CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Mozart, Vivaldi and Sorrell

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews new releases from Sony, and from Cleveland's Apollo's Fire (some compelling Vivaldi).

MOZART: String Quartets in D, K. 575; in B-flat, K. 589 and in F, K. 590.  The Emerson Quartet. Sony 869793589-2.

From the dolce beginning of K. 575, one knows that something special is happening.  The playing is luminous, heartfelt, unaffected, polished and always with an ear toward the sheer beauty of tone at any dynamic level or nuance.  Mozart’s nigh-infallible sense of voice leading is clearly illumined in these well-thought-out performances.  Every strand of sound is in clear focus, and leading voices are always brought to the fore.  In this D-major quartet, each movement has a color and an atmosphere all its own.  The Menuetto (third movement) is, in the Emerson’s hands, almost in the character of a delicate scherzo.  Throughout this first of the three “Prussian” quartets presented on this disc, one is never let down by the consistent beauty and exquisite variety of tone and approaches to bowing and balancing of the four parts.  It is a fine example of the most sensitive, agile and coherent string quartet playing, and an absolute delight.

The B-flat quartet (K. 589) is invested in similar virtues.  It may very well be that violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker’s practice of alternation in playing first and second violin (as they have done in most of their recordings and live performances) is part of the key to the Emerson’s freshness in any kind of music.  The opening Allegro carries a wonderful feeling of forward thrust, though nothing about it is in any sense rushed.  The Larghetto is appropriately serene and reposeful and well-sung.  It is really more of an operatic aria than anything else, a common thread in most of Mozart’s instrumental music.   The Menuet, marked Moderato, is more in the character of a “true” 18th-century concert menuet than of a scherzo.  The 6/8 Finale (marked Allegro assai) is exuberant without being rushed.  Always, the emphasis is on beauty of tone rather than force of tone.

The F-major quartet (K. 590) in some ways seems to anticipate Beethoven.  The Emerson does not disappoint as a model of clarity and grace in this music.  This is the Emerson Quartet’s first recording of Mozart in over twenty years, and it is indeed a welcome addition to the catalogue.

Further information on this disc may be found at


VIVALDI/SORRELL: La Folia (a Concerto Grosso after the Sonata, op. 1/12). Cynthia Roberts and Julie Andrjeski, violinists; with Apollo’s Fire directed from the harpsichord by Jeannette Sorrell.  VIVALDI: Concerto in b minor, op. 3/10 (RV. 580), for Four Violins, Strings and Continuo. Cynthia Roberts, Emlyn Ngai, Naomi Guy and Min-Young Kim, violinists; with Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire.  VIVALDI/SORRELL: Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons): L’Estate (Summer), op. 8/2 (RV. 315). Sorrell, harpsichord solo; and Apollo’s Fire.  VIVALDI: Concerto in g minor for Two ‘Celli, Strings and Continuo, RV. 531. René Schiffer and Susie Napper, ‘cellists; with Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire. J.S. BACH (AFTER VIVALDI’S RV. 580): Concerto in a minor for Four Harpsichords, Strings and Continuo, BWV 1065. Sorrell (also directing), Michael Sponseller, Janina Ceaser and Paul Jenkins, harpsichordists; and Apollo’s Fire. RENÉ DUCHIFFRE (ACTUALLY RENÉ SCHIFFER): Concerto in d minor for Two Violas da Gamba (“Tango”). Schiffer and Ann Marie Morgan, violas da gamba; with Cynthia Roberts and Min-Young Kim, violinists and Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire. Avié 2211.

Vivaldi and Friends, featuring Apollo's FireFor this reviewer, the most exciting offerings on this recent offering from Cleveland’s period-instrument orchestra are Sorrell’s arrangements of La Folia and Summer from The Four Seasons, as well as the double ‘cello concerto.  This is vibrant, compelling and expressive playing, full of ideas and full of daring.  Particularly in recasting a violin concerto as a harpsichord concerto, Sorrell and her group offer an arresting tour-de-force, with some really exciting over-the-bridge and beyond-the-bridge playing for special effects here and there.  The juxtaposition of the Vivaldi four-violin concerto and Bach’s not-so-literal transcription (actually reworking) of it is no less compelling, with some stellar keyboardism all around in the Bach version.  The playing in all aspects, of string and keyboard instruments alike, is arrestingly virtuosic and supremely musical.  This is no ordinary period-instrument group.  A visit to Cleveland, it would seem, would be incomplete without taking in one of their concerts.

René Schiffer (as Duchiffre) is skilful and resourceful in his concerto, but it is more Vivaldi than Schiffer.  The only scintilla of originality comes in the fourth of four movements, which is a Tango.  In an Ivesian bit of tongue-in-cheek, Schiffer marks the slow (second) movement Adagio morganesco in tribute to his colleague Ann Marie Morgan.  Schiffer says he created this piece because no Baroque composer ever wrote a piece that fully exploited the capability of the viola da gamba, and he makes use of every virtuoso trick and double-stop acrobatic in the book.  It is still derivative, imitative music—music in the style of someone else rather than that of the composer—and is almost reminiscent of a sonata for tenor recorder and fortepiano by one of the Dolmestches, heard over forty years ago on a BBC Third Programme, which sounded oddly Brahmsian.  I would very much like to see (and hear) something written in a more or less “modern” idiom for Apollo’s Fire. They are the ones to do it.  Their string playing is among the best and most “gutsy” (no pun intended) ensemble string playing this writer has heard. 

More information on this CD may be found on