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Review

The Toronto-based Canadian guitarist Drew Henderson is probably best known as a performer as one half of the Henderson-Kolk Duo with Michael Kolk, whose Mosaic solo CD was reviewed in this column in March 2014. Nocturne – Guitar Music of the 19th Century is Henderson’s independent first solo release (classicalguitarist.ca). His playing puts me very much in mind of Kolk’s, which is saying a great deal: there’s the same outstanding technique with unerring accuracy and cleanness; a clear, rich tone across the board; lovely dynamics; virtually no finger noise; and above all a beautiful sense of line and phrase.

Henderson has chosen a varied and interesting recital program. Giulio Regondi was a child prodigy in the early 1800s, and is represented here by his Nocturne “Reverie” Op.19 and Introduction et Caprice Op.23. Henderson plays an eight-string guitar on the CD, which enables him to include the usually-omitted bass notes in Les Soirées d’Auteuil Op.23 by Napoléon Coste, who often wrote for a seven-string guitar. Four Capricci from Luigi Legnani’s 36 Capricci per la Chitarra Op.20 and a simply dazzling performance of Paganini’s Grand Sonata in A Major round out a superb disc.

The CD was recorded two years ago in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto, with Henderson handling the recording and editing himself; he did an outstanding job. Henderson has technique and musicianship to burn, and has produced a simply terrific CD.

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02_Ehnes_Armstrong.jpgJames Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong are back with another recital CD, this time featuring the Violin Sonatas of César Franck and Richard Strauss (Onyx 4141).

There’s a glowing, expansive opening to the Franck, especially in the piano chords as the momentum builds, and real passion in the Allegro second movement. The famous canon in the fourth movement is a pure delight. Ehnes is in his element with the big tone and strong, controlled bowing you need for the long, sustained violin phrases in this work.

Written within a year of the Franck, when the composer had just met his future wife, Strauss’ Sonata in E-Flat, Op.18 is an early work bubbling with a sense of joy and passion that both performers catch perfectly.

One short Strauss work and three song transcriptions complete the CD. The Allegretto in E is a brief but lovely piece from the last year of the composer’s life. The three songs are Wiegenlied, Waldseligkeit and Morgen!; the intricate piano decorations that run beneath the long violin line throughout the Wiegenlied are particularly lovely.

Ehnes is in superb form throughout the disc, and Armstrong is his equal in every respect.

03_Bednarz_Lekeu.jpgThere’s another performance of the Franck Violin Sonata on a new CD featuring works by Lekeu, Franck and Boulanger from the Montreal violinist Frédéric Bednarz and pianist Natsuki Hiratsuka (Metis Islands Music MIM-0006).

Guillaume Lekeu and Lili Boulanger (Nadia’s younger sister) both died at the tragically young age of 24. Lekeu’s Sonata in G Major is a fine three-movement work, with its long violin lines and agitated piano in the outer movements somewhat reminiscent of the Franck, which was written just six years earlier. Bednarz’s beautiful sweetness of tone is evident right from the start.

Boulanger was always in fragile health, and her works often seem to display her awareness of her condition. Nocturne is a simply lovely and delightful piece, again perfectly suited to Bednarz’s sweet tone. The Franck Sonata is the centrepiece of the CD, and again it’s the tonal quality of the violin playing that makes the biggest impression. Hiratsuka gives perhaps a bit less weight to the piano part in the opening movement, and there seems to be less turbulence and urgency in the second movement than on the Ehnes/Armstrong CD, but this is still a strong, musical and highly enjoyable performance.

04_Bachy_Gould_Project.jpgThere have been several recordings of the very effective string trio transcription by violinist Dmitri Sitkovetsky of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and now the Bach/Gould Project, the debut CD by America’s Catalyst Quartet, gives us an equally effective and satisfying arrangement for string quartet (Azica ACD-71300).

It took the quartet members a year and a half to produce their own transcription, and it’s a quite stunning achievement, with a rich, warm sound right from the opening Aria and some beautifully judged phrasing and dynamics. The up-tempo sections don’t have quite the ferocity of Glenn Gould’s approach, but there is the same exuberance and sense of sheer joy that pervades Gould’s recordings.

The decision to include Glenn Gould’s String Quartet Op.1 was a smart one. Gould wrote the work in the mid-1950s while preparing for his debut recording of the Goldberg Variations, the work that marked the beginning and the end of his recording career; not surprisingly, perhaps, it is a rich, complex single-movement quartet highly reminiscent of early Schoenberg but – as the notes point out – showing the influence of German composers from Strauss and Wagner right back to Bach. What may be surprising is that it is full of truly idiomatic string writing, with a great deal of contrapuntal voicing (no surprise there!) that is handled with great skill. It’s so much more than just a competent work or an odd curiosity, and really deserves to be heard more frequently.

A short video about the Bach/Gould Project is available on the quartet’s website and on YouTube.

05_Cesko.jpgČesko is another terrific string quartet CD, this time featuring the young – and all-female – British/Dutch ensemble the Ragazze Quartet in a program of works by the Czech composers Antonín Dvořák and Erwin Schulhoff (Channel Classics CCS SA 36815).

Schulhoff died of tuberculosis in Wülzburg concentration camp in 1942 at the age of 48. His String Quartet No.1 is a short but fascinating four-movement work from 1924, and very much a work of its time. Schulhoff’s real passion for the jazz dance forms of the 1920s is reflected in his 6 Esquisses de jazz from 1927, a piano work arranged for string quartet here by the Dutch composer Leonard Evers. The six pieces – Rag; Boston; Tango; Blues; Black Bottom; and Charleston – are short but entertaining.

The central work on the disc is Dvořák’s String Quartet No.13 in G Major Op.106, which has been in the quartet’s repertoire since their student days. It’s a glorious work, and their familiarity with and affection for the music is clear in the lovely sweeping start and the passion and dynamic range in their playing. In their booklet notes the players refer to Dvořák’s “beautiful singing melodies, warm harmonies and Czech passion.” Their performance here shows how well they have taken these qualities to heart.

