Silhouettes — Anna Fedorova (piano), Dana Zemtsov (viola) — Channel Classics

by | Jul 3, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews | 2 comments

CLARKE: Sonata for Viola and Piano; DEBUSSY: La Plus que Lente (trans. E. Strakhov); Clair de Lune (trans. V. Borisovsky); Beau Soir (trans. A. Gretchaninov); WERKMAN: Suite for Viola and Piano, Op. 51;  MILHAUD: Sonata No. 1 for Viola and Piano, Op. 240; ENESCU: Concert Piece for Viola and Piano – Dana Zemtsov,  viola/ Anna Fedorova, piano – Channel Classics CCS 423320. 71:45 (6/19/2020) [Distr. by PIAS] ****:

Recorded June 2019 by Jared Sacks, this album selectively celebrates the spirit of France, the term “silhouette” meant to suggest a form of déjà vu.  It becomes soon apparent that the chosen repertory intends to expand our knowledge of viola repertory, especially with the inclusion of the 1919 Sonata for Viola and Piano by Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979). Clarke served as viola player in Sir Henry Wood’s Queen’s Hall Orchestra. Her studies with Sir Charles Stanford and friendship with Ralph Vaughan Williams led her to know the music of Debussy and Ravel. Her own Sonata quotes from Alfred de Musset’s “La Nuit de Mai.”  Given the anti-feminist tenor of the times, Clarke published her sonata in 1921 under then pseudonym “Anthony Trent.” 

In three movements, the work opens, Impetuoso, with a declaration that suggests both a folk idiom and hints of Ernest Bloch. Passionate and lyrical, the music often embraces a grand gesture, marked by a melancholy concomitant with the post-WWI sensibility. The pearly influence of Debussy’s G minor Violin Sonata seems evident. The middle movement, Vivace, conveys a witty delicacy we associate with Ravel, touched with the modal exoticism of that composer. Zemtsov packs a throaty, rich and rasping tone to counter the sensuous chords from Fedorova. Another sound influence here could be Charles Martin Loeffler. A moody, chromatic line begins the last, expansive movement, Adagio – Allegro, and again we feel a strong kinship to sensuous elements in Ravel and Debussy. The close microphone captures Zemtsov’s heavy breathing in the early pages of this expressive score. Fedorova adds a lyrical parlando while Zemtsov plays tremolandos. The Allegro resumes the folk- dance quality of the work, now sounding like Bloch cross-fertilized by Percy Grainger. The late pages assume a manic character, offset by a tender melody worth the price of admission. Throughput the piece, we have been made aware of the virtuoso quality of the music and its able interpreters. 

The post-War sensibility embraces Debussy’s La plus que lente of 1910, whose tempo indication Molto rubato con morbidezza signals the passing of a way of life. Paul Verlaine’s 1869 poem Clair de Lune is set in D-flat by Debussy for his Suite bergamasque, composed between 1890-1905. The arrangement does little to add to the natural luster of the original piano solo, but the viola does sing, even in harmonics.  The recital will end with Debussy’s youthful setting (1878) of Paul Bourget’s Beau Soir. Jascha Heifetz, too, liked to intone this lovely chanson in his own, precious manner. 

Fedorova and Zemtsov perform Suite for Viola and Piano by the Hague-born composer Arne Werkman (b. 1960). In four movements based on a traditional Baroque suite: Allemande, Branle, Pavane and Tarantella, Werkman imposes modern harmony – close to that of Bartok and Shostakovich – on ancient forms. The first three movements bear a grudging lyricism, while the last dance, Tarantella, clearly wants to submit to us a modern counterpart to Paganini.  The composer dedicated the piece to our performer, Dana Zemtsov.

In the similar spirit of ‘ancient airs and dances,’ we have Darius Milhaud’s 1944 Sonata No. 1 for Viola and Piano.  The various dances, French and German, receive a gracious, resonant series of treatments, clearly in the Bach mold of a grand musical sophisticate. The composer blithely entitles his ‘German’ dance by the Gallic designation, a Francaise, in close imitation. The touching Air leads to a throaty, vigorous Final, that, to my taste resonates with the Baroque spirit the way Fritz Kreisler imposes a bit of Vienna on al he surveys.  

Most impressive, Georges Enescu’s competition piece, Concert Piece for Viola and Piano (1906) reminds us of that composer’s broad culture, his absorption of Romanian and French styles into an original, expressive idiom. The shifting moods of the piece engage us in a fervent rhapsody, virtuosic in both instrumental parts and not without moments of burnished melody. I was reminded, in auditioning this work, of my conversation with the late Janos Starker, when I asked him which musicians he most admired. “If you ask me, whom I read with the most pleasure,” he retorted, “I say, Brahms. If you ask me whom I consider the most complete musician, I say, Enescu!”

—Gary Lemco  

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