JANÁCEK: Violin Sonata (1914-22). SZYMANOWSKI: Myths (1915).
ENESCU: Violin Sonata #3 in A, op. 25 "In the popular Romanian style" (1926).
BARTÓK: First Rhapsody for Violin and Piano (1928).
David Grimal (violin); Georges Pludermacher (piano).
Naïve Ambrosie AM 163 () (DDD) TT: 72:49.
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Music out of the Great War. As you can see by the dates, all of these works
appeared within a single fifteen-year span. World War I, which nationalist
urges had precipitated, shredded both social and political order. The destruction
of the German, Austrian, Ottoman, and Russian empires and the Treaty of
Versailles released even greater nationalist pressures, especially in those
countries, like Poland, which the treaty had created out of ethnic and
The hegemony of German music also weakened. Of the five seminal figures
of Modernism -- Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók, and Hindemith
-- only Schoenberg retained strong ties to the German music of the immediate
past. The music on this CD testifies to the bond between Modernism and
In the first decade of the century, Janácek had broken through to
a personal idiom based on Moravian folk sources and, in his operas, on
the rhythms of Czech speech. For me, however, his greatest period begins
right around the First World War. David Grimal's liner notes try to make
a case for the violin sonata as one of those works influenced by Czech
politics, with a narrative of suppression by Austria leading to salvation
by the Russian army (!). It may even be true historically, but, unlike
something like Taras Bulba, I don't really get that from the music itself,
which impresses mainly by its quirks. Janácek's use of dissonance
is idiosyncratic, often so extreme that the piano and violin parts have
nothing tonally to do with one another. Yet I'd bet that most people would
find the dissonances acceptable or dramatic, rather than bizarre and tooth-buzzing.
Despite his designation of sonata, Janácek stays away from sonata
movement or anything like classical form. Each of the four movements is
sui generis. Janácek shapes the opening by varying one or two improvisational
phrases. The slow "Ballada" reminds me of the later Martinu,
in that a long-breathed melody arches over a buzzing surface. The third
movement alternates between angry stamping and sorrow. The finale comes
across as a drama where the piano tries to calm the rage of the violin
with a beautiful chorale, which again reminds me of Martinu before the
fact. About halfway in, the violin begins to take up the chorale, only
to end in wrathful sputters. However, it comes more and more into the orbit
of the piano until, in the very last measures, the two finally wind up
in emotional synch.
Szymanowski's Myths belong to his Impressionist period, a transitional
phase where he throws off the post-Straussian idiom he began with and begins
to travel the route to his final Modernist nationalism. Myths depicts three
Greek tales, which you can find in Ovid. I never particularly cared for
the music of this period, although Szymanowski is a fine enough musician
to make all of it convincing. Myths strikes me as the composer trading
in Straussian noodling around for Debussyan noodling around, to fashion
three little tone poems. As in the Janácek, one finds no trace of
classical form. The literary narrative drives the musical one. If you like
that sort of thing, I won't stop you.
A virtuoso pianist and violinist (indeed, one of the great violinists of
his time), George Enescu put tons of his performer's savvy as well as first-rate
invention into his third sonata. Essentially, he calls on the violinist
to become a gypsy fiddler. The sonata rhapsodizes. It sounds free-form
and improvisatory, but in reality hangs together tightly without actually
relying on classical form. The music sounds like a cross between Ravel
(a classmate and pal of Enescu's at the Paris Conservatoire, by the way)
and Bartók. This work looks backwards to the late Nineteenth Century
and the "gypsy" concert works, Romantic in its harmonies and
phrasing. But it also looks ahead in its structural innovations. He builds
the first movement as a gypsy rhapsody: slow arabesques interrupted by
faster, more dance-like sections. The second movement proceeds mostly on
drones, a risky eight minutes long which keeps interest. The finale is
what I'd call a Hungarian rondo, although Enescu would have objected --
a shower of virtuoso pyrotechnics, special bowing effects, and so on, designed
to bring the audience to its feet. Here, Enescu comes closest to Bartók,
the lighter Bartók of the Romanian Folkdances, the Hungarian Sketches,
or even the Violin Rhapsodies.
Bartók structures his First Rhapsody very much like the Liszt Hungarian
Rhapsodies -- two parts, slow and fast. It comes from 1928, written for
Bartók's tours accompanying violinists, to provide a less heavy
recital item than the 1921-1922 violin sonatas. It's worth comparing to
the Enescu. The Enescu exhibits obvious major ambition -- epic statement,
incredibly detailed. The Bartók has fewer details, but more telling
ones, I think. It's more streamlined, less Romantic. He emphasizes tune.
His violin writing, though not as "encyclopedic" as Enescu's,
nevertheless impresses -- particularly a double- and triple-stop passage
in the first movement -- all the more so when you consider that Bartók
was a pianist only. Enescu has enough of the late Nineteenth Century and
Impressionism to remind one more of Kodály, while Bartók
seems wholly Modern, although in a more user-friendly mode.
Grimal strikes me as a violinist distinguished by refinement and elegance.
His tone is a bit thin for my taste, but he plays cleanly, even with the
cruelly clear recorded sound. The question comes down to whether this approach
suits the pieces here. It works best for Szymanowski's Myths and the Bartók
Rhapsody. However, the Enescu, though cleanly and attentively played, cries
out for more passion. Grimal does best in the finale, where the energy
ramps up another notch. The Janácek fares less well. Filled with
howls and savage anger, it cries out for a violinist willing to press up
to the edge of bad taste. Grimal keeps his distance. Pianist Georges Pludermacher
does a fabulously sensitive job matching and supporting Grimal's reading,
as alert to the opportunities of the moment as a jazz player. Nevertheless,
it seems to me Grimal has given Pludermacher the parameters which drive
the account and thus seems the primary intelligence. It would interest
me to know what Pludermacher would come up with for another violinist.
S.G.S. (May 2009)