Notes and Editorial Reviews
Violin Sonata in e.
Violin Sonata in E?.
Jonathan Crow (vn); Paul Stewart (pn)
ATMA 2534 (75:44)
Count on this one showing up on my 2009 Want List. This is one of those recordings that come along every so often to raise a lump in your throat and make you weep.
Jonathan Crow and Paul Stewart are both new to
me. Born in 1977 in Prince George, British Columbia, Canada, Crow began studying violin at age six under the Suzuki method. At 15 he was admitted to the Victoria Conservatory of Music, where he studied with Sydney Humphreys. From there it was on to McGill University, where Crow earned his bachelor’s of music degree; and at 19, he was invited to join the Montreal Symphony as associate principal second violin. In 2002 he was appointed the orchestra’s concertmaster, a post he held until 2006. In May 1997, he performed the Tchaikovsky Concerto in a special benefit for the Victoria Symphony under the baton of Yehudi Menuhin. Since then, Crow has soloed and participated in chamber music ensembles throughout Canada, Europe, and South America; but for some reason, we’ve not seen or heard much of him in the U.S. I don’t know why, because he is a wonderful player with a ravishingly beautiful tone and more than ample technique.
Crow’s piano partner, Paul Stewart, is also a Canadian, with a few more miles on him. Since his orchestral debut in 1981 with the Toronto Symphony, Stewart has concertized widely, including in the U.S.; and he has partnered in duo recitals with James Ehnes, Maureen Forrester, Rivka Golani, Ben Heppner, and Jessye Norman.
This recital, recorded in November 2006, brings together three violin sonatas that, while not exactly obscure or unperformed, are among the last stirrings—the dying embers, if you will—of a late 19th-century Romanticism which, in some quarters lived on too long and died ungracefully. But the works on this disc were far removed from those quarters and their death rattles.
If you were asked on a multiple choice question to name the latest composed sonata here, many of you would probably guess the Ravel; and if you did, you’d be wrong. It’s actually the most Romantic-sounding piece of all that was composed last, two decades into the 20th century—Elgar’s E-Minor Sonata, written in 1918. The earliest is Strauss’s sprawling and drop-dead gorgeous effusion of his youth, the E?-Major Sonata of 1887. Brahms was still alive, and the 23-year-old Strauss, an admirer of the elder composer, had not yet morphed into the Strauss of the tone poems and operas by which he is best known today. Unfortunately, his Sonata became tainted in 1953 when the ever-tactless Heifetz shoved it in the faces of an Israeli audience still so traumatized by the Holocaust that the music of Wagner and Strauss was banned from public performance. Strauss has been largely vindicated of Nazi collaboration or sympathies; and fortunately his Violin Sonata has been rehabilitated in a number of excellent recordings. One of my favorites has been Dmitri Sitkovetsky’s and Pavel Gililov’s on a Virgin Classics CD, although a very recent acquisition with Kolbjorn Holthe and Tor Espen Aspaas on a Two-I SACD that couples the Strauss with one of Enescu’s violin sonatas is held in equal favor. But Crow and Stewart on the present disc glow with an incandescence that radiates great warmth and affection.
If you respond with deep emotion to Elgar’s Cello Concerto, you will respond equally to his proximately composed Violin Sonata. It exudes the same postwar melancholy and profound sense of loss Elgar experienced, not just of friends he’d known but also of his wife at around this time. This may just be the last and greatest in the line of Romantic violin sonatas, and it, too, has enjoyed some outstanding recordings. One that I’ve been particularly fond of for a while is with Lorraine MacAslan and John Blakely on the Resonance label. Robert Maxham, my alter ego in virtually all things related to violin-playing, judged MacAslan a bit cool and low on expressivity in 30:3; but to me, it’s precisely that English penchant for slight understatement that keeps the piece from becoming cloying and from slipping into a state of morose self-pity. The music is depressing enough on its own; it doesn’t need any extra help. Crow projects Elgar’s melancholy with a poise and dignity that I find very touching without its becoming heart-on-sleeve, something at which the Brits, and apparently the Canadians, are very good. In fact, one of the best-ever recordings of Elgar’s Violin Concerto is the one with Nigel Kennedy that he made in 1984 with Vernon Handley and the London Philharmonic, before the alien abduction that transformed him into a pop-culture icon. But I digress.
Ravel’s posthumously published A-Minor Violin Sonata is, like Strauss’s, a product of the composer’s youth. He was 22 when he wrote it in 1897, and at the time heavily under the influence of his teacher, Gabriel Fauré. This is not the neo-Classical-cum-Impressionist Ravel we usually think of. The piece is in an extended single movement, and in the late, if not post-Romantic French style that has its roots in Franck.
This disc is a desideratum of indescribably beautiful music matched by indescribably beautiful playing. You can’t listen to it and not fall in love with it.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
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