06_Mozart_Haydn_Quartets.jpgThere’s even more great string quartet playing on Mozart – The 6 String Quartets dedicated to Haydn, a 3CD box set featuring the Quatuor Cambini-Paris (naïve AM213). The packaging adds “on period instruments” after the quartet’s name; since the ensemble was founded in 2007 the performers have been playing and recording on period instruments with gut strings and authentic bows, and if you ever needed any evidence of just how satisfying “historically informed” performances can be, here it is.

The six quartets themselves – numbers 14 through 19, and including the Spring, Hunt and Dissonance quartets – are simply sublime, and the warmth and sensitivity of the interpretations here display them in all their glory. The closeness of the recording means that some extraneous breathing noises are audible at times, but never to the point of distraction.

These are performances that come from the heart and speak to the soul; there wasn’t a single moment when I could imagine these works being played any other way. Add the absolutely terrific booklet notes and this is a set to treasure.

07_Koh_Beyond_2.jpgThe terrific Jennifer Koh is back with Bach and Beyond Part 2 (Cedille CDR 90000 154), the second of a three-part series of recital programs that Koh initiated in 2009 to explore the history of solo violin works from Bach to the present day. Each recital features two of the Bach Sonatas & Partitas paired with solo compositions from the subsequent centuries.

Part 1 was reviewed in depth in this column in May 2013. This current issue pairs the Sonata No.1 in G Minor and the Partita No.1 in B Minor of Bach with the Sonata for Solo Violin by Béla Bartók and Frises, a work for solo violin and electronics written in 2011 by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho.

Koh, as always, is superb, her intelligence and interpretation always matching her outstanding technique.

The third and final program of the series will apparently pair the remaining two Bach works with Luciano Berio’s Sequenza VIII and the world premiere of John Harbison’s For Violin Alone.

08_Ysaye_Ibragimova.jpgThe new Alina Ibragimova CD of the Six Sonatas for Solo Violin by Eugène Ysaÿe (Hyperion CDA67993) is another simply outstanding solo disc. This is the fifth CD of these amazing works that I have received in the past four years or so, and Ibragimova’s is probably the biggest name of the five. She always plays with fire and passion, and her technique is astonishing; nothing in these fiendishly difficult works seems to give her the slightest problem. It’s a truly marvellous disc.

09_SJQ_Montage.jpgMontage, a collection of Canadian works, is the latest CD from New Brunswick’s Saint John String Quartet (SJSQ005 sjsq.ca). Vancouver’s Anthony Genge (b.1952) is represented by his atmospheric and somewhat minimalist String Quartet No.2, and the late Eldon Rathburn by the brief Subway Thoughts.

There are three works by the New Brunswick-based Martin Kutnowski (b.1968): the strongly tonal and melodic six Selections from “Watercolours for Ten Fingers”; Peter Emberley’s Dream, built on a New Brunswick folk song; and Five Argentinian Folk Pieces, drawing on the composer’s native Argentinian heritage.

Little Suite for String Quartet by Talivaldis Kenins (1919-2008) is a solid piece; the Fantasia on Themes of Beethoven by Michael R. Miller (b.1932) is quite fascinating and intriguing; and the Pastorale by Richard Kidd (b.1954) is a lovely final track.

I have just one complaint: the gap between the works is ridiculously short – mostly less than three seconds. You can’t tell when one work has ended and the next one has begun, and the mood of one work doesn’t have a chance to subside before the new work arrives. One wonders why.

10_Isserlis_Hough.jpgIt’s always a pleasure to receive a new CD by the English cellist Steven Isserlis, and his latest recital disc with pianist Stephen Hough of Cello Sonatas by Mendelssohn, Grieg and Hough (Hyperion CDA68079) is no exception.

The Grieg is a lovely work that Isserlis says has always been popular with cellists, although not necessarily with music critics; the slow movement and the beautiful second themes from the two outer movements in particular are quintessential Grieg. Hough’s Sonata for Cello and Piano Left Hand “Les Adieux” is a quite remarkable work, not least for the range and fullness of the piano part. The Mendelssohn is the best-known sonata of the three, and the performance here is a pure delight.

11_Arabella_Steinbacher.jpgThe Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos are paired on the new CD from Arabella Steinbacher and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under Charles Dutoit (PentaTone PTC 5186 504). Steinbacher has a really lovely tone and plays with undeniable intelligence and great accuracy, but she seems to linger occasionally in the first movements of both concertos, almost to the point of losing momentum at times. There are some lovely moments in the Mendelssohn slow movement and a nice bounce to the finale. The Tchaikovsky has some really thoughtful playing with no sign of stress or strain, but again seems to be held back somewhat in places; the codas, though, always pick up the pace.

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Review

The always interesting Gidon Kremer is back with New Seasons, a CD featuring his own string ensemble the Kremerata Baltica in works by Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, Giya Kancheli and Shigeru Umebayashi (Deutsche Grammophon 4794817). Kremer notes that he has always been interested in the subject of seasons in music, and feels that the composers here are all “saying something about a better world, creating new seasons that will remain valid forever.”

I’m not sure how much that relates to two of the works – Pärt’s Estonian Lullaby and Umebayashi’s Yumeji’s Theme from the 2000 movie In the Mood for Love are less than six minutes in combined length – but there’s no doubting the relevance of the main work here. Glass’s Violin Concerto No.2 “The American Four Seasons” is an attractive and accessible work in which the familiar repeated patterns and sequences, while still clearly Glass, seem to provide links to Vivaldi.

Kancheli’s Ex contrario is a hauntingly beautiful work in which Kremer and the ensemble are joined by solo cello, keyboard (sampler), bass guitar and performance CD; there’s a clear harpsichord sound, but nothing else from the latter three seems to stand out. Which is just the way it should be.

