Handel – Messiah - Gillian Keith; Daniel Taylor; Tom Randle; Summer Thompson; Handel and Haydn Society; Harry Christophers

01 Vocal 01 MessiahHandel – Messiah
Gillian Keith; Daniel Taylor; Tom Randle; Summer Thompson; Handel and Haydn Society; Harry Christophers
CORO COR16125

The Boston Handel and Haydn Society has had a long and distinguished history. It was founded in 1815 (these recordings mark its 200th anniversary), at a time when Handel represented the old and Haydn the new. Messiah has been important for many years: the Society performed excerpts in 1815, gave the first American performance of the complete work in 1818 and began its annual performances in 1854.

On this recording the soprano (Gillian Keith) and the alto (Daniel Taylor), both Canadians, are superb. I also liked the baritone, Summer Thompson, who is imposing in exactly the right way. I have reservations about the tenor, Tom Randle, who sings with great involvement but also with a great deal of vibrato. The very good orchestra of the Society is now led by “our own” Aisslinn Nosky, who in the past has given us so much pleasure as a member of Tafelmusik, I Furiosi and the Eybler Quartet. Harry Christophers conducts with real momentum and the choir is terrific (just sample them in All we like sheep).

High points: there are many, but I especially enjoyed the soprano’s precision in Rejoice greatly, the alto’s He was despised (beautifully decorated in the return of the opening section in a way that never obscures the vocal line) as well as the alto-soprano duet He shall feed his flock. Handel originally wrote the duet as a soprano aria and his revision was well judged: the entry of the soprano is magical. When I was asked to review these discs, my first thought was: another Messiah – who needs it? I couldn’t have been more wrong.

 


St. Petersburg - Cecilia Bartoli; I Barocchisti; Diego Fasolis

01 Vocal 02 Cecelia BartoliSt. Petersburg
Cecilia Bartoli; I Barocchisti; Diego Fasolis
Decca 478 6767

With celebrity comes responsibility, at least it should in the arts. That is why many celebrated soloists, once having established themselves with the standard repertoire, seek new or forgotten gems to create their legacy. After all, Maria Callas opened our ears anew to the music of Cherubini and Bellini.

Cecilia Bartoli, a mezzo, whose impact on the musical scene was in my opinion at times overestimated, has researched and recorded a fascinating disc of largely forgotten music. In stark contrast to 2014, Russians of the 1700s desperately tried to emulate and get closer to Western Europe. Peter the Great, he of St. Petersburg and the infamous “beard tax,” started a cultural trend that continued until the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution. A large part of this Europeanization of Russia was a musical development, encouraged and supervised by three Tsaritsas – Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine the Great. The course chosen by those powerful women was to import Italian opera wholesale, including Italian composers and Italian musical sensibilities. Famously, Porpora refused to be seduced by the “Third Rome” (as the Tsars referred to their capitol, suggesting that they had continued with the Byzantine tradition). This opened the way for lesser talents such as Francesco Domenico Araia and Vinzenco Manfredini. Alas, even Cimarosa contributed to this “Russian renaissance,” which came to an abrupt halt when Catherine the Great turned her attention to the stage plays of Voltaire and Diderot.

Found in the archives of the Mariinsky Theatre, the works recorded here are restored to life in a lavishly illustrated edition, played with great sensitivity by I Barocchisti. Kudos to Bartoli for this find, although the arias themselves at times tax her stubbornly small mezzo.

 

Strauss – Arabella

01 Vocal 03 Strauss ArabellaStrauss – Arabella
Renée Fleming; Thomas Hampson; Dresden State Opera; Christian Thielemann
Cmajor 717208

Fleming – Hampson – Thielemann. Salzburg Easter Festival certainly did well by getting this team for a new Arabella for the Strauss anniversary season. Director Florentine Klepper overcame the challenge for something new and different yet in immaculate taste by traversing the scene into the 20th century, the Art Deco period with a gorgeous, panoramic set fitting nicely onto the wide stage of the Grosses Festpielhaus. Being a woman, she had the right feeling and empathy for the female characters; so important in this opera.

