1917: Works for Violin & Piano

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COMPOSERS: Debussy,Elgar,Respighi,Sibelius
LABELS: Signum
ALBUM TITLE: 1917: Works for Violin & Piano
WORKS: Violin Sonatas by Debussy, Respighi, Sibelius and Elgar
PERFORMER: Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin), Huw Watkins (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: SIGCD 376

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Themed collections don’t always make good musical combinations. Fortunately we have three very fine violin sonatas here, at least two of which complement each other in thought-provoking ways. Both the Debussy and the Elgar oscillate between dreamy or impassioned escapism and moments where the unease of the times steals in – rather like a hand-painted photograph into which the ‘wrong’ colour has mysteriously infiltrated.

The Respighi is a strong, sometimes beautiful work, yet never quite so original or personal. As for the Sibelius, it’s possible to argue that echoes of Finland’s wartime struggles reverberate in the contemporary Fifth Symphony, but the impression left by the Five Pieces is that Sibelius was also a true professional who knew how to forget the world outside and concentrate on the job in hand.

Tamsin Waley-Cohen is much more than professional. The Elgar and Debussy in particular give plenty of evidence that she and her equally impressive partner, Huw Watkins, have thought hard about these works. She deliberates more than usual over the Debussy’s first movement, and it can be strangely moving. What I miss is the tang of bitterness in the second movement – a rare instance of Debussy edging close to Bartók. The first movement of the Elgar is long-breathed and extrovert, but in the central ‘Romance’ the ambiguity is well-judged. The impassioned recollection of this movement in the finale is beautifully judged – especially after the weird, hushed, ‘someone just walked over my grave’ passage that precedes it. And the recordings serve both players – individually and as a duo – very well.

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Stephen Johnson­­