01 Flights of AngelsWhile I don’t personally put much store in celestial beings, in these dire times I concede that we need all the help, comfort and support we can get anywhere we can find it. It seems that the extraordinary cellist Margaret Maria firmly believes in angels, and they are an ongoing source of inspiration in her work. Her latest, Flights of Angels (enchanten.bandcamp.com), once again creates an orchestral texture by combining many layers of sounds generated by her solo cello. From the artist’s website (enchanten.com) we learn this is meant to be: “Healing music being released into a broken world. Music created from otherworldly energies and the spirit world that can only be felt when you open your spirit to the invisible that exists just beyond what we can see. This music represents my spiritual journey in finding my music and moments of subconscious/dream states where I felt compelled to move in a certain direction, as if guided by a light towards an idea or emotion…” 

Beginning with Snow Angel, “overjoyed by the dancing snowflakes as they descend upon her wings,” we embark upon a journey that takes us through many states of being and consciousness: An Impossible Gift (to feel everything, to be a channel for both the dark and the light); An Angel for Maria (a special angel or spirit... one of the most beautiful Angels); Another World Opens (limitless, timeless, expansive); Tears of an Angel (listening to the sadness in the world); Passing Through (reality passes in and out of consciousness and finally, through); Breathtaking Light (a liminal light... made of half earth and half heaven); What If (...what if / In your dream / You went to heaven / And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower...); Floating Hope (the strongest emotion that keeps propelling me forward is hope...); And They Kept Kissing (heaven on earth to my tortured soul); Be Love (...a place where I can float in a space of love) and finally Princes of Heaven (I have been sent four Archangels in my life...).

Having disclosed my scepticism of celestial creatures I must consider it a coincidence that as I write this on April 21 while listening to Snow Angel I am enchanted to find myself watching a veritable blizzard outside my window. It has now passed and it’s a beautiful, albeit blustery, sunny day. Hopefully, like the late season snow, the COVID-19 virus too shall pass quickly. In the interim I take heart from Margaret Maria’s music. It does have healing powers, if the calm and gentle invigoration I’ve been feeling while listening is any indication.

As with almost everyone I am sure, self-isolation (with my dear wife Sharon) has curtailed much of my activity, foremost that of making music with other people. As regular readers will know, I am an avid amateur cellist, and in the months before this lockdown my string quartet had been working on several movements from Richard Krug’s arrangement of Schubert’s Winterreise. We were almost ready to bring in a singer to work with us when the pandemic reared its ugly head and all bets were off for the moment. I first encountered the string quartet version several years ago when I received a recording with baritone Johan Reuter and the Copenhagen String Quartet, of which Krug is the cellist (you can find my April 2018 review at thewholenote.com). Last fall, in my first outing following knee replacement surgery, I had the pleasure of experiencing a live performance by Daniel Lichti and the Penderecki String Quartet, during which I found myself thinking, hey, I could play (at least some of) that! I contacted Krug and purchased the score and parts to his arrangement and shortly after began to rehearse with my friends. 

02Winterreise for QuartetI look forward to getting back to rehearsal as soon as this crisis is over, but in the interim another interesting transcription has come my way. Winterreise for string quartet (Solo Musica SM 335 naxosdirect.com) is a purely instrumental version of the classic song cycle arranged by Andreas Höricht, violist of the featured Voyager Quartet. Höricht has taken half of the original songs and linked them with intermezzi of his own design to make a 50-minute suite (the entire cycle spans about 75 minutes). I have mixed feelings about the result. While it works quite well in its own right, and of course Schubert’s tunes are among the finest, I still miss the singer and the emotional content provided by the words. And I miss some of the songs, most particularly two of the ones my group has been focused on, Die Wetterfahne and Erstarrung, this latter presenting the most difficult challenge to the cellist in Krug’s arrangement and the one on which I have spent the most time and effort. That being said, Höricht’s interludes provide useful bridges between the selected songs and bring a contemporary sensibility without being particularly jarring. He has chosen seven songs from the first 19 of the cycle, but presents the final five in sequence ending, of course, with the Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy man) in a suitably haunting performance. 

I say “of course” but in another transmogrification of Winterreise this was not the case. In January of this year Philippe Sly and the Chimera Project brought a live performance of their stunning Klezmer/Roma arrangement for baritone, violin, clarinet, trombone and accordion to Koerner Hall. In their rendition – fully staged and performed entirely from memory – the evening begins with a surprisingly peppy instrumental version of the opening song Gute Nacht before proceeding through the other 23 songs in order. After Der Leiermann with the singer accompanied by the quartet, instead of being the end of the performance, Sly, alone on the stage, then gave a chilling rendition of Gute Nacht accompanying himself on the hurdy-gurdy. It was unsettling and has stayed with me ever since. You can find Pamela Margles’ June 2019 review of the Chimera Project Analekta recording at thewholenote.com. 

03 Zephyr QuartetOther than the music of Peter Sculthorpe, I’m not well versed in Australian culture or repertoire, but from the opening strains of Hilary Kleinig’s Great White Bird on the Zephyr Quartet’s new CD Epilogue (navonarecords.com) I knew I was listening to music from Down Under, with its drones, overtones and distinctive rhythms. Touted as Australia’s “leading genre-defying explorers of dynamic cross-artform, multi-focused collaborations,” Zephyr was founded in 1999 and has since garnered numerous awards and accolades. The members all compose, arrange and improvise and their latest release brings together works written by them between 2013 and 2019. Cellist Kleinig contributes three tuneful works, Cockatoos and Exquisite Peace in addition to the opening number. Violinist Belinda Gehlert is represented by the three-movement tribute to notorious women Femme Fatale and the concluding title track. Violinist Emily Tulloch and violist Jason Thomas each contribute a pair. Tulloch’s Blindfold Gift starts as a gentle pizzicato meditation which turns into a minimalist lilting jig of sorts. Much like the disc itself, Thomas’ Time’s Timeless Art, the longest selection, is one extended harmonious arch in which time indeed seems to stand still. A balm for these troubled times.  

04 Piano QuintetsTreasures from the New World (Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0609
naxosdirect.com) features piano quintets by Amy Beach (1867-1944) and Henrique Oswald (1852-1931) performed by Clélia Iruzun and the Coull Quartet. Beach’s Piano Quintet dates from 1908 and had more than 40 performances during her lifetime. She premiered it with the Kneisel Quartet, with whom she had previously performed the quintets of Schumann and Brahms. While exhibiting both a distinctive and mature voice, the work acknowledges the early influence of those two masters. 

