01a Mr. Beethoven British coverBack in February I mentioned what a joy it was to read the latest from Welsh novelist, musicologist and librettist Paul Griffiths titled Mr. Beethoven. In it, Griffiths imagines Beethoven’s life beyond his purported death in 1827, his visit to Boston and the oratorio he wrote on commission from the Handel and Haydn Society in 1833. I had received an inscribed copy of the small press UK edition (pictured here in red, the small black circle with the gold star declaring it a Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses  “Book of the Month”) sent just before Christmas by the author. At his request I deferred writing about the book until the North American publication date this past month. Mr. Beethoven is now available in Canada published by The New York Review of Books (ISBN 9781681375809) and I have taken the occasion to revisit this marvellous novel. In a season when many of my favourite authors have published new books (Richard Powers, Wayne Johnston, Tomson Highway, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Jonathan Franzen and David Grossman, to name a few) it might have seemed an imposition to have to put them off for a book so recently enjoyed, but I’m pleased to report that, if anything, Mr. Beethoven is even more satisfying the second time around and I know those other books will wait patiently on my To Read shelf.

As is my wont, I made a point of listening to the music mentioned in the book, at least as far as I was able. The challenge of course was that much of the music discussed, and particularly Job: The Oratorio which is featured so prominently, is imaginary, dating from Beethoven’s fanciful “fourth” (i.e. posthumous) period. Various chamber works are described, including a “Quincy” string quartet, a “Fifths” piano sonata, a clarinet quintet, and even plans for an “Indian Operetta” on indigenous themes using early poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. But there are actual works included as well, such as the antepenultimate – now there’s a word that was new to me – Piano Sonata No.30 in E Major Op.109 and the String Quartet No.15 in A Minor Op.132. But more curiously, other works which would foreshadow the mythical oratorio are mentioned because they would not yet have been performed in Boston at the time, such as the Missa Solemnis Op.123 and the “Choral” Symphony No.9 Op.125 and were therefore unknown to the characters in the novel. 

Griffiths has drawn on his skills as a researcher, as well as his imagination and his command of the German language, to produce a hybrid work of pseudo-scholarly biographical/speculative fiction. His conceit that Beethoven, deaf for many years at this point, would have been able to communicate using sign language with the aid of a young amanuensis from Martha’s Vineyard is based on the fact that there was indeed a community there that had developed a system that predated and was later subsumed by American Sign Language. Thankful, the young woman who becomes Beethoven’s voice, interprets for him discretely, leaving out much of the bluster and non-essential verbiage of his interlocutors, enabling him to communicate with those whom he could neither hear nor understand their language. Beethoven’s speech is stilted as a result of this translation process, but Griffiths has ingeniously crafted his dialogue from excerpts of letters and other documents actually written by the composer, as documented in the copious end notes. The characters Beethoven interacts with are fictitious, but also predominantly historical figures, culled from censuses and directories of the time and from the archives of the Handel and Haydn Society. These include the grand landholder John Quincy with whose family the composer spends a summer vacation, and members of the Chickering and Mason households whose descendants would become famous piano manufacturers.  

Perhaps most impressive is the description of the mythical oratorio itself, based on the biblical story of Job, and the libretto that is included on facing pages in the final chapters of the book. The details are almost mind-boggling, including notes on orchestration, vocal ranges, staging and interpretation. There is even an authentic notated melody for the boy soprano’s aria, which originated in a sketchbook of Beethoven’s dated 1810. 

First published, and first read by me, in 2020 the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth – here are two more words that were new to me (and my spell checker): semiquincentennial and sestercentennial – it seems especially fitting that while reading Mr. Beethoven I immersed myself in the music of that master. Some of it was mentioned in the book, but other works came as a result of new recordings released to coincide with the auspicious year. 

02 Beethoven Haiou ZhangFor Op.109 there were numerous choices. Young pianists eager to make their mark with this fabled work included Haiou Zhang and Uriel Pascucci. Zhang’s My 2020 (Hänssler Classic HC20079 naxosdirect.com/search/hc20079) begins with Piano Sonata No.30 followed by the final Sonata No.32 and also includes Bach transcriptions by Feinberg and Lipatti, with two bonus tracks: a cadenza from Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto and the familiar bagatelle Für Elise. In the booklet, Zhang explains the meaning of the disc’s title, referencing COVID-19 and reflecting on having made his Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No.3 debut in Wuhan, and giving masterclasses there, shortly before the outbreak. He goes on to speak about why the Beethoven sonatas have meant so much to him for so long and says that every Sunday morning the Bach transcriptions are part of his “confession.” The performances are equally moving. 

