JOSEPH ACHRON: Complete Suites for Violin and Piano – Hagai Shaham, v./Arnon Erez, p. – Hyperion

by | Mar 29, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

JOSEPH ACHRON: Complete Suites for Violin and Piano = Hebrew Melody; Two Hebrew Pieces; Eli Zion; Prelude; Souvenir de Varsovie; Coquetterie; Serenade; Les sylph ides; Berceuse; Dance Improvisation; Scher; Maerchen; Liebeswidmung; Canzonetta; Zwei Stimmungen, Op. 32; Zwei Stimmungen, Op. 36; Two Pastels; Stempenyu Suite; Suite No. 1; Suite No. 2; Quatre Tableaux fantastiques; Suite bizarre; Children’s Suite; Pensee de Leopold Auer; La romanesca – Hagai Shaham, violin/ Arnon Erez, piano – Hyperion CDA67841 (2 CDs), 78:46, 79:50 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Lithuanian violinist-composer Joseph Achron (1886-1943) studied with legendary teachers Isidor Lotto (who taught Huberman) and Leopold Auer, teacher of Milstein, Zimbalist, and Heifetz. For years, Achron’s reputation survived on occasional performances by Heifetz and Elman of the Hebrew Melody, Op. 33, an intrinsically Hassidic piece composed in only thirty minutes as a result of Achron’s meeting with Salomon Boskovsky (1878-1962) in 1911, after the founding of the new Society for Jewish Folk Music. Many of Achron’s violin pieces exhibit a cantorial coloring, like his Two Hebrew Pieces, Op. 35 (1912), which combine traditional plaints and scales with modern harmonization. If a gypsy modal style informs the compositions, so do elements of klezmer, as in Dance Improvisation, Op. 37. This blend of Hebraic impulses with a desire to rival Sarasate exerts itself in Scher, Op. 42 (c. 1917), in which the keyboard, too, exhibits an idiosyncratic chromaticism that pays homage to Scriabin. Achron accommodates native folk melody with a modal style close to that of Ernest Bloch, always displayed in bravura terms by a violin master who had played the Beethoven Concerto in Berlin under Nikisch.
A nationalistic transcription, like Eli Zion by Leo Zeitlin, invests a heavily religious idea, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, with bravura coloration. The Polish waltz Souvenir de Varsovie, Op. 14 clearly has Shaham’s imitating Heifetz, Ricci, and Elman’s realizations of Wieniawski. The Prelude, Op. 13 (1904) invokes Scriabin directly, asking Shaham to present its captivating melody in ever higher octaves. The Coquetterie, Op. 15 plays as an etude for both instruments, moving to harmonics and pizzicati. The Op. 17 Serenade convinces us that Achron could sing as well as Elgar or Kreisler. Les sylphides, Op. 18, too, skips in pleasant figures, a lithe bagatelle. Berceuse, Op. 20 floats in an ether distilled of Faure and Dvorak, pure and simple. The 1919 Maerchen, Op. 46 invokes a Schumann reference, but the angular style seems closer to Medtner’s idea of a fairy tale cross-fertilized by Bloch. An eerie lyricism pervades Liebeswidmung, Op. 51 (1921), much like a Scriabin night-piece. The 1923 Canzonetta gently urges Hebrew rhythms and mincing steps. After Achron emigrated from Berlin to Jerusalem in 1924, Achron’s cosmopolitan style synthesized his German leanings with Jewish hymnody even further, producing the suave sets of Zwei Stimmungen.  The klezmer energy finds its way into the 1918 Stempenyu Suite, here marked by occasional polytonality and Bartok-like agogics. The title refers to a hero from Sholem Aleichem whose violin exploits make him a combination of Old World cantor, and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Kreisler or Yiddish Paganini. Two Pastels, Op. 44 are dedicated to Efrem Zimbalist ,and they show off that master’s capacity for rich chords and acrobatic pyrotechnics, respectively. All of the pieces (rec. 26-28 March 1996) included in Disc 1, excepting Stempenyu, had prior release on the Biddulph label (LAW 021).
