Editor's Corner - October 2014

I have not often experienced epiphanies in this life. The first I remember was as a teenager on a family holiday which took us to Washington, D.C. and included a visit to the National Gallery of Art where, wandering off on my own, I turned a corner and found myself face to face with Salvador Dali’s The Sacrament of the Last Supper. That was a profoundly moving moment and all at once I understood what was meant by the term masterpiece. That would have been in the late 1960s. The next came in 1984 while attending the finals of the CBC National Radio Competition for Young Composers. That year the only prize awarded in the electronic music category went to Paul Dolden for The Melting Voice Through Mazes Running. Although this extremely dense and dynamically intense work drove a number of people from the hall with fingers plugging their ears, I was enraptured by its visceral power. It was that work which inspired me to commission radiophonic works for my program Transfigured Night (1984-1991) at CKLN-FM. With the assistance of the Ontario Arts Council and later the Canada Council I was able to commission a dozen composers, beginning with Dolden who produced Caught in an Octagon of Unaccustomed Light which went on to win the Third Prize of the Luigi Russolo International Competition (Varese, Italy 1988).

Some 30 years later Dolden is still at it, honing his technique which involves recording and layering hundreds of tracks of instrumental and vocal sounds, and more recently including field recordings – cicadas, grasshoppers and crickets in the current instance – to create works of vast sonic complexity. The predominantly acoustic nature of the sound sources – although there is an extended electric guitar solo included here – is integral to his process which, while using technology to stack the layers, does not manipulate the samples electronically thereby leaving the purity of sound intact. In essence Dolden, who plays most of the instruments himself, creates and conducts a vast orchestra which could not exist in the everyday world.

01 Editor 01 DoldenPaul Dolden’s latest release, Who Has the Biggest Sound? (Starkland ST-220 starkland.com), includes two titles. The somewhat tongue-in-cheek, or at least playfully self-referential, title track which includes a narrator (Dolden) asking questions such as “Who can play the fastest? Who has the dreamiest melodies? Who can talk faster: crickets or man?” was co-commissioned by Réseaux des arts médiatiques (Montreal) and Diapason Gallery (New York). Although the narration seems a little condescending and self-indulgent, the layered textures that constitute the bulk of the composition are incredible to behold, or more accurately, behear.

The companion piece, The Un-Tempered Orchestra, commissioned by the Sinus Ton Festival (Germany), takes Bach’s exploration of the equal-tempered tuning system in the Well-Tempered Klavier as its point of departure. Whereas Bach demonstrated the viability of the then new symmetrical division of the octave into 12 equal steps, Dolden’s intention is to establish a “non-symmetrical building which uses non-tempered tuning systems, many of which have no octaves […] to create a new musical space within which Western and non-Western musical practices can co-exist […] a big modern multi-cultural family.” He goes on to say “In order to construct this house, first I wrote simple diatonic melodies and chord progressions. Then I recorded Eastern and Western performers reading these lines in their native dialect or tuning system. With the aid of new technologies I edited all these performances to fit under one symmetrical roof. […] Specifically we see our current Western [style] of playing reflected back to us and distorted by ancient musical tuning systems. By combining different musical languages and styles we invert time: what is old becomes new and vice versa. Please enjoy these moments of musical transcendence.” I know I did, but buyer beware. These sounds are big, bold, brash and often abrasive, and listening is not recommended for the timid.

In brief:

01 Editor 02 Hearts RefugeIn 2012 renowned countertenor Daniel Taylor, head of the Early Music department at the University of Toronto, founded the Schola Cantorum. In its first two seasons this ensemble has already achieved remarkable success, appearing with the likes of the Tallis Scholars (2012-2013) and the Gabrieli Consort (2013-2014). The Heart’s Refuge,a recent Analekta recording (AN 2 9143),features both this choir and Taylor’s long-established Theatre of Early Music in vocal works of Buxtehude, J.C. Bach, Kuhnau and Bruhns as well as a short instrumental selection by Schmelzer. Recorded at Humbercrest United in April 2013, the sound of the five vocal soloists, 20-voice choir, strings and continuo is superb, with none of the purity and clarity of the period performance lost in the natural resonance of the church’s glorious acoustic. Concert note: On November 9 the choir and orchestra of the Schola Cantorum and the Theatre of Early Music present “The Coronation of King George II” under Daniel Taylor’s direction at Trinity College Chapel.

