Mozart – Requiem - Soloists; Accentus; Insula Orchestra; Laurence Equilbey

01 Vocal 01 Mozart RequiemMozart – Requiem
Soloists; Accentus; Insula Orchestra; Laurence Equilbey
naïve V 5370

There are many recordings of Mozart’s Requiem. My own favourite is the live recording made in 2001 by Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Québec, conducted by Bernard Labadie, with Karina Gauvin, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, John Tessier and Nathan Berg as soloists, and with a brilliant cameo part by the trombonist Alain Trudel (on Dorian; at present only available as an MP3).

The Requiem was unfinished when Mozart died and was subsequently completed by his student, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, with some input by Jakob Freystädtler and Joseph Eybler. It is likely that they based their work on sketches by Mozart himself but, since these sketches no longer exist, we cannot be certain about that. Most performances adopt the Süssmayr completion: it may not be all Mozart but it is the closest we can get to Mozart’s conception of the work. The Labadie performance, however, uses a revision and completion by Robert D. Levin.

The version on the present recording is more traditional. It features a new period ensemble, the Insula Orchestra, and a very fine choir, Accentus, which has been in existence for 20 years. The soloists are Sandrine Piau, soprano, Sara Mingardo, contralto, Werner Güra, tenor, and Christopher Purves, bass-baritone. They are also very good. The booklet that comes with the CD has a useful chart outlining what Mozart completed and what was completed by others. I could, however, do without passages like: “And so he laid down his pen after the first eight bars of the ‘Lacrymosa’ ... For he was not God, but a man, and could bear no more.”

Although my allegiance is still to the Labadie performance, I liked the new one and recommend it.


Mozart – Don Giovanni - Soloists; Fondazione Orchestra Regionale delle Marche; Riccardo Frizza

01 Vocal 02 Don GiovanniMozart – Don Giovanni
Soloists; Fondazione Orchestra Regionale delle Marche; Riccardo Frizza
Cmajor 717408

After some 230 years the fascination for Mozart’s greatest opera has never ceased. In fact there seems to be a renaissance these days with new productions all over the world: New York, London, Milan, even Toronto. But we need not go to those glittering, super-expensive centres (at La Scala tickets went for 2,300 euros!) as here we have a DVD from a small town in central Italy, Macerata, which most of you I daresay never heard of, produced on a limited budget; an elegant, rapt and joyful reading that puts those grandiose, star-studded productions to shame.

This success that “will enter the annals of opera” ( can be attributed to many things, not least to the work of Italy’s gran maestro of staging and set design Pier Luigi Pizzi’s brilliant and inspired direction. His vision is that of vast amusement yet sympathetic understanding of the foibles of men (and women), a dramma giocoso as Mozart envisioned it. A big, unmade bed is ever present and much of the action takes place in and around it, reminding us constantly what all this fuss is all about. Yet, his taste is impeccable without any vulgarity. The cast is virtually flawless: all young singers, mainly Italian, energetic and attractive with voices that could rival any of the big stars; The women especially, among whom Carmela Remigio (Donna Elvira) is probably the most memorable.

But what delivers the biggest punch is Don Juan himself, Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, whose career I’ve followed in the last ten years from humble bit roles to his major break in Vienna as a very unlikely Henry VIII in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. Here he is a phenomenon, a life force, the essence of the show no one will likely forget. Another young Italian, conductor Riccardo Frizza’s upbeat tempi, a bit on the fast side, keep everything moving forward with the supreme glory of Mozart always shining through.


Mercadante – I Briganti

01 Vocal 03 MercadanteMercadante – I Briganti
Soloists; Camerata Bach Choir, Poznan; Virtuosi Brunensis; Antonino Fogliani
Naxos 8.660343-44

Saverio Mercadante was a prominent early 19th-century Italian composer. He wrote 57 operas. Few people living now will have seen any, although there are now recordings of several, mainly on the Opera Rara label. The present CD was recorded live at the XXIV Rossini in Wildbad Festival in July 2012. The libretto is based on Schiller’s play Die Räuber, as is Verdi’s later opera I Masnadieri. The cast on this recording is cosmopolitan: the tenor is Russian, the soprano Bulgarian, the baritone Italian, the chorus Polish and the orchestra Czech. The soloists are very good and they perform with virtuosity and with gusto.

This world premiere recording uses a new edition based on research by Michael Wittmann, who also contributes an informative note. He argues that Mercadante’s operas represent a movement away from the elaborate decorations of bel canto opera in favour of a greater emphasis on the dramatic aspect. It was left to Verdi, Wittmann suggests, to take this a stage further and to place “veracity of expression above its beauty.” I find the argument convincing but I also think that we should appreciate the opera on its own terms, not just as a missing link between Bellini and Verdi.