Not that she had a difficult time. For the title role, Renée Fleming has been the reigning diva of Straussian heroines. Her uncanny ability to delve her entire self into the character has been legendary and her soprano voice has all the delicacy and nuance for this very demanding role. Arabella is in the midst of a difficult decision of choosing a husband from a trio of rich, bumbling suitors and hopes for the right man to miraculously appear, and he does.

The right man, American baritone Thomas Hampson (Mandryka) is having some difficulty in becoming this gauche, shy provincial fellow, but his handsome physique, stamina and vocal power amply compensate. The two fall into each other’s arms and the opera would be over, but unfortunately that’s where all the trouble begins, caused by the younger sister and her lover, who provide a lot of sparkle to the story.

Highest praise goes for Thielemann who conducts with beautifully sustained broad tempi, relishing in the beauties of the score, keeping it as an undercurrent, but coming to the fore just at the right moments and towards a ravishing finale.

 

Vienna at the Turn of the Century – A Recital with Renée Fleming

01 Vocal 04 Renee FlemingVienna at the Turn of the Century – A Recital with Renée Fleming
Renée Fleming; Maciej Pikulski
ArtHaus Musik 102 196

In an age of instant gratification and overnight (YouTube) success, enduring artists like Renée Fleming are a rare breed. The singer, currently in her mid-50s, epitomizes the slow-burn. At the age when many sopranos are considering retirement, Fleming is in peak form, defying any tarnishing of the upper register as well as the visual impact of middle age. I was not always a fan. In fact, some two decades ago I dismissed her as a lightweight. What I did not recognize then was that this was a singer on her way to greatness. The proof came a few seasons ago, at the Met, where she conquered the role of Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. Immediately inviting (and challenging) comparisons with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, her erstwhile teacher, Fleming has firmly established herself as the pre-eminent soprano of our times.

This glittering concert at the acoustically perfect Golden Hall of the Musikverein hall Vienna is a virtual compendium of lieder over almost 50 years. From Mahler and Zemlinsky to Korngold and Strauss, Fleming’s recital tells in music the story of the Golden Age of the great city on the Danube. Polish pianist Maciej Pikulski offers sensitive, Gerald Moore-like piano support. This beautiful disc may prompt listeners to get dressed in their Sunday best before pressing the start button.

 

Milhaud – L’Orestie d’Eschyle

01 Vocal 05 Milhaud OrestieMilhaud – L’Orestie d’Eschyle
Soloists; University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra, Chorus and Percussion Ensemble; Kenneth Kiesler
Naxos 8.660349-51

Aeschylus’ Orestia trilogy was transformed by Paul Claudel and Darius Milhaud into two plays with music and one opera. For L’Agamemnon (1913), Milhaud created one notable imitative chorus with dramatic interpolations by Clytemnestra, who had just murdered her husband. From her entering high B onward, soprano Lori Phillips sings Clytemnestra splendidly. Modal harmony over long pedal notes, repetitive elements and insistent rhythm become an early manifestation of minimalism.

In Les Choéphores (1915-16) Orestes returns to avenge his father Agamemnon’s death. Milhaud’s choral magic continues in the funeral chorus underpinned by his characteristic orchestral parallel chords in different keys, and in the weeping Libation chorus “Go away my tears, drop by drop.” Dan Kempson’s baritone is lustrous in his compelling portrayal of Orestes. As the slave women’s leader Sophie Delphis is thrilling in her rhythmically spoken solo (spoken word poetry is not new!), amply propelled with no less than 15 percussionists in the “kitchen.”

Completing the trilogy is the three-act opera Les Euménides (1917-23) where Orestes is on trial. Presiding goddess Athena emerges as complex, awe-inspiring and three-voiced! Her hair-raising trios sung magnificently by Brenda Rae, Tamara Mumford and Jennifer Lane contain some of Milhaud’s most adventurous vocal writing. Throughout, the Michigan choirs and orchestra set a professional standard in this tremendous project initiated by Milhaud-taught composer William Bolcom. There’s much more to say, about the choruses and orchestra, about Milhaud’s Brazilian influences … a disc recommended for the intrigued.

