Notes and Editorial Reviews
A violin lover's delight.
Charles-Auguste de Bériot was an unlucky man. Ten years after his birth in 1802, he began living with his violin teacher after the sudden death of both his parents. After studying with several prominent traveling performers and even receiving advice from the great violinist-composer Giovanni Viotti, Bériot became personal violinist to the Kings of France and the Netherlands in 1826. But those jobs were both terminated four years later, when the performer's native Belgium declared its independence. In 1836 Bériot's first wife died, pregnant, in a freak horseback riding accident just six months after their wedding. After he finally settled down to a career teaching violin at
the Brussels Conservatory, where he taught, among others, the composer Henri Vieuxtemps, Bériot's eyesight began to fade and he found himself forced into early retirement. He spent his later years playing the violin in private for eager Russian noblemen, but, at the age of 62, his career met its end when, for reasons unknown, his left arm became paralyzed.
But the cruelest twist of fate came after Bériot's death in 1870: his life-work immediately faded into oblivion. Ten violin concertos, thirteen sets of variations, a massive body of work for violin solo and duo, and, according to Keith Anderson's booklet notes, over fifty collections of music for students, are nearly all forgotten. His study works are occasionally performed by young violinists learning the trade, but the rest of Bériot's output generally was left unperformed and unrecorded. Six of the ten concertos had appeared on disc - played by three different violinists. A disc of chamber music has appeared on the Talent label. Generally though, the Belgian violinist's name has lain forgotten and overlooked by album producers and recording artists. Until last year, when Naxos announced its new series devoted to the romantic violin repertoire and Charles-Auguste de Bériot was announced as one of its top priorities. Last August a new disc of violin concertos appeared featuring Grammy-nominated soloist Philippe Quint; this August the first release in a series of Bériot's complete music for solo violin will appear.
This month's new album, however, is a compilation of works for two violins. The
Duos concertants may be familiar to violin students, who sometimes call upon them to hone their technique, but they, like the six
Duos caractéristiques, are new to the world of recording. And this disc of premieres arrives not a moment too soon: together the music represents a major treat for lovers of the violin.
Duos concertants, Op. 57, come in three sets which are each shaped much like a classical sonata: two quicker movements bracket a slower, more lyrical section. The third duo departs from the formula considerably, in that it is the only one of the three written in a major key, the finale is not a rondo and, more importantly, the opening section has the feel of a slow movement. The result is a bucolic, agreeable lyricism which makes the duo hard to forget. The first movement, in particular, is a stunner, as the first and then second violin take turns spinning a magical, seemingly endless tune over accompanying pizzicato.
The longest work on the programme is a set of
Six duos caractéristiques based on themes from the 'Ballet Espagnol' by a Russian prince named Yusupov. Nikolay Yusupov evidently composed his own music for violin, including a concerto, and sponsored some of the elderly Bériot's last concerts. We do not have the original ballet anymore, or the concerto, but these duos exude charm, warmth, and, occasionally, a touch of genuine Spanish flavour. The original work must have been quite a pleasure to Yusupov's social circle, and this set of violin duos would have delighted the audiences of the salons with its alternating love serenades and mock-serious dances. There is an energetic march, a fandango and a bolero which makes a rousing conclusion to the set and to the album as a whole.
Generally in these works the first violin is the one tasked with the greatest technical challenges and rewarded with the best melodies and flashiest bits of show. Christine Sohn, who has served as guest leader or concertmaster of the London Symphony, London Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic, and Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestras, is simply extraordinary in the lead role, overcoming technical challenges with ease and letting each big melody sing. She has the poise and full, attractive sound of a master, and if John Marcus, who is quite literally 'second fiddle' here, does not quite live up to this high level, his role is such that he does not have to. Indeed, when Bériot gives him the chance, Marcus's playing impresses too. The performers have the good taste not to pretend that this music is more than it is, instead perfectly evoking the intimacy and quiet charm of a romantic salon performance. The recorded sound is exemplary, with Sohn in the left channel and Marcus in the right, in sonics so clear that the performers might as well be in your room.
