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The Stradgrass Sessions (Tessa Lark)

Tessa Lark (violin), Jon Batiste (piano), Michael Cleveland (fiddle), Sierra Hull (mandolin), Edgar Meyer (double bass) (FHR)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

The Stradgrass Sessions
Works by Bartók, Michael Cleveland, J Corigliano, S Foster, Tessa Lark, E Meyer and Ysaÿe
Tessa Lark (violin), Jon Batiste (piano), Michael Cleveland (fiddle), Sierra Hull (mandolin), Edgar Meyer (double bass)
First Hand Records  FHR 100   51:16 mins

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Bluegrass music played on a Stradivarius gives this album its title, but it spreads its net even wider. Tessa Lark’s solo pieces open up three strands: Jig and Pop with a treatment of a traditional Irish riff; Le Soka – Cheese in the Wine more in the bluegrass tradition; and Hysedelje looking to Nordic fiddling. None goes quite where you might expect, rhythmically or melodically, but the source is never obscured.

More solo music comes with Corigliano’s Stomp, a virtuoso competition piece, moving between bluegrass and jazz, with added foot-stomps, and Lark projects the quirky style with aplomb. Ysaÿe’s Fifth Sonata is an outlier in this company, and doesn’t suit Lark’s style as well: she gives it passion and heft, but it needs more subtlety in its changes of mood and colour.

In her own Chasin’ Skies, Sierra Hull duets with Lark with astonishing unanimity, and replacing one of the violins with mandolin in three of Bartók’s duets works very well, especially in the pizzicato movement, drawing out the folk tradition underlying the music. Edgar Meyer’s two-movement Concert Duo strays further from American bluegrass in its extended, rhythmically energised duetting. Meyer’s athletic bass playing excites admiration, but sometimes the music outstays its welcome in note spinning. Lark’s ability to blend with a variety of partners is at its strongest in Cleveland’s Lazy Katie, where his fiddle and her Strad combine in purpose and texture. And the final improvisation with Jon Batiste on Foster’s My Old Kentucky Home is wistful and charming.

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Martin Cotton