David Olds with Jean-Guihen Queyras, November 2002Once upon a time, and a long time ago it was, I was sitting around with friends discussing what we would do if we won the lottery. I said I would buy a radio station – this was long before blogs and podcasts – so that I could play just the music I liked. My friend Gary suggested it was not necessary to actually buy a station to make that happen, and asked did I know about the Ryerson alternative music station CKLN-FM (1983-2011)? I did not, but was pleased to learn of this incredible, if somewhat limited, community resource which by that time had expanded from being an in-house station “broadcasting” to about a dozen speakers around the Ryerson campus, to a whopping 50 watt operation accessible to anyone with a strong FM receiver in the downtown core of Toronto. I began to listen and was quite taken with the breadth and diversity of its programming, virtually all of which (from alt-pop, punk and grunge, reggae, hip-hop, house and rap, to such varied offerings as old timey roots and gospel, electronica, ambient music, spoken word, LGBT politics and ultra-left takes on current events) could not easily be found anywhere else on the dial at the time. 

Although it seemed a strange extension of the mandate, I proposed a program of contemporary classical music, kind of a supplement to Two New Hours (which had been airing weekly on the CBC since 1978, under WholeNote colleague David Jaeger’s production). Station manager Adam Vaughan and program director John Jones, although amused when I included talking on a taxi radio, my “day” job at the time, in my broadcast experience, found enough merit in my proposal to give me access to the equipment and a few brief lessons on how to run the board to allow me to produce a demo tape. To bring a long introduction to an end, in the early days of 1984 I made my radio debut as the host of Transfigured Night, named after my favourite piece of chamber music at the time, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. The show initially aired from 2am to 7am on Tuesday mornings, which of course was Monday night to me, having been a denizen of the night-shift driving Globe and Mail trucks and later Beck Taxis for many years. During the seven years that I produced and hosted Transfigured Night, I broadcast works of Arnold Schoenberg on 109 occasions including ten performances of the show’s namesake. My final broadcast aired on November 25, 1991 and on that occasion I played the recording that had made me fall in love with the work, Pierre Boulez’s sextet version with Le Domaine Musical from the 1950s. 

01 Schoenberg Violin concerto Verkl rte Nacht (All) that all being said, I was delighted to find a new release of Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto paired with Verklärte Nacht featuring Isabelle Faust and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding’s direction (Harmonia Mundi HMM 902341 harmoniamundi.com). The six performers for the latter piece include Canadian-born French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras whom I had the pleasure of meeting back in 2002 when he was awarded the City of Toronto Glenn Gould Protégé Prize as selected by Pierre Boulez, laureate of the Glenn Gould Prize that year. As part of the concert at the award event, Queyras was the soloist in Boulez’s Messagesquisse performing with a sextet of other cellists assembled by New Music Concerts for the occasion. 

Normally I would have forwarded this disc to Terry Robbins for his Strings Attached column, but due to the number of personal connections, and the fact that Terry reviewed another performance of the violin concerto last month, I have selfishly retained this one for myself. But I will borrow from Terry’s review. He told us that in spite of the composer’s own description of the concerto – extremely difficult, just as much for the head as for the hands – “it’s a quite stunning work that is emotionally clearly from the heart, and that really deserves to be much more prominent in the mainstream violin concerto repertoire.” With two significant recordings emerging in as many months, I think it safe to say that the concerto is beginning to receive the attention it deserves. The sextet (1899) with its dark and stormy backstory is resplendent in late-Romantic sensibility that only hints at the (a)tonal developments to come. The concerto was written almost four decades later, several years after the composer’s move to the USA. While it employs the serial (12 note) technique central to his mature works, Schoenberg had taken a more tonal approach to writing after his move to America and the concerto has many neoclassical elements, not unlike Stravinsky. Faust’s performance is outstanding, finding a perfect balance between the at times craggy angularity of the melody and the lyrical moments of respite. Her tone is assured and her technique flawless. The performance of Verkärte Nacht is everything I would have hoped for – warm and lush without sacrificing nuance or detail. A very welcome opportunity to revisit what is still one of my favourite works. 

It was during the time of Transfigured Night that I became enamoured of electronic music in many of its (classical) forms – musique concrète, mixed works (electronics and live instruments), computer-generated and synthesized compositions, acousmatic art etc. – and at a conference in Montreal in 1986 became a founding member of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community. I also became the first to commission radiophonic works for community station broadcast, a dozen pieces from such luminaries as Norma Beecroft, Francis Dhomont, Yves Daoust and Paul Dolden, along with the abovementioned Jaeger and another current WholeNote colleague Wendalyn Bartley. 

02 Nick Storring Cover 1500 JPGAlthough in recent years my interest in the form has waned, the most recent release from Toronto cellist/composer/producer Nick Storring has brought fond memories of my earlier involvement with the medium. The nostalgia I feel is not just the reminder of the many ways that electronic media can be used to convey personal expression, but also the variety of programming across the board at CKLN. Storring’s My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell (orangemilkrecords.bandcamp.com) is described as a “heartfelt, albeit oblique, homage to Roberta Flack” who, Storring goes on to say, “in addition to managing profound emotion and consummate musicality as a vocalist, has a brilliant curatorial mind. She brings together songs into smart and beautiful arcs and assembles artists to adorn these songs with powerful production choices and arrangements.” Oblique as it is, I’m not sure I would have recognized this as a tribute to the powerful pop icon without the artist’s statement contained in the press release. 

Storring’s latest, and his first release on vinyl (though I’m working from digital files), is a multi-faceted creature divided into six movements ranging from about five to ten minutes in length. The overall feel is gentle and tonal, although there are many different moods. Tides That Defeat Identity is a kind of synthetic aural sunrise which begins with barely audible cello scrubbing and develops through many layers in which a number of acoustic instruments can be discerned in various forms of electronic disguise. After a couple more dreamlike tracks What A Made-Up Mind Can Do builds gradually to a tumultuous clatter that gradually gives way to a Morse Code-like interlude followed by some funky bass licks with Latin beats, electric piano and psychedelic guitar that in turn recede into the mist via some gamelan-like percussion. To my ear, the title track is most reminiscent of Roberta Flack. The opening electric piano arpeggio immediately reminded me of one of her megahits, Killing Me Softly with His Song, and there I have a personal connection as well. I attended an Eric Andersen show at the Riverboat in 1974, the year after the release of Flack’s hit, and was surprised to find that the opening act, Lori Lieberman, had “written” the song. I remember that several times during his set Andersen snickered (or maybe just grinned), hummed a bar or two of Killing Me and said “I wish I’d written that…” At any rate, isn’t the internet a wonderful resource? I just Googled and was informed that Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel, Lieberman’s agents, actually wrote the song “in collaboration with Lori Lieberman.” There’s much more juicy info in the entry if you’re interested in some sordid details. At any rate, until Storring’s wonderful tribute to the (still active at 83) songstress, that was my main connection with Roberta Flack. And don’t let my talk about nostalgia lead you to believe that My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell is an anachronistic throwback. It’s a carefully crafted and very effective eclectic post-modern creation. Give it a spin on your turntable, or your digital media provider, or wait for the CD release which I understand is imminent. 

