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Poems rhapsodies CRC3799
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Poems and Rhapsodies
Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
La Muse et le PoŤte Op 132 [17:24]
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
PoŤme symphonique, Op 25 [16:43]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Lark Ascending [16:37]
Anatol KOS-ANATOLSKY (1909-1983)
Poem for Violin and Orchestra in D minor [9:22]
Kenneth FUCHS (b.1956)
American Rhapsody (Romance for Violin and Orchestra) [11:47]
Myroslav SKORYK (1938-2020)
Carpathian Rhapsody [6:40]
Solomiya Ivakhiv (violin), Sophie Sao (cello, Saint-SaŽns), National Symphony of Ukraine/Volodymyr Sirenko
rec. 15-19 July 2019, Grand Concert Studio of Ukrainian Radio Company, Kyiv, Ukraine
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
CENTAUR CRC3799 [78:37]

Reviewing this release as Ukraine is being invaded by Russia, it is poignant to wonder of the present and future situations of many of the artists involved in the creation of this recording. The soloist, Solomiya Ivakhiv, though currently living and teaching in the US, is Ukrainian-born and still has many family members there. The fine orchestra and its conductor are all based in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. The program, titled Poems & Rhapsodies explores two centuries of inspired writing for the violin and orchestra, while also serving as a sort of cultural bridge between the Ukraine and the US. It is a distinguished, rewarding, and worthwhile document.

The album opens with a rarely encountered concert work, La muse et le poŤte (The Muse and the Poet), a 1910 piece by French master Camille Saint-SaŽns. The rhapsodic title was not the composer's own. It was suggested by his publisher, and Saint-SaŽns only begrudgingly accepted it. It actually stands in the tradition of Saint-SaŽns' concertos, multi-section works that form one arc lasting a little over a quarter of an hour. Here, the solo violin is joined by a solo cello, creating a reflective double concerto. The publisher, Durand, noticed that the ethereal violin seems to draw out the cello in this work, thus giving him the 'muse' and 'poet' marketing idea. It is unlikely that the composer had any such idea in mind while writing it, but the melancholy feel appears to be a rare example of this fastidious composer betraying his personal emotions.

Saint-SaŽns lived well into the twentieth century, long enough to see himself become a relic of a long-past style of writing. Along with his retreat into reactionary irrelevance, his health became unsteady after 1900, and he was on a trip to the warmer climates of Cairo, Egypt, in 1909 when he received news that his friend and patron Madame Caruette had died. This work, more an intimate conversation than a virtuosic concerto, gave him a way to process his sadness, and thus stands as a more inward peek than most of his pieces. That said, by early twentieth century standards, it's a backward-looking work, a piece more of consolation with the familiar than fresh invention.

Ruggiero Ricci and Georges Mallach recorded the piece serviceably in the 1970s with Louis de Froment and the Orchestra of Radio Luxembourg [Vox CD3X 3028], but it isn't competitive today. For sheer star power, there's the 2013 recording by Renaud and Gautier CapuÁon with Lionel Bringuier and the Radio France Philharmonic on Erato [50999 934134 2 8], which is emotionally charged. Unfortunately, it is let down by a recording that zooms in on the soloists and leaves the orchestra somewhere in the vague distance, which simply doesn't work for Saint-SaŽns' interactions with various orchestral soloists. The gold standard for recorded sound in this work is the Reference Recordings release [RR-136], featuring Noah Geller and Mark Gibbs with the Kansas City Symphony conducted by Michael Stern, a fine performance captured in immaculate sound.

In this release, Solomiya Ivakhiv is joined by Sophie Chao on cello, a fellow string teacher, with Volodymyr Sirenko leading the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. The orchestra is familiar from a series of recordings made over the years for Naxos, and they are an impressive, flexible ensemble. Sirenko is by no means relegated to the background, actively engaging with the soloists to explore this music. It is a thoughtful performance, one that doesn't push as hard into the climaxes as some, a characteristic which strikes me as quite appropriate for this composer at this late point in his career. Ivakhiv's concentration is on finding the musical through-line, intertwining with Shao's handsome tone, but never treating it as a star vehicle. While the piece will never be ranked as one of Saint-SaŽns' finest, this performance helps demonstrate that it isn't negligible, either.

Ivakhiv's rendition of Ernest Chausson's PoŤme is both commanding and distinctive. While there remain great attractions in the intensely rich and supercharged readings by Itzhak Perlman [with Jean Martinon/Orchestre de Paris EMI CDC 7 47725 2, or with Zubin Mehta/New York Philharmonic DG 423 063-2] or Joshua Bell [with Andrew Litton/Royal Philharmonic LONDON 433 519-2], the present recording is arresting for Ivakhiv's refusal to constantly push the emotional intensity. Instead, she finds moments where she suddenly pulls back into an icy, reserved tone which can be even more emotionally devastating than emoting all over the place. Again, Sirenko and the orchestra are at one with Ivakhiv, digging beneath the lush surface of this familiar music.

Orchestra and soloist shift to the more reserved yet visionary world of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending with apparent ease. One doesn't normally run to eastern European musicians for Vaughan Williams, but it only serves to prove that there is, in fact, something timeless and classic in this music, quite regardless of its point of origin. Without straying far from the score, Ivakhiv finds freedom and original angles on the phrasing of the lark's rising and sinking ecstasies, and the close focus of the recording gives it additional immediacy. Sirenko and the orchestra are fully committed, sparking the magic of this piece, while matching the soloist in thoughtfulness. For sheer sheen, there are more glamorous performances featuring soloists such as Iona Brown [Marriner/ASMIF Decca], Hilary Hahn [Davis/LSO DG], or Nicola Benedetti [Litton/LPO DG], but this one is very special for its concentrated inwardness.

The bridge aspect of this recording is in the three additional pieces, two by Ukrainian composers and one by an American. The first Ukrainian piece--coming too quickly on the disc after the enthralled ending of the Vaughan Williams--is the D minor poem for violin and orchestra by Anatol Kos-Anatolsky. Inspired by the folk music of the Carpathian Mountains of western Ukraine, the piece is skillfully written national rhapsody of the sort that regional composers were encouraged to write during the Soviet era. It's as neo-romantic as anything by Khachaturian, with a distinctively eastern European feel, starting melancholy and ending with a lively dance.

Even better is the closing work, the Carpathian Rhapsody by Myroslav Skoryk, a post-Soviet piece. Skoryk goes to further expressive extremes with a more compelling voice, alternating between soulful and abandoned, and the performers throw themselves into it with verve. Skoryk passed away less than a year after this recording was made, and is still little-known in the west, but this music certainly whets the appetite for more.

Connecting the project to America is Kenneth Fuchs' American Rhapsody. Fuchs teaches music composition at the University of Connecticut, where Ivakhiv teaches strings, but his inclusion here is no mere nod to a colleague. Fuchs is a widely performed and recorded composer, and this piece demonstrates why. It starts in a quietly tonal manner that might remind one of Tobias Picker's Old and Lost Rivers, but this rhapsody isn't designed to meander. While remaining lyrical, there is a compelling line of thought that the solo violin develops, building in intensity to a cadenza. Then the orchestra returns, bringing calm and carrying the music off in blissful trills. With its lyrical feel, it actually would have followed the Vaughan Williams nicely, instead of being sandwiched between the two Ukrainian pieces.

While the recorded sound of this collection is very good, it is worth noting that it is engineered with a wide stereo spread that can leave the middle of the sound-picture a bit empty when the soloist is silent, an effect more noticeable on headphones than over speakers. The solos are recorded with close focus, which won't be to everyone's taste. For instance, in the Vaughan Williams, one can hear the rosiny rasp of the bow, the focus is so close, and it means Ivakhiv's pianissimo can only drop to a certain level of volume because of the closeness of the microphone. I happen to prefer a closer focus for its sense of intimacy, and this recording does not make the mistake of treating the soloist like a pop star and delegating the orchestra into the distant background, so I am satisfied with it. I like the producer's choice to leave in a distant sound (a bird?) near the end of the Vaughan Williams, as it suits the atmosphere. Occasional moments of traffic or train rumble may also be evident in places to close listeners, but are far too minor to disrupt proceedings.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

Previous reviews: David McDade ~ GŲran Forsling

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