What I Did On My Summer Vacation

 

It all began as I was registering for an online service and was asked the security question “Who is your favourite author?” I realized that the answer has not changed in about 35 years since I first read William GaddisThe Recognitions (I hope this admission will not leave me vulnerable to identity theft!) which led to a re-reading of his final work, Agapē Agape. And there my story begins...

With Gaddis’ fixation on mechanical reproduction (specifically the invention of the player piano) and the ways technology changed the perception and availability of art in the 20th century, in particular the phenomenon of Glenn Gould and Gould’s wish to “eliminate the middleman and become [one with] the Steinway,” the stage was set for my wonderful summer’s journey.

It began with The Loser, Thomas Bernhard’s account of a fictional Glenn Gould’s studies in Salzburg with Vladimir Horowitz, and the devastating effects his presence (and his interpretation of the Goldberg Variations) had on two fellow students, the unnamed narrator and the character Wertheimer, who abandoned promising solo careers and were ultimately destroyed by the contact (Wertheimer in fact a suicide). Evidently Gaddis was reading Bernhard toward the end of his life and it was there he found the premise of Gould wanting to become the piano.

September Editor Scans 01 Musical NovelIt was about this time that I realized that a book which had arrived at The WholeNote a few months earlier and which I had browsed but put down as being too dry and academic, The Musical Novel by Emily Petermann (Camden House 978-1-57113-592-6), might provide some insights and inspiration after all.

EditorsCorner-Gould FanI still found it hard going – with its use of such unfamiliar words as inter-, intra- and multi-medial, poiesis and palimsestuous (as opposed to palimsestic, she explains), all of which I was able to make out from their roots and context but which I notice set off spell-check alarms – and ended up focussing on Chapter 5: “Structural Patterns in Novels Based on the Goldberg Variations.” Of the four books analyzed – Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations; Nancy Huston’s The Goldberg Variations; Rachel Cusk’s Bradshaw Variations and Richard Powers’ Gold Bug Variations – I had read (several times) all but the Cusk. The inclusion of this latter was in itself worth the effort of persevering with Petermann’s thesis.

I took a break from the scholarly tome to (re)read each of the books in question. Reading them all together, interspersed with a number of recordings of the namesake, occupied me for most of a month and provided some delightful moments and revelations. Having now gone back to The Musical Novel to read Chapter 6 and the Conclusion has also furnished a number of explanations and clarifications, both about the novels in question and the structure of Bach’s masterpiece.

An example of the former is Cusk’s inclusion of a narrator-less chapter written entirely in dialogue without commentary (shades of Gaddis, although Cusk’s speakers are identified) which stuck in the craw of at least one reviewer as being non-sequiturial and annoying for its lack of context. Petermann points out that the chapter in question is parallel to Bach’s Variation XXVII in the structure of the book and is a literary representation of this “canon at the ninth,” which involves just two voices without the “commentary” of the bass line present in all of the other variations. So there is the context which the reviewer found lacking. Likewise Petermann explores the unique A-B structure of Variation XVI, the midpoint of Bach’s cycle, and relates it to several of the literary works, most notably the Josipovici. In an extension of the legend of the origin of another of Bach’s masterpieces, The Musical Offering, Josipovici recasts the story of Bach’s musical meeting with Frederick the Great to be Goldberg’s – a writer rather than a harpsichordist in this novel – literary joust with King George III and subsequent reworking of the King’s theme into “seven tiny tales” and a longer three-part cautionary story. Other insights abound…

Bach provided the title Clavierübung (keyboard study) consisting of an Aria with Diverse Variations for the Harpsichord with Two Manuals Composed for Music Lovers, to Refresh their Spirits. Johann Nikolaus Forkel, in the first biography of Bach written some six decades after the composer’s death, provided a background story from which the name we now associate with the work originated. Forkel tells us that Baron von Keiserling, an insomniac who employed a young harpsichord player named Goldberg to play him soothing and entertaining music at night from an adjoining room to help him sleep, or at least deal with his sleeplessness, commissioned Bach to write a set of suitable pieces for Goldberg to play. That story has long since been debunked, as listening to some of the more rambunctious variations might suggest, but the myth has continued to entice us for more than two centuries.

The recordings I revisited during this extensive immersion in the Goldberg Variations were of course Glenn Gould’s seminal 1955 and ultimate 1981 versions (in a 2002 three-CD commemorative package that includes an extended conversation between Gould and music critic Tim Page, SONY S3K 87703), plus Luc Beauséjour’s harpsichord rendition (Analekta fleur de lys FL 2 3132), Dmitri Sitkovetsky’s string trio arrangement with Sitkovetsky, Gérard Causé and Misha Maisky (Orfeo C 138 851 A, but you might choose a Canadian recording of the same arrangement with Jonathan Crow, Douglas McNabney and Matt Haimowitz on Oxingale OX2014, reviewed by Terry Robbins in the March 2009 WholeNote) and Bernard Labadie’s string orchestra version with Les Violons du Roy (Dorian xCD-90281), each of which brings very different aspects of the work to light and all of which I would recommend without hesitation. As I would the literary titles mentioned above.

