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Hyperion Records

CDA67735 - Weiner: Violin Sonatas
The Solitary Cedar (1907) by Tivador Csontvary Kosztka (1853-1919)
Csontvary Museum, Pecs, Hungary / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: June 2008
Jerusalem Music Centre, Israel
Produced by Eric Wen
Engineered by Zvi Hirshler
Release date: July 2009
Total duration: 77 minutes 29 seconds

'Shaham's pungent, occasionally acidic string tone is perfect for Weiner's mixture of extravagance and cool … great elegance and flamboyant ease' (The Guardian)

'Highly enjoyable … full of charm and wit … the playing is exemplary … Shaham and Erez make the best possible case for these pieces, duly wearing hearts on sleeve where appropriate' (International Record Review)

'Hagai Shaham plays with a large, richly Romantic tone and a feeling for the grand gestures in which the music delivers its message and the ethnic matrix from which it emerged. But he also has the virtuosic flair to put across the most flamboyant numbers' (Fanfare, USA)

'The excellent Israeli violinist Hagai Shaham and his accompanist of many years Arnon Erez (together they won the 1990 ARD Competition) have recorded Leo Weiner’s two magnificent early violin sonatas … with such devotion and such a feeling for the sensual glow of this music that, from the very first bar, one is totally transfixed by the art of their musical seduction … Hagai Shaham links a perfect technique with the mesmerizing beauty of his fiery sound; he embodies the ideal Hungarian gipsy-violinist, the highly cultivated Prince Charming who will give it 'his all' to cast a spell on his listeners … nowadays, violinists with such charisma have become very rare and should therefore be especially cherished … the old-fashioned magic of Shaham’s sound' (Stereoplay, Germany)

Violin Sonatas
Moderato  [5'21]
Andante  [6'29]
Allegro  [6'21]
Presto  [2'44]
Larghetto  [5'49]
Allegro  [0'27]
Allegretto  [0'44]
Allegro  [0'23]
Allegro vivo  [0'14]
Tempo giusto  [0'24]
Tempo giusto  [0'36]
Moderato  [0'38]
Allegretto  [0'26]
Allegretto  [0'20]
Sostenuto  [0'59]
Tempo giusto  [0'32]
Andante  [1'08]

Hagai Shaham has made himself the master of the Hungarian idiom which prevailed in much Romantic violin music. He now turns to a composer who was one of the leading figures of new Hungarian music in the first few years of the twentieth century, although largely forgotten now. Leó Weiner was regularly hailed as the great new hope of Hungarian music—in 1908 one critic prophesied that he was the Hungarian symphonist that everyone had been waiting for. But in fact he did not produce any symphonies, and it was in chamber music that he fully achieved his early promise.

Hagai Shaham and Arnon Erez present a selection of Weiner’s music for violin and piano—and it is easy to fathom from them why Weiner was such a much-loved figure. His music is fastidious, highly melodic and occasionally nostalgic in appeal—delightfully lyrical and sensitive. It has a highly developed sense of rhythm, especially dance rhythm, and is also highly accomplished technically, of quite admirable craftsmanship. His two important Sonatas for violin and piano are recorded here, and both demonstrate the German romanticism which penetrated his musical vocabulary. The remainder of this disc is centred on Weiner’s works based upon different kinds of Hungarian folk tunes.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
In the first years of the twentieth century, when Bartók, Kodály and Dohnányi were beginning to make their names as the leading figures in new Hungarian music, a fourth composer was earning equally glowing, and sometimes even more effusive, reviews. Unlike the three composers just mentioned, who were his friends and slightly elder contemporaries, Leó Weiner (1885–1960) was a native of Budapest and would spend virtually his entire career in the city. He remained a much-respected national figure in Hungary, but after a brief period before and after the First World War he never established the same level of international recognition as Bartók and Kodály. This was in part, perhaps, because he continued to develop the verbunkos or pseudo-gypsy style—which had evolved in the nineteenth century from courtship dances and the dance-music played at army recruitment ceremonies and had been taken up by Liszt and Brahms in many of their ‘Hungarian’-inspired works—rather than drawing the more radical conclusions that Bartók and Kodály took from their folk-song researches among the Hungarian peasantry.

Weiner received his first lessons in music from his elder brother, before he entered the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest in 1901; for the next five years he was a composition pupil of Hans (János) Koessler, the German-born but Budapest-domiciled composer who also taught Bartók, Kodály and Dohnányi. (Koessler was a cousin of Max Reger.) Graduating in 1906, Weiner worked for a while as a repetiteur with the Budapest Comic Opera and then won an Imperial prize which allowed him to study in Munich, Vienna, Berlin and Paris. But he returned to Budapest in 1908 and, on Koessler’s recommendation, was awarded a position at the Academy as teacher of music theory.