13_Bartok.jpgViolinist Sarah Plum and pianist Timothy Lovelace are the partners on Béla Bartók Works for Violin and Piano Volume 1 (Blue Griffin Recording BGR373), which features the Violin Sonata No.2, the two Rhapsodies, and the Romanian Folk Dances and Hungarian Folk Tunes, the latter two works transcribed for violin and piano from the original piano works by Zoltán Székely and Joseph Szigeti. There’s some fine playing here, but it seems a bit pedestrian at times, as if it needs more of a Hungarian bite to really take off. The Rhapsody No.2 is the most successful of the five works.

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Review

The movie world was shocked by the sudden death of James Horner this past June. Known almost entirely for his numerous movie scores, Horner was classically trained, and Pas de Deux, the debut CD of Mari and Hakon Samuelsen, the Norwegian sister and brother violin and cello duo, marked Horner’s first work for the concert hall in over 30 years (Mercury Classics 481 1487).

The title work is a double concerto for violin, cello and orchestra written specifically for the Samuelsens, and it clearly shows the two musical worlds that Horner could inhabit. I’m not sure how much development of material there is, but it’s a sweeping, rich and sonorous work, with strong themes and some beautiful orchestration. Perhaps inevitably, the movie world seems to predominate, although there are hints of classical influence – some Tchaikovsky-like wind writing, some string passages reminiscent of Vaughan Williams; in particular, the opening of the middle movement sounds for all the world like Henryk Górecki.

Mari Samuelsen goes solo in Arvo Pärt’s Fratres for violin, string orchestra and percussion, and her brother is joined by cellist Alisa Weilerstein in Giovanni Silloma’s Violoncelles, Vibrez! Paul Bateman’s arrangement of Ludovico Einaudi’s Divenire completes the disc. I ruffled some feathers recently with my comments about Einaudi’s music, so let’s just say that this is the somewhat repetitive but oddly beguiling piece with the abrupt ending that you hear a great deal on Classical FM radio, and leave it at that.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Vasily Petrenko in Pas de Deux, and by Clark Rundell in the remaining three works. Performances by all concerned are excellent throughout.

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Duo pianists are fascinating couplings and each is wonderfully unique. The dynamic choreography of duo pianism allows each partner to lead, follow or be subsumed in the music they play. It’s a breathtaking and elegant dance when done well.

01_Powerhouse_II.jpgPowerhouse Pianists II (American Modern Recordings AMR 1039) presents Stephen Gosling and Blair MacMillen in a program of American works highlighted by John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction and John Corigliano’s Chiaroscuro. Gosling/MacMillen play the Adams with a revivalist fervour evocative of traditional camp meetings. Chiaroscuro requires one of the two pianos to be tuned down a quartertone producing an arresting effect that Corigliano exploits in many ways. This is especially effective in the final movement titled Strobe.

The other real delight on this disc is Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues. Somewhat programmatic, it captures the pounding industrial din of a mill while introducing elements of an old work song that laments the burden of daily toil in such a setting. The latter half offers a seductive blues section that both pianists glide through with an easy swing before they let the composer conclude with the familiar rhythm of the mill.

02_Bavouzet_Guy.jpgAnother piano duo with a recent recording on the shelves is Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and François-Frédéric Guy. Their performance of Transcriptions for Two Pianists (CHANDOS CHAN 10863) opens with Bartók’s Two Pictures transcribed by pianist/conductor Zoltán Kocsis. Kocsis knows that the voices excluded are as important as those that find their way to the keyboard. He understands the different economies of both palettes and so do the pianists. This makes for a terrific transcription. Two Pictures is a set of great contrast with In Full Flower strongly evoking the influence that Debussy had on Bartók. Village Dance delivers the powerful impulse of rustic folk rhythms that Bartók used often in other works.

Debussy’s Jeux follows in a transcription by Bavouzet. His liner note argues for the benefit of hearing Jeux presented by the relatively “neutral” colours of the piano. It’s a curious statement, especially since each of the ten movements is clear and sparkles and is anything but neutral.

Bavouzet and Guy face their biggest challenge with Stravinsky’s two piano score of The Rite of Spring. Completed and published a year before the orchestral version and subsequent ballet performance, this work demands everything a pianist can bring to the keyboard from the ethereally subtle to the brutally savage. It’s an explosive piece and a brilliant performance.

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Review

Composer Terry Riley has for years been an ambassador for Western musicians who find a strong attraction to a creative mélange of minimalism, eastern traditions, polyrhythms and generally “out there” edgy adventurism. His all-night improvisations in the mid-60s in Philadelphia are legendary. His many collaborations with the likes of Chet Baker, The Who, Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet are equally so. It’s no surprise then, to find the piano duo (four hands) ZOFO recording an entire CD of his works. Eva Maria-Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi began their duo collaboration in 2009 and since then have issued four CDs. This latest, ZOFO plays Terry Riley (Sono Luminus DSL 92189) reflects their appetite for the unconventional. To be sure, their few discs do cover some standard repertoire but there is a strong drive in this pair of San Francisco-based performers to find and play the most challenging music they can handle. The result is never short of pure excitement.

Jaztine, the opening track, suggests what might have happened had Gershwin reinterpreted Ravel’s deconstructionist La Valse. Simone’s Lullaby is remarkable for its hypnotic bell-like piano playing. G Song has the feel of a Bach fugue making new friends at a jazz/blues jam session, and Praying Mantis Rag is brilliantly light-hearted fun from start to finish.

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04_Shelest_Duo.jpgA new piano duo on the scene is the Ukrainian-born, and now New York-based couple, Anna and Dmitri Shelest. Shelest Piano Duo have released their first recording TUTTI (Sorel Classics SC CD 002) with five substantial standard repertoire items. Among the disc’s highlights are Liszt’s own arrangement of his Les Préludes played with consistent brilliance and sensitivity through to its magnificent conclusion. Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony Allegro is an impressive display of melody and countermelody beautifully balanced and phrased. Ravel’s La Valse for four hands is rarely heard since the composer only arranged it for two pianos as well as solo piano. At his request, his friend Lucien Garban set it for piano four hands. The Shelests capture the chaos and complexity familiar in the orchestral version and bring it to a stunning finish. They conclude their CD with Henry Levine’s arrangement of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. This too, is usually heard as a solo or a two-piano performance and hearing this version is a novel treat.

