03_Tafelmusik_Dreams.jpgHouse of Dreams
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra; Jeanne Lamon
Tafelmusik TMK1020DVDCD

Review

Alison Mackay plays violone and double bass with Tafelmusik. She has also devised several elaborate and imaginative audiovisual programs for both Tafelmusik and the Toronto Consort. An earlier such program for Tafelmusik, The Galileo Project, was released in March 2012. A month before that date House of Dreams was first performed at Banff. It has since been shown elsewhere in Canada (including Toronto), in the US, Australia and New Zealand.

House of Dreams is structured around one palace (in Paris) and four houses (in London, Venice, Delft and Leipzig) which are important to the story that Mackay has written. In the London section, for instance, we are taken into Handel’s house and we can see and hear his music with, as background, reproductions of the paintings which we know he owned. The musicians play on the DVD without scores (an impressive achievement in itself) and there are many lovely moments of musical and dramatic interchange, such as the item in the Handel section with the violinists Cristina Zacharias and Thomas Georgi. I have to say though that occasionally there is an unconvincing over-insistence on the players’ part in their attempt to bring out how much they are enjoying this. And it may be my imagination but were there not also moments of self-parody?

The DVD comes with a CD which contains the soundtrack (of the music, not the narration). I was especially taken with the slow movement of Vivaldi’s Lute Concerto (Lucas Harris), the Sweelinck harpsichord solo (Charlotte Nediger) and the “Allegro” from Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins (Jeanne Lamon and Aisslinn Nosky). The performances are superb throughout but I cannot pass over the wonderful woodwind playing (John Abberger and Marco Cera, oboe, and Dominic Teresi, bassoon).

Listen

George Frideric Handel, Prelude to "As with rosy steps," from Theodora

Antonio Vivaldi, Largo from Concerto in D Major for lute RV 93

Henry Purcell, Fantasia in 3 parts upon a ground

Video

 

01_Mork_Enescu.jpgOne of the first CDs I ever acquired was a 1987 solo disc with Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk performing works by Arne Nordheim, George Crumb, Ingvar Lidholm and Zoltán Kodály. In his mid-20s at the time, Mørk was playing a 1723 Montagnana cello, with a scroll made by Stradivari bought for his use by the SR Bank. I’m not sure what impressed me most at the time, the young man’s incredible technique and musicality, the breadth of style in the contemporary repertoire presented, the gorgeous sound of the instrument or the fact that a Norwegian bank was so supportive of the arts. (It is perhaps an interesting parallel to note that the Canada Council Musical Instrument Bank, now with $41,000,000 in instrumental holdings, began at the initiative of cellist Denis Brott who with the help of W.I.M. Turner, then CEO of Consolidated Bathurst Inc., raised funds to acquire the 1706 Turner-Brott Tecchler cello which is currently on a career loan to Mr. Brott. Instruments acquired by the Canada Council since that initial purchase are loaned on a three-year cycle to deserving young artists as determined by competition.)

Since my first exposure to Mørk I have continued to follow his career with interest, through recordings of the Bach and Britten solo suites, Chopin, Grieg, Sibelius, Prokofiev and Shostakovich sonatas, but more particularly in a discography that includes almost the entire concertante cello canon. Having pretty much exhausted the standard orchestral repertoire, his most recent release sees him performing George Enescu’s Symphonie Concertante with the Finnish Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra under Hannu Lintu (Ondine ODE 1198-2). From the dark opening chord with its underlying kettle-drums we are assured of a rich and rewarding experience and we don’t have to wait long for confirmation as the cello enters with a warm and powerful melody that carries us on throughout the first movement. Surprisingly this slow movement is followed by another, also marked Assez lent, with the cello in lamentation over muted horns. The finale is labelled Majesteux and the performance lives up to this moniker with uplifting orchestral textures and soaring cello lines culminating with a kind of molto perpetuo cadenza once again accompanied by an undertone of timpani. Although not mentioned in the liner notes, as far as I can find out Mørk still plays the Montagnana cello. Certainly the instrument used here is a treasure, whatever its provenance.

