“WE WANTED TO MAKE an album of heartbreakingly beautiful pieces,” violinist Elissa Koljonen explained. “Something people would like to put on their CD players after they’ve come home after work.”
“In the old days,” said Koljonen, “encore pieces made up a large part of a recital program. Nowadays it’s sonata, sonata, intermission, sonata, sonata – it’s all so serious! There’s so much great music written for the violin, it’s a shame not to play them. I more than make up for that on this record.”
Her principal teacher was Aaron Rosand, who has long favored the compelling short pieces that make up much of a violinist’s repertory. “I studied with him for about ten years, and now I’m working as his assistant. He’s been a huge inspiration to me. There aren’t many violinists out there like him anywhere – he’s really the last in a tradition of playing.” That tradition goes back to Rosand’s teacher, Efrem Zimbalist, who was a student of Leopold Auer, the Russian pedagogue who produced such students as Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein.
“I started playing at the normal age – about four,” Koljonen said. “My parents both are musicians – my mother’s a pianist, my dad’s a clarinetist – so it was a natural thing for them to hand me a little violin. I got to play with my mom, and I learned much from them both.” She went on to study at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute when she was 12, which was when Rosand invited her to study with him.
Her repertory includes the warhorse concertos by Beethoven and Mendelssohn and she’s been a champion of the Barber Violin Concerto. And then there are the short pieces. “When we got this idea going, I wanted to record everything. I started out with five pages, and it was heartbreaking to leave things out. It finally came down to the ones that blended well into each other but weren’t too much the same.”
Heartbreak and obsession go hand in hand, and Brahms was hard to beat when it came to obsessions. Singers usually were the objects of his adoration (pianist Clara Schumann was a significant exception), and invariably became the recipients of his most affecting songs. When the composer was 50 he met contralto Hermine Spies, who inspired a fresh surge of songwriting, although “the texts he chose speak more of frustration and encroaching age than of new infatuation,” writes biographer Jan Swafford. (Footnote 1) The Five Songs, Op. 105, were written three years later, and open with the affecting “Wie melodien zieht es mir” (It moves like a melody), to a text by Klaus Groth that describes a sensation of love too evanescent to be captured in words.
In adapting it for the violin, Jascha Heifetz re-colored it by shifting it from its original key of A to D-flat, and re-titled it to “Contemplation.” Besides being the most overwhelming performing talent of the 20th century, Heifetz wrote over 150 transcriptions for violin, only about 60 of which he recorded himself. No Heifetz recording of “Contemplation” is known, but Koljonen’s teacher, Aaron Rosand, included it on a 1990 CD of Heifetz transcriptions.
Chopin: Nocturne, Op. 27 No. 2
“... I began to play the long D-flat Nocturne as though in a trance, inspired by her beauty . . . When I reached the coda with its pianissimo descending sighs, the Countess, suddenly, leaned forward close to me and kissed my mouth with a wild passion. I struck a wrong note, too loudly–the Count woke up, and the charm was broken.” (Footnote 2)
That’s pianist Arthur Rubinstein reminiscing in his bodice-ripping autobiography “My Young Years,” also paying tribute to the power of correctly chosen Chopin. This nocturne was written in 1835, just as Chopin was developing a passion for young Maria Wodziński–all hope of which would be dashed within two years.
August Wilhelmj, who transcribed the work for violin, is best known these days for his transcription of Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” but in his day–the end of the 19th century–he was a touring virtuoso who played for the ladies in the harem of the Sultan of Turkey and also put in a season as concertmaster of the Bayreuth Festival. The transcription brings the key up a half step to D.
Chopin: Nocturne in c minor, Op. posth.
Although not published until after Chopin’s death, the Nocturne in c-sharp minor was written in 1830, when the composer was 20 and pining after a singer named Konstancia Gładkowska. He intended the piece as a study guide for his sister, Louise.
Nathan Milstein arranged the piece for violin and piano in 1935, easing it into the more violinistic key of c minor. Milstein was one several legendary soloists who emerged from Leopold Auer’s classes in St. Petersburg in the early 1900s, among them Heifetz, Mischa Elman, and Efrem Zimbalist. Milstein rivaled Heifetz in technical accomplishment, although Milstein examined and changed his interpretations of the works he liked to play from season to season.
Elgar - Salut d'Amour Op. 12
By 1886, Caroline Alice Roberts had published a novel, written reams of verse, sung in a choir–the typical occupations of the spinster daughter of a British Major General. That year she also began piano lessons with Edward Elgar, a shy, thin bachelor almost a decade her junior. Elgar was smitten. Two years later, Elgar presented Alice with a violin morceau he called “Liebesgrüss,” in honor both of their first meeting and her fluency in German. Retitled “Salut d’amour,” it became instantly popular and was arranged for every possible solo instrument or ensemble. Here’s the heartbreaking part: Elgar sold the copyright outright for a paltry few guineas.
A violinist himself, Elgar set the piece in the sunny key of E Major.
