Strings Attached - November 2014

Robbins 01 Lara St. JohnIt’s an idea so obvious that you have to wonder why the market isn’t already flooded: a DVD that features a world-class soloist going through a major concerto almost bar by bar, explaining the problems and challenges, and discussing ways of addressing them. DVDs of masterclasses are occasionally issued, but I don’t know of anything quite like the Learning from the Legends series (learningfromthelegends.com), which has recently started its catalogue with two 2-DVD sets featuring Lara St. John playing and dissecting two of the most popular violin concertos in the repertoire: the Bruch G Minor and the Mendelssohn.

The Bruch set came my way recently, and it’s absolutely fascinating and engrossing. DVD1 features St. John playing the concerto with pianist Eduard Laurel, but with the work broken up into short segments, often of only a few bars. The violin music appears at the foot of the screen, and St. John discusses just about everything you can think of before repeating the section: technical challenges and problems; interpretation; performance issues; tips and advice; fingering; bowing; practising and learning the solo part. The first movement dissection takes 45 minutes; the second 33 minutes, and the finale 43 minutes.

DVD2 has the uninterrupted performance of the concerto by St. John and Laurel, a piano-only accompaniment, and a selection of short help sections from St. John: The Importance of Finding a Teacher; Practice Philosophy; and eight short Technical Exercises.

St. John’s relaxed and friendly presentation-style is perfect, and her commentary always apposite and perceptive. The camera work is almost entirely close-up, with every possible angle of fingering and hand position shown clearly.

It’s absolutely indispensable stuff for student violinists, and offers fascinating and revelatory insights for anyone interested in how concert performances are built. Sheet music for St. John’s own edition of the solo part is available for download through the publisher’s website.

Robbins 02 Fandango guitarsQuebec’s Quatuor Fandango was formed six years ago as a student ensemble at the Conservatoire de musique in Gatineau. Uarekena, their debut CD, presents an attractive program of short works and some excellent ensemble playing (ATMA ACD2 2707).

The disc opens with Comme un Tango and closes with Carnaval, two short pieces by Patrick Roux, the quartet’s teacher and mentor in Gatineau. Dušan Bogdanović’s Introduction and Danse was inspired by the music of Eastern Europe and Sérgio Assad’s title track reflects his Brazilian heritage.

Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite is followed by Leo Brouwer’s Paisaje cubano and Jürg Kindle’s Berimbao, the latter named after the African instrument that consists of a steel string struck with a stick. There are some particularly interesting sound effects in the Brouwer and Kindle pieces – and yes, you can play the guitar with a pencil!

The recorded sound is warm and resonant, the balance excellent and the playing terrific. The group rightly points out that the guitar quartet is a relatively recent addition to the list of performing ensembles, and the repertoire continues to grow, both in original compositions and arrangements and transcriptions. This CD is a welcome addition to the quartet discography, and a debut disc to be proud of.

Robbins 03 BruchGiven that the outstanding Hyperion series The Romantic Violin Concerto has mostly highlighted lesser-known composers, the selection of Max Bruch for Volume 17 (CDA68050) may, at first glance, seem a bit surprising. The huge popularity of the Concerto No.1 in G Minor, however, overshadowed the two later concertos, both in D minor, which Bruch wrote for the instrument.

The Violin Concerto No.3, Op.58 is the main feature here. It’s a long work, with absolutely gorgeous music throughout, and a particularly lovely slow movement. The melodies are perhaps less immediately memorable than those in the G minor concerto, which may help to explain why the work never really established itself, but it’s easy to see why Bruch grew so annoyed and frustrated when violinists always preferred to play the earlier concerto.

If there is a bit of a surprise here, it might be the choice of the Scottish Fantasy, Op.46 as the accompanying work, instead of the even less-heard and perhaps more obvious Violin Concerto No.2; still, it’s such a lovely and familiar work that it’s hard to complain, and it shows, perhaps, the difference that strong melodies that stay with you after just one hearing can make to a work’s impact.

The English violinist Jack Liebeck is in superb form in both works, with Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra providing excellent support.

Robbins 04 Bell BachJoshua Bell joins the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields as soloist and music director in performances of the two solo violin concertos by J. S. Bach on his latest CD, Bach (Sony Classical 88843 08779). The Concerto No.1 in A Minor, BWV 1041 and the Concerto No.2 in E Major, BWV 1042 are both given bright, sympathetic readings with beautiful playing from all the participants. The slow movements are heartfelt without ever being overplayed, and the finales have a genuine dance feel to them.