Although Beach has been receiving well-deserved attention recently and recordings of her music are proliferating – there are currently 19 titles listed on Grigorian.com – Henrique Oswald is a new name to me. He was born in Brazil of Swiss and Italian parents and after early studies in São Paulo he travelled to Italy to study and remained in Florence for some 30 years. He returned to Brazil in 1902 where he accepted the post of director of the Instituto Nacional de Música in Rio de Janeiro. His influences were primarily the French Romantics and he was dubbed “the Brazilian Fauré” by his friend Arthur Rubinstein. Composed in 1895, toward the end of his sojourn in Florence, the Piano Quintet reflects not only his fondness of French idioms, its outer movements look back to the music of Robert Schumann, making a wonderful pairing with Beach’s quintet. 

The charming disc also includes a short work for piano and ensemble by Brazilian Marlos Nobre (b.1939) who says “I can say I am a contemporary composer still capable of writing a beautiful melody,” and Beach’s celebrated Romance for Violin and Piano with Iruzun and Roger Coull. The performances throughout are idiomatic and compelling. 

05 Aspects of PulitzerThe final disc that caught my attention this month also features music from the New World, in this case mid-to-late century works by distinguished American composers. Aspects of America: Pulitzer Edition (PentaTone PTC 5186 763
pentatonemusic.com) features Pulitzer Prize-winning works by Walter Piston, Morton Gould and Howard Hanson performed by the Oregon Symphony under Carlos Kalmar. It was Hanson (1896-1981) that drew me to this disc, as he was the one to convince Canadian icon John Weinzweig to pursue a master’s degree at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester NY, where he studied under Bernard Rogers in the years before WW2. Although not a result of the formal teaching he received there, this period proved seminal in Weinzweig’s development by virtue of his exposure to 12-tone composition through the works of Alban Berg which he found in the school library. While he didn’t become a strict serialist, Weinzweig did incorporate dodecaphonic principles into his own compositions, seemingly the first Canadian to so, and later passed them on to his own students at the University of Toronto. 

Hanson, himself, was considered a neo-Romantic composer by his peers. He personally rejected the serial approach although he did incorporate some dissonance and bi-tonality in his work. He won the Pulitzer in 1944 for his Symphony No.4, Op.34 “Requiem.” This is one of seven symphonies and Hanson claimed it as his favourite. It’s in four movements, named for parts of the Catholic Mass for the Dead: Kyrie, Resquiescat, Dies irae and Lux aeterna. Although the earliest work here, it is placed last on the program, with its “eternal light” providing an uplifting and ethereal closing to the disc. There is no mention in the notes as to whether the symphony references the global war that was raging at the time of composition. 

Chronologically next, Piston’s Symphony No.7, is the first selection on the disc. Piston (1894-1976) studied in France with Nadia Boulanger and Paul Dukas after attending Harvard, where he later taught from 1926 until retiring in 1960. His illustrious students included the likes of Elliott Carter and Leonard Bernstein. His textbook, Harmony, was published in 1941 and is still in use today. The Pulitzer he won in 1961 for the Seventh Symphony was actually his second, the first being awarded for his Third Symphony in 1948. The Seventh starts ponderously but soon develops into a driving Con moto before receding quietly. This is followed by a meditative Andante pastorale movement; the symphony finishes with a boisterous Allegro festevole

The most recent work is Stringmusic by Morton Gould (1913-1996) which won the Pulitzer in 1995. It was written for Mstislav Rostropovich and “showcases all the possible sounds and colours of a string orchestra,” although anyone familiar with Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima might disagree. It’s a lyrical five-movement work – Prelude, Tango, Dirge, Ballad and Strum (perpetual motion) – which serves as a fitting monument to the life of a man whose eclectic career spanned vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley to Broadway and concert halls around the world. This excellent disc is part of an ongoing tribute to American music from PentaTone and the Oregon Symphony. 

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 British Violin SonatasEnglish violinist Clare Howick garnered rave reviews for her previous five CDs of violin music by British composers, and it’s easy to hear why with her latest contribution to the genre, British Violin Sonatas with pianist Simon Callaghan (SOMM SOMMCD 0610 naxosdirect.com).

The six composers represented were exact contemporaries: Gordon Jacob (1895-1984); William Walton (1902-83); Lennox Berkeley (1903-89); Alan Rawsthorne (1905-71); William Alwyn (1905-85); and Kenneth Leighton (1929-88). Walton’s Sonata and Alwyn’s Sonatina are quite beautiful works which leave you wondering why they’re not heard more often; Leighton’s Sonata No.1 is another absolute gem.

The three short but delightful Jacob pieces – Elegy, Caprice and Little Dancer – are premiere recordings. Three more short but lovely pieces – Rawsthorne’s Pierrette: Valse Caprice and Berkeley’s Elegy Op.33 No.2 and Toccata Op.33 No.3 – complete an enthralling recital.

Howick plays with a gorgeous free-flowing rhapsodic strength and passion, matched by Callaghan in all respects. Superb recorded sound and balance, with a rich, deep and sonorous piano and full, warm violin add to a simply outstanding disc.

02 Hemsing GriegMy sheet of notes for Grieg - The Violin Sonatas, the stunning Super Audio CD by Norwegian violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing and Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski (BIS-2456 naxosdirect.com) has one word at the top – “Wow!!” – that could easily suffice as the entire review.

It should come as no surprise that Hemsing has an innate affinity for the music of Norway’s favourite musical son, but the high level of her interpretation here is still a real ear-opener, with big, spacious and expansive playing in the Sonatas No.1 in F Major Op.8, No.2 in G Major Op.13 and No.3 in C Minor Op.45. Trpčeski is a fine partner, clearly at one with Heming in all respects.

Heming’s own solo violin composition Homecoming – Variations on a folk tune from Valdres – showcases a tune her great-great-grandfather sang that found its way into Grieg’s solo piano Ballade Op.24. It’s a brief tour de force that provides a fitting end to an outstanding CD.

03 Korngold Violin ConcertoErich Wolfgang Korngold was an astonishingly precocious and gifted musical talent, considered in his early years in Austria to be the greatest composer prodigy since Mozart. Evidence of his youthful abilities is paired with the most popular work from his later years in Hollywood on Korngold Violin Concerto & String Sextet with violinist Andrew Haveron, the RTÉ Concert Orchestra under John Wilson, and the Sinfonia of London Chamber Ensemble (Chandos CHAN 20135 naxosdirect.com).

Although fully revised in 1945, the concerto was actually drafted in 1937 before Korngold moved to America. Essentially reworking material from his 1930s Hollywood film scores, it’s an unashamedly romantic work in sweeping cinematic style, and given a terrific performance by Haveron, whose lustrous tone combines brilliance and warmth in an immensely satisfying recording.

Haveron is also first violin in the Sextet, a remarkably impressive four-movement work written when Korngold was only 17. While there are shades of Brahms and hints of early Schoenberg, an eminent critic at the premiere wrote that Korngold’s signature was unmistakeable from the very first bar.

