Mozart's Davide Penitente dates from 1785. It is a reworking of the Mass in C Minor, K427, but with two newly composed arias for the soprano and the tenor who had sung in the premiere of The Abduction from the Seraglio. The practice of staging works which were never meant to be staged is now quite common but there is a difference here: the soloists, the instrumentalists and the choir (all very good) perform the work as an oratorio, while the acting is done by horses and their riders, who move rhythmically to Mozart's music as choreographed by Bartabas. There are 12 horses, fine-looking animals. They all have names and receive equal billing with the musicians. A nice touch that.The soloists are soprano Christiane Karg, mezzo Marianne Crebassa and tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac. There is an error in the booklet which states that both the arias Lungi le cure ingrate and Tra l'oscure ombre funeste are performed by the mezzo. She sings the first aria but it is the soprano who performs the second.This version of Davide Penitente was first performed in the Felsenreitschule in Salzburg in January of this year. It was a great success. I imagine that if I had been present in Salzburg last January, I might well have been swept up in the excitement. Just seeing the DVD was a bizarre experience however, and if I want to hear the work again I am likely to go back to the CD in which it is performed by La Petite Bande, conducted by Sigiswald Kuijken (on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi).
Although Requiem, a funeral mass, is most commonly associated with Mozart, (who died before finishing his own setting), most versions of Requiem were rarely written in the shadow of a musician’s impending death. True, Verdi composed his relatively late in life at 60, but he lived for another 27 years. In fact, most composers were very young when they took on this heavy subject. Berlioz, Bruckner, Cherubini, Delius, Duruflé, Dvořák, Fauré, Michael Haydn and Reger all composed either Roman Catholic or Protestant Requiems.
Ein Deutsches Requiem stands out because of its superb choral writing, incomparable soprano aria Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit and the moving baritone solo parts in the third and sixth movements. Brahms, only 23 when he started crafting the work, resumed composition after his mother’s death. Encouraged by Clara Schumann, Brahms presented a three-movement work, but this was welcomed with scorn. Only in 1867, did a six-movement work receive a triumphant reception. The work’s profile only increased when a year later he added the aforementioned solo for soprano as part number five.
It is a meditative piece, serious in its sorrow, yet lacking the transcendence of Fauré’s Requiem. The soloists become the pallbearers of this solemn mass, guiding the choral procession from the blessing of the suffering survivors to benediction of the dead. Despite being culled from the Old Testament and the Gospels, the text has been criticized for not being overtly religious. This speaks to Brahms’ humanistic, rather than religious, viewpoint. Both Ginia Kühmeier and Gerald Findley stun with their vocal performances, the latter entering a period of his life when his baritone voice moves into being defined as a bass.
Nielsen – Maskarade
Milling; Reuter; Riis; Beck; Dahl; Andersen; Danish NSO & Choir; Michael Schonwandt
dacapo SACD 6.220641-42
This remarkable recording of Denmark’s beloved “national opera” is a superlative tribute marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931). Nielsen’s second opera, Maskarade, received its Copenhagen premiere in 1906, at a time when the composer was employed as a second violinist in the Royal Danish Theatre. Quite unlike the dramatic symphonies of his maturity, this is music of lightness and charm, immediately accessible and immensely enjoyable. The opera’s contrived comedy of mistaken identities serves as mere scaffolding for a libretto that revels in a peculiarly Danish sense of the absurd. Niels Jørgen Riis plays Leander, forced into a marriage with Leonora (Dénise Beck) by his buffoonish father Jeronimus (Stephen Milling). He eventually comes to realize during the celebrations at the masked ball that the disguised woman he truly desires is Leonora herself. Johann Reuter plays Leander’s servant Henrik, who also has his eye on Leonora’s servant, Pernille (Ditte Højgaard Andersen).
The conductor Michael Schønwandt is a magisterial proponent of the score, a work he committed to memory at the age of ten. The studio-quality SACD recording is greatly enhanced by the superb acoustics of the new Danish Royal Koncerthuset. The orchestra, chorus and the cast drawn from the Royal Danish Opera are uniformly excellent throughout. A full libretto is provided; the English translation is identical to that of the newly edited score provided by the Carl Nielsen Project of the Music Department of the Royal Danish Library, freely available as a PDF download at bit.ly/1X2vvUO courtesy of the Danish Centre for Music Publication.
Widor; Vierne – Messes pour choeurs et orgues
Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal; Les Chantres Musiciens; Gilbert Patenaude; Vincent Boucher; Jonathan Oldengarm
ATMA ACD2 2718
Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937) and Louis Vierne (1870-1937) were, respectively, organists at St.-Sulpice Church and Notre Dame Cathedral. The recent Paris terrorist killings occurred not far from the churches where these works originated. During those dreadful days I felt particularly uplifted by this disc, for both the emotional resonances of the two great masses (along with six motets) and the youth and promise of the singers. There is freshness and confidence in the singìng of both boys’ and young mens’ choirs of Mount Royal led by Patenaude, that is complemented wonderfully by Boucher’s great organ and Oldengarm’s small organ near the choir. On disc we cannot fully sense the spatial separation of the great organ from the rest in Montreal’s St. Joseph’s Oratory, yet the dynamic and timbral contrasts in the magnificently resonant acoustical space are effective indeed!
Vierne’s Solemn Mass in C-Sharp Minor (the track list wrongly states F-Sharp Minor) opens with a Kyrie that felt a little stiff, but ended impressively. In the Sanctus, the affecting opening call in each of the choir’s four sections followed by the whole choir, the impassioned and even raw singing of the “Pleni sunt,” and captivating organ registration throughout were highlights. In Widor’s Mass for Two Choirs the excellent trebles of the Petits Chanteurs are heard to advantage in the Kyrie. In the Gloria there are interesting crossrhythms and other challenges, but the ensemble on the recording remains amazingly tight throughout.