The Romanian Enescu (1881-1955) was a prodigy, entering the Vienna Conservatory at seven and graduating at 13 after which he went on to Paris where he studied with Jules Massenet and Gabriel Fauré. A concert of his works was held in 1897, followed in quick succession by the composition of three orchestral works, Poème Roumain and two Romanian Rhapsodies. Although acclaimed as a violinist he was also an accomplished cellist and it was with the Symphonie Concertante (1901) described above that he first came to international attention. This disc pairs the cello work with the Symphony No.1 (1905), a work which is firmly rooted in the late Romantic style of the age, framed in a traditional three-movement fast-slow-fast form. It is a fully mature work that belies the age of the composer and I find it surprising that his music is not more often performed and recorded. Ondine is doing what it can to rectify this in an ongoing series, including two recent releases with these same forces featuring subsequent symphonic works by Enescu.

02_Kirk_Elliott.jpgWith the exception of the Enescu, my listening has been more “pot pourri” than usual in the past month, with offerings running the gamut of musical styles and a time frame beginning in the Middle Ages, if liner notes are to be believed. I’ll begin with the most eclectic of all, Widdershins (pipistrellemusic.com), a project conceived by multi-instrumentalist Kirk Elliott which purports to explore “The Legend of Tristan Shoute,” a mythical composer, or at least one of mythical proportions. Puns abound in the extensive album notes which include a quotation from “musicologist Winchurch Stonhill” describing Shoute as “a fiddle, inside a misery, wrapped in an echidna.” This latter it seems is an Australian mammal also known as a spiny anteater… I learn something new every day!

We are told that although there is no factual evidence for the existence of Tristan Shoute, “stories have persisted throughout the ages of a talented, yet dissolute musician who curiously pops up time and again, in different locations, even different time periods, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, colonial America…” If the repertoire included here is any indication his influence (and influences) stretch even further, reflecting a plethora of musickes and instruments including those of the present day (vibraphone, electric bass and electric guitar). A virtual one-man band, Elliott performs here on lute, vielles, citern, assorted bagpipes, rebek, bouzouki, Celtic harp and much, much more, but is also abetted in his mischief by the Orchestra of Unmitigated Gaul comprised of such familiar baroque specialists as Alison Melville, Colin Savage, Margaret Gay and Ben Grossman plus vocalists including Rebecca Campbell, David Fallis and John Pepper to name but a few.

The disc opens with Elliott’s arrangement – almost all the tracks are Elliott originals or arrangements – of the anonymous 14th century In Vino Blabitas familiar from the original Carmina Burana collection. Widdershins is a 17th-century gavotte featuring bagpipes, a rhythm section of bass and drum kit and nasal vocalise by Katherine Hill. This is followed by Stone Cold Pilgrims, a roots-style instrumental ballad introduced by a wolf call and featuring slide guitar, harmonica and bird sounds among other folksy turns. Venus Transit with its bagpipe, nyckleharpa, hurdy-gurdy and dumbek is particularly effective in depicting a time long gone, and the medley of a 16th-century ronde/salterelle by T. Susato and the traditional fiddle-tune Cripple Creek is a standout, as is Yolanda Marrakesh with its haunting sitar melody.

Elliott’s clever parody (in all senses of the word) offers wonderful entertainment and suggests that Peter Schickele’s PDQ Bach has a long-lost brother in arms, now found in a character fondly known as Widdershins.

03_En_Trois_Couleurs.jpgEn Trois Couleurs (ATMA ACD2 2709) is another eclectic disc, although one more firmly rooted in the 20th and 21st centuries, featuring music for two pianos and percussion performed, and in many cases composed by, François Bourassa, Yves Léveillé and Marie-Josée Simard. The overall feel of the disc is jazz-ish, with the opening Pantomime reminiscent of the French chamber-jazz style of Claude Bolling, but Alberto Ginastera’s In the First Pentatonic Major Mode, Keiko, the group’s collective tribute to Japanese marimba virtuoso Keiko Abé and Léveillé’s Zone Indigène provide contrast with their explorations of other sonic worlds. Diapasons (tuning forks) is a contemplative group composition with a variety of chime and bell-like sounds complemented by sparse piano textures whereas Mike Mainieri’s Self Portrait for vibes and pianos is quite straight-ahead mainstream, almost smooth, jazz. The disc concludes with the title track, perhaps the most adventurous in its sparseness while combining a wide range of timbres, juxtaposing the myriad textures available through the vast array of percussion instruments and extended piano techniques employed. In some ways this is a surprising disc for what is not present. With piano and percussion we might well have expected forays into minimalist ostinati and/or wall of sound banging. Instead we are treated to a thoughtful and often delicate performance offering another side of “struck” instruments.

