Doulce Mémoire - Margaret Little; Sylvain Bergeron

03 early 01 doulce memoireDoulce Mémoire
Margaret Little; Sylvain Bergeron
ATMA ACD2 2685

This CD explores the variation technique known as “diminutions,” a concept more commonly known as “divisions.” It is explained in the accompanying booklet: “Diminutions were made by dividing long notes of the melody into a series of shorter notes either surrounding the melody note or filling up the interval between it and the next melody note.” Many of these were based on madrigals, most famously Cipriano de Rore’s Ancor che col partire. Here the artists have chosen one set of variations, that by Ricardo Rogniono. The title of the CD refers to a different madrigal, Doulce Mémoire, by Pierre Sandrin. Here three sets of variations are played: by François de Layolle, Diego Ortiz and Vincenzo Bonizzi.

Although there are only two players, the recital gives us many different textures: of the 17 tracks, seven are for treble viol and archlute, six for bass viol and archlute, two for solo treble viol and two for solo archlute. The material is largely based on variations on 16th century madrigals, but it is complemented by selections from John Playford’s 1684 collection The Division Viol with its variations on popular English songs. No selection of variations would be even half complete without that most popular of songs, La Folia. Fittingly the CD ends with an anonymous set of variations based on that song.

Throughout the CD viol player Margaret Little and lutenist Sylvain Bergeron, are superb. I am always careful not to use superlatives too easily but these performances are truly out of this world.


Meine Seele – German Sacred Music

03 early 02 meine seeleMeine Seele – German Sacred Music
Matthew White; Tempo Rubato; Alexander Weimann
ATMA ACD2 2668

As the CD’s booklet reminds us, music was very important to Martin Luther. It was “a gift of God,” he wrote in 1530. It should be central to education: “A teacher must be able to sing; if not, I don’t think he’s any use.” Luther’s views account, at least in part, for the centrality of music in the Lutheran tradition. The tradition culminated with Johann Sebastian Bach, but he was able to build on at least a century of earlier music.

This recording begins with an early cantata by Bach (Widerstehe doch der Sünde) but then moves back into the 17th century (Heinrich Schütz, Franz Tunder, Johann Rosenmüller, Johann Michael Bach, Christoph Bernhard). It then returns to the early 18th century with the final work, a cantata by Philipp Heinrich Erlebach. The vocal works are complemented by instrumental pieces: a sinfonia by Tunder, extracts from a suite by Erlebach, a passacaglia for organ by Georg Muffat and a set of dances by Rosenmüller.

J.S. Bach, Schütz and Rosenmüller are the only composers here who are at all well known today. It is good to hear the religious music of other German composers of the Early Baroque, especially when sung by the countertenor Matthew White, who is a fine interpreter of this music. We used to hear him often in Toronto, with Tafelmusik or the Toronto Consort. Now his work centres on Montreal and Vancouver. I hope he will come back soon.


Mozart – Piano Concertos

04 classical 01b mozart fialkowska04 classical 01a mozart naganoMozart – Piano Concertos 12 & 13
Karin Kei Nagano; Cecilia String Quartet
Analekta AN 2 8765

Mozart – Piano Concertos 13 & 14
Janina Fialkowska; Chamber Players of Canada
ATMA ACD2 2532

The piano concertos featured on these two recordings may not be largely known to most audiences. After all, Mozart wrote 27 piano concertos and many later ones appear to be more dazzling and exciting. However, concertos Nos.12, 13 and 14 were written at the time when Mozart himself entered a very prosperous and exciting stage in his life; he had just moved to Vienna, thus acquiring more independence from his father, married Constanze Weber, and began developing entrepreneurial spirit by generating revenue from public performances and sales of his new compositions. These piano concertos, written in 1782 (Nos.12 and 13) and in 1784 (No.14), reflect the forward momentum of Mozart’s life as well as some nostalgic elements and a subtle homage to Johann Christian Bach and Joseph Haydn in the middle movements. In an attempt to promote his work, Mozart wrote two versions of these concertos: the orchestral version (strings and woodwinds), meant for concert halls, and the chamber one, making them more accessible to amateur musicians.

It is the more intimate, “a quattro” version that is presented on both recordings. The absence of the horns is arguably bothersome to some but it is my opinion that the chamber rendition offers nuance and clarity in phrasing that otherwise may not be heard and works just as well. Pianist Karin Kei Nagano and the Cecilia String Quartet dive into the intimate textures and colours by emphasizing the simplicity of Mozart’s music. Cecilia Quartet uses vibrato with the clear intention of enhancing the sound, making the phrasing appear fresh and exciting at times. Karin Kei Nagano brings youthfulness and certain sweetness to her interpretation – her notes are light, spirited and virtuosic in a very natural way.