In her music theatre work The Lesson of Da Ji, Hong Kong-born Toronto composer Alice Ping Yee Ho has struck a fine, if not always easy, cultural balance between features of classical Beijing (Peking) opera and the European masque tradition, as interpreted in 21st-century Canada.
It is no mean feat to present eight Canadian voices supported by the string tonalities of the Chinese zhongruan, erhu, pipa and zheng. It is even more complex when all that is seamlessly meshed with the sonority of the European baroque lute, harpsichord, viola da gamba, violin and recorders, plus a percussion battery. Ho does just that admirably, presenting along the way a bracing new hybrid soundscape to enjoy.
Her skillfully orchestrated score hangs directly on Canadian playwright Marjorie Chan’s libretto. It tells the chilling tale of the famous concubine Da Ji of the Shang Dynasty (c.1600 to 1046 BCE), honing in on her illicit love affair with a musician and the bloody revenge enacted by the jealous King Zhou. It’s the sort of court drama common to both Chinese and Eurocentric opera traditions.
The composer once noted that “colours and tonality are two attractive resources to me: they form certain mental images that connect to audiences in a very basic way.” The Lesson of Da Ji follows that dictum, and her approach works to convey character, place, mood and imagery, even via the audio CD medium. My guess is that a video presentation – or better yet, a live production where the multiple visual and choreographic elements are at work – would make for an even more involving evening of theatre.
Commissioned by the Toronto Masque Theatre in 2012 The Lesson of Da Ji immediately won critical acclaim as well as the 2013 Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Original Opera. The release of the recording of this hour-long opera in two acts within just a couple of years of its premiere reflects the work’s enthusiastic initial reception. It may well also mark the beginning of its acceptance by a wider public in Canada, as well as in the composer’s country of birth.
The 2015 International Chopin Piano Competition boasted Canada’s Charles Richard-Hamelin as the second place prize winner, the first time a Canadian had won a prize in that prestigious event. His May 2015 recording was timed perfectly for this victory. Charles Richard-Hamelin – Chopin (Analekta An 2 9127) presents a very powerful player who can push the instrument right to its limits without losing or distorting the sound. It’s clear that Richard-Hamelin understands the colouristic capabilities of the piano. He is able to recede to the softest pianissimos and able to shape notes through the mechanics of the keyboard.
He is also very comfortable using wide variations in tempo without interrupting the flow of the musical idea. This is evident in the Largo of the Sonata No.3 in B minor, Op.58 where one encounters the impressive interpretive depth of this player after being dazzled by his performance of the preceding Scherzo.
The disc also includes the Polonaise-Fantasie in A-Flat Major Op.61 and two Nocturnes from Op.62 played with an especially haunting beauty.
The Canadian International Organ Competition is a fairly new horse race as these things go. Launched in 2008 it has brought considerable visibility and prestige to the performance discipline. The 2014 Grand Laureate is celebrated on David Baskeyfield – Concours international d’orgue du Canada (ATMA Classique ACD2 2719).
Familiar composers line the program notes: Willan, MacMillan, Howells and Vierne. But organists know that they always share the spotlight with the actual instrument they play as much as the music itself. In this case, it’s one of Canada’s largest organs, the Casavant Opus 550 at St. Paul’s Bloor Street, Toronto. Originally built in 1914 and restored in 1955, it has had many enhancements over the years. It’s a versatile instrument with an enormous orchestral palette.
Baskeyfield is an impressive performer and notable for his skillful registrations. His choice of tonal colours is masterful. He is English-trained and completely at home with Howells, Hollins and Willan. He also does a terrific job with the works of the French school, Vierne’s Naïades, Saint-Saëns’ Prélude et Fugue en si majeur. But the disc’s real gem is the Willan Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue. The disc is a fabulous recording and an important document for this historic instrument now more than a century old.
Another fortepiano recording has recently worked its way to the shelves and will be a treasure to many. Christoph Berner plays an 1847 Streicher on Ludwig van Beethoven Lieder & Bagatellen (harmonia mundi HMC 902217). The instrument is in remarkable condition. It’s clear, wonderfully tuned and voiced. Its tone is consistent throughout and surprisingly resonant in the upper register. Each of the six Bagatelles Op.126 is a joy to hear on this fortepiano. Berner’s playing is clean and lightly pedalled. The best feature of this performance is that he understands what these little pieces are and so, doesn’t fall prey to overthinking them.
As terrific as the Bagatelles are, the other half of the disc is the real surprise. Tenor Werner Güra, whose clear, light voice is well-suited to this repertoire, sings a number of Beethoven songs and one short cycle in a performance that is heart-stopping. He’s a very dramatic singer with great control over straight tone and vibrato. He connects directly to the poets’ emotions and shapes phrasing and dynamics to powerful effect.
Two tracks in particular are profoundly moving: Zärtliche Liebe WoO 123 and the cycle An die ferne Geliebte Op.98. The combination of Güra’s interpretation accompanied by this extraordinary instrument make this disc a valuable find for those who enjoy authentic performance practice.
Pianist Pier Paolo Vincenzi has undertaken an ambitious project with his recording of the Complete variations on a Waltz by Diabelli by 51 composers (Brilliant Classics 2CD 94836) on which he also performs the Beethoven 33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli Op.120. The compilation of the works by the 51 composers who responded to Diabelli’s 1819 variation challenge is rich for its variety. Among the contributors are familiar composers like Hummel, Czerny, Liszt and Schubert. The others are of lesser historical standing and include a few dabbling aristocrats. Vincenzi, however, treats each variation as though it were, in fact, a masterpiece.
Whether he’s ripping through Liszt’s arpeggiated hurricane or pecking through Baron von Lannoy’s 45-second effort, Vincenzi creates a fascinating snapshot of 51 early 19th-century psycho-musical profiles. But when he performs the Beethoven variations, he changes his interpretive posture significantly. No longer dealing with 51 different iterations, he now probes the depths of a single creative mind. What Beethoven can say uniquely in 33 differently ways is obvious on the page but only the performer can really convey that. He never loses sight of Diabelli’s thematic kernel. Whether dealing with Beethoven’s fugal architecture or delighting in his Mozart impersonation, he keeps the central idea from being lost in the Byzantine workings of Beethoven’s mind.
