Summer Pop

I’ve spoken before in these pages about artistic epiphanies I’ve had in this life – rounding a corner in the National Gallery in Washington and beholding Dali’s The Last Supper, hearing Paul Dolden’s The Melting Voice Through Mazes Running at the CBC Young Composers’ Competition – and a disc that came my way this month has brought to mind another such enlightening experience. When I was a teenager my ears were opened wide to the alternative music scene by a late-night AM radio show on CKFH called The Open Lid. There were several hosts over the years, but it was during Keith Elshaw’s tenure that I really got hooked and it was then that I first heard the music of Fraser and Debolt, a Canadian folk duo who would have a lasting influence on me. Their first album Fraser and Debolt with Ian Guenther was totally acoustic with just two guitars, two intense voices and Guenther’s violin. When I heard Pure Spring Water and its atonal “breakdown” segue to their version of the Beatles’ Don’t Let Me Down I was intrigued and captivated. I didn’t sleep much that night and the next day right after school I headed down to the local Sam the Record Man in search of the disc. Of course it turned out that Elshaw was playing an advance copy of the album and I would have to wait for the official release. I didn’t sleep much for the rest of that week either.

01_Fraser__Girard.jpgAllan Fraser and Daisy Debolt worked together for five years, parting ways in 1974, but their songs – two albums’ worth – have been an integral part of my own repertoire for the past four decades. Debolt fronted a number of projects over the years – I remember one show at Harbourfront in particular where her band included three or four accordions – and was active until her death from cancer in 2011. As far as I know Fraser kept a lower profile, although I confess I have not been following the folk scene much in recent years. That being said, when I received the press release for an upcoming disc by Fraser & Girard (FG001 my heart raced a bit. Thank goodness I’m now in the position to receive advance copies of things!

It seems that Allan Fraser has found a new kindred musical spirit in Marianne Girard, and although comparisons to the original pairing are inevitable this new duo has developed a voice of its own. Girard’s husky contralto doesn’t have the shrill edginess of Debolt’s high range, but it blends well with Fraser’s sometimes gravelly low tenor and I love it when their harmonies are reversed as he takes the high line. The instrumentation is fairly sparse, with the duo’s guitars mostly supplemented by acoustic bass and drums with occasional additional guitar, fiddle and pedal steel. The eponymous release is shared about equally between songs by each partner, including Fraser (and Debolt)’s classic Dance Hall Girls and Girard’s particularly moving My Name is Carol. Concert note: I know where I’ll be on Sunday June 14 – at Hugh’s Room for the launch of Fraser & Girard.

02_Foo_Fighters.jpgSome months ago I stumbled on the HBO presentation of Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways, an eight-part documentary directed by Foo front man Dave Grohl, and I have spent countless hours over the past few weeks revisiting the series on four RCA DVDs recently released by Sony Music (8887506014-9). Each time I go back to one of the episodes I am enthralled once again; it’s surprising how compelling they are. The premise is that the rock band travels to different American cities to explore the musical history of each place, meet some of the legends who have contributed to this history and then record a song written by Grohl, inspired by the time spent there in one of its iconic studios.

The odyssey begins in Chicago where we meet blues icon Buddy Guy and Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielson as Grohl explores the various genres that have flourished in the Windy City over the past half-century. Washington D.C. is the next stop where the early punk scene (Bad Brains, Black Flag) is juxtaposed with the Go-Go scene (Trouble Funk). In Nashville we visit the Grand Ole Opry and meet Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Tony Joe White and Zac Brown and learn about the songwriting industry before heading off to Austin for an in-depth look at the 40-year history of the seminal TV show Austin City Limits with its vast range of musical styles and a visit with Willie Nelson. Joe Walsh gives us the lowdown on Hotel California in the L.A. edition, which also features Joan Jett, and we spend some quality time in the desert around Joshua Tree at the Rancho de la Luna studio. Each of the episodes focuses on a historically significant recording venue and in New Orleans the Foo Fighters set up in Preservation Hall and meet Doctor John, Alain Toussaint and one of the Neville Brothers, among a host of others. The Seattle segment is particularly poignant with its focus on the grunge scene epitomized by Kurt Cobain and Nirvana (although lead singer and guitarist for the Foo Fighters, Grohl was the drummer for Nirvana), the Sub Pop label and Heart. The final episode takes place in America’s musical Mecca, New York City, with its myriad cultures and histories. We meet Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Gene Simmons and Chuck D to name just a few, visit the Brill Building, CBGB – did you know that stood for Country, Blue-Grass and Blues? Quite a misnomer for the breeding ground of punk and new wave! – Electric Lady studio and the Magic Shop on a whirlwind tour that has left my head spinning. The above-mentioned names are just a sampling of the dozens of luminaries who appear throughout the series, with special mention going to Steve Earle who turns up time and again with a plethora of insights. A wealth of archival footage is seamlessly blended into the production, adding historical credence to the documentary.

One of the press quotes from the DVD package states “Skillfully directed and packed with decades-spanning trivia” (Entertainment Weekly). I find this to be almost a travesty in the way it trivializes the concept and content of the series. The history of American popular music (in some of its edgiest forms) is so well presented in such depth here that I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone curious about life in the U.S.A. in the past half century. My wife says I can quote her, but I will paraphrase: Even if you’re not interested in the music per se, the series is compelling and illuminating.

The only regret I have is that Grohl and company did not make it to Detroit for a taste of Motown Soul. I hope that if there is a sequel the sonic highway will lead to the Motor City.

This Just In

As this issue of The WholeNote spans the three summer months I want to devote the rest of this column to a few titles that fell through the cracks over the past year and a number of very worthy new releases that arrived too late to receive full reviews but which I think you should know about sooner rather than later (i.e. September). First the new ones…

03_Spiin_Cycle.jpgAt time of writing, the second annual 21C Festival is about to get underway at the Royal Conservatory and as an example of the growing interest generated by the festival – in part sparked by last month’s WholeNote cover art – comes the surprising news that the Spin Cycle event, originally slated for Mazzoleni Hall, has been moved into the much larger Koerner Hall due to the high demand for tickets. This project brings together the Afiara Quartet, DJ Skratch Bastid and four young Toronto composers, Dinuk Wijeratne, Laura Silberberg, Rob Teehan and Kevin Lau. Each of the composers has written short, multi-movement acoustic string quartets which have been recorded by Afiara and are then subjected to the multi-layered treatments for which the award-winning DJ is renowned. One could be forgiven for thinking the experiment might end there, but not so, gentle reader. The composers were offered the opportunity to respond by creating yet a third iteration with new material added to the mix. Although the composers are all relatively conservative in their approach and the original works are quite tonal, by the time the re-mix and responses have been added there is an intriguing depth and complexity to the final creations which cross a variety of cultural and aesthetic borders. For those of you who missed the May 23 event, the concert also served as the launch for a double CD of the works (Centrediscs CMCCD 21215 that is also available on iTunes.

