American Short Works for Violin and Piano

Usually a recital disc of short violin compositions, known as “miniatures,” will include works by 19th and early 20th century composer-performers such as Fritz Kreisler, Niccolò Paganini, Pablo de Sarasate, and Henryk Wieniawski. With this album, violinist Tim Fain aims to “bring the tradition of the ‘short piece’ into the present.”

And by the present, he means roughly the last 60 years, for only one of the pieces performed is by a composer who is deceased (Ruth Shaw Wylie’s Wistful Piece, composed in 1953). Fain premiered many of the works (or arrangements) performed on River of Light, so you get the sense he is deeply committed to this repertoire.

The disc begins with a lyrically understated aria for violin and piano by Kevin Puts (whose body of work has been growing nicely, and whose fanfare, Network, was featured on a high-energy sampler of American compositions on the inaugural release by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s record label, CSO Media.

Then Fain makes use of his excellent technique with Knee Play 2, an excerpt from Philip Glass’s 1976 opera, Einstein on the Beach. His performance in this arrangement is simply electric, both capturing the hypnotizing and change-prone qualities of the composer’s music.

Aaron Jay Kernis’s Air for Violin and Piano is no mere trifle. The adjectives to which one could attribute to it are well-deserved: melodic, tender, and expressive, and heart-wrenching. The long lines which the violin has to sustain are thrilling to hear. Fain and Wang interpret this material well. Richard Danielpour’s River of Light would not be out of place in a movie score: that is, a score which is deeply foreboding and evocative of dark beauty in its character.

It is nice to hear William Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost Rag transformed into a bon-bon for violinists to enjoy—why should pianists have all the fun? Jennifer Higdon even manages to write a melody worthy of some of the great composers of the repertoire, with her Legacy.

The longest work on the disc, The Light Guitar, is by New York-based composer Patrick Zimmerli. For a work for solo violin in three movements, it does everything a good solo work should do: highlight a soloist’s musical abilities, require expressive playing, and display high-energy virtuosity in the outer sections. Indeed, the fast third movement mirrors what is so infectious of bluegrass music, which moves back and forth between agile melodic figures, and is punctuated throughout by double and triple stops, open strings, and movement by parallel intervals. Maybe he should look up mandolinist Chris Thile and put together a show.

Fain and his trusty colleague, pianist Pei Yao Wang are worthy partners for this material. Fain has crafted an album of violin and piano music which deserves to be further explored by more violinists.

River of Light: American Short Works for Violin and Piano
Ruth Shaw Wylie: Wistful Piece; Kevin Puts: Aria; Philip Glass: Knee Play 2; Aaron Jay Kernis: Air for Violin and Piano; Richard Danielpour: River of Light; William Bolcom: Graceful Ghost Rag; Jennifer Higdon: Legacy; Patrick Zimmerli: The Light Guitar
Tim Fain, violin; Pei Yao Wang, piano
Naxos American Classics 8.559662

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