Notes and Editorial Reviews
Virginia Bowen (vn); Zoya Leybin (vn)
DUO ALLEGRO 209 (2 CDs: 146:12)
Violin playing boasts many fathers. Well before the
advent of DNA testing, Arcangelo Corelli established his paternity through the obvious phenotypical connections between his sonatas and concertos and those of his followers—even if not every one of the students attributed to him (like Pietro Locatelli) actually worked with him. While the analogous family resemblances may not have been so striking between Giovanni Battista Viotti and his artistic progeny, through his tutelage of Rodolphe Kreutzer, Pierre Rode, and Pierre-Marie-François Baillot he transmitted to future generations the inheritance of Corelli that he’d received via a direct line passing through Giovanni Battista Somis and Gaetano Pugnani.
While Viotti’s concertos, drawing upon the varied forces of Haydn’s orchestra, may have created an electrifying impression on Viotti’s audiences in Paris and London, he wrote a great number of duos for two violins, and these foreshadow both the symphonic textures of Spohr’s duos and the simplicity of Mozart’s more elegant, celebrated ones for violin and viola. Collecting six of these duos has obviously been a labor of love for Virginia Bowen and Zoya Leybin, who present them on two discs, together with a duo by Joseph Blumenthal. Most of these duos fall into three movements, but op. 9/2 comprises four, the first being prefaced by a long introduction. The first of Viotti’s movements usually proceeds at a moderate tempo (though sometimes marked “allegro”) and, the most ambitious in their musical design, lasts a great deal more than half of the duration of the entire duos. As in the first of the collection’s duos (op. 28/6), the violins recall typical melodic figuration that listeners should recognize immediately from the concertos. One violin often accompanies the other’s elegant melodic outpourings with broken chords, or occasionally, as in the second movement of op. 28/6, in pizzicato. At other times, the violins move in parallel thirds or sixths—Viotti generally eschews contrapuntal complications, preferring smoothly flowing homophony. Within these general stylistic constraints, Viotti explores a wealth of ideas, both melodic and textural, as when he opens the Duo op. 34/1 with both instruments pizzicato before stating the main theme
to a pizzicato accompaniment. The second movement of op. 34/1 represents a type common in the literature of the period and in Viotti’s duets in general: a theme with variations—in this case, two of them.
Joseph Blumenthal’s three-movement work also locates its center of gravity in its longer first movement; its working out involves more give and take between the two soloists in the manner of dialogue, though its textures remain essentially homophonic. Blumenthal’s elegant melodies sound well conceived for the instruments; unlike Viotti’s, which sound sunny even in minor, these bear a trace of Spohr-like melancholy, even in their C-Major tonality. Bowen and Leybin tint the lines—even of the concluding Rondo—with pastels compatible with their general straightforward coloration.
The slow introduction to Viotti’s Duo op. 35/1 wanders during its brief duration through darker pathways, but the ensuing movement proper returns to Viotti’s brighter and straighter ones. The introduction to the Duo op. 20/6 introduces a movement proper that seems a bit more complex—and also a bit wittier—in its instrumental interaction than the others, with more implied counterpoint and more dialogue, though parallel passages still occur, this time in octaves. Viotti’s Duo op. 9/2 shares some of that wit, which seems to work itself into the lines themselves rather than merely into their interaction.
Bowen and Leybin have recorded these duos up close in a rather dry acoustic that presents a most realistic impression of their sound in a small room, a venue for which the duos must have been intended. Despite an occasional lapse in intonation, the performances communicate a great deal of care and planning in dynamics and articulation, and the detail lends continuous interest to the already ingratiating pieces. (Their performance of Viotti’s duet, op. 20/6, in particular, could serve as a model for any duo performers.) The range of bowings, a range for which Viotti became known (he utilized a modern Tourte bow with his Stradivari violin—he had brought Stradivaris and Guarneris into use in France), demonstrates that he understood how to draw not only a sound of great power but also one of great subtlety. Bowen and Leybin seem well attuned to this unique confluence in the history of violin playing and bring it to life for listeners. Students and teachers should be particularly grateful to have these works available for listening, but general collectors should find Blumenthal’s Duo well worth investigating. Recommended across the board. You can get it from the www.shopsfsymphony.org, amazon.com, or arkivmusic.com—and get it you should.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
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