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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Violin Sonata in F, Op. 57 [23:07]
Four Romantic Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 75 [13:54]
Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Four Romantic Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 17 [17:52]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Violin Sonata [19:11]
Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin), Huw Watkins (piano)
rec. Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, 2017

The violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen has in recent years been steadily building up a substantial and generally very well-received discography. This includes concertos by Mendelssohn (SIGCD 342) and Vaughan Williams (review), as well as a highly regarded pairing of the violin concertos of John Adams and Roy Harris (review). In addition, she has brought out an ambitious solo disc of modern works (SIGCD 416) and, not least, several distinguished and imaginatively programmed issues with her regular duo partner, Huw Watkins. In 2013 they produced recordings of violin and piano works by Gershwin, Poulenc and Ravel (CHRCD 059), in 2014 a fascinating selection of sonatas composed in or around 1917 (review), and in 2015 a seemingly unlikely but very successful juxtaposition of pieces by Hahn and Szymanowski (review).

Now Waley-Cohen and Watkins turn their attention to Central Europe, and to a sequence of pieces composed between 1880 and 1921. Waley-Cohen is drawn to this repertoire, she says in Signum’s booklet, because of “its freshness, folk inflections, beauty of melody, but particularly the directness of emotional content”. Listening to her disc, one can certainly see what she means.

Its first half is devoted, appropriately enough, to Dvořák. His Violin Sonata, Op. 57, is not all that often played, or indeed recorded – I was surprised to discover, for example, that it features on many fewer discs than the much slighter (to my mind) Sonatina, Op. 100. Dating from 1880, around the same time as his comparably great and relatively neglected Violin Concerto and Sixth Symphony, the Sonata is representative, like them, of Dvořák at his most Brahmsian – maybe that in itself is a reason why these works often get overlooked in favour of those more pervasively imbued by Czech or indeed American folk idioms. The Sonata is, though, absolutely top-notch Dvořák, full of beauty, generosity, subtlety and joie de vivre; and Waley-Cohen and Watkins have its measure. As often on the disc, they enchant the ear especially in those quieter moments which call for delicate interplay between the two instruments – for example in the second subject of the opening allegro ma non troppo and in that same movement’s magical coda; but they also convey the muscular strength of much of Dvořák’s inspiration, and enter dashingly into the spirit of his more “folk-inflected” finale.

The same composer’s Four Romantic Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 75, dates from 1887, and was first scored for two violins and viola. The arrangement heard here, however, is the composer’s own, made in the same year. Tellingly, the Four Pieces provide both continuity and contrast with the Violin Sonata. They, too, are first-rate pieces which could not conceivably be by anyone else; but, on the whole, they represent Dvořák in more relaxed, less ‘symphonic’ vein than does the earlier work. As so often with him, some of their most memorable moments are the simplest and most seemingly effortless: the opening melody of the first piece, for example, must be one of the most meltingly, unostentatiously beautiful that even Dvořák ever wrote, and Waley-Cohen and Watkins do it full justice without over-egging the pudding. They are comparably persuasive in the mood swings of the third-movement allegro appassionato and in the deeply expressive final larghetto – a piece which, in both tempo and emotional purport, is rather different from the other three pieces, but in this recording at least does not seem out of place.

Josef Suk was, of course, Dvořák’s pupil and also his son-in-law; he married the great man’s daughter Otilie in 1898. So one really ought not to be surprised to find that his Four Romantic Pieces (written in 1900, when the composer was 26) are redolent with Dvořák’s influence. The title itself must surely represent a conscious homage; and there are certain passages in Suk’s pieces which might very well have been composed by his father-in-law – albeit, perhaps, when suffering a rare off-day. It would be wrong, though, to play down the originality and very real strengths of Suk’s own Four Pieces. His language tends to be more chromatic than Dvořák’s, individual movements often have a greater range of tempi and emotion, and, as in many of his other works, he displays a sense of rhapsodic fantasy which may be a structural weakness, but is also endearing and sometimes infectious. Moreover Philip Borg-Wheeler’s notes make the valid point that parts of the second Romantic Piece at least “suggest a demonic streak”, which one would certainly not associate with Dvořák. All in all then, whilst lacking the sheer memorability of the companion works by his father-in-law, Suk’s Pieces are well worth hearing – not least in performances as fresh and committed to these.

After Dvořák and Suk, Janáček’s Violin Sonata comes as something of a shock – as, no doubt, its composer would wish it to. In the context of a disc surveying the Czech violin tradition in the twenty years before and twenty years after 1900, however, there is no more – indeed, no other – logical place to end. The Sonata occupied Janáček on and off between 1914 and 1921, and hence the final product, even more than most of his later works, is a heady brew of diverse inspirations and influences. Its composition was begun very much under the shadow of the outbreak of the First World War: I note, for example, that one of the rival recordings of it, by Matthew Trusler and Martin Roscoe, appears as part of an anthology entitled The Pity of War, which also includes readings of poems by Wilfred Owen (Orchid ORC100001). Like the other late and great chamber works, however, the Violin Sonata also bears witness to Janáček’s overwhelming infatuation with Kamila Stösslová, whom he had met in 1917; and, in still more specific terms, much of its melodic content is derived from the opera Káťa Kabanová, with which Janáček was primarily engaged in 1919 and 1920. For all its complicated genesis, however, the Sonata is a wholly characteristic example of its composer’s late style: angular, piquant, episodic, often perhaps surprisingly euphonious, and above all conveying a wide range of powerful, often conflicting emotions.

When it comes to a work like this, I am not sure that any performers can cover all the bases; and one can certainly envisage (indeed has heard) more abrasive, hard-edged performances than that of Waley-Cohen and Watkins, for example from violinists of the Czech school. In general, I would say that theirs is a Romantic approach, warm-hearted and emotionally direct, but also conveying a range of softer-grained subtleties that arguably elude more larger-than-life players. Symptomatically perhaps, they are at their best in the ‘Ballada’ second movement, essentially a lullaby, which requires the kind of tenderness and inwardness that these artists are especially good at. There have been plenty of good Janáček Sonata recordings over the years, and one would not recommend this new one over, say, the various performances by the violinist Josef Suk (grandson of his namesake and hence great-grandson of Dvořák). But Waley-Cohen’s and Watkins’s approach is an entirely valid and convincing one, consistently successful on its own terms.

No other CD contains the precise combination of works presented here. A number of artists play two of them, and a recent issue by Jennifer Pike and Tom Poster offers three – excluding only the Dvořák Sonata, which they replace with his Nocturne in B and some short pieces by Janáček. Pike and Poster are, of course, also a distinguished duo, though their performance specifically of the Janáček Sonata has divided critics somewhat, even within the confines of Music Web International (see reviews). Whatever the competition for individual works, however, anyone who buys the new Waley-Cohen/Watkins disc will surely be pleased with it. It offers a well-balanced and coherent sequence of pieces (so much so, indeed, that one wonders whether the disc’s contents originated as a programme for a live recital); and the performances are all well prepared, well integrated, well conceived and beautifully played. Altogether a cherishable disc.

Nigel Harris



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