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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

02_Classical_04_Scriabin_Ohlsson.jpgScriabin – Complete Poèmes
Garrick Ohlsson
Hyperion CDA67988

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

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

02_Classical_05_Tchaikovsky_6.jpgTchaikovsky – Symphony No.6 in B Minor, Pathétique
Vienna Symphony Orchestra;
Philippe Jordan
Wiener Symphoniker CD WS 006

This CD was issued late last year and has just come my way. It is rather special. Philippe Jordan is a young Swiss conductor, now 40, the son of conductor Armin Jordan. He is presently music director of the Opera National de Paris and conducts in opera houses around the world. Included in his operas on Opus Arte DVDs are the unforgettable Covent Garden Salome with Nadja Michael and the flamboyant Glyndebourne Carmen with Anne Sophie von Otter.

As the new chief conductor of the Vienna Symphony Jordan turns in a meticulously prepared, articulate performance worthy of top honours among the legions of available recordings. Over the years conductors have fallen into the inherited conventions of drawing out the maximum drama and pathos at many accepted points in the score. And audiences attending concerts or at home look for and expect these.

Jordan does little more than make incremental changes in tempi which may be noted or not as we listen to the most refreshing performance around. The orchestra’s sound is easily distinguished from the Philharmonic, being not nearly as opulent but with impeccable ensemble and polish, particularly in the strings and winds. The listener may wish Jordan would let the orchestra loose at certain places but that doesn’t happen until the last movement and the climax of the entire work comes with the final outburst a few pages from the close.

In sum, all the conventional performance traditions are gone and a clearer Tchaikovsky emerges. The dynamic range of the performance is extraordinary, particularly in the first and last movements. Recorded in the Musikverein we are privy to every nuance, so well-captured in every detail.

02_Classical_06_Mahler_12.jpgMahler – Symphonies 1 & 2
Camilla Tilling; Lilli Paasikivi; Frankfurt RSO; Paavo Järvi
Cmajor 718008

The genial Paavo Järvi, scion of his ubiquitous father Neeme’s musical clan, is evidently well-regarded in Frankfurt where he served as music director of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra from 2002-2013. During his tenure there he presented a televised broadcast cycle of Mahler symphonies for Hessian Radio which is only now reaching these shores on the C major label. The First Symphony was filmed in the spa town of Wiesbaden in 2012. It is a curiously inconsistent performance, the highlight of which is a superbly paced third movement. I was quite taken aback to find Järvi’s take on the Scherzo movement stealing a move from the 2009 playbook of Gustavo Dudamel, namely broadening the first four bars of the bass ostinato in an oafish manner then gradually and elegantly leading into a lively dance tempo. Unlike Dudamel, in Järvi’s hands the gesture is merely clumsy and inconsistent. The grand finale is well enough done but suffers from incompetent video direction: a clear shot of the stunning coup de théâtre of all seven horns standing for the triumphant final peroration of the movement is totally missed! In sum this performance brings to mind the saying attributed to Samuel Johnson: “The part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”

The presentation of the Second Symphony fares far better. It was filmed at the former monastery of Kloster Eberbach over the course of two afternoons in June 2010. The extraneous studio lighting in daylight gives the unexceptional 720x480 video a decidedly washed-out look and the unfortunate Järvi sweats profusely, resembling an anxious Vladimir Putin caught under a searchlight. The performance of the first movement is solid though underwhelming, with Järvi applying an unusually broad tempo to the lyrical secondary theme and a rather too fast tempo in the coda. Matters improve considerably in the following movements, with a coyly fetching Menuetto and a Scherzo à la Bernstein being most impressive for the care taken to deal with the abbey’s long echoes. The penultimate “Urlicht” movement features the heartfelt mezzo solo of Lilli Paasikivi, who also excels in the subsequent movement. The performance catches fire in the Finale with an impressively frightening and tightly played “march of the dead” development section. Sadly, the combined NDR/Bavarian Radio choruses are set so far back in the apse of the cloister that their hushed entrance for the movement’s grand apotheosis is barely audible; furthermore the voice of the soprano soloist Camilla Tilling is intended to emerge imperceptibly from this choir but as she is placed far to the front of the orchestra the effect is ruined. Fortunately the dome above them serves as an effective resonator for the resounding passages later on. There is also an organ to be heard – though mysteriously unseen – in the closing pages. The DVD will certainly be of interest to Järvi fans and the orchestra is quite a fine one but the mundane television production values fail to approach the superb videos of Claudio Abbado from the Lucerne Festival.



