Thursday, 19 July 2012

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, July 2012)

IVES Violin Sonatas
Deutsche Grammophon 477 9435 / ****1/2

Charles Ives (1874-1954) was the most original of the pioneering American composers. While others were imitating European Romantic traditions, he experimented with atonality in a parallel universe alongside the Second Viennese School. Even Schoenberg was in awe of his achievements, remarkable for one who was an insurance broker by profession. His four Violin Sonatas, composed between 1910 and 1920, are prickly little masterpieces that explore polytonality and polyrhythms (the violin and piano often play at cross purposes and independently of each other) besides using popular American tunes.

The Third Sonata, at 23 minutes, is the most substantial. The brief Fourth Sonata, entitled Children’s Day At The Camp Meeting, is however the most popular. Songs sung at Sunday School and revival meetings are relived, notably Jesus Loves Me. The link between Ives’s sonatas and symphonies is found in the First Sonata, which quotes Watchman, Tell Us Of The Night, a major theme of the Fourth Symphony. The central movement of the Second Sonata is a joyous barn dance with Turkey In The Straw and Sailor’s Hornpipe mixed up with bluegrass fiddling. American violinist Hilary Hahn and Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa give close to definitive performances which should bring these uncommon works new friends.

GRIEG String Quartet No.1/ Holberg Suite
Australian Chamber Orchestra
BIS SACD-1877 / ****1/2

The music of Norwegian nationalist Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), strongly influenced by the folk traditions and dances of his homeland, lends well to treatment on the strings. His From Holberg’s Time, better known as the Holberg Suite, originally conceived for piano, is very popular in its string orchestra form. The Australian Chamber Orchestra gives a very spirited and rhythmically incisive account of its five movements, based on baroque dances, that is equal to the best. Also well-known are the Two Elegiac MelodiesThe Wounded Heart and Last Spring – which sound poignant with the right mix of melancholy and nostalgia.

The big work here is leader-violinist Richard Tognetti’s arrangement of Grieg’s First String Quartet in G minor, an underrated piece that contains some of his best music. The first and fourth movements are linked by a motto theme which rings familiar because it also appears in the finale of the famous Piano Concerto. This is a stirring account that fully exploits massed string sonorities, thus surpassing the original conception. As an encore, Tognetti’s solo violin is heard to heartrending effect in Erotikk, a short but beautiful Lyric Piece, transcribed from Grieg’s sets of piano miniatures. String lovers should not miss this.

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