skillfully deploys the two violins, and they are arranged on this recording for maximum spatial effect. This is a disc of simple pleasures, and one of them is hearing a good melody get passed from left to right, like a gift.

The Seven Small Tone Pictures, Op. 82, come from the 1930s, when the composer was retiring, having taught a generation of modernists including Skalkottas. This is not, however, modernist music at all; Juon instead was looking back to his own childhood with nostalgia, wondering why the youth of the day were leaving the style of Taneyev and Tchaikovsky behind. The highlight of this set is a stern Chaconne, by far the most serious music on the disc and the only piece that commits deeply to minor-key mood. It may not be on the level of Bach, but it’s a statement all the same, engaging all three performers in intertwining counterpoint.

Malwina Sosnowski, Rebekka Hartmann, and Benyamin Nuss are young Swiss performers, and they get a good showcase here to display their skills. If at times I think the violin playing could have used a bit more romantic indulgence, that’s a minor complaint, and certainly many listeners will not feel the same way. In fact, some might have been put off by the over-the-top style I have in mind. The booklet provides a concise bio of the composer, recorded sound is excellent, and the cover painting is by the composer’s brother.

Don’t come into this disc expecting profundity. But it’s the perfect accompaniment to an afternoon at home reading, or a wistful spring morning with a mug of tea, wishing the rain would go away. We need charming light chamber music, and Paul Juon’s is delightful.

Brian Reinhart

Previous review: Rob Barnett