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Charles-Auguste de BÉRIOT (1802-1870)
Duo concertante No. 1 in G minor, Op. 57, No. 1 [16:25]
Duo concertante No. 2 in E minor, Op. 57, No. 2 [20:07]
Duo concertante No. 3 in D major, Op. 57, No. 3 [16:49]
Six Duos caractéristiques pour deux violins, composés sur des motifs du Ballet Espagnol du Prince M. Youssoupow, Op. 113 [21:27]
Christine Sohn and John Marcus (violins)
rec. 21-23 June 2007, St John Chrysostom Church, Newmarket, Canada
NAXOS 8.570748 [74:48]
Experience Classicsonline

Charles-Auguste de Bériot was an unlucky man. Ten years after his birth in 1802, he began living with his violin teacher after the sudden death of both his parents. After studying with several prominent traveling performers and even receiving advice from the great violinist-composer Giovanni Viotti, Bériot became personal violinist to the Kings of France and the Netherlands in 1826. But those jobs were both terminated four years later, when the performer's native Belgium declared its independence. In 1836 Bériot's first wife died, pregnant, in a freak horseback riding accident just six months after their wedding. After he finally settled down to a career teaching violin at the Brussels Conservatory, where he taught, among others, the composer Henri Vieuxtemps, Bériot's eyesight began to fade and he found himself forced into early retirement. He spent his later years playing the violin in private for eager Russian noblemen, but, at the age of 62, his career met its end when, for reasons unknown, his left arm became paralyzed.

But the cruelest twist of fate came after Bériot's death in 1870: his life-work immediately faded into oblivion. Ten violin concertos, thirteen sets of variations, a massive body of work for violin solo and duo, and, according to Keith Anderson's booklet notes, over fifty collections of music for students, are nearly all forgotten. His study works are occasionally performed by young violinists learning the trade, but the rest of Bériot's output generally was left unperformed and unrecorded. Six of the ten concertos had appeared on disc - played by three different violinists. A disc of chamber music has appeared on the Talent label. Generally though, the Belgian violinist's name has lain forgotten and overlooked by album producers and recording artists. Until last year, when Naxos announced its new series devoted to the romantic violin repertoire and Charles-Auguste de Bériot was announced as one of its top priorities. Last August a new disc of violin concertos appeared featuring Grammy-nominated soloist Philippe Quint; this August the first release in a series of Bériot's complete music for solo violin will appear.

This month's new album, however, is a compilation of works for two violins. The Duos concertants may be familiar to violin students, who sometimes call upon them to hone their technique, but they, like the six Duos caractéristiques, are new to the world of recording. And this disc of premieres arrives not a moment too soon: together the music represents a major treat for lovers of the violin.

The Duos concertants, Op. 57, come in three sets which are each shaped much like a classical sonata: two quicker movements bracket a slower, more lyrical section. The third duo departs from the formula considerably, in that it is the only one of the three written in a major key, the finale is not a rondo and, more importantly, the opening section has the feel of a slow movement. The result is a bucolic, agreeable lyricism which makes the duo hard to forget. The first movement, in particular, is a stunner, as the first and then second violin take turns spinning a magical, seemingly endless tune over accompanying pizzicato.

The longest work on the programme is a set of Six duos caractéristiques based on themes from the 'Ballet Espagnol' by a Russian prince named Yusupov. Nikolay Yusupov evidently composed his own music for violin, including a concerto, and sponsored some of the elderly Bériot's last concerts. We do not have the original ballet anymore, or the concerto, but these duos exude charm, warmth, and, occasionally, a touch of genuine Spanish flavour. The original work must have been quite a pleasure to Yusupov's social circle, and this set of violin duos would have delighted the audiences of the salons with its alternating love serenades and mock-serious dances. There is an energetic march, a fandango and a bolero which makes a rousing conclusion to the set and to the album as a whole.

Generally in these works the first violin is the one tasked with the greatest technical challenges and rewarded with the best melodies and flashiest bits of show. Christine Sohn, who has served as guest leader or concertmaster of the London Symphony, London Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic, and Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestras, is simply extraordinary in the lead role, overcoming technical challenges with ease and letting each big melody sing. She has the poise and full, attractive sound of a master, and if John Marcus, who is quite literally 'second fiddle' here, does not quite live up to this high level, his role is such that he does not have to. Indeed, when Bériot gives him the chance, Marcus's playing impresses too. The performers have the good taste not to pretend that this music is more than it is, instead perfectly evoking the intimacy and quiet charm of a romantic salon performance. The recorded sound is exemplary, with Sohn in the left channel and Marcus in the right, in sonics so clear that the performers might as well be in your room.

This disc is, in sum, a must-have for anyone in love with the sound of the violin. Bériot's music is a consistent delight, a pleasure for the ears rather than an emotional workout; the third Duo, and parts of the Ballet Espagnol, are especially memorable. I will be turning to this album often when my ears clamour for the rich, aristocratic beauty of the violin unaccompanied by its string relatives. I imagine that many a listener with a love for this instrument will agree that this disc is a delight and a very welcome surprise.

Michael Cookson

See also review by Nick Bernard




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