My years as a volunteer at CKLN-FM garnered me the experience to land what I sometimes consider to have been the “best” job of my life, five years as a music programmer at CJRT-FM (especially now that I’m benefitting from a modest Ryerson University pension). Reconstructed as JAZZ-FM in 2001, the Ryerson station had been a multi-format broadcaster since its inception in 1949 and during the five years I worked there (1993-1998) the programming included classical music, opera, jazz, folk and blues shows, live concert recordings (jazz and classical), BBC variety programs and an assortment of academic courses under the auspices of Open College Ryerson. I had the great pleasure of selecting the music for Alex Baran’s Music for Midday, recording – with engineer William van Ree – and scripting CJRT Concert, selecting the music for Peter Keigh’s Music Before 1800, interviewing such celebrities as Ben Heppner for This Week in Music and producing Canadian Currents, 52 hour-long programs celebrating the concert music of our native land. This last notwithstanding – it was funded by a grant from Joan Chalmers through the Canadian Music Centre – the music I was “allowed” to program was for the most part not contemporary and certainly not “challenging.” After all, the publicly funded station existed thanks to the generosity of its listeners, who for the most part enjoyed “traditional” fare. It was during my tenure there that the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs swept the classical world, including the august halls of CJRT. In 1992 the London Sinfonietta, under David Zinman with soloist Dawn Upshaw, recorded Henryk Górecki’s 1976 Symphony No.3 with that now-famous subtitle. To date, the Nonesuch recording has sold more than a million copies, something unheard of for a contemporary classical recording. I find it somewhat surprising to note that the three string quartets by this, until then, obscure Polish composer, were all commissioned by the American Kronos Quartet, and that two of them predate the release of the chart-topping symphony that brought him world fame. Another instance of the foresight of this adventuresome group. 

03 Henryk GoreckiThey have been newly recorded by Quatuor Molinari for ATMA on Henryk Górecki Complete String Quartets (ACD2 2802 atmaclassique.com). Although there are some quiet and contemplative moments, particularly in the opening of the second quartet with its extremely dark viola melody, anyone looking for a reprise of the beauty of the “sorrowful songs” will likely be disappointed. At times reminiscent of the stark and angular pathos of some of Shostakovich’s later quartets, especially in Górecki’s second, these works are more what you would expect from a member of the Polish postwar avant-garde. Even in the String Quartet No.3 “Songs are Sung” with its four extended sombre and quiet movements interrupted by one brief central upbeat interlude, the brooding character never finds the transcendence of the famous symphony. Quatuor Molinari bring their vast skill and dedication to this latest addition to an impressive discography, not only adding to our understanding of this undersung composer who died a decade ago, but also proving that Górecki was not just a one-trick pony. Highly recommended!

04 Fred LerdahlAlthough I see that I’ve pretty much used up my allotment of words mostly talking about myself once again, (but heck, it’s my corner…) I did want to mention one more disc that I’ve been spending a lot of time with this month, Fred Lerdahl Volume Six (Bridge Records 9522 bridgerecords.com). I must confess to a lack of familiarity with this American composer who was born in 1943 and is the Fritz Reiner Professor of Musical Composition at Columbia University. Lerdahl is known for his work on musical grammar and cognition, rhythmic theory, pitch space and cognitive constraints on compositional systems. For all that, I must say I find his music quite lyrical and not at all academic. The disc includes recent chamber works and one concerto, beginning and ending with pieces composed for Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen in 2010. There and Back Again for solo cello (Tom Kraines), was commissioned by Karttunen as part of the Mystery Variations, a series of solo works to commemorate his 50th birthday. As with all the variations, it takes as its point of departure, and in this case return, the Chiacona for solo cello by Giuseppe Colombi (1635-1694). In less than five minutes we are transported from the 17th century to the 21st and back again. This is followed by String Quartet No.4 from 2016, a one-movement work which sounds thoroughly modern without being atonal. Commissioned to celebrate the ensemble’s 15th anniversary, it is performed by the Daedalus Quartet. Fire and Ice is a setting of Robert Frost’s poem of the same name for the unusual combination of soprano (Elizabeth Fischborn) and double bass (Edwin Barker), based on one of Lerdahl’s theoretical papers The Sounds of Poetry Viewed as Music. The liner notes explain how the tenets of the 2001 paper were applied to the 2015 compositional process which culminates when “the soprano and double bass gradually fan out to their highest and lowest registers, symbolizing the antipodes of fire/desire and ice/hate around which Frost’s poem is organized.” The playful and at times jazz-tinged Three Bagatelles from 2016 was written for guitarist David Starobin who performs here with violinist Movses Pogossian. The programmatic arc of the disc, with its palindromic cycle of composition dates, is completed by Arches, a cello concerto which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2011. Performed masterfully here by Danish cellist Toke Møldrup with the Odense Symphony Orchestra under Andreas Delfs, the dramatic work itself is, not surprisingly, arch-like, beginning and ending quietly after a rollercoaster of a ride. I found this a great introduction to the music of a heretofore unknown composer and I’m glad to know there are five previous volumes in the series. 

We invite submissions. CDs, DVDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com

01 ShostViolinIvan Pochekin is the outstanding soloist on Dmitri Shostakovich Violin Concertos 1 & 2, with Valentin Uryupin conducting the Russian National Orchestra (Profil PH19073 naxosdirect.com).

The Concerto No.1 in A Minor Op.77 was written in the years following the end of the Second World War, but was withheld by the composer until 1955. The Concerto No.2 in C-sharp Minor Op.129 from 1967 was Shostakovich’s final concertante work.

Pochekin has exactly the right sound for these works – a dark-hued, rich and velvety tone with a strong vibrato and a fine grasp of linear phrase. There may be more strident and abrasive readings of the ferocious cadenzas available, but none with more passion. The Russian National Orchestra, founded by Mikhail Pletnev in 1990, provides excellent support in two immensely satisfying performances.

02 SkorykUkrainian composer Myroslav Skoryk (b.1938) wrote a cycle of nine violin concertos over a 45-year span, and the first four are presented on Myroslav Skoryk Violin Concertos 1, Nos.1-4. Andrej Bielow is the soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine conducted by Volodymyr Sirenko (Naxos 8.574088 naxosdirect.com).

The four concertos here are from 1969, 1989, 2001 and 2003, and all are essentially single-movement works of similar length – from 13 to 16 minutes. No.1 is perhaps the most modern-sounding; No.2 is “infused with a lyrical mood” (the composer’s own booklet notes) with contrasting episodes that vary “from elegy to intense expressivity.” No.3 is dominated by the opening solo violin fugue, and again varies in tone “from lyrical to intensely dramatic.” No.4 is dominated by driving rhythmic patterns.

Bielow is terrific in top-notch performances of works full of strong, idiomatic writing. Volume 2 should make this set a significant addition to the contemporary violin concerto discography.

03 IncantationOn Incantation, the French violinist Virgil Boutellis-Taft explores the range of connections for the word, from simple enchantment through religious contexts to demonic spells and charms. Jac van Steen conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Aparté AP234 apartemusic.com).

There’s a fair amount of reworking of original sources here, and some tracks consequently fare better than others. Bruch’s Kol Nidrei Op.47 is quite beautiful although “remodelled” by Boutellis-Taft with the middle section omitted. The Chaconne in G Minor, attributed to Vitali, is reworked from the original violin and bass manuscript and comes across as a bit overblown. Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre Op.40 is newly orchestrated based on the composer’s own violin and piano arrangement. Bloch’s Nigun from Baal Shem, Tchaikovsky’s Sérénade mélancolique Op.26 and Chausson’s lovely Poème Op.25 are handled beautifully. Shigeru Umebayashi’s Yumeji’s Theme, with its abrupt ending is an odd choice for the closing track.

Boutellis-Taft plays with his heart firmly on his sleeve on a CD that has some truly lovely moments.

The virtuoso violinist and composer Giuseppe Tartini left over 100 concertos for violin, as well as a large number of sonatas for various string combinations, so any single CD is only going to scratch the surface of his output.

04 TartiniTartini Violin Concertos & Sonatas features two Sonatas a Quattro in D Major together with first recordings of two unpublished Concertos for violin and strings, in A Minor and B-flat Major. Laura Marzadori is the violin soloist in the concertos, with Massimo Belli conducting the Nuova Orchestra da Camera “Ferrucio Busoni” (Brilliant Classics 957690 naxosdirect.com).

