Early, Classical and Beyond
The ensemble features the three Czech brothers Ondrej and Roman Janoska on violin and František Janoska at the piano, with their Hungarian brother-in-law Julius Darvas on double bass. All four musicians had significant independent careers in Vienna before deciding to concentrate on their own music with the Janoska Ensemble in 2013. They combine salon style, gypsy music, jazz and improvisation and bravura cadenzas in virtuosic arrangements that leave you short of breath and scrambling for words to describe them.
From the opening Die Fledermaus Overture à la Janoska, which morphs into a frenetic gypsy version of Those Were the Days, through reworkings of Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie, Massenet’s Thaïs Meditation, Paganini’s Caprice No.24 to Piazzolla’s Adiós Nonino, this is musical imagination, vision and virtuosity of the highest order.
We’re never asked to choose a CD of the Year, but if we were then this would undoubtedly be mine.
Overtures to Bach is the latest CD from the cellist Matt Haimovitz on the Pentatone Oxingale Series label (PTC 5186 561). It’s yet another tour-de-force solo recital of Bach and Bach-inspired contemporary works from this outstanding performer.
Haimovitz’s continuing relationship with the Bach Cello Suites stretches back over a period of more than 30 years, and in this latest venture – which he calls a culminating moment in the relationship – he has commissioned six new overtures that reflect on and anticipate the six individual suites and, by expanding on the cross-cultural and vernacular references in Bach’s music, reach both forward and backward in time. Each new piece is followed by the Prelude to the relevant Suite. The new works, in Suite order, are: Overture by Philip Glass; The Veronica, by Du Yun; Run, by Vijay Iyer; La memoria, by Roberto Sierra; Es War, by David Sanford; and Lili’uokalani for solo cello piccolo by Luna Pearl Woolf.
Haimovitz is superb in the wide range of technical challenges presented by the new works, and is as thoughtful and inquisitive as ever in the Bach Preludes. It’s a simply outstanding CD.
When I saw the title of the new 2-CD set from the Chiara String Quartet – Bartók by Heart (Azica ACD-71310) I couldn’t believe my eyes. Surely it didn’t mean that they were performing all six of the Bartók quartets from memory? Well, yes it did, and yes they were.
I don’t think you necessarily have to be a string player to be able to appreciate the simply staggering nature of such a challenge, but anyone who has ever played in a string quartet will know exactly what is involved here – you don’t simply have to remember your own part, but also everybody else’s part to a large extent so that the complete picture is always present in your mind. And these are six works of huge complexity and technical difficulty.
It’s important, though, to move beyond the astonishing magnitude of the feat itself to the musical and emotional result, and the level of the performances here more than repays the effort involved. Interestingly, the quartet members feel that memorizing the music made the more difficult passages easier to play, and that the process took the music back to the aural tradition from which Bartók drew his initial influences.
One thing is certain: in a fiercely competitive field there isn’t another Bartók set quite like this one.
The outstanding American violinist Jennifer Koh, who has produced a string of terrific CDs for the Cedille label featuring contemporary compositions, returns to the standard repertoire for her latest release, Tchaikovsky Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra, with Alexander Vedernikov conducting the Odense Symphony Orchestra (CDR 90000 166). The trademark Koh intelligence and sensitivity in programming is still there, however: Vedernikov was the conductor when the 15-year-old Koh played the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major Op.35 in the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians in 1992, the same year in which she first played with the Odense Symphony, and in 2011 all three performed together for the first time.
Koh admits to possibly being more patient in the concerto after all these years, and there is certainly never any sense of rushing in what is a carefully measured and highly lyrical performance. There aren’t quite the fireworks that you’ll find in some recordings, perhaps, but that doesn’t in any way diminish the interpretation here – it’s a thoughtful, personal statement from a player with impeccable technique.
Tchaikovsky’s works for violin and orchestra all date from the years 1875-78. The Sérénade melancolique in B Minor Op.26 from 1875 and the Valse-Scherzo in C Major Op.34 from 1877 open the disc, with the 1878 concerto as the central work; the Glazunov orchestration of the three-piece Souvenir d’un lieu cher Op.42, also from 1878, completes a highly satisfying CD.
Another outstanding American musician, cellist Zuill Bailey, features on two new CDs.
On Arpeggione (Azica ACD-71306) he teams with guitarist and composer David Leisner in a recital that includes Schubert’s Sonata in A Minor (Arpeggione) D821, de Falla’s Siete Canciones Populares Españolas and the world premiere recording of Leisner’s own Twilight Streams. Short pieces by Gluck, Saint-Saëns and Villa-Lobos fill out a CD that ends with an astonishing transcription of a virtuosic violin piece by Paganini – the Variations on One String on a Theme from Rossini’s Moses.
Terrific technique and warm tone from both players make this a charming disc. All of the arrangements other than the Villa-Lobos are by Leisner.
On Reimagined: Schumann & Beethoven for Cello Quintet (Sono Luminus DSL-92204) Zuill Bailey joins the Ying Quartet in arrangements of the Schumann Cello Concerto in A Minor Op.129 and Beethoven’s Sonata No.9 for Violin and Piano Op.47 “Kreutzer.” The Schumann arrangement is by the performers; the Beethoven is an anonymous arrangement from 1832.
The Schumann works well, but the revelation here is the “Kreutzer” Sonata. The absence of a piano makes for a completely different opening, for starters, but the entire work comes across not just as a transcription or arrangement but as a new Beethoven string quintet – and a stunning one at that. It makes you realize and appreciate the sheer depth and strength of the original sonata.
The playing is outstanding throughout a quite fascinating and thought-provoking CD.
Having first recorded the Brahms Violin Sonatas in a 2002 live performance, violinist Christian Tetzlaff and his regular collaborator pianist Lars Vogt have revisited them after 14 years as they feel that their growth as a duo has resulted in their having more to say (Ondine ODE 1284-2). I’ve never heard the 2002 CD, but this latest issue provides ample proof that the duo does indeed have a great deal to say in these immensely popular works.
The opening of the Sonata No.1 in G Major Op.78 is simply lovely, and the beautiful playing that follows evokes all the usual Brahms descriptive terms – it’s warm, gentle, expansive and autumnal in feel. The Sonata No.2 in A Major Op.100 is equally lovely, and there is plenty of fire in the Sonata No.3 in D Minor Op.108.
