Beethoven Sonatas (Deutsche Grammophon 457619)
Although Deutsche Grammophon touts Anne-Sophie Mutter (as she touts herself) as the first woman violinist to record all 10 of Beethoven's sonatas for violin and piano, her much-publicized new set of these works was actually preceded (by more than a decade) by those of both Nell Gottovsky (Pyramid) and Takako Nishiziki (Naxos). What is true is that Mutter is the first female instrumentalist deemed big enough a star to be indulged in such a project by one of the recording industry's giant labels.
If she has been indulged by her company, however, Mutter and her longtime pianist, Lambert Orkis, have also treated these works with a certain amount of self-indulgence on their own part.
Mutter is a great violinist, no doubt about it: Many of these performances are fascinating, and some are thrilling. She has a beautiful sound and a wide tonal palette; she is a master of subtle changes in the speed and amplitude of her vibrato; she is an emotionally generous performer; and she has an astonishing ability to bend musical time. It is the last of these that occasionally bothers me in her performances.
Mutter's view of Beethoven is a decidedly heroic one, and her performances of the music that best responds to this approach - such as the first movement of the so-called "Kreutzer" Sonata in A Major (Opus 47) - can be particularly rewarding. Her playing is often both massively monumental and thrillingly explosive. Ordinarily, these are mutually exclusive qualities. But Mutter and Orkis take their time with this music, creating huge masses of sound that collide against each other with something of the earthquake-producing force of shifting tectonic plates. In the first movement of the "Kreutzer," for example, Mutter and Orkis take more than 15 minutes, whereas most other teams take little more than 11. It is not simply that Mutter and her partner play more slowly than other duos. But they subtly emphasize fermatas (or pauses), tempo changes and hesitations so that they create a sense of pent-up energy that finally explodes as if a dam had burst.
My only objection to Mutter's approach is that, in sonata after sonata, its self-consciousness becomes a little wearisome. The ferocious, straight-ahead energy of the first movement of the C Minor Sonata (Opus 30, No. 2), for example, is impeded by the delays along the way created by the performers' ex pressive gestures. One yearns for the plain-speaking energy of Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich (DG), for the elegant and gracious, but onward-flowing directness of David Oistrakh and Lev Oborin (Philips) or the warmly sonorous accounts of Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy (London) - all of which are less expensive as well as musically more satisfying.***
- Stephen Wigler
Ruthie and the Wranglers
Life's Savings (Lasso Records 08102)
Ruthie and the Wranglers aren't good at sob stories. This regional band's strength is perkiness. "Life's Savings" is best when it's having fun, as in "He's a Honky Tonk Man" ("but he wants to be a honky tonk woman," as the lyrics go), the fast lament of "Don't Bug Me Baby," the bouncy instrumental "The Farewell Polka," and "If It's The Last Thing I Do" (as in, "I'm gonna kill myself if it's the last thing I do"). Weaker are such ballads as the leaden "Forgive and Forget" and "Thinkin' and Drinkin'," which not only lacks poignancy or wit, but is flattened by a mechanical arrangement. Still, for the rollicking, twangy fun of the good stuff, when Ruth Logsdon's light, reedy vocals aren't forced to slow down, Ruthie & Co. are worth hearing.**1/2
- Chris Kridler
The Harry Smith Connection (Smithsonian Folkways 40085)
"The Harry Smith Connection" is a rollicking celebration of American roots music, from blues to folk to zydeco, and a tribute to a recording pioneer who preserved the authentic voices of the nation. The 19 tracks were recorded live in 1997 at a Wolf Trap concert honoring the memory of Smith, whose Anthology of American Folk Music influenced all 17 artists on this disc and legions more. Representing as many genres as the music itself, the artists cover songs from Smith's catalog with zest and emotion. Top thrills include the teaming of rock legend Roger McGuinn with members of Wilco on three tracks; the jittery shuffle of John Sebastian and the J-Band on "Minglewood Blues;" and Ethel Caffie-Austin's soulful "I'm on the Battlefield for My Lord." **** - Greg Schneider
** = fair
*** = good
**** = excellent