17 February 2017

CD REVIEW: Violin victoriousVENEZIA 1700 (Thibault Noally, violin; Les Accents; Aparté AP128) and POLYCHROME (Tobias Feldmann, violin; Boris Kusnezow, piano; Alpha Classics ALPHA 253)

CD REVIEW: Violin Victorious - VENEZIA 1700 (Aparté AP128) and POLYCHROME (Alpha Classics ALPHA 253)[1] TOMASO ALBINONI (1671 – 1751), FRANCESCO ANTONIO BONPORTI (1672 – 1749), ANTONIO CALDARA (1671 – 1736), EVARISTO FELICE DALL’ABACO (1675 – 1742), GIUSEPPE TORELLI (1658 – 1709), and ANTONIO VIVALDI (1678 – 1741): Venezia 1700 – Chamber Works for Violin and ContinuoLes Accents (Thibault Noally, violin and director; Claire Sottovia, violin; Elisa Joglar, cello; Mathieu Dupouy, harpsichord; Romain Falik, theorbo and Baroque guitar) [Recorded in L’Église luthérienne de Bon Secours, Paris, France, 29 September – 2 October 2015; Aparté AP128; 1 CD, 68:38; Available from Aparté, Amazon (USA), fnac (France), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

[2] SERGEY PROKOFIEV (1891 – 1953), MAURICE RAVEL (1875 – 1937), and RICHARD STRAUSS (1864 – 1949): Polychrome – Violin SonatasTobias Feldmann, violin; Boris Kusnezow, piano [Recorded in Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, Germany, 8 – 10 March 2016; Alpha Classics ALPHA 253; 1 CD, 66:52; Available from Alpha Classics/Outhere Music, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), fnac (France), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Few if any actions have been more significant not only to traditional Western music but also to cultures throughout the world than those that transpired in luthiers’ workshops in northern Italy in the first decades of the Sixteenth Century, when these visionary craftsmen adapted ancient and recent Arabic, Asian, and European instruments into a new creature christened as the violin. From the benches of masters working in Brescia, Cremona, and Venice, this marvel in wood traveled to every corner of the globe, establishing an enduring presence in the lives of people of all social stations, accompanying peasants’ celebrations and the festive occasions of kings. Music being no less subject to Newtonian logic than physics, it is only natural that, presented with the uncharted sound world of a new instrument, composers’ equal and opposite reaction was to explore the violin’s capabilities, creating music tasked with exploiting every sound that can be cajoled from its strings. Doing just that, the violin was by the turn of the Seventeenth Century firmly entrenched by its earliest generations of composers and players as the melodic anchor of the burgeoning musical institutions that remain at the core of Western Classical Music in the Twenty-First Century. Exploring vastly different epochs in the history of music for the violin and thereby epitomizing the instrument’s broad stylistic flexibility, new releases from Aparté and Alpha, both of which were intelligently planned and beautifully recorded, offer dissimilar but equally distinguished views of the violin’s evolution. Moreover, these discs demonstrate the prodigious talents of a new generation of violinists, personified on these releases by Thibault Noally and Tobias Feldmann. Even when the music is not new, these discs divulge, today’s most gifted violinists continue to propel the advancement of the instrument.

Here turning his attention to Venetian music mostly from the first quarter of the Eighteenth Century, Noally and his ensemble Les Accents—violinist Claire Sottovia, Baroque cellist Elisa Joglar, harpsichordist Mathieu Dupouy, and Romain Falik on theorbo and Baroque guitar—offer a stunningly virtuosic and fabulously animated survey of pieces by some of Italy’s leading Baroque masters. Little Tribeca’s exceptional sound engineering allows Giuseppe Torelli’s Sonata in E minor for violin and continuo (GieT 60) to make a near-overwhelming impression in its first appearance on disc. Noally alternately exclaims and sighs in his limning of melodic lines, responding with an actor’s intuition to the music’s emotional intricacies. This integration of musicality with open-hearted expressivity is also integral to Noally’s approach to Francesco Antonio Bonporti’s 1712 Invenzione in C minor for violin and continuo. The violinist’s phrasing in the opening Lamentevole movement recalls Maria Callas’s long-breathed singing of bel canto cavatine, followed by a vivacious performance of the allegro Balletto that mimics the contrasting brilliance of Callas’s delivery of up-tempo cabalette. Marked comodo assai by the composer, the subsequent Aria is played hypnotically, Noally’s strings ‘singing’ with evenness and beauty of tone still rare in performances featuring period instruments and techniques. The concluding allegro non presto Fantasia explodes from the violinist’s bow, the complex figurations rippling from his fingers like firecrackers.

