On record – Dmitry Smirnov: Bach, Bartók & Schneeberger – Works for solo violin (First Hand)


Dmitry Smirnov (violin)

J.S. Bach Partita no.2 in D minor BWV1004 (c1720)

Bartók Sonata, BB124 (1944)
Schneeberger Sonata (1942)
First Hand Records FHR117 [61’45”]

Producer / Engineer Jean-Daniel Noir

Recorded 8-10 February 2021 at ‘Il Poggio’, Montecastelli Pisano, Italy

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The violinist Dmitri Smirnov makes his debut for First Hand Records with this release of unaccompanied works from Bach and Bartók, together with a first commercial recording    for the wartime sonata by Schneeberger in what proves an astute and instructive coupling.

What’s the music like?

The Solo Violin Sonata by Bartók is the pre-eminent work of its kind in the twentieth century – Smirnov setting out his credentials in a forthright though never over-wrought account of its initial Tempo di ciaccona, followed by a tensile reading of the Fuga which still admits a bracing humour into its methodical construction. The Melodia is the emotional core of this work, and here Smirnov avails himself of a wide variety of timbre in its heartfelt unfolding, then the Presto makes for a coruscating finale that ultimately heads to its decisive ending.

Its famous finale can easily dwarf the initial four movements of Bach’s Second Solo Partita, but Smirnov is mindful to accord due emphasis to this succession of capricious Allemande, trenchant Courante, eloquent Sarabande then cavorting Gigue, whose jazzy syncopation provides a telling foil for what follows. Attacca in this instance – Smirnov heading directly into the Chaconne which here eschews rhetorical grandeur for an impulsive traversal of its motivically close-knit variations, sustained through to an unexpectedly taciturn conclusion.

Interest understandably focusses on a Solo Sonata by Swiss violinist Hansheinz Schneeberger (1926-2019), with whom Smirnov was personally acquainted. The present work is structured in three compact movements: a powerfully sustained Adagio – entitled Introduzione (quasi cadenza) – followed by an alternately humorous and suave Allegro, then a closing Allegro which is barely half the length of its predecessors, while compensating for any formal short-windedness with an unflagging energy which is maintained right through to its final cadence.

Does it all work?

Yes, whether in terms of a collection whose constituents can be enjoyed separately or as a straight-through recital. There are many other recordings of both the Bach and Bartók, but Smirnov brings his own interpretative approach to bear on each work while, at least for the present, has the field to himself in the Schneeberger. The repertoire for solo violin is wider than supposed, and Smirnov will hopefully continue with its exploration – maybe tackling one of those sonatas by Mieczysław Weinberg, Benjamin Frankel, or Bernard van Dieren.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The focussed while never constricted sound provides an ideal ambience for Smirnov, whose playing is complemented by his informative annotations. Both CD and booklet cover feature one of Scheeberger’s paintings, The Forest, dating from two years before his Sonata.

Listen & Buy


You can get more information on the disc at the First Hand website. 

On record – Early Stereo Recordings Vol.4: Albéniz, Bizet, Kodály & Ravel (First Hand)


Philharmonia Orchestra / Eugene Goossens (a), Guido Cantelli (d); Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vittorio Gui (b) Paul Kletzki (c), Eugene Goossens (e)

Albéniz (orch. Arbós) Iberia – excerpts (1905-09, orch. c1928) (a)
Bizet Petite Suite (1871, orch. 1880) (b)
Kodály Dances of Galánta (1933) (c)
Ravel Daphnis et Chloé Suite no.2 (1909-12): Danse générale (d); Boléro (1928) (e)

First Hand Records FHR79 [78’21”]

Producers David Bicknell (a), Lawrance Collingwood (b,d,e), unknown (c)
Engineers Christopher Parker (a-d), Robert Gooch (e)

Recorded 12 July 1955 (b), 18 September 1957 (e) at Abbey Road Studios, London; 15 February (a), 24 March (c) and 28 May 1956 (d) at Kingsway Hall, London

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

First Hand Records continues its exploration of pioneering stereo recordings from the EMI archives with this collection of orchestral works, mainly from the earlier decades of the 20th century, as demonstrates the success of various HMV producers and engineers in harnessing the potential of stereophonic sound to the playing of what, in the 1950s, were the two finest London orchestras – the Philharmonia and Royal Philharmonic, working with conductors in music with which they were not necessarily associated over the greater part of their careers.

What are the performances like?

