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- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
East meets West? The title indicates an homage to the historical recording made in 1966 by Menuhin and Shankar, "West meets East" (West Meets East: The Historic Shankar/Menuhin Sessions). In my review of that disc, I commented that the title was appropriate, as it was "more a case of the Western instrument and player trying to blend into an alien tradition, than the reverse". With Daniel Hope, despite the reversal of the title, you don't get Eastern composers or instruments trying to blend into a Western tradition - Japanese Buddhist monks playing Elvis Presley, Parsifal on a gamelan orchestra? - but rather an exploration of some points of encounter between Western and Eastern musical traditions.
On the one hand you get the very same pieces that Menuhin and Shankar played together, both on that 1966 disc (Swara-Kakali) and on the 1968 sequel (Raga Piloo, from West Meets East, Vol. 2). The encounter of Menuhin and Shankar was in fact a frustratingly short one: only one out of the three pieces from the 1966 disc and one out of the two in '68 had them together. When you think of it, Daniel Hope's decision to play these pieces is somewhat paradoxical, as these Menuhin-Shankar encounters were by nature improvisation-derived and un-notated, meant to be one-offs. Together with Shankar's disciple Gaurav Mazumdar, Hope has "reconstructed these works by ear". The notes may be the same, yet the interpretations are not: Hope is more brooding and plangent in the introductory movement of Raga Piloo, and he does have the advantage of a more comfortable recording, no tape hiss and none of the sourness that marred Menuhin's tone in Swara-Kakali - but the Sitar had more presence with Shankar. The music remains mesmerizing.
In my review of the Menuhin disc I also suggested that it would have been nice if he had played the disc's companion piece, Enescu's magnificent third Sonata, with a cimbalom accompaniment rather than piano. Hope has gone one step to oblige, playing the compositions by Ravel, Falla and Bartok not with the customary piano accompaniment, but with Luthéal - a mechanism, invented by the Belgian George Clootens in the early 1920s, which fitted to a concert piano makes it possible to add three registers to its normal one, imitating the cimbalom, the harpsichord and something called by the inventor "harpe tirée" (pulled harp), sounding somewhat like Cage's prepared piano.
Ravel's Tzigane was indeed originally intended for the Luthéal, and it does add much to the piece's Gipsy character, but Hope's version is a special one not only by dint of its accompanying instrument. Just listen to the beginning of the introductory cadenza: Hope's attack is raw and raucous and he develops ferocious energy - yet, despite some expressive liberties (such has the upward scale and trill at 0:30), overall with more precise observance of Ravel's notated rhythms than most. His tone isn't particularly beautiful, his harmonics at 5:48 aren't the easiest and purest sounding, and one senses that he is more than ready to sacrifice purity of tone to expression and drive. His acceleration in the coda has irresistible momentum. But there is a better still version of Tzigane with Luthéal, by Patrick Bismuth and Anne Gaëls (Violin Sonata; Ravel: Tzigane) - and I find the Enescu coupling more attractive, too. Bismuth has all the swagger and drive required, but with more precise observance of Ravel's marks (bizarrely a very rarely encountered quality in this piece, as if conveying the Gipsy character demanded fiddling with Ravel's rhythms) and a more imaginative use of the Luthéal's registers by Gaëls.
Hope's understanding of "The East" appears to be a wide-encompassing one. How does Paul Kochanski's arrangement for violin of Falla's Seven Spanish Folksongs - whose motifs and melodic lines, by Hope's own admission, were taken from 19th Century folk sources - fit in this notion of "The East"? Through the faraway Moslem influence, by way of its derived Arab-Andalusian culture, on the Iberian peninsula. Hope draws a jagged line that goes from Cordoba to North Africa and from there all the way to Baghdad. But probably the main reason for the inclusion of the Falla/Kochanski is that, according to Hope, as with Ravel's Tzigane the original Kochanski arrangement was written for Luthéal. And indeed, the use of that instrument puts Hope's version in a class of its own (tracks 6 & 7, Asturiana and Cancion, use only the piano register). It succeeds in evoking a wide array of Arab instruments, oud or rebab of the lute family or Nakhir (drum). It is quite convincing played that way.
Szekely's arrangement of Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances was written for piano, but the use of Luthéal (the first, fourth and sixth use only the piano register) is quite appropriate, given the importance of the cimbalom in the region's folk music and Bartok's interest for the instrument. So Hope is really in a league with no contestants, but independent of that he offers a good version. He may lack a touch of frenzy in the last dance, but his articulation is clearer than most, and likewise his staccato in the second over "harpsichord" accompaniment is splendid. His trudging gait in the first piece is not out of situation and he is very lyrical in the fourth. His "whistling" harmonics in the third aren't the purest and most mesmerizing I've heard, but he still conveys, at a slowish tempo, the piece's eeriness and nostalgia.
How does Schnittke's youthful (1955) and recently rediscovered Sonata fit it the concept, I'm not sure, other than Russia being east of London. Other than, obviously, Shostakovich (Schnittke was then his student at the Moscow conservatory), Hope claims hearing an influence of Ravel and Stravinsky - I don't. In fact the Sonata sounds to me very close to the two of Prokofiev. It is not very significant, other than illustrating the first steps of a composer who found a highly distinctive style in the mid 1970s. Hope premiered it and it gets here its premiere recording.
A loose understanding of the notion of "East" then, but an original recital nonetheless.