A pioneer who paved the way to success at the Habsburg court in Vienna for later Italian-born composers including Antonio Salieri, Antonio Caldara possessed one of the finest musical minds of the late Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Centuries but has only recently begun to reclaim the esteem to which the fruits of his genius entitle him. Among the most satisfying of those fruits is his 1699 Ciaconna in B♭ major for two violins and continuo (Opus 2, No. 12), a piece in which Caldara’s faculty for interweaving writing for a pair of instruments rivals Bach’s and Mozart’s achievements in their respective Double Concerto (BWV 1043) and Sinfonia concertante for violin, viola, and orchestra (K. 364/320d). Noally and Sottovia braid their timbres with the organic rapport of snowflakes melting into one another. As they perform it, the Ciaconna is an intimate but impassioned dialogue upon which the scintillatingly-realized continuo discreetly comments. Also dating from 1699, Caldara’s Sonata in C minor for two violins and continuo (Opus 2, No. 7) is another work that exemplifies the merit of the composer’s oeuvre. The largo Preludio with which the Sonata opens is a starkly emotive piece in the playing of which the violinists accentuate the bold harmonic progressions employed by Caldara as a sentimental device. The thematic relationships in the andante Allemanda and allegro Corrente are pointedly but not excessively emphasized, heightening appreciation of the intelligence of Caldara’s musical designs. To the Tempo di Sarabanda, assigned the practical tempo non tanto allegro, Noally and Sottovia devote the focused energy of a geyser, their playing surging through the surface of the music and submerging the lilting sarabande rhythm in a flood of crisp exchanges between two insightful, ideally-matched virtuosi.

Joining the Sonata by Torelli, with whom its composer may have studied, in here being committed to disc for the first time, Evaristo Felice Dall’Abaco’s 1716 Sonata in G minor for violin and continuo (Opus 4, No. 12) is revealed by Noally’s performance to be a work of substance and temperament equal to the composer’s better-known concerti. Spending time in France during the course of his career and eventually exiled in Munich, where he died in 1742, Dall’Abaco absorbed elements of the musical trends prevalent north of the Alps in the first half of the Eighteenth Century, fusing these with the examples of Torelli, Vivaldi, and Corelli. Italian models unquestionably exerted the strongest stylistic influence on the present Sonata, but the structure of the Largo that launches its journey, seductively performed by Noally and Les Accents, hints that the composer’s musical cosmopolitanism was already taking shape. The key of Tartini’s ‘trillo del diavolo’ sonata, alleged by the composer to have been written in 1713 but commonly attributed by modern scholarship to the 1740s, G minor had diabolical connotations in the Baroque era, and passages of demonic difficulty make Dall’Abaco’s Sonata a fiendish test for even very fleet-fingered fiddlers. Noally rockets through the Presto e spiccato movement as though the neck of his violin were covered with thorns. Perfectly judging its un poco vivace tempo, he offers a reading of the Passagaglio that both bustles with the music’s innate power and maintains the courtly sophistication of the dance. This is also true of Noally’s presentation of the allegro assai Giga: ribaldry and romance join hands in the wondrous whirlwind of sound that jigs from Noally’s violin.

Regrettably still known to many modern listeners for a popular piece that he did not write rather than for his own high-quality compositions, Tomaso Albinoni is represented on Venezia 1700 by his 1708 Sonata in G minor for violin and continuo (Opus 4, No. 5). A work of inventiveness not unworthy of comparison with the innovations of Bach and Telemann, the Sonata receives from Noally and Les Accents a performance of tremendous concentration and pinpoint accuracy. Utilizing alternating slow and fast movements, Albinoni created a sonata that exhibits comprehensive knowledge of both the musical forms of his age and their artistic possibilities. Noally imbues the first Adagio with the aura of an operatic prelude. The Allegro that follows brims with vitality that inspires the soloist and his continuo colleagues to playing of unbridled technical prowess. The second Adagio could be said to be the calm before the storm. As played by Les Accents, its sentiments seethe until released like a summer thunderstorm in the Presto that ends the Sonata. Noally’s playing flashes like lightning in the dark atmosphere of the minor-key music, and in every illuminating electrical discharge Albinoni’s creativity gleams.