September Editor Scans 03 Goldberg 2PianosIt was a new recording, Bach Goldberg Variations for Two Pianos, that drew my particular attention however. Evidently Joseph Rheinberger (1839-1901) felt that the original 1741 solo keyboard (two-manual harpsichord) work would provide enough material to keep two pianists busy and in 1883 made an arrangement for two pianos in which the liner notes tell us he “took substantial liberties with Bach’s original voicing, doubling melodies and fleshing out harmonies as he saw fit… [leaving] an unmistakably Romantic impression on the work.” Thirty years later Max Reger “smoothed out a few of the [remaining] rough edges” of Rheinberger’s adaptation and published the version recorded here in a wonderful performance by Nina Schumann and Luis Magalhães (TwoPianists Records TP1039213). It is this “Romantic” version for two pianos that comes the closest to being something I would like to hear at the edge of sleep. If I ever have the luxury of going to bed next to a room furnished with two grand pianos and such accomplished performers as Schumann and Magalhães I would love to put the Keiserling premise to the test.

Having spent July immersed in Bach’s music, I spent August exploring the first half of Petermann’s treatise, devoted to the Jazz Novel, a genre with which I am mostly unfamiliar. As a matter of fact Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter is the only book covered that I had read, and Toni Morrison the only other author mentioned I had previously heard of. It turned out to be quite a challenge to track down many of the books discussed, but I am pleased to say that, after a mostly unfruitful search at the Toronto Public Library, with the aid of Toronto’s (few remaining) used book sellers and the Internet I have been able to find books by all of the authors discussed (including Xam Wilson Cartier, Christian Gailly, Jack Fuller, Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray). This too has been a very satisfying journey.

September Editor Scans 04 Bach CantatasYou might think that after all those Goldberg Variations I would have had enough of Bach for a while, but perhaps I am like those animals who, even when choices abound, continue eating a single food type until its source is depleted before moving on to something else (not that one could ever exhaust the available wealth of Bach recordings). For a change of pace I found that a new recording of Bach Cantatas entitled Recreation for the Soul featuring the Magdalena Consort (Channel Classics CCS SA 35214) did indeed provide a refreshing respite. I must confess that I am not well versed in Bach’s many cantatas – some 209 have survived – although I am of course familiar with some of the more famous arias. Listening to this new recording, which features stellar soloists Peter Harvey (bass and direction), Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano), Daniel Taylor (alto) and James Gilchrist (tenor) in one-voice-per-part arrangements, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the beloved melody I know as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring appears not once but twice in the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and mouth and deed and life) BWV147, as the final chorale of Part One Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habe (What joy for me that I have Jesus), and as the grand finale of the work, Jesus bleibet meine Freude (Jesus remains my joy). The other “musical offerings” on this marvelous disc are Jesu, der du Meine Seele (Jesu, by whom my soul) BWV78 and Nach dir, Herr, Verlanget Mich (Lord, I long for you) BWV150, both rich in Bach’s trademark melodies and counterpoint, heard here in a clarity not always found in full choral presentations. Highly recommended.

September Editor Scans 05 Stephen BrownHoping to wean myself gently off the Bach overdose and realizing that no one writing for solo cello would be able to avoid at least some influence of the master, I decided to check out Lady in the East, Solo Cello Suites 1-3 by BC composer Stephen Brown, featuring Hannah Addario-Berry (stephenbrown.ca). The opening notes of Takakkaw Falls, Suite No.1 confirmed my suspicion regarding echoes of Bach, but almost immediately the contemplative Air established its own independent voice and the following Strathspay & Reel and Slow Waltz, although based on dance patterns like a Baroque suite, were obviously drawing inspiration from different cultural sources – Canadian folk songs and fiddle tunes. It is not until halfway through the final Jig that we once again find a nod to Bach in a stately middle passage before a return to the playful fiddle tune of the opening.

I find it interesting to note that the suite was originally composed for solo flute. In my correspondence with Hans de Groot about the disc of Francis Colpron’s transcriptions for recorder reviewed elsewhere in these pages I mentioned that one of my favourite versions of the Bach cello suites was Marion Verbruggen’s performance on the recorder. I’m pleased to note that the process of translation can also work the other way around, from flute to cello.

The disc includes two other suites (evidently Brown has composed six in all, so far), Fire, which is influenced by the classic rock of Hendrix, Procol Harum, Cream and the like, adapted very effectively and idiomatically for solo cello, with a contrasting slow Recitative and Aria movement again reminiscent of Bach, and There Was a Lady in the East in which Brown returns to folk songs and fiddle tunes. As an amateur cellist I am pleased to note that the sheet music for these works is available from the Canadian Music Centre (musiccentre.ca). I availed myself of the CMC’s purchase-and-print-it-yourself service and have enjoyed the challenge of working on the first suite in the past few weeks.