The Chamber Players of Canada and Janina Fialkowska included the double bass in the string ensemble thus achieving a warmer overall sound. Fialkowska’s playing is fierce at times yet wonderfully lyrical. She does not shy away from darker piano colours in the concertos but emphasizes innocence and brightness in Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman. The string ensemble playing is intense and elegant. Eine kleine Nachtmusik has a reputation of being the party piece in the classical music world – the Chamber Players of Canada clearly enjoyed playing it and they did so with a high degree of stylishness.


Beethoven – Symphonies 1 & 7 - Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal; Kent Nagano

04 classical 02 beethoven naganoBeethoven – Symphonies 1 & 7
Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal; Kent Nagano
Analekta AN 2 9887

Conductor Kent Nagano leads the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM) in energetic and technically tight live performances of Beethoven Symphonies Nos.1 and 7 in this thought-provoking release.

Symphony No.1 is an early work where the compositional influences of late Haydn are combined with Beethoven’s precise and contrasting dynamics. In contrast, the later Symphony No. 7 is a robust rhythmic composition, as the liner notes state, “the theme of Joy in conjunction with that of Dance and dance rhythms arising from physical impulses consistently predominates.”

Both works are given thorough and invigorating interpretations. The musical and ensemble mastery of OSM is most evident in the faster sections, where Nagano’s appropriate choices of tempo create a sense of urgency without a feeling of rushing the beat. The orchestra shines in these sections, and it is a joy to listen to such crisp performances.

But it is the contrasts in dynamics that makes these performances stand out from the crowd. Nagano and the OSM seem to trust each other’s musical choices, as the louds, softs and in between volumes are succinct, colourful and result in energetically focused performances that are never exaggerated for effect.

Each performance ends with justifiable rousing applause from the audience. Combined with clear production, this is a recording to listen to, contemplate and appreciate as Nagano and the OSM offer a fresh and modern take on two Beethoven symphonic chestnuts!


Strings Attached - April 2014

terry 01 angele dubeauAngèle Dubeau and La Pietà are back with another CD of short contemporary works on BLANC (Analekta AN 2 8737), a disc very similar to her Silence, on joue! CD from two years ago. That the approach seems to work so much better this time is almost certainly due to the fact that BLANC celebrates Dubeau’s return after a year spent battling cancer. In the booklet notes, Dubeau says that during her battle, music brought her “comfort, tranquility and sometimes, an essential escape.” The album is the story of her fight against illness, and how she “…serenely, came out of it stronger.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, there is much more of a sense of program here, plus a real feeling of emotional involvement – and, indeed, of serenity and strength. There are 14 tracks on the CD, with Osvaldo Golijov’s Close Your Eyes, Adrian Munsey’s The Distance Between and Marjan Mozetich’s “Unfolding Sky,” from his Postcards from the Sky, sounding particularly beautiful. Cat Stevens’ Morning Has Broken and Mark O’Connor’s Appalachian Waltz are presented in lovely arrangements; there are two pieces by Dave Brubeck and one by Ennio Morricone. Also represented are Garry Schyman, Joe Hisaishi, François Dompierre, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Shawn Phillips.

Recorded at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music last November, the sound quality is warm and resonant. Part of the proceeds from sales of the CD will go to support the Quebec Breast Cancer Foundation.

terry 02 prokofiev jonathan crowToronto Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Jonathan Crow is joined by pianist Paul Stewart on Prokofiev’s Works for Violin and Piano, his latest CD on the ATMA Classique label (ACD2 2535). The recording was made in April 2008, though, when Crow was still concertmaster of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. The three works here – the Sonatas for Violin and Piano No.1 in F Minor and No.2 in D Major and the Five Melodies – were all also featured on the recent 2-CD release of Prokofiev’s complete works for violin by James Ehnes, reviewed in this column just two months ago.

There is a warmth and clarity to Crow’s playing, as well as a nice range of tonal colour. The Sonata No.1 in F Minor, by far the major work on the disc, is given a powerful reading, and the D major sonata, a transcription of Prokofiev’s light-hearted Flute Sonata, showcases the brightness of Crow’s playing. Stewart is an excellent partner, and there is strong but sensitive playing from both performers throughout an excellent disc.

The recording was made in the acoustically superb Salle Françoys-Bernier hall at Domaine Forget in Saint-Irénée, Québec.

terry 03 pfitznerSeveral of the CDs in the outstanding Hyperion series Romantic Violin Concertos – currently at Volume 15 – have been reviewed in previous editions of this column, but Volume 4 in the companion Romantic Cello Concerto series is the first I have received; it features concertos by the German composer Hans Pfitzner, who lived from 1869 to 1949 (CDA67906).