Starting with an incisive yet expressively deadpan take on Ravel’s Danse générale, all that survives in stereo of Guido Cantelli’s recording of the Second Suite from Daphnis et Chloé, the selection proceeds to excerpts from Albéniz’s piano cycle Iberia, orchestrated by Enrique Arbós. Seldom encountered in concert nowadays, these five pieces (all of the First, plus one each from the Second and Third Books) constitute a worthwhile suite in themselves. Eugene Goossens duly underlines his prowess in earlier 20th-century music with performances that bring out the evocative poise of Evacación, then alternate fervour and piety of El Corpus en Sevilla, before the capricious charm of Triana and capering energy of El Puerto; the cumulative emotional charge of El Albaicin closing this sequence with unfailing panache.

Goossens is hardly less persuasive in Ravel’s Boléro – at this time, not quite the ubiquitous showpiece it became – the inexorably accumulating momentum ideally served by his refusal to rush its devastatingly effective trajectory; the final stage largely taking care of itself when allowed to emerge inevitably. A further worthwhile revival is that of Bizet’s Petite Suite, five miniatures drawn from his earlier cycle for piano duet Jeux d’enfants and given with winning deftness by Vittorio Gui – demonstrably in his element when the sessions for his re-recording of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro finished ahead of schedule. Kodály’s Dances of Galánta has itself returned to favour in recent years, but few accounts are ever likely to match that of Paul Kletzki in his steering this ever more animated sequence through to its breathless conclusion.

Do they all work?

Pretty much, allowing for occasional lapses in ensemble that are notably few given the hectic schedule these London orchestras pursued at this time. Remastering has been deftly handled by Ian Jones – Albéniz and Bizet being transferred from HMV Stereosonic tapes, respectively by Giampaolo Zeccara and Ted Kendall (the latter’s 1997 set of Mahler ‘first recordings’ for Conifer is fondly remembered). There are extensive background notes from David Patmore, along with observations by Peter Bromley, whose tenacity has made possible this FHR series.

Are they recommended?

Indeed, not least given the interest of the actual music and the relative unfamiliarity of most of the recordings. The rapid standardization of the listening experience through the medium of streaming has made such releases as this more valuable by (hopefully) making potential listeners aware of just what became possible with the greater recourse to the stereophonic process, as of those numerous triumphs (among not a few failings) which resulted given the right combination of technology and musicality. Further instalments are keenly anticipated.

Listen & Buy


You can get more information on the disc at the First Hand website, where you can also find information on the first, second and third volumes in the series 

On record: Michael Brown – Noctuelles: Ravel & Medtner (First Hand Records)

Michael Brown (piano)

Ravel  Miroirs (1904-5)
Medtner Second improvisation (in variation form) Op.47 (1925)

First Hand Records FHR78 [61’49”]
Producers Adam Golka, Roman Rabinovich
Engineers Monte Nickles, Jim Ruberto

Recorded 2-10 January 2019 at Olivier Music Barn, Tippet Rise Arts Centre, Fishtail MT

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Michael Brown follows his earlier disc for First Hand Records (Beethoven and Mendelssohn on FHR67) with this coupling of Ravel’s most extensive solo piano work and Medtner’s most extended such piece outside of his sonatas; here featuring two recently discovered variations.

What’s the music like?

While the term ‘post-impressionism’ had not then been applied in a musical context, Ravel’s Miroirs effectively inaugurates this through five pieces that evoke the essence of the image in question rather than merely attempting its depiction. Other pianists may have rendered these evocations more acutely, but few have approached so highly contrasted a sequence with such evident concern for formal and expressive unity.

Hence the overall seamlessness with which the fugitive activity of Noctuelles is followed by the wistful poise of Oiseaux tristes; itself proceeded by those glistening textures and kaleidoscopic timbral interplay of Une barque sur l’océan, then the stark juxtaposition (vividly delineated here) between high-jinx and eruptive unease of Alborada del gracioso. Nor is La vallée des cloches the slight anti-climax it can often seem, Brown judiciously setting the scene for that stately modal theme as is among the composer’s most potent inspirations. An interpretation leaving one more than usually aware that the audacity of Ravel’s musical thinking is made more so by its pointed understatement.

One cannot imagine that Medtner had much regard for this music – but, fortunately, he almost always proved more flexible in his accommodation with past and present as composer than as writer. Never more so than with his Second Improvisation, written after he had left the Soviet Union for uncertain exile in Paris then London – its subtitle ‘in variation form’ indicating the fusing of precision and fluidity that gives this work its substance and its fascination. Brown’s perceptive reading is made more so by his inclusion of two previously unpublished variations which he tracked down to the National Library of Canada: thus, the elaborate passagework of La Cadenza (placed between variations four and five) and the coursing rhetoric of Pesante (placed between variations 11 and 12) which, between them, open out the emotional scope of what is already a design as unpredictable as it is engrossing. Certainly, the trajectory between the initial Theme and eventual Conclusion exudes a freedom from inhibition that Medtner here achieves almost despite himself and which Brown is demonstrably intent on conveying.