Robbins_01_Vivaldi_Avital.jpgIf you listen to Classical 96.3FM on anything resembling a regular basis you’ve probably heard the Israeli mandolinist Avi Avital’s astonishing rendition of Monti’s Czárdas (if you haven’t, you can always watch it on YouTube). It certainly meant that I approached his latest CD, Avi Avital Vivaldi (Deutsche Grammophon B0022627-02) with keen anticipation, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The mandolin has its roots in 17th- and 18th-century Italian music, and is particularly well suited to the style of Vivaldi. The composer’s one concerto for the instrument, the Concerto in C Major RV425, is featured here along with three concertos, a sonata and a short movement all transcribed for mandolin by Avital.

Two of the concertos – the A Minor RV356 and the G Minor RV315, “Summer,” from The Four Seasons, were originally for violin, and work particularly well on the mandolin, the two instruments sharing the same tuning. The Concerto in D Major RV93 was originally for lute. These are not huge pieces – the RV356 and RV425 concertos are both three-movement works less than eight minutes in length – but the predominantly upbeat tempos and Avital’s clean, agile playing along with the lovely, light and airy accompaniment by the Venice Baroque Orchestra make for delightful listening.

The Trio Sonata in C Major RV82, originally for violin and lute, features a beautifully full continuo sound contributed by harpsichord, lute and cello. The short movement is the Largo from the Concerto in C Major RV443, originally for flautino.

Avital is joined by tenor Juan Diego Flórez in a beautiful rendition of the traditional Venetian song La biondina in gondoleta, which provides a lovely end to an extremely pleasant and entertaining CD.


Vivaldi; Concerto in D Major RV 93: Allegro

Vivaldi: Concerto in D Major: Largo

Vivaldi: Concerto in D Major: Allegro


Robbins 02 Eleisha NelsonPermutations is the third CD from the American violist Eliesha Nelson, with pianist James Howsmon (Sono Luminus DSL-92186). The theme of the CD is American Classical Music and the Viola, although the earliest work on the disc only dates from 1953.

At first sight the opening work seems out of place, but the contemporary Russian composer Nikolai Kapustin has been greatly influenced by American jazz. His Sonata for Viola and Piano Op.69 doesn’t have quite the frenetic quality of his astonishing piano études, but is a spiky, jazzy work with a Gershwinesque middle movement.

The Two Pieces for Solo Viola by John McLaughlin Williams are a real tour de force, and Nelson is particularly outstanding in the technically demanding Toccata, with its echoes of the Dies Irae.

The Second Sonata for Viola and Piano by Ross Lee Finney (1906-97) is a 12-tone work, but this is serialism clearly influenced by the Romanticism of Alban Berg, and an extremely effective composition.

Wending, by Jeffrey Mumford (b.1955) is another challenging but very interesting solo work that draws another terrific performance from Nelson.

The Sonata for Viola and Piano by George Walker (b.1922) is an atonal – but quite accessible – work written in 1989. Another excellent performance by both artists rounds out a really interesting CD.

As with her previous CD of Russian Viola Sonatas, I find Nelson’s viola sound a bit nasal and tight at times, but her playing here really makes the most of the instrument’s full tonal range and colour. In addition to the standard CD, the package comes with a Pure Audio Blu-ray CD equipped with the mShuttle application, enabling you to access portable copies of the tracks on the disc.

Robbins_03_Homages.jpgHomages – A Musical Dedication is the latest CD from Swiss guitarist Christoph Denoth, and presents a fairly traditional recital of predominantly Spanish compositions spanning more than four centuries (Signum Classics SIGCD404).

There are short pieces here by Joaquín Malats y Miarons, Luis de Narváez, Miguel Llobet, Fernando Sor, Manuel de Falla, Joaquín Turina, Isaac Albéniz and Joaquín Rodrigo, but the centrepiece of the CD is music by the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. His Schottish-Chôro is the second movement of his Suite popular brasileira, but the real gem here is Denoth’s performance of the five Preludes, four of them written as a specific homage to aspects of Brazilian life and one reflecting the influence of Bach’s music on the composer. The CD’s title connection is quite clear here, although with some of the other works on the disc it’s somewhat tenuous at best.

Still, no matter, for this is a lovely and substantial (over 70 minutes) program, beautifully played, and with a clear, resonant and not-too-close recording quality.

