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Classicial CD review: “Manto and Madrigals”

Manto and Madrigals. Thomas Zehetmair (violin) and Ruth Killius (viola).

ECM New Series 2150.

Thomas Zehetmair is a serious violinist. He has the chops to play the war horse concertos but is known for playing meatier modern concertos by the likes of Karol Szymanowski, Leos Janacek, Heinz Holliger and Karl Amadeus Hartmann. Like many of his adventurous recordings for the ECM label, Zehetmair’s new disc is not for the listener who cannot abide music more recent than Debussy. It will be a welcome diversion, however, for those who like to have their ears pulled in other, even uncomfortable directions.

The four-dozen duos by Bartok are among the most famous works for violin duet, and Zehetmair and his wife, Ruth Killius (also the violist in the Zehetmair Quartet), play a youthful Bartok duo arranged for violin and viola. The score, reproduced in the booklet, with a thoughtful essay by Paul Griffiths, is 22 simple measures in G major for the first violinist. Turn the score upside down and it is to be read by the second violinist. It is an ingenious idea that makes for a pleasing little trifle when played.

Other pieces on this disc are just as easy to swallow, like the 1996 “Midhouse Air” by Peter Maxwell Davies, which ends with a folklike hoedown, and the thrilling, mostly tonal “Three Madrigals” by Bohuslav Martinu, from 1946. Overall, the disc gives an impression of the virtuosity of the modern performer, who can milk an arching tonal melody as well as sing along with herself in dissonant dyads, as Killius does on Giacinto Scelsi’s “Manto.” Pieces by Holliger, Johannes Nied and Rainer Killius (the former husband of the violist) were composed specifically for this pairing of musicians, rounding out this dual self-portrait in a mirror.

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