01 Editor 03 NU BC CollectiveBeyond Shadows, the latest release from Vancouver’s Redshift Records (TK432 redshiftmusic.org), features The Nu:BC Collective, an ensemble-in-residence at the University of British Columbia comprised of flutist Paolo Bortolussi, cellist Eric Wilson and pianist Corey Hamm. The group is often supplemented by guest artists, including clarinetist Cris Inguanti and percussionist Brian Nesselroad on this recording. The disc features existing works by two Americans, Dorothy Chang (who currently teaches at UBC) and Marc Mellits, and pieces composed specifically for the ensemble by two Ontario-born composers who both now make Montreal their home and teach at McGill University, Brian Cherney and Chris Paul Harman. Chang’s title work, written in 2008 for the Stoney Brook Contemporary Chamber Players, is for clarinet(s), cello, percussion and piano (with Bortolussi conducting), is a busy piece which takes place predominantly in the lower registers of the instruments with interesting textures and juxtapositions. Harman’s Doubling from 2007 adds clarinet to the core ensemble and as the title suggests incorporates a lot of unison work in a playful game of tag. Mellits’ 11 Pieces for Flute and Piano (1992) explores a variety of moods as the individual movement titles indicate: i.e. Persistent; Distraught; Languid, Frantic etc. The most recent work, and also the only one to feature just flute, cello and piano, Brian Cherney’s Twenty-Two Arguments for the Suspension of Disbelief (2010) is to my ear the most satisfying. Dark and probing, it goes beyond the level of the other works which, accomplished though they are, lack the depth and introspection of Cherney’s polished gem.

01 Editor 04 PergamentMoses Pergament – The Jewish Song (Caprice Reissue Series CAP 21834) was recorded live at the Stockholm Concert Hall in 1974 and originally issued on LP in 1976. It features vocal soloists Brigit Nordin and Sven-Olof Eliasson, the Stockholm Philharmonic Choir and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of James DePriest (who served as music director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec from 1976 until 1983 and was Director Emeritus of Conducting and Orchestral Studies at the Juilliard School and Laureate Music Director of the Oregon Symphony at the time of his death last year). Pergament (1893-1977) was born in Finland of Lithuanian Jewish stock (the name Pergament, or vellum, came from his great-grandfather’s occupation, Torah scribe). He studied composition and violin in St. Petersburg and settled in Sweden in 1915 where he became well known as a music critic before establishing himself as a composer. The mammoth cantata The Jewish Song for vocal soloists, chorus and large orchestra was composed in 1944 on poems by Ragnar Josephson in which “the skald (poet) sings of the Jewish people’s devotion to God, its piety, its past, its heroism, its bravery, its trust and thankfulness for the protection of the Lord.” The stunning 75-minute work opens with Prelude: In Memoriam – a dramatic wordless lament for the six million Jews “who fell victim to the cruelty of the Third Reich” and continues with settings of a dozen poems culminating in a moving We Thank You Lord. Pergament is sadly underrepresented by recordings and this important re-issue of the dramatic, uplifting and exhilaratingly performed work is a welcome addition to the catalogue.

01 Editor 05 Through TimeThrough Time featuring bassoonist Rui Lopes and the English Chamber Orchestra (Solo Musica SM 211 solo-musica.de) presents little-known works from the first half of the 20th century juxtaposed with more familiar fare by Mozart and Vivaldi. Lopes is an acknowledged master of the baroque and modern bassoon and both are heard to advantage here. The disc opens with a charming Portuguese folk-based work by Heitor Villa-Lobos followed by the playful Divertissement by Jean Françaix originally scored for bassoon and string quintet, heard here in the world premiere of a string orchestra version. The Bassoon Concerto in B-Flat K191 was composed at the age of 18 and was Mozart’s first concerto for a wind instrument. Written shortly after the Symphony No.29, like that work it represents an early example of the composer’s mature orchestral sound. Lopes contributes his own virtuosic cadenzas. The Vivaldi C-Major concerto is also virtuosic, ebullient and wonderfully melodic. The disc ends with Edward Elgar’s Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra, Op.62, a lush work which brings me to my only criticism of this otherwise flawless disc. In a way the Elgar brings us full circle back into the early 20th century, but despite its warm and lyrical nature, on each listening I found it jarring after the flamboyant Vivaldi. Perhaps it would work better as an encore after a rousing round of applause to clear the palette, but in the context of the disc I would have preferred the journey “through time” to be linear rather than circular.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com


Verdi & Wagner – The Odeonsplatz Concert - Rolando Villazón; Thomas Hampson; Bayerischen RSO; Yannick Nézet-Séguin

02 Vocal 01 Verdi WagnerVerdi & Wagner – The Odeonsplatz Concert
Rolando Villazón; Thomas Hampson; Bayerischen RSO; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Cmajor 716708

Last July to celebrate the bicentennials of Verdi and Wagner, a huge outdoor concert took place in Munich, the Bavarian capital with obvious connections to Wagner and his royal patron, Ludwig II. The show was held in Munich’s epicentre, the vast quasi-Renaissance Odeonsplatz, under an arcaded loggia large enough to house a full symphony orchestra and chorus. The loggia, full of allegorical symbols of German glory and guarded by two fierce-looking stone lions, was lit in glorious colours to suit the mood of each item performed.

