GMCD 7358 – Violin Music by Debussy, Elgar, Sibelius

Efi Christodoulou (violin), Margaret Fingerhut (piano)

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American Record Guide – July 2012

This Debussy is rather deliberate, but the quality of the dialog between the violin and the piano makes a case for this rather serious interpretation of the piece (Debussy’s last). The Elgar has a deliberate quality as well, but it has periods of lovely repose, along with its periods of struggle.
Sibelius wrote his Humoresques for violin and orchestra in 1917. He published the first two as Op. 87 and the remaining four as Op. 89. Karl Ekman’s transcriptions for violin and piano from 1923 were most certainly done with Sibelius’s approval. The Humoresques have been recorded in their original form for violin and orchestra, but this is the first recording of these pieces using Ekman’s version for violin and piano.
It is amusing to hear how much the fourth Humoresque, when played in this transcription, sounds like the beginning of the Debussy Sonata (published in 1917). Perhaps the similarity is a bit of Ekman’s homage to Debussy, or it might just be a coincidence.
Efi Christodoulu is a fine Greek violinist who studied in London and is now the leader of the Greek National Opera’s chamber orchestra. The British pianist Margaret Fingerhut, who has a lovely singing tone as well as wonderful articulation, teaches at the Birmingham Conservatoire.
FINE – May 2011

An intriguing collection of music for violin and piano from 1917 and 1918, although unfortunately the recording, while very clear and appropriately intimate, tends to favour the violinist and make these pieces more for violin with piano. That imbalance – slight if noticeable, a consequence of the violinist being placed too forward rather than the piano being overly recessed – is immediately apparent in the opening work, the Violin Sonata by Debussy, and continues throughout the recital. In any case Efi Christodoulou is an up-front player and she doesn’t require such closeness to the listener. At the sessions for the Debussy she might have been encouraged to be less vibrant and a little more exploring of pianissimo and beyond as well as half-lights. As it is she rather dominates and Margaret Fingerhut is a little dwarfed in music that requires equality; and it may also be, for all that this pianist is an admirable artist, that Christodoulou is the bigger personality.
Elgar’s Violin Sonata is aggressively opened by both musicians; it’s a passion of sorts and there’s no doubting their virtuosity or that Christodoulou has pin-point intonation; yet an easing into the second subject and some more heart with it, something a little more winsome, would have been welcome. The recesses of the first movement are touched upon, however, and Christodoulou finds a greater range of timbre, but her outgoing personality really does become tiresome when so spot-lit, outgunning the piano. The second-movement ‘Romance’ is quite eloquently turned and develops quietly-stated if potent emotions, violinist and pianist sounding more as one. The ‘non troppo’ qualification for the Allegro finale is well observed, making for something amiable as well as conclusive.
Less familiar are the Humoresques that Sibelius wrote for violin and orchestra and which were collected under two opus numbers. This is wonderful music that is unfairly neglected. The arrangement for piano by Karl Ekman was made in 1923 and presumably then had the composer’s imprimatur. One misses the orchestra of course, but hopefully the making available of the with-piano versions will prompt greater awareness of miniatures that open up bigger worlds than their dimensions might suggest. Here is infinite variety. Christodoulou, if not quite matching Aaron Rosand’s version (with orchestra), is a sympathetic advocate of expressive, suggestive and sometimes-whimsical music, ‘light’ in the best sense of the word as well as being inimitable.
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

