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Paris – Los Angeles
Eric ZEISL (1905-1959)
Menuchim’s Song (1939) [3:11]
Violin Sonata ‘Brandeis’ (1949-50) [24:59]
Suite, Op.2: I. Zigeunerweise (1919) [3:06]
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Violin Sonata No.2 (1917) [14:05]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Violin Sonata No.21 in E minor, K304 (1778) [14:02]
Ambroise Aubrun (violin)
Steven Vanhauwaert (piano)
rec. 2019, UNLV Hall, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, USA
HORTUS 189 [59:33]

The geographical trajectory of this disc’s title traces the route taken by the Austrian composer Eric Zeisl, chased from Vienna to Paris and thence, speedily, to the American West Coast. It was in Paris that Zeisl met Darius Milhaud, who was to become a great friend and which makes the inclusion of Milhaud’s Violin Sonata No.2 a logical programmatic choice, even though it dates from a much earlier period.

The earliest piece by Zeisl here actually postdates Milhaud’s sonata by only two years and was written when the precocious composer was only fourteen. The Zigeunerweise is the first movement of his 1919 Suite, Op.2, a slow expressive songful piece, discovered in the Zeisl Collection by the violinist in this disc, Ambroise Aubrun. It has yet to be published so this single movement serves to entice one as to the nature of the whole suite. Menuchim’s Song was composed in 1939. Dedicated to Milhaud it’s in fact an extract from his incomplete opera Job, inspired by the novel of the same name by the Galician writer Joseph Roth. This novel remained profoundly important to Zeisl and he was invited to write incidental music for a staged version of the novel shortly after Roth’s death. The clear Hebraisms in this extract show Zeisl’s full immersion in the novel’s complex questioning of faith and the forces of migration. It’s a three-minute song but seems to encapsulate Zeisl’s musical quest in his life.

So too does the post-war Brandeis Sonata, named for the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in California where Zeisl was composer in residence at the time. This is the mature Zeisl. Here the piano’s fanfares and violin recitative set up fruitful contrasts, hints of Bloch heightening the expressive drama of this powerful and too-little known work. Lighter skittish dance figures aerate the textures and plangent Hebraic lament plunges the music into vivid drama. The music seesaws between these elements and the Hassidic ripeness of the central movement – one shouldn’t overlook the designation ‘Andante Religioso’ – preface a finale replete with chimes, Hassidic dance but also lighter and more genial writing. It’s a work one feels could teeter one side or other of the divide between melancholic introspection and eager dance; it’s a measure of the sonata’s success that it keeps these elements fruitfully in the balance.

Milhaud’s Sonata is very much like the series of early string quartets that he wrote at the same time. Its core is refined lyric elegance expressed through music of mellifluous eloquence. There is a fine sense of space, quiet chiming (echoes of the war) but in the finale a sprightly good humoured innocence. Aubrun is considerably faster than Ion Voicu in his old Decca LP recording.

The question of couplings is relevant given that Aubrun and Steven Vanhauwaert include Mozart’s Sonata in E minor, K304. They play it with thoughtful sensitivity but does its inclusion expand or hinder the attractiveness of the disc programming and the viability of it in a competitive marketplace. I understand the need to lay down a Classical calling card, but I’d far rather have had another appropriately selected work. On a rival disc, for example (MSR Classics MS1493) which includes Menuchim’s Song and the Sonata – they were both heard in world premiere recordings in that disc – Zina Schiff (violin) and Cameron Grant (piano) added Copland’s Violin Sonata, Robert Dauber’s Serenata, and Bloch’s Abodah. I happen to believe that this is a better programmatic line to take but the performers here have, very honorably, settled on another solution.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed their disc. It does no harm at all for competition of the Zeisl brace, as they are sturdily constructed and full of colour and vibrant elements, and Milhaud’s sonata isn’t heard nearly as often as it warrants. There’s a pleasing booklet to complement the good recording quality. Paris to Los Angeles is a journey worth taking, and it turns out that even the Mozart has meaning after all: it was composed in Paris and was Zeisl’s favourite violin sonata.

Jonathan Woolf

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