03 Uriel PascucciWhile Zhang has already recorded a number of discs for Hänssler in his young career, Pascucci’s Solo Piano – Beethoven; Pascucci; Mussorgsky (IMD-Classics urielpascucci.com/copy-of-discografía) appears to be his recording debut. Pascucci has chosen to bookend his own Prelude, Tango and Fugue with Beethoven’s Sonata Op.109 and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. I am a bit discomfited by a couple of abrupt transitions in the third movement of the Beethoven which I attribute to unfortunate edits, but otherwise it is a thoughtful and sensitive performance. The Mussorgsky is powerful and well-balanced, occasional surprises in the use of rubato and syncopation notwithstanding. His own composition shows him at his most comfortable, its contrasting movements each bringing a different mood to the fore. The rhythmic tango, with its pounding chords growing to a near perpetuo mobile ostinato climax is a highlight. 

04 Beethoven KuertiMy go-to reference for Beethoven sonatas is Toronto’s own Anton Kuerti. My basement is currently under renovation and the bulk of my vinyl collection is inaccessible at the moment, so I was unable to pull out his original recordings of the entire cycle of 32 on Aquitaine from 1977. Fortunately Kuerti recorded the final five sonatas for Analekta in 2004, released on two CDs: Nos.28, Op.101 and 29, Op.106 (FL 2 3187) and The Final Sonatas, Nos.30, 31 and 32 (FL 2 3182 analekta.com/en). It was to the latter I turned for comparison’s sake, and I must say, to my ears Kuerti just cannot be beat when it comes to this repertoire. 

05 Beethoven AimardThat being said, my piano explorations did not end there. Two mid-career artists also released Beethoven discs recently, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Jonas Vitaud. Aimard, perhaps best known for his interpretations of contemporary repertoire – especially Messiaen and Ligeti whose Piano Concerto he performed with New Music Concerts here in Toronto early in his career in 1990 – marked the anniversary year with Beethoven: Hammerklavier Sonata and Eroica Variations (PentaTone PTC 5186 724 naxosdirect.com/search/ptc5186724). He is obviously as at home with 200-year-old repertoire as with the music of his own time.

06 Beethoven 1802 VitaudThe Eroica Variations date from the year 1802 and Vitaud has chosen to centre his disc around that year in which Beethoven realized he was becoming irreversibly deaf, contemplated suicide and wrote the “Heiligenstadt Testament” to his brothers Carl and Johann. He would overcome his depression and go on to write some of his most powerful works. 1802 – Beethoven Testament de Heiligenstadt (Mirare MIR562 mirare.fr/catalogue) begins with those flamboyant variations and includes Seven Bagatelles Op.33 and Six Variations Op.34 bookending the Piano Sonata Op.31/2 “Tempest” with its undying despair. Vitaud suggests this arc as a depiction of Beethoven’s journey toward hope.

07 Beethoven Ninth 2 PianosGriffiths mentions that although the first performance in the US of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was not until 1846, some there might have been aware of the work in Czerny’s piano duet arrangement of 1829. Liszt published solo piano arrangements of the nine symphonies in 1865. As I am writing this, a new two-piano version has just arrived on my desk, Götterfunken (gods’ gleam, or divine spark) featuring the mother-and-daughter team of Eliane Rodrigues and Nina Smeets (navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6382). In the liner notes Rodrigues says; “During the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve seen so much sadness and pain that I wanted to share a moment of joy, love, and friendship. The only thing that came to mind and heart was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in a version for two pianos with my daughter, Nina. My arrangement is not a literal transcription of the orchestral score. Rather, it’s based on what I hear and feel when listening to the orchestral music and Franz Liszt’s arrangement. The main goal was to follow in Beethoven’s footsteps and connect his work to the present day; to achieve what he would have wanted: to unite all people with just one simple melody.” I believe that Rodrigues has succeeded admirably. The semi-improvised sections are not at all jarring, and the result is very satisfying. The overall effect is uplifting, in spite of the absence of Schiller’s anthemic words. Just what we need in these troubled times. 

08 optional Ma Ax BeethovenWell that’s a lot of piano indeed, but I’m none the worse for wear. I did add cello to the mix with Yo-Yo Ma and Emmanuel Ax’s Hope Amid Tears – Beethoven Cello Sonatas (sonyclassical.com/releases), a three-CD set that includes the five sonatas and the three sets of variations. I found my personal favourites, Sonata No.3 in A Major, Op.69 and the Variations on Handel’s “Hail the Conquering Hero” to be particularly satisfying. For the record I also listened to the penultimate string quartet, and full orchestral versions of the Ninth Symphony and the Missa Solemnis. For String Quartet No.15 in A Minor Op.132, I chose two recordings from my archives, one by the Tokyo String Quartet recorded when Canadian Peter Oundjian was a member of the group (RCA Red Seal Masters 88691975782), and the other by Canada’s Alcan Quartet (ATMA ACD2 2493). Both are taken from complete cycles of all 16 quartets and I’d be hard pressed to pick a favourite. For Symphony No.9 it was Mariss Jansons conducting a live performance for Bavarian Radio in 2007 whose soloists included Canadian tenor Michael Schade (BRK90015 naxosdirect.com/search/brk90015), and for the Missa Solemnis, it was Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic with the Westminster Choir and soloists Eileen Farrell, Carol Smith, Richard Lewis and Kim Borg from 1961, reissued on Leonard Bernstein The Royal Edition in 1992 (Sony Classical SM2K 47522). I must say I found Borg’s performance put me in mind of the description of the wonderful bass who sang the lead role in the imaginary Job: The Oratorio. It’s a shame it was all in Griffiths’ mind, and of course, in the pages of his marvellous book! 

