Any set of 2 CDs which entitles itself Thesaurus of violinistic fiendishness is really asking for trouble. In fact the music here is a very great deal more approachable than the title would suggest. The solo violinist is never asked to do anything against the nature of the instrument, playing on the wrong side of the bridge, hitting the instrument about – except on two occasions, and that for dramatic effect and not just because the composer has run out of things to do – or otherwise abusing it. We get a fair helping of modernistic techniques – glissandi, harmonics, left hand pizzicato – but there is nothing here that Paganini would not have recognised. We come to appreciate that the title is meant to be taken light-heartedly, and the innate good humour of the composer’s own booklet notes help us to appreciate this too.
The first ‘book’ indeed is largely pure satire, a series of portraits of various American politicians – the composer was living in the USA at the time – including in The war-monger’s hoe-down a portrait of an American president who cannot even remember his own national anthem. These lampoons are interspersed with more serious reflections, and the composer gives us a strong autobiographical background to the music in his very literate and readable booklet notes. Once we move on to the second book, Black studies after Goya, the music becomes more insistent and less good-humoured, but if possible even more technically difficult. In the final Cannibal planet the player attacks the violin with what sounds like a hammer – a rare exception to the observation above regarding unorthodox techniques – as the unfortunate victim expires.
After this the third book, Mid-South Reflections, is more straightforwardly autobiographical and derives from a period of three years when the composer lived in Memphis. The composer illuminates the programme behind each movement in his informative sleeve note and his depiction of an ice storm – presumably what we in Britain call a hailstorm – in … as glass particles descend … is superbly atmospheric. The fourth book is a set of variations without a theme, and the final Notturno is beautifully evocative. The composer states in his booklet note that “with each book of the Thesaurus I made a point of doing something that I had not tried in the previous instalments” and the fifth and sixth books form a more unitary structure than in the free-standing first four, with the final section of the fifth book echoed in the opening of the sixth. This sixth book is again a set of variations, but the theme is not stated until the eighth section (of thirteen) forming both “a point of arrival and departure;” but unfortunately when it arrives it is not particularly memorable in itself.
The seventh book then acts as a “summation”. The first movement returns to the depiction of the – by the time of composition – former President Bush in a political squib entitled Diablo Tejano which is pizzicato throughout and gives a recognisable “appreciative nod” to Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale. This is great fun, with a counterpoint of slaps on the body of instrument like a manic line dance. The final Cosmic buckaroo brings us full circle with reference back to the opening chord of the whole work, “repeated ever more obstreperously”. This is a whirlwind finale of great energy. The quotations cited throughout this review give a flavour of the composer’s wryly humorous style of writing, which extends not only to his programme notes but delightfully to sections of the music itself. This is perhaps not a pair of discs to listen to at one continuous sitting. Although there is plenty of variety, the sound of the solo violin – even when played as well as here – becomes too undifferentiated over an extended period. If one dips into a single ‘book’ of the thesaurus at a time – notwithstanding the links between the various books – the music cannot fail to enchant an audience and hold their attention.
Pellay was born in Italy, moving to England as a teenager and thereafter living at various times in the UK and the USA. Skærved is an excellent British player famed for his performances of the Bach solo partitas and sonatas, of which this cycle – of which he gave the world première in 2004 – may be regarded as a modern equivalent. The photographer who contributes two pretty standard pictures to the booklet gets a biography of equal billing therein. The acoustic of the delightful small village church in Hertfordshire is not really very atmospherically captured by the rather close recording – it could well be a normal recording studio – but at least it enables us to hear every detail of Skærved’s superlatively skilful playing.
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