While recordings of Gioachino Rossini's celebrated six string sonatas are plentiful, rarely are they heard as originally composed--for two violins, cello, and double bass. And as ideally suited for additional instrumentation as these works are, it's admittedly refreshing to hear them as they were first conceived. The more concise delineation of the instruments allows each a unique role that heightens the humor that often gets lost (Karajan on Deutsche Grammophon and Benedek on Naxos) or at least is somewhat undermined by lush orchestration. In this respect, this new recording of Sonatas 1, 2, 4, and 5 by Ensemble Explorations will delight all who appreciate these minor masterpieces.
The only other currently available recording of the original chamber version of these sonatas is by the Wallfisch/Marcus/Tunnicliffe/Nwanoku quartet (Hyperion), which manages to fit all six pieces on one CD--a feat that to my knowledge no one else has achieved. While Wallfisch & Co.'s breakneck tempos may aim to be indicative of Rossini's youthful vigor (legend has it that he composed all six in three days at the tender age of 12) they do so at the expense of the often not-so-subtle spirit of leisure and play with which Rossini imbues these works.
In contrast, the familiar opening of the first sonata--marked Moderato--is brilliantly rendered by Ensemble Explorations, which takes its time, fully expressing youth's carefree nature with a spirited lilt and swagger in the bowing. Likewise all the romp and lighthearted instrumental interplay following the brisk "surprise" heard shortly into the final allegretto of the fifth sonata is far more convincingly rendered by these players, who allow the contrast to build instead of foreshortening the moment as their Hyperion counterparts do. For sheer attention to the wide variety of programmatic detail in these scores, Ensemble Explorations' efforts are without peer. Also peerless is Harmonia Mundi's recorded sound, which beautifully captures every rich sonority of the individual instruments while maintaining a remarkably illusionistic sense of ensemble. On the back page of the booklet we're informed that the group plans a second volume devoted to Rossini's chamber music that will include the omitted Sonatas 3 and 6. The sooner the better! [4/19/2003] --John Greene, ClassicsToday.com