Schoenberg – Moses und Aron

01 Vocal 04 Moses und AronSchoenberg – Moses und Aron
Franz Grundheber; Andreas Conrad; SWRSO Baden-Baden und Freiburg; Sylvain Cambreling
Hanssler Classic 93.314

Arnold Schoenberg’s self-authored libretto for his dodecaphonic biblical spectacular Moses und Aron (the latter protagonist is intentionally respelled so that the title contains exactly 12 letters) calls for the on-stage appearance of rape, murder, butchery and camels. (Take that, Verdi!) Though he intended the work to include three acts, the composer completed only the first two from 1930 to 1932. In essence however the work is closer in spirit to an oratorio and is often effectively presented as such. Recordings of Moses have been slow but steady following the composer’s death in 1951, with about a dozen available in various formats. What has kept this opera in the shadows (it was not staged in this hemisphere until the Metropolitan Opera presented it in 1999) has less to do with the lurid scenario than the extensive and hugely demanding choral writing – the most recent staging in Wales saw the chorus rehearsing the work for some 18 months.

I consider the true stars of this new recording to be the members of the elite EuropaChorAkademie who have thoroughly mastered the score with spectacular results. In the lead roles the magisterial Franz Grundheber makes a lasting impression in the half-sung, half-spoken interpretation of the tongue-tied Moses and is effectively paired with the forceful Heldentenor of Andreas Conrad as his eloquent spokesman Aron. The French conductor and new music specialist Sylvain Cambreling leads the SWR radio orchestra (sadly scheduled to be dissolved in 2016) in a finely balanced and lucid account of the score miraculously cobbled together from no less than four different performances in as many venues during a 2012 European tour.


Dean Burry – Baby Kintyre, An Opera

01 Vocal 05 Burry Baby KintyreDean Burry – Baby Kintyre, An Opera
Soloists; Ensemble; John Hess; Dairine Ni Mheadhra
Centrediscs CMCCD 20314

Composer/librettist Dean Burry has taken a gruesome piece of Toronto history and created an episodic, edge-of-seat serial radio opera thriller originally performed in six consecutive 2009 broadcasts of CBC’s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera.

I remember the media frenzy surrounding the horrific event. In 2007, a home renovator discovered a mummified baby wrapped in a 1925 newspaper in the floorboards of an East Toronto home. Burry was so moved by the discovery, that he used the news details of the characters to create so appropriately emotional, strong and larger-than-life operatic characters.

Burry’s libretto weaves a spellbinding tale with splashes of slapstick-flavoured humour in this story set in both the 2007 renovator’s discovery, and the 1920s’ life in the house on Kintyre Ave. The vocal melodies are tonally contemporary yet accessible. Burry’s use of “Amazing Grace” and “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” add a popular music sentiment. The performances by all the singers are clear and colourful. Eileen Nash is especially outstanding in her performance and childlike vocal tuning of the ten-year-old Rita. The small orchestra, with super pianist John Hess, plays with abandon and colour. Snippets of newscasts, cell phones and other modern day tidbits complete the soundscape. The CBC Radio Metro Morning documentary Baby Kintyre – Part 1 & 2 is included after the opera, pushing the story back into the real world.

Dean Burry has written a clever, thought-provoking and solid opera that requires no visual set to keep the listener enthralled! Oh, the secrets that families hold.


Strings Attached - November 2014

Robbins 01 Lara St. JohnIt’s an idea so obvious that you have to wonder why the market isn’t already flooded: a DVD that features a world-class soloist going through a major concerto almost bar by bar, explaining the problems and challenges, and discussing ways of addressing them. DVDs of masterclasses are occasionally issued, but I don’t know of anything quite like the Learning from the Legends series (, which has recently started its catalogue with two 2-DVD sets featuring Lara St. John playing and dissecting two of the most popular violin concertos in the repertoire: the Bruch G Minor and the Mendelssohn.

The Bruch set came my way recently, and it’s absolutely fascinating and engrossing. DVD1 features St. John playing the concerto with pianist Eduard Laurel, but with the work broken up into short segments, often of only a few bars. The violin music appears at the foot of the screen, and St. John discusses just about everything you can think of before repeating the section: technical challenges and problems; interpretation; performance issues; tips and advice; fingering; bowing; practising and learning the solo part. The first movement dissection takes 45 minutes; the second 33 minutes, and the finale 43 minutes.