Tchaikovsky: Valse sentimentale, Op. 51 No. 6
As far as the Romantics went, nobody knew how to pen a trenchant melody as well as Tchaikovsky. A sense of longing keens through every slow movement, sometimes dipping into crass sentimentality, other times–as in this waltz–remaining all the more effective through restraint and wit.
The Valse sentimentale is the last of a collection of piano pieces titled “Six morceaux,” written between August and September of 1882. It was a low point in the life of a composer who seemed to make a specialty of encountering low points. In trying to play games about his sexuality, he had gotten into a loveless marriage to a woman who alternately agreed and refused to divorce him; during one separation she furthered her torment of him by moving into the upstairs apartment!
His good friend Nikolay Rubinstein died in 1881, and Tchaikovsky wrote his gloomy, profound Piano Trio as a memorial; coming on the heels of that work, the Valse sentimentale is surprisingly endearing. It has been transcribed for many instruments, but has proven most popular in arrangements for violin or cello.
Massenet: Meditation (from the opera Thaïs)
The preacher and the prostitute battle famously in Somerset Maugham’s story “Rain” and, before that, in Anatole France’s novel Thaïs. He took inspiration from a story that seems to have originated in 7th century Egypt about a beautiful courtesan, who, as realized in the opera, is so beautiful that men are prepared to sacrifice everything to be with her, if only for a moment. Her foil is the obsessed monk Athanaël, who believes that Thaïs is responsible for all the turpitude in Alexandria. This may have something to do with the fact that, as an adolescent, he was turned away from her door because he couldn’t afford a visit.
In the first scene of Act Two, his promises of eternal life through salvation begin to affect her; even though she throws him out with a life, she broods upon what he’s been saying. The “Meditation” plays between the two scenes of Act Two, with solo violin accompanied by harp and orchestra.
The transcription is almost the sole legacy of Belgian violinist Martin Marsick, a student of Joachim who made a name for himself in the works of Vieuxtemps and Wieniawski.
Rachmaninoff: Vocalise, Op. 34 No. 14
Rachmaninoff was unlucky enough to fall in love with his cousin Natalya Satin, but such was the composer’s fame by 1902 that the tsar himself (or so it was said) rescinded the rule forbidding such a marriage. Whatever the case, it took: they stayed married for the rest of Rachmaninoff’s life, which had a good 40 years to go.
As he worked on the song cycle of Op. 34 from 1910-12, the composer was touring extensively, including a disappointing visit to America. Perhaps it was homesickness that led him to choose poems by such Russian romanticists as Pushkin, Tyutchev, Fet, and others. He dedicated the wordless Vocalise to soprano Antonina Nehdanova, which originally was written for voice and string orchestra.
Kreisler: Liebeslied (“Love’s Sorrow”)
Kreisler: The Old Refrain (Viennese Popular Song)
Fritz Kreisler’s beloved old Vienna possibly never existed. The violinist liked to reminisce about a city that had lost much of its easygoing charm by the time Brahms was an old man–which was when Kreisler was born. Still, the mood he captured in his wistful salon pieces evokes lush images of the Ringstrasse and Wienerwald.
Kreisler the romantic poured his heart into the songs he wrote and played, spurred by an overbearing heiress wife, Harriet Lies, who took charge of him and his career when they were married and never let go.
In 1935, Kreisler provoked an international scandal when he revealed that he’d written several encore pieces that, until then, he’d passed off as the works of “old masters.” But he got into similar trouble a quarter-century earlier, after a Berlin recital that caused a critic to carp that Kreisler’s own “Caprice Viennois” was inferior to two Josef Lanner waltzes on the program. An angry Kreisler revealed that he was the actual composer of the pieces passed for Lanner’s work: Liebeslied and Liebesfreud.
“The Old Refrain” actually does have a borrowed provenance: it’s based on a song from the operetta Der liebe Augustin by Johann Brandl.
Ravel: Pavane pour une infante defunte
The love life of Maurice Ravel is refreshingly free of heartbreak and scandal, but that’s only because it’s free of any detail whatsoever. A well-dressed dandy throughout his life, he hung out with a group of artists who styled themselves “Les Apaches,” and he drew financial sponsorship from a couple named Godebski, who often lent him their country home so that he could compose in some solitude. He wrote his “Mother Goose Suite” for the Godebski children, and jokingly referred to one of them as his fiancée. But that’s a far as he ever went in talking about the usual trappings of romance.
“Pavane for a Dead Princess” is an early work, written in 1899 while Ravel was studying with Fauré. The pavane is a stately dance dating to the 16th century, one of many antique forms the composer was experimenting with at the time. He explained the rest of the title as being essentially meaningless, chosen for its alliterative quality.
Liszt: Consolation No. 3 in D-flat Major: Lento placido
Franz Liszt’s first great love was a cabinet minister’s daughter who came to the teenaged genius for piano lessons. Her father, fearing the worst, brought those lessons to an abrupt finish–yet List never forgot his first love, and included her in his will. He threatened to enter the priesthood when he was a boy, and lived the life of artist as priest thereafter. He attracted a succession of countesses. His piano recitals caused woman and men to become feverish and hysterical – Heinrich Heine dubbed it “Lisztomania,” which later became the title of an overheated Ken Russell film biography starring Roger Daltry of the Who.
