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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-56)
Violin Sonata No 2 in D minor, Grosse Sonate, Op. 121 (1851) [31:12]
Violin Sonata No 1 in A minor, Op. 105 (1851) [19:32]
Violin Sonata No 3 in A minor, WoO 2 (1853) [22:08]
Eriikka Maalismaa (violin)
Emil Holmström (piano)
rec: 2018, Nya Paviljongen, Kauniainen, Finland
ALBA ABCD438 [73:06]

The cover photograph of this disc depicts violinist Eriikka Maalismaa and pianist Emil Holmström; these two rather chilly-looking Finnish musicians pose in the snow-dappled grounds of a grandiose but grim-looking building which could only be a 19th century asylum. A note on the back informs us that this is the Lapinlahti hospital which dates from 1841 and was the first such establishment in Finland. It’s therefore no surprise that this fine new Alba issue contains prime late Schumann, in the form of his three violin sonatas. He composed these in his final period of creative fertility between 1851 and 1853. prior to his descent into terminal madness and his confinement to the hospital at Endenich, near Bonn. That sanatorium was established at around the same time as the Lapinlahti, and Alba’s packaging certainly suits these convincing, disconcerting performances.

The disc is not the first to feature period instruments in this repertoire, but I feel it certainly trumps the Harmonia Mundi disc (HMC 902048) from 2010 which featured Daniel Sepec and Andreas Staier in the first two sonatas (as well as a noble account of Schumann’s arrangement with piano of Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita in D minor BWV 1004. Despite a pristine recording, I for one found their interpretations of the sonatas surprisingly literal and uninvolving, especially given the history and speculation surrounding the pieces. Contrastingly these young Finns bring this music to life – in fact it may be more pertinent to suggest that they invest these scores with a dramatic and fascinating ‘after-life’. Eriikka Maalismaa performs on a 1770 Bellosio violin fitted with agreeably spooky sounding gut strings, while Emil Holmström coaxes an abundance of sepia tints from his 1862 Érard. On first acquaintance this instrument sounds a little bass-heavy, but one quickly adjusts to its personality; by the end of the disc it's difficult to imagine these sonatas being performed by other means. In terms of sheer musicality and imagination, these accounts are surely a match for Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt’s wonderful modern instrument traversal on Ondine (ODE 12052). Indeed the Finns have much to say about music which for myriad reasons remains uncertain of its place in the great scheme of things.

The initial impression of the second sonata’s dramatic, jagged opening gestures is of music from the beyond; a ghostly apparition of chords which seem sharpened by the Érard’s lack of resonance. This is very different from the lustre and beauty of tone that predominates on the Tetzlaff/Vogt disc, and it’s the Finnish team’s knife-edge approach that compels one’s attention throughout this work. Listeners sympathetic to late Schumann will surely respond the honesty and raw passion of their playing, and to their projection of both the music and the man. They convincingly capture the nagging agitation of the Sehr lebhaft second movement, whose second subject draws the most autumnal russets and ochres from Holmström’s piano. Similarly, the pizzicato tune at the outset of the delicate third panel conveys a fragility that borders on imminent collapse. Yet a sense of the deadpan lurks within, and in this movement the Finns cut even more deeply than Tetzlaff and Vogt whose hazy reading at times teeters on the verge of inaudibility. When the tune eventually emerges arco everything seems to dissolve – it’s easy to imagine that this was Schumann’s ‘truth’. This might be music of the most profound melancholy but there is no sense of wallowing here. The variation in these players’ articulation of the Bewegt finale’s opening material is colourful and daring. I noticed the piano’s boominess again sporadically in Holmström’s crescendi but in no way does this compromise what by any measure is a captivating account of a fascinating, moving work.

Maalismaa and Holmström’s readings of the first and third sonatas are more leisurely than most of the rival recordings that I know. Eriikka Maalismaa’s violin in the long opening movement of the first sonata sighs wistfully; the synchronicity of feeling with her partner’s mellow playing and tasteful decoration is palpable. Tempi are flexible but never seem contrived. The engineers have fashioned a warm, sympathetic sound picture. The lighter mood of the central Allegretto is perfectly communicated, the dance at its heart delightfully high-spirited. In contrast the playing in the closing Lebhaft movement is spikier and more incisive, the drama more reined in. Much as I love Tetzlaff’s silky and impassioned playing (notably in the first movement) in this first sonata the Finns offer a more psychologically aware account which is no less attractive or valid. Its conclusion seems unusually ominous.

And the psychological element is arguably even more noticeable in the third sonata, a diffuse, unsettling work which remains on the fringes of the repertoire. The reasons for this are discussed at length by the performers in their excellent booklet note. In summary the even-numbered movements were originally conceived by the composer to form half of the ‘F-A-E’ Sonata, a collaboration with Brahms and the largely forgotten Albert Dietrich that was intended to honour their mutual friend and collaborator Joseph Joachim. Schumann recycled these movements and added two fresh panels (the first and third movements) to form this new work, but soon afterwards he made his unsuccessful suicide attempt and subsequently endured his slow decline at Endenich. The sonata we have today thus incorporates the copied F-A-E movements, while the others only existed as rough sketches. Given these circumstances, it is remarkable that the sonata coheres as well as it does, especially in this account. The abruptness of its opening is dramatically communicated by the Finns, the unfamiliar sounds of their respective instruments rendering the music somewhat avant-garde for its era. Maalismaa’s gut strings seem especially raw, and there are times (and I really don’t intend this as a brickbat - on the contrary!) that Holmström’s Érard sounds like a pub piano after a heavily confessional drinking session. There is a wild beauty at play which sometimes recalls Steven Isserlis’s cello arrangement of the sonata, memorably recorded by him with Dénes Várjon for Hyperion a decade ago (CDA 67661). One expects Maalismaa’s intonation to cave in – it somehow survives against the odds. The Intermezzo melds troubled violin and consolatory piano – it’s brief and truly affecting. The violinist carries most of the emotional burden of the third sonata compared to its siblings where it is shared more equally among both protagonists. Maalismaa and Holmström offer a thrilling reading which only reinforces the view that the piece deserves far more exposure than it gets.

It’s really good to see the Alba label veer away from the Nordic repertoire for which it is renowned; the Finnish label have curated a credible, fulfilling and beautifully recorded account of Schumann’s provocative, consuming sonatas. I find these driven, exciting readings far more challenging and musical than those by Sepec and Staier. Eriikka Maalismaa and Emil Holmström are justly celebrated in their homeland but here they demonstrate such impeccable credentials in this repertoire that I urge all of those who responded to Tetzlaff and Vogt’s wonderful disc to consider this superb period instrument alternative. I wouldn’t wish to be without either.

Richard Hanlon

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