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Chamber Sondheim?

01-06-2022 | By Stephen Francis Vasta | Issue 119

Sondheim (arr. Stern), A Little Night Music: Suite. Opus Two (William Terwilliger, violin; Andrew Cooperstock, piano). Bridge 4010.  TT: 14.31

That's not a typo in the headnote: this issue clocks in at just under fifteen minutes. It's the classical-crossover equivalent of a pop EP—an "extended play" single—though it isn't actually being offered in that format. I heard it as a WAV download; it will also be made available on standard streaming sites, including YouTube.

Certainly, the release is fortuitously timed, although it wasn't planned as a memorial. Also, Mr. Sondheim's music might seem oddly chosen for a chamber instrumental: when you lose the vocals, you also lose his clever and literate wordsmithing, so crucial to the overall effect. Even in a predominantly lyrical score like A Little Night Music —not a "waltz musical," the conventional wisdom notwithstanding—Sondheim's penchant for syllabic note-setting makes many of the songs feel like patter. But Eric Stern, whose arrangement apparently had the composer's imprimatur, has chosen wisely: the Night Waltz, an incidental, brackets You Must Meet My Wife, A Weekend in the Country—that one, perhaps, a surprise—and the almost inevitable Send in the Clowns.

Much of the time, the violin, logically, takes the lead, but the piano also gets its moments to shine.  The arrangement brings out unsuspected facets of the music. In the show, the gently angular Night Waltz is pleasantly quirky and off-kilter; here, violinist William Terwilliger's full-bodied playing brings out its Expressionist undertones—it could be Alban Berg in a Romantic moment. Elsewhere, Terwilliger's impeccably intoned high phrases, notably in You Must Meet My Wife, are spellbinding. A Weekend in the Country relies on articulation, rather than speed, to find just the right bounce; the Henrik episode, while a nice contrast, will seem a curious intrusion if you don't know the show. In Send in the Clowns, you don't usually hear the opening piano triplets so solidly projected—nicely done—and an affirmative upward modulation in the home stretch is quite effective.

As my descriptions suggest, the playing by the duo Opus Two is—well—stunning. I've already praised Terwilliger's firm bowing and shiny, pure upper top. His double-stops in Night Waltz are assured; he even briefly simulates two instruments in one cadence of Wife. The pianist, Andrew Cooperstock, may be mostly "accompanying," but his consistently ringy, resonant tone and well-balanced textures are a pleasure; his limpid chording in the second strophe of Clowns avoids the dread Ferrante and Teicher effect. Mr. Stern adds little "filler" runs to both parts, as appropriate, and the players execute them with zest, without losing sight of the basic melody.

The recording quality is first-class. The perspective on both instruments is close, but a modicum of unobtrusive ambience provides a hint of "space," and there's no trace of stridency in the violin's upper reaches.