MENDELSSOHN; JANÁČEK; SCHUMANN Violin Sonatas
Whether one can hear shades of Schumann’s nervous collapse within his D minor Violin Sonata is very much up for discussion, but what is indisputable is the emotional and stylistic range of this ambitious four-movement work, not to mention its sheer soul. So, as the overlapping element between these two young violinists’ recordings, it’s given me some particularly pleasure-filled and fascinating listening. For, while you couldn’t put a whisker between their tempi, that’s where the similarities end.
There’s an exciting, on-the-edge quality to the Schumann’s first movement under the fingers of Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma (on the ‘Mlynarski’ Stradivarius of 1716). Sonorous of timbre, with her bow really biting the strings on those first double-stopped chords, it’s a big, bold performance with just a hint of internal torture about it, matched perfectly by Robert Kulek on the piano. The contrast between her and Greek-Japanese violinist Noé Inui (on a Tommaso Balestrieri instrument of 1764) couldn’t be much more pronounced; miked slightly wider, his opening is elegant, controlled and softer of attack. Notable from the off is a sense of real partnership with pianist Vassilis Varvaresos.
The comparisons get really interesting in the work’s third-movement chorale variations, though. Noé’s reading of the first bowed presentation of the theme (1'01") is almost classical in its poise, his tone a bright, clear A-string one. Lamsma meanwhile has gone for an intense, husky, covered-sounding tone (1'01"), and actually from here on it’s through Lamsma’s colourings that a sense of developing narrative is most keenly felt, beginning with the way in which her tone flowers into the ensuing double-stopped section (1'55"). Not that Inui isn’t thinking of narrative, I should say; when the theme appears in high, thin, tortured minor-key form he throws us an eerie surprise, delivering it in a far-from-beautiful – menacing, even – bow-near-the-bridge scratchy whisper (3'06"). Lamsma is far tamer at the same moment, opting simply for thinner-toned, plaintive beauty (2'58"). Then, both recapitulations sound like a relieved, tender homecoming in their own particular ways. And that’s the thing: they’re just very, very different. Perhaps Lamsma’s warmer, expansive, more passionate reading ultimately gets closer to Schumann but there’s something undeniably attractive about Inui’s lighter, leaner interpretation.
Inui and Varvaresos have paired their Schumann with Richard Strauss’s early Sonata in E flat, but there’s no marked difference in their approaches towards ‘The First and the Last Romantic’. Their Strauss sounds pleasant, controlled and elegant, but I’d have enjoyed some less studied, more impetuous moments.
The other pair make a better fist of their own Romantic contrasts. Lamsma is effortless, crystalline and supple in the outer movements of Mendelssohn’s F major Sonata, punctuated by a simple, sincere Adagio in which Kulek in particular shines. Then it’s all change again as she adopts a slightly wild, Slavic singing quality for Janáček’s 1914 work. Ultimately, Lamsma’s recording is the one that most convincingly does what it says on the tin, ie ‘epitomises three key stages in the history of Romanticism’. Still, though, Inui’s Schumann does linger in the mind.