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Paul JUON (1872-1940)
Violin Sonata No. 2 in F major, Op 69 (1920) [25:43]
Violin Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op 86 (1930) [17:48]
Violin Sonata No. 1 in A major, Op 7 (1898) [33:35]
Charles Wetherbee (violin)
David Korevaar (piano)
rec. 2014-16, Grusin Music Hall, University of Colorado, Boulder, USA
NAXOS 8.574091 [77:14]

Born in Russia to Swiss parents, Paul Juon eventually trained and taught in Germany (Skalkottas and Wolpe were among his students) and spent his final years in Switzerland. His music is consistently melodious and well-made although each of the three sonatas on this disc are the products of different stages of his development, and innocent ears might be forgiven for failing to identify them as works from the same hand. One might regard Juon as a figure left behind by posterity; his music rarely features in concert or recital programmes, and one wonders if this has something to do with accidents of geography or nomenclature. Despite being Russian by birth (his early music especially is rife with the flavours of Tchaikovsky or Arensky) the name ‘Juon’ hardly fits; indeed he seems to have spent the majority of his adult life in Germany, where his originality may well been overlooked to the advantage of louder, establishment voices. I was therefore astonished to note that his music features (exclusively or as part of a mixed presentation) on no less than 34 CDs, and although many of these feature on Swiss labels Juon’s art has certainly enjoyed a resurgence of interest in recent years from other sources, not least CPO. If his apparent statelessness has counted against him until recently, the quality of his music stands up to critical scrutiny pretty well.

For some reason Naxos have decided to order the disc starting with the second sonata, ending with the first, with the more concentrated single movement of the third placed in the middle. Each sonata is stylistically distinct and listeners can of course sequence the works as they wish but my preference is to try to trace a composer’s development by listening in chronological order –this is a most instructive strategy in Juon’s case especially.

The pianist David Korevaar has provided the helpful note which certainly enables newcomers to this repertoire to navigate the three works. The first sonata was completed in 1898 soon after Juon’s arrival in Berlin. It’s fluent, heartfelt and memorable. Korevaar stresses the Brahmsian pulse of its long (perhaps excessively so) first movement but unsurprisingly, given his early apprenticeship at the Moscow Conservatory the melodic tang of the initial idea seems more Tchaikovskian to my ears, although some listeners might also detect the influence of Anton Arensky, one of Juon’s early teachers whose D minor Piano Trio emerged just three years earlier. The second theme is even more delightful and Juon’s steady craftsmanship is evident even at this early stage of his career. Similarly the unambiguously Russian theme of the 2nd movement is delicately conveyed by Korevaar; both he and Charles Wetherbee afford this music an appealing objectivity and steer clear of unnecessary histrionics. The composer subsequently subjects his theme to a delightful sequence of elegantly contrasted dance-like and romantic variations which lead to an understated coda. I would have liked Wetherbee’s pizzicato to have emerged with a little more clarity – they are occasionally submerged by the piano sound. The pianist’s rather Schumannesque elaborations at the outset of the Vivace finale precede a fruity Slavic dance from his partner which Korevaar’s note identifies as ‘Cossack-inspired’ but to my admittedly less informed ears it has something of a gipsy or ‘all ‘ungherese’ flavour about it. The second episode is broad and lyrical – it’s unashamedly nostalgic (for Russia perhaps?) and provides an apt contrast for the livelier dance theme. This first sonata receives a fine performance without excessive mannerism and reveals a young composer of substance and technical skill. The Naxos sound is perfectly agreeable, although it occasionally seems a little dry.

By the time Juon embarked upon a second violin sonata in 1920 much had changed in music, as it had in every aspect of European life. The five note motif with which it opens could be by Vaughan Williams but what follows eludes easy comparison. The language is still fluent and accessible but now little rhythmic sequences and melodic connecting threads go off in unexpected directions. Korevaar’s note emphasises the quasi-narrative structure of both the second and third sonatas, but that could really apply to any music as diffuse as Juon’s is here; nor is that an implicit criticism of it. Any traces of the Russian spirit that permeated the surface of the first sonata seem to have dissipated, although as this first movement develops some of its melodic content projects a certain melancholia. The music is more chromatic and possibly hints at Reger, although Juon’s piano writing is far leaner - there’s very little that could be construed as note-spinning. While Korevaar’s keyboard work is crisp and alert, Wetherbee’s playing is clear and accurate, though some listeners might feel it lacks a bit of fire. The second movement Largo - Allegretto is particularly elusive and difficult to read in terms of mood or direction. And yet Wetherbee somehow finds more passion in it than in anything heard so far and tugs at its expressive potential. If the piano writing seems a little unwieldy here and there, one might assume this is deliberate on Juon’s part as he is experimenting with a more contemporary style; accordingly Korevaar’s playing proceeds rather carefully, as if trying to avoid mines, although the music seems more sure of itself towards the end of the panel. An eerie little epilogue is enriched with fragile pizzicato. The initial idea of the Risoluto finale is vernal and fresh. Some of Juon’s progressions evoke Szymanowski. The note suggests a different fantastical narrative is woven throughout this strange but unquestionably alluring music. The constant chopping and changing by now elicits lithe virtuosic playing from Wetherbee. The resolution at 5:00 incorporates the initial vernal idea in music which is more robust – risoluto indeed. The sonata’s final pages are rather fragmented but somehow draw some of the finale’s earlier ideas together.

By 1930 Juon’s architectural strategies had moved on again; the third sonata is concentrated within a taut single movement design. A chromatic rising theme in the piano again recalls Szymanowski – it’s developed by violin and answered by piano; a sprightlier section ensues and involves even briefer, pricklier exchanges. At 1:45 a theme emerges which is unexpectedly sentimental, winsome even. Juon investigates it at some length and again moves beyond the beaten track. This resolves in an impassioned plea from the violin. At 4:18 a spare melodic line for solo violin stands on its own two feet before the sprightly music from the beginning returns. The material simultaneously becomes wilder and more wayward, as if both protagonists are seeking some shared adventure. At 7:12 a different questioning melodic idea emerges, again developed in tandem with piano commentary. The section from 9:15 is dream-like; a piquant yearning violin backed by insistent repeated high notes in the piano constitutes a magical passage of astral intensity and was certainly not what this listener was expecting. The piano solo from 11:38 incorporates these ideas, with skirling violin asides. This is the most affecting and original music on the disc. The sprightlier tempo from the beginning is restored at 14:45 and the work moves towards a most satisfying conclusion. This third sonata impresses even more on subsequent hearings, not least because of Juon’s unusual style and his economical means of expression.

One cannot help feeling that these last two sonatas merit more than a foothold in the repertoire. While one is eternally grateful to Messrs Wetherbee and Korevaar for their pioneering spirit in recording them; effective as their readings are one wonders what a Kavakos or a Gluzman would make of Juon. There is arguably more potential for expression and abandon in this music than emerges in these worthy accounts. Similarly, the Naxos sound does the job for sure, but without frills. While I would certainly recommend this disc to those curious about this composer, CPO’s recent recording of two of Juon’s most substantial, late orchestral scores is, in my view of even greater significance and interest (review).

Richard Hanlon

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