AN 2 9971

Ravel, Martinu, Schulhoff, Honegger: Interwar Duets

Album information

Between two worlds;
Duets for violin and cello from the Interwar period (1920–1932)

In the immense landscape that is chamber music, the duet for violin and cello is assuredly not the most well-travelled road. Even so, in the aftermath of World War I, while Europe was succumbing to jazz fever and gypsy music, while classical music teeter-tottered between two worlds, tradition and modernity, a few rare composers rose brilliantly to the challenges posed by such a sparse ensemble. The four works on this album—delicate jewels of finely wrought chiaroscuro whose glinting reflections vary from the warm glow of an ember to the dazzling flash of a spark—are among the most outstanding achievements of this little golden age.

Maurice Ravel (1875–1937): Sonata for violin and cello (1920–22)

In December 1920, two years after the death of Debussy, the Revue musicale published a special commemorative edition that included a collection of short, previously unpublished works dedicated to him. Stravinsky, Bartók, De Falla, Roussel, and Dukas, were among those who answered the call. Ravel’s offering was a movement for violin and cello, echoing the project of six sonatas à la française that their friend had started in his last years but had not been able to finish.

Hounded by the idea of adding three more movements to make a complete sonata, Ravel worked on it for over a year, reworking and refining the piece, which hung by two threads. The evening of its premiere, on April 26, 1922, the audience was bowled over by both the density of the exchange and the surprisingly wide palette of colours Ravel was able to create with only two instruments. “Ravel will have to write an orchestra reduction of his Duo,” musicologist Alexis Roland-Manuel quipped admiringly. “You make the cello play the flute and the violin play the drum,” exclaimed violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, who performed at the premiere.

Indeed, right from the start, and on several occasions throughout the work’s four movements, the melody, overlaid with flute-like harmonics, glides along in the cello’s upper register, above even the violin. At other moments, however, both instruments feature complex interplays of pizzicati, double- and triple-stops that create surprising and occasionally spellbinding percussive effects. At the start of the second movement, for example, a mechanical tick-tocking fades into a mysterious rustling, as if overcome by some invisible life force emerging from the silence of a moonless night.

In 1928, in an autobiographical essay entitled Esquisse autobiographique, Ravel had this to say about the sonata: “A turning point in my career. Sparseness pushed to the extreme. A renunciation of the charms of harmony, an increasingly marked reaction in the direction of melody.” To say the least, Ravel certainly set the bar high for those who came later.

Erwin Schulhoff (1894–1942): Duet for violin and cello (1925)

Born in Prague in 1894, Erwin Schulhoff was one of those unfortunate avant-garde Jewish artists who, after having their work dismissed as “degenerate” by the Nazis in the 1930s, met a premature and tragic end in the concentration camps during World War II.

After World War I, when he had served bravely in the Austrian army, Schulhoff moved to Germany where, under the influence of Berlin Dadaists, he came to favour an eclectic modernism, unselfconsciously incorporating Debussy-like poetry, Schoenberg-like atonality, feral jazz rhythms, and the Gypsy rhapsodies of his native Bohemia into relatively classical forms. Composed in 1925, the Duo for violin and cello is a fascinating example of his style.

Written in a modal language pushed to the edge of atonality, the four-movement classical-style sonata begins and ends with a rondo. This gives the entire work an arch form, the last movement starting with a variant of the refrain that opened the first. This enchanting dolce moderato, which Schulhoff livens up on more than one occasion, alternates with couplets that feature increasingly dramatic syncopated rhythms, ranging in the first movement from sempre allegretto to allegro agitato, and in the last from allegro deciso to presto fanatico.

Between the outer movements are a lively scherzo, whose title Zingaresca refers explicitly to its Gypsy origin, and a gentle Andantino, in which the muted violin and cello pass the phrases of a plaintive melody back and forth, along with the delicate pizzicati over which it unspools like Ariadne’s thread.

Bohuslav Martin? (1890–1959): Duet for violin and cello No. 1, H. 157 (1927)

Bohemian composer Bohuslav Martin? composed the first of his two duets for violin and cello in Paris, where he had been living for the past three years. The work was written for two compatriots and childhood friends, violinist Stanislav Novàk and cellist Mauritz Frank, founders of the Novàk-Frank Quartet. They had premiered Martin?’s first string quartet in Prague a year earlier and had been asked to introduce it to Parisian audiences. To round out the Paris program, Martin? wrote the two-movement duet in just a few days, and it was premiered on March 17, 1927.

While the meditative prelude that opens the diptych clearly pays homage to the dreamy, diaphanous nature of French impressionism, the rondo that follows, a lively perpetuum mobile, whirls like a dual flight of the bumblebee around a central section made up of two dazzling cadenzas, showing off the virtuosity of the two performers with long, rhapsodic passages of a Gypsy flavour.

Arthur Honegger (1892–1955): Sonatina for violin and cello, H. 80 (1932)

Arthur Honegger composed this sonatina in September 1932, in the month following the birth of a daughter that would prove to be his only child. The work marked his return to chamber music after having dedicated the previous 10 years primarily to large-scale works for soloists, choirs and orchestra. The most recent of these works, the tragic oratorio Cris du monde, had left him in a deep depression and unable to write for the previous 18 months.

On the other hand, this sonatina seems a kind of moment of grace, infused with serenity—as if with the birth of his daughter, Honegger had rediscovered his taste for life and creative drive. In the meditative passages, the new father seems to invite the listener to lean with him over his child’s crib and watch her sleep. In the livelier passages, whether in the small, hesitant steps of staccato or in the broad strides of triple-stopped chords, it is as if he is looking into the future with great clarity, watching her make her way joyfully through life and laughing in the face of obstacles.

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