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Effectively Performed

Music for violin,
cello and piano -
heard by

'... beautiful, technically accomplished playing ...'

Tzigane. © 2008 Melba Recordings

Yet another beautifully produced, effectively performed, and generously filled package from Melba Recordings, setting standards rivalled by very few others; viz harmonia mundi, even Naxos (at budget price) is sharpening up its attire a little.

For obvious reasons, the Ravel repertoire has numerous existing advocates on disc, and several of them are simply phenomenal. This disc has much beautiful, technically accomplished playing, but through swathes of the music these young players 'don't quite nail' the impalpable, subtlely-nuance Basque/French sound.

Listen -- Ravel: Tzigane
(track 1, 0:03-1:06) © 2008 Melba Recordings

There's no denying the brilliance and conspicuous musicianship of violinist Kristian Winther and his musical companions. However, in Tzigane (1924), he's a mite shy of matching stirring ardour and fire displayed by others, some with piano -- some orchestra. Here are three -- Venregov (with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI 2003), Jennifer Frautschi with pianist Marta Aznavoorian (Artkek Records 2001), and Bisengaliev (with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra on Naxos, 1994).

Frautschi, a Robert Mann pupil, playing the Stradivarius 'ex-Cadiz' (1722), recorded both the Ravel Violin Sonata (plus Tzigane) together with Stravinsky's Duo Concertante and the Divertimento.

Again, these aspiring young Oz musicians are up against stellar Euro and American artists in Ravel's sonatas.

Consequently this fine programme starts off with a handicap not at work in several of Melba Recordings' ground-breaking enterprises; among the most recent Saint-Saëns Helene with Nuit Persane and The Grainger String Quartet in 'Chamber Music of Roger Smalley'.

But for the miniatures the repertoire is available with (exclusively) French musicians on a two-disc EMI Classics set titled Ravel : Musique de Chambre (including the Piano Trio, String Quartet, song cycles etc), released in its present form in 2002. In the Violin Sonata we hear legendary violinist Gérard Jarry (born at Creuse in 1936, died in 2004) with pianist Georges Pludermacher (born at Creuse in 1944).

The Sonata for Violin and Cello features Jarry and cellist Michel Tournus while a near definitive Tzigane brought together the great French violinist Christian Ferras (born at Le Touquet in 1933, died in Paris in 1982) and regular accompanist Pierre Barbizet (born Arica, Chile, 1922; died Marseille, 1990).

For thirty-three years Jarry was with the Jean-François Paillard Chamber Orchestra while later he led the Orchestre Nationale Ile-de-France. Cellist Tournus produced his own arrangement of the six Bach Cello Suites for Editions Billaudot (France) et L'ABC du jeune Violoncelliste (United Music Publishers)

OK, Ferras was just twenty when he first recorded Tzigane with L'Orchestre National de Belgique for Decca in Brussels; a track from one of two LPs -- now together on Decca 'Legends'. But Decca is as good as it gets when remastering at 96kHz in 24-bit digital stereo from analogue masters. Tragically Ferras took his own life, aged forty nine.

Listen -- Ravel: Pièce en forme de Habañera
(track 5, 1:15-2:04) © 2008 Melba Recordings

While the Australians tackle Ravel's miniatures with no lack of feeling, they're a trifle heavy-handed in Pièce En Forme de Habenera (1907), a morsel available with numerous performers. Unfortunately, to this day, no one distills this 3+ minute reverie (arranged by Heifetz) with the magic of Alfredo Campoli and pianist Eric Gritton (Decca, 1949). Heifetz's own account wound up among 'Never-Before-Published and Rare Live Recordings, Volume 5' (Cembal d'amour CD 121, distributed by Qualiton).

Premièred on 30 May 1927, at the Salle Erard in Paris, and dedicated to the brilliant French violinist Helene Jourdan-Morhange, Maurice Ravel's Sonata in G for Violin and Piano was first performed by renowned Romanian composer and violinist Georges Enescu, with Ravel at the piano. Its American première on 15 January 1928, at New York's Gallo Theater, featured Joseph Szigeti.