DVD2 has the uninterrupted performance of the concerto by St. John and Laurel, a piano-only accompaniment, and a selection of short help sections from St. John: The Importance of Finding a Teacher; Practice Philosophy; and eight short Technical Exercises.

St. John’s relaxed and friendly presentation-style is perfect, and her commentary always apposite and perceptive. The camera work is almost entirely close-up, with every possible angle of fingering and hand position shown clearly.

It’s absolutely indispensable stuff for student violinists, and offers fascinating and revelatory insights for anyone interested in how concert performances are built. Sheet music for St. John’s own edition of the solo part is available for download through the publisher’s website.

Robbins 02 Fandango guitarsQuebec’s Quatuor Fandango was formed six years ago as a student ensemble at the Conservatoire de musique in Gatineau. Uarekena, their debut CD, presents an attractive program of short works and some excellent ensemble playing (ATMA ACD2 2707).

The disc opens with Comme un Tango and closes with Carnaval, two short pieces by Patrick Roux, the quartet’s teacher and mentor in Gatineau. Dušan Bogdanović’s Introduction and Danse was inspired by the music of Eastern Europe and Sérgio Assad’s title track reflects his Brazilian heritage.

Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite is followed by Leo Brouwer’s Paisaje cubano and Jürg Kindle’s Berimbao, the latter named after the African instrument that consists of a steel string struck with a stick. There are some particularly interesting sound effects in the Brouwer and Kindle pieces – and yes, you can play the guitar with a pencil!

The recorded sound is warm and resonant, the balance excellent and the playing terrific. The group rightly points out that the guitar quartet is a relatively recent addition to the list of performing ensembles, and the repertoire continues to grow, both in original compositions and arrangements and transcriptions. This CD is a welcome addition to the quartet discography, and a debut disc to be proud of.

Robbins 03 BruchGiven that the outstanding Hyperion series The Romantic Violin Concerto has mostly highlighted lesser-known composers, the selection of Max Bruch for Volume 17 (CDA68050) may, at first glance, seem a bit surprising. The huge popularity of the Concerto No.1 in G Minor, however, overshadowed the two later concertos, both in D minor, which Bruch wrote for the instrument.

The Violin Concerto No.3, Op.58 is the main feature here. It’s a long work, with absolutely gorgeous music throughout, and a particularly lovely slow movement. The melodies are perhaps less immediately memorable than those in the G minor concerto, which may help to explain why the work never really established itself, but it’s easy to see why Bruch grew so annoyed and frustrated when violinists always preferred to play the earlier concerto.

If there is a bit of a surprise here, it might be the choice of the Scottish Fantasy, Op.46 as the accompanying work, instead of the even less-heard and perhaps more obvious Violin Concerto No.2; still, it’s such a lovely and familiar work that it’s hard to complain, and it shows, perhaps, the difference that strong melodies that stay with you after just one hearing can make to a work’s impact.

The English violinist Jack Liebeck is in superb form in both works, with Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra providing excellent support.

Robbins 04 Bell BachJoshua Bell joins the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields as soloist and music director in performances of the two solo violin concertos by J. S. Bach on his latest CD, Bach (Sony Classical 88843 08779). The Concerto No.1 in A Minor, BWV 1041 and the Concerto No.2 in E Major, BWV 1042 are both given bright, sympathetic readings with beautiful playing from all the participants. The slow movements are heartfelt without ever being overplayed, and the finales have a genuine dance feel to them.

It’s hard to understand now how anyone could ever have felt that any of the Bach solo Sonatas & Partitas needed a piano accompaniment, but in the mid-19th century both Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn did just that, Schumann supplying a piano part for all six works, and Mendelssohn – who was mainly responsible for the revival of Bach’s music in the first place – writing an accompaniment for the great D minor Chaconne. The Chaconne is included here with the Mendelssohn accompaniment, but Bell takes it a step further by using an orchestral arrangement of Mendelssohn’s piano part that he created with the Philharmonia Orchestra violinist Julian Milone. Bell openly admits that the Bach original cannot be improved upon, but appreciates that it does give him another way to experience the work and the opportunity to play it with his friends in the Academy. It’s an interesting experiment, and one that is repeated with the Gavotte en Rondeau from the E major Partita, this time with Schumann’s accompaniment getting the Milone treatment. A lovely reading of the Air from the Orchestral Suite in D Major completes an excellent CD.

Robbins 05 Daniel Hope

The title of violinist Daniel Hope’s new CD, Escape to Paradise: The Hollywood Album (Deutsche Grammophon            4792954), is a bit misleading. Hope’s focus is on composers who escaped from Hitler’s Europe to the warmth of the Hollywood movie scene, but there’s non-Hollywood music here from pre-and post-war Germany – including a Korngold work from 1908 – as well as non-escapee music from second-generation Hollywood composers like John Williams and Ennio Morricone.