Robbins_04_Chopin_1846.jpgIt’s been a while since I’ve received anything featuring the terrific French cellist Emmanuelle Bertrand, but she’s back with her regular partner, pianist Pascal Amoyel, on Chopin: 1846, dernière année à Nohant (harmonia mundi HMC 902199). The CD celebrates Chopin’s last summer on his lover George Sand’s estate, where he had spent seven years composing the majority of his works; the two would finally separate the following year. The beautiful Cello Sonata in G Minor Op.65, the last work published during Chopin’s lifetime, is at the heart of the CD, while Amoyel takes the spotlight for performances of the Barcarolle Op.60, the three Mazurkas Op.63, the three Valses Op.64, the Mazurka Op.67, No. 4 and the two Nocturnes Op.62.

The Cello Sonata wasn’t completed until the time of Chopin’s separation from Sand in July 1847. It’s a strong, turbulent work that is given a passionate and nuanced performance by Bertrand and Amoyel, who clearly have an innate understanding of how each other plays. Amoyel’s sensitive interpretations of the solo piano pieces, beautifully recorded, are a pure delight.

Robbins_06_Weinberg_Chamber_Symponies.jpgThe music of the Polish Soviet composer Mieczysław Weinberg, 3 friend and colleague of Dmitri Shostakovich, certainly seems to be turning up on CD more frequently these days. The Swedish conductor Thord Svedlund has already directed four Chandos Super Audio CDs of Weinberg’s concertos and symphonies, and now conducts the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra in excellent performances of Weinberg’s Chamber Symphonies Nos.3 and 4 (Chandos CHSA 5146).

Both works, from 1990 and 1992 respectively, were written late in the composer’s life, although three of the four movements of the Chamber Symphony No.3 Op.151 for string orchestra recycle material from his 1945 String Quartet No.5.

The Chamber Symphony No.4 Op.153 was the last work Weinberg completed, and is scored for string orchestra with obbligato clarinet and triangle, the latter having just four notes in the entire piece. It incorporates quotes from some of Weinberg’s earlier works, but apparently was never intended as a summation of his life and work.

Robbins_07_Dubeau_Einaudi.jpgIt’s difficult to know exactly what to say about Ludovico Einaudi – Portrait, the new CD from Angèle Dubeau & La Pietà (Analekta AN 2 8738). It’s very similar in content to some of her previous CDs, which will be good or not so good news depending on your point of view.

The Portrait series presents contemporary composers who write with what Dubeau calls a unique musical signature, although Glimpse might be a more accurate title. Einaudi is a classically trained composer and pianist who has achieved great commercial success in what is generally termed the World Music field, and is represented here by 13 short pieces with titles like Life, Experience, Run, Time Lapse and Giorni dispari.

Eleven of the pieces, though, are arrangements by François Vallière and Angèle Dubeau – what Dubeau calls “rethinking its character while bringing a new sonic dimension;” moreover, they are nearly all essentially the same length, hovering around the five-minute mark – a cynic might think with radio playlists clearly in mind.

They also tend to sound much the same: there is very little harmonic, rhythmic or melodic variation or adventure, and while they are clearly well-crafted, attractive and communicative on a certain level there is very little change of mood.

The booklet notes again highlight Dubeau’s career album sales figures, which are in excess of an astonishing 500,000; it’s easy to hear why. Dubeau’s CDs in this particular vein may well be aimed at a specific commercial market, but with excellent arrangements of pleasant, undemanding popular music, beautifully played and recorded, they nevertheless unfailingly provide high quality performances of music that clearly continues to appeal to many.

It’s probably a bit too simplistic to say that if you hear a string work that sounds like some Dvořák that you haven’t heard before, then it’s probably by his son-in-law Josef Suk (although that certainly works for the Serenade for Strings) but there’s no getting away from the huge similarities in their music.

Robbins_08_Suk.jpgJosef Suk Complete Works for String Quartet is a new 2-CD set featuring the Minguet Quartett (cpo/Deutschlandfunk cpo 777 652-2). CD1 has the two String Quartets, while CD2 has a selection of short single movements as well as the Piano Quintet Op.8, in which the Minguet is joined by pianist Matthias Kirschnereit.

The String Quartet No.1 in B-Flat Major Op.11 is an early work from 1896, when Suk was 22, and is a lovely work with a particularly beautiful slow movement. Not surprisingly, there’s a good deal of Smetana influence here as well. Some 20 years later Suk revisited the work and re-wrote the final movement, although the resulting Quartet movement in B-Flat Major, also included here, never established itself as part of the complete work.

