Jennifer Koh
Schumann Sonatas

By Jerry Dubins
Fanfare Magazine
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If one goes by numbers alone, it cannot be said that Schumann’s sonatas for violin and piano are neglected—though interestingly, the numbers of recordings diminish inversely to the order of the sonata: 25 or so for the No. 1; fewer than 20 for the No. 2; and not even 10 for the No. 3. The neglect factor, however, is not always, or only, a quantitative measurement; and where Schumann’s sonatas are concerned, it is perhaps more interesting to look at who hasn’t taken them up than at who has. Among living violinists holding the stage today, but with one or two exceptions—Gidon Kremer and Pinchas Zukerman— the “big star” names—Bell, Chang, Ehnes, Fischer, Hahn, Midori, Mintz, Mutter, Perlman, Repin, Shaham, Vengerov—are notably absent from the Schumann rollcall. Absent, too, are Schumann’s sonatas from Fanfare’s back issues; a quick scan of the Archive turned up only one review of a recording of the Sonata No. 1 with Albanian violinist Rudens Turku in 29:6.

At first, one has to wonder if Schumann’s violin sonatas are unattractive, unidiomatic to the instrument, or otherwise flawed in some way that keeps violinists away from them in droves. But as I pondered this question, it dawned on me that it may be the medium rather than the message that is the underlying operative here. The duo sonata for violin and piano, for various reasons, is not as satisfying and has not been embraced by composers as fully as have other chamber music combinations—the piano trio, for example.

Mozart’s, Beethoven’s, and Schubert’s piano and violin works receive attention because they are by Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, and not, with the possible exception of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata, because they are among their composers’ greatest works. After Schubert, many of the Romantic-period composers made one or more contributions to the genre—Schumann of course, but also Mendelssohn, Gade, Raff, Dvorák, Grieg, Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Rheinberger, Goldmark, Sibelius, and Richard Strauss, to name just those that come immediately to mind. Yet again, with only a few notable exceptions—Brahms’s three sonatas and the ubiquitous Franck—their works in this medium receive far less attention from “big name” players than do their concertos.

Having posited a possible reason why Schumann’s violin sonatas may not be as popular as they might otherwise be, I can tell you that they are gorgeous, and without doubt among the finest pieces of chamber music Schumann produced. If the third movements respectively of the D-Minor and A-Minor (No. 3) Sonatas don’t move you to tears, I can’t imagine any music that will.

The First and Second Sonatas were both written in 1851, the same year that saw the premiere of Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony and major revisions to the Fourth Symphony. The First Sonata received its official premiere in March of 1852 with Clara Schumann at the piano and Ferdinand David (of Mendelssohn fame) on violin. The Second Sonata, though eventually dedicated to David, was first performed in 1853 by Clara and Joseph Joachim.

The Third Sonata is not all of a piece; only its third and fourth movements are by Schumann, for this is the so-called “F-A-E” Sonata that was written for and presented to Joseph Joachim as a gift. Its first movement was the work of Schumann’s student, Albert Dietrich, while the second movement Scherzo was Brahms’s contribution to this corporate effort. So tuned into each others’ musical speech and manners were these three men that the work fits seamlessly together as if it had been spun from a single strand of silk.

I am not familiar with the above-mentioned Turku recording, which, in any case, contains only the first of the Schumann sonatas. But I do know both of the aforementioned Kremer and Zukerman versions, as well as one from violinist Ara Malikian on the Hänssler Classic label. I don’t care much for either the Kremer or the Zukerman, but for different reasons. Kremer’s generally aggressive playing tends to grate on my ears. Zukerman, who I generally like for his plush tone and seamless legato, sounds somewhat mealy and unfocused in this particular recording. Malikian, in the exact same program as the current release, is excellent; but I have to give a big edge to the newcomer.

Jennifer Koh is an up-and-coming young player of whom William Zagorski said in 29:2, “Koh’s purity of intonation, the sumptuous sound of her high position e-string playing, her ability to float an unbroken legato for pages at a time, and her razor-clean articulation are in a class of their own.” Her Çedille recording of Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto and Martinu°’s Second Violin Concerto earned a place on Zagorski’s 2006 Want List. Though I haven’t heard that recording, I have heard the one titled “Solo Chaconnes” on which Koh turns out a stunning performance of Bach’s Chaconne from the D-Minor Unaccompanied Partita; and I would have to second and third Zagorski’s conclusions.

Based on the evidence of this new Schumann CD, I wouldn’t be in the least hesitant to place Koh’s name among the “big star” violinists listed above. Her playing on this disc is of a transfiguring refinement and beauty that somehow manages to blend a sense of angelic chastity with a sense of profound human knowingness. In his good years, this was what Menuhin sounded like. Pianist Reiko Uchida vibrates in resonance with Koh as a silvery sun-drenched willow reed sways in the breeze. Don’t be surprised to see this entry show up on my 2007 Want List. This is a must-have for all chamber music-lovers.

© 2007 Fanfare Magazine