The Humours of Autorickshaw

autorickshaw album coverThe Humours of Autorickshaw
Autorickshaw
Tala Wallah Records TW 005 (autorickshaw.ca)

The JUNO-nominated world music ensemble Autorickshaw’s delightfully exciting fourth album is a rich record of a particular transcultural Toronto musical masala. Make no mistake; The Humours of Autorickshaw is no parochial product however. Rather its achievement resonates across other communities of musicians forging other new musical hybrids. In its ambitious aspirations—adventurous genre mixings, and in some of its lyrics touching, contentious reaches of the human condition—it will resonate with select global audiences.

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Somos Agua: Tony Malaby: Tamarindo

tmalabycd001Somos Agua
Tony Malaby: Tamarindo
Clean Feed CF 304 CD (cleanfeed-records.com)

An essay on the intricacies of saxophone improvisation, New York tenor man Tony Malaby explores every nuance of reed sounds on this matchless session, backed only by the four-square pacing of William Parker’s double bass and the rhythmic flow of drummer Nasheet Waits. Reminiscent of similar trio tours-de-force by Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson, the seven selections make up a suite whose parts flow logically and seamlessly into one another. At the same time, Malaby’s solos confirm his experimental credo by exposing as many split tones and screeches as emotive flutters and gentling tones.  

Never losing sight of the tonal even as his solo explorations appear to produce aural x-rays of his horn’s insides, on the title track the saxophonist’s output is unhurried and relaxed enough to reference  the initial theme, even as his dense multiphonics squeeze the last atom of sound out of his horn. Parker’s power stops or sensitive bowing, plus Waits’ crunches and clatters, aptly second the saxophone flights. Nonetheless, the most edifying example of the Tamarindo trio’s game plan is the 14-minute Can’t Find You. Despite the title, there’s never a moment when the drummer’s intuitive cymbal splashes or drum colours aren’t on track as Malaby stretches stratospheric altissimo cries into slim variations which are finally reconstituted as a powerful narrative. Framing the journey, Parker’s thick stops eventually become supple, supportive strums. With this defining saxophone CD under his belt, it will be instructive to see how Malaby intersects with the local three-saxophones-three-rhythm Kayos Theory sextet when he plays The Rex June 27 and 28.

Editor's Corner - June 2014

00 editorial 01 jeanne lamonJeanne Lamon’s more than 30 years at the helm of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra has been an incredible journey which has resulted in the development of one of the world’s great orchestras and brought respect and renown (and the best period performers in the world) to Toronto. A leader in the true sense of the word, when Lamon declared her intention to retire last year there was a sense of shock throughout the music community, only somewhat mitigated by the announcement that she would stay involved through a newly established legacy project, the Tafelmusik Institute.

Another recent legacy project was the eponymous recording label Tafelmusik Media through which the orchestra has garnered control of its back catalogue, reissuing such classics as Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and producing new CDs and DVDs recorded in Toronto’s flagship venue Koerner Hall. To celebrate her extraordinary association with Tafelmusik the latest offering from the label is a collection of highlights from earlier recordings featuring Lamon in prominent roles entitled The Baroque Virtuoso (TMK1026CD).

Bach’s Concerto for 2 Violins in D Minor, in which Lamon is joined by longtime Tafelmusik colleague Linda Melsted, opens the disc in suitably festive and flamboyant style. This is followed by the Concerto Grosso in C Major after Corelli by Geminiani whose contemplative opening and third movement adagios are contrasted by the playful allegros in which the ensemble and soloist enjoy a merry chase. The full string orchestra is featured in these works, but in Schmelzer’s long slow Sonata III from Sonatae unarum fidium Lamon is showcased alone with the accompaniment of only a chamber organ. Also on a smaller scale, but with full continuo and small string section, is Biber’s Partia V from Harmonia artificioso-ariosa. These, plus another concerto grosso by Geminiani and the “Summer” concerto from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons were recorded in the 1990s and originally released by Sony. The final selection, Bach’s Suite in A Minor for violin and strings after BWV1067, is a more recent performance from a 2011 Analekta recording.

