November 03, 2022


Music for Solo Violin from Modena, 1650-1700. Peter Sheppard Skærved, violin. Athene. $18.99.

Prokofiev: Cello Sonata; Stravinsky: Suite Italienne; Nadia Boulanger: Trois Pièces pour violoncelle et piano. Miriam K. Smith, cello; Sandra Wright Shen, piano. Azica. $16.99.

Christopher Tyler Nickel: Sonatas and Chamber Music for Oboe and Oboe d’amore. Mary Lynch VanderKolk, oboe and oboe d’amore; Paige Roberts Molloy, piano; Eduardo Rios and Andy Liang, violins; Olivia Chew, viola; Efe Baltacigil, cello. AVIE. $17.99.

     Soloist-focused CDs often have the unfortunate effect of making the performer seem more important than what is performed – especially when, as is all too often the case, the music is distinctly minor or comes across as a series of encores, showcasing a performer’s talents effectively but not providing listeners with a particularly memorable experience beyond that of hearing small stuff well-played. In some cases, though, a performer-focused release rises above the pack, even when it does contain some less-than-stellar music. Peter Sheppard Skærved’s discs exploring the great violins of specific time periods are cases in point, partly because the focus of all of these CDs is on the instruments as well as the highly skilled player wielding them. The latest Athene CD in this series features Skærved playing a 1572 Amati violin in two extended works by Giovanni Battista Vitali (1632-1692) and Giuseppe Colombi (1635-1694), plus an anonymous instrument from Brescia, circa 1570, in four brief anonymous pieces from the 150-plus works in the 17th-century Rost Codex. From an academic/musicological perspective, the exploration here centers on the city of Modena, Italy, in the time period near the end of the 1600s, and all the music is heard here in world première recordings in solo-violin form. Although both Vitali and Colombi worked in numerous forms, their pieces on this disc are in the dance-suite format so familiar to audiences interested in Baroque music. Vitali’s eight-movement Partite sopra diverse sonate per il violino solo contains some interesting structural elements, such as a Capriccio sopra il cinque passi followed immediately by a Capriccio di tromba. Its concluding Barabano is one of the few relatively familiar works by Vitali. Colombi’s Scordatura e Composizioni Varie has even more movements – 14 in all – including four labeled Allemanda and two sarabandes; it too ends with a Barabano, this one more extended than Vitali’s. Colombi’s Giga and Scordatura movements are particularly interesting rhythmically. As for the four anonymous works, three are labeled Allemanda a violino solo sine basso and the fourth and longest is a Sonatina a violino solo verstimbt – the last word being essentially the German equivalent of scordatura. Every piece on the disc is well-crafted and designed to showcase the skill of the performer, and Skærved certainly has skill to spare in this repertoire. The disc is admittedly for a somewhat limited audience, the composers not being especially well-known, the pieces not especially well-differentiated from others of the time, and audience interest in hearing specific instruments not being particularly widespread. Nevertheless, the combination of Skærved’s performance excellence with the very high quality of the violins he uses here and the well-composed if not especially distinctive music make this disc a pleasure to hear.