I have long known Pfitzner’s name in connection with his opera Palestrina, the work for which he is still mostly remembered, but it occurred to me that I couldn’t recall ever actually having heard any of his music. And what a loss that turns out to be, if the works on this revelatory CD are anything to go by. Pfitzner wrote three cello concertos: the Concerto in A Minor, Op.posth.,  is a student work from 1888 that was not performed in public until 1977; the Concertos in G major, Op.42 and A minor, Op.52, date from 1935 and 1943 respectively.

Don’t be put off by Pfitzner’s stern, dour face in his photographs: his music is firmly in the German late Romantic tradition of Brahms, Bruch and Humperdinck, and it really is gorgeous stuff – warm, rich, melodic, finely crafted, beautifully orchestrated, giving the soloist ample opportunity to display the instrument’s range and character.

The German cellist Alban Gerhardt is in his element here, and gets wonderful support from the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under Sebastien Weigle. Violinist Gergana Gergova joins Gerhardt for the Duo Op.43 for Violin, Cello and Small Orchestra, a delightful work from 1937 that brings a marvellous and beautifully-recorded CD to a close.

terry 04 beethoven isserlisYou’re always guaranteed a thought-provoking CD whenever cellist Steven Isserlis is the soloist, and his latest offering on Hyperion (CDA67981/2), a 2-CD set of the Beethoven Cello Sonatas (although Complete Works for Cello and Piano would be a more accurate title) is no exception.

There are many performer pairings to choose from in recordings of these works, of course, but what makes this particular set so interesting is Robert Levin’s accompaniment on a copy of an 1805 fortepiano. The works consequently have a quite different sound, with the reduced volume and sustainability giving the keyboard an almost harpsichord-like quality, especially with the left-hand Alberti bass patterns and the heavy, almost percussive, low left-hand octaves. While it might reduce the volume, however, it certainly doesn’t reduce the scale of these works, which span Beethoven’s early, middle and late periods. In fact, the keyboard sound perfectly complements and contrasts the dark, rich sound of Isserlis’ 1726 Stradivarius cello. And what a sound it is: sweet and clear in the higher register, but strong and forceful – almost rough – in the lower register.

CD1 has the two Op.5 sonatas and the A major Op.69; CD2 has the two Op.102 sonatas together with three sets of Variations – on See the conqu’ring hero comes from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus and on Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen and Bei Männern, welche Liebe fülen’ from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte – and Beethoven’s own transcription of his Op.17 Horn Sonata.

The performances are outstanding, bristling with character throughout. Add the usual terrific booklet notes by Isserlis himself, and the almost 80 minutes per disc, and it’s simply impossible to give this set anything but the highest recommendation.

terry 05 arensky triosBritain’s Leonore Piano Trio is outstanding in the two Arensky Piano Trios (Hyperion CDA68015). Anton Arensky’s Piano Trio No.1 in D minor Op.32 was written in 1894 and, in keeping with the commemorative nature of the piano trio form established by Tchaikovsky some 12 years earlier, was conceived as a memorial to the cellist Karl Davidoff, the director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory during Arensky’s student days there. The cello consequently has a very prominent part in the Trio.

Pianist Tim Horton sets the stage with a beautiful opening; violinist Benjamin Nabarro adds a warm, sweet tone, especially in the lower register; and cellist Gemma Rosefield’s passionate playing leaves nothing to be desired. The Piano Trio in F Minor Op.73 dates from the early 1900s, not long before Arensky’s death in 1906 and at a time when the composer was in poor health. It’s another terrific work, and one that draws more outstanding playing from the Leonore ensemble.

Among Arensky’s pupils in his harmony class at the Moscow Conservatory was Sergei Rachmaninov, and the latter’s Vocalise is presented here in an arrangement by Rachmaninov’s friend Julius Conus, who was also one of Arensky’s students at the Conservatory. Everything about this outstanding CD is just right: the works themselves; the great ensemble playing; the interpretations; the excellent dynamics and phrasing; and the real passion and sensitivity displayed throughout. Add the excellent balance and sound quality, and it’s a real winner.

Berlin-based Chinese violinist Ning Feng is a new name to me, but it clearly shouldn’t be; he’s been active at a very high level for the best part of 10 years, and his three previous CDs – two of them solo recitals – on the Channel Classics label were issued to great critical acclaim.

terry 06 ning fengHis latest offering on the same label pairs Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy with the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, with Yang Yang conducting the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (CCS SA 34913).

Ning has a bright, clear tone, and obviously finds no technical challenges in the music. He exhibits somewhat of a laid-back approach in the Bruch, avoiding any tendency to rush, but it does seem to be a bit emotionally detached at times. There’s the same approach in the Tchaikovsky, but with much better results. The sweet, singing tone is always present, but the constant feeling of holding back at the beginning of the faster, busy passages doesn’t halt the flow at all – in fact, it has just the opposite effect, allowing us to hear the details without a sense of rushing, and allowing the momentum to build naturally as the music progresses.

