Cellist Wilhelmina Smith is the director of the Salt Bay Chamber Fest held every August in Damariscotta, ME; in 2006, some of the artists who appeared there included Jennifer Koh, Mark Steinberg, Catherine Cho, and Soovin Kim -- and that is only the violinists! Smith also participates in the prominent chamber groups Music from Copland House and the Mannes Trio, not to mention her extensive career as a soloist with orchestras, which has taken her from Guatemala to Japan and many places in between. So one wonders why she has not recorded as a soloist before, but this release from Arabesque Records is indeed the first recording Smith has made on her own. For her maiden voyage, Smith chose pieces associated with Mstislav Rostropovich; Britten's Sonata in C, Op. 65; the rejected Moderato movement from Shostakovich's Sonata Op. 40; and two works by Alfred Schnittke; his Improvisation for violoncello solo and Sonata No. 2. It is a pretty tough program, but Smith is no shrinking violet as a cellist, and some of the most effective moments on the recording are instances where she is playing fast, difficult music, such as in the Moto Perpetuo of the Britten, or in the second Allegro of the Schnittke Sonata. Smith's accompaniment is provided by her partner in the Mannes Trio, pianist Thomas Sauer, who contributes an excellent and sensitive accompaniment throughout, matching Smith's fluidity of expression with equally fluid pianism.
A lot of the program is very low key and quiet; with a player such as Smith, who is capable of fireworks, one might have preferred a selection of pieces a bit more volcanic. One is grateful, nonetheless, for the short Shostakovich movement to hear Smith's lyricism at an extended stretch, and her tone in general is extraordinary -- at one point where the cello creeps up into violin range, it sounds like a violin, not a cello, which she is playing. The production by estimable classical producer Judith Sherman is low key, crisp, and not reverberant; some of it is a little on the quiet side, but turning it up a bit seems an obvious, and effective, cure for that challenge.