Notes and Editorial Reviews
Violin Sonatas: Nos. 1–3
Carolin Widmann (vn); Dénes Várjon (pn)
ECM 2047 (72:02)
All three of Schumann’s violin sonatas date from the time of his unhappy tenure as general music director for the city of Düsseldorf. Constantly fighting with the city fathers and battling his impending mental health failures, the period was marked by a black cloud that many have claimed to see in these sonatas. I don’t buy it for a moment. Much of the composer’s life was shrouded in less than
jubilant occasions, but he seemed to be able to keep the mood of the moment out of his work when desired (as most great composers could and did). Since this time was also one of intense compositional effort, it is more likely that these particular works sprang from the impetus of having great violin-players around to assist and premiere them: Joseph Wasielewski from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, who would also end up as Schumann’s first biographer, got No. 1; Ferdinand David, concertmaster of the same orchestra and the dedicatee of Mendelssohn’s E-Minor Concerto, performed No. 2; and No. 3 went to Joseph Joachim, who inspired the trilogy of composers who attempted the joint sonata that would eventually be revised by Schumann to include his own finishing touches (Brahms and Albert Dietrich, who went on to become a noted conductor).
The First Sonata is one of the most intimate pieces Schumann ever wrote, deliriously pianistic in nature, yet displaying a full and equal partnership in effort. The melodies are memorable, and though the form is fairly scrupulously followed, Schumann adds his own distinctly romantic twists and turns of development, and even recalls themes from previous movements in the very last one. The Second Sonata in D-Minor, which Schumann labeled “Grand Sonata,” is just that, opening with dramatic double-stopped chords and introducing one of the most noble and tragic themes he would ever write. He added a fourth movement, making the work a full 10 minutes longer than the first sonata, and employed a gorgeous set of variations in movement 3. It is a stunningly bravura work. I need not add that a lot of passion is required of both performers—no need to introduce any sense of hands-off reticence when playing these.
Having composed the first two movements of the hybrid A-Minor Sonata in 1853, Schumann decided to make the work completely his own, and added two final movements, an Intermezzo and Finale. For some reason, certain players have refused to include this work as a “canonical” Schumann sonata, but there is no evidence on any grounds to reject it. The piece is energetic and expansive, reveling in its own sense of romantic ardor and full-blooded sound. Perhaps my favorite interpreter of the sonatas is Pinchas Zukerman, whose recording on RCA of the first two works remains my gold standard. Unfortunately he is one of those who seems intent on not corralling all three together, and omits the No. 3, WoO 27 (instead including a small collection of shorter pieces on a second disc). But for sheer fervor and impassioned playing, along with a rich, smoky tone and intense vibrato, he simply cannot be touched, and I encourage everyone who cares about these pieces to grab them while they can (the discs have been discontinued by RCA, but can still be had on amazon.com). For Gidon Kremer fans, his recording on DG with Argerich is also still very much available.
But we are lucky to recently have been hit with a small spate of releases; first Jennifer Koh (Çedille) graced us with a complete set that, while not the last word in passion, has a certain elegance and classical refinement that is very alluring, with excellent though somewhat dry sound, at least in comparison to this new release under consideration by Carolin Widmann. Her recording, done in far more reverberant circumstances, leaves nothing left in the glass; though some of the liquid may end up on the wall and not down the throat, she gulps down every drop of Schumann’s music with a lustful zest that leaves you saturated and sweaty when done. This does not imply sloppiness—far from it. But it does mean that nothing is held back, and some may not respond to this over-the-top and no-holds-barred approach, though I don’t see why not—Schumann would have expected such a performance, particularly when all facets of the playing are presented with such high technical execution and splendid tonal qualities. Is this then dissing Koh? Not at all, as both are really at polar opposites in approach but convincing in their differing ways. Neither tops Zukerman, but I think Widmann comes close, and she has the final A-Minor on board as well.
Isabelle Faust recorded these in 2000 on a disc I have not heard, but I know her work well and bet that she is a winner here also. But Widmann is something special, and ECM has done us a great favor by releasing this disc.
FANFARE: Steven E. Ritter
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