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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Sonata No. 2 Sz 76 (1922) [21:45]
Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-2008)
Sonata No. 2 “Quasi una sonata” (1967-1968) [22:37]
Witold LUTOSLAWSKI (1913-1994)
Partita for Violin and Piano (1984) [17:43]
Miranda Cuckson (violin)
Blair McMillen (piano)
rec. January 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
ECM NEW SERIES 2446 [62:04]

Making their ECM New Series debut, violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Blair McMillen make a confident and superbly engineered impression with three significant works by composers who are connected in their Slavic origins, but each with distinctive and highly individual voices.

Béla Bartók’s Violin Sonata No. 2 is a standard-bearer for that “symbiosis of folk and ‘high’ art” with which his music becomes as recognisable as a painting by Marc Chagall. Its two movements cover a remarkable range of expression and contrasts, bringing in elements of rhythm and gritty percussive technique from his famous ethnomusicological field studies and introducing them to the refined depths of sophistication developed in cosmopolitan Europe.

The single movement of Alfred Schnittke’s Violin Sonata No. 2 “Quasi una Sonata” is a constantly surprising and quirky piece that brings together disparate styles in a way that might not have surprised Bartók, though its “polystylistic” fingerprints contrast sharply with those of the elder master – putting elements into surreal conflict rather than having them reinforce each other into relative coherence. Schnittke’s “impish attitude toward the time-honoured sonata form” allows him to pluck fragments of the familiar and have them subsumed with distorted and exaggerated inventions like a constructivist artist let loose on an art gallery’s collection of oil paintings with a pair of scissors.

Lutoslawski’s very fine Partita was written for Pinchas Zukerman and Marc Neikrug and, as was Schnittke’s work, later orchestrated to take on a quasi-concerto form. The relationship to Bartók’s stylistic syntheses is apparent once again, Cuckson stating that “Lutoslawski’s early pieces employed Polish folk material, and his later music, though more abstract, retains a rich, earthy lyricism and directness of expression”. This is potent, expressive stuff, the techniques of quarter-tone tuning, rhythmic emphasis, aleatoric ad libitum sections and improvisatory notation always in the service of a closely argued and highly refined musical experience.

These three works taken together would make this release as good as self-recommending for anyone seeking to acquire some of the best the twentieth century has to offer in terms of works for violin and piano. The performances are stunning, and the recording equally so – nicely resonant by no means swampy, the detail in the grain of the violin’s sound perfectly captured and balanced with piano sonics that have all of the impact, eloquent colour and depth demanded by these works. Comparisons can of course be made, but I prefer Miranda Cuckson over Anne-Sophie Mutter’s more expressionist view and rather relentless vibrato in her recording of the Bartók with Lambert Orkis on Deutsche Grammophon. As Bartók’s second sonata is more often heard than his first, so Schnittke’s “quasi una sonata” seems to appear more often in its orchestrated version on recordings. Naxos with Carolyn Huebl and Mark Wait with their complete Schnittke works for violin and piano (review) is serviceable but not as attractively recorded as this ECM version, and Lutoslawski’s Partita appears on another complete Naxos programme (review) with Ariadne Daskalakis and Miri Yampolsky which stands up well, though in a toss-up I would now go with the refined quality and drama of Cuckson/McMillen by a thick whisker.

Dominy Clements



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