In the solo violin sections Tartini reduced the accompaniment to just orchestral first and second violins, which allows Marzadori’s sweet, pure tone to be even more effective. There’s a pleasing lightness of touch in the orchestral performances throughout a pleasant but fairly lightweight (at 47 minutes) CD of finely crafted and genteel 18th-century works.

05 FrenchThree works written relatively late in their composers’ lives are featured on French Violin Sonatas played by the Hungarian duo of violinist Kristóf Baráti and pianist Klára Würtz (Brilliant Classics 95576 naxosdirect.com).

Debussy wrote his Violin Sonata in financial straits following the third winter of the Great War, and in great pain from the cancer that would kill him the following year, all of which makes its warmth and clarity all the more remarkable. There’s a lovely dynamic range and freedom of phrasing from both performers.

Ravel’s Violin Sonata No.2 in G Major dates from 1927, its jazz-influenced Blues middle movement and Perpetuum mobile finale again drawing fine playing from the duo.

Franck’s Sonata in A Major was one of a small handful of works that finally won the composer some public acclaim in the closing years of his life. There’s big playing from both performers here, with terrific piano work from Würtz in the Allegro second movement in particular, and with Baráti drawing a huge tone and sound from his 1703 “Lady Harmsworth” Stradivarius violin.

06 BiberThe Italian violinist Liliana Bernardi is excellent in music by Johann Joseph Vilsmaÿr and Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber on Austrian Baroque for Solo Violin (Stradivarius STR 37147 naxosdirect.com).

Vilsmaÿr (1663-1722) was a member of the Archbishopric chapel in Salzburg where Biber (1644-1704) was Chapel Master. His Partitas I and VI in A Major and V in G Minor are from the Artificiosus concentus pro camera distributes in sex partes, a set of six partitas in a collection of Vilsmaÿr’s solo violin music in the British Museum. The movements are very short – 24 of the 29 are under two minutes – but their multiple-stopping and arpeggio passages, while perhaps more reminiscent of Telemann’s 12 Fantasias, clearly point towards the Bach Sonatas and Partitas. 

Biber’s influence is clear in the scordatura (retuning of the strings) in the Partita V. His own work here, preceded by an extremely short Preludio in D is the challenging Passacaglia in G Minor (The Guardian Angel), the last of his remarkable Rosary Sonatas

07 DraesekeThe Constanze Quartet makes its label debut with Felix Draeseke String Quartets Vol.1, the first volume in the complete recordings of the quartets by the German Romantic contemporary of Liszt, Wagner and Brahms (cpo 555 281-2 naxosdirect.com).

Early in his career Draeseke (1835-1913), was considered an extremist, but later in life he was repelled by what he felt was the exaggerated unnaturalness of the late 19th century, responding to the 1905 premiere of Strauss’ Salome with a pamphlet on Confusion in Music.

His three string quartets postdate those of Brahms, with no equivalent works by Liszt or Wagner to act as models. The two quartets here – No.1 in C Minor Op.27 from 1880 and No.2 in E Minor Op.35 from 1886 – are described as viewing the classical quartets of the Romantic era through a Wagnerian lens, especially in the way that long, melodic threads serve to hold the music together.

They’re certainly substantial and engrossing works, given fine performances by the Constanze ensemble.

08 Sybarite5The American string quintet Sybarite5 is back with its fourth album, Live from New York, It’s Sybarite5, recorded live at their regular performance space in Chelsea’s The Cell (Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0131 brightshiny.ninja).

Silkroad percussionist Shane Shanahan joins the group for William Brittelle’s Future Shock and John Coltrane’s Alabama. Ehsan Matoori and his santoor (Persian dulcimer) are front and centre in two of his own works: Tehran When Lonely and Naqsh-e Jahan. Mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert sings Michael Dellaira’s Star Globe, based on a poem by Nancy Manocharian.

Other works are Brandon Ridenour’s NuPac Kanon & Jig (Pachelbel meets Tupac Shakur!), Marc Mellits’ driving Groove Machine, Steven Snowden’sTraveler No.65 and Aleksandra Vrebalov’s My Dearest, My Rose. An unlisted bonus track is a lovely arrangement of Pete Seeger’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone.

There’s not a dull moment on an album brimming with the quintet’s trademark energy and drive.

09 BrahmsIn much the same way as his orchestral serenades preceded – and perhaps acted as preparation for – his symphonies and thus avoided direct comparison with Beethoven, Brahms wrote his two String Sextets Nos.1 in B-flat Major Op.18 and 2 in G Major Op.36 before his three string quartets. They’re available on Brahms String Sextets in performances by the WDR Chamber Players, instrumentalists drawn from the WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne (Pentatone PTC 5186 807 naxosdirect.com).

The string sextet was not a firmly established form at the time, but the expanded string ensemble of three pairings of violins, violas and cellos gave Brahms the opportunity to explore the orchestral possibilities of chamber music while still retaining the subtlety and intimacy of the genre.

The playing here is suitably rich and warm in exemplary performances.

10 ParkThere’s another superb recital CD in the outstanding Naxos Laureate Guitar Series, this time featuring the Korean guitarist Ji Hyung Park, winner of the 2018 Changsha International Guitar Competition (Naxos 8.574140 naxosdirect.com).

Transcriptions of three sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti and two excerpts from Iberia by Isaac Albéniz open the disc, followed by the world premiere recording of Leo Brouwer’s Las Ciclades arcaicas from 2018. Mori no naka de (In the Woods), from November 1995, was the last work Toru Takemitsu wrote before his death the following February; the second of its three pieces portrays the trees in Toronto’s Rosedale area. 

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Sonata in D Major Op.77 “Omaggio a Boccherini” was written for Segovia in 1934, and is heard here in its original manuscript form pre-dating Segovia’s editing. A simply gorgeous arrangement of Toots Thielemans’ Bluesette ends a terrific disc.

Park has everything you could want – tone, colour, warmth, technique, dynamics – in a recital that fully lives up to the extremely high standards of this series.

11 AsencioThere’s more excellent guitar playing on Asencio Complete Guitar Music featuring works by the Spanish composer Vicente Asencio (1908-79) played by the Italian guitarist Alberto Mesirca (Brilliant Classics 95806 naxosdirect.com). 

Asencio’s interest in the guitar grew from his teaching musical interpretation to the young Narciso Yepes in the 1940s, a relationship that resulted in the Suite de Homenajes of 1950, three homages to Domenico Scarlatti, Manuel de Falla and Federico Garcia Lorca.

Collectici Intim is a suite of five songs and dances written in 1965 at the request of the by-then famous Yepes. Suite Valenciana reflects the colour and light of the composer’s native Valencia. The three-movement Suite Mistica started life as a single piece, Dipsô, written for Holy Week in 1971; Segovia was sufficiently impressed to suggest that Asencio add a further two Passion-related items.

Two short pieces – Cançó d’hivern and Danza Valenciana – complete the CD.

Mesirca displays excellent, clean playing with a wide range of technical skills in a very interesting recital.

12 Italian GuitarItalian Guitar Concertos is the somewhat misleading title of a CD by the Italian guitarist Emanuele Segre with the Orchestra I Pomeriggi Musicali under the direction of composer Carlo Boccadoro (Delos DE 3546 naxosdirect.com).

 Aria for Guitar and String Orchestra is Segre’s arrangement of a contralto aria from a Vivaldi cantata, and the work by Mauro Giuliani is a guitar and string orchestra version of his Gran Quintetto Op.65. The Vivaldi Concerto in D Major is at least a true concerto, but the main interest here is the world premiere recordings of two contemporary single-movement works: The Black Owl by Giovanni Sollima (b.1962) and Dulcis Memoria II for Guitar and String Orchestra by Boccadoro (b.1962), the latter originally written for clarinet and strings in 1995. Clocking in at about 18 and 14 minutes, respectively, they’re not substantial works, but both explore a nice range of techniques and textures.