05a_Grieg_Concerto.jpgRecent months have seen three pianists issue recordings of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces. Spanish pianist Javier Perianes (Edvard Grieg – Piano Concerto/Lyric Pieces, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, harmonia mundi HMC 902205) adds the Grieg piano concerto to his program making the disc a very attractive buy. The signature opening theme tells us immediately that we are listening to a performer with strong convictions at the keyboard. In his mid-20s, Perianes (about the same age as Grieg when he wrote the concerto) takes a very slightly slower tempo with the piece than we normally hear. His collaboration with Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo produces a very balanced performance that never feels rushed despite the many passages of mounting energy.

After the powerful finish to the first movement, Perianes performs the following Adagio with a remarkable tenderness and tentative voice. The overall effect is one of fragility that leaves the beauty of the main theme lingering in the memory. In the final movement he recalls the thematic material with familiar phrasing and marches confidently toward the frenetic build-up that closes the concerto with its thunderous chords.

The disc then moves into a selection of just 12 of Grieg’s 66 Lyric Pieces. Written throughout his composing career, these span nearly four decades of his life. Perianes makes careful choices insofar as he wants to demonstrate the wide variations of character and mood these little pieces represent. And in contrast to the concerto, Perianes now plays from an entirely different place, one of intimacy, introspection and fantasy. His approach to the Lyric Pieces is steady and mature. He avoids overindulgence in any expressive technique. Still there is plenty of tastefully applied rubato and dynamic freedom to support the emotional program that Grieg indicates in his titles.

March of the Trolls is played at a noticeably faster speed than most often heard but this seems to emphasize the sinister nature of the imagery. The mid-section, by contrast, is played with exquisite touch and Perianes manages to somehow leave it suspended in the air. His performance of Nocturne is wonderfully Debussy-like, but his finest two pieces are Homesickness and At Your Feet. With careful dynamics and beautifully placed hesitations he conveys a palpable sense of longing to the listener. Perianes is a sensible young artist who avoids the temptingly flashy in favour of fidelity to a composer’s intent.

05b_Hough_Grieg.jpgBritish pianist Stephen Hough has also released a selection of Grieg – Lyric Pieces (Hyperion CDA68070), though considerably larger, numbering 27. Hough is twice the age of Perianes and so one immediately expects an interpretive approach that reflects both that experience and maturity. While these traits are certainly evident, what really emerges is the fact that Hough lives in a world of much wider dynamic energy where rubato and phrase end pull-backs are powerful devices that he uses most effectively. Erotikon demonstrates this best and shows that Hough’s boundaries for expressive devices are set at very generous distances. To Spring seems to disappear into an emotional void as he finishes the piece. Butterfly shows his remarkable and articulate dexterity. He plays Bell Ringing with a touch that never fully engages the percussive nature of the piano hammer, and thereby makes the strings speak with no audible beginning. His Little Bird characterization is brilliant for all its nervous energy. And his March of the Trolls is wild and threatening before it melts into the beauty of the mid-section theme. Here, as in many other instances, Hough is able to pull the main musical idea further forward, out of the surrounding harmonies, than most pianists care to do. It’s consistent with his assertive interpretive style and works very well.

05c_Fialkowska_Grieg.jpgJanina Fialkowska takes a very different approach in Grieg – Lyric Pieces (ATMA Classique ACD2 2696). One searches in vain for some Eastern philosophical term to describe her artistic posture. The effect is, however, one of perfect calm, where no statement is rushed and there is no need to say anything until the music is ready. Her expression at the keyboard hints at understatement and reservation yet never lacks in rubato or dynamic expression. She plays with a subtle containment that is entirely satisfying even if we never hear the piano rattle mechanically under a maniacal fortissimo. Her opening track Arietta reflects this standard as does Sylph, and she never wavers from it.

Norwegian Dance sustains an entrancing left-hand drone while her right hand, with complete independence, plays out the folk tune. Brooklet is an example of brilliant, articulate playing which she carries even further in Puck for a memorable impish, elfish effect. She underscores Grieg’s German musical education in At Your Feet, reminding us of how Brahmsian this piece can sound. Finally, her March of the Trolls is completely unlike either the Hough or Perianes performance. Fialkowska takes the piece at a slower, more march-like pace. She also leaves plenty of breathing space around the beautiful central theme of the slow section. Fialkowska’s Lyric Pieces are very different and uniquely hers.

06_Said_Echoes.jpgKarim Said – Echoes From An Empire (Opus Arte OA CD9029D) has programmed his first recording with a remarkable purpose in mind: to survey the music that was written during the protracted demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and explore its message about the passage of the old and the advent of the new. To that end he performs works spanning the years 1903 to 1927 from Berg, Webern, Janáček, Enescu, Bartók and Schoenberg. Now 27, he shows a remarkable understanding of the music of this period and what its composers were doing in this era of profound transition.

He plays as if he were a seer of some kind. The sonatas by Berg and Janáček are fine examples of this, especially the second movement of the Janáček, titled Death. The transcendence of this is powerful and reaches far beyond the mere notes and the composer’s other markings. Similarly, his performance of Bartók’s Three Rondos on Slovak Folk Tunes seems so perfect a cultural iteration that Said’s birthplace, Amman, Jordan, seems a universe distant.

Enescu’s Suite No.2 in D Op.10 is a remarkably beautiful composition in its richness of form and melody. Said plays the opening Toccata with all the majesty its tempo marking designates. The following Sarabande is performed with such a delicate touch that the sounds of the instrument seem pure velvet. The closing Boureé is an energized finale that sparkles with virtuosity. We need to hear more from this young pianist. His touring schedule leaves him little time for recording. But record more he certainly must.