As a composer, Weiner scored an early success with his Serenade in F minor for small orchestra Op 3, written at the age of twenty-one: this was awarded no fewer than three major composition prizes, and was taken up by a German publisher and performed throughout Europe. He also received a prize for a Hungarian Fantasy for tárogató (a double-reed folk instrument related to the clarinet) and cimbalom, which indicated his interest in Hungarian folklore. Though he was not as thoroughgoing a researcher as Bartók or Kodály, he was somewhat ahead of them in time in assimilating folkloric elements into his scores and winning critical acceptance for it. Here, at the beginning of his career, Weiner was regularly hailed as the great new hope of Hungarian music—in 1908 one critic prophesied that he was the Hungarian symphonist that everyone had been waiting for. But in fact he did not produce any symphonies, and though he continued composing throughout his life, his most fertile period came to an end shortly after he was awarded the 1922 Coolidge Prize in the USA for his String Quartet No 2: his rate of production slackened as he seems gradually to have become more and more absorbed in his teaching duties.

In 1912 he was made professor of composition at the Liszt Academy, and in 1920 professor of chamber music. In 1949 he was given the title of emeritus professor, but continued to teach at the Academy until his death in 1960. Among other honours, he was declared an ‘Eminent Artist of the Hungarian People’s Republic’ in 1953. Thus Weiner taught for nearly fifty years at the Liszt Academy: his many pupils included famous instrumentalists and conductors such as Géza Anda, Antal Doráti, Peter Frankl, Cyprien Katsaris, Louis Kentner, Miklós Rózsa, György Sebok, Georg Solti, János Starker, Tibor Varga, Tamás Vásáry and Sándor Vegh, to name but a few. He was held to be pre-eminent in the teaching of chamber music performance, and since his death a Leó Weiner International Competition in string quartet playing has been held annually in Budapest. He also published a much-respected harmony textbook. In a memoir published in 1987, Louis Kentner left an affectionate portrait of his former teacher, writing that Weiner was ‘outgoing, laughter-loving, sardonic, communicative’, and ‘the earliest and strongest of influences on me as a musician. He was a really “great” master-pedagogue who was also a significant creative artist, a penetrating musical intelligence, self-taught in playing the piano (which he did with a cat-like instinctive physical skill but also an inability of sustained concentration), in short, a universal musician.’

Naturally, chamber music bulks large in Weiner’s list of works—he wrote three string quartets and a string trio, in addition to the violin–piano works on this disc—though he also produced several orchestral compositions including five divertimenti, two violin concertos, a Concertino for piano and orchestra, a Romance for cello, harp and strings, and works for string orchestra. Altogether Weiner published about fifty works, of which the best-known in his lifetime was his incidental music to the great nineteenth-century playwright Mihály Vörösmarty’s fantasy play Csongor és Tünde, from which he drew two brilliant and charming orchestral suites.

It is easy to see, from the works presented on this disc, why Weiner was such a much-loved figure. His music is fastidious, highly melodic and occasionally nostalgic in appeal—lyrical, sensitive and without false rhetoric. It has a highly developed sense of rhythm, especially dance-rhythm, and is also highly accomplished technically, of quite admirable craftsmanship. If he is—by some way—a smaller composer than his more internationally renowned contemporaries, within his chosen confines he was a near-perfect one. It would never be hard to guess the composer’s nationality, but the Hungarian folk references are never overplayed, never made the music’s reason for existing. It is said that in the 1930s, when Hungarian national sentiment began to be appropriated by right-wing political propaganda, Weiner tended to keep folk music out of his works, returning to this source of inspiration after World War II. Throughout, Weiner’s voice is quietly distinctive.

Weiner composed his Violin Sonata No 1 in D major Op 9 in 1911. The predominantly lyrical first movement, Moderato, is reminiscent of the Brahms sonatas not so much in style as in mood and structural concision; and the near-independence of the two instruments, moving almost throughout the movement in counterpoint, is notable. The long-spanned principal theme, which might be said to have a slight Hungarian accent rather than use a Hungarian vocabulary, is a fine example of Weiner’s sustained melodic writing. The sonata is remarkable for containing two movements in fast waltz-tempo, and the first of these serves as the scherzo: its capricious and voluble outer sections surround a central trio dominated by repeated dactylic rhythms, very like—and perhaps alluding to—those that infuse the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No 7.

The ecstatic melodic writing of the Andante slow movement demonstrates Weiner’s deep roots in Germanic romanticism, especially Brahms, though the musical texture is lighter than that of his great predecessor. The restatement of the main tune in the last third of the movement brings a rippling, decorative accompaniment to gild this ecstatic lily. By contrast the finale begins as a good-humoured, capering Presto requiring fine violin technique for its execution, pitted against fanfaring chords in the piano. (Weiner directs that it should be ‘sharply rhythmicized’.) Soon, however, there occurs a cyclic return of the first movement’s opening theme, interspersed with the quick-moving figurations of the finale. These elements alternate in an energetic and sometimes grotesque parade of invention, which constitutes a development. When it seems the music can no longer surprise us, the coda strikes in even faster, at Rasches Walzertempo, with a fusillade of pizzicato strumming from the violinist, and drives to a distinctly raffish conclusion.

