Notes and Editorial Reviews
Recordings presenting solo violin recitals have become more popular in the last decade, stretching the 20 minutes about which Bartók himself expressed reservations to an hour or more. Of course, listeners to a CD can leave the recital and return to it at any time, a luxury not enjoyed by concertgoers. It’s not just a matter of the tone quality of the violin wearing on the ear; the violin possesses sufficient resources to hold the listener enthralled for the duration (and Mirijam Contzen’s Bergonzi thrives in the amply reverberant setting in which it’s been recorded). But the violinist must command continuing attention to lines that at best suggest harmony and polyphony. Thirty-odd years ago, one redoubtable artist,
presenting himself in a very workmanlike way, finally lost me despite my employing every trick I could conjure to rivet my attention. Not that crass showmanship’s necessary, but going it alone’s hard going indeed and requires an almost mesmerizing manner and a contagious and evident faith in the music performed. Mirijam Contzen’s performance of Bach’s Solo Partita No. 3 combines virtuosity with thoughtful reinterpretation, importing stylistic ideas from the period-performance movement: the Loure sounds exceptionally piquant, lending it a vitality that rhythmically stodgier readings sap. Tibor Varga’s
, which, according to Oliver Buslau’s booklet notes, the violinist wrote as a test piece for his competition, presents a set of gestures that the soloist must communicate, and Contzen, who studied with Varga, plays it with relish, indulging lavishly in the work’s changes in timbre and register. Bartók’s Sonata for Violin Solo can offer a bed of thorns for both listener and performer: it can become downright terrifying (as in performances by Viktoria Mullova—Philips 420948,
12:4, apparently no longer available, and György Pauk—Naxos 8.550868,
19:5, which provide compounds of razor blades and savagery). But Contzen negotiates its difficulties without creating any gratuitous ones for the audience, not only making sense of its obscurest moments, but also revealing an almost traditional sense of order in the fugue’s interior and an almost congenial lyricism in the Melodia. And, in the Presto, she plays Bartók’s original quartertones in a deliberate reading that blunts their thorns. Anyone who has a favorite performance will at least have to admit that Contzen has made Bartók’s crabbed rhetoric both eloquent and thoughtful, and has done so with almost flamboyant virtuosity that nevertheless always serves musical ends. The angularity of Stravinsky’s brief Elégie also suggests nobody but the composer; its double stops bear his imprint as certainly as do Bach’s or Bartók’s. The recital presents three solo sonatas or partitas (arranged in the symmetrical order of suite, sonata, suite), with Varga’s and Stravinsky’s shorter works serving as interludes. Ysaÿe’s Fourth Sonata, with which the program closes, presents a sort of gloss on the Baroque suite, with its first two movements bearing the titles, Allemande and Sarabande. But like its mates in Ysaÿe’s op. 27, this Sonata reworks the materials in a manner that’s just as individual as those of Bach and Bartók. Coming after Stravinsky’s relatively austere Elégie, it seems larger than life with its sweeping Romantic gestures and slithering chromaticism. Contzen endows these with a vibrancy and dramatic panache that makes them especially communicative and convincing.
By virtue of her skillfully revealing these works’ similarities as well as their composers’ unique personalities, she has created a program violinists and aficionados of the violin will miss at their peril, but one that should also appeal more broadly to general audiences, even to those who usually have not responded to the solo violin literature or to any of the composers represented. The reverberant recorded sound lends the recital a warmth that’s compatible with the medium’s intimacy. Most strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
Works on This Recording
Elégie for Viola solo by Igor Stravinsky
Mirijam Contzen (Violin)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1944; USA
Notes: Composer: Igor Stravinsky.
Le Serpent by Tibor Varga
Mirijam Contzen (Violin)
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