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Reviews: Strauss, Enescu: Violin Sonatas - Holthe, Aspaas

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Reviews: 6

Site review by akiralx March 26, 2007
Performance:   Sonics:  
Outstanding coupling in excellent sound, with both instruments ideally balanced. The Strauss was composed around the time of his early tone poems and is an agreeable piece, if hardly ranking among his best works. Holthe and Aspaas play superbly - the competition here is clearly Chung and Zimerman on DG, but comparisons are not in any way to the detriment of the newcomers, and their recording is more ideal.

The Enescu is a rhapsodic work containing quarter tones in places, rather amorphous alongside the Strauss but still enjoyable, even if it doesn't quite hold the attention as well. One simply enjoys the melodic cells rather than waiting for big melodies - and as violin playing this performance is really top notch. Recommended.

Site review by Castor April 1, 2007
Performance:   Sonics:    
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Site review by Polly Nomial April 12, 2007
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Review by krisjan March 17, 2007 (7 of 7 found this review helpful)
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Review by Beagle March 23, 2007 (9 of 10 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
Excellent musicians, good sound, interesting music (especially Enescu).

If we live in the golden age of anything, recording-wise, it is the Golden Age of Re-issues -- typically all-too-familiar repertoire by yesterday’s headliners. The new label 2L therefore has my gratitude not only for making beautiful audiophile recordings, but for making NEW recordings featuring surprising repertoire by fresh talent. Until I heard him play, Follesø was just an intense-looking guy on a cover photo, now he is my epitome of what a violinist should be; same for Marianne Thorsen. And now here’s Kolbjørn and Aspaas, a marvelous pair of musicians who are totally synched into one another’s playing. (And on another 2L with its shrink-wrap still inviolate, Janowski and Plagge await.) And, miracle of miracles, just when I’ve almost spun the silver off of Borac’s Enescu discs, 2L produces these sonatas. Yes, I’m on an Enescu jag (and only tolerate Strauss)….

Before listening to this disc, I put on 2L’s beautiful Bartók/Follesø, and cued up the Sonata for violin & piano there, just to hear the sound. The sonata there and here both begin with a pronounced burst of piano, followed by warm violin. The acoustics are very similar (both are Sofienburg church, Oslo). The soundstage on this disc is a bit deeper and a wee bit more resonant than the Follesø disc. The pianist seems to be almost facing the listener, with the treble to the far left and the heavy strings to the right, while the violinist dominates centre stage; I had expected the two musicians to be placed left and right, but having them both more or less in the centre perhaps helps unify the music. One of my favourite moments is when piano arpeggio and violin pizzicato become a single fabric of sound. The spatial positions are better defined in the Enescu piece, due perhaps to the nature of that music (Strauss dishes up a thick dollop of Viennese Schlag). When the piano is at full-throttle as it is in the Strauss piece, I feel a bit of vibration coming up through the floor to my toes: obviously small ensemble need not mean small sound. In summary, the venue and miking are very kind to this most intimate sort of ensemble.

What is a sonata? One can listen to a violin sonata as the most minimal pairing of two musicians playing together, or as a low-budget violin concerto. Ironically, a sonata may or may not be in ‘sonata form’ (and probably isn’t). These two sonatas could both be called Late Romantic, but that really doesn’t tell you much, because even baroque sonatas can be lyrical and a bit unruly. Other than Kolbjørn and Aspaas, a violin and a piano, the only common thread is Brahms – and that is a thin one.

RICHARD STRAUSS: Nice Kid Crosses Over to the Dark Side
Like violinist Kennedy, most composers don’t need a first name, but with Strausses, you have to specify. As near as I can determine, Richard Strauss is no relation to the waltz mafia run by Johann Strauss I, II and III -- but he wasn’t above throwing in the occasional waltz, usually with a wink and a nudge (Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos). Brahms complained that he walked in the shadow of Beethoven, poor Richard grew up in the shade of Brahms plus Wagner. These two giants had fought each other like elemental forces for decades, and succeeded only in dividing the musical world into two opposed armies: music-for-music’s-sake Brahmsians and music-as-philosophy Wagnerians. Brahms was still alive and vigorous when Strauss wrote this sonata; Wagner was dead but Wagnerianism was all the rage. Strauss’s father had been a fierce anti-Wagnerian and young Richard was an ardent Brahmsian until just this point in his life, when the Wagnerian spirit took possession of his soul. This sonata appears to record his defection:

Opus 18 opens with a very bold Brahmsian motif, almost a direct quote (but I can’t remember of what). The music then ebbs and flows onward with a Brahmsian pulse – but stretched out as if played at three-quarter speed. Before the first movement is finished this pianistic pulse is overshadowed by long lyric soliloquies from the violin. Like a beached whale, the Brahmsian spirit makes a few final protests, while the ghost of Wagner dances in victory overhead. The following Andante cantabile is weary and full of unhappy love or something – I can imagine an Irish tenor singing it. But then, along comes the third movement! It could be a sketch for the Ring Cycle: the piano starts ‘way down in the dark underworld, and then burbles up, up, UP in a wedge of chromatic chord upon chord into the Light – an embryonic Also Sprach Zarathusta? Quite fun!

