01 Osborn SchubertSteven Osborne has no fear of intimacy. In his latest recording, Franz Schubert (Hyperion CDA68107) Osborne plays the Impromptus D935 and Three Piano Pieces D946, as if he were the composer. He adopts a modest posture, lingers in the shadows of the music and emerges only when Schubert coaxes him out. He is never rushed. Assured and playing at a relaxed pace, he maintains a strong sense of forward motion especially in the slower sections. He also has a sense for melodic lines and gives them wonderful clarity over Schubert’s accompanying harmonic pulse. Osborne makes the well-known Impromptus D935 seem new again. He seems to understand their true scale and never overplays them.

He uses the same approach to the Three Piano Pieces D946, where No.2 in E-flat Major is substantially longer than the others and requires more attention to thematic development. He begins it softly and finishes it even more so. Magical. The Hüttenbrenner Variations D576 are playful and entertaining. Built on a short and simple idea, Schubert’s 14 iterations find an affectionate and capable performer in this pianist. The Steinway used in this recording is beautifully voiced and has the perfect colours for this repertoire.

Concert note: Osborne performs the Schubert Impromptus Nos.1 & 4 D935 in Toronto on Tuesday, March 1 as part of Music Toronto’s Piano Series, in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.

02 Rachmaninoff DuetsHélène Mercier and Louis Lortie are longtime piano partners who’ve played and recorded together since the 1980s. Whether playing four hands or two pianos, they always impress with a profoundly unified approach to the music. One simply can’t imagine a significant difference of interpretive opinion between them. Their newest CD, Rachmaninoff Piano Duets (Chandos CHAN 10882) is another example of this mature musical relationship where one cannot distinguish either of them from the other. Their keyboard techniques are identically matched and their sensibilities deeply shared.

Here the wide sweeps of Rachmaninoff’s musical imagination find their voice on the keyboards of two Fazioli grand pianos. The vocabulary is unmistakable and even surprisingly whole quotes from works like the Piano Concerto No.3 appear in the Suite No.2 Op.17 for Two Pianos. The Fantaisie (Tableaux), Op.5 opens the recording in a very dramatic way with Mercier and Lortie pulling the listener right to the edge of the seat with some very edgy playing.

This music is written to be big. While the first two repertoire items have plenty of familiar orchestral allusions, the real showstopper is Rachmaninoff’s transcription for two pianos of his Symphonic Dances Op.45. The versatility required here is remarkable. The first movement contains a musically threadbare middle section where the pianists obviously enjoy the contrast to the rest of the piece. The third movement is a long slow build to a truly blazing finish. On any decent sound system, this recording makes you tingle with the pianists’ energy. You can only imagine the effect Mercier and Lortie have in live performance.

We are given to appropriate wonder when we encounter child prodigies whose keyboard skills and musical maturity seem demonstrably beyond their years. Rarer still are those musicians who have lived into old age with their gift still largely undiminished by the decades. Their experience and insights give them a freedom not entirely available to the younger. I recall the documentary film of Vladimir Horowitz making his long-awaited return to Moscow to perform at the conservatory, watching him hunched over the piano and gliding through a Chopin valse as if he were only 20.

03 Wilde ChopinAnother such elder pianist is David Wilde, who at age 80 is still performing, recording and teaching, as he has done all his life. On listening to Wilde plays Chopin Vol. III (Delphian DCD34159) one is immediately struck by the dexterity and power of this pianist. He is definitely in command, not only of the music’s demands but also of its content. It’s as if Chopin has surrendered licence to Wilde to reshape his phrases, alter his tempi and dynamics to reflect who this pianistic sage is.

Wilde’s performance of the Valse in D flat Major, Op.64 No.1 “Minute Waltz” is amazing for its speed. The Scherzo No.2 in B-flat Minor, Op.31 is a monumental and powerful statement as is the “Military” Polonaise. All through this CD one is struck by the enormous expressive freedom that Wilde has at his disposal. It’s an inspiring recording.

