RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Edvard GRIEG (1843 - 1907)
Violin Sonata No 1 in F, Op. 8 [21:56]
Béla BARTÓK (1881 - 1945)
Sonata for solo violin (1944) [27:01]
Richard STRAUSS (1864 - 1949)
Violin Sonata in E flat op. 18 [29:27]
Vilde Frang (violin), Michail Lifits (piano)
rec. 17-20 October 2010, Queen’s Hall, Royal Library, Copenhagen. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 9476392 [78:49]
Like so many other world-class violinists Vilde Frang started taking lessons very early and was invited by Mariss Jansons to make her debut with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra at the age of twelve. I heard her some years ago playing Prokofiev’s second concerto and was amazed, not only by her impeccable technique - which is something one takes for granted nowadays - but for her innate musicality and sense of style. Her debut disc for EMI with the Sibelius and Prokofiev’s first concerto received glowing reviews (review review) and this new disc only confirms that impression.
The programme is quite unusual. Do these composers have anything in common? Well, in fact they have. Grieg and Strauss were both fairly young when they composed their sonatas, Grieg was 22 and Strauss barely a year older. In both cases it is youthful, somewhat turgid music, full of vitality and promising well for their future. Grieg and Bartók have their folk music background in common, clearly discernible in both their works. Even though the link between Strauss and Bartók is weaker, it was when Bartók heard the Budapest premiere of Also sprach Zarathustra in 1902 that he decided to devote his life to composing.
The Grieg sonata flows with youthful freshness in the first movement with a Norwegian touch. The Norwegian element is far more assertive in the down-to-earth fiddling dance of the second movement, where Frang is tremendously assured and rhythmically alert. The third movement is full of thematic ideas and whirls forth with infectious flair. It’s a brilliant conclusion to an utterly stimulating work. The third sonata, more formally rounded, may be a greater master-piece but here, already, Grieg very distinctly shows his mettle.
With the Bartók sonata we move to a quite different world. Commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin and completed in March 1944 it is one of the composer’s last works. There are dissonances aplenty but also passages of immense beauty. The fugue is certainly tricky but fresher and more lively than most fugues. Balm is offered in abundance in the third movement, Melodia, which opens with a phrase that evokes memories of the slow movement of Brahms’ Double Concerto. Then it wanders down its own path - and very beautiful it is alternating brittle woodwind and rounded cello-deep melodies. The finale is the folk-dance equivalent of the Grieg sonata’s second movement, only even more uninhibited and unpredictable. The folk-music roots are never far away in Bartók’s music.
The first movement of Strauss’s sonata has the same exuberance as Grieg’s and an even more elaborate piano part. It’s the work of a young romantic where the blood pulsates wildly. The simplicity of the second movement is only temporary. Soon the music storms away, only to give way for what the title of the movement suggests: an elegant improvisatory excursion over arpeggio chords in the piano. The sombre opening of the finale is also a smoke-screen: this soon disperses and we are exposed to jolly caprices as well as a broad romantic canvas, painted with powerful brush-strokes.
Vilde Frang’s playing is overwhelming, natural, fluent and flexible. I wouldn’t say that charm is the first word that comes to mind when talking of Bartók’s solo sonata but Ms Frang’s playing has that elusive quality in whatever she approaches. Menuhin wrote in his autobiography, quoted in the liner-notes by David Nice: ‘when I saw it … I admit I was shaken, it seemed to me almost unplayable’ If ever Vilde Frang had similar thoughts there is not a trace of it. I have not made any comparisons for this review, simply because this coupling is, as far as I have been able to find out, unavailable anywhere else. But from the very first bars of the Grieg sonata and throughout this very well-filled disc, there is no doubt that we are listening to a master violinist. Michail Lifits at the piano seems to be her twin soul. With recorded sound out of EMI’s most exalted drawer this is a disc that goes to the top-ten-list of violin recordings. Give us more of Vilde Frang, please, EMI!
Give us more of Vilde Frang, please, EMI!