Birth of the Strings

Various Artists

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Birth of the Strings Review

by James Manheim

This release boxes together three related previously issued albums, each in its entirety. They purport to trace respectively the birth of the violin, the cello, and the string quartet, and in pursuit of this goal they offer a refreshingly simple and original programming concept: the earliest known surviving examples of each instrument or combination (depending on how you reckon it, of course) are deployed in the earliest solo repertory item in each case. There's a problem: in none of these three cases does the method work to illuminate the "birth" of the instrument. The violin had been around for a century when the German, Italian, and French solo sonatas on the Birth of the Violin album were composed. The miscellaneous collection of early string quartets, and Italian string sonata, and an Italian symphony on Birth of the String Quartet manages to miss the divertimento and related genres that were the most important ancestors of Haydn's early quartets, and indeed generically overlapped with them. Likewise, the birth of the cello had more to do with its emergence as part of the Baroque continuo grouping than with the two intriguing but fairly obscure sets of solo piece heard here. All this said, the performances are unusual and listenable, and the programs are unlike any others available. The performers aren't known for using historical instruments, and they approach them with a lively attitude toward the unusual sounds they produce. Especially unusual is the string quartet disc, where Switzerland's Casals Quartet uses a group of rare instruments by Jacobus Steiner, an Austrian maker who preceded Stradivari and the other famous Italian workshops. Sample the Mozart String Quartet in G major, K. 80, as played on the quartet of Steiner instruments (which might or might not have been something musicians would have used at the time); it has a thinner but brighter and more tense sound than the familiar modern violin, descended from Italian Baroque models. The other music is largely unfamiliar and offers a good deal of pure virtuoso playing. Recommended as long as it's not used as music history.

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