04_Grieg_Fialkowska.jpgGrieg – Lyric Pieces (ATMA ACD2 2696) is the latest from Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska and it seems a bit of a departure from her usual Austro-Hungarian repertoire (from Mozart to Liszt) and the Polish music of her own heritage (Chopin, Moszkowski, Padereski and Szymanowski). Fialkowska seems very much at home on this northern excursion however, her deft touch perfectly suited to bringing these idiomatic Norwegian sketches to life. Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) wrote his Lyric Pieces, ten books of them over the span of his career, beginning in 1867 upon his return to Norway after studies in Germany. The first book proved so successful that his publisher requested more and more, so many in fact that in 1901 Grieg finished the last set with Remembrances, which took him full circle back to the first Arietta and he called a halt saying that “they are surrounding me like lice and fleas…”

Fialkowska has made an effective selection of 25 of the pieces, charming vignettes such as Berceuse, Butterfly, Sylph and of course the familiar Wedding Day at Troldhaugen with each of the volumes represented. There is very little virtuosity on display here, with most of the selections pastoral, but the selection is varied enough to keep our attention throughout – a quiet day in the country, with moments of exuberance such as the Norwegian Dance with its suggestion of Hardanger-style fiddling and hints of dread such as March of the Trolls and Evening in the Mountains. Fialkowska will get to experience all of this first-hand in mid-June when she is off to Tromsö, Norway as a jury member for the Top of the World International Piano Competition.

05_Bashaw_Piano.jpg15 for Piano (Centrediscs CMCCD 21115) features music by Alberta-based composer Howard Bashaw performed by Roger Admiral and it has the distinction of being the first CD recorded in the Canadian Music Centre’s concert space at 20 St. Joseph St. on their Steingraeber & Söhne piano. Both the instrument and recording engineer John S. Gray, not to mention the pianist himself, have their mettle tested by the vast dynamic range and physicality of the music, and all pass with flying colours. I sometimes kid that to me piano recitals are ultimately “just so much banging” but in this instance I cannot get enough. Admiral can bang with the best of them and Bashaw has a way of making relentless percussive density extremely exciting and musical. This is not to say that the 40-minute-plus 2012 title piece is without respite. There are beautiful moments when the tension relaxes and we are drawn into a very different world where time is suspended and we are able to catch a breath. And even some of the ostinato passages are quiet and gentle, belying the furious activity happening in miniature.

Admiral is also featured in a 2010 reworking of Bashaw’s Form Archimage, an older work originally performed and recorded by Marc Couroux. Once again the piece is a study in contrasts, with manic extended movements – Toccata, Counterpoint: where fractals meet Alberti, Celestarium II, Reverbatory and Barn Burner with Jacob’s Ladder – interspersed without pause among brief quiet sections. This latter was recorded in Convocation Hall at the University of Alberta, where both pianist and composer teach. As with the CMC recording, the sound here is immaculate. Future concert note: Howard Bashaw is currently writing an extended work for quadruple quartet, piano and percussion for New Music Concerts which will be performed in the spring of 2016.

06_Reich_18_Musicians.jpgAlso coming next spring, Soundstreams is celebrating Steve Reich’s 80th birthday with a concert featuring three of his seminal works. Clapping Music, Tehillim and the iconic Music for 18 Musicians will be performed at Massey Hall on April 14, 2016. There is a new recording of Music for 18 Musicians featuring New York’s Ensemble Signal under the direction of Brad Lubman (Harmonia Mundi 907608) and if you are not familiar with this classic minimalist work for four pianos, three marimbas, two xylophones, vibraphone, two clarinets, violin, cello and four voices, I would recommend this recording. As Steve Reich himself says, “Signal has made an extraordinary recording of Music for 18 Musicians. Fast moving, spot on and emotionally charged.” With top rank Toronto musicians engaged for the Massey Hall performance I am sure we can expect nothing less from Soundstreams.

07_Messiaen_Canyons.jpgSpeaking of iconic works of contemporary music, the London Philharmonic Orchestra has just released Des Canyons Aux Étoiles by Olivier Messiaen under the direction of Christoph Eschenbach (LPO – 0083). At 100 minutes in length, From the Canyons to the Stars (1971-74) draws extensively on Messiaen’s signature birdsong transcriptions for much of its musical material. As always it is also a paean to the glory of God, this time in the context of the natural beauty of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, which Messiaen visited in 1972 in conjunction with this commission from an American philanthropist. The full forces of the modern symphony orchestra are supplemented with four soloists: Tzimon Barto (piano), John Ryan (horn), Andrew Barclay (xylorimba) and Erika Öhman (glockenspiel), all of whom rise to the occasion. Highly recommended.

08_Dvorak_Triple_Forte.jpgCanada’s triple threat Triple Forte – Jasper Wood, violin; Yegor Dyachov, cello; David Jalbert, piano – have a new recording of Dvořák Piano Trios (ATMA ACD2 2691) and as one would expect it is a treasure. Founded in 2003 this trio comprises three top soloists who work together as a finely oiled machine. Their debut disc in 2012 of music by Ravel, Shostakovich and Ives showed them to be at home in 20th-century idioms. This proves no less true of the preceding century with these captivating performances of two of the pinnacles of Romantic chamber repertoire, the Trio in F Minor, Op.65 and the “Dumky” Trio in E Minor, Op.90, Dvořák’s third and fourth ventures into this genre. Although the opus numbers suggest a larger gap, the two works were written within a span of seven years, in 1883 and 1890. The first is set in the usual four-movement form, opening with a majestic and expansive Allegro ma non troppo replete with melodies reminiscent of Schumann and Mendelssohn. The “Dumky,” dating from the height of the composer’s Slavic period, is a set of six contrasting movements all based on the Ukrainian Dumka folksong form. In both works the strength (i.e. forte) of each of the players is allowed to shine while goading the others on to new heights in performances that exemplify the group’s name.

09_Berlin_sonatas.jpgBerlin Sonatas (Passacaille 1006 features 18th-century works by Abel, J.C.F. and C.P.E. Bach, Benda, Kirnberger and Graun performed by Elinor Frey on five-string cello and Lorenzo Ghielmi on a Silbermann fortepiano (known at the time as a “Cembalo con il forte e piano” due to its ability to produce sounds both loudly and softly, unlike the harpsichord with its limited dynamic range). Frey provides an extended essay to explain why she feels a five-string cello is appropriate, and likely originally intended, for this repertoire. She makes a strong case for the instrument, not only in her writing but more particularly in her performance, especially in two violin solo works by Benda, here heard one octave below their intended pitch. One intriguing aspect of the keyboard used here is a “stop” heard in the final movement of Carl Friedrich Abel’s Sonata in G Major which makes it sound like a hackbrett (hammered-dulcimer). I had understood that the prepared piano had been invented by American Henry Cowell in the early 20th century and further developed by John Cage in the 40s, but it seems that piano-maker Gottfried Silbermann (1783-1853) beat them to the punch a century earlier. He developed a technique for replicating the sound on his keyboard instruments with a device he called the pantaleone in honour of the hackbrett virtuoso Pantaleone Hebenstreit.