The producer of this recording has chosen to record the piano dry with absolutely no acoustic space around the instrument at all. The ear does adjust to this and the Steinway D, despite its size, quickly becomes a very intimate instrument.
The recording Grieg; Evju – Piano Concertos (Grand Piano GP689) offers a performance of Grieg’s familiar work but based on subsequent changes to the manuscript made by the composer and his friend Percy Grainger. The casual listener may not detect the revisions but they are occasionally evident in the piano part where familiar chordal structures appear to have been changed.
The recording is remarkably clear. The Prague Radio Symphony under Canadian Kerry Stratton is not especially large but always sounds full and balanced. Pianist Carl Petersson performs beautifully and seems especially committed to this revised edition.
The other work on the disc is a concerto based on a thematic fragment by Grieg. It’s a bit of an oddity but warrants several hearings before moving into the concerto that Helge Evju has crafted from it. Although in five movements, the work’s performance time is only 20 minutes. It contains many strong allusions to the A-Minor concerto. That work is said to have been one of Rachmaninov’s favourites and curiously, one also hears a few passages that are obviously reminiscent of his piano concertos.
Overall it’s a wonderful and unusual recording. The orchestra and pianist are excellent.
It’s unusual to find the complete piano works of Manuel de Falla recorded on a single disc. The feature of this disc is the ability to follow the evolution of the composer’s work chronologically from 1896 to 1935. A few of these works had remained unknown or unpublished until much later in the twentieth century.
Pianist Juan Carlos Rodriguez captures de Falla’s Spanish view of the world around him on Manuel de Falla – Complete Piano Music (Paladino Music pmr 0062). He reveals the strong core of western classical discipline on which uniquely Spanish sensibilities rest. We hear this rhythmically and in small characteristic turns of phrase. Rodriguez also plays de Falla’s homages to Paul Dukas and Claude Debussy with the subtle hint of French impressionism the composer intended.
Rodriguez approaches the Cuatro Piezas Españolas as the most culturally inward looking to reveal what may be the most Spanish of de Falla’s piano works.
Franz Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz has another reincarnation on Waltzing Mephisto...by the Danube (Estonian Record Productions ERP 8115) with pianist Hando Nahkur. The title track is brilliantly played with remarkable clarity through all the maniacal passages. The approach is disciplined and calculated but not lacking in any of the incendiary energy needed for this piece.
The disc also includes Schumann’s Kinderszenen, Op.15 from which the dangerously familiar Träumerei is played with gratifying freshness. Nahkur also manages the same feat with the Schumann/Liszt Widmung S.566 where he keeps the apogees of the main idea suspended with satisfying length before the descent to their phrase endings.
Arabesques on An der schönen blauen Donau is a 1900 paraphrase by Adolf Schulz-Evler of the well-known Strauss waltz. It’s rarely heard and is very Lisztian even to the point of sounding a bit like La Campanella for a few measures. It demands a lot from the pianist but Nahkur plays it with impressive ease.
Occasionally composers will write music so perfectly that all the colour, dynamics and nuances seem to be built in. While this doesn’t make it easier to perform it does create the pitfall of over interpretation. Wise performers recognize this and learn to surf the wave. Carlo Grante does this beautifully in Ravel: Mirroirs; Pavane pour une infante défunte; Gaspard de la nuit (Music & Arts CD-1289).
In the Miroirs set, La vallée des cloches is especially lovely for Grante’s superb touch and tonal manipulation. The Bösendorfer Imperial responds with bell-like sonority.
Curious, however, is Grante’s opening of the Pavane pour une infant défunte. He observes the staccato in the lower treble very sharply as marked in the piano score. This is unusual and quite arresting because some publishers show sustained pedal through these opening bars, to more closely approximate Ravel’s actual orchestration where these short eighths are played pizzicato in the strings while horns and bassoon hold longer supporting phrases. What’s really interesting is that Ravel’s own 1922 piano roll recording of this does neither. Ravel plays it slightly sustained (pedalled) and not nearly as short as Grante. Once past the opening idea, however, Grante moves into the sustained legato that makes this piece flow so beautifully to its ending.
The three piano poems that comprise Gaspard de la nuit are superb. Ondine moves liquidly as it should, Le Gibet rings under the same bell-like touch of the early La vallée des cloches and Scarbo is suitably menacing.
Reconstructions from fragments appeal to our curiosity by suggesting to us what might have been. It’s what drives people like Melani Mestre to record the recent addition to Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series Albéniz; Granados – Piano Concertos (CDA67918). A pianist, composer, conductor and academic, he has constructed a concerto from two fragments of a Piano Concerto in C Minor ‘Patético’ by Granados. Speculatively dated around 1910, there is no evidence to indicate whether this was intended as a single-movement work or something of larger scale but Mestre believes the latter.
For the middle and final movements he has used two other Granados’ solo piano works and adapted them for piano and orchestra. These are much more colourfully orchestrated than the first movement with plenty of percussion effects to highlight their Spanish and dance-like feel. Mestre is a skilled orchestrator and has plenty of fun playing his own adaptations. Some will argue about the validity of such efforts, but those who undertake them skillfully produce intriguing works that fuel many entertaining debates.
The Albeniz Concierto fantástico, Op.78 is a mid-career work and is decidedly un-Spanish in its feel. Still, it’s truly beautiful and not often performed or recorded. Admirers generally cite its middle movement as the gem and rightly so. The Reverie et Scherzo opens with a lovely piano line against a backdrop of broad orchestral harmonies. The final movement’s closing pages have some enchanting waltz-like episodes where Mestre’s hesitations are seductively placed to enhance the dance-like feel.
