Leonidas Kavakos, the young Greek violinist who performed a memorable Mendelssohn Concerto with the National Symphony last month, has just issued his first CD (Koch 3-7009-2) and manages to avoid all the cliches we associate with brilliant violinists going for a strong first impression. The repertoire is entirely French-Belgian -- the most refined and, as a rule, understated style in the violin repertoire -- and Kavakos's performance, with pianist Anne Epperson, has a grace, delicacy and precision ideally suited to the music.
There are two major works on the program: Franck's Sonata in A and Ravel's Sonata in G.Both performances face excellent and abundant competition, and no clear first choice can be made. Still, in his mid-twenties, Kavakos plays with a maturity that not only promises a dazzling future but constitutes a distinguished present. Two less familiar and very memorable items on this disc are the work of the Belgian composer and violin virtuoso Eugene Ysaye. The sixth and most challenging of his vivid, technically knotty Sonatas for Solo Violin, Op. 27, recalls Bach's great works for unaccompanied violin but also has a Spanish dance flavor. Ysaye's violin arrangement of a Saint-Saens caprice, in the form of a waltz with variations, is not only a first-class showpiece for technique but, in its slower sections, a charmingly schmaltzy bit of nostalgia. Kavakos is adept in all the modes of this music.
A performance of the Ravel sonata that is even more finely wrought in some details is the work of violinist Viktoria Mullova with pianist Bruno Canino (Philips 426 254-2). Mullova also plays, with flawless technique and perceptive musicianship, the Divertimento of Stravinsky (a tribute to Tchaikovsky) and Prokofiev's Sonata in D, a serenely lyrical work with moments of great playfulness that was adapted from a flute sonata and still retains a special charm attributable to that origin.
Franck originally composed his Sonata in A for the violin but also approved flute and cello arrangements. Jean-Pierre Rampal and James Galway have recorded persuasive performances of the flute version; the latest of a half-dozen cello recordings, by Steven Isserlis with pianist Pascal Devoyon (Virgin VC 7 90812-2), captures the work's gentle lyricism perfectly in a rich, deep tone. The disc also has excellent performances of the intricate, evocative Sonata for Cello and Piano by Debussy and the pensive, melodious and ultimately high-spirited Poulenc sonata for the same combination. This disc has moments of breathtaking beauty.
Duets It is remarkable how much musical interest and variety a composer of genius can draw from a single stringed instrument. The Ysaye works for unaccompanied violin are a prime example, and even more convincing are the Bach sonatas and partitas that were Ysaye's inspiration and model. Two of these receive exemplary performances from violinist Elmar Oliveira (Elan CD 2212): Sonata No. 1 in G Minor, which has a hair-raising fugue for its second movement, and Partita No. 2 in D Minor, which ends with the great Chaconne, one of the supreme monuments of musical imagination. But these are familiar and available in many other good recordings. This disc stands out for the spiky, technically dazzling Three Madrigals of Bohuslav Martinu, written for violin and viola and inspired by a Mozart sonata for the same combination. Oliveira is joined by violist Sandra Robbins in what sounds like a definitive performance.
Some other recent and noteworthy duet recordings, sampling the enormous variety of music for two performers:
Charles Stier and William Bloomquist: Brahms and Reger sonatas for clarinet and piano (Elan CD 2224). Max Reger's music seldom interests me; I find it dry, on the whole, and usually longer and more elaborated than it needs to be. This disc, by two of Washington's finest young musicians, clarinetist Stier and pianist Bloomquist, may be the beginning of a reevaluation. It is the most appealing performance of a Reger piece I can recall hearing. Part of the attraction is surely the charm of Reger's Sonata for Clarinet (or viola) and Piano in B-flat, Op. 107, a touching tribute to his idol Brahms, who composed two great works (his Op. 120) for the same instrumental combination. But Stier's splendidly mellow tone and the exemplary musicianship of both performers are the primary attractions. The Brahms Sonata No. 1 in F Minor is equally well performed, and the disc (which lasts just under 50 minutes) should have included the second as well.
Lynn Harrell and Vladimir Ashkenazy: Shostakovich and Prokofiev music for cello and piano (London 421 774-2). These great Russian composers each wrote one sonata for cello and piano, making demands on the pianist equal to those on the cellist. On this disc, Harrell has in Ashkenazy as fine a partner as one could wish, and their interpretations rank with the finest on records. This disc also contains the first recording of a slight but charming Moderato for cello and piano by Shostakovich that was discovered in 1986.
Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson: "Favourite English Songs" (Chandos CHAN 8722). I would not have listed Benjamin Britten's "Fish in the Unruffled Lakes" (with an intriguingly oblique text by Auden) among my own favorite English songs, never having heard it until this disc arrived, but it may soon find its way to that list. This collection turns out to be the 22 favorite English songs of soprano Lott, who makes an eloquent case for them in partnership with pianist Johnson. A few are familiar, but most will be happy discoveries for those who are not specialists in English art songs, and they are likely to make one want to hear more vocal music by such composers as Elgar, Quilter, Grainger and Walton.
Emma Kirkby and Anthony Rooley: "The English Orpheus" (Virgin VC 7 90768-2). John Dowland was Renaissance England's most expressive composer of songs for solo voice and lute, and 20 of his best are collected on this disc in exemplary performances by this soprano and lutenist.