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Josquin des PRES (1450/1455-1521)
Canons [5:20]
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Duo No. 2 (1950) [14:56]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
From: Die Kunst der Fuge BWV 1080 (arr. Watson Forbes)
Canon alla Decima, No. 16 [4:15]
Canon all’Ottava, No. 15 [2:13]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Duo for Violin and Viola, KV 424 (1783) [19:49]
Orlando de LASSO (1530/1532-1594)
Cantiones [2:25]
Ernst TOCH (1887-1964)
Divertimento Op. 37 No. 2 (1925) [8:35]
Joey ROUKENS (b. 1982)
Chorale for Sarah and Roeland (2012) [3:39]
A Little Baby Lullaby (2017) [3:22]
Sarah Kapustin (violin), Roeland Jagers (viola)
rec. August 2020, Westvest 90, Schiedam, the Netherlands
NAVIS CLASSICS NC20011 [64:34]

I have to start this review with a declaration of interest, having been involved with the booklet notes for this release which take the form of an interview with Sarah Kapustin and Roeland Jagers. I am also writing this the day after the launch concert for the CD having heard a substantial part of the programme live, and leaving with my complimentary signed copy warming itself gently in my coat pocket. In other words, this could be the most biased review you will read this year, but by way of mitigation I can only say that I wouldn’t write a review if I didn’t think it was a disc I could wholeheartedly recommend.

One of the niceties of these CD launch events is that you hear all about those peripheral things that have no real bearing on the final result, but which are good to know anyway. The recording sessions were apparently something of an obstacle course, with August storms creating havoc and nearby building works adding to what must have been a stressful working environment. The recording space has a gentle ambience that you can detect over headphones, but everyone seems to have sidestepped all of those interruptions very well indeed, and the performances are all superbly focussed. The balance of the recording is very good indeed, and the two instruments are well defined in the space without being too distant from each other left to right. The combination of violin and viola is a surprisingly colourful one, and though there is of course no true bass in the sound it makes an appealing impression. One soon forgets any such lack, and the music and musicianship is communicated with non-fatiguing clarity.

Sarah and Roeland have collected this repertoire over many years and this recording comes seasoned with the experience of numerous concert performances. Both of these musicians are laureates of numerous competitions and are passionate about chamber music as well as being distinguished soloists, teachers, and orchestral players. As with just about everyone else in the music world, their busy schedule was brought to a halt with the rise of covid-19 and a national lockdown in the Netherlands early in 2020, so this recording is one of those that is something of a by-product of a sudden surfeit of free time at home.

With around 500 years range in terms of repertoire, this programme is nothing if not full of variety. The arrangements of Josquin and Lassus work very well for these instruments, and the duo also consulted with singer Harry van Berne to make their performances realistic in terms of ‘breathing’ and vocal line. Bach never indicated instrumentation for Die Kunst der Fuga, and the two-part canons recorded here add some extra intellectual rigour, though it is also nice to hear little touches of vibrato adding some warmth to the phrasing.

Counterpoint is an important aspect of the selection of works here, though I doubt there are many pieces written for this combination that avoid this compositional technique entirely. Mozart’s delightful Duo KV 424 was written to help Michael Haydn out when he became ill and was unable to complete a commission for Archbishop Colleredo of Salzburg. The final Theme and Variations is singled out here as portraying “a myriad of operatic characters”, and the playing here has a relaxed ease and is full of lightness and wit. Ernst Toch’s Divertimento Op. 37 No. 2 comes with an amusing story. Rarely recorded, you might be able to find a version of this piece on RCA with Jascha Heifetz and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, the latter having apparently assumed they were recording Op. 37 No. 1 for violin and cello. It was of course Piatigorsky rather than Heifetz who had to adapt at short notice and their recording is of course a good one, though it is a real plus point to have this work in its original instrumentation here, the striking energy of its outer movements and the soulful character of its central Adagio captured superbly in this recording.

Martinů’s remarkable Duo No. 2 is well-known, and this performance is second to none, though it is interesting to make a comparison with Alexander Sitkovetsky with Maxim Rysanov on the BIS label (review). Both are performances with plenty of poetry, though to my ears there is a slight difference in the ‘inner life’ of the work: Sitkovetsky and Rysanov seeking a kind of underlying stillness where Kapustin and Jagers balance a tightrope of wiry electricity. Such an observation is very subjective and I love both recordings, but it is always fascinating to hear how good music can create different effects through different musicians.

Right up to the 21st century in terms of musical history and I was lucky enough to sit - socially distanced of course - next to Joey Roukens at the presentation concert, and it turned out to be the first time he had heard these two lovely pieces live. Both were sent as gifts to Sarah and Roeland, the first for their wedding, and A Little Baby Lullaby for the birth of their daughter, the muted sounds of which providing a poignant close to this fine programme. Do I have any criticisms of this release? Not really, though it would have been nice to have included the timings of the pieces somewhere in the printwork. As a well-considered programme, and a recording and set of performances of the utmost refinement I can only complement all concerned.

Dominy Clements

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