Catching up

10_Bad_Plus_Rite.jpgThe first of the discs overlooked at the time of their release that I want to bring to your attention is a 2014 realization of The Rite of Spring in a surprising orchestration for piano, string bass and drum kit by the jazz combo The Bad Plus (Sony Masterworks 88843 02405 2), primarily known for their avant-garde approach to jazz, tinged with hints of rock and pop. I was particularly impressed with their convincing recreation of Stravinsky’s score using only the minimal tools of their trio. Comprised of Ethan Iverson (piano), Reid Anderson (bass and electronics, mostly involving treatments and layerings of the piano part in the introductory section of the piece) and David King (drums), the group developed this project during a year-long residency at Duke University in 2010-2011. The result has to be heard to be believed. With the exception of the addition of a brief and unnecessary percussive coda following Stravinsky’s final chord, the trio stays true to the original score and gives a remarkable performance using only limited resources. Highly recommended!

11_Zodiac_Trio.jpgStreamlined Stravinsky is also a feature of a disc by the Zodiac Trio (Blue Griffin BGR257 although in this instance the reduction is the work of the composer himself. L’Histoire du Soldat was originally written as a theatrical piece for three speakers – soldier, devil and narrator – dancer and seven instruments based on a Russian folk tale. The sponsor of the piece, Werner Reinhart, was an excellent amateur clarinetist and the year after its 1918 theatrical debut in Lausanne Stravinsky made a suite of five movements for clarinet, violin and piano. Stripped to the bare bones, this already skeletal work – said to be a reflection of the depleted supply of musicians as a result of the Great War – is still very effective, as Zodiac’s dedicated performance proves.

The group – Kliment Krylovsky (clarinet), Vanessa Mollard (violin) and Riko Higuma (piano) – was formed at the Manhattan School of Music in 2006 and its goal is “to etch this instrumentation into the ranks of chamber music’s dominant combinations.” To this end they commission works and tour extensively. Their 2010 debut recording featured original works but this latest draws on existing repertoire. The Stravinsky Suite notwithstanding it is Bartók’s Contrasts, written for Benny Goodman and Joseph Szigeti, which is generally considered to have launched this genre. Zodiac gives Contrasts an exuberant and idiomatic performance, confirming its place at the head of the table. The disc also includes the world premiere recording of the somewhat anachronistic A Smiling Suite by French composer Nicolas Bacri, and a moving (and haunting) early work by Shostakovich protégé Galina Ustvolskaya.

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels, “buy buttons” for online shopping and additional, expanded and archival reviews. 

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

01_Cavilieri_Rappresentatione.jpgEmilio de Cavalieri – Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo
Soloists; Staatsopernchor Berlin; Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin; René Jacobs
harmonia mundi 902200.01

Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo (1600) dramatizes how the Body and the Soul both reject the blandishments of Pleasure and of Worldly Life and choose Eternal Life over Damnation. Such a summary makes the work seem very dreary but it can hold the attention of a modern audience, as was demonstrated by the Canadian Opera Company in its 1983/84 season. Although the Rappresentatione is not, in my view, an opera, it undoubtedly influenced that newly emerging genre through its staging and through its use of solo singing with chordal accompaniment.

Both the singing and the instrumental playing on this CD are very fine. The performance is based on that of a production at the Schiller Theater in Berlin in 2012. Although the work’s first publication provided the melody and the bass line, a performance can only be realized by enriching the chords needed and by adding further melodic and contrapuntal lines. There is a great deal of instrumental variety on this recording. Of particular interest is the arch-cittern or ceterone (which bears a similar relationship to the cittern as the theorbo does to the lute). The instrument used here was built for the Musée de la Musique in Paris on the basis of an original preserved in Florence.


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02_Purcell_Dido.jpgPurcell – Dido & Aeneas
Le Poème Harmonique; Vincent Dumestre; Choeur Accentus; Opera de Rouen Haute-Normandie;
Alpha 706

An opera by a composer described as the English Orpheus and selected by a French music company? And one which has never paid homage to an English composer before? Musical director Vincent Dumestre gives his reasons. First, there is Purcell’s pure genius – he could not have been more than 25 when he composed Dido and Aeneas. What is more, he combined the melancholy of composers such as Dowland with the vitality of earlier English masques and the genius of contemporary composer Lully.

Purcell’s operas did not stint on the elaborate nature of their stage productions, although this production differs in terms of its ingenuity in stage construction, its lack of complexity and certain demands on the performers. Marc Mauillon’s sorceress/sailor roles exploit his gymnastic and trapeze skills, and the first witch and other sorceresses perform with agility on ropes – when they are not scaring the audience!

Vivica Genaux is a magnificent Dido, fully conveying the anguish of her isolation. Her rendition of When I am laid in earth, always a test for singers of all ranges and backgrounds, is accomplished with a haunting quality of which Purcell would no doubt be proud. In addition, Caroline Meng’s first witch leaves no doubt as to the character’s evil intent.

All in all, a highly original performance but one that still brings home Purcell’s compassionate treatment of a tragic love story.


03_Gluck_Alceste.jpgGluck – Alceste
Angela Denoke; Paul Groves; Willard White; Teatro Real; Ivor Bolton
EuroArts 3074978

Gluck’s Alceste was first performed, in Italian, in 1767; a French version followed in 1776. It is the French version that we see and hear on this DVD. The source for the opera is a play by Euripides, in which it has been decreed that Admetus, King of Pherae, must die unless another is willing to take his place. Euripides makes a great deal of the cowardice of the king’s subjects, especially that of his aging parents, who do not have that long to live anyway. Admetus’ wife, Alcestis, then offers herself up and the most interesting issue in the play is why the King is willing to accept her sacrifice.

The Admète in the opera is made of sterner stuff. When he is told that someone has been found who is willing to take his place, it takes him a long time to realize that the someone is his own wife. Once he has realized it, he refuses to accept the offer. Alceste did not think life was worth living without her husband; he does not think life is worth living without his wife. It is Hercule, who resolves the impasse by descending into the Underworld and rescuing Alceste.

