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Agnes ZIMMERMANN (1847-1925)
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3 in G minor Op. 23 (1879) [28:28]
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in A minor Op. 21 (1875) [28:21]
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 in D minor Op. 16 (1868) [27:45]
Mathilde Milwidsky (violin), Sam Haywood (piano)
rec. 2019, Middlesex University, London TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0541 [84:36]
Born in Cologne but based in London from childhood and a naturalised British citizen, Agnes Zimmermann is barely known today but was a celebrated pianist in her time, working as a chamber musician with the likes of Clara Schumann, Joseph Joachim and Alfredo Piatti. She was not a prolific composer, and her sparing legacy hasn’t been helped by much of her music having been lost. These three substantial violin sonatas form the core of her extant work, appearing here in world premiere recordings.
Presented in reverse order on the CD, I decided to tackle these works in chronological order, starting with the First Sonata composed when Agnes Zimmermann was 21 years old. The opening is strikingly confident, and you can immediately hear high technical proficiency in the way the music is put together. The main influence in this piece is Schumann, though there are moments in all three sonatas that hints of Beethoven, Brahms and others, and Mendelssohn is also present as a stylistic guide. This is the idiom in which Zimmermann was composing, but her ideas are strong enough to give each movement an independence of identity that is undeniable. This sonata has a lovely Andante tranquillo third movement, but my feeling is that the younger Zimmermann had more fun with the outer movements, and the energy in the Allegro vivace finale is palpable.
There is more refinement in the Second Sonata, which isn’t quite as overtly bravura as the first in its opening movement. A contemporary critic noted that “the fresh subject of the ‘Scherzo’ in D minor, with the melodious Cantabile, in G major, combine to form a movement which will doubtless become the favourite in every concert-room where the sonata is heard.” There is a Victorian sentimentality to that Cantabile which no doubt resonated with listeners, and there is indeed a delightfully playful character elsewhere. A hymn-like Andante cantabile follows, the piano writing suggesting orchestral lines, and the violin part building on a magnificent rising opening melody to deliver something that would work well as a concerto movement. The finale here is an Allegro grazioso with transparent writing for the piano and a conversational interaction between the players.
The Third Sonata leans more towards Brahms in its sonorities, and in the booklet Peter Fribbins also notes similarities to the piano sonatas by George Alexander Macfarren that were dedicated to Zimmermann. The themes are again distinctive and indeed distinguished, and enthusiasts for the kind of romantic intensity found in the music of CÚsar Franck will also discover much to enjoy here. A warmly expressive and song-like Andante affetuoso is followed by a Scherzo in triple time which will remind you of Chopin. The piano is often as if not more important than the violin in numerous passages in this sonata, but this is a definitely a work that should find its friends on the concert stage. The finale is a dramatic Allegro appassionato and would have made a find conclusion to this disc – I think chronological presentation would ultimately have made more sense for this programme.
The recording for this release is decent enough but not entirely fault free. To my ears the violin is favoured a fraction too much over the piano, which sounds like a well-used and mildly twangy instrument. This is a sound that is not entirely inappropriate for the music, but it sounds as if the engineer has tried to hide it a little. This is a shame, given Zimmermann’s own credentials as a pianist and the lively nature of her writing for her instrument, but the results are tolerable enough. I was struck by the quality of the composition in these works when sampling them online, and the works in their entirety have proven equally impressive. You can add the name Agnes Zimmermann to your list of female composers who deserve to be programmed more often, and with these three sonatas now in the public domain there is no excuse for their absence.