Violinist Miranda Cuckson (with frequent collaborator, pianist Blair McMillen) continues her compelling and fascinating recorded documentation of Modern and contemporary violin music on this brilliantly performed program, their debut for ECM. (Get it from Amazon.)
Cuckson’s always-thoughtful programing, reflected in her informative and well-written program notes, is in evidence here with three sonatas (in fact if not in name) by Slavic composers.
Like the other two works on the program, Hungarian Béla Bartók’s Second Sonata (1922) interrogates, in both its structure and its content, the idea of the “sonata” as a genre. In fact, one could argue that this work, by one the most important composers of the first part of the 20th Century, helped make that interrogation one of the central terms in the genre’s development over the course of the century. The Sonata is marked by Bartók’s characteristic use of folk-song alongside Modernist ideas like irregular accents and biting dissonances.
Russian Alfred Schnittke is best known for compositions that seem to bounce without warning and without obvious motivation from one style to another. His Second Sonata (1967/68) is his first piece in this “polystylistic” mode. Listeners who pay attention to modern classical music have heard so much polystylistic music by now that what stands out, especially in a performance as authoritative as this one, is not how much juxtaposition there is, but rather how masterfully it holds together.
A “partita” is a suite of short movements, but it’s also a game, and Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski’s 1984 piece of the same name is both. In addition, each instrument is given more-or-less equal weight, as in most sonatas. Lutoslawski’s music is directly expressive in a Modernist vein, with clearly etched melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic ideas played out in structures that display forward momentum and a keen sense of climax.
Cuckson’s richly dark tone and highly developed rhythmic sense give these performances tremendous power, and McMillen’s precise and flexible playing (note the recurring, biting g minor chords throughout the Schnittke) makes him an ideal partner. Cuckson’s sound here is as appropriate to this Slavic soundworld as the very different (and every bit as appropriate) darkness she brought to Carter Sessions Eckardt, the disc of American violin music these two released two years ago. She continues to be an artist whose work demands attention.