Himself a violinist of wide-reaching fame, Antonio Vivaldi bequeathed to posterity some of the Eighteenth Century’s most enduringly popular music for violin. Igor Stravinsky’s infamous charge that Vivaldi essentially wrote the same concerto hundreds of times is a rare instance of shortsightedness on the part of the astute composer. To be sure, Vivaldi’s style of string writing was so consistent that virtually any of his pieces can be almost immediately identified as the work of Vivaldi, but their similarities do not obscure the wealth of diversity that his works contain. The Sonata in B♭ major for violin and continuo (RV 759) is typical of Vivaldi’s writing for the violin, its challenging passages for the solo instrument bolstered by supportive continuo, made doubly so in this performance by the marvelously cooperative playing by Les Accents. The subtleties of the Sonata’s sequence of dance movements that follow the opening largo Preludio, sumptuously bowed by Noally, are managed with finesse by both composer and violinist. The allegro Allemanda quickens the pulse, and the largo Sarabanda enraptures the heart. Noally and Les Accents relocate the allegro Corrente from the formal salons of France to the uninhibited piazze of Venice, highlighting the refinement of the Sonata’s internal architecture by executing every bar of the score with zeal.

Devised as set of increasingly-frenzied variations on the frequently-quoted Iberian folk tune ‘La Follia,’ Vivaldi’s 1705 Sonata in D minor for two violins and continuo (Opus 1, No. 12) was during its composer’s lifetime—and continues to be—one of the best-known musical products of the early Eighteenth Century. Sometimes judged by scholars to be inferior in ingenuity to Arcangelo Corelli’s work on the same subject, Vivaldi’s Sonata is nonetheless exhilarating when played well, and it is certainly played well in this performance. Even considering that each listener’s ears hear music with different goals and desires, it is difficult to imagine any listener objecting to recognition of this performance as the single most viscerally thrilling account of the Sonata ever recorded. The abandon with which Noally and Sottovia deliver their parts, attacking and parrying with the litheness of champion fencers, is breathtaking but always meticulously control. The ‘madness’ of their spontaneous-sounding recreations of Vivaldi’s quicksilver variations of the familiar theme mirror the well-planned turbulence of an El Greco canvas. So fresh is Les Accents’ performance of this music that this might be mistaken for a world-première recording. Only the finest artists can convince the listener as completely as Noally and Les Accents do with Venezia 1700 that the old adage applies as much to music as to people: age is only a number.

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Leaping across two centuries of musical history from Venice at the dawn of the Eighteenth Century to the last decades of the Nineteenth and first decades of the Twentieth Centuries transports the listener to the artistic environment of Polychrome, Alpha’s magical disc featuring young German violinist Tobias Feldmann and Moscow-born pianist Boris Kusnezow in edgy but polished performances of music by Ravel, Prokofiev, and Richard Strauss. With Feldmann coaxing sounds of rounded beauty from the 1769 instrument by Neapolitan maker Nicolò Gagliano at his disposal, there is nothing metallic about the music making on Polychrome. The collaboration between the young violinist and pianist evokes great artistic partnerships of past generations, not least the musical relationship of Henryk Szeryng and Ingrid Haebler that produced memorable recordings of Mozart and Beethoven sonatas. Like that of those notable forebears, the communication between Feldmann and Kusnezow extends far beyond correct pitches and rhythmic synchronicity, reaching emotional depths that identify these artists as interpreters of great promise—promise eloquently fulfilled by the performances on this disc. Like Noally, Feldmann enriches the violin’s present and future by affectionately leading the listener into lesser-known niches of the instrument’s past.

Often accurately but misleadingly identified as his Sonate posthume, Maurice Ravel’s 1897 Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor (M. 12) is a score with which the composer honed his little-used talent for writing chamber music. A fastidious worker whose compositional process was often slow, Ravel at any point in his career was capable of infusing his music with elements that looked to the past and the future at once. Through-composed, the Sonata presents unique challenges of timing and ensemble to violinist and pianist. The apparent joy and camaraderie with which Feldmann and Kusnezow meet these challenges is one of Polychrome’s principal delights. Not surprisingly in music by Ravel, the Sonata straddles a tonal fault line, treading upon shifting harmonic sands. Musicians who do not listen to one another can easily go wrong in this music, but Feldmann and Kusnezow prevail with the kind of unshakable concentration that is all the more commendable for being wholly inconspicuous. Feldmann ‘reads’ Ravel’s writing for the violin as though it were as natural as speech, and his performance of the Sonata radiates a confident synthesis of the indomitable sunniness of youth and the meaningful shadows of experience.