04_Tintomara.jpgTintomara (Channel Classics CCS SA 36315) is an eclectic disc involving trumpet and trombone in various combinations; trumpeter Wim Van Hasselt and trombonist Jörgen van Rijen are featured in solos and duets, accompanied by basso continuo, piano and even a brass choir. The disc opens with three Baroque works by Henry Purcell including the famous Sound the Trumpet. My initial reaction was surprise at how mellow these brass instruments sound in the context, especially in Hark, how the songsters of the grove where they manage to blend into the texture of an ensemble that includes two recorders. The title track, by Swede Folke Rabe (b. 1935), is a duet where once again, except for an occasional raucous blat from the trombone, the overall impression is subdued; not a mood I normally relate to the trumpet. Jean-Michel Damase (1928-2013) was a composer rooted in the music of Debussy and Ravel, although he includes the complex rhythms and harmonies we’ve come to associate with the French school of the mid-20th century. His Trio for trumpet, trombone and piano reflects this in its lushness and integration of contrasting voices, with idiomatic and at times playful writing for the two horns. Martijn Padding’s One Trumpet and Florian Magnus Maier’s Slipstream for trombone solo and “loop station” are showpieces that allow each soloist to shine, albeit in very different ways. The concluding Eastwind by Jean-François Michel pits the soloists against an ensemble of four trumpets and four trombones and provides a rousing, at times Flight of the Bumblebee-like conclusion to this disc. Concert note: Jörgen van Rijen gives trombone masterclasses on March 9 and 11 at the Royal Conservatory and a free public recital at 7pm on March 10 in Mazzoleni Hall. 

05_Sliding_Delta.jpgThe final disc I will mention this month is one that takes me back to the music of my formative years when I first discovered acoustic blues. I am a bit embarrassed to admit that Michael Jerome Browne, who has evidently been a fixture on the blues circuit for something like three decades, is a new name to me, but in my defense it’s been almost half a century since I had my own aspirations in that regard. Indiana-born Browne was raised in Montreal where from the age of nine he accompanied his English-professor parents to the jazz, blues and folk clubs of their adopted city. Enthralled by the roots music of Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Lightnin’ Hopkins, he took up guitar, harmonica, and later mandolin, fiddle and banjo. In his teenage years he embarked on a solo career and toured Europe and North America as a one-man band. Returning to Canada he joined the Stephen Barry Blues Band as singer and guitarist and stayed with that storied group long enough to record four albums before returning to a solo career in 1999. Since that time he has recorded six albums of which the latest, Sliding Delta (Borealis Records BCD233 borealisrecords.com), features a wealth of traditional material from such artists as Mississippi John Hurt, Memphis Minnie, Fred McDowell and Blind Lemon Jefferson performed in authentic and utterly convincing renditions. The liner notes give extensive credit and context to the origins of the songs and there is a full-page “Guitar Nerd’s Corner” which gives exhaustive details of the instruments used and tunings adopted. For the uninitiated I’ll just mention that Browne accompanies his distinctive voice and harmonica playing on various vintage 12- and 6-string acoustic and National “steel” guitars, mandolin and banjo, the pedigree of each of which is thoroughly documented for the cognoscenti. If, like me until now, you are unaware of Michael Jerome Browne and have any interest at all in acoustic roots music, I urge you to check out this disc. You can sample it at michaeljeromebrowne.com.

  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. 

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
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Bach – Cantatas Vol.1 (182; 81; 129)
J.S. Bach-Stiftung; Rudolf Lutz
Bach-Stiftung A909

The J.S. Bach-Stiftung, a Swiss enterprise, is committed to performing all of J.S. Bach’s vocal music. Many of these performances (we are not told how many) will also find their way to CDs. This is the first installment; recorded in 2007 and 2008 and published in 2011 but only now released in North America (the project has now reached volume 12). It contains recordings of three cantatas: the early Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (BWV182), written for Weimar in 1714, and two cantatas which belong to Bach’s first Leipzig cycle: Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? (BWV81) and Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott (BWV129).