This DVD gives us a production of the opera from the Teatro Real in Madrid, directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski, who has chosen to superimpose the story of Princess Diana. Here Alceste chooses death not because she loves her husband so much but because it offers her a way out of a loveless marriage. When Hercule snatches her from the Underworld, she is deprived of what she most wishes.

One of the dangers with Gluck is that his music may sound marmoreal. That is certainly not the case with this production, which is full-blooded and passionate. There is fine singing from Angela Denoke (Alceste), Paul Groves (Admète) and Willard White (in the twin roles of the High Priest of Apollon and Thanatos). It is clear, however, that the whole point of the opera has been subverted.


04_Rossini_Guillaume_Tell.jpgRossini in Wildbad – Guillaume Tell
Festival Wildbad: Various Vocalists; Camerata Bach Choir; Virtuosi Brunensis; Antonino Fogliani
Bongiovani AB 20029

Still not yet 40 and full of his creative powers, Rossini certainly went out with a bang, creating something original and big for the wealthy Paris audiences of the Second Empire. With a cast of thousands William Tell easily became very long, even overblown, so Rossini’s biggest problem was how to cut back and tighten the reins. For posterity the opera was very successful even in its excised form, but for the Wildbad Festival in Germany, 2013, it was decided, wisely (or unwisely) to perform the entire score for the first time in its history. If authenticity is a guiding principle it will certainly please musicologists and completists and assorted people with good intentions, but we all know where good intentions tend to lead… Much could be written on the updated staging that carries an inevitable political message, rather explicitly of oppressors vs. the oppressed, unfortunately neglecting the gorgeous Swiss scenery that’s omnipresent in Rossini’s score.

In purely musical terms the festival did gather optimum forces. First and foremost, conductor Antonino Fogliani (who is beginning to look like Rossini himself) has this music in his blood and moves it with a sparkling upbeat tempo, finesse and humour, having a great old time doing it. The soloists are all of high quality. Six topnotch singers are required to cope with the enormous demands of the work. American heroic tenor Michael Spyres as Arnold carries the Olympic torch in one of the most gruelling tenor roles and he is undoubtedly best in show. Highest credit must also go to the chorus, the Camerata Bach Choir that sings and even dances the many ensembles this opera is famous for. And a resounding yes to the fully complete ballet no French opera would do without (even if it’s written by an Italian). My fondest memory however will always be the “sublime second act” (Berlioz) that even another bel canto genius, Donizetti, admitted was “written by the Gods.”


05_Berg_Lulu.jpgBerg – Lulu
Mojca Erdmann; Deborah Polaski; Michael Volle; Thomas Piffka; Stephan Rugamer; Staatskapelle Berlin; Daniel Barenboim
Deutsche Grammophon 0440073 4934

After Alban Berg’s death in 1935, his great opera Lulu remained incomplete – until Friedrich Cerha orchestrated the final act in 1979. For this production from the Berlin Staatsoper in 2012, a new version of all three acts has been created. Berg’s sardonic Prologue has been replaced by an actor lying on the floor reciting Kierkegaard. Instead of Berg’s precisely described silent movie, we now see Lulu’s blinking eyes projected on the windshield of one of the cars that litter the stage. The first scene of Act III has been cut altogether.

What remains of the third act has been newly orchestrated by David Robert Coleman, using noticeably leaner textures than Berg and Cerha and some non-Bergian instruments like steel drums and marimba. His completion doesn’t fit in, but it brings out Berg’s expressionist lines.

Director Andrea Breth’s staging fails to reveal how exciting the plot of Lulu is. The single set – with wrecked cars piled up on one side, and what appear to be cages or prison bars erected on the other – is relentlessly grim, especially when watched through camerawork so close that we rarely see the whole stage.

Breth’s Lulu is a victim, as affectless as a puppet. But the Lulu created by Berg and playwright Frank Wedekind is an amoral, willful seductress. Mojca Erdmann makes a lovely, alluring Lulu, but can’t convey the spine-tingling danger that the great Lulus, from Evelyn Lear and Teresa Stratas to Christine Schäfer and Barbara Hannigan, present. Michael Volle makes a powerful Dr. Schön and Jack the Ripper and Deborah Polaski is moving as the doomed Countess. But the most enthralling moments come from Daniel Barenboim’s amazing Staatskapelle orchestra.


06_Reimann_Lear.jpgAribert Reimann – Lear
Bo Skovhus; Staatsoper Hamburg;
Simone Young
ArtHaus Musik 109063

Shakespeare’s King Lear was an obsession with Berlioz and even more so with Verdi who, as the legend goes, threw his half-written score into the fire in a fit of self-disgust. It took 100 years and two world war disasters before German composer Aribert Reimann actually succeeded in turning it into an opera at the suggestion of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who sang the title role in Munich in 1978. Since then it has enjoyed a moderate success around the world, but in 2012 the Hamburg Opera, now under the leadership of Simone Young, very much devoted to the avant-garde, revived it with this inspired, completely original staging by Karoline Gruber.

Apart from being brutal and gruesome, Lear is the hardest hitting tragedy of the Bard because it hits so close to home. Everyone will sooner or later become old and will sympathize with Lear’s predicament. The tragic fault that causes his downfall is self-deception and an over-inflated ego that make him subject to flattery and an easy victim to his avaricious daughters. Reimann uses the entire play as his libretto, a play that moves on many different levels – personal, familial, political, psychological and philosophical (one of the most often quoted of all Shakespeare) – and must have been horrendously difficult to come to grips with. Reimann’s expressionist, atonal music is, however, so well suited to his subject and so well integrated with it that the power of the play reverberates even stronger than in the prose version.

At the head of the young, energetic and dedicated cast Danish baritone Bo Skovhus is one of today’s most exciting and original artists who simply towers over this production, but Andrew Watts’ heartrending portrayal of “poor boy Tom” Edgar cannot easily be forgotten. With conductor Simone Young’s supreme command over the score (especially in the haunting Intermezzo with its bass flute solo) this awesome set is much recommended.


07_Sallinen_King_Lear.jpgAulis Sallinen – King Lear
Matti Salminen; Finnish National Opera; Okko Kamu
Ondine ODV 4010

King Lear is, for me, the most tragic of Shakespeare’s tragedies – which obviously, makes it a perfect opera libretto. Erroneous judgement, betrayal, devious plots, poison, enucleation… all the raw elements of an opera are here. Yet Verdi struggled for most of his composing career with Il Re Lear and finally gave up without completing the opera. It was up to the contemporary Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen to give us a full musical account of the cursed king’s story. Just as the dramatic King Lear comes to us in many versions, Sallinen, who also wrote the libretto, chose to blind the Earl of Gloucester, leaving King Lear with his eyesight intact, yet emotionally blinded to the true nature of each of his three daughters.

