Refraction = DVORAK: Four Romantic Pieces, Op. 75; ASPLUND: One Eternal Round for 2 Violins; MOZART: Violin Sonata No. 26 in B-flat Major, K. 378; THORNOCK: A Crust of Azure for Violin and Piano – Alexander Woods, violin/ Aubrey Smith Woods, violin/ Rex Woods, piano – MSR Classics MS 1689, 74:30 (6/24/20) [www.msrcd.com] ***:
Recorded 2019-2020, this recital assembles diverse pieces for violin, among which we get two world premieres in works by Christian Asplund (b. 1964) and Neil Thornock (b. 1977), which when juxtaposed against the classic music of Dvorak and Mozart, may reveal much of our own prejudices. Ostensibly, the canvas presented means to highlight “canonic violin works from the past and recent compositions that explore variegated play. . .through myriad lenses.”
The program opens auspiciously enough, with Antonin Dvorak’s 1887 Four Romantic Pieces, first introduced to me courtesy of Uto Ughi. Lushly silken, the first piece, Allegro moderato, in B-flat Major, proffers long, fluent lines that display the rich tone of both Woods, violin and piano, an expressive Cavatina. An explosive Allegro maestoso in D Minor ensues, a Slavic dance in 2/4 of power and finesse. The Romance in B-flat presents an idyll, although its passion does not restrain itself. The last movement, a G Minor Larghetto, repeats a pattern we know from Schumann’s Op. 23 Nachtstuecke, a slowly diminished dynamic of elegiac, sighing phrases.
Quickly on the heel of the appealing Dvorak, we have the Woods’s first contribution to contemporary music, the 2015 One Eternal Round by Asplund. The two violins engage in minimalist, short-note values, which sound like instruments’ tuning up in diverse phrase lengths, harmonic impulses, and metrics for ten minutes. I found myself thinking of the word “Round” not so much for its musical association of quick imitation, but of the direction Dante’s sinners take in their descent into Inferno. Bartok, at least, found as a vehicle for two solo violins the intrinsic energies of his native Magyar tradition. That said, while the composition didn’t connect with me, it was still masterfully executed—the violinists have demonstrated being absolutely top-flight.
We then detour to Mozart’s 1781 Sonata in B-flat Major, a work that marks the composer’s move from Salzburg to Vienna. After the piece by Asplund, the work comes as an Angel of Mercy: gentle, melodic, and infinitely charming, My old musical mentor, Dr. Phil Friedheim, used to posit a possible conversation between Mozart and our ambitious, contemporary composers, having Mozart ask, “Whose work do you think people will seek out in the future, yours or mine?” In Mozart’s first movement, besides role-reversals for the two parts, the development section of the Allegro moderato has a poignant modulation into C Minor. The second movement has our performers’ respecting Mozart’s desire for a real operatic moment, Andantino sostenuto e cantabile. The Rondo enters with the piano, and then Mozart applies his own virtuosity in 16ths, triplets, and dance motifs in dotted rhythm. We might hear a horn call or two before this brilliant tour de force ends, barely remembering to bring back the main tune just before the final chords.
The last piece, A Crust of Azure (2013) by Thornock, has the immediate benefit of his having learned from Bartok’s Duos for Two Violins, the first section Tremulous Whirl’s shimmering in Roma impulses. The middle movement sound like ersatz Ravel, the music’s offering the eponymous Refraction of Sky. The influence of Olivier Messaien enters into Lavender Shroud, an attempt at lyrical expression, alternately hazy and chorale laden. An ambitious three-movement work, A Crust of Azure is the result of a desire to provide a vehicle for Alex Woods. And the desire to extend the violin tradition is commendable. But the one ingredient for music that endures remains melody, and without it, the art form may have energy but little heart. The capacity to create melody seems to have passed to Broadway and Hollywood and away from Carnegie Hall. But perhaps I am incurably Old School.