Curiously enough the two singing stars, tenor Rolando Villazón and baritone Thomas Hampson, apart from some Massenet, sang mostly unknown and second rate Verdi (I would seriously question the inclusion of an aria from Il Corsaro, Verdi’s worst opera that even the Maestro himself hated outright) and only one Wagner, the Ode to the Evening Star from Tannhäuser beautifully sung by Hampson and timed perfectly to coincide with the evening shadows descending over the square. In Verdi I felt the only major success for the soloists was the “Liberty” duet from Don Carlo. Even Massenet was better represented.

Fortunately the most resounding hits were the orchestra and chorus with some of Verdi’s and Wagner’s finest choruses and overtures, led with aplomb by Montrealer and now world-renowned conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. His youthful exuberance was infectious and he brought out idiomatic and superbly pointed performances like the rousing Entry of the Guests amplified by the wonderful natural acoustics so that it must have been heard all over Munich. Electricity was in the air and everybody noticeably sat up and listened, except perhaps for those morose stone lions.

 

Fauré – Requiem; Cantique de Jean Racine - Gerald Finley; Tom Pickard; Choir of King’s College Cambridge; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Stephen Cleobury

02 Vocal 02 Faure RequiemFauré – Requiem; Cantique de Jean Racine
Gerald Finley; Tom Pickard; Choir of King’s College Cambridge; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Stephen Cleobury
Choir of King’s College Cambridge KGS0005

While one wonders what yet another recording of Fauré’s Requiem will bring to light, the Choir of King’s College Cambridge is the first to record Marc Rigaudière’s new reconstruction of the earliest complete liturgical performance of the Requiem, essentially recreating the work’s premiere, including the organ stops from L’église de la Madeleine in Paris. Also, the incorporation of instruments and techniques typical of those of a French orchestra of the late 19th century are used to great effect by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. As a result, the performance does convey quite a different character than others; somehow even more gentle and contemplative in nature through the use of slower tempi and extremely controlled, even subdued choral passages, with the exception of the Dies Irae.

Chorus alumnus Gerald Finley’s gorgeous bass-baritone solos are wonderfully dramatic. In fact, the original version uses fewer dynamic markings. After a full performance of the original work, the choir presents a contrasting version of the Offertoire, edited by John Rutter, quite unique in and of itself and extended in Fauré’s 1900 version with the chorale O Domine. Also included on the CD is a lovely performance of Cantique de Jean Racine in its original version for choir and organ and Messe Basse, originally composed for women’s voices, sweetly rendered by the choir’s trebles. 

 

Strauss – Elektra - Herlitzius; Meier; Pieczonka; Petrenko; Randle; Orchestre de Paris; Esa-Pekka Salonen

02 Vocal 03 Strauss ElektraStrauss – Elektra
Herlitzius; Meier; Pieczonka; Petrenko; Randle; Orchestre de Paris; Esa-Pekka Salonen
Festival Aix-en-Provence; BelAir Classiques BAC110

Richard Strauss’ overheated take on the ancient Sophocles tragedy about one of history’s most infamous dysfunctional families, pushed into fin-de-siècle extremes and Freudian overtones, may have shocked pre-WWI audiences, but even so it provided the composer with a sizable enough income to buy himself a villa in the Bavarian Alps. This latest revival of Elektra became the focal point of the Aix-en-Provence festival in the summer of 2013 in the hands of possibly the greatest director of our generation, Patrice Chéreau, made all the more poignant because he passed away a few months thereafter. His brilliant intellect, inspiration and intuitive feel for music and theatre is manifest from the overall concept to the minutest detail.

Compared with past productions that turned Elektra into a bone-chilling nocturnal bloodthirsty horror show, Chéreau avoided all sensationalism and concentrated on the psychology and interplay of characters, especially the three women principals. As Elektra, German soprano Evelyn Herlitzius is a primal, elemental force, almost like an animal who simply howls through an hour and three quarters at fever pitch, but also capable of tender moments in the “Recognition” scene (with Mikhail Petrenko as Orestes)  where Strauss for the first time reaches a major key, a sublime climax of the score. By contrast Chrysothemis, her sister, probably the only normal person among the women, is beautifully sung and acted with maternal instinct and compassion by Torontonian Adrianne Pieczonka who is rapidly achieving world fame. The most problematic – for Chéreau – was the handling of the murderous mother Clytemnestra, traditionally made into a half-insane complex-ridden grotesque witch, but here a woman of dignity, more to be pitied than hated and portrayed superbly by Waltraud Meier.