While we wouldn’t normally pay attention to a compilation of earlier releases, this tribute to Jeanne Lamon on the occasion of her departure from Tafelmusik gives a worthy context and a welcome reason to revisit this marvellous music making. Changes of this magnitude which mark an end of an era also give the opportunity for new beginnings and we look forward to the next phase in the history of this important Toronto institution.

Another extraordinary Canadian orchestra with a relatively short history is the National Arts Centre Orchestra, established in 1969 in the nation’s capital under the direction of the late Mario Bernardi. One of the seminal experiences in my own development as a listener was a performance in the early 1970s at Massey Hall which featured Bernardi conducting the NACO from the piano in a Mozart concerto. Although I have forgotten the exact details of that evening – I believe it was one of the “20-something” concertos – what has remained with me is the flamboyance of Bernardi’s performance and way he was able to communicate with the orchestra by a simple nod of the head or lift of the wrist. The musicians, and the audience, were enthralled.

00 editorial 02 mozart hewittNow, more than four decades later, I am again captivated by NACO performances of Mozart concertos. Designed as a “classical” orchestra at less than two thirds the size of a modern symphony, the NACO is perfectly suited for the music of Haydn and Mozart. In this instance the soloist is renowned Canadian Angela Hewitt – I also remember when she won the 1985 Toronto International Bach Piano Competition at which one of the adjudicators was Olivier Messiaen – and the conductor is Finnish rising star Hannu Lintu. Mozart Piano Concertos 22 & 24 (Hyperion CDA68049) features Hewitt’s characteristic crisp and nuanced playing perfectly balanced with the orchestra, whose horns, winds and reeds are in especially fine form. There are extensive and elucidating booklet notes by Hewitt herself and biographical information is included about the soloist, conductor and orchestra. The only thing missing that I would have been interested to know is how it came about that Lintu was selected for the recording rather than the orchestra’s director Pinchas Zukerman, whose recordings of Haydn, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart are referenced in the notes. This recording from the National Arts Centre dates from July last year, so some time after Zucherman’s announcement that he would leave the orchestra in 2015, but still well within his tenure…

Concert note: Angela Hewitt is featured in an unusual pairing with choreographer/dancer Tré Armstrong on June 11 at 9pm in “Keys on the Street – A recital of Urban Dance and Piano” at the Luminato Festival Hub at David Pecaut Square. The program includes music of Bach, Couperin, Messiaen and Debussy. Admission is free.

00 editorial 03 rubbing stone ensembleThe Canadian Music Centre, established ten years before the NACO, has been producing recordings since 1981 through its Centrediscs label. The very first offering was an LP of live electronic music created by the Canadian Electronic Ensemble and over the years electronic and electroacoustic music has had a place in the catalogue in varying degrees. More than three decades since that first offering and having just surpassed the 200-release mark, one of the most recent discs incorporates state-of-the-art computer technology in four of its seven compositions. The Lethbridge Sessions (CMCCD 19213) features Calgary’s Rubbing Stone Ensemble in interactive works by David Eagle, Laurie Radford, Arlan N. Schultz and Anthony Tan as well as acoustic works by Alain Perron, Shelley Marwood and Nova Pon.

The intriguing name of the ensemble was inspired by a landmark of Calgary’s geography and history – a “beautiful big rock […] gracefully presiding over the Calgary region for many centuries and known to native people of the region. It was a place for bison to rub their fur coats, creating smoothed stone surfaces that survive to this day.” The collective of nine musicians dedicated to the creation and performance of new music was founded in 2007 and includes among its instrumentation saxophone, flute, clarinet, piano, harp, percussion, violin, cello and soprano. Jeremy Brown’s saxophones (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone) are the most pervasive influence, appearing in all but one of the variously orchestrated compositions on offer. In fact it was Brown and composer David Eagle who brought the initial intention to fruition and their stamp remains strong on the group. Eagle’s Resound – Soundplay 5 for saxophone and electronics is one of a series of works designed as “games” in which sound files, melodic and spoken fragments, solo and ensemble movements, extensive live processing and sound spatialization can be combined in different ways.