Sallinen, who himself eschewed opera as not a “pure” musical form (until 1973), changed his mind when he created his first opera The Horseman, which is still performed. Despite his highly modern compositional idiom, he reached for a much more melodic approach for Lear. Indeed, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a long-forgotten verismo opera sung in Finnish, not a composition created in the year 2000. Says Sallinen: “An opera must be a servant to its libretto.” That is how this postmodern composer arrived at an almost conventional opera, with arias and duets and leitmotifs lyrically representing the characters. Somewhere up there, Giuseppe Verdi is smiling.


01_Bach_Shaham.jpgGil Shaham has long been one of my favourite violinists, the grace, intelligence and warmth of his playing never failing to produce performances of the highest quality. I opened his latest release, a 2CD set of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas on his own Canary Classics label (CC14), expecting great things, and I wasn’t disappointed. Because of the great challenges they present, many players are in no rush to commit the Bach solo works to disc; in Shaham’s case he didn’t even start performing them in public until about ten years ago. His continuing exploration of the music led him to experiment with wound gut strings and a baroque-style bridge and bow in an effort to more closely reproduce the sound of Bach’s own violin. For this current recording Shaham started with a more modern set-up, tried both approaches and eventually settled for the baroque option; it’s a great choice, with the warm, bright sound a perfect match for his style, and the lighter baroque bow in particular allowing for much cleaner passagework in Shaham’s decidedly faster tempos. There’s never a sense of rushing, though; the multiple stopping is always clean, the melodic line always clear, and Shaham often uses a brief rubato to allow the music to breathe or to highlight phrase peaks. His approach to the sometimes thorny issue of vibrato in baroque music is a decidedly sensible compromise: “I use some vibrato, but I try to err on the side of not using too much.”

It doesn’t always happen that you can put on a CD of the Sonatas and Partitas and just let it play; quite often there’s a gravity or seriousness to the performance that makes playing right through all six works quite demanding listening. Not with Shaham, though; he creates a world of warmth and light, and each of the two CDs just flies past. The playing here is light and brilliant without ever being superficial; fast without ever losing the sense of phrase; joyous and spontaneous without ever losing a sense of emotional depth; gentle but never weak; and strong but never strident.

There’s a great deal of competition in recordings of the Bach solo works, of course, with a wide range of styles and approaches to choose from, but you’ll go a long way before you find a more beautiful and satisfying set than this.

02_Bach_Enders.jpgThere’s another outstanding set of Bach solo works this month, this time the Cello Suites featuring the German cellist Isang Enders (Berlin Classics 0300552BC). The similarities with the Shaham set are quite striking: the 28-year-old Enders says that Bach has been in his life since early childhood, and that the challenges presented by the Cello Suites made him constantly doubt his abilities when it came to recording them. Then, after his first attempt had gone through the final production stages, he rejected it and returned to the studio to do justice not only to his own developing thoughts about the music but also “to do justice to Bach himself.”

Above all, he addresses the discussion about “historically informed,” as opposed to historical, performance practices that has been ever-present for players of his generation; his quoting of Nikolaus Harnoncourt in this regard (“words that say it all for me”) is worth repeating: “We naturally need to acquaint ourselves with performance practice, but let us not retreat into false purism, into false objectivity, into misinterpreted fidelity to the original. So I beg of you: do not be afraid of vibrato, liveliness or subjectivity, but do be very afraid of coldness, purism, ‘objectivity’ and barren historicism.”

Not only could that be a perfect guide for Shaham’s approach, but Enders also certainly takes this to heart: there is warmth and brightness to his playing and a real liveliness, especially in the dance movements where – as with Shaham – a judicial use of rubato helps to shape the phrases. For the two discs, Enders divides the suites into what he sees as light and dark colours, although he doesn’t really elucidate: Suites 5, 2 and 4 (in C minor, D minor and E flat major) on CD1 bring out the interval of a rising second, while Suites 3, 1 and 6 (in C, G and D major) on CD2 are keys in the circle of fifths. Whether or not that sequence contributes to the overall effect is irrelevant; all that matters is that, like the Shaham, this is a set that can more than hold its own against strong competition, and it’s as enjoyable a cello performance of these Suites as I have heard.

03_Crossings_for_cello.jpgIf you’re interested in contemporary cello music then you’ll certainly want to check out Crossings: New Music for Cello, a new CD featuring the American cellist Kate Dillingham and pianist Amir Khosrowpour (furious artisans FACD 6815). Expenses for the recording, which Dillingham calls a CD of cutting-edge contemporary compositions, were raised through the online crowdfunding platform RocketHub. Dillingham’s description of the music will give you a good idea of what to expect: “The musical expression varies widely: from driving rhythms to expansive, contemplative phrases; long, lyrical lines to in-your-face badass riffs; simple musical statements to bow hair-shredding technical challenges!”

American composers represented here are Gilbert Galindo, David Fetherolf, Gabriela Lena Frank, B. Allen Schulz and Jonathan Pieslak, although the four composers born outside the U.S.A. – Jorge Muñiz, Yuan-Chen Li, Federico Garcia-De Castro and Wang Jie – are all currently active in the American music scene.

The CD booklet includes bios of all the composers, but unfortunately not a word about the music – when and how it came to be written, for instance – although it’s clear from Dillingham’s comments on the RocketHub site that she works closely with most of the composers represented here, particularly those belonging to the composer collectives in New York (Random Access Music) and Pittsburgh (Alia Musica).

Four of the pieces are for solo cello and five for cello and piano. It’s difficult to make any meaningful comments about such a variety of recent pieces, but they are all clearly quite strong, colourful compositions that make an immediate impact; no single work here seems out of place. Both performers are more than up to the challenges – and believe me, there are quite a few!

With a playing time of almost 80 minutes it’s a fascinating portrait of contemporary American cello music. Watch the eight-minute Crossings Documentary on YouTube for background information on the making of the CD; there are also short clips of Gilbert Galindo and Federico Garcia-De Castro discussing their compositions.

04_Philippens_Szymanowski.jpgMyth, the latest CD from the young Dutch violinist Rosanne Philippens, features the music of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski and it’s outstanding (Channel Classics CCS SA 36715). The main work here is the Violin Concerto No.1 Op.35 from 1916, with Xian Zhang conducting the NJO (the National Youth Orchestra of the Netherlands). It’s a beautifully lyrical work in one movement with a glorious rhapsodic main theme, and was written for the Polish violinist Pawel Kochański, who contributed significantly to the solo part and also wrote the cadenza. A good deal of the violin part is up in the stratosphere and requires not only a brilliant, shimmering tone but a rock-solid technical assurance. Philippens has both in abundance. She also clearly has a feel for Szymanowski’s music, having been introduced to the three-movement Myths, Op.30 a few years ago by the pianist Julien Quentin, who joins her for the rest of the CD. Myths, from 1915, was also written for Kochański, and has a distinctly Impressionist feel to it.

