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Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante in B flat major for violin, cello, oboe, and bassoon, Hob. 1/105, is among his most recorded works, and among his most utterly joyful. But it has rarely reached the heights of ebullience achieved in this historical-instrument reading by the small British ensemble Arcangelo and its conductor, Jonathan Cohen. The list of things to be enthusiastic about is long, but it begins with the differentiation of the instruments in the solo passages, with the period oboe and bassoon of Alfredo Bernardini and Peter Whelan, respectively, having the depth of texture to stand up to the brilliant Stradivarius violin and Guarneri cello of Ilya Gringolts (a renowned soloist in his own right) and Nicolas Altstaedt.
Though it was the least well received by its intended dedicatee – Pablo de Sarasate – the third violin concerto of Camille Saint-Saëns has endured as one of his most popular concertos along with the A minor Cello Concerto and the Third Piano Concerto. The earlier two violin concertos, each written some 20 years before, are still noteworthy, lively concertos, but lack the same emotional impact and maturity of the seasoned B minor Concerto. What they may lack in depth is made up for with pyrotechnic virtuosic displays, perhaps explaining Sarasate's fondness. This Naxos album places the B minor Concerto first, ending with the C major Concerto, a program order that curiously seems to place the bigger "bang" finish at the beginning, closing with a less emphatic note.
What a versatile artist Steven Isserlis is. Having made his name as a sympathetic interpreter of a wide variety of romantic and modern music, here he shows he can be just as persuasive in eighteenth-century repertoire. His stylistic awareness is evident in beautiful, elegant phrasing, selective use of vibrato and varied articulation, giving an expressive range that never conflicts with the music’s natural language. In the cello concertos he is helped by an extremely sensitive accompaniment, stressing the chamber musical aspects of Haydn’s pre-London orchestral writing. The soft, intimate sonority at 3'06'' in the first movement of the D major is a typical example. The Adagios are taken at a flowing speed, but Isserlis’s relaxed approach means they never sound hurried. The Allegro molto finale of the C major Concerto, on the other hand, sounds poised rather than the helter-skelter we often hear. In his understanding of the music, Isserlis is a long way ahead of Han-na Chang, whose version places the emphasis on fine, traditional-style cello playing. Mork’s vivacious, imaginative performances characterize the music very strongly, but my preference would be for Isserlis’s and Norrington’s lighter touch and greater refinement.