     The focus is quite deliberately on the artist rather than her repertoire on a new Azica disc featuring cellist Miriam K. Smith – because Smith is being promoted as the latest instrumental sensation, the works here having been recorded in 2021, when she was just 15. Prodigies come and go, however; the question is whether Smith will have staying power – and whether the disc is worth having because of its artistic quality, not merely as a curiosity representing performances by someone just getting started on what may turn into a remarkable career. Happily, Smith’s performances with pianist Sandra Wright Shen are worthy in themselves and worthwhile for listeners interested in the repertoire to have. The Prokofiev Cello Sonata, written in 1949 for Mstislav Rostropovich, sounds full and rich here, the performers blending with seeming naturalness and the varying roles of the cello and piano nicely balanced: there is occasional competition but mostly cooperation in the musicians’ parts, and although the cello dominates the material, the piano’s significance is clear and is well-communicated by Shen. The Prokofiev contrasts interestingly with Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, an earlier work (1932-33) that is based on Pulcinella and was composed in collaboration with another famed 20th-century cellist, Gregor Piatigorsky. Stravinsky rediscovered the music of the past in Pulcinella, essentially beginning his neoclassical explorations with a work based on pieces then thought to have been composed by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). Suite Italienne, in its moodiness but comparative lightness, contrasts strongly with Prokofiev’s sonata, which was written after World War II and one year after the composer had been sanctioned by Soviet government censors. The best thing in Smith’s and Shen’s performance of Suite Italienne is their sensitivity to the balletic elements of the score: although the work is not a compression of Pulcinella, it is derived from the ballet, and benefits from rhythms that frequently sound danceable. Smith and Shen get this aspect of the suite just right. The concluding work on this intriguingly programmed CD is by Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979), far better known as a teacher (and conductor) than as a composer. The Trois Pièces pour violoncelle et piano date to 1914, having been arranged that year by Boulanger from her original version of the pieces for organ. These are short works – all three together run just eight minutes – and have moods that nicely complement and contrast with those of the Prokofiev and Stravinsky offerings on this disc. The first piece is delicate and fragile, the muted cello (often used in its higher range) neatly reflecting some Impressionist thinking. The second is peaceful and slightly sad, more lullaby-like than anything else, using mostly the cello’s middle range and ending quietly. The third brings the piano into prominence with strong chords that contrast with wide leaps in the cello – the movement is marked (in French) “quickly and nervously,” and Smith and Shen take the designation to heart in their performance. In its totality, this is a CD of considerable variety that at the same time explores some interesting relationships and contrasts among the three pieces offered – certainly a worthy disc on a purely musical basis, apart from whatever focus it invites on the youthful cellist featured here.

     Seattle Symphony principal oboist Mary Lynch VanderKolk is the primary focus of a new AVIE recording of music by Canadian composer Christopher Tyler Nickel, most of whose works are for film and television. This CD focuses on Nickel working in more-traditional classical forms, inspired in part by VanderKolk (to whom the Sonata for Oboe is dedicated). The sonata includes two Andante movements (Andante cantabile and Andante lacrimoso) and a short, upbeat finale (Allegro agitato). It gives VanderKolk plenty of chances to display her warm, rich tone, and the last movement offers a pleasantly jazzy contrast to the rather overdone emotionality of the first two, but the work as a whole is rather surface-level. The Sonata for Oboe d’amore is similarly structured, with movements marked Andante and Andante cantabile before an Allegro con fuoco finale. The two sonatas are of almost identical length – 15-and-a-half minutes – and really sound much the same, despite the difference in the instruments. Indeed, Nickel takes little advantage of the differing expressive possibilities of oboe and oboe d’amore, offering two works that are pleasant enough, somewhat lyrical, but ultimately forgettable. The four-movement Suite for Unaccompanied Oboe runs just nine minutes, but it gives VanderKolk more opportunities to demonstrate her instrument’s expressive possibilities. The opening Giocoso, in particular, with its little leaps and bounces here and there, comes across well, its playfulness a strong contrast to the overly earnest approach of the two sonatas. The Quintet for Oboe d’amore is also interesting, Nickel showing some skill at setting the wind instrument against the four stringed ones – although the first and third movements, respectively Moderato and Andante, suffer from some of the same trying-too-hard approach found in the sonatas. The very slow second movement, marked Reflectively, comes across better, the oboe d’amore here having a ruminative tone that suits the instrument’s capabilities well. And the concluding Con fuoco allows VanderKolk to take this essentially gentle instrument into slightly more astringent territory, its contrast with the strings here being especially pronounced. This is a (+++) disc in which the soloist really does take, and deserve, center stage, although the music itself never quite allows VanderKolk to produce the sort of emotional heft of which, based on glimmers here and there, she appears clearly to be capable.

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