August 01, 2013


Jean-Marie Leclair: Violin Sonatas, Book 2—Nos. 1-5 and 8. Adrian Butterfield, violin; Jonathan Manson, viola da gamba; Laurence Cummings, harpsichord. Naxos. $9.99.

Amandine Beyer: Portrait—Music of Bach, Corelli, Vivaldi and others. Amandine Beyer, violin. Zig-Zag Territories. $18.99 (2 CDs).

Jennifer Higdon: Amazing Grace; Sky Quartet; Sonata for Viola and Piano; Dark Wood; String Trio. Serafin String Quartet (Kate Ransom and Timothy Schwarz, violins; Molly Carr, viola; Lawrence Stomberg, cello); Charles Abramovic, piano; Eric Stomberg, bassoon. Naxos. $9.99.

Shostakovich: Cello Concertos Nos. 1 (two performances) and 2; Sonata for Cello and Piano. Mstislav Rostropovich, cello; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kirill Kondrashin and Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Aleksandr Gauk (Concerto No. 1); Prague Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov (Concerto No. 2); Dmitry Shostakovich, piano (Sonata). Supraphon. $22.99 (2 CDs).

Anima del Sur: Milongas & Tangos for Two Guitars. Joanne Castellani and Michael Andriaccio, guitars. Fleur de Son. $18.99.

     Here are many aspects of many stringed instruments in many forms from many musical eras – all presented with aplomb. Adrian Butterfield is particularly adept with the Baroque violin in the first volume of the second set of sonatas by Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764). Butterfield previously recorded the Op. 1 sonatas of 1723 for Naxos and now turns his attention to Op. 2 of 1728. These are equally inventive works, all in four movements, with attractive slow movements and plenty of verve and spirit in their outer movements, especially the finales. The first sonata of this group is in E minor and, although it does not have any particular additional weight or profundity as a result, it does offer an attractive wistfulness that contrasts well with the greater brightness and openness of the major-key Nos. 2-5 and 8. Jonathan Manson and Laurence Cummings ably support Butterfield’s playing, which is suitably virtuosic but never overwhelms the music with greater intensity than it can bear. Compositionally poised, these Leclair sonatas lie firmly in the Baroque realm; played with elegance, they offer listeners an attractive opportunity to hear some lesser-known music of the early 18th century.

     There are also some less-known pieces on the two-CD set from Zig-Zag Territories featuring violinist Amandine Beyer. But most of the music here, in particular the concertos that take up the second CD, will be familiar to listeners. Beyer, like Butterfield, is a Baroque violinist, and the primary attraction of the recording will be in hearing her personal technique – which is nuanced and attentive to details – and her approach to the works. The suites and sonatas on the first disc, by J.S. and C.P.E. Bach and Rebel, may be somewhat less familiar material than the concertos, but the pieces here by less-known composers – Nicola Matteis and Robert de Visée – are not substantial enough to draw listeners to the set on their own. Certainly Beyer performs everything quite well, especially when joined by her own ensemble, Gli Incogniti. She handles the stylistic differences among French, German, Italian and English compositions with sensitivity, proving herself adept in chamber music by ably managing the give-and-take of Baroque-era forms with various partners. This set is actually a compilation of recordings previously made by Beyer, mixing chamber works with somewhat larger-scale material. Everything here is nicely balanced and played with finesse, although there are no significant revelations in the performances and there is thus no particular reason to choose these renditions over others – except for listeners who find Beyer’s style particularly winning. Her existing fans will be the most likely buyers of this two-disc compilation, which really does come across more as a portrait of the artist than as a recording focused on the music being performed.

     On the other hand, the modern chamber music of Jennifer Higdon (born 1962) is very much the focus of a new Naxos CD featuring the Serafin String Quartet, pianist Charles Abramovic and bassoonist Eric Stomberg. All these works’ recordings are world premières, and the pieces as a whole provide a chance to hear ways in which Higdon developed as a composer between 1988 (the String Trio, a well-made work but one in which she has not yet found an expressive voice of her own) and 2001 (Dark Wood, for violin, cello, piano and bassoon, an unusual combination of sonorities that Higdon uses to mingle a bouncy piano part with the “dark wood” of the bassoon, from which considerable virtuosity is required).  Between these two works chronologically are the Sonata for Viola and Piano (1990), which displays the influence of Copland and Prokofiev; Sky Quartet (1997/2000), inspired by the sky of the western United States and employing its four movements evocatively, in some respects along the lines used by Debussy to portray the moods of the ocean in La Mer – Higdon’s  final movement’s expansiveness is particularly notable; and Amazing Grace (1998/2003), a short and effective quartet treatment of the popular hymn. Higdon has become rather popular by the standards of contemporary composers, but her earlier chamber music remains little-known. Those who have been intrigued by her Percussion Concerto or Violin Concerto, for example, may find her explorations of smaller forms to be worthwhile examples of equally well-constructed music on a more-modest scale.

