Selling a recording that contains music for unaccompanied violin and viola is an unenviable task for both artist and label. Further, a CD containing mixed fare featuring much 20th-century and contemporary music – not Bach or Paganini, mind you – would seem an especially risky venture. But if ever such a disc had hopes of success in this highly competitive marketplace, it's this one featuring Stephanie Sant'Ambrogio. Does her surname ring a bell? Her father is the well-known cellist John Sant'Ambrogio, among other things principal cello with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra from 1968-2005; and her sister, cellist Sara Sant'Ambrogio, is a member and co-founder of the popular group, the Eroica Trio. Stephanie has impressive credentials as well: she was concertmaster of the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra from 1994-2007 and previously played violin in the Cleveland Orchestra for eight seasons. She has appeared across the globe as a soloist and chamber player and serves as assistant professor of violin and viola at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Ms. Sant'Ambrogio has an impressive technique, accurate intonation, excellent articulation and never makes a harsh or unpleasant sound – unless called for (see below). She adapts well to the style of the varied repertory on this well-filled disc: try her elegant, joyful performance of the Telemann Fantasie for solo violin, or her extraordinary account of the exotic and quirky Cleopatra by Fazil Say. If ever you thought that a work for solo violin couldn't achieve the color a keyboard instrument could, you may change your mind after hearing Cleopatra. Sant'Ambrogio's viola performances are just as impressive: in Toch's Three Impromptus, a recording premiere by the way, she deftly captures the shifting moods as well as the Viennese character of much of the music; and take note of how she makes her instrument seem to moan and swoon as she effectively conveys the exoticism in the mournful, mystical Chahagir (Torchbearer) by Alan Hovhaness.
Perhaps the weirdest piece on the disc is another recording premiere, Miguel del Aguila's Cortando Limones (Cutting Limes), a work with some strange, raspy and humorous sound effects. Yes, the title of the piece is unusual: upon completion of the first draft it was untitled and Ms. Sant'Ambrogio informed the composer that she had just cut her hand while cutting limes and would have to wait to play through it, giving him the idea for the title since he had imagined the violinist cutting something during performance. At any rate, her account is utterly brilliant and you'll enjoy it. I think Sant'Ambrogio delivers a vital and incisive reading of the Hindemith Sonata, too, a work that can come across as a bit too somber or bland in the wrong hands. Every performance on the disc, actually, is quite fine. MSR's sound reproduction is excellent. If the repertory and these two string instruments appeal to you, this disc won't disappointment.
Copyright © 2016, Robert Cummings