Two of the releases in Cantabel’s “Live Collection” series present the duo of Slovenian violinist Volodja Balzalorsky and German pianist Christoph Theiler in identical programs, one in Vienna on March 7, 1996, and the other in Rogaska in September 1995. In JanáÄek’s sonata, the Vienna performances of the first two movements each ran 10 seconds longer than those at Rogaška. Similarly, the first and last movements of Grieg’s sonata both took about 44 seconds longer in Vienna than did the corresponding performances in Rogaška, while the timings for the other movements and the entire Brahms sonata differed by only a few seconds, respectively. Yet the generally slower tempos in Vienna seem consistent enough to deserve notice.
In Vienna, the first movement of Janacek’s sonata sounded more kittenish than ominous, though Balzalorsky’s tone possesses the fibrous strength (and, where necessary, the richness) to express ideas of any voltage. The recorded sound (from the Bösendorfer Hall) seems a bit cavernous. I didn’t touch my dial, as TV announcers have continually warned me not to, between performances, but neither the closer miking at Rogaska nor the 10 seconds of difference between the timings could entirely explain the greater urgency of the earlier performance. In Vienna, the second movement sounded richly lyrical; in Rogaska, perhaps because of the closeness of the miking, Balzalorsky programatically, it should, in both venues. The fourth offers the violinist opportunities for mixing the vaulting with the haunting, and Balzalorsky, the disturbing interruptions may seem to some listeners to make the deeper impression, and the conclusion seems more troubling emotionally.
In Vienna, Balzalorsky and Theiler played with drive and ardor in the first movement of Grieg’s C-Minor Sonata, imparting special piquancy to the off-beat accompanying figures (even in Kreisler’s celebrated performance with Rachmaninoff, they don’t tease the violin part so impudently), and Theiler introduces the coda with a tantalizing sense of expectancy; the performance in Rogaska opens even more stormily (remember, it’s 44 seconds shorter). In fact, it’s an electrical storm, with enough voltage to knock Ben Franklin’s kite out of the air, if not electrocute its flier. But if the accompanying patterns mentioned above sound more perfunctory, the faster tempo may be responsible; the performance, for all its closeness to the microphones, nevertheless seems highly nuanced. Theiler played the simple opening of the second movement with heartfelt poetic sensitivity, which Balzalorsky’s more straightforward reading of the theme seemed to match principally in tempo; if he didn’t equal Kreisler and Rachmaninoff’s rhythmic verve in the central section, he achieved his own sort of élan. Theiler sounded equally sensitive in Rogaska—at a noticeably faster tempo in the opening measures; Balzalorsky drew, in this venue, upon the full resources of his instrument to create a glowing account of the violin part, drawing up to equal partnership with Theiler throughout the movement. The third movement sounded dramatic in Vienna, despite a somewhat slow tempo, and Balzalorsky played the yearning second theme with a sweet tone that darkened on the G string, never growing hoarse, even as the passages climbed into the string’s throatiest registers—and he punctuated it with thrilling, sharp accents. If this reading of the movement seemed to lack forward drive, the duo compensated for it in their blazing account of the last pages. Although the applause sounds tepid, it’s hard to understand why. The performance in Rogaska took a similar approach, although the first time I heard it, Balzalorsky seemed strained, but that impression faded even upon a second hearing. And he played the sighing gestures in the secondary theme with a genuine sob. Perhaps inspired by BalLžalorsky, Theiler executed a transition of exceptional sensitivity from the singing passage back to the leaping initial one. Still, the duo didn’t take off with lightning rapidity in the coda in this reading. Both performances sound as though they might have been taped in performances by Norway’s fiddling (Hardanger fiddle?) troll, Fossegrimmen.
However deeply felt their reading of Grieg’s sonata, Balzalorsky and Theiler possibly communicated with each other most effectively in Brahms’s D-Minor Sonata. Their reading of the first movement in both venues conveyed the work’s somber glow (although the one in Rogaška seems at the same time, paradoxically, slightly more subtle and slightly more magisterial), enhanced by Balzalorsky’s buttery tone, which, however, lacked nothing in tensile strength when Brahms’s angular passagework requires it. The duo gave a deeply moving account of the slow movement in both venues, too, although with the expressivity, perhaps, less forced and more directly appealing in Vienna. The noticeably quicker pace of the third movement in Rogaska’s more relaxed elegance. Yet the more headlong performance of the finale in Rogaska didn’t steamroll a wealth of detail richer than that in the Vienna performance.
Since both CDs share the same photograph and, except for the title on the cover, the same booklet—as well, of course, as the same program—listening to them elicits a question similar to the one TV announcers posed about twins and a home-permanent product several decades ago: Which twin … ? In this case, since the recorded sound seems so much edgier in the Rogaška recital, it’s tempting to give the nod to the Vienna disc, but to acquire only that one would be to miss much of depth and beauty. Both recommended.
Tuesday, June 01, 2010) – Fanfare Review
This article originally appeared in Issue 33:5 (May/June 2010) of Fanfare Magazine.
Volodja Balzalorsky Live in Concert Vol. 2: Sonatas for Violin and Piano by Franck & Szymanowski (Live in Belgrade)
The second volume of Volodja Balzalorsky’s “Live Collection” presents a recital he gave in April 1998, with pianist Hinko Haas in Kolarac Hall in Belgrade. The program opened with Karol Szymanowski’s ripely romantic Violin Sonata, a piece first performed by Paul Kochánski and Anton Rubinstein in 1909 (by way of reference, the two violin concertos come from 1916 and 1933 and the relatively popular Mythes and Notturno e Tarantella, from 1916). But however early in his production, Szymanowski’s sonata seems especially well suited to a violinist who understands the somewhat elusive though ecstatic harmonic language that underpins some of the work’s most traditional-sounding passagework (remember the way in which Szymanowski underlayered Paganini’s Caprices Nos. 20, 21, and 24 with his own rich harmonic substratum). Balzalorsky and Haas seem particularly unconstricted breathing this somewhat heavy and slightly exotic atmosphere, notably, perhaps, in the second movement. They begin the third with an energy similar to that which they generated at the opening of the first, an energy that Balzalorsky maintains at times by means of a tone just raw enough to create an occasional frisson at climactic moments. And they bring the movement to a blazing conclusion.
