SHOSTAKOVICH: Sonata for Violin and Piano. Jazz Suite No. 1. AUERBACH: Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano. Lonely Suite

by Walter Simmons



SHOSTAKOVICH Sonata for Violin and Piano. Jazz Suite No. 1 (trans. M. Gluzman). AUERBACH Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano. Lonely Suite • Vadim Gluzman (vn); Angela Yoffe (pn) • BIS CD-1592 (67:16)

Lera Auerbach is a remarkably gifted woman, now in her mid 30s. Born in Russia, she immigrated to the United States in 1991, earning degrees in both piano and composition from Juilliard, working with Joseph Kalichstein and Milton Babbitt respectively. Although it strains credulity, at the age of 12 she is said to have composed an opera that was performed throughout Russia. In addition, she is a writer, with two published novels and several volumes of poetry to her credit. In 1996 she was named Poet of the Year by the International Pushkin Society. 

One of a surprising number of younger composers who emerged from study with Babbitt with their allegiance to tonality intact, Auerbach has pursued a musical language reminiscent—based on the few pieces I have heard—of late Shostakovich. That is, although it may display clear tonal centers, there is plenty of harmonic dissonance and emotional extremism—an approach more common among eastern-European composers than among, for example, Americans.

Lonely Suite is a ballet suite scored for violin solo, and dating from 2002. Although I generally find unaccompanied violin to be one of the less rewarding media embraced by western classical music, this suite of what are essentially six “preludes,” or character-pieces, each of approximately two-minutes duration, and each evoking a different mood or image, is pretty successful in holding the listener’s interest without the presence of a choreographic dimension. The music is masterfully shaped for the instrument, idiomatically drawing upon a wide range of traditional devices to produce a fair range of expressive variety. The work is dedicated to violinist Vadim Gluzman, who has a history of involvement with Auerbach’s music, and his extraordinary playing certainly justifies her choice of dedicatee.

Auerbach’s Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano was composed the previous year, and bears the subtitle, “September 11.” Auerbach has lived in New York City since her arrival in this country, and describes herself as “a passionate New Yorker.” Begun on September 12, 2001, the 15-minute work consists of one vehement, hard-edged movement that suggests agitated horror, detached disbelief, and a numb sense of grief. It is more a music of gestures and episodes than of developmental thrust, but each episode is shaped with considerable sensitivity and skill. Auerbach is fortunate in having her music represented by such impeccable artists as the husband-and-wife team of Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman and Latvian pianist Angela Yoffe.

The two Auerbach works are balanced by two compositions of Shostakovich that illustrate the polar extremes of the Soviet composer’s expressive range. Jazz Suite No. 1 was written in 1934, for a Soviet competition intended to “raise the quality of jazz.” Let’s get real here: This piece has as much to do with jazz as, say, Samuel Barber’s Souvenirs does. In fact, it is the Barber diversion that this piece most frequently calls to mind, with its “potted palm” salon atmosphere. As such, it reveals some taste and skill—how could it not? After all, its composer had enough pride and self-respect to do a professional job at whatever he touched. Though originally scored for “jazz band,” the suite is heard here in a competent, idiomatic arrangement for violin and piano done by the violinist’s father Michael Gluzman.

The Sonata for Violin and Piano is, of course, one of the searing masterpieces of Shostakovich’s later years. Composed in 1968 for David Oistrakh, who was joined by Sviatoslav Richter in the premiere, it comprises two gruelingly somber, passacaglia-like outer movements—each incorporating some serial elements within a generally tonal context—flanking an Allegretto that explodes with a savage brutality which Shostakovich was unrivaled in his ability to evoke. Gluzman and Yoffe play this work with razor-sharp precision and tremendous aggressive intensity. However, as brilliant as this performance is, the fact is that the sonata’s technical and interpretive demands are relatively unambiguous, and the work has attracted a number of great, serious violinists. Hence, starting with Oistrakh and Richter, the sonata has enjoyed quite a few hair-raising recorded performances. This latest is as good as most others I have heard.