Hope and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under Alexander Shelley display a big Hollywood tone right from the opening notes of Miklós Rózsa’s Love Theme from Ben Hur, and carry the same style into the major work on the disc, Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto Op.35; the concerto was built around themes from Korngold’s Hollywood movie scores. It’s a fine performance of a lovely work.

The remainder of the CD is given over to 14 short pieces, most of them arrangements; five are for duo or chamber ensemble, including three that feature members of the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin. Ex-Police frontman Sting sings his own lyrics (replacing Berthold Brecht’s!) to a song from Hanns Eisler’s Hollywood Liederbuch, and German singer Max Raabe contributes a flat (unfortunately in both meanings of the word) performance of Kurt Weill’s Speak Low.

The best tracks are those for soloist and orchestra, including the themes from Rózsa’s El Cid, Morricone’s Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, Williams’ Schindler’s List and Thomas Newman’s American Beauty. The disc ends with a slow, low-key and really quite odd solo violin arrangement of As Time Goes By.

The CD is a strange mixture in many ways; some moments resonate less than others, and the vocal tracks in particular seem more like intrusions than contributions, but Hope’s playing is stylish and of a very high standard throughout. Editor’s Note: Alexander Shelley succeeds Pinchas Zukerman as conductor of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in September 2015. 

Robbins 06 Parra

Terra Incognito, featuring the Colombian-born guitarist and composer Arturo Parra, is the debut CD from the new Montreal music and book publishing company La Grenouille Hirsute/Shaggy Frog Productions (LGH1301).

The sub-title of the CD is Seven sound portraits, Parra having spent time with seven men and women from different parts of the Americas before composing seven original pieces “at the request of their subjects” in response to what he had heard. The title, Terra Incognito, refers to the phrase that used to indicate unknown territory on early maps and globes. More on that in a minute.

I didn’t quite know what to expect from this disc. Parra has extensive experience with contemporary mixed media compositions for guitar, and, we are told, “…has to date invented over fifty extended guitar techniques and forms of guitar/vocal expression, and continues to expand the expressive range of his instrument through his sonic explorations.” Not that you would know that from this CD: from reading the promotional material I expected a far more edgy, experimental approach, but it’s mostly riffs and improvisations on standard classical guitar etudes, patterns and techniques, with the occasional extraneous sound – clicks here, a swoosh there – and some fairly standard guitar sound effects – string slides, percussive knocks and the like.

The relevance of the Terra Incognito title is explained by the album’s representing “a vast fresco of a grand journey through unknown lands… a journey that ultimately leads [listeners] back to their home port.” The language throughout the entire package – and particularly in the almost impenetrable booklet notes on the seven track titles – is, to put it mildly, opaque. Here is Parra expounding on his view that every portrait is also, in some way, a portrait of its author: “Each of us is, to another, a two-way mirror watching us watching ourselves while we believe we are watching someone else; a mirror in which we stare into infinity, entranced by our own features, while the mirror stares at itself believing it is staring at us.” Um… OK. “Would I have written the portraits in full knowledge of how naked they would leave me? Don’t know, can’t say.” The entire booklet notes are of a similar nature, either at the far edge of perception or simply pretentious – take your pick – but it doesn’t really matter; the point is that they bear absolutely no relation to the end product and to what you hear.

Don’t get me wrong. Make no mistake: this guy can play. Parra is an extremely talented and proficient guitarist and composer, and the pieces here show an advanced technique and a refined awareness of the instrument’s range and colour palette. There is, however, little sense of the individual pieces being portraits of anything; the whole CD, far from feeling like a journey, feels more like a series of improvisational – albeit high quality and beautifully played – studies.

The recording quality is excellent, and there is a great deal to enjoy on this disc. I just have a big problem believing that it actually does what it claims to do.


Perla Barocca – Early Italian Masterpieces - Rachel Podger; Marcin Swiatkiewicz; Daniele Caminiti

02 Early 01 Perla BaroccaPerla Barocca – Early Italian Masterpieces
Rachel Podger; Marcin Swiatkiewicz; Daniele Caminiti
Channel Classics CCS SA 36014

This beautiful disc is a pearl indeed. From the lyrical, improvisatory opening of G.B. Fontana’s Sonata 2 to the final exuberance of Bertali’s Chiacona, Perla Barocca is a delightful exploration of 17th-century Italian violin repertoire, as interpreted by three luminescent players.