04 Elinor FreyCellist-composer Giuseppe Clemente Dall’Abaco (1710-1805) was esteemed throughout the major European musical centres, but while his unaccompanied 11 Caprices have been published his 35 accompanied sonatas remain virtually unknown. Five of them – the Sonatas in A Major ABV30, C Minor ABV32, D Minor ABV35, VII in C Major ABV18 and VIII in G Major ABV19, the latter usually incorrectly attributed to Sammartini – are featured on Dall’Abaco Cello Sonatas, a delightful CD from the Montreal-based cellist Elinor Frey, accompanied by Mauro Valli (cello), Federica Bianchi (harpsichord) and Giangiacomo Pinardi (archlute) (Passacaille 1069 passacaille.be).

The music is Italianate and full of sunlight and brilliance. In her excellent and extensive booklet notes, Frey comments on Dall’Abaco’s experimenting with newly fashionable qualities that we now associate with galant or pre-classical music, and on the many characteristics which we identify with better-known cello music from later decades by the likes of Boccherini or Haydn.

It is indeed cello music that “remains fresh, audacious, alluring and often utterly beautiful,” and is a significant contribution to the early cello repertoire. Frey’s critical edition of the complete 35 cello sonatas of Dall’Abaco is due to be published by Edition Walhall this year.

Listen to 'Dall’Abaco Cello Sonatas' Now in the Listening Room

05 Barbora KolarovaImp in Impulse is the outstanding debut solo CD by the Czech violinist Barbora Kolářová. The title work was written for her by the American composer Pascal Le Boeuf and receives its premiere recording here, Jean Françaix’s Theme with 8 Variations for Solo Violin and Klement Slavický’s Partita for Solo Violin completing the disc (Furious Artisans FACD6822 furiousartisans.com).

Kolářová says that she loves searching for pieces that are generally unknown and unrecorded, and that speak to her artistically and emotionally; her desire to record these compositions and to be the first to share them with the world was the impetus for this CD.

Certainly all three works here have a great deal to offer, with the Slavický Partita particularly impressive. Kolářová plays with a remarkably strong, rich tone, terrific rhythmic drive and technical brilliance: you can watch her perform the title work on YouTube.

Listen to 'Imp in Impulse' Now in the Listening Room

06 chez les SchumannsOnly two of the three Schumanns featured on Un moment musical chez les Schumann, the new CD from cellist Cyrielle Golin and pianist Antoine Mourlas were related, but you’d never know it from the music (Klarthe K093 klarthe.com).

Robert Schumann’s Fünf Stücke im Volkston Op.102 is paired with sonatas by the German brothers Georg and Camillo Schumann, both gifted organists, pianists, conductors and composers. From a compositional viewpoint their not being well known may be due to the traditional style of their relatively late works, as well as the overwhelming influence of Johannes Brahms which indirectly unites their sonatas with the Robert Schumann work.

The Sonata Op.19 by Georg Schumann (1866-1952) is from 1897; the Sonata No.1 Op.59 by his brother Camillo (1872-1946) from the even later date of 1905. Both are impressive three-movement works in the strongest German Romantic tradition – sweeping, passionate writing which is way above the merely competent.

Fine and resonant performances make for a fascinating CD.

07 Beethoven MandolinThere’s more than just Beethoven Suites on the new mandolin and piano CD from Julien Martineau and pianist Vanessa Benelli Mosell that features works either by Beethoven or inspired by his fondness for the erstwhile folk instrument (Naïve V7083 naxosdirect.com). 

Beethoven is represented by four short works: the Adagio ma non troppo WoO43b; the two Sonatines in C Minor WoO43a and C Major WoO44a and the Andante con variazioni WoO44b. The Allegretto from Symphony No.7 is heard in a transcription by Hans Sitt.

The major work on the CD is by Beethoven’s direct contemporary Johann Nepomuk Hummel – his Grande sonate Op.37a, rightly described as a masterpiece. Fritz Kreisler’s Rondino on a Theme by Beethoven, an arrangement of Walter Murphy’s pop hit A Fifth of Beethoven and Corentin Apparailly’s Lettre à l’immortelle bien-aimée, written especially for this CD, complete the disc.

Martineau handles the technical challenges effortlessly and musically, with Mosell finding a nice balance between the original keyboard sound and the modern piano, never allowing the accompaniment to sound too heavy or overwhelming.

08 Vivaldi 63The remarkable Vivaldi Edition project created by musicologist Alberto Basso and the Naïve record label to record all 450 pieces in the collection of Vivaldi’s own personal scores in the National Library in Turin reaches Volume 63 with Vivaldi Concerti per violino VIII ‘Il teatro, with the French violinist Julien Chauvin and Le Concert de la Loge, the ensemble he founded in 2015 (Naïve OP 30585 backl.ink/107881253). 

There are six concertos here: in C Major RV187; B Minor RV387; D Minor RV235; D Major RV217; G Minor RV321; and B-flat Major RV366 “Il Carbonelli”. All are in the Fast-Slow-Fast three-movement form established by Vivaldi, with the D major concerto a particular stand-out with its lovely slow movement and dazzling finale.

Chauvin provides impeccable solo playing, with a bright, resonant clarity supported by a strong continuo and bass in works that the booklet essay rightly notes exhibit clear links with Vivaldi’s vocal music.

09 Johnny Gandelsman BachSilk Road violinist Johnny Gandelsman follows up his outstanding Sonatas & Partitas with JS BACH: COMPLETE CELLO SUITES Transcribed for Violin, including the first-ever recording of the Sixth Suite on a five-string violin (In A Circle Records ICR013 johnnygandelsman.com).

There’s no booklet, so it’s not clear exactly what Gandelsman means in the promo blurb quote: “In the violin pieces, I tried to follow the manuscript as much as I could. The cello suites feel different. What I see is an implication for infinite possibilities, the way an incredible improviser can find endless variation within the simplest form.” Cellos are tuned an octave and a fifth lower than violins – CGDA as opposed to GDAE – and with the exception of the Suite No.6 in D Major the suites here are transposed to the corresponding violin string, e.g. from G major to D major, or from D minor to A minor. Other than that, it’s difficult to discern any major changes without the benefit of a score.

Certainly Gandelsman brings the same effortless control and musicianship to these suites as he did to the Sonatas & Partitas, and once you get used to the much higher register and resulting lack of tonal depth it’s a truly engrossing and enlightening journey.

10 Healing ModesGandelsman is also the first violinist in the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, whose new 2CD set Healing Modes pairs Beethoven’s String Quartet No.15 in A Minor Op.132 with five short works written for the performers in an exploration of the power of music to heal body, mind and spirit (In A Circle Records IRC014 brooklynrider.com).

The lengthy central Adagio molto – Andante of Beethoven’s quartet reflected a period when he was recovering from a serious intestinal infection, and the new works address topics ranging from personal illness through mental health to current social issues. Compositions by Matana Roberts, Reena Esmail, Gabriela Lena Frank, Du Yun and Caroline Shaw are placed around and between the first three of the five Beethoven movements, which tends to weaken the impact of the latter without notably adding to that of the new works. 