The opening Allegretto reveals both instruments at odds with one another while adhering to the defining polyphonic components that cement the movement. Movement No 2, titled 'Blues', immerses both players in American idioms. During his 1928 visit to the USA, Ravel stated 'to my mind, blues is one of your greatest musical assets, truly American despite earlier contributory influences from Africa and Spain.' He went on to say 'nevertheless this (sonata) is French music; indeed, these popular forms are but the materials of construction'. 'My teacher was Edgar Allan Poe', he quipped. The final movement, 'Perpetuum Mobile', embodies a virtuosic, adrenalin rush of semiquavers.

Among other contemporaneous composers influenced by American jazz/blues idioms are Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), Georges Auric (1899-1983), Dmitri Shostakovitch (1906-1975) and Eugene Bozza (1905-1991).

In the Violin Sonata and Sonata for Violin and Cello just about everyone was 'blown out of the water' by superb 1973 (Erato) performances remastered and re-released to coincide with Claude Sautet's 1993 film Un C'ur En Hiver ('A Heart In Winter'). The performances are by violinist Jean-Jacques Kantorow with Jacques Rouvier, piano and Kantorow in company with cellist Philippe Muller for the duo string sonata. The CD was topped up with Ravel's Piano Trio and his brief Berceuse Sur Le Nom de Gabriel Fauré.

Winther and Romaniuk present the Violin Sonata with more than sufficient idiomatic feeling though Winther's plush tone is less Gallic in its effect than either Jarry or Kantorow.

Deux Mélodies hébraïques were written in 1914 to a commission from Madame Alvina-Alvi, a soprano in the St Petersburg opera company. Hitherto Ravel used folk tunes in a number of works, but these 'mélodies' brought the tendency to a halt. Besides Ravel's orchestration of the accompaniment to the songs in 1919-20, there was also this violin and piano arrangement, by Lucien Garben, for violin and piano. It was written specifically for Ravel's friend, the Marseilles-born French violinist René-Charles Francescatti (also known as Zino Francescatti), 1902-1991.

Kaddisch is a liturgical Aramaic chant, a prayer for the dead, originating in the thirteenth century. With the words of the chant omitted, the music still communicates a profoundly lamenting plaint. It begins with a reticent, economical accompaniment beneath a sorrowful melody whilst almost midway the piano begins a fuller, roulade-style accompaniment, leading to heightened lyricism from the soloist. L'énigme éternelle, to a traditional Yiddish verse, breathes serenity itself. Quietly, from start to finish, the piano repeats a discrete, chromatically varied one-measure sound unit; a luminescent stroke of Ravel's singular imagination.

Russian-Jewish classical composers formed the St Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music (1908-1918), inspiring a new interest in the music of Eastern European Jewry throughout Europe and America. The result was a blending of traditional Jewish melodic constructs with the rich chromatic harmonies of late Russian romantic music. Ravel would undoubtedly have known of it and he found no objection to adopting (ersatz) Judaica-Hassidic influences and 'krekhtsen' melodies of the shtetl, yet seen through Gallic eyes. In 1928 a Society for the Promotion of Jewish Music was founded in Vienna.

By adopting a smudged legato Winther successfully infuses Ravel's Deux Mélodies with convincing 'yeshiva' authority and the Hebraique bracket precedes a Violin and Cello Sonata performance which seems to me the highlight of the disc.

Listen -- Ravel: Vif, avec entrain (Violin and Cello Sonata)
(track 11, 0:00-1:11) © 2008 Melba Recordings

Excellent alternatives in the Violin and Cello Sonata are violinist Rachel Barton and Wendy Warner (Cedille, Chicago IL, 1999) or members of the Borromeo String Quartet; violinist Nicholas Kitchen with Yeesun Kim (Image Recordings, Woodbridge, Connecticut, 1999).

One of a diminishing minority I've yet to be swayed by much trumpeted SACD techno-advances (Super Audio Compact Disc). As far as I can see the jury's still out on this development.

Copyright © 12 November 2009 Howard Smith,
Rarotonga, Cook Islands





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