Weiner composed his Violin Sonata No 2 in F sharp minor Op 11 in 1918, directly after the music for Csongor és Tünde, and regarded it as one of his most important works. In fact nearly forty years later, in 1957, he returned to it and composed a new version for violin and orchestra as his Violin Concerto No 2 Op 45—which proved to be his last composition. (Weiner seems to have gone in for arrangement and transcription a good deal: the Pastoral, Fantasy and Fugue for string orchestra was realized from his Third String Quartet, while the beautifully nostalgic Romance for cello, harp and strings is a 1949 arrangement of a piece for cello and piano from thirty years earlier.)

Like the first sonata, Sonata No 2 has four movements, but is planned on a larger scale, as is evident from the first bars of the opening Allegro, in which the violin unfolds a long bittersweet first subject somewhat reminiscent of the sonata of César Franck. (Weiner’s chamber and orchestral works often testify to his sympathy for French music.) As this sonata-form movement unfolds, however, a passionate Hungarian strain is also evident. It comes, however, to a serenely lyrical end, the violin having a rather plaintive last word. The ensuing short Presto scherzo is by contrast almost Mendelssohnian in its lightness and flashing wit, the violin and piano swapping phrases with antiphonal abandon. A more authentically Hungarian tone is heard in the romantic Larghetto slow movement, where the violin spins its nostalgic song against measured descending chords on the piano. The finale opens with a rhapsodic introduction (Rubato) which freely recalls first the music of the scherzo, then the first movement in impassioned recitative, then finally the third movement, sweeping into a cadenza-like pyrotechnic display for violin unaccompanied. This issues in the steady marching tread of a rondo-like Ziemlich rasch—an extended and highly inventive movement marked by passionate dialogue between the two instruments, and an occasional sardonic, almost Mahlerian shaft of wit, that brings this fine sonata to a good-humoured but essentially serious close.

The remainder of this disc is centred on Weiner’s works based upon different kinds of Hungarian folk tunes. (He produced five volumes of piano settings of Hungarian peasant songs, for instance.) The Csárdás Peregi verbunk (‘Pereg recruiting dance’) Op 40 is a perfect example of the verbunkos style, setting a received tune in a manner that descends straight from Brahms’s Hungarian dances (especially as they are presented in the violin-piano transcriptions by Joseph Joachim, recorded by Hagai Shaham and Arnon Erez on Hyperion CDA67663). The languorous, even smoochy main tune betrays an urban, café-style sophistication. It is perfectly suited to the violin (though Weiner also made versions for clarinet and for viola), and the florid decoration of its later returns summons up the mental picture of a gypsy fiddler giving his all to entertain his audience.

Lakodalmas is a Hungarian wedding dance which Weiner arranged for violin from the first movement of his Divertimento No 2 for string orchestra Op 21, composed in 1938 (he also made a version for cello and piano that was championed by his pupil János Starker). It has the characteristic lassú–friss (slow–fast) alternation of tempi familiar from Liszt’s Hungarian rhapsodies, but Weiner inventively and effectively dovetails them several times.

The Három magyar népi tánc (‘Three Hungarian folk dances’) were originally composed for piano solo—the lively Rókatánc (‘Fox dance’) is a familiar encore piece for Eastern European pianists—and also for piano duet; they are heard here in a transcription for violin and piano by Tibor Ney. The Marosszéki keringös (‘Ronde from Marossék’), as its name implies, is a tune from the Marosszék region of Transylvania, which is particularly rich in folk-dance music, both sung and played, much of which Hungarian ethnomusicologists consider to derive from a more remote past than the music of other regions. (Kodály made it famous in his popular Dances from Marosszék.) The vivacious Csürdöngölö (‘Peasants’ dance’) is a type of fast Csárdás, requiring to be played with apparent abandon while actually paying close attention to rhythmic precision.

Weiner took the task of providing educational music for young players very seriously, and the Húsz könnyü kis darab (‘Twenty easy little pieces’, subtitled ‘Hungarian nursery rhymes and folk songs’) is heard here in a transcription for violin and piano by Tibor Fülep (who re-ordered Weiner’s original Op 27 publication and dropped the composer’s descriptive titles for each miniature). As a cycle it ranks with Bartók’s Hungarian folksongs and For children. In these tiny pieces—some of them only a few seconds long—Weiner precisely and often wittily fixes the character of the various songs with a minimum of fuss and not a single wasted note. Nevertheless, he is able—as in the very slightly longer Andante, No 18—to give them full expressive weight.

Calum MacDonald © 2009

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