How successful you feel this is will probably depend to a large extent on how comfortable you are with contemporary string works and their juxtaposition with traditional, albeit forward-looking masterpieces.

11 Great VIolins 3 StradivariViolinist Peter Sheppard Skærved continues his fascinating series The Great Violins with the 2CD Volume 3: Antonio Stradivari, 1685 – The Klagenfurt Manuscript (athene ath23206 naxosdirect.com).

The manuscript, which also dates from the mid-1680s was found in a Carinthian convent, and Skærved offers the opinion that the anonymous composer was probably one of the nuns or lay sisters. All 96 movements for solo violin are recorded here, the overwhelming majority of them only between one and two minutes in length. An astonishing 51 involve any one of six scordaturas – retuning of the strings – although it’s difficult to identify the resulting “striking changes in colour and timbre” that Skærved references in his extensive and extraordinarily detailed booklet essay that explores every possible aspect of the challenges and possibilities that he encountered in the project.

It’s a record of a quite remarkable personal journey of discovery, and while not a set for the casual listener, it’s an absolute mine of information for anyone interested in the violin music of the period. 

01 Beethoven GoodyearBeethoven – The Complete Piano Concertos
Stewart Goodyear; BBC National Orchestra of Wales; Andrew Constantine
Orchid Classics ORC100127 (naxosdirect.com)

Fond of storytelling, the dauntless Stewart Goodyear has long been associated with Ludwig van Beethoven, preferring a cyclic approach to the composer’s catalogue. Dubbed “The New Testament” of keyboard literature, Beethoven’s 32 sonatas have frequently been performed by Goodyear in a single day; he has also recorded the full cycle. 

Now, a recent release from Orchid Classics features yet another testament: the five piano concertos, spanning three full discs, in chronological order. In the opening essay of the liner notes, Goodyear recounts his first meeting with the concerti, at age nine: “…great theatre, great drama, great virtuosity, and most importantly, great merriment. I felt like I was hearing Beethoven the entertainer, the actor, the storyteller, the playwright.”

Goodyear’s considerable success at performing the complete cycle of sonatas has led him to this point: the concertos. He continues to probe the multifaceted nature of Beethoven’s craft – as he’s outlined in the observation above. With evolving depth of knowledge and stylistic insight, Goodyear celebrates these cornerstones of the concerto catalogue, aiming for a kind of narrative arc, from the youthful first, Op.15 to the fifth, Op.73, the “Emperor.” Choice of orchestral collaborator for this ambitious project has been apt: Andrew Constantine and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales coexist with Goodyear’s musical vision, offering an attractive kind of vigour and dedication.

Like the impressive lineage of Beethoven exponents before him, Goodyear retains a pianistic perspective that is invariably clear and pronounced. If anything, he seems galvanized by the past achievements of great artists who have recorded this repertoire – Alfred Brendel, Wilhelm Kempff and Artur Schnabel, to name but a few: mighty company indeed! 

Adding various touches of his own, Goodyear experiments with early Romantic rubato, often shaping musical lines in unusual ways. His choice of tempi can tend toward surprise, as he takes characterful liberties and rests, seldom ventured by others. He does prove master of quicksilver textural changes; at best, these sharp turns offer rushes of excitement, steering the listener headlong from one structural pillar to the next, leaping – bounding – along the way. The manner is particularly effective in cadenzas and freer passages which are delivered with the utmost control and technical tang.

Goodyear’s approach is consistently individual, finding niches to exploit for his own particular brand of music-making. Sometimes, the curious ebbs and flows of inflection betray unusual rhythmic pacing. Nevertheless, within such melodic curves, microstructures of motivic design are revealed – that very well might be Goodyear’s intention! Omnipresent is a low-fi, headlong sense of chase: a playful, almost childlike glee detected in much of the fast, rhythmic material, particularly in the early concertos, Nos.1 and 2

There are moments of tenderness and cajoling here that tug at our hearts – a side of Beethoven one should hardly forget about. As faithful soloist, Goodyear opens up to us with valiant vulnerability. As per his own claim, this “vulnerability” is a quality learned from Beethoven’s 32 sonatas and apparently, one he continues to enshrine.

Adam Sherkin

02 Mathieu Gaudet Schubert Late Inspirations COVERSchubert – Late Inspirations
Mathieu Gaudet
Analekta AN 2 9182 (analekta.com)

Mathieu Gaudet has recently embarked on a Schubert project, presenting the lion’s share of the composer’s works for keyboard. While themed Late Inspirations, the latest disc (Volume 2) opens with an early sonata, followed by two other works: the curious Ungarische Melodie, D817 and the Drei Klavierstücke, D946.

Gaudet’s artistry is quintessentially suited to Schubert: it possesses a tender, inward nature that, while personal, is never furtive; Gaudet consistently cherishes every miraculous musical turn, sharing them generously with his listener (and even ornamenting certain melodies and harmonies along the way!). The music of Schubert – clearly a lifelong vocation for Gaudet – seems the perfect platform for his aptly controlled, cultivated musicianship. When it comes to the Austrian master, sung indelibly from Gaudet’s piano, we are at once nourished and enlightened. 

The five-movement Sonata in E major is rarely played. In the hands of Gaudet, this surprising – even quirky – piece glistens and bubbles with a delightful lack of self-consciousness, justly suited to such early essays in the form. (Schubert wrote the sonata when he was 19.) Gaudet introduces this music to us like an old friend he’s been hobnobbing with for decades. One meets wondrous things: humour, juvenility and even a bit of Viennese buffoonery – a notable feat of Schubertian interpretation!

Perhaps it is worthy to note in these trying times of the COVID-19 pandemic that Gaudet is also a full-time emergency physician. We eagerly await the future instalments of his recording project once the current crisis has abated. Our world will need more Schubert like this.

Adam Sherkin

03 Wosner SchubertSchubert – Piano Sonatas D845; D894; D958; D960
Shai Wosner
Onyx ONYX 4217 (shaiwosner.com)

While Schubert succeeded in publishing only three piano sonatas during his lifetime, the depth of his world is fully revealed in this genre, especially in the late sonatas presented on this album. Shai Wosner, considered to be one of the most prominent Schubert interpreters, is so intimately connected to that world that he becomes a guide of sorts, leaving no corners of Schubert’s musical mind untouched. A beautiful essay Wosner wrote in the liner notes for this album brings these intimate explorations to the next level.

In contrast to the preceding period of songwriting, Schubert’s late piano sonatas opened up a different microcosm, putting on full display the unique ingredients of his musical mode – the uncanny combination of intimate gestures in a large setting. Four sonatas on this album show different aspects of that mode – dark, melancholy momentum in Sonata No.16 in A Minor, transparent stillness in Sonata No.18 in G Major, relentless fire in Sonata No.19 in C Minor, and yearning introspection in his last major work, Sonata No.21 in B-flat Major. All four seek to deconstruct the conventional sonata structure and do it with the vulnerability of distinct musical expressions. 

