An intelligent program and fine performances make this an attractive proposition even in a highly competitive field.
“Lifelines” = GRIEG: Violin Sonata No. 1 in F Major, Op. 8; LISZT: Two Elegies; FRANCK: Violin Sonata in A Major – Lea Birringer, violin / Esther Birringer, piano – Rubicon RCD1007, 60:52 (2/216/18) ****:
While the Grieg and Franck sonatas don’t seem to be natural disc mates, the pairing is not new. However, the programming of the little-recorded Elegies by Liszt make this a CD worth hearing and potentially owning.
First, a bit of background on both the performers and the Rubicon Classics label, which are probably new to most listeners. Lea Birringer made her solo debut at the Berliner Philharmonie at the age of fourteen and since has performed at a number of well-known music festivals such as Salzburg and Lugano, winning a few awards along the way. Her sister Esther Birringer studied with Cécile Ousset among others. Both sisters are committed chamber musicians. As to the Rubicon label, it touts itself as a “label offering truly collaborative partnership for musicians” while being “free from major label decision making inertia and internal pressures.” Rubicon has an interesting catalog, including a recent release featuring Wolf-Ferrari’s I Quatro Rusteghi“The Four Curmudgeons”) with European Opera Centre.
The Birringers write that they have brought “three representatives of the High Romantic period together who influenced one another and who also created or further developed many of the elements that are now recognized as typical of Romanticism.” However, what makes this disc compelling for me is that it charts the evolution of Romantic chamber music through the works of three very different composers. As Grieg himself wrote, “the first sonata is naïve, heavily influenced by other composers. . . ,” of whom Schumann ranks prominently. It does not represent the later nationalist composer Grieg nor the more harmonically daring Grieg of the last years. Instead, the sonata sounds like the product of Early German Romanticism, right down to its insistent formalism. The long-winded last movement develops its main theme almost to death. Grieg puts the main melody through the expected paces, including a fugato and all sorts of modulations and permutations, before he concludes that he has done his duty by it. Even so, overall the sonata is a graciously tuneful, charming piece.
Though Grieg is sometimes described as a miniaturist, he did work successfully in larger forms, including the Violinand Cello Sonatas, the G Minor String Quartet, and of course the beloved Piano Concerto. And while the usually generous Liszt complimented the young Grieg on his 1865 Op. 8 Sonata, as an adherent of the New German School, Liszt had little time for strict sonata form. The Two Elegies(1875 and 1877/8) are indeed elegiac—restrained, ruminative, lyrical—but also typical Liszt in their harmonic adventurousness. They provide the perfect, though rather unexpected, bridge to the next work on the program, Franck’s great A Major Violin Sonataof 1886, written as a wedding present for the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. Like the Liszt pieces, the Sonatais richly chromatic in its harmonies. Unlike Liszt, however, Franck readily embraces the classical forms and techniques of an earlier time, such as the imitative counterpoint of the rondo finale. The A Major Sonata also showcases Franck’s use of cyclic musical gestures as a unifying device, the searing third movement (Ben moderato: Recitativo-Fantasia) revisiting themes from the first two in a way that caused Vincent D’Indy to speak of the work as representing the “purest model” of cyclic technique in sonata form.
The performances are quite fine, though the Franck may lack that last degree of Gallic elegance you find in the best performances. For one thing, the last movement is taken at too fast a clip, especially the final pages with their dramatic reiteration of a theme from Movement 3, resulting in a certain glibness. But even in such a crowded field, with so many great performances of the Grieg and especially the Franck to choose from, the shrewdly programmed Liszt makes this album a keeper for me. The excellent recorded sound, by the way, is a product of Saarländischer Rundfunk and the company’s fine recording venue, the Großer Sendesaal.