GLIÈRE: Eight Pieces for Violin and Viola, Op. 39 (arr. R. Porfiris); BRUCH: Eight Pieces for Violin, Viola, and Piano, Op. 83 – Anton Miller, violin/ Rita Porfiris, viola/ David Westfall, piano – Miller-Porfiris Duo, 54:00 (9/12/13) ****:
The Miller-Porfiris Duo offers up a rare aspect of Romantic composer Reinhold Glière, best known for his brilliantly colored stage and orchestral works, especially the mammoth Third Symphony, Ilya Murometz, which has had something of a cult following in the stereo era. Here, we have a quieter, gentler Glière, writing for an instrument with which he was intimately familiar, given that his musical education began with violin studies in his native Kiev. In fact, Glière’s chamber music shows a decided bias toward string instruments: there are four string quartets, three string sextets, and an octet, plus works for doublebass, of all instruments.
Another feature of the Eight Pieces (originally for violin and cello) that’s unusual—since Glière’s most familiar music is strong on Russian folk elements—is the composition’s neo-Baroque trappings. The work is arranged, like a Baroque suite, as a series of movements with overtones of stylized dance, including a very Bach-like Gavotte and an opening Prelude that seems like a Russian take on Bach’s Preludes and Fugues. True, subsequent movements have a much more Romantic bent: a tender Berceuse; a crooning Canzonetta; and finally an impetuous Impromptu and Scherzo followed by a dazzling Etude. And some of the tunes do have the nature of Russian folk melody, whether original or borrowed. Yet the intimacy of the work plus the skillful polyphonic writing give the whole an appealingly archaic flavor that seems unique in Glière’s output.
If Glière’s Eight Pieces (1909) is an early entry in the back-to-Bach movement that would come into full flower after the First World War, Max Bruch’s Eight Pieces of 1910 is a High Romantic work that could have been penned thirty or even forty years before. Again, it’s a suite, but rather than the clearly abstract nature of Glière’s work, Bruch’s seems to be a series of little character pieces in the tradition of Schumann’s Fantaisiestücke and Fairy Tale Pieces. Like this latter work, Bruch’s was originally scored for clarinet, viola, and piano and written for Bruch’s clarinetist son, Max Felix. Despite Bruch’s self-proclaimed aversion to the piano (odd, since that was his own instrument), the writing for all three instruments is beautifully idiomatic. The ensemble writing is also astute: in Bruch’s hands, the trio makes beautiful music together.
As with all of Bruch’s lovely late music, there is an air of tender melancholy about many of the individual pieces, especially No. 3 and No. 6, both marked Andante con moto; No. 6 also bears the title Nachtgesang (shades of Schubert). If you still think of Bruch as a one-work wonder of a composer, you really should get to know Bruch’s lovely chamber music, including his late String Quintets and Octet, written at the very end of his long life. And of course Eight Pieces.
Despite their youthful appearance in the photo adorning the inside back cover of this CD, the Miller-Porfiris duo is composed of seasoned musical professionals who met while studying at Julliard more than twenty years ago. Both violinist Miller and violist Porfiris studied with storied musical names (Dorothy DeLay, Franco Gulli, William Lincer). They’re widely travelled as performers and teachers and now serve as associate professors at Hartt School of Music in Connecticut, along with their colleague, pianist David Westfall. Obviously, the three have played together before, as evinced by the wonderfully smooth ensemble work in the Bruch. And while the Bruch is widely available in the clarinet version, this is the only rendition I know of with violin. The work has a different sound profile here, a bit less mellow, with more surface sheen, thanks to the timbre of the violin. As for the delightful Glière, it’s not widely available in any form, so this well-engineered recording of Rita Porfiris’ skillful arrangement is very welcome.