September Editor Scans 06 Grieg Janacek KodalyMy final selection this month does not show any noticeable influence of J.S. Bach, but does feature solo cello with German-Japanese Danjulo Ishizaka accompanied by pianist Shai Wosner. Grieg, Janáček, Kodály (Onyx 4120) features three relatively obscure, or at least rarely recorded, works for cello and piano – Janáček’s dark and lyrical Pohádka (Fairy Tale) and his brief, dramatic Presto, whose origin is unclear but which may have been meant originally as a movement of the fairy tale suite, and Grieg’s Cello Sonata in A minor, Op.36. Ishizaka’s committed performance of the Grieg and Janáček works makes me wonder why they aren’t more often played. After all, these are mature works by respected composers who did not publish much in the way of chamber music – in the case of Grieg two violin sonatas and a string quartet and Janáček just a smattering of works for violin and piano, two string quartets and a woodwind sextet. That alone would make this recording important, but for me it is the centrepiece of the disc, a staple of the modern repertoire, Kodály’s Solo Cello Sonata Op.8 which is most worthy of note.

Presented in a context of “folkloric” works in the liner essay by Ishizaka, I find it hard to make that connection. Of course Kodály worked with Bartók in the early years of the 20th century collecting and transcribing literally thousands of folk songs from Hungary and surrounding lands, and this experience had a lasting influence on both composers and their music. But frankly I don’t hear it here. From the abrasive opening through a contemplative middle movement and on to its driving finale, this extended work from 1915 is a thoroughly modern, uncompromising tour de force which extends the cello’s sonic possibilities with its re-tuned and simultaneously plucked and bowed strings. Ishizaka’s performance brings out all this and more. It’s a welcome addition to the discography.

I mentioned above that I imagined that all composers writing for solo cello would be influenced by Bach’s solo suites. I find myself unable to find these influences in Kodály however, although I have come up with an explanation. It was Pablo Casals who first brought widespread attention to the Bach suites, having stumbled upon the score in 1890 at the age of 13. He then proceeded to spend several decades working on the suites and developing them as the performance showpieces we know today. Before that time it seems they were regarded as mere finger exercises, learning pieces not fit for the concert hall. Although Casals did record four of the six movements of the C Major Suite in 1915, the year Kodály composed his Sonata, it would be two more decades before he made his seminal recordings of the entire cycle. I think it may well be that Kodály was not aware of the Bach Suites when he composed his masterwork. If this is indeed the case, it is an even more remarkable achievement.

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
discoveries@thewholenote.com

 


Mahler – Lieder

01 Vocal 01a Alma  Gustav01 Vocal 01b Mahler LiederAlma & Gustav Mahler – Lieder
Karen Cargill; Simon Lepper
Linn LC 11615

Mahler – Lieder
Bernarda Fink; Anthony Spiri; Gustav Mahler Ensemble; Tonkünstler Orchester Niederösterreich; Andrés Orozco-Estrada
Harmonia Mundi MNC 902173

Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill, trained in Glasgow, Toronto (with Patricia Kern) and London, is in the early stages of a burgeoning career. This recording marks her debut recital on the Glasgow-based Linn record label. The disc offers a comparatively rare opportunity to hear the Fünf Lieder by Alma Mahler (1879-1964) published in 1910, along with two major song cycles by her husband Gustav. The young Alma Schindler, Mahler’s fetching 22-year-old composition student and sometime lover of Alexander Zemlinsky when the two first met, was persuaded to abandon her creative pursuits before agreeing to marry the first of her many husbands in 1902, though at the end of his life (1860-1911) a repentant and cuckolded Gustav arranged to have her songs published by Universal Edition. Zemlinsky’s influence looms large in these erotically chromatic and assuredly accomplished Lieder which are given highly sympathetic readings here. The set is followed by Gustav Mahler’s Fünf Rückert Lieder and the four-movement Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, closing with a passionate rendition of the Urlicht movement from his Second Symphony. Cargill is blessed with an enormous and opulent voice which in full flight can reach operatic volumes, notably so in the triumphant conclusion of Um Mitternacht from the Rückert Lieder, though a certain breathiness becomes apparent when her powerful voice is drawn back. Veteran accompanist Simon Lepper provides immaculate support throughout. The otherwise enjoyable and well-recorded disc seems rather skimpy at a mere 53 minutes.