The conductor, Rudolf Lutz, uses a small chamber orchestra and a small chamber choir. The size is in between the strictly one-to-a-part approach of Joshua Rifkin and the slightly larger ensembles employed by conductors like John Eliot Gardiner or Philippe Herreweghe. The singing is strong (I especially liked Claude Eichenberger, one of the alto soloists) but the real glory of the performances is in the instrumental work. There is a wonderful duet between violin (Renate Steinmann) and recorder (Armelle Plantier) at the opening of the first cantata and an equally fine oboe d’amore obbligato part (Esther Fluor) in the alto aria of the final work.

Of the three cantatas on this disc only the second is at all well known (it is described in great detail in John Eliot Gardiner’s recent biography). I was glad to make the acquaintance of the other two.

 

02_Mozart_Piau.jpgMozart – Desperate Heroines
Sandrine Piau; Mozarteum Orchestra, Salzburg; Ivor Bolton
Naïve V5366

Sandrine Piau has not recorded the music of Mozart since her Mozart Opera Arias in 2001. The latest album on the progressive label Naïve (known for its recordings of the complete works of Vivaldi) is dedicated to Mozart heroines, but not necessarily the best-known ones. The disc is certainly filled with arias that rarely receive recording treatment. This speaks to Piau’s in-depth knowledge of the composer’s output and her security in the belief that as a soprano in demand all over the world, she has arrived and does not have to cater to more common tastes.

The former harpist is particularly celebrated for her vocal performances of the Baroque repertoire – the music she discovered after an encounter with William Christie, the period performance guru. It was Christie who encouraged her to forgo the harp and start singing. Piau’s voice seems uniquely suited to Baroque music, with its singular clarity and purity of line. This is a voice with a lean, almost austere tone. There is no velvet here, no softness and padding – just a simple strand of gold. That is why some, including this writer, may find her interpretations of Mozart’s music somewhat lacking. Then again, after her transformative recordings of Vivaldi and Handel, it was time to balance the score. As the artist herself says: “Mozart allows me to regain my focus; he preserves that miraculous balance that can so easily be disturbed in the whirlwind of life.”

 

03_Lemieux.jpgChansons Perpétuelles
Marie-Nicole Lemieux; Roger Vignoles; Quatuor Psophos
Naïve V 5355

Fin de siècle chansons reflect the obsessions of the age: decadence, degeneration, neurosis and ennui that were exquisitely expressed in sublime melody, drawing the listener ever inward to explore psyche’s secrets. A rich and rarified tapestry created by composers of the age is fertile ground for a singer possessing an affinity for the texts as well as great depth of expression in vocal performance. Marie-Nicole Lemieux has carefully studied, crafted and delivered this to perfection, bringing to life all the dishevelled beauty this repertoire offers. Guided by the deft hand of pianist Roger Vignoles, joined by Quatuor Psophos in the Nocturne from Guillaume Lekeu’s Trois Poèmes and in Ernest Chausson’s Chanson Perpétuelle, she rides the instrumental undercurrents with poetic charm and grace. Lemieux’s light touch and agile playfulness in Fauré’s Mandoline contrasts nicely with a sorrowful Mein Liebster singt from Wolf’s Italianiensches Liederbuch and excerpts from Rachmaninoff’s Six Romances which highlight the sheer drama of her rich contralto. The character of the CD is largely intimate – the final track around which she chose the program, Chanson Perpétuelle, is the most operatic of all the selections: Lemieux’s portrait of an abandoned woman’s angst skillfully intertwined with the quartet’s mesmerizing performance.

 

01_Ensemble_Vesuvio.jpgLa Meglio Giuventù
Vesuvius Ensemble
Modica Music MM0014
(vesuviusensemble.com)

With Giovanni Kapsberger the only named composer on just two of the 13 tracks on this CD, it is clear that its performers were seeking a selection of popular Italian music, reflecting their dedication to the performance and preservation of traditional folk music from Naples and Southern Italy. Take O matrimonio do Guarracino, a traditional piece from 18th-century Campania. Francesco Pellegrino’s voice is as Italian as his name and not only are we transported to Campania with his vocals but the four accompanying instruments all have a strong Italian heritage: mandolin, baroque guitar, chitarra battente and colascione. The third of these is played without a plectrum and can be plucked, strummed or beaten, hence the term battente.