Other Szymanowski works presented here are the beautiful Chant de Roxane (an arrangement of an aria from the opera Krol Roger), and the Nocturne and Tarantella Op.28, also from 1915. Again, Philippens displays a brilliant tone and flawless technique in some really difficult music. Szymanowski was influenced by the music of Igor Stravinsky, who was exerting his own influence on the musical world in the years before the Great War, and three short works by the latter complete the CD. Stravinsky’s Firebird was a particular favourite of Szymanowski, and Philippens extends the “Myth” concept to include the Berceuse and Scherzo from the ballet, as well as the later Chanson Russe.

This really is an outstanding CD, full of dazzling playing from a violinist with a strong musical intellect. If you haven’t heard Rosanne Philippens yet, don’t worry – it won’t be long before you do.

05_Enescu.jpgThe Romanian George Enescu, who died in 1955, was arguably the last of the great violinist/composers. Volume 2 of his Complete Works for Violin and Piano has just been released by Naxos (8.572692), and like Volume 1 (Naxos 8.572691) features the terrific German violinist Axel Strauss and the Russian pianist Ilya Poletaev, both of whom are currently on the faculty at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University.

The Violin Sonata No.1 was written in 1897 when Enescu was only 16 years old, and although it leans heavily on the German sonata tradition – especially Brahms – it is a very strong work that draws some outstanding playing from both performers. Two shorter pieces pre-date the sonata: the Ballade Op.4a was originally for violin and orchestra; and the unpublished Tarantella provides ample evidence of Enescu’s technical ability in his teenage years. The Aubade is a 1903 violin and piano version of a short piece written for string trio in 1899. The Hora Unirii from 1917 and the relatively late Andantino malinconico from 1951 complete the selection of effective and attractive shorter pieces. But the real gem on this CD is the Impressions d’enfance Op.28 from 1940, an astonishing suite-like work of ten short movements, played mostly without a break, which traces the day in the life of a child. There’s a folk fiddler, a stream in the garden, a caged bird and a cuckoo clock, a chirping cricket, the moon shining through the window, the howling of the wind in the chimney (a ghostly 23 seconds of scratchy violin solo) and a distant thunder storm at night. In the booklet notes, Poletaev calls the work “…a stupendous compositional tour-de-force… a musical fabric of extraordinary sophistication and richness.” It certainly is, and it’s worth the price of an exceptional CD on its own.

06_Glass_Partita.jpgI didn’t know exactly what to expect from Partita for Solo Violin: Tim Fain Plays Philip Glass (Orange Mountain Music OMM 0050), but what I heard was a revelation. Glass, recently named as laureate of the Glenn Gould Prize, has been a prolific and immensely influential composer for the past 50 years or so, with a far greater range of compositions than the familiar description of him as a “minimalist” would suggest; Glass himself has always disliked that term, feeling that he moved away from the style years ago, and now considers himself a “classicist.” Even so, I wasn’t prepared for such an incredibly strong, idiomatic solo violin work in a very traditional style (Opening; Morning Song; Dance 1; Chaconne Part 1; Dance 2; Evening Song; Chaconne Part 2) which quite clearly pays homage to the Bach Sonatas & Partitas; it’s a towering and powerful composition, strongly tonal and with a wide emotional, technical and dynamic range.

Tim Fain’s outstanding performance is definitive; the Partita is the central work in the recitals that Fain and Glass regularly perform together. There is no CD booklet, so no information on the work’s genesis, but Fain has been collaborating closely with Glass since 2008, when he had a short featured solo in the Book of Longing, Glass’s setting of poems by Leonard Cohen; their enjoying working together led to the writing of the Partita for Fain in 2011.

Three short works complete the CD. Knee 2 from the opera Einstein on the Beach is more what you might expect from Glass – a helter-skelter perpetuum mobile with slight shifts and changes in the patterns and accents. Book of Longing is the solo mentioned above; the contemplative Interludes from the Violin Concerto No.2 bring a marvellous CD to a close.

07_Fratres.jpgFratres is the new CD from ATMA celebrating 30 years of the Quebec chamber orchestra Les Violons du Roy, founded in 1984 by conductor Bernard Labadie (ACD2 3015). Over the years the group has released close to 30 CDs, mostly on the Dorian, Virgin Classics, Naïve, Hyperion, Erato and Analekta labels; since 2004 there have been eight CDs on the Quebec ATMA label, and it is from that catalogue that this self-styled compilation sampler has been put together. Sampler CDs, with their mixture of single extracted movements and short complete pieces, can tend to be less than satisfying in some respects, but the very high performance standards here together with the lovely recording quality and the choice of titles makes this a very attractive release.

The title track is a previously unreleased 2008 recording of the Arvo Pärt composition, featuring violinist Pascale Giguère. There’s a beautiful performance of the Mozart concert aria Chi’ omi scordi di te? by soprano Karina Gauvin, who is also featured in a performance of Britten’s Now sleeps the crimson petal and – along with countertenor Daniel Taylor – in an extract from Bach’s Tilge, Hochster, meine Sünden. There’s a movement from Bartók’s Divertimento, Gluck’s Ballet des Ombres heureuses, Mozart’s Overture to Lucio Silla, Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, a brief Rameau piece and Astor Piazzolla’s Milonga del Angel. Oh – and the Pachelbel Canon. Bet you weren’t expecting that. Labadie conducts most of the tracks; Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducts all but one of the remaining five.

08_Beethoven_Quartets_3.jpgAlso from ATMA, the third and final volume of the outstanding complete cycle of the Beethoven String Quartets by the Quatuor Alcan has just been released (ATMA ACD2 2493). It’s another 3CD set, and features the wonderful late quartets: Opp.127, 130, 131, 132, 133 (Grosse Fuge) and 135. The entire cycle was recorded between May 2008 and December 2012 but, as noted earlier, the fact that all the recordings were made in the excellent acoustics of the Salle Françoys-Bernier at Le Domaine Forget in Saint-Irénée, Quebec means that there is no discernable difference in the recorded sound. There is also no discernable difference in the uniformly high standard of the performances. It really is a terrific set from a terrific ensemble, and a fitting celebration of their 25th anniversary.

09_Stradivaris_Gift.jpgStradivari’s Gift, for Narrator, Violin and String Orchestra, is one of two story-and-music CDs (Amati’s Dream is the other) that will take young listeners on a journey to the violin workshops of 17th-century Cremona (Atlantic Crossing Records ACR 0001). The story and music are by the American author and composer Kim Maerkl, who founded Atlantic Crossing Records, and the violin soloist is her husband Key-Thomas Maerkl; the English actor Sir Roger Moore is the narrator.

