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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)

Sonata for Violin and Piano (1942) [20:38]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1942) [19:01]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Violin Sonata No 2 in D major, Op 94 (1942) [24:46]
Benjamin Baker (violin)
Daniel Lebhardt (piano)
rec. 11-13 August 2020, The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland.
DELPHIAN DCD34247 [64:27]

All three of these works were begun in 1942. Bearing in mind that 1942 was a year in which the entire world was wrapped up in war, to have such creativity from three such different sources, is something quite remarkable. What is even more remarkable about these three violin sonatas is summed up by a quote from Benjamin Baker in the booklet; “the common date was a surprise to us”. In his excellent booklet notes with this disc, Andrew Mellor goes some way to contextualising the somewhat contradictory moods of the three works, by looking beyond the war to other events which were to prove so vital to the post-war world; including the creation of the National Health Service in England, the birth of Jo Biden in the USA, where, that same year, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” was released.

In fact, the only real downside to 1942 in the US, as Mellor observes, was the introduction of petrol rationing. So it is, perhaps, no great surprise that Aaron Copland’s Sonata has a breadth and spaciousness, a sense of calm (in the delicious slow movement) and far-sighted optimism (in the outer ones) which sets it apart from events going on beyond the borders of the USA. Benjamin Baker and Daniel Lebhardt skip cheerfully and sure-footedly over the antics of the final movement and expound the beautifies of the slow movement with suitably open-hearted freedom. This is an attractive and jaunty performance which provides a rather sunnier outlook to a year in which the word was wrapped up with war, than we might otherwise expect.

With the Poulenc Sonata, things are very different. Indeed, in the first movement, we are plunged into a musical world of turbulence and unrelieved unease, which seems a world away from the part-monk, part-hooligan image Poulenc’s music usually gives us. We know how deeply wounded he was by the German occupation of Paris, and how he espoused Resistance emotions (notably in his Figure humaine which, like the Sonata, was completed in 1943). But this Sonata was actually dedicated to the memory of Federico Garcia Lorca, an exact contemporary of Poulenc who was shot in 1936 by Franco’s Fascist supporters during the Spanish Civil War. Whatever the inspiration behind it, it is little wonder that this Sonata opens in a mood of such turbulence, the violin exploding into a jagged and breathless line, punctuated by pizzicato notes, and driven along by a highly energised piano. It is as if both instruments are jabbing accusing fingers at each other, and this music is about as concentrated an outburst of sheer vehemence as Poulenc was ever to produce. Baker catches the turbulent feel of the music superbly, and even where the piano tries to calm things down, his approach to the more lyrical moments always seems to have a tinge of unease about them. The 2nd movement was inspired a quotation from Lorca: “The guitar makes dreams weep”, and that is beautifully captured in Lebhardt’s delicate opening piano passage, as well as in his gentle chords, imitating the sounds of a plucked guitar. However, the bulk of the movement is given over to a tender, richly lyrical violin melody, delivered with a slightly bitter-sweet tone from Baker. The brisk 3rd movement shows both Poulenc’s admiration for the music of Stravinsky as well as his own expression of grief at the tragedy of Lorca’s violent death, profoundly expressed in the movement’s dark and tragic coda.

Technically, Prokofiev’s Second Violin Sonata dates from 1944, but the Flute Sonata, from which it is largely transcribed, was certainly begun in 1942. If world and political events had dominated composers’ minds in 1942 as much as, perhaps, they do today, then we, too, should be surprised that this work was begun in the same year that Shostakovich wrote his Leningrad Symphony marking the terrible events assailing the Soviet Union as the Germans laid siege on one of its principal cities. Was Prokofiev totally unaware of what was happening in his homeland? Of course not, as the so-called “War” Sonatas for piano, written at the same time, testify. But the grace and charm of the Violin Sonata is undeniable, and the delicious delicacy with which Baker expounds that gorgeous melody in the first movement evokes images, not of starving Russians in a war-torn city, but of the peace, tranquillity, and openness of an untroubled countryside. That sense of sunlit pastoral scenes is also strongly evoked in the two central movements, the second movement Scherzo taking on something of a rustic dance character, while Baker and Lebhardt clearly relish the rumbustious fun of the scintillating finale.

Marc Rochester

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