Does it all work?

Yes, given Brown teases out those musical connections between composers whose aesthetic outlook differed greatly (Medtner forthright in condemning most of his contemporaries). The account of Miroirs can certainly hold its own in what is now a crowded field (one featuring such as Beatrice Rana on Warner and Steven Osborne on Hyperion), whereas in the Second Improvisation the main competition comes from Hamish Milne (CRD) and Geoffrey Tozer (Chandos), neither of who include the additional two variations that Brown interpolates here.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The acoustic of the Olivier Music Barn is ideal for piano music of this intricacy and subtlety, while Brown’s booklet notes are succinctly informative. A welcome release by one of the Tippet Rise triumvirate who have become notable contributors to First Hand Records.

Listen and Buy

For further information on this release, and to purchase, visit the First Hand Records website. Meanwhile you can listen to Noctuelles on Spotify:

On record – Lysander Piano Trio: Mirrors – 21st Century American Piano Trios (First Hand)

Cohen Around the Cauldron (2016)
Ghostwritten Variations (2015/16)
Love Sweet (2013)*
Titania and Her Suite (2014)
An den Wassern zu Babel (2010)
The Black Mirror (2013/14)

Lysander Piano Trio (Itamar Zorman (violin), Michael Katz (cello), Liza Stepanova (piano) with *Sarah Shafer (soprano)

First Hand Records FHR111 [71’26”]

Producer & Engineer Ryan Streber, *Paul Griffith

Recorded 2 & 3 January 2018 at Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, New York; * 21 February 2018 at Performing Arts Center, Athens, Georgia

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

An enterprising and finely realized collection of recent works for piano trio (all of them first recordings) by the Lysander Piano Trio, an ensemble now well established on the American recital circuit, which here gets to display its versatility and conviction in abundant measure.

What’s the music like?

As varied as the composers featured. Senior among them, Jennifer Higdon (b1962) contributes in Love Sweet a song-cycle very different from the extrovert orchestral works for which she is best known; the unusual yet effective combination of soprano and piano trio affording a deft characterization of these five poems by early twentieth century author Amy Lowell that trace the fateful unfolding of a relationship with ruminative poignancy. Following directly, Titania and Her Suite by Sofia Belimova (b2000) is a disarmingly assured miniature by a composer then in her early teens – its animated and unpredictable take on the figure from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream having a maturity and assurance as to put into the shade efforts by other more recent prodigies. Where its composer goes from here should prove fascinating.

Either side of these works, Ghostwritten Variations by Reinaldo Moya (b1984) draws on four seminal novels of the post-war era in four variations on a theme whose understated eloquence is ideally suited to the respectively searching, agitated, insouciant and disembodied treatments which follow – so making for an trajectory enhanced by this theme’s audible presence at each stage. As its title suggests, An den Wassern zu Babel by William David Cooper (b1986) draws on Psalm 37 not only as text but also the melody found in a setting contemporaneous with the German translation by Martin Luther; from which emerges a continuous set of six variations whose contrasts are permeated (never slavishly) by the spirit of German expressionism from the early twentieth century, and in what becomes a ‘mirror’ as revealing as it is disconcerting.

With its influences ranging from prog rock to klezmer, Around the Cauldron by Gilad Cohen (b1980) opens the programme with a vividly evocative sequence inspired by the three witches (also known as the weird sisters) from Shakespeare’s Macbeth; these seven tightly contrasted vignettes taking in a Witches Waltz of glinting irony then culminating in Sacrificial which is hardly less chilling than the Third Ear Band’s score for Roman Polanski’s (in)famous film rendering. Concluding this collection, The Black Mirror by Jakub Ciupinski (b1981) takes up procedures associated with Baroque painter Claude Lorrain – the piece slowly emerging from tentative piano phrases and string harmonics to a climax whose etherealized intensity could not be better described than by the composer’s description of ‘‘an explosion in slow motion’’.

Does it all work?

Yes – inasmuch that there are no also-rans among the pieces featured and, even if there were, the unwavering commitment of the musicians would likely be more than compensation; not least Sarah Shafer, whose singing adds much to the affecting aura of the Higdon song-cycle.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound presents an often difficult medium to best advantage, while credit should be given to the booklet which features succinctly insightful notes on each piece along with biographies of each of the composers and artists – not to mention those five Lowell poems.

