November 14, 2019
(++++) THE STRENGTHS OF STRINGS
Vivaldi: Concerti per violoncello III, RV 400, 404, 407, 415, 420, and 423. Christophe Coin, cello; L’Onda Armonica. Naïve. $16.99.
Vivaldi: Concerti per violino VII (“Per il castello”), RV 257, 273, 367, 371, 389, and 390. Alessandro Tampieri, violin; Accademia Bizantina conducted by Ottavio Dantone. Naïve. $16.99.
Judith Lang Zaimont: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2; Verse for Solo Violin; Sestina for Solo Cello; Sonata-Rhapsody for Violin and Piano. Amernet String Quartet (Misha Vitenson and Franz Felkl, violins; Michael Klotz, viola; Jason Calloway, cello); John Wilson, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The Double Bass: Encore! Robert Oppelt, double bass; Irina Muresanu, violin; Eric DeWaardt, viola; Christopher Koelzer, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Naïve’s fascinating, nearly two-decade-long series of presentations of Vivaldi music held at the National University Library of Turin has turned up some genuine rarities and quite a few surprises here and there. But among its most interesting and most successful releases have been those containing previously known music performed so meticulously in period style, and with such verve and understanding, that the recordings have been revelatory even when the music has been available before. This is nowhere truer than in the CDs featuring concertos for string instruments – the type of music for which Vivaldi is best-known to modern listeners. The third cello-concerto release in the series featuring Christophe Coin – which is the 61st disc in the overall series – brings to 20 the total number of concertos that Coin has recorded in this sequence. And once again he plays with a depth of understanding matched by tonal excellence that is attained partly by his use of two instruments (cello and violoncello piccolo) and partly by his firm commitment to the performance practices of Vivaldi’s time (standup playing, gut strings, no endpin). The differences among Vivaldi’s cello concertos are often matters of balance, which means the ones that use the solo instrument in concertante mode (such as RV 404 in D, whose attribution to Vivaldi has been called into doubt, and RV 415 in G) sound subtly different from those with a more soloistic design. What Coin does so well is to make the distinctions among these pieces clear without overdoing them – and in this he is ably abetted by the members of the period-instrument ensemble L’Onda Armonica. Although all six works on the disc are poised, elegant and have their interesting moments, it is the ones in minor keys that prove most engaging: RV 407 in D minor, which features an especially warm central Largo, and RV 420 in A minor, which has the unusual movement sequence of Andante, Adagio, Allegro. The additional aural warmth resulting from casting the cello in a minor key makes these concertos especially pleasing to hear, and the well-considered sequencing of the disc works to their benefit: for example, RV 420 follows immediately after RV 400 in bright C major.
Minor-key concertos are also highlights of the 62nd Vivaldi Edition release, which is the seventh to focus on concertos for Vivaldi’s own instrument, the violin. Here the minor-key entries include RV 273 in the comparatively infrequently used key of E minor, and the B minor concertos RV 389 and RV 390. None of these concertos plumbs significant emotional depths or was intended to: the minor key is intended to elicit perhaps a feeling of gentle melancholy, a touch of wistfulness here and there. And Alessandro Tampieri and the Accademia Bizantina under Ottavio Dantone understand the emotional limits of the concertos very well: each is handled with suitable care and delicacy, and none ever goes beyond the boundaries that would have been musically appropriate in Vivaldi’s time. The major-key concertos fare equally well, with pacing that seems absolutely right and just enough verve and bounce to highlight the relationship between soloist and ensemble – here, as in the cello CD, ensuring that the solo violin is only front-and-center to the appropriate degree for its time. One thing the Vivaldi Edition releases have done exceptionally well is to demonstrate that historically informed performance practice need not mean persnickety attention to minor details, or an overly academic approach to the music in the name of authenticity. These violin concertos have all the easygoing charm that an audience could hope for, and their appeal is enhanced, not limited, by the fact that Tampieri and Dantone are so exceptionally attentive to the nuances of 18th-century performance style. Listeners can simply sit back and enjoy the tremendous variety of Vivaldi’s string concertos that exists within a comparatively straightforward structure. These performances, even when they are of works that have been heard many times before, are unsurpassed in their ability to give music lovers the feeling that they are encountering the concertos, if not for the first time, at least in a new and thoroughly captivating way.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and late 20th, and the experience of hearing string-focused music is quite different but, in its own way, can be just as intriguing. Certainly the works by Judith Lang Zaimont (born 1945) on a new MSR Classics CD – all of them world première recordings – are far less familiar than much of Vivaldi’s music. But despite their very different harmonic and rhythmic approaches, they ultimately spring from a similar desire to engage an audience while exploring the capabilities of the violin and cello. This is quite apparent in the short Verse for Solo Violin (2008) and Sestina for Solo Cello (1998). The lyricism and fragility of the violin work, and the more virtuosic-sounding cello solo (which focuses on the instrument’s upper register), are both clearly pieces intended to evoke an emotional response without requiring significant pyrotechnics or an overdone