Brahms’ contribution to the F.A.E. Sonata, the Scherzo WoO 2 completes the disc. The playing from both performers throughout is rhapsodic, passionate and nuanced, with an excellent dynamic range and a simply lovely recorded sound. This is one revisit that is quite clearly well worth the trip.
There’s more lovely duo playing on Prokofiev Music for Violin and Piano, the debut duo CD by violinist Jameson Cooper and pianist Ketevan Badridze issued on the Afinat Records label (AR1601) in celebration of the 125th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The English-born Cooper has long been active in the United States, and is the first violinist with the Euclid Quartet in residence at Indiana University South Bend, where Badridze is also on the faculty as a senior lecturer.
It’s a CD that certainly makes a lovely birthday present, with outstanding playing of the three works on the program: the Five Melodies Op.35bis; the Violin Sonata No.1 in F Minor Op.80; and the Violin Sonata No.2 in D Major Op.94bis. Both performers are in great form, with their outstanding techniques allowing them to explore the emotional depths of the dark and intensely personal F Minor sonata in particular.
Cooper and Badridze have some top competition in this field – I’ve reviewed similar CDs by Viktoria Mullova, Alina Ibragimova, Jonathan Crow and James Ehnes in the last few years – but this is a disc that can more than hold its own. Cooper’s insightful and perceptive booklet notes complete a terrific package.
The 23-year-old American violinist Caroline Goulding teams with pianist Danae Dörken on her debut CD of music by Georges Enescu, Antonín Dvořák and Robert Schumann (Ars Produktion ARS 8536).
The choice for the opening work on the disc, Enescu’s Impressions d’enfance Op.28, is a surprising but strikingly successful one. This simply astonishing suite that traces the course of a child’s day is not what you would expect on a debut disc, but it provides a wonderful palette for violinists to display their range of tone colour as well as their technique, and Goulding takes full advantage of it.
There is something pleasingly old-fashioned about Goulding’s playing in some respects, with its big warm tone and vibrato and her judicial use of portamento. The Dvořák Romantische Stücke Op.75 benefits greatly from this in a lovely performance, and there is more nice playing from both performers in Schumann’s Violin Sonata No.2 in D Minor Op.121.
All in all, an excellent debut CD from a definite talent.
Maximilian Hornung is the soloist in the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra by the American composer Samuel Adler (b.1928) on the CD José Serebrier conducts Samuel Adler (Linn CKD545); Serebrier also conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in Adler’s Symphony No.6.
The concerto is a strong four-movement work written for the Cleveland Orchestra and its principal cellist Stephen Geber almost 30 years ago, when Adler was a professor at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. The movements strike a lovely balance between slow, lyrical writing for the cello and rhythmically strong up-tempo passages that show a fair bit of jazz influence.
The symphony is perhaps the more significant recording here. It was written in 1984-85 for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and their conductor David Zinman, but Zinman left the orchestra before the work could be scheduled. This recording is the premiere performance of the symphony as well as the first recording.
It’s a powerful three-movement work with a simply explosive start and a slow, expressive middle movement between two fast outer movements. The orchestration has a distinctively American feel, with more than the occasional hint of Leonard Bernstein, especially in the handling of the percussion and the rhythmic writing.
The short orchestral tone poem Drifting On Winds And Currents concludes an impressive CD.
The Silver-Garburg duo performs wonderfully throughout this work always using the well-placed quieter moments of repose as contrast against the wilder passages. They understand it completely and play with a commitment to making an emotional impact no less powerful than the larger orchestral score.
Petrouchka also exists as a piano duet by Stravinsky. He finished it just as he began The Rite of Spring in 1911. The duo performs it beautifully. They play with exceptional unity and control especially through the long mystical pauses and speed changes of Petrouchka’s Room. Their crisp, energetic staccatos make Russian Dance a track worth hearing more than once. The disc’s closing track, The Mummers is a brilliant display of speed and technique, and a terrific ending to this recording of two of Stravinsky’s most admired compositions.
Shortly after winning the 2013 Cincinnati World Piano Competition, Marianna Prjevalskaya recorded Marianna Prjevalskaya plays Rachmaninoff, Variations on Themes by Chopin and Corelli (Fanfare Cincinnati FC-008). The works are big and sit 30 years apart in Rachmaninoff’s oeuvre. The earlier set of variations on the theme of Chopin’s Prelude in C Minor Op.28 dates from 1902. Prjevalskaya plays these 22 pieces capturing all the references to Chopin’s language as well as the early hints of Rachmaninoff’s growing penchant for large-scale orchestral statements, even if only from a keyboard. There’s a lot of emotional variety in this set, with retrospective glances at the Baroque and Classical. But Prjevalskaya ensures that we never lose sight of the essential Russian-ness of the composition. The concluding variation, Maestoso, embodies this in its larger-than-life declaration of Chopin’s idea as towering chords of Russian pianism.
Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op.42 shows us a different composer. Prjevalskaya knows this, and plays with a focus on Rachmaninoff’s more modern vocabulary. She uses his rhythmically irregular figures and unexpected harmonic shifts to present the mature composer writing his last solo piano work. Her approach is less academic than the earlier set and far more a full concert piece that asks to be considered as a whole. It’s for this reason that we hear more clearly the Rachmaninoff of the piano concertos, his melodic voice and rich harmonic palette. Imagine hearing the premiere performed by the composer in Montreal in 1931.
Film music is a reliable audience pleaser for orchestras, and people never seem to tire of the great themes that slumber in the soundtracks of so many half-forgotten films. Since its early role as accompaniment to films, the piano has receded into more of a concerto relationship with orchestral film music. Still, many a good theme falls to the keyboard, and Love Story, Piano Themes from Cinema’s Golden Age (Decca 4789454) collects some of film’s most beautiful music for this instrumental combination.
