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46 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb Schumann, Different (and Better) Than Most., 4 May 2009
By 
J. F. Laurson (Washington, DC United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Schumann: The Violin Sonatas (Audio CD)
Before receiving ECM's new disc of the three Schumann Violin Sonatas, I'd almost forgotten how wonderful these works are. Violinist Carolin Widmann (sister to the clarinetist/composer Jörg Widmann) reminds me vividly and energetically of that fact. There is no dearth of recordings, but no glut, either. For one, you really want a complete set of them--including the Third Sonata, (new Grove says WoO27, the Bärenreiter and Schott Urtext scores say WoO2), not just opp. 105 and 121. The last work Schumann composed before he decomposed three years later, it's a sonata spotted with inspired, echt-Schumann moments. It took its final shape when Schumann added two more movements to the two (second and fourth movement) that he had already contributed to the "FAE-Sonata"--the sonata that he, Brahms (third movement), and Albert Dietrich (first movement) co-wrote for the birthday of Joseph Joachim.

Widmann and pianist Dénes Várjon are not household names, although collectors of Hungaroton releases might be familiar with the latter as part of the Takács Piano Trio and piano partner of Miklós Perényi. This recording shows Widmann and Várjon as fabulous musicians who are--particularly important in this repertoire--very well matched. Fleet and spunky, finding a good balance between assertive and lyrical, without overdoing either, Carolin Widmann navigates through sonatas every bit as securely as colleagues Marwood, Kremer, Faust & Co.

Gidon Kremer, who recorded the first two sonatas with Martha Argerich (DG), floats above the music, his slightly abbreviated phrases and beautifully contained violin sound seemingly unconcerned by gravity. Underneath him (sonically, though not interpretively) Argerich is her tempestuous best, bursting out at the seams, eager and independent minded. The sonatas becomes two stories, Kremer's and Argarich's, and it's ever titillating. Tempos change from one second to another, and movements like the third of op.105 ("Lively") run along like mice on tip-toes. It's a terrific way to interpret Schumann and even "incomplete" that disc should be on every well-stocked Schumann shelf.

Isabelle Faust and Silke Avenhaus on CPO offer all three sonatas and excellent performances, making it the ECM disc's primary competition. Like Kremer, Faust has a tendency towards clipped phrases, but her touch is not as soft as Kremer's which gives her consistently fast readings a trace of aggression and restlessness. No one plays the 2nd movement of op.121 so fast, though Widmann and Várjon come close and are even more rhythmically incisive. The dry acoustic allows for all details to come out, the balance between the instruments is perfectly even.

Compared to those accounts, Maria Egelhof and Mathias Weber (Thorofon) sound merely competent and sometimes even flatfooted (better in op.121 than op.105), as do Alban Beikircher and Benedikt Koehlen (ArteNova), who, however, delight with a stunning slow movement in op.121, the closely recorded pizzicato beginning being particularly delightful.

Widmann/Várjon meanwhile are a more cohesive unit than any of the couples above. They are the most flexible with tempos, allowing themselves time to indulge (3rd movement of op.105 or 1st movement of op.121) and really stepping on it, too (2nd movement of op.121, Scherzo of WoO2). Widmann's tone is particularly soft, her touch more supple even than Kremer's. When fortissimo is asked for, she remains sonorous with no hint of screeching. And for the gorgeous third movement of op.121, they have something truly special in store. It begins with Carlolin Widmann's pizzicato that barely sounds like pizzicato and more like a spiccato sulla tastiera. It's the most gentle way you'll ever hear this movement opened--slow, but melodious and with a forward momentum that gracelessly plucked notes could never muster. According to Widmann, who is very fond of exploring new ways of treating pizzicatos lovingly, that movement started out as a casual after-Dinner jam session but was surreptitiously recorded by Manfred Eicher who sensed that something beautiful was going on. It was, said Widmann, a moment of music-making that comes very rarely; that it doesn't get any better that. She was talking about the moment itself, but the same could be said about the result.

Coincidentally it's also the movement that works best in the resonant, not to say cavernous, Auditorio Radio Svizzera in Lugano. The acoustic is delightful bordering lush to these ears--for the most part. Friends of a dry acoustic, though, might find the natural reverb of the ECM recording to be testing their limits. Both instruments come to the ears from a little further back than the closer recorded recordings of Kremer & Faust.

