Thursday 4 April 2013

Review: Complete works for violin and piano, Linus Roth and José Gallardo

March, 2013. Challenge Records - €25.95.

This latest recording brings us several treasures in an exquisitely presented anthology set.

Almost everything about this release is verging on the realm of extraordinary. A 3-disc boxset of Weinberg works is a first, to begin with. Then there was the press announcement, just six days ahead of release at the end of last month. Furthermore, reading through the liner notes, we see that the 3 hours of material on this release was recorded over just six days in January - February at the start of this year. Even more, Linus Roth plays a Stradivari violin on this recording, a contributing factor to his excellent tone throughout. Of course, the world premiere recordings of Sonatas 2 and 6 go without saying. Currently, this set is tucked away on the internet, though I am sure it will emerge into the mainstream markets. I am so sure of this because this is one of the best recordings I have heard for a long while.

Disc 1
Sonata No. 5, Op. 53
Sonata No. 4, 39
Rhapsody on Moldavian themes, Op. 47

    The set opens with Weinberg's fifth sonata for violin and piano, a work that could lay a reasonable claim to being one of the masterpieces of his chamber music. The combination of gentle rocking textures in the first movement is perfectly contrasted by the searching Allegro molto second movement. Roth takes the demanding violin part all in his stride - complete with fiendish double and triple stopping passages. Of course, Weinberg's writing in these works sets the two instruments on an equal footing, Gallardo's piano part every bit as difficult as the violin's.
    Weinberg's fourth sonata is a direct predecessor to the character of the fifth, opening with a contemplative first movement before a fiery middle movement. The range of dynamic contrast and playfulness on display here does full justice to Weinberg's demanding writing.
    The Rhapsody on Moldavian themes, Op. 47, is a rarer work to hear (having not been recorded since the 1960's). A favourite of David Oistrakh's, Roth rises above the daunting challenge of this work. Listen out for the spirited Jewish-inflected dancing throughout (especially just after the four minute mark). 

Disc 2
Sonata No. 3, Op. 37
Sonatina Op. 46
Sonata No. 2, Op. 15

    The Third Sonata begins with a searching character, but shifts to more searching themes in its remaining movements. It has long proved a rich source for the tender lyricism that sets Weinberg apart from his contemporaries. The balance between the two players is generally excellent throughout this set, but occasionally the piano can sound dull in comparison to the violin - arguably a minor fault of recording than anything to do with the performances. My particular favourite moment in this first work is the Allegretto cantabile third movement, here performed with a pleasing rubato.
    The Sonatina Op. 46 is a sister-work to the Sonatina for Piano, Op. 49, although in this case, the music is much more fully developed (in the piano Sonatina, a wide combination of themes fizzle out of energy before they achieve synthesis - here, the work is a fully realised piece). The pair perfectly sum up the wistful character of this piece, which demands a certain innocence in its interpretation. The Lento movement is particularly beautiful (and perhaps owing a debt to the Shostakovich cello sonata, slow movement).
    And onto the first premiere of this set - the Second Sonata, Op. 15. Capturing something of the childlike innocence of the Second String Quartet, this work presents Weinberg during his first forays into maturity with the instrumental sonata form, and indeed, the beginnings of mastery for writing for the violin. It opens with tender high notes beneath a churning piano, which increases in intensity towards the minor mode. Weinberg's thematic development is excellent here, abandoning classical sonata structures for his first movement, which instead resembles a rhapsody in character. The Lento movement explores the lower registers of the piano with a heavily romantic mood in the violin soloist (similar to that heard in the Aria for String Quartet, Op. 9). Indeed, this movement could be compared to Schubert in its singing character, as well as the great contrasts established between major and minor modes. The final movement takes a slightly sedate pace at first, increasing in textural complexity to give the sense of climax to finish the work. Roth and Gallardo prove admirable pioneers for the work.

Disc 3
Sonata No. 1, Op. 12
Sonata No. 6, Op. 136bis
3 pieces (without Opus)

   The opening of Weinberg's First Sonata gives the pair the chance to demonstrate their impeccable ensemble work. Beginning with gentle octaves, before a piano counterpoint against the violin briefly creates a three-part texture, perfectly balanced in this recording. The biting character of this whole movement is perfectly maintained with virtuosic control. However, the tender love-song of the Adagietto is not neglected, but performed with beautiful elegance.
  The Sonata No. 6 is here numbered Op. 136bis, since the Op. 136 was assigned to both the Fourth Solo Viola sonata and this work. The most elegant solution seemed to be to dub this work 'Op. 136bis'. It begins with an extended passage for solo violin, placing us firmly in Weinberg's harmonic language of the 1980's, with all the tonal and post-tonal structures that that includes. The violin line is punctuated with several double-stopping chords, establishing a two-part texture resembling a demonic Bach. The piano only joins in in answer to painfully high notes in the violin, almost continuing the line in conversation. A densely rhythmic dialogue begins between the two, interrupted with tritone chords in the violin. This world premiere certainly presents a work that proves a challenging listen. The Adagio continues the pained character, with a constant focus on the minor mode, though within more tonally-centered means than those seen in the opening movement. The pain throughout distorts into outright anger in the final movement, with connotations of violence in the near-wailing violin line. A struggle is acted between the two parts, with wrestling counterpoint and violent cluster chords in both voices. Roth and Gallardo prove themselves adept even in this most challenging of works.
   To finish the set, Weinberg's set of pieces written still in Warsaw, at the age of 14/15. Without opus number, they portray a great sense of ambition in the young composer, firmly grounded in the impressionistic style that marks his very earliest works. Influence of Debussy and Szymanowski can be heard throughout these three pieces - Weinberg had not undertaken any composition tuition at this point, so took his inspiration from the piano music that he loved. The Nokturn that opens the set builds in character, from the rhapsodic opening, towards to Lisztian textures - perhaps betraying the young writer's lack of experience in writing for solo violin, however. The Scherzo movement certainly owes a great deal to the fast sections from Bartók and Prokofiev, with a youthful energy, further exacerbated by triplet rhythms and dotted accompaniment in the high register of the piano. The final movement's opening figuration in the violin still further betrays the composer's inexperience in writing for the violin - the alternating chords are simply lifted from a standard piano texture. The movement continues dreamily, with a Debussy-esque lack of centre and movement. For a young composer's first forays into the form, these pieces show great promise, and they prove an excellent trio to finish this set.


Altogether, then, these discs are remarkable. The performances of both artists are virtuosic and commendable, while the recording quality is generally excellent - though with one or two issues between balance as I have mentioned above. The premiere recordings couldn't be handled more expertly. I recommend this recording to anyone with an interest in Chamber music, or in twentieth-century music in general. In addition to all this - I cannot fault the price, a 3-disc set for the price of one CD! Jens F. Laurson also provides generally excellent liner notes, complete with footnotes. I would also hold it up as an excellent introductory set into the music of Weinberg - while it contains great contrasts between the pieces (including a near-thirty year gap between the 5th and 6th sonatas!!), I believe it sums up the main elements of Weinberg's perfectly in an accessible and attractive 3-disc set, suitable for all listeners.

Link to buy the boxset at Challenge Records

P.S. - here is a Youtube interview with the two artists, discussing the release.

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