Although Beethoven did not write an oratorio, he did compose one opera, Fidelio. You may read Pamela Margles’ review of the latest recording further on in these pages, and Raul da Gama’s take on the original 1805 version, Leonore, in Volume 26 No.6 of The WholeNote published in March this year.

(Full disclosure, I did not put all of my other reading on hold for the sake of this article. I actually read Grossman’s More Than I Love My Life before starting this column and will read the final 15 pages of Powers’ Bewilderment as soon I finish.) 

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

01 Jack Liebeck WebCoverJack Liebeck Ysaÿe sees the outstanding English violinist finally recording Ysaÿe’s Six Sonatas for Solo Violin Op.27, works which have long fascinated him (Orchid Classics ORC100179 jackliebeck.com).

“I always knew I would have to climb this mountain,” says Liebeck, and the recent COVID lockdowns provided the right moment. He describes Ysaÿe’s style as monumental, with gothic themes, drama and poignancy, and the music as the pinnacle of harmonic and technical challenge, which nevertheless fits a violinist’s hand like a glove.

Liebeck is joined by pianist Daniel Grimwood in the rhapsodic Poème élégiaque in D Minor Op.12, and as always draws a sumptuous tone from his 1785 J. B. Guadagnini violin in superlative performances.

02 Jukebox Cover 1In March 2020 violinist Elena Urioste and pianist Tom Poster decided to record and share one music video for every day spent in isolation. The expected two to three weeks of their #UriPosteJukeBox project turned into 88 days – one for each piano key. The resulting studio CD The Jukebox Album is simply one of the most heart-melting and breathtakingly beautiful discs you could imagine (Orchid Classics ORC100173 orchidclassics.com/releases/jukebox).

From the opening Look for the Silver Lining through a program including standards like La vie en rose, Begin the Beguine, A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square and Send in the Clowns, all in superb arrangements by Poster and with occasional sumptuous multi-tracking by Urioste, to Kreisler arrangements, pieces by Carlos Gardel, Lili Boulanger, Fauré and six new pieces commissioned for the project, the standard never drops for a moment. 

“This is the music we’ve loved our whole lives,” says Poster, and it shows in every note of an absolutely gorgeous CD.

03 Four VisionsCellist Daniel Müller-Schott is in superb form on Four Visions of France – French Cello Concertos with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Alexandre Bloch (Orfeo C988211 naxosdirect.com/search/c988211).

Saint-Saëns is represented by his 1872 Cello Concerto No.1 in A Minor Op.33 and the Romance in F Major Op.36. Honegger’s fascinating 1929 Cello Concerto and Lalo’s 1877 Cello Concerto in D Minor are the other two major works, with Fauré’s Élégie in C Minor Op.24 in the 1901 orchestral version completing the disc.

A lovely recorded ambience captures the luminous textures and sensual orchestral colours typical of French music, on an outstanding CD.

04 IsserlisBritish Solo Cello Music features the always-wonderful Steven Isserlis (Hyperion CDA68373 hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA68373).

Britten’s Tema ‘Sacher’ and Cello Suite No.3 Op.87 open the disc, with Isserlis being joined by pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen for the three Tchaikovsky settings of the folk-song themes used in the Suite. Other works are Walton’s Theme for a Prince and Passacaglia, John Gardner’s Coranto pizzicato, Frank Merrick’s Suite in the eighteenth-century style and the brief Sola by Thomas Adès.

As always, Isserlis’ booklet essay is erudite and fascinating, with its personal reminiscences of John Gardner (1917-2011) and – in particular – the astonishing Frank Merrick (1886-1981) an absolute delight.

05 Sol PatViolinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and cellist Sol Gabetta celebrate 20 years of friendship on Sol & Pat, a recital of duos for violin and cello built around two 20th-century masterpieces (ALPHA757 naxosdirect.com/search/alpha757).