The Maerkls hope that the CDs will inspire children to further explore classical music, and their creation here is first class, in much the same style as the well-known Classical Kids series of story-and-music CDs and DVDs. The story is simple, the music clear and uncomplicated but quite beautiful, and the performance of the violin solo part is simply stunning. Although the CD refers to “an original score for violin and string orchestra” all the supporting music here – string orchestra, guitar and harp effects – appears to have been produced on a keyboard synthesizer; it certainly doesn’t diminish the effect of the CD, though.

The story deals with the loss of court violinist Raphael’s Amati violin and its replacement with a violin made for him by Stradivari, and is long enough to be interesting but short enough – at just under 37 minutes – to hold a young person’s attention. Quite appropriately, Key Maerkl performs the solo violin part on a Stradivarius violin made in 1692 – and what a glorious sound it is!

Incidentally, if you’re a bit confused by the dual use of the names Stradivari and Stradivarius when discussing the maker and his instruments, here’s the explanation: the maker’s Italian name was Antonio Stradivari, but the labels he used in his violins were in Latin, showing Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Faciebat (made in Cremona by Antonio Stradivari). As a result, an instrument of his is usually known as a Stradivarius, but Stradivari is the correct form for the maker’s name.

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01_Gdansk_Lute.jpgPieces from the Gdańsk Lute Tablature 4022
Magdalena Tomsińska
Dux DUX 1150 (

The collapse of the Berlin Wall led to the discovery of a lute tablature of Gdańsk dated 1620. It emerged in the East Berlin library service, having been believed lost for 45 years. Some of the 222 pieces in the tablature had their titles and composers literally trimmed off by zealous officials; their attribution has, however, been deduced by Magdalena Tomsińska herself, who scoured many more lute collections to identify several of the pieces played here. The key composer is Frenchman Robert Ballard; some of his courantes and balletti are featured on the CD.

And so to Tomsińska’s choices (32 tracks in 58 minutes). Her balletti are played with a skill and clarity worthy of any concert hall recital. Note, indeed, Balletto Polachos 3, 4 and 30 both for their vigour and the pleasure which the performer imparts.

By far the majority of Tomsińska’s choices are anonymous and one gets the impression they were taken from street fairs and theatres and transcribed directly for lute. This must surely be true of the boisterous Ungaro and Be Merry, which Tomsińska takes in her stride. Her choice also extends to the English dancing tune Nutmegs and Ginger – reflecting the pan-European nature of the original tablature.

By contrast, there are eight pieces for whom composers are attributed, five to Robert Ballard and one each to Alessandro Piccinini, John Sturt and Gregory Huwet. These are played with a certain solemnity compared to the more popular anonymous pieces but Tomsińska puts her heart into all of them, as she does with the longest piece, Monycha. This is demanding but, once again, Tomsińska shows with her inspired playing why her anthology deserves to be bought – and not just by early-music enthusiasts. Buy it if it is the only lute recital you buy this year.


02_Mozart_Hamelin.jpgMozart – Piano Sonatas
Marc-André Hamelin
Hyperion CDA68029

Following his acclaimed Haydn piano sonata recordings, prolific pianist Marc-André Hamelin outperforms even himself in this two-disc release featuring eight Mozart piano sonatas along with some other Mozart solo piano treats. Hamelin is thorough in his attention to detail, rhythm and separation of lines in both hands when tackling the complex technical and musical intricacies in Mozart’s solo piano compositions.

Here are some highlights. Not all the works are technically challenging. His performance of the famous student “little sonata for beginners” Piano Sonata in C Major K545 raises the musical bar for any student of any aptitude. Hamelin is lyrical in the infamous opening Allegro first movement. And his concluding chords of the third movement Rondo are loud yet not banged, resulting in a formidable sensitive ending to an inspirational performance. In contrast, Piano Sonata in F Major K332 is a challenging work. The first movement Allegro is performed with tonal surprises in its orchestra-emulating scoring. The second movement features Hamelin at his very best. This is a touching, lyrical rendition. The bending and stretching of lines leads to a melody played with so much musicality and feeling that words escape me. Gigue in G Major is a robust contrapuntal dance. Clocking in at slightly over one minute, Hamelin plays energetically with imaginative splashes of Mozart-inspired musical humour.

High production quality and thorough liner notes complete this perfect package. Hamelin’s exquisite Mozart makes this the go-to music of the summer!


03_Berlioz_Harold.jpgBerlioz – Intrata to Rob-Roy; Reverie et Caprice; Harold en Italie
James Ehnes; Melbourne Symphony Orchestra; Sir Andrew Davis
Chandos CHSA 5155

The Intrata to Rob-Roy was written as an introduction to Rob-Roy but was so badly received in the first and only performance in 1833 that Berlioz burned the score after the concert. Fortunately there was another copy, but Berlioz had also used two of the melodies in a new work, Harold in Italy, the following year. The two themes are easily recognized and it is rather pleasant to hear them in their earlier setting, particularly as they are given to the winds whose playing is quite angelic.The Reverie and Caprice (1841) is Berlioz’ only work for solo violin and owed its existence to the initial failure of Benvenuto Cellini. It was a soprano aria that was replaced before the first performance. Clever Berlioz made a transcription of it for violin and orchestra which, in longer concerts,  he would give to his concertmaster.

A lifetime addiction to Harold in Italy gives me some license to be critical of any performance and it gave me great pleasure to realize from the opening pages that this orchestra has the texture for Harold. In the first movement, as the melancholy Harold, inspired by Byron’s Childe Harold (the viola), wanders in the mountains, Sir Andrew Davis is not simply beating time but moving the episodes along. The Pilgrims’ March has a comfortable swagger with the viola weaving comfortably through the procession. The Serenade is an appropriately jaunty scene of an Abruzzo and his amore. The last movement, Orgy of the Brigands, should describe just that, with fond memories of the previous episodes. These are not an unruly bunch but take their brigandizing seriously in an orderly, professional manner.

The viola (Harold) is not intended to be part of any event but is merely a wanderer, which is possibly why Paganini, who commissioned the work, found it not to his taste (at the time). James Ehnes’ take on this role is ideal, imparting quiet enjoyment at the events around him. Quite perfect. British conductors have an established tradition as great Berlioz interpreters and Davis may soon join them.

The sound is extraordinarily fine, impressive as a CD but if you have the multi-channel equipment, the SACD layer is encoded with five-channel surround sound.


