American Violin Sonatas – 7 July

Sonatas for Violin and Piano by Bernstein [UK premiere], Copland, Corigliano and Rorem [UK premiere]

Efi Christodoulou (violin) &
Anthony Davie (piano)

Reviewed by: Raymond Yiu

Reviewed: 7 July, 2003
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Violin sonatas by four established American composers written between the end of the 1930s and the early 1960s, including two UK premières sounds like an interesting program. Indeed the recital given by the Greek-born violinist Efi Christodoulou and the conductor/pianist Anthony Davie was certainly enterprising. The audience was given the opportunity to hear the earlier sonatas by Leonard Bernstein and Ned Rorem for the first time in the UK alongside two better known works – the sonatas by Aaron Copland and John Corigliano.

The concert opened with Copland’s 1943 sonata. Written between his two great ballet scores, Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring, it is a manifestation of Copland’s quintessential Americanism of his middle creative period – economical and yet effective both in terms of melody and harmony. Unfortunately, Miss Christodoulou, who seemed too nervous to sustain long notes, did not achieve the purity of tone required.

This was followed by Ned Rorem’s early sonata, which is witty and whimsical, at times one can hear hints of Poulenc and Roussel. In its third movement, a passacaglia titled ’A Funeral’, Rorem the songwriter is most evident – the violin given the chance to sing a lyrical lament with the piano gently rocking underneath. The idea of instrumental ’song without words’ has made numerous appearances in Rorem’s later music, noticeably the third movement of his Violin Concerto (1984) based on his 1953 song “Boy with a Baseball Glove”.

The second half comprised two sonatas more dramatic in nature. The first, Leonard Bernstein’s, was written in 1939 while he was studying at Harvard and the Curtis Institute. It may not be a masterpiece, but its importance in the composer’s development should not to be underestimated. Out of its two movements, of which the second is a set of variations on the first, come two identified sources for his later works – Facsimile (1946) and The Age of Anxiety (1949). Similarly, John Corigliano’s 1963 sonata plays an important part in its creator’s career. He won the 1964 Spoleto Festival Chamber Music Composition with this work; it also put the composer’s name on the musical map, and remains one of his most often played pieces. Its four-movement structure is well thought out, and the writing for the violin is virtuosic and idiomatic possibly due to that fact that the composer’s father was the Concert Master of the New York Philharmonic for 23 years. Miss Christodoulou seemed to give slightly better performances of these two works, and showed the virtuosity she possesses, especially in the Corigliano.

Overall, and despite the fascinating program and Anthony Davie’s elegant accompanying, Efi Christodoulou’s playing was less than satisfying. The sonatas by Bernstein and Rorem certainly deserve to be heard again – from a violinist capable of making a sweeter tone who can really make the violin sing.

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