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Fait pleurer les songes
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Sonate Posthume for Violin and Piano (1897) [14:21]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Violin Sonata, FP 119 [17:12]
Serge PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Violin Sonata no. 1, Op. 80 [27:13]
Guro Kleven Hagen (violin)
Marianna Shirinyan (piano)
rec. Sofienberg Church, Oslo, 2016
SIMAX PSC1354 [58:46]

This is just the second major recording by the young Norwegian violinist Guro Kleven Hagen (b. 1994). The first, a coupling of the G minor concertos of Bruch and Prokofiev with the Oslo Philharmonic under Bjarte Engeset, received a somewhat mixed welcome from my colleague Paul Corfield Godfrey (review). Whilst admiring many aspects of Kleven Hagen’s playing and expressing the desire to hear more of her, he had reservations about the Simax disc’s somewhat illogical coupling, short playing time and ill-balanced recording. Well, we have nearly ten minutes’ more music here – though, lasting slightly under an hour, the programme is still not generous for a full-price CD. On this occasion the recording balance is also basically fine, though there is perhaps an over-compensation in favour of the piano, and both artists are rather closely miked. This can make the sound a little fierce, and occasionally also exposes an element of wiriness in Kleven Hagen’s tone.

As to the new disc’s couplings, the Poulenc and Prokofiev sonatas at least work well together. The former dates from 1942-3 and the latter from between 1938 and 1946; and both are clearly marked by disturbing experiences of the Second World War – along with, in Poulenc’s case, the Spanish Civil War and, in Prokofiev’s, the horrors of Stalinism. That said, the one-movement Sonata composed in 1897 by the 22-year-old Ravel belongs less obviously in this company. In a note, Kleven Hagen and Shirinyan state that they see it as representing “peace” to counterbalance the “war” in evidence elsewhere. One can buy this to some extent, but, at 14 minutes, the Ravel leaves the peace angle relatively unexplored, and you can’t help thinking of some fine peace-time works that might have helped fill the disc’s remaining potential twenty minutes – Ravel’s late, great G major Sonata, the Second or Third Sonata of Delius (a powerful influence on the young Ravel), or even Tzigane?

Be that as it may, the Sonate posthume is always worth hearing. Surely intended as the first movement of a sonata that never got completed, it is perhaps slightly long for its material – the young Ravel hadn’t yet developed the wonderful sense of economy that pervades his mature works (one thinks also of the discursive Ouverture de féerie: Shéhérazade, from the same year). It’s also not quite as highly individual as the best Ravel – you can probably tell, for example, that the composer was still being taught by Fauré at the Paris Conservatoire. Nevertheless it is often meltingly beautiful, and represents Ravel at his most dreamily, charmingly rhapsodic. One wouldn’t want to argue that Kleven Hagen surpasses such distinguished recent interpreters of the work as Tamsin Little or Leonidas Kavakos, but she and Shirinyan capture its elusive mood well, and convince the listener that they have its measure.

With the Poulenc Sonata we seem immediately to enter a more complex and less innocent world. George Hall’s excellent notes remind us that Poulenc found composing for the violin something of a struggle, and that, by the time he wrote the work recorded here for Ginette Niveu, he had already lost or destroyed four earlier attempted sonatas. His breakthrough in the early 1940s seems to have owed a good deal to the inspiration of the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who was killed by Franco’s forces in 1936 and to whose memory the piece is dedicated. It is Lorca, indeed, who has given the present disc its somewhat elliptical title: the slow movement of Poulenc’s Sonata is headed by a quotation from him, “La guitare fait pleurer les songes” (“the guitar makes dreams cry”); and the music that follows was described by Poulenc as sounding “vaguely Spanish”, with its violin pizzicati and other guitar-like elements.

Overall I would rate Kleven Hagen and Shirinyan’s performance of this genuinely major work as very good without being truly outstanding. They manage the mood and tempo swings of the first movement persuasively, and their shaping of the first of its lyrical themes is quite delectable. In the moto perpetuo finale they could perhaps convey a greater sense of wildness, but are technically superb and full of energy. It’s only in the great central slow movement that, for my taste at least, they pull too many punches: there is no shortage of lovely phrasing and plenty of attention to detail, but the emotional temperature is on the cool side, and the dreams just don’t cry as much as they could, or perhaps should.

I’m inclined to say something similar about these artists’ way with the best known and most substantial piece on their programme, the Prokofiev Sonata that was premiered in 1946 by no less a duo than David Oistrakh and Lev Oborin. It is a profound and very personal work, so much so indeed that (as George Hall reminds us) its first and third movements were played by Oistrakh at Prokofiev’s funeral. Kleven Hagen and Shirinyan meet most of its many demands head-on: they get the first movement’s “moody, somewhat stern lyricism” (Hall) just right, and are also suitably relentless in the belligerent percussiveness of the allegro brusco that follows. It’s again only really in the slow movement that reservations start to creep in. This is a very difficult movement, both songful and uneasy; but again I feel that Kleven Hagen and Shirinyan’s element of restraint, tasteful and defensible as it certainly is, ends up selling me just a bit short in emotional terms. They are back on form for the virtuosic moto perpetuo finale, though again I wonder whether they couldn’t make just a bit more of the ambiguous question mark on which the work ends.

There are of course many available recordings of the Poulenc and Prokofiev Sonatas, but – as far as I can discover – only one that has them both on the same disc. This is an issue (Cobra 0045) entitled “Sounds of War”, which features the violinist Maria Milstein and the pianist Hanna Shybayeva. Aptly, if again not particularly generously, they also offer the Janáček Sonata. The present Simax disc, then, is the only one that combines Poulenc, Prokofiev and Ravel – in performances which, as I say, are very fine without leading the field. If you fancy this particular coupling or are a particular fan of either of the participating artists, you need not hesitate; with regard to the individual works, however, you can do at least as well for less outlay elsewhere.

Nigel Harris


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