May 26, 2011


Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1; Violin Sonata. Leila Josefowicz, violin; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo; John Novacek, piano. Warner. $18.99.

Messiaen: Theme and Variations; Ravel: Violin Sonata in G major; Mark Grey: San Andreas Suite; Esa-Pekka Salonen: Lachen Verlernt; Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 10; Brahms: Scherzo in C minor. Leila Josefowicz, violin; John Novacek, piano. Warner. $18.99 (2 CDs).

Astor Piazzolla: Tangos for Violin, Brass and Percussion Quintet, arr. Donato De Sena. Andrea Tacchi, violin; Quintetto di Ottoni e Percussioni della Toscana (Andrea Dell’Ira and Donato De Sena, trumpets; Paolo Faggi, French horn; Antonio Sicoli, trombone; Riccardo Tarlini, tuba; Roberto Bichi, percussion). Naxos. $9.99.

Alberto Ginastera: Cello Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Mark Kosower, cello; Bamberg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lothar Zagrosek. Naxos. $9.99.

The Art of Vivaldi’s Lute. Ronn McFarlane, lute; Bach Sinfonia conducted by Daniel Abraham. Sono Luminus. $16.99.

Ittai Shapira: Concierto Latino. Ittai Shapira, violin; London Serenata conducted by Krzysztof Chorzelski. Champs Hill. $16.99.

     The search for repertoire to highlight string soloists and engage the audience in their performances is never-ending. Different CDs approach the issue in different ways, from the conventional to – as in the case of all these new releases – the less so. At first glance, there would seem to be nothing particularly unusual about Leila Josefowicz’s Shostakovich repertoire combination, but in fact the pairing of the composer’s first violin concerto with his only violin sonata is not at all the norm. Listeners here get a chance to hear the composer’s handling of the stringed instrument in two very different contexts, and there is in fact quite a difference that comes through from this juxtaposition. The concerto, written in 1947-48 but significantly revised (with David Oistrakh’s help) several years later, features a very intense Scherzo (which includes the composer’s D-S-C-H musical theme) that is contrasted with the rather unemotional (or emotionally suppressed) first movement, a third-movement Passacaglia that juxtaposes Beethoven’s Fifth with a theme from the composer’s own Symphony No. 7, and a finale that sounds a bit Stravinskian. Leila Josefowicz here plays with care and attentiveness, if perhaps a touch too much restraint in the wilder sections. In the much later Sonata (1968), also composed with Oistrakh’s help and dedicated to him, Josefowicz effectively brings out both the structural elements and the intense ones, although again she could have emphasized the grotesqueries a bit more effectively. The orchestral backing by Sakari Oramo and the Birmingham Symphony is fine, and the piano accompaniment by John Novacek is even better, notably in the tone row that opens the sonata.

     It does seem at times as if soloists and/or producers try a little too hard to come up with unusual or off-the-beaten-track ways to showcase performers and their instruments. Josefowicz offers fine playing on another new release – a two-CD recital of music for violin and piano or violin solo. And Novacek is an outstanding accompanist here as well. But the repertoire selection is rather odd, and the two-CD set (sold for the price of one) would seem designed to appeal mostly to Josefowicz fans rather than to listeners eager for top-notch renditions of works that range from the familiar to the unknown. Thus, we get fine performances here of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10 and Ravel’s Violin Sonata in G major, but neither is innovative or revelatory enough to make this recital a must-have. The Brahms Scherzo in C minor, presented at the end of the second CD, makes an effective encore, and the Messiaen Theme and Variations, which opens the first disc, is attractive and particularly well played. But the two modern works are rather slight: San Andreas Suite for solo violin by Mark Grey (born 1967) and Lachen Verlernt, also for solo violin, by conductor/composer Essa-Pekka Salonen (born 1958). These two pieces certainly give Josefowicz plenty of opportunities to show her mastery of her instrument, and each of them has some effective writing – the Salonen especially so. But from a strictly musical standpoint, this set does not quite hang together. And even referring to it as a two-CD compilation is a touch misleading, since the first disc contains just 41 minutes of music and the second only 46 – in all, not much more than would fit on a single CD with 80-minute capacity.