The screen seems to require composers to write in a way that gives immediate access to emotion and drama. Valentina Lisitsa, whose controversial public stance on the turmoil in Ukraine compelled the Toronto Symphony to cancel her 2015 concerts, appears on this disc as the pianist. Her performance of these screen works with the BBC Concert Orchestra is superb. She brings all the requisite concert technique and expression to the service of the score. It’s all intensely Romantic and very lush, graphic music. You can almost smell the popcorn.
There’s a surprisingly conservative Classic/Romantic tradition to these scores. Richard Adinsell’s Warsaw Concerto is the best example of this. Hubert Bath’s Cornish Rhapsody from Love Story (1944) sounds remarkably like Rachmaninoff, while Nino Rota reveals his own voice in The Legend of Glass Mountain (1949). A delightfully unusual track is Dave Grusin’s New Hampshire Hornpipe from On Golden Pond (1981). Here Lisitsa, without orchestra, creates the convincing atmosphere of an early New England folk dance.
The title music from the 1985 TV series Pride and Prejudice, with its period feel, is an artful work by composer Carl Davis. Lisitsa takes her solo moments in this as though they were short solos in Mozart piano concertos. Pure delight.
This unusual recording Keys to the City – The Great New York Pianists Perform the Great New York Songs (Roven Records RR99999) is a celebration of the Big Apple’s music by its own musicians. As an added treat, the liner notes have the pianists writing about each other. Glen Roven writes about Dick Hyman, Hyman about Frank Owens, Billy Stritch about Paul Shaffer and so on. It’s a wonderful gathering of performers who admire each other’s contribution to the New York keyboard scene.
A few highlights from the playlist include Axel Tosca playing Take the “A” Train with a strong Latin feel that works surprisingly well, Dick Hyman playing 42nd Street, and Frank Owens performing Lullaby of Broadway with a distinctly Gershwinesque feel. There’s also Glen Roven playing 55th Street Bop in a trio for piano, violin and cello.
The bonus track on this disc has pianist, conductor and teacher Leon Fleisher performing Earl Wild’s arrangement of Gershwin’s The Man I Love. He plays it entirely with the left hand, a reminder of the rare condition he suffered, causing him the loss of his right hand for performance.
Pianist Ian Gindes is a commissioned officer in the US National Guard. His pride in the distinctive language of American music is evident throughout the tracks of American Visions (Centaur CRC 3476). More than half the disc is music by Aaron Copland whose Four Piano Blues No.3 opens the program with a tender and haunting tribute to pianist William Kapell. Gindes establishes his credible interpretive abilities in this quiet and muted piece.
He next explodes into Copland’s Rodeo where Buckaroo Holiday and Hoe-down are crisp, powerful and highly energized. Saturday Night Waltz is often played more pensively but Gindes’ approach is entirely consistent with the rest of the suite and works well.
Our Town is Copland’s music to Wilder’s play. It’s less idiomatic than Rodeo and Gindes’ approach reflects the composer’s focus on the atmospheric, emotional narrative. Gone here is the big Copland piano sound of Rodeo. In its place is a deeply quiet introspection delivered by sparse writing and measured playing. Gindes proves to be a superb Copland interpreter.
A couple of fun tracks follow. Études by Earl Wild on Gershwin’s Fascinatin’ Rhythm and Embraceable You are demonstrably virtuosic. Stephen Hough’s equally brilliant arrangements of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s My Favourite Things and Carousel Waltz give Gindes another chance to show his mastery of the keyboard.
The final track is a live recording of Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever for two pianos, eight hands in which Gindes is joined by Tatiana Shustova, Jiafang Yan and Jing Hao. Rousing from start to finish!
Irish-born John Field (1782-1837) was a composer of a modest body of works. Despite their relative neglect, they are exquisitely crafted for any pianist who makes the effort to understand their composer. Benjamin Frith in John Field – Piano Concerto No.7; Irish Concerto with the Northern Sinfonia; David Haslam (Naxos 8.573262), shows Field’s language to have many elements that are antecedents of phrasings and figures we hear in the music of Chopin and Liszt, who both attended the 1832 Paris premiere of the Concerto No.7. It makes for curious listening as Beethoven- and Schubert-like elements also occur. Still, there’s no doubt Field evolved his own voice. He rejected the current trend for virtuosic exhibition, instead favouring nuance and subtlety in his writing and playing. Frith captures these hallmarks of Field’s music. He is generous with his pauses and capably exploits every opportunity to create contrast and interest in Field’s ideas.
Frith is especially engaging in the Irish Concerto, where his gentle touch matches the beauty of Field’s numerous and ornate melodies. This is lovely material and Frith lets not a single note escape his affectionate attention.
The Piano Sonata No.4 in B Major has a frequent early Classical feel and Frith plays it with balanced Mozartian sensibility. Here too there is an ever present lightness to Field’s music that uses none of the turmoil or bombast of some of his contemporaries.
This Naxos disc brings together recordings from 1996, 2013 and 2014. Production values have remained wonderfully consistent over the years and the spread in performance dates is not evident without reading the notes.
Here’s a terrific video production of a concert featuring familiar and impressive names: Chung, Argerich, Angelich: Live at the Theatre Antique d’Orange, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, BelAir Classics (BAC132). The first-century Roman amphitheatre is packed with an eager audience. Myung-Whun Chung conducts one of Europe’s finest orchestras. And a statue of Caesar looks down on them all as they open the concert with Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture.
The pianistic treat on the program is Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in D Minor. Martha Argerich and Nicholas Angelich are at their respective Steinways. The whole thing is impeccably played and presented. Clever production offers occasional split screen views of both keyboards in action. Chung conducts the entire evening without a score. He joins the two pianists at a single keyboard to play Rachmaninoff’s Romance for Six Hands in A Major. It’s a bit harmonically thick at times but it’s Rachmaninoff and everyone’s having so much fun. Also on the DVD is Saint-Saëns’ Organ Concerto and a blowout encore that brings the audience to its feet.
Schubert’s string quartet Death and the Maiden has seen a couple of larger reworkings. Mahler set it for string orchestra and John Foulds for full symphony orchestra. In Franz Schubert, The Unauthorized Piano Duos, vol. 3 (Divine Art dda 25125) duo pianists Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow give us the recording premiere of this 1878 arrangement by Robert Franz.
