Picture credit: Central Press/Stringer
Lebrecht's Album of the Week

Sonatas after slaughter

1919 Coda: Janacek, Boulanger, Debussy, Elgar (Delphian)


The title of this violin-piano recital requires some explanation. By 1919, two of the named composers were dead and a third was worn out. Only Leos Janacek was firing on all cylinders – indeed, on more cylinders than he ever had before. If 1919 was a benchmark, it is not evident from their lifecycles. However, the year does mark an end-point for the war era and these sonatas exist in that immediate past, with no thought of present or future.

The Janacek sonata, finished in 1915 and revised over six more years, is a masterpiece composed in a vacuum. The composer, past 60, was waiting for Prague to take up his opera Jenufa, premiered in Brno in 1904. Until it reached the capital, he could not go forward. In 1915, Prague accepted the opera, albeit with severe revisions. Janacek’s marriage was breaking down. In the war he hated Austria and Germany, yearning for Czech independence. These impulsess infuse the sonata with complex and contradictory tensions. By 1919, Jenufa had been internationally acclaimed and Janacek was in love with an unattainable young woman.

Claude Debussy was dying of rectal cancer and German guns could be heard in Paris as he composed a triptych of sonatas, of which this is the last and most intimate. For a man who held the world at arm’s length, this sonata is warm, engaging yet unsentimental. Its premiere in May 1917 was the last concert Debussy attended, ten months before he died

Edward Elgar was recovering from throat surgery when he wrote the violin-piano sonata at the end of the War. He went on to complete a piano quintet and the cello concerto but, after his wife’s death in 1920, wrote nothing more of consequence. The sonata is, in many ways, his epitaph.

Lili Boulanger suffered chronic illness throughout her short life. She won a coveted national prize in 1913 but was dead five years later, aged 24. Her two short pieces in this recital are indicative more of promise than fulfilment.

Bringing these disparities to life are two UK-based musicians, the New Zealand violinist Benjamin Baker and the Hungarian pianist Daniel Lebhardt. If they strive a little too hard for conventional beauty in Janacek, their austerity is perfect for Debussy and Elgar, evoking a restrained sympathy for these morbid confessions The playing is marvellously poised, an exemplary concept album aptly adapted to each composer’s circumstances and individuality. Baker and Lebhardt tell four very human stories, each of them flawed. I was on the edge of my seat throughout.

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