The recorded sound is fine, but the balance seems to be a bit strange at times; there are moments in the Bruch in particular when Ning seems to almost disappear.

terry 07 langaard quartetsI was delighted to see that Volume 2 of the outstanding series of the complete String Quartets by Danish composer Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) has been released (DACAPO 6.220576). Volume 1 was reviewed in depth in this column in July 2012, at which time I noted that Denmark’s Nightingale String Quartet was simply superb in the first volume of a series of all nine quartets by a composer described in the excellent booklet notes as an eccentric outsider who was virtually ignored by the Danish musical establishment in his lifetime.

Most of Langgaard’s string quartets were written in his youth, between 1914 and 1925. This second volume features three works from the Great War years: Rosengaardsspil (Rose Garden Play) from 1918 (in a world premiere recording), String Quartet in A-flat major from 1918, and String Quartet No.4 “Sommerdage” (Summer Days) from 1914-18, revised in 1931. All three quartets use material inspired by Langgaard’s unrequited love for a young girl he met in the summer of 1913 while on holiday with his parents in Sweden; the house they stayed in was called “The Rose Garden.”

Once again, the performances by the prize-winning all-female Nightingale Quartet are outstanding – warm, passionate, expressive, and displaying great ensemble playing. I ended the review of Volume 1 by saying: “Beautifully recorded at the Royal Danish Academy of Music and issued on Denmark’s national record label, these performances are as close to definitive as you can get. Wonderful stuff, and I can’t wait to hear the rest of the series.” Well, two volumes down and one to go, and I’m still just as enthusiastic!

Love and Loss – Monteverdi Madrigals - Arcangelo; Jonathan Cohen

03 early 01 monteverdi madrigalsLove and Loss – Monteverdi Madrigals
Arcangelo; Jonathan Cohen
Hyperion CDA68019

The works on this CD consist of a well-chosen selection from the last three books of madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi. The ensemble Arcangelo was founded in 2010 by the British conductor Jonathan Cohen. Its performances have been acclaimed and the group has issued six CDs, of which this is the latest. On this recording the group consists of six singers and twelve instrumentalists. They are joined by the tenor James Gilchrist, who, eloquently and movingly, narrates Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, a passage from Tasso’s La Gerusalemme liberata, in which the Christian knight Tancredi mistakenly kills his beloved. The record ends with the sestina, Lagrime d’amante al sepolcro dell’amata, written as a lament for the soprano Caterina Martinelli, who was to have sung the title role in Monteverdi’s Arianna but who died from smallpox when she was 18.

John Whenham, who contributes a fine essay, suggests that the ballet Volgendo il ciel may have been sent to Vienna in 1636 for the coronation of the new emperor. Halfway through, the score indicates that music for a dance is played, but Monteverdi did not write that music. On this recording a beautiful chaconne by Tarquinio Merula is added. That insertion works very well.

Perhaps the finest item on the record is the duet for two sopranos, Ohimè, dov’è il mio ben, beautifully sung by Katherine Watson and Anna Dennis. It is full of deliciously painful dissonances which are then slowly resolved.

These are all terrific performances.


Beethoven – Piano Sonatas Opp.22; 31/3; 101 - Angela Hewitt

04 classical 01 beethoven hewittBeethoven – Piano Sonatas Opp.22; 31/3; 101
Angela Hewitt
Hyperion CDA67974

It’s no surprise that accomplished musicians develop such acute discernment of their composers’ muses. One simply comes to expect that ongoing intimacy with the creative utterances of someone like Beethoven will produce a deep and evolving understanding of how the music must be played. It transcends academic debate and argument about historical authenticity. It’s a conviction that doesn’t waver. It’s just “right.”

Hewitt plays three sonatas which offer a historical progression clearly marked by Beethoven’s evolving compositional form and musical language over 17 years. The unmistakable echoes of Haydn and Mozart, the classical turns of phrase and stylistic ornaments place the Op.22 solidly at the end of the 18th century. But by the time we hear the Op.101 there are serious rumblings in the depths and a hint of recklessness that we have come to recognize as the Beethoven of the fifth and ninth symphonies.

It must, however, be tempting to take the classical bait of the early work and play it as though we need to be reminded that Haydn and Mozart are standing behind us. Hewitt in fact does the opposite. With appropriate recognition of the classical architecture, Hewitt unleashes the spirit of the young Beethoven and shows us how the composer at mid-life has already seen his destiny. There is no mistaking the volcanic potential of this pen when it meets manuscript. Major keys and scherzos notwithstanding, this young composer is already shaking his fist at the universe.

Concert Note: Angela Hewitt is featured in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with the Toronto Symphony on March 20 and 22 at Roy Thomson Hall.

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