In general, stick to the major record labels if you want interpretations by great artists of the core repertoire; investigate the smaller labels if you’re interested in lesser-known works. There’s no clearer demonstration of this than the clutch of 20th-century music CDs that recently came my way for review. Listening to them confirmed a number of things in my mind: first, that there’s an extraordinary wealth of music out there to explore; second, that CDs give today’s composers and instrumentalists unprecedented opportunities for self-promotion; and last, that the term “20th-century music” incorporates such a variety of styles as to be virtually meaningless.
Simplest musical forces first: solo recital discs. In the refreshingly direct booklet note for his CD Etude Philharmonique (Metier MSV CD92028), Peter Sheppard Skærved writes what I’d always felt but never dared say: “By itself, the violin is an unsatisfactory instrument. It has a limited tessitura, and cannot really provide bass ‘underpinning’ to melodic material. . . . It is limited in terms of accuracy, speed and dynamics, and has no sustaining pedal. Without the company of other instruments, it exposes the audience to the player’s inadequacies, writ large.” But of course a large number of contemporary composers have written important works for solo violin, among them Hans Werner Henze, whose Etude Philharmonique is an extended version of the cadenza from his Il Vitalino Raddopiato for violin and chamber orchestra. Skærved has more than risen to the challenge, and no inadequacies are exposed by his recording of this and other works by Henze, Naji Hakim, David Matthews, and Dmitri Smirnov. He demonstrates that, in the right hands, the solo violin can evoke a remarkable range of moods and colors.