Considering astronomer Edwin Hubble’s discovery that the universe is constantly expanding, contrary to Newton’s law of gravity and Einstein’s collapsing universe model, but intrigued by the existence of such phenomena as black holes where gravity is so great that everything collapses inward, Radford’s Infolding proposes “a concept where sound and energy move inwards, converge […] where intensity is created as events fold inwards wave upon wave…”The work is scored for soprano saxophone, violin, piano, percussion, live signal processing and eight-channel sound. Another work with elevated inspiration, Schultz’s Ikos – kun tu ‘bar ba uses texts created by the composer, meditations on light based on Orthodox liturgy and Tibetan religious philosophy. The extended composition is scored for soprano (recitation of the texts, often buried in the overall textures), tenor saxophone, percussion, harp, piano and processed audio. Tan’s UnRavel, like Eagle’s Resound, uses just one instrument and electronic processing, in this instance a virtuosic violin line performed by David Seidle. As in many of Tan’s works the computer is used to extend the range and textures of the instrumental line both micro- and macroscopically.

Even the purely acoustic works on the CD tend to expand the sonic palette through unusual combinations of instruments – Perron’s Cycle 4 using four saxophones (one player), piano and percussion; Nova Pon’s Wayfaring for tenor saxophone and harp; and even Shelley Marwood’s Merge, which although ostensibly written for the standard “Pierrot” ensemble includes the addition of soprano saxophone giving some unexpected timbres to the mix. All of the composers represented have strong ties to the Prairie Provinces, although a number of them hail from elsewhere and have made Alberta (Eagle and Radford) or Saskatchewan (Perron) their home. Marwood is a native of Alberta but is currently pursuing postgraduate studies at the University of Toronto and Canadian-born Chinese-Malaysian composer Tan currently resides in Germany.                

The Lethbridge Sessions is an eclectic collection of intriguing works by composers ranging from emerging to mid-career, all with strong and unique voices. Congratulations are due to both the Rubbing Stone Ensemble and Centrediscs for bringing them to our attention.

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 thewholenote.com where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels, “buy buttons” for on-line shopping and additional, expanded and archival reviews.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
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Bel Raggio – Rossini Arias

01 vocal 01 aleksandra kurzakBel Raggio – Rossini Arias
Aleksandra Kurzak; Sinfonia Varsovia; Pier Giorgio Morandi
Decca 478 3553

Now here is a disc that once and for all will put a stop to people moaning that the “golden age of singing is over.” Those lucky enough to have attended L’Elisir d’Amore in December 2012 at London’s Covent Garden with Aleksandra Kurzak (and Roberto Alagna) or even before, in 2008, at Kurzak’s sensational debut there in Rossini’s Matilda di Shabran will certainly protest vehemently. The young Polish coloratura non-plus-ultra is following the footsteps of the great Joan Sutherland with her opening number Bel Raggio lusinghier here, the phenomenal aria from Semiramide – and to put it mildly if she (Dame Joan) were still alive, she’d better watch out for her job. Without a doubt “her voice is stupendous, firm, crystal clear in coloratura, beautifully rich in legato” – as The Times of London raves.

This is indeed a stunning recording, one that you’d want never to end and to listen to over and over again. There are nine arias of immense difficulty, emotional scope and a vocal range extending from strong deep notes into the stratosphere of shattering high notes, which unfortunately I cannot identify (not having perfect pitch). The hair-raising Rossini fioraturas she sails through lightly as a feather and she refers to these “as the easy part.” Kurzak comes from a musical family; her mother was an opera singer and her father a horn player and she is also ravishingly beautiful with a lovely stage presence. Splendid accompaniment too by Sinfonia Varsovia conducted with great flair by Pier Giorgio Morandi. This is her second release for Decca and it’s a winner.