An artist of exceptional sensitivity and great emotional depth, Bernarda Fink is an Argentinian singer of Slovenian extraction best known for her Baroque-era performances. With this disc she reveals a sympathy for the music of Mahler comparable to the great Mahler singers of the past such as Christa Ludwig and Janet Baker. The programming of this excellent Harmonia Mundi release (aptly subtitled “A Life in Songs”) is innovative, including two very rarely heard early songs, Im Lenz and Winterlied; Arnold Schoenberg’s 1920 arrangement for chamber ensemble of the complete Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; the mournful Kindertotenlieder cycle with full orchestra; and selections from his Rückert Lieder in various orchestral and piano versions for a generous duration of 78 minutes. Pianist Anthony Spiri and Fink collaborate wonderfully well together and the young Colombian conductor Andrés Orosco-Estrada (recently appointed to lead the Houston Symphony) proves equally sensitive to the subtle nuances of her deeply felt interpretations. This is truly a recording to treasure.

 

Strauss – Capriccio

01 Vocal 02 Strauss CapriccioStrauss – Capriccio
Fleming; Skovhus; Schade; Eiche; Kirchschlager; Rydl; Wiener Staatsoper; Marco Arturo Marelli
Cmajor 715908

Fresh from the rapture of watching this video performance of Strauss’ last utterance in opera and recovering from the delirium of the standing ovation, can I silence the skeptics who believe that opera is dead and totally irrelevant in our age? “They should eat their words” (to quote Bruce Surtees) after seeing this production from the Wiener Staatsoper. This venerable opera house actually just recently produced at least two phenomenal successes including this one and a stupendous Anna Bolena.

Richard Strauss, a genius who managed to revamp his earlier, very successful sturm und drang hyper-romantic style towards an almost Mozartian restraint and elegant classicism without losing his tremendous gifts of melody, advanced harmonies and overall structural control of his material, is now 150 years old (I use the present tense to emphasize just how alive he is to me through his music). To celebrate this landmark Vienna chose this, his most difficult and problematic opera, not Salome nor Der Rosenkavalier, but Capriccio, taking an enormous chance.

The heroine, Renée Fleming as the Countess, pretty well owns this crown jewel of a role and there is no match for her presently. She had a difficult start as she is not getting any younger, but she soars, grows in stature and achieves heights in the last scene where even the Gods would fear to tread. Canadian tenor Michael Schade and German baritone Markus Eiche, the frustrated would-be lovers, are no disappointment either, but Angelika Kirschlager (mezzo) with her perfect German diction, wonderful stage presence, charming voice and sense of humour certainly gives Fleming a run for her money. Kurt Rydl, in the comic role of the busybody schauspieldirektor, certainly lives up to his reputation as one of the great character basso-buffos of today. Swedish baritone Bo Shovkus is a bit outlandish in the role of the Count, but adds a lot of interest to the character and his voice is excellent. In his Wiener Staatsoper premiere, Christoph Eschenbach is in masterly control and gets able support from his virtuoso musicians. Special credit is due to the young violinists in the opening very difficult string sextet and to the wonderful horns in the famous “Moonlight Intermezzo.”

Director Marco Arturo Marelli’s concept is surprisingly grandiose for this intimate, chamber-like opera, but the resplendent sets of a Rococo palace in vibrant, opulent colours of blue and silver, translucent furnishings and abundance of mirrors never cease to delight the eye. All the foregoing notwithstanding it is the underlying abundance of talent, good taste, charm and Viennese gemütlichkeit which carry the day and the birthday boy, Maestro Strauss, the big winner.

 

L’Heure Rose - Hélène Guilmette; Martin Dubé

01 Vocal 03 Helene GuilmetteL’Heure Rose
Hélène Guilmette; Martin Dubé
Analekta AN 2 9141

This is a revelation for those wishing to learn more about the female contemporaries of Fauré, Duparc, Debussy and Poulenc. Ten women composers of the 19th and 20th centuries are represented on this recording: some we’ve been introduced to before (Viardot, Chaminade, L. & N. Boulanger, Beach) and others quite unfamiliar (Holmès, Canal, Karveno, Landry).

While perusing sheet music on Rue de Rome in Paris in 2007, soprano Hélène Guilmette, found some excellent works by Mel (Mélanie) Bonis, one of those who used a pseudonym to get by in the male-dominated world of music publishing. Her story is one of talent long-hidden; a marriage arranged by her parents to a man 25 years her senior left little space to pursue her art. Only later, when reunited with a long-lost love, a singer, did she receive the encouragement she needed.

Guilmette’s raison d’être for this collection is “making these works better known and honouring their memory.” Fin-de-siècle Paris is brought to life in these impressionistic songs by Guilmette’s shimmering voice and long-time coach, collaborator and accompanist Martin Dubé’s pianistic finesse. A few interesting later works are included as well, such as cabaret actress/singer/composer Wally Karveno’s La robe de lune (1954) and Quebec-born Jeanne Landry’s Émergence (1996).