It's my favorite recording of these works now, but it's not perfect. What I find somewhat objectionable is the soft rumble in the bass that's caused by every stomped foot, heavily pressed pedal, and every soundly rung low note on the piano. These low, ambient sounds feel as if someone upstairs ran about barefoot. On headphones that's not a problem, nor at low levels, but with bass-rich speakers at neighbor-unfriendly levels it can be rather distracting. Fortunately that's but a small caveat in light of all the goodness contained on this disc.
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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unbeatable playing, 10 Jan 2009
By 
P. H. Smith "Phil Smith" (Merseyside, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Schumann: The Violin Sonatas (Audio CD)
These new performances of the Schumann violin sonatas have been highly rated in reviews and no wonder; they are outstanding in every way. The rapt playing by both performers and attention to detail are entrancing and cannot be faulted, neither can the quality of the recording. Some occasionally intrusive gasping by (I think) the violinist has to be mentioned but this hardly detracts from the overall impression. These are late works of course, the third sonata, written when the composer was on the verge of his final breakdown, being rarely heard and hard to comprehend. The other two works are undoubted masterpieces. I have no reservations about recommending this CD.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Intelligent and intriguing performances, 19 July 2011
This review is from: Schumann: The Violin Sonatas (Audio CD)
As a professional violinist, I particularly admire Schumann's Violin Sonatas for the simple fact that, together with Brahms, they represent a pinnacle of romantic violin writing within the sonata genre. By that I mean that the complex shifts of mood that accompany the motivic material in these pieces have to be performed with such a depth of understanding and an almost psychological underpinning that they truly begin to acquire an epic status (despite the modesty of the medium).

Having performed the Sonata in A minor, I can tell you from personal experience that these pieces are just as technically challenging as Brahms' Violin Sonatas - the D minor Sonata even more so I would say. In order to do these works justice one has to be aware of the romantic yearning and passion inherent in the melodic material and the piano accompaniment, but at the same time also not fall into the trap of playing the work as some kind of 'Brahms-Lite' sonata. I have heard so many performances where the two players decide to either ride roughly over Schumann's delicately nuanced score and present it as a kind of late Romantic-fest, or to underplay the piece in order to convince the listener that these works in fact belong to the Schubertian era.

To cut a long story short, the recording by Carolin Widmann and Denes Varjon manages to create a wonderfully intelligent middle path between the two extremes mentioned above. Here there is passion, yearning, delicacy and a very impressive range of colour which I have rarely heard elsewhere. Both players confront the epic D minor Sonata with bravado and they were beginning to convince me that this piece is truly one of the greatest violin sonatas ever written, such is the conviction of the playing. Widmann isn't afraid to vary her sound from being intensely rich with a sumptuous vibrato down to something more streamlined and emotionally cool.

Included on the recording is the rarely played Sonata No.3 in A minor, WoO 2. It is a very interesting piece with a rather virtuosic and emotionally varied first movement. Even if the rest of the piece doesn't quite live up to the same standard of writing, it is still performed with a consummate ease and natural flow that is quite beguiling.

The sound quality is rather generous - nice and reverberant with an ideal balance between violin and piano. Perhaps just occasionally the acoustic muddies the waters, but this is only a trifle compared to the advantages that the sound-stage gives to the players.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gentle melodies with nice dynamics - perfect for introspection!, 9 April 2011
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This review is from: Schumann: The Violin Sonatas (Audio CD)
This is a very calming, almost wistful set of works - you can feel the sense of melancholy in the writing and playing. The first sonata is very easy to get into with a melodic hook in the first movement that is so beautiful it gets stuck in your head! The recording is nice but perhaps not the most crisp and clear that I have heard although the sound is warm. Occassionally it feels as if the violin and piano are competing for the same space on the recording but always the melodies shine through. There is a lot of music on the CD and I find it suits late night listening - perfect for relaxing and reflecting at the end of a busy day.
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Schumann: The Violin Sonatas
Schumann: The Violin Sonatas by Carolin Widmann (Audio CD - 2008)
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