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A Theoretician's Knowledge

Andrew Violette's Sonata
for unaccompanied violin,
reviewed by

Innova    innova 711

Andrew Violette: Sonata for unaccompanied violin. © 2008 Andrew Violette

Andrew Violette (born New York City, 1953) may be found lurking diffidently among on-line iPod resources and blogs. Seek his credentials via Wikipedia or Amazon and you'll find yourself shunted around a digital labyrinth. Here is a composer/pianist, with a large portfolio of works amassed since the early 1970s, when he studied with Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions at Juilliard.

Contrary to my expectations, and despite his pedigree, this two disc album features nothing likely to tax listeners' demands. However, the sonata seems better suited to fellow composers, advanced students and musicologists than the concert-going public or CD collectors. His segments alluding to 19th and 20th century composers -- Ysaye, Verdi, Kreisler and Bartók; -- show a theoretician's knowledge of these masters. Paradoxically, at the same time they in no way truly resemble any of these four.

Listen -- Andrew Violette: The Bartok Variation (Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin)
(CD2 track 3, 0:00-0:54) © 2008 Andrew Violette

Mr Violette composes hour-long piano sonatas marked by a rather wonderfully anachronistic, over heated Romanticism. He played first performances of two of these, each about 65 minutes -- No 3 (1979) and No 5 (1984). The two sonatas differed in that the earlier, 'serial' score sounded murkier and overtly late Romantic; the later one was apparently better organized and forceful in expression, especially in a 27-minute Adagio. Both shared a similar, extravagant off-Broadway theatricality, leaving him open (some commentators reasoned) to a charge of grandstanding. It's a moot point.

After all, his antecedents appear to be one off composers; men like the Tuscan pianist Ferruccio Benvenuto Busoni (1866-1924), the French composer-pianist Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888), Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988, a Parsi composer-pianist who lived in Britain), and Massachusetts composer-pianist Frederic Anthony Rzewski (born 1938). In Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Nicolas Slonimsky (1993) says of Rzewski -- 'He is a granite-powered piano technician, capable of depositing huge boulders of sonorous material across the keyboard without actually wrecking the instrument.'

The record breaking unaccompanied violin sonata from Innova lasts an interminable 1 hour 40 minutes plus, and while its analytical merit may constitute a suitable starting point for discussion, the musical interest is slender. Indeed I found myself stifling more than a few unwitting yawns. Those whose legacy includes undying variations and sonatas knew precisely when to call a halt -- Beethoven's Diabelli Variations (Sviatoslav Richter, 52 minutes), Bach's Goldberg Variations (Glenn Gould, 1981, 51 minutes 14 seconds), and Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata (Yehudi Menuhin and Hephzibah Menuhin, 35 mins, 5 seconds).

To further confuse the regular listener, two longer variations and the variation immediately following are titled The Aria Deconstructed Variation, The Aria Even More Deconstructed Variation and The Inversus, Regressus Variation. The commencing Aria in this case has led Violette to developmental periphrasis. It's avowedly diatonic, but for a little dissonant double stopping (a repeated six chord sequence -- Disc 1, Track 2). Where it's all heading, however, is anybody's guess.

Listen -- Andrew Violette: Aria (Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin)
(CD1 track 1, 0:01-1:00) © 2008 Andrew Violette

Soloist, the fine 29-year-old Canadian violinist Robert Uchida, is no slouch when it comes to contemporary composition, having performed music of Richard Danielpour, John Corigliano, Augusta Read-Thomas (resident composer of the Chicago Symphony), Scott Wollschleger and John Frantzen. To his credit Uchida doggedly does all he can for Violette's behemoth. To no avail.

Copyright © 17 January 2009 Howard Smith, Masterton, New Zealand




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