Notes and Editorial Reviews
Violin Sonata No. 1.
Violin Sonata No. 1
Antje Weithaas (vn); Silke Avenhaus (pn)
It’s clear from the surging opening of Saint-Saëns’s Sonata that Antje Weithaas and Silke Avenhaus will represent the work in three dimensions, and not merely
its elegant facade, which Heifetz projected with such brilliance. Weithaas plays a violin made in 2001 by Peter Greiner in Berlin: its timbre holds up in the upper and middle registers, but sounds somewhat husky in some of the notes on the G string; all in all, though, the instrument serves the expressive aims of the violinist. Weithaas and Avenhaus choose tempos that let the first movement’s thematic material relax, reproducing the vaguely nostalgic impression of the falling woodwind motive in the second part of the Third Symphony’s second movement. That atmosphere still pervades the beginning of the Sonata’s second movement; but in the finale that follows, Weithaas unleashes a brilliant volley of rapid staccatos that, if they’re not as crisply breathtaking as Heifetz’s, or even perhaps as Dong Suk Kang’s (Naxos 8.550276, reviewed by David K. Nelson in 15:5), nevertheless lead to a convincing peroration.
Ravel’s Sonata goes a different way, not only from the other sonatas in the program, but from almost all other sonatas, emphasizing as it does the essential incompatibility of the percussive piano and the lyrical violin. I’ve always held Szigeti’s recording with Carlo Bussotti as the ideal, though he made it in 1953 when his technique no longer served him well. Various more recent performers, like Kang, Mullova, and Maria Bachmann have managed to recapture the mysterious unity in diversity that the first movement embodies, as well as the
of the eerie climactic passages
. Even so eminent a violinist and exponent of French music as Arthur Grumiaux didn’t seem equal to such a challenge, but Weithaas does, with a chameleon-like tone that changes without ever seeming to strive for timbre for its own sake. She plays the climax with such restraint as to suggest a wholly different and equally valid way of understanding it. In this work, the duo interacts generally as two individuals who agree only occasionally, and Avenhaus has captured the work’s spikiness almost perfectly. They begin the Blues movement more quickly than Szigeti did, but Weithaas equals Szigeti’s impudently jazzy wailing—and then some; Avenhaus keeps the rhythmic interest at high pitch. Their climax at the end of the movement steps almost beyond control, as arguably it should. If the finale doesn’t seem as quirky in this performance as it does in Szigeti’s, Avenhaus brings clearer definition to the piano part, and the final cadence sounds just as overwhelmingly satisfying.
Heifetz recorded Fauré’s First Violin Sonata twice, and the second version of the two, with Brooks Smith in 1955, always seemed more highly charged to me, at least in its violin part. But for sheer suggestivity and in sheer intensity, Weithaas’s reading with Avenhaus equals it. Their ardor sounds white hot—approaching Heifetz’s incandescence—compared to the glowing warmth of Jacques Thibaud’s 1927 performance with Alfred Cortot. Weithaas doesn’t push the piano’s thematic material from the stage with her accompaniment figures; and the exceptionally clear recorded sound, which balances the two instruments, captures a great deal of the detail the instrumentalists have exposed. And those subtleties aren’t limited to the piano part. If the slow movement’s tempo seems excessively genial, it permits a wealth of nuance and sensitivity that has often gone undiscovered. Their third movement is exceptionally playful, though hardly driving or even brittle or skittish; Avenhaus speaks the teasing last word with tantalizing pluck. Their performance of the last movement carries its ecstatic thematic materials through a wide dynamic range.
Each of the sonata performances belongs near the top individually, but it would be hard to find a compilation that would equal it collectively. Urgently recommended.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
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