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Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
String Sonatas (1804): No 1 in G major [11'31]; No 2 in A major [12'31]; No 3 in C major [11'18]; No 4 in B flat major [13'46]; No 5 in E flat major [14'18]; No 6 in D major [16'07]
Elizabeth Wallfisch, violin; Marshall Marcus, violin; Richard Tunnicliffe, cello; Chi-Chi-Nwanoko, double-bass
Members of The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment:
rec. 25-27 January 1992. No details of the recording venue provided. DDD
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The enterprising Hyperion label have rightly gained a reputation for unearthing buried treasures. They have plundered their back catalogue for these Rossini String Sonatas originally recorded in 1992 and have now re-released them as part of their budget-price Helios line. These recordings gained considerable critical acclaim over the years and their return to the catalogues is welcome. The cover of the original release identified the four players as members of The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. For some reason that piece of information does not feature on the Helios cover.

Rossini composed his six String Sonatas in Ravenna, Italy during the summer of 1804, amazingly when he was aged only twelve. At the time he was staying at the home of amateur double bass enthusiast Agostini Triossi, hence the prominent role accorded to that instrument. At first these youthful works were scored for two violins, cello and double bass. They were most likely categorized as Ďsonate a quattroí; Rossiniís score clearly labels each instrument in the singular. Todayís performances are usually performed by larger ensemble groups. Each violin line is typically carried by three performers, the cello Ďvoiceí is duplicated and a single bass completes the ensemble. For this recording Hyperion returned to Rossiniís original, neglected, quartet arrangement.

The existence of these early String Sonatas was well documented from the outset, though for many years their whereabouts remained a mystery. Most scholars assumed they had long since been destroyed. But in 1954, Rossiniís original version turned up at the Library of Congress in Washington, USA. It was prefaced by A. Bonaccorsi and corresponded with an earlier 1942 discovery of five of the works (No. 3 was absent) scored as standard string quartets and first published in Milan in 1826 by Ricordi. Alfredo Casella edited this wartime discovery for publication in 1951. Today, however, the conventional string quartet scoring and a further transposition for winds (flute, clarinet, bassoon and horn) dated 1828/1829 are together widely regarded as less than wholly authentic. Both adaptations seem likely to be the work of long-forgotten transcribers.

Rossiniís String Sonatas were a undoubtedly a prodigious accomplishment for one so young. They are Rossiniís earliest recognized compositions with the sole exception of a single, negligible song. All six have a clear and instant appeal, revealing a child of amazing talent. The disparate elements of a fully developed musical genius can be detected within these genial scores. Todayís musicologists are quick to point out deficiencies and weaknesses in the original works. While doing so they evidently lose sight of two remarkable facts: Rossini was not yet a teenager when they were written. Even more, he had scarcely begun concentrated musical studies. The extent to which he was already familiar with the music of Haydn and Mozart is open to conjecture. It could hardly have been more than a limited acquaintance, though in later life he referred to the latter composer as "the admiration of my youth, the desperation of my mature years, the consolation of my old age." Whatever Rossiniís earliest influences, few would argue that, as a twelve-year-old, Mozart had produced anything of a greater stature. Mendelssohn reached fourteen before he completed the agreeable twelve String Symphonies and it was not until aged sixteen that he completed the masterworks the Octet for Strings and the Overture to A Midsummer Nightís Dream, works upheld as definitive examples of early maturity.

The Sonatas embody the immediacy and fluency that Rossiniís operas never relinquish. At the same time they glance back to classical models of an immediately preceding generation; techniques common in the music of Simon Mayr, Pietro Carlo, Valentino Fioravanti and Ferdinand Paer. As sparkling, melodic, instantly appealing concert entertainment the effect is never in question. All call for an ensemble of striking finesse, beauty, accuracy and outright virtuosity and the players here fit the bill perfectly and display considerable empathy with these appealing scores.

Each is in a major key and follows the conventional three-movement quick-slow-quick format. The extended opening movements take up half or more of each sonataís total duration. Yet Rossini was not able to display much in the way of the formal development, so characteristic in the classically-structured work of other composers such as Mozart and Beethoven. The quartet in the opening andantes offers delightful performances that are consistently alert and intelligent.

Three of the central andantes adopt minor keys and at times their overriding melodic charm conceals, however briefly, a note somewhat deeper than most commentators are prepared to ascribe to so young a composer. The andante from String Sonata No. 2 major is a case in point. In these central movement andantes the four talented players display particularly expressive and characterful interpretations.

Four of the finales are marked allegro/allegretto. By comparison Sonata No. 3 is designated moderato, an instructive title that misleadingly conceals a basic yet dazzlingly headlong set of variations with the double-bass taking a brief, one-off spotlight. The Sonata No. 6 concludes with a finale entitled ĎTempestaí, that looks forward a quarter of a century to the storm in his opera William Tell. The quartet provide marvellous accounts of the finales with playing of effortless precision and considerable sparkle.

The engineers have provided a fine sound quality and the booklet notes from Howard Smith are exemplary. A hugely enjoyable recording.

Michael Cookson


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