In Franck’s Sonata, one of the repertoire’s staples (Heifetz chose it for his last recital), they invite comparison with the great performances through the history of recording. But Balzalorsky’s ability to turn and twist his tone, and the performers’ joint sympathy for Franck’s expressive harmonic language (think of the haunting ninth chords at the opening of the piano part) and surging passages give them a strong foothold in the first movement. They slightly hold back climaxes, making them just bearable, and exhibit a wide dynamic range in exploring the movement’s subtleties. In the engineers’ recorded sound, Balzalorsky’s entrance in the second movement seems almost cavernous, but they’ve by no means diminished the urgency of his reading. Compared to Isaac Stern’s raw energy, Balzalorsky’s seems super-subtleized in this sonata (Franck wrote it as a wedding present for Eugène Ysaÿe, who could strike sparks in the last movement of Mendelssohn’s Concerto but who, as a composer, could also lead violinists through rhapsodic serpentine chromaticism in his own solo violin sonatas). Balzalorsky and Haas know how to fall back before springing (as they do at the movement’s end), and the effect can be overwhelming. The duo opens the canonic last movement at a somewhat slow tempo, but Balzalorsky plays with a subtly varied tone that continuously enlivens the musical interest until their shattering final pages. After the intensity of their reading of Franck’s finale, Lucjan Marija Skerjanc’s two-minute Liricna bagatela comes as sweetmeat. (According to the jewel case, Skerjanc lived between 1900 and 1973.)
If Balzalorsky’s tone doesn’t always sound lush, that may be partly due to the engineering, but he also may not seek tonal opulence, as do many, as an end in itself. For the inherent interest of the program and for the performances themselves, the release deserves a high recommendation.
(Sunday, August 01, 2010) – Fanfare Review
This article originally appeared in Issue 33:6 (July/Aug 2010) of Fanfare Magazine
The third volume of Volodja Balzalorsky’s “Live Collection” presents a recital given by Balzalorsky and pianist Christoph Theiler in Kazina Hall in Maribor, and recorded by Radio Sloveni-Regionalni RTV, in 1989. The duo opened the program on that occasion with Dvorakk’s Sonatina, its first movement (and the opening of the second) suffused with glowing warmth and the charming rhythmic patterns teased cleverly out of the Larghetto’s middle section. Balzalorsky studied for a while with Josef Suk in Vienna, and he plays the Sonatina’s Scherzo as though he had written it, with particularly insinuating subtlety in the trio. The work has been called the “Indian Sonatina” because of its connections with Iowa and Minnesota, but Balzalorsky colors it middle European rather than middle American. If, after the first three movements, he seems to press in the Finale, his rhythmic energy and robust tone tie it—especially its reflective penultimate passage—to the other movements.
The first movement of Debussy’s Sonata in Balzalorsky’s performance sounds slinky and ethereal in its first movement, with appropriately reedy and highly inflected tone production, while Theiler provides shimmering background. I’ve watched David Oistrakh playing this work with Frida Bauer (on VHS, Kultur 1208) many times, but he didn’t seem to make as many timbral adjustments (neither did Isaac Stern in his recording from 1960) as does Balzalorsky in order to realize the movement’s full potential (Joseph Szigeti did—at least almost did—in his 1940 recital with Bartók, though the recorded sound doesn’t allow listeners to hear all of the expressive detail they seemed to produce). The Intermède: Fantasque et léger, however, sounds generally heavier and less fantasque in Balzalorsky’s reading (especially in the central section’s repeated notes) than it does in either of these others so that the return to greater poignancy at its end provides a lower level of contrast. Nevertheless, Balzalorsky’s final passage suggests pastels, though haunting ones. The duo begins the last movement slowly, but quickly turns to a sort of sharp-edged articulation that lends the movement unusual excitement almost to the end.
The three movements of Alojz Srebotnjak’s First Sonatina last only about eight minutes. The opening Allegro deciso, crisply rhythmic and tonal, assigns to the piano the role of a relatively equal partner, and Balzalorsky and Theiler collaborate in it with energetic élan. The slow movement begins with a plaintive song for solo violin. Balzalorsky invests its singing melodies with great beauty of tone, and Theiler provides suggestive commentary. The finale, Danza, returns to the first movement’s rhythmic piquancy and sharp definition, with the violin at the outset setting the pace with slashing double-stops reminiscent of those in Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. In general, it’s a work and a performance that collectors and explorers of all kinds should welcome—including the closing reading of Paganini’s brief Cantabile (so often played with guitar) epitomizing elegant refinement and suave tonal charm.
If the CD’s short duration gives anyone pause, the program’s general excellence (as well as the vibrant recorded sound) should, in this case, compensate in some measure, especially since the program represents a single live performance. Recommended.
(Sunday, August 15, 2010) – Fanfare Review
This article originally appeared in Issue 33:6 (July/Aug 2010) of Fanfare Magazine.
Fanfare is an American bimonthly magazine devoted to reviewing recorded music in all playback formats. It mainly covers classical music, but since inception, has also featured a jazz column in every issue.