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Philipp SCHARWENKA (1847-1917)
Trio for Violin, Viola and piano Op.121 (1913) [17:03]
Sonata for viola and piano Op.106 (1899) [17:16]
Duo for Violin and viola with piano accompaniment Op.105 (1898) [13:38]
Four Concert pieces for violin and piano Op.104 (1898) [24:30]
Laurent Albrecht Breuninger (violin), Lise Berthaud (viola), Oliver Triendl (piano)
rec. 2018, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin
Notes in German and English
CAPRICCIO C5391 [72:24]

“In his brother’s shadow.” These words, by Philipp Scharwenka himself, open the notes to this release, and this is as true today as when these words were written. Xaver Scharwenka (1850-1924) is hardly a household name even now but – thanks to the likes of Earl Wild, Michael Ponti and Seta Tanyel amongst others – he has a reasonable showing on disc. His older brother Philipp’s compositions run to over 120 opus numbers. They were highly regarded in their time, performed by the musicians of the calibre of Hans Richter and Arthur Nikisch. Recordings have been few and far between. Sterling have issued some of the orchestral works (CDA1071-2, review, CDS1079-2, review). Oliver Triendl, the pianist on the present disc, has also recorded the Violin Sonatas on Tyxart with violinist Natalia Prishepenko (TXA16075, review). The reception has been positive; the names of other composers appear for comparison (Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Dvořák are mentioned) but do not detract from the quality of Scharwenka’s muse. Scharwenka was certainly open to the music of others. At the Berlin Conservatory which Xaver Scharwenka had founded and where Philipp was composition teacher and artistic director, the range of music taught was wider than the more conservative established Academies (the Academy run by Joachim or the Stern Concervatory). It was through Philipp Scharwenka that his pupil Otto Klemperer first heard of Gustav Mahler.

The disc opens with a very late work, the Trio for Violin, Viola and Piano. His earlier trios were cast in the usual violin, cello and piano mould but here he explores the different timbres of the viola to beautiful effect. The opening movement has a pastoral feel with a gently flowing E minor theme. Some chromatic development leads to an equally genial motif in G major before the more agitated and short-lived development section. Even here the piano’s arpeggios and runs do not venture into the virtuoso territory that Scharwenka’s brother adopted. There is a brief interlude featuring clear contrasts between a declamatory funeral march and a more tender piano solo. This leads directly into the rondo finale, full of vigour and energy; it alternates between a jaunty but restrained march-like theme and a more relaxed major key theme with short semi-quaver motifs. The trio fades into calm tranquility in E major only to end on a sudden decisive minor chord.

This and the other viola works on this disc were inspired by the German violist Hermann Ritter (1849-1926). He had a strong influence on modern viola performance practice, and wrote many original works and transcriptions for the instrument. It was Ritter who gave the first performance of the Viola Sonata that follows. Although ostensibly in three movements, the work runs without a break. The opening is an extended fantasia with many changes of mood and declamatory passages for the viola. The strident first is contrasted with a more lyrical, questioning theme, almost reminiscent of Schumann. The Allegretto that follows is beautiful in its melancholy lyricism, rich with chromatic turns of harmony and with a short but spirited central section. A brief cadenza for the viola leads to the final Allegro, vigorous and colourful, developing the questioning motif from the opening fantasia into a new theme, confident and driven, strident as it answers the piano’s fanfare chords. Just as you expect, the virtuosity of this movement to bubble over into a grand passionate finish, Scharwenka turns down the heat and the opening phrases of the Sonata are heard before the closing quiet pizzicato chords. This is gripping stuff, gloriously romantic. The viola repertoire is not so vast that such wonderful music should languish in obscurity.

The violin rejoins the ensemble for the Duo for Violin and Viola, premiered in March 1898. Though it is referred to as a trio in some later editions, the piano part – though not without interest – is clearly an accompaniment. Like many a concert piece of the period, this one is cast in two sections, slow then fast. The opening Andante sostenuto, almost baroque-like, is an earnest dialogue between violin and viola. The attractive dance-like Allegretto con spirito that follows is trips along in a lively fashion. The dialogue continues here as the instruments throws the motifs from one to the other; there are many moments of dramatic tension for contrast but nothing challenges the amiable nature of the piece.

To close the disc, the violin takes centre stage. The Four Concert Pieces for Violin and Piano were premiered at the same concert in which the Duo was first heard. The composer’s wife, Marianne Stresow (1856-1918) was the soloist. It was for her that Scharwenka wrote his late violin works, the Concerto Op. 95, Suite Op. 99 and the two Sonatas Opp. 106 and 110. The opening Legende opens with a lovely cantilena over simple piano chords; the forward drive begins to build and very quickly we are out of the rolling foothills and into the craggy peaks, the violin’s passionate song soaring over all before we clear the passes and a gentler landscape is reached. I am tempted to say that we reach a village with merry villagers dancing a Mazurka but it is probably best to end the story-telling here. Suffice it to say, a vigorous and highly effective Mazur follows, full of fire and virtuosic writing for the violin. Do not expect the Nocturne to inhabit the world of John Field and some dream-like song of the night. This is altogether darker stuff, with something of the feel of Chopin’s great C minor Nocturne but with a very different harmonic language, almost like a slow Hungarian rhapsody at times. The denizens of this night scene are active creatures, however, and the scurrying nature of those who conduct their business in the shadows is evident in some of the writing. There is nothing scurrying about the Alla Polacca, the grand polonaise that rounds off the set, full of virtuoso flourishes and heart on sleeve melodies. I think violinist Laurent Breuninger adds a little extra flourish to bars 11 and 12 of opening violin cadenzas, very tastefully I have to say (and it may be that a different edition contains the higher notes). It is no consequence; this is masterly playing from both players.

All these musicians give strong, characterful performances, vital and passionate, with sympathetic phrasing and sumptious tone from all instruments. Viola player Lise Berthaud has been favourably reviewed on these pages for her Harold in Italy with Leonard Slatkin (Naxos 8.573297, review) and her Brahms album (B Records LBM023, review). I am very impressed with her performance on this disc. Both violinist Laurent Albrecht Breuninger and pianist Oliver Triendl have made a case for unfamiliar composers, the latter in De Beriot and Kreutzer. Triendl has a raft of unknowns to his name – in the field of chamber music alone we can hear Sandro Blumenthal, Robert Fuchs, Joseph Labor, Felix Draeseke and Walter Rabl amongst many, many others in a huge discography. Like Ms Berthaud, both men are worthy advocates for this music. I highly recommend giving this disc a hearing.

Rob Challinor



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