Fairytales quartz QTZ2157

Fairy Tales
Elisabeth Turmo (violin, Hardanger fiddle)
Elena Toponogova (piano)
rec. 2022, Cambridge, UK
Quartz QTZ2157 [58]

This disc encapsulates the challenges facing young artists at the start of the performing and recording careers. The liner cover thanks those who supported the Kickstarter campaign that raised funds for the recording with Elisabeth Turmo (violin and Hardanger fiddle) and Elena Toponogova (piano) owning the copyright of the disc with Quartz Music Ltd the manufacturers and distributors. Both the players are fine accomplished musicians so how to make their recital stand out in a crowded marketplace? One popular solution is to create a theme or narrative that binds a diverse programme such as here together. Hence the title “Fairy-Tales” which frankly the music offered struggles to justify. Look no further than the longest work on the disc – a 15:25 Concert Fantasy on themes from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Yes Gershwin wanted his opera to have the spirit of folk music with characters singing in a manner and style that they might have done living on Catfish Row. But that is very different from a fairy-tale. So best to approach this as an interesting mixed programme of largely unfamiliar music.

For the second time in the last twelve months I am reviewing a disc where a young Norwegian violinist performs on both the classical violin and the Hardanger Fiddle. Turmo is a dynamic player on both instruments although I am not sure the four solo Hardanger pieces – well-played though they are – quite ‘fit’ the whole programme. The disc opens with three Norwegian works for violin and piano with Ole Bull’s A Mountain Vision an impressive opening and one that does fit the bill of the disc title very well. Outside of Norway Bull’s music remains stubbornly little-known especially when directly compared to his compatriot Grieg. But he was every bit as committed to preserving and using Norwegian folk-culture in his own music. Bull’s writing for a standard violin in the spirit of the Hardanger fiddle is well caught in both the music and the performance here even when refracted through the lens of a Romantic violin. The work is a sequence of folk tunes arranged by Bull and includes his most famous (a relative term) work – The Herd-girl’s Sunday. The liner note fails to mention this and in fact is generally rather too brief and limited in the information it contains.

Johan Halvorsen was another Norwegian composer/violinist. Again like Bull and Grieg he found the rich tradition of Norwegian folk music to be a liberating force against the dominant influence of Germanic classical dogma. He wrote a series of Three Norwegian Dances which can be heard in their orchestral version in various performances but notably as part of the Chandos series of Halvorsen’s orchestral works. Direct comparison of orchestral versus piano accompanied versions are not of much use but the style of the solo violin playing can legitimately be compared. Marianne Thorsen for Jarvi plays with a wonderful ease and sweet tone. Turmo on this recital is a more overtly muscular player with a rustic energy in her playing that suits this music – and indeed the four solo Hardanger fiddle pieces – very well. The very end of the Halvorsen dance does strain her technique. Before them is a brief – 3:38 – piece by Norwegian composer Trygve Madson called A Piece for Peace. What this has to do with the world of fairytales is again unclear. I had not heard any music by this prolific composer and certainly this rather bland piece – a song-like melody over a simple accompaniment – does not encourage me to hear more.

I do not know the nuances and particular technique required to play Hardanger fiddle as opposed to the classical violin but Turmo’s playing certainly sounds idiomatic and wholly engaging. The only thing you do notice with a ‘block’ of such fiddle tunes is how the ‘drone’ strings on the fiddle do tend to mean that all the pieces are in the same key!

Throughout the recital Toponogova is an attentive and sensitive accompanist but the nature of most of the music offered here is as violin display with the piano in a secondary role. After the four violin solos she is given a brief moment ‘centre-stage’ with one of Medtner’s Fairytales – Op.26 No.3. This thoughtful and reflective work is given an atmospherically pensive performance which provides an effective change of mood between the Norwegian folk music that came before and concert fantasies that follow..