I love Wosner’s sound, the manipulation of colours and his control over the smallest of details. Equally convincing in lyrical language as he is in bold, fiery passages, Wosner brings in wholesome devotion to this remarkable music.

Ivana Popovic

04 Louise FarrencLouise Farrenc – Etudes & Variations for Solo Piano
Joanne Polk
Steinway & Sons 30133 (naxosdirect.com)

The name Louise Farrenc is practically unknown today, but during her lifetime, she was a respected composer and pedagogue at a time when the professional artistic world was very much male dominated.  Born in Paris in 1804, she was an almost exact contemporary of the novelist George Sand. Like Sand – and also Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn – she was forced to overcome societal biases of the time, but ultimately enjoyed a long and successful career. Her compositions include symphonies, overtures, chamber, choral and vocal music, and a great many pieces for solo piano. These latter are well represented on this Steinway & Sons recording featuring American pianist Joanne Polk.

The first three tracks on the disc are sets of variations; the first on a Russian song; the second on an aria from Bellini’s Norma; and the third, the Lutheran chorale Ein Feste Burg used in Meyerbeer’s successful opera Les Huguenots. The music is elegant and well crafted, with the original themes creatively varied. Throughout, Polk demonstrates a real affinity for the music, approaching it with considerable fluidity and élan.

The two sets of Etudes Op.26 making up the remainder of the disc were so highly regarded that they were ultimately adopted by the Conservatoire as required repertoire. There is much to appreciate in these musical gems – do I hear echoes of Mendelssohn and even Chopin? Many of them pose considerable technical challenges that surely only advanced pupils could have handled.

Despite its obscurity, Farrenc’s music should never be dismissed as secondary. There is evidence of fine creativity, matched here by an equally fine performance. Kudos to Joanne Polk and to Steinway & Sons for helping bring to light repertoire that might otherwise have been overlooked. Recommended.

Richard Haskell

05 Prokofiev ArgentieriRussian Piano Music Series Vol.14 – Sergei Prokofiev
Stefania Argentieri
Divine Art dda 25156 (divineartrecords.com)

Prokofiev began his career as a concert pianist; hence it comes as no surprise that piano music comprises a significant part of his output – three concertos, nine sonatas and more than 100 pieces of various types written over a 40-year period. His continual quest for freedom from typical 19th-century styles resulted in a particular eclecticism, clearly evident in this attractive program on the Divine Classics label, performed by Italian pianist Stefania Argentieri.

This disc is the second in the Russian Piano Music series devoted to Prokofiev and includes his first and sixth sonatas, Six Pieces from Cinderella Op.102, Four Etudes Op.2 and the Suggestion Diabolique.

The Piano Sonata No.1 from 1907 – but later revised – owes more than a passing reference not only to Schumann, but also to Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, the style lushly Romantic. In contrast, the sixth sonata, written in 1940, is pure pianistic gymnastics, technically beyond the capabilities of many pianists. Here, Argentieri demonstrates a true command of this daunting repertoire, meeting the challenges with apparent ease. Equally demanding are the Four Etudes, music of a confident 18-year-old pianist/composer eager to demonstrate his skills. The set was originally intended as a “slap in the face” to conservative audiences, but it also earned him a loyal following.

Cinderella is one of Prokofiev’s most popular ballets and while the set of piano transcriptions from 1944 is equally delightful, it’s the youthful Suggestion Diabolique where Argentieri once again proves her pianistic prowess. Aptly marked Prestissimo Fantastico, the piece demands extraordinary virtuosity – a true perpetuum mobile, with a surprisingly calm conclusion that brings the disc to a subdued, but most satisfying conclusion.

Richard Haskell

06 Frank HorvatA Little Dark Music 2
Frank Horvat
IAM who IAM Records (frankhorvat.com)

Toronto composer and pianist Frank Horvat’s passionate concern for social and environmental issues has long been a core theme in his music. His 2010 album, A Little Dark Music, for example, featured Earth Hour, an hour-long solo piano improvisation performed in the dark. In it, the composer-pianist passionately advocated for a sustainable approach to the environment. A decade later, Horvat’s follow-up solo grand piano release, A Little Dark Music 2, his 11th album, continues to expresses his extra-musical concerns for the health of our planet.

The title theme of the opening hour-long track Earth Hour 2 is confirmed by the explicit program notes. Horvat renders a personal commentary on the state of our global environment in this expansive solo. The liner notes suggest we take the time “to become grounded within [ourselves]” to reflect on positive change we can imagine while we listen. And the episodic and programmatic nature of this explicitly tonal work leaves plenty of time and sonic space for contemplation

The much shorter Heat Island continues the theme of man-made climate change. “The rumbly and murky start of this composition attempts to emulate the world oozing heat from pavement,” states the composer. As the piece progresses, “it gradually works its way up to the higher registers with a more calm tone.”

The album concludes with the optimistic Life for Mars, a (mostly) major key “soothing statement on the positive impact of connecting to ourselves and our surroundings.” It’s a message of hope many of us can use during this dark time.

Andrew Timar

07 Richard Valituttonocturne & lullabies
Richard Valitutto
New Focus Recordings FCR243 (newfocusrecordings.com)

Contemporary keyboard exponent Richard Valitutto has released a timely, meditative new record that features seven premiere recordings of works by six composers. (The penultimate track on the album – Linda Catlin Smith's A Nocturne – was first recorded by Eve Egoyan in 2012.) each written within the last 35 years. Valitutto claims to have been “focused on cultivating a sort of pianistic ‘anti-virtuosity’... performing music that seems simple on the surface but in actuality affords a great many challenges.” The tracks are, generally, connected to the theme of night and its various dimensions: dream-haunting nocturnes and lullabies, uncertain of – or anachronistic in - their 21st century functions.

Admirable ranges of expression are displayed here through experimental modes of resonance. The disc’s chronology is well curated, moving through dark soundscapes to brighter moments of lucidity and repose. Immediately striking is Valitutto’s intimacy with each of these works, collected and considered from a specific time and place with fortitude and explorative zeal.

Amongst the many highlights of the disc is shadow (2013) by Rebecca Saunders, a study in so-called “acoustic shadows.” Valitutto relishes this music’s intensity and sculpture, urging a keen ear when listening to every last brilliant moment of the score. 

Another intriguing track is Philip Cashian’s Nocturne (1984). Modelled on Oliver Knussen’s Sonya’s Lullaby, Cashian’s newer piece supersedes Knussen’s, grabbling its way to overcome all aches and sighs. Now morbid and jazzy, now contemporary and timeworn, this entire album grips both performer and listener alike, glimpsing a hazy yet urgent future where nocturnes and lullabies still haunt our dreams.

