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Gian Carlo MENOTTI (b.1911)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in A minor (1952) [29.51]*
Cantilena e Scherzo for harp and string quartet (1977) [10.16]**
Five Songs (1983) [14.30]+
Canti della Lontananza (1961) [14.05]
Ittai Shapira (violin)
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Sanderling*
Vanbrugh Quartet with Gillian Tingay**
Christine Brewer (soprano) and Roger Vignoles (piano)+
Recorded Studio 5, DSS, Moscow, July 2001 (Concerto), Champs Hill, Pulborough, Sussex, March and November 2003 (remainder)
ASV CD DCA 1156 [71.29]


It would be instructive if Efrem Zimbalist’s premiere performance of the Menotti Violin Concerto (Philadelphia, Ormandy, 1952) had survived, as indeed it would if the Albert Spalding premiere of the Barber had been similarly preserved. How would those two aristocrats of the string world have responded to two such powerfully romanticised works, so needful of engagement and strong gesture to make their fullest effect? We can guess but never know for sure. The Barber is now a repertory disc but with regard to the Menotti, we’ve had a fair few performances on record, from Spivakovsky and Ricci onwards (the latter was indeed coupled with the Barber) to Jennifer Koh (Chandos) and Walter Verdehr on Crystal.

It’s a work teeming with operatic largesse and songful plenitude and Ittai Shapira responds with equal fervour, digging into the string and extracting some gutty sounds. The lyric second subject, announced by winds, is tinged with baroque elements very attractively harmonised. The violin then takes up the songful material and embarks on a soaring reverie of superb warmth. Even high up Shapira’s intonation stays firm and his tone doesn’t become starved – sweetness is kept intact. The later march rhythms are reminiscent of Prokofiev though the second movement has a warmth all Menotti’s own. He cleverly runs the solo cantilena over more rhythmically active orchestral figures, gradually clarifying the two motifs with beneficent winds and warm dappled strings. Lissom and pert the finale has plenty of local incident and colour; drum tattoos and hints of Eastern Promise and quite a bit else besides; diffuse, maybe, but certainly characterful and very grateful sounding material for the soloist.

The Cantilena e Scherzo for harp and string quartet is an ultra romantic piece written in 1977, and one that contrasts song with dance in its two short movements. The Five Songs (1983) are recorded in a slightly too resonant acoustic. Rather unforgivably ASV has stinted on the texts, as they have with the Canti della Lontananza, and given that Christine Brewer’s diction is none too crystalline that causes distinct problems. Variously lyric, whimsical and quasi-impressionist these settings make considerable demands on the singer and in such as The Swing push the voice ungratefully high. The Canti della Lontananza consist of seven essentially melancholy songs that take in stilled limpidity (the second), pithy brevity (the third) and passionate declamation (the sixth – La Lettera). They were first performed by Schwarzkopf. Brewer is a powerful and imaginative singer but I find her hard-edged and squally at the top.

This is an attractive bet for admirers of the Concerto. The two song cycles are hampered by the lack of texts and an occasionally brittle performance. The actual recording of the concerto is good enough, though there’s clearly been some artificial boosting of aural perspective when it comes to some of the wind and other solos. Otherwise the soloistic performance is very acceptable.

Jonathan Woolf

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