The spirit of J.S. Bach permeates the often fiery Suite No. 1 (1906), Op. 21, “en style ancien.” A cross between a virile partita and a series of movements in imitation of Fritz Kreisler’s mock-resurrections of revered masters, the five-movement suite moves between D Minor and D Major in figures drawn from courtly dances like the gavotte, sicilienne, fugue, and gigue. In the course of these reminiscences, Shaham must execute ornaments, muted figures, chords in triple-stops, and rustic drone effects. The Suite No. 2, Op. 22 (1907) modulates from A Minor to A Major, passing through E-flat, that audacious usage of the tritone. En passant could pose as Bartok, in high harmonics and pizzicato. Chromatics and knotty trills mark the Menuet. Staccati dominate in the tiny Moulin or “windmill” movement, busy as Paganini’s Op. 11 or a virile violin character piece from Leroy Anderson. In C-sharp Minor at first, the Intermezzo plaintively reaches E Major, only to return to its melancholy beginning. The truly virtuosic finale Achron designates as Marionettes: Allegro molto e scherzando, a real toccata worthy of Sarasate, in high registers wild descents and upward leaps.
The Third Suite, Op. 23 (1907) bears the subtitle Quatre Tableaux fantastiques and invokes the “impressionism of Roussel and Ravel. Perhaps Dvorak and Suk are close kin. After a percussive, Spanish sounding Allegretto con grazia, the Largo e fantastico comprises the heart of the matter, a haunting, anguished melody set over a keyboard series of pedal points. Pianist Erez opens the last movement Allegro con agiliita with figures that sound a bit like Gottschalk or Godowsky about to elaborate on Johann Strauss. The actual violin melody reminds me of riffs we get from Charlie Chaplin the composer. Finally, the dance assumes its rightful gypsy character, properly pyrotechnical.
The Fourth Suite, Op. 41 (1916) has as its moniker Suite bizarre, a nine-movement pastiche in the manner of Stravinsky, particularly his violin excursions in L’Histoire du Soldat. The first movement Etincelles chirrups briefly. Quasi valse lilts at first but soon develops an askew harmony and drunken dissonance that make one uneasy. Grace indulges in pungent half-steps, staccato, then moves to a brief lyric moment and finishes pizzicato. Terasses du palais borrows from Debussy’s paint brush, a dignified ceremony. Grimaces with its twists, turns, and leaps bows to the grotesque in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire or Ben Hecht’s literary counterpart called Broken Necks. Schumann’s Prophet Bird has had a bit much to drink. Galanterie saunters romantically into stratospheric heights, the ending nostalgic. The virtuosic Pastorale plays against type, the melody in seven bar phrases and then squeaking high over watery piano arpeggios. Moment dramatique proves the longest piece, its passionate dissonance and modal scales easily suggestive of Bloch. The conclusion, Marche grotesque, exhibits textural audacity in Achron, atonal and polyrhythmic at once. A dervish dance of bright, piquant colors, it has Shaham urging high, feverish trills over Erez’s own galloping leaps and extended chromatic runs.
In 1934 Jascha Heifetz adapted the Op. 57 set of miniatures, Children’s Suite, for violin and piano. Its eight movements, short and colorful in evocative titles, makes for Achron what Schumann’s Op. 68 or Bartok’s Mikrokosmos accomplishes for their respective, creative pedagogy. Birdies has its high whistles. March of Toys might be Victor Herbert as rendered by Bartok or Frank Martin. Mama, tell a fairy tale parallels Prokofiev’s Op. 31 “Grandmother” efforts. The Top spins appropriately, moto perpetuo. The Caravan might be Achron’s answer to Borodin, oriental and languorous. Parade with presents once more echoes Stravinsky’s L’Histoire, mock-militant and raspily charming.
Homage to his teacher, Pensee de Leopold Auer allows Achron to provide a waltz to which he and the old master may dance without embarrassment. It ends with high trills and a last note in the far reaches of space. The 1913 La romanesca, a salute to an antique Spanish idiom of the 16 Century, also treated by Liszt. Eminently sweet and impassioned, the music bids farewell to a recital thoroughly engaged in the folk and ethnic energies of one of the world’s more under-rated composers.
—Gary Lemco

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