Notes and Editorial Reviews
6 Sonatas for 2 Violins,
Canon in D
Tengfei Zhou, vn
EROICA 3452 (56:59)
Jean-Marie Leclair, who fused the French and Italian styles in a personal violinistic synthesis, wrote two sets of sonatas for two violins without bass, figured or otherwise. He completed the first, op. 3, in 1730, only four years after he had come to Torino for the second time as a choreographer. William S. Newman
suggests that he turned to the violin at the suggestion of his teacher, Giovanni Battista Somis, a violinist who formed the link between the “Father of Violin Playing,” Arcangelo Corelli, and—through Somis and his student Gaetano Pugnani—with the “Father of
Violin Playing,” Giovanni Battista Viotti. The sonatas’ melodic references to Corelli and Tartini, as well as their stylistic ones to the exhibitionistic feats of another Corelli student, Pietro Locatelli, should render his books of sonatas for solo violin and for two violins at least interesting to students of the period, even if the works’ skillful amalgamation of manners didn’t exhibit so strong an individuality. In earlier reviews, I’ve described Leclair’s writing for the violin as “flinty” or “hard and gem-like,” and though these characteristics show themselves in varying degrees from one performance to another, they’re inherent in the music itself rather than in the predilections of their performers.
In his passagework, Leclair employed a swirling figuration that recalls Locatelli’s aerial exploits, though Leclair seldom translated his imaginative flights into the empyrean. As did his teacher, Leclair wrote finales that he identified as “tambourins,” but on the whole, his sonatas push less aggressively into the next stylistic era than did, for example, those of Somis’s op. 4. The ornamentation, crisply Gallic, drives forward melodies that nevertheless frequently exhibit an Italian sensibility; although the slow movements sound expressive, fraught with striking harmonic and melodic surprises, he never approaches sentimentality.
Discussing Heifetz’s recording of Bach’s Double Concerto (from 1946, with Franz Waxman conducting the RCA Chamber Orchestra), in which the Violinist of the Century partnered with himself, and Arthur Grumiaux’s recordings of Brahms’s Second Sonata and Mozart’s Sonata, K 481, in which that artist played both the violin and the piano parts (also, Steven Staryk recorded Wieniawski’s Études-Caprices, op. 18, playing both the solo part and the accompanying violin part), I’ve noted that listeners may miss in these readings the interplay of contrasting—or at least complementary—personalities. But Leclair’s sparkling geometric elegance could render such a conversation of non-identical equals less relevant. And for that reason, a recording by a single violinist like Tengfei Zhou seems
less a parlor trick than a
tour de force.
Zhou’s recording seems even less a parlor trick because his insightful performances reveal so much of these duos’ charm and vivacity. He may not perform them on an instrument set up in the period manner, but he discovers in the sonatas all the concise and energetic phrasing that such an instrument could only suggest. With only two parts at his disposal, he successfully re-creates the rich textures of the bagpipe-like drone in the second movement of the First Sonata, recalling the pastoral melodic contours in the
finale of Corelli’s “Christmas” Concerto. The outer movements of the Second Sonata crackle and pop with sharp articulation; Zhou adds the occasional, very discreet ornament in the first movement that helps energize the rhythmic movement forward in the manner of a musical
. He may take the slow movement at a tempo that in other performances could stifle its expressivity, but he prevents the textures from sounding heavy, focusing attention on timbre rather than tempo. Leonid Kogan and his wife, Elizabeth Gilels, recorded this sonata in 1952 (released on DVD by Arlecchino on ARL A 32-A 33 and previously Multisonic 31 0325), and I noted in reviewing Arlecchino’s release in
20:3 that Kogan’s incisiveness made an even stronger case for Leclair than did Perlman and Zukerman’s “more genial schmoozing” in the Fourth Sonata (RCA Red Seal 60735-2-RC). Kogan and Gilels also recorded the Third Sonata on a video released on EMI DVB 4928359,
27:1), but the Kogans take a slower tempo in the sonata’s opening movement that sounds downright lugubrious compared to Zhou’s, and their admittedly elegant reading of the slow movement doesn’t make so deep an impression as does Zhou’s. Finally, as I noted, while the Kogans’ ensemble doesn’t strike me as so flawless as the Oistrakhs’ in their many duo recordings, Zhou’s combines sensibility with uncanny synchronization. Here as throughout the collection, the engineers have widely separated the parts; perhaps because a single violinist plays both, that acoustic division may add extra credibility to the illusion of two separate but interacting performers. Following an especially expressive aria-like slow movement, a leaping Gigue brings the Fourth Sonata to a close (and Zhou transmits more of the sonata’s high spirits than do Perlman and Zukerman). Zhou seems as comfortable with the slow movement’s elegant though stylized pathos as with the finale’s ebullient high spirits. In the finale of the Fifth Sonata his rushing figuration recalls the force of a cataract tossed in gale-force winds. Pavel Hula and Bohumil Kotmel included that Fifth Sonata in their recording,
, Supraphon 11 1868, which I reviewed in 17:6. Their approach, though similar to Zhou’s, has been transmitted by more abrasive timbres. On the other hand, Simon Standage and Micaela Comberti recorded the Sixth Sonata (with its four movements, in some ways the most developed of the set) on Chandos 0582 (which I reviewed in 20:6 and which may no longer be available). Standage’s sonorities, as usual, represent a sort of
, merging period and modern sounds. But the performance itself sounds surprisingly slicker: Zhou, for example, creates more forward movement (at a similar tempo) and fashions more subtle phrases in the sonata’s opening chordal movement. And the combination of gigue and drones in the finale creates timbral and rhythmic possibilities of which Zhou takes exceptional advantage.
Pachelbel’s Canon may be at the same time one of the most popular and the most reviled works in the repertoire. Here it appears in a version for violins and melodic bass. Who plays the cello part? No other name than Zhou’s appears on the jewel case. If Zhou has also recorded the cello part, where can this all end? Vivaldi concertos in which Zhou takes all the parts? It hardly matters; if he plays them as well as he does these, they would be no laughing matter.
Strongly recommended as revealing (and complete) performances of works that have undeservedly languished on the fringe of the literature for two violins as well as for Zhou’s fresh demonstration of the familiar axiom that in some cases, less can amount to more. No, on second thought, make that recommendation much more urgent.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
Works on This Recording
Sonatas (6) for 2 Violins, Op. 3 by Jean-Marie Leclair
Tengfei Zhou (Violin)
Canon and Gigue for 3 Violins and Basso Continuo in D major: Canon by Johann Pachelbel
Tengfei Zhou (Violin)
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