Adam Sherkin

Listen to 'nocturne & lullabies' Now in the Listening Room

01 Handel AlmiraHandel – Almira
Emöke Barath; Amanda Forsythe; Colin Balzer; Boston Early Music Festival; Paul O’Dette; Stephen Stubbs
cpo 555 205-2 (naxosdirect.com)

Besides being Handel’s first exercise in operatic composition, Almira (1704) is a notable, if slightly eccentric work for several reasons. Various styles and languages are mixed, with the opera including both German and Italian arias, as well as vocal dance numbers, da capo pieces and instrumental ballet inserts. The result is a colourful and surprisingly unified mixture, and the melodic signatures that we consider so typical of Handel are already recognizable.

This recording features an expert interpretation of this middle-Baroque work, as the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra and soloists manage to synthesize Almira’s Venetian, German and French influences into a cohesive and convincing musical and dramatic product. The use of harpsichord and lute in the basso continuo section provides a temporal reference point, between theorbo-based Monteverdi and the later harpsichord- and organ-grounded works of Bach.

Although Handel’s later operas and oratorios receive the vast majority of modern performances, it is worthwhile to encounter an expertly performed edition of such an early work from such an esteemed composer. Much like Bach’s early chorale preludes, Almira reflects the effort of an already extraordinarily gifted musical mind, which continues to be developed and refined as the years progress. This opera’s apparent eccentricities aside (largely due to the traditions of the Hamburg opera, rather than Handel’s own innovation), Almira is a rewarding listen for all who appreciate the style and evolution of Baroque opera.

03 Other CleopatraThe Other Cleopatra, Queen of Armenia – Il Tigrane Arias
Isabel Bayrakdarian; Kaunas City Symphony; Constantine Orbelian
Delos DE 3591 (naxosdirect.com)

Yes, there was another Cleopatra and thanks, in part, to Isabel Bayrakdarian the wife of King Tigranes (140-55 BCE) has a bright new light shone on her. These arias are, of course, from composers who knew of her and first glorified her in opera: Hasse, Vivaldi and Gluck. What Bayrakdarian has also done as with many of her recordings, is to shed light on the historical riches of Armenia. More remarkably, however, on The Other Cleopatra: Queen of Armenia Bayrakdarian seems to sing as if with real, lived experience.

Bayrakdarian is a bright lyric soprano, but she can also swoop really low into what must clearly be the edge of a soprano’s comfort zone. One such example comes with Baroque smokiness in Hasse’s elegant aria Strappami pure il seno; also a wonderful example of her breathtaking eloquence and range. Chronologically Vivaldi’s version of Il Tigrane (1724) was premiered first, followed by Hasse’s (1729) and finally Gluck’s (1743). All three operas were based on the same libretto by Abate Francesco Silvani. 

Most interesting, however, is the subtle differences in the music by each of the composers. Vivaldi delivers characteristic vivacity, dazzling vocal solos with dashes of acute characterization. Gluck’s demands a complete balance between music and drama and Hasse’s is a highly lyrical blend of style and emotions. Meanwhile, Baryakdarian’s artistry enables her to deliver each style absolutely masterfully.

04 Karina GauvinNuits Blanches – Russian Opera Arias of the 18th Century
Karina Gauvin; Pacific Baroque Orchestra; Alexander Weimann
ATMA ACD2 2791 (atmaclassique.com/En)

Johann Sebastian Bach’s ambition of becoming a musician at the Imperial Russian Court never materialized but that disappointing fact – plus the unfortunate reputation of 18th-century Russian music – has not deterred recent musicologists from discovering some very accomplished composers. Combine that with the artists listed above and Nuits Blanches is the pleasing result. 

As might be expected, Karina Gauvin’s soprano voice dominates this CD. Listen to the variations in her voice as she literally runs a gamut of emotion in determining Armide’s relationship towards Renaud in Gluck’s Armide. And then there is the opera Demofoonte by the tragically short-lived Maxime Sozontovitch Berezovski (1745-1777). This is a work which does not survive in completeness; what does survive is a disturbing unravelling of events which is deeper in intensity than many better-known and complete operatic works. The two arias recorded here bring home not just this complexity of plot but also the extent to which Gauvin’s expertise is tested. 

In fact, Gauvin’s singing does not monopolize this CD. Listen to the Ouverture from Le Faucon by Dimitri Stepanovitch Bortnianski. It offers a genteel introduction to the subsequent complexities of the relationship between Don Federigo and Elvira. 

This CD introduces listeners to music which is almost unknown. Enjoy, incidentally, not just its soprano and instrumental qualities but also some deeply researched and sometimes rather amusing program notes.

Listen to 'Nuits Blanches: Russian Opera Arias of the 18th Century' Now in the Listening Room

05 Wagner WalkureWagner – Die Walküre
Soloists; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House; Antonio Pappano
Opus Arte OA 1308D (naxosdirect.com)

Ever since Patrice Chereau’s centennial revival in Bayreuth in 1976, dozens of Ring productions have proliferated all over the world. In fact every major opera house has created one, all different concepts exploiting every possible angle: historic, sociological, psychological, philosophical etc. Rings are named after the various cities and/or the directors or the conductors. Now we have a Met Ring (Lepage/Levine), Berlin Ring (Kupfer/Barenboim), Stuttgart Ring (Zagrosek), St. Petersburg Ring (Gergiev), Vienna Ring (Rattle/Adam Fischer), Valencia Ring (Zubin Mehta), not to mention our own from Toronto. This production from London (2018) heralds a new, and judging by this Walküre, a momentous one directed by Keith Warner.

From the staging point of view it is a sound and light extravaganza, using all possible audiovisual technology culminating in the third act Ride of the Valkyries with films in the background combined with shadow play of the warrior maidens and superb choreography. The magic fire that envelops the stage is a spectacular finale. Pappano’s conducting is nothing less than magnificent. He absorbs himself thoroughly in the score, and no detail is missed.  There are moments of ecstasy like the first act love-duet between Siegmund (Stuart Skelton) and Sieglinde (Emily Magee) in waves and waves of passion as the “world never heard before” (Sir Simon Rattle), and at the climax when Siegmund triumphantly pulls out the sword from the ash tree, wow!  Or Wotan’s final embrace of his daughter Brünnhilde, a moment at which I almost cried when I first heard it.

The entire cast is phenomenal headed by John Lundgren as a powerful, larger-than-life Wotan, a very complex character, a god torn between his duty to the law he created and the love for his daughter, Brünnhilde (the wonderful Nina Stemme) whom he has to punish. A gripping Walküre, highly recommended.

06 Contes dHofmannOffenbach – Les contes d’Hoffmann
Soloists; Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra; Carlo Rizzi
Cmajor 752808 (naxosdirect.com)

Often spoken of disparagingly in his day, Jacques Offenbach clearly knew what he was doing. With equal measure of sardonic humour and lyricism, he triumphantly invented the whole idea of the operetta, paved the way for Lehár and Sullivan, and eventually came to be called (by Rossini, no less) “the Mozart of Champs Élysées.” Fusing dialogue and show-stopping pieces, Offenbach also created the can-can dance and laid the ground for the modern musical. But in 1881 he also produced his first and last opera – Les Contes d’Hoffmann – his only through-composed work without spoken dialogue; replaced by a sombre libretto instead. 

