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Romantic Music for Cello
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)

Song without Words, Op. 109 (1845?) [4.29]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

Rondo, Op. 94 (1891) [7:40]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)

Elégie, Op. 24 (1880) [6:59]
Sicilienne, Op. 78 (1893) [3:36]
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Introduction and Polonaise Brillante in C, Op. 3 (1829/30) [9:03]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Phantasiestücke, Op. 73 (1849) [11:42]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)

Le carnaval des animaux: The Swan (1886) [2:42]
David POPPER (1843-1913)

Hungarian Rhapsody, Op. 68 [8:13]
Benjamin Shapira (cello)
Shulamith Shapira (piano)
rec. The Classical Studio, August 2003
IRC 202 USA [54.50]


The monochrome frontispiece by Cindy Brzostek is attractive, but otherwise this album's packaging looks thrown together like a cheap vanity production. The program listing is minimal, poorly proof-read ("Polonaise Brilliant") and minimally informative; I ferreted most of the headnote details out of Chwiałkowski's Da Capo Catalog of Classical Music Compositions (New York, 1996), with a quick swipe at Grove's along the way. The four-page leaflet includes biographies and photographs of the performers, but nothing at all about the music. The only place you'll find the album's order number is on the CD itself, making it hard to find in stock at bricks-and-mortar shops.

Such a bare-bones presentation does the unhackneyed program a disservice. More comprehensive annotations would have indicated that the Mendelssohn and Chopin are not transcriptions of similarly titled piano pieces, as I had reflexively assumed, but original chamber compositions. Clarinettists more frequently feature in the Schumann Op. 73 Phantasiestücke, but the composer offers the cello and the violin as possible solo alternatives. Similarly, Fauré's Sicilienne is familiar from the suite to Pelléas et Mélisande - in an orchestral reworking of this cello-and-piano original. In fact, the only old-fashioned transcription here is The Swan, with the piano taking over the harp arpeggios more or less note for note.

Benjamin Shapira is at his best in long, singing themes, which he "bows into" with incisive strength - exactly the formula to raise the Mendelssohn above the level of well-crafted salon music. As he moves through the range, he weaves the rich, dusky warmth of his low register into the bright nasality of the upper for a pleasing timbral chiaroscuro. His fingers aren't as reliable as his bow arm: rapid passagework, especially high up on the A string, can get slithery, and the tone loses body. Still, his playing unfailingly communicates: he has the measure of Schumann's haunted lyricism and conflicted drama, of Fauré's melancholy yearning, of Popper's showy Gypsy flourishes. Only the Dvořák Rondo misfires: from the tentative initial pickups, it feels reined-in, despite a few unconvincing bursts of forward motion, and ultimately sounds padded and repetitious.

At the piano, Shulamith Shapira leaves an equivocal initial impression in the Mendelssohn, where she projects the rhythm of the accompaniment too insistently and regularly. She eventually relaxes, however, and proves undaunted by Chopin's rippling passage-work and Schumann's turbulence. In Fauré's Elégie, when the piano projects a phrase successively in two different octaves, she colors it differently each time - nicely done.

The vivid recording makes its best effect at a slightly lower volume level than usual; otherwise, the bass end of the piano becomes a bit overwhelming.

Stephen Francis Vasta

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