It’s hard to understand now how anyone could ever have felt that any of the Bach solo Sonatas & Partitas needed a piano accompaniment, but in the mid-19th century both Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn did just that, Schumann supplying a piano part for all six works, and Mendelssohn – who was mainly responsible for the revival of Bach’s music in the first place – writing an accompaniment for the great D minor Chaconne. The Chaconne is included here with the Mendelssohn accompaniment, but Bell takes it a step further by using an orchestral arrangement of Mendelssohn’s piano part that he created with the Philharmonia Orchestra violinist Julian Milone. Bell openly admits that the Bach original cannot be improved upon, but appreciates that it does give him another way to experience the work and the opportunity to play it with his friends in the Academy. It’s an interesting experiment, and one that is repeated with the Gavotte en Rondeau from the E major Partita, this time with Schumann’s accompaniment getting the Milone treatment. A lovely reading of the Air from the Orchestral Suite in D Major completes an excellent CD.

Robbins 05 Daniel Hope

The title of violinist Daniel Hope’s new CD, Escape to Paradise: The Hollywood Album (Deutsche Grammophon            4792954), is a bit misleading. Hope’s focus is on composers who escaped from Hitler’s Europe to the warmth of the Hollywood movie scene, but there’s non-Hollywood music here from pre-and post-war Germany – including a Korngold work from 1908 – as well as non-escapee music from second-generation Hollywood composers like John Williams and Ennio Morricone.

Hope and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under Alexander Shelley display a big Hollywood tone right from the opening notes of Miklós Rózsa’s Love Theme from Ben Hur, and carry the same style into the major work on the disc, Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto Op.35; the concerto was built around themes from Korngold’s Hollywood movie scores. It’s a fine performance of a lovely work.

The remainder of the CD is given over to 14 short pieces, most of them arrangements; five are for duo or chamber ensemble, including three that feature members of the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin. Ex-Police frontman Sting sings his own lyrics (replacing Berthold Brecht’s!) to a song from Hanns Eisler’s Hollywood Liederbuch, and German singer Max Raabe contributes a flat (unfortunately in both meanings of the word) performance of Kurt Weill’s Speak Low.

The best tracks are those for soloist and orchestra, including the themes from Rózsa’s El Cid, Morricone’s Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, Williams’ Schindler’s List and Thomas Newman’s American Beauty. The disc ends with a slow, low-key and really quite odd solo violin arrangement of As Time Goes By.

The CD is a strange mixture in many ways; some moments resonate less than others, and the vocal tracks in particular seem more like intrusions than contributions, but Hope’s playing is stylish and of a very high standard throughout. Editor’s Note: Alexander Shelley succeeds Pinchas Zukerman as conductor of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in September 2015. 

Robbins 06 Parra

Terra Incognito, featuring the Colombian-born guitarist and composer Arturo Parra, is the debut CD from the new Montreal music and book publishing company La Grenouille Hirsute/Shaggy Frog Productions (LGH1301).

The sub-title of the CD is Seven sound portraits, Parra having spent time with seven men and women from different parts of the Americas before composing seven original pieces “at the request of their subjects” in response to what he had heard. The title, Terra Incognito, refers to the phrase that used to indicate unknown territory on early maps and globes. More on that in a minute.

I didn’t quite know what to expect from this disc. Parra has extensive experience with contemporary mixed media compositions for guitar, and, we are told, “…has to date invented over fifty extended guitar techniques and forms of guitar/vocal expression, and continues to expand the expressive range of his instrument through his sonic explorations.” Not that you would know that from this CD: from reading the promotional material I expected a far more edgy, experimental approach, but it’s mostly riffs and improvisations on standard classical guitar etudes, patterns and techniques, with the occasional extraneous sound – clicks here, a swoosh there – and some fairly standard guitar sound effects – string slides, percussive knocks and the like.

The relevance of the Terra Incognito title is explained by the album’s representing “a vast fresco of a grand journey through unknown lands… a journey that ultimately leads [listeners] back to their home port.” The language throughout the entire package – and particularly in the almost impenetrable booklet notes on the seven track titles – is, to put it mildly, opaque. Here is Parra expounding on his view that every portrait is also, in some way, a portrait of its author: “Each of us is, to another, a two-way mirror watching us watching ourselves while we believe we are watching someone else; a mirror in which we stare into infinity, entranced by our own features, while the mirror stares at itself believing it is staring at us.” Um… OK. “Would I have written the portraits in full knowledge of how naked they would leave me? Don’t know, can’t say.” The entire booklet notes are of a similar nature, either at the far edge of perception or simply pretentious – take your pick – but it doesn’t really matter; the point is that they bear absolutely no relation to the end product and to what you hear.