 

Galicians 1: The Art Songs - Pavlo Hunka et al.

01 Vocal 06 GaliciansGalicians 1: The Art Songs
Pavlo Hunka et al.
Ukrainian Art Song Project (ukrainianartsong.ca)

For the past decade the British-born bass-baritone Pavlo Hunka has made it his life’s work to share the art songs of his Ukrainian heritage with the entire world. In partnership with Roman Hurko, composer, opera director and producer, he has previously recorded three CDs of this repertoire and has recently unveiled a 6-CD collection of music from the Galician (Western) region of Ukraine with even more yet to come.

The first disc in this set also serves to introduce us to the team of celebrated Canadian vocal artists that has given life to this ambitious project. In addition to Hunka’s own powerful voice, they include sopranos Monica Whicher, Nathalie Paulin and mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, tenors Benjamin Butterfield and Colin Ainsworth, and baritone Russell Braun, with additional support from pianists Carolyn Maule and Serouj Kradjian. This initial volume is devoted to the art songs of Denys Sichynsky (1865-1909) which date mainly from the twilight of romanticism. They are typically declamatory, earnest minor key laments with often quite elaborate keyboard parts, dispatched with panache by the expert pianist Albert Krywolt, who accompanies the lion’s share of the songs in this anthology.

The long life of Stanyslav Liudkevych (1879-1979) requires two CDs to tell his story. Though the majority of the 28 songs on offer date from the early 20th century, the composer was still active into the mid-1960s. His harmonic language is often daring and freely modulatory and the ingenious textures of his piano accompaniments suggest an orchestral conception. Eclecticism aside, it’s nonetheless clear that a major talent is on display here. The first CD is so totally dominated by male voices that the sole exception sung by Nathalie Paulin comes as quite a relief. Fortunately the second CD is more judiciously shared between the genders.

A tragic figure, Vasyl Barvinsky (1888-1963) was the director of the Lysenko Institute of Music and its successor institution the Lviv Conservatory and maintained a commanding profile both locally and internationally. In 1948 however, political intrigues brought him crashing to earth. He was arrested, his musical scores were publicly burned in the Conservatory courtyard and he was sentenced to spend the next decade toiling at a labour camp in the backwaters of Mordovia. He spent the remainder of his life attempting to reconstruct his musical legacy, which is stylistically indebted to Debussy yet always strikingly lyrical. Fortunately compositions he had considered lost forever are slowly coming to light from Western sources. The majority of the selection of 17 songs are shared between Hunka and the excellent soprano Szabó and include some beautifully rendered violin passages by Annalee Patipatanakoon.

Though described as a “modernist,” there is little to fear from the passionate and often deeply autobiographical music of Stefania Turkewich (1898-1977). Stylistically it does not go far beyond the extended tonality of the earliest works of Alban Berg. A pupil of Barvinsky, she went on to study with Schoenberg and Schreker in Berlin in the 1920s and subsequently worked in Lviv. Acclaimed as the first Ukrainian woman composer, she emigrated to England in 1948, where she sought recognition in vain within the intensely insular post-war British musical establishment. Hunko and company make just emends for her neglect in this extensive selection of 20 songs, including two winning and resolutely tonal English-language nursery rhymes.

A sixth compilation disc completes the set. The recordings are accompanied by a lavish booklet with texts and translations in four languages. Seamless and consistent audio editing throughout is credited to veteran producer Doug Doctor at the helm in Glenn Gould Studio. A most welcome and innovative aspect of the project includes making newly engraved editions of the scores of these neglected gems freely available through ukrainianartsong.ca. The album may also be ordered there as well as through iTunes.

