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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Stellar new performances of old favorites for strings.

Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
From Holberg’s Time, Op. 40 [19:14]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Eine kleine Nachtmusik , K 525 [20:07]
Pyotr Illych TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48 [28:58]

Moscow Soloists
Yuri Bashmet

Recorded in the Pavel Slobodkin Center, Moscow, 11-14 October 2006.

ONYX 4037 [68:29]

The year 1884 saw the bicentennial celebrations of the Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg. Although Holberg spent most of his professional life in Copenhagen, and adopted Danish as his primary language, the fiercely nationalistic Norwegians wanted to reclaim him for their own. Consequently, the city of Bergen commissioned a cantata from Grieg to be performed outdoors on the anniversary of the playwright’s birth. The cantata never got finished, but Grieg orchestrated a suite of dances for keyboard that he had previously composed as a tribute to Holberg and presented them to the city fathers instead. Modeled on the dance forms of seventeenth century France, Grieg attempted to recall the music of Holberg’s own time. While he succeeded to a degree, the graceful melodies, magnificent part writing and unique harmonies make the work pure Grieg. The result is music as clear and elegant as a northern winter.

The Moscow Virtuosi give us a most clean and transparent performance. Having heard many recordings of this music in which the tempi are lugubrious, and the playing heavy handed, it is a delight to hear this ensemble play with just the right color and texture. The playing is sonorous enough to let us enjoy the rich harmonies, but the Karajan-ish weightiness is gone. What is left is a revelation in its crystalline clarity.

Although little is known of the circumstances surrounding its composition, Mozart’s G major serenade, written at around the same time as Don Giovanni, remains one of his most enduringly popular works. It was most likely tossed off for a social function. Scored only, at the most for pairs of strings with optional double bass, it is usually played by a full string compliment, often too slowly and heavily. Again, Yuri Bashmet chooses a perfect set of tempi. The fast outer movements sparkle yet never feel breathless, and the inner movements are perfectly elegant without ever indulging in sentimentality.

Tchaikovsky considered Mozart to be his musical god, and he paid tribute to him on more than one occasion. This rich serenade with its cyclical opening theme is one such tribute. Once again Bashmet and his players avoid the heaviness that often bogs this music down to give us a performance that is almost radiant. Bashmet keeps homophonic sections rich yet never syrupy. Contrapuntal writing is played with absolute clarity. Again, perfect tempo choices and flawless ensemble make this performance one of the more memorable that I have heard in sometime.

It is always refreshing when an ensemble says something original with old war horses. In short, this recording is an hour of delights, and will replace a number of older performances of these works at the head of the line.

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