04 Barabino ChopinListening to Adolfo Barabino – Chopin Volume 4; London Symphony Orchestra; Lee Reynolds (Claudio CR 6021-2) it’s tempting to believe that this pianist has found that secret, internal place from which only Chopin can come. It’s a place of great fragility. Barabino’s own liner notes speak of delicacy, elegance, nuances and slender sound. His performance of the Berceuse Op.57 gives the impression that some of the notes are actually too shy to be played. The six Mazurkas are far more meditative than they are dancelike. Even with the London Symphony Orchestra his performance of the Piano Concerto No.2 is never very large and always seems ready to become reclusive at the next pianissimo. While the second movement is particularly beautiful for Barabino’s treatment of the main theme, the outer movements sparkle more like an aurora than fireworks. It’s altogether a remarkable interpretation. The Steinway he plays surrenders the loveliest of colours in the many passages of light touch.

This is his fourth volume in what is to be a complete recording of all of Chopin’s piano works. It’s a set worth collecting.

05 Lori Sims BachAnother Bach Goldberg Variations BWV 988 (TwoPianists Records TP1039244) is competing for attention and its performance by Lori Sims offers good reasons for making this a valued addition to those who collect Goldbergs.

Most importantly, Sims understands the architecture of the work and how Bach proceeds through his canons with ever-widening intervals. She addresses this and other structural complexities in her brief but very well-written liner notes. Also, Sims has committed to observing all the repeats and using the baroque practice of more elaborate ornamentation in them.

Finally, she has made this recording in live performance with an audience that, after a few initial coughs, quickly settles into an astonishingly silent awe at the feat unfolding before them, all 80 minutes of it. This changes the pace of things, because the performer needs to keep the harmonic core of the variations alive in the listener’s ear as the idea evolves through its often challenging forms.

Sims does a terrific job at holding Bach’s many threads together while still applying her own nuances to phrases, individualizing her ornaments, playing with a light clear touch and avoiding the sustain pedal altogether. The better you know the Goldberg Variations, the more you’ll appreciate this live performance. It’s an exciting document.

06 Zhu BachAnother pianist who has recorded the Goldberg Variations live, albeit as a video, is Chinese-born Zhu Xiao Mei. She has also recorded Bach’s The Art of Fugue, but most recently the J. S. Bach Inventions and Sinfonias (Accentus Music ACC30350).

It’s familiar music to most keyboard players. The 15 Inventions and as many Sinfonias have been, as Bach intended, a staple in the keyboard study repertoire for centuries. Zhu is a performer, teacher and frequent jurist at major piano competitions. She offers a passionate argument in her liner notes for the higher regard that these pieces deserve. While dealing mostly with just two and three polyphonic voices, she nevertheless believes they contain an “extraordinary density of music.”

Zhu’s playing is sensitive, articulate and precise. It’s obvious she takes this music very seriously. She argues that Bach wanted players to learn how to play polyphonically and so, be able to highlight the dialogues between voices. She also believes Bach wanted young players to experiment with different approaches by varying tempos and phrasings. Her interpretations reflect this as they move gently and fluidly through what many students deliver as merely dutiful finger exercises. It’s a very satisfying performance and convincingly raises this collection of Bach keyboard works to a significantly higher level.

This recording is a timely reminder about the reverence we need to nurture around the act of making music, even with the simplest of works.

Review

07 Beethoven GiltburgLittle more than a year into his exclusive contract with Naxos, Boris Giltburg has recorded his second CD, Beethoven Piano Sonatas No.8 “Pathétique,” No.21 “Waldstein” and No.32 (Naxos 8.573400). Whether he aspires to recording all 32 sonatas remains to be seen. Still, his first Beethoven disc gives us a good sampling of the early, middle and late periods and of Giltburg’s understanding of how Beethoven’s expression in this form evolved.

