The American String Project is a conductorless ensemble of fifteen players who gather–and rotate their respective positions in democratic fashion to include all assignments from first to last chair–in Seattle to play chamber music as a slightly-enhanced medium of expression, recorded here 8 June 2006 at Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, Washington. Among the personnel are Stephanie Chase, violin and Toby Appel, viola, and Barry Lieberman, double-bass. The sound product hums seamlessly through a program of Beethoven, Shostakovich, and Sarasate, both intimate and virtuosic at once.
The Beethoven C Minor enjoys a muscular, lithe realization under leader Eriko Sato. Forward motion is the order of the performance, and the two interior movements gain authority and girth in the arrangement for 15 strings. The dark, deep colors of the lower strings add a romantic ethos to Beethoven’s natural tendency to make C Minor a surging modality of expression. The playful sinews of the final Allegro in this medium align Beethoven both with Rossini’s string sonatas and the later string serenades of Dvorak and Suk.
Leader Maria Larionoff, violin shapes the massive Twelfth Quartet of Dmitri Shostakovich, whose two-movement structure resembles Beethoven’s Op. 111 Piano Sonata. Julie Albers and Joseph Gottesman provide the respective cello and violin soli. Gloomy and winding its intricate ways, the opening Moderato–Allegretto appears to borrow a weaving motif or two from Bach’s chorale on Adam’s Fall. The huge Allegretto which follows comprises an amalgam of musical styles, not the least of which derive from the unlikely poles of Tchaikovsky and Bartok. Like Barshai’s arrangement of the Eighth Quartet, Lieberman’s distribution of parts amplifies Shostakovich’s angular polyphony and sullen, martial pessimism. When the texture thins, we hear echoes of Stravinsky’s neoclassic ballets, Orpheus and Apollo.
After having been raised on Ricci, Milstein, and Haendel on the music of Sarasate, it proved a bit startling to hear his solo gypsy music performed en masse and unisono by a large string ensemble. The effect is slightly Hollywood – a virtuosic, if rustic, soundtrack for a John Huston Western, maybe a Western from the spaghetti perspective. The Romanza works nicely, one of the Spanish Dances with a lazy, sensuous, spirited gait.
— Gary Lemco