Among my personal favourites on this CD are Pandolfi Mealli’s Sonata 6, in which the composer’s theatrical eccentricity and lyricism are effortlessly captured. Isabella Leonarda’s Sonata 12 is simply gorgeous, and the fiery passagework of Marco Uccellini’s Sonata overo Toccata “detta la Laura rilucente,” isn’t just impressive, it’s refreshingly expressive as well. Particularly in Biagio Marini’s Sonata 4, Rachel Podger and her colleagues make use of an extraordinary range of tonal colour and volume, as well as numerous special effects described in writings of the time but rarely heard nowadays in performances of this repertoire. Girolamo Frescobaldi is represented here with the familiar keyboard Toccata 1, in which harpsichordist Marcin Swiatkiewicz displays his interpretive mastery, and another Toccata for “spinettina e violino.” Podger, Camini and Swiatkiewicz give Dario Castello’s Sonata 2 one of the most thoughtful and inventive renditions I’ve ever heard, providing inspiration for a fresh look at this much-recorded piece. Their perfect exploitation of expressive device, creative pacing and snappy virtuosity give the impression that the three of them are actively collaborating with Castello as they go; and so it is with the rest of the music on this CD.

A must-listen.


A Royal Trio – Arias by Handel, Bononcini & Ariosti

02 Early 02 A Royal TrioA Royal Trio – Arias by Handel, Bononcini & Ariosti
Lawrence Zazzo; La Nuova Musica; David Bates
Harmonia Mundi HMU 807590

In 1719, Handel had been told by the newly established Royal Academy of Music in London to recruit a company of singers, of the calibre of the castrato Senesino. Such singers were the mainstay of the Academy, as were Handel and the Milanese cellist and composer Giovanni Bononcini.

Add a third composer Attilio Ariosti of Bologna, and you have an operatic power house in London which, along with Lawrence Zazzo’s genius as a countertenor, is the inspiration for this CD. Indeed, Zazzo’s skills as a countertenor are immediately displayed with his vigorous interpretation of Handel’s “Rompo I lacci” from Flavio. More sedate but no less intense is his performance of “Cosi stanco Pellegrino” from Bononcini’s Crispo.

Handel’s music features in ten of the 18 tracks on this CD, “Va tacito” from Giulio Cesare being an entirely suitable selection, not only due to Zazzo’s enthusiastic performance but because of the spirited accompaniment from the woodwinds and horns of La Nuova Musica. It is a sharp contrast to the thoughtful, sighing setting of “Tanti affani” from Handel’s Ottone, which follows.

Despite Handel’s reputation, one of the most moving recordings on the entire CD is Ariosti’s “Spirate, o iniqui marmi” from Coriolano, conveying Coriolano’s anguish at his wrongful imprisonment. In this case, it is the strings which combine with Zazzo’s voice to create the doleful atmosphere.

In fact, Bononcini and Handel both end the CD with a flourish, the former with “Tigre piagata” from Muzio Sevola and the latter with “Vivi, tiranno” from Rodelinda. Each piece showcases the sheer skill of Lawrence Zazzo and the demands placed on his voice.


Beethoven – Diabelli Variations - Stewart Goodyear

03 Classical 01 Goodyear BeethovenBeethoven – Diabelli Variations
Stewart Goodyear
Marquis MAR 455

Stewart Goodyear has already demonstrated his maturity and artistic mastery of Beethoven in the complete sonata recordings and his marathon performances of the works. This current CD establishes him as one of the premier Beethoven interpreters today.

The Diabelli Variations “amused Beethoven to a rare degree” and were written in “a rosy mood” which dispels the belief that Beethoven spent his later years writing in complete gloom. These variations tease us with incredible humour and “funny themes.” Substitute the syllables ha-ha, hee-hee to the music in Variation 10 which Alfred Brendel so aptly named “Giggling and neighing” in his book Music Sounded Out and it will guarantee a smile and laugh while listening to this extraordinary opus. This is joyful, uplifting music and Goodyear has the formidable technique and astute sense of structure to be able to switch from one character to the next. He clearly defines the unique personality and mood of each variation.

The extra-musical images and literary allusions of the work come alive in Goodyear’s command of the extreme contrasts and articulation of the musical motifs. He brings to life tender moments and violent, disjointed musical excursions while sustaining a focus from the beginning to the end of the work. The love and joy of playing Beethoven is evident in every nuance and breath of Goodyear’s performance. The sound of the recording, tempo and timing flows naturally in its expressive and colourful journey.

This is an excellent recording and is highly recommended. I look forward to Stewart Goodyear recording all of Beethoven’s Variations.


