Ravel
Sonata for Violin and Piano
Bloch
Poème mystique for Violin and Piano [Sonata No.2 for Violin and Piano]
Janáček
Sonata for Violin and Piano
Christina Åstrand (violin) & Per Salo (piano)

CD recorded February 2011 in Studio 2, Danish Radio, Copenhagen
DVD recorded 5 November 2011 in Concert Hall of the Danish Radio
CD No: ORCHID CLASSICS
ORC100022 [CD & DVD]
Duration: 2 hours [CD & DVD]
Reviewed: June 2012
This is a most distinguished package, featuring two of Denmark’s leading musicians who make up a regular duo. Christina Åstrand studied with that wonderful lady Tutter Givskov, who long led the Copenhagen Quartet: I remember speaking with her about her teacher some years ago. Also a pupil of Gérard Poulet, she leads the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. Per Salo has a busy solo career and plays the organ in addition to the piano. Together they have recorded the sonatas by Niels Gade and a Nielsen disc. Here they have chosen three sonatas which stand rather at an angle to the central repertoire.
Ravel counted a splendid violinist, Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, among his friends and this Sonata (his second, in fact) was dedicated to her, although for health reasons she was unable to give the premiere and George Enescu partnered the composer instead. Jelly d’Arányi and Myra Hess gave the British and American premières, in the latter case just beating Joseph Szigeti and Ravel at the post. Of these famed godfathers and godmothers, only Szigeti made a recording – sadly when past his best – and no out-and-out classic record exists. In recent times many duos have taken up its challenge: its basic coolness seems to appeal more to a modern sensibility. I have particularly enjoyed the performance by Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian and Emmanuel Strosser (Lontano).
Let me say at once that this Scandinavian interpretation is in the same league. Per Salo opens the first movement with the utmost simplicity and Åstrand follows suit. You feel they have a definite point of view and they stick to it, with the violinist stressing purity of tone. The central ‘Blues’ begins beautifully rhythmically and throughout the pianist shows a fine touch: in the louder parts both players keep a good control of their sound. Salo introduces the finale, ‘Perpetuum mobile’, very precisely and it spins along nicely: Åstrand cannot quite match Phillips-Varjabédian’s astonishing bowing in this movement, but then no-one else does either, of those I have heard. The Danish duo brings out the Gershwin flavour of this movement very well. As I had not managed to get round to the Hyperion version by Alina Abragimova and Cédric Tiberghien, I thought I would try it. There the violinist often has a wider vibrato than Åstrand, although she can play with a pure tone when she wants to. She deploys more colours and she and Tiberghien are more demonstrative, with bigger gestures. I prefer the Danes overall, as their relative restraint seems closer to what Ravel was aiming at, in the 1920s.
Ernest Bloch was an excellent violinist, a pupil of Ysaÿe among others, and wrote well for all the stringed instruments. His Second Sonata has never matched up to his First for popularity – only Rafael Druian and Jascha Heifetz recorded it in the good old days – and in general his music is not much played these days. We need a revival. This Sonata plays continuously, although it falls into a number of recognisable sections, too many for its own good: one fewer of both faster and slower sections, and an expansion of the beautiful slower section towards the end, would have made for a more cohesive and effective whole. Significantly, the artists use that lovely slow passage for the title music of their DVD, and Åstrand plays it gorgeously, with real Innigkeit.
Although this is not one of Bloch’s avowedly Jewish works, one very intense section does call his Jewish mode to mind. I wonder if he was thinking of Ysaÿe’s Poème élégiaque (which also influenced Chausson’s Poème, written at Ysaÿe’s request) in adopting this free form and the title Poème mystique for his piece. Åstrand plays the opening of the Sonata, where the violin is on its own, with pure tone, laying out the main theme which is a sort of motto throughout the work. The challenging piano part is no problem for Salo and the artists work well together, right up to the intense fortissimo ending. It adds up to a superb performance, which anyone interested in Bloch should investigate.
Janáček’s Violin Sonata is particularly successful in the outer movements. The players make a heroic effort to capture the composer’s individual syntax, which comes naturally to Czech musicians. In the ‘Ballada’, it crossed my mind that Åstrand, in particular, was relating the music too much to the general run of Late-Romantic violin music – but if she finds that quality in the piece, why not? She plays beautifully, as does Salo, on whom a lot of the stylistic burden falls; and the little Allegretto before the finale is nicely turned. Like the performance by Repin and Lugansky, this one is so musical that I am won over, despite my allegiance to several Czech versions.
The recordings on the CD are excellent, apart from one or two slightly glassy patches of violin E-string tone in the Bloch, where Åstrand is piling on the intensity. The same passages give a modicum of difficulty on the DVD, so it is clearly a case of this particular violinist giving even the production team a spot of trouble. The DVD is very enjoyable. For each work the lighting is different and the musicians wear a change of outfits. For the Ravel, the illumination is quite stark and they wear blue. For the Bloch, the ambience is deep red, while for the Janáček the natural colour of the wood panelling in the Concert Hall of Danish Radio is stressed. The three performances, obviously very similar to those on the CD, have the same strengths and negligible weaknesses. Åstrand plays by heart and Salo plays on a Fazioli piano with a lovely touch. No piano is specified for the CD performances. The booklet is well presented.

 

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