07a_Ardanaz_Liszt.jpgThe decision to record the Liszt B Minor Sonata may say more about a performer than the actual performance. Hearing the final product, however, seals the judgment. On Liszt piano music (Orpheus OR 3906-1828) young (mid-20s) Spanish superstar Félix Ardanaz presents this Everest of the piano repertoire in a way that allows one to forget about its technical demands and focus instead on both the emotional and intellectual brilliance Liszt wrote into it. With three of its six themes presented in the first 18 measures alone, Ardanaz identifies and presents the ideas with the clarity needed to help the listener follow Liszt’s plan through the ensuing half hour of playing.

So much of this performance is astonishing, but little more so than Liszt’s treatment of one of his opening ideas as a fugal subject midway through the work, followed by a seemingly impossible piu mosso direction. Ardanaz delivers this effortlessly. No subtlety escapes him, whether a brief tender Adagio or an explosive passage whose power falls under his complete control.

Ardanaz also includes both Mazeppa and Mephisto Waltz in his program. Astonishing throughout, this is definitely a “must-have” disc.

07b_Ardanaz_harpsichord.jpgBefore the awe over Félix Aradanaz begins to settle, it’s worth briefly mentioning his recording of French harpsichord repertoire on The French Harpsichord (Orpheus OR3906-1811). The transition between instruments is clearly the issue here and not much rationale is offered either in print or online as to why he does this. Very few pianists undertake such a bold recording choice but nothing seems beyond his reach. Ardanaz clearly understands the ornamentation styles and forms of early music, free as much of it is from the more firmly metered romantic repertoire he plays so well. Still he appears to have mastered the challenges of fingering, articulation and phrasing, especially of legato lines. Chaconne in D Minor by L. Marchand is an excellent example of nimble speed coupled with grand sustained chords so difficult to achieve on this instrument. Ardanaz includes works by Rameau, both Couperins, D’Anglebert and others on this disc. A very fine recording for early music followers.

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Review

British pianist Philip Edward Fisher has now followed his first recording of Handel’s keyboard music with a second instalment, Handel Keyboard Suites 2 (NAXOS 8.573397). Fisher brings a balanced sensibility to this performance, having decided clearly where he will draw the line at expressive keyboard techniques. Having been written for the harpsichord, no dynamics would have been contemplated by the composer, but Fisher introduces them with subtlety and respect. The result is very satisfying. His freedom with tempi and crisp ornamental figures adds even more to the richness of the music. Handel might have been very pleased to hear this approach. Suite No.7 in G Minor contains an especially lovely and mellow Andante as well as a couple of fast movements delightful for their articulation. The fugue in the second movement of Suite No.8 is far more full-sounding on the piano than it ever could be on the harpsichord. Fisher’s performance is refreshing and his future releases worth following.

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Author: Alex Baran
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01_Rossini_La_Gazza.jpgRossini – La gazza ladra
Moreno; Tarver; Regazzo; Praticò; Rewerski; Mastrototaro; Islam-Ali-Zade; Virtuosi Brunensis; Alberto Zedda
Naxos 8.660369-71

Review

According to the draconian laws of medieval France a servant girl was condemned to death for stealing a silver fork from her employers. She is rescued just in the nick of time however because, as it turns out, a magpie was the real culprit. The opera written by the 25-year-old Rossini is full of melodic invention, intense dramatic situations and opportunities for the voices of some seven principals. First performed in 1817 it has remained in the repertoire ever since.

This new live recording from Germany’s Wildbad festival fits in nicely with Naxos’ project of the complete 39 operas of Rossini and for this I personally thanked Klaus Heymann, founder and CEO of Naxos at the time of his Toronto visit. From the ominous rattle of the kettle drums of the famous Overture, conducted with a delightful lilt by the 84-year-old Rossini authority, Alberto Zedda, he makes the whole opera throb with life in beautifully pointed rhythms, skilful pacing, breathtaking suspense (in the Trial scene) and exhilaration in the finale when the silver spoon is finally found at the top of the belfry in the magpie’s nest.

The opera gets into its high gear when the virtuoso basso, Gottardo the evil mayor, gets into the act. Here Lorenzo Regazzo, possibly today’s best, rises to the challenge in the role that made Samuel Ramey famous. In the famous prison scene Regazzo brought the roof down in Pesaro, where even the Italians gave him a standing ovation. The innocent victim, Ninetta, is sung endearingly with some shattering high notes by Spanish soprano Maria Jose Moreno, while her lover, American tenor Kenneth Tarver, copes heroically with the hair-raising high tessitura. The four remaining principals all have their moments to shine, but we mustn’t forget the magpie, a real bird as in most Italian productions, asserting his presence loudly at crucial moments.

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02_Dvorak_Alfred.jpgDvořák – Alfred: Heroic Opera in Three Acts
Froese; Bothmer; Rumpf; Sabrowski; Mikuláš; Unger; Baxová; Prague RSO; Heiko Mathias Förster
ArcoDiva UP 0140-2 612 (arcodiva.cz)

Alfred is the earliest of Dvořák’s eleven operas. It is the only one with a German libretto. It remained unperformed until 1938, when (a few months before the German invasion) it was premiered, in a Czech translation, at Olomous. The performance on these CDs was recorded live in September 2014. It is the first performance to use the original German libretto.

Of Dvořák’s operas only Rusalka has held the stage and that largely because of the soprano aria, the Song to the Moon. I have, however, good memories of a production of The Jacobin by the Welsh National opera. Alfred was new to me as it will be to most. It presents a semi-historical account of the Anglo-Saxon resistance to the Danes under King Alfred in the ninth century. The musical idiom recalls French grand opera and early Wagner (the Wagner of Rienzi rather than the composer of Lohengrin). The CD booklet comes with a short essay by David R. Beveridge, who claims modestly, “Alfred is an uneven work, and nobody will claim that we have here a neglected masterpiece.” He then compensates for that comment by adding, “Yet it contains many passages of breath-taking beauty.” I am afraid these moments passed me by. Nevertheless this recording should be of interest to anyone who wishes to explore Dvořák’s earlier work. It is given a fine performance by singers and orchestra alike. The tenor, Ferdinand von Bothmer, is especially good in the role of the (fictional) Danish commander Harald.