This disc is, in sum, a must-have for anyone in love with the sound of the violin. Bériot's music is a consistent delight, a pleasure for the ears rather than an emotional workout; the third
Duo, and parts of the
Ballet Espagnol, are especially memorable. I will be turning to this album often when my ears clamour for the rich, aristocratic beauty of the violin unaccompanied by its string relatives. I imagine that many a listener with a love for this instrument will agree that this disc is a delight and a very welcome surprise.
--Brian Reinhart, MusicWeb International
No. 1 in g; No. 2 in e; No. 3 in D.
6 duos caractéristiques sur des motifs du Ballet Espagnol du Prince M. Youssoupow
Christine Sohn (vn); John Marcus (vn)
NAXOS 8.570748 (74:49)
Like his Seventh and Ninth Concertos, Charles-Auguste de Bériot’s three Duos concertants, op. 57, retain a certain familiarity among violinists, providing them, along with Spohr’s duos, repertoire highly idiomatic to the violins individually and yet weaving them into a richly symphonic texture. (I remember my excitement upon finding the music for these duos in my father’s closet.) Christine Sohn and John Marcus play these familiar (at least to violinists) duos with dashing forward momentum and all the polish required to make them sparkle as brightly as do the best moments in his concertos. They make the first movement of the G-Minor Duo sound commanding, yet they highlight the frequent staccato passages, and they’re meltingly heartfelt in the big cantabile second theme (such poignant moments abound in these works). The imposing thematic passages of the first movement of the E-Minor Duo sound as jaunty and as imposing, alternately, as the music seems to demand, and the duo seems as striking in the passages in the upper registers as in the full-throated ones on the G string. The finale sounds particularly thick texturally, an effect that Bériot seemed to achieve not only through active accompaniments but through double-stopping. Still, when he resorts, as he frequently does, to broad statements in octaves, the violinists create surprising fullness, never gaunt or skeletal. Sohn and Marcus take the Duo in D Major at a tempo that never dallies, yet allow the intriguing harmonies to play out in a way leisurely enough that they make their own gentler impact. At times, as in the finale of the last Duo, it seems as though the violinists might seek Maria Malibran’s voice more assiduously (it had been said that it spoke through Bériot’s violin after her death), but they bring the work to an effervescent conclusion. Kuniko Nagata and Cecil Vidal, take a more leisurely stroll through the Duos, op. 57, on Classic Talent DOM 2910, with a Romantic sensibility, by turns lush and dramatic, that makes Sohn and Marcus’s reading sound almost perfunctory. Pavel H?la and Bohumil Kotmel adopt a grand, sonorous manner, similar to Nagata and Vidal’s, in the Third Duo, which they play in their collection of music for two violins by Leclair, Viotti, Spohr, and Bériot (Supraphon 11 1868 131, which I reviewed in 17:6).
Six duos caractéristiques
, op. 113, haven’t achieved the same currency as have the earlier three, but they’re equally assured and equally inventive, with the interaction of the two violins, if anything, further refined and more ingeniously worked out, though the rules of engagement seem to be the very similar ones. The music passes through a leisurely Adagio, a strutting March, a
Andante cantabile, a Fandango, a sultry Andantino, and a scintillating Tempo di bolero. The duo demonstrates as impressive a command of this more exotic stylistic pastiche as of Bériot’s more straightforward drawing-room manner in the Duos, op. 57.
Keith Anderson’s notes suggest that these duos tap as silvery a vein of virtuosity as do the concertos, and that may be true; but, in fact, both concertos and duos should be accessible to advanced intermediate students (being at least a cut below the 60 concert studies in difficulty), capable of imparting to them a feel for the elegant, melodious brilliance of which the violin’s capable when the composer knows how to extract it. Certainly Sohn and Marcus know how to do so, and while the program may hold most interest for violinists, both students and professionals, the music is entertaining and accessible enough for most tastes, even if it doesn’t make significantly more onerous demands on listeners than it does on players. The recorded sound, capturing the violinists far enough away for their sounds to merge pleasantly, offers a wide dynamic range, representing Bériot’s sensitive moments as faithfully as his stormier ones. While for those wishing to view Bériot through the large, rather than the small, end of the telescope, Nagata and Vidal’s more flamboyant rhetoric may be preferable to Sohn and Marcus’s more streamlined and more straightforward run through, Naxos’s more ample collection still deserves to be recommended.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
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