 

Remembering Alfred Deller

01 Vocal 04 Alfred DellerRemembering Alfred Deller
James Bowman; Robin Blaze; John Turner; Laura Robinson
Divine Art dda 25114

The countertenor Alfred Deller was born in 1912 and I wonder if this CD had been intended to mark his centenary. No matter, the disc is as welcome as it would have been two years ago. An obvious way of remembering Deller would have been to reissue some of his recordings but the producers of the CD have hit on something much more imaginative. The recording commemorates not only Deller himself but two others who were central to the revival of early music in the 40s and 50s: Michael Tippett and Walter Bergmann. It was Tippett who discovered Deller in the choir stalls of Canterbury Cathedral and who launched him in his solo career at Morley College.

Bergmann had been a lawyer in Germany but was forced to flee to England, where he started a new career as a music editor, harpsichordist and composer. The CD, which features two fine countertenors, James Bowman and Robin Blaze with recorder players John Turner and Laura Robinson, includes John Blow’s Ode on the Death of Mr. Henry Purcell (which Deller himself performed and recorded) and also several works dedicated to Deller: Bergmann’s haunting Pastorale for countertenor and recorder (1946) and the Three Songs for countertenor and guitar (1973). It also contains Peter Racine Fricker’s Elegy, a work given its first performance by Deller.

The recorder pieces (solo Inventions by Tippett and trio sonatas by Handel and William Williams) are less obviously related to the work of Deller but they serve to remind us that his emergence was part of the rediscovery of early music.

 

Handel & Porpora - Julie Boulianne; Clavecin en Concert; Luc Beauséjour

02 Early 01 Julie Boulianne HandelHandel & Porpora
Julie Boulianne; Clavecin en Concert; Luc Beauséjour
Analekta AN 2 8764

The Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montreal is doing something right – the sheer number of successful, outstanding graduates eclipses any other Canadian hive of classical music. Not to give too much credit to the school (after all, Juilliard was involved too), Julie Boulianne is a born talent – a mezzo of rare beauty of voice, whose technique matured rapidly since her debut recording in 2006 (that album, with music by Berlioz, was nominated for a GRAMMY!). What a wonderful choice of material here – the music that was the soundtrack of the battle royal between the Royal Academy of Music and the Opera of the Nobility, between Handel and Porpora. Between 1733 and 1737, London audiences were treated to a tight contest of the two great composers, the best castrati of the period and extravagantly staged operas. To be sure, both parties went over the top, losing thousands of pounds – the Opera of the Nobility went bankrupt, the Royal Academy nearly so, but Handel’s Atalanta turned out to be the coup de grace and Porpora left London defeated. And we have been left with a treasure trove of music, none more revered to this day than “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s Serse, delivered here by Boulianne with a rarely heard delicacy and tenderness. Clavecin en Concert provide equally beautiful accompaniment within a traditionally well-produced Analekta recording. Five out of five stars.

 

Six Transcriptions - Francis Colpron

02 Early 02 Six TranscriptionsSix Transcriptions
Francis Colpron
ATMA ACD2 2677

None of the works on this CD were written for the recorder but, as Francis Colpron points out, in the 18th century composers did not always prescribe the instruments on which their work should be performed. Consequently the works by Telemann, Marais, Bach and Tartini sound perfectly idiomatic. It is true that this music often needs to be transcribed. The A minor solo sonata by Bach, for instance, has long been appropriated by recorder players. But the baroque transverse flute went down to D and the alto recorder goes no lower than F. Consequently recorder players have to perform it in C minor which makes parts of the work very high and technically difficult. Needless to say, the high notes provide no problem for Colpron.

One work on this CD stands out as different, the Caprice No.24 for solo violin by Paganini. The composer would never have imagined a performance of this work on the recorder as by 1820 (when it was first published) the recorder was seen as totally obsolete. Yet the transcription works: Colpron aptly sees it as a “translation” and he cites Liszt’s piano transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies as an analogue.

Colpron is brilliant throughout. I have often admired his playing and I had the pleasure of being coached by him in a recorder consort last July. One thing I discovered then is that his Dutch is impeccable and he will understand what I mean when I say that this recording is “uitstekend.”

 

Handel – The Eight Great Suites

02 Early 03a Handel suites harpsichord02 Early 03b Handel suites pianoHandel – 8 “Great” Suites
Richard Egarr
Harmonia Mundi HMU 907581.82

Handel – The Eight Great Suites
Danny Driver
Hyperion CDA68041/2

Harpsichord or piano for Handel? Two CD collections have simultaneously been released, continuing to ask the question. Pianist Danny Driver opens the account for Hyperion, his prelude (described in the sleeve notes as “ruminative”) being a thoughtful, cautious approach before the allemande, courante and gigue, not so far removed from their rural roots. Harpsichordist Richard Egarr is more cautious in his courante before an excited gigue. At this early point, it is difficult to judge which instrument is the more suited.

