01_Isserlis.jpgProkofiev; Shostakovich – Cello Concertos
Steven Isserlis; Frankfurt Radio Symphny Orchestra; Paavo Järvi
Hyperion CDA68037

Prokofiev began this concerto in Paris in 1934, where he was urged by fellow émigré Gregor Piatigorsky to write such a work. Piatigorsky was enthusiastic over the first movement and the opening of the second but at that point Prokofiev returned to Russia. The work waited until 1938 to be completed in Moscow where it debuted to resounding indifference. The cellist had played it, against the composer’s wishes, as a sentimental piece and the conductor had no opinion. In 1940 its debut in the United States by Koussevitzky and Piatigorsky in Boston was hardly a triumph.

The 1956 recording of the concerto by János Starker and the Philharmonia under Walter Susskind is a polite affair and while beautifully played the overall mood misses the pungency that Prokofiev must have intended. The 1972 performance by Christine Walevska conducted by Eliahu Inbal is a far cry from the Starker, animated and alert and well recorded by Philips.

Recorded in concert in 2013, Steven Isserlis and Paavo Järvi together have set the record straight with new eyes on the score, delivering a fresh, vital interpretation. The first pages of the first movement announce that this is to be a compelling performance. The third movement, a set of theme and variations, is totally engaging, more rhythmic and interesting than previously revealed.

Their Shostakovich, too, is outstanding. One would believe that in his several recordings Rostropovich, the dedicatee, had the field covered. Easygoing tempo and high-spirited playing provide a most attractive alternative, especially with the tidy yet dynamic orchestral collaboration. The sound and wide range of the recording are state of the art. The Prokofiev solo March, arranged by Piatigorsky, is a jaunty little encore.


02_Kernis.jpgAaron Jay Kernis – Three Flavors; Two Movements; Superstar Etude No.3
Andrew Russo; James Ehnes; Albany Symphony Orchestra; David Alan Miller
Naxos 8.559711

Aaron Jay Kernis was all of 23 back in the early 1980s when he first attracted attention with the premiere of his composition Dream of the Morning Sky by the New York Philharmonic. Since then, the Pennsylvania-born composer has earned a reputation as one of the most distinguished of his generation – a winner of not only a Pulitzer Prize, but also the Prix de Rome and the Grawemeyer Award. His large output is characterized by an affable and eclectic style, clearly evident on this Naxos recording which features three of his compositions performed by the Albany Symphony, conducted by David Alan Miller with Andrew Russo, piano, and James Ehnes, violin.

Three Flavors initially began as a concerto for toy piano, but it was later adapted for a modern instrument. To say the least, the piece is a study in contrasts. The first movement abounds in driving repetitive motives and modal harmonies – do I hear a hint of Stravinsky and a nod to Indonesian gamelan? In total contrast, the second movement, Lullaby-Barcarolle, is all gentleness, containing a lyricism not dissimilar to that found in works by Samuel Barber. Blue Whirl, the third movement finale, is clearly influenced by jazz rhythms and blues that Andrew Russo performs with great bravado, while the Albany Symphony provides a solid foundation.

It was in homage to his late father that Kernis composed Two Movements (with Bells) in 2007, a BBC Proms commission for James Ehnes. Scored for violin, piano and orchestra, the two movements each begin wistfully, but the mood soon becomes more flamboyant. Together, Ehnes and Russo engage in an animated and lively discourse, adroitly handling the energetic angular lines. Russo returns for a solo in Ballad(e) out of the Blue(s) – Superstar Etude No.3.  Although the piece was inspired by Gershwin, there are also echoes of Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and Errol Garner through its jazz harmonies and improvisational quality.

Kudos to all the artists on this CD for showcasing music by one of America’s most eclectic contemporary composers.


03_Missy_Mazzoli.jpgMissy Mazzoli – Vespers for a New Dark Age
Victoire; Glenn Kotche; Lorna Dune
New Amsterdam Records NWAM062

Missy Mazzoli is a young American composer based in New York who continues to receive critical acclaim for her concert works. This release contains a new piece, Vespers for a New Dark Age, for female voices and instrumental ensemble that was commissioned by Carnegie Hall for the 2014 Ecstatic Music Festival. The music is set to fragments of text by poet Matthew Zapruder replacing the sacred vesper text. It is interesting to note that in traditional Catholic liturgy, the Vespers are to be sung as evening prayer at sunset. Further, Mazzoli describes the piece as, “…distorted, wild, blasphemous...” However, despite brief moments in the text that only occasionally reveal mildly blasphemous suggestions, the music, on the contrary, is full of light and optimism, a mood that remains relatively unvaried throughout the piece. While the work is divided into nine movements, the listener is treated to a continuous unfolding of broad and lyrical vocal weavings floating above punchy percussion rhythms and edgy folk-like violin gestures. At times, we hear passages containing obvious reminiscences of 1970s progressive rock akin to bands like Yes or Genesis. Any abrasiveness in the music is quickly balanced with soaring vocal washes that shimmer and infuse the music with a crystalline sheen. Perhaps the strongest section of the piece occurs in the seventh movement, providing the listener with a striking contrast to the rest of the piece stylistically. In this movement, the dramatic harmonies in the vocal part seem to occupy a different sonic environment than previously heard. This piece is a strong statement from a composer who is comfortable writing to the strengths of the performers she is working with. This music is perfect for those seeking a moment of respite and release within a contemplative and reflective listening experience.