Performances throughout are fine without ever being dazzling.

01 Bach HarpsichordBach – Harpsichord Works
Jory Vinikour
Sono Luminus DSL-92239 (sonoluminus.com)

Comprised of four revered works, this album makes for a fine collection for harpsichord enthusiasts and fans of Johann Sebastian Bach. Jory Vinikour, two-time Grammy-nominated harpsichordist and conductor, has made quite a few recordings of Bach’s music so far and his expertise and passion for this composer is evident here. I enjoyed the clarity of Vinikour’s sound (his harpsichord is modelled after a German instrument of Bach’s time) and his refined and thoughtful interpretation. This recording has elegance and virtuosity, bringing out both the grand and hidden gestures of Bach’s compositions.

The collection features the buoyant Italian Concerto (written for two-manual harpsichord, thus distinguishing tutti from solo passages), Ouverture in French Style (consisting of eight dance movements), the exceptional Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue and an interesting pairing of the Prelude and Fugue in A-Minor BWV894 with Bach’s transcription of the Andante from Sonata for Solo Violin in A-Minor. I liked the progression of the pieces: traditional pairing of more formal works (Italian Concerto and Overture in French Style were even published together in 1835) is followed by expansion of virtuosic and improvisatory elements in Fantasy and Fugues

Vinikour’s impeccable knowledge and sensibility to Bach’s music makes these pieces sound very personal. Listeners are granted a sonic glimpse of the unique world where the nuances are treated with care and the sound is enriched with measured restraint.

Ivana Popovic

02 Rangell BachBach – English Suites
Andrew Rangell
Steinway & Sons 30136 (naxosdirect.com)

If the central tenet of music-making is the desirability of singing or playing in tune, accurately producing sound waves that vibrate at the correct frequency, then no one, it seems, did this better than Johann Sebastian Bach. Much of his keyboard music was written for the harpsichord – a near-ubiquitous instrument in his day – and it began to make a seamless transition to the piano no sooner the instrument was invented and to this day continues to be wonderfully interpreted. 

One of the most recent is the unveiling of the English Suites with these gorgeous, free-spirited performances by Andrew Rangell. The suites are decidedly more grandiose than the French Suites and written entirely for pleasure rather than for instruction. The allemandes are rock steady throughout, the gigues extremely lively; the courante sections rapid while the sarabandes are utterly noble. The six suites are altogether easygoing and exquisitely flowery and are said to have borne a slight resemblance to the style of Couperin, with whom Bach is known to have corresponded.

The English Suites are not actually English, but rather more influenced by other European compositional elements, that seemingly – and fortuitously – held Bach’s attention. They begin with a prelude which is often, as in the Suite No.3 in G Minor BWV808, a large-scale concerto-like movement. Rangell brings matchless clarity to Bach’s multi-stranded music. This set of discs shows the pianist at his most enjoyable, astonishingly fleet-fingered and full of delightful argumentative intelligence.

Raul da Gama

03 Schiff BAchBach – Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1
Sir András Schiff
Naxos 2.110653 (naxosdirect.com)

Bach’s renown in his own lifetime was less as a composer than as a keyboard player, both at the harpsichord and at the organ. His great ability was summarized in his obituary: “All his fingers were equally skillful; all capable of the most perfect accuracy in performance.” Today of course we know better, naturally giving due respect to the greatness of his compositions. Most notable among these – considering he was one of the greatest inventors of keyboard music – is The Well-Tempered Clavier

The 24 preludes and fugues work through the 12 major and 12 minor keys. Unequalled in the profligacy of their inventiveness, the books were intended partly as a manual of keyboard playing and composition, partly as a systematic exploration of harmony and partly as a celebration of a new development in tuning technique that allowed the instrument to be played in any key without being retuned.

Sir András Schiff’s performance at the BBC Proms (2017) is authoritative and eminently satisfying. The fact that it has been well-crafted as a DVD is cause for additional celebration. Schiff exploits the full range of the piano’s sonorities: a crisp, hard touch is used for the more rhythmically motorized preludes, yet there are no qualms about using the sustain pedal to add colour and warmth. His speeds are slow, in some of the fugues, but the shape and direction of a piece is never in any doubt.

Raul da Gama

04 Mozart ConcerrtosMozart – Piano Concertos Nos.22 & 24
Charles Richard-Hamelin; Les Violons du Roy; Jonathan Cohen
Analekta AN 2 9147 (analekta.com)

Mozart’s spirit is (arguably) most evident in his piano-concerto writing – where vitality is entwined with gaiety, with brilliance and lyricism multilayered across. This first recording collaboration between acclaimed young pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin and Quebec City’s chamber orchestra Les Violons du Roy, led by Jonathan Cohen, captured that essence note by note. Richard-Hamelin’s fiery mastery is matched with the unwavering elegance of the orchestra’s responses while Cohen’s artistic vision underlines the most minute details of expression. Together they created a thrilling gem. 

Mozart composed 11 piano concertos between February 1784 and March 1786, while living in Vienna, his creativity unrivaled by any other composer that came after him when it comes to piano concerto writing. The two concertos on this album stand on different sides of his creative expression. No.22 in E-flat Major, sometimes referred to as the queen of Mozart’s piano concertos, is stately and noble in nature, with a prominent wind section throughout. On the other end, No.24 in C Minor, is uncharacteristically emotional and dark, and is considered to be one of Mozart’s finest efforts. 

I could not get enough of the beauty of Richard-Hamelin’s sound on this recording – it contains a precious combination of shimmering lightness, fluent articulation and an array of colours. Most impressive are the cadenzas he has written for these concertos, a spirited personal salute to Mozart.     

Ivana Popovic

05 cover HMM902411 Kristian Bezuidenhout Pablo Heras Casado Freiburger Barockorchester Beethoven Piano concertos nos. 2 5 Emperor Beethoven – Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 5
Kristian Bezuidenhout,  Freiburger Barockorchester; Pablo Heras-Casados
Harmonia Mundi HMM902411 (harmoniamundi.com)

Kristian Bezuidenhout has recently turned his attention to a trilogy of Beethoven concerto discs. He is known for his inspired, imaginative and revivifying approach to fortepiano repertoire, proving time and time again that communicating brave new things at the neoclassical keyboard can be attained through good taste, apt performance practice and the right dash of courage. This first of three such recordings embodies all of these celebrated attributes and, rather triumphantly, establishes new ones.

From the vibrancy of Heras-Casado’s conducting, to the sparkling lines in winds and brass; from the marvellous sonorities revealed in Beethoven’s writing when played expertly on period instruments to the glimmering, pearl-like textures Bezuidenhout attains with unshakable, inspired finesse, this disc is absolute perfection to behold. Here is the Beethoven the world needs to know. 

Brimming over with jubilant, dazzling sonic palettes, we hear musical craftsmanship on this record being set alight. The quest for innovation and (re)discovery is ever present as these gifted, impassioned artists deliver two of the best-loved piano concertos known to Western music. Bezuidenhout and Heras-Casado delight us; they astonish us, drawing us into a glorious, vivid reality from centuries gone by. In divining treasures from the past, through exceedingly hard work and a sincere love for what they do, they have set an 18th-century stage resounding with every scale, trill, arpeggio and cadence now sung afresh for the contemporary ear. Beethoven, surely, is applauding their achievement from on high.

Adam Sherkin

06 Benjamin GrosvenorChopin – Piano Concertos
Benjamin Grosvenor; Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Elim Chan
Decca Records 4850365 (store.deccaclassics.com)

At 27, Benjamin Grosvenor has dazzled audiences from the very brink of his extraordinary career through to what is now his fifth release on Decca Classics.

