INKPOT#70 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: Mela Tenenbaum plays Songs with Words (ESS.A.Y)
Songs without words
Kreisler-Porpora Menuet Porpora-Bonelli Allegro Grazioso Gossec Tambourin Elgar Salute d’amour Chopin Mazurka in F# minor Fibich Poeme Wagner Traume Tchaikovsky Valse Scherzo Mendelssohn Song without words Schumann Dedication Rubinstein Romance Paganini Cantabile Brahms Hungarian Dance No.7 Gliere Romance Wieniawski Kujawiak Kreisler Liebeslied Delibes-Elman Passepied Dvorak Valcik Moszkowski Spanish Dance Alard Seviliana White Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen Gautier Le Secret Dinicu Hora Staccato Dinicu Pacsirta
MELA TENENBAUM violin
RICHARD KAPP piano
ESS.A.Y Recordings CD1048
by Adrian Tan
This potpurri of “encore” pieces for violin make up an enjoyable recital. Mela Tenenbaum is quoted to have said that “young violinists today all want to play the Sibelius and Brahms concerto; then they think they are ready to play the repertoire of small elegant pieces for violin. I think that’s backwards: they should be able to play these pieces perfectly – then they would be ready to tackle a Brahms or Sibelius concerto.”
Words of wisdom indeed from a seasoned performer and teacher. Personally, I think the performance of these gems is an artistry all by itself, some demanding flawless technique while others tax the musician’s musicality. Likened to expressing yourself in a few words, one has to use every phrase and nuance to convey the emotions that are certainly not to be any less than those in a large-scale concerto. That is the challenge of producing a collection like this one, to characterise each individual piece distinctly so that the whole CD does not become one long series of muzak.
The results on this album are of course not consistent to every individual’s musical taste. For this reviewer, while some tracks are truly precious, there are some that I don’t agree with at all. Overall, Ms. Tenenbaum draws a full, beautiful sound from the “General Kyd” Stradivarius – an instrument made when the master violin maker was at the height of his prowess. This instrument was used by virtuosi of the likes of Itzhak Perlman (from 1973-87), Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Uto Ughi. In the hands of Mela Tenenbaum, it sings beautifully.
Ms. Tenenbaum’s technical mastery of the instrument allows her to breeze pass showpieces of non-stop running notes like Dinicu’s Hora Staccato and Pacsirta, where she employs the showman in her to end the album with a bang. She opts not to rush through the music to focus on the details rather than showing off her runs; an admirable effort indeed.
However it is in pieces like the sorrowful Fibich Poeme that she is truly in her element. I found this particular track to be of great interest. One would notice some intonation uncertainty in the double-stop passages and melodic line, but I had a feeling that this was deliberately done to create that passionate tension which she resolves so well in this short piece of less than 2 minutes. This is a perfect example of “less is more.”
She scores another victory along these lines with Gliere’s beautiful Romance. The wonderful music and its execution leaves the listener in a “romantic” daze. What falls short is what seems to be a deliberate attempt to downplay the piano. The piano sounds muted, and even muffled as compared to the crystal clear sonorities of the violin. This is a pity indeed since Richard Kapp is certainly a competent pianist with as much care for the line as Tenenbaum. Kapp’s contribution to the Gliere, Wagner, Fibich and many more would have certainly made a significant difference to the rendition. Here and there, the piano becomes more than an accompaniment pounding away chords, but as an equal collaborator complimenting and conversing with the solo violin. This element was sadly absent in many of the pieces.
Besides the Romantic ballades, there are dance tunes and “allegro”-type pieces scattered across the program to balance up the moods, making for interesting listening. The most attractive of these is Wieniawski’s Kujawiak in which Tenenbaum and Kapp capture the spirit of a lively waltz with interludes of contemplation sometimes testing the highest registers of the violin.
Following this is a good rendition of the ever-favourite Liebeslied by Fritz Kreisler. I liked the less sentimental approach which contributed to a more carefree pace and mood. This is my first encounter with Schumann’s Dedication and it connects right away with his Romantic style. I fancy it more as contrasted to Elgar’s Salute d’amour, which is here given a less moving reading. The partnership of the two musicians have a sort of technical chemistry that is reflected in the precision of the playing more evident in the change of tempos, rubatos and accelerandos, but on some occasion surfacing as the less evident ‘dance’ feel. The technical certainty results in the loss of some amount of spontaneity that makes a dance a dance. Some moments of the Porpora-Bonelli Allegro Grazioso and the Tchaikovsky Valse Scherzo suffer from this, while more straightforward numbers like the Gossec Tambourin and Brahms’ Hungarian Dances are played with much gusto.
The “odd piece out” in this collection is White’s Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen which sounds like a bluesy spiritual of sorts. In my humble opinion, it would have been a more interestingly diverse program if more of such pieces from composers like Gershwin were represented. Coming from a a European tradition, performers like Heifetz and Tenenbaum seem to lack a certain essence when performing these works but they lend a alternative reading in which their “classical” sensibilities breathe new life into the works.
Many of these pieces grow on you after multiple listenings which make any such recital-style albums good buys. Especially in the voice of the solo violin, the quality of personal expression is so apparent and of highest importance. I first heard Mela Tenenbaum on the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin recording and immediately formed the impression that here is a performer who really puts heart and thought into how each phrase is to be expressed. Singing through her violin, these are truly “songs without words” Coupled with experience and good technique, she is certainly a violinist to be taken seriously. It’s no good comparing Ms. Tenenbaum to recordings by other virtuosos – they are they, and she is she. Take the time to discover her unique expression and you might be pleasantly surprised.
Adrian Tan plays some of these transcriptions on the saxophone. They sound SO MUCH BETTER here. *sob* *sob*