 

Wagner – Wesendonck Lieder; (excerpts from) Tannhäuser; Tristan und Isolde

01 vocal 02 wagner wessendonkWagner – Wesendonck Lieder; (excerpts from) Tannhäuser; Tristan und Isolde
Anne Schwanewilms; ORF Vienna RSO; Cornelius Meister
Capriccio C5174

Named Singer of the Year by Opernwelt magazine, highly acclaimed German dramatic soprano Anne Schwanewilms steps proudly into the league of such legends as Lotte Lehmann, Kirsten Flagstad and Birgit Nilsson, and is equally at home on the opera stage and as a lieder recitalist. Her discography is already impressive, but this new release will serve as a good introduction to her as a true “sound painter.”

As befits the composer’s bicentennial, this issue is more dedicated to Wagner than to the singer, so the orchestra plays a big part. To begin, a rousing performance in sonic splendour of Tannhäuser Overture and Venusberg Music, the Paris version that was his post-Tristan effort and therefore harmonically far more adventurous than the original. Tristan Prelude follows later where the famous Tristan chord’s break-up into two is manifest, eloquently performed.

The soprano enters with the Hallenaria from Tannhäuser full of the joyful anticipation (and some shattering high notes) of Elizabeth expecting her long-awaited lover’s return. In the Wesendonck Lieder Schwanewilms’ interpretive skills and her tones as a sound painter are well tested. This is more difficult territory and there is a lot of beautiful shading and innigkeit in this most Schopenhauerian poetry, written by Wagner’s beloved, Mathilde Wesendonck. Tristan is foreshadowed already in these songs, especially in No.3 (Im Treibhaus) and No.5 (Träume). The final offering is suitably the Liebestod, sung ecstatically as it should be, as we reluctantly bid farewell to this exquisite recording.

 

Britten: The Rape of Lucretia, Op.37

01 vocal 03 britten lucretiaBritten: The Rape of Lucretia, Op.37
Cast of the 2001 Aldeburgh Production; English National Opera Orchestra; Paul Daniel
Opus Arte OA 1123 D

The Rape of Lucretia is one of Britten’s most difficult subjects. It is almost a graphic description of a rape and although it should be a fit subject for opera, it is almost unmanageable both to observe and to stage.

This production is a gripping and successful mounting of this harrowingly painful illumination of the dark side of human nature. Lucretia was the first of his chamber operas, which were succeeded by his Church Parables Trilogy, all valued for their modest demands.

Britten’s ritual structuring of this unusual piece makes it possible to negotiate the more lurid aspects of this tragedy, and the production strips away the operatic stage, make-up, ritualizing and costuming devices that would have served to objectify the depiction of the rape. The opera makes it clear that this violation destroys Lucretia’s soul. Her relationship with her husband will be demolished and, in her subjective context, the only solution is suicide. Yannis Thavoris’ set and costumes, appropriate for the time and David McVicar’s direction bring Ronald Duncan’s libretto to explicit realisation. The Greek Chorus, whose classic role is only to comment on the proceedings, is brought as much as possible into the dramatic space, frequently approaching the protagonists but never engaging with them. Persuasively sung and acted with ardour by John Mark Ainsley and Orla Boylan.

Contralto Sarah Connolly is a perfect Lucretia, patrician in bearing and maternal in spirit, and baritone Christopher Maltman is the Etruscan Tarquinius, supercilious in his soldier’s tunic and cuirass, with legs bare, making a formidable sexual aggressor. Clive Bayley is Collatinus, her husband and Leigh Melrose sings Junius. Catherine Wyn-Rogers is Bianca and Mary Nelson is Lucia.

Performed in the ambience of The Maltings in Aldeburgh, Britten’s own theatre, by a superlative cast on a starkly true set, this production will probably never be equalled, let alone surpassed. The 2001 BBC documentation is faultless and the finished DVD puts us in the audience. A unique treasure.

