"Partners in Time" the paradox of recording performance

Tasmin Little and John Lenehan join forces in “Partners in Time,” a CD of rarely heard violin and piano pieces. The subtitle is “Bach to Bartok” because they’ve chosen a collection of pieces of varying styles and eras to give a marvelous sample of seldom performed gems. With such a wide variety of styles, there is something to appeal to pretty much everyone’s taste.

Tasmin’s previous CD “Naked Violin” received rave reviews for its innovative approach, offering free downloads on the internet in an attempt to get other of these lesser known pieces heard by the general public. What a great idea. And this CD is filled with charming pieces you’re not likely to hear on any other CD. The flow of music through the ages is a wonderful concept, twisting and turning with all the paradoxes of a time machine.

The first track, a 20th century piece by Fritz Kreisler Praeludium and Allegro was originally pawned off as a work by Gaetano Pugnani, however (according to the liner notes) Fritz did this initially to gain acceptance for pieces he was performing – and it worked; he was one of the world’s leading violinists in 1936. Even after he confessed duping the public, the popularity for this piece continued. The piece begins haltingly, and a bit overdramatic for my taste. For music written in 1905, yet trying to capture the feeling of something from the 1700’s, it fails at both. There are elements that show extreme virtuosity on the part of Tasmin’s violin – and in a style that might have come from the early period. There are too many “lush” chords to truly feel like a piece from a previous era and no where near enough romantic elements to be a 20th century composition.

Bach’s Sonata in E major is next. Following on from the Kreisler piece, there is perceptibly a sense of flow into the music of Bach. However, the opening movement feels so lush and romantic it’s difficult to really enjoy the intricacy of interplay between the violin and the piano. Tasmin’s technical ability makes her clearly capable of performing all of the notes, but the overwhelming amount of reverb and intensity of the lower register in the recording forced me to play this piece on three different systems until I could really enjoy the performance (and even they weren't quite what I wanted).

The second and third movements of the Bach are a different story entirely. The interchange between the violin and piano is absolutely beautiful, perfectly matched. Tasmin and John clearly enjoy the Bach and it comes through in these center movements. By the time we arrive at the fourth movement we are prepared for quintessential Bach. From the beginning to just before the very end, this is what Bach should sound like on a modern recording, lovely in the interweaving of the parts, intricate yet delicate. If only the equalization of the CD had been a bit more precise; the piece doesn’t end as strong as it might. I believe the performance is there but the final product wasn’t engineered to get the punch it needs in the end.

You might think after all of my comments about lush tones, I wouldn’t find Mozart dry – but alas, while the technical virtuosity is evident in every note, the opening of the first movement of Mozart’s Violin Sonata no. 17 in C major failed to excite. It was as if the performers were playing the notes, but not the intent. Midway through, the movement gets much better. John and Tasmin begin to have fun with the music. But it was a slow start.

The second movement gives John a chance to shine and that he does. There is still wonderful interplay between the violin and piano, but the piano introduces all the lovely melodies, which John does with such grace as to make this movement a real joy to listen to. This feeling continues into the third movement. Tasmin and John have numerous moments where their deft touch and transference of the melodic line is superb. Again, their virtuoso performances are evident in the ability to distinguish every note, but in the end there is not enough “umph” to satisfy.

Tasmin and John found a home with Grieg’s Violin Sonata no. 2 in G major. Their sense of emotion and pathos are perfect for this piece. Any slushy sense felt before becomes perfect in this highly romantic piece. Both performers took to the first movement with such a sense of passion; every nuance of the music is clearly translated. The second movement, Allegretto tranquillo maintains the passion, with an absolutely beautiful moment just over half way ending with nearly imperceptible violin harmonics. They finish off the piece getting all the animation one could hope for. This is far and away the best piece of the CD.

The Tchaikovsky souvenir d’un liu cher Op. 42: no. 3 ‘Melodie’ doesn’t disappoint either. Again, Tasmin and John are obviously at home with romantic composers. Tasmin’s nimble touch on the violin really shines while John’s passionate expression on the piano cuts through when it is needed.

As the CD returns to the 20th century with Bartok’s Six Romanian Folk Dances we come into yet another style of music. Unlike some of Bartok’s orchestral works, which pushed 20th century music into wholly new directions, these Romanian Folk Dances are little snatches of lovely, more primal music. The first movement is technically spot on, but lacks the grit this music calls for, invoking its more primal nature. As the performers move into the 2nd piece “Braul” (Chain Dance), the sardonically sweet nature of the music is captured. The tragedy and misery of the 3rd and 4th pieces are wonderfully light and dark all at the same time. The Romanian Polka is both fun and anxious while the 6th and final dance, “Maruntel” really shows off Tasmin’s talent.

The CD ends strong and has some incredible moments. I suspect many of my complaints could be put down to engineering and not performance. Both Tasmin and John show their ability time and time again. Perhaps they are not as comfortable with Mozart as they are with Greig and yet, the 2nd and 3rd movements of the Mozart are wonderful – only falling just short in the end. Perhaps this CD takes a while to warm up to, but I listened to it on numerous different systems trying to ensure what I was hearing was really the best performance of the CD and not a fault of my stereo system - the problems remained.

Overall the CD left me wanting more from the pieces - elements that should have been and weren’t. It is unfortunate the recording process seems to have robbed this from being an outstanding album. Often a live performance doesn’t translate well to recording because there is no way to really capture the energy of the performers live and in person. However, this wasn’t a live recording, so there are ways it could have been engineered to be more than it is.

Tasmin Little deserves all the praise heaped on her. The love she has for music is evident throughout the music chosen for this album and in her virtuoso performance. John Lenehan is amazing on the piano, offering a broad spectrum of styles with tremendous accuracy and passion. Live, I suspect this duo is breath taking. This CD captures some of those wonderful moments and their partnered ability perfectly. The paradox is sometimes it doesn’t.

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