January 19, 2017


Shostakovich: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin; NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester conducted by Alan Gilbert. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).

Paganini: 24 Caprices, Op. 1, with piano accompaniment by Schumann. Maristella Patuzzi, violin; Mario Patuzzi, piano. Dynamic. $19.99.

Vivaldi: Twelve Concertos, Opp. 11 and 12. Federico Guglielmo, violin; Pier Luigi Fabretti, oboe; L’Arte dell’Arco. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).

Cimarosa: Opera Overtures, Volume 5: Atene edificata; Componimento drammatico; La bella Greca (Il matrimoni impensati); La felicità inaspettata; La villana riconosciuta; I due supposti conti, ossia Lo sposo senza moglie; Le trame deluse, ossia I raggiri scoperti; Il marito disperato (Il marito geloso); L’Olimpiade; La ballerina amante; Il fanatico burlato. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by Patrick Gallois. Naxos. $12.99.

     There is very little that is straightforward in the music of Shostakovich, and this is nowhere clearer than in his two complex, difficult and variegated violin concertos. Frank Peter Zimmermann gives splendid readings of both on a new BIS release, wallowing fully in what sentimentality there is, then switching without apparent effort to the dry acerbity so common in Shostakovich’s music, finding ways both to highlight and to balance the numerous (and almost mutually exclusive) demands of the disparate movements. There is something deeply unsettling in the way Shostakovich repeatedly juxtaposes musical forms and musically expressed emotions that do not fit each other particularly well – and makes everything work, at least in hands as skilled as those of Zimmermann and conductor Alan Gilbert, who whips up the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester (better known under its former name, NDR Sinfonieorchester) into a froth of intensity that fits these works with glovelike precision. The odd scherzo of the first concerto, superficially bright but always containing a hint of darkness, comes through especially well here, but Zimmermann also makes much of the crepuscular Nocturne that opens the concerto and even manages to find a way to tie the initially trivial-seeming Burlesque to all that has come before, including the technically demanding cadenza that immediately precedes it. Zimmermann does just as well with the second concerto, with the mixed emotions of the central Adagio – now despairing, now merely sad, now quietly contemplative – coming through especially effectively. These are excellent, highly knowing performances that, although thoughtful, give the impression of flowing naturally from an intuitive understanding of the complexity of Shostakovich’s personality and the way it is reflected in music of so distinctive a character – or, more accurately, of so many distinctive characters.

     The new Dynamic release of Paganini’s 24 Caprices, Op. 1, featuring violinist Maristella Patuzzi, reflects two characters in particular: that of Paganini the virtuoso showman and surprisingly adept composer, of course, and also that of Robert Schumann – who, influenced by Paganini in important ways early in his own career, produced at the end of that career (and of his life) a set of piano accompaniments for these solo violin works. On the face of it, this was an exercise in futility and, it could be argued, further evidence of the deterioration of Schumann’s mind and creative spirit after he was institutionalized. Certainly these 24 wonderful miniatures (some of them not so miniature!) need no instrumentation beyond that of the violin. But in Schumann’s time, music for unaccompanied violin was thought to be thin and somehow incomplete, at least in some quarters; and besides, by producing pianistic elements to go with the solo-violin ones, Schumann was quite clearly paying tribute to Paganini, not in any way diminishing or minimizing his accomplishments. The Schumann material is of course wholly unnecessary, but it is fascinating: Schumann had so much respect for Paganini’s music, and such understanding of it, that he created piano elements that neatly complement the violin material without ever overwhelming it or preventing it from remaining in the forefront – all this despite the fact that Schumann was himself a pianist. The exceptional interweaving of violin and piano here may owe a little something extra to the fact that Maristella Patuzzi performs with her father, pianist Mario Patuzzi, with whom she has made other recordings: the two have a familial bond that seems to extend to deeply similar understanding of the material and strong mutual respect for each other’s contributions to these readings. Certainly this is an unusual and, in the most literal sense, inauthentic performance of the 24 Caprices. But it is an excellent interpretation of the authentic Schumann elements of a composition that remains wholly Paganini’s while at the same time offering fascinating glimmers of Paganini’s tremendous influence on one of his great contemporary admirers.