 

Dear Theo – 3 Song Cycles by Ben Moore

01 vocal 04 dear theoDear Theo – 3 Song Cycles by Ben Moore
Paul Appleby; Susanna Phillips; Brett Polegato; Brian Zeger
Delos DE 3437

Ben Moore is an American composer of song cycles, chamber music and of late, opera, well-regarded in the Metropolitan Opera circles. That regard comes from his previous collaborations with Deborah Voigt, Susan Graham, Isabel Leonard, Frederica von Stade, Robert White, Lawrence Brownlee, Nathan Gunn and the darling of Broadway, Audra McDonald. His choice of texts is equally careful and accomplished – John Keats, W.B. Yeats, Anna Wickham, Muriel Rukeyser, Vincent van Gogh and Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Lyrically set and accompanied by the great Brian Zeger, the songs will seem instantly familiar, because of Ben Moore’s homage to Benjamin Britten’s writing style. Paul Appleby renders the dark letters of the increasingly sick painter with the right balance of anguish and raw energy, while Brett Polegato lends his velvet-smooth voice to Keats’ lyricism to create an instant classic. The only voice that did not convince me in this recording is that of Susanna Phillips. This young artist with a rapidly growing popular appeal may be better suited to a different repertoire, but here her soprano sounds glassy-fragile and slightly pushed. Regardless of that reservation, modern song lovers will find it a fine disc.

 

The Rosenblatt Recitals – An Overview

Nowadays amidst tightening budgets, cutbacks and a growing sense among the public that the golden age of singing is over, it must be very difficult and frustrating to pursue a career as a singer. For precisely this reason a British philanthropist, Ian Rosenblatt, under the aegis of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden set up a foundation in 2000 to support young singers by giving recitals, enabling them to be discovered by the public and furthering their career. Among the number of recordings received I’ve selected three artists who impressed me the most with their imagination and artistry, but I encourage the reader to investigate the complete series at opusarte.com for their particular interest:

01 vocal 05a francesco meliBritten – Michelangelo Sonnets; Liszt – Petrarch Sonnets; Francesco Meli (Opus Arte OA CD9019 D). Young Italian tenor Francesco Meli is celebrated for a voice of lyricism, purity of tone and wonderful bel canto that has made him an ideal Verdi tenor and he sang a number of roles in the Tutto Verdi series to world acclaim. In this recording he tackles the two above-noted song-cycles, complemented with an exciting selection of French and Italian repertoire, accompanied by Matteo Pais.

01 vocal 05b ekaterina siurinaAmore e Morte (Opus Arte OA CD9017D). Spectacular Russian spinto soprano Ekaterina Siurina,who has already made her debut at La Scala and the Met and is in great demand today all over the world, is featured in a most entertaining disc of songs by Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini and Verdi in a series of alternately flirtatious and grief-stricken ballads, with Iain Burnside at the piano.

01 vocal 05c susan chilcottShining River (OA CD9016D) features Susan Chilcott,the great English lyric soprano whose young life tragically ended in 2003 and who created many memorable heroines (e.g. Verdi, Janáček, Britten) on the opera stage. The Shining River is of course the Ohio, starting off a program of American traditional and poetic songs by Aaron Copland and others, where her supreme artistry, youthful vitality and imagination is really a “shining river” surging through this very heartwarming disc. A great gift for young and old alike. Once again Iain Burnside is the accompanist.

 

Caccini – L’Euridice

02 early 01 caccini euridiceCaccini – L’Euridice
Soloists; Concerto Italiano; Rinaldo Alessandrini
Naïve OP 30552

In 1607 Carlo Magno wrote to his brother that there would soon be a performance of “a piece that will be unique because all the performers speak musically.” The piece was Monteverdi’s Orfeo and the letter clearly shows that a work that was sung throughout or, as we would call it, an opera, was felt to be a new thing. The earliest opera was Jacopo Peri’s Dafne (1597 or 1598) but, since the music for that work has not survived, opera is generally thought to begin with the two Eurydice operas (written to the same libretto) by Peri and Giulio Caccini, both of which date from 1600. Musicologists have usually dismissed the Caccini version. On the other hand, the printed material that comes with an earlier recording of the Caccini (conducted by Nicholas Achten, on the Ricercar label) claims that Caccini, not Peri, was the true founder of the new genre.

