CD review: Vandy musicians give Stravinsky his due

Violinist Carolyn Huebl and pianist Mark Wait have been on a Russian kick lately. The players, both professors at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music, recorded all of composer Alfred Schnittke’s violin sonatas for release on the Franklin-based Naxos label last year. Now it’s Stravinsky’s turn.

HueblWait2-copyFor their new CD, the duo has recorded three works from the composer’s neoclassical period. Two of the pieces – Suite italienne (from Pulcinella) and Divertimento (from Le baiser de la fée) were arranged from ballets. The third – Duo Concertant – is one of the composer’s most elegant instrumental statements. Wait and Huebl give the works polished and appealing performances.

Stravinsky created his works for violin and piano in the 1930s for his tours with the Polish-American violinist Samuel Dushkin. Though never a virtuoso, Stravinsky was an able pianist, and he performed often to support himself after he lost access to his Russian estate following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Dushkin was one of the composer’s favorite chamber partners – Stravinsky wrote his Violin Concerto for him in 1931.

Stravinsky based Pulcinella on music that had been attributed (probably spuriously) to the early 18th-century Italian composer Giovanni Pergolesi. To his credit, though, Stravinsky did not create an antiquarian piece. He maintained the courtly character of the Baroque melodies, but he also spiced up the music with pungent harmonies and updated rhythms. Like a black-and-white photo enhanced with color, Stravinsky’s music is a seamless fusion of the old and the new.

Huebl and Wait’s interpretation pays heed to Suite italienne’s 18th-century influences. Their elegant, refined performance is full springy, Baroque-like rhythms. But they alsocarolyn play with ample color, nuance and expression, making the music sound decidedly contemporary. Huebl’s tone, especially in the remarkable fourth-movement Gavotta con due variazioni, is sweet and luminous.

The ballet Le baiser de la fée (The Fairy’s Kiss), based on a Hans Christian Andersen short story, is a homage to Tchaikovsky. Musically, the dance – and its subsequent violin and piano arrangement – found inspiration in some of Tchaikovsky’s early piano pieces. Huebl and Wait’s rendition, appropriately enough, is lyrical and romantic. But with their vigorous and incisive rhythmic attacks – most notably in the Danses suisses – they never let you forget that this music came from a Stravinsky ballet.

waitDuo Concertant, from 1932, found inspiration in the pastoral poets of antiquity – three of the work’s five movements have Greek headings: Eglogue I and II and Dithyrambe. Stravinsky’s music is decidedly modern. The opening Cantilène is brimming with jagged, fractured melodies; the Eglogue I is rhythmically spikey. Huebl and Wait play this music with considerable brio. But they also perform with immediacy and emotion – Huebl’s performance in the Eglogue II is about as close as a violin can get to sounding like a human voice (at times it even seems breathy).

Wait, an expert in Stravinsky’s piano music, is equally successful, providing an orchestra’s worth of color in his accompaniment. Together, Huebl and Wait give Stravinsky his due, and their new CD is a worthy companion to their fine Schnittke recording.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.