Hendrik Andriessen: Cello Sonata, Violin Sonata, Inventions for Violin and Cello, Piano Trio. Amsterdam Bridge Ensemble. Cobra Records 0030 (2009)

Hendrik Andriessen: Sonata for Cello and Piano (1926), Sonata for Violin and Piano (1932), Three Inventions for Violin and Cello (1937), Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello (1939). Amsterdam Bridge Trio. Cobra Records Cobra 0030 (2009), barcode 8713897902174

Recorded 10-12 September 2008 at Westverst kerk, Schiedam, The Netherlands

More important than possible “influences” or “reminiscences” is the pervading mood of sombre, brooding lyricism, interrupted by moments of scherzando whimsicality
14 May 2021

The other day someone played to me music that I didn’t know or didn’t recognize, asking me if I knew what it was. So I tried to guess, based on the piece’s stylistic features. It was a piece for violin and piano (turned out to be the piano reduction of a violin concerto, in fact). It was virtuosic but somewhat hollow, with a doubt at first whether it came from the late 18th or 19th century, but soon distinctly 19th, not very distinctive (not immediately recognizable Beethoven, or Brahms, or even Schubert) but stylistically somewhat too modern to be Paganini or Viotti or even Spohr, but not modern enough to be late 19th or early 20th century, like something in the vicinity of Sibelius or Ysaye. So, okay, I was ready to take my chance: Vieuxtemps? Okay, wrong, it turned out to be Wieniawski. But still, not so far off-target: if not Vieuxtemps, with all those stylistic features that I described, then Wieniawski was the obvious second guess, wasn’t it.

All that to introduce the fact hat I didn’t approach this CD of chamber music of Hendrik Andriessen with “virgin” ears. I was invited to it by the post of Vicky hereunder, and asked to pronounce about its purported “French style”.

Well, in the early Cello Sonata, I certainly hear it. It strikes me how much it sounds like an offshoot of Debussy’s own (late) Cello Sonata, as much in the brooding first and third movements as in the propulsive and whimsical second, with the Finale attempting a synthesis of sorts (brooding cello part – the liner notes mention Fauré here, and I don’t disagree –, propulsive and whimsical piano part in the manner of a homophonic Bach prelude – Honegger’s Prelude Arioso et Fughette sur le nom de Bach comes to mind). Mind you, Debussy never was exclusively about “impressionism” and hazy atmospheres and “forget the hammers” (as in La Mer, or the first Prelude of Book II, “Brouillards”), there was also a whimsical and scherzando aspect to his music (General Lavine Eccentric, Dance of Puck… ), much in evidence in the late Sonatas, and it is there in Andriessen’s Cello Sonata as well. Not that Andriessen is imitative, he retains his own personality – not as distinctive as Debussy’s, despite the Sonata’s appeal.

Now, would I have noted a “French style” in Andriessen’s Sonata, had Vicky not drawn my attention on it? I don’t know. Maybe the Sonata would have evoked memories of Hindemith or Prokofiev instead – or  Honegger possibly. And which French style, anyway? The liner notes set much store on the distinction made by Andriessen himself, between two streaks in French music, Debussy on one side and Roussel on the other; quoting Andriessen:

“The difference between the works of Debussy and Roussel is truly vast; it is not determined by the circumstances of their lives, but by their origins, among other things. After Berlioz and César Franck there is a clear divide in French music between aesthetic types, which is perhaps most notably illustrated by Debussy and Roussel. Debussy wandered through the landscapes of the old harpsichordists and Massenet, Liszt and Saint-Saëns. Ravel and Pierné also breathed the same musical atmosphere. It is the cloudless, sunlit landscape that we also recognize from Watteau and the later Impressionists. Roussel, Dukas, Duparc and Chausson inhabited the musical landscape of César Franck, with its darker timbres. The similarity is to be heard in the supremacy of the melody’s poetic power, the freedom of spirit evident in the harmonic sphere and the character of the rhythm, which is closely aligned with the other elements. However there is a difference with regard to emotional expression. In the case of the latter group of composers, objects external to the soul are accorded little or no space in their works, even in their symphonic poems; whereas, with the first group of composers, it is precisely aesthetic fantasies about the objective life that tend to occupy a significant place in their music.”

I can’t say that I necessarily agree, and even that I know what Andriessen exactly had in mind when he underlined those purported differences, but can I ascribe his Sonata more to Debussy or more to Roussel? No, because I think the distinction is again somewhat arbitrary, that the stylistic differences between Debussy’s final three Sonatas and Roussel’s String Quartet or Serenade for Flute Trio and Harp, aren’t so important. Or maybe, in his Sonata, Andriessen sought to bridge the gap between those stylistic differences which he perceived. Or maybe Andriessen’s music should be appreciated on its own and not in reference to the purported style of others, and any reference to other composers be taken as simple and imprecise indications of what his music sounds like.

More French reminiscences (rather than “influences”) do come to mind listening to the Violin Sonata from 1932 – nothing as obvious as Debussy or Ravel, but possibly, yes, Roussel’s Second Violin Sonata from 1924 (link will open new tab to YouTube with score), or Enescu’s own Second from 1899 (and, given Enescu’s ties to France, I will call it “French” rather than “Romanian”), Honegger’s Cello Sonata from 1920. In fact the Sonata seems to take off where the Cello Sonata ends – even more so as, in the Adagio introduction of the first movement, the violin starts in its lowest registers, in a somber, brooding mood, letting you think for a second that you are still listening to the Cello Sonata, and, when comes the Allegro development, comes a piano part that carries on some of the Bach-like textures of the Finale of the Cello Sonata. Matters go on in the same mood, at times more agitated and dramatic, and with highly chromatic melodic lines in the Finale that now vaguely bring to mind Enesco’s Third Sonata “in the Romanian style”. Again, I don’t want to set to much store on possible French “influences” or “reminiscences”; I’ve taken the opportunity of this review to listen again to Hindemith’s 1948 Cello Sonata in E major; despite being unmistakably “Hindemithian”, it’s isn’t stylistically so alien from Andriessen’s Violin Sonata.

More somber and meditative moods in the Piano Trio from 1939 that may bring Franck (Piano Quintet), Fauré (Quartet op. 121), Roussel (Adagio from the String Quartet) or even Ravel (Passacaille from the Piano Trio) to mind. On the other hand it is is Beethoven’s late quartets, and perhaps Bartok’s, that comes to mind when listening to the brooding bareness of of the compact Violin and Cello Sonata from 1937.

But, more than these possible stylistic influences or reminiscences, what is important is the stylistic feature that pervades all four works: the predominant brooding and somber lyricism, interrupted by whimsical scherzando moments. Andriessen’s chamber music can be appreciated on its own merits and it offers many rewards. What’s missing I find is a truly distinctive stylistic personality, one that, when listening to the music (of, say, Debussy, Ravel, Britten or Hindemith), makes you immediately recognize and enjoy the composer, independent of any stylistic “influence” or “origin” or “environment”, instead of wondering where he comes from and what style he fits in.

3 thoughts on “Hendrik Andriessen: Cello Sonata, Violin Sonata, Inventions for Violin and Cello, Piano Trio. Amsterdam Bridge Ensemble. Cobra Records 0030 (2009)”

  1. Recently I purchased a copy, I’m really curious about your thoughts on this release, particularly about the so-called “French influence” as mentioned in a couple of reviews. Any thoughts?

    1. Thanks for your message Vicky. It’s been a long time since I listened to the music of Andriessen, but I’ll take a few hours off my current Mahler listening and listen to and review the CD. Stay tune !

      Best, Discophage

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