Wednesday 23 March 2022

Portuguese violinist Bruno Monteiro in a striking programme of three major early 20th century violin sonatas, from Portugal, France and Brazil

Violin Sonatas - Luís de Freitas Branco, Maurice Ravel, Heitor Villa-Lobos; Bruno Monteiro, João Paulo Santos; Etcetera

Violin Sonatas
- Luís de Freitas Branco, Maurice Ravel, Heitor Villa-Lobos; Bruno Monteiro, João Paulo Santos; Etcetera

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 March 2022 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Portuguese violinist Bruno Monteiro brings together three major early 20th century violin sonatas, each late-Romantic, each different in style but creating a highly satisfying recital

This disc from two Portuguese musicians, violinist Bruno Monteiro and pianist João Paulo Santos on the Etcetera label features three major violin sonatas from the first half of the 20th century, by the Portuguese composer Luís de Freitas Branco, the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos and the French composer Maurice Ravel. One sonata almost unknown, one not as well known as it should be and one quite familiar, yet the three make a highly satisfying programme and bring out interesting elements in each other.

Born in Portugal of an aristocratic family, Luís de Freitas Branco was one of the major Portuguese composers of the early part of the 20th century and his output includes four symphonies and a violin concerto. His Sonata no 1 for Violin and Piano was written in 1908 when he was just 17 and still a student at the National Conservatory. It went on to win a competition in Lisbon, but also to generate some controversy partly because of the composer's harmonic language. Whilst it sounds typically late-Romantic to us, it was significantly different to the relatively conservative musical style prevalent in Portugal at the time. 

The work also generated comparisons to Franck's sonata partly because Freitas Branco's work uses the same ideas of cyclical form as the Franck. And listening to the work you can hear distant thematic links. Yet, the opening Andantino also brings out hints of the slow blues in the Ravel sonata. Monteiro plays with a lovely sweet-toned line and with a fascinating use of portamento in this movement. The perky scherzo has a folkish cast to its material, whilst in the slow and thoughtful Adagio molto Freitas Branco gives us some superbly rich harmonies. The long finale begins vigorously with a highly chromatic violin line, yet as this movement develops we get suggestions of the earlier material giving us a complex movement with a clear summation of the cyclical form.

Maurice Ravel's Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano was his final chamber work. It took some achieving, Ravel was writing it sporadically from 1922 to 1927. It was written for his friend, Hélène Jourdan-Morhange but illness prevented her from playing it and the premiere was given by Georges Enescu with the composer at the piano.

The first movement Allegretto is the largest and most complex of the three movements. There is an elegant spareness to Ravel's writing which the two performers bring out and for all the overall pastoral feeling there are some interestingly spiky moments to the music as well. The second movement is perhaps the most well known, marked Blues (Moderato); for all the bluesy harmonies and banjo effects, this is still very much Ravel and Monteiro's performance keeps the music firmly in the classical concert hall. In the concluding Perpetuum mobile finale, the two performers dazzle but also bring out the feeling that Ravel was somewhat channeling Stravinsky, yet we can also hear typically Ravelian turns of phrase.

Heitor Villa-Lobos wrote four violin sonatas, though the final one has disappeared. His Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano dates from 1914 (though it would not be published until 1933). Villa-Lobos called it a Fantasia though its three movement structure is quite classical. At the time, Villa-Lobos had not yet visited Paris, had not discovered Stravinsky and was making his living mainly as a cellist in orchestras and cafes. As such, his handling of the structure of the sonata is enormously confident.

The opening movement begins with a long piano exposition, before the violin comes in. There is a certain folk-influence in the melodic material and in the rhythms that Villa-Lobos uses but all contained in a highly structured context. This is complex movement with tension developing towards the end and surprisingly sudden ending. The slow movement is more purely lyrical with Monteiro reveling in the series of lovely melodies that Villa-Lobos produces. For the finale the piano again takes the lead, and for all the showpiece nature of some of the writing it is clear that his is very much a duo sonata, and the two bring out highly varied moods of this movement.

There is perhaps a slight sharp edge to the recorded sound, that takes the ear a little time to get used to, but that my only gripe. This is challenging repertoire, Monteiro plays throughout with a lovely sweet toned line, but with no lack of virtuosity when required. He and Paulo Santos clearly love this repertoire and the two make this into a highly satisfying recital.

Luís de Freitas Branco (1890-1955) - Sonata no. 1 for violin and piano (1908)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) - Sonata no. 2 for violin and piano in G major (1927)
Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) - Sonata no. 2 for violin and piano Fantasia (1914)
Bruno Monteiro (violin)
João Paulo Santos (piano)
Recorded 28-29 December 2021, ISEG Concert Hall, Lisbon Portugal

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