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra itself presents formidably, with a pared down ensemble and robust presence, helmed by the intrepid Elim Chan. Her command of the players is classically clean-lined, crisp and no-nonsense in its approach to such familiar music. Both piano concerti by Chopin are often criticized for their lack of fulsome orchestra writing. However, Chan seems to disregard any longstanding notions of inadequacy in the orchestration, declaring every accompaniment episode and march-like interlude with shining surety and emphatic musicianship.

As for the solo part, Grosvenor unassumingly guides his piano to the core of each concerto’s argument, with interpretations that are commanding and forthright yet never self-indulgent. Abounding with beautiful melodies and lyrical highpoints, all of this music is aptly suited to Grosvenor’s zeal for textural clarity and elegant, quicksilver conceptions of Chopin-esque expressivity. (The first movement of No.1 and the second of No.2 are examples.) His tone and balance of phrasing remain exceedingly cultivated with a personal aspect that seems to exude a deep sense of integrity. 

The poise and lucidity of Felix Mendelssohn’s keyboard writing might be a candidate for influencing Grosvenor’s approach here (and the results likely closer to Chopin’s original intentions!). No small feat it is today, to record such well-worn repertoire with fresh ears, hands – and heart.

Adam Sherkin

08 RubinsteinRubinstein – Piano Sonatas Nos.1 and 2
Han Chen
Naxos 8.573989 (naxos.com)

“Van the Second.” That’s what Franz Liszt called Anton Rubinstein, referring to his fellow pianistic titan’s resemblance to Beethoven’s unkempt, leonine looks and pile-driving keyboard aggressiveness. Like Beethoven, Rubinstein also composed in all genres but, unlike “Van the First,” he’s rarely performed today outside his native Russia.

The music on this CD dates from 1850-1855, when Rubinstein, in his early-to-mid-20s, was immersed in early Romanticism. As a teenager studying in Berlin, Rubinstein even met Mendelssohn, who is channelled in the restless, urgent first movement of Piano Sonata No.1. It’s followed by a soulful prayer, a pensive waltz and another chorale melody that ends the fourth movement, and the sonata, in grandiose fashion.

Sandwiched between the two sonatas, both lasting nearly half an hour, are the lovely, gentle Three Serenades, flavoured with subtle echoes of Chopin. Piano Sonata No. 2 is in three movements, the first two recalling Schumann in their inward, almost downcast, reflectiveness. The sonata ends much as the CD began, with a dramatic, Mendelssohnian surge of stormy energy.

Pianist Han Chen, born in Taiwan and now living in New York, was himself in his mid-20s when, in 2018, he recorded these works in King City, Ontario, with expert producers Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver, fine musicians themselves. Chen successfully conveys the music’s varied moods, from tender to agitated to triumphant. I found all these attractive works, though derivative, a pleasure to listen to. I think you may, too.

Michael Schuman

07 Debussy KarisDebussy – Études; Children’s Corner
Aleck Karis
Bridge Records 9529 (bridgerecords.com)

Claude Debussy’s two books of Études from 1915 are less well known than many of his other piano compositions and until recently, had been neither widely performed nor recorded. Written three years before his death, they are regarded by some as his last testament to his works for piano solo, the form itself having been long embraced by such composers as Clementi, Czerny, Liszt and Chopin, to whom they are dedicated and whose music Debussy adored. The two sets are technically challenging – even the composer himself professed to struggling with certain passages – but any difficulties are met with admirable competency by the American-based pianist Aleck Karis on this Bridge recording featuring both sets and the charming Children’s Corner Suite.

Beginning with the first étude in Book 1, Pour les cing doigts, Karis displays a precise and elegant touch, his interpretations at all times thoughtfully nuanced. Indeed, these pieces, ranging in length from two minutes to just under seven, are true “studies” in contrast. The first, a tribute to Czerny, features repeated melodic progressions, while number four is moody and mysterious, and the sixth, Pour les huit doigts, a relentless perpetuum mobile.

The disc concludes with the familiar Children’s Corner Suite from 1908, a heartfelt depiction of childhood from a far simpler time. Opening with Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum, Karis’ playing is refined and sensitively articulated, with just the right amount of tempo rubato. The atmospheric Jimbo’s Lullaby would induce even the most obstinate pachyderm into slumber, while The Snow is Dancing and The Little Shepherd are true musical impressions that surely would have delighted his beloved daughter Chouchou.

Rounding out the set is the popular Golliwog’s Cakewalk, all bounce and joviality, which brings the disc to a most satisfying conclusion.

Richard Haskell

09 Rachmaninov LisztRachmaninov; Liszt
Luiz Carlos de Moura Castro
Independent n/a (luizdemouracastro.com)

The Brazilian pianist Luiz Carlos de Moura Castro, who plays with extraordinary virtuosity and passion, is so self-effacing that his only presence apart from the occasional entry in a digital classical music encyclopedia is on recordings, happily as brilliant as this one he produced himself. The works by Rachmaninov and Liszt – two of the greatest piano virtuosos of all time – with which he is represented here on a breathtaking-sounding Fazioli F308, are a testament to Castro’s pianistic genius.

The Liszt Piano Concerto No.2 in A Major, like everything Liszt, demands the highest level of virtuosity with its astounding octave leaps and high pianistic drama. Castro gives an overwhelmingly powerful and authoritative reading of it. His fingerwork has a steely energy to it which is remarkable. He is well supported by the Société d’Orchestre, Bienne under Jost Meier, who conducts the concerto with extraordinary and empathetic understanding of its difficult score.

Rachmaninov’s concertos are all very difficult to play and also reflect the composer’s complete technical command of the piano. Concerto No.3 in D Minor is uncommonly taxing and No.2 in C Minor is filled with bravura. Castro brings to life both of these – as well as Liszt’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, a work almost as capricious as anything Paganini himself wrote – with the Slovenia Radio and TV Symphony Orchestra, the fiery Ligia Amadio conducting brilliantly. 

Raul da Gama

10 Percy FriendsPercy & Friends
Richard Masters
Heritage HTGCD 179 (richard-masters.com)

“Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky…” Let us listen then, of summer evenings, nightingales and shepherd’s hey; of rainbow trout, bridal lullabies and colonial songs. Pianist Richard Masters offers an attractive new disc, celebrating varied solo piano pieces from an unexpected cohort: Roger Quilter, Henry Balfour Gardiner, Cyrill Scott, Norman O’Neill, Frederick Delius and Percy Grainger.  

Such English-speaking expatriates who were, at one time, all in school together at the Hoch Conservatory, Frankfurt, became known as the Frankfurt Group, not including Frederick Delius. The other five revered Delius and often subsumed him in various articles written about the composers during their time: the New English School was profiled as an adventurous collective of young musical artists, Anglo-centric and German-despising.

The 17-track record from Masters, in combination with his fine liner notes, transports the listener to a gentle world of breezy morning strolls and wholesome sips of afternoon tea. This aesthetic never seeks to poke or to prod, nor to unseat the status quo; here is a unique strain of harmonic connectedness, always sumptuous in its tonal narrative. From such discarded chests of keyboard music emanates a sincerity of lyricism, generously set against tableaux of perfumed sonic spaces. With comely confidence and a slightly perceptible dash of American Southern charm, Masters cajoles you and me, as he brings this New English School of the early 20th century back to life.

Adam Sherkin

11 cover Steven Osborne Prokofiev Piano Sonatas No 6 No 7 No.8 Prokofiev – Piano Sonatas Nos. 6, 7 & 8
Steven Osborne
Hyperion CDA688298 (hyperion-records.co.uk)

With three gritty, strenuous piano sonatas that run the gamut of expression in movements now dreamy and languid, now pungent and divisive, Scottish pianist Steven Osborne proves yet again that he can tackle any corner of the piano repertory with technical prowess and innate stylistic aplomb.

