Violin Sonatas: Strauss, Respighi / Little, Lane
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R. STRAUSS Violin Sonata, Op. 18. RESPIGHI Violin Sonata in b. Six Pieces: Melodia; Valse caressante; Serenata • Tasmin Little (vn); Piers Lane (pn) • CHANDOS 10749 (65:50)
Violinist Tasmin Little has amassed a very respectable discography on a number of different labels, though of late, she seems to have settled in as one of Chandos’s house artists. Her recent recording of Delius’s Violin Concerto received an urgent recommendation from me in 35:4, so I really looked forward to receiving her latest release of these two late romantic sonatas.
On the surface, Richard Strauss and Respighi may not seem to have a lot in common, but their respective violin sonatas have been paired on disc before, notably by Kyung-Wha Chung and Krystian Zimerman for Deutsche Grammophon and by Frank Almond and William Wolfram for Avie. Strauss composed his sonata in 1887 at the age of 23. It’s an inspired outpouring of youth hardly recognizable as music by the composer that Strauss would become. Respighi’s B-Minor Sonata—an earlier sonata in D Minor dates from the composer’s teens—was written in 1917, exactly 30 years later than Strauss’s sonata, by a more mature composer of 38.
Strauss’s sonata will no doubt be permanently associated with Heifetz, not because he championed it and twice recorded it, but because of his callous and stubborn determination to perform the piece in 1953 before an Israeli audience that still considered Strauss a Nazi collaborator and whose emotions were still raw from the Holocaust. That little stunt nearly cost Heifetz his career when an assailant attacked him outside his hotel, striking his right arm with an iron bar. While I don’t condone the death threats and violence against him, I understand the intensity of feelings that were aroused. Heifetz had no one to blame but himself for his own arrogance and intractable insensitivity. He canceled his last concert and departed Israel post haste, not to return there again until 1970.
The shame of it all is that Strauss’s sonata was written half a century before Hitler rose to power, and the piece is a passionate and deeply touching reflection of the late 19th-century German musical culture in which Strauss came of age. Unsurprisingly, Liszt and Wagner, both recently dead, appear as frequent ghosts throughout the sonata’s pages, but another guest one meets, less frequently perhaps but still very much alive when Strauss wrote the piece, is Brahms.
Respighi is not an easy composer to categorize. Some see him, as they see Strauss, Puccini, Rachmaninoff, and Sibelius as manifestations of a resistant strain of late romanticism that persisted well into the 20th century, while others have referred to Respighi as an Impressionist. I think one could support either view. There’s no question but that Respighi’s sonata is the more modern of the two works on the disc, at least in terms of its approach to harmony and tonality, but it remains an essentially romantic work in its gestural language—i.e., in its sweeping vistas and appeal to the emotions, both public and private.
The last time I reviewed a recording of Strauss’s violin sonata was in 32:3. That Atma CD also contained violin and piano works by Elgar and Ravel in performances by Jonathan Crow and Paul Stewart which I called “a desideratum of indescribably beautiful music matched by indescribably beautiful playing.” Pardon the pun, but Tasmin Little brings more than a little of Crow’s eloquent and elegant playing to the Strauss, but I would also have to say that in some of the sonata’s more technically taxing passages, she can sound ever so slightly flustered; and while the notes never actually get away from her, one senses she’s making an effort to stay on top of them. Next to Crow’s Strauss, another performance I’ve long liked is that by Dmitri Sitkovetsky on Virgin Classics. He has the technical chops to pull it off smoothly, but I don’t find him quite as emotionally engaged as either Crow or Little. Whatever the reason, Respighi’s sonata seems to suit Little a little better, both technically and temperamentally. Her performance of the piece is lithe and fully responsive to the score’s rapidly shifting moods and colors. In my opinion, it easily outclasses Tanja Becker-Bender on Hyperion, whose reading I find somewhat flighty and rudderless.
Overall, this has to be rated a very fine effort, and not just by Little, but also by Piers Lane who partners her most excellently on the piano, and by Chandos, which provides its usual deep and vivid sound. This may not be the absolute best Strauss out there, but it’s definitely among the very best of the Respighis, and the extra three encores from Respighi’s Six Pieces for Violin and Piano make for a most enriching program. Easily recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Chandos have prided themselves on having a deep and long-term available back catalogue. Though distantly separated in time the present CD can be seen as an adjunct to two of the grand Chandos series of the 1980s and 1990s. The first was the Respighi orchestral music edition built around the Edward Downes BBCPO symphonies and concertos but supplemented by earlier discs conducted by Geoffrey Simon - still truly splendid - and later ones from Hickox and Noseda. The Downes and Simon discs would shine anew if issued in a box or boxes. The second comprised the half dozen discs they issued in the 1980s golden days of Järvi conducting the then SNO in the major orchestral works of Richard Strauss.
These two violin and piano works have previously appeared - although separately - on Chandos. There were in fact two CDs of the Strauss Sonata – one from Lydia Mordkovitch and the other from Sasha Rozhdestvensky. It comes as no surprise that the Respighi was also recorded by Mordkovitch. She contributed so much to the label that I have every reason to expect that, one of these days, there will be a complete Mordkovitch Chandos Edition. It’s certainly deserved – at least as much as a Takako Nishizaki edition for Naxos.
Little and Lane’s Strauss Sonata is flooded with melodic light and surges and muses with all the eruptive and serenading romance of the same composer’s Don Juan. Both Tasmin Little and Piers Lane are obviously up for it and flatter the 1887 Strauss with a most inward reading which makes it appear a greater work than perhaps it is. The stormy romance of the outer movements of the 1917 Respighi Sonata is emphasised by the utterly peaceful and romantically centred Sargasso calm of the Andante second movement. It stands head and shoulders above the other sonata movements on this disc, masterfully treading that febrile line between poetry and self-conscious sentimentality. Both Little and Lane have every right to be proud of their achievement here. Speaking of that mood we have three movements from the salon-destined and designed Sei Pezzi. I lament that the other three Kreislerian movements were not included – there was space. A puzzling and regretted omission.
With thanks to Chandos for commissioning a liner-note from the inspired Jessica Duchen. Such a fine writer and one whose Korngold book (Phaidon Press) has been unjustly eclipsed by the ‘major definitive biography’. The Duchen is much more than a valid alternative. Indeed, Korngold is a far from irrelevant comparison in the company of the two composers so nobly represented on this disc.
– Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International
Catalog Number: CHAN 10749
Composer: Ottorino Respighi, Richard Strauss
Performer: Piers Lane, Tasmin Little