Mathaes plays Suites and Sweets
American violinist Jessica Mathaes (pronounced MAH-tes), accompanied by pianist Rodney Waters, gives strikingly characterized, euphonious performances of 20th century works by Henry Cowell, Igor Stravinsky, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Manuel de Falla, and Maurice Ravel, with the enchanting Meditation from Thais by Jules Massenet as an encore. The recital is entitled Suites and Sweets. Right on both counts.

Cowell (1897-1965) is mostly remembered in music history as the inventor of tone clusters, usually created on the piano by simultaneously striking adjacent white or black keys with the palm of the hand or the forearm. Personally, I feel that they may be O.K. for special effects, but not appropriate when, as here in Cowell's Suite for Violin and Piano, they are used in the accompaniment to a melody instrument. Waters plays the tone clusters well, but I feel the technique gets in the way by calling undue attention to itself. The main impression I got here, and it was a pleasant surprise, was that of the melodious quality of Cowell's writing, particularly the long, Bach-like melodies in moments like the Andante tranquillo, alternating with sprightlier, dance-like tunes.

Stravinsky's Suite Italienne for violin and piano was based on music by the Baroque composer Gian Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736. No typo; he burned the candle at both ends). The music in the 6-movement suite was used earlier in Stravinsky's 1920 ballet Pulcinella. Sometimes slow and languid (Serenata), but mostly vigorous and exciting (Tarantello, Scherzino), the music partakes of both Stravinsky and his Italian model. Since Pergolesi was an avant-gardist in his day, it's not always safe to assume that “modern” touches such as the misplaced accents, unusual harmonies and sudden cadences (which Mathaes and Waters perform to perfection) were Stravinsky's addition, and not vice versa.

Korngold's Much Ado about Nothing Suite (1918) were four pieces for violin and piano that the composer arranged from the score of his projected ballet. Mathaes and Waters do a beautiful job of characterizing the four movements, which include The Maiden in the Bridal Chamber, Dogberry and Verges ( in which Shakespeare's tipsy night watchmen are deftly portrayed in a steady march that frequently loses its purposefulness and veers off unsteadily), Garden scene, and Masquerade. Mathaes savors the enchantment of the violin line in “Garden Scene,” a love scene that contains one of Korngold's most beautiful melodies.

As good as the rest of this recital is, Falla's Suite Populaire Espagnole was the real revelation for me. I had not been as impressed by the music of this much-transcribed suite simply because the earlier versions I'd heard on record did not hold a candle to what I hear on this disc. As the title implies, Falla based his suite on popular Spanish melodies and dances. Polo is a Flamenco dance, Jota a dance of Aragon (the way Mathaes alternates guitar-like strumming with a seamless bowed melody is nothing short of sensational!) Among the song melodies from the various regions of Spain, Nana, a lullaby from Andalusia, is particularly enchanting.

Ravel's stirring Pièce en forme de Habanera and an incredibly beautiful account of Massenet's Meditation conclude a program you will be tempted to encore at once.

Phil's Classical Reviews
Audio Visual Club of Atlanta