June 05, 2008


Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1001-1006. Ilya Kaler, violin. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Rossini: Péchés de vieillesse—Volume VII, “Album de chaumière” (complete); Volume IX, “Album pour piano, violin, violoncello, harmonium et cor” (excerpts). Alessandro Marangoni, piano. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Bizet: L’Arlésienne—Suites and Incidental Music; Carmen: Prélude and Entractes. Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble and Choeur de l’Opéra de Lyon conducted by Marc Minkowski. Naïve. $19.99.

      Violinists never tire of playing and re-playing Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, although the works are in fact immensely tiring to play – and, for that matter, to listen to straight through (not really a good idea: the full set lasts two-and-a-half hours). These are among the most difficult solo-violin works ever written, differing from other pieces of supreme difficulty – such as Paganini’s 24 Caprices – in that they are not showpieces but in-depth explorations of the violin’s technical and emotional range. Their virtuosity is understated but pervasive, and Ilya Kaler understands this well: his performance is carefully structured, emotional without being overly (and inappropriately) swooning, and tremendously attentive to details. He not only gets the many rhythms and ornaments right but also knows the importance of long-sustained notes, which end a number of the selections. His bowing is impeccable, and his use of double-stops – which at times are unceasing during these works – is so effective that it frequently sounds as if two violins are playing. This is a masterly performance, not only in such supreme pieces as the lengthy Ciaccona that concludes Partita No. 2 in D minor, but also in the enjoyable lesser works, such as the dance tunes (some of them quite well known) of Partita No. 3 in E major. There is and can be no single definitive version of these works, but Kaler’s certainly registers at the very highest level.

      Rossini’s Péchés de vieillesse (“Sins of Old Age”) are far lesser pieces – the composer created 14 volumes of them, for voice and a variety of instruments both solo and in combination, after retiring from opera composing at age 37. Many of the works are not intended to be taken seriously – some of the little songs are hilarious miniatures – but there is also no need to trivialize the pieces, as some performers do (except, of course, when Rossini wants them trivialized). Alessandro Marangoni proves a very worthy interpreter of more than two hours of these short works: the entire Volume VII, known as “The Cottage Album,” which is the first volume devoted to the solo piano, plus four solo-piano works from Volume IX, which is for a variety of instruments in various mixtures. Marangoni has a deft touch, particularly affecting in such charmers as “Petite valse de boudoir” from Volume VII and “Chansonette” from Volume IX. Rossini was fond of giving his Péchés de vieillesse thumb-your-nose titles, such as “Prélude inoffensif,” which indeed meanders blandly enough until its final surprising chord, and “Petite valse, ‘L’huile de Ricin,’” whose jumpiness may reflect the castor oil in its title. If Marangoni lacks anything, it is a certain level of playfulness: a little more would be welcome in such pieces as “Impromptu tarantellisé.” The more serious pieces are uniformly effective, though, as are the out-and-out charming ones. Perhaps Marangoni will take himself (and the music) a trifle less seriously in future volumes of what is planned as the release of the complete Rossini piano music.

      The reconsideration of Bizet’s music for L’Arlésienne by Marc Minkowski is an altogether different sort of project. This is a single, rather brief CD (lasting just an hour) whose packaging and music are equally big reasons to buy it. Bound as a 118-page book with a front compartment in which the CD nestles, this offering includes the original short story that became the basis for the play L’Arlésienne, for which Bizet wrote his incidental music, plus three essays on the work, including one by Minkowski. There are also numerous reproductions of paintings giving artists’ impressions of Arles – especially those of Van Gogh. In addition to the two well-known suites – the first by Bizet, the second arranged after Bizet’s death by Ernest Guiraud – the CD includes eight excerpts from the music as it was originally incorporated into the play, two of them using chorus. This rare opportunity to hear the music as Bizet originally wrote it is a big plus for the CD, although the excerpts are all short and not in themselves a sufficient reason to buy the disc. Minkowski’s performances are excellent, both sensitive and idiomatic, and the inclusion of four short pieces from Carmen – as originally used in the opera, not in the form of a suite – is a nice bonus. This is a CD for those curious about the context of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne and interested in owning a handsome multimedia look at Arles through both the visual and the aural arts. It is a collector’s item rather than a must-have, but collectors will be very pleased with it.

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