Beethoven – Complete Works for Cello and Piano

03 Classical 02 Beethoven CelloBeethoven – Complete Works for Cello and Piano
Jean-Guihen Queyras; Alexander Melnikov
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902183.84

Having already collaborated on chamber music by Brahms, Kodály, Debussy and Poulenc, Canadian-born cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov – two established Harmonia Mundi artists – have now turned their attention to music by Beethoven in this splendid two-disc set featuring the complete works for cello and piano.

The music was composed over a 20-year period, from 1796 to 1815. The two sonatas Op.5, were a result of Beethoven’s association with the musical court life in Berlin which not only included the cello-playing King Frederick Wilhelm II (nephew of, and successor to, the flute-playing Frederick the Great) but also the Duport brothers – both cello virtuosos. The Queyras-Melnikov pairing is a sublime one, their playing elegant and polished, with a wonderful sense of momentum throughout. The first disc also includes the delightful Variations on Mozart’s Ein Mädchen oder Weibschen from The Magic Flute and See the Conquering Hero Comes from Handel’s Judas Maccabeus.

It was almost 11 years later that Beethoven returned to the cello/piano combination with his Sonata in A Major Op.69, long regarded as one of his most renowned in the genre. The mood is dignified and majestic and the equal partnership of the artists results in a wonderful cohesion of sound, with Queyras’ warm rich tone perfectly complemented by Melnikov’s solid performance. Also included on this disc are the variations on Mozart’s Bei Männern welche Liebe fuhlen from The Magic Flute and the two sonatas Op.102 completed in 1815. Queryas displays a particular tenderness in the slow movement of the second sonata before the two embark on the robust fugal finale, thus bringing the set to a most satisfying close.

Well done, Messrs. Queyras and Melnikov – it’s a classic case of outstanding repertoire superbly played, and we can’t ask any more than that.



Chopin – Complete Mazurkas
Janina Fialkowska
ATMA ACD2 2682

Chopin – 24 Preludes
Alain Lefèvre
Analekta AN 2 9287

Chopin – Preludes
Ingrid Fliter
Linn Records CRD 475

03 Classical 03a Fialkowska ChopinIn the ridiculous horror-parody film, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, the bloodthirsty veggies can only be defeated when shown the sheet music of Donny Osmond. That makes them explode in fear. In the real world, the truly scary scores are those of Frédéric Chopin. The sheer complexity of the writing, the crowded added lines and bars bursting with fractal notes are enough to send a casual, sight-reading pianist scrambling. Chopin’s music requires a lot of great technique, to be sure. But technique alone is not enough – the best example of that is the pianist that this reviewer calls Bang Bang in obvious reference to his overuse of the forte pedal. Lots of bravado there, but very little heart and soul.

03 Classical 3b Lefevre ChopinIn fact, I would venture to say that the music of Chopin is a lot like wine – it is a result of the terroir, the quality of grapes and the winemaking technique. As for terroir, there is something magical when one hears that music at the Royal Baths Gardens in Warsaw, near the statue of Chopin (wrapped by two bronze weeping willows) or at Chopin’s family cottage in Zelazowa Wola, where his alleged piano is still in working order. Alas, that’s a pleasure not accorded to many. Still, there is something uncanny in the ability of Polish pianists to re-capture that ever-important terroir. Then there are the grapes – the beauty of Chopin’s writing was that no piece, no matter how slight, could be considered minor. The Minute Waltz, the Preludes, the Mazurkas or songs, regardless of length, command attention equal to that of the Piano Concerti. If all his scores are difficult, then the Mazurkas are particularly so, as their intuitive, internal rhythm has tripped up many a virtuoso. There is a reason, after all, for a separate award category for Mazurka interpretation at the Chopin International Piano Competition – a prize so elusive, that on several occasions it was not awarded. Finally we come to the winemaking technique. All three of the pianists in this review are no amateurs and their technique can be vouched for by the international prizes they have garnered – Ingrid Fliter was a silver medalist of the 2000 Chopin Piano Competition, Janina Fialkowska won the inaugural 1974 Arthur Rubinstein competition and Alain Lefèvre scored a JUNO, Prix Opus and ten (That’s ten!) Prix Felix. So, how do they fare?

All three discs are a true delight – so any criticism that follows will be merely an exercise in splitting hairs.

03 Classical 03c Fliter ChopinIf I were to pick the weakest link, it would be the Argentine-born Ingrid Fliter. Though some would argue that hers is the finest technique of the three, her approach to Chopin is almost too conservative and because of that it seems fearful. No room for fear when playing Chopin – this is a counterphobe’s territory. I would also add that despite her triumph at the Warsaw competition, her recording pays the least homage to the actual terroir of the music. A notable exception is the “Raindrop” Prelude – possibly the best performance I have heard in years.

