Saturday, July 30, 2011

Violist Eliesha Nelson & Pianist Glen Inanga Make Strong Case for Varvara Gaigerova, Alexander Winkler & Paul Juon

[Russian Viola Sonatas; Eliesha Nelson, viola; Glen Inanga, piano; Sono Luminus (2011) (71:02)]

We have enjoyed the work of Eliesha Nelson and Glen Inanga for years. Dorian Records posted a program sample on YouTube, just under a minute in length, on June 29, 2011 with this description:

“Multi-GRAMMY® nominated violist Eliesha Nelson teams up with pianist Glen Inanga to present a unique and eclectic program of early 20th century Russian viola masterworks — bridging pre-Revolutionary Russian viola pieces and early Soviet period compositions with 2 world premiere recordings. Russian Viola Sonatas is the next in a series of recordings from Ms. Nelson, exploring important, significant and compelling viola literature not commonly heard on other releases. No other recording in the marketplace combines this unique literature on one release.”

The Rest Is Noise is the prominent classical music blog of Alex Ross. He reviewed Russian Viola Sonatas on July 22, 2011 in a post titled Who was Varvara Gaigerova? The Dorian Records sample on YouTube was linked to the post. Alex Ross writes: “I rubbed my eyes somewhat when I studied the tracklist and discovered not only that the Shostakovich sonata was not there but that the composers included — Varvara Gaigerova, Alexander Winkler, and Paul Juon — were entirely new to me. The Gaigerova Suite Op. 8, the beginning of which you can hear in the video preview above, is particularly striking — a Scriabinesque score in four brief, pungent movements.” He says of Varvara Gaigerova: “She had a strong interest in the ethnic musical traditions of the Soviet Union and wrote a symphony on Kalmyk themes.” The review concludes with these comments: “The CD is beautifully played throughout; Nelson's tone is strikingly rich and warm.”

From our perspective, there is far too much to say about this recording for a single review. We will not be surprised if we return to the disc before long. At a time when a major organization such as the Boston Symphony can find itself with a single performer of African descent, following the celebrated retirement of principal harpist Ann Hobson Pilot in 2009, and many other orchestras have very small numbers of members of African heritage, it seems that recordings have allowed a number of instrumentalists of color to demonstrate talent and musicianship outside of an orchestral setting, by selecting challenging repertoire, even if it is neglected.

Awadagin Pratt and Kelly Hall-Tompkins are two examples from this year alone, in addition to Eliesha Nelson and Glen Inanga. Eliesha explored largely unrecorded American repertoire on her first CD, Quincy Porter, Complete Viola Works in 2009. Reviews in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere hailed the result. On October 20, 2007 we listed the recordings of the Micallef-Inanga Duo, all of which have been very well received:

Micallef/Inanga Two-Piano Works; Works of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, Bohuslav Martinu, Francis Poulenc; Royal Over-Seas League (1998)

Ravel: Music for Two Pianos; Somm 25 (2002)

Holloway: Gilded Goldbergs; Hyperion (2002)

Eliesha Nelson's recordings are evidence that she has chosen both friends and repertoire with consummate taste. Her first CD, Quincy Porter, Complete Viola Works, benefited greatly from the versatility of John McLaughlin Williams, a violin classmate at the Cleveland Institute of Music who shares Eliesha's deep interest in neglected repertoire. John not only conducted on the recording, but also performed on the piano, violin and harpsichord.

Russian Viola Sonatas was recorded with the Nigerian pianist Glen Inanga, a partner in the renowned Micallef-Inanga Piano Duo as well as a fellow student 15 years earlier at the Royal Academy of Music in London, England. Three of its four works are world premieres, and this appears to be the first recording of any work of of the Soviet woman composer Varvara Gaigerova, at least judging by search engine results.

Varvara Gaigerova (1903-1944) is represented by her Suite for Viola and Piano, Op. 8. The work of Paul Juon (1872-1940) is Sonata in D Major for Viola and Piano, Op. 15. There are two works of Alexander Winkler (1865-1935), Two Pieces for Viola and Piano, Op. 31; and Sonata in C minor for Violin and Piano. Russian Viola Sonatas is enhanced by warm, engaging and erudite liner notes by the violist herself. She takes care to communicate the historical setting in which each work was composed. For example, she writes:

“In the early 20th century, composers Varvara Gaigerova, Alexander Winkler, and Paul Juon, reflect different aspects of Russian music at this historic time of intense social and political revolution.” “Chronologically, Alexander Adolfovich Winkler is the oldest of the three composers. He was born in Kharkov on March 3, 1865.” “Pavel Fedorovich (Paul) Juon was born in Moscow, on March 6, 1872. He was the son of a prominent Moscow official of Swiss and German descent.” “The most biographically elusive of the three composers on this disc is Varvara Adrianovna Gaigerova. She was born October 17, 1903 in the city of Orekhovo-Zuyevo in Moscow oblast (region), western Russia, east of Moscow city, along the Klyazma River.”

Gaigerova is a generation younger than Winkler and Juon, but her Suite seems right at home with the works of Winkler and Juon. The sound of Gaigerova may have a bit more appeal for us, but the CD as a whole is a solid and welcome addition to the repertoire of Glazunov, Borodin, Taneyev and Glinka in our CD collection.

Disclosure: A review copy of this CD was provided by the record label.

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