Traum und Trauma
Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942)
Violin Sonata No.1 Op.7 (1913)
Claude Debussy (1862–1917)
Violin Sonata (1917)
Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)
Violin Sonata (1914, rev. 1922)
George Antheil (1900-1959)
Violin Sonata No.2
Friederike Starkloff (violin), Endri Nini (piano)
rec. 2022, NDR Kleiner Sendesaal, Hannover, Germany
Genuin GEN24870 [65]

What an impressive disc this is! None of the music is exactly ‘rare’ but the four violin sonatas combined here make for a fascinating and intelligent programme creating interesting contrasts and juxtapositions in the listener’s mind Then there is the playing which is just superb. Again intelligent springs to mind from both violinist Friederike Starkloff and pianist Endri Nini but to achieve their musical and expressive goals both players have formidable techniques and a willingness to play at the expressive extremes of their instruments.

The four works span the tumultuous decade of 1913-1923 and represent an early work where the composer is finding his musical feet (Schulhoff), another with the composer on the cusp of his greatest music (Janáček), a late masterpiece (Debussy) and a precocious display (Antheil). The disc opens with Erwin Schulhoff’s Violin Sonata No.1 Op.7. This is not a work I had heard before although his second sonata appeared as part of an excellent chamber music collection that received a recommended status on this website here. However the later sonata was written more than a decade after the work in question here and dates from the time when Schulhoff was writing the jazz-influenced works on which the bulk of his fame rests. The 1913 sonata is a confident and assured work written when he was just 19 years old. This is apparent from the very opening bars with the violin immediately given strikingly dramatic material imperiously played by Starkloff. Written in four ‘traditional’ movements lasting around 23:00 this is the Czech Schuhoff looking more to turn of the century Vienna as an influence rather than the Jazz that would lie not so far in the future. The liner writing about the closing Allegro molto references “erratic, capricious sequences, bucolic passages, and lyrical elegiac sections” but this could apply to the entire work. Interestingly it had to wait a full decade for its premiere – perhaps this should not be a complete surprise as the work is strikingly modernist for 1913 and you can imagine the musical establishment being somewhat suspicious of a young upstart composer writing in a manner that seems to mock tradition and convention – I loved it!

A further word here about the performers; now 34 years old, Starkloff has had a decade as concertmaster of the NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover and latterly the Sinfonieorchester Basel. Quite apart from technical/musical security of her playing, I did wonder if this decade of orchestral experience makes Starkloff more willing to embrace the tonal and expressive range of her instrument. Some soloists prefer the comfort zone of a full tone firmly projected. Starkloff can float a gossamer flautando or dig into the string with exciting dynamism, with a range of vibrato and projection to match. Likewise pianist Endri Nini is equally comfortable with Debussy’s misty beauty or Antheil muscular extravagances. Praise to the Genuin engineers who have created a soundstage with an ideal balance between the instruments in a natural acoustic that does not inflate or highlight the playing. Starkloff’s breathing can be heard but not distractingly so.

Of course the Debussy Violin Sonata of 1917 is an acknowledged masterpiece that has been recorded by all the great and the good violinists of the last century. Here is a good example of the skill of this disc’s programming. After the youthful confidence of the Schulhoff we are immediately thrown into the world of half-lights and flickering shadows of Debussy. The famous opening is played here with exactly the right ethereal elegance that makes a striking contrast to Schulhoff’s certainties or Antheil’s bombast. The entire Debussy sonata receives a performance of the highest quality – one that reinforces just what a work of genius it is. The liner again is useful in pointing up Debussy’s wartime antipathy to all things Germanic and therefore the care with which he sought to create a work free of the pervading influence of German musical culture. Part of this is reflected in Starkloff’s adaptation of her playing palette with a generally lighter tone and focussed vibrato. Likewise Nini’s piano accompaniment is a model of articulate clarity. Together this makes for a performance worthy of consideration alongside the finest in the catalogue.

Leoš Janáček’s Sonata was started well before the Debussy – in 1913 – but did not reach its final form until sometime after – the second revision played here was completed in 1922. So if the Debussy can be heard as almost a single creative ‘thought’ the Janáček has a musically and emotionally fragmented style that can be challenging to both listener and certainly performer. Another of Starkloff’s and Nini’s great skills is their collective ability to expressively turn on a sixpence; a swooningly lyrical phrase can instantly become an aggressively hard-edged melodic fragment. The liner neatly characterises this as “a tableau of shifting emotional states and gestures – with expressions of perhaps better times, short-lived happiness, expressions of doubt, vexation, quarrels..”. On top of the global upheaval the decade 1913-23 represents this was mirrored in Janáček’s personal life with the professional triumph of Jenufa in 1916 countered by the attempted suicide of his wife and his meeting in 1917 with Kamila Stösslová with whom he began an obsessive if one-sided relationship for the remaining decade of his life. No surprise then to hear so many of the compositional fingerprints in this work that would become familiar in the late great masterpieces on which much of Janáček’s fame rests. I must admit that in the past I have found this a relatively confusing work to understand – the closing movement Adagio for example has as lyrical and Romantic a melody as any Janáček ever wrote while the preceding Allegretto juxtaposes violent stabbing gestures with sudden reflective musings. Again Starkloff’s graduating of her tone and bow pressure serves the music perfectly – the contrast still shocks as it is surely meant to but in this performance it does cohere.

Coherence is not something I think George Antheil strove for. In his early twenties when he wrote his Violin Sonata No.2 it is hard not to come to the conclusion that Antheil revelled as much in the personal attention his provocative music gained him as much being driven by any kind of musical or emotional imperative. So if Janáček ‘shocks’ the listener it is because the composer had no other choice at that point in his life whereas Antheil has knowingly worked out what to do for maximum notoriety. Recently I reviewed here an excellent Naxos collection of the four Antheil Sonatas played by Tianwa Yang and Nicholas Rimmer. The playing and interpretation could not be faulted but I find I tire of what I find to be the empty gestures of the music. All the more so when Antheil telegraphs just how “modern” he is being by using ‘up-to-date’ musical styles – fox-trots, ‘jazz’ chords and the like and crashing dissonances and even a drum. Of course nothing dates quite as quickly as fashion so those same fox-trots now place the work firmly as a 1920’s museum piece whereas the other three sonatas where each composer is true to their own ideals and musical goals still sound individual and relevant. Interestingly in the context of an all-Antheil programme I just tired of his rhetoric. Here in the company of three – to be blunt – better composers the music rather shrivels. To misquote a famous film; he’s not the New Musical Messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy. However, important to say once again just how well Starkloff and Nini play the work – taking almost exactly the same time as Yang and Rimmer.  This is just a 8:48 work and as a ‘novelty’ at the end of a hugely impressive and engaging disc I can enjoy this as demonstrative of the remarkably wide range of musical styles and modes of expression that were part of the contemporary music scene.

Every single aspect of this release is absolutely top drawer but I have to say I found the violin playing of Friederike Starkloff to be especially compelling. I hope that the same artists will return to the studio for further similar surveys one decade at a time perhaps.

Nick Barnard

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