Sergey Prokofiev’s 1944 Violin Sonata No. 2 in D major (Opus 94A) should be in the repertories of far more violinists, particularly good ones; violinists of the ilk of Prokofiev’s friend and champion David Oistrakh, at whose instigation the composer, living in virtual exile in Perm, metamorphosed a flute sonata written in 1942 into the present Sonata for violin. Prokofiev’s music can be as prickly as Ravel’s, but Feldmann and Kusnezow dig into this Sonata without hesitation, fully prepared to brave its snares. In the opening Moderato movement, the Classically-conceived discourse between violin and piano is conducted in tones of rapt intensity, the moods of the music flowing from the musicians’ fingers to the listener’s psyche. The breathless Scherzo introduces an ambivalence that complicates interpretation of the music. First impressions can be deceptive in Prokofiev’s music, but Feldmann and Kusnezow do not beleaguer their performance of the Sonata with self-righteous aural treatises on the metaphysical properties of the music. They play the Scherzo with a sense of fun that dispels the mists of doubt that enshroud the music. There is no doubt about the sincerity of the men’s respect for the music’s elegant solemnity, perhaps a reflection on the turmoil of the time in which the piece was written, in the Andante movement. The Allegro con brio finale fizzes with virtuosic flights of fancy for the violin and tricky passages for the piano. This is some of Prokofiev’s most extroverted, barnstorming music, and Feldmann and Kusnezow respond with dazzling virtuosity. Charlie Daniels and his fiendish fiddling intimated that ‘the devil went down to Georgia’: Feldmann and Prokofiev suggest that the infernal one had a musical hideout in the Urals, too.

Composed in 1887, Richard Strauss’s Violin Sonata in E♭ major (Opus 18/TrV 151) is, like Ravel’s Sonate posthume, an early work, a product of its creator’s early twenties, but hallmarks of Strauss the composer of Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, and Die Frau ohne Schatten are already present, especially in the unique melodic voice that emerges from the Sonata. The first movement, marked Allegro ma non troppo, inhabits the worlds of Strauss’s tone poems and early Lieder, and Feldmann and Kusnezow prove to be expert exponents of Strauss’s lush, late Romantic harmonies. The andante cantabile Improvisation is major Strauss on a minor scale: even at this early stage of his career, the wistfulness that reached its zenith in the Vier letzte Lieder was part of the composer’s artistic identity. Bringing to mind the long lines of ‘Befreit’ and ‘Zueignung,’ two of Strauss’s most beautiful and moving Lieder, the Improvisation is played by Feldmann and Kusnezow with the grace of a dove borne aloft by gentle breezes. Beginning at andante and transitioning to allegro, the Sonata’s finale is, like the closing movement of Prokofiev’s Sonata, a whirring banter between violin and piano. Feldmann and Kusnezow fire volleys of sound at one another with good-natured bellicosity, ending the Sonata with a pyrotechnics display that never threatens to outshine the pair’s glowing musicality.

The past century has witnessed a variety of trends in violin playing, ranging from the showmanship of Fritz Kreisler and sensitivity of Arthur Grumiaux to the stylistic versatility of Joshua Bell. At its core, though, the trend that has defined violin playing since the perfection of the instrument’s design is that of the pressure of a bow’s hair and human fingertips upon four strings and the reverberation of small wooden cylinders within a larger wooden torso. Almost anyone with patience can eventually accomplish the feat of making inoffensive sounds with a violin, but the production of pleasing sounds is not what makes a violinist’s work valuable. A violinist’s artistic merit is—or should be—determined by his sounds’ collective capacity to serve composers and listeners as a mediator, a catalyst for actions and reactions. By this measure, the actions of Thibault Noally and Tobias Feldmann and the reactions of their colleagues on Venezia 1700 and Polychrome qualify them as violinists with historically-significant virtues.