Finally I must emphasize the enormous contribution of Esa-Pekka Salonen whose firm control of dynamics brings out the subtle inner voices that often disappear in the monolithic sound of a giant Straussian orchestra.

 

André Tchaikowsky – The Merchant of Venice - Ainslie; Bridges; Eröd; Gunz; Hofmann; Lewek; Stout; Workman; Wiener Symphoniker; Erik Nielsen

02 Vocal 04 Merchant of VeniceAndré Tchaikowsky – The Merchant of Venice
Ainslie; Bridges; Eröd; Gunz; Hofmann; Lewek; Stout; Workman; Wiener Symphoniker; Erik Nielsen
Unitel Classica 2072708

Re-discovery of a forgotten opera usually happens to obscure Baroque or Bel Canto masterpieces, which for unfathomable reasons have been gathering dust in some musty old library. More often than not, they enter standard repertoire for a brief period of revival, only to be forgotten again. Let’s hope that fate will not befall The Merchant of Venice – an opera 30 years out of its time. Nearly produced by the English National Opera in 1984 two years after the composer’s death, this opera finally received its due at the 2013 Bregenz Festival. The Festival’s artistic director, David Pountney, is a champion of forgotten composers and André Tchaikowsky, born Robert Andrzej Krauthammer in Poland, is definitely well deserving of such re-discovery.

Survivor of the Warsaw ghetto (which he escaped with an assumed “Christian” name of Andrzej Czajkowski on his fake papers) and the communist rule, Tchaikowsky was an acclaimed pianist. He placed amongst the finalists of the 1955 Chopin Piano Competition and 1956 Queen Elisabeth of Belgium Competition. Despite those early accolades, he decided to dedicate himself to composition. His output, if not huge, is thoroughly engrossing; alas Merchant is the only opera. And what an opera – there is no doubting its dramatic bona-fides: Tchaikowsky makes his own mark by imbuing Antonio with gay yearnings, absent in Shakespeare, and scoring the role for a countertenor. The Bregenz production casts Christopher Ainslie in that role, against the remarkable Adrian Eröd as Shylock.

As a final irony, the composer got to centre stage before his work did – he willed his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company to be used in Hamlet as a prop. That acclaimed 2008 production, filmed by the BBC, featured David Tennant as the brooding prince and André Tchaikowsky’s skull as Yorick.

 

Harrison Birtwistle – Gawain - Royal Opera House; Elgar Howarth

02 Vocal 05 Birstwistle GawainHarrison Birtwistle – Gawain
Royal Opera House; Elgar Howarth
NMC D200

I wish I liked this disc more. Everything is first rate: the source – medieval epic Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Harrison Birtwistle – composer and master of orchestration; skilled librettist David Hersant; a stellar cast; the Royal Opera Orchestra under Elgar Howarth; excellent sound; and comprehensive notes. Throughout Act 1, underlying violence and sorcery at King Arthur’s court is manifest in the atonal, expressionist score’s volcanic low brass eruptions and pervasive percussion. After the jaded king demands new adventures of his knights, the Green Knight appears; Gawain accepts his challenge, which requires mutual beheading! All is plotted by sorceresses Morgan le Fay and Lady de Hautdesert. Act 1 seems belligerent without respite, and without the benefit of staging in this CD recording becomes tedious listening.

The quieter Act 2 seems a resolution to Act 1’s dissonance. Gawain reaches the Green Knight`s abode and is tested by Lady de Hautdesert`s seductive advances. Here, castanet sounds are amusing (as earlier were temple block clip-clops while Gawain prepared for riding). Surviving the beheading scene ordeal, Gawain returns exhausted to Arthur`s court proclaiming “I am not a hero.” To paraphrase Keats, I feel the palpable design of an anti-war allegory.

Soprano Marie Angel (Morgan Le Fay), and mezzo Anne Howells (Lady de Hautdesert) are particularly brilliant; bass-baritone John Tomlinson (Green Knight) and baritone François Le Roux (Gawain) too are standouts. Difficult vocal challenges are more than met by a rasping Fool (Omar Ebrahim), a praying countertenor Bishop (Kevin Smith), the royals and other knights.

 

Kenneth Fuchs – Falling Man - Roderick Williams; London Symphony Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta

02 Vocal 06 Falling ManKenneth Fuchs – Falling Man
Roderick Williams; London Symphony Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta
Naxos 8.559753

It was through an accident of timing, rather than by design, that I got to hear the haunting composition Falling Man, by Kenneth Fuchs, on September 11, 2014. Based on the 9/11 novel by Don DeLillo, the music immediately evokes comparisons with John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls, the brilliant tribute to the victims of the World Trade Centre terrorist attack. Where Adams wrote music that is elegiac and impossibly transcendent, Fuchs offers a much more personal reflection, tender and almost dazed in the aftermath of disaster. Though structurally dodecaphonic, the music does not strictly adhere to any blueprint, delivering lyrical and nearly romantic themes of a personal heartbreak in the face of a very public tragedy.