Suite 2 starts with a restful adagio followed by a highly spirited allegro, demanding for both pianist and harpsichordist. Driver’s interpretation would have communicated to an 18th-century harpsichord audience exactly what the piano still demands of its players three centuries on. The second adagio and allegro: fugue are a relaxing contrast. Egarr tackles with enthusiasm the first allegro which must be a highlight of the baroque repertoire.

And so to the contemplative Suite 3 and its air with five gentle variations. This is the chance to take a breath and compare instruments. While much of early music was not scored for any particular instrument, one does wonder why a piano is selected; the harpsichord is not deficient in any way as Egarr’s glorious presto testifies. It may be the case that harpsichords were not available in previous decades: the piano was ready to stand in and this practice has never ceased.

Suite 4 begins with another allegro: fugue which is almost a cliché of baroque keyboard playing. Its “hammer blows” are, in fact, more vigorously interpreted by Driver’s piano playing – Egarr’s harpsichord is played with passion but it is still overshadowed, a process repeated with the allemandes. There is a tenderness to both sarabandes and it is difficult to say which is the more sensitive.

Driver’s piano-playing gives a thoughtfulness to the Suite 5 prelude and allemande before its spirited courante. Egarr’s prelude and allemande are slower; perhaps that word ruminative applies to him this time round. And so to the air with five variations, the universally loved “Harmonious Blacksmith.” Driver is sensitive in his interpretation, Egarr more virtuosic and more effervescent in his playing.

“The Harmonious Blacksmith” is a hard act to follow. Both Driver’s and Egarr’s renditions of the Suite 6 gigue are dashing, in contrast with the largo in the same suite. It is easy to say that the remaining suites comprise the dance-based movements already discussed, but Suite 7 concludes with a passacaille: chaconne. With Egarr’s combination of strident and exuberant playing, perhaps this movement is the sole differentiation between piano and harpsichord.

And on a personal note, Driver’s sleeve notes refer to frescoed ceilings by Bellucci. They are still there in the local Church of St. Lawrence: this reviewer grew up a half mile from them. 

 

The Classical Piano Concerto Vol.1 – Dussek - Howard Shelley; Ulster Orchestra

03 Classical 01 DussekThe Classical Piano Concerto Vol.1 – Dussek
Howard Shelley; Ulster Orchestra
Hyperion CDA68027

Was it really 23 years ago that Hyperion issued the first of the “Romantic Piano Concerto” series, presenting us with a bevy of 19th century composers, many of whom might otherwise have languished in obscurity? The series is still going strong, and at last count, was up to number 64. This year, the company is embarking on yet another project – the “Classical Piano Concerto” series, and this premiere release features three works by the Bohemian composer Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812) performed by  the renowned British pianist and conductor Howard Shelley who also leads the Ulster Orchestra.

Born in Čáslav, Bohemia, Dussek was a truly international musician – one of the first – whose successful career as a performer, composer and teacher took him to the Netherlands, Paris, London and then back to his homeland before settling in post-revolutionary Paris.

The opening concerto on the disc, Op.1,No.3, written before 1783, is a model of classicism. In only two movements, the music bears more than a trace of galanterie, not dissimilar in style to Haydn’s divertimenti from roughly the same period. Shelley’s playing is elegant and precise, perfectly capturing the subtle nuances of the score. The concertos in C, Op.29 (c.1795) and in E flat, Op.70 (1810) are written on a much grander scale. In keeping with the early Romantic spirit of the music, the Ulster Orchestra’s warmly romantic sound is a fine complement to Shelley’s sensitive and skilful performance.

These concertos are a splendid introduction to a series which I hope will prove to be as all-encompassing as the first – and bravo to Howard Shelley and the Ulster Orchestra for taking the lead in such a masterful way.

 

Paganini – 24 Capricci - Marina Piccinini

03 Classical 02 Piccinini PaganiniPaganini – 24 Capricci
Marina Piccinini
Avie AV2284

In his liner notes for this two-CD set of Paganini’s Capricci transcribed for flute by the performer, Julian Haycock writes: “In [Paganini’s] virtuoso hands, music of unprecedented technical complexity was dispatched with a cool nonchalance that betrayed little of the effort behind its execution.”

Yes, the name Paganini is synonymous with virtuosity, no end of which Piccinini brings – incredibly fast double tonguing in No.5, brilliant triple tonguing in No.13, admirable articulation throughout, but particularly in Nos.15 and 16, fluidity and even finger movement, used to great effect in Nos.17 and 24, the striking use of harmonics in No.18 and the ability throughout to bring out a melody in the low register and accompany it or comment on it with a soft sweet sound in the high.

All of the above, however, are mere technical foundation for the artistry which makes these studies so much more than just fodder for developing chops. The music appears nonchalant, as in the always tasteful, relaxed and never sentimental execution of the ubiquitous ornamentation in a way that reveals unexpected depths of feeling, in the exquisite control of dynamics and the expressive power that control brings.

