(Sunday, August 01, 2010)  –  CD Review by Robert Maxham

SZYMANOWSKI Violin Sonata. FRANCK Violin Sonata. SKERJANC Liricna bagatela • Volodja BalLžalorsky (vn); Hinko Haas (pn) • CANTABEL 002 (52:39) Live: Belgrade 4/1998

Volodja Balzalorsky Live in Concert Vol. 2: Sonatas for Violin and Piano by Franck & Szymanowski (Live in Belgrade)
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Cantabel Productions

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. Robert Maxham

This article originally appeared in Issue 33:6 (July/Aug 2010) of Fanfare Magazine.