Pianist Angelina Gadeliya cites a profound spiritual affinity for the music of Alfred Schnittke. Born in Soviet Georgia and trained in Ukraine, she now lives in the U.S. Her enduring commitment to Schnittke’s music was deepened by an encounter with the composer’s wife and biographer a year after his death in 1998. Schnittke and his Ghosts (Labor Records Lab 7093) is an expression of that experience. Gadeliya plays two of his works and adds others to reflect the impact on Schnittke of influences including his time Vienna where he received much of his formative musical education – hence, his “Ghosts.”
She gives a very personal performance of the Sonata No.2, a darker work of Schnittke’s later years. The middle movement is unusually tonal with numerous harmonically rich clusters and the final movement contains an ad libitum that calls for tumultuous improvisation. Variations on a Chord uses contemporary devices for sustained notes, sharp attacks and sympathetically vibrating strings. Gadeliya is perfectly adept at all these techniques and captures the harsh yet playful duality of Schnittke’s six variations.
The Mozart Adagio in B Minor K540 may seem an odd inclusion until one recalls the numerous cadenzas Schnittke wrote for Mozart piano concertos and his orchestral tribute Moz-Art à la Haydn.
The Shostakovich Variations on a theme by Glinka and Scriabin’s Sonata No.4 connect us to Schnittke’s Russian roots. But in an odd way the far earlier work by Scriabin (1903) takes us much closer to the mysticism we experience in Schnittke’s music. Gadeliya has programmed a fascinating, stimulating recording and performed it masterfully.
Reinventions – Rhapsodies for Piano (Grand Piano/Overtone GP693) is an unusual CD and difficult to describe. Composed and performed by Tanya Ekanayaka, these works are in part improvisational and in part more formally crafted. The main inspiration for them comes from pieces preceding them in live performance. Key relationships, tonal centres and thematic fragments all serve as points of creative departure for this Sri Lankan pianist and composer.
Her keyboard technique is formidable. Massive arpeggios seem completely effortless as she weaves together traditional Sri Lankan melodies with inspirations taken from composers like Bach, Debussy and Chopin. She is capable of both the smallest nuance as well as the grandest gesture the keyboard can afford. Her works carry evocative titles such as In Lotus, Labyrinth and Dhaivaya. Her descriptions and rationales for the content of the Rhapsodies is highly detailed and musically rich. Even the most fanciful works e.g. Of Scottish Walks, Vannam & Sri Lanka’s Bugs Bunny require more than one listening. One begins to wonder if she is perhaps the Keith Jarrett of the subcontinent.
With 25,000 Syrian refugees coming to Canada, the Middle East is never very far from the daily headlines and our attention. The cultures of that region have, in their encounter with ours, produced many fascinating cross fertilizations of artistic expression. Each offers a portal for better understanding of a region that often seems so distant in many ways.
Iranian pianist and composer Afshin Jaberi has recorded THE BÁB – Piano Sonatas and Ballades (Grand Piano/Overtone GP694). Born in Bahrain and raised in Qatar, Jaberi received his musical education at the Franz Liszt Academy in Hungary and his doctorate from the Almaty Conservatory in Kazakhstan. His language is solidly Western and his discipline solidly Russian. One immediately hears the influences of the major 19th-century European composers on his keyboard language. There is however, a distinctively Eastern modality and shape to his musical ideas. Titles like The Seeker, The Bedouin and Eroica offer some idea of Jaberi’s personal quest in his music. Much of it is programmatically linked to historical episodes of the Bahai’ faith but all of it is delivered through the keyboard vocabulary of Liszt, Chopin and Schumann. Jaberi is a gifted player and composer. His work offers a rare glimpse in an unusual direction.
When you listen to the simply astonishing opening track of Shiksa, the new CD from violinist Lara St. John and pianist/composer Matt Herskowitz on St. John’s own Ancalagon label (ANC 143 larastjohn.com/ancalagon) you could be forgiven for thinking that the rest of the CD couldn’t possibly match up – but you would be wrong!
The Czardashian Rhapsody is Martin Kennedy’s fiendishly difficult take on the traditional Czardas, with hints of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 thrown in for good measure. It’s stunning, but there’s much more to come in this program of predominantly Middle Eastern and Eastern European music. All 14 tracks are based on traditional material, and feature creative arrangements by Milica Paranosic, John Kameel Farah, Yuri Boguinia, Serouj Kradjian, David Ludwig, Gene Pritsker, John Psathas, Michael P. Atkinson and the two performers themselves. Herskowitz’s Nagilara, his own take on Hava Nagila, is another showstopper, as is St. John’s Oltenian Hora, a dazzling display of what she calls “a bunch of improvised Romanian violin tricks, twists and turns.”
These are all much more than just mere showpieces though, and in many instances they clearly have personal resonance for both the composers and performers. What is truly remarkable is the way in which St. John effortlessly and completely captures the sound, style, mood and flavour of these evocative works; Shiksa may be a Yiddish term for a non-Jewish woman, but there’s no hint here of St. John’s being an outsider or anything other than totally and genuinely immersed in this music – you get the feeling that she’s playing these pieces from the inside out. The recorded sound, especially for the piano, is superb – hardly surprising, given that the recording was made in the beautiful acoustics of Le Domaine Forget de Charlevoix in Saint-Irénée, Québec.
I’ve noted before that it’s almost impossible to do comparative reviews of Bach’s unaccompanied violin and cello works; all you can do is look at the performer’s approach and the creative process and report on the result. Luckily, cellist Matt Haimovitz has virtually done this for us in his new 2-CD set of J. S. Bach: The Cello Suites According to Anna Magdalena (PentaTone Oxingale Series PTC 5186 555). In the extensive booklet essay Haimovitz details his journey so far with these wonderful and challenging works, starting with his hearing the legendary 1930s Casals recordings when he was nine, having a teacher at the time who had been a pupil of Casals and who required Haimovitz to play two movements of Bach each day as part of his regular practice routine, and having the privilege in his mid-teens of playing the Goffriller cello used by Casals.
