June 17, 2010


Bottesini: Fantasia on Themes of Rossini; Passioni amorose; Gran Duetto No. 2; Concerto for Two Double Basses and Piano. Thomas Martin and Timothy Cobb, double basses; Christopher Oldfather, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Vieuxtemps: Fantasia appassionata, Op. 35; Ballade et Polonaise, Op. 38; Fantaisie Caprice, Op. 11; Greeting to America, Op. 56. Misha Keylin, violin; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Mogrelia. Naxos. $8.99.

Mendelssohn: String Quartets in E-flat, Op.“0,” and No. 3 in D, Op. 44, No. 1; Tema con variazoni, Op. 81, No. 1; Scherzo, Op. 81, No. 2. New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl and Douglas Beilman, violins; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello). Naxos. $8.99.

     From the lowest string instruments to the highest, virtuosity is the order of the day on these new CDs. The fifth Naxos release of music by famed 19th-century double-bass player Giovanni Bottesini goes the earlier discs one better by presenting works for two double basses. Far from being lumbering or cumbersome pieces, these are, if not exactly light-footed, rather light-hearted, and in fact there are dance movements that show the instruments’ capabilities in some surprising ways. The opening Tarantella of the Fantasia on Themes of Rossini, for example, is a genuine surprise in its bounciness – although no more so than the Serenata that follows, in which the players extract considerable emotion from their very low instruments. The concerto-like Passioni amorose also requires the bass players to perform with a mixture of sensitivity and style, and in fact the virtuosity demanded in this piece and the others on this CD is considerable: these are all early Bottesini works that he used to show just how far the capabilities of his instrument could be extended. The Grand Duetto No. 2, second of three Bottesini works in this form, was written for two three-stringed instruments and is performed that way here; this makes the double stopping in its central Andante particularly interesting. The Concerto for Two Double Basses and Piano, which Bottesini later transformed into his better-known Gran Duo Concertante for Double Bass and Violin, is actually more impressive in its original version, being filled with complementary and competing flourishes for the instruments and a finale that increases in tempo right to the very end. Thomas Martin and Timothy Cobb play all these works with great flair, which is exactly what they need, and Christopher Oldfather backs the bassists up well while remaining appropriately in the background.

     The more-familiar string virtuosity of the violin is front and center in the music of Henry Vieuxtemps, who is best known for his seven concertos but also produced quite a few shorter works. The four played by Misha Keylin are filled with complex bowing techniques, double- and triple-stops, harmonics and speedy passages, but also require a light touch and singing tone – with many of these elements juxtaposed within a short time. Thus, in the Fantasia appassionata, a lovely and initially simple tune becomes more strongly ornamented and complex until it eventually requires high-level virtuosity. The Ballade et Polonaise begins with quiet wistfulness and then becomes increasingly lively, with a brilliant conclusion. The Fantaisie Caprice has more than its share of sweet, singing moments, although it too eventually builds to fast and challenging double stops at the end. And the posthumously published Greeting to America, one of several works written by Vieuxtemps during American tours, is pure fun, building from pizzicato orchestral strings to a combination of “Yankee Doodle,” “The Star-Spangled Banner” and plenty of violinistic fireworks. Andrew Mogrelia and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra ably back up Keylin’s delightful handling of these superficial but thoroughly enjoyable works.

     There is greater seriousness for strings in the third and last volume of the New Zealand String Quartet’s Mendelssohn cycle. This CD includes Mendelssohn’s earliest completed quartet, written when he was 14 – which, it should be noted, was not “young” for the boy genius, who had already created numerous string symphonies and other finely crafted works. Although the Quartet Op. “0” is not as technically demanding or emotionally expressive as Mendelssohn’s later ones, it is well structured and includes, as its finale, a particularly impressive fugue. Also here is the D Major work from Op. 44, the first of three in that set although the last of them to be written. The New Zealand players clearly appreciate both the drama and the songfulness of this work, performing it with strength and beauty in equal measure and providing some real thrills in the Presto con brio finale. The CD also includes two movements that Mendelssohn wrote in the last year of his life, presumably intending them to become part of another quartet, which he was never to finish. The Tema con variazoni is elegant and well wrought; the Scherzo, which is somewhat reminiscent of the early music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, shows a lightness of spirit that has come to be thought of as Mendelssohnian. All these works are performed here with fine ensemble and an excellent sense of give-and-take among the performers – their complete set of the Mendelssohn Quartets is simply top-notch.

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