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GRAMOPHONE (01/2021)
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Reviewer: Charlotte Gardner

There’s not much about Covid-wrecked 2020 that the classical music world can be grateful for, but one genuinely positive legacy is the handful of recordings it’s bequeathed to us which otherwise would never have come our way. So here now is former Gramophone One to Watch Alexandra Conunova’s own lockdowninspired album, and what’s initially most joyously striking about it is that, when the mood music for much of the spring and summer’s impromptu recording projects was one of hunkered-down intimacy, this Four Seasons – recorded mid-August at Switzerland’s Domaine de Bougy wine estate, after the spring lockdown saw her playing these concertos to her neighbours from her balcony – zings with future-facing energy. In short, for a lockdown-inspired effort, it sounds decidedly un-locked-down.

You’ll spot that Conunova’s name appears alone on the cover. This is because her supporting ensemble is simply 12 specially assembled friends, including Lausanne Chamber Orchestra concertmaster François Sochard and BBC New Generation Artist cellist Anastasia Kobekina. Yet their smartly articulated, superglued togetherness and taut, agile spring could stand proudly alongside any long-established Baroque ensemble you care to name. In fact, the thick-as-thieves closeness you’re hearing when Conunova and ensemble players lean in for tighter conversation is in a field of its own – just listen to the dialogue between her and the continuo section in Autumn’s opening Allegro. Timbres bring more pleasures. Take the luminous-toned and silkily blended violins at the opening of Spring’s concluding Danza pastorale, which as a whole is an exquisitely light and graceful reading from everyone, crowned by ravishingly sweet-toned and dancing filigree lines from Conunova herself. Or there’s the bouncing bite and peppery richness of the barking-dog viola in the preceding Largo – a solo that confidently takes the foreground, while Conunova’s own long lines float over the top in the quietest and most delicate whisper.

Talking of spring, for once it isn’t Spring opening the set. Instead that falls to Autumn; then Winter, Spring and Summer. I’m actually unconvinced by this, and I don’t think that’s due to mere discombobulation. Autumn begins feeling more like a continuation than an opener; although perhaps there’s a Covid metaphor in there somewhere.

Still, I’m inclined to decide that Conunova can play these much-recorded works in any order she wishes when her playing is this fabulous: the warm-toned, easy fluidity of her virtuosities; her range of articulation, colour and shading; the subtle spontaneity; the natural shaping. For one further ear-pricking moment, try the darkness of her inflections in the foreboding birdsong of Summer’s first movement (from 1'51").

Add huge dynamic variety from everyone, plus vivid, natural sound; and while 38 minutes is short for an album, it would be shortsighted in the Covid context to view it as stingy. Indeed, it feels like a gift.

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