 


03_Strauss_Feuersnot.jpgStrauss – Feuersnot
Carbone; Henschel; Wawiloff; Amoretti; Teatro Massimo; Gabriele Ferro
ArtHaus Musik 109065

A handsome suitor unwisely steals a kiss from a girl in the heat of passion whereby she vows revenge and publicly humiliates the young man by leaving him hanging in a basket just below her window. The unfortunate young fellow (actually a wizard and a powerful magician) lays a curse on the town by extinguishing all fires and plunging it into eternal darkness. The young Richard Strauss’ second, almost unknown opera was chosen by Teatro Massimo, the beautiful opera house of Palermo, Sicily to celebrate the composer’s 150th birthday. This Italian production is inspiringly directed by the formidably talented Emma Dante who engulfs the entire stage in a burst of colour and incessant movement and dancing, because this is Midsummer Night, a night of love.

The opera is Strauss’ revenge on the philistine burghers of Munich who made Richard Wagner leave in disgrace and booed Strauss’ first opera off the stage. Strauss (another Richard!) also quit Munich and wrote Feuersnot (Lack of Fire) and triumphed with it in 1902, in Dresden. Sumptuous music, full of melody interspersed with sudden outbursts of waltzes, soaring into a glorious climax at the end when the lovers finally unite and embrace. Italian conductor Gabriele Ferro, 80 years young, makes the music shimmer and pulsate with passion. A cast of thousands, soloists, chorus, dancers plus an omnipresent children’s choir singing like angels, makes the show like a fairy tale. Soprano Nicola Beller Carbone, the haughty maiden, is alternately furious, mischievous and funny, eventually surrendering to love in this very taxing role. The handsome wizard cum lover Kunrad, acrobatic German baritone Dietrich Henschel, is a worthy foil to her who manages to carry a tune and roar over the crowded stage while hanging in a basket suspended high in the air.

 


04_Pieczonka.jpgAdrianne Pieczonka sings Strauss; Wagner
Adrianne Pieczonka; Brian Zeger
Delos DE 3474

Review

The songs by Richard Strauss, some of the most beloved solo vocal compositions in the repertoire (next to Mahler’s), come with an almost-insurmountable caveat: They have been recorded sublimely by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf with Gerald Moore on piano. Those reference recordings are still capable of defeating any artist and Pieczonka must acknowledge their supremacy. So rather than dwell on comparisons, let’s judge this recording on its own merits.

First things first, Pieczonka is one of the best Wagnerian singers of our era. She proves that with Wesendonck-Lieder, a poetic account of Wagner’s infidelity to his wife Minna. As for the rest of the album, there are two forces conspiring against Pieczonka’s rendition of Strauss: the awkward, excessively close miking by Anton Kwiatkowski in the CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio; and the hesitant, almost withdrawn piano playing of Brian Zeger. As if refusing to be an equal partner, Zeger hides behind and blends with Pieczonka’s voice. This voice, opulent and beautiful, works best when coaxed and engaged by an equal partner, be it orchestra or piano solo. Here it sounds unusually shy and reluctant. That is too bad, because we now deserve a new reference recording and Pieczonka definitely has the talent to create such a disc.

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Author: Robert Tomas
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05_Cage_Songs.jpgAria – Nicholas Isherwood performs John Cage
Nicholas Isherwood
BIS BIS-2149

To say that for many music lovers the music of John Cage is an acquired taste is to gloss over the intellectual charge contained within it. Cage was a fearless experimenter and many of his compositions were more of a “project” than a piece of music. Take the title piece Aria, augmented with bizarre tape snippets (Fontana Mix), as restored in 2009 by Gianluca Verlingieri. The sheer audacity of the piece, given it was created in 1958, “for a voice in any range” is enough to give us pause. This album takes us through 43 years of music and includes Cage’s settings from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

It may come as a surprise, given his post-modern inclinations that Cage treated the human voice in the very same way the composers of the Baroque did – as yet another instrument, to be tuned and used to its limits. His favourite instrument was actually the voice of Cathy Berberian, for whom Aria was written. On this recording, Isherwood proves himself to be an attentive custodian of Cage’s music. In the unpublished Chant with Claps, his folksy rendition brings to mind some of the recordings of Appalachian songs by Custer LaRue and emphasizes the improbable: John Cage, the composer, the experimenter, the rebel, the visionary was also a balladeer. This is a great education for the ears – wide open.

 

Author: Robert Tomas
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06_Heller_Streetcar_Songs.jpgCharles Heller – Tramvay Lider
Charles Heller; Bram Goldhammer
Independent (ecanthuspress.com)

Riding transit at rush hour or late at night is rarely fun (save the rare times one encounters live music and dancing on a subway car). A sea of weary, sallow faces (is it the lighting?) can certainly make one feel equally grey and tired but it must have been far more grim during the Great Depression in Toronto. One streetcar conductor, Shimen Nepom, member of a far-left group known as the Proletarian Poets, decided to mine his oftentimes frigid and tedious journey by turning his experiences into a set of Yiddish poems entitled Tramvay Lider (Streetcar Songs), published in 1940 by the Toronto Labour League. Seventy years later, composer Charles Heller learned of Nepom through Gerry Kane, a columnist with the Canadian Jewish News who remembered meeting Nepom when he was a young boy riding the streetcar with his father. Heller then researched the poems, set them to music and now performs them eloquently, yet characteristically on this recording, accompanied by pianist Bram Goldhammer and cellist Rachel Pomedli. The music evokes the clattering tracks, the ringing bells, the bitter winds, but best of all, the poignant stories of the great variety of people who rode the College streetcar back then.

