A Violin-piano Partnership

Posted: August 16, 1987

Zino Francescatti had Robert Casadesus. David Oistrakh had Freda Bauer. Has violinist Shlomo Mintz found his ideal partner in pianist Yefim Bronfman? It certainly sounds that way from the duo's recording of the Franck, Ravel and Debussy sonatas (DG 415 683-2; all formats).

These passionate young Israelis could not have found a better vehicle for their temperaments than the surging ardor of the Franck. The wonder is, given its thousandth reading - including such treasured ones as that by Francescatti/Casadesus - that its 19th-century conventions and well-known melodies are still compelling.

Mintz's tone - big, warm, burnished - is ideal for such late-romantic stirrings, and so is Bronfman's acutely sensitive touch. This is a reading strong on color and propulsion and with an intuitive feel for the chamber player's give-and-take. It leaves no doubt of the duo's commitment to the music's undeniable beauty.

Such conviction is not lacking in the other French works. The Debussy receives a more muscular reading, with Mintz not tempering his bow arm to the lighter French style. Still, its vigor is appealing. The violinist does appropriately lighten up for the Ravel sonata - an especial delight not only

because it is infrequently played, but because its lean, almost skeletal structure, its stabs at bitonality and its wit make it rather modern.

Ravel's G-major Sonata was written in 1927, not so long after L'enfant et les sortileges (The Enchanted Child). The first movement, especially, is full of references to the stage piece - the violin's lyrical theme suggesting the fairy-tale princess, the jazzy crushed notes and other insouciant bits

recalling the cup-and-teapot and animated-furniture routines of the stage work. Its blues movement is also indebted to Gershwin, whom Ravel esteemed so much he declined to teach the younger composer for fear he would be an undue influence.

Much credit here is due Bronfman's precise and glassy tone, which creates the perfect ambiance for the world of artifice that Ravel so tellingly evokes. Though one might quibble with a couple of interpretive ideas in the blues (the

violin's opening pizzicato chords are weak, and the tempo feels a shade too slow), the ensemble balance and pianist's keen bass line make this as good as any tribute to Ravel and Gershwin during this 50th anniversary of both men's untimely deaths.

Mintz's refreshing energy and fervor is shared by violin colleague Nigel Kennedy, a young Briton who, like Mintz, also studied with artist-maker Dorothy DeLay. (Good friends, the violinists belong to the same soccer team outside London.) But Kennedy, who has recorded an uncommonly tender account of the Elgar Concerto plus an engaging pop/rock album, Let Loose, takes on more challenges with the repertoire.

Kennedy's latest classical recording - the Bartok sonata for unaccompanied

violin and Mainly Black, an arrangement of Duke Ellington's Black, Brown and Beige (EMI CDC 747 6212) - is highly satisfying and typical of his venturesome taste.

Laden with double and triple stops, wispy harmonics and a veritable catalogue of string techniques, the Bartok sonata was written for Yehudi Menuhin in 1944. A worthy successor to J.S. Bach's mighty partitas for the solo instrument, it demands spot-on intonation and formidable technique.

No problem here for Kennedy, who makes great sense of its four movements - a tempo di ciaccona, fuga, melodia and presto. Repeatedly, he shapes even the most difficult phrases with finesse, shades two- and three-part voicings with care. For those to whom unaccompanied violin is a still-to-be-acquired taste, Kennedy's warmly communicative melodia may prove reason enough to let Bartok's searching music take root.

Arguably as much a "classic" as the Bartok sonata (and as little played) is Ellington's concert suite for big band, Black, Brown & Beige, written in 1943 and performed at Carnegie Hall during that same decade. In 1958, Ellington recorded its first section, Black, and it is this material (with one exception) that Kennedy has arranged for violin and bass. Considering that during most of his career, the innovative Ellington struggled for recognition as a serious composer, it is wonderful to hear fine pieces like Come Sunday and the upbeat Work Song given first-class attention on a classical compact disc.

Not that it all works. Violin and bass seem at times far too severe for the Duke's golden orchestrations; without his memorable layering of reeds and trombones, the selections seem overlong and frequently miss their leader's essential, masterful swing. But Kennedy's playing is poignant, and his partly improvised solo turns often call to mind Ellington's fine jazz fiddler, Ray


In his liner notes, Kennedy reminds us that much as Bartok adopted and transformed Hungarian idioms, Ellington, too, was using materials, motifs and rhythms indigenous to his people and casting them in a sophisticated light.

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