Going Solo
Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767)
Fantasia No. 7 in E flat [8:53]
Henri VIEUXTEMPS (1820-1881)
Capriccio for solo viola [3:36]
Eugene YSAYE (1858-1931)
Sonata for Solo Violin, Op. 27, No. 4 [13:18]
Fritz KREISLER (1875-1962)
Recitativo and Scherzo Caprice, Op. 6 [5:03]
Augusta Read THOMAS (b.1964)
Incantation for solo viola [4:46]
James WINN (b.1952)
Pibroch for solo violin [5:33]
Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894-1942)
Sonata for solo violin [12:23]
Quincy PORTER (1897-1966)
Suite for Viola Alone [7:02]
Astor PIAZZOLLA (1921-1992)
Tango etudes, Nos. 4, 5, 3 [9:36]
Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio (violin)
rec. January and October 2010, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, California, USA
MSR CLASSICS MS 1397 [70:06]

Disclaimer: Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio is, in a sense, my home team’s violinist. During my years in San Antonio, Texas, she was the excellent concertmaster of the local orchestra and made regular solo appearances; she also arranged a first-class chamber festival in central Texas, the Cactus Pear Music Festival, which brought in talented performers from around the world for intrepid, inventively themed programs. Once the Cactus Pear players put on Hermann Goetz’ piano quintet, before which Sant’Ambrogio asked, “Has anyone here heard of Hermann Goetz?” One hand went up, mine. Unfortunately her time with the orchestra recently ended when a political squabble resulted in the departure of the talented music director and Sant’Ambrogio left - we are given to understand - in protest. This is the unspoken backstory to the title of her new violin recital: “Going Solo”.

Sant’Ambrogio is now a professor of violin at the University of Nevada, Reno, and this disc shows that her tastes are as adventurous as they were back at Cactus Pear. Here we have a recital for solo violin, no accompaniment, which is punctuated with works for viola and which traces a path from Telemann to Quincy Porter, two living composers, and Piazzolla tangos. Programs don’t get much more varied or interesting than this.

We start with Telemann’s Fantasia No. 7, in E flat, part of his series of twelve solo violin works. None of them appear very often, except in a handful of complete recitals by the likes of Rachel Podger and Augustin Hadelich. Sant’Ambrogio’s outing here is fresh and eloquently simple. Then it’s forward in time to Henri Vieuxtemps for a viola interlude — a capriccio, played with great passion. The rest of the album is squarely in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Eugene Ysa˙e’s sonata No. 4, for Kreisler, is brought off with aplomb but not too much. There isn’t the most complete technical control here - the fiendish second half of the first movement gets a bit dicey - but the sarabande is very well done and this music, some violinists remain convinced, was not really written for mortal humans anyway. Kreisler’s Recitativo and Scherzo Caprice goes much better. It will be a wake-up to anyone who thinks that Kreisler is all honey-sweet and wildflowers. Indeed, it sounds a lot like Ysa˙e, to whom it is dedicated; the pairing is inspired.

Then we step forward to 2006 and the Incantation for solo viola by Augusta Read Thomas. A rather dark incantation it is, sternly but not at all forbiddingly modern in its tone; if you’ve heard the viola music of Lillian Fuchs, think of that. James Winn’s Pibroch (2008) initially appears to be of the same world, but it is an evocation of the Scottish bagpipes, commissioned for and breathtakingly dispatched by Sant’Ambrogio.

Three more items round out the program: Erwin Schulhoff’s solo violin sonata, Quincy Porter’s Suite for Viola Alone, and a clutch of Piazzolla’s tango etudes. The Schulhoff might be the most interesting thing on the disc, three dances and short, spiky moments musicaux around a very dark andante. It gets a reading to match, by turns bemused and enraged and just barely level-headed. Sant’Ambrogio rises to the technical challenges, too. The Porter for viola was written at about the same time and is a marvelous work. The second movement rather anticipates a lot of minimalist tricks and the last seconds of the finale are a clever harmonic turn to the major key, impeccably executed. I didn’t know it, but she’s an exceptionally fine violist in full command of the instrument. The Piazzolla makes a good encore, and some of the tunes from these etudes are recognizable from the Four Seasons of Buenos Aires and other more popular works.

In sum, a truly fine program of odds, ends, and overlooked gems, played if not with the effortlessness of a Kremer (in Ysa˙e) or the unflappable voicing of a Perlman, at least with great skill, charisma, and emotional commitment. The recorded sound will do very nicely, not too close and not too recessed. Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio’s biography, self-written in the first-person, will be either genuine or cutesy depending on one’s taste. There’s nothing cutesy about her viola or violin playing, though: that’s the work of a consummate professional.

If the program she has assembled for this disc intrigues you, give it a listen. Sometimes going solo is the right idea after all.

Brian Reinhart

Goodness, what a fascinating program: Telemann, Ysa˙e, Porter, Schulhoff, a premiere. And the playing is the work of a consummate professional.