And colascione? That is a long-necked Italian lute. One of the Kapsberger pieces fully tests its capabilities with the demanding techniques of the Italian baroque guitar. Those who yearn for something else equally unknown can enjoy a hurdy-gurdy courtesy of Ben Grossman, who accompanies Pellegrino’s magnificent voice. Invocazione alla Madonna dell’Arco, for all its traditional Campanian background, could have graced any medieval court, enhanced by the haunting sound of the hurdy-gurdy.

 A more conventional Kapsberger composition is Sfessiana, a soothing and thoughtful duet for theorbo (Lucas Harris) and baroque lute (Marco Cera). Another piece enjoying a normal setting is La morte de mariteto, where Pellegrino’s voice and Lucas Harris’ lively lute playing show the enduring popularity of this combination throughout the Renaissance.

After introducing us to four popular plucked instruments, La Meglio Giuventù concludes with three percussion instruments and the ciaramella, a double reed conical bore instrument which eventually became the oboe. It is raucous and passionate – like the Vesuvius Ensemble.

 

02_Marais.jpgMarais – Suites for Oboe
Christopher Palameta; Eric Tinkerhess; Romain Falik; Lisa Goode Crawford
Audax Records ADX 13702
(audax-records.fr)

Fans of baroque music on period instruments will appreciate this recording, not only for its sheer beauty, but also as a musicological project. Baroque oboist Christopher Palameta, a Montrealer who did a four-year stint with Toronto’s Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, currently lives in Paris and is in demand with period instrument ensembles in Europe and North America. This recording is a culmination of several years of research into some of the neglected works of French composer Marin Marais (1656-1728; some might recall Marais as the central figure in the 1991 movie Tous les Matins du Monde).

All of the music here is drawn from Marais’ Piéces de viole; published in five volumes, the six suites included are from the second (1701), third (1711) and fourth (1717) volumes. While written for the viol, Marais himself insisted that his compositions could be played on a wide range of instruments, including the oboe; as Palameta explains, for technical reasons some pieces are better suited to a high wind instrument than others, particularly those written for the viol’s top string – my understanding is that these are the movements selected and transcribed for this project.

Each of the suites is comprised of five to seven movements: beginning with a prélude. Typical dance movements follow, which might include a courante, sarabande, menuet, gavotte, gigue, and sometimes a rondeau champêtre, passacaille, or fantaisie for variety. My personal favourites include the muzettes in the Suite in G Minor, and the short but unusual La Biscayenne (referring to the Basque country of northern Spain) which concludes the recording.

Palameta plays with the highest degree of refinement and musical sensitivity throughout, displaying a velvety warm tone and fluid ornamentation. He is accompanied by Eric Tinkerhess (viola da gamba), Romain Falik (theorbo) and Lisa Goode Crawford (harpsichord). To learn more, visit ensemblenotturna.com.

 

03_Greene.jpgMaurice Greene – Overtures
Baroque Band; Garry Clarke
Cedille CDR 90000 152

Aficionados of English classical music endured decades of the taunt “Who was the greatest English composer between Purcell and Elgar? Handel!” Dr. Arne’s masque Alfred (including Rule Britannia) and William Boyce’s eight symphonies (“as English as a country garden”) somehow weren’t up to scratch. William Boyce’s tutor was Maurice Greene, who is forgotten even among baroque enthusiasts. Enter Chicago-based Garry Clarke and the Baroque Band. Their interpretation of Greene’s Overture for St. Cecilia’s Day is lively and effervescent – how appropriate for the patroness of music!

This spirited approach continues with the allegro assai, andante and vivace of Greene’s first overture (D major). The other overtures too, delight the listener: note the chirping first allegro of the fourth overture or the presto of the fifth, just two of what the sleeve-notes describe as “whistleable melodies.” And what else does the Baroque Band cram into this wonderful introduction to Maurice Greene? Well, Greene composed a pastoral opera Phoebe. The allegro to its overture must have conveyed a tremendous sense of expectation to the audience.

There’s even more. David Schrader is soloist in Greene’s Collection of Lessons for the Harpsichord. As an example, the pieces in C minor are demanding but still bring home the liveliness of English baroque music. Greene deserves much more recognition, not least as he was organist of St. Paul’s and of the Chapel Royal, Master of the King’s Music and Professor of Music at Cambridge. Garry Clarke is, I hope, the pioneer of a long-overdue revival.