The year 2000 saw Haimovitz perform all six suites in Germany, relying primarily on the Bärenreiter edition and the manuscript copy by Anna Magdalena Bach, the composer’s wife – Bach’s original manuscript has never been found. On his return, he launched the new Oxingale Records label with a 3-CD set of the suites, only to find that within a few years he could no longer agree with his interpretations.
Since then he has turned increasingly to the Anna Magdalena manuscript, which he feels is closest in spirit to the original and provides many keys to the playing style and interpretation. He discusses these in detail in the essay.
The performances here, needless to say, are an absolute delight. The cello used is a Matteo Goffriller made in Venice in 1710, with a cello piccolo by the 18th-century maker Georg Nicol. Köllmer used for the Suite V; the bow is a baroque replica made by David Hawthorne. Tuning is A=415 and not the current A=440, so the suites are all down a semi-tone from present-day pitch.
Haimovitz says that “with humility, and no small dose of courage, I continue on my journey with Bach and The Cello Suites, studying the gospel according to Anna Magdalena.” I just hope he continues to take us along with him.
Following her solo recital disc and CDs of the Dvořák, Elgar and Carter cello concertos the latest CD from American Alisa Weilerstein – Rachmaninov & Chopin: Cello Sonatas (Decca 478 8416) with the New York-based Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan shows just how much she has to offer in the chamber music field. From the opening bars of the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op.19 it’s clear that this is going to be gloriously expansive playing from both performers. Barnatan is simply superb at the keyboard, with a beautifully judged use of legato in the long, flowing Rachmaninov phrases, and Weilerstein displays the qualities so often mentioned in reviews of her playing: technique, passion and intensity. It’s a captivating and engrossing performance.
The high standard continues through the Vocalise, Op.34 No.14 to the Chopin Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op.65, written mostly during the composer’s last summer on his lover George Sand’s estate in Nohant. The first movement in particular clearly gave Chopin a great deal of trouble, and was dropped for the premiere performance. It’s a strong, turbulent work very similar in mood to the Rachmaninov, and the two make an ideal pairing here.
The sonata was dedicated to the French cellist Auguste Franchomme, who gave the first (albeit truncated) performance in 1848 in Chopin’s final public concert. It was Franchomme who arranged the Étude in C-Sharp Minor, Op.25 No.7 for cello and piano, one of two shorter Chopin works on the CD. The Introduction & Polonaise Brillante in C Major, Op.3 dates mostly from Chopin’s youth – the Introduction was added later for Franchomme – and provides a lovely end to a truly beautiful CD.
The Sibelius & Nielsen Violin Concertos make an excellent and natural pairing on the new 2-CD set from Latvian violinist Baiba Skride, with Finland’s Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra under Santtu-Matias Rouvali (Orfeo C 896 152 A). Both composers were born in 1865; both were violinists; both became the leader of their respective country’s Nationalist musical movement; and the concertos were written within a few years of each other in the first decade of the 20th century.
Skride is terrific in the Sibelius, with her rather fast and somewhat narrow vibrato providing a steely edge to the lush tone and phrasing and giving the work a real Nordic feel. The Two Serenades for Violin and Orchestra Op.69 complete the first disc; written in 1912-13, they are not heard all that often, and are a welcome addition here.
The Nielsen concerto is a lovely work that should really be more widely known; indeed, Nielsen’s music in general has never quite gained the recognition outside of his native Denmark that it deserves. In this case it may be the length and shape of the work that’s to blame: it’s almost 40 minutes long, and although ostensibly in four movements is actually in two sections, with the brief first and third “movements” – the latter the only slow movement – acting more as introductions for each half. Also, the simply glorious theme that appears after the brief flourish at the beginning of the work never reappears, and nothing else quite matches it. The performance here is outstanding, though.
Although leaving the group within eight years of its inception in 1992 the Brentano String Quartet’s founding cellist, Michael Kannen, continued his association with the ensemble, joining them on second cello in numerous performances of Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major D956 over the years, always harboring the hope that he would be able to record it with them one day. In September 2014 his wish came true in a quite exquisite way when the Brentano Quartet decided to make a live recording of the work at Amherst College in Massachusetts. An interactive weekend was built around three performances over three days, and the result was the new CD Schubert Quintet Live! (Azica ACD-71304).
The booklet notes include fascinating reflections on the recording challenges by Alan Bise, the producer and mix engineer for the project, as well as reflections on the performances by Kannen and violinist Mark Steinberg. Bise says that any minor blemishes had to be left in where fixing them would spoil the musical feel of a section, but he notes that “the energy and spirit represented here are almost impossible to capture in a closed recording session without an audience.” Other than the applause at the end there is very little to signify the physical presence of an audience, but the energy and spirit that Bise noted, and that they helped to create, clearly make a major contribution to the emotional effect of the music. It is indeed a wonderful performance of one of the greatest works in the chamber music repertoire.
The outstanding Hyperion series The Romantic Cello Concerto reaches Volume 7 with works by the German composer and cellist Wilhelm Fitzhagen (1848-1890), featuring cellist Alban Gerhardt and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Stefan Blunier (CDA68063). Fitzhagen was apparently mostly self-taught as a composer, but his two concertos for his instrument are solid, competent and attractive works very much in the German style of the period. The Concerto No.1 in B Minor, Op.2 and the Concerto No.2 in A Minor, Op.4 “Fantastique” are both early works, from 1870 and 1871 respectively, round about the time that Fitzhagen became professor of cello at the Imperial Conservatoire in Moscow. The First Concerto is a short work in three movements played without a break; a dazzling and challenging cadenza at the end of the first movement leads into a very brief (just over three minutes) but lyrical and simply beautiful Andante. The Second Concerto is also quite short, but again displays Fitzhagen’s fluently melodic style.
The central track on the CD is Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme Op.33 from 1877. On moving to Moscow Fitzhagen had quickly established himself as a cellist, and soon came to know Tchaikovsky, who dedicated the Variations to Fitzhagen and sent him the manuscript for his comments. The cellist went a good deal further, making cuts and tempo changes, adding his own passages and changing the order of three of the variations. Somewhat reluctantly, Tchaikovsky let the radically altered version stand, and it is the work for which Fitzhagen is most remembered.
