Wednesday 17 March 2021

Pure joy: Linus Roth and Jose Gallardo in virtuoso dance music for violin and piano from Bartok and Stravinsky to Piazzolla and Wienawski

Virtuoso Dances - Bartok, Stravinsky, Piazzolla, Brahms, Szymanowski; Linus Roth, Jose Gallardo; Evil Penguin

Virtuoso Dances
- Bartok, Stravinsky, Piazzolla, Brahms, Szymanowski; Linus Roth, Jose Gallardo; Evil Penguin

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 15 March 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A joyous disc which showcases a wide range of works for violin and piano which are both virtuoso and in dance form

Like many recent recording projects, violinist Linus Roth's new disc Virtuoso Dances on Evil Penguin Classic with pianist Jose Gallardo is a product of the current crisis. With the cancellation of live events, Roth turned to ideas which had been waiting for their time. So a disc of virtuoso music in dance form for violin and piano was born. The repertoire is engagingly eclectic with some rather surprising names, so there are Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances, Stravinsky's The Fairy's Kiss in a version by Samuel Dushkin, Astor Piazzolla's Le Grand Tango in an arrangement by no less a figure than Sofia Gubaidulina, Brahms' Hungarian Dances arranged by violinists Fritz Kreisler and Joseph Joachim, Wienawski's Polonaise de Concert, Bazzini's La Rondes de Lutins and Szymanowski's Notturno et Tarantella.

In the CD booklet, Roth talks about how the programme was intended to combine pieces that were both of a virtuoso character and were dances. As he says, 'What better way to lift the spirits than with dance music?'. Roth was supposed to be performing in May 2020 at the Music Festival ‘Schwäbischer Frühling’ of which he is Music Director. This takes place the former monastery in Ochsenhausen, Germany, home of the State Academy for Young Musicians in Baden- Wuerttemberg, and Roth and Gallardo were able to record the disc in the monastery's stunning (visually and aurally) library [see image below].

The disc starts with Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances, a work which Roth has had in his repertoire since childhood. But it is a work which, despite its familiarity, always comes up surprising and new. Roth and Gallardo prove ideal in this repertoire, bringing out the sheer vividness of the rhythms and melodies. The opening dance feels suitably robust with plenty of rich tone from both performers, something that continues throughout the suite, yet there is delicacy too. The second movement really makes you want to get up and dance whilst the third is rather eerie with a sense of the exotic. Throughout Roth's singing tone is never far away and the suite concludes with a vibrantly vivid dance.

One minor point, the booklet fails to point out that what we are hearing is a transcription, Bartok's original version was for piano and he then orchestrated it for small ensemble, so I presume we are hearing Zoltán Székely's version for violin and piano. No matter, these performances are wonderful, and what is surprising is that the two performers find a surprising amount of commonality between the Bartok and the Stravinsky that follows it.

Library Hall, Ochsenhausen, Germany (Photo Steffen Dietze)
Library Hall, Ochsenhausen, Germany (Photo Steffen Dietze)

Stravinsky wrote his divertimento The Fairy's Kiss to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Tchaikovsky's death. The work was written in 1928, and Stravinsky's engagement with Tchaikovsky had been a surprising feature of the composer's life. He was present, as an eight-year-old, at the first performance of The Sleeping Beauty in St Petersburg in 1890, and he would reorchestrate a number of Tchaikovsky pieces for Diaghilev and for other ballet companies, often simply to reduce the orchestra down to chamber proportions.

In 1932, Stravinsky and the violinist Samuel Dushkin did a version of The Fairy's Kiss for violin and piano which is performed here, wonderfully re-inventing the work as a violin and piano duo. Roth and Gallardo are lyrical and vivid, but without neglecting the crisp spikiness of Stravinsky's rhythms. You would never mistake this for Tchaikovsky, and the reduction down to two instruments seems to give the music an extra edge too. 

We open with a sense of intriguing elegance, and a feeling of Tchaikovsky with added astringency, but suddenly we are in Stravinsky's rhythmic world. Throughout, the music is in short bursts and the two performers delight in the twists and turns, providing vividly crisp transitions, and I was intrigued by the moments of what seemed like pure music hall.

The next item is different again. Astor Piazzolla composed his Grand Tango for cello and piano in 1982, and dedicated it to Mstislav Rostropovich, though it would take Rostropovich until 1990 to play it! Here, Roth is working with an Argentinian pianist so that whilst the arrangement is notionally by Gubaidulina, a lot of what we hear is Gallardo. The result is convincing and engaging, with the two managing to find the right sense of spikiness and roughness in the music, rather than sugaring it.

Yet whilst Roth performs with earthy tones and sometimes gets almost down and dirty, he provides lyricism too, and always underpinned by Gallardo's terrifically natural feeling rhythms in the piano. This is a large-scale, complex piece and you could hardly dance to it, yet both performers bringing out the vivid style.

There follows a group of Brahms' Hungarian Dances, one arranged by Fritz Kreisler and three by Joseph Joachim, both distinguished violinists. These feel like wonderful encores, but somehow I rather miss the weight which comes from having two pianists at one piano. The piece become more about melody than rhythm, though Roth plays them with a lovely sweetness of tone, relishing the fun. In a sense, the arrangements move the pieces closer to the so-called gypsy fiddlers at Zum roten Igel which initially inspired Brahms. And Roth certainly gets the style, giving us plenty of soulful melancholy.

Encore-like fun continues with the Polonaise de Concert by another violinist, Henri Wienawski, influenced by music by a fellow Pole, Chopin, and it is a complete virtuoso delight. The mood continues with the fast and fizzy Dance of the Goblins by Antonio Bazzini, another violinist who composed, and who ended up at Milan Conservatory with Puccini as one of his pupils! It is a real virtuoso feat, relished by Roth.

Finally, a relatively early work by Szymanowski, his Nocturne and Tarantella which was written in 1915 but not performed until 1920. It begins in haunting fashion with music which seems to owe something to Debussy and I will be quite frank, the piece is simply gorgeous but I am not sure that I would have thought of Szymanowski, then comes the vivid and energetic tarantella.

There is some meaty repertoire on this disc, but Roth and Gallardo approach the music with such a sense of engagement, vitality and bravura that it is easy to forget the challenges and simply be swept away. Dance is never far away, and both bring out a whole variety of rhythms and metres.

Béla Bartók (1881-1945) - Romanian Folk Dances
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), arr. Samuel Dushkin - The Fairy's Kiss
Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), arr. Sofia Gubaidulina - The Grand Tango
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), arr. Fritz Kreisler and Joseph Joachim - Hungarian Dances
Henri Wienawski (1835-1880) - Polonaise de Concert Op. 4
Antonio Bazzini (1818-1897) - La rondes des lutins Op. 25
Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) - Notturno et Tarantella Op. 28
Linus Roth (violin)
Jose Gallardo (piano)
Recorded 29 June to 2 July 2020, Library Hall, Ochsenhausen, Germany

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