Don’t get me wrong. Make no mistake: this guy can play. Parra is an extremely talented and proficient guitarist and composer, and the pieces here show an advanced technique and a refined awareness of the instrument’s range and colour palette. There is, however, little sense of the individual pieces being portraits of anything; the whole CD, far from feeling like a journey, feels more like a series of improvisational – albeit high quality and beautifully played – studies.

The recording quality is excellent, and there is a great deal to enjoy on this disc. I just have a big problem believing that it actually does what it claims to do.

 


Perla Barocca – Early Italian Masterpieces - Rachel Podger; Marcin Swiatkiewicz; Daniele Caminiti

02 Early 01 Perla BaroccaPerla Barocca – Early Italian Masterpieces
Rachel Podger; Marcin Swiatkiewicz; Daniele Caminiti
Channel Classics CCS SA 36014

This beautiful disc is a pearl indeed. From the lyrical, improvisatory opening of G.B. Fontana’s Sonata 2 to the final exuberance of Bertali’s Chiacona, Perla Barocca is a delightful exploration of 17th-century Italian violin repertoire, as interpreted by three luminescent players.

Among my personal favourites on this CD are Pandolfi Mealli’s Sonata 6, in which the composer’s theatrical eccentricity and lyricism are effortlessly captured. Isabella Leonarda’s Sonata 12 is simply gorgeous, and the fiery passagework of Marco Uccellini’s Sonata overo Toccata “detta la Laura rilucente,” isn’t just impressive, it’s refreshingly expressive as well. Particularly in Biagio Marini’s Sonata 4, Rachel Podger and her colleagues make use of an extraordinary range of tonal colour and volume, as well as numerous special effects described in writings of the time but rarely heard nowadays in performances of this repertoire. Girolamo Frescobaldi is represented here with the familiar keyboard Toccata 1, in which harpsichordist Marcin Swiatkiewicz displays his interpretive mastery, and another Toccata for “spinettina e violino.” Podger, Camini and Swiatkiewicz give Dario Castello’s Sonata 2 one of the most thoughtful and inventive renditions I’ve ever heard, providing inspiration for a fresh look at this much-recorded piece. Their perfect exploitation of expressive device, creative pacing and snappy virtuosity give the impression that the three of them are actively collaborating with Castello as they go; and so it is with the rest of the music on this CD.

A must-listen.

 


A Royal Trio – Arias by Handel, Bononcini & Ariosti

02 Early 02 A Royal TrioA Royal Trio – Arias by Handel, Bononcini & Ariosti
Lawrence Zazzo; La Nuova Musica; David Bates
Harmonia Mundi HMU 807590

In 1719, Handel had been told by the newly established Royal Academy of Music in London to recruit a company of singers, of the calibre of the castrato Senesino. Such singers were the mainstay of the Academy, as were Handel and the Milanese cellist and composer Giovanni Bononcini.

Add a third composer Attilio Ariosti of Bologna, and you have an operatic power house in London which, along with Lawrence Zazzo’s genius as a countertenor, is the inspiration for this CD. Indeed, Zazzo’s skills as a countertenor are immediately displayed with his vigorous interpretation of Handel’s “Rompo I lacci” from Flavio. More sedate but no less intense is his performance of “Cosi stanco Pellegrino” from Bononcini’s Crispo.

Handel’s music features in ten of the 18 tracks on this CD, “Va tacito” from Giulio Cesare being an entirely suitable selection, not only due to Zazzo’s enthusiastic performance but because of the spirited accompaniment from the woodwinds and horns of La Nuova Musica. It is a sharp contrast to the thoughtful, sighing setting of “Tanti affani” from Handel’s Ottone, which follows.

Despite Handel’s reputation, one of the most moving recordings on the entire CD is Ariosti’s “Spirate, o iniqui marmi” from Coriolano, conveying Coriolano’s anguish at his wrongful imprisonment. In this case, it is the strings which combine with Zazzo’s voice to create the doleful atmosphere.