Fitzhagen’s Ballade – Concertstück Op.10, a single-movement work which is longer than the First Concerto, and Resignation – Ein geistliches Lied ohne Worte Op.8, a very brief but simply lovely piece, round out the CD.
Alban Gerhardt has been the soloist on five of the seven releases in this terrific series that never fails to delight and impress, and he is once again in his element with this music.
Shades & Contrasts is a quite stunning debut CD from the Norwegian guitarist Christina Sandsengen (Odradek ODRCD326 odradek-records.com). Standard works by Albéniz, Tárrega, Aguado and Agustin Barrios Mangoré are mixed with contemporary works by Sven Lundestad, Carlo Domeniconi and Egberto Gismonti in a varied and highly impressive recital. These are outstanding performances, delivered with a flawless technique and sumptuous tone. Expect to hear a lot more of this artist.
The English composer Nigel Clarke (b.1960) is featured on Music for Thirteen Solo Strings, a new CD from Toccata Classics with the 13-member string ensemble Longbow under the direction of violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved (TOCC 0325). Clarke and Skærved have enjoyed a close collaboration for almost 30 years. Their shared interest in music for divided strings (as opposed to string ensembles working in sections) led to Parnassus for Thirteen Solo Strings in 1986. It’s music that sounds a bit chaotic at first, but soon bears out Skærved’s observation that the frictional interchange between adjacent players playing contrary but related material can produce a sort of ensemble “fire-making” that generates a good deal of instrumental energy; there’s energy here in abundance.
The other four works on the CD are all from the past three years, two of them the result of an artistic collaboration with Dover Arts Development in Clarke’s home county of Kent and two of them tributes to Edith Cavell, the English nurse shot by the Germans in the First World War. Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight, for Speaker, Thirteen Solo Strings and Sound Design is described as a diptych, Clarke’s music being preceded by a lengthy poem sketching Dover’s history written and delivered by Skærved’s wife, the Danish writer Malene Skærved. The title will have immediate meaning for anyone who has ever listened to the Shipping Forecast on BBC Radio; the seven names are of the sea areas from off the eastern coast of England, around the southeast corner and along the south coast past Dover. The music has clear – and self-confessed – references to sea music, including Britten’s Four Interludes from Peter Grimes and Debussy’s La Mer. The Navy Hymn (Eternal father, strong to save) emerges from the chaos of a storm to guide the piece to a serene and mostly tonal ending. Pulp and Rags, also linked to a Malene Skærved poem (not quoted), was inspired by the machinery in Buckland Paper Mill, an old mill near Dover that closed in 2000 after 230 years.
The Scarlet Flower for Flugel Horn and Thirteen Solo Strings features soloist Sébastien Rousseau in a work written as a memorial to Edith Cavell, the opening horn solo later being reworked for solo muted violin as Epitaph for Edith Cavell, with which Skærved closes an intriguing disc.
The New Goldberg Variations, a CD from the Australian duo of composer/pianist Joe Chindamo and violinist Zoe Black (Alfire Records ALFI15002) is described as “J. S. Bach’s original and complete Goldberg Variations with a newly composed counterpart for violin.” The violin part was written by Chindamo at Black’s request, and Chindamo says that the only self-imposed rule was that he would not alter a single note Bach wrote, and that he would adhere to Bach’s language and aesthetic.
The first Variation offers a continuous violin line as opposed to an occasional commentary, and from then on there’s a tendency for the violin to become the primary listening focus, although it does assume a background role quite often. One thing is clear – any misgivings you may have about the project are certainly not the result of any lack of quality in the writing or playing of the violin part; both are done with consummate skill. It’s all beautifully played, with a clean, bright and warm violin sound, and plenty of thoughtful keyboard work which, ironically, made me want to hear what Chindamo would do with the original Goldberg Variations on his own.
Purists may well object – imagine listening to Glenn Gould’s recordings and then saying “Yeah – I think I’ll write a violin part….” – but it is well-written, sympathetic and imaginative. However – and here’s the rub – it really is a different, collaborative work now, not merely an added commentary on the original; indeed, the CD cover shows Bach – Chindamo as the joint composing credits. It certainly makes for highly enjoyable listening, but whether or not it will ever be accepted as a bona fide concert work is open to question – and an interesting one at that.
Having played these two quartets many times over the years and listening to them, one way or another, countless more times, I am still amazed at the enchanting influence Mendelssohn’s quartets hold over string players and their audiences. His penchant for combining beautiful melodies with the intricate underlying textures seems especially suited to the Cecilia Quartet, who bring out a weaving of the voices in the most enticing manner. Sonorous, youthfully energetic, refined and exuberant at the same time – all are characteristics of this recording, but what I was most impressed with was the element of subtle understatement that Cecilia Quartet mastered throughout. This ensemble did not put the emphasis on the most obvious elements of Mendelssohn’s music (though they are, of course, undeniable) but, rather integrated it with the delicate texturing of phrasing and enunciation.
The three quartets opus 44 were written within a year (1837-1838), at the most prosperous time of Mendelssohn’s life. The newly married composer began working on them on his honeymoon and the opening of the Quartet in D Major, Op.44 No.1 carries through the buoyancy and generosity of happiness discovered. Two middle movements are more classical in nature, while the finale brings out the spirited dance elements.
Mendelssohn was the master of combining a sense of urgency with melancholy and such is the opening of the Quartet in E Minor, Op.44 No.2 in contrast to the sentimentality of the third movement. Cecilia Quartet is particularly adept at highlighting the nimbleness of the Scherzo with their impressive bow technique but they certainly don’t lack power in the final movement.
Recommended to all the admirers of notes ingenious and pleasing.
