Discovering Alena Baeva with UltraAnalogue Recordings: part 3 – Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in D minor, Op 121

Alena Baeva (photo credit Vladimir Shirokov)

Alena Baeva is fast emerging as one of the finest violinists of her generation. A protégée of the late, great Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, and of multi-award wininng Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa, she’s been described as a ‘magnetic presence’ and a ‘constantly fascinating sound technician’.

I’ve been hooked ever since I first saw her play live at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 2018, following an invitation from Ed Pong of UltraAnalogue Recordings. Ed was travelling from Toronto for the concert so I figured it would be something special – and it was!

Vadym & Alena

Since then, Ed has recorded six tapes of Alena’s performances, all of which also feature the equally mesmerising pianist Vadym Kholodenko, who also happens to be Alena’s husband. You can discover more about how these came about in my first blog for this series: Discovering the amazing Alena Baeva with UltraAnalogue Recordings: part 1

In this, the third, I’m sitting down with a recording featuring a piece by a composer I know relatively little about: Robert Schumann. This tape has become a much-played one in my collection and so, curiosity piqued, I set out to do a bit of digging. Turns out Robert Schumann makes quite a fascinating research subject and the more I find out about the man, his life and his work, the more I want to know (if only school history lessons had been this interesting – I’d have been a much keener student!).

Schumann – Violin Sonata No. 2 in D minor, Op 121

Robert Schumann

The first thing I discover is that this is one of Schumann’s later works, many of which were, for a time, overlooked, misunderstood or derided. Schumann suffered with what would probably now be diagnosed as bipolar disorder and he spent his last few years in a mental institution following a failed suicide attempt. His three sonatas for violin and piano were all composed between 1851 and 1853, a few years before his death. Historically, they were often lumped together with other late works under the ‘composer’s failing powers’ umbrella, as  Schumann’s reputation became diminished by his mental illness and his music considered ‘tainted’ by his madness. This wasn’t just a public perception: his widow Clara and friend Brahms withdrew or destroyed several of Schumann’s late works (including the third of these three sonatas), fearing they betrayed signs of his mental illness, were of inferior quality and would damage his reputation.

Luckily, in the 20th century, various of Schumann’s letters and diaries came to light, along with new biographical information, allowing a more balanced and nuanced view of the man and his work to re-emerge which led to a renewed appreciation of his later musical achievements. In fact his later works now seem to be recognised as highly innovative, progressive and unique – which is perhaps why they were considered to be the product of madness at the time – since those who challenge the status quo are often accused of all manner of instability!

Cellist and Schumann devotee Steven Isserlis firmly disputes the accusation. In an article for Gramophone magazine he wrote, “It is significant that Schumann tended not to compose during his periods of depression; he would wait until he felt better – or use music as a path back to health. To describe any of his works as the product of madness, thus implying that he was not in full control of the composing process, is misleading. The most serious result of this misconception is that only about a third of Schumann’s works are heard regularly in today’s concert halls; it is probably fair to say that he is the most under-valued of the great composers.”

“Schumann, for all his classical discipline, seems to compose without rules. If in one work he is writing in (apparently) conservative forms, in the next he will be writing stream-of-consciousness music that takes us to realms undreamt of by other composers of his time.”

I’ve always admired a rule-breaker, so in that spirit I was keen to get to grips with this Violin Sonata No. 2 in D minor, Op 121. The piece comprises four movements:

  1. Ziemlich langsam – lebhaft
  2. Sehr lebhaft
  3. Leise, einfach
  4. Bewegt.

The Sonata was first performed by Schumann’s wife Clara (on piano) and Joseph Joachim (violin) at a concert given on 29 October 1853, the performance marking the start of a musical partnership between the pair that would last a few decades. Afterwards Joachim wrote enthusiastically to his friend Arnold Wehner, director of music at the University of Göttingen:

“I must not fail to tell you about the new Sonata in D minor which Breitkopf & Härtel will bring out very soon. We played it from the proof-sheets. I consider it one of the finest compositions of our times in respect of its marvellous unity of feeling and its thematic significance. It overflows with noble passion, almost harsh and bitter in expression, and the last movement reminds one of the sea with its glorious waves of sound.”

And now for some glorious waves of sound on my Studer!

Having already been utterly enchanted by violinist Alena Baeva and pianist Vadym Kholodenko, and knowing that the pair are husband and wife, I found myself automatically listening out for the relationship dynamics between the two instruments in this composition and performance, having been struck by the ‘dance’ between them in UltraAnalogue’s recordings of sonatas by Beethoven and Mozart (you can read my review of those here).

The first movement opens with a dramatic sequence of chords that immediately rouses a sense of anticipation; a slow, melodic introduction follows, and then the sense of drama and tempo gather pace again, moving towards a deliciously turbulent central section. The two instruments have very much equal billing here, playing off one another in a kind of debate that’s sometimes calm and exploratory, sometimes agitated and intense.

The second movement feels more structured, like a formal dance. There’s still that sense of energy and vigour, but in contrast it also manages to be light and lyrical. The more I listen to it, the more it intrigues me. It’s billed a scherzo but to me it feels like there’s more going on here. There’s certainly scherzo present in terms of its vigorous, light and at times playful qualities, but there’s also a really strong sense of order and structure and gravitas in places. It reminds me of a couple having a mock argument – playful, but with some serious undertones which, if pushed to far, could tip things in another direction entirely!

The third movement opens much more quietly and serenely with a delicate passage of violin pizzicato. The violin then flows into an achingly heartfelt and harmonious flow, with the piano flowing beneath like fresh tinkling water, catching the rays of the sun. There’s a sense of sadness, but one that’s quite beautiful.

Vadym Kholodenko (photo credit Jean-Baptiste Millot)

Finally the fourth movement returns to the key and mood of the beginning. It opens energetically, overtly dynamic as Vadym stabs at the keyboard, and the two instruments dance vibrantly in a long and tumultuous journey towards the exuberant conclusion. Along the way, some lighter, more lyrical sections afford relief from the prevailing intensity and I can really feel what Joseph Joachim was saying when he referred to “noble passion” and “glorious waves of sound”.

Apparently Schumann wrote this second sonata almost immediately after the first, and there’s certainly a sense of feverishness here, a vivacity of creative energy and a felt experience of mercurial mood changes being allowed their full and natural movement and expression. I read somewhere that some performances of the piece have felt rather like uncomfortable mood swings, choppy and exaggerated, but there’s not a whisper of that here in the oh-so-talented hands of Alena and Vadym. But it’s not underplayed either – one feels the change of moods acutely, but they’re flowing and natural such that the experience is welcome and satisfying, almost like a kind of emotional yoga – you feel like you’ve been stretched out, sometimes at the edges of your comfort zone, but you’re all the better and more limber for it!

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