Franz has arranged the quartet beautifully with part distribution balanced across the keyboard. He uses the added advantage of adding inner harmonies not available to the original four string instruments. Goldstone and Clemmow play fully pianistically using everything the piano can offer. It gives the feeling of the quartet being a rather large duo piano sonata and is completely believable.
The second movement theme and variations on the title Lied is wonderfully played. The third movement theme gets added punch from the piano’s powerful bass register. Goldstone and Clemmow play an impressive final movement never showing the strain that Schubert’s relentless tempo imposes.
This disc also offers the Unfinished Symphony in an arrangement by Hüttenbrenner, to which Goldstone has added his completed version of the Scherzo and Trio, using Schubert’s sketches. Goldstone also adapts a fourth movement finale using the Entr’acte from Rosamunde D.797.
With his Symphony No.9, Beethoven introduced a whole new compositional territory into the musical world of Vienna. From its 1824 premiere, this work not only influenced several generations of symphonic composers but also became the symbol of victory for humanity. The struggle and rise of man (on both personal and universal levels), so powerful in this symphony and unlike anything heard before it, has produced a wide array of interpretations and recordings. Many argue passionately which one is the best. A few of the notable ones definitely include Karajan’s version from 1962, Bernstein’s from 1989 and the recording by Gardiner in 1994 on period instruments.
So it is in this good company that Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra offers its own dynamic interpretation under the direction of Bruno Weil. Recorded at live concerts at Koerner Hall in Toronto in February 2016, the album holds the animated energy of a live performance. I enjoyed the precise and light articulation of the period instruments in the second movement and slightly subdued colours and the beautiful swelling of the third movement phrases. But make no mistake – Tafelmusik sounds just as powerful as any contemporary symphony orchestra. It builds the momentum of the emotional narrative with conviction, starting from the solemn D Minor theme of the first movement all the way to the jubilant ending of the fourth in D Major. Tafelmusik Chamber Choir and soloists – Sigrid Plundrich, Mary-Ellen Nesi, Colin Balzer and Simon Tischler – are all superb in bringing out the purity and drama of Beethoven’s music.
This flute-piano debut recording features Minnesota-based recitalists Linda Chatterton and Matthew McCright in a Paris-themed program. The disc is a timely tribute to the City of Light in these terrorist-plagued times. Flutist Linda Chatterton has ably transcribed and performed Saint-Saëns’ four-movement Sonata in D Minor for Violin and Piano (1885). I am captivated by her variations of colour and mood and her brilliant technique. Pianist Matthew McCright is right with her in ensemble and in creating appealing textures, as in the contrast-filled opening movement. I like the duo’s melodic interplay in the second movement and their light, spiky texture in the waltz-like third. In the hair-raising finale, dynamics are balanced beautifully.
Yuko Uebayashi was born in Japan; her Paris residency is apparent in Sonate (2003), stylistically reminiscent of early-20th-century French music. She has integrated influences from Japan convincingly, for example, in the slow third movement’s pentatonic passages and melodic fourths and fifths. The piece displays exquisite tone colours and textures, idiomatic and expressive instrumental writing, and a sure sense of style. The Chatterton-McCright Duo’s reading of Prokofiev’s Sonata in D Major (1943; later transcribed for violin and piano) is notable for lightness and clarity suggesting the work’s playful, perhaps toy-like aspects. I appreciate their avoidance of over-interpretation and of the vulgar, aggressive sound some duos bring to the finale. Overall a fine, thoughtful program and a duo I hope to hear from again!
Any time that I hear of a new release from the Canadian Brass I wonder what about this CD will set it apart from any other release of theirs. Every time there is something new and different. I could say that this CD is perhaps their biggest step yet. When they first hit the local scene over 40 years ago, brass quintets were almost an oddity and didn’t have the respect that string or woodwind chamber groups enjoyed. How that has changed. The Canadian Brass is now one of the world’s pre-eminent chamber music ensembles. This CD, Perfect Landing, establishes their versatility in a wide variety of genres. For this project they are joined by their former trumpet player, Brandon Ridenour, on harpsichord.
What better way to start than with Bach. The CD opens with a short harpsichord cadenza based on Brandenburg Concerto No.5 and then shifts into the fiendishly difficult third movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No.2 featuring the piccolo trumpet of Caleb Hudson. Then it’s Mozart’s “Spring” Quartet K387 where all members of the ensemble have an opportunity to demonstrate their skills. Having demonstrated their skills in that genre, with the help of arrangements by Luther Henderson, they demonstrate that Bach’s music still has a place in this era with Dixie Bach, Cool Bach and Bebop Bach. There are also a few fine Latin numbers. Perhaps the most outstanding of these is El Relicario which takes the listener through an amazing range of musical skills and emotions. This CD truly has made a Perfect Landing. It will certainly continue to entertain and amaze me in the days and months ahead.
Although Chailly chose to leave the orchestra this past June (with no acrimony) it’s clear from these performances that he had a close relationship with the players; his warmth and sensitivity, and the ease with which he communicates, are there for all to see. He also clearly enjoys a similar relationship with Znaider, a big man with a big tone and big technique to match.
The Mendelssohn was recorded in September 2012 and the Beethoven in October 2014, but there is no discernable difference in the quality of the recordings. There is perhaps a slightly different feel to the earlier performance, with some different camera angles and slightly fewer cuts to individual orchestra players at appropriate moments, but the direction for both concerts is unobtrusive and never distracting, with excellent coverage of both Znaider and Chailly.
The performances are quite outstanding, with Znaider in great form and drawing a wonderful sound from the Stradivarius violin once played by Fritz Kreisler; it’s a magnificent instrument, and perfectly suited to Znaider’s playing.
Each performance is followed by a Bach encore, the Beethoven by the Sarabande from the Partita No.1 in B Minor and the Mendelssohn by the Sarabande from the Partita No.2 in D Minor.
There’s more superb violin playing on Sibelius Glazunov Violin Concertos, the debut Deutsche Grammophon CD by the young American-Korean violinist Esther Yoo with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (DG40130).
Still only 22, Yoo was 16 when she became the youngest-ever prize winner at the International Sibelius Competition in 2010, and two years later was one of the youngest-ever prize winners at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. In 2014 she was a soloist on the Philharmonia Orchestra’s tour of South America under Ashkenazy; the recordings here, however, predate that tour, having been made in October 2013 and May 2014.