The magician of the keyboard, Franz Liszt started early and lived a long life playing, composing and experimenting. His son-in-law Wagner already blew apart traditional harmonies with Tristan, but Liszt introduced atonality for the first time (see Faust Symphony, first movement). Atonality of course later became the cornerstone of the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg and also the starting point of Italian pianist and conductor Mario Formenti’s remarkable journey: Liszt Inspections.
Formenti selects over a dozen of Liszt’s less familiar pieces, played so sensitively that those alone would make this an attractive set to have, but that’s not his purpose at all. Instead he looks into various aspects (he calls it Vocabulary) of music common to both Liszt and a number of avant-garde composers and builds a well-argued thesis unearthing and proving these relationships. Each of the Liszt compositions illustrates one point of the Vocabulary (e.g. constructivism, sound, minimalism, death, remembering-forgetting, elimination of the metre, silence and more) and by this process he achieves two things: 1) proving Liszt’s genius and his vision into the future and 2) bringing a number of contemporary pieces into focus highlighting them so the average listener who’d otherwise willfully reject new music, is enticed to listen. I am willing to bet that the next time any of these composers’ music is played he will do so with interest. There are at least a dozen composers, like Adams, Berio, Kurtág, Ligeti, Rihm, Stockhausen etc., each with his own unique style that up to now I had considered so much noise and hogwash. In the shining light of Liszt these begin to shine as well. Nice achievement for Signor Formenti.
Isabelle Faust has become famous for her performances on a gut-strung 1799 Strad that in almost every case have become models of period performance practice successfully extended into works of the mid-19th century. To today’s ears, her return to the more intimate, late romantic values could sound reticent with her unusually delicate, lean tone, very simple and deeply penetrating. Her recent Schumann piano trio recordings are shining examples of her persuasive approach, with its chaste, almost textured tone. She had already recorded Brahms First Violin Sonata (HMC901981) and this new disc once again features the like-minded approach of Alexander Melnikov playing his own 1875 Bösendorfer which can hardly be mistaken for the more recent instrument to which we have become attuned. The employment of this earlier practice versus the more viscerally robust esthetic of today’s Brahms is illuminating. Here Brahms is speaking rather than being spoken about. Melnikov has a rare affinity to perform Brahms and he and Faust are of one mind. The Schumann pieces are wonderfully poetic, leaving no doubt that they have the exact measure of this gentle, tragic composer.
The unusual F.A.E. Sonata is a four-movement work written in 1853 by Albert Dietrich, Schumann and Brahms for violinist Joseph Joachim to identify the composer of each movement. He had no trouble doing so.
The flawless sound places the listener about five rows back, at which point the two instruments are correctly balanced. This very successful album is most enthusiastically recommended.
Pinchas Zuckerman, who retired after 16 years at the helm of the NACO, has certainly left his mark on the Canadian musical scene. His promotion of musical training for young musicians surely will be his most lasting legacy, alongside the hundreds of concerts and live recordings he generated. A case in point is a new Analekta disc recorded live. The Double Concerto by Brahms is like one of those amazing perfect recipes from The Joy of Cooking: get the right ingredients, follow the recipe exactly and presto: it always works. You need one virtuosic violinist (Zuckerman fits the bill perfectly), one cellist, who can keep up (Forsyth more than keeps up here!) and an orchestra that knows not to overstep. It helps that Zuckerman and Forsyth pair up frequently for this piece and have a definite rapport, developed over their years of playing together. So this Double Concerto hits all the right buttons – it is unrestrained, powerful, and tsunami-like in delivery, while shimmering with sans pareil melodic lines. There are virtuosic passages the likes of which Heifetz and Rostropovich made us expect from soloists. Real aural pleasure, if not breaking any new ground.
Alas, it is in the Symphony No.4 that we understand why Zuckerman will be remembered as a solo virtuoso, rather than a team player. His reading of the score seems muted and slowed down, as if he expects the orchestra will not to be able to keep up. The result is still Brahms, majestic, but somewhat leaden and heavy-footed, as if the will to live were slowly trickling out of the music. After 40 years of virtuosity, it may be the most honest pronouncement from Zuckerman – he is a solo act.
Saint-Saëns – Complete Violin Concertos
Andrew Wan; Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal; Kent Nagano
Analekta AN 2 8770
Even though Camille Saint-Saëns was an exceptionally prolific composer, it seems that his temperament was especially suited to the form of the solo concerto, allowing him to blend virtuosity (which he held in high regard) with the wealth of his musical ideas. He also had a special fondness for the violin, especially after meeting Pablo de Sarasate (the 19th century violin superstar) to whom he dedicated his first and third violin concertos. It comes as no surprise that Andrew Wan, another violin superstar (though from an entirely different era) and one of the youngest concertmasters of a major symphony, has performed and recorded Saint-Saëns’ complete violin concertos with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, the very orchestra he leads. This certainly has an advantage point – the soloist and the orchestra have an astonishing rapport on this recording.
Captured here are live recordings from a series of concerts held at Maison symphonique de Montréal in November 2014. It is no small accomplishment to be able to perform all three concertos, as they are not only technically demanding but also ask of the soloist to be both versatile and flexible in their interpretation. Andrew Wan stands up to this task easily and fiercely – while technically superb in the live performances, he captures his audiences even more with his passion and the constant changes of sound colour.
The first two concertos have been unfairly neglected on the concert stage – they are every bit as exciting and expressive as the third one – but this recording just may change that.
Daniil Trifonov; Philadelphia Orchestra; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Deutsche Grammophon 4794970
How appropriate that a pianist by the name of Daniil Trifonov would record a disc of music by Sergei Rachmaninov plus a composition of his own titled Rachmaniana. To be honest, I was unfamiliar with his name, but it seems this 24-year-old already has more than a few feathers in his cap. Not only has he been the recipient of numerous prizes, including first prize in the prestigious Arthur Rubinstein competition, but he is making a worldwide name for himself. In this recording – his sixth – he has teamed up with Canadian conducting superstar Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra, resulting in a fusion of two great artists.
