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CD Review

Europa

Ambrosie 163
David Grimal, violin
Georges Pludermacher, piano
Naïve Ambrosie AM163 (DDD) 72:49
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Music out of the Great War.

As you can see by the dates, all of these works appeared within a single fifteen-year span. World War I, which nationalist urges had precipitated, shredded both social and political order. The destruction of the German, Austrian, Ottoman, and Russian empires and the Treaty of Versailles released even greater nationalist pressures, especially in those countries, like Poland, which the treaty had created out of ethnic and linguistic conclaves.

The hegemony of German music also weakened. Of the five seminal figures of Modernism – Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók, and Hindemith – only Schoenberg retained strong ties to the German music of the immediate past. The music on this CD testifies to the bond between Modernism and cultural nationalism.

In the first decade of the century, Janáček had broken through to a personal idiom based on Moravian folk sources and, in his operas, on the rhythms of Czech speech. For me, however, his greatest period begins right around the First World War. David Grimal's liner notes try to make a case for the violin sonata as one of those works influenced by Czech politics, with a narrative of suppression by Austria leading to salvation by the Russian army (!). It may even be true historically, but, unlike something like Taras Bulba, I don't really get that from the music itself, which impresses mainly by its quirks. Janáček's use of dissonance is idiosyncratic, often so extreme that the piano and violin parts have nothing tonally to do with one another. Yet I'd bet that most people would find the dissonances acceptable or dramatic, rather than bizarre and tooth-buzzing. Despite his designation of sonata, Janáček stays away from sonata movement or anything like classical form. Each of the four movements is sui generis. Janáček shapes the opening by varying one or two improvisational phrases. The slow "Ballada" reminds me of the later Martinů, in that a long-breathed melody arches over a buzzing surface. The third movement alternates between angry stamping and sorrow. The finale comes across as a drama where the piano tries to calm the rage of the violin with a beautiful chorale, which again reminds me of Martinů before the fact. About halfway in, the violin begins to take up the chorale, only to end in wrathful sputters. However, it comes more and more into the orbit of the piano until, in the very last measures, the two finally wind up in emotional synch.

Szymanowski's Myths belong to his Impressionist period, a transitional phase where he throws off the post-Straussian idiom he began with and begins to travel the route to his final Modernist nationalism. Myths depicts three Greek tales, which you can find in Ovid. I never particularly cared for the music of this period, although Szymanowski is a fine enough musician to make all of it convincing. Myths strikes me as the composer trading in Straussian noodling around for Debussyan noodling around, to fashion three little tone poems. As in the Janáček, one finds no trace of classical form. The literary narrative drives the musical one. If you like that sort of thing, I won't stop you.

A virtuoso pianist and violinist (indeed, one of the great violinists of his time), George Enescu put tons of his performer's savvy as well as first-rate invention into his third sonata. Essentially, he calls on the violinist to become a gypsy fiddler. The sonata rhapsodizes. It sounds free-form and improvisatory, but in reality hangs together tightly without actually relying on classical form. The music sounds like a cross between Ravel (a classmate and pal of Enescu's at the Paris Conservatoire, by the way) and Bartók. This work looks backwards to the late Nineteenth Century and the "gypsy" concert works, Romantic in its harmonies and phrasing. But it also looks ahead in its structural innovations. He builds the first movement as a gypsy rhapsody: slow arabesques interrupted by faster, more dance-like sections. The second movement proceeds mostly on drones, a risky eight minutes long which keeps interest. The finale is what I'd call a Hungarian rondo, although Enescu would have objected – a shower of virtuoso pyrotechnics, special bowing effects, and so on, designed to bring the audience to its feet. Here, Enescu comes closest to Bartók, the lighter Bartók of the Romanian Folkdances, the Hungarian Sketches, or even the Violin Rhapsodies.

Bartók structures his First Rhapsody very much like the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies – two parts, slow and fast. It comes from 1928, written for Bartók's tours accompanying violinists, to provide a less heavy recital item than the 1921-1922 violin sonatas. It's worth comparing to the Enescu. The Enescu exhibits obvious major ambition – epic statement, incredibly detailed. The Bartók has fewer details, but more telling ones, I think. It's more streamlined, less Romantic. He emphasizes tune. His violin writing, though not as "encyclopedic" as Enescu's, nevertheless impresses – particularly a double- and triple-stop passage in the first movement – all the more so when you consider that Bartók was a pianist only. Enescu has enough of the late Nineteenth Century and Impressionism to remind one more of Kodály, while Bartók seems wholly Modern, although in a more user-friendly mode.

Grimal strikes me as a violinist distinguished by refinement and elegance. His tone is a bit thin for my taste, but he plays cleanly, even with the cruelly clear recorded sound. The question comes down to whether this approach suits the pieces here. It works best for Szymanowski's Myths and the Bartók Rhapsody. However, the Enescu, though cleanly and attentively played, cries out for more passion. Grimal does best in the finale, where the energy ramps up another notch. The Janáček fares less well. Filled with howls and savage anger, it cries out for a violinist willing to press up to the edge of bad taste. Grimal keeps his distance. Pianist Georges Pludermacher does a fabulously sensitive job matching and supporting Grimal's reading, as alert to the opportunities of the moment as a jazz player. Nevertheless, it seems to me Grimal has given Pludermacher the parameters which drive the account and thus seems the primary intelligence. It would interest me to know what Pludermacher would come up with for another violinist.

Copyright © 2009, Steve Schwartz

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