artificiality of mood to do so. Those two solo pieces are essentially entr’actes that separate the longer works on the disc. Two of those are Zaimont’s only string quartets: No. 1 (“The Figure”) from 2008 and No. 2 (“A Strange Magic”) from 2016. Although neither title is obviously reflected in the musical argument, the quartets themselves are effective and, again, moving and trenchant. The first, a two-movement work composed after the death of Zaimont’s mother, is quite expressive and emotionally on the fragile side, requiring speedy shifts of mood and abrupt changes between lyrical and dramatic sections. The second, single-movement quartet is a harder nut to crack, its ideas leaping about rapidly and giving neither performers nor listeners much time to absorb one musical thought before needing to focus on the next. Clarity of intonation and ensemble is an absolute must for this work, and the Amernet String Quartet delivers it just as skillfully as it produces the expressiveness that is more germane to the effect of the second quartet. The CD concludes with the very aptly named Sonata-Rhapsody for Violin and Piano, a five-movement work whose first movement is longer than the entire first string quartet: it is called “Nocturne (Romantic),” and it is that and more, with especially well-proportioned writing that for a time keeps the pianist high on the keyboard as the violin weaves a passage of extended lyricism. The Sonata-Rhapsody is very interestingly structured, the long first movement giving way to a minute-and-a-half interlude called “Thinking 1,” followed by a central “Aria (Sad)” whose melody is especially compelling, then another minute-and-a-half section called “Thinking 2,” and finally “Dance (Twisted),” which juxtaposes pizzicato string elements with physical taps on the piano lid – a technique that could easily be overdone (and has been in other composers’ works), but that here fits the movement’s title very well indeed. Zaimont’s music is complex but approachable, and it sustains well even at the nearly half-hour length of the Sonata-Rhapsody. Like Vivaldi, but at a remove of several centuries, Zaimont is a very consistent composer, her voice distinctive throughout each of the chamber works heard on this disc.
String music need not, of course, be as serious as that of Zaimont – or that of Vivaldi. The lighter side of it shows upon the heaviest of string instruments on an MSR Classics release called The Double Bass: Encore! Here, Robert Oppelt, principal bass of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., holds forth in 14 works whose provenance stretches from not long after Vivaldi’s time to the present day. And just as Coin uses two cellos for his latest Vivaldi CD, so Oppelt uses two double basses here, lending different works sounds that he deems more appropriate for the composers’ intentions. Most of the pieces here are on the lighter side – fittingly, given the disc’s title – and most are designed to show that the largest of string instruments need not be the lumbering giant it appears to be or has been positioned as by some composers (e.g., very amusingly, by Saint-Saëns in Carnival of the Animals). The oldest works here are six waltzes by Domenico Dragonetti (1763-1846) – the second half of a set of 12 that Oppelt has split, rather irritatingly, between two CDs. All six heard here are nicely formed and nicely paced (four are marked Vivace, one each Allegretto and Presto), and all show the double bass to be capable of far more than the low-note accompanying role to which it has traditionally been relegated. Oppelt has a pleasingly light touch in these works, a delicacy that he also brings to bear in Elegy No. 1 for double bass and piano by Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889), the most famous bass player of his time. Bottesini wrote some remarkably virtuosic works, but this one, although it covers a wide range and clearly presents performance challenges, comes across mostly as small-r romantic within the capital-R Romantic era. Oppelt presents the works on this disc in no particular order, except for his use of Dragonetti to break up the sequence of other material. So after the Bottesini and one Dragonetti waltz, he offers Chanson Triste by Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951), then another Dragonetti waltz, and then Koussevitzky’s Humoresque. Both the pieces by this conductor/composer are short works that neatly play the double bass and piano against each other. The first, an elegy for a friend who died young, is suitably sad without being morose, while the second features a playful first section that later gives way to something a bit more melancholic. Neither, however, is as moving as Prayer No. 1 by Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), originally written for cello and sounding even deeper, both musically and emotionally, in this arrangement. The four remaining works on the disc are much more recent. Canto by Sherwood Shaffer (born 1934) is for solo double bass. It is quite lyrical and also quite complex in its technical demands. Bach to Blues by John Clayton (born 1952) is a reinterpretation in a jazz-like idiom of the Prelude from Bach’s Suite No. 1 for Cello. The longest work on the disc, the two-movement Fisherstreet Duo by Evan Chambers (born 1963), uses the unlikely but surprisingly convincing combination of double bass and viola. It contrasts another “elegy” piece with a movement of faster, dancelike material with more than a few hints of jazz. The CD concludes with Duo Concertante by Krysztof Penderecki (born 1933), the two instruments here being double bass and violin and the work being serious and moving, albeit in a way different from that of Bloch. Oppelt’s considerable virtuosity and his well-balanced collaborations with Irina Muresanu, Eric DeWaardt, and Christopher Koelzer lead to a CD that is mostly on the lighter side but that shows just how effectively communicative the double bass can be in sufficiently expert hands.