In the liner notes Piccinini refers to the Capricci as “inspired miniatures of extraordinary … intensity,” going on to say that she was struck by their expressive range and by “Paganini’s mystic, dark side and … haunting, introspective, tender vulnerability.” In this recording she has succeeded in transmitting this vision of the Capricci. All in all, it is an enormous accomplishment … brava!!

 

Beethoven – Piano Concertos 3 & 4 - Maria João Pires; Swedish RSO; Daniel Harding

03 Classical 03 Pires BeethovenBeethoven – Piano Concertos 3 & 4
Maria João Pires; Swedish RSO; Daniel Harding
Onyx 4125

Certainly there is no paucity of fine recorded performances of these two concertos. However here we have an outstanding newcomer that, for these ears, sweeps the field. Over the past four decades, Pires has established herself as a consummate and refined Mozart interpreter, demonstrating a profound musical approach with playing that is articulate and sensitive. Applied to her Beethoven these qualities illuminate in a pure classical Mozartian approach, particularly in the Third Concerto. In the Fourth the romantic Beethoven breaks out of the Mozartian boundaries. Pires plays throughout with exceptional taste; it is as if she were “talking” the music to us. The results are so persuasive that I found myself rehearing and re-hearing the two performances and wondering if I would want to listen to any other recording of this repertoire.

Another of the joys of listening to these recordings is the complete accord throughout between conductor and soloist. It is a hand-in-glove partnership. The style and balances of the orchestra are very much in the manner of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, Bremen of which Harding was the conductor from 1999 to 2003. The performances are well served by the splendid production values.

 

Mozart & Brahms – Clarinet Quintets - Anthony McGill; Pacifica Quartet

03 Classical 04 McGill PacificaMozart & Brahms – Clarinet Quintets
Anthony McGill; Pacifica Quartet
Cedille CDR 90000 147

Mozart and Brahms, more or less a century apart, wrote quintets for clarinet and string quartet during their most mature creative period. While liner notes for this latest recording draw interesting parallels between them, the pieces are quite distinct. More interesting than material similarities is that both works sprang from the composers’ admiration and affection for particular clarinetists. It is left to the contemporary performer to step into the shoes of Anton Stadler (Mozart) and Richard Muhlfeld (Brahms), to represent an aesthetic span of a century in the manner of one’s performance.

A greater challenge still is making the pieces sound new. Mozart’s K581 is perhaps too well-known for that. McGill and company keep tempi brisk, eschew vibrato, remain in tune; they even affect a Viennese waltz in the second trio. The clarinet tone is clear and yet warm: crystal velvet. The string playing is assured, all gut strings and clear understatement. It is nice to hear a different cadenza in the finale, uttered with flair. Still, I’m left feeling that what we have here is another fine rendition of a treasured yet worn part of the repertoire, even as I admire the heck out of the musicianship.

Brahms’ longer and darker work is more daunting for performer and listener alike. In Steppenwolf Hermann Hesse imagines an encounter with these composers in the afterlife: Brahms is a Jacob Marley figure (burdened by notes instead of chains); Mozart is the perfect Buddha, free of overstatement. Never mind! The opening of Op.115 is such a tremendous joy to hear in all its melancholic beauty, I forgive the composer his excesses. What a totally ravishing performance is given on this disc. Bittersweet romance blooms. The pacing is vital and flexible. Inner voices sing, hemiolas rock. The finale leads to ineluctable tragedy, beautifully. McGill opts for restraint for too much of the rhapsodic section of the adagio, but on the whole he and the quartet remain true to Brahms’ passionate expression. Buy this recording.

 

Schubert – The Late Piano Sonatas - Paul Lewis

 

03 Classical 05 Schubert  LewisSchubert – The Late Piano Sonatas
Paul Lewis
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902165.66

For explicable reasons I have a special affinity for Schubert’s piano works, including the Impromptus, the Moments Musicaux and others, but especially the sonatas. Particularly the final three which were all composed in 1828, the year following his visit to the dying Beethoven. Schubert himself was deathly ill but in his last months he also managed to complete the C Major Symphony, the song cycle Schwanengesang and give a concert on the anniversary of the death of Beethoven. He died on November 19, 1828 aged 31 and was buried, as he had wished, very close to Beethoven in Wahring. In the 1860s both bodies were disinterred and taken to Vienna where they lie, side by side in the Central Cemetery.

Lewis is a front-rank interpreter of Beethoven as his recordings of the five concertos and the complete piano sonatas will attest, but his realizations of Schubert are no less commanding. He recorded the D784 and D958 in 2013 and the last two in 2002. Lewis does far more than give us exactly what is written in the score, seeming to express the composer’s own thoughts. This is nowhere more evident than in the opening movement of the D960. A couple of comparisons: Clifford Curzon is smooth, fluid and melodic while Radu Lupu is somewhat thoughtful. Neither those nor others has the innigkeit (sincerity, honesty, warmth, intensity and intimacy) displayed by Lewis. And so it is across the four sonatas. For Lewis there are no throwaways; every note is significant and important and placed exactly right. An essential recording of this repertoire.