     Both chamber and orchestral music of Shostakovich are celebrated in a new two-CD set featuring cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Supraphon, a well-known Czech music label, has long had a catalogue more distinguished for the artists represented than for the sound quality with which the performances are presented – and this set, despite a good remastering job, is no exception. It is an important release in the Shostakovich discography and will be of tremendous interest to those following the composer and his relationship with Rostropovich, his onetime pupil. And many strengths of the readings do come through – but not enough to make these authentic performances must-haves for the more-casual listener. The CDs include two of the earliest performances of the Cello Concerto No. 1, which was written for Rostropovich. The work’s première was on October 4, 1959, conducted by Yevgeny Mravinsky; two days later, Rostropovich played the concerto again, with the Moscow Philharmonic under Alexander Gauk, and that is one of the performances heard in this set – a live recording here released for the first time. It is not a very good recording from a technical standpoint, with little differentiation among orchestral sections, but it does offer a chance to hear Rostropovich’s early approach to the concerto – an approach that became deeper and more thoughtful over the years; here it is somewhat surface-level, even though the playing itself is exemplary. The other version here, also a live recording, dates to May 29, 1960. It offers a somewhat better sonic experience and features a better conductor: Kirill Kondrashin is strongly involved, while Gauk seems more workmanlike in his approach. Rostropovich is already finding greater depth in the music only seven months after the prior recording, and although the two performances differ in length by only 20 seconds, the later one feels more fully integrated and better thought-through. In later years, though, Rostropovich was to move well beyond both of these interpretations. He matured in the Cello Concerto No. 2 as well, but this more-contemplative concerto still fares well in the live recording heard here, which dates to December 11, 1967 – just 14 months after the concerto’s première. Rostropovich is thoroughly in command of the music throughout, and so is conductor Yevgeny Svetlanov, who had led the orchestra at the concerto’s first performance. The recording here, from a Prague Spring concert, is adequate if scarcely outstanding. As for the fourth offering here, it is one of genuine historical importance that has been released before: a studio recording, made in 1959, of the 1934 Cello Sonata – in which Rostropovich is accompanied by Shostakovich himself. The composer was no longer performing as a pianist by the time of this recording, but his skill with his own works had in no way diminished, and this finely detailed reading, with onetime teacher and onetime pupil plumbing the sonata’s depths while highlighting its rather spare lines, is an outstanding one from start to finish. Although it falls short of being aurally pleasant to experience, this Supraphon release is packed with performances both interesting and significant – a major release for collectors if not for audiophiles.

     On the much lighter side, the Castellani Andriaccio Duo focuses not on violins or cellos but on guitars – which tend to be considered less consequential than members of the violin family, but to which no less a violinist/violist than Paganini accorded considerable respect. Still, this release on the Fleur de Son label is by and large upbeat and lighthearted, with attractive music whose composers are not household names but whose rhythmic vitality is proffered in abundance. The 10 composers represented here are Adrien Politi, Marcelo Coronel, José Rafael Cisneros, José Luis Merlín, Roland Dyens, Celso Machado, Alfonso Montes, Ernesto Cordero, Jorge Cardoso and Paolo Bellinati. Among the CD’s highlights are Cordero’s Sonatina Tropical, the longest work on the disc, with three atmospheric movements lasting 12 minutes; Politi’s Tango Duo, whose four short sections give the performers plenty of rhythmic and expressive challenges; and Montes’ Milonga (a Piazzolla), which pays homage to the modern master who rethought the tango and brought it out of the dance hall and into the concert hall. Joanne Castellani and Michael Andriaccio play with energy and constant enthusiasm, and if none of the music here is particularly consequential, the performers treat all of it with so much affection and respect that guitar-oriented listeners who like contemporary handling of some old dance forms will enjoy the CD from start to finish.

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