Friday 15 June 2012

CD Review - Ravel, Bloch and Janacek violin sonatas

CD cover, Christina Astrand and Per SaloViolinist Christina Astrand and pianist Per Salo have played together for several years and both play for the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Astrand is the orchestra's Principal Concert Master and Salo holds the position of pianist, organist and harpsichordist with the orchestra. The duo have recorded CD's of Danish music and this disc is their first of non-Danish repertoire.

They have chosen three works for violin and piano, all dating from the first quarter of the 20th century. Ravel's Violin Sonata dates from 1923-27 and Bloch's Poeme Mystique from 1924; Janaceck's Violin Sonata was started in 1915 but was not finished in its present form till 1922.

Ravel's three movement Violin Sonata is one of a group of chamber works which Ravel wrote later in his career in marked contrast to his larger scale orchestra works. The opening Allegretto contrasts long singing lines for the violin with a shimmering accompaniment from the piano. The duo have a nice balance, with the piano not too distant but more of an equal partner. The two generate something of an earthy quality in the Blues second movement, though Astrand gives a rather clean neo-classical feel to the bluesy pitch bending. Again we have a beautiful singing line, contrasting with the crisp attack and striking sonorities produced in the strummed/plucked sections. They develop quite a bitter, angry edge to the music, this is no soft blues. Finally the perpetuum mobile of the last movement is a real tour de force for both players with hints of the Ravel piano concertos in the piano part.

Bloch's Poeme Mystique was his second work for violin and piano. Whereas previously he had written a standard three movement sonata, for the Poeme Mystique he chose a single long movement lasting over 20 minutes. The work opens with a high, unaccompanied melody for the violin, the piano eventually joining in; at times the expressive line feels like a Hebrew song. This opening material keeps reoccurring and in fact seems to exert a strong pull, so that few of the episodes ever quite escape.

There is a lively perpetuum mobile which seems to promise to develop into something bigger, before evaporating into the original material. And a rather haunting folk-like melody is an occasion for the violin to play in the expressive lower register with Salo's piano shimmering in accompaniment. But the pull is too great and eventually the violin line soars higher again.

Finally there is a long, brilliantly rapturous section which engenders wonderfully passionate playing from the duo. Passionate, but clean, as there is something rather clear eyed and Scandinavian about the feel, helped by Astrand's beautifully clear, high, singing violin tone.

Bloch's piece ends as it began, with the violin gently keening the Hebrew melody which seems to almost evaporate. Astrand and Salo give a brilliantly committed performance of the work, one which brings out the feeling that there is an underlying and unspoken drama.

Janacek's Violin Sonata started out life in 1915 but did not settle in its final form until 1922, when it was first performed. The opening Con Moto features violin writing which is lyrical but jagged, the outlines of the melody being familiar from Janacek's other works. A drama develops between piano and violin, which produces a restless and uneasy movement. Janaceck's powerfully taut emotion is conveyed by the players who bring out the essential lyricism in the writing.

The second movement, Ballada, is passionately lyrical, but restless with a sung line from the violin surrounded by piano textures. The Allegretto opens with interest being in the piano, with interjections from the violin. This might be Allegretto but it certainly isn't a light movement. The mood lightens with the more lyrical opening, but the Allegretto returns with Astrand relishing the edgy nature of the violin writing in this movement.

Janacek finishes with an Adagio, the piano calm and untroubled with the violin giving vent to violent interjections again. Though Janacek does give some lyrical interest to the violin, the prevailing mood is of the violin commenting on the piano, even when the piano writing gets passionate. Finally, the opening returns, combining calm and violence to the end.

Astrand and Salo are a fine balanced duo, who clearly spark off each other in these challenging but fascinating pieces. Technically they both play of a very high order, with Astrand's beautifully clear tone and Salo's strongly sympathetic accompaniment which can turn dominant where necessary.

A novelty is that the CD comes with a DVD in the box as well. Here you can see the two of them play the programme, recorded without an audience in the handsome New Concert Hall of the Danish Broadcasting Association Complex, Copenhagen. The camera work is quite busy, but it does I think enhance the experience to be able to see Astrand playing. They use different lighting set-ups and different outfits for each work so you do get some visual variety to match the works.

This is a highly recommended disc.

Maurice Ravel - Sonata for Violin and Piano [17.44]
Ernest Bloch - Poem mystique for Violin and Piano [23.41]
Leos Janacek - Sonata for Violin and Piano [23.41]
Christina Astrand (violin)
Per Salo (piano)
CD recorded February 2011, Studio 2, Danish Radio, Copenhagen
DVD recorded November 2011, Concert Hall of Danish Radio, Copenhagen

ORCS100022 1CD and 1DVD [60.36, 60.36]
Combined CD and DVD sold at normal price for a single CD

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