The six Consolations were written in 1849-50, while Liszt and his then-current princess were settled in Weimar and the composer was going through a Chopinesque period, writing ballades, polonaises, and a mazurka, among other characteristic works. The beautiful third Consolation was transcribed by Nathan Milstein, who used it to close his final recital, in 1986.
Wagner: Romanza (Album Leaf)
It’s such a simple, unaffected piece that it barely reveals the intrigue swirling around it. Wagner would seem to have turned around his life when he married the actress Minna Planer in 1836, but she proved just as fickle as he remained. When he wasn’t dallying himself, he was chasing her around Europe to pry her away from paramours. In 1857, they were seemingly settled in a lakeside cottage donated by Wagner’s friends and sponsors, the Wesendoncks, who were next-door neighbors. Mathilde Wesendonck and Minna soon discovered that they were sharing more than a garden. Meanwhile, Wagner was off to Paris for a production of Tannhäuser that got booed off the stage by the local Jockey Club, who were upset both by the lack of female pulchritude and the presence of Wagner’s current patron, the Princess Metternich, who was wife of the Austrian ambassador.
It is to the Metternichs that the Albumblatt (Album Leaf) of 1860 is dedicated. The transcription is by Wilhemj.
Sarasate: Gypsy Airs (Zigeunerweisen) Op. 20 No. 1
The plaintive middle section of this work was once the staple of silent-movie heartbreak scenes; like so many such melodies, it later entered the repertory of Warner Bros. cartoons. Zigeunerweisen is a satisfying work for the virtuoso, beginning with a dramatic introduction filled with gypsy characteristics, finishing with dazzling passagework replete with left-hand pizzicato.
Pablo de Sarasate began playing the violin when he was five, and became the dedicatee of such works as Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, two concertos by Saint-Saëns, and works by Lalo, Wieniawski, and Dvořák. A native of Pamplona, he captured a number of characteristic Spanish styles in his eight Spanish Dances for violin.
Engel: Seashell (Transcribed by Efrem Zimbalist)
Amy Lowell liked to smoke cigars and dress in men’s clothing. It was only natural that she should worry the neighbors in staid Brookline, Massachusetts–especially after she declared her parents’ estate a poetry center. That’s where she lived and raised sheepdogs in the company of the great love of her life, actress Ada Russell. Lowell brought the Imagist movement in poetry to America; she also wrote an acclaimed biography of Keats. She was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1926, the year after her death.
Her poem “Sea-Shell” caught the eye of Boston musicologist, composer, and publisher Carl Engel. The Paris-born Eagle trained in Europe before settling in the U.S. in 1917, and is probably best known for encouraging and publishing the work of Schoenberg, Bloch, Griffes, and Loeffler, among others. The setting of Lowell’s merry poem is light and unaffected, preserved in this transcription by Efrem Zimbalist.
Puccini: “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi
In the midst of all the madness and buffoonery of Puccini’s only comedy, Gianni Schicchi, floats a lovely aria by Lauretta, daughter of the title character. It was so effective at 1918 Metropolitan Opera premiere that it was immediately repeated, without a claque and against house rules. The story came from Dante, although the characters themselves come right out of commedia dell’arte tradition.
Lauretta complains that she’ll throw herself into the river if she’s not allowed to be with the man she loves, showing the same vein of passion that erupted when Puccini’s common-law wife, Elvira (herself wife of a schoolmate of the composer) grew so jealous of a young nurse who tended Puccini briefly that Elvira began a campaign of slander that resulted in the young nurse’s suicide and a lawsuit from her family, who eventually were bought off.
Elissa Koljonen provided the transcription of this endearing aria.
Debussy: Beau Soir
When the 18-year-old Debussy wrote his setting of Paul Bourget’s Beau Soir, he was under the spell of singer Blanche Vasnier, for whom he produced most of his early songs. His training, at that point, was more as a piano virtuoso, but this song anticipates the harmonic inventiveness that soon would flourish.
The lyric celebrates a beautiful evening so glorious that it’s painful, exhorting us to enjoy the pleasures of the ensuing night because we’ll soon enough be washed away like ocean waves (the beau of beautiful sets up the poem’s final rhyme, with tombeau, or tomb).
Simplicity is preserved in the Heifetz transcription, and that violinist recorded it twice: in 1944 for Decca, and in stereo for RCA in 1965.
Korean Traditional Song: Love
Her mother is Korean, and she spent part of her childhood in Korea, so it seemed only fitting to salute the heartbreak of leaving a favorite land–and pay tribute to her mother. “She sent me a big album of Korean pieces,” said Koljonen, “and I took it from that book, just playing the vocal line on the violin. It’s a very traditional song, so we didn’t do anything too fancy–it’s very pure and beautiful.”
– 17 March 1999