GMCD 7313 – Portrait – Violin & Cello Duo

Daria Zappa – Violin & Mattia Zappa – Cello

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The repertoire for violin and cello duo isn’t large. There are significant works by Handel, Kodaly, Toch, Martinu, Honegger, and Schulhoff–and one supreme masterpiece: the Ravel Sonata. This wonderfully played and very-well-recorded anthology by Daria and Mattia Zappa includes the Handel and Schulhoff as well as some lesser-known and new contributions to the genre.
Handel’s Passacaglia in G Minor is an arrangement (from his Harpsichord Suite 7) by Johan Halvorsen, a Norwegian (and nephew by marriage of Grieg), and it’s been popular in this transcription with string players ever since it was made. (Even Heifetz and Piatigorsky recorded it.) The work has the directness, sturdy simplicity, and sonorous dignity typical of Handel embodied in a formal outline that plays to his strengths and allows (in Halvorsen’s transcription) for plenty of technical display, too. From 1909, Reinhold Gliere’s Eight Pieces Opus 39 also uses baroque forms (prelude, gavotte) along with later ones (scherzo, impromptu), though with some added folksong inflections. This is an ingratiating cycle of miniatures, nicely crafted and skillfully written for the instruments (Gliere was a violinist), that blends neoclassic economy and romantic sentiment with unfailing charm. It’s been recorded before on Koch Discover 920526 (Mar/Apr 1999) but never better than here.

Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) is a prolific Czech composer whose music, though neglected after he was murdered by the Nazis in World War II, has been rediscovered and widely recorded during the past decade. He draws on many sources including Debussy and Ravel, Janacek, Hindemith, and Schoenberg, as well as various kinds of vernacular music, but never fails to project his own very distinct and very pungent personality. And his range of mood is wide, as in his 1925 Duo. This is a splendid full-scale composition in four movements that total 18 minutes. I is gracile, lithe, and elegant, with a winsome modal flavor almost certainly indebted to (it almost quotes from) Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello written only two or three years before Schulhoff’s Duo. That this allusion is intentional is especially likely as Schulhoff was a concert pianist who traveled and performed all around Europe and kept up with all the latest music and musical trends. II, marked “Zingaresca”, overflows with brio and invention, bustling and capering along with joyous high spirits, bouncy ostinatos, and all sorts of striking “gypsy” effects such as strummed and left-hand pizzicatos, whiplash glissandos, knocking col legno, bouncing spiccato bowings, and ultra-high harmonics. The third-movement andantino spins out long, sighing melodic lines over slow, steady-paced accompaniment with a typically Schulhoffian sort of melancholy. The finale is complex and unpredictable, counterposing slow and fast music (derived from the earlier movements) that encompasses both sad reflection and dance-like abandon. Schulhoff’s Duo has been recorded several times before, but the Zappas offer an ideal equilibrium of technical panache, sensitivity, and clarity surpassing that of any other performances I’ve heard.

Two newish works complete the program. First is Martin Wettstein’s Roter Raum from 1998. This translates to “Red Room” but given this 7-minute scherzo’s concentration on raspy circular motion–whirligig rapid for the most part–it might be better rendered as “Roter Rooter”. It certainly gives the Zappas plenty of opportunity to show their stuff; the blazing-fast skyrockets of overlapping harmonics just before the end (at 6:08) are breathtaking.

More substantial and serious is Massimiliano Matesic’s ten-minute Duo from 2004. Matesic, born in Italy in 1969 (and now better known as a conductor), writes in a highly-chromatic idiom infused with a fevered, late-romantic-early-modern intensity that recalls Berg more than anyone else. Indeed his Duo begins with and developes a sinuous five-note motive, first sung in the cello under low, murmuring double-stops in the violin, akin to the opening figures of Berg’s Opus 3 String Quartet and of Bartok’s Second String Quartet. Like those great predecessors, Matesic’s Duo conveys the haunting and haunted end-of-an-era decadence and morbid, thanatropic longing of early expessionism as it winds its way through restless unease and the struggle for ecstatic release before finally subsiding into darkening gloom. The work’s timbral variety and contrapuntal density create a sound-world of much greater complexity and scope than would seem possible with only two string instruments, and its balance of fantastic elaboration with forward-driving purpose and compelling structural logic is maintained with unfaltering consistency and confidence. This is demanding but deeply rewarding music of great beauty, power, and depth of emotion, especially thrilling in this marvelous performance by the Zappas.

In short:
a recital that ranks as one of the best chamber music discs so far this year–and revelatory for those who want to hear what just two string players can do.

Dear Mattia,

I was driving back from the airport in New York when I heard your recording of the Schulfhoff duo on our public radio station.

You performance was just beautiful – soulful interpretation, full bodied sound supported by a wonderful technique and a wonderful recording that makes one want to reach out and grab the sounds. I can’t wait to listen to the complete CD.
Daniel Alcheh

Composer, New York

The Zappas are Swiss, and brother and sister; she plays the violin, he the cello. Daria is a member of the strangely named casalQUARTET which, when it’s not being orthographically obscure, is a good string quartet. Cellist Mattia is a recitalist and a member of the Zurich Tonhalle.

They’ve constructed a finely balanced programme for Guild. There are two world premieres one of which, by Matešic, was written for the Zappas, the seldom-performed Glière pieces, the classic Schulhoff duo and that well-known virtuoso standby, the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia.

Glière’s Eight Morceaux were written in 1909 and are a pleasing mix of baroque and romantic. The Gavotte is a dainty piece of baroque invention with a delicious contrasting folkloric drone section. There’s a touching Berceuse, a salon-light Canzonetta and a wittily deployed Scherzo with unison attacks and good dynamic range. The finale Etude is quicksilver – a show-off end to an enjoyable and amusing, none-too-serious collection.

Schulhoff’s has racked up quite a number of recordings by now and rightly so. The Zappa performance grew on me gradually. I still think their opening Moderato movement is lacking in a bit of inside knowledge. It’s neither as deadpan as the best Czech performances nor as personal either. But they do tear into the Zingaresca with tremendous panache and make the Supraphon team of Pavel Hůla and Václav Bernášek sound rather staid. Bernášek incidentally must have played and recorded this as much as anyone. In his Praga recording with Antonín Novák he sounds more at home and strikes a very Zappa-like pose in this movement. The Zappas don’t press too hard in the Andantino. Other pairings have been more emotive here but I rather liked the Zappa approach in the end. It makes structural and emotive sense and it’s splendidly played.

Martin Wettstein’s Roter Raum is the second movement of his Zyklus, written in 1998. The composer’s note mentions contemplative oracles, blacked out rooms and colours. To replicate the compositional process I dismissed my family, shut the door, turned off the lights and listened. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to experience much beyond some rollicking jazz-cello, hints of folkloric drive – Bartók maybe – and some brittle, rather juddery writing. Enjoyable nonetheless.

The other premiere is longer and dedicated to the duo. Matešic’s 2004 Duo opens with powerful violin ostinati and accompanying cello figures that soon develop a powerful and vivid drive. There are strong hints of rustic barbarity along the way and also of Bergian influence. The slow section generates an expressionist angst and offers plenty of room for expressive playing – all duly taken.

I only wish that this talented duo had resisted the temptation to indulge some overly hushed pianissimi in the Handel-Halvorsen.

Persuasively played and warmly recorded this disc also has the benefit of some good notes. The two contemporary composers’ notes are helpful as well. Esoteric though this combination is the performances are highly assured and I valued the playing.
Jonathan Woolf