Benjamin Baker / Robert Thompson

The Last Rose of Summer

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New Zealand-born violinist Benjamin Baker describes the works on this little release as "linked by youth, love, and loss." That they are, and in the booklet there is the lovely Thomas Moore poem that gives the album its title, plus a gorgeous photo of New England scenery. But what happens here, as so often, is that the most important thing accomplished is something other than what the performers have aimed toward. Baker creates a light, sentimental recital that would have been more typical in the early 20th century than 2015. There is one virtuoso showpiece, and it's both a rare and welcome find and very well done indeed: the Variations on the Irish Air: "The Last Rose of Summer," Etude No. 6, of Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, who among other things did much to popularize the late Beethoven quartets in the English-speaking world. Some of the later variations contain a sort of descant part that Baker executes with superlative delicacy. The three familiar melodies by Fritz Kreisler counterbalance this display of technique. But the most delightful feature is the way Baker brings the young Beethoven and Strauss down to mortal levels. The Violin Sonata in E flat major, Op. 18, of Strauss, inspired by the composer's girlfriend at the time, is especially nice, with a slow movement marked "Improvisation" that's unlike anything else in Strauss' oeuvre. The sound from Britain's small Champs Hill label catches the unassuming quality of Baker's playing, which really has the right to presume a great deal. A thoroughly delightful release.

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