     Vivaldi’s contemporaries were beginning to have significant influence on his violin compositions by 1729, the year of Vivaldi’s sets of concertos published as Op. 11 and Op. 12. This was the time of Tartini and Locatelli, who – like Vivaldi himself – were top-flight violinists and substantial composers for their chosen instrument. It was also the time in which galant style began to make itself widely known, and Vivaldi proved himself as sensitive to stylistic developments as to the changing technical capabilities of violinists. Most of the concertos in these sets – each containing six works rather than the 12 of earlier groupings – are not particularly well-known, perhaps because they have something of a “transitional” feeling about them, as Vivaldi expanded and modified his style to stay abreast of new harmonic and rhythmic expectations among performers and listeners alike. It is not certain whether Vivaldi himself actually authorized these specific groupings, although his authorship of the concertos themselves is not in dispute. Most of these concertos are somewhat longer than Vivaldi’s earlier ones, and the slow movements, in particular, tend to be spun off at greater length and with greater emotional impact, if scarcely to the extent that those of later composers would possess. The performances on Brilliant Classics by Federico Guglielmo and his ensemble, L’Arte dell’Arco, are as historically informed and consistently outstanding as all the Vivaldi readings by these players seem to be. There are a few oddities in the groupings as heard here, such as the way Guglielmo continues to arrange the concertos rather capriciously (the Op. 11 sequence is 5, 4, 2, 3, 1, 6; for Op. 12, it is 5, 1, 4, 2, 6, 3). But some of the unexpected material traces directly to Vivaldi: one of these works (Op. 11, No. 6) is actually an oboe rather than violin concerto, and one (Op. 12, No. 3) is for strings and continuo without solo violin – Vivaldi’s only known work of this type. There are also some pleasant surprises to be heard here, such as the lovely pizzicato accompaniment in the central movement of Op. 12, No. 6, and the greater depth of feeling throughout the minor-key concertos (three in Op. 11, including the oboe concerto, and two in Op. 12). The stylistic sensitivity and easy virtuosity of playing in these performances are winning, and the chance to experience these mostly less-known but beautifully shaped concertos is one that fans of Baroque music in general, and Vivaldi’s in particular, will very much enjoy.

     There is enjoyment to be had in the fifth Naxos release of Cimarosa overtures as well – and here too the primary aural elements are the strings, although in a few of these works Cimarosa also shows himself able to use winds effectively. Cimarosa wrote more than 80 operas, most of them light in a kind of pre-Rossinian Rossini mode. As with many other composers (Rossini included), Cimarosa would sometimes reuse overtures, and because Cimarosa’s overtures were not typically built around themes from the operas that they opened, this was particularly easy to do. Furthermore, many of his operas were performed under multiple titles, not only in different stagings and different languages but also within Italy itself, as they moved from Naples or other points of origin to other city-states within a not-yet-united country. This explains the multiple titles of some overtures on this CD and the others discs in this series. Cimarosa also wrote overtures in two different styles: single-movement ones of the type now generally thought of as fitting the word “overture,” and two-or-three-movement ones that may be considered “sinfonias.” Since there is nothing that inherently links the overtures heard here to their operas with any specificity, what this disc – like its predecessors – offers is simply a wealth of well-made instrumental music that is very much of its time and is performed with considerable élan by the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice under Patrick Gallois. This is not to say that the overtures are all of a piece: in length alone, they range from the three-movement, more-than-11-minute one to La bella Greca (also known as I matrimoni impensati) to the charming, barely-there, one-and-a-half-minute opening of La felicità inaspettata. And although nine of the 11 works on this CD are opera overtures, two have different provenances: Atene edificata comes from a cantata that Cimarosa wrote at the court of Catherine the Great of Russia, and Componimento drammatico was produced for a cantata celebrating the birth of the firstborn son of France’s ill-fated King Louis XVI. These pieces, in two and three movements respectively, share the characteristics of the opera overtures: they are well-constructed, focused primarily on the orchestra’s string section, and sound like miniature sinfonias with no obvious connection to the circumstances for which they were created. Cimarosa was an adept composer who was very much in and of his time. His overtures are very pleasant to hear but are, in the most part, not especially innovative and thus not, on an individual basis, highly memorable.

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