01_Comedie_et_Tragedie.jpgComedie et Tragedie Vol.1
Tempesta di Mare Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra
Chaconne CHAN 0805

Louis XIV’s cultural offensive involved the arrival of Giovanni-Battista Lulli, duly converted to Jean-Baptiste Lully. Lully then became director of the Petite Bande of string musicians. Combine Lully’s genius for composition with Molière’s brilliant social satire Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme and you have a magnificent comédie-ballet.

Tempesta di Mare’s interpretation of the overture to the comedy gives a flavour of what to expect; a rather clumsy and pompous nature admirably reflects Molière’s social climber Monsieur Jourdain. By contrast, the real dancers enjoy Lully’s graceful country dances in their 17th-century French heyday. Add to this the slightly oriental quality of the Cérémonie des Turcs and you realize how suited to each other Molière’s words and Lully’s music truly were.

On to Les Éléments by Jean-Féry Rebel (a pupil of Lully) who won great respect for his dance music. Le Chaos started life as an instrumental piece but was incorporated into the ballet. It is not what one expects from a baroque entertainment. Parts for bass, flutes, piccolos and violins represent respectively earthly tremors, the flow of water, air and fire. All attempt to impose themselves vigorously on the ballet and to be distinctive from one another. More soothing is the following Loure-Chaconne; earth and water are reconciled before we hear Rebel’s sprightly interpretations of traditional dance movements.

Marin Marais is best known as a bass viol composer, his prowess enabling him to come to the attention of, yes, Lully. Alcyone is a classically themed opera comprising an overture and five acts. The dramatic plots in each act would unfold until interrupted by a divertissement (entertainment). The 13 suites performed by Tempesta di Mare reflect this accurately whether with the stately prologue: ouverture or the relaxed airs for a whole sequence of characters such as sailors, magicians and priestesses of Juno. Enjoy above all the sarabande, tempest and concluding chaconne.

After listening to both Lully and Marais, listeners will have received a textbook introduction to the French baroque music which enhanced comedy and tragedy alike.


02_Faust_Schumann.jpgSchumann – Violin Concerto; Piano Trio No.3
Isabelle Faust; Jean-Guihen Queyras; Alexander Melnikov; Freiburger Barockorchester; Pablo Heras-Casado
harmonia mundi HMC 902196

Among the violin concertos by the great masters of the middle Romantic era, Brahms, Bruch, Mendelssohn and even Sibelius, Schumann’s is least popular and is infrequently performed. Also, it is considered of lesser value and impact among the composer’s own concertos. Both the piano Op.54 and the cello Op.129 are each at the summit of their genre and favourites for well over a century. Was the violin concerto inconsistent with his output and indicative of lessening musical genius? Written in 1853, the concerto, his last major work, remained without opus number and was secreted for 80 years until November 26, 1937 when it received its debut played by Georg Kulenkampff in Berlin with Böhm and the Philharmonic. On December 20 that year Telefunken recorded it there with Kulenkampff and Schmidt-Isserstedt conducting. Yehudi Menuhin championed the work in concert and in 1938 he recorded it in New York with the Philharmonic under Barbirolli. The value of the work however remains in controversy.

Isabelle Faust and the Freiburg Baroque make a convincing case for it in which the clarity and texture of the period instruments present a refreshingly different palette. The bonus DVD in this release contains the concert performance in the Berlin Philharmonie, revealing unexplored contours and textures characteristic of a baroque orchestra. From the very first bar this is echt Schumann! There are pros and cons of such treatments and while this concerto may not be the very best of Schumann, this sit-up-and-take-notice performance could change a few minds.

The Trio Op.110 in G Minor is another matter. While it may be thought of as the least of Schumann’s three trios, listening to it here challenges that opinion. It is assuredly worthy of a fine performance which it certainly receives. Faust and her colleagues radiate ardour and optimism, performing with sensitivity, sincere musicality and flawless ensemble that hold the listener’s attention. A genuine must-have.

This is the first of three albums by Faust and her colleagues (all passionate about Schumann – me too!), of all the concertos and trios using a historic piano and instruments with gut strings.