Listen and Buy

You can discover more about this release at the First Hand Records website, where you can also purchase the recording.

On record – Vaughan Jones & Marcus Price: History of the Salon – Morceaux caractéristiques 1823-1913 (First Hand)

d’Ambrosio Sérénade in D major Op.4 (1897); Aria Op. 22 (1903)
Braga La Serenata (1867 arr. Pollitzer)
Drdla Serenade no.1 in A major (1901)
Godard Canzonetta Op.35/3 (1876, arr. composer)
Granados Oriental Op.37/2 (1890, arr. Jones)
Hollander Mazurek in E major Op.25 (1898)
Laub Canzonetta in B minor Op.12/1 (1884)
Moszkowski Mélodie in F major Op.18/1 (1879, arr. Hermann); Guitarre in G major Op.45/2 (1890, arr. Sarasate)
Paganini Cantabile e Valzer Op.19 (1823)
Raff Méditation in A major Op.75/5 (1859, arr. Hermann); Cavatina in D major Op.85/3 (1862)
F. A. Schubert Bagatelles Op.13 (1860) – nos. 3, 4, 5 (Le désir), no. 9 (L’abeille), no.12 (Barcarola)
Sgambati Serenata napoletana Op.24/2 (1891)
Spohr Barcarole in G major Op.135/1 (1848)
Vecsey Valse triste in C minor (1913)
Zarzycki Mazurkas – no.1 in G major Op.26 (1884); no.2 in E major Op.39 (1894)

Vaughan Jones (violin); Marcus Price (piano)

First Hand Records FHR95 [82’50”]

Producer & Engineer John Croft

Recorded 27, 28 & 30 December 2019, Plumcroft Primary School, London

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Vaughan Jones continues a productive association with First Hand Records on this generous selection of encores from the golden age of the violin virtuoso, skillfully programmed so as to present composers often regarded as ‘one hit wonders’ in a more rounded and inclusive light.

What’s the music like?

One of the chief attractions is Jones’s bringing together the established with the unfamiliar – so the programme features not only Aleksander Zarzycki’s vibrantly assertive First Mazurka, but also its seldom revived and no less characterful successor. Earliest of those unashamedly public virtuosos, Niccoló Paganini is represented by music of an elegance and finesse by no means foreign to his persona; with the comparable expressive range of Alfredo d’Ambrosio as evident in his lilting Sérénade as in his sombrely musing Aria. Enjoying modest revival, Moritz Moszkowski contributes the languid Mélodie but also the indelible élan of his Guitarre.

Benjamin Godard remains one for whom quantity is not always synonymous with quality, but this arrangement from his Concerto romantique yields a winning insouciance. The inclusion of Joachim Raff’s emotive Cavatina was to be expected, but that of his aptly subtitled Après le coucher du Soleil is an unexpected and affecting pleasure. The name of František Drdla is securely kept alive by the appealing whimsy of his contribution, as is that of Gaetano Braga by the wistful eloquence and finely drawn contrast of his Angel’s Serenade. Whether or not his name is wholly responsible for his latter-day obscurity, Franz Anton (François) Schubert was evidently a skillful composer – hence these five out of 12 Bagatelles such as reference a subtle range of moods on route to the animated L’abeille then the ruminative Barcarola.

The stealthy virtuosity evinced by Giovanni Sgambati sounds anything but mindless, while the taciturn charm conjured by Ferdinand Laub makes plain why his musicianship was held in such high esteem by Tchaikovsky. The incisive wit and technical agility of Benoit (Benno) Hollander is everywhere apparent, as too is the winsome and (at least as rendered here) never unduly saccharine charm of Louis Spohr. Nor does the ‘heart on sleeve’ immediacy of Franz von Vecsey fall victim to false sentiment, whereas the second (and not necessarily the most immediately appealing) out of those dozen pieces that comprise Enrique Granados’s Danzas españolas brings the whole programme to a warmly and thoughtfully understated conclusion.

Does it all work?

Yes, and not only on account of Vaughan Jones’s astute sense of programming. Throughout this lengthy yet always engaging miscellany, his playing eschews mere showiness in favour of a discipline and focus which ensure that even the most obvious ‘war-horses’ emerge newly minted. It also helps when the pianism of Marcus Price is consistently attentive to the subtle variations of mood and expression as are contained herein, while the balance between violin and piano could hardly be improved upon in terms of its definition and overall perspective.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Special praise for a booklet which features the violinist’s finely researched notes and is designed to resemble a programme as might have been encountered at a recital during this period. Clearly FHR’s production values are no less conscientious than Jones’s musicianship.



You can discover more about this release at the First Hand Records website, where you can also purchase the recording.