Suzie LeBlanc

02 Early 01b Leblanc Noel02 Early 01a ConstantinopleMetamorfosi – Impressions Baroques
Suzie LeBlanc; Constantinople
Analekta AN 2 9142

La Veillée de Noël
Suzie LeBlanc
ATMA ACD2 2523

Featuring the music of Barbara Strozzi and her mentors and contemporaries (Monteverdi, Kapsberger, Rossi, Merula and Landi), the incomparable soprano Suzie LeBlanc has teamed up with a most remarkable ensemble. In this recording, Constantinople looks to the early baroque with its well-established technique of infusing early and contemporary Western music with Persian musical traditions. And the repertoire of 17th-century Venice lends itself very well to the fusion, with its own tradition of highly-ornamented stylization, resulting in an intricate and marvellous interpretation. Joining theTabassian brothers Kiya (setar) and Ziya (percussion) are Enrique Solinis (baroque guitar/theorbo), Pierre-Yves Martel (viola da gamba) and Miren Zeberio (baroque violin). Unique exchanges abound amongst the instrumentalists, particularly in the Kapsberger selections, ever shifting in rhythmic nuance. It is a delight to hear LeBlanc interpret the songs of Barbara Strozzi, a singer and composer known as much for her intellect, learning and wit as her talent and beauty. LeBlanc skillfully captures her spirit. Her profoundly moving performance of Monteverdi’s Si dolce è il tormento bears witness to a wide range of emotion encapsulated in its simple strophic form. 

This has proven to be a particularly prolific year for LeBlanc. A scholar in her own right, she has also been busy of late researching rare Christmas tunes from France and Acadia, resulting in the release of a lovely collection on her latest CD, La Veillée de Noël.

 

Giovanni Felice Sances – Complete Arias, 1636 - Bud Roach

02 Early 02 Bud RoachGiovanni Felice Sances – Complete Arias, 1636
Bud Roach
Musica Omnia mo0611

Bud Roach started his professional career as an oboist (he played in several American orchestras) but more recently has concentrated on singing and conducting. He is the director of Capella Intima, which in recent years has given us performances of the anonymous Giuseppe and of Gagliano’s Dafne. Both as a singer and as a director he specializes in Italian work of the early 17th century. His first recording as a tenor was of songs by Alessandro Grandi and he has now followed this up with a CD of arias by Giovanni Felice Sances, music first published in 1636. On both recordings he accompanies himself on the baroque guitar. I heard him perform these works at the Boston Early Music Festival Fringe in July 2013 and it gave me pleasure to renew my acquaintance with them. The final song on the disc (Accenti queruli) is not part of the 1636 edition: it is a chaconne which was such a prominent and influential form in the early baroque.

Roach’s voice is light but clear and distinctive; he has no problem with the high tessitura of many of the songs. Throughout he sings with real expressiveness. These songs can be seen as part of a Petrarchan tradition of erotic poetry but at the same time they show an affinity with popular song. They are now little-known and under-performed. Roach deserves credit for bringing this repertoire back to life.

 

Couperin – Apothéoses - Gli Incogniti; Amandine Beyer

02 Early 03 ApotheosesCouperin – Apothéoses
Gli Incogniti; Amandine Beyer
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902193

It is crystal clear that this recording is a labour of love and full of vibrancy and personality. The six instrumentalists of Gli Incogniti throw themselves into Couperin’s music, infusing it with youthful vigour and airy spontaneity.

The program is bookended by sonatas – La Superbe and La Sultane – both played with exquisite attention to detail and “French” virtuosity, i.e. a wide vocabulary of fresh ornamentation that gives one the idea that everything is being improvised. Violinists Amandine Beyer and Alba Roca are perfectly matched and dance around each other with great subtlety. Equally impressive is the continuo team: solid as a rock and adding heft and/or tenderness where needed.

The major pieces – Couperin’s Apothéoses de Lulli et Corelli – are works of tremendous scope, based on Couperin’s intended philosophical desire to reunite the tastes and styles of Italian and French instrumental music. They are programmatic, multi-movement masterpieces and the performances on this disc are very fine. My only argument is with the tempos of some of the more transparent movements. There is a driving quality to the group’s playing that is immensely attractive most of the time; however, some of the ethereal, transparent movements need more dreamy air and space – and could simply be slower.

Special mention must be made of the gorgeous, sensuous gamba playing of Baldomero Barciela and Filipa Meneses in La Sultane. Their performance of this sonata is worth the price of the CD alone.

