Violist Dana Zemtsov and pianist Anna Fedorova each grew up as first-generation immigrants in France, so their album Silhouettes – streaming at Spotify – reflects a lot of personal influences and experiences. Their shared affinity for the material here, interpolating short pieces by Debussy among an eclectic mix of more expansive duo works, translates viscerally to the listener.
They risk making the rest of the record anticlimactic with their opening number, Rebecca Clarke’s Viola Sonata. In 1919, the pioneering orchestral violist and composer submitted it to a composition contest, pseudonymously, under a man’s name. She finished second (to a similarly brilliant piece by Ernest Bloch) and earned a lot of press when her identity was revealed. It would become her most successful work in a vastly underrated career.
The duo launch into it with an opulent fierceness that rises and falls, with echoes of of early Bartok and Ravel: their spacious, comfortably starry approach to the first movement’s conclusion is a quietly mighty payoff. They bring a conspiratorial, marionettesque energy to the second movement. Zemtsov’s poignant resonance over Fedorova’s starry glimmer and whisper is just as impactful in the final one.
Dutch composer Arne Werkman’s 2007 Suite for viola and piano has some jaunty boogie-woogie cached in the acidically dancing lines of the opening movement, an occasionally creepy, carnivalesque sensibliity that the duo seize on in the second, and allusions to a moody bolero in the third. They bring the phantasmagoria to its logical conclusion in the Paganini-inspired coda.
Darius Milhaud’s Viola Sonata No. 1 begins with an uneasy stroll and cleverly intertwined counterpoint, Zemtsov and Fedorova reveling in the coy leaps and bounds of the second. The wistfully Romantic waltz of a third movement comes as a surprise, leaving the two musicians to tie things up with a ragtime-inflected wink and a grin in the finale.
A pensive ballad without words contrasts with bracing, Romany-inflected flair and nocturnal suspense throughout the swells and ebbs of George Enescu’s Concert Piece for Viola and Piano. The Debussy pieces begin with La plus que lente, a steady, rather tongue-in-cheek, cynically brooding take on early 20th century slow waltz cliches. The version of Clair de Lune here is rather muted and on the slow side: this nightscape has plenty of clouds. The final piece is the brief, lyrical student work Beau Soir.