     Astor Piazzolla’s mastery of an orchestral approach to the tango is now well known, as is his Four Seasons in Buenos Aires, an increasingly common display piece for violinists. Ah, but not for violinists performing with brass quintet and percussion. That is the unusual element of a new Naxos CD that features not only the well-known seasonal work but also a whole series of additional, shorter pieces. Most of them – Violentango, Amelitango, Tristango, Undertango/Mister Tango, Novitango, Histoire du Tango: I—‘Bordel 1900,’ La Muerte del Ángel and Meditango – are heard entirely in brass-and-percussion arrangements by trumpeter Donato De Sena. But three pieces – Ave Maria, Oblivion and Libertango – also feature Andrea Tacchi as violinist, in addition to his role in Four Seasons in Buenos Aires. This is a disc whose greatest interest is in its sheer sound – it is intriguing to hear so many Piazzolla tangos in these arrangements. However, a full hour of this material does tend to pale a bit, since the sonic compass differs little from piece to piece. The CD is more enjoyable in small doses than when played straight through.

     Latin dance rhythms and folk elements are prominent as well in the two cello concertos by Alberto Ginastera. Infrequently heard and hence appealing to cellists with as much virtuosity at their command as Mark Kosower possesses, the pieces date from 1968 and 1980, respectively, and are of almost the same length – although No. 1 is in three movements and No. 2 in four. Both works are tributes to the composer’s second wife, Aurora Nátola: she gave the première of the first, and the second was written for her as a 10th-anniversary gift. The two concertos are both technically difficult and filled with dance rhythms and orchestral color. The first has highly prominent percussion – hearing it after listening to the brass-and-percussion arrangements of Piazzolla is intriguing. The second is more folkloric and more representational, including jungle sounds and an instrumental version of sunrise. The works’ folk and rustic elements (the second concludes with a Finale rustico) are especially attractive, and the pieces provide a fine opportunity for cellists to display the range of their sound, from broad singing lines to intense and speedy passages, in unfamiliar but thoroughly interesting works.

     Much quieter and more reserved string playing is the order of the day in The Art of Vivaldi’s Lute, which is neatly constructed in an “arch” shape: the CD opens and closes with a sinfonia; the second and second-to-last works are concertos; the third and third-to-last are trios; and the central work is the aria In Turbato mare irato, RV627. Lutenist Ronn McFarlane brings out the gentleness as well as the virtuosity of his instrument throughout this disc, showing that Vivaldi, although a famed (and somewhat controversial) violinist, had an excellent sense of the lute’s capabilities as well. The Concerto in D minor for Lute and Viola d’amore is particularly captivating here, with the tones of the two solo instruments intermingling beautifully and their different methods of sound production complementing each other very effectively. Vivaldi certainly had an ear for the sound of stringed instruments – and so do McFarlane and the players of the Bach Sinfonia under Daniel Abraham.

     Some string showcases have distinctly personal elements rather than interpretative ones alone. Such is the case with Concierto Latino by Israel-born composer/violinist Ittai Shapira (born 1973). This three-movement work may seem to be cast in traditional concerto form, but in fact its Latin influences (primarily from de Falla and Villa Lobos) are complemented by elements that draw on music from outside the classical world (singer Shakira). The personal matters here go beyond Shapira’s eclectic influences: the piece was inspired (if that is the right word) by an incident in which Shapira was attacked by a gang of men one night in New York City. The three movements are called “The Attack,” “Lament” and “Party,” and are obviously intended to take Shapira from the fear of what happened to him to a celebration of his recovery. The attempt is commendable, but the music, although well constructed, is not especially distinguished – although with Shapira himself as soloist, the performance must surely be deemed definitive. As with any work that is highly meaningful to a composer in a very personal way – Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll or Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, to cite two examples among many – Concierto Latino can succeed for listeners only to the extent that it is effective even when those who hear it do not know the autobiographical details on which it draws. On this basis, Shapira’s work falls short; but it certainly gives him many chances to showcase his skill as a soloist while working through what was surely a highly traumatic episode of his life.

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