The New York Times has praised violinist Miranda Cuckson’s “undeniable musicality,” while Gramophone has declared her “an artist to be reckoned with.” Born in Australia and educated in America, she makes her ECM New Series debut – alongside pianist Blair McMillen – with three 20th-century milestones: the Hungarian Béla Bartók’s Violin Sonata No. 2 (1922), the Russian Alfred Schnittke’s Violin Sonata No. 2 “Quasi una Sonata” (1968) and the Pole Witold Lutoslawski’s Partita for Violin and Piano (1984). “Bringing these great Slavic composers together enables us to hear each dealing with dichotomies of form and spontaneity, playfulness and seriousness, folk expression and abstraction,” explains Cuckson in her liner-note essay. “The colors and traits of Slavic ethnic music are vibrantly in the foreground of Bartók’s music, more subsumed into abstraction and flavor in the Schnittke and Lutoslawski. Humor is a tool of provocation and survival in Schnittke and to some extent Lutoslawski, a cheeky attitude anchored by deep purpose. In Bartók, the boisterousness and teasing charm of folk dances gives way to profound melancholy.”
The program was conceived following discussions between Miranda Cuckson and Manfred Eicher, who produced the album in Lugano, Switzerland. “I have always been drawn to the colorations and characteristics of Slavic music,” writes Cuckson. “The dark-hued tones and harmonies, the mordant wit, the detailed shaping of folk ornamentation. The music of Bartók, Schnittke and Lutoslawski was also significant to my early musical development, particularly my affinity for contemporary music. Bartók was the first 20th-century composer whose music I was strongly attracted to. When I was 11, his First Rhapsody was my favorite piece, and I went on to learn the rest of his violin works.
“I also encountered Lutoslawski’s music at 11 years old, as a student at the Aspen Festival,” Cuckson continues. “Assigned to perform in his Symphony No. 3, with Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conducting and the composer present, I was initially puzzled by the notation, with its odd-looking squiggles and arrows, but found that I loved the sound of the piece. I still remember it as one of my first thrilling experiences with modern music. As for the Schnittke, I recall my excitement performing his ‘Quasi una sonata’ at the Juilliard School when I was a student and first learning about his work.”
Bartók achieved an extraordinary symbiosis of folk and “high” art, combining his devotion to folk material with the harmonic and motivic influences of Debussy, Strauss and Beethoven. In pioneering work as an ethnomusicologist in Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Turkey, Bartók not only made transcriptions of authentic folk tunes; he examined their motivic and rhythmic qualities and integrated these into his compositions. His Second Sonata, written for Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Aranyi (a frequent recital partner of the composer), is in two movements of “tremendous emotional range,” Cuckson writes. “The first movement is mostly long-lined and ruminative in a manner evoking improvised folk singing, with an ominous rhythmic undercurrent and a sometimes stark tonal palette. Rising to an insistent, plaintive climax, it segues into the Allegretto movement, a medley of dances that tugs back and forth at the tempo with coy charm and exhilarating abandon. The whirling build-up releases at last into a breathtakingly poignant dénouement.”
Schnittke, a Russian with German ethnic roots, started composing in the 1960s with what he called “polystylism,” setting styles of past and present beside each other to startling effect. His Second Violin Sonata was his first polystylistic work. “Schnittke’s music generally falls into two categories: works that are sober, deeply expressive and often infused with his Christian mystical faith, and those that are light-hearted, mischievous and intentionally provocative by subverting expectations,” Cuckson explains. “His Sonata No. 2 has the subtitle ‘Quasi una sonata,’ or ‘like a sonata,’ indicating an impish attitude toward time-honored sonata form. From its brash opening G minor triad, the piece progresses tongue-in-cheek, with exaggeratedly long silences, emphatically repeated figures, goofy effects, grand climaxes and abrupt juxtapositions with tonal phrases. Many sections are aleatoric, the instruments reacting to each other with gleeful exuberance.”
Lutoslawski paid homage to Bartók with his riveting Musique funèbre, presented to acclaim at the inaugural Warsaw Autumn Festival in 1958. A quarter-century later, he composed his Partita for Pinchas Zuckerman and Marc Neikrug, later orchestrating the work for Anne-Sophie Mutter. “Lutoslawski’s early pieces employed Polish folk material, and his later music, though more abstract, retains a rich, earthy lyricism and directness of expression,” Cuckson says. “Innovative in its rhythmic devices, harmony and instrumental timbres, his music also has a fresh clarity in its motivic and melodic ideas, grasping a listener by the ear. Beginning and ending with propulsive, forward-leaning energy, his Partita is in three main movements of contrasting moods, which are linked by two atmospheric, aleatoric ad libitum sections, plus one additional ‘ad lib’ before the final coda.”