His overall approach is one of rather intense carefulness. Giltburg is patient. Never rushing unnecessarily, he takes his time, pausing and hesitating to highlight the intimacy of the music. Speed and power are, however, no obstacle to him and he shies away from nothing.

The opening of the Pathétique is quite deliberative and in considerable contrast to the speed of the final movement. He begins the Waldstein with barely contained energy that spills out quickly over the rhythmic pulse of the left hand. The second movement seems wonderfully expanded in time as if he wants us to find something new in the open spaces between the notes. Giltburg then crafts some lovely sounds around the final movement’s bell-like main idea.

The Sonata No.32 Op.111 is Beethoven in completely new territory. Giltburg delights in the moments that appear unstructured and so modern for the period but he also plunges with feverish delight into the passages with fugal elements that Beethoven wrote for effective contrast. The jewel in this crown is unquestionably Giltburg’s performance of the final movement. The long opening arietta is memorably tender and the movement’s close, even more so.

08 Hough SciabinAn enlightening quote by the performer opens the notes of Scriabin – Janáček, Sonatas & Poems (Hyperion CDA67895). In it Stephen Hough explains his reason for alternating these two eccentric Slavic composers throughout the program of the CD. Describing Scriabin’s music as horizontal and Janáček’s as vertical, and further explaining how the two are essentially dissimilar, we have the rationale for the contrasting placement of all the music on this recording. Hough’s argument is that too much of either detracts from itself. But he also calls their voices contrasting and compelling, and this view is borne out in his playing.

Scriabin’s two sonatas, Nos.4 and 5, as well as the two Poèmes have that distinctive French impressionistic drift that is as seductive as it is hypnotic. Hough understands this form well and blends his lines with superb fluidness.

His approach to Janáček is, by necessity, very different. While somewhat programmatic the music is a demanding mix of romanticism, occasional moments of minimalism and plenty of modern form. Hough reflects the imagery beautifully in On the overgrown path – Book I. He captures the darkness of the Piano Sonata 1.X.1905, From the street, recalling the grim political events it marked as well as the composer’s deep personal struggles.

This recording is a mature and challenging project and is extraordinarily well done.

09 Bax Scriabin MussorgskyA new recording by young Italian pianist Alessio Bax, Scriabin, Mussorgsky (Signum Classics SIGCD426) brings yet another Scriabin piano sonata to the marketplace. The Sonata No.3 Op.23 is a considerably earlier work than its successor, with 16 years between them. The flowing impressionism of the 4th and 5th sonatas is only moderately evident in the slow movement of the 3rd sonata while the rest of the work is fairly classical in structure. Alessio Bax plays this work with a great deal of affection and his opening liner notes explain his fondness for the piece.

Bax is young, powerful and a capable interpreter with a natural instinct for drawing out the beauty of a melodic line. This is obvious in the Etude in C sharp Minor Op.2 No.1. The Prelude for the left hand alone, Op.9 No.1 is as beautiful as it is amazing to contemplate. One should like to see it in performance.

If we needed to be more impressed, we might reserve judgement until hearing Bax’s performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, but the decision would be a foregone conclusion. Each of these little vignettes is superbly played. Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks and The Market Place sparkle with energy and the Great Gate of Kiev towers over the Pictures in pianistic grandeur.

Contemporary music has long used unconventional sound sources, among them the “prepared” piano. This usually involves some physical change in the mechanism or tuning of the instrument. Digital technology has, however, opened new opportunities to take this approach much further. The possibilities are limited only by imagination.

10 Beyond 12OnBeyond 12 – Reinventing the Piano (MicroFest Records MF3) pianist Aron Kallay performs works commissioned from eight American composers. They were given two ground rules to follow in composing their works. First, retune the 88-note keyboard to represent just a single octave. Second, remap the keyboard so that high/low or left/right can be interchangeable and pitches can be in any order.

