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

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

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


Six Transcriptions - Francis Colpron

02 Early 02 Six TranscriptionsSix Transcriptions
Francis Colpron
ATMA ACD2 2677

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

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

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


Handel – The Eight Great Suites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Paganini – 24 Capricci - Marina Piccinini

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Back to top