 

Stradella – Duets - Susanne Rydén; Emma Kirkby; Sergio Foresti; Harmonices Mundi; Claudio Astronio

02 Early 04 Stadella DuetsStradella – Duets
Susanne Rydén; Emma Kirkby; Sergio Foresti; Harmonices Mundi; Claudio Astronio
Brilliant Classics 94343

Alessandro Stradella’s private life has created a wave of speculation although it is clear that he was killed in Genoa in 1682. His untimely end deprived Italian music of an exceptional composer. On this CD, however, we enjoy the voice of the singer who is for many both the face and the voice of early music, Dame Emma Kirkby. She appears on eight duets, commencing with the lively Cara labbra che d’amore. More intense is Pazienza, finirá l’influenza with its sombre stringed introduction and continuo. Here Susanne Rydén and bass Sergio Foresti convey a message of hope, even though Foresti’s bass and the continuo still combine to produce a certain overshadowing darkness. Kirkby displays a real intensity with her interpretation of Ahi, che posar non puote, a duet with Foresti, where her skills are at their finest.

 For Rydén, one of the most testing pieces must be Fulmini, quanto sa quel sembiante severo – the musical elements portraying the arrows of emotion are clearly recognizable. For Kirkby the test of how to demonstrate pictorial qualities in music comes in Ardo, sospiro e piango, where dissonance is used to evoke musical sighs. Dietro l’orme del desio is another highly demanding duet. Many of the classic Italian devices are employed to great effect; for example, in one passage, in addition to difficult notes, pauses underline the meaning and rhythm of words.

 There is no doubt that listening to this recording confirms the loss to music when we think what Stradella might have gone on to compose and also Dame Emma Kirkby’s place in early music.

Bach – The Art of the Fugue - Angela Hewitt

02 Early 05 Hewitt BachBach – The Art of the Fugue
Angela Hewitt
Hyperion CDA67980

Four years ago, Hyperion released all of Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt’s recordings of Bach’s solo keyboard works as a 15-disc boxed set. It was a huge project, but it didn’t include Bach’s monumental late work, The Art of the Fugue. Hewitt has now tackled this set of 18 fugues and canons, which she describes in her detailed booklet notes as “completely overwhelming, both intellectually and emotionally.”

Hewitt’s stylistic trademarks are here – dancing rhythms, nuanced touch and sparkling clarity. She colours each voice so distinctively, you can hear right into the complex textures. But her greatest achievement is to reveal the spiritual depth that suffuses this work. It becomes not just an exploration of all the things counterpoint can do, but an exploration of just about everything that music can possibly do – and then some.

Bach never specified the instrumentation for this work. Hewitt makes as convincing a case for performing it on a modern piano as any I have heard, especially with an instrument as responsive as her Fazioli.

Bach’s score ends, enigmatically, part way through the final fugue. Most performances either stop there, or add on a completion in Bach’s style. Following the original edition, Hewitt stops mid-fugue, pauses, then plays Bach’s “deathbed” chorale prelude Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein (When in the hour of utmost need), which C.P.E. Bach copied into the score after his father’s death. It makes for an intimate and moving finale.

 

Hummel – Piano Trios 1 - Gould Piano Trio

03 Classical 01 Hummel Piano TriosHummel – Piano Trios 1
Gould Piano Trio
Naxos 8.573098

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) was an influential composer, virtuoso piano performer and a well-known teacher during his lifetime. He was a student of many famous teachers: Clementi, Mozart, Albrechtsberger, Salieri and Haydn. His friends included Beethoven, Schubert and Goethe. He wrote beautiful music, mostly for piano, but also explored other less popular instruments (such as trumpet and guitar), and made Weimar a European musical capital while he was active there. Hummel’s musical aesthetics were founded on a classical model of clean lines and balanced melodies, at a time that was giving birth to a new wave of bravura piano players and general discontent with musical conventions. The world’s obsession with the romantic ideals could be the main reason why Hummel’s music was forgotten after his death.