03_Modern_01_Nordic_Concertos.jpgNordic Concertos
Martin Fröst; Various Orchestras
Bis BIS-2123 CD

This disc is a repackaging of previous recordings, made between 1996 and 2003. The four performances feature four different orchestras and conductors. Three of the works are from modern or contemporary Nordic composers, the last from the early Romantic. They all demonstrate Fröst’s mastery of the clarinet.

Fröst plays his strongest card at the outset. Peacock Tales by Anders Hillborg is an exciting work tailored to Fröst’s outrageous abilities (which include dance). After an unaccompanied prologue the orchestra enters to provide the frame and backdrop for the peacock’s haunted cries. A Turkish MarchBig Band Battle and Gallop Macabre follow in harrowing sequence. A return to the opening material is accompanied this time by Copland-sweetened harmonies, and after some super-fast pointillist boogie-woogie, the piano and clarinet join in a last melancholic duet.

Concerto No.3, Op.21 by neo-classicist Vagn Holmboe opens with a fanfare followed by a mournful solo (must be a Nordic thing). The exceedingly prolific Holmboe produced over 400 works, including 13 symphonies and 21 string quartets along with more than a dozen concertos for varying instrumental combinations. Op.21 is listenable and satisfying, a clean spare aesthetic. It’s suit and tie music, comfortable and finely cut.

Karin Rehnqvist’s tone poem On A Distant Shore is the dourest of them all. Its five sections are The Dark (another brooding soliloquy!); The Light (blinding rather than illuminating); The Wild  (ferocious, carnivorous music); The Singing (more pavane than song); and The Call (a call for…to…of… siren or seagull?). Understated and masterful writing.

Barging in on the solemn proceedings, like a jolly elder relative drunk at a funeral, Bernard Henrik Crusell’s Introduction, Theme and Variations on a Swedish Air qualifies on account of its Nordic provenance. Why not include Nielsen’s wonderful concerto instead? Perhaps it would have been one too many melancholic flights through madness.


03_Modern_02_Stravinsky_Piano_Concerto.jpgStravinsky – Concerto for Piano and Winds; Capriccio; Movements; Petrouchka
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet; São Paulo Symphony Orchestra; Yan Pascal Tortelier
Chandos CHSA 5147

In addition to his frequent appearances as a conductor of his own music, the illustrious genius known as Igor Stravinsky composed a number of concertos for his exclusive use as a pianist, ready alternatives to the all-too-familiar requests for yet another performance of the Firebird Suite. A stunning new Stravinsky recording by the esteemed pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet brings together these concertos and then some.

Stravinsky’s 1924 Concerto for piano and wind instruments opens this excellent disc, followed by the Capriccio for piano and orchestra from 1929. Both works are delightful concoctions from the composer’s carefree French epoch, teeming with bonhomie and sparkling wit and recorded in flatteringly crystalline sound. Movements for piano and orchestra (1959) is late Stravinsky and represents the culmination of a growing interest in the serial techniques advocated by his arch-nemesis Arnold Schoenberg after the latter’s death in 1951. This is an intentionally esoteric work that may puzzle some listeners though connoisseurs will recognize here a very fine and scrupulous reading. The disc concludes with a fiery performance of the 1947 version of the ballet score Pétrouchka, a work that was originally conceived as a piano concerto. An audibly grunting Yan Pascal Tortelier elicits an electric response from the excellent São Paulo musicians while Bavouzet delights in playing the prominent piano part from inside the orchestra. The recording of this densely orchestrated work suffers at times from congested orchestral balances (notably so in The Shrove Tide Fair section) that pale in comparison with Stravinsky’s own 1960 recording, brilliantly mixed by the late John McClure and still my personal favourite.


Author: Daniel Foley
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03_Modern_03_Points_of_Departure.jpgPoints of Departure
Nicholas Papador
Centrediscs CMCCD 20715

University of Windsor Associate Professor of Percussion Nicholas Papador is a powerhouse performer with wide-ranging subtleties in his playing as showcased in this new release.

Papador’s own A Very Welcome written for his wife and newborn son employs extended intervals in each hand using four mallets. Subtle dynamic and colour shifts are especially breathtaking in the sections with simultaneous very high and very low pitches. Isabelle Panneton’s Les petites reprises is a harmonically rooted marimba work exploring French and Japanese chromatic expressionism which perhaps requires more intense listening to be fully appreciated. In Nicholas Gilbert’s quasi-programmatic Ariane endormie, an exhausted dreaming Ariane’s fitful sleep is recreated with vibraphone modulating chords, motor and silent or subtle swelling phrase changes.

Inspired by South Indian drumming, François Rose’s Points d’emergence is scored for three each of metals, drums and wood instruments sharing three pitches. Papador’s rhythmic precision avoids a counting train wreck in the tricky opening three minutes where Rose gradually shortens each of the section’s seven phrases to create an impressive accelerando feel. Back to more vibraphone with Linda C. Smith’s lyrical and calming Invisible Cities. Smith’s exploration of the instrument’s sonic textures and capabilities results in a work of lush sonorities and splashes of shifting moods performed with virtuosic attention. Night Chill for marimba and electronics has composer Christien Ledroit drawing on punk and world music influences to evoke the rustling and bareness of autumn.

Papador’s commitment and passion for Canadian solo percussion repertoire drives this exemplary recording. Enjoy!

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