Like Znaider, Yoo plays on a magnificent Stradivarius instrument, this time the 1704 “Prince Obolensky” violin, and, also like Znaider, has outstanding technique and a wonderful tone. The Glazunov Concerto in A Minor Op.82 gets a ravishingly beautiful performance here, as does the Sibelius Concerto in D Minor Op.47, with Ashkenazy finding some subtle and often unheard nuances in an exceptional orchestral accompaniment.
Two smaller works for violin and orchestra complete the CD. Sibelius’ Suite for Violin and Strings JS185/Op.117 from 1929 was the last concertante work he completed, although it lay undiscovered until the 1980s and was not published until 1995. The titles of the three short movements (in English in the manuscript) reflect the composer’s popularity in Great Britain: Country Scenery; Serenade – Evening in Spring; and In the Summer.
Glazunov’s Grand Adagio is taken from his Op.57 ballet Raymonda from 1898, and depicts the rapturous dance of the two lovers at the centre of the story. It’s a lovely end to a simply stunning debut.
Concert Note: Esther Yoo makes her Toronto debut with the TSO on October 8 and 9 playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto at Roy Thomson Hall.
The Russian duo of violinist Roman Mints and pianist Katya Apekisheva are the performers on an outstanding 2CD set of Works for Violin and Piano by the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (quartz QTZ2116).
Mints grew up with Schnittke’s music, and feels that it frequently illustrates “even too accurately the life we lived back then” in the former Soviet Union. He performed all of Schnittke’s music for violin and piano in a concert at the Moscow Conservatory several years ago, and this new recording is essentially a reconstruction of that concert program.
Mints plays the three sonatas in reverse order – going “from death to life rather than the other way round” – because of the cheerless and oppressive nature of the Sonata No.3. It was written in 1994 after Schnittke had suffered several severe strokes, and the score is consequently extremely bare. The Sonata No.1 was written during the composer’s 12-tone serialism period and has more than an echo of Berg and Shostakovich.
The Sonata No.2 “Quasi una Sonata” is a technically challenging work with a striking opening and equally striking ending. There are percussive piano hammer chords, huge silences, tonal and atonal passages, structured and aleatoric sections, some stunning piano textures and extended violin techniques; and an ending where 46 consecutive identical piano chords crash into dissonance, leaving the unaccompanied violin to take the sonata to its close. It’s a simply astonishing piece that feels like the emotional centre of the recital.
The Suite in Old Style, five short pieces drawn from Schnittke’s numerous film scores and presented here in an arrangement for viola d’amore, harpsichord and percussion, could hardly be more different, the central Minuet having a distinct Harry Potter flavour.
Three short pieces round out the recital: the Congratulatory Rondo written for the first violinist of the Borodin Quartet; the brief but somewhat grotesque Polka from the incidental music for a stage play; and Stille Nacht, a startlingly eerie arrangement of Franz Gruber’s carol Silent Night. The latter, written as a Christmas greeting for Gidon Kremer, has a growing dissonance in the violin and an increasingly ominous low off-key bass pedal note in the piano, the piece ending with a low Shostakovich-like violin figure that sounds like a distant air raid warning. This night may well be silent, but it’s filled with an air of apprehension and unease.
The English composer and violist Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) may well be little known to the general music public – let alone the public in general – but viola players have long known her qualities and her contributions to their repertoire and will no doubt welcome the new CD Rebecca Clarke Works for Viola, featuring the Duo Rùnya of violist Diana Bonatesta and pianist Arianna Bonatesta (ÆVA Æ16008).
Clarke settled in the United States in the early 1940s and stopped composing after marrying the pianist James Friskin in 1944. Her music was largely forgotten until 1976, when a radio broadcast celebrating her 90th birthday revived interest in it; even so, much of her music remains unpublished.
As a professional viola player, a large amount of Clarke’s music was written for her own use. The CD opens with the substantial Viola Sonata from 1919, a beautiful work with hints of Debussy and other contemporaries that has remained part of the standard viola repertoire since its publication in 1921. Morpheus, her first major work for the instrument, was written in 1918.
Six shorter individual works for viola and piano are mostly from the 1909 to 1925 period, and violinist Gabriele Campagna joins the Duo for the final track, the Dumka for violin, viola and piano from 1941.
Diana Bonatesta has a big, warm tone and plays beautifully throughout a really lovely CD.
The contemporary English composer Colin Matthews, who turned 70 earlier this year, is celebrated with the CD Violin Concerto on the label he founded, although the CD also features his Cello Concerto No.2 and the orchestral work Cortège (NMC D227).
Matthews is a prominent figure on the English scene, having worked with Benjamin Britten, Imogen Holst and Deryck Cooke in the 1970s and having been associate composer with the London Symphony Orchestra in the 1990s and the Hallé Orchestra in the 2000s. He is currently professor of composition at the Royal College of Music.
There are no new recordings here. The Violin Concerto is a two-movement work written for Leila Josefowicz between 2007 and 2009, with this performance a live recording of a BBC Proms concert at Royal Albert Hall on July 28, 2010; Josefowicz is the soloist with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Oliver Knussen. It’s a fine work with some beautiful solo writing and constantly changing speeds and textures, and an orchestral accompaniment in the opening section that is highly reminiscent of Alban Berg.
The Cello Concerto No.2 is heard here in another BBC recording, this time made in April 2002 and featuring cellist Anssi Karttunen, with Rumon Gamba leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It was written between 1994 and 1996 for Mstislav Rostropovich, and consists of five short movements played without a break.
Cortège is a decidedly dark single-movement work for large orchestra dating from 1988, played here by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly in a recording made at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, in December 1998.
Performances throughout are top-notch in a CD that is a fine birthday tribute to a significant musical personality.
Beethoven: The Early String Quartets (AVIE AV2348) is a 2CD set of the Opus 18 quartets by the Cypress String Quartet that not only completes their recording of the complete cycle but also marks their final season; after 20 years together the quartet disbanded after a concert in San Francisco on June 26. Their 2012 self-released recordings of the late quartets have also been reissued as a 3CD set alongside this new issue; their recording of the middle quartets was released on AVIE Records in 2014.
