Leoš Janácek (1854-1928)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Violin Sonata No 3 in D minor, Op108
Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Sonata for Violin and Piano No 1, Op21 Sz.75 BB84
Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), Fazil Say (piano)
rec. 2022, Teldex Studio, Berlin
Reviewed as a download from a press preview
Alpha Classics 885 
The great pity with this new recording is that both performers take such an understated and cautious approach to the works included …
No! Of course they don’t!!
This being Pat Kop and Fazil Say every note is wrung dry for emotion and passion and sometimes downright wildness. Even the repertoire chosen, with the exception of the Brahms, is a detour from the ordinary. Both performers on their own consistently serve up startlingly original if not iconoclastic performances. Put together they are absolute dynamite.
In terms what of each brings, Pat Kop’s peculiar intensity is well known enough to need little introduction from me. As for Fazil Say, I like to think of his contributions as deriving from a composer’s perspective on the works. I greatly enjoyed his Beethoven sonata cycle precisely for the same reasons others will loathe it – the creative freedom, the placing of mood and imagination sometimes ahead of the strict letter of the score. When it works, it brings stunning revelations and all three works included on this programme respond vibrantly to his insights – as clearly does Pat Kop.
The sleeve note to this release takes Pat Kop’s preferred form of a dialogue. Once the reader wades through the fairly toe curling love-in between pianist and fiddler with which it begins, there are some genuinely helpful insights into the performers’ approach. Pat Kop in the liner notes can often be surprisingly and refreshingly candid. You would never know from this performance that she struggles to integrate the second movement of Janácek’s bewilderingly underrated Violin Sonata with the rest of the movements. Her tone in this movement is little short of heartbreaking whilst Say magics up a suitably moonlit night scape for her to sing against.
That Janácek sonata could have been written for this pair with its quixotic moods and its Janus like character looking back with wistful nostalgia one moment and anticipating jagged modernism the next. It was written fitfully between 1914 and 1921 and whilst an impressive roster of big names from Josef Suk to Gidon Kremer have taped it, it has hardly established itself much in the concert repertoire.
As performers, Pat Kop and Fazil Say have a tendency to divide the crowd and whilst it is fair to say that I am an admirer of both, it also needs to be said that their reputation tends to exaggerate the less conventional aspects of their music making. A case in point is the performance of the Brahms D minor sonata on this release. Only the most crusty of purists will find that they deviate too much from the score. There is a fluid, liquid quality to their playing that makes many accounts of this work sound stiff and fusty. Kopatchinskaja speaks in the notes of ‘Impressionism’ and on reading that I found myself thinking Really? Hearing it played was a different matter. This is a very different Brahms and one that, once heard, is hard to unhear though why I would want to I have no idea. It drips with the gentle sadness of a rainy day in summer, a sadness that is just the surface of greater sorrow. For, whilst both pianist and violinist are capable of thundering, most of what is striking about this version is how much of it is delivered in intense whispers. The passage that leads back to recapitulation of the first movement is quite heavenly in this regard. Or the prayerful mood Pat Kop finds in the slow movement’s opening tune while Say paints a picture as solemn as a church at dusk behind her. Or the strangely rueful games of the un poco presto third movement before the finale opens the emotional floodgates. Even in this movement, the playing of Say and Kopatchinskaja is more concerned with seeking out endless shades of colour than beating us into submission. If your expectations of these two musicians is exaggerated, over the top gestures then sample this sonata as its range of subtleties will astonish. I often find that performances of it struggle to unite all its elements, with the finale, in particular, an awkward fit with the other movements. Not so here. The finale flows with the same fluidity with which the work opened and the lyricism of the middle movements sings through even its most turbulent pages
The playfulness and invention characteristic of Say and Kopatchinskaja is a perfect fit for the more unloved of Bartók’s two violin sonatas. The terrifying grandeur of the sonata for solo violin’s reimagining of Bach has tended to overshadow the pair of works written for the more conventional combination of violin and piano and the second tends to overshadow the first which is the one recorded here. The word conventional is not a word easily applied to either this work or this account of it. The sheer ease with which Kopatchinskaja in particular absorbs every technical difficulty and plays them with the same facility and ease as though she were playing Mozart is most remarkable. Likewise, Say refuses to see the piano part as in any way merely percussion. Both of them have their ears keenly attuned to the weirdness of Bartók’s inspiration. This is Bartók out of the strange fastnesses of Central European forests alive with spirits both malevolent and spectral. On a less fanciful note, both pianist and violinist relish the folk tang of the music, sensationally so in the finale’s closing section. But what lingers in the memory is how much a work that can often seem grey and uninviting is coloured with such a variety of different moods and tints. Hearing a performance as electric as this it is hard to believe this work isn’t as famous as the string quartets or the solo violin sonata. There is a lingering notion in some quarters that Bartók is just dissonance and abrasive noise. Performances like this blow that nonsense away.
I don’t imagine that those who are allergic to either or both of these musicians will have bothered to read this review whereas devotees most likely already have it on order. For those in the middle, these are frankly sensational performances of mostly overlooked repertoire recorded in luscious sound. Buy this recording and what you will get is the very best of two of the most innovative players making music today with none of the downsides.
Previous review: Lee Passarella
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