A champion of Fuchs’ music, JoAnn Falletta conducts the LSO brilliantly; but the real star of this recording is Roderick Williams, whose soft, velvety baritone belies the harsh descriptions of falling ash and human artifacts raining down on Wall Street that horrible morning. The companion pieces on the album, based on poems by John Updike and William Blake, including the incomparable Tyger, do not reveal such immediate connection with our recent past and deserve to be listened to on their own, within a different context.

 

Étienne Moulinié – Meslanges pour la Chapelle d’un Prince - Ensemble Correspondances; Sébastien Daucé

03 Early 01 MeslangesÉtienne Moulinié – Meslanges pour la Chapelle d’un Prince
Ensemble Correspondances; Sébastien Daucé
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902194

Étienne Moulinié served for 30 years as musician to Louis XIII’s brother the Duke of Orléans; his sacred music is important to the development of mid-seventeenth-century French music. This CD brings together twelve singers in imitation of the original standard configuration, and ten musicians.

The serenity of this arrangement – together with its sometimes excitable stretches – is brought home in the first three pieces by Moulinié. Antoine Boësset’s Jesu nostra redemptio is far more spiritual, introducing parts for higher vocal registers as well as organ and viol. This ethereal quality continues in Cantate Domino (despite the words which exhort the listener to praise God with trumpets, cornets and horns – direct biblical quotations) and the organ playing of director Sébastien Daucé in O bone Jesu. Reflecting the sound choice of pieces on the CD, Boësset’s Populus meus sets words of reproach to yet another celestial arrangement.

Two allemandes by François de Chancy are included in the anthology. They demonstrate the compositions thatMoulinié could incorporate into his repertoire, reinforcing his position with the duke, and also the early stages whereby country dances such as the allemande were adopted by court circles and eventually became staples as baroque movements.

The duke took a second wife in 1632, a pious lady to whom Moulinié dedicated the most inspiring and yearning piece in this compilation. The Litanies de la Vierge comprises a series of entreaties to the Trinity and many other sacred beings. Eleven voices create a moving spirituality, imploring but never despairing.

 

Lamento (Kapsperger; Rossi; Carissimi; Strozzi; Frescobaldi; Monteverdi; Provenzale) - Romina Basso; Latinitas Nostra

03 Early 02 LamentoLamento (Kapsperger; Rossi; Carissimi; Strozzi; Frescobaldi; Monteverdi; Provenzale)
Romina Basso; Latinitas Nostra
naïve V5390

Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna pioneered the art form known as the lamento, where the death of a famous figure was commemorated by a solo singer accompanied by basso continuo. In addition, techniques such as dissonant chords and melodies with wide leaps would add their own sense of lamentation.

 Latinitas Nostra is a Greek ensemble; their west-looking title refers to the flourishing Greek communities in places such as London and Venice. Soprano Romina Basso begins with Luigi Rossi’s lament by the Queen of Sweden for her husband Gustavus II Adolphus, the brilliant commander killed at Lützen in 1632. The lament combines the Queen’s sense of desperation with an exhortation to kill and strike the Germans, Spaniards and Italians without mercy. Romina Basso rises to this varied emotional challenge with passion, whether one considers this to be a true lament or a plea to crush Sweden’s enemies.

Mary Queen of Scots is the next subject of lament, in this case by Carissimi. Here the tone is again a mix of lamentation and anger: Mary protests her death sentence and expresses resentment against the English regime that created this situation. Vibrato effects enhance the sense of anger. Basso and her continuo admirably meet the demands of the lament.

 Then, one of the most accomplished lady composers of all time, Barbara Strozzi. Lagrime mie lingers over its text and uses pauses to reinforce the emotion. Strozzi’s interpretation makes full use of what one might call surges of melody to reinforce the intended effects of the lament.

And then to Monteverdi with Lamento d’Arianne in its five parts. If ever there was a fine basso continuo accompanying a lamento this was it. All the instruments involved make their presence felt, sometimes supporting and enhancing the plaintive singing, sometimes almost mocking it.

Finally, and to be frank, out of place, is Francesco Provenzale’s “lament” for Gustavus II Adolphus. This is less respectful in its lyrics, almost poking fun at his queen as she learns of his fate. There are exchanges of dialogue which, from the English translation, contain double entendres and undignified comments. In fact, this is not a solo lament; it is accompanied by other voices and the sleeve notes inform us that musicologists have not quite worked out why it was composed. It may just have coincided with Gustavus’ daughter Christina’s spectacular conversion to Catholicism in 1655.

