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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Violin Sonata (1917) [14:40]
Sergey PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 80 (1946) [29:08]
Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
Partita (1984) [16:22]
Karolina Piątkowska-Nowicka (violin), Piotr Nowicki (piano)
rec. 2017, S. Moniuszko Academy of Music Concert Hall, Gdańsk, Poland
DUX 1358 [60:09]

Prokofiev began work on his First Violin Sonata in 1938, but several years passed before it was completed. The work is thus roughly contemporary with the three so-called “War” piano sonatas, with which it shares much mood and atmosphere. The first movement is a solemn march, the violin providing most of the thematic material over a constantly moving piano part. A passage of rapid, slithering scales is particularly striking, and sufficiently important for the composer to bring it back later in the work. The second movement is a kind of scherzo, though in its aggressive, assertive dissonance it is anything but playful. The cold, almost frozen slow movement precedes a finale that revisits the same terrain as the scherzo. Shortly before the end of the work the harmonies become softer, leading the listener to expect a resigned close. This is not to be, however: dark despondency replaces resignation.

The performance by Karolina Piątkowska-Nowicka and her husband Piotr Nowicki is a most persuasive one. A wide range of colour is required of both players, and those demands are most satisfyingly met. Listen to the end of the scherzo, for example, where Piątkowska-Nowicka sweetens her tone when the music briefly turns from aggression into something more lyrical. The work makes great technical demands on the violinist, and these are again met with great skill and accomplishment. The piano part, too, is frighteningly tough, though very much an accompaniment for most of the work. Nowicki more than rises to the occasion.

This is a very fine performance of an exhausting work, and the rest of the programme is just as satisfying. Lutosławki’s Partita is in three movements, fast – slow – fast, with each movement separated by a short, semi-improvised interlude. Lutosławski’s admirers will find everything they want here, high drama, ravishing lyricism and, toward the end of the slow movement, music that rises to an almost unbearable level of expressive intensity. Lutosławski produced an orchestral version of this work a few years after completing the original. It has softer edges without losing any of its dramatic power. It receives as fine a performance here as the Prokofiev.

With Debussy’s Sonata your reviewer is on more familiar ground, in line with, he suspects, many collectors. Completed in 1917, it was not quite his final completed work – a short, semi-humorous piano piece followed – but when he accompanied the violinist Gaston Poulet in the work it was certainly his final appearance on the concert platform. Debussy had been suffering from cancer for many years and the latter part of his life was truly wretched. He referred ironically to his Violin Sonata as something of “documentary” interest and “an example of what a sick man can write during a war”, though once it had been performed he was more honest – and less modest – about its qualities. Some commentators hear in this work a falling-off of inspiration, which would hardly be surprising given the composer’s state of health. I don’t agree with that view, however. Instead, one should just surrender to the work and experience its multi-faceted world. The tarantella theme in the finale that gave him so much trouble is only one element in a bewildering variety of mood and ambiance.

Piątkowska-Nowicka and Nowicki’s view of this masterpiece is a highly expressive one. Those who crave a classical sensibility in Debussy might balk at this, but I find it totally convincing. The moments of pathos, and there are many, are delivered with restrained dignity, though I am conscious that this seems to contradict what I have just written. The many changes of mood are perfectly judged. This performance easily finds its place among the finest I have heard.

Mirosłav Pachowicz, in an informative and annotated booklet note, struggles to establish a link between the three works. He settles for a sort of “French connection”. His argument has considerable merit, even if, on the face of it, the three works are very different. The recording, close and immediate, is most satisfying. Anyone interested in this particular trio of works will be more than satisfied with this disc.

William Hedley


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