In fact, Bononcini and Handel both end the CD with a flourish, the former with “Tigre piagata” from Muzio Sevola and the latter with “Vivi, tiranno” from Rodelinda. Each piece showcases the sheer skill of Lawrence Zazzo and the demands placed on his voice.

 


Beethoven – Diabelli Variations - Stewart Goodyear

03 Classical 01 Goodyear BeethovenBeethoven – Diabelli Variations
Stewart Goodyear
Marquis MAR 455

Stewart Goodyear has already demonstrated his maturity and artistic mastery of Beethoven in the complete sonata recordings and his marathon performances of the works. This current CD establishes him as one of the premier Beethoven interpreters today.

The Diabelli Variations “amused Beethoven to a rare degree” and were written in “a rosy mood” which dispels the belief that Beethoven spent his later years writing in complete gloom. These variations tease us with incredible humour and “funny themes.” Substitute the syllables ha-ha, hee-hee to the music in Variation 10 which Alfred Brendel so aptly named “Giggling and neighing” in his book Music Sounded Out and it will guarantee a smile and laugh while listening to this extraordinary opus. This is joyful, uplifting music and Goodyear has the formidable technique and astute sense of structure to be able to switch from one character to the next. He clearly defines the unique personality and mood of each variation.

The extra-musical images and literary allusions of the work come alive in Goodyear’s command of the extreme contrasts and articulation of the musical motifs. He brings to life tender moments and violent, disjointed musical excursions while sustaining a focus from the beginning to the end of the work. The love and joy of playing Beethoven is evident in every nuance and breath of Goodyear’s performance. The sound of the recording, tempo and timing flows naturally in its expressive and colourful journey.

This is an excellent recording and is highly recommended. I look forward to Stewart Goodyear recording all of Beethoven’s Variations.

 


Beethoven – Complete Works for Cello and Piano

03 Classical 02 Beethoven CelloBeethoven – Complete Works for Cello and Piano
Jean-Guihen Queyras; Alexander Melnikov
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902183.84

Having already collaborated on chamber music by Brahms, Kodály, Debussy and Poulenc, Canadian-born cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov – two established Harmonia Mundi artists – have now turned their attention to music by Beethoven in this splendid two-disc set featuring the complete works for cello and piano.

The music was composed over a 20-year period, from 1796 to 1815. The two sonatas Op.5, were a result of Beethoven’s association with the musical court life in Berlin which not only included the cello-playing King Frederick Wilhelm II (nephew of, and successor to, the flute-playing Frederick the Great) but also the Duport brothers – both cello virtuosos. The Queyras-Melnikov pairing is a sublime one, their playing elegant and polished, with a wonderful sense of momentum throughout. The first disc also includes the delightful Variations on Mozart’s Ein Mädchen oder Weibschen from The Magic Flute and See the Conquering Hero Comes from Handel’s Judas Maccabeus.

It was almost 11 years later that Beethoven returned to the cello/piano combination with his Sonata in A Major Op.69, long regarded as one of his most renowned in the genre. The mood is dignified and majestic and the equal partnership of the artists results in a wonderful cohesion of sound, with Queyras’ warm rich tone perfectly complemented by Melnikov’s solid performance. Also included on this disc are the variations on Mozart’s Bei Männern welche Liebe fuhlen from The Magic Flute and the two sonatas Op.102 completed in 1815. Queryas displays a particular tenderness in the slow movement of the second sonata before the two embark on the robust fugal finale, thus bringing the set to a most satisfying close.

Well done, Messrs. Queyras and Melnikov – it’s a classic case of outstanding repertoire superbly played, and we can’t ask any more than that.

 


Chopin

Chopin – Complete Mazurkas
Janina Fialkowska
ATMA ACD2 2682

Chopin – 24 Preludes
Alain Lefèvre
Analekta AN 2 9287

Chopin – Preludes
Ingrid Fliter
Linn Records CRD 475

03 Classical 03a Fialkowska ChopinIn the ridiculous horror-parody film, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, the bloodthirsty veggies can only be defeated when shown the sheet music of Donny Osmond. That makes them explode in fear. In the real world, the truly scary scores are those of Frédéric Chopin. The sheer complexity of the writing, the crowded added lines and bars bursting with fractal notes are enough to send a casual, sight-reading pianist scrambling. Chopin’s music requires a lot of great technique, to be sure. But technique alone is not enough – the best example of that is the pianist that this reviewer calls Bang Bang in obvious reference to his overuse of the forte pedal. Lots of bravado there, but very little heart and soul.