This CD is a fine introduction to a musical form both delicate and forceful.

 

Rimsky-Korsakov – Scheherazade

Rimsky-Korsakov – Scheherazade
Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Peter Oundjian
Chandos CHSA 5145

Rimsky-Korsakov – Scheherazade
Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra; Sascha Goetzel
Onyx 4124

About half a century ago the question was asked by some aspiring record company person “How do you decide what to record?” The sage answer was “Look in the Schwann catalogue and find the most recorded work and make one more.”

04 Classical 01a Scheherezad TSOThe TSO disc contains a live performance from Roy Thomson Hall recorded in June 2013. The orchestra is in top form and the playing is rock solid with Oundjian conducting an interpretation that does not stray from the usual way in which this popular orchestral showpiece is heard. There are some lovely turns of phrase and the tuttis are thrillingly open and dynamic. The“star of any Scheherazade is the first violin, the voice of the storyteller who must hold the attention of the imperious Sultan Shahryār or lose her head. Concertmaster Jonathan Crow’s engaging charm makes her irresistible.
I would have liked to have the luxurious recorded sound more articulate but this is a slight quibble. The audience is not heard from but I am sure they leapt to their feet in appreciation as Toronto audiences now seem to do no matter what.

Sascha Goetzel is the Austrian music director of the Borusan Instanbul Philharmonic that began as a chamber orchestra in 1993 and was augmented to become the Philharmonic in 1999. This is their third CD. Part of the uniqueness of this Scheherazade is the use of oriental instruments. The opening of the first tale finds her accompanied, not by a harp but a qanun, a plucked zither or dulcimer-like instrument. It is innocently gentle and appropriate. Before the second movement begins there is a mood-setting solo from the oud, a lute-like instrument, and before the final movement we briefly hear the qanun which supports her in the final pages. Throughout, there is an ebullient texture to the orchestral playing, revealing subtle flavours in familiar passages, particularly the quieter episodes. The uncluttered, spacious recording is as vital as the performance. 

04 Classical 01b Scheherezad IstanbulBalakirev’s knuckle-breaking piano spectacular Islamey is heard in the orchestration by Lyapunov and although not a major work in the great scheme of things, it is a dashing showpiece. The two Ippolitov-Ivanov Caucasian Sketches are Procession of the Sardar and a disarmingly tranquil In the Village, featuring the slightly breathy ney flute, a classical Turkish reed instrument. The final piece on this generously filled 77-minute disc, Köçekçe is new to me. It is a dance rhapsody for orchestra. Turkish composer Ulvi Cemal Erkin (1906-1972), a member of the “Turkish Five,” studied in Paris with, of course, Nadia Boulanger and Köçekçeis his most popular work.

Bottom line: Not just another Scheherazade but a unique and arresting performance with oriental overtones together with some very tasty encores, recorded to perfection. I know that it’s pedestrian but I would like to hear an all-out Polovtsian Dances from this group.

 

The Romantic Violin Concerto Vol.16: Busoni; Strauss - Tanja Becker-Bender; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; Garry Walker

04 Classical 02 Busoni StraussThe Romantic Violin Concerto Vol.16: Busoni; Strauss
Tanja Becker-Bender; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; Garry Walker
Hyperion CDA68044

The 16th instalment of Hyperion’s ongoing survey of Romantic violin concertos is devoted to two early works by Richard Strauss (1864-1949) and Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924). Though Strauss is immensely better known than his near-contemporary, his Violin Concerto is clearly the weaker of the two works. A product of his teenage years, this D minor concerto was composed in1881-2 for his violin teacher Benno Walter. While Strauss would later admit that he found learning the violin unpleasant and physically taxing, it’s quite evident he well understood the bravura aspects of the now-forgotten showpiece concertos by the likes of Ernst, Spohr and Léonard his teacher favoured. The three movements of the concerto are textbook examples of proper academic form and conventional orchestration without a trace of any distinct personality, though the sprightly finale does provide moments of comic relief from the otherwise echt-Deutsch ponderousness of this dismally anodyne work.

Thankfully a distinct voice and a fascinating amalgam of a unique pan-European viewpoint is magnificently evident in Busoni’s D-Major concerto, conceived in 1896-7 for the Dutch violinist Henri Petri (father of the pianist Egon Petri) and championed in the 20th century by Joseph Szigeti, whose still-available 1958 recording is unfortunately compromised by his arthritic condition at the time, but is musically electrifying. Were it not for Szigeti’s advocacy, Busoni might have willingly disavowed this fascinating work which grows more impressive with repeated hearings and clearly deserves a more prominent place in the violin repertoire than that afforded the Strauss concerto.