Three acts recount three tales by the German Romantic writer E.T.A Hoffmann. Tobias Kratzer’s spectacular staging adds a prelude and background to the story (Act 1) followed by the three acts conceived by Offenbach. The first concerns the inventor and his mechanical doll, Olympia who seduces Hoffmann. The second involves Hoffmann’s other passion, the consumptive singer Antonia, preyed upon by the evil Dr. Miracle. The third tells of Giulietta, who tries to trick Hoffmann into selling his soul. The final act presents Hoffmann, liberated, returning to his muse.

The sweep of Offenbach’s score is supremely caught by Carlos Rizzi in a reading that tingles with frenetic energy while bringing out the lushness of Guiraud’s recitatives. John Osborn is in his richest voice, summoning the impetuous ardour of Hoffmann. Nina Minasyan excels in the bravura arias. Overall, the casting is inspired and outstanding.

07 Respighi BellaRespighi – La bella dormente nel bosco
Soloists; Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Lirico di Cagliari; Donato Renzetti
Naxos 2.110655 (naxosdirect.com)

The legendary Ottorino Respighi’s La bella dormente nel bosco (The Sleeping Beauty) was first conceived in 1922. The version presented here by the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari has been enhanced from the original by Respighi’s inspired orchestrations. Although he died in 1936, this fresh, emotional and fantastic rendering of the original fairy tale about the Princess who pricks her finger on a spindle, and falls into a comatose state until she is awakened by her Prince, is as new and exciting as if presented on Broadway today. Brilliantly directed by Leo Muscato (with video direction by Tiziano Mancini, Donato Renzetti as conductor and a lively book by Gian Bistolfi), this production features a broad-palleted mis en scene, which is a delectable feast for both the eyes and ears.

Featured performers include the versatile Veta Pilipenko (the Queen, Old Lady and Frog); the impossibly lovely Angela Nisi as the Princess; baritone powerhouse Antonio Gandia as the Prince and the venerable Vincenzo Taormina as the King. Clever, bombastic and magical costumes (perhaps reflecting a bit of the Comedia Del’Arte) by Vera Pierantonio Giua and choreography by Luigia Frattaroli complete this thoroughly entertaining and spiritually uplifting operatic pastiche.

Written in three acts, the piece opens with a conceptual, almost surreal appearance of birds on swings and frog-like ladies (or lady-like frogs!), and ends with the expected kiss as the diaphanous princess rises up from her crescent moon bed, and into the arms of her Prince, followed by a joyous, dance-infused number by the entire cast. Huge kudos to the Teatro, for not only presenting this nearly lost treasure of one of the world’s foremost 20th-century composers, but also doing it to perfection!

08 Ted Hearne PlaceTed Hearne; Saul Williams – Place
Vocalists; Place Orchestra
New Amsterdam Records NWAM137 (newamrecords.com)

Although the drama of Place is somewhat diminished without a visual staging (i.e. a possible DVD of a presumptive film version), its power is not diminished because of the inventive way in which its principal artists – Ted Hearne (music, libretto) and Saul Williams (libretto) – have used their respective artistic specialities. This means not only words, music and vocalizations, but also their compelling, internecine method of adapting traditional and contemporary artistic styles – from hip-hop to chamber music – and infusing this event with every possible sonic element: music, noise and pregnant silences. 

Music and poetry collide in Place as Hearne and Williams describe the emotional effects that the gentrification of a city has when people and their cultural habitat are trampled upon in the name of money and modernization. Williams’ poetry pulls no punches, especially regarding racism. Using this poetry, Hearne creates jagged miniatures to simulate a musical disruption of the senses that mirrors the socio-political upheaval of their city.

Some spiky, and often serrated, songs are like miniatures depicting human upheaval. This is characterized by extraordinary, jagged rhythmic flexibility. These episodes alternate between moments of tenderness and heartache, anger and despair. An ink-dark atmosphere pervades even when relative calmness is explored in The Tales You Tell Your Children. Occasionally brightness might break through, as in Hallelujah in White, but not for long. The glistening delicacy of the musical equanimity is broken in the finale, in the desperate plea against gentrification of Colonizing Space.

Editor’s Note: A performance video of Place is in the final stages of production and will likely be available on a major public platform by the time this article is published.

01 LEstro dOrfeoL’Arte di diminuire
L’Estro d’Orfeo; Leonor de Lera
Challenge Classics CC72843 (lestrodorfeo.com)

The outstanding L’Estro d’Orfeo quintet was founded by violinist and artistic director Leonor de Lera in 2015 to perform a “historically-informed approach in line with the aesthetics of the time,” on period instruments. Her mission was to champion the advanced instrumental virtuosity which developed in Europe during the late Renaissance to early Baroque eras. 

L’Arte di diminuire is dedicated to musical diminution, the interpretative art of extemporary melodic variation and embellishment, an essential improvisatory aspect of musical performance practice of that time. Simply put, in this practice musicians melodically and rhythmically subdivided a received series of long notes into shorter values. In that period and region, a written composition was routinely regarded as raw material requiring musicians to embellish the score during its performance via diminutions. Such performances gave considerable scope for virtuosic display and interpretive exploration. This album explores that practice applied to 15 period motets, popular melodies and dance forms. The ensemble has chosen scores by early Baroque composers and interpreted them by applying advanced diminution procedures, in the process highlighting the individual contributions of L’Estro d’Orfeo’s 21st-century musicians.

Outstanding tracks include the madrigal Io canterei d’amor… reinterpreted via diminution by the ensemble’s viola da gamba and viola bastarda virtuoso Rodney Prada. De Lera’s four contributions are exemplars of this ensemble’s musically exciting approach to this interpretative inter-century practice. The most impressive part of the listening experience might be the freewheeling-sounding – yet always tasteful – instrumental virtuosity on display here. Prada’s mindboggling viola bastarda performances, leaping from treble to tenor to bass ranges and back with abandon, are alone worth the price of admission.

02 Flute Passion BachFlute Passion: Bach
Nadia Labrie; Luc Beauséjour; Camille Paquette-Roy
Analekta AN 2 8921 (analekta.com/en)

Only one of the compositions on this recording is actually a solo, the Partita in A Minor, which flutist Nadia Labrie plays with energy and assurance. I particularly appreciated her approach to the only slow movement, the Sarabande, as a reflective and perhaps melancholy soliloquy, which she plays with feeling but never with sentimentality.