In this new disc, Osborne rips into some of the most challenging keyboard music ever written by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. The challenges here extend far beyond the thorniness of the sonatas’ character and their assembled identity as three war sonatas, (Opp.82, 83 and 84), written during the years 1939 through 1944. These broad and complex works demand an acute understanding of modernist expression and its concept of human experience when stretched to the very edge. This edge can be extreme in some cases, compelling both listener and pianist alike to embrace the ridiculous as well as the sublime. A successful performance of such music depends on the wits (and technique!) of a multi-versed artist up to the challenge. Osborne leaves us with no doubt as to our emotional survival: we immediately jump onboard for the ride, putting ourselves in his safekeeping until the end of this disc. Therein, Osborne’s hands cast spells of colour and light that echo the deft craft of impressionist composers, betraying a kinship (rarely revealed) between the inspired music of turn-of-the-century France and that generation of Russian modernists who emerged in the 1920s, with Prokofiev at the vanguard. 

Adam Sherkin

12 cover Marc Andr Hamelin Feinberg Piano Sonatas Nos.1 6. Samuil Feinberg – Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-6
Marc-André Hamelin
Hyperion CDA 68233 (hyperion-records.co.uk)

Wondrous and fair, is the music of Russian composer-pianist, Samuil Feinberg. Today, 58 years after his death, he remains little known outside of Russia. Nevertheless, veteran virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin has long championed the ravishing piano catalogue of Feinberg, peppering his own recital programs with his music. Now, for the first time in a truly voluminous discography, Hamelin has recorded six sonatas by Feinberg, Opp.1, 2, 3, 6, 10 and 13. Each one is a marvel of pianistic craft, gazing down from the pinnacle of early 20th-century Russian lineage.

Both the first and second sonatas owe a great deal to the spectrums of resonance and open-hearted romanticism found in Rachmaninoff’s piano writing, (in particular the Sonata No.2 in B-flat Minor Op.36). These works gleam with whimsical, searching melodies, buoyed up by formidable textures. Hamelin aptly leads the adventure, taking the utmost care and cultivation. In fact, Hamelin navigates every page of these fascinating, singular pieces with splendid ease and confidence. He finds ways to personalize the expressive potential Feinberg embeds in his scores.

Another highlight of the disc, Feinberg’s Sonata No.5, invites us into an eerie, unsettled world. The opening rollicks with overwrought chords that grope and sniff their way through the dark. What – or whom – might they be seeking? This disc bears repeated listening, as is so often the case with Hamelin’s artistry. Verily, today’s musical world would be a dimmer place without him.

Adam Sherkin

01 Rossini ZelmiraRossini – Zelmira
Soloists; Górecki Chamber Choir, Krakow; Virtuosi Brunensis; Gianluigi Gelmetti
Naxos 8.660468-70 (naxosdirect.com)

Dating from 1822, Zelmira is the 33rd of Rossini’s 39 operas and the last one he wrote in Naples. By that time he was aiming for international attention, first step to be Vienna. Zelmira achieved great success there and later in Paris, but inexplicably it fell out of public favour and simply disappeared for nearly two centuries. By a stroke of luck in 1995, Richard Bonynge and Joan Sutherland found the score in an antique bookshop in Paris and it was quickly bought by the Pesaro Festival and triumphantly performed there with a stellar cast.

The reason for the disfavour was Rossini’s attempt to reconcile Italian and German styles by devising new harmonies and orchestral effects, no doubt to please Vienna audiences, but unfortunately it was too unusual for Italians. Too bad, because it’s a tremendous grand opera with magnificent, original and highly inspired music and great opportunities for singers; particularly for the two principal tenors and the lead soprano (written for Rossini’s wife, Isabella Colbran).

The story takes us to the Age of Antiquity, to Lesbos on the Aegean Sea. It revolves around the king’s daughter Zelmira, who after many vicissitudes, false accusations and even prison, saves her father, and her son, from wicked usurpers to the throne. The main villain is Antenore, secondo tenore (American tenor Joshua Stewart) with a tremendously difficult tessitura, full of powerful high notes à la Rossini. He comes to the stage first, but just you wait for the primo tenore, Ilo, prince of Troy and Zelmira’s husband (sung by Turkish virtuoso Mert Süngü), and his first cavatina – Cara! deh attendimi! – with even more hair-raising vocal acrobatics.

Silvia Dalla Benetta is Zelmira. She crowns it all with her superb voice and is thoroughly enchanting in Perché mi guardi e piangi, one of Rossini’s most inspired creations.  All wonderfully held together and conducted by veteran Rossinian maestro Gianluigi Gelmetti.

02 Janacek House of DeadjpgLeoš Janáček – From the House of the Dead
Bayerisches Staatsorchester and Chorus; Simone Young
BelAir Classiques BAC173 (naxosdirect.com)

Janáček’s From the House of the Dead is a gripping dramatic work. The last opera he composed, this adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel premiered in 1930, two years after Janáček’s death, with an orchestration completed by two of his students. From the House of the Dead is notable for a number of reasons, including the use of chains as percussion in the orchestra (to reflect the sounds of the prisoners shuffling back and forth) and the lack of narrative content; there is no overarching storyline, but rather a number of episodic narratives relating to individual prisoners interspersed with occurrences within the prison itself.

This video release from the Bayerische Staatsoper is captivating, providing a gritty interpretation of Janáček’s work. Featuring an onstage cage in which the majority of the large ensemble cast is contained throughout the performance as well as superb costumes, including an homage to the famous Day of the Dead, the visual plays as important a role in this opera as the music. It is fascinating to see how this production so ably serves the dramatic requirements of Janáček’s opera and reinforces just how confined and uncomfortable this Siberian prison camp is, as told by Dostoyevsky. 

The Staatsoper soloists, chorus and orchestra are superb throughout this short yet intense work, conveying the depth and darkness of the score without once coming across as melodramatic. One of the 20th century’s most profound and significant operatic composers, Janáček displays his mastery in full force in From the House of the Dead, and this production is highly recommended to all who enjoy this Czech master’s works.

03 ZemlinskyZemlinsky – Der Traumgörge
Josef Protschka; Pamela Coburn; Janis Martin; Hartmut Welker; Hessischer Rundfunk Youth Chorus; RSO Frankfurt; Gerd Albrecht
Capriccio C5395 (naxosdirect.com)

In 1907, Alexander Zemlinsky’s new opera Der Traumgörge was set to premiere at Vienna’s Court Opera. But after its conductor, Zemlinsky’s mentor Gustav Mahler, abruptly resigned as music director of the opera house, the production was cancelled. Zemlinsky was already well-established as a composer, pianist, conductor and teacher (his students included Schoenberg, Korngold and Alma Schindler, who later married Mahler). But it took almost 75 years for Der Traumgörge to get its first performance. 

This version, recorded live at a concert performance in 1987, seven years after the much-delayed premiere, has long been unavailable. Now, with Zemlinsky’s music finally getting the attention it deserves, Capriccio has reissued it. 

The psychological undercurrents of Der Traumgörge’s libretto by Leo Feld resonate with Freudian profundity. Görgesets off on a quest to find the princess he’s been fantasizing about. Instead he encounters a troubled woman, Gertraud. When she is brutally attacked for being a witch, Görge rescues her and brings her back home. Finally he figures out that she is the woman of his dreams after all. 

Conductor Gerd Albrecht shows an incisive grasp of Zemlinsky’s opulent late-Romantic style. The terrific cast of singers get right to the heart of this inspired music. With the only other recording of this opera, James Conlon’s from 2001, unavailable, it’s disappointing that Capriccio did not include the libretto with this release. Otherwise, it’s a most welcome reissue.