 

 

In the Night - Stephen Hough

03 Classical 06 Hough in the NightIn the Night
Stephen Hough
Hyperion CDA67996

Pianist Stephen Hough is absolutely brilliant in his solo release In the Night where the many aspects of night, from nightmares to insomnia to deep sleep to bliss, are given a pianistic rendition. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C sharp minor “Moonlight” is an obvious inclusion here. Hough begins with thoughtful reflection and a mournful lyrical melodic statement which weaves around a steady rhythmic framework and sets the stage for an emotionally dark yet hopeful performance. Likewise his performances of Frederic Chopin’s Two Nocturnes Op.27 are charged and driven by deep musical maturity. Both Robert Schumann’s In der Nacht from Fantasiestucke, Op.12 and Carnaval are performed with technical and musical wizardry.

The pianist’s own composition Piano Sonata No.2 “notturno luminoso” is a tour de force. It is always such a joy to hear composers perform their own work. Though clearly steeped in romantic attributes, Hough chooses more modern jazz-evoking harmonies, witty repartees between high and low pitches, and excursions into sharp, flat and natural sections to evoke the many sides of nighttime living. From crashing percussion chords which never overwhelm, to sudden silences, to a soothing final cadence lulling one to sleep, Hough musically evokes nighttime at its very, very best and very, very worst.

Superb production qualities, well-written liner notes, a great performer and a great choice in repertoire make In the Night piano music to listen to any time of day.

 

Tchaikovsky – The Seasons - Pavel Kolesnikov

03 Classical 07 Honens TchaikovskyTchaikovsky – The Seasons
Pavel Kolesnikov
Hyperion CDA68028

While Tchaikovsky is most famous for his ballets, operas and orchestral music, he also completed a large number of pieces for solo piano. These may not be as well known, but they bear the same attention to detail and finely crafted melodies as his larger works – and these characteristics are very evident in the two sets Op.37b and Op.19 found on this Hyperion recording performed by Siberian-born pianist Pavel Kolesnikov.

Still only in his early 20s, Kolesnikov was a first-prize winner in the Honens piano competition in 2012, and is currently pursuing musical studies at Moscow State Conservatory in addition to private lessons with Maria João Pires in Brussels. To date, he has performed at Carnegie Hall, Berlin’s Konzerthaus and the Banff Summer Festival.

The Seasons (1876) initially appeared as individual movements in a musical journal spanning the course of a year, each one representing a different month. Charming and graceful music, each movement is characterized by its own unique character, from the quiet reflection of “January (By the fireside)” and the exuberance ofFebruary (Carnaval)” to the gracefulness of “December (Valse).” Kolesnikov’s approach to the music is thoughtful and intuitive, demonstrating an understated sensitivity combined with a formidable technique.

The Six Morceaux, composed three years earlier, is also a study in contrasts. Once again, Kolesnikov effortlessly conveys the ever-changing moods, right up until the striking “Thème original et Variations” which concludes the set and the disc with a fine flourish.

Well done, young man, you’ve already accomplished much in your short life and if this fine recording is any indication, you’re headed for greatness.

John Burke – Mysterium - Ensemble Vivant

04 Modern 01 Burke MysteriumJohn Burke – Mysterium
Ensemble Vivant
Independent (ensemblevivant.com)

John Burke is a distinguished Canadian composer whose work has for two decades moved beyond the concert hall to engage with contemplative practices of several cultural traditions. This disc includes pieces from the composer’s repertoire of works based on walking a labyrinth. The informative program notes describe Burke’s music as: “Neither concert nor ritual, it accesses a third type of experience, surpassing the sum of its parts.” In my own experience, both one’s own passage and the presence of other labyrinth walkers can become uncanny. Burke’s finely wrought writing takes labyrinth music to a new level that will be especially rewarding to those interested in this work, with precisions of sonority, dynamics and rhythm that Ensemble Vivant, led by pianist Catherine Wilson, fully deliver.

Mysterium, the opener, encompasses the sequence of 12 harmonies upon which all the pieces are based. Expressive long tones played by Erica Beston, violin, and Sharon Prater, cello, over a repetitive broken-chord piano accompaniment remind me of passages in Messiaen and in minimalism; the mood is sombre. Wilson’s playing of Lungta, an improvisatory piano solo with tone clusters and flourishes, is evocative. Longest is the multi-sectional Hieratikos, with intricate ensemble writing performed magnificently by Wilson, Joseph Peleg, violin, and Sybil Shanahan, cello. Norman Hathaway, violin and David Young, bass, join in a closing variant of Mysterium, rounding off a moving experience.


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