The piano trios on this recording were written over the span of 15 years and feature all the elements of the classical style but also offer a wealth of melodies and fresh musical ideas. Each trio, for example, features a Rondo as the concluding movement, but each Rondo comes with its own style, whether borrowing motifs from Turkish or Russian musical traditions or introducing scherzo elements and surprising modulations.

The Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould, violin, Alice Neary, cello, and Benjamin Frith, piano) clearly enjoys bringing this somewhat forgotten music to life. Most impressive are the nuanced articulation in the violin and balanced phrasing of the ensemble. This recording will be greatly appreciated by fans of the classical period who just might discover a new voice.

 

Beethoven – 9 Symphonies

03 Classical 02 Beethoven 9 SymphoniesBeethoven – 9 Symphonies
Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal; Kent Nagano
Analekta AN 2 9150-5

Has it really been nine years since Kent Nagano took over the podium of the Montreal Symphony? Never mind the mop of waving hair or the animated conducting style, he is a musician par excellence, and has maintained the high standards set by his predecessor, Charles Dutoit. For their newest release, the orchestra has issued a complete set of the Beethoven symphonies, having presented them singly during the past six years. Six of them were recorded live between 2008 and 2014 and along with excerpts from Egmont and the Creatures of Prometheus, it’s a handsome collection on the Analekta label.

There are innumerable recordings of Beethoven’s complete symphonies, so what makes this one stand apart from the others? For one thing, it’s Nagano’s lack of sensationalism. Despite this conductor’s sometime exuberant persona, his interpretations are known for their intelligence and clarity, and this is nowhere more evident than in this collection. The Symphony No.1 is a case in point. From the first hesitant measures, the listener immediately senses that indeed, this is what Beethoven would have wanted. This groundbreaking work is presented in an energetic and articulated manner, the phrasing always carefully nuanced.

On the other hand, Symphony No.3 is suitably heroic, my only quibble being a slightly brisker tempo in the opening movement than I’m used to. When comparing this to the more measured interpretations by European conductors it may come across as too hurried. But this is a minor point, and the careful phrasing coupled with the exemplary performance by the brass and woodwinds more than makes up for it.

The much-beloved “Pastoral” is all gentleness, the strings demonstrating a particular warmth and resonance.

What more can be said about the great Symphony No.9? This particular performance was recorded for the inaugural concert in the new Maison Symphonique de Montréal in September, 2011 and features sopranos Adrienne Pieczonka and Erin Wall, mezzo Mihoko Fujimura, tenor Simon O’Neill and bass Mikhail Petrenko along with the OSM Chorus and the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir. While the approach is noble and confident, to my ears, it doesn’t break any new ground in interpretation – but this is not necessarily a bad thing, and the soloists all deliver solid performances.

But how do they handle my favourite symphony, the glorious No.7 written in 1812? Not surprisingly, Nagano and the OSM live up to expectations. The performance is magnificent – energetic and robust – at all times displaying a wonderful cohesion of sound particularly evident in the joyful finale.

Bravo to Maestro Nagano and the musicians of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. You have proven that there is indeed room for yet another set of the complete Beethoven symphonies – and the rousing applause at the conclusion of the live performances is a clear indication that others felt the same.

 

Mahler – Symphony No.9 - Gewandhaus Orchestra; Riccardo Chailly

03 Classical 03 Mahler 9 ChaillyMahler – Symphony No.9
Gewandhaus Orchestra; Riccardo Chailly
Accentus Music ACC 20299

This is the sixth of Chailly’s live performances of Mahler symphonies thus far released on Blu-Ray video discs (and DVD). Each release (since the Second and Eighth) contains a discussion of the particular symphony, together with selected rehearsals and concert excerpts to illustrate Chailly’s rethinking of performance practices and where he believes Mahler’s intentions were misunderstood.

We observe Chailly and Mahler scholar and author Henry-Louis de le Grange discussing the work and weighing all the clues that led to their considered opinion that this symphony is not one of resignation and farewell as Leonard Bernstein, for one, would have it. In this performance, Chailly’s first movement reflects the metre of the first movement of the Fourth Symphony; the second movement is faster than usual with a sense of fantasy and the third, Rondo-Burleske, is pleasingly brisk. His last movement is for listeners who are weary of the hand-wringing performances, especially those of Bernstein who helped resurrect Mahler in the 1950s, that treat the symphony as a tragic resignation, another Abschied. Chailly’s is a mighty performance, very positive and life-affirming.

