One of the finest I have heard
A most joy-inducing
A winning partnership
A Lohengrin to
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Zoltán KODÁLY (1882-1967)
Duo for Violin and Cello, Op.7 (1914) [26:30]
Serenade for Two Violins and Viola, Op.12 (1919-20) [21:56] Ernő DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
Serenade for String Trio, Op.10 (1902) [21:46]
Simon Smith, Clare Hayes (violins), Paul Silverthorne (viola), Katherine Jenkinson (cello)
rec. January (duo) and November 2013, St. Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London. DDD. RESONUS CLASSICS RES10181 [70:19]
Although followed by two serenades, the opening Duo is far from a carefree divertissement. Kodály started working on it while spending a vacation in a mountain resort, but had to leave abruptly after the declaration of World War I. His awe of the great mountains and the fear of the war shaped this striking work. Kodály’s music is Hungarian on the molecular level, and the folk spirit, even without direct quotations, is omnipresent here. The first movement is dark and majestic, the second mysterious and gritty. The finale starts with a rhapsodic introduction, then the pace gets quicker and the mood lightens, stylistically staying somewhere between Bartók and Ravel. Kodály’s mastery of texture fools the ear and creates an impression of more than just two instruments involved. I compared this recording to the one made by Gil Morgenstern and Darrett Adkins (Engine Company Records, 2008). Their performance, albeit with noticeably worse acoustics, is more expressive and elated, even wild at times. I admit that they may be overdoing it, but their approach of getting more out of every note is certainly more engaging and vibrant. Compared to them, Smith and Jenkinson are cooler and cleaner, but sound tame. In the second movement their fears are more distant, yet the music is no less scary and has the Shostakovich-like effect, when the feeling is not coming through ears but is born in resonating depths inside you.
The first movement of Kodály’s Serenade is energetic and passionate, with echoes of late Russian Romanticism and the French Impressionists. The sound of two violins and a viola produces light and airy textures. This is not a decorative serenade with repetitive “background” music: this is a serenade in the original meaning of the word – an evening song. This evening will go into night in the slow middle movement, dark and mystical with enthralling sonic effects, all like one long sustained tremolo. This landscape is not scary, but has an eerie air. There is some great viola playing from Paul Silverthorne. The finale is a lengthy dance scene with diverse episodes of different character, mood and tempo, but always with unstoppable momentum. Again, I feel that this ride is safe and smooth, where it can be more risky and rough. I compared it to the recording of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Centre (Delos, 1993), and I hear in the latter performance the folksy, lively irregularity that I do not find in the present recording, whose tone is beautiful and clean, but sounds too pristine. This works well for the mysterious middle movement, but not for the more fiery outer movements. After all, we are listening to Kodály, not Taneyev. Maybe a slight rubato here, a tiny roughness of tone there could make the music more alive and informal. In the finale the Lincoln Centre musicians do not only play faster, but also produce the much-needed bounciness, which really turns notes into a dance.
Dohnányi was only five years older than Kodály, but a whole generation gap lies between the two composers. While Kodály was looking for new ways to put the Hungarian national spirit into music, Dohnányi was firmly rooted in the German-Austrian music, especially Brahms. Thus the characteristics of the performers which make them less ideal for the deeply Hungarian works of Kodály – the purity, the transparency, the elegance – are actually quite welcome in Dohnányi’s more stereotypical Serenade and make it light and airy. The opening Marcia is lighthearted and energetic. The Romanza is warm and sweet, with a passionate Trio section. The polyphonic Scherzo is sharp and demonic, with angularity that forebodes Shostakovich. The theme of the Trio section is gentle and Brahmsian, and in the recapitulation both themes are superimposed, creating a peculiar yet alluring tone picture. The forth movement is Tema con variazioni; the theme is slow and plaintive, with Brahmsian yearning and ambiguous oscillation of major and major modes; the variations have increasing intensity. Dohnányi was always the master of finales, and the Serenade ends with a merry dance of the Rondo, which could have sounded Mendelssohnian if it were faster; at the present tempo it sounds a bit heavy-footed. For comparison I listened to the performance by Beethoven String Trio (Praga Digitals, 2006) and found them more rustic and involving. Still, the performance by Smith, Silverthorne and Jenkison has undeniable zest.
Overall, the disk left an impression of some very English readings of some very Hungarian music. It is clean, elegant and smooth. The recording quality is excellent: very clear, spacious, really professional. Next to it, the recordings I used for comparison sounded like student projects. The sound is very lean and “white” – more grit and roughness would probably suit this music better.
The three works on this album are truly wonderful and should be better known. It is good to have them placed side by side, and this is a fine presentation of all three. The four musicians from London do not form a “named” ensemble, yet they play like a long-established group, with good synergy and well-measured intonations. The instruments have beautiful voices and blend very naturally. Still, one can find more idiomatic performances out there, and personally I would lose some of the polished refinement that this disc brings in order to gain some more Hungarian spirit. The booklet contains very well-written essays about the composers, the works and the history of their creation, as well as the performers’ bios.