 


07_Rainshadows_Edge.jpgSongs from the Rainshadow’s Edge – a song cycle by Benton Roark
Arkora
Redshift Records TK444 (redshiftmusic.org)

Anyone who has lived in Vancouver will be familiar with the term “rainshadow” which, in turn, conveys the elusiveness of sunshine. This lends a rather dreamy, mystical aura to the area and the rainshadow’s edge mirrors that same misty, shimmering border between contrasting states of the psyche. Scored for soprano, flute, viola, bass, electric guitar, percussion and narrator, drawing on texts by Huxley, Carroll, Eckhart, Sartre and composer Benton Roark, the multi-layered five-part song cycle takes the listener on a Jungian journey beyond the edge and back again.

The composer, who based the work on his recollection of a state of depersonalization after a series of crises, did well in selecting the ensemble to perform it. Arkora, a self-described new music collective dedicated to contemporary vocal chamber music in its many forms and led by soprano Kathleen Allan, clearly possesses the fluidity to skillfully evoke the surreal experience of “loss of self” and the struggle between inner and outer realities. Allan’s purity of vocal tone is perfection in its adaptations through the ever-changing mix of genres and mysterious landscape of instrumental timbre.

 


01_Dido_and_Aeneas.jpgPurcell – Dido & Aeneas
Rachel Lloyd; Robert Davies; Elin Manahan Thomas; Armonico Consort; Christopher Monks
Signum Classics SIGCD417

This new recording of Dido and Aeneas could be described as lean. The orchestra consists of five string-players (one to a part with the double bass doubling the cello line) and one theorbo. The chorus consists of eight singers, two to a part. (I am going by the booklet which comes with the CD. There appear to be some uncredited wind players in the Overture as well as guitars in the First Act Chaconne). By contrast the performance conducted by Nicholas McGegan (Harmonia Mundi) has an orchestra of 22 players and a choir of 33 voices. The performance conducted by Emanuelle Haïm (Virgin) has a smaller choir (14) but an even larger orchestra (26).

There is a reason for the small forces used here: the earliest performance of the work that can be documented was at Josias Priest’s School for Gentlewomen in 1689. It has generally been assumed that that was the first performance of the work. In 1992, however, two musicologists published an article in which they suggested that the school performance would have been a revival and that the first performance, possibly at court, would have used larger forces.

Many readers will be mainly concerned with the quality of the mezzo-soprano who sings Dido. There are several great performances on record by Janet Baker, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Susan Graham. Rachael Lloyd, on the new recording, is good and there is a wonderful Belinda (Elin Manahan Thomas). I recommend the new recording, especially to those who prefer to hear the opera performed with the numbers that would have taken part in the first documented performance.

 


02_Sinkovsky_Vivaldi.jpgSinkovsky Plays & Sings Vivaldi
Dmitry Sinkovsky; La Voce Strumentale
naïve OP 30559

This is a disc filled with personality. The multi-talented Russian musician Dmitry Sinkovsky plays, sings and directs his lively interpretations of Vivaldi’s oft-performed four concertos based on the seasons, as well as an operatic scene and secular cantata.

There are so many recordings of The Four Seasons that I cannot claim with any authority that this is the most dramatic out there, but it is certainly the most expressive, demonstrative and exhausting performance of the piece I’ve ever heard. In the notes, Sinkovsky explains his approach as “like a real stage director in the opera house” and it shows. He’s a great player and, as it turns out, a fine singer as well. The two vocal excerpts on the disc make for a beautiful contrast and provide a nice respite from the aggressiveness of the playing in the concertos. In a cheeky bit of bravado, Sinkovsky plays the violin obbligato line as well as singing the aria Ah, ch’infelice sempre. I would love to see that in concert!

Some virtuoso musical personalities are generous and irrepressible, and therefore attractive. There’s no denying that Sinkovsky’s skill, musical intelligence and interpretive senses are off the charts, but I find there’s a gentleness and warmth missing from the mix. Still, he is young and certainly his performances of The Four Seasons are well worth the price of this very fine disc. Just hold on to your hat!

 

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01_Brahms_Trios.jpgBrahms – The Piano Trios
Christian Tetzlaff; Tanja Tetzlaff; Lars Vogt
Ondine ODE 1271-2D

Review

This two-disc set of the three Brahms piano trios is very much a “family and friends” affair. Violinist Christian Tetzlaff has been performing with his sister cellist TanjaTetzlaff since their childhood in Hamburg, while pianist Lars Vogt has been a longtime musical partner for both. The result is some most conducive music-making in three of Brahms’ chamber works which have not always received the recognition they undoubtedly deserve.

The Piano Trios Op 8, 87 and 101 occupied much of the composer’s time during the 1880s. As he mentioned to a friend, at the time, “there was no further point in attempting an opera or a marriage.”

The earliest of the trios had actually been composed in 1854 when he was all of 21, but Brahms spent considerable time revising it in 1889. Hence, the music is less that of a young composer still feeling his way than one who was looking back at 30 years of creativity. From the opening measures, it’s very clear that these performers enjoy playing with each other and do it with a strong sense of self-assurance. The broad sweeping lines in the opening Allegro and again in the Finale show a distinct elegance of phrasing while the second movement Scherzo is all lightness and grace.

The second and third trios are very much the music of the mature composer, surely Brahms at his finest. And not surprisingly, the three musicians have no difficulty in capturing the myriad of shifting moods contained within – majestic, restless, elegiac and buoyant. To perform Brahms well is frequently a challenge but the combination of the two Tetzlaffs and Vogt bring it off effortlessly. The highlight for me is surely the finale to the Piano Trio No.3. How deftly the three handle the syncopated rhythms and dynamic contrasts before bringing the movement – and the disc – to a triumphant conclusion.

Well done, all three – this recording is bound to be a benchmark.


02_Mahler_Fischer.jpgMahler – Symphony No.9
Budapest Festival Orchestra; Iván Fischer
Channel Classics CCS SA 36115

Iván Fischer’s ever-innovative Budapest Festival Orchestra, now in its 30th season, is a unique ensemble. Formed from a core of younger freelance musicians and a modicum of state support it thrives without a musicians’ union or job security. Fischer aptly describes the profile of the BFO as “not a dinosaur but a tiger.”