Tanja Becker-Bender, the Hamburg-based German violinist and champion of both neglected and contemporary works, is the outstanding soloist, drawing a beautiful tone from a loaned 1710 Stradivarius and exhibiting complete technical mastery. Garry Walker and the Scots BBC orchestra provide a crisp and spirited accompaniment in this nicely recorded disc. Come for the Strauss if you must, but stay for the Busoni; you won’t be disappointed.

 

Stravinsky – Le Sacre du Printemps; Petrouchka - Les Siècles; François-Xavier Roth

04 Classical 03 Stravinsky RiteStravinsky – Le Sacre du Printemps; Petrouchka
Les Siècles; François-Xavier Roth
Actes sud ASM 5

Today the sole authorized performance version of Le Sacre du Printemps is the 1947 revision, edited by Stravinsky in order to maintain the copyright and hence his royalties. His own recordings including the 1940 New York Philharmonic-Symphony (Naxos 8.112070) claim 1913, which they surely are not. Stravinsky’s amanuensis Robert Craft’s 1995 recording with the LSO is designated as the 1947/1967 version… the master’s final thoughts on the subject. But what were his first thoughts?

In 1919 Stravinsky was asked to correct the original score of Le Sacre which contained a number of copyists’ errors. He agreed to do just that but could not resist the opportunity to not merely make corrections but to re-think and re-compose passages and by so doing created, in essence, the 1919 version. Musicologists agree that we can never know what exactly was in the original score that the orchestra played, or attempted to play on May 29, 1913. Due in no small fact that as orchestral musicians now move freely between orchestras around the globe, the definable character or sound of a particular area or country has all but evaporated. French orchestras once had a “French sound” and Russian orchestras had their sound and so on. Even the choice of instruments has changed. Stravinsky wrote for the timbre of the instruments in the Ballets Russes orchestra, a far cry from that of today’s stalwart instruments.

This live recording uses a reconstruction of the original score, devotedly researched as a labour of love by a number of scholars. Les Siècles is a group of “outstanding young players pooled from the finest French ensembles.” They have access to and play instruments from every period spanning the Baroque to modern eras. Every collector must acquire a copy of this unique and exciting evocation of the original Le Sacre and the effervescent Petrouchka. The translucent recording is of demonstration quality with true perspectives. So if you already have several recordings… get this one. It will be your first.

 

Mahler – Symphony No.5 - Budapest Festival Orchestra; Ivan Fischer

723385342137 450Mahler – Symphony No.5
Budapest Festival Orchestra; Ivan Fischer
Channel Classics CCS SA 34213

Slowly building what promises to be a complete survey of Mahler symphonies, Ivan Fischer’s latest release (preceded by Symphonies 1, 2, 4 and 6) is his most impressive achievement so far in this cycle. In some ways it might be considered a middle-of-the-road interpretation; the tragic, funereal profile of the first two movements in particular seems unusually constrained. Consider for example the operatic, borderline vulgarity of the “oom-pah” trombones so tellingly brought to the fore in the classic Bernstein Vienna Philharmonic recording from days of yore; here their barbaric yapping is barely audible. It’s not, as it turns out, a question of misjudged orchestral balances or engineering oversight, for in general the detail of sound is exemplary throughout, spectacularly so in the dynamic layering of the intricate polyphony of the grand fifth movement finale. Rather, Fischer’s’ devil dwells in the details, with the grand histrionics we have come to expect in Mahler subdued to highlight the large-scale architecture of this sprawling work.

The virtuoso Budapest forces respond most elegantly throughout; their accord with their conductor and founder in the famous Adagietto is positively psychic. It’s a pity however that the obbligato horn soloist placed at the front of the stage in the rustically rendered central Scherzo movement is not credited. Splendidly recorded in Budapest, this SACD features a spacious sound stage with the first and second violins divided to the left and right of the stage and exceptionally pristine sound. This is a refreshingly idiosyncratic performance that deserves a place near the top of recent Mahler recordings.

 

The Romantic Cello Concerto Vol.5: Saint-Saëns

04 Classical 05 Saint-Saens CelloThe Romantic Cello Concerto Vol.5: Saint-Saëns
Natalie Clein; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; Andrew Manze
Hyperion CDA68002

Outside musicological circles, the name Auguste Franchomme is probably unknown today, but during his long lifetime, he earned a reputation as a renowned cellist and composer. Not only did he inspire Chopin to write his one and only piece for cello and piano but he also provided the impetus for Camille Saint-Saëns’s first cello concerto in 1872. Saint-Saëns went on to produce two other works for the instrument, all of them included on this fine recording – the fifth in Hyperion’s Romantic Cello Concerto series – featuring cellist Natalie Clein and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Andrew Manze.

