The interaction between the violin and the piano reminds to the presence of two stars in a movie. Both instruments are used to play the main role when a solo instrument is required; however, both are fundamental in the field of chamber music, and have frequently also demonstrated their perfect suitability to this genre. As in a film co-starring two great actors, the result may be magnificent or disappointing. When both instruments are given the possibility to express their full potential, the piece becomes a splendid opportunity to observe two ways, very different, in which these instruments can play their role. If one of the two has to stand down; it may retreat with class, of course, and provide a luxuriant accompaniment to the other one, but the spotlight will be occupied by just one soloist.
This Da Vinci Classics album, presenting violin and piano works from the late Romantic age and the early twentieth century, displays an exhaustive panorama on the possible interactions between these two iconic instruments of the Western repertoire.
The CD consists of two great Sonatas, embodying the full maturity of this genre; here, both instruments can display the full palette of their virtuoso technique, drawing from the experience of the great composers/performers of the century. In the CD there are also shorter pieces, in which the stage is occupied by the violin’s monologues, to which the piano provides a meaningful framework and a significant environment, although deliberately assuming a subordinate part.
Not by chance, these shorter works are connected to the figure of great violin virtuosi. Particularly in the nineteenth century, but also throughout the twentieth and to the present-day, some violin recitals were entirely made of, or at least included, short, dazzling, or melancholic pieces, in which the violin expressly imitated the great lyrical tradition. Many of these pieces were reminiscent of operatic scenes, even on, a formal level and the musical gestures translated the operatic topoi into the idiom of the violin. In two cases, among the works recorded here, the pieces actually are transcriptions of vocal works (though taken from the repertoire of chamber songs rather than from the operatic ones); on both occasions, the arrangement is signed by Jascha Heifetz, one of the greatest violinists and violin virtuosi of all times, and an imaginative musician who was able to imagine how the violin could offer new perspectives on well-known vocal pieces. Incidentally, also the two great Sonatas and Elgar’s piece, recorded here, were among Heifetz’s favourite ones, so that the entire album is shaped as a homage to this master performer.
This happens with Manuel Ponce’s Estrellita and with Claude Debussy’s Beau soir. The former was originally a song by one of the greatest Mexican composers of the twentieth century. Ponce had grown up in a family of musicians, who educated him musically and allowed his musical talent to blossom and to flourish. It is possible that elements from the Mexican folklore migrated into Estrellita (1912), one of his best-known songs; this migration may have happened either consciously or unconsciously, in the form of tunes, suggestions or reminiscences. Or perhaps its “Mexican” flavour is entirely due to its sound and to the idiomatic features woven by the composer into its musical fabric. In either case, the result is a small gem; according to tradition, Ponce seems to have composed it during a romantic moment in which he was contemplating the beauty of his wife. Heifetz transcribed it for violin and piano (it was added to the many other arrangements he did) and presented it at Hollywood in 1939 within They Shall Have Music, thus actively contributing to its planetary success.
The other transcription Heifetz made in this album is after a youthful song written by a teenage Debussy. Curiously, the lyrics by Paul Bourget the composer set to music are a contemplation of life as seen by a mature, if not an elderly person “by sunset, the rivers have a rosy tinge and a lukewarm shiver caresses the fields’’, says the poet. The voice of nature thus advises the observer to enjoy life especially during its springtime, “as long as one is young and the evening is beautiful”, because we flow like a river to our death.
The other two short works in this album have a completely different mood and style; here the violin shines in its real humorous and brilliant vein. Both were written by composers/violinists, whose mastery of violin technique allowed them to employ the full palette of the special effects of the instrument. Even if the Englishman Edward Elgar never attended a Conservatory or a similar school, but managed to self-educate himself to the point that his musicianship represents one of the absolute highpoints of British music. He earned a living by playing the violin, and – both as a performer and as a composer – he quickly realized that character pieces could substantially contribute to his income. One of the most successful among his occasional pieces is La Capricieuse (1891), a sparkling fantasy in which the dialogue between violin and piano seems to bring to life the inconstancy of a coquettish and frivolous lady. The violin mimics her capricious moods and her changing volubility, and the result is a brilliant piece with an impressive display of virtuoso technique.