This sonata was written in the same year as Strauss’s ‘Tod und Verklarung’ – which was a reply to Wagnerian critics who thought his subject matter so far had been too shallow. Only 24 years-old, he was a rising star. Two years before, his Symphony no. 2 had premiered in New York, and Richard had taken over the director reins from the great Hans von Bülow, conductor-extraordinaire and Wagner cuckold. The rest is history, a history pretty much dominated by Richard Strauss.

GEORGES ENESCU: Parisian Playing the Gypsy or Gypsy Playing Parisian?
Romania is just to the east of Hungary (and almost three times larger, and invaded Hungary at one point). I mention this because Enescu was born in the same year as Béla Bartók. However, Enescu was not a ‘Romanian Bartók’, he was more a globe-trotting Parisian who took holidays in Romania. “I was born in Romania and when I was seven I was studying in Vienna…. After years of study in Vienna I came to Paris…. I naturally absorbed French influences to a certain extent which, combined with the German, gave further character to my writings.” He was a world-famous violinist (he taught both Yehudi Menuhin and Arthur Grumiaux), and he must have been an amazing pianist also, judging by his writing for that instrument.

In the Opus 25 sonata “dans le caractère populaire roumain”, Enescu is obviously wearing a Romanian hat: perhaps a romany cap*. It opens with treble piano arpeggios evocative of cembalo (hammered dulcimer), and the singing violin line weaves patterns which we all instantly recognise as ‘gypsy’. I don’t think it is fair here to distinguish Roma from Romanian, the two musics have obviously stolen from one another and interbred. Note however that this gypsy is Parisian, and he writes gypsy music the way Debussy writes Balinese: with sophistication.

The first movement is labeled ‘malinconico’, which might refer to romany angst or to “dos”, the Romanian cultivation of melancholy (cf Russians, who are only happy when they are weeping). The second ‘mysterioso’ movement begins with a light tap-tap-tapping in the piano (tinker’s hammer?) and an airy violin sound which might be voiced by a pan-pipe… it is scary and beautiful. The third movement is irrepressibly ‘dancy’: if your toes aren’t tapping you have a problem, dial 911. If you have small children or an excitable wife, put the breakables away. At this point the term ‘gypsy’ no longer applies; this is 20th century music of the better sort.

I said Brahms might be a common thread: When little Georges was around the age of seven, he got to play a bit of Brahms for Johann himself, when the great man visited his school.
*Romania has the world’s largest known Roma population.
Note: I received this disc gratis from 2L for reviewing -- but I would've bought it otherwise, as I have the Follesø and Thorsen discs.

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Review by threerandot May 6, 2007 (4 of 4 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
This disc pairs the team of Kolbjørn Holthe (violin) amd Tor Espen Aspaas (piano) in two Sonatas, one by Richard Strausss and another by Georges Enescu.

The Strauss sonata was written by the composer when he was 23, which seems to have a great deal of influence by Beethoven. The team on this disc play these works with ease and the Strauss sonata is a harmonicaly rich, romantic, virtuoso show piece. The violin comes from the center channel and Holthe prefers to use a portamento effect at times and displays a very high singing tone. The work has a youthful vigor and even the influence of Liszt and Brahms can be heard. Although Strauss may have followed traditional sonata forms, the piece really feels more like a fantasia. The music is just as dynamic as it is atmospheric. The opening movement is engaging, the second tender and tranquil, with the finale energetic and lively that shows these performers in a playful dance. Virtuosic flourishes close this sonata.

The work by Enescu was written by the composer when he was 45 and is the much darker and more mature work of the two featuring strong Romanian and Gypsy influences, which is a nice contrast to the Strauss work. The first movement is exotic, colorful and melancholy in spirit. The second movement features virtuosic work by the violinist exploiting various colors and nuances, making the instrument sound darker, then more open, and at times, sounding like other instruments, perhaps a flute or clarinet. The dreamy quality of this movement leads into a lively gypsy dance at its close. The finale is an uptempo rustic dance with plenty of vituosic athleticism from both of the performers. The violin comes from the fronts in this second sonata in a warm and enveloping sound, the piano coming from all surround speakers.

Of both of these works, I think I prefer the Enescu with its darker colors, gypsy rhythms and its experimental qualities exhibited on the violin. These are both excellent performers and hopefully we will see more recordings of them from 2L in the future. When I listen to this disc I prefer to lie down and shut my eyes.

The sound presented here is a fine example of what the 2L team can do. Smooth, warm and natural with a pleasing, open acoustic with violinist and pianist both coming right into your living room. Highly Recommended.

(This review refers to the MCH portion of this disc.)

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