 

04_Bach_Well-Tempered.jpgBach – Well-Tempered Clavier Book II
Luc Beauséjour
Naxos 8.570564-65

In the CDs of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier some performers use a modern piano, while other performances are on instruments that Bach was familiar with: the clavichord, the organ and (most often) the harpsichord. I am not about to launch into a diatribe on the unsuitability of the modern piano. It is true that I have never liked Glenn Gould’s Bach (sacrilege!) but I have listened with pleasure to Rosalyn Tureck, to Keith Jarrett and especially, to Angela Hewitt.

Beauséjour is a French-Canadian musician, who studied in Montreal with Mireille and Bernard Lagacé and subsequently in Europe with Ton Koopman and Kenneth Gilbert. He won First Prize in the 1985 Erwin Bodky International Harpsichord Competition in Boston. He has recorded a substantial number of works by Bach, including Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier (also on Naxos).

For the sake of comparison I have been listening to two other performances on the harpsichord: those by Masaaki Suzuki (on BIS) and those by Christophe Rousset (on Harmonia Mundi). I felt that Beauséjour was holding his own, although of the three I liked the Rousset best since he found a poetic quality that was not always there in the other two. I have to add though, that when I want to listen to these Preludes and Fugues, it is the Angela Hewitt recording (on Hyperion) that I shall play most often. That goes to show that, for me at any rate, a stupendous technique, clarity of voicing, a wonderful sense of phrasing, a subtle sense of rubato and a thorough grasp of baroque performance practice matter more than whether these pieces are played on the “correct” instrument.

 

05_Bach_Viola.jpgBach – Krebs – Abel
Helen Callus; Luc Beauséjour
Analekta AN 2 9879

Though Bach’s longest and most major career posting, in Leipzig, kept him more than busy writing and preparing music for the church, he managed to find time to continue composing extraordinary chamber music as the director of the town’s Collegium Musicum. This ensemble of students and young professionals would give weekly performances at Zimmerman’s coffee house. It is thought that Bach wrote the three sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord (BWV1027-1029) for performances by members of this Schola Cantorum. They are a combination of new compositions and arrangements of existing music written for other forces.

These three extraordinary pieces form the centrepiece of this fine recording by violist Helen Callus and harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour. Also included are a gamba sonata by Carl Friedrich Abel and Callus’ arrangement of a movement from a trio by Johann Ludwig Krebbs. Both Krebbs and Abel had close family connections to Bach.

From the opening plaintive notes of this beautiful recording, violist Callus’ rich and gorgeous tone announces that these will be performances of a high standard. Though they share a range, there are major differences in timbre and intensity of sound between the viola and the gamba which take getting used to, but the clarity and sensitivity of Callus’ playing is so compelling that one is drawn past the instrument directly to the music. As always, Luc Beauséjour’s playing is elegant and stylish. Highly recommended.

 

06_Beethoven_Period.jpgBeethoven, Period
Matt Haimovitz; Christopher O’Riley
Pentatone PTC 5186 475

Beethoven’s interest in the cello appears to have begun early on. His first set of two cello sonatas Op.5 were written in 1796 in his 26th year, his last, Op.102, dates from 1815, by which time the composer was experiencing the trauma of increasing deafness. In between came another sonata and three sets of variations, all of them presented here in this two-disc Pentatone/Oxingale recording featuring cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Christopher O’Riley, the first in a series titled Beethoven, Period.

Most cellists choose to perform on early instruments, and Haimovitz is no exception – his cello of choice is a Goffriller, crafted in Venice in 1710. But rather than overpower the cello with a modern concert grand as is sometimes the case with cello/piano pairings, O’Riley proves to be the perfect musical partner in his use of an 1823 Broadwood pianoforte, both instruments tuned slightly below the standard A440. The result is a wonderfully authentic sound, very close to what Beethoven would have heard in the early 19th century

The first CD contains the earliest two sonatas and the 12 Variations on See the Conquering Hero Comes of Handel. From the opening hesitant measures of the Sonata in F Major, we sense the two artists are in full command of the repertoire. Their playing is stylish and precise while the interaction of the two period instruments allows for a compelling degree of transparency.