MusicWeb International June 2011

The three violin works on this disc are as contrasting as you would expect French, English and Finnish music to be. Played together, they turn out to have some unexpected similarities. The Debussy and Elgar sonatas and the Sibelius Humoresques were written between 1917 and 1918. They all turn out to be violin-dominated, rather than the piano being an equal partner as in the Kreutzer Sonata of Beethoven or the three violin sonatas of Brahms. In addition, each in its own way is somewhat elusive. The young Greek-born violinist Efi Christodoulou and her accompanist Margaret Fingerhut deserve praise for assembling such an enterprising collection.
The Debussy sonata which begins the disc is his last completed work. He intended to write a set of six sonatas, of which he was able to achieve only the Cello Sonata, the Sonata for Flute, viola and harp, and this work. The composition of the Violin sonata was overshadowed both by his final illness and the horrors of the Great War, which casts a shadow over its mood. The work is flighty, austere, elliptical and rather fragmentary in its thematic material.
On a first hearing I found Christodoulou and Fingerhut’s performance a bit lacking in direction. After revisiting a couple of earlier performances from Kyoko Takezawa and Dmitri Sitkovetsky, I found I liked it more; It is however the weakest performance on the disc. Christodoulou is rather deliberate in the first movement, taking between 30 and 40 seconds more than the other performances: not a great difference in itself, but quite a lot in a movement that runs to about 5 minutes. The Intermède was better, but still rather sluggish and literal in places, needing more lightness and fantasy. The finale begins with a burst of feverish animation which is well done. Christodoulou shows off the warmth on her G string in the later episodes and Fingerhut plays the repeated notes episode cleanly. The pulse is still fitful, however; both Takezawa and Sitkovetsky have a better understanding of where the music is going. They also bring more variety to the dynamics – Sitkovetsky starts the sonata in a particularly hushed fashion – and this brings a greater sense of light and shade.
The Elgar Violin sonata was also part of a late group of works, being written concurrently with the String quartet and Piano quintet over 1917-18. Like all of Elgar’s major works it is strongly emotional, but in quite an ambiguous way, so that it is difficult to put one’s finger on just what the feeling is at any time. In this way it rather resembles the Brahms Violin sonatas. It is written on the conventional three movement structure, the second having the character of an intermezzo, and the finale intended to be broad and relaxing after the intense first two movements.
Elgar’s Romantic phrases suit Christodoulou better than Debussy’s shorter motifs. She and Fingerhut play the unsettled beginning passionately; above forte, however, her tone can become harsh. The long arpeggio passage starts in a rather unvaried way, but builds to an impressive climax. The skittish beginning of the second movement lacks mystery, but Christodoulou plays the long phrases of the middle section with great concentration. The finale is expansive, but the sense of relaxation that Elgar intended is in short supply. Christodoulou tends to hit her straps a bit early in the crescendos, and the hard tone over forte again intrudes. This is not a recording that displaces Kennedy or Vengerov, but is a full-blooded reading and persuasive in its way.
The Sibelius Humoresques were originally written for violin and orchestra; the present recording is of the arrangement made by Sibelius biographer Karl Ekman in 1923 for violin and piano. They lack both the Romantic feeling of the Concerto, and the sense of hostile natural forces that underpins much of Sibelius’ music. In their insistent rhythms the faster pieces look forward to Bartók and Stravinsky; some others reminded me occasionally of Kreisler encores. Overall the work has a rather impersonal quality.
The episodic structure of the Humoresques lends itself well to Christodoulou’s straightforward approach, and the virtuosic writing allows her to show off her fine technique. She weaves an expressive line over the minimalist accompaniment of the first piece, and the double-stopping is cleanly done. The alternation of pizzicato and arco in the next piece is well managed, as is the bitten-off ending. Christodoulou indulges in some well-judged portamenti in the third, and the harmonics ring out nicely. She holds back the pulse with sensitivity in the fourth piece, and the high-lying phrase is well characterised. The fifth is a moto perpetuo with a rather Spanish flavour. Christodoulou’s agility is put to the test in the final piece, to which she responds in style.
There are several performances available of the original version of the Humoresques, but this arrangement has not previously been recorded. Christodoulou and Fingerhut make a good case for the Sibelius; while the Debussy is not an unqualified success, the Elgar is good enough for merit your attention.
Guy Aron
The Sibelius Humoresques are the standout in this interesting and enterprising program of early 20th century violin works, and the Elgar is pretty good.

New Classics Co May 2011

The years 1917-18 proved to be an interesting period for three great composers active at the early part of the 20th century. Up until this time each was known primarily for his orchestral music but in 1917/18 the three composers decided to write for smaller combinations involving the violin. This CD allows a comparison of their respective compositional styles in, perhaps, an unfamiliar context. Debussy was to die soon after completing his Violin Sonata; Elgar wrote three valedictory chamber works beginning with the Violin Sonata within this period before entering virtual creative silence apart from the final masterpiece, the Cello Concerto. Sibelius was to continue his quest for symphonic unity with the final version of his Fifth Symphony before ending his career with the last three big orchestral works, symphonies Six and Severn and finally Tapiola in 1926 – four works that place him at the pinnacle of 20th century music. Greek-born violin virtuoso Efi Christodoulou and the impressive pianist Margaret Fingerhut here give outstanding, intelligent performances of sonatas by Debussy and Elgar together with the unjustly neglected Six Humoresques of Sibelius, written in 1917.