What has emerged is a body of works playable on a digitally conceived model that uses software to reconfigure a traditional digital keyboard to meet these requirements. The eight composers are mostly professional musicians and academics with a strong inclination for technology in their music writing.

It’s surprising to hear how much of this music has a strong tonal centre and uses familiar rhythmic patterns to drive it forward. Also intriguing is the way the ear quickly adjusts to the very small differences of pitch between adjacent notes. It’s as if the brain resets and quickly begins to make melodic and harmonic sense out of this unconventional music model. This is a truly fascinating disc and worth hearing for both pleasure and debate.

11a Into the MilleniumAmerican harpsichordist Elaine Funaro has made a career of championing new music for the harpsichord. In 1996 she recorded Into The Millennium – The Harpsichord in the 20th Century (Gasparo GSCD-331). Twenty years later the recording is as exciting as it was when first committed to DAT in the beautiful and cavernous Duke University Chapel (North Carolina).

Two tracks deserve special mention. The Postlude of Dan Locklair’s dance suite The Breakers Pound will lift you right out of your seat. The raw energy coming from such a traditionally non-dynamic instrument is indescribable. It has the feel of Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance. Also, Tom Harris’ Jubilate Deo is extraordinary for the way it builds tension with increasing stacks of harmonies. It’s wonderful to see this older recording reissued.

11b Platti sonatasAlso among Elaine Funaro’s recently reissued recordings is Giovanni Benedetto Platti “il grande” Sonatas for Clavicembalo (Wildboar WLBR 9901). Here, the repertoire is material from the early 18th century. Funaro plays two modern instruments, a harpsichord and a fortepiano, copies of originals from that period. The fortepiano in particular, produces an unusual and pleasant timbre not often heard in recordings.

Funaro has audio and video samples of her work at funaroharpsichord.com.

 

 


Goodness only knows how many attempts at string quartets Johannes Brahms destroyed before he finally felt able to present a completed work to the world in 1873 – there may have been as many as 20 – but at least the three quartets we do have are real gems.

01 Brahms New OrfordThe two quartets Op.51, in C Minor and A Minor, were followed by the B-flat Major Op.67 in 1876, but with each of the three works being about 35 minutes in length it’s simply not possible to include more than two on a single CD. Still, as the song says, two out of three ain’t bad, especially when the performances are as beautiful as those on Brahms String Quartets Op.51, Nos.1&2 by the New Orford String Quartet (Bridge 9464).

Just about all of the Brahmsian qualities you would want to hear are present: these are warm, passionate, nuanced, beautifully judged and balanced performances, full of that almost autumnal, nostalgic introspection so typical of the composer and with a lovely dynamic range. Jonathan Crow and Andrew Wan play first and second violin respectively in the Op.51 No.1, changing places for the second quartet.

The warm and resonant recording quality should come as no surprise, given that the location was the Multimedia Room at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music in Montreal.

02 My ArmeniaThe outstanding Armenian brother and sister duo Sergey and Lusine Khachatryan are back with another superb violin and piano recital on My Armenia (naïve V5414), dedicated to the 100th Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide.

The program of works by Komitas Vardapet, Eduard Bagdasaryan, Edvard Mirzoyan, Aram Khachaturian and Arno Babadjanian gives both performers ample opportunity to shine. Lusine Khachatryan is excellent in the piano solos that account for almost half of the very generous running time of the CD – close to 80 minutes – but the disc really takes off in the duos, with Sergey’s impassioned, brilliant playing taking the music to new heights and emotional depths.

There’s a lovely recorded sound and balance right from the opening two short-but-lovely duo pieces by Vardapet before Lusine features in his Seven Folk Dances for Piano Solo. The three duo pieces at the centre of the CD – Bagdasaryan’s Rhapsody and Nocturne and Mirzoyan’s Introduction & Perpetuum mobile – are also the heart of the recital. The Rhapsody is a truly rhapsodic and beautiful piece, and the short Nocturne an absolute gem. The Mirzoyan work is a real showstopper, with a simply dazzling second half.