Lefèvre is fearless and bold, taking no prisoners in his approach and perhaps losing some clarity in the process. However, by leading with the heart, you cannot lose when playing Chopin.

Finally, Fialkowska is in fine form, proving once again that it is the combination of emotional presence, technique and experience or the grapes, terroir and winemaking, that delivers the stunning results. Hers is the crown of Mazurkas, those frustrating, intimidating gems that Schumann called “cannons under flowers” referring to their potent political message dressed as “small” piano pieces.


Tchaikovsky; Grieg – Piano Concertos - Stewart Goodyear; Czech National Symphony; Stanislav Bogunia

03 Classical 04 Goodyear ConcertosTchaikovsky; Grieg – Piano Concertos
Stewart Goodyear; Czech National Symphony; Stanislav Bogunia
Steinway & Sons Records 30035

These performances of the warhorses by Tchaikovsky and Grieg are on fire. There is an energy and passion from both the remarkable Stewart Goodyear and the incredible Czech National Symphony that makes this a must-listen-to CD for pianists. Goodyear speaks of the collaboration as “dancing” and the performances certainly weave long musical lines and pulsating shapes like dance choreography. I like the tempos in the Tchaikovsky concerto. Both pianist and orchestra refrained from romantic over-indulgence and kept the music flowing in grand, sweeping gestures. This concerto often suffers from affectations and egocentric playing. Goodyear’s impressive technique was used with integrity to interpret the music. He coaxed beautiful tone poems and colours from the piano. He embraced the lush harmonic worlds of Tchaikovsky and made the rhythms dance in balletic forms. His incisive articulation and trills that border on the phenomenal will keep listeners on the edge of their seats. The second movement sparkles effervescently at a quick tempo but the slower sections are tender and carefully nuanced. The concerto ends in a blaze of virtuosic display and fireworks from both piano and orchestra.

The Grieg concerto was impeccable. It sang in lyric colours and the ensemble between pianist and orchestra was exemplary. The tempos and timings breathed and evolved freely while creating naturally flowing phrases. The lyrical and sensitive second movement sang with luminous tone and expressiveness. The third movement was crisp and performed with scintillating precision.

It is so refreshing to hear these often over-done concertos played with such love, mastery and musical integrity. Bravo to Stewart Goodyear and the Czech National Symphony, as well as to Steinway for this excellent CD.


Bruckner – Symphony No.3

03 Classical 05 Bruckner 3Bruckner – Symphony No.3
Orchestre Métropolitain; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
ATMA ACD2 2700

This Bruckner Third is another triumph for Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Wisely using the original 1873 version, Nézet-Séguin provides a well-paced, convincing performance of this massive symphony, with subtle tempo variations and shifts, controlled crescendos, and strategic silences. For Bruckner, it’s a good thing that we have learned to accept silence in musical works. In his pauses, I hear space for concert hall reverberation, time to ponder a profound question, or maybe a rest on an alpine hike!

Nézet-Séguin and his recording team have balanced the orchestra admirably, blending seamless strings, organ-like winds and bold but restrained brass. In the sprawling first movement he projects both the opening pathos and the later emotional pastoral song, where the orchestra’s strings are particularly warm and expressive. Some of Bruckner’s most arresting writing happens in transitions and interpolations, as in a passage more than a minute long over an A pedal note, or in a well-played trumpet explosion in the development section.

The strings shine again in the sublime slow movement, which shows Bruckner’s originality as a melodist who makes digressions and then picks up the thread again. The scherzo incorporates a ländler (Austrian folk-dance) as the trio section (anticipating Mahler), while the finale has an unusual passage where a polka combines with a wind chorale, exquisitely-played. Overall, I recommend this disc highly: crank up the volume, perhaps listen a movement at a time, and enter Bruckner’s unique sound world!


Stravinsky – Firebird

03 Classical 06 Firebird

Stravinsky – Firebird 
Various Composers – Les Orientales
Les Siècles; François-Xavier Roth
Actes sud ASM 06

Last month I enthused over this group playing the reconstructed score of Le Sacre du Printemps as heard at the riotous premiere in Paris on May 29, 1913 (Actes sud ASM 15). Les Siècles is an orchestra of young musicians culled from the finest French ensembles. They have access to and play instruments from all periods and so are perfectly able to replicate the palette of the Ballets Russes orchestra at that time. We listen with new ears.

