Robert Maxham, Fanfare / Fanfare

Violinist Frédéric Bednarz and pianist Natsuki Hiratsuka open the first movement of Karol Szymanowski’s early Violin Sonata with a commanding shot, and they maintain the level it sets as the movement proceeds. Bednarz proves himself capable of deploying a wide variety of violinistic effects, from the elusively shimmery to the soaringly declamatory. And that palette fits Szymanowski’s work to perfection. Hiratsuka’s a sympathetic partner, exploring in collaboration with him the composer’s colorful harmonies and lush melodies. She evinces a special sensitivity to the haunting sonorities that open the second movement; the duo brings a fey magic to the pizzicato middle section and returns to the opening section with an eerie reminiscence of Frédéric Chopin. They communicate the agitated state of the finale’s opening and rise to the emotional richness of the middle section. If Szymanowski’s sonata hasn’t yet penetrated the standard repertoire, Bednarz and Hiratsuka play it as though it should have.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata, another work that seems to hesitate outside the canon without entering, displays a spiritual affinity for Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata in F Minor in the bleakness of its mood and in the bitter expostulations of its second movement. But Shostakovich’s sonata raises these emotional states to a higher power of expression. What sounds merely gloomy in Prokofiev’s work sounds desperate in Shostakovich’s; what sounds eerie in Prokofiev’s, terrifying in Shostakovich’s. David Oistrakh, the work’s dedicatee (what a birthday present!), didn’t soften the brutal impact the piece could make. Bednarz does, creating with Hiratsuka a kinder and gentler profile that might make it more accessible to general audiences (the elegance of Bednarz’s tone production perhaps makes that inevitable). But they haven’t violated its tough core, as their reading of the second movement shows. The final movement, a passacaglia (the same general form as the one the composer employed in his First Violin Concerto, but with an entirely different effect, although this movement also includes some moments of great nobility and even warmth), sounds ominously elegiac though not ponderous, and unsettled though resigned, in the duo’s reading. In Fanfare 26:5, I noted that although Ilya Grubert’s performance on Channel Classics 16398 conjured “a sonorous maelstrom in the Sonata’s second movement” it failed to capture “both the last measure of Oistrakh’s fervor and the caustic bite of his pessimism” (Mobile Fidelity 909) and in the Sonata’s last movement, just didn’t equal Oistrakh’s “depth of reflection.” Neither does the reading of Oistrakh’s own student, Lydia Mordkovich on Chandos 8988. And these reviews haunt me as I consider Bednarz’s and Hiratsuka’s case. Yet in Fanfare 30:2, I recognized the validity of Leila Josefowicz’s cogent yet very different realization of this dense and multifariously expressive work. How, then, do Bednarz and Hiratsuka measure up to this different standard? Bednarz sounds richer and loamier than does Josefowicz in the first movement, which he takes more than a minute slower (but the timing doesn’t tell the whole tale); he does so as well in the slow movement, but in that case, extra bite and energy enliven Josefowicz’s reading. The third movement differs in the two accounts, in part because of Josefowicz’s greater timbral edginess. Those who prefer a tonally more sumptuous reading, richer may prefer Bednarz’s version by about the same measure as those who lean to the eerily expressive may prefer Josefowicz’s.

With its clear recorded sound and its revelatory thoughtful performances, the duo’s release deserves a warm recommendation–especially, perhaps, for their ingratiating performance of Szymanowski’s sonata.