In the String Quartet No.2 Op.31 from 1910-11 we are in a quite different world; the Bohemian feel of Dvořák and Smetana is still there, but there is a heightened chromaticism – particularly in the second movement – and an almost Impressionistic character to the writing.

The Piano Quintet in G Minor Op.8 is another early work, from 1888, but was revised by Suk in 1915; it is again redolent of Dvořák, but the combination of its purely Romantic themes with Suk’s more modern later style makes for some interesting moments.

Two of the four short pieces that complete CD2 had their origins in early works: the Minuet in G Major from 1911 first appeared in two piano works a dozen years earlier; and the Barcarolle is a 1923 re-working of a middle movement from an early 1888 string quartet that Suk did not include in his list of recognized works.

The Ballade in D Minor was one of three Ballades the teenage Suk wrote in 1890, and the Meditation on the Old Bohemian Hymn “St. Wenceslas” Op.35a is a patriotic piece written in 1914. All four short pieces are quite delightful.

Performance and recording standards are fine throughout.

Robbins_09_Northern_Lights.jpgIt’s always gratifying when you have no idea what to expect from a CD and it turns out to be an absolute delight. That’s exactly what happened with Northern Lights, a new Super Audio Hybrid CD that covers a period of more than 150 years of Scandinavian music and features violinist Kathrin Ten Hagen and the Folkwang Kammerorchester under Johannes Klumpp (ARS 38 157).

Solitude sur la Montagne is composer Johan Svendsen’s string orchestra arrangement of the lovely Herd-Girl’s Sunday by the 19th-century Norwegian violin virtuoso Ole Bull. It’s a short, wistful melody with more than a touch of Grieg (Bull’s brother was Grieg’s uncle).

The Latvian Peteris Vasks (b. 1946) is one of three composers on this CD whose work I didn’t know. His Vox amoris: Fantasy for violin and string orchestra is a quite lovely tonal work that draws some simply beautiful playing from Ten Hagen.

Sweden’s Kurt Atterberg (1887-1974) wrote his Suite No.3 Op.19, 1 for violin, viola and string orchestra in 1917. It’s a short, accessible work in three movements in which Ten Hagen is joined by violist Itamar Ringel.

Anders Eliasson (1947-2013) was also Swedish, and is represented here by his Concerto for violin and string orchestra from 1992. It’s quite different to anything else on the CD – very rhythmic, energetic and complex, and tonally quite challenging.

Sibelius’ Suite for violin and string orchestra Op.117 from 1929 was written at the prompting of Carl Fischer, his American publisher, who then decided that the work wouldn’t be profitable and did not publish it. It remained unpublished during Sibelius’ lifetime, and wasn’t performed until 1990. Its three short movements – Country Scenery, Evening in Spring and In the Summer – are everything you would expect them to be, and bring an entertaining and highly satisfying CD to a close.

01_Ensemble_Vesuvio.jpgLa Meglio Giuventù
Vesuvius Ensemble
Modica Music MM0014

With Giovanni Kapsberger the only named composer on just two of the 13 tracks on this CD, it is clear that its performers were seeking a selection of popular Italian music, reflecting their dedication to the performance and preservation of traditional folk music from Naples and Southern Italy. Take O matrimonio do Guarracino, a traditional piece from 18th-century Campania. Francesco Pellegrino’s voice is as Italian as his name and not only are we transported to Campania with his vocals but the four accompanying instruments all have a strong Italian heritage: mandolin, baroque guitar, chitarra battente and colascione. The third of these is played without a plectrum and can be plucked, strummed or beaten, hence the term battente.

And colascione? That is a long-necked Italian lute. One of the Kapsberger pieces fully tests its capabilities with the demanding techniques of the Italian baroque guitar. Those who yearn for something else equally unknown can enjoy a hurdy-gurdy courtesy of Ben Grossman, who accompanies Pellegrino’s magnificent voice. Invocazione alla Madonna dell’Arco, for all its traditional Campanian background, could have graced any medieval court, enhanced by the haunting sound of the hurdy-gurdy.

 A more conventional Kapsberger composition is Sfessiana, a soothing and thoughtful duet for theorbo (Lucas Harris) and baroque lute (Marco Cera). Another piece enjoying a normal setting is La morte de mariteto, where Pellegrino’s voice and Lucas Harris’ lively lute playing show the enduring popularity of this combination throughout the Renaissance.

After introducing us to four popular plucked instruments, La Meglio Giuventù concludes with three percussion instruments and the ciaramella, a double reed conical bore instrument which eventually became the oboe. It is raucous and passionate – like the Vesuvius Ensemble.


Back to top