Early, Classical and Beyond
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.
When setting out to listen to these new performances from Berlin one would reasonably expect to hear, yet again, the familiar, well-known sonorities of the Philharmonic in this basic repertoire. After all, with five complete cycles available with this orchestra directed by Herbert von Karajan and versions by Claudio Abbado and André Cluytens, we may be pretty sure what, with some interpretive differences, the timbre will be. EMI had recorded the complete cycle with Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic in concert in the Musikverein in April and May of 2002, the year he assumed his new post in Berlin. Those performances broke no new ground. This one most certainly does.
Starting with, as usual for me, the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies, the ensemble sounded distinctly textured, noticeably different from the suave sonorities of so many admired performances one hears both in concert and on recordings. Listening to all nine confirmed that here are performances that bloom from inside Beethoven’s scores versus the subjective smoothing-out-the-details fashionable today. In these performances every symphony sounds newly minted. There are felicities in each and every one that capture and hold even the most jaded listener. No, particularly the most jaded listener!
For instance, the Pastoral is quite special. After the opening pages there comes a palpable feeling of serenity, a moment I don’t recall hearing before. More so than in other versions, this delicate-where-appropriate performance allows us to experience the surroundings that inspired the composer. Throughout the entire work we are with Beethoven and not looking out from a Mercedes, with the windows closed.
Bound into the sumptuous edition are five audio CDs, two Blu-ray videos of the concerts with additional material including rehearsals and observations on each symphony from conductor and players, and an engrossing impromptu talk by Rattle on Beethoven, problems of tempo, what size orchestra to employ, etc. Also a high definition Blu-ray audio disc of the nine; and included in the bound-in book is a piece by Jonathan Del Mar on his edition used in these performances.
This package is pricey … but priceless.
Mahler’s final work, composed in the summer of 1910, survived in a complete though sometimes skeletal short score form before his death at the age of 50. A facsimile of the sketches was eventually published in 1924. Several efforts have been made to reconstruct the work, the most well-regarded being the three editions issued by Deryck Cooke from 1960 to 1976 (this last in use here). Questions of authenticity aside, the symphony remains a deeply moving, intensely personal and profound last testament.
Thomas Dausgaard, principal guest conductor of the re-invigorated Seattle Symphony, has a special affinity for this work, which he has performed frequently around the world. His interpretation is among the finest I have ever heard and the gorgeous sound he draws from the Seattle forces is outstanding. Their expanded string section in particular has never sounded better. The engineering of the live performance from November 2015 is peerless, surpassing that of the acclaimed 1999 Rattle/Berlin DG pressing. Wildly recommended.
This new Decca release marks Seiji Ozawa’s 80th birthday and gives a nod to the particularly fruitful career of a conductor with a lifelong rapport with Ravel’s music. The pairing of a lyric fantasy, a triptych for mezzo-soprano and orchestra and an orchestrated movement from a solo piano suite creates an impressionistic jewel of tonal patterns and colours, oriental elements and imaginative stories.
Colette’s libretto for L’enfant et les sortilèges is whimsically charming and particularly suited to Ravel’s music. It tells the story of a young boy whose misbehaviour brings objects and talking animals to life. The opera is full of interesting characters – the armchair, the clock, the teapot, the Chinese cup and a whole array of animals (cats, frogs, squirrels and dragonflies). Ravel underscores the fantastic elements with indisputably beautiful orchestration. Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard’s portrayal of the mischievous child is light and playful and, even more notably, the whole cast is outstanding.
Ravel’s affinity for the oriental world is evident in Shéhérazade, a trio of vocal works set to expressively romantic poems by his friend and fellow member of the avant-garde artist group Les Apaches, Tristan Klingsor. The music is dreamy, sensuous, in full rapport with the text. Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham is powerful yet full of emotional nuances.
Alborada del gracioso, showcasing Saito Kinen Orchestra’s engaging interpretation of Ravel’s world, completes this highly recommended recording.
Although they are little known outside of their home community of London, Ontario, Brassroots is one of the finest brass ensembles in Canada. With this recording they are celebrating their 30th anniversary. In 1986 when the famous Philip Jones Brass Ensemble disbanded, Karl Hermann, a trombone student at the Western University, organized a brass ensemble with the same instrumentation of four trumpets, one horn, four trombones, one tuba and percussion. Over the years there have been changes in personnel, but the only significant change has been an enlargement of the percussion to enable performance of a more expansive repertoire. Under the direction of veteran conductor Bram Gregson, Brassroots can certainly be proud of this 30-year-celebration recording.
The CD opens with the Music for His Majesty’s Sackbuts and Cornetts by Matthew Locke (1621-1677), arranged for modern instruments. This is a stunning performance in its precision. It’s followed by works by Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli and Tylman Susato, a composer from Antwerp in the same period. Then, the recording moves on to Point Pelee by Howard Cable. One minute you are hearing Baroque and Renaissance music. Then you are ushered in to contemporary music from Billy May, Harold Arlen and George Gershwin. For a radical departure, with The Cat by Jimmy Smith, the ensemble is turned into a hard-driving big band complete with a Hammond B-3 organ.
The CD comes with excellent program notes which are not printed on the package but are on a separate brochure. Unfortunately, the listing of the selections does not indicate track numbers. To select and play a specific track it is necessary count down the listings to determine the track.
In all, this recording covers a great spectrum. My personal favourites are the Locke work and a stunning rendition of the famous Czardas of Vittorio Monti. The soloist, Michael Medeiros, proves that a tuba in the right hands can be a fine lyric solo instrument. Over all this is a first-rate CD covering music over three centuries.
Those who love to classify composers into neat categories will certainly have a stumbling block with Scriabin. He is Russian, but doesn’t sound a bit Russian (more like Richard Strauss if anyone, yet the Slavic spirit is unmistakable); his music doesn’t follow any rules and for the casual listener it all sounds more or less the same. He has been bypassed and rarely performed at concerts, as conductors do not like to take chances, but I suspect very few of them are capable of interpreting it, as the music is completely free with no comprehensible structure. But with total engagement and absorption, repeated listening and a great conductor like Gergiev, this music will conquer and you’ll never tire of it.
Gergiev has already recorded the better-known symphonies, the Third and Fourth (Poem of Ecstasy), with the London Symphony, one of the best orchestras in the world, in state-of-the-art sound, and here we have the two earlier symphonies from his formative years. The five movement Symphony No.2 is already a mature work and so makes a deep impact while Symphony No.1 has a vocal ending fashionable in those days à la Liszt, Berlioz or Mahler, with fine soloists and chorus, but so poorly received by the public at its premiere (1900) that it was condemned to oblivion.
Gergiev however quickly convinces us to the contrary. Luckily I have seen him a few times and can just picture him conducting without a baton as he hypnotizes the orchestra by his razor sharp gaze and with his undulating body and they follow his every movement. He and the orchestra become one organic unit with an inner logic that this indeed exalted, passionate music demands. A wonderful new issue I’ve enjoyed tremendously.