Reviews

Classical Music: Kodaly and Dohnanyi Chamber Works

(Five Stars)

A generous and well-recorded programme of 20th Century Hungarian chamber works. The key work here is the Kodaly Duo for violin and cello: there is a freshness in the playing and a delight in the felicitous writing. The folk-inspired Serenade for two violins and viola is slighter but no less appealing. The Dohnanyi is the earliest piece on the disc: each movement is well characterised and finely nuanced. Smith and his fellow musicians respond with focus and verve in a fine follow up to last years solo disc on the same label.

The Strad: Signs, Games and Messages

György Kurtág builds grand, over-arching architecture by stringing together compressed fragments – concentrated gestures aimed at provoking concentrated listening. Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin (1944) is anything but compressed, its four-movement plan divining structures of expansive wonder from motivic seeds – a yin-meets-yang of interpretative challenges.
The recorded tradition of the Bartók – beginning with its dedicatee Yehudi Menuhin and moving towards recent recordings by James Ehnes and Vilde Frang – is rich and diverse, and the ‘heat’ of British violinist Simon Smith contrasts noticeably with the cool, unfussy approach favoured by Ehnes. The Bachian mood music of the opening ‘Tempo di ciaccona’ is unashamedly pushed to the fore, and the heat of Smith’s performance rises through expressive swells that inject a vague air of Romanticism. A ballad-like reading of the third-movement ‘Melodia’ is brusquely interrupted by Bartók’s Presto finale, as Smith rides the rude, rhythmic stampede like a rodeo.
Kurtág’s Signs, Games & Messages variously draws on John Dowland and folk sources, and includes miniatures dedicated to Cage and Bach, although I’m not convinced that the parts add up to the grand whole that Kurtág aims for. But Smith clearly is convinced, and this luxuriantly detailed reading, matched by a clean-cut recording, will not leave existing Kurtág devotees disappointed.

Gramophone Magazine: Signs, Games and Messages

If dozens of recordings of Bartók’s Solo Sonata are available, scarcely a handful of violinists have recorded the solo pieces of György Kurtág. Born 45 years after Bartók, Kurtág grew up some 85 miles from the elder composer’s birthplace (both locations now in Romania). Kurtág has said, quite sincerely, that his ‘mother tongue is Bartók’. Both pianist-composers assiduously cultivated an understanding of the violin. These factors combined make Simon Smith’s release, combining canonic Bartók with Kurtág pieces from the past 30 or so years, apt and welcome.

Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages is a sort of ongoing compositional notebook similar to the eight volumes of Games, though the latter are pieces for piano and piano duet, while the former are designated for both string and wind instruments. The 18 Smith has selected for this disc, the longest of which is a little over three minutes, are characteristically terse and musically rich. His thoughtful, sympathetic performances discern the unique qualities of each.

Three perpetuum mobiles take the same arpeggiation as a starting point for arrivals in three very different places. Kurtág has written many memorial tributes for friends and colleagues, and two of those included here – to László Mensáros, one of the most beloved Hungarian actors of the 20th century, and to the conductor Tamás Blum – are deeply affecting in their understatement. The questing, fragmentary ‘Hommage à John Cage’ seems a perfect likeness of the composer.

Naturally, in the Bartók Sonata, Smith faces some stiff competition. His interpretation may not have the earthiness of Viktoria Mullova, the intellectual compass of Christian Tetzlaff or the idiomatic implacability of Barnabás Kelemen. That said, it is a compelling reading with a firm point of view.

Smith’s strong, clear sound is superbly captured in a space that accentuates the disc’s existential aura of one human alone with little but his own consciousness for company.

The Strad: Purcell Room

Opting for a programme of early-20th-century works, Simon Smith proceeded to celebrate their various stylistic nuances with interpretative flair. He dealt neatly with the neo-classical proportions of Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, particularly the understated, witty elegance of the “Minuetto e Finale”, where he revelled in the frantic brilliance of successions of fifths.

The sweet tone Smith proffered in the Stravinsky was fleshed out for the more oblique meanderings of Szymanowski’s Three Myths with a sensuous, sobbing vibrato. Andrew West brought cavernous clarity to the layered piano wash, over which Smith laid a perfectly sculpted, stratospheric lament. The fleeting melodies which emerged amid the high rustlings of the violin in the third Myth, “Dryads and Pan”, were captured exquisitely, while the sheer romance of the violin’s soaring melody was entrancing.

More introspective still was Debussy’s Sonata. Here, Smith achieved a sensitive balance, at times indulging his sumptuous tone, at others producing a dusky remoteness.

Prokofiev’s Sonata no. 2 brought a fine violin and piano ensemble, with West expertly matching Smith’s fiery, crisp articulation. Smith’s effortless bow control made light of the flowing, uneasy chromaticism of the Andante, while the outspoken finery of the Allegro con brio was well controlled.

Smith’s choice of encore – Lili Boulanger’s Nocturne – confirmed his turn-of-thecentury loyalties. This delicate and unassuming piece was played with the characteristic poignancy and expressive power which made this concert so enchanting.

The Times: Wigmore Hall

Smith is a virtuoso who is at once darkly cool and immensely persuasive: he is seemingly reserved in often preferring a tone that is close to a viola, and in refraining from the subjective bravado of “expressive” playing, but he is massively confident, massively present in his control of tone and effect, and above all in his steadfast phrasing, his ability to make a long melody arch forward, powerfully supported by an urge that remains un-revealed.

There are extraordinary gifts here, and Smith did include one piece to draw attention to them: the Szymanowski Nocturne and Tarantella, which is full of evocative shadow, brilliantly precise pizzicato arpeggios, and marvellous, pearly harmonics. But otherwise, in Schumann’s A minor Sonata and Dallapiccola’s Two Studies, this was selfless playing, devoted to making the music exist as fully as possible.

The Dallapiccola performance was especially remarkable for Smith’s depth of knowledge and conviction, his unerring way of making a complex line firm and impressive. For half a recital, his programme was certainly varied enough, but one was left wanting to hear him in an even greater range of music – indeed, in almost anything from Bach to Berio.

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