03_Netrebko_Strauss.jpgStrauss – Four Last Songs; Ein Heldenleben
Anna Netrebko; Staatskapelle Berlin; Daniel Barenboim
Deutsche Grammophon 4793964

If, as they say, Verdi murdered sopranos then Richard Strauss simply adored them. His operas are all about women, the soprano being the heroine, their very essence. (Rosenkavalier has no less than three of them!) Interestingly the great Anna Netrebko, who became a shining star in the Italian, French and Russian repertoire, had never sung Strauss, but even so DG chose her to celebrate his anniversary. Netrebko, always up for new challenges, once again surprised everyone with a rapt, luminous account of the elegiac Vier Letzte Lieder (1948), Strauss’ last and greatest contribution to this genre. Her voice of unique colour, sumptuous beauty, lovely intonation and musical intelligence makes her interpretation stand up favourably to the formidable competition of great German sopranos of the past, not to mention the tremendous contribution of Barenboim’s lush and luxurious orchestral support that will silence all snobbish prejudice once and for all.

Barenboim was 11 when he was introduced to Furtwängler, who premiered the Four Last Songs, and now some 60 odd years later the “boy” is taking over. And how! He was first noticed as a young pianist, but now the celebrated music director of two most venerable opera houses (Milan and Berlin), with some recent, simply earth-shaking performances of musical genius, here gives his account of Ein Heldenleben, a problematic score that’s notoriously given headaches to Strauss apologists. Even Karajan’s stellar version descends sometimes into cacophony and bombast, but Barenboim instead chooses understatement, clarification of orchestral detail and, with each part subservient to the whole, emphasizing compositional strengths (rather than weaknesses). Unquestionably first choice.


01_Hilary_Hahn.jpgThe wonderful Hilary Hahn has a new CD that features two concertos that have a strong personal resonance for her. On Violin Concertos: Mozart 5 Vieuxtemps 4 (Deutsche Grammophon 4793956) Hahn plays two concertos that she first learned at the age of 10. The Vieuxtemps Concerto No.4 in D Minor Op.31 was the last work she learned with Klara Berkovich, her first main teacher, and Mozart’s Concerto No.5 in A Major K219 was the first work she learned with Jascha Brodsky when she moved to the Curtis Institute of Music later the same year.

Hahn notes that both works have been pillars of her performance repertoire ever since, and her familiarity with and deep understanding of these works is evident throughout the CD, the Mozart in particular benefitting from her usual crystal-clear tone and her immaculate and intelligent phrasing.

The Vieuxtemps Concerto No.4 has always lived in the shadow of his Concerto No.5 in A Minor, and will probably be new to most listeners; I don’t recall having heard it before. It’s somewhat unusual in that it has four movements instead of the customary three, although Vieuxtemps did indicate that the Scherzo third movement could be omitted in performance. You can perhaps understand why: the Scherzo has a very strong ending that sounds for all the world like the end of the concerto,while the Andante opening to the actual Finale feels more like the start of a completely new work. Still, it’s a fine concerto, with a particularly effective slow movement, and it’s difficult to imagine it receiving a better performance.

Hahn is accompanied by the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen under Paavo Järvi, whom she describes as “musical partners for a long time.” It certainly shows in these terrific performances.


Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 5 - Allegro aperto

Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 5 - Adagio

Vieuxtemps: Violin Concerto No. 4 - Andante - Moderato

02_Goldberg.jpgThe Bach Goldberg Variations have been the subject of many varied instrumental arrangements over the years, with one of the best being the transcription for string trio that the violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky made in 1985 to mark the 300th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The string trio version serves the predominantly three-part keyboard writing particularly well, and Sitkovetsky later expanded this into a transcription for string orchestra; it is this version that is given a beautiful performance by England’s Britten Sinfonia, directed by their associate leader Thomas Gould, on a new harmonia mundi Super Audio CD (HMU 807633).

The larger forces involved (the string strength is 6-5-4-3-2) don’t ever seem to present a problem with regard to the intimacy and nature of the music, partly because it’s not a case of everybody playing all the time; there is a judicial use of solo instruments, especially in the really tricky fast passages, and the playing is always beautifully measured.

The CD jewel case quotes a Guardian newspaper review of a concert performance of this version of the Variations by the Britten Sinfonia, calling it “an astonishing performance that preserved the delicate contrapuntal intricacy of Bach’s original.” The same can confidently be said of this CD.

03_Bach_Hopkinson_Smith.jpgThere are more Bach transcriptions available in a 4 CD box set of the works for solo violin and solo cello, Sonatas & Partitas, Suites, this time in transcriptions for lute and theorbo by the American lutenist Hopkinson Smith (naïve 8 22186 08939 2). The set is a reissue in box form of Smith’s previous CDs; the Violin Sonatas & Partitas were recorded in 1999 and the Cello Suites in 1980, 1992 and 2012. A theorbo is used for the first three cello suites and a 13-course baroque lute for the violin works and the cello suites four to six.