The musical language of Caccini’s opera, the stile rappresentativo, is based on the impassioned speech of the solo voice. It is more melodious than mere recitative but it never develops into aria. Nor does it have the musical inventiveness or instrumental variety that characterize Monteverdi’s opera only a few years later. Whether or not the Caccini is inferior to Peri’s version, it has a great deal of dramatic power and is certainly worth listening to, especially when it is sung and played as well as it is here. Rinaldo Alessandrini and the Concerto Italiano have given us many fine recordings, particularly of the Monteverdi Madrigals, and this CD does not disappoint.

 

Leclair – Complete Sonatas for Two Violins - Greg Ewer; Adam Lamotte

02 early 02 leclair 2 violinsLeclair – Complete Sonatas for Two Violins
Greg Ewer; Adam Lamotte
Sono Luminus DSL-92176
(sonoluminus.com)

This two-CD set does indeed include all 12 violin duos by the French violin virtuoso Jean-Marie Leclair, six each in his Opp.3 and 12 collections. Leclair’s compositional brilliance is in marrying Italian and French styles with endlessly interesting and entertaining results. A dancer in his younger life, Leclair has an innate sense of dance rhythms and even the most ferocious of his allegro movements possesses grace, elegance and warmth. His writing for two violins, in particular, makes full use of the sonic possibilities of each instrument. Each part has equal prominence and there is an intricate relationship of soloistic and accompaniament duty-sharing as one finds in the gamba duos of Marais from a generation before. Along with Leclair’s sonatas and concertos, these duos deserve wider recognition and more frequent performance.

Ewer and Lamotte display an obvious fondness for this repertoire and take great care to bring out the expressiveness and line in each of these delightful sonatas. My one minor wish is that they might have occasionally made a more extreme tempo choice, either on the fast or slow side of the equation. That being said, their performances are poised, elegant and full of colour, contrast and life. It was a pleasant surprise to read the informative program notes by Montreal’s Matthias Maute.

 

Telemann – Miriways

02 early 03 telemann miriwaysTelemann – Miriways
Markus Volpert; Ulrika Hofbauer; L’Orfeo Barockorchester; Michi Gaigg
CPO 777 752-2

The Opera House in Hamburg, the first public opera house in the German-speaking world, opened in 1678. The operas it staged were in German, although they sometimes included Italian arias. Initially the major composer was Reinhold Keiser; later younger composers like Handel and Johann Mattheson gained their start in Hamburg. Telemann settled in Hamburg in 1721. He soon became the director of the company and wrote many operas for it. Most Hamburg operas dealt with mythology or ancient history but occasionally more topical subjects were introduced: Keiser wrote Masaniello Furioso in 1706; its subject was the 1647 Neapolitan revolt against the Spanish rulers of the city. Mattheson wrote an opera about Boris Godunov in 1710. Telemann’s 1728 Miriways was more topical than either. Its main character is a Pashtun emir from Kandahar, who, supposedly, defeated the Persians and conquered Isfahan in 1709.

Although the opera is in German, it is based on the Italian opera seria pattern with elaborate da capo arias. There is some interesting experimentation: in the first act the Persian Nisibis sings an aria, in which she invokes sleep, and appropriately falls asleep in the middle, in the B section, on the dominant! An oriental colouring is provided by the brilliant and taxing parts for the corni da caccia. In this performance recorded live in Theatre Magdeburg the opera is well sung and well played. Magdeburg was Telemann’s home town and the Magdeburg theatre is committed to performing all his works. Telemann’s operas are not well known and this lively (and live) performance can be wholeheartedly welcomed.

 

Handel – Tamerlano

02 early 04 handel tamerlanoHandel – Tamerlano
Xavier Sabata; Max Emanuel Cenčić; John Mark Ainsley; Karina Gauvin; Ruxandra Donose; Pavel Kudinov; Il Pomo D’Oro; Riccardo Minasi
Naïve V 5373