This is the only volume of the series that I have heard, and it really made me want to listen to the others, especially to see what the ensemble does with the late quartets. The playing here never lacks bite and intensity when it’s needed, but there’s an overall sensitivity and thoughtfulness which is very appealing; this is refined playing, but never superficial. It’s also very strong rhythmically, particularly in the tricky start to the Presto final movement of the Op.18 No.3 D Major quartet, which can so easily be quite ambiguous without a clearly defined pulse.
I’ve had the occasional cello ensemble CD over the past year or so, but nothing that approaches the sheer size of the Chicago area Northwestern University Cello Ensemble under their director Hans Jørgen Jensen on their new CD Shadow, Echo, Memory (Sono Luminus SLE-70004).
In May 2013 Jensen, Northwestern’s cello professor, brought together an ensemble of Northwestern students, Chicago-area high school cellists and Northwestern alumni (several of whom are now active in major U.S. symphony orchestras and music schools) to record the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. This memorable event, with over 50 cellists participating, led to the continuation of the project and the decision to record this debut album, although the remaining tracks here feature ensembles comprising from eight to 23 cellos.
The works range from Fauré’s Après un rêve (1878) and Rachmaninov’s Vocalise (1915) through Ligeti’s 1966 Lux Aeterna to four 21st-century works: Zachary Wadsworth’s Three Lacquer Prints (2012/14); Hans Thomalla’s Intermezzo (2011); Aaron Jay Kernis’ Ballad (2004); and the 2014 title track by the Canadian composer and Northwestern ensemble member Michael van der Sloot.
Finally, the full ensemble is joined by six basses and a harp in the original 2013 recording of the Mahler Adagietto, providing a lovely ending to a CD full of sonic depth and richness.
Two cellos may not have much chance of sounding like 50, but in the hands of Jacques Offenbach, himself a virtuoso cellist, they can still sound like a small ensemble. Paul Christopher and Milovan Paz are the cellists in Offenbach Cello Duets Op.54, #1-3, The Gift – Wrapping! (Human Metronome HMP 106-2016), the fifth and final CD in their complete recording of the six books of duets of increasing difficulty that comprise the Cours méthodique de duos pour deux violoncelles Opp.49-54.
The Op.54 duets rank as Trés Difficiles (or “formidably difficult” in Christopher’s words) with extensive double and triple stops over the entire range of positions and challenges that include rapid scale work, large jumps in pitch, arpeggios, octaves and extremely high tessitura. Christopher and Paz surmount them all with ease and are clearly having a great time in doing so.
Don’t be fooled by the apparent pedagogical nature of the Method’s title; Offenbach is best known for his operettas, and his gift for melody is evident throughout these delightful duets. In Christopher’s opinion they transcend their original purpose and are the high water mark for the cello duets genre, and given the evidence here it’s difficult to disagree with him.
The young Venezuelan-American cellist Carmine Miranda is the soloist on a terrific CD of the Schumann and Dvořák Concerti for Cello & Orchestra with the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Petr Vronský (Navona Records NV6034).
Composed in October 1850, the Schumann Cello Concerto in A Minor Op.129 has been given a rough ride by many critics over the years, with criticisms ranging from a lack of virtuosity in the solo part to its being evidence of the composer’s mental decay – within a week of completing the proofreading for the published version in February 1854, Schumann attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine.
The review copy of this CD came with Miranda’s fascinating and extremely detailed article Decoding the Schumann Cello Concerto, reprinted in full from the Spring 2016 edition of The Musical Times, in which he argues convincingly that the work has long been misunderstood, and that Schumann’s decisions in the concerto, far from being a product of any mental deterioration, are in fact calculated, and clear proof of his knowledge of, and use of, cryptography – or cyphers – in his music. The concerto is apparently dominated by references to the initial letters of the full names of Schumann’s wife Clara and the composer himself, and these references determine the structure of the melodies and the choice of keys.
Given this level of insight it should come as no surprise that the performance here is outstanding – sensitive, passionate and rhapsodic – and makes the strongest possible case for elevating the concerto to the same class as the Elgar and the Dvořák.
Miranda brings the same rich, full-toned playing and the same depth of historical research to the Dvořák Concerto in B Minor Op.104, resulting in another glorious performance of this wonderful piece.
And finally, to a single cello. Transitions is the first solo CD from the Canadian-born New York cellist Michael Nicolas, a performer with an impressive reputation on the contemporary scene (Sono Luminus DSL-92202).
Nicolas describes the CD as an attempt to show that humans and computers can co-exist musically and explores the relationship from as many angles as possible. The works here were written by composers from three continents and span over 50 years and include duos for cello and electronics, cello solos with electronic backing tracks, pieces with multi-layered cello tracks and a piece for solo cello.
The composers include the Argentinian-American Mario Davidovsky (b.1964), the Americans Steve Reich, David Fulmer and Annie Gosfield, Iceland’s Anna Thorvaldsdottir (b.1977) and the Peruvian Jaime E. Oliver La Rosa (b.1979). Davidovsky’s Synchronisms No.3 for Cello and Electronic Sounds was written in 1964; Thorvaldsdottir’s solo cello title track dates from 2014.
Nicolas hopes that the listener “will be exposed to many new sounds and ways to organize them, and be able to connect them to more traditional ideas of musical expression.” Certainly this CD will go a long way towards helping them do just that. His playing and extended techniques are outstanding, and the works are beautifully recorded.
The disc is unique. The liner contains no critique, no history or musicological analysis. Instead there is an interview with Zhu, responding to superb and probing questions whose answers are arrestingly profound. After all, born in the year of the Chinese revolution and serving five years in a work camp of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Zhu has something to say.
While she has an obvious grasp of the structure and pattern of the work, she speaks passionately about her unconventional approach to the variations and where they take the listener. Zhu makes two emphatic points about this journey. First, that the Variations ascend gradually from the opening Aria to their pinnacle in the 25th Variation. Here the languorous meditation in a minor key lasts two, even three times the duration of any of the other variations. Whatever Bach means to say, he says it at this point. Second, that the work is cyclical, beginning and ending with the Aria. On hearing it a second and final time we sense that we have understood something. The cycle is life and death. She quotes Laozi: “The Return is the Movement of Tao.”