04_Lortie_Chopin_4.jpgChopin Volume 4 – Waltzes; Nocturnes
Louis Lortie
Chandos CHAN 10852

The early waltzes that Chopin composed were meant to be small personal gifts and tributes – most of them were not even intended for publication. That changed somewhat after the composer’s visit to Vienna in 1831. The precocious 21-year-old reported back to Warsaw with breathless astonishment: “Waltzes are regarded as works here!” By “works” he meant recognized musical pieces, worthy of publication. That he could have doubted that astonishes us equally – these are not throwaway ditties, despite their slender size. Somehow, Chopin managed to squeeze into a space of three to four minutes compositions with their own mutable rhythms and containing micro-movements within their minute frames.

To master Chopin’s waltzes, one needs an equally mutable, mercurial talent. Louis Lortie, the incredibly accomplished Montrealer now residing in Berlin, possesses such talent. For many of us, Lortie is not the first name that comes to mind when you think of master pianists. Yet it is enough to start listening to him play these waltzes to realize the magnitude of his gift. They virtually cascade from his fingers, simultaneously inviting us into a reverie whilst invoking a desire to dance along. Only on a couple of occasions does Lortie rush the tempi, perhaps as if he could not believe that the impulsive, romantic Chopin had really marked them as “moderato.”


Author: Robert Tomas
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05_Mahler_2.jpgMahler – Symphony No.2 “Resurrection”
Catherine Wyn-Rogers; Ailish Tynan; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz
Artek AR-0061-2

I must admit to a certain leeriness when I first laid eyes on the hideous artwork that adorns this recording. Gerard Schwarz and Gustav Mahler facing off, mano a mano, in some sort of grudge match? Has the conductor noted for his advocacy of neglected American music turned a new leaf? As it turns out, the provenance of this live recording is misleading. Though bearing a 2015 copyright, it is actually unreleased material from a Mahler cycle intended for the RLPO Live label, an enterprise launched shortly before Schwarz’s five-year reign in Liverpool that began in 2001. A sponsorship has now brought these tapes back to life. And what of the interpretation? A decent first movement, distinguished only by the unusually broad tempo afforded the secondary theme, followed by a so-so Menuetto. Suddenly from the Scherzo onward the orchestra rallies and everything thereafter is admirably compelling. When we finally arrive at the finale the rafters are shaking!

The sonic quality captured in Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall is most impressive (courtesy of David Pigott, a member of the horn section) and the contribution of the choir is simply outstanding. There remain a few anomalies: the second disc contains only the finale, though the fourth movement vocal solo is designated to be followed without a break by the finale. Usually the break between discs (if needed) occurs after the first movement, where Mahler specifically asks for an extended silence. The editing of the booklet is also frustrating. Schwarz’s accomplishments receive a four-page paean, while the generic description of Mahler’s work rates a mere two, with the remainder devoted to dreary accounts of the secondary roles the singers have appeared in over the years and a page’s worth of white space. Judicious pruning would have easily made room for the pithy, indispensable lyrics for the vocal sections of the work. Recommended nonetheless.


06_Rachmaninov_Goodyear.jpgRachmaninov – Piano Concertos 2 & 3
Stewart Goodyear; Czech National Symphony; Heiko Mathias Förster
Steinway & Sons 30047

Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2 owes its existence to a renowned neurologist by the name of Dr. Nikolai Dahl. At the time, the young composer was despondent over the failure of his first symphony in 1897. But under the good doctor’s guidance, he regained his confidence and creative urge – and the result was the most famous of his four piano concertos. To many people’s ears, the piece has almost become too well known since its premiere in 1901. But this fact certainly didn’t deter Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear on this Steinway recording featuring both the second and third concertos performed with the Czech National Symphony, with Heiko Mathias Förster conducting.

Since concluding his studies at the Curtis Institute and the Juilliard School, this Toronto-born artist has earned an international reputation, and this CD provides ample proof. From the opening measures, his approach to the familiar repertoire is bold but elegant, demonstrating a flawless technique that never succumbs to empty virtuosity. Absent too, is any trace of overt sentimentality, something that is all too easy to do with Rachmaninov. The poignant and wistful Adagio and buoyant finale also prove to be a perfect pairing of artist and orchestra, with the CNS performing with a confident assurance under Förster’s baton.

In many ways, the Concerto No.3 from 1909 is an extension of the second, but even more so – larger in scope and perhaps even more technically demanding. Nevertheless, Goodyear and the CNS rise to the occasion with a polished performance certainly equalling – but not necessarily surpassing – established recordings by Argerich and Ashkenazy. Again, soloist and orchestra produce a warmly romantic sound, particularly in the second movement Intermezzo where the delicate interplay between strings and soloist is particularly admirable.

These are fine performances all around – kudos to Goodyear, Förster and the musicians from Prague for tackling this familiar music and for doing it justice in a very compelling way.


07_Bolshoi_Ballet.jpgGreat Ballets from the Bolshoi –
The Nutcracker; Sleeping Beauty; Giselle;
The Flames of Paris
Bolshoi Ballet
BelAir Classics 306103

The scores of the two Tchaikovsky ballets, particularly The Nutcracker, should be familiar to ballet enthusiasts and Adam’s Giselle to a lesser degree. The choreographer in all three is Yuri Grigorovich, a name that may be familiar to patrons of the “Live from the Bolshoi” ballets shown as special events at the Cineplex theatres that show the “The Met: Live in HD” operas.

However, The Flames of Paris, Stalin’s favourite ballet, may be known of in name only. It was “a classical ballet with music by musicologist and composer Boris Asafyev based on songs of the French Revolution, and originally choreographed by Vasili Vainonen.” It was premiered in November 1932 by the Kirov Ballet and the Bolshoi mounted it in July of 1933. Its original agitprop elements were communist propaganda showing in no uncertain terms the decadence of capitalism leading inevitably to chaos. Of course, the revolutionaries slaughter the aristocrats and there is general rejoicing. In 2008, the original choreography and staging were reconstructed for the Bolshoi by Alexei Ratmansky, who added a love story and expanded the choreography with his own. The company has very recently toured with it to much acclaim, from Hong Kong to London. The 2010 live production is seen here.

The Russians’ astronomical standards of ballet are on full display in every piece. Not only is every dancer in perfect form but each is also of uniform size, which is visually impressive in itself. All the dispositions and angles achieved by the ensemble, once seen, cannot be imagined being done differently. Not only are the visual elements stunning; the sets, the choreography, the costumes and the orchestral renditions all exceed every expectation. There are four different conductors with possible variations in the orchestral personnel, always producing a very Russian sound which could easily and comfortably compete with the best studio productions from elsewhere. The power and authority of the playing is constantly thrilling. The sound is stunning, and in terms of musical reproduction supremely satisfying to even the most critical and jaded ears.

So you don’t care to watch ballet? Then don’t watch and simply listen. You will never hear finer interpretations and productions of this music anywhere in the recorded repertoire.


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