Khachaturian, probably the best-known of the composers on the disc, is represented by three short pieces, including the familiar Sabre Dance in a typically showy transcription by Jascha Heifetz.

The CD ends with Babadjanian’s Six Pictures for Solo Piano, a challenging work both technically and harmonically, with a brilliant Toccatina movement straight out of the same drawer as Prokofiev’s Seventh Piano Sonata. It’s another dazzler.

All in all, it’s wonderful playing and musicianship from a wonderfully gifted duo. This is music that is clearly deeply ingrained in their hearts and souls as well as in their fingers.

Regular readers will know how I feel about reviewing complete sets of the Bach unaccompanied solo works, be it the Sonatas & Partitas for violin or the Cello Suites: the sheer size, scope, depth and complexity of the music, together with the wide range of versions available, makes any in-depth review almost impossible. All you can really do is note the arrival and try to give some idea of the stylistic approach and overall effect.

03 Midori BachThe latest addition to the already lengthy list of available versions of the Bach Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin is a beautiful 2-CD set by Midori (Onyx 4123). Again, as with the recent Gil Shaham release, there is a clear sense of these wonderful works having been a constant in the performer’s life, together with a reluctance to create a permanent record of what is essentially only one in a continually developing and changing series of interpretations. “After thirty years on stage,” says Midori, “the time felt right for me to fully embrace these most daunting and invaluable compositions.”

The recordings were made in Cologne in August 2013 as a result of Midori’s Bach Project that marked the 30th anniversary of her 1982 debut with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic. Presumably made for broadcast on German radio – the booklet cover has WDR The Cologne Broadcasts as a sub-heading – the recorded sound is clean and clear, with a natural presence.

There is much to comment on here: the compactness of the chords in the G Minor Fugue; the brightness, speed and sense of pulse in the uptempo dance movements in the Partitas; the lightness and ease of the multiple-stopping, without ever obscuring the line; the light and warmth in the tone, combined with a strength and richness.

It’s easy to see why violinists hesitate to commit performances of these works to disc: the more you play them and live with them, the more the challenges and possibilities, both technical and emotional, continue to grow and not diminish.

All we can do is sit back and enjoy the journey, albeit a different one each time, and feel grateful for the privilege.

04 Podger BiberMany of the same problems for a reviewer are presented by the Mystery Sonatas (also known as the Rosary Sonatas) of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, now available in a beautifully judged 2-CD set by the outstanding period-performance violinist Rachel Podger (Channel Classics CCS SA 37315). David Miller, Marcin Świątkiewicz and Jonathan Manson supply the excellent continuo.

The sonatas depict the mysteries in the life of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Anyone familiar with Biber’s descriptive piece Battalia will know how startlingly inventive he can be, but nothing prepares you for what he does in these 16 sonatas.

Scordatura (from the Italian word that gives us “discordant”) is a technique in which the strings of a string instrument are tuned differently from the usual arrangement. It’s not that uncommon, but in these sonatas Biber takes it to simply astonishing lengths, radically altering the violin’s normal GDAE tuning in all but the outer movements by retuning anything from one to all four of the strings by intervals as large as a fifth. Every tuning is different, and some – GGDD, DFB-flatD and BF-sharpBD, for instance – are simply eye-popping. The result is essentially a different instrument for each movement, with enormous possibilities for radically different chordal work and multiple-stopping.

These astonishing sonatas have long been a favourite with baroque specialists – a quick online search produced almost two dozen CD sets currently available – and while Podger is up against some stiff competition (including an outstanding set by Tafelmusik’s Julia Wedman) these are performances of works that stretch both the violin and the violinist to the limit that will hold their own against any.