The two individual cello CDs were reviewed in this column in April 2013, but these performances of the violin works are new to me. They are naturally in much the same style as the cello transcriptions, with a good deal of filling-in of harmony – although an underpinning of the implied harmonic structure might be a more accurate description – and a softer sound and smaller dynamic range than the original. Multiple stopping is much smoother, making it easier to hold and bring out the melodic line. The English composer and guitarist John Duarte, in his July 2000 Gramophone magazine review, called these performances “arguably the best you can buy of these works – on any instrument.”

In the expansive and detailed booklet notes, Smith makes a strong case for transcribing this music, pointing out that Bach himself played the violin works on the harpsichord with full accompaniment. These CD performances, however, make the strongest case you could ever need. It’s a marvellous set.

04_Haydn_Seven.jpgAnother work presented in a transcribed version on a new CD is Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross, performed by the Attacca Quartet in a new arrangement by their cellist Andrew Yee (Azica ACD-71299). Although this is a work that is now most commonly performed by a string quartet it does exist in several versions, and Yee has chosen a new and creative approach with his arrangement.

Haydn wrote the work in 1786 on a commission from Cádiz Cathedral for an orchestral setting to be used in their Good Friday service, in which the reading of – and short sermon on – each of the seven quotes from scripture was followed by a musical interlude appropriate in expression to the preceding reflections. The work proved to be extremely popular, and Haydn clearly considered it valid outside of the liturgical framework, the publication of the orchestral version in 1787 being accompanied by both a Haydn-approved piano four-hand reduction and a string quartet version. The latter (which may not have been entirely Haydn’s work) essentially followed the violin, viola and cello parts from the orchestral version and ignored the wind parts. Haydn apparently wasn’t too happy with it, and although it probably wasn’t intended for anything other than amateur home performance it is the version we usually hear today.

In 1795 Haydn heard a performance of the work in a German choral version by Joseph Friebert, and was sufficiently impressed to make his own oratorio arrangement for soloists, choir and orchestra, a version which incorporated significant changes to the original work. All but one of the seven sections were preceded by a chorale setting of the relevant scripture passage, and the work was split into two sections, with a new introduction to the second half.

For this Attacca Quartet arrangement, Yee studied the original orchestral, string quartet and oratorio settings, with many of the editorial decisions based on the oratorio version; indeed, the jewel case blurb calls this recording “a new arrangement of the oratorio version.” It’s certainly extremely effective, and is beautifully played by the quartet, with a sensitive and spare use of vibrato and a clear empathy for the nature and meaning of the music. It’s easily the most satisfying string version of the work that I’ve heard.

05_Autumn_of_Soul.jpgAutumn of the Soul is a charming new CD by the Italian guitarist Lorenzo Micheli featuring works by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Vicente Asencio, Angelo Gilardino, Alexandre Tansman and Pierre de Bréville (Contrastes Records CR9201409).

Andrés Segovia is not directly represented on the CD, but his influence links all the pieces together. Tansman and de Bréville were two of the composers who wrote works for Segovia following his groundbreaking 1924 solo guitar recital in Paris. Tansman, whose association with Segovia lasted for over 50 years, is represented by two works: the three-movement Hommage à Chopin and the Variations sur un thème de Scriabine. The French composer de Bréville’s short untitled composition from 1926 was never performed by Segovia, and remained unknown until the discovery of the manuscript in the Segovia archives in 2001.Gilardino was one of the two editors who published the work under the title Fantasia. Gilardino’s own Canzone notturna is included here. Asencio’s Suite mistica consists of three short movements inspired by the New Testament; the work was dedicated to Segovia, who suggested the title.

The CD opens and closes with selected movements from Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Platero y yo, a work inspired by the 1914 book of children’s prose by the Andalusian poet Juan Ramón Jiménez that tells the story of the donkey Platero and his owner. It was written in 1960, coincidentally the same year a similar suite with the same name was composed by Eduardo Sáinz de la Maza, and was originally meant to be played in conjunction with a reading of the poems. Segovia intended to record it this way, but only managed ten of the pieces without narration. Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s work perhaps doesn’t have quite the Spanish warmth of the Maza version, but the eight movements here are quite delightful. Micheli’s playing is clean and accurate throughout a quite challenging selection of works.

06_Emil_Altschuler.jpgThe young American violinist Emil Altschuler has a terrific pedigree, having studied with the legendary Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard and with Erick Friedman at the Yale School of Music. His self-titled and independently released CD (emilaltschuler.com) – apparently his second solo album – features works by Falla, Ravel, Albèniz, Poulenc and Bartók, with pianist Keunyoung Sun as accompanist.