Two of the other three sonatas on the CD are called flute sonatas but are in fact ensemble pieces. The Allegro fourth movement of the Sonata in E Minor is as much a virtuosic solo piece for the keyboard, on this modern instrument recording a piano, which Luc Beauséjour plays as the complete equal to the flute, a collaborator, not a supporting actor. This is also particularly evident in the final Presto of the Sonata in B Minor. Similarly the cello part in the Andante first movement of the same sonata can be heard as the other half of a duo with the flute, and is played that way by cellist Camille Paquette-Roy.

The G Major Sonata on the disc is a trio sonata, originally for two flutes and continuo. On this recording, however, Beauséjour plays the other “flute” part, leaving the bass line to the cello. While in a certain sense emancipating the cello, it somehow doesn’t work as well as a duo as, for example, the Allegro movement already mentioned.

Nevertheless, bravissimi to our three collaborators for a fine addition to the recorded ensemble music of Bach.

03 Beethoven TriosBeethoven – Piano Trios Vol.1
Sitkovetsky Trio
BIS BIS-2239 SACD (naxosdirect.com)

This year marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth date and as such it has been bringing in an assortment of new releases of the great master’s works. The Sitkovetsky Trio attracts attention with their elegant interpretations of carefully selected Beethoven piano trios and the creation of a particular sound that is very much their own. I was charmed by the lovely blend of the instrumental colours and the finely detailed and thoughtful work that went into directing and following the tides of these notable compositions.

The wisely chosen progression of the trios includes the early Op.1 No.3 in C Minor, middle period Op.70 No.2 in E-flat Major and the late Allegretto in B-flat Major Wo039. C minor could certainly have been Beethoven’s favourite key because it allowed for the storminess of emotions like no other. It is hard to believe that this work belongs to such an early opus as it brings in radical and innovative approaches to the chamber music of that time. The E-flat Major Trio and Allegretto show, in contrast, that Beethoven was just as much attuned to pastoral and peaceful settings and that he was unapologetically paving the way for the further development of the Romantic elements.

Much appreciated is the Sitkovetsky Trio’s ability to stay within the bounds of traditional chamber music-making while adding the intensity and vitality of their own understanding. A noble companion to contemplative times.

05 Gianandrea NosedaDvořák – Symphony No.9; Copland – Billy the Kid
National Symphony Orchestra; Gianandrea Noseda
National Symphony Orchestra NSO 001 (gianandreanoseda.com)

This most enjoyable disc is the debut recording of a new label, NSO Live from the Kennedy Center, with the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington DC. The group is famous for having been directed by Rostropovich at one time, but now Gianandrea Noseda is its music director. Noseda heralds “new beginnings” and judging by this issue, he certainly delivers. The recording simply throbs with life and shows Noseda’s love for America by selecting two works he says “on which American sound has continued to be built over the decades.” The two works come from vastly different backgrounds, yet the American spirit is unmistakable, and this makes this issue so exciting.

The first piece is by the venerable American composer Aaron Copland who was born in Brooklyn to a family of Russian immigrants, yet no other composer has been able to better evoke the frontier spirit of the Wild West. Billy the Kid, a ballet from 1938, is about an outlaw and gunfighter who murdered eight men by the age of 21, when he himself was killed. Copland’s score provides a vivid depiction of prairie life incorporating several cowboy tunes, Mexican dances and even a gunfight with explosions, certainly never heard before from a symphony orchestra. Noseda has a lot of fun with it and it is catching.

And now an absolutely stunning performance of Dvořák ‘s New World Symphony where the musical material is “inspired by American folk songs, African-American spirituals and North American Native songs” all intermixed with tremendous compositional skill. Dvořák introduces new themes in each movement, but these then reoccur in different guises culminating in the magnificent last movement for an astounding conclusion. Demonstration quality sound, highly recommended.

06 Hindemith KammerHindemith – Kammermusik I - II - III
Kronberg Academy Soloists; Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra; Christoph Eschenbach
Ondine ODE 1341-2 (naxosdirect.com)

Over the course of his lifetime (1895-1963) Paul Hindemith, increasingly ossified by his academic obsessions, underwent a peculiar reverse metamorphosis. Born a butterfly, he eventually became a caterpillar. He was a world-famous composer, a consummate musician and an influential Ivy League savant, yet the 50th anniversary of his death in 2013 passed with little fanfare from the classical music establishment. In his early career he was considered an avant-garde miscreant, ultimately branded and banished as an “atonal noisemaker” by the Nazi regime. Noisy? Perhaps, but powerfully so. Atonal? Not in the least, though bracingly dissonant at times. 

Hindemith’s astounding orchestral mastery (he was able to play any instrument he wrote for) is amply demonstrated in the adventurous Kammermusik series composed in the 1920s, from which we have on offer here the first three suites, with future volumes presumably in the works to complete the set of seven. The first suite is composed for 12 instruments in four movements, a provocatively satirical remodelling of the Brandenburg Concertos which receives a rollicking performance under Eschenbach’s direction. The second instalment, scored for piano and ensemble, is equally enjoyable and glitteringly dispatched by soloist Christopher Park. The third, cast in the form of a concerto featuring cellist Bruno Philippe, is less convincing due to sub-optimal tempos (perhaps the soloist’s prerogative) and an over-miked solo part which obscures the inner voices. Claudio Abbado’s lively 1999 EMI recording, some two and a half minutes faster, makes a far better case for this work. An enjoyable nightcap, the beloved Kleine Kammermusik for wind quintet, rounds out the proceedings.

01 Jacques HetuJacques Hétu – Concertos
Jean-Philippe Sylvestre; Orchestre symphonique de Laval; Alain Trudel
ATMA ACD2 2793 (atmaclassique.com/en)

A treasure trove of musical Canadiana awaits the steadfast listener who seeks a (Western) classical contemporary canon from true north shores. Despite the few generations of composers who could claim such affiliations, an impressive array of works exist from the last 50 years, especially those written in Quebec. Among French Canada’s most distinguished 20th-century composers, the late Jacques Hétu is revered for his prowess as orchestral colourist. Formidably, he penned no less than 15 concertos for a variety of instruments. Hétu once remarked: “My taste for the concerto is directly linked to the genre of drama; the soloist is a singer, and the concerto his or her stage.”

A recent all-Hétu recording spotlights the indomitable dream team of pianist Jean-Philippe Sylvestre and trombonist/conductor, Alain Trudel. Trudel brings his irrepressible artistry to the collaboration, setting the stage for a creative synergy. He wields a keen, razor-sharp sense of pacing, as he ferries the Orchestre symphonique de Laval from one striking Hétu work to another, brimful with devotion and panache. (The tone poem, Sur les rives du Saint-Maurice, Op.78, is also included, again proving Hétu’s mastery of orchestration, arguably his finest gift.) 

The stalwart Sylvestre rollicks in a commanding realization of the second piano concerto. The keyboard writing that inspired Hétu seems a near-blood relation to music by Prokofiev. For the final work, Trudel conjoins baton and trombone, dazzling our ears with a golden, luscious reading of Hétu’s concerto for that instrument.

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