Ravel’s Sonata and, in particular, Kodaly’s Duo Op.7 draw terrific playing from the duo, with shorter pieces ranging from the dazzling opening gypsy dance of Leclair’s Tambourin: Presto through a pizzicato C.P.E. Bach Presto to the J. S. Bach keyboard Prelude No.15 in G Major, with brief contemporary works by Jörg Widmann, Francisco Coll, Marcin Markowicz, Xenakis and Ligeti.

An unexpected gem, though, is La Fête au village Op.9, a 1947 affectionate depiction of Swiss National Day by Swiss composer Julien-François Zbinden, who was still alive and emailing the performers in 2018 aged 101.

06 HopeOn his new CD Hope violinist Daniel Hope presents a personal collection of classics featuring music largely based on songs or sung melodies that he describes as “an attempt to send out a ray of hope and to provide people with a sense of support and perhaps even consolation” (DGG 28948605415 deutschegrammophon.com/en/artists/danielhope).

He is joined by an array of artists including the Zürcher Kammerorchester, the vocal ensemble Amarcord and baritone Thomas Hampson in a program that opens with Ariel Ramírez’s beautiful Misa Criolla and travels through pieces by Dowland, Schubert, Giazotto, El-Khoury, Pärt, Elgar and Stephen Foster to Danny Boy, Dream a Little Dream and Amazing Grace.

As always with Hope and friends, the standard of arrangements and performances is of the highest level.

07 Nicola Benedetti BaroqueBaroque, the new CD from violinist Nicola Benedetti marks her first Baroque recording with period set-up and gut strings. She is joined by the Benedetti Baroque Orchestra, a new ensemble of freelance Baroque musicians that she assembled and directs (Decca Classics B0034187-2 nicolabenedetti.co.uk).

Geminiani’s Concerto grosso in D Minor H143 “La Folia”, a transcription of Corelli’s Violin Sonata Op.5 No.12, opens an otherwise all-Vivaldi program of the Violin Concertos in D Major RV211, E-flat Major RV257, B Minor RV386 and the Andante middle movement from the Concerto in B-flat Major RV583.

The 1717 Gariel Stradivarius that Benedetti has played since 2012 sounds warm and bright, with top-notch performances from all concerned, contributing to a lovely CD.

08 ProkofievWith violinist Tianwa Yang you can always count on a mixture of dazzling technique, colour, tone and musical intelligence, and so it proves again on Prokofiev Violin Concertos Nos.1 and 2, her latest release on the Naxos Classics label with the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under Jun Märkl (8.574107 naxosdirect.com/search/8574107).

Performances of the Concertos No.1 in D Major Op.19 and No.2 in G Minor Op.63 are both particularly strong on the lyrical aspects of the works, with some beautifully expansive playing. The Sonata for Solo Violin in D Major Op.115 completes an excellent disc.

09 Tabula RasaViolinist Renaud Capuçon recently became artistic director of the Orchestre de chambre de Lausanne, and Arvo Pärt Tabula Rasa is his first recording as soloist and conductor of the ensemble (Erato 9029502957 warnerclassics.com/release/tabula-rasa).

The seven works here are: the double concerto Tabula Rasa; the 1992 version of Fratres for violin, string orchestra and percussion; Summa and Silouan’s Song, both for string orchestra; Darf ich… (May I); Spiegel im Spiegel (with piano); and For Lennart in memoriam.

Capuçon says that the music takes us from darkness to light, but there’s very little change of mood across the CD. Still, the playing is first class, and if you love Pärt’s music you’ll love this disc.

10 Times of TransitionAndreas Brantelid is the cellist on Times of Transition, a CD of three cello concertos from the second half of the 18th century, when Baroque polyphony and fugue were giving way to the early classical galant style of melody with accompaniment. Lars Ulrik Mortensen conducts the Concerto Copenhagen (Naxos Denmark 8.574365 naxosdirect.com/search/8574365).

C.P.E. Bach’s Concerto in A Major Wq.172 with its familiar finale dates from 1753. Haydn’s Concertos in C Major Hob.VIIb:1 from 1761-65 and the purely classical D Major Hob.VIIb:2 from 1783 are the only two indisputably by him, the finale of the C major work drawing particularly fine playing from Brantelid, who for this disc plays an Emil Hjort, Copenhagen cello from 1887 with gut strings.

11 Villa Lobos coverHe’s not a composer you readily associate with violin sonatas, but on Heitor Villa-Lobos Complete Violin Sonatas, the new CD from Naxos Classics in their Music of Brazil series violinist Emmanuele Baldini and pianist Pablo Rossi present three delightful pieces which should be much better known (8.574310 naxosdirect.com/search/8574310).

The works – the single-movement Sonata No.1 Fantasia “Désespérance” and the three-movement Sonatas No.2 Fantasia and No.3 – were written between 1912 and 1920, a key period in Villa-Lobos’ career in which he was maturing as a composer, establishing a personal style and achieving his first professional successes.