05 Igbragimova BachWhen Hyperion released the Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova’s recording of the Bach Sonatas & Partitas in 2009, Gramophone magazine noted that “… her Bach comes as something of a revelation … all her stylishness and technical refinement is at the service of an ingrained understanding of the music.” Add another six years, and it should come as no surprise that in her latest Hyperion release, Bach Violin Concertos with the string ensemble Arcangelo under their founder Jonathan Cohen (CDA 68068), Ibragimova delivers terrific performances of consummate skill and style.

Arcangelo plays with a lute and harpsichord continuo, but it’s the lute that predominates in the balance here, giving the performances a soft, warm background that provides a perfect setting for Ibragimova’s sensitive interpretations. The booklet notes point out that this music comes from an age when the distinction between star soloist and ensemble player was more blurred than it is today, and Ibragimova really seems to have taken that to heart. Her imaginative playing is full of sensitive phrasing and dynamics, but is quite laid back, sounding more like a thread running through a tapestry than an out-front solo performance. Everything is light and spacious, and never heavy or routine.

The two standard solo concertos – in A Minor BWV1041 and E Major BWV1042, both of which were transcribed for keyboard by Bach – are here, but not the D Minor Double Concerto. Instead, we have three solo concertos that are described as “back-transcriptions,” being reconstructed solo versions of keyboard concertos that were themselves transcriptions of solo works. The Concerto in A Major BWV1055 is from Keyboard Concerto No.4; the Concerto in G Minor BWV1056 is from the transposed Keyboard Concerto No.5 in F Minor; and the Concerto in D Minor BWV1052 is from the Keyboard Concerto No.1.

The original A Major concerto may have been for oboe d’amore, and the original G Minor for violin or oboe; the D Minor, however, was described by no less an authority as Donald Tovey as “the greatest and most difficult violin concerto before the time of Beethoven.”

It makes a fine ending to an immensely satisfying CD.

06 Cyril ScottHowever much you may know about the music of the English composer Cyril Scott, whose Lotus Land was transcribed and recorded several times by Heifetz in the 1920s and 1930s, you’re almost certainly not going to know either of the works on the CD Dawn and Twilight – The First and Last Violin Sonatas of Cyril Scott (Affetto AF1504) unless you’ve already heard the CD: both works are world premiere recordings.

Scott, who died in 1970 at the age of 91, wrote close to 400 works in a wide range of genres but his music was largely neglected at his death, although there has been a resurgence of both interest and recordings since the turn of the century. He wrote four numbered violin sonatas, only the first of which is a youthful work: written in 1908, it was heavily revised and shortened in 1956. The revised version, along with the second and third sonatas from 1950 and 1955 respectively, was featured on a 2010 Naxos release, but Dawn and Twilight pairs the original version with the unpublished Sonata No.4, written in 1956, the same year as the revision of No.1, and provided in a photocopy of the original manuscript by the composer’s son Desmond Scott.

Violinist Andrew Kirkman and pianist Clipper Erickson are the performers here in works that are difficult to compare because, as Desmond Scott notes, there is a world of stylistic and other differences between them. Certainly the 1908 version of the First Sonata, almost a third longer than the revised version, shows a composer already leaving behind the influences of Debussy and Strauss and moving away from tonality and regular rhythm, and not surprisingly attracting a fair amount of uncomprehending attention from contemporary reviewers. To our ears it’s a stylish and finely crafted rhapsodic four-movement work, with a simply beautiful slow movement, and what the booklet notes call “a bravura disregard for the kind of formal control that informed its later revision.”

The Fourth Sonata, the direct contemporary of that revision, is another fine work that also shows the formal control and precise musical thought process of a mature composer then in his late 70s.

Kirkman and Erickson started performing the original No.1 in 2011, and gave a few concert performances of the unpublished No.4 before recording it for this release. There are times when Erickson seems to be playing with more emotional commitment and dynamic range than Kirkman, but overall these are fine performances of two works that fully deserve to be added to the standard repertoire of 20th-century violin sonatas.

