Violin Plus One

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

Or two, or six. There’s no end to what you can do, and with whom. Today we check out recent releases that feature at least one violin up front.

Beethoven wrote ten sonatas “for piano and violin.” Never mind that for him the instruments were usually equal partners; this was a traditional 18th-century designation, and publishers hoped they’d sell more copies that way. Only two are frequently performed today: No. 5 in F, “Spring,” and No. 9 in A, “Kreutzer.” They’re quite different from each other. (Indeed, No. 9 is quite different, period—Berlioz called it “outrageously unintelligible.”) Leading younger artists have lately given more attention to the rest: I’ve got a nice set from Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien, recorded live at Wigmore Hall. Now Chloë Hanslip and Danny Driver have wrapped up their complete set for Rubicon with vol. 3, Nos. 2, 9, and 10. I’m making it my new reference.

Ibragimova and Tiberghien give fine performances too, but Mr. T.—aided and abetted by the Wigmore engineers—consistently overpowers his colleague. To hear truly equal partners, try Hanslip and Driver. They have carefully worked out common approaches to phrasing and articulation, expressive heat, and balances. Plus, they’re style-conscious! These sonatas were composed throughout Beethoven’s lifetime, so performers should use everything in their toolkit to point up his stylistic evolution. After all, if you’ve gone shopping for the complete violin sonatas, you clearly want to get beyond the Greatest Hits and compare Early (Nos. 1–4) with Late (No. 10). A bit of Sonata No. 2 from Hanslip and Driver shows how skillfully they communicate its Classic roots and the fresh spirit that Beethoven brought to what was still a Hausmusik genre:

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You can hear Hanslip’s HIP touches, e.g., vibrato used sparingly, but also the dynamism of her collaboration with Driver. What really surprised me was just how effectively they approached the deeply Romantic “Kreutzer.” To my ears, these two bring off the drama of its first movement with more insight and panache than certain much more celebrated couples, e.g., Perlman and Ashkenazy. Listen:

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Here’s a 2016 video with some of their “Spring”:


To catch Ibragimova and Tiberghien closer to the top of their game, get their new Hyperion recording of the Franck and Vierne violin sonatas. The big fish here is César Franck’s Sonata, written in 1886 as he continued to flee the confines of French church music, an escape highlighted a few years earlier by his Piano Quintet, discussed here. (Around this time he also wrote a symphonic poem, Psyché, and began sketching his monumental D-minor Symphony.) The Violin Sonata jettisons conventional first-movement “energy” in favor of an altogether dreamier approach:

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Those opening bars contain a motive—an ascending melodic fragment—that helps determine the structure of the whole movement and will be retained in the three movements that follow. Here it is again, familiar yet transformed, at the launch of the finale:

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Violinist Eugène Ysaÿe had commissioned Franck’s sonata; twenty years later he asked Louis Vierne, better known as an organist, for another. Vierne, who as a teenager had won a Conservatoire prize for violin performance, was happy to supply it:

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The album is rounded off with attractive single-movement works by Ysaÿe and Lili Boulanger. Her 1911 Nocturne comes tinged by Impressionism (listen for her quotation of a textbook example). It’s not quite modern, but it isn’t Vierne.

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Speaking of modernists: violinist Jennifer Koh has recorded an entire album of music by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952). It includes a sonata of sorts, other chamber works, and a sort-of-concerto (for excerpts click on the link above). She begins with Tocar (2010) for violin and piano, an intimate dialogue of which the composer writes:

One of my first ideas for Tocar, about the encounter of two instruments as different as the violin and piano, was the question: how could they touch each other? . . . Both instruments move forward independently but also keep an eye on each other. I imagine a magnetism becoming stronger and stronger—the piano becomes more mobile—which draws the violin texture towards the piano. . . .

The concerto, Graal théâtre (1994), explores a greater gulf, that between creator and performer. It suggests a vast, abstract arena in which those contending forces may yet realize a connection. Paul Griffiths, who has written eloquently about the generative impulses behind this work, summarizes it by saying

On the one side, then, the [Grail] of as-yet-unrealized music, where the action is that of the imagining mind and the traveling pen, moving in a world where instruments and performers are all still in the future; on the other, the théâtre of a concert hall, a show, a virtuoso converting difficulty into astonishment, an audience in attendance and attention.

The version heard on this recording is for violin and chamber orchestra; Gidon Kremer recorded the version for full orchestra with Esa-Pekka Salonen (who perceptively discusses Saariaho’s position in Finland’s creative scene here). I offer these links for further reading because it clearly takes an effort to find your way into her musical universe, which is full of subtle, unusual sounds but devoid of traditional melodies or rhythms. Once you get there, you may want to stay, at least for a while.


Speaking of un-beaten tracks: my favorite Baroque violinist is not who you think. It’s Amandine Beyer, who leads the superlative ensemble Gli Incogniti. They provide more characterful interpretations per square inch of barroco than anyone else I’ve ever heard. You can almost smell their energy.

Gli Incogniti—based in Italy, at least temperamentally—have enlarged their membership slightly, allowing them to give us an album of Haydn concertos including two for violin plus the popular C-major Cello Concerto. In the video below, Beyer explains a bit more about how, as Baroque folk, they maneuvered themselves toward the Classic era. But before you wander into their universe, get a load of the sumptuous sound of Beyer on the C-major Violin Concerto:

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The Cello Concerto is equally delicious. I am tempted to recommend every single one of their other albums. Okay, just two: BWV … or not? The Inauthentic Bach, offers a playful if slightly disjointed romp through works assigned Schmieder numbers in spite of their doubtful provenance. Also, check out Vivaldi: Concerti per due violini, which absolutely crackles with culturally appropriate energy.

Isabelle Faust also crackles on her newest release, Bach Violin Concertos. Faust didn’t start out as a Baroque violinist, but then she made a landmark recording of the solo Sonatas and Partitas. Recently she’s upped her game, deftly adopting gut strings and other HIP contrivances. This double-CD set includes several pleasant surprises. Bach left behind authentic materials for just three violin concertos, BWV 1041–43. But scholars are quite certain that other works began life as violin concertos before Bach revised them. They survive only in those revisions; here Faust reconstructs their original forms. Among the works offered are BWV 1052R, 1056R, and 1060R, which came down to us as harpsichord concertos. Also, Ouverture (Suite) No. 2, known today in its version for flute and strings. Also, two transformed trio sonatas plus various single movements from church cantatas, lifted by The Master himself from instrumental works now lost (one of which, the Third Brandenburg, is definitely not lost!). See David Smith’s worthy review for more details, including his spot-on assessment of Faust’s performances.

I have enough space only to praise Faust’s collaborators, the Akademie für alte Musik Berlin, its director Bernhard Forck (playing secondo as needed), and Xenia Loeffler, whose oboe and recorder solos are a highlight. Professor Peter Wollny contributes indispensable liner notes; if you get the download, make sure you are able to access them.

Two clips: the first is the opening of BWV 1052R, the second a blissful oboe-violin duet from BWV 1060R.

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Oh, and a bonus clip:

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Take a violinist to lunch this week!

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