There’s influence of French late-Romanticism here (especially Debussy in No.3) and a wealth of melodic invention, with excellent performances making for a delightful disc.

12 KarnaviciusJurgis Karnavičius String Quartets Nos.3 & 4 is the final volume in the complete string quartets by the Lithuanian composer, in world-premiere recordings by the Vilnius String Quartet (Ondine ODE1387-2 naxosdirect.com/search/761195138724). 

These quartets are more expressive and modern in nature than Nos.1 & 2, warmly reviewed here in May/June of this year, and were composed in St. Petersburg in 1922 and 1925 before Karnavičius returned to Lithuania in 1927. After their premieres they were not heard again until 1969 and the 1980s respectively, with No.4 still unpublished. It’s hard to understand why – described as a stylistic link between the quartets of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich and as a “chromatically saturated musical fabric” they’re outstanding works given wonderfully rich and empathetic performances by the Lithuanian ensemble.

13 Barber IvesThe string quartets of Samuel Barber and Charles Ives are featured on Barber – Ives in excellent performances by the Escher String Quartet (BIS-2360 bis.se).

Barber’s String Quartet Op.11 features the original inception of his Adagio for Strings as its central movement, beautifully played here. The original third movement, discarded by Barber in favour of a shorter ending, is also included for reference.

Ives’ two quartets have various composition and revision dates from 1897 to 1915. His String Quartet No.1 “From the Salvation Army” (A Revival Service) is played with the reinstated first movement, discarded by Ives but re-attached – and not to everyone’s approval – by Ives scholar John Kirkpatrick after the composer’s death. His String Quartet No.2 is more dissonant and atonal, but makes similar use of American hymns and folk tunes. The spiky Scherzo: Holding Your Own from 1903-04 completes a terrific disc.

14 Haydn Last ThreeJoseph Haydn The Last Three String Quartets Op.77 & Op.103 is the new CD from the Czech Pražák Quartet (Praga PRD250420 pragadigitals.com).

In 1799 Haydn started a projected set of six quartets dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz but completed only two – Op.77 Nos.1 and 2. In 1802/03 he wrote two middle movements for an unfinished third quartet; these are now known as Op.103. The Op.77 quartets in particular, described here as “bold and full of wit” make a fitting farewell to a musical form that Haydn had almost single-handedly established and developed.

The performances are full-blooded but insightful and sensitive, putting one – if you are old enough – in mind of the great Czech quartet ensembles of the 1960s Supraphon LP recordings. 

15 Ciaconna coverCiaconna is Russian violinist Ilya Gringolts’ first solo recording of music of his own time with a tribute to its inspiration – Johann Sebastian Bach (BIS-2525 bis.se). 

Heinz Holliger’s brief Drei kleine Szenen intertwines Gringolts’ voice in the Ciacconina first movement. Roberto Gerhard’s Chaconne, inspired by Bach’s D-Minor Chaconne is a 12-tone work of 12 short movements, but with highly individual use and adaptation of the basic tone row.

The major work here is Kontrapartita by the French composer Brice Pauset, its seven movements – Preludio, Allemande, Corrente, Sarabande, Loure, Giga and Ciaccona – interspersed with the seven Bach movements from the three Partitas that inspired them. 

16 BartokBachThe D-Minor Chaconne also turns up on Bartók, J. S. Bach, Schneeberger, a recital CD from the Russian violinist Dmitry Smirnov featuring Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin, Bach’s Partita No.2 in D Minor and the 1942 Sonata for Solo Violin by the Swiss violinist Hansheinz Schneeberger, who died two years ago at the age of 93 (First Hand Recordings FHR117 firsthandrecords.com). 

There are some interesting ornamentation choices in the Bach (especially in the Sarabande), but the Bartók and – in particular – the Schneeberger are given convincing performances.

01 Handel RodelindaHandel – Rodelinda
Lucy Crowe; Iestyn Davies; Joshua Ellicott; Tim Mead; Brandon Cedel; Jess Dandy; The English Concert; Harry Bicket
Linn Records CKD 658 (naxosdirect.com/search/ckd658)

Success is a funny thing – sometimes it finds you, and sometimes you create it for yourself. This latter circumstance is the one in which Handel found himself in 1711 after bringing Italian opera to London with his Rinaldo and achieving tremendous success as a result. Over a decade later, Handel would revisit Italian opera in London through three separate works: Giulio Caesare, Tamerlano and Rodelinda.

Regarded as one of Handel’s greatest works, Rodelinda was first performed in London in 1725 but did not receive a permanent place in the modern opera repertoire until the Baroque revival movement in the 1960s. Since then, it has been staged in major opera houses across the globe and featured on numerous recordings, not the least of which is this stellar essay featuring the English Concert led by Harry Bicket.