07 Alexander QuartetThere are two outstanding CDs this month featuring the works of American women composers. Patagón (Foghorn Classics CD2015) features the Alexander String Quartet in three works by Cindy Cox, now in her mid-50s and very active as a pianist as well as a composer.

Cox’s music here is quite fascinating, quite varied and not easy to describe.The composer Robert Carl, writing in Fanfare Magazine, said that “Cox writes music that demonstrates an extremely refined and imaginative sense of instrumental colour and texture … this is well wrought, imaginative, and not easily classifiable music.” It’s exactly that.

The Alexander String Quartet was formed in 1981, and performed and recorded Cox’s first string quartet, Columba aspexit, after Hildegard von Bingen, some 20 years ago. It’s performed here along with the title work, Patagón, a five-movement work written in 2011 on commission from the Alexanders to celebrate their 30th anniversary and dedicated to them. Inspired by a trip to the Valdes peninsula nature preserve in southern Argentina, it employs some quite remarkable effects, including sliding harmonics, col legno (playing with the wood of the bow), sul ponticello (playing near the bridge), sul tasto (playing above the fingerboard) and overbowing, where the bow is pressed hard but slowly against the strings. Imagine these sounds and then look at the title of the third movement – Southern right whales and Magellanic penguins – and you will have some idea why these effects seem so perfectly suited to the music.

The quartet’s first violinist Zakarias Grafilo opens the CD with the short but lovely 1990 solo violin work Elegy, dedicated to the memory of Cox’s fellow compositional student Eric Heckard, who died in 1989 at the young age of 26.

The ASQ and Cox have been collaborating ever since that early recording of the Columba quartet, and it’s hard to imagine more satisfying or better-informed performances of these lovely works.

08 Jessie MontgomeryAll of the works on Strum: Music for Strings, the first album dedicated solely to the music of the young African-American composer and violinist Jessie Montgomery (Azica ACD-71302) were written in the past three years, and they display a remarkable self-assurance and confidence together with a striking musical inventiveness and imagination.

Starburst is a short work for string orchestra that plays on rapidly changing musical colours. Source Code for string quartet began life as sketched transcriptions of various sources from African American artists prominent during the peak of the Civil Rights era; it’s played here by the Catalyst Quartet. Break Away, a five-movement work for string quartet, was written for the PUBLIQuartet, who perform it here; born out of a series of improvisations the ensemble was working on while in residence at the Banff Centre, it requires the players to literally break away from the score and improvise, especially in the final movement.

The Rhapsody No.1 for solo violin gives Montgomery the chance to display her outstanding violin playing, and Banner for solo string quartet and string orchestra, with the Catalyst Quartet and the String Orchestra conducted by Julian Wachner, is a rhapsodic tribute to the 200th Anniversary of The Star-Spangled Banner.

Strum, the title track of the album, is the final version of a work started in 2006, but revised and partially rewritten in 2012 for the Catalyst Quartet, whose performance rounds out an impressive debut disc of Montgomery’s compositions.

This is clearly a significant talent, and definitely someone to watch. Expect to hear a lot more from this artist.


01 Chaconne EternityChaconne – Voices of Eternity
Ensemble Caprice; Matthias Maute
Analekta AN 2 9132

There is a difference between the chaconne and the passacaglia – or so textbooks tell us. In the chaconne a theme is repeated over and over again in the bass, while in the passacaglia the repeated theme does not need to be in the bass. Matthias Maute, in the booklet that comes with his recording, is inclined to play down the distinction, saying that the repetition of a harmonic motif is essential to both forms. One of the most famous of all chaconnes is that written by J. S. Bach for solo violin. Here it constitutes the final item on the recording, arranged (not altogether convincingly) for two recorders and cello. Many of the other items are earlier and they include works by Monteverdi, Landi and Falconieri. Among the most famous of chaconnes are the variations on the popular tune, La Follia, and this recording gives us two examples of such variations: by Falconieri (again) and by Vivaldi. There are two other kinds of music here: instrumental versions of seven 16th-century Czech folksongs (arranged by Maute) and seven very short, unaccompanied vocal chaconnes by Maute. The latter are expressive and haunting. They are beautifully sung by the sopranos Dawn Bailey and Jana Miller and alto Maude Brunet. Elsewhere there are eight instrumentalists and the playing is of a high order. Warmly recommended.


