Notes and Editorial Reviews
Violin Sonatas: in d; in b. 5 Pieces. 6 Pieces:
Valse caressante, Serenata
Tanja Becker-Bender (vn); Péter Nagy (pn)
HYPERION 67930 (72: 16)
Ottorino Respighi’s First Violin Sonata comes from his late teens, when, according to Nigel Simeone, he studied composition with Luigi Torchi, having also been a violin student and a member of Bologna’s orchestra. The early work, cast in three movements, sounds romantic, echoing the works popular at the time in its
violinistic requirements and expressive clockwork (octaves at climactic moments, for example). Tanja Becker-Bender and Péter Nagy play with the high seriousness the work seems to demand, strenuously pressing forward in its first movement. Becker-Bender draws an edgy tone from the lower range of the 1728 Guarneri del Gesù upon which she plays and what may seem to many to be a correspondingly hard, glassy one from its upper registers. In the slow movement, however, she and Nagy communicate a sense of the music’s urgent expressivity as well as its more somber sensitivity. The third movement, marked Scherzo, serves, according to the notes as a finale—but did the young composer intend this brief, relatively light-weight movement as the ending of such a high-flying sonata? In any case, the piece blends a playfulness in its main subject (does this recall Johannes Brahms’s Third Sonata?) with subtle harmonies that show how much Respighi had absorbed from his models.
The Five Pieces (Romanza, Aubade, Madrigale, Berceuse, and Humoresque) come from 1906, and the notes suggest that they weren’t intended for performances as a group, as they’re heard in Hyperion’s collection. In the first, Becker-Bender soars into the upper registers with breathtaking confidence and Nagy proves a close collaborator. Aubade, with its piano part bubbling at the outset, provides a dramatic foil that makes this serial performance of the pieces more than a catalogue recitation—especially in this sympathetic reading; and several harmonic turns should keep listeners closely attuned. The Madrigale, whatever its connection to the past, serves as a suave lyrical vehicle for the duo’s expressive powers. The gently rocking Berceuse (muted), showcases an intimate interaction between Becker-Bender and Nagy before the Humoresque, the longest of the pieces, beginning with a brief slam-bang cadenza, brings the set to a close that’s poignant and jaunty by turns. In general, these miniatures, at least in these idiomatic readings, seem more substantial than many of their contemporary drawing-room counterparts.
The more familiar Sonata in B Minor, from 1917, about a decade later, sounds in this context more mature and to exude a considerably more inspissated harmonic atmosphere. That’s apparent from the outset of the first movement, the longest of the three, in the enthusiasm with which Becker-Bender and Nagy recreate Respighi’s high-Romantic rhetoric. Jascha Heifetz played the piece, recording it with Emanuel Bay in 1950, and some of Becker-Bender’s tonal nuances recall his, at least in their refined subtlety. I’ve heard performances that make this sonata sound simply prolix; not so this one. The slow movement begins with a piano solo that, despite its simplicity, recalls the timbral opulence of the composer’s orchestral works; the movement proper unfolds slowly but is enhanced in its expressiveness by forceful recitative-like declamation by Becker-Bender. If the finale, Passacaglia, seems the most contrapuntally worked out and the most ardent in its musical statement, it’s not the longest. Becker-Bender and Nagy share the task of working out this design, which the notes suggest may have been influenced by Brahms’s Fourth Symphony (individual passages and their rhythmic design seem as though they might have been directly inspired by it). In the tenderest moments, the timbre of Becker-Bender’s violin recedes far into the background—but the sonata ends with a rush, in which that extra sizzle plays a role in the overall success of the performance. Kyung-Wha Chung’s tonally resplendent, idiomatic, and assured reading (Deutsche Grammophon 427 617-2, 13:6) rekindled my interest in the work when I encountered its last movement on the radio about two decades ago, but Heifetz’s performance still sets the standard for subtlety. Among more recent recordings, Elmar Oliveira’s (with Robert Koenig on Artek 0001,
32:2) combines virtuoso flair with a more sumptuous tone than Becker-Bender deploys, while I suggested in
33:4 that Isabelle van Keulen’s high wattage with Richard Brautigam on Challenge 72307 might choke out nuance, but if there’s less subtlety in that performance than in Heifetz’s or even Becker-Bender’s, electric charge doesn’t seem to be responsible. By comparison, it’s Frederieke Saeijs (with Maurice Lammerts van Bueren on Naxos 8.572093), who seems underpowered, though, as I pointed out in
33:6, she’s darkly romantic and can rise to the movement’s climaxes. The fourth and fifth of the Six Pieces from the early 1900s (Valse caressante and Serenata) bring the program to its conclusion. The Valse seems more closely tied to the drawing room than do any of the Five Pieces earlier in the program, but Becker-Bender and Nagy, however strong-minded they may have seemed previously, prove able to bend like a willow in this piece, as highly ingratiating and graceful as many of Fritz Kreisler’s. In the similarly conceived Serenata, they achieve a similar, though perhaps an even more delicately wistful, result. For its interesting program and idiomatic performances, as well as for its lifelike and well-balanced recorded sound, Hyperion’s collection deserves a warm recommendation.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
Works on This Recording
Featured Sound Samples
Violin Sonata in D minor: I. Lento - Allegro - Assai animato
5 Pieces for Violin & Piano: Berceuse
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