There are innumerable recordings of the Rachmaninov Paganini Variations, but this is surely one of the finest. Trivonov’s flawless technique is matched throughout by the Philadelphia Orchestra’s full-bodied and robust sound. The variations literally fly by the listener in rapid succession, each a musical microcosm, notwithstanding the poetic and familiar No.18 which is treated with the heartfelt lyricism it so deserves. Both soloist and orchestra make ease of the enormous technical demands presented in the variations leading to the tumultuous finale, doing so with a sense of strong self-assurance.
Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme by Chopin Op.22 are based on the familiar Prelude Op.28 No.20. Trifonov approaches the music with great sensitivity, deftly capturing the kaleidoscopic moods of the 22 movements. His own set of variations, Rachmaniana, was written out of homesickness for his native Russia while temporarily residing in the U.S. While there is much originality within the score, the style also draws from Rachmaninov’s own musical idiom – the work opens in a quietly introspective manner, but the finale is a burst of technical exuberance.
The familiar Variations on a Theme of Corelli predate the Paganini Variations by only three years. Despite the myriad of moods conveyed within, Trifonov creates a unified whole, demonstrating intelligence and an innate musicality for this most demanding repertoire. While a Russian artist performing Russian music doesn’t always guarantee a stellar performance, in this case it did – this recording is bound to be a benchmark.
Satie; Poulenc – Le comble de la distinction
ATMA ACD2 2683
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), composer and pianist, was a man of many contradictions, perpetually vacillating between the sacred and profane. Paradoxically, this bipolar anxiety constitutes the very essence and charm of his music. His sometimes drastic stylistic mood swings are exemplified in Jalbert’s deeply affectionate performance of Poulenc’s Soirées de Nazelles that opens this album, a lengthy work for solo piano consisting of a series of 11 musical portraits of personalities he encountered while on vacation in central France. The music of Erik Satie (1866-1925) is interspersed throughout this album in a compelling dialogue with Poulenc’s. Poulenc himself greatly enjoyed the company of Satie in that composer’s twilight years, finding him “marvellously funny” and a fertile source of musical and spiritual inspiration. In fact, Poulenc’s public debut composition, the Rapsodie nègre of 1917, is dedicated to him. Jalbert’s hypnotic performance of Satie’s austere Trois Gymnopédies is followed by Poulenc’s three unusually focused Mouvements perpétuels. Poulenc the magpie is here too, in the form of two Improvisations honouring Schubert and Edith Piaf. The subsequent selections of Satie’s Valses distiguées… and Je te veux invoke the spirit of the cabaret that Poulenc also expressed so well. Poulenc the miniaturist returns to centre stage in the final selection, a masterly rendition of the kaleidoscopic Nocturnes composed over the course of 1929-1938.
In an age of knuckle-busting keyboard technicians fixated on a single era, composer or concerto it is a great pleasure to encounter an artist of Jalbert’s stature for whom the piano is simply a transcendent means of human expression. My only frustration with this admirable disc is the generic program notes which fail to explain the ironic subtitles of the two Poulenc suites. For the record, the title track has been rendered elsewhere as “The epitome of distinction.”
Oberon Press 978 0 7780 1429 4 (oberonpress.ca)
When you open the back cover of this book of poems, you find a CD tucked into a plastic sleeve. It contains a collection of live recordings spanning 30 years by one of Canada’s premier pianists and teachers, William Aide. The sound quality is variable, but the performances all dazzle – from his incisive Chopin and colourful Schumann to two luminous Debussy pieces. But it’s the poems that are the main attraction here. Aide is that rare musician who uses words as expressively as music. His irrepressible search for grace has universal appeal. For music lovers there’s the way he invokes composers like Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, and – surprisingly – Massenet, whose Elegy inspired Aide to become a pianist.
Here is how he begins To an Old Executor:
“Skip the need to dig the sod
Buy a flowering linden tree
And sentimental as can be
Commit to Schubert, not to God.”
Some of Aide’s most affecting poems are tributes to people who changed his life, like his first piano teacher Miss Myrtle McGrath, who taught him the Elegy, his later teacher the Chilean master Alberto Guerrero, who taught so many of Canada’s finest pianists (see John Beckwith’s excellent biography), his fellow student Glenn Gould, and his own student Peter Vonek, whose death from AIDS left him bereft.
Aide has long been recognized as a significant voice in Canadian music. With four fine books (one a gutsy memoir) under his belt, he is unquestionably a voice that matters in Canadian literature as well.
The richly textured, eclectic cinematic score by veteran Toronto composer Christos Hatzis furnished for the ballet Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet was premiered in October 2014 to considerable audience and critical acclaim. This impressive work is a superimposition of at least three culturally defined layers.
Hatzis directly quotes and echoes sections of iconic 20th-century European ballets Rite of Spring, Swan Lake and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. In addition Christian liturgical chorales, medieval chant and dance music by Jean-Baptiste Lully are all skillfully reworked in Hatzis’ characteristic tonal-centric style. To this he adds elements in multiple vernacular music genres, as well as acoustic and electronic soundscapes, diffused from the studio-produced digital audio track.
Another significant layer of this 2-CD musical journey is the contribution of North American indigenous voices. They are essential texts in this narrative centred on the suffering imposed on children in Canada’s infamous Indian residential schools – with musical detours into the early contact between Europeans and First Nation peoples – ending with the possibility of personal and intercultural redemption and reconciliation.
Based on a story by Joseph Boyden, the ballet score is given a human voice by the extraordinary Polaris Prize-winning Inuk singer Tanya Tagaq, in the last scene’s Morning Song eloquently performed by the Cree singer Steve Wood and through the pow-wow energy of the Northern Cree Singers infusing a visceral power into several scenes.
Is Going Home Star “the most important dance mounted by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in its illustrious 75 year history,” as described by one CBC TV commentator? Hatzis’ cumulatively moving, highly eclectic score compels me to see Mark Godden’s choreography and to find out how this important national story plays out on stage. I invite my fellow Canadians to join me on this journey during the RWB’s upcoming 2016 national tour.