British-born Clein studied at the Royal College of Music and later with Heinrich Schiff in Vienna. She attracted world attention at age 16 when she won the BBC Musician of the Year award, and since completing her studies, has appeared in concert halls throughout Europe, North America, Australia and Asia.

Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No.1 runs the whole gamut of emotions. It opens dark and impassioned, but there are also periods of quiet intimacy and sprightly good humour. Clein’s performance is commanding and technically flawless, her warm and resonant tone particularly suited to this late-Romantic repertoire. Thirty years lapsed before Saint-Saëns completed his second cello concerto in 1902. More serious in tone, it was chosen as a Conservatoire test piece by Gabriel Fauré. Saint-Saëns himself said of it: “It will never be as popular as the first, it’s too difficult.” Challenging is indeed the word, with its virtuosic passagework and frequent double-stopping required of the soloist. Clein meets the difficulties with ease and the orchestra under Manze’s skillful baton provides a solid and sympathetic foundation.

An added bonus is the inclusion of three shorter works, the optimistic La muse et le poète (with violinist Antje Weithaas), the Allegro Appassionato, and as an encore, an arrangement of the familiar The Swan from the Carnival of the Animals, thus rounding out a most satisfying recording.

 

Anton Rubinstein – Piano Quartets

04 Classical 06 RubinsteinAnton Rubinstein – Piano Quartets
Leslie Howard; Rita Manning; Morgan Goff; Justin Pearson
Hyperion CDA68018

“Russians call me German, Germans call me Russian, Jews call me Christian, Christians a Jew. Pianists call me a composer, composers call me a pianist. The classicists think of me as futurist, and the futurists call me a reactionary. My conclusion is that I am neither fish nor fowl – a pitiful individual.” Anton Grigorevich Rubinstein playfully described himself this way in his posthumously published book Gedankenkorb. While he is better known as one of the greatest 19th-century pianists and educators (he founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the first of its kind in Russia), Rubinstein also had a long and productive composing career.

The two piano quartets presented on this CD are premiere recordings of these pieces. Piano Quartet in F major, Op.55bis was originally written as a quintet with winds and the reduction for the string version was quite successful. The string’s sonority (with slightly more prominence given to the cello) certainly enhanced typical romantic gestures, lush harmonies and flourishing piano lines.

Piano Quartet in C-Major, Op.66 is clearly the stronger of the two – more cohesive, with more emotional depth and a touch of beautiful dark sonorities. The third movement, Andante assai, stands out with its stately piano lines and a dramatic violin solo that brings in a dash of gypsy spirit before settling into a peaceful melody. The ensemble playing is strong and close knit. Leslie Howard’s articulation is refined, bringing a sparkling quality to more virtuosic piano lines. Strings are juxtaposed nicely, achieving lovely colours in unison parts. Recommended for rainy afternoons – not exactly masterpieces, but these quartets could certainly take you on an interesting journey.

Allure - Kayla Wong

04 Classical 07 Kayla WongAllure
Kayla Wong
Independent (kaylawong.net)

Unlike many young artists, who tend to stick to familiar repertoire when releasing their first recording, pianist Kayla Wong thought outside the box and produced a CD of music almost entirely from the 20th century. She explained: “The composers on this CD are ones that I have always been drawn to on a deep musical level” and the result is an intriguing combination of music by Lecuona, Ravel, Rachmaninoff and Barber on this debut release titled Allure.

Born and raised in Saskatchewan, Wong studied at the University of Victoria and the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Since then she has appeared in concert throughout North America and Asia, including recitals at Carnegie Hall and the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

Wong’s deep affinity for 20th century music is evident from the first chord of Lecuona’s Ante El Escorial, one of three compositions included by the Cuban-born pianist/composer. Her playing is dramatic and polished, at all times capturing the subtle rhythms and nuances which are such an inherent part of his style. Lecuona’s slightly older contemporary Maurice Ravel is represented by two of his most famous compositions, Jeux d’eau from 1901 and Une barque sur l’océan from the set Miroirs, written four years later. Dazzling and difficult, this music broke new ground when it first appeared and Wong approaches its formidable technical challenges with apparent ease. Indeed, her flawless technique seems to have no limitations, evident again in the Rachmaninoff Moments Musicaux Op.16 where a warmly romantic tone further enhances a fine performance. Of all the compositions on this disc, Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata Op.26 from 1948 is undoubtedly the least familiar. Its four movements are a study in contrast, from the strident opening to the bold finale in the form of a fugue – a true technical tour de force which Wong brings off with much bravado.

In all, this is a very impressive recording from a young artist – “alluring” indeed – and we certainly hope to hear from her again in the future.

 


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