In disc two, we move into a new period in Beethoven’s style – the Sonatas Op.69 and Op.102 show evidence of a more mature style, somewhat darker and more dramatic, while the seven variations on Bei Männern... from Mozart’s The Magic Flute aptly demonstrate Beethoven’s facility at extemporizing on a popular theme. The “magic moment” for me on this disc came in the second movement Adagio con moto sentimento d’affetto of the Sonata Op.102, No.2. Here Haimovitz’s lyrical tone and the sensitive interpretation by O’Riley evoke a wonderful sense of mystery before the start of the jubilant Allegretto fugato, bringing both the sonata and the set to a most satisfying conclusion.

Bravo to both artists in this exemplary pairing; the “great mogul” himself would have been pleased.

 

07_Assi_Karttunen.jpgBeyond the River God
Assi Karttunen
Divine Art dds 25120
(divineartrecords.com)

This intriguing program of music for solo harpsichord makes unexpected but successful partners of Baroque France’s great François Couperin, who died in 1733, and the gifted English composer Graham Lynch, who is still very much alive. Couperin’s music here, a prélude from his L’Art de toucher le claveçin and four other pieces from various of his Ordres, makes up just over one-third of the substantial track list, and Finnish harpsichordist Assi Karttunen’s supple interpretation of L’Exquise from Ordre XXVII is particularly beautiful.

That said, where Karttunen really shines is in Lynch’s music for her instrument, which reflects both a panoply of stylistic influences and a well-nuanced understanding of how to compose for the harpsichord. Karttunen’s playing is deftly mercurial in the second Rondeau of the five-movement Beyond the River God, and she’s introspective yet always welcoming in the many meditative movements of this and other works. A particular small delight is the short, stand-alone Ay!, which to me sounds a little like what Edgar Allen Poe might have improvised over a French ground bass. The four movements of Lynch’s Petenera make perhaps the best connection in spirit to the unmeasured préludes of Couperin’s time; you can almost see Couperin listening curiously from the doorframe. The recorded sound is beautiful, and Karttunen’s notes offer much food for thought. The combining of old and new music can be tricky alchemy, but this experiment is a happy success.

 

01_Beethoven_Explored.jpgBeethoven Explored – The Chamber Eroica
Aaron Short; Peter Sheppard Skǽrved; Dov Scheindlin; Neil Heyde
Metier msvcd 2008
(divineartrecords.com)

It may come as a surprise to those of us accustomed to hearing a symphony performed by a full orchestra that during the early 19th century, an adaptation for a much smaller ensemble would have been a perfectly acceptable means of presenting large-scale works, particularly in domestic settings. Indeed, there was an enormous demand for arrangements during the days before recorded music, and this is the idea behind The Chamber Eroica. It’s the sixth in a series titled Beethoven Explored on the British label Metier, and features pianist Aaron Shorr, violinist Peter Sheppard Skǽrved, violist Dov Scheindlin and cellist Neil Heyde in a piano quartet version of Beethoven’s Symphony No.3.

The groundbreaking third symphony was completed in 1804, while this anonymous arrangement – requested by Beethoven himself – was published just three years later. Hence, this recording (the first ever) provides the modern-day listener with a keen insight as to what the composer had in mind with respect to chamber arrangements of his orchestral works. And without the use of period instruments, the four performers admirably evoke a rightful sense of grandeur in this majestic symphony. The opening movement, marked Allegro Moderato, contains a wonderful sense of momentum with the central theme continually being passed among the piano and the strings. The second movement is suitably sombre and mysterious and the third movement scherzo, all lightness and grace. While it would be challenging to duplicate the grandeur of the finale with a four-piece ensemble, the players ably capture its optimistic buoyancy.

In all fairness, there are instances when the arrangement seems not as performer-friendly as it might be. At times, the violist’s range seems uncomfortably high and the strings are sometimes required to perform melodic lines ordinarily given to the woodwinds. But the group remains undaunted and produces a most satisfying sound very much in keeping with the robust spirit of the original work.

The disc is to be commended on two levels: exemplary performances by the four musicians; and for providing the present-day listener with a glimpse into a particular facet of music-making during the early 19th century. Highly recommended.

 

02_Sokolov_Salzburg.jpgSokolov – The Salzburg Recital
Grigory Sokolov
Deutsche Grammophon 4794342

New recordings of Grigory Sokolov are few and far between, so any addition to the catalogue is an event. His playing is always compelling, not least because of his unique approach. He is a link to the golden age of Russian pianists and his distinctive playing style is easily identified by his admirers.