From the opening notes, it is apparent that this performance of Handel’s masterpiece is well worth the time spent listening. The French overture has the requisite gravitas and agility, delightfully shaped and exquisitely performed, and it only gets better from there. Throughout this two-disc set it is immensely satisfying to hear such well-paced and thoughtfully performed interpretations, never ranging to extremes either in tempo or dynamic, always feeling that the singer and orchestra are collaborating comfortably, and allowing the singers themselves to express the dramatic intricacies of Handel’s vocal writing in a measured yet fluid manner.

Whether unfamiliar with Handel’s operas or a seasoned expert, this recording is a magnificent addition to any collection and an utter delight to listen to from beginning to end.

02 Beethoven FidelioBeethoven – Fidelio
Lise Davidsen; Christian Elsner; Georg Zeppenfeld; Dresdner Philharmonie; Marek Janowski
Pentatone PTC 5186 880 (naxosdirect.com/search/ptc5186880)

Beethoven named his only opera after a young man who doesn’t actually exist, even in the opera. He’s a character that the heroic Leonore uses as a disguise to rescue her husband Florestan from prison. Leonore is a complex role, as challenging dramatically as vocally. Yet it often gets less attention than the role of Florestan, who doesn’t even appear until well over halfway through. 

Here, a commanding performance from the young Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen puts the spotlight unquestionably on Leonore. Davidsen’s combination of power, virtuosity and beauty, which makes her Act I aria, Absheulicher! (You monster!) so moving, is rare and wonderful.   

Davidsen is supported by a largely terrific cast. In particular, I love how Georg Zeppenfeld brings out Rocco’s humanity, compromised though he may be. Johannes Kränzle makes a satisfyingly nasty Pizarro, and Christina Landshamer is an affecting Marzelline. But Christian Elsner’s ragged, effortful Florestan is a letdown. 

The exquisite Dresden Philharmonic plays with the agility of a chamber ensemble, while the MDR Leipzig Radio Choir is inspired, soaring in the rapturous O welche Lust (Oh what joy). Conductor Marek Janowski propels things forward with buoyant vitality. 

Fortunately, the dialogue has been retained, though it has been judiciously pared down. The singers speak their own lines – no actors or narrators are brought in, as is done too often. Unsurprisingly, this makes for natural, seamless transitions between dialogue and music. Special kudos to Pentatone for including the full text and English translation in the booklet.

03 Jonas Kaufmann LisztLiszt – Freudvoll und Leidvoll
Jonas Kaufmann
Sony Classical (jonaskaufmann.com/en)

Just looking at the photography in the booklet that comes with this wonderful new release from Sony Classical, I was immediately struck by the jolly good mood, frolichkeit and friendliness between the two artists, world-famous German heldentenor Jonas Kaufmann and his accompanist Helmut Deutsch, pianist, Liszt expert and aficionado. This good spirit translates into a happy collaboration shining throughout this record.

Liszt wrote some 90 songs that are difficult to sing, as Liszt treated the voice as he treated the piano: mercilessly extending it to two octaves, sudden fortissimo outbursts, key changes and the like. Kaufmann selected 20 for this release with a coherent title – Freudvoll und Liedvoll meaning joyful and sorrowful – referring mainly to love, because love is indeed sometimes very happy and sometimes very sad as anyone who’s ever been in love knows. And indeed, the most beautiful song, I think, is O lieb, solang du lieben kannst (Love as long as you can) with the famous melody of Liebestraum No.3. Kaufmann’s voice is amazingly flexible to cope with mood changes: from heroic fortissimo to soft and sweet intonation, like the way he caresses the words Freudvoll und Leidvoll.

The spirit of love is indeed manifest in the centrepiece of this collection, the three Petrarch Sonnets. These are written in Italian as opposed to all the other songs which are in German, with unparalleled melodic richness.

A joyful moment for me, and a nice surprise, was the sudden outburst of a glorious Hungarian melody in the song: Die drei Zigeuner, played with gusto by Helmut Deutsch. He is marvellous throughout, playing with ease Liszt’s very difficult accompaniments.

05 Bizet CarmenBizet – Carmen
Anna Caterina Antonacci; Andrew Richards; Anne-Catherine Gillet; Nicolas Cavallier; Monteverdi Choir; Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique; Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Naxos 2.110685-86 (naxosdirect.com/search/2110685-86)

Although Les pêcheurs de perles launched Georges Bizet’s memorable career as an operatic composer, it was Carmen, composed in 1875, which left his indelible stamp on the world. Its premiere so shocked the conservative audience of opéra comique of the day that it almost discontinued its run. Yet the seductive magic that worked through the charm of its melodies, Spanish exoticism of its score and strength of its characters has made it one of the greatest, most enduring operas of all time. 