Prokofiev’s first two piano concertos date from his early twenties while he was a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Written just a year apart, they are strikingly dissimilar. On Prokofiev – Piano Concertos 1 & 2 Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra; Niels Muus (Sorel Classics SC CD 006) pianist Anna Shelest is profoundly convincing in her approach to these works. She understands the conventional forms used in the Concerto No.1 and delivers Prokofiev’s memorable themes beautifully, especially the bold opening idea that returns at the close of the work. Concerto No.1 is very brief and is more of a single continuous work. The performance is satisfying and energetic, with the soloist and orchestra flawlessly together throughout.
The real surprise, however, comes with the Piano Concerto No.2 which is far more demanding in every respect. Shelest never shrinks from the challenges the composer sets out. The opening movement’s massive cadenza is almost a work within a work, taking up most of the movement’s time. It’s brilliantly played with skillfully metered intensity. The Scherzo’s wild, relentless unison playing is a brief but definite show stopper. Shelest’s performance, especially in the Finale, reminds us how modern Prokofiev’s language must have sounded to audiences a century ago, and how fresh it remains today.
Based in New York, Shelest continues to perform and add to her diverse discography making herself an artist whose career is very much worth following.
Elizabeth and Marcel Bergmann have performed as duo pianists for more than 20 years. Marcel’s additional role as composer and arranger has given the pair an unusually large performance repertoire. All the material on American Stories for Two Pianos – Bergmann Duo (Ars Produktion ARS 38 188) is a tribute to American composers, both classical and jazz. The arrangements faithfully bring the essence of the works to the combined voices of two pianos. The Bergmanns possess all the skills we expect from a seasoned pair of duo pianists. They’re perfectly together at the deepest musical level.
It’s difficult to refer to any highlights on this disc because each track is superb. The arrangements are brilliant. Chick Corea’s La Fiesta and Spain open the CD with high energy and a Latin pulse that flows naturally into Bernstein’s Selections from West Side Story. America will positively launch you from your seat. One Hand, One Heart is movingly simple. Each selection is a gem.
The Bergmanns include two works by Pat Metheny, Eighteen and Hermitage. Here the challenge is to bring the electroacoustic and percussion components convincingly to the keyboards as well as to pianistically portray Metheny’s music from a solo album.
Following the Latin American thread leads Marcel Bergmann to arrangements of Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion and Libertango, the latter being one of Piazzolla’s best known works. The final track is an irresistibly syncopated romp titled Infancia by Egberto Gismonti.
These performances are exciting and electrifying.
There’s a good deal of serious stuff in the body of works for piano four hands. There’s also a more light-hearted tradition that is written with children in mind. It’s here that we find the popular works by Ravel, Saint-Saëns and Fauré that appear on French Fantasy – Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Ravel (Sheridan Music Studio 16129 9). Pianists Steven Greene and Susan Merdinger clearly enjoy playing this material. While set against a background of childlike simplicity, there are plenty of moments where the composers speak profoundly.
Carnival of the Animals is replete with colourful imagery. Merdinger and Greene have a great deal of fun with this, romping through Saint-Saëns’ pages with energy and style. Their performance of Aquarium is noteworthy for its mystical fluidity while the Finale delivers the entertaining pulse of a high-stepping chorus line. Tortoises, Kangaroos and The Elephant also offer a generous dose of good keyboard humour – a reminder of why this set is so enduringly popular.
Fauré’s Dolly Suite is a more introspective and tender work and the pianists explore this change of character effectively in Berceuse and Tendresse. Pas Espagnol and Kitty-Valse balance the suite with optimism and sparkle.
The disc concludes with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. Ravel’s harmonic language sets the suite apart from the other two works. It gives Merdinger and Greene the opportunity to approach the music with more attention to its subtleties. They are more seriously engaged in this music but never at the expense of its youthful focus.
Susan Merdinger presents a broad and well-rounded solo program on Soirée – Schubert, Brahms, Debussy, Liszt (Sheridan Music Studio 13434 7). Beginning with the Schubert Sonata in B Major D.575 K.147, she quickly confirms the composer’s predilection for song. She phrases the two principal ideas of the opening movement beautifully as if they had lyrics ready to be sung. The second movement offers a beautiful opening that first appears in vertical hymn-like form but subsequently melts into a series of fluid variations that Merdinger plays with great affection. The final two movements are very dance-like, each offering a brief middle section where Merdinger finds lied-like material that she emphasizes before reverting to the rhythmic drive that concludes them both.
Having both Brahms Rhapsodies on the same disc makes for interesting comparisons. Here too, Merdinger finds the two principal ideas in each work and carefully follows their course through Brahms’ dense harmonies. The Rhapsody in B Minor Op.79 No.1’s middle section is significantly shorter than the G Minor Op.79 No.2’s and offers less time to linger with the material. But Merdinger counters this brevity with heightened intensity and sense of mystery.
Merdinger’s performance of the Debussy Estampes is a credit to her stylistic versatility, moving convincingly from Schubert and Brahms into the impressionistic tonalities of Pagodes and Jardins sous la pluie. The closing tracks with Concert Paraphrase on Verdi’s Rigoletto and the Hungarian Rhapsody No.12 reveal a pianist unbound, exercising the virtuosity and disciplined abandon required by Liszt.
A wonderful compilation of performances from a Mozartwoche (Mozart Week) in Salzburg is what you’ll find on this DVD from Unitel Classica. Beethoven; Schubert; Mozart – Sir Andreas Schiff; Cappella Andrea Barca (Cmajor 736508) contains the Beethoven Piano Concerto No.1 in C Major Op.15, Schubert Symphony No.5 in B-Flat Major D485 and Mozart Piano Concerto in E-flat Major K482.
Recorded at the Mozarteum, these performances are extraordinary and produced to the highest standards. Camera shots of performers including Schiff himself are creative yet unobtrusive. Audio is perfect. The hall is glorious and the playing, well, it’s just divine.
