POULENC: Violin Sonata; FAURE: Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major, Op. 13; RAVEL: Violin Sonata; Tzigane – Arabella Steinbacher, violin/Robert Kulek, piano – Orfeo C 739 081A, 74:13 [Distrib. by Qualiton] ****:
Arabella Steinbach (b. 1981) is a Munich-born violin virtuoso who has made a name for herself in the performance of French music, having inscribed the two violin concertos and the Spring Concertino of Darius Milhaud. Steinbach has likewise recorded the Shostakovich concertos; the Khachaturian D Minor Concerto; and an album, “Violino Latino,” a collection of Spanish and South American pieces, with pianist Peter von Wienhardt. A pupil of Ivy Gitlis, Ms. Steinbacher plays on the throaty, so-called “Booth” Stradivarius (1716) lent her by the Nippon Music Foundation. With her accompanist, the Latvian-born Robert Kulek–who studied with Claude Frank and Boris Berman at Yale University–she has already claimed the Ravel Sonata in G as her especial, Gallic strong suit.
This all-French program (rec. 7-10 May 2007) opens with the 1943 Sonata by Francis Poulenc, dedicated to the memory of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. In urgent, rasping tones, Steinbacher establishes her virile sympathy for this rhythmically active, often expressive work, iconoclastic in its avoidance of strict sonata-form. The Intermezzo, with its Spanish flavor, exploits guitar effects that correspond to the Lorca quotation inscribed in the score. The writing remains spare, economical, pointedly lyric, especially with the keyboard’s pulsating accompaniment touched with chords from Debussy. If a hint of mortality passes through the Intermezzo, the Presto tragic makes the tinge of melancholy plain, even in the midst of the pungent, hectic strokes that pass in feverish array. Wicked impulses alternate with melodic fragments, perhaps a tear of sentiment. The driven, frenetic impulse culminates in a violin recitative, then a slow dissipation of energy ensues, a gradual series of enervated gestures that resolve themselves into a dew.
The Faure A Major Sonata (1876) has had only inspired genius to realize it, from Francescatti and Grumiaux, to Thibaud to Heifetz. Steinbacher joins this elite cadre of Faure acolytes with an elegant reading of passionate lyricism and intelligent ensemble. The ardent nature of the melos more than suggests Schumann, with his own debts to Beethoven. The semi-mystical ambiance that characterizes Faure’s best chamber music spills out here, too, in the modal, expressively plaintive writing and Steinbacher’s razor-sharp, fluid attacks. The same, rarified expressiveness saturates the Andante, built on chords of the seventh and ninth that extend our harmonic world into the realm of the Symbolists. The cool panache of the Scherzo glides over the 16ths and staccati without a flutter or false gesture, the raindrops occasionally redolent of Brahms. The final Allegro quasi presto maintains that nostalgic, haunted, fin-de-siecle atmosphere pervasive in Faure, of incense burning for a passing way of life, Monet’s waterlilies.
Despite Ravel’s proclaimed aesthetic that the violin and piano remain incompatible instruments, Steinbacher and Kulek mange nothing but a lovely, thin-lipped symmetry of expression in their realization in this plastic, demure work, whose occasional orientalisms hint at the Trio in A Minor. G Major manages to clash gently with other, passing tonalities in cross-rhythmic and often mesmerizing textures. The keyboard enjoys the post-Lisztian color contours of water-pieces fertilized with pungent, semi-jazz riffs. Steinbacher’s violin wends a sweet, self-absorbed song over the proceedings, a dream from Coleridge’s Mount Abora. A strumming blues guitar effect opens the second movement, whose slinky, purring, New Orleans sound might belong to Stephane Grappelli. The music breaks into an intimate “stride” sequence, rife with bravura, percussive effects and syncopations, a variant of “Am I Blue?” as sung by Eartha Kitt. The music ends cyclically, the former themes mixed in perpetual motion, a cross between the G Major Piano Concerto and Tzigane. The striking half-step between G and F-sharp creates a slinky tension that extends into the increased momentum of the piece until it suddenly, without warning, dissipates into space.
The 1926 Tzigane has had a long list of splendid virtuosos ply its Hungarian-gypsy ethos, from Francescatti to Ricci, Heifetz to its inspiration, Jelly d’Aranyi, and the tragically short-lived Ginette Neveu. Steinbacher bites into every measure, singing, wailing, alternately a chanteuse and an alley cat. Rarely has a violin’s G-string been tested, punished, or pampered so thoroughly and at once. After the lassu section, the piano’s harp and cimbalom figurations take us to the friss, so the csardas can invoke a gypsy orchestra in its full cups. A glittering, rakish, audacious cascade of virtuoso sounds, the Steinbacher performance will sear the feathers off any audiophile’s sound system while raising the temperatures of all who care to listen.