Pairing the two Kreisler excerpts from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade – Chanson Arabe and Danse Orientale works well. The proof reader for the back cover of the CD could not decide how to spell Scheherazade – opting once for the correct spelling and then on the adjacent track preferring Scheherezade. Further confusion follows by conflating Danse Orientale and the anglicised Oriental Dance into Dance Orientale. Both excerpts are nicely played although here Turmo could have employed more sinuously seductive tone to greater effect. Efrem Zimbalist’s Concert Fantasy on Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Le coq d’or’ was completely new to me. This is an extended – 9:31 – work that covers most of the themes people familiar with the orchestral suite from the opera will recognise. The score can be viewed here – interesting to see that Zimbalist dedicated this 1921 work to his teacher Leopold Auer so no surprise it is a brutally hard work and one that needs to be played with fearless attack and bravura temperament which Turmo does pretty well. Although I had not heard this work before an online search reveals various other versions. The performance associated with the IMSLP score above played by Haik Kazazyan is significantly more brilliant in its execution than Turmo.

Haik Kazazyan’s recital also included Igor Frolov’s aforementioned Concert Fantasy on themes from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. As a matter of personal taste I do not think this particular work is that successful. Frolov was born in Moscow in 1937, was a pupil of Oistrakh and as well as composing was an important violin teacher at the Moscow Conservatory. My issue with this work is the inherent tension between the folk-style jazz/blues idiom of Gershwin’s miraculous score and the rather old-school virtuoso display approach of Frolov’s Fantasy. So the touching simplicity of Summertime or Bess you is my woman gets submerged in hot-house passage work or virtuoso double-stopping. The attempt to make the violin imitate a banjo looses any sense of cool or relaxed nonchalance as does the treatment of It ain’t necessarily so that follows. Perhaps in other hands this disconnect between melody and treatment could have been ameliorated but Turmo does not sound completely at home or relaxed with the vocal phrasing of Gershwin’s melodies. She does overcome the very tricky hurdles Frolov places in her way but for me this work outstayed its musical welcome. The other/more famous concert treatment of these melodies is the one by Jascha Heifetz. Perhaps slightly unfairly it is interesting to make a direct contrast in how Heifetz the arranger and player performs these tunes. These have never been my favourite Heifetz works for the same reason of stylistic tension but his genius is how to lighten a phrase, smooch a position change all with his inimitable focussed tone and fast vibrato that sounds so idiomatic in a rather palm-court way. Frolov’s treatment remains effortful and forced.

I have made no mention of the technical side of this recital yet. The engineering is good with an effective balance achieved between violin and keyboard. If the ear is drawn more to the violin that is in part due to the dominant playing of Turmo but also the nature of the writing here. The liner note written by Toponogova is simply inadequate. For some reason an extended quote about Ole Bull’s childhood is included in full (10 lines of text) whereas Trygve Madson gets 3 lines to cover who he is and the piece. I assume there was a financial limitation on the number of pages the booklet could contain but the result here is unsatisfactory – for example no recording information regarding dates or location are given, no composition dates, no details of the instruments. Lastly, no explanation/justification for the “Fairy Tales” title which does feel as though it has been shoehorned onto a programme after the event. Visiting the Quartz website does furnish a little more detail here including brief session excerpts – where we learn the recording was made in Cambridge in Summer 2022 – as well as a spoken introduction by the two performers.

Artists are having to fund, promote and produce their own recordings these days in a way that even a couple of decades ago would have seemed unfeasible. As such the amount of effort required before even contemplating playing the music deserves recognition and applause. Likewise in a terrifyingly crowded marketplace musicians have to offer something of remarkable individuality or technical brilliance to command attention. By those most demanding standards this collection falls just a little short although the playing and recording is consistently good and the programme certainly unusual.

Nick Barnard

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Ole Bull (1810-1880)
A Mountain Vision (1865)
Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935)
Norwegian Dance No.1 in D major (1897)
Trygve Madsen (b. 1940)
A Piece for Peace
Anders Viken (1898-1977)
Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935)
Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951)
Fairy tale in F minor Op.26 No.3 (1910-12)
Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962)
Two Sketches from Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherazade’ (1922): Chanson Arabe; Danse Orientale
Efrem Zimbalist (1889- 1985)
Fantasy on themes from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera ‘Le coq d’or’ (1921)
Igor Frolov (1937-2013)
Concert Fantasy on themes from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess