Miranda Cuckson/Blair McMillen: Bartók/Schnittke/Lutosławski (ECM New Series 2446)



Miranda Cuckson violin
Blair McMillen piano
Recorded January 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 15, 2016

Violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Blair McMillen make their ECM New Series debut in a program of three 20th-century Slavic masterworks. The two-part Sonata No. 2, Sz 76, of Béla Bartók (1881-1945) was composed in 1922, a time when Bartók was deeply into expressionism yet content in mapping two idiosyncratic detours for every step he took in someone else’s shoes. It opens with a profoundly simple statement, intoning the same note on the violin six times across the palimpsest of a piano key strike. Cuckson makes each iteration distinct before swimming against the delicate cascade that ensues.

Bartók’s folk influences are by turns clear and obscure, weaving with playful assurance throughout his compositional fabric, and the push and pull between the instruments has never sounded so continuous as in this rendition. The dancing Allegretto gives a range of insights into the composer’s distilling process, which by virtue of its underlying force makes an overlying confidence necessary to carry it across in performance. In that regard, Cuckson’s bow feels like two feet: separate yet guided by the same brain. McMillen’s artful exuberance likewise uproots colorations with systematic abandon. The piece ends as intimately as it began, forgetting every leap as a temporary severance from the gravity of mortality.

Cuckson and McMillen
(Photo credit: Caterina di Perri)

The Sonata No. 2 “Quasi una sonata” of 1967/68 is a brilliant dip into the font of Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998), whose previous ECM appearances have been equally marvelous. The subtitle here means “like a sonata,” thus betraying the composer’s disdain for the constraint of something so pedantic. Its brazen chords, exaggerated silences, and whimsical details showcase the spaciousness of Markus Heiland’s engineering. Cuckson’s navigations of every angle are wonderous to behold, and McMillen’s presence feels at once responsive and directive. From the airy and mysterious to the grounded and profane, vignettes cohere by the unwavering creativity of both artists. The more insistent and programmatic the music becomes, the less one needs to cloak it in expectations. The default mode of this anti-sonata, then, isn’t pretty entertainment but on-the-ground activism. Ending as it does, violin alone and swooning, it has no qualms over dissolution.

From the pen of Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) comes the Partita for Violin and Piano (1984), finishing the program with something conceptually between its two predecessors. Comprised of three through-composed pillars and garlanded by two ad-libbed sections between, it is a somewhat gloomier yet no-less-playful exposition of plurality. The first movement, marked “Allegro giusto,” is distinguished by its vertigo-inducing glissandi. Such meticulous imbalances work their way through everything that follows, finding only partial traction in the final Presto, as if resolution were the very antithesis of happiness. This leaves us with a wealth of impressions to choose from, any one of which might describe these pieces just as well, yet which falls short of touching fingers around motifs that have no use for category.

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