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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Violin Sonata in A major, Op 9 (1895) [22:30]
Violin Sonata, Op 35 (1912) [21:30]
George ENESCU (1881-1955)
Violin Sonata No 3 in A minor, Op 25 “Dans le caractŔre populaire roumain” (1926) [26:25]
Mihaela Oprea (violin), Jakob Alsgaard Bahr (piano)
rec. 2-4 July and 12-13 October 2020, Alsion, S°nderborg, Denmark

The music on this disc represents two major twentieth-century composers in their prime, who are rather better known for their orchestral works than their violin sonatas. This is especially true of Nielsen, but to a lesser degree, too, of Enescu who is often thought of as the composer of Romanian Rhapsodies. Although the two composers do not have that much in common, it made good sense to pair them on one CD. From what I could tell, the coupling here is unique to the catalogue.

Unlike his symphonies and concertos, as well as numerous shorter works, Nielsen’s violin sonatas don’t grab you from the get-go. After a few auditions, though, one can associate these pieces with the symphonies that Nielsen composed around the same time. The Violin Sonata in A major was composed a year after the First Symphony, but already looks forward to the Symphony No 2 with its modulations and typical Nielsen sound. I found this to be especially true in the third movement, Allegro piacevole e giovanile, where I hear echoes of the Symphony No 1’s third movement and foreshadows of the second movement, Allegro comodo e flemmatico, of the Second Symphony. Although Nielsen played violin and wrote idiomatically for the instrument, the piano part in these sonatas is of equal importance. There is much variety in the First Sonata, with a declamatory first movement, a more somber second movement, and a lighter and livelier finale.

The Sonata No 2 is a darker affair and contains more dissonance than its predecessor. Nielsen composed it around the same time as his Violin Concerto and one of themes later in the first movement reminded me of that work. There are also echoes of the Third Symphony, though, as Esben Tange writes in the CD notes, there is nothing of the self-confidence the composer displayed in the symphony and it does not reveal its secrets as easily. A note of tragedy strikes in the sonata’s second movement before it becomes more lyrical, wistful even. There are also loud chords in the piano with the violin “screaming” above, showing that all is not well before the movement ends quietly and peacefully in the major. The third movement, another Allegro piacevole, breaks the mood and provides the necessary contrast before it becomes agitated with fast, repeated notes in the piano with the songful violin above. The repeated notes continue with the piano playing them to the end with the violin on a sustained note on top. A very interesting and unusual conclusion to the work.

Violinist Mihaela Oprea is Romanian and pianist Jakob Alsgaard Bahr is Danish, the Oprea-Bahr duo being based in Denmark. They are accomplished performers and have the measure of this music. The balance between piano and violin seems ideal to me without either dominating. There are places, however, where I find Oprea’s tone a bit too steely with its quick vibrato, lacking in fullness and warmth. In every other way, though, she leaves little to be desired, and Bahr’s pianism is masterful throughout. I have no quibbles, though, with the Enescu sonata that concludes the disc.

Of George Enescu’s three violin sonatas, the Third with its subtitle, “In the style of Romanian folk music,” is the best known and most characteristic of the mature composer. One would hardly recognize him as the same composer of his earlier sonatas. Even the popular Romanian Rhapsodies do not prepare the listener for this boldly innovative work that at times resembles Bartˇk in his folk idiom, including the violin part’s use of quarter tones. Enesco did not borrow any actual folksongs for the sonata, but the work exudes folk flavour throughout its three movements. Tange notes a feature of the piece, “Parlando rubato, where all the rhythms are phrased freely as if they are improvisations.” Everything is strictly written, but the music does possess an improvisational quality. Although the violin writing is extremely virtuosic, the piano writing is also important. At times it provides a rhythmic underpinning to the violin soaring melodically above and at others has much to say on its own. The first movement is marked Allegro malincolico and the mood of melancholy is present, while at the same time the music has an Eastern feel and sound. The second movement begins with the piano playing repetitive notes softly and the violin playing harmonics above, creating a weird and mysterious atmosphere. The movement is an Andante sostenuto e misterioso and the music lives up to its name, especially in this performance. The finale begins with a jaunty folk-like tune with shades of Ravel’s Tzigane, composed a couple years earlier, the piano evoking at times a cimbalom. The piano’s stomping rhythms and violin’s fireworks are not easily forgotten. The sonata concludes with tone clusters before it comes to halt on the piano. This duo seem particularly suited to the work. Their tempos may be a bit more deliberate than in some other accounts, but they effectively capture the spirit of this sonata.

I see no better option if you want these three works together on a single CD. They are performed and recorded very well. If, however, your interest lies in that of a single composer, there are other choices to be had. For an all-Nielsen programme, the Chamber Music Vol. 2 on DaCapo was reviewed enthusiastically by Dan Morgan. For the three Enescu sonatas on a Genuin CD that also includes his delightful Impressions d'enfance, see Roy Westbrook’s review.

Leslie Wright

Previous review: John France

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