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Soundscapes – Music of Mendelssohn, Elgar, De Raaff for Violin and Piano

04-28-2022 | By Rushton Paul | Issue 120

Violinist Tosca Opdam is joined by pianist Alexander Ullman to create some delightful chamber music in their new album, Soundscapes, all beautifully and sensitively performed. Included is the world premier recording of a work dedicated to Ms. Opdam by Dutch composer Robin de Raaff. The album is an engaging program of a bit of the new and a bit of the well-established, all in superb sound quality from recording engineer Bert van der Wolf.

Soundscapes, Music of Mendelssohn, Elgar and de Raaff, Tosca Opdam, violin, and Alexander Ullman, piano. Challenge Classics | Northstar Recording 2022 (DXD) HERE

Edward Elgar – Violin Sonata, Op. 82
Florence Price – The Deserted Garden
Felix Mendelssohn – Violin Sonata in F Major, and the Andante from Song Without Words
Robin de Raaff – Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 "North Atlantic Light" (world premier recording)

I enjoy albums constructed around a thoughtful program or theme. In this album, Opdam has assembled five works that are each interesting in their own right, but together create an arc of musical exploration that delivers a musical experience in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As interested in the visual arts as in the musical, Opdam describes in her liner notes the imagery that the music creates for her as she hears and plays it. It is a visualization of landscapes and seascapes in music that she describes collectively as soundscapes. And, thus, the title of the album.

I will not summarize her visualizations here; read her album notes for that. For me, it is music that speaks for itself. In my listening, I am not one to visualize nor do I care for music that tells a specific story. I enjoy allowing the music unfold and reveal whatever the music itself has to say. And these pieces have a lot to say just as music.

Tosca Opdam

The Violin Sonata, Op. 82, by Sir Edward Elgar begins the album. And it is a force of beauty and energy. Few know Elgar for his chamber works, but for me they are so often more interesting and engaging than his better-known orchestral works. Sure, I like the Enigma Variations; I am less fond of his symphonies. But I really get into his works for smaller ensembles. And this sonata for violin and piano is such a work. It begins with a brilliant, sunny Allegro movement that is quite forceful at times, continues with a languid Romance, and closes in a delightful, melodic Allegro non troppo. A little over 23 minutes in length, the sonata is a nice introduction to the capabilities of our musicians who move quite gracefully through the sonata's various challenges. Most enjoyable!

I've not heard either of these musicians before, but I was quite impressed with their poise and communicative skills. And as the album progressed, so did my enthusiasm for them.

Mendelssohn's Violin Sonata was never published in his lifetime. He wrote it in 1838 but withheld it for further revisions which he never completed. In 1953, Yehudi Menuhin discovered the piece and prepared it for publication and performance. And such a pleasing piece it is. The opening movement is filled with life, joy and energy. The piano ripples with energy, the violin soars lyrically with some of the prettiest themes Mendelssohn created. Call me a happy music listener each time I've played it.

Robin de Raaff (b. 1968) dedicated his composition North Atlantic Light to Ms. Opdam and she premiered it in her recital debut at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall in 2018. This is the premier recording. And what a gnarly challenging work to perform this must be—and ever so intriguing to hear! Piano and violin have equal roles to play throughout this piece. This is definitely a composition for violin AND piano, neither taking precedence over the other but both being challenged to the full extreme of their capabilities. Yes, this is a thoroughly modern work. Deliciously so. I enjoyed every moment of it.

Tosca Opdam standing next to Willem de Kooning’s painting titled North Atlantic Light that inspired De Raaff's composition. Courtesy of Ms. Opdam's Facebook page.

Bert van der Wolf has chosen to give us a closer, more up-front perspective in this recording. The sound has impact and extreme detail, while still sounding like an utterly natural live performance in a nicely supportive acoustic environment. There is air around the instruments. No microphones are jammed right into the piano's frame, but the impact from the piano in struck keys and thunderous bass is extreme. This recording will fully test the capabilities of your audio playback system, particularly de Raaff's North Atlantic Light.

Recorded in June 2021 in the beautiful ‘Amsterdam hall’ of the RCO House of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, meeting place and rehearsal studios for the members of the orchestra.

Images courtesy of Bert van der Wolf and Northstar Recording, except as noted.