04 ClytemnestraClytemnestra
Ruby Hughes; BBC National Orchestra of Wales; Jac van Steen
BIS BIS-2408 SACD (naxosdirect.com)

The maverick Welsh soprano Ruby Hughes is the star of this alluring collection of song cycles which opens with five songs by Gustav Mahler based on the poetry of Friedrich Rückert, sung with admirable sensitivity and a clear, light voice. There are of course landmark recordings of these lieder that are richer in tone and emotionally more compelling, by the likes of Janet Baker, Christa Ludwig and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; nevertheless Hughes offers a youthful and well-considered take on these intimate songs.

The Viennese premiere of Alban Berg’s Altenberg Lieder in March 1913 was the cause of a legendary riot. Though only two of the five songs of the cycle were programmed, a member of the audience soon bellowed out that both the composer and poet (the whimsical picture-postcard texts were authored by Peter Altenberg) should be sent to the insane asylum. In fact, the poet was already there! Fisticuffs ensued and the remainder of the concert was abandoned. The effect on Berg was devastating. A complete performance of this astounding composition, which presages advances in chromaticism (including some proto-serial elements) that foreshadow those of his mentor Schoenberg, would not take place until 1952, long after his death. This is a most worthy contribution to the limited roster of recordings of this great work.

Clytemnestra, a 25-minute song cycle by the Welsh composer Rhian Samuel, is a vivid, blood-curdling setting of Aeschylus’s tale of the murder of Agamemnon by his wife. Commissioned by the BBC Wales Orchestra in 1994, Samuel’s libretto is constructed solely from Clytemnestra’s point of view. This is a garish, unabashedly cinematic work, massively orchestrated and incorporating some provocative electric bass guitar solos, compellingly brought to life in a riveting performance from both soloist and orchestra under the direction of their principal guest conductor Jac van Steen.

05 Agata ZubelApparition
Agata Zubel; Krzysztof Książek
CD accord ACD 263-2 (naxos.com)

The 20th century was a time of immense creativity, with the fundamental building blocks of musical composition and interpretation disassembled and reconstructed by some of Western music’s most legendary figures. Apparition explores a number of lesser-known and underappreciated composers from this period, including Barber, Crumb and Szymanowski.

This disc opens with Maurice Ravel’s Shéhérazade, an art song triptych based on the renowned Arabic folk tales of One Thousand and One Nights, most famously set to music by Rimsky-Korsakov. Ravel’s songs feature characteristic exoticism, combining “oriental” material with impressionistic harmonies and long vocal lines, expertly interpreted by Zubel and Książek. These traditional, almost Debussian works are sharply contrasted with George Crumb’s Apparition, a set of songs which combine the familiar with the avant-garde. Within this cycle, Crumb gives the singer her expected role, singing texts set to tunes, with a few exceptions such as the three Vocalises, which utilize the timbral aspect of the voice independent of textual tethers. The piano part, however, is a demanding essay in extended techniques throughout the cycle, as the pianist is required to utilize every part of the piano to produce percussive, shimmering, and rattling effects.

The remainder of this disc’s contents fall between these two stylistic extremes: Szymanowski’s Songs of a Fairy Tale Princess, Barber’s Opus 13 songs, and Fernando Obradors’ Canciones all align themselves more closely with Ravel than Crumb, bringing the 19th-century tradition of art song forward into the 20th. As a whole, Apparition is a well-thought-out and equally well-performed survey of piano-voice repertoire from the last century and well worth a listen, especially for those who appreciate the radical genius of George Crumb.  

06 Lang The LoserDavid Lang – The Loser
Rod Gilfry; Conrad Tao; Bang on a Can Opera Ensemble; Lesley Leighton
Cantaloupe Music CA21155 (cantaloupemusic.com)

When I hear a line like, “Strangely enough I met Glenn on Monk’s Mountain, my childhood mountain, which is also called Suicide Mountain, since it is especially suited for suicide and every week at least three or four people throw themselves off it into the void,” and find myself, despite myself, laughing, I know I’m experiencing the misanthropic comedy of Thomas Bernhard. In this case I’m listening to the nameless narrator of Bernhard’s novel, The Loser, who, as many Canadian readers know, is obsessed with the Glenn mentioned above, last name Gould. Aside from pianistic virtuosity, though, this “Glenn” is ultimately fictional, serving as a paragon of perfection against which Bernhard’s frustrated narrator measures his own failures.

David Lang’s opera adaptation of the novel, sung by baritone Rod Gilfry, offers an outstanding musical correlative to Bernhard’s centri-fugal prose. The melodies, deceptively simple, gain complexity through gradual repetition and subtle layering over time, much like Bernhard’s text itself, and the minimalist accompaniment from the note-perfect Bang on a Can Opera Ensemble captures the inner echoes of the narrator’s solipsistic musings. 

Considering Bernhard once wrote that “a prize is invariably only awarded by incompetent people who want to piss on your head,” it somehow feels wrong to apprise The Loser, but Lang, Gilfry and company’s interpretation is brilliant, deserving full praise. Can someone please convince them to perform it in Toronto, maybe at, say, Glenn Gould Studio…?

07 Sarah SleanSarah Slean
Sarah Slean; Symphony Nova Scotia; Bernhard Gueller
Centrediscs CMCCD27820 (cmccanada.org)

Tonal/atonal classical, popular and musical theatre genres meet amicably in this ambitious Canadian collaboration by vocalist/actress/poet/composer Sarah Slean, Symphony Nova Scotia and composer Christos Hatzis.

Hatzis’ three-song/movement Lamento was written for a Symphony Nova Scotia/Slean concert in April 2012. Based on Purcell’s aria When I am Laid in Earth from Dido and Aeneas, his self-described exploration of the Baroque stepwise descending “lamento bass” creates grief-stricken sounds of loss of loved ones, mental illness and suicide. The opening When This is Over features heartbeat-reminiscent drum beats, Slean’s lower vocals with clarinet contrasts, huge orchestral sound, a cappella sections, and modern/pop/dance grooves shifts. My Song nicely uses flute-played daybreak bird songs, waltz feel, singalong vocal melody and loud closing musical theatre-like finale build. The complex yet accessible Despair is wrought with heart-wrenching atonal wide-pitched vocals/instruments, contrasting dynamics, instrumental interludes, eerie squeaks, Baroque/Purcell effects and gloomy repeated vocal “remember me” finale.

In his final season, Bernhard Gueller conducted SNS in Ecstasy (2018) by Hatzsis (music) and Slean (text), a three-movement musical portrayal of the intellectual and mystical human mind. Slean’s clearly articulated higher vocals drive Love, and likewise Logos, with its contrasting calm and intense dance sections. Bhakti is a calmer atonal/tonal work with unexpected orchestra member whispers, held notes and Slean’s a cappella vocal finale.

Performers, compositions and CBC live performance recordings are exquisite. Dramatic music fans definitely will love this. And everyone else, take a listen! Magical!

01 Telemann RecorderTelemann – Recorder Sonatas
Caroline Eidsten Dahl; Kate Hearne; Christian Kjos
LAWO LWC1181 (naxosdirect.com)

If virtuoso recorder playing is your thing, then Caroline Eidsten Dahl really delivers on this CD. Of the 34 movements, 18 are fast and she plays them at tempos that leave even the listener breathless! Her virtuosity is particularly extraordinary in the second movement of the Sonata in C Major, TWV41C2 and the first movement of the Sonata in C Major, TWV41C5. (BTW, C major is the perfect key for alto recorder virtuosity because of fingerings and because it lies in the middle of the instrument’s two-octave range.)

To focus one’s attention solely on the recorder soloist, however, is to miss much that makes this recording outstanding and Telemann’s composing remarkable. The fact is that this is a collaboration by three equal musicians, and that these “solo” sonatas are in reality trios. If you focus your listening on the cello part, played by Irish cellist Kate Hearne, you can hear it, sometimes just as virtuosic as the recorder, as the lower part of a duo. And the harpsichord, played by Christian Kjos, not only fills in the harmonies implied by the other two parts, but also supplies harmonic momentum and adds sparkling melodic solos when opportunities arise. 