To conductor Roth’s credit, as one listens to these Stravinsky scores the rhythmic energy, regardless of the tempo, makes it very clear that these are ballet scores. In his later revisions and suites, Stravinsky had his eye on the concert hall. Here we hear exactly what the composer had in his mind over 100 years ago when he was in his late 20s and an enfant terrible in the making with Firebird, although by Le Sacre he was pretty well there. In these performances, we hear for the first time the interplay between instruments, particularly the winds, adding unsuspected nuances to the mix.

To open the program, Roth and Les Siècles are on their mettle with a reconstruction of another Michel Fokine ballet of the day, the exotic divertissement Les Orientales, including music by Glazunov, Sinding, Arensky and Grieg.

An inseparable aspect of these discs is the astonishingly detailed and translucent sound of these vital live performances, truly a “you are there” experience that will ignite the most jaded listeners. You will not hear performances to match these anywhere else. If you care to read the Le Sacre review it can be found at

These audiophile recordings belong in every audio dealer’s demo room and of course, in your collection if you have any regard for Stravinsky.


Prokofiev – Romeo & Juliet - Mariinsky Orchestra; Valery Gergiev

03 Classical 07 Romeo Juliet

Prokofiev – Romeo & Juliet
Mariinsky Orchestra; Valery Gergiev
Mariinsky MAR 0552

This magnificent production, recorded live in March 2013 replicates the January 1940 Russian premiere of Romeo and Juliet choreographed by Leonid Lavrovsky. The mise-en-scène is delightfully dated but every aspect of this production is as virtually flawless as a live performance can be. Principal Dancer and soloist Diana Vishneva is Juliet with Principal Dancer Vladimir Shklyarov as Romeo. Ilya Kuznetsov is Tybalt and Alexander Sergeyev is Mercutio. The power and energy generated from the pit is astounding and the picture is breathtakingly opulent. Enthusiastically recommended!

The 1940 production had a twisted history. The often stormy encounters between composer and choreographer and others began in November 1934 when Prokofiev visited Leningrad to consider with dramatist Adrian Piotrovsky the subject for a new ballet. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was selected. By January 1935 Prokofiev had drafted a scenario for a five-act production and proffered this to theatre director Sergey Radlov, who suggested some dramatic themes for the production. By May a four-act scenario was agreed upon … with a happy ending! In 1941 Prokofiev wrote that “There was quite a fuss at the time [1935-36] about our attempts to give Romeo and Juliet a happy ending; in the last act, Romeo arrives a minute earlier, finds Juliet alive and everything ends well. The reasons for this bit of barbarism were purely choreographic: living people can dance, the dying cannot.”

From 1936 on, Romeo and Juliet became an artistic football as well as an incidental political one. Dismissals and some arrests, including Piotrovsky and Dimanov, who was the official from the Central Committee who had endorsed the happy ending, were not uncommon. Out with Dimanov and the happy ending! These vehement battles continued unabated right up to and beyond January 1940. In the meantime, in December 1938 the ballet with the tragic ending (as recorded here) had seven performances at the Regional Theatre in Brno, Czechoslovakia. All’s well that ends well…


Metropolis - Harringon/Loewen Duo

04 Modern 01 Metropolis saxophoneMetropolis
Harringon/Loewen Duo
Ravello Records RR7889

New Canadian saxophone music is taking flight recently, much as a result of the commissioning efforts of Winnipeg-based saxophonist Allen Harrington. Prairie composers Gordon Fitzell, Michael Matthews and Diana McIntosh are featured on this disc with pianist Laura Loewen.

Harrington’s debut recording begins with a bang: literally, with the saxophone screeching and popping whilst the pianist hits the strings with mallets inside the instrument. Fitzell’s Metropolis is a kind of sonic experiment, or lexicon of extended techniques for both instruments; the piece is always in motion, despite its fragmented form and sparse texture.

I find the crystalline sound and static drama of Sudbury composer Robert Lemay’s modernism more successful: this composer has written many works for saxophone – and also uses every technique available – but Oran always has a clear motivation.

Harrington and Loewen show their years of collaboration successfully in the more traditional works on the disc: Srul Irving Glick’s Sonata and Matthews’ The Skin of Night highlight their sensitivity to lyrical passages – his alto saxophone sound has a warm intensity in the middle range and she has a dramatic and articulate touch on the piano.

Being the only Canadian to place at the Adolphe Sax Competition (in 2006), Harrington is a strong soloist. But it is his collaborative efforts with Loewen that are impressive; the recording (done at the Banff Centre) masterfully captures both instruments in equality. The saxophone and piano repertoire will continue to grow as this duo continues to inspire Canadian composers.


Back to top