The story of Tamerlano, or Timur the Lame, and his victory over the Ottoman sultan Bajazet provided perfect fodder for the operas of Baroque’s greatest masters (Handel and Vivaldi), as well as a slew of lesser composers, Gasparini amongst them. The peasant who rose to rule most of Asia, from Anatolia to northern India, and claimed to be a descendant of Genghis Khan, was essentially a 15th-century version of Alexander the Great. His defeat of the Ottoman Empire offered Europe a 50-year breather from a war on its eastern flank. His imprisonment and killing of Bajazet was already being used in Great Britain as a political metaphor for the struggle against the house of Stuart and plays on the theme were staged in early November of each year before Handel wrote his opera. In 1724, at its premiere, Tamerlano was joined by two other plays on the subject. It proved to be one of Handel’s great successes, in no small part because of numerous, brilliant arias and the dramatic tension of Bajazet’s suicide. In this recording, as in most if not all Naïve productions (the label is famous for recording all of the works by Vivaldi), the playing is meticulous and the voices… The voices are, to be frank, fantastic! If we only had such an ensemble in the recent COC production of Hercules! Karina Gauvin astounds with her ongoing vocal development, and Sabata and Cenčić are both delightful discoveries for this reviewer. Bravi!

 

Bach – Six Partitas from Clavier-Übung I (1731) - Rafael Puyana

02 early 05 bach harpsichordBach – Six Partitas from Clavier-Übung I (1731)
Rafael Puyana
SanCtuS SCS-027-028-029 (sanctusrecordings.com)

Lavish is an understatement when it comes to describing the cover and booklet for this interpretation by the late Rafael Puyana of these six partitas. They are a tribute to a breathtaking odyssey in which Puyana’s teacher Wanda Landowska first saw the three-manual harpsichord used in this recording – back in 1900. The instrument was acquired and painstakingly restored by Puyana, but not until 2013 was his 1985 recording made public on these CDs.

 The very first Praeludium and Allemande indicate the joy and pleasure that Bach discovered when composing the partitas. Indeed, the rural background of the allemandes, courantes and sarabandes found in each of the partitas show how important this provenance was for Bach. This light quality is shared by the writer of the sleeve notes regarding the allemande: “If it is treated as being in quadruple time, the player is obliged to take it more slowly, the end result being frankly soporific. Many contemporary harpsichordists have bored us to death through over-literal interpretations…” No such anxieties here; listen to the gushing quality of the Giga or the Sinfonia which opens Partita II, not to mention the heavenly quality of the latter’s Sarabande. Its concluding Capriccio is “technically fiendish to master.”

 Partita III demonstrates both the speed of the Corrente [sic] and the slow, stately Sarabande which immediately follows it in total contrast. The three last movements (Burlesca, Scherzo, Gigue) return the listener to the demanding complexity of Bach’s composition.

 Particularly testing (even in comparison with other partitas) is the overture to Partita IV, with its almost glissando effects. Everything else is sedate by comparison until the concluding Gigue places its own demands on Puyana’s skills. Partita V is far more spirited, as Praeludium, Gigue and Corrente contrast with the slower Sarabande.

 And finally Partita VI, starting with the only Toccata in the collection, which culminates in a complex and varied set of sequences. The subsequent movements are light but expressive. All in all, the comment in the notes is absolutely correct: Bach’s six partitas were unprecedented in their virtuosity, length and intensity. They amazed contemporary harpsichordists.

 Soporific and bored to death? Not with Rafael Puyana’s interpretations.

 

In Translation – Selections from JS Bach’s Cello Suites - Amy Porter

02 early 06 amy porter bachIn Translation – Selections from JS Bach’s Cello Suites
Amy Porter
Equilibrium EQ 124 (equilibri.com)

What an audacious undertaking, to record J.S. Bach’s cello suites played on the flute. Despite all we hear about composers of the Baroque era encouraging musicians to play their works on instruments other than the ones for which they were written, these suites seem made for the cello, and are indelibly associated with it, particularly because of their introduction to mainstream music-making in the 20th century by the legendary cellist, Pablo Casals. Since Casals, every cellist able to play them, including Rostropovich, Yo-Yo Ma and a host of others have performed and recorded them.

Outrageous as the undertaking may seem, Amy Porter almost pulls it off: she plays the Prelude of Suite 1, the Sarabande of Suite 2 and the Prelude and Sarabande of Suite 4 with an effortless, ethereal and contemplative serenity, which to me works as well as any number of interpretations by cellists. Her technical brilliance in the Prelude of Suite 6 is striking, especially because she carries her virtuosity lightly; it’s just what she does – no big deal.