This DVD, (of the 2009 film) could not have come at a better time, when most of the world’s opera houses still remain closed due to an unrelenting pandemic. What makes it all the more enduring is the fact that it is a production stage-directed by Adrian Noble, with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir conducted by the great Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Of course, you couldn’t ask for a better cast than soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci as the rebellious cigarette girl, Carmen, and tenor Andrew Richards as the honourable corporal in the dragoons, Don José. Or for that matter soprano Anne-Catherine Gillet as the peasant girl Micaëla and bass-baritone Nicholas Cavallier as Escamillo. 

The rich colour of the choruses and orchestration plays a central role. But while Don José, Escamillo and Micaëla have fine arias, Antonacci’s Carmen is the diva of this opera, nowhere more brilliantly expressed than in her Act One Habanera.

06b Die Tote Stadt whiteKorngold – Der Tote Stadt
Jonas Kaufmann; Marlis Petersen; Bayerische Staatsoper; Kirill Petrenko
Bayerische Stattoper BSOREC1001 (naxosdirect.com/search/bsorec1001)

This release from the Bavarian State Opera launches their new label for in-house video recordings in grand style. Erich Korngold was just 23 in 1920, when he wrote Die Tote Stadt – both the music, and, with his father, music critic Julius Korngold, the libretto (under the pen name Paul Schott). It’s based on a melancholy, dream-suffused novel, Bruges-la-Morte, written almost 30 years earlier by Georges Rodenbach. But there are significant changes, especially to the ending. Now Korngold’s opulent Vienna prevails over Rodenbach’s claustrophobic Bruges. 

The inventive staging by Simon Stone takes full advantage of Ralph Myers’ magically transforming, exquisitely detailed set. Kirill Petrenko leads the splendid BSO orchestra and chorus with a probing intensity that takes us directly to the emotional pulse of Korngold’s sumptuous, turbulent opera. Nostalgic romanticism confronts expressionist modernism. 

Tenor Jonas Kaufmann inhabits the role of volatile, tormented Paul as though it had been written for him. Soprano Marlis Peterson matches Kaufmann for gorgeous singing and convincing acting as Marietta, a free-spirited dancer who reminds Paul of his dead wife. Peterson’s rapport with Kaufmann in the exquisite duet, Glück, das mir verblieb (Joy, that near to me remained) is irresistible.

Baritone Andrzej Filończyk serenades Marietta with a tender Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen (My yearning, my dreaming) as he leads her in a waltz. The whole time, he’s pushing her around in a shopping cart. It’s one of the many treasurable moments from this brilliant production that stay with me.

07 Voces8Infinity
Decca Classics B0034074-02 (voces8.com)

Trailblazing comforting online choral video performances at the outset of the current pandemic, VOCES8 presents Infinity, a new disc with a soothing, meditative space-inspired theme. Evocatively dubbed “the Rolls-Royce of British a-cappella ensembles,” this eight-voice choir with a 15-year international career enjoys transcending genres. On this record they render the scores of composers of alternative, film, electronic and contemporary classical music. 

The 15-track program includes arranged excerpts from film scores interspersed with a medieval song and eight commissioned works. Collectively, the music admirably showcases VOCES8’s clean, well-controlled, precision English vocal ensemble sound, yet one with character, personality and not without warmth.

Jóhann Jóhannsson’s A Pile of Dust is an example of what one can expect on the album. Driven by the ensemble’s vocal pacing, its climactic middle section miraculously builds relentlessly higher and higher before just as relentlessly slowly resolving, settling down in quiet half notes. Other highlights include In the Shining Blackness (2016), London composer Benjamin Rimmer’s searching, challenging-to-sing double-SATB score. In keeping with the outer space theme, Nainita Desai’s tonal My Mind is Still, for voices, solo violin, piano and bowed vibraphone, is apparently sprinkled with fragments of recorded sound from Sputnik, humanity’s first satellite.

I found singer-songwriter and electronic producer Kelly Lee Owens and Sebastian Plano’s Find Our Way, skillfully arranged by Jim Clements, particularly moving. Exquisitely sung by VOCES8, it was so reassuring after a rough day that it required a third listen.

08 Duo della LunaDuo della Luna: Mangetsu
Susan Botti; Airi Yoshioka
New Focus Recordings FCR 305 (newfocusrecordings.com)

A rare ensemble combination of voice and violin, Duo della Luna presents an album that is sonically beautiful and contextually adventurous. Mangetsu is dreamy and poetic yet cutting edge and experimental. The thread that connects a variety of compositions on this album is the unique ensemble sound throughout: deep, eloquent, potent. Susan Botti (voice/composer) and Airi Yoshioka (violin) venture into themes of life and creation, imagination, female power and love with a magical artistic rapport. 