A similar catalogue of violin difficulties is found in the second of the two Polonaises written by the Polish composer and violinist Henryk Wieniawski (he also coauthored a third Polonaise with his brother Joseph, a pianist). The work recorded here was composed in 1870, and thus represents a relatively late fruit of the composer’s vein. It exists in two versions, with piano and with orchestral accompaniment, and the matter of which of the two came first is still debated. The composer premiered it with orchestra at the Grand Theatre of St Petersburg, but he played it a couple of months later, with Joseph at the piano. The piece quickly became one of the audience’s favourite one and was published and frequently reprinted in the following decades. It shares many features with the Second Violin Concerto, including thematic elements. Analogously, there are points of contact between Saint-Saëns’ Violin Sonata and others of his large-scale works of the same period. Written in 1885, it was by no means the first fruit of the composer’s attention toward the violin; however, it earned the title of “Violin Sonata no. 1” to signify the composer’s particular predilection for it. It was premiered by the composer and by the Belgian violinist Martin-Pierre Marsick, to whom it was dedicated; its formal structure, with two pairs of movements seamlessly joined, is analogous to that of Saint-Saëns’ Fourth Piano Concerto (1875) and of his Symphony no. 3 with solo organ, which he would write the following year. This piece, in turn, earned immediate fame, and it extended its influence beyond the borders of music: as Marcel Proust explicitly acknowledged, the “petite phrase” which is such an iconic element of the fictional “Sonate de Vinteuil” in Swann’s Way is inspired by the second theme of this Sonata. One of its unforgettable moments, along with the many touching tunes and lyrical melodies, is the dazzling finale in perpetuum mobile.
The Third Violin Sonata by Edvard Grieg was written at about the same time, between 1886 and 1887; here too the composer sat at the piano for its premiere, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, while yet another great violin virtuoso, Adolf Brodskij, played the violin part. Violin Sonatas are the only chamber music genre in which Grieg wrote three works, thus proving his predilection for this instrumental pairing. The Sonata recorded here is probably the most famous of the three, and – as Grieg himself declared – the most “universal” too. Reminiscences of the Nordic folklore (in which the violin plays such an important role) are scattered throughout the work, but, as in Ponce’s case, they are rarely identifiable as direct quotes. The composer’s typical traits are all gathered in this masterpiece: for example, his lyrical tunes, the deep nostalgia, the brilliant moments recalling enchanted elfish dances, the powerful structure building up a great and imposing narrative.
All these pieces allow us to glimpse the richness of the expressive resources of the violin and piano duo, and how they can interact in a variety of different ways. The inexhaustible fantasy of these great composers, and their masterful handling of the idiomatic features of both instruments concur to offer us a fascinating itinerary, representing the best of the literature for violin and piano at the turn of the century.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2021
Alessio Bidoli (Milan 1986) started his violin studies at the age of seven.
In 2006 he graduated with honours from Milan's Conservatorio "Giuseppe Verdi" under the guidance of Gigino Maestri.He improved his studies at the Haute Ecole de Musique au Conservatoire de Lausanne, Switzerland and Mozarteum Salzburg with Pierre Amoyal, at the Accademia Chigiana of Siena with Salvatore Accardo, and at the Imola International Academy with Pavel Berman and Oleksandr Semchuk.
He performed for the first time as soloist at Teatro Signorelli in Cortona, Tuscany, at the age of seventeen. In 2005, he was among the prize-winners at Rassegna Nazionale d’Archi in Vittorio Veneto In 2007 he collaborated with the Lausanne Camerata directed by Pierre Amoyal in various European cities including Martigny at the Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Milan at the Società dei Concerti and Marseilles during the Festival de Musique à Saint-Victor.
As a soloist he has performed in prestigious concert seasons, including: MITO Settembre Musica, Società del Quartetto and Società dei Concerti of Milano, Furcht-Bocconi University, Amici del Loggione del Teatro alla Scala, Fondazione Musica Insieme di Bologna, Amici della Musica di Sondalo, Arvedi Auditorium in Cremona, Bergamo Culture Festival.
He had a leading role with Vittorio Sgarbi at the Teatro di Chiasso, Switzerland, in the theatre project Il Fin la Maraviglia, a report about the Baroque age through images and sounds.
He has recorded a CD with the pianist Stefania Mormone for the magazine of classical music Amadeus and four CD albums as a duo with Bruno Canino. For Sony Classical have been recorded: Verdi Fantasias, a CD with fantasias by Camillo Sivori and Antonio Bazzini (recently reissued by Concerto Classics), and Italian Soul- Anima Italiana, a collection of works by Malipiero Petrassi and Alfredo Casella, most of which previously unrecorded. For Warner Classics has been recorded a CD with music by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Ravel, Poulenc, released in October 2018, consisting of the complete violin and piano works of Saint-Saëns, including a first recording of his youthful E flat major sonata (R103). In 2020, a new monographic CD containing the chamber repertoire of Nino Rota, again with Bruno Canino at the piano and Massimo Mercelli on the flute, was recorded for Decca.
He has appeared as a guest artist in radio broadcasts on Radio France, NDR Kultur, Radio Svizzera Italiana, RAI Radio 3, Radio Vaticana, Radio Classica, and Radio Popolare.
He taught for two years at the Conservatorio Niccolò Piccinni in Bari. He is currently a violin teacher at the Conservatorio Francesco Cilea in Reggio Calabria.
Alessio Bidoli plays one of the violins made by his grandfather, Dante Regazzoni, who was one of Lombardy most famous violin-makers of the twentieth century. He also plays a violin made by Stefano Scarampella in 1902.
