William Bolcom (b. 1938) claims that his primary musical loves are the voice and the violin. He composed his First Sonata in 1956, setting the stage for his penchant for combining abstract musical forms with those bearing descriptive or thematic titles. The first movement, Legend, evolves into a fiery, aggressive statement. Bolcom recalls the “youthful energy” of the piece, which he later edited and revised rather heavily. The second movement is marked Nocturne and utilizes slides and a theme that proceeds stepwise, all rather dark. Its middle section becomes skittish, with high harmonics in the violin. Then the music breaks off only to resume in the declamatory style of the first movement. The last movement opens like Beethoven, marked Quasi-Variations: Scenes From a Young Life. The mood is midwestern, a bit of doxology from Virgil Thomson.
The Second Sonata (1978) is dedicated to the memory of jazz-fiddler Joe Venuti. It was violinist Sergiu Luca who provided the connection to Venuti, and the Aspen Music Festival provided the venue and the impetus for a piece for small ensemble. Bolcom incorporates many jazz effects, like alternate right and left-hand pizzicati, double-stop slides, and all sorts of buzzing harmonics. The music opens with Summer Dreams. Bluesy; then Brutal; Fast is an improvisation on a small interval, like a minor second. The solemnly lyrical Adagio leads directly into the last, wistful movement: In Memory of Joe Venuti, smooth, audacious, dazzling, just a bit cocky.
Sonata No. 3 (1993) was written for the seventy-fifth birthday of the famed violin teacher Dorothy Delay. It opens with a solo in the style of Ravel’s Tzigane, fully in homage of violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. The title means weird or bizarre, and the mood conveys one’s feelings after having witnessed a heavy drama, say Macbeth or the march of current events. Heavy, uncompromising going. Violinist Soroka, a pupil of Heifetz, negotiates the slashing, driven figures with severe single-mindedness. To paraphrase Rachmaninov’s reaction to Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata: I feel I’ve been beaten with sticks. The Andante lightens the mood a bit. The third movement scherzino has the most unusual marking, Like a shiver–attacca. Its eerie brevity leads to the Moderato, risoluto, al’Arabesca, with its Eastern tints and dark tango atmosphere.
The Fourth Sonata (1994) is perhaps the most traditional, having been composed for Cynthia Birdgenaw and Henry Rubin, both violinists. The brief Allegro brilliante is followed by White Night, a Christmas tune inspired by Danish folk music. Slashing effects and spiccato bowing mark this movement, a restless, modal period, despite its aspirations for sleep. The Arabesque returns to the Moorish influence Bolcom cherishes, maybe an influence from Henry Cowell. So, too, the Jota–allusions ot Falla–projects a rambunctious Spanish style upon us, a fine frenzy that Soroka and Greene manage to carry off with suave finesse.
— Gary Lemco