The album opens with Botti’s dreamlike multi-movement title work. The wordless sections (“mangetsu”) are nested in between the movements with poems describing the moon and the ethereal world of childhood (Shikibu, Yeats, de Saint-Exupéry). The result is music that is willowy and sensual, a luring mystery. Botti explores the possibilities of voice and violin interactions to a great degree but always in the service of the poetry. Yoshioka’s violin playing is simply gorgeous, the colours and the precision equally alluring. 

The rest of the album consists of Botti’s innovative arrangements of selected Bartók Duos for Two Violins, followed by Kaija Saariaho’s intimate Changing Light. Linda Dusman’s Triptych of Gossips, incorporating a fancifully rhythmical poem by Serena Hilsinger, is a chamber of curiosities of extended techniques and a great sonic adventure.

There is a certain kind of magic that happens when the music is expressed in so few voices. The sound becomes unadorned and pure, and these two performers take full advantage of it.

01 Joseph BoulogneJoseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges – Symphonies Concertantes, Opp.9, 10 & Op.11, No.1
Pavla Honsová; Michael Halász; Yury Revich; Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice; Libor Ježek
Naxos 8574306 (naxosdirect.com/search/+8574306)

An émigré to France, he was a brilliant swordsman, an accomplished musician and reputedly handsome – how could the French music-loving public not embrace such a well-rounded individual? Joseph Boulogne Chevalier de Saint-Georges was born in Guadeloupe in 1739, the son of a wealthy French landowner and a Black servant. He was taken to Paris at the age of ten where he studied with Gossec and by age 30, he was leader of the musical organization Le Concert des Amateurs. Saint-Georges was also a fine composer, and among his prolific output are several symphonies concertantes – concertos for more than one instrument. Four of them, Opp.9 and 10 scored for two violins (plus a viola in the Op.10) and orchestra are presented on this splendid Naxos recording featuring the Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra Pardubice conducted by Michael Halász.

In style, this music owes much to Haydn and typically, these works have only two movements – a spirited allegro followed by a gracious rondeau. All of them contain attractive thematic material and ample opportunity for the soloists to display their technical ability. The two violinists – Russian-born Yury Revich, playing on a 1709 Stradivarius, and Libor Ježek, deputy leader of the Czech Chamber Orchestra – are joined by violist Pavla Honsová and together they comprise a formidable trio, delivering polished and assured performances in solid partnership with the CPCO.

The Symphony Op.11/1 is the first in a pair of symphonies first published in Paris in 1779. Again, the spirit of Haydn is ever-present – this could almost be a precursor to the “Paris” symphonies, and the performance – like the music itself – is refined and elegant. 

A delightful recording of music deserving greater attention – Marie Antoinette would surely have approved!

02 Andrea BotticelliStimme aus der Ferne – A Voice from the Distance
Andrea Botticelli
Independent 01 (andrea-botticelli.com)

Canadian pianist Andrea Botticelli developed an interest in historical instruments early on, and since then, has been the recipient of numerous awards and grants for her work and research into early performance practices. In this recording, titled A Voice from the Distance, she again opens the door to the past, presenting works by Schubert, Czerny and Schumann on a replica of an 1830s Viennese pianoforte.

The disc opens with Schubert’s Sonata in A Major D664, music composed during the summer of 1819 when he was all of 22.This genial score is clearly that of a youthful composer and Botticelli displays particular warmth of tone and a fluid sense of rhythm and pacing. The music of Czerny is not often encountered today, but during his lifetime, he was renowned as a composer and pedagogue. His Variations on a Theme by Rode Op.33 is a fine example of his creative ability, the five variations a true study in contrasts and certainly not without considerable technical challenges. Schumann’s charming suite, Papillons Op.2 from 1831, is intended as a musical depiction of a masked ball. Once again, Botticelli demonstrates a real affinity for the music and throughout the listener is struck with the robust and full sound she achieves on the instrument. Added bonuses are Clara Schumann’s Notturno from her Soirées musicales Op.6 and the eighth movement from Schumann’s Novelletten Op.21 which bring the CD to a fitting conclusion.

This disc is a delight. Not only does Botticelli deliver a compelling performance – breathing new life into traditional repertoire – but she proves without a doubt that Romantic-period repertoire is as satisfying to the ear when played on an early pianoforte as it is on a modern concert grand.

Listen to 'Stimme aus der Ferne: A Voice from the Distance' Now in the Listening Room

03 Lisiecki ChopinChopin – Complete Nocturnes
Jan Lisiecki
Deutsche Grammophon 4860761 (deutschegrammophon.com/en/catalogue/products/chopin-complete-nocturnes-lisiecki-12377)

Recently I watched an orchestral concert from Zurich recorded some years ago. The soloist was Jan Lisiecki. He played an encore, Chopin’s Nocturne Op.48 No.1 in C Minor. The piece begins with a deceivingly simple pianissimo melody, but soon another melody in a major key insinuates itself in the bass line, barely noticeable at first, but keeps mounting with