03 Classical 3b Lefevre ChopinIn fact, I would venture to say that the music of Chopin is a lot like wine – it is a result of the terroir, the quality of grapes and the winemaking technique. As for terroir, there is something magical when one hears that music at the Royal Baths Gardens in Warsaw, near the statue of Chopin (wrapped by two bronze weeping willows) or at Chopin’s family cottage in Zelazowa Wola, where his alleged piano is still in working order. Alas, that’s a pleasure not accorded to many. Still, there is something uncanny in the ability of Polish pianists to re-capture that ever-important terroir. Then there are the grapes – the beauty of Chopin’s writing was that no piece, no matter how slight, could be considered minor. The Minute Waltz, the Preludes, the Mazurkas or songs, regardless of length, command attention equal to that of the Piano Concerti. If all his scores are difficult, then the Mazurkas are particularly so, as their intuitive, internal rhythm has tripped up many a virtuoso. There is a reason, after all, for a separate award category for Mazurka interpretation at the Chopin International Piano Competition – a prize so elusive, that on several occasions it was not awarded. Finally we come to the winemaking technique. All three of the pianists in this review are no amateurs and their technique can be vouched for by the international prizes they have garnered – Ingrid Fliter was a silver medalist of the 2000 Chopin Piano Competition, Janina Fialkowska won the inaugural 1974 Arthur Rubinstein competition and Alain Lefèvre scored a JUNO, Prix Opus and ten (That’s ten!) Prix Felix. So, how do they fare?

All three discs are a true delight – so any criticism that follows will be merely an exercise in splitting hairs.

03 Classical 03c Fliter ChopinIf I were to pick the weakest link, it would be the Argentine-born Ingrid Fliter. Though some would argue that hers is the finest technique of the three, her approach to Chopin is almost too conservative and because of that it seems fearful. No room for fear when playing Chopin – this is a counterphobe’s territory. I would also add that despite her triumph at the Warsaw competition, her recording pays the least homage to the actual terroir of the music. A notable exception is the “Raindrop” Prelude – possibly the best performance I have heard in years.

Lefèvre is fearless and bold, taking no prisoners in his approach and perhaps losing some clarity in the process. However, by leading with the heart, you cannot lose when playing Chopin.

Finally, Fialkowska is in fine form, proving once again that it is the combination of emotional presence, technique and experience or the grapes, terroir and winemaking, that delivers the stunning results. Hers is the crown of Mazurkas, those frustrating, intimidating gems that Schumann called “cannons under flowers” referring to their potent political message dressed as “small” piano pieces.

 

Tchaikovsky; Grieg – Piano Concertos - Stewart Goodyear; Czech National Symphony; Stanislav Bogunia

03 Classical 04 Goodyear ConcertosTchaikovsky; Grieg – Piano Concertos
Stewart Goodyear; Czech National Symphony; Stanislav Bogunia
Steinway & Sons Records 30035

These performances of the warhorses by Tchaikovsky and Grieg are on fire. There is an energy and passion from both the remarkable Stewart Goodyear and the incredible Czech National Symphony that makes this a must-listen-to CD for pianists. Goodyear speaks of the collaboration as “dancing” and the performances certainly weave long musical lines and pulsating shapes like dance choreography. I like the tempos in the Tchaikovsky concerto. Both pianist and orchestra refrained from romantic over-indulgence and kept the music flowing in grand, sweeping gestures. This concerto often suffers from affectations and egocentric playing. Goodyear’s impressive technique was used with integrity to interpret the music. He coaxed beautiful tone poems and colours from the piano. He embraced the lush harmonic worlds of Tchaikovsky and made the rhythms dance in balletic forms. His incisive articulation and trills that border on the phenomenal will keep listeners on the edge of their seats. The second movement sparkles effervescently at a quick tempo but the slower sections are tender and carefully nuanced. The concerto ends in a blaze of virtuosic display and fireworks from both piano and orchestra.

The Grieg concerto was impeccable. It sang in lyric colours and the ensemble between pianist and orchestra was exemplary. The tempos and timings breathed and evolved freely while creating naturally flowing phrases. The lyrical and sensitive second movement sang with luminous tone and expressiveness. The third movement was crisp and performed with scintillating precision.

It is so refreshing to hear these often over-done concertos played with such love, mastery and musical integrity. Bravo to Stewart Goodyear and the Czech National Symphony, as well as to Steinway for this excellent CD.

 


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