There’s a decidedly old-style feel to Altschuler’s playing, with the almost constant fast vibrato and the bright, slightly nasal tone very reminiscent of Heifetz. His website says that he plays with gut strings and without a shoulder rest, and notes that his sound is indeed reminiscent of old school masters such as his former teacher Friedman, and Heifetz and Kreisler. Friedman was in turn a student of Heifetz, so the link is a valid one.

There is no booklet with the CD, just a single slip of paper in the jewel case front flap, so there is a complete lack of details regarding the recordings; the program, however, is apparently one which Altschuler has been touring for several years. Falla is represented by the Siete canciones populares Españolas and the Danse Espagnol from La Vide Breve; Ravel by the Pièce en forme de Habanera and the Tzigane; and Albéniz by the Tango Op.165 No.2. Poulenc’s Violin Sonata Op.119, written in 1942-43, seems to be a bit out of place in a predominantly Spanish program, but a passionate performance proves that it’s a terrific work which really should be heard more often. Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances are listed as bonus tracks – possibly because they were not part of Altschuler’s regular recital program – and provide an energetic end to the CD.

07_Little_Girl_Blue.jpgI originally knew Nina Simone only from her 1960s hit I Put a Spell on You, and then later as a jazz singer with a highly distinctive voice and style, but Little Girl Blue, the new CD from cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton (naïve V 5376), shows how little I actually knew about the range of this artist’s work. Pianist Bruno Fontaine and percussionist Laurent Kraif join the cellist in a program, sub-titled From Nina Simone, that explores Simone’s legacy – “her repertory, her arrangements, her harmonic universe and her story too,” says Wieder-Atherton in the sparse booklet notes, although the significance of one or two of the tracks isn’t made clear.

Simone was a classically trained pianist who won a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music (she left after running out of money) and was then denied admission to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, a rejection she always believed to be racially motivated. She was also an accomplished jazz pianist. Little Girl Blue was the title of Simone’s debut album in 1958, and the Rodgers & Hart song is presented here (with a nod to Simone’s own interpolation of Good King Wenceslas in the number) along with four compositions by Simone and a selection of songs by, among others, Duke Ellington, Billy Taylor, Fritz Rotter and Oscar Brown Jr., and two classical works: the Brahms setting of the Bach choral prelude Schmücke dich, o liebe seele and the Andante middle movement from Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata in G Minor.

The mood throughout the CD is predominantly quiet and introspective, but it is full of lovely moments. The tracks with just piano accompaniment fare much better than some of those with percussion – bells and clusters, hand pans, water drum, grain basket and body percussion (including popping the finger from the mouth) for example – which sometimes seems to detract from the music rather than add to it. Wieder-Atherton’s style in the ballads is quite affecting, and there is some lovely playing from Fontaine, particularly in Fritz Rotter’s That’s All I Want From You, the title track and the two classical items, neither of which sounds the least bit out of place in this setting. Indeed, Simone’s own composition Return Home, the final track on the CD, ends with a whimsical quote from Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor

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02_Classical_01_Kuhnel_Voix_humaines.jpgAugust Kuhnel – Sei Sonate O Partite
Les Voix humaines
ATMA ACD2 2644

Solo, rather than consort performances of the bass viol increased in popularity – not to say melodic and harmonic potential – in Europe in the mid-17th century. France emerged as a key centre for bass viol solo music but Germany was not so far behind. August 1645 saw the birth of August Kühnel in Saxony. Kühnel’s father Samuel, himself a composer and viol player, trained him to the extent that he was appointed viola da gambist to the court orchestra of Maurice, Duke of Saxe-Zeitz.

Only Kühnel‘s six sonatas or partitas were published; the rest of his music survives as manuscripts. In fact, the partitas deserve a wider audience. They start with a prelude which features rich embellishments and follow with rigorous allegros and adagios. Susie Napper, Margaret Little and Mélisande Corriveau tackle these movements with gusto. Their playing is reminiscent of what was called stylus phantasticus, a demanding interpretation which tests the bass viol player with its rigorous scoring.

Sonata I sets the pace in this respect even if Sonata II is more restrained; the former could almost be one of the folk-tune settings which had inspired early 17th-century viola da gamba players. Sonata III falls somewhere between its predecessors. This is not surprising as it is annotated solely as aria variata by Kühnel.

It is Kühnel himself who encourages the spirited playing of the Voix Humaines Consort as he himself acknowledges that it is impossible to annotate everything: he places an apostrophe where he requires an ornament to be played, leaving performers free to choose trills, vibratos, appoggiaturas and many others! It is a bit like leaving schoolchildren free to roam in the chemistry laboratory or, in the sleeve-note writer’s words, “the telepathic communion of a pair of jazz saxophonists.”

