Suites and Sweets = COWELL: Suite for Violin; STRAVINSKY: Suite Italienne; KORNGOLD: Much Ado about Nothing (Suite), Op. 11; DE FALLA: Suite Populaire Espagnole; RAVEL: Piece en forme de Habanera; MASSENET: Thais (Meditation) – Jessica Mathaes, violin/ Rodney Waters, piano – Centaur 2993, 64:08 ***** [Distr. by Albany]:

It is nice that a debut album finally features something more than the usual fare—another Carmen suite of some kind, a Paganini etude, Summertime—you name it. Jessica Mathaes, according to the notes the youngest concertmaster ever appointed to the Austin Symphony, and a graduate of the very fine music school at Rice University, has packed in some fairly substantial fare in this fine opener. Titled “Suites and Sweets”, the latter refers to the only two sacrifices to the tried and true, the Ravel and Massenet, unless one wants to include the violinist herself, pictured in a candy cane red dress and caught under a “candies” sign on the front cover. Okay, big deal—what would a new album by a young female be without such a nod in the direction of cheese these days? All of the majors do it, and some – like Sony/BMG – seem to be featuring nothing else.

So I forgive Centaur for the obvious and praise Ms. Mathaes for a delightfully surprising recital. Who could ask for more than an initial piece by Henry Cowell? How often does this happen? For those shirking and shrieking in horror, let me assure you that despite the trademark tone clusters that this composer has become known for, this music is as easy to listen to as Mozart—and you will be amazed at what a lyricist Cowell is! This is a bold and invigorating choice to start things off.

The Stravinsky chosen is also none other but the violin/piano version of his Pulcinella, one of the most, if not the most popular of his neoclassical pieces. This spiced-up version of Pergolesi’s work (who was really a minor composer that still fascinated Stravinsky) was done in collaboration with violinist Samuel Dushkin, who also helped him with his Violin Concerto in D, and several other works as well. It lacks the bite of the orchestral version, but nonetheless is played with sass and sparkle here.

Korngold’s Much Ado about Nothing is an orchestral work (incidental music) that never got performed because of WWI, and comes from a fertile period (1916-20) that saw the premiere of his opera Die Tote Stadt, a vehicle for famous soprano Maria Jeritza. The composer felt the music worthy enough to recycle, and so created this now much-played suite. It is full of the typical Korngold sweep and lush harmonies, a perfect medium to let Mathaes show off the impassioned side of her playing.

The De Falla work has been scored for several instruments, an instrumental version of his wonderful and evocative songs. Again we get to see another side of this violinist who is able to turn on a dime and mimic the sultry Spanish qualities that make this work such attractive fodder for recital specialists. The Ravel has been transcribed and recorded for almost every instrument in existence, and this one is as good as any: short, sweet, and over before it begins.

Finally, the Meditation from Thais is something that every violinist seems to want (or have) to tackle at some point, a delicate and wistfully flighty bit of bittersweet nostalgia that quite frankly sounds much better with orchestra, but no biggie here. I enjoyed this album tremendously, and hope that we will be hearing more from Ms. Mathaes in the near future. Will she make the really big time? Who knows—and from a selfish standpoint, who cares? As long as she keeps turning out intelligent recordings like this, I for one will be very happy. Many thanks also to the unheralded accompaniment work of Rodney Waters, whose job it is on a disc like this to not get noticed in any bad way, for that means that he in fact has contributed greatly.

— Steven Ritter