Arabella Steinbacher, who has studied with Ana Chumachenko, Dorothy Delay, and Ivry Gitlis, has taken some of the incisiveness from the last-mentioned mentor, though little of his almost over-the-topRead more individuality. Her performance of Poulenc’s Violin Sonata begins with aggressive assertion, but later softens (a bit) in lyrical passages oiled by portamentos. Steinbacher’s sensitivity emerges without its concomitant steely resolve in the Intermezzo before the more thrusting finale (at least in the pre-tragic section that concludes the work).
Fauré’s Sonata offers, of course, fewer impediments to the listener’s understanding (Poulenc had supposedly virtually renounced his Sonata). Heifetz gave the work an account at once glowing and chilly with Brooks Smith in 1955, but his earlier account sounded several degrees warmer. Jacques Thibaud’s recording of this work from 1927 lacks nothing in warmth, though his portamentos would today be anathema to young violinists. Arabella Steinbacher sacrifices Heifetz’s forward movement to provide a softer-grained, emotionally more luxurious account of the first movement and a quieter, less urgent, reading of the second, in apparent agreement with pianist Robert Kulek. Her tempos generally, in fact, produce timings considerably longer than Thibaud and Cortot’s three years after the composer’s death. The Allegro vivo sounds less piquant than it does in Heifetz’s electrifying readings or Thibaud’s skittish one (in 30:5, I suggested that Francescatti’s account of the movement with Robert Casadesus—Urania 4252—sounded “playful and kittenish” in this movement rather than predatory), while Steinbacher’s finale also takes an especially lyrical tack.
Ravel’s Sonata has been taken as demonstration of (celebration of? case against?) the inherent disparity (incompatibility) of the violin and the piano. Coming after the suave integration the duo evidenced in Fauré’s Sonata, such a contrast could provide quite a jolt. Like Szigeti, Steinbacher extrudes all the unnecessary butterfat from her tone for a first movement by turns spiky and haunting (Kulek joins her wholeheartedly in recreating its eerie otherworldly sensibility—both seem capable, as many artists simply aren’t, of playing a true pianissimo); the climax sounds nearly as frightening as it does in Szigeti’s recording. Not every artist can achieve the freedom from sheerly beautiful sound necessary to project this work’s full emotional gamut (consider Grumiaux). The duo begins the second movement without the kind of dirty sliding timbres that its idiom might evoke, but continues in the first movement’s fey vein—down and dirty comes later in the movement. The finale builds to as exciting a climax as I’ve heard.
Tzigane may not match Ravel’s Sonata in musical profundity, but it’s a marvelously effective showpiece. Steinbacher takes the time to milk all the gypsy passion out of the opening solo’s flamboyant gestures (sliding into double-stops with abandon) and succeeds in playing with great assurance, even if she honks at the top of the G string. If she seems to begin the second section with greater reticence than energy, her performance overall seldom falls into either simple parody or over-the-top exaggeration; in fact, it would be hard to think of a performance that avoids these pitfalls so consistently.
The recorded sound captures the duo’s dynamic range, representing the instrumentalists in near-perfect balance and the sizzle and the tensile strength of the 1716 Booth Stradivari (or could that be Steinbacher’s sizzle and strength?). Recommended especially for the reading of Ravel’s works, convincing and, at times, simply boffo.
Sonata for Violin and Pianoby Francis Poulenc Performer:
Robert Kulek (Piano),
Arabella Steinbacher (Violin)
Period: 20th Century Written: France Notes: Composition written: France (1942 - 1943). Composition revised: France (1949).
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