In the short movements of these nine sonatas – the shortest is 47 seconds, the longest three and a half minutes – one can gain insight into the composer’s mind, crafting each movement into a unique miniature masterpiece. 

This disc offers so much, not only to recorder aficionados but also to music lovers, musicians and composers.

02 Schumann TriosSchumann – Piano Trios Vol. 1
Kungsbacka Piano Trio
Bis BIS-2437 SACD (naxosdirect.com)

The piano trio – namely, a combination of piano, violin and cello – has a curious history with composers of historical note, many of whom either wrote very few or none at all. One may attribute such a lack of attention to the apparent balancing issues when writing for this combination of instruments. Others will mention the string quartet taking hold of composers’ attention as the most favourable chamber music combination. An exception to this trend would be Haydn who wrote no less than 45 piano trios in his impressive output. Haydn aside, it remains true that the most celebrated composers in history paid little attention to this genre: Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and Dvořák all writing less than ten. Robert Schumann belongs to this group, having written three piano trios and a Fantasiestücke (Fantasy Pieces, also with the piano trio instrumentation) in his lifetime. 

In this latest release, the Swedish Kungsbacka Piano Trio has included Schumann’s Piano Trios 1 and 2, and the Fantasiestücke in an impressive volume that contains masterful interpretations of these works. The Kungsbackas have earned a well-deserved international reputation since their formation in 1997. Their latest recording is an excellent example of how the ensemble continues to deliver world-class musicianship and expressiveness to listeners around the world. This recording does great justice not only to the works recorded, but to the genre itself – reminding us that this instrumental combination is indeed worthy of any composer’s attention if performed by the right musicians. 

The members of the Kungsbacka Trio have an impressive ability to merge their sound into a single instrument, a quality that brings a sonorous lyrical element to the music not present in other recordings of this kind. This high quality recording leaves the listener wanting more – a pleasing thought since there will be a second volume coming soon.

03 Max BruchBruch – 8 Pieces Op.83
Philon Trio
Analekta AN 2 8923 (analekta.com)

It is so easy to love Max Bruch’s music, and particularly these works for clarinet, viola and piano. His Acht Stücke Op.83 were composed for his son, Max Felix, a noted clarinetist of the early 20th century. They are the sole material on the recording released this year by the Philon Trio, comprised of David Dias da Silva on clarinet, Adam Newman, viola, and pianist Camilla Köhnken.

The work is quite often performed in excerpts, for the simple reason that the pieces vary so much in character and duration that there is no compelling reason to present them all as if they formed a united suite. As the only material on this disc, one might carp that something might have been added as a bolster to the value; the total playing time is just under 35 minutes. Possibly there were time or financial constraints. Still, including Schumann’s Märchenerzählungen, for context and contrast with another work for the same forces, would have been welcome.

But I won’t carp; I will stick to the positives: these are great performances. Tending more to a dreamy or meditative character for the most part, the collection is leavened by numbers four and especially seven, both of which are presented at a good pace, demonstrating how technically able these fine musicians are. Köhnken hails from Bruch’s home city Köln, and seems to have his spirit guiding her playing. Da Silva’s sound is airy and fluid at once, and while sometimes he fights the demon of sharpness, he most often wins. Newman’s playing is agile and sure. The mix seems to favour the clarinet sound overall, an odd balance anomaly that points to perhaps a hurried production or difficult acoustic.

04 Flute ConcertosNielsen; Ibert; Arnold – Flute Concertos
Clara Andrada; Frankfurt Radio Symphony; Jaime Martin
Ondine ODE 1340-2 (naxosdirect.com)

What a good idea to trace the dramatic transition from Romanticism to Modernism through flute concerti by three composers of three consecutive generations: Carl Nielsen, born in 1865, Jacques Ibert, born in 1890 and Sir Malcolm Arnold, born in 1921. The age differences notwithstanding, all three concerti were written in the 28 years from 1926 to 1954.

The first movement of the Nielsen concerto (1926) seems to me to capture this strange and abrupt transition, opening with a stormy – modernist – flourish by the orchestra, answered by a long, lyrical melody, which could almost have been written by Nielsen’s Romantic predecessor, Carl Reinecke. The angular second subject, however, is without argument the product of a 20th-century sensibility, most effectively played, I might add, with calm rhythmic stability by soloist Clara Andrada.

Similarly the second movement of Ibert’s concerto (1932) begins with a long sustained melodic line, played with great grace and refinement by Andrada, before becoming progressively more disquieted, reflecting perhaps the growing tensions and anxieties of the late 1920s and early 30s.

The third movement of Arnold’s Flute Concerto No.1 (1954), fast, short, exciting – and tonal – is unquestionably a product of the 20th century. Arnold’s skill as a composer is very much in evidence in this movement, as he builds energy and excitement through the alternation of soloist and orchestra.

I must commend conductor, Jaime Martín, a flutist himself, and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, for their exemplary rapport with the soloist – musical teamwork at its best.

05 EscalesEscales – French Orchestral Works
Sinfonia of London; John Wilson
Chandos CHSA 5252 (naxosdirect.com)

While the subtitle of this disc is “French Orchestral Works,” it could just as easily be called “Spanish Music from France,” for that is what comprises the majority of Escales’ contents. The opening and closing tracks are Chabrier’s España and Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, clearly evoking a strong Spanish influence, while Ibert’s Escales outlines a three-part journey from France, through Italy, to Spain. Between these works are more standard essays in 20th century French composition, with such classics as Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Massenet’s Méditation.

The interesting subtext to this disc is that, although the Spanish-infused pieces are clearly and deliberately exotic and meant to sound Spanish, they are immediately recognizable as being French. Perhaps this is because the works themselves are only caricatures of another style, or perhaps because they are surrounded by more characteristically familiar music of the same school; regardless of the reason, this disc makes a strong case for France’s inherent national musical identity through its composers. 

The Sinfonia of London are fine interpreters of this rich and lush material, coaxing out the timbral subtleties of each composer’s material. From the tranquil openings of Debussy’s Prélude to the driving conclusion of Ravel’s Rapsodie, the character of this music is expressed to full effect, aided in large part by the terrific quality of the sound itself. Released as a super audio CD, Escales captures a high degree of sonic detail, such as the robust spectrum of overtones produced by the divided string section, and translates these into a product that is remarkably close to a live performance in a concert hall, ideal for these colourful impressionistic works.

06 Strauss ZarathustraStrauss – Also sprach Zarathustra; Burleske
Daniil Trifonov; Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Mariss Jansons
BR Klassik 900182 (naxosdirect.com)

The most remarkable aspect of this iconic work – apart from the work itself – is that Richard Strauss started out as someone who was brought up to almost despise the work of Wagner and Liszt, who created the very form of one of Strauss’ most famous works. The nine-part symphonic tone poem, Also sprach Zarathustra is a spectacular homage to Nietzsche’s philosophy of the Superman and his celebration of human power and energy.

Strauss’ response to Nietzsche’s book is a work of enormous proportions, a free-flowing fantasia which, apart from its philosophical aspirations, creates some truly awe-inspiring orchestral sounds. Not the least of these is the work’s inspired “sunrise” opening, depiction of a primordial darkness-to-light so elemental that the titanic, sustained contra-octave C played on the organ, contrabassoon, contrabass and bass drum begins barely audible to the human ear.

This is a stupendous live recording. The Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks play with adventure and excitement under Marriss Jansons’ inspired leadership. Few other versions manage to give a convincing sense of the shape to this work. The Burleske, written ten years earlier, may belie a Brahmsian influence, but also foretells the future of a composer seized with the true immensity of symphonic sound. Pianist Daniil Trifonov is particularly dazzling with exemplary lucidity, showing why he is the darling of the cognoscenti today as he employs the sweetest tones to create a great Romantic wash of colour.

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