Schiff’s ensemble is rather small, numbering only 40. But these forces are historically appropriate for the music. The orchestra never sounds less than perfectly balanced and capable of musical gestures from the most intimate to the majestic. Schiff conducts, sometimes from the keyboard. His instrument is a Bechstein concert grand that responds in the most subtle ways to his pianissimo touch, yet naturally has the power to fill the hall.
He formed this group in 1999. They play and breathe with remarkable unity. The experience of this recording can only be surpassed by seeing them live – and what a privilege that would be. Until then keep the DVD player close at hand.
Boris Giltburg is a pianist who thinks pictorially. His recent disc Rachmaninov – Études-tableaux Op.39; Moments musicaux (Naxos 8.573469) contains his own liner notes in which he describes the images and scenes evoked by each of Rachmaninov’s Études-tableaux. Giltburg creates the tableaux before us, the mists, the forests, everything he imagines. And he does it masterfully. He whimsically describes No.6 in A Minor Op.39 as Rachmaninov’s dark retelling of Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. Despite being études, the technical challenges pose no difficulty and Giltburg seems eager to get beyond them in order to mine the emotional core of each piece.
The beauty of the Moments musicaux, Op.16 give Giltburg much more expressive latitude with tempi and he uses this to great advantage in the slower pieces No.1, No.3 and No.5 where a Barcarolle provides some respite before the Maestoso iteration of No.6 in C Major.
Giltburg is a superb technician and an emotional player who indulges in no excesses and so, remains credible. He’s perfectly at home with the complexity of Rachmaninov’s short form works.
We often think of Rachmaninov as a big scale composer, recalling his piano concertos and their vast sweep of musical ideas. Rachmaninov – Piano Sonata No.1, Variations on a theme of Corelli (Blue Griffin Recording BGR327) reminds us that this is also true of his piano sonatas. Pianist Jin Hwa Lee begins the Piano Sonata No.1 with control and clarity while bracing for the enormous physical demands of the opening movement’s second half. Her command of the music is impressive and her musicality eloquent. It shows in the slow second movement where her touch changes the opening colours most effectively.
Lee masters the extreme contrasts of the final movement, lingering in the reposes before moving out into the larger, wilder passages we associate with Rachmaninov’s style. She understands this work as a whole, a complete unit, and holds it together as such.
The Variations on a Theme of Corelli again demonstrate how well Lee understands Rachmaninov.
Gone here is the deep Romanticism we associate with the concertos, and in its place a studied intellect moving creatively from one variation idea to the next. At Variation 15 Lee uses the nocturne-like interlude to regroup before launching into the last five and concluding with the Coda, ending on a few soft simple chords. She’s a powerful and thoughtful player with an excellent debut recording.
Pianist, scholar and critic Phillip Evans is an acknowledged authority on the piano music of Bartók. His series of Bartók CDs received high praise from the New York Times. On Phillip Evans plays Bartók (ARTEK 00642) he revisits the Sonata (1926), a work of Bartók’s middle period. He describes it as a “new kind of piano virtuosity: huge chords, often rapidly repeated, large leaps and intricate embellishments.” Evans, even in the slower second movement, uses Bartók’s strong rhythms to propel the music. There’s a relentlessness about this music and Evans never wavers in applying it.
The Six Romanian Folk Dances are smaller scale works. Evans plays them with sensitivity and imagination. The Stamping Dance is especially beautiful for the haunting way he manages to suspend the melody above the accompaniment. Improvisation on Hungarian Peasant Songs Op.20 is more adventurous in its treatment of the material. Evans plays the now familiar rhythmic chord clusters with requisite consistency but is always ready to yield to a melody, even if only a fragment.
Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm is, according to Evans, more than just a set of dances. Using various combinations of four, two and three, Bartók builds a series of increasingly intricate and engaging “dances” that offer unique rhythms to start but add intriguing melodic fragments and even some Gershwinesque harmonies as well.
In Piano Renaissance (jean-baptiste-mueller.com) Swiss pianist Jean-Baptiste Müller presents a program of his own compositions written in Baroque, Classical and Romantic styles. Müller is undeniably an excellent performer who has, nevertheless, chosen a less travelled path to advance his work. His record of festival and competition awards and public performances all point to his comprehensive grasp of the standard piano repertoire. His ability to present original ideas in such accurate historical modes is curiously impressive.
Fuge in d is a four-voice fugue in the style of Bach as is the Chorale “Trockne meine Tränen mir in Deinem Lichte,” whose harmonic and voice part embellishments advance with each iteration of the chorale.
Müller’s concert history shows numerous performances of works by Antonio Soler. This explains his familiarity with the style of the period and the remarkable kinship with his three Hommages à Soler that he performs on this disc.
Valse de la Confrérie du Sabre d’Or is Chopin throughout and his ability to write so convincingly in that voice is amazing.
Vika Variationen is, however, a fusion of the baroque and romantic and less tidy in its identification of style. But then, that’s perhaps where we face our contemporary dilemma. We are predisposed to keep our historical musical styles separate, wince a bit at mixing them and wonder profoundly why anyone would want to write something original using them. It seems somehow inauthentic.
There’s no denying the quality of these compositions or the beauty of their performance. This disc is sure to get your attention and evoke a lingering curiosity.
Pianist, musicologist and educator, Luisa Guembes-Buchanan has added a new recording to her discography that currently includes Beethoven sonatas and works by Schumann and E.T.A. Hoffmann. On Schubert (Del Aguila DA 55312) Guembes-Buchanan performs the Sonata in C Minor D.958 and the Impromptu in A-Flat Major Op.90 No.4.
The Sonata is Schubert’s third last, written in his final year. It’s a substantial work that takes a half hour to perform. Guembes-Buchanan launches into the opening C minor chord then commits to a steady and aggressive pace until the second theme emerges in a more tender and relaxed mood. She opens the second movement with a profoundly respectful statement of the opening idea, then navigates Schubert’s numerous key changes through to the final, somewhat hesitant reference to the opening bars.
The fourth movement is busy and demands clear articulation for which Guembes-Buchanan pedals sparingly.
The Impromptu in A-Flat Major Op.90 No.4 is a favourite and gratifying to hear played this well. The tempo is fast, making the many descending arpeggios very impressive. Guembes-Buchanan is an inspired Schubert interpreter.