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Charles-Auguste de BÉRIOT (1802-1870)
Duo concertants Op.57 No.1 in G minor [16:20]; No.2 in E minor [20:01]; No.3 in D major [16:43]
Six Duos caractéristiques pour deux violons, composés sur des motifs du Ballet Espagnol du Prince M. Youssoupow, Op.113 [21:26]
Christine Sohn and John Marcus (violins)
rec. St John Chrysostom Church, Newmarket Ontario, 21-23 June 2007
NAXOS 8.570748 [74:49]
Experience Classicsonline


One of the many clever marketing strategies adopted by Naxos has been in the creation of many series. Whether it is British String Quartets or Martucci orchestral music, as a collector it is very hard to resist a completist’s compulsion to collect all the discs issued under that banner. This disc is a member of another Naxos series; namely “19th Century Violinist-Composer”. Perhaps the impact of this series is slightly diluted since the composers are of a period rather than a country and the music ranges from orchestral to instrumental to chamber.

Charles-Auguste de Bériot is not a name well-known to most music lovers. However, if you have gone through the conservatoire system as a violinist you will almost certainly have played at least one of his violin concertos. As well elaborated in Keith Anderson’s interesting and informative liner-notes he was a Belgian violinist from the early part of the 19th Century. He established a school of violin playing that led to many of the great French and Belgian players later that same century including Vieuxtemps, Ernst and Ysaÿe. No surprise then that the works featured on this CD belong to the great tradition of violinistic fireworks. Perhaps more interesting is the lyrical element in his music. Given that he was married to the opera singer Maria Malibran I don’t think it is too fanciful to hear an almost Rossini-esque quality to much of his melodic writing. The Encyclopedia Britannica encapsulates the style perfectly – “a particular performance style (the Franco-Belgian school) that combined classical elegance with technical virtuosity”. 

So, it is with that style in mind that I approached this disc. It should be said from the outset that both players have techniques comfortably able to deal with anything thrown at them by de Bériot. Throughout, there is a clearly hierarchical approach to the compositions; Violin 1 leads and Violin 2 accompanies. This is not intellectually demanding music to listen to. To be honest the predictability of much of the music and that lack of true interplay between parts does not make for the most compelling of listening experiences. I imagine that the Trois Duos Concertants Op.57 in particular were written with a pedagogical function in mind. Each is in a standard fast-slow-fast three movement format. Crudely put, the first movements are the most seriously argued musically; the second movements are song-like and lyrical although de Bériot ornaments and elaborates the material as the movements progress and the Rondo-Finales are lighter in feel and fleet in style. The well-filled disc is completed by a twenty minute linked series of Six Duos caractéristiques Op.113 which are more equally and overtly virtuosic. They point the way perhaps towards the Sarasate Spanish Dances. This is one of the earliest pieces to demonstrate the Franco/Belgian feel for things Spanish with movements marked tempo di Fandango and tempo di Bolero. Fully appreciating just how hard it is to play this music as well as Sohn and Marcus do I am sorry not to be able to be more enthusiastic about their performances. I listened to the disc several times and each time came to the same conclusion. As recorded this music does not smile. There is little if any of the Gallic grace or wit which, as outlined above, is crucially central to this style of music. You cannot imagine for a moment a Grumiaux or a Campoli ever playing this with the unbending muscularity that Sohn displays. There was a BBC broadcast some years ago of Oscar Shumsky and his son Eric playing the violin/viola duets of Johann Kalliwoda. I remember it very clearly – music of very similar stature and intent to the de Bériot here yet in those hands both revelatory and magical. Sohn’s phrasing is predictable and unimaginative. The published scores of these pieces are singularly lacking in dynamics or expressive instructions but there is a literalness to the playing here that is disappointing. They are not aided by a recorded environment that is truthful but veering towards the clinical. If I had to guess, I would say this is not a labour of love by these artists. What one seeks from a performer are those interpretative insights that illuminate surprise and delight. That is the way new light can be thrown on music whether unfamiliar or central to the repertoire. Because this music does not contain passages of technical fireworks in the style of Sarasate or Paganini it becomes doubly important that in place of display easy grace and elegant wit should rule. 

I seem to recall seeing somewhere that Naxos were intending to expand this series of Duet discs – if they entrust this to these same artists I will not be seeking those discs out except as a reference source - not for listening pleasure.

Nick Barnard 



 


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