By Laurence Vittes
It’s been a great year for string recordings, and what would please the string player in your life more than the gift of something wonderful to listen to? Here are a few suggestions.
Isabelle Faust released three superb recordings this year on Harmonia Mundi. She and the period-instrument Les Siècles conducted by François-Xavier Roth brings Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto vividly to life with her thrilling, clear-cut virtuosity. On a blazing recital of Locatelli concertos with Il Giardino Armonico, conducted by Giovanni Antonini, and a program of solo violin music from Biber and the generation that followed, she brings a dazzling skill for creating the feel of improvisation, with varying amounts of ornamentation. Faust’s Jacob Stainer (1658) adds a wealth of colors and textures to music by Nicola Matteis, Johann Joseph Vilsmayr, Johann Georg Pisendel, Louis-Gabriel Guillemain, who emerge as provocative alternatives to Bach, as she totally inhabits the very different personalities of each musical world.
Maria Dueñas‘ recording of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto for DG illuminates the composer’s fantasies, taking risk after risk, like teasing out trills to impossible lengths, slowing down glacially halfway through the first movement leading into the great striding triplets, and playing her own impossibly long, wonderfully eclectic 21st-century cadenza.
Tessa Lark‘s Stradgrass Sessions for First Hand Records demonstrates bluegrass played on a Stradivari with a bluegrass band, including the first recording of John Corigliano’s STOMP, Edgar Meyer’s Concert Duo (with the composer on double-bass), a few Bartók duos (with mandolin—very cool), and two pieces by Lark herself. “Stradgrass seems to be a type of musical exploration that is becoming more common within classical violin training,” Lark writes.
Timothy Ridout‘s superb playing for Harmonia Mundi of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, transcribed by Lionel Tertis, and Ernest Bloch‘s brilliant Suite for Viola and Orchestra, with the BBC Symphony conducted by Martyn Brabbins, makes an eloquent case for Elgar on the viola and evokes the visions of the Far East that inspired Bloch.
Gary Hoffman‘s new recording with pianist David Selig of Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas and three sets of variations for La Dolce Volta is so perfectly balanced, the playing of the two instruments so tightly integrated, and the recording so warm and clear that the two parts are simultaneously co-equal and co-dependent, despite Beethoven’s calling them sonatas for piano and cello. The music is intimate and conversational, the big virtuoso displays are humanized, the composer’s heart is laid bare, and there is an unbroken flow of style and intention and constant illumination.
On Phantasy in Blue (Hyperion), cellist Alban Gerhardt and the Alliage Quintett (four saxophones and piano) create new universes of sound for Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Other highlights include a transformation of the gorgeous slow movement of Vivaldi’s ‘s Concerto RVB 418 into a magic fantasy and the mesmerizing arrangement of a Shostakovich waltz.
The period-instrument ensemble London Haydn Quartet completed its Haydn cycle for Hyperion with Opp. 42, 77, and The Seven Last Words. The group’s persuasive connection with the composer’s language and unaffected use of gesture and affect demonstrate the life-enhancing benefits that accrue when you play not just with beauty but also with a certain gentleness of sound, attack, and phrasing—enhanced by the subtle tones and shades of the period instruments. The Seven Last Words are deeply consoling without being heavy, their premonitions of the ambiguous harmonic language in Beethoven’s Late Quartets particularly telling. The ensemble has begun recording a Beethoven cycle; it will be one of the few on period instruments.
The modern-instrument Arianna Quartet, in residence at the University of Missouri St. Louis since 2000, completed their Beethoven cycle with the Late Quartets (Centaur). They roll out the music comprehensively with wisdom and an embracing combination of energy, intensity, emotional range, and expression. They handle the big forte outbursts in the Grosse Fugue with confidence and unleash them with power—no need for an orchestra.
Sphinx Virtuosi makes its DG debut with Songs for Our Times, on which the self-conducted American string ensemble comprising 18 Black and Latinx musicians survey music by visionaries with ravishing playing and sound. World premiere recordings of Sphinx commissions (Valerie Coleman’s Tracing Visions and Jessie Montgomery’s Divided) mix with music by Michael Abels, Aldemaro Romero, Florence Price, Ricardo Herz, and Beethoven—an exhilarating arrangement of the last movement of his Kreutzer Sonata.