And the last three sonatas? The country-dance characteristics of some of their movements is certainly brought out, particularly in Sonata V, while Sonata VI is very reminiscent of the music accompanying baroque dramas. It is easy to see why Napper and Little are so admired for their interpretations of this genre.


02_Classical_03_Beethoven_Kodama.jpgBeethoven – Complete Piano Sonatas
Mari Kodama
Pentatone PTC 5186 490

The 32 sonatas of Beethoven are a milestone in musical history and one of the marvels of human civilization. The piano was Beethoven’s own instrument; he first became famous as a concert pianist. The sonatas also trace the development of the instrument itself; with technical improvements it became more and more articulate and expressive, noticeable throughout the sonatas. Interpretation dates back to the time of Liszt and complete recordings by some of the piano giants are many, but almost exclusively by male pianists.

I met Mari Kodama at the time of launching her new set for PentaTone. She immediately impressed me as quiet, unassuming, rather reclusive and modest but very dedicated to her art. Well, quiet waters run deep as I certainly found out later in listening to her play. It took her some ten years to complete this project and “time was her greatest gift” as she thoroughly researched each sonata and understood the compositional process from the inside out as her extensive notes demonstrate. Kodama was virtually unknown when she started this project and so it was doubly difficult to make herself known as well as make a new statement on this field. Comparisons are limitless as everyone has his/her favorites they swear by, although it wouldn’t be fair to this relatively young pianist and the enormity of her effort and accomplishment.

Her playing can be summed up as impeccable, painstakingly observing the composer’s original metronome markings, usually on the fast side of what we are used to with amazing technical brilliance and rhythmic precision as well as a tremendous range of expression and structural coherence. Her playing is essentially delicate, but this is advantageous for the more light hearted, humorous pieces like the second movement of the Hunt Sonata, Op.31, No.3 and elsewhere where she is distinctly delightful in making the piano literally “swing” (Op.31, No.1). Even more challenging is the Pastoral Sonata Op.28, notoriously difficult to interpret, in which she excels. Her youthful joy of playing, especially her favourites, is infectious, which makes this set extra special.

But Kodama is certainly no lightweight. She makes an enormous impact with the Hammerklavier, Op.106, more than 41 minutes long, immensely difficult, an endurance test even for the likes of Richter. Her bold attack with the magnificent fanfare-like chords immediately rouses the listener. The long Adagio, often a stumbling block for pianists, is held together well and the enormous fugue that requires almost superhuman endurance and stamina comes off with such abundant energy that it’s simply breathtaking.

Nine CDs richly documented with Kodama’s own analysis of each sonata, the PentaTone sound is state of the art with gorgeous piano tone as if it was in your own living room.

Concert Note: Mari Kodama and Karin Kei Nagano, her 15-year-old daughter (with her husband MSO conductor Kent Nagano), perform April 25 as part of Bravo Niagara!’s second annual “Spring into Music @ Stratus festival, Stratus Vineyards, Niagara-on-the-Lake.

02_Classical_04_Scriabin_Ohlsson.jpgScriabin – Complete Poèmes
Garrick Ohlsson
Hyperion CDA67988

Titling a piano piece a “poem” is not mere affectation. Simon Nicholls’ disc notes are packed with examples of symbolist correspondences between the arts in Scriabin’s music. But on this recording of the complete Poèmes for piano, filled out with brief character pieces, the musical variety and originality of tonal structure, articulation and texture are to me more interesting than extra-musical associations. Garrick Ohlsson’s stylistic mastery makes it so.

A Chopinist among many other things, Ohlsson brings to the Chopin-influenced Scriabin’s early Deux poèmes, Op.32 moods of a sensuous nocturne (No.1) and an intense prelude (No.2). Ohlsson’s technique is clean and bass lines are well-organized. The exquisite Poème, Op.41 is melodically distinguished and full of pianistic colour in Ohlsson’s reading. Scriabin’s tonal explorations widened in his miniatures: the results range from caprice and wit (Scherzo, Op.46) through yearning (Quasi valse, Op.47) to languor (Rêverie, Op.49, No.3), the latter a unique take on the hoary sequence of fifths. Through attentive pedalling Ohlsson manages to balance and shape Fragility, Op.51, No.1, a favourite of mine, floating right hand chords over a left hand playing both melody (thumb) and accompaniment (fingers). Much more could be written about the remarkable late Poème-Nocturne, Op.61 and Vers la flame: poème, Op.72; it is in handling varied textures, fleeting motifs and nuanced dynamics within the overall nocturnal ambience that Ohlsson creates his magic.

Author: Roger Knox
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