Stefania Mormone, graduated at Piacenza Conservatory with Alberto Colombo and got full marks and honours, later she perfected herself with Aldo Ciccolini and Nikita Magaloff. She went in many tours in Europe and around the world with orchestras such as Solisti Veneti, Santa Cecilia Chamber Orchestra, Archi della Scala, Stuttgarter Kammerorchester and has collaborated with internationally renowned soloists – among whom Pierre Amoyal, Uto Ughi, Leonidas Kavakos, Natalia Prischepenko , David Geringas, Enrico Dindo, Francesco Manara, Stanislav Bunin. In duo with Sergej Krylov she got a great approval by critics and audience at the Teatro alla Scala-Milan, at the Musikverein-Vienna, at the Radio France Auditorium in Paris, at the Megaron in Athens and during her tours in Japan and the United States of America. She has to her credit two recordings as a soloist: the first one with music by Brahms and Ravel, the other one "live" with Ravel's concert in G. In duo with Sergej Krylov she has recorded numerous CDs for EMI and Agorà; for the Amadeus magazine, a CD with the violinist Alessio Bidoli.
She teaches Piano Practice and Reading at the “G. Verdi” Conservatory in Milan; in 2017 she taught at the World Music Laboratory of the University of Milano Bicocca. At the moment she is actively collaborating in the World Music Laboratory initiatives of the Conservatory of Milano, in collaboration with Alberto Serrapiglio.
Camille Saint-Säens: (b Paris, 9 Oct 1835; d Algiers, 16 Dec 1921). French composer, pianist, organist and writer. Like Mozart, to whom he was often compared, he was a brilliant craftsman, versatile and prolific, who contributed to every genre of French music. He was one of the leaders of the French musical renaissance of the 1870s.
Claude Debussy: (b St Germain-en-Laye, 22 Aug 1862; d Paris, 25 March 1918). French composer. One of the most important musicians of his time, his harmonic innovations had a profound influence on generations of composers. He made a decisive move away from Wagnerism in his only complete opera Pelléas et Mélisande, and in his works for piano and for orchestra he created new genres and revealed a range of timbre and colour which indicated a highly original musical aesthetic.
Edward Grieg (b Bergen, 15 June 1843; d Bergen, 4 Sept 1907). Norwegian composer, pianist and conductor. He was the foremost Scandinavian composer of his generation and the principal promoter of Norwegian music. His genius was for lyric pieces – songs and piano miniatures – in which he drew on both folktunes and the Romantic tradition, but his Piano Concerto found a place in the central repertory, and his String Quartet foreshadows Debussy.
Henryk Wieniawski (b Lublin, 10 July 1835; d Moscow, 31 March 1880). Violinist and composer. The most celebrated member of the family, he was the son of Regina Wieniawska (née Wolff), a professionally trained pianist and the sister of the noted pianist Edouard Wolff. Henryk’s exceptional talent for the violin was discovered very early by his first teacher, Jan Hornziel, who had moved to Warsaw in 1841 to become leader of the opera orchestra, and Stanisław Serwaczyński. When the Czech violinist Panofka visited Warsaw and heard the eight-year-old boy play, he exclaimed: ‘He will make a name for himself’. After playing a brilliant audition for the Paris Conservatoire in the autumn of 1843, Henryk was admitted to the class of J. Clavel and was transferred to the master class of Lambert Massart a year later. He was awarded first prize in the violin in 1846 and studied two more years as Massart’s private pupil. After a concert in Paris on 30 January 1848, at which Henryk was assisted by his younger brother (2) Józef Wieniawski at the piano, Henryk departed for St Petersburg, where he gave five successful concerts and earned the praise of Vieuxtemps, at that time solo violinist at court. In 1848 Henryck played in Helsinki, Riga, Vilnius, Warsaw, Dresden and Breslav (now Wrocław). In the autumn of that year he Henryk returned to Poland, where he became friends with Moniuszko. By that time he had begun to compose and felt the need for further study; he re-entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1849 to study harmony with H. Collet. In 1850 he was made an honorary member of the Societé Philharmonique and received the Cercle-des-Arts.
Manuel Maria Ponce: (b Fresnillo, Zacatecas, 8 Dec 1882; d Mexico City, 24 April 1948). Mexican pianist and composer. He was the leading Mexican musician of his time, and made a primary contribution to the development of a Mexican national style – a style that could embrace, in succession, impressionist and neo-classical influences.
Sir Edward Elgar: (b Broadheath, nr Worcester, 2 June 1857; d Worcester, 23 Feb 1934). English composer. His abundant invention, largeness of vision, and strength and singularity of musical character place him high among European Romantic artists and at the peak of British music of his time. He drew inspiration from the culture and landscape of his own country, resourcefulness from the study of his continental colleagues; and contributed to all the major forms except opera, creating a significant body of symphonic literature, the finest oratorio by an Englishman, and in his popular music a style of direct national appeal.