Mahler – Lieder

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

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

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

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


Strauss – Capriccio

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

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

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

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

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


L’Heure Rose - Hélène Guilmette; Martin Dubé

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

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

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

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


Remembering Alfred Deller

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Six Transcriptions - Francis Colpron

02 Early 02 Six TranscriptionsSix Transcriptions
Francis Colpron
ATMA ACD2 2677

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

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

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


Handel – The Eight Great Suites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Paganini – 24 Capricci - Marina Piccinini

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Schubert – The Late Piano Sonatas - Paul Lewis


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

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

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



In the Night - Stephen Hough

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

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

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

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


Tchaikovsky – The Seasons - Pavel Kolesnikov

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Burke – Mysterium - Ensemble Vivant

04 Modern 01 Burke MysteriumJohn Burke – Mysterium
Ensemble Vivant
Independent (

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

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

Olivier Messiaen – Turangalîla Symphonie.

04 Modern 02 Messiaen TurangalilaOlivier Messiaen – Turangalîla Symphonie.
Angela Hewitt; Valérie Hartmann-Claverie; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Hannu Lintu
Ondine ODE 1251-5

I remember well a performance of this stunning 1948 work in the mid-1960s during Seiji Ozawa’s time at the helm of the Toronto Symphony (1965-1969). Ozawa later recorded this modern classic with the TSO for RCA to great international acclaim with the composer’s wife and sister-in-law, Yvonne and Jeanne Loriod, as soloists. This new recording also has a Toronto connection because it was here in 1985 that Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt came to the world’s attention by winning the Toronto International Bach Piano Competition, of which Olivier Messiaen was one of the adjudicators. As we know, she has since gone on to a stellar career.

Turangalîla is taken from two Sanskrit words – turanga, time and lîla, love – and this about sums up the essence of this work, perhaps the most inventive, original and forward-looking piece since Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. The ten movements increase in complexity as the work proceeds. The odd numbers deal with serious issues, like life and death, the “tragic plane” as the great Arthur Koestler would say. The even-numbered ones like the fourth represent love with a playful scherzo that moves towards the sentimental with Janáček-like harmonies embellished lovingly by the piano solo. Hewitt conjures up marvellous sounds with the extended bird-calls in the sixth movement; this is certainly an apex of the composition, where one simply melts into the heavenly harmonies back and forth between Lintu’s virtuoso orchestra and the pianist.

For extra orchestral brilliance Messiaen added a curious electronic instrument, called ondes Martinot (played by Valérie Hartmann-Claverie ), with shivers of glissandos glistening in the love music and some weird barking shouts of joy amidst the overwhelming jollity and magnificent cacophony of the finale, a triumphant movement of total mayhem that somehow reminded me of Strauss’ Symphonia Domestica. This is a gorgeous disc, in the four-star category.


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