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Prokofiev, Górecki, Ysaÿe - Sonatas for Two Violins

01-04-2022 | By Rushton Paul | Issue 119

There are very few major works written for two violins only, perhaps due to the seeming lack of variety in range and effect. This album from Challenge Classics | Northstar Recording presents three demonstrable masterpieces from composers who took this limitation as a challenge. All in masterful performances and in demonstration quality sound. Most highly recommended.

Prokofiev, Górecki, Ysaÿe - Sonatas for Two Violins, Maria Milstein, Mathieu van Bellen. Challenge Classics | Northstar Recording 2020 (DXD) HERE

These works are challenging. They are also great works deserving our attention.

Sergei Prokofiev: Sonata for Two Violins, Op. 56 (1932)
Henryk Górecki: Sonata for Two Violins, Op. 10 (1957)
Eugène Ysaÿe: Sonata for Two Violins (1915)

Maria Milstein and Mathieu van Bellen selected these works specifically because they eschew virtuosity just for its own sake. Rather, the pieces require virtuosic violin display as a means to an end. They are masterworks in their own right where the virtuosity of writing is "a simple tool used to create breathtaking landscapes and thrilling stories. Three different countries and three different universes, though all three composed within less than half a century - the Sonatas for Two Violins by Sergei Prokofiev, Henryk Górecki and Eugène Ysaÿe show with their incredible variety how exciting a violin duo can be." (Maria Milstein in the liner notes)

If you enjoy music of the twentieth century, do not pass this album by. You need to hear it, it deserves a place in your music library.

If you've followed any of my other reviews, Maria Milstein may be familiar to you. She is a member of the Van Baerle Trio about whose recordings of the Beethoven complete Piano Trios I've written so enthusiastically (HERE). It is a welcome treat to hear her unique voice presented so forcefully in the performances on this album. She plays with intensity, drive and searing emotion. For another opportunity to listen to her intense performances of other twentieth century works, I highly recommend you seek out her debut album, Sounds of War, recorded with pianist Hanna Shybayeva for Cobra Records and featuring Sonatas by Poulenc, Janáček and Prokofiev. HERE

Mathieu van Bellen is an artist new to me. He is a multi-awards recipient who plays with the Busch Trio whose recordings of Dvorak and Schubert have been released by Linn Records. He and Milstein partner well together in this music that falls outside of the typical repertoire of their respective chamber performing groups.

Together, Milstein and van Bellen deliver performances with an excellent shared sense of the music they are interpreting. They perform as one, weaving and complementing and contrasting with a superb sense of timing and shared intention. Simply a delightful duo to hear.

The three Sonatas for Two Violins presented here are each very different, presenting three faces of the 20th Century: the late romantic, impressionistic Ysaÿe; the neo classical Prokofiev; and the modernistic Górecki. Each work lives within its own sound world, but all are rich, nostalgic, and full of folk influences.

At the time of composing his Sonata for Two Violins op.56 (1932), Prokofiev's compositional style was shifting from modernism to a simpler, neo-classical approach with increased use of folk-like tunes and lyricism. As he later described in his 1941 autobiography: "Listening to bad music sometimes inspires good ideas… After once hearing an unsuccessful piece for two violins without piano accompaniment, it struck me that in spite of the limitations of such a duet one could make it interesting enough to listen to for ten or fifteen minutes..." It is.

A student work, Górecki's testing 1957 piece deploys glissando, pizzicato and harmonics. It starts in a lively, folky style but at 1'23" suddenly becomes very profound for some time before the upbeat style returns. The middle movement is meditative, the finale explores dance rhythms, including an ironic waltz. The demands on the two violinists are immense, requiring clear agreement on intonation, timing, and interpretation—all excellently met by Milstein and van Bellan.

Ysaÿe's Sonata is a richly textured, expansive work, ranging through serenity, drama, complexity, chromaticism and a modal quality almost like Vaughan Williams. It is easily savored. The Sonata gives both violins equally demanding parts, creating an immensely rich and colorful sound world with both violinists frequently playing double stops and chords resulting in a texture comparable to that of a string quartet, just without the lower registers provided by the cello.

Independent producer and recording engineer Bert van der Wolf, Northstar Recording, gives us another outstanding recording: transparent, highly resolving, with instruments precisely and consistently located in the soundstage. It is a recording one can treasure.

Maria Milstein and Mathieu van Bellen discuss their duo album in this YouTube video:


Images courtesy of Northstar Recording.