This sixth instalment of their outstanding series of Mahler symphonies presents one of the finest recordings ever of the Ninth Symphony. The performance of the first movement, virtually a symphony in itself, is revelatory. It perfectly depicts Alban Berg’s description of this movement: “It expresses an extraordinary love of this earth, for Nature; the longing to live on it in peace, to enjoy it completely, to the very heart of one’s being, before death comes, as irresistibly it does.” The second movement, an archly ironic Ländler, is nattily performed with a curiously bourgeois restraint (the disruptive timpani strokes are barely audible), though all hell breaks out in the contrapuntal near-panic of the subsequent Rondo-Burleske. Time stands still in the intense longing and eventual serene acceptance of the Finale. Rarely have I heard such an exquisite balance within and between the sections of the orchestra; such unanimity of tone can only have been achieved with intensive sectional rehearsals, a luxury most orchestras have long abandoned. The orchestra is equally well served by Jared Sacks and Hein Dekker’s outstanding recording and production. At a relatively swift 75 minutes the work fits on a single disc in a hybrid SACD format. Not to be missed!

 


03_Busoni_III.jpgBusoni the Visionary III – Piano Music
Jeni Slotchiver
Centaur CRC 3396

This CD continues American pianist Jeni Slotchiver’s Busoni the Visionary series. Her wonderful playing and program notes challenge the image of Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) as a chilly intellectual composer of contradictory, strange works. We have instead a well-rounded Busoni: piano virtuoso; extraordinary composer; key figure in modern music. Included is Busoni’s piano transcription of Bach’s St. Anne” Prelude and Triple Fugue for Organ. But the Fantasia nach Johann Sebastian Bach (1909) shows innovative re-thinking of possibilities in Bach chorales, while Nuit de Noël (1908) imitates actual bells with their dissonant overtones. Slotchiver plays both with intimacy and fine gradations of touch.

Busoni’s style evolved rapidly. Of the late works Ten Variations on a Prelude of Chopin (1922) is most accessible and varied, with shifts in tonal centre that create kaleidoscopic effects. Slotchiver is virtuosic in the middle and ending variations, and equally capable of projecting abrupt mood changes in one variation or quirky waltz style in another. She captures the mystic opening in Prélude et Etude (en Arpèges) of 1923, then conquers the etude’s wild arpeggios and acrobatic hand-crossing. In Toccata (1920) she emphasizes motifs from his operas, including the contemporaneous Doktor Faust. With a road map the listener can sort out this rich assemblage. Relax and remember: Busoni’s music does not resolve the contradictions encompassed by his genius (Italian and German, 19th century and modern, concertizing pianist and exploring composer), but plays with them masterfully.

 


04_Walton.jpgWalton – Symphony No.2; Cello Concerto
Paul Watkins; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Edward Gardner
Chandos CHSA 5153

“When you play Walton make big gestures,” Gregor Piatigorsky told the soloist I accompanied in the Walton Viola Concerto. The great cellist, tall and impressive in a white summer suit, was giving a string masterclass at Santa Barbara’s Music Academy of the West. Only later did I learn that Piatigorsky himself had commissioned Walton’s Cello Concerto and premiered it with the BBC Symphony! This CD’s expressive performance by cellist Paul Watkins and the Edward Gardner-led BBC players captures the work’s engaging spirit. Many cellists can sound expressive generically, but Watkins’ cello is expressive of particular melodic and harmonic beauties from the lyrical first movement on. In the tricky scherzo notable are the soloist’s impeccable bowing, intonation and ensemble playing. Both Watkins and Gardner pull through many mood changes in the last movement’s theme and improvisations convincingly.

The passion and commitment of conductor and orchestra also show in Walton’s Symphony No.2 (1960). In the opening movement strings display virtuosity while maintaining the most prominent motif’s yearning quality. The slow movement has touchingly played woodwind and horn solos, with mysterious trills and tremolos in the background held in balance by Gardner. The closing Passacaglia’s recurring 12-tone line is not confining; dramatic moments abound and the whole ensemble shines in an exciting Fugato-Coda. In Improvisations on an Impromptu by Benjamin Britten (1969), less inspired and more schematic than the other works, the BBC-ers realize Walton’s craftsmanship and imaginative orchestration well. Highly recommended.

 


01_1939.jpg1939 (Jongen/Ullmann/Hindemith/Hua/Klein)
Teng Li; Meng-Chieh Liu; Benjamin Bowman
Azica ACD-71301

Since Teng Li moved here to join the Toronto Symphony Orchestra as principal viola, she has become a much-valued presence on the Toronto concert scene in her own right. But, surprisingly, this is her first solo disc.

At its heart is Hindemith’s third Sonata for Viola and Piano. Like most of the works here, it was written in 1939, as the horrors of World War II were being unleashed on the world. Li’s impassioned performance, with pianist Meng-Chieh Liu, underlines the expressive force of Hindemith’s dazzling work.

Gideon Klein was just 20 when he wrote his audacious Duo for Violin and Viola. Li is well-matched by violinist Benjamin Bowman in a shattering evocation of Klein’s despair. An extraordinary work – in an unforgettable performance.

Viktor Ullmann’s situation was as dire as Klein’s in 1939. But his Five Love Songs, like Joseph Jongen’s luminous Concertino for Viola and Piano, are infused with hopeful, if bittersweet, longing. Arranged for viola and piano by Liu, Ullmann’s songs, though fleeting and unmoored without their texts, find an eloquent poetic voice here.

Moon Reflected in Er-Quan takes us to Li’s native China with this tender elegy composed by the blind itinerant Yanjun Hua. Li manages to evoke the distinctive sound of the erhu in this moving arrangement for solo viola.

This is a memorable disc. The recorded sound is clear and authentic, and Li’s own booklet notes, in English, French and Chinese, are persuasive in presenting these works as direct responses to their fraught times.

 

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