Vasilije MOKRANJAC (1923-1984)
String Quartet in D minor (1949) [26:57]
Violin Sonata in G minor (1952) [22:37]
Old Song for violin and piano in G sharp minor (early 1950s) [3:37]
Dance for violin and piano in E minor (early 1950s) [2:50]
Thomas Christian Ensemble
Evgeny Sinayskiy (piano)
rec. 10-14 February 2014, Hans-Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden, SWR
CPO 777 893-2 [56:00]

The Serbian composer Vasilije Mokranjac hailed from a musical dynasty; his father Jovan was a cellist, co-founder of the Belgrade String Quartet and his great uncle was the composer Stevan Stojanović Mokranjac (1856-1914). He studied piano and composition at the Belgrade Music Academy, where he himself later taught for three and a half decades. His oeuvre consists of piano music, chamber works and orchestral compositions, which include five symphonies. Rob Barnett remarks at the end of his review that some of the symphonies have been recorded, but has not been able to track them down. Fortunately, performances can be found, in the shape of radio broadcasts, on YouTube. Over the course of his career Mokranjac's music progressed from late-romanticism to neo-classicism, and later he tried his hand at 12-tone rows. All the works featured on the present disc are early ones, cast in a strongly melodic vein and extremely attractive.

His compositional career can roughly be divided into three periods:
To the end of the 1950s – piano and chamber works.
The 1960s - orchestral and symphonic works, including the first three symphonies.
1970-1984 - more solo piano works and Symphonies 4 and 5.

Mokranjac was twenty-six when he composed his String Quartet in D minor in 1949. It forms the most substantial work on the CD, and is firmly ensconced in the late-romantic idiom. The dramatic content of the opening movement is laced with plenty of heartfelt lyricism. The Vivacissimo, which follows, is heavily reliant on insistent dance rhythms, framing a central rhapsodic episode. The slow movement is the emotional core of the work, introspective in character, and seeming to glance backwards at past times with regret. The Quartet is rounded off with an energetic and brisk finale. The Thomas Christian Ensemble offers a potent and deeply committed performance.

From 1952 comes the Violin Sonata in G minor. The first movement boldly asserts itself at the beginning. The piano writing is virtuosic by any standards and Evgeny Sinayskiy acquits himself in the role impeccably. It’s a partnership of equals throughout. Thomas Christian’s darkly sumptuous tone has exceptional appeal. Both artists traverse the movement’s tortuous narrative with instinctive flair and hearty exuberance. A gypsy-flavoured Scherzo comes next, and then a slow movement - dreamy and pensive. Time almost seems to stand still. The fourth movement Allegro restores some equilibrium with Christian’s impressive bowing skills showcased to good effect.

The composer proves himself a master of miniature forms in the two contrasting short pieces for violin and piano which end the disc. Both date from the early fifties. Old Song for violin and piano in G sharp minor is broody and thoughtful, whilst Dance for violin and piano in E minor skips along delicately with hardly a care in the world.

All concerned offer compelling performances. Stefan Cvetković has provided some insightful annotations in German with English translation. The music is warmly recorded, with the Hans-Rosbaud-Studio conferring a sense of intimacy. I sincerely hope there will be more Mokranjac to come from this enterprising label. New recordings of the symphonies are long overdue.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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