KEREM Violin Sonatas: No. 1; No. 2; No. 3. Solo Violin Sonata • Mikk Murdvee (vn); Sten Lassmann (pn) • TOCCATA 0140 (76:28)
Toccata has compiled works for violin by the young (b. 1981) Estonian composer, Mikhel Kerem, in performances by his friend and sometime fellow composition student Mikk Murdvee. Kerem remarks in his notes that he wrote the First Sonata under the influence of the Eduard Tubin’s First Sonata, with which it shares a three-movement sequence including a central Scherzo. It’s clear, from the opening measures of the first movement, Nocturne, that the 13-year-old composer had already developed a muscular, personal style as hauntingly dissonant—and just about as tonal—as Dmitri Shostakovich’s, though they don’t share a great many other characteristics. Nevertheless, anyone who believes traditional tonality to be no longer capable of expressing anything more than timeworn clichés should listen to Kerem’s work. Some might carp that the composer spins out his ideas too slowly (in the notes, he likens the movement to flowing water); but the Scherzo that follows strikes with the ferocity of similar gestures in Sergei Prokofiev’s First Sonata and the bitterness of similar passages in Shostakovich’s late Violin Sonata; it shares the demonic energy of both. Murdvee and pianist Sten Lassmann play the quiet, chaconne-like “Postlude” with overwhelming conviction, as though they considered Kerem the greatest composer of his—or maybe any—era. Murdvee produces a prodigious quantity of sound from his instrument, all of it rich and elegant, despite the aggressive personality of the music itself.
The Second Sonata, significantly shorter, also falls into three movements, the first of which, Commodo, engages in broad-arched, more overtly romantic expression; the performers adjust to this gentler form of communication as successfully as they did the First Sonata’s acerbity. The richness of Murdvee’s violin in its lower registers contributes greatly to the impact of these passages. The second movement, Presto, recalls the jittery dance in the similar movement from Prokofiev’s Second Sonata, yet the movement doesn’t sound derivative. Murdvee and Lassmann adapt gleefully at times, doggedly at others, to these kinetic passages, creating an overall frenetic mood studded with strongly aggressive gesticulations, which gather intensity near the movement’s end. The mystical Grave that brings the sonata to a close occasionally seems destined to end in stasis as the violin ascends into the higher registers—then begins to fall—over a pulsating bass (recalling the way in which Russian Orthodox sub-deacons intone the Epistle in a constant, almost hypnotic, ascending pattern during the Divine Liturgy). The duo reinforces this almost ritual sensibility.
Kerem wrote the Solo Violin Sonata for Murdvee in 2002, according to his notes, suggesting that the first movement, “Introduction and March,” began as a sort of prelude to Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sixth Sonata, which Murdvee had programmed. The Introduction recalls that work explicitly, and Murdvee, playing it with great panache, shows how well the composer had absorbed the elements of Ysaÿe’s style. The second movement, “Fantasy,” also bears a strong family resemblance with the older violinist’s solo sonatas, not only in general manner but in specific violinistic techniques as well, though Kerem explores beyond his models’ boundaries as the movement progresses—while always remaining in walking distance from them. The “Siciliana” that follows recalls the sinuous and often somewhat elusive slow movements of Ysaÿe’s sonatas (sometimes uncannily mimicking harmonic turns), especially in Murdvee’s resonant performance. The finale recalls that of the sonata Ysaÿe dedicated to Fritz Kreisler. If all this seems to amount merely to pastiche, consider how clairvoyantly Kreisler’s earlier Recitativo and Scherzo anticipated what would come in Ysaÿe’s solo works, with neither seeming like a mere pastiche of the other.
Kerem himself characterizes the slashing Scherzo that opens his Third Sonata as “angry.” The visceral quality of the dissonance he evokes in this movement again demonstrates how much can be achieved by gently pushing against the borders of tonality, and the duo reaches a higher level of ferocity in this movement than listeners might expect from what has gone before. Kerem entitled the second movement “Sonata,” and it travels even further afield than does the opening one, limning a more arid emotional landscape—and that’s just at the beginning, before the storm clouds gather and the dissonances begin to grind savagely. The finale, “Polyphony,” almost lugubriously explores what seems essentially the same landscape without reaching the same level of either dissonance or dynamic extremity.
Readers of the composer’s program notes may be struck by the way in which he describes the music by reference to emotional impacts rather than to sub-mathematical schemata (mathematical historian, E. T. Bell), described arithmetical schemata like gematria as “sub-mathematical analysis,” and I’ve always wondered whether he might have dismissed discussions of tone-row manipulations with the same epithet), as composers of his father’s generation might have done (felt compelled to do?). And the music itself elicits those emotions. The vitality of that music, the urgency of the performances, and the lively presence of the recorded sound combine to earn this release of premieres an urgent recommendation. Robert Maxham