Where things don’t go so well is in the dances – the allemandes, courantes and gigues. Rostropovich plays these like dances, with great energy, vitality and forward motion. This is what Porter doesn’t do. She stays in a contemplative frame of mind: when the music is crying out for dynamic physicality it becomes static. While the more contemplative movements are often exquisite, the rest is dragged down by dances that don’t dance.

 

Beethoven – Symphonies 1-4 & Overtures - Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra; Bruno Weil

03 classical 01 beethoven tafelmusikBeethoven – Symphonies 1-4 & Overtures
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra; Bruno Weil
Tafelmusik TMK1023CD2 (tafelmusik.org)

Toronto’s Tafelmusik ensemble is nearing completion of their long-term Beethoven Symphony Project with this release of the first four symphonies of Beethoven on their own independent label, with only the Ninth yet to appear on disc. Tafelmusik, nominally considered a Baroque ensemble, is here expanded to roughly 40 players with a larger string section, though this added strength is attenuated by the use of gut strings and the total suppression of vibrato. Bruno Weil, a longtime collaborator with the orchestra, draws a finely articulated and transparent response from the rarely seen Tafelmusik podium.

The performances of the first two symphonies (programmed on separate discs), though rich in detail, seem to take their time to fully blossom. Surprisingly, the strikingly subversive series of dominant chords that launches the First Symphony are tossed off quite nonchalantly, though it gradually becomes evident that Weil is a master of the slow burn. The subsequent Andante movements of both works, though fleetly paced in accordance with Beethoven’s after-the-fact metronome marks, in my opinion have a tediously conventional character that is difficult for any conductor to overcome. All is put right however with a pair of powerful and scintillating finales.

The renderings of the Third and Fourth Symphonies can be recommended without qualification; both are superb throughout. The Third in particular (previously paired with Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony in an earlier release) has a rare sense of urgency and spontaneity and offers many outstanding solo contributions; I was particularly enchanted by the deliciously tangy pair of oboes and the brassy stopped tones of the three horn players.

The two-disc set is flanked by two overtures, opening with the Prometheus Overture and ending with a commanding performance of the Coriolanus Overture. These live performances were recorded in Toronto’s Koerner Hall in 2012 and 2013 with exceptional clarity yet with nary a peep to be heard from the audience.

 

Vierne – String Quartet; Pierné – Piano Quintet

03 classical 02 vierne pierneVierne – String Quartet; Pierné – Piano Quintet
Goldner String Quartet; Piers Lane
Hyperion CDA68036

The Goldner Quartet from Australia should be better known. Dene Olding and Dimity Hall, violins, Irina Morozova, viola, and Julian Smiles, cello, are brilliant in these seldom-heard works. YouTube footage shows the near-blind Louis Vierne (1870-1937) playing the organ, erect and with head completely still, as though totally wrapped up in a vision of the music that streams forth effortlessly from minimal finger and foot motions. His String Quartet in D minor, Op.12 (1894) similarly seems a natural and complete mental conception from the young composer. Everything happens at just the right time. The Goldner Quartet brings it off confidently, with impeccable ensemble in the delightful Intermezzo and deep feeling in the Andante.

Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937) was a Paris conductor-composer who led the Colonne Orchestra in important premieres of compositions by Stravinsky, Ravel and Debussy. Playing his sprawling late-Romantic Piano Quintet in E minor, Op.41 (1916), the Goldners do their best along with Australian pianist Piers Lane. This is a remarkable work but, despite harmonic inventiveness, the composer’s obsessive repetition of rhythmic patterns in the first movement becomes troubling. The second movement features absolutely charming handling of the zortzico, a Basque dance in 5/8 time. Yet the many repetitions of the tune, re-harmonized using almost every move in the late-19th-century toolkit, were more than I could take. To be sure, the work has some fine mystical moments and Lane is a true virtuoso in the last movement’s near-crazy ending!

 


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