Since Rossini was all of twelve years old when he composed these sonatas, you might, as a reflex, dismiss them as juvenilia, rather like Mendelssohn's String Symphonies. This would however be unfair, for the composer is already well on the way to his mature style.We hear the singable melodies of the kind that would grace his operas, here outfitted with the sort of decorative figurations that come so naturally to stringed instruments. The opening movements have their flashy moments, but they're light in spirit. Stately, lyrical slow movements bring in a measure of gravitas, while the finales are lively and infectious.
The "string quartet" for which the sonatas were composed isn't the standard complement, dropping the viola in favour of the double-bass. The cello is thus freed for contrapuntal and harmonic duty, making for unexpectedly rich textures whether the pieces are performed one-to-a-part or, as here, by a chamber orchestra. Nor is the bass relegated to supplying the foundation: it gets its melodic moments in the sun, as in the opening movements of the A major and C major sonatas.
These performances are absolutely delightful. I Musici's recordings of Bach and Vivaldi, marked by discipline, musicality, and warm, burnished tone, were among my favourites. Here this accomplished modern-instrument ensemble moves into early-Romantic repertoire with grace as well as dash: the violin sections get to show off their virtuosity in the runs of the A major sonata, without scanting the music's appealing lightness.
The sound reproduces the warmth of the originals while sharpening definition of the individual lines, especially the bright, focused basses. On the minus side, digital processing exposes a few dryish moments in the high violins and the occasional unseemly grunt, hitherto obscured, from those buzzy basses. The disc timings are short; I suspect that the producers had planned to fit everything on a single CD, but felt that eighty-one minutes might have been pressing their luck. Still, you ought to have this.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.