 02 Ciudades de oro

Las Cuidades de Oro – Baroque Music from the Spanish New World
L’Harmonie des Saisons; Eric Milnes
ATMA ACD2 2702 

Review

The importance of Spanish music of the 17th and 18th century has long been recognized, but it is only in recent years that we have been introduced to the riches that have been preserved in Latin American archives, in Colombia and Peru, in Chile and Guatemala, in Bolivia and Mexico. It is clear from the music on this recording that there were rich polyphonic traditions in Peru (in the San Antonio Abad Seminary in Cuzco, at the shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Candelaria in Copacabana and in the Cathedral at Lima) and in Bolivia (in the Cathedral of La Plata, now Sucre). Some of the composers featured were Spaniards whose careers developed in the New World, others were born in Latin America and one (Alonzo Torices) never left Spain, although some of his works have been preserved in the Guatemala City Cathedral archives. Most of the texted works on this recording are in Spanish but one is in Latin and one in Quechua, the official language of the Inca Empire.

The recording is carefully planned: the musical language shows a great deal of variety and the documentation is excellent. The rhythms are incisive and the standards of playing and singing are high. I particularly enjoyed the two duets sung by the sopranos Hélène Brunet and Elaine Lachica.


04 Brahms DoubleBrahms – Double Concerto; Symphony No.4
Pinchas Zukerman; Amanda Forsyth; National Arts Centre Orchestra
Analekta AN 2 8782

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.


Nathaniel Dett

My Cup Runneth Over – Complete Piano Works of R. Nathaniel Dett
Clipper Erickson
Navona Records NV6013 (navonarecords.com)

Review

While we have enjoyed many opportunities to hear the choral music of Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943), this is the first ever recording of the prolific composer’s complete piano works which encompass quite a range, both in period and style. Pianist Clipper Erickson, who completed his DMA at Temple University researching Dett’s work, raised funds for this recording project through a Kickstarter campaign. Recorded in Germany for Navona Records and distributed by Naxos, the disc provides an enjoyable and significant dose of music history for professional and layman alike.

Canadian-born Dett’s styles range here from popular dance music and jazz to spirituals, romanticism and impressionism, with rags and salon suites alongside works influenced by Liszt, Dvořák, Debussy and Grainger. And like some of the aforementioned influences, Dett had both education and talent to seamlessly incorporate folk idioms into art music. His piano pieces explore diverse themes: the love of nature (Magnolia), the Deep South (In the Bottoms), Rosicrucian philosophy (Enchantment), the poetry of Rabindrath Tagore (Cinnamon Grove) and scripture (Eight Bible Vignettes). Erickson, an accomplished pianist, performs with great sensitivity to these themes and an obvious admiration for the great composer. Kudos to Erickson for his initiative and to those who chose to support this endeavour. A welcome release, just in time for Black History Month.


 

Review

01 Charles Richard HamelinThe 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.

02 Baskeyfield OrganThe 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.

03 Beethoven Lieder and BagatellenAnother 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.

04 DiabelliPianist 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.

Review

05 Grieg EvjuThe 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.

06 Rodriguez de FallaPianist 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.

07 Hando NahkurFranz 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.

08 Carlo GranteOccasionally 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.

09 Romantic Concertos 65Reconstructions 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.

10 Schnittke GhostsPianist 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.

Review

11 ReinventionsReinventions – 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.

Review

12 The BabIranian 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.


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