Sokolov began piano studies at the age of five and gave his first major recital in Moscow at 12 playing, so it is reported, works by Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Liszt, Debussy and Shostakovich. He was unanimously awarded the Gold Medal in the 1965 International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition.

Now aged 64 and “a legend in his own lifetime,” he is in a position to announce that “I play only what I want to play.” His Mozart, though slow, is never laboured or ponderous, being extremely controlled; the long phrases are felt out with utmost certainty in spite of an almost dry approach and contained dynamics. This is utterly compelling Mozart, a perfect example of restraint yielding deeply satisfying results. A dissenting opinion from that of other artists but Mozart’s mercurial genius allows for this.

This recital of Chopin’s 24 Preludes would be one of my desert island discs. In keeping with his way, each of the 24 has an individual character and taken together they are a marvel of authority and subtlety. I compared these to his June 17, 1990 Paris recording (Naïve CD, OP30336) finding that it lacked the deeply introspective and mesmerizing intensity of this astonishing Salzburg performance.

The six encores (Chopin, Scriabin, Rameau and Bach) are no less considered. This is the first release from DG which has contracted to record his live concerts.

 

03_Liszt_Hewitt.jpgLiszt – Piano Sonata; Dante Sonata; Petrarch Sonnets
Angela Hewitt
Hyperion CDA68067

The name Franz Liszt conjures up pianistic showmanship of devilishly difficult bravura pieces that have enthralled audiences for nearly 200 years. Many pianists fall easily under this spell, but Angela Hewitt is certainly not one of them. Her new recording and her first brave foray into Liszt territory is the most unforgiving, immensely difficult B Minor Sonata, 30 minutes long in one single movement that can easily lapse into aimless banging on the piano, sound and fury signifying nothing from a lesser hand. Technical brilliance almost taken for granted, her approach is essentially analytical, fully understanding the structure, the relationships of parts to the whole, the thematic, harmonic and rhythmical subtleties, avoiding excesses so the work feels an integral whole and shines in all its majesty.

The essence of Liszt in Hewitt’s words, “Nobility of spirit and depth of expression,” is also manifest in the second major item here, written during his Années de pèlerinage in Italy, the Dante Sonata, its program much inspired by the Inferno, giving ample room for the pianist’s unbridled imagination in depicting the horrors of hell and the exquisite tenderness of “Nessun maggior dolore/Che ricordarsi nel tempo felice” (Dante’s Inferno), of recalling past happiness in time of pain. The wonderful tremolo at the high end of the keyboard representing unattainable Paradiso is especially poignant and moving.

In between these two mountain peaks there is a valley of heavenly peace, the three Sonetti del Petrarca , whose love poems Liszt set into music for his beloved Countess Marie, played with languid gentleness and throbs of passion. All this adds up to another triumph in Ottawa-born Hewitt’s extraordinary career.

 

04_Brahms_Serenades.jpgBrahms – Serenades
Leipzig Gewandhausorchester;
Riccardo Chailly
Decca 4786775

Following Chailly’s sensational performances of the Brahms Symphonies and the usual orchestral works that earned universal rave reviews (Decca 4785344, 3 CDs) we have all waited with great expectations to hear his Serenades.

It is an absolute joy to have these rather brisk, smiling performances of the two neglected early orchestral gems that Brahms wrote on the way to the symphonies. The 25-year-old composer already had an uncanny sense of what he wanted to do with an orchestra; as clearly present are what would become his characteristic orchestral colour and deployment of instruments. The first Serenade was composed in 1857-58, some three years after the first piano concerto of 1854. That concerto was first conceived as a symphony but Brahms re-thought it as a concerto. Similarly, these lyrical Serenades are Brahms’ second and third symphonic ventures wherein he stepped back a little to produce two youthful and breezy works for reduced orchestra. Reduced size does not however mean reduced invention; merely a less ponderous symphonic argument. The First Symphony was conceived during this time and had a gestation period of 20 years until 1875 when “Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony” was delivered.

Compared to other recorded versions, the breezy youthfulness of the present performances has a charming alfresco quality with vivacious tempi that neither undersell nor oversell the orchestral weight. Chailly and his vibrant orchestra, particularly the winds and horns, are flawlessly attuned to these scores, making this recording the very best version to own.

 

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