These are Chailly’s own insights and after several listening sessions I am inclined to agree. There is no positive right or wrong, simply different points of view. This is a brilliant performance, exceptional on every level, and deserves to be heard and reheard.

 

Invocation - Herbert Schuch

03 Classical 04 InvocationInvocation
Herbert Schuch
Naïve discoveries V 5362

Since he first attracted attention by winning three important competitions – the Casagrande, the London International Piano Competition and the International Beethoven Competition in Vienna, Romanian-born pianist Herbert Schuch has been regarded as an artist less focused on flash and pizzazz and more on thoughtful and sensitive interpretation. This is certainly the case with his newest CD, Invocation. As a basis for the recording – his tenth – he used his fascination with bells and their sonorities, reflected in the inclusion of three 20th-century works: Tristan Murail’s Cloches d’adieu, Messiaen’s Cloches d’angoisse and La vallée des cloches by Ravel. Apart from Bach transcriptions by Ferruccio Busoni and Harold Bauer, the other compositions are all by Franz Liszt, resulting in a most intriguing program.

What makes this disc particularly appealing is the juxtaposition of musical styles. It opens with a Busoni transcription of Bach’s chorale Ich ruf zu dir, her jesu Christ BWV639, music of quiet introspection. In total contrast is the short piece by Tristan Murail from 1992, music showing distinct influences of Messiaen with its tone clusters and use of polymodality. We’re then back in the 19th century for three movements from Liszt’s set of Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. The third and seventh, Benédiction de dieu dans la solitude and Funérailles are large-scale canvases that should be undertaken by only the most capable of Liszt players, but Shuch handles the technical requirements with apparent ease, achieving a wonderfully sonorous tone throughout. The pieces by Messiaen and Ravel are moody and mysterious, and Shuch’s refined interpretation demonstrates a compelling sense of rhythm and nuance.

Eclectic and thoughtfully programmed, Invocation is a tribute to a wide range of piano music performed in a manner that combines sensitivity with brilliance – and as such, it is a most welcome addition to the catalogue.

 

The Transfigured Nightingale – Music for Clarinet and Piano

04 Modern 01 Transfigured NightingaleThe Transfigured Nightingale – Music for Clarinet and Piano
Jerome Summers; Robert Kortgaard
Blue Griffin Records BGR339
bluegriffin.com

Clarinetist Jerome Summers has completed his “Nightingale” trilogy of recordings, a project he began in 1994. This one, Transfigured Nightingale, comprises mostly works transcribed for clarinet, with the exception of Brahms’ Sonata in E-flat Op.120, No.2. Included on a mere technicality (it was transcribed for viola by the composer), it’s really here because Mr. Summers loves it, and why not? Late Brahms is balm to the soul of those who play the nerdiest of woodwinds, the exploding cigar of the orchestra.

Summers handles the instrument with ease. His tone on most of the material is smooth and velvety. Michael Conway Baker’s Canticle for Ryan (originally for violin) and Marek Norman’s Just Think (originally a setting of a poem by Robert Service) are effective if sugary vehicles for Summers’ fluid cantabile. Two Shostakovich symphonic extracts offer an austere counterpoint to these selections. I particularly like hearing the scherzo from the Ninth presented as a solo piece with piano. Taking it at just under full-on Russian March Hare tempo, Summers sounds like he’d fit in with any orchestra in the country.

Pianist Robert Kortgaard provides agreement, support and bundles of musicality. He and Summers agreed to a stately set of tempi for the Op.120, playing the part of elder gentlemen rather than impersonating the young Richard Mühlfeld, Brahms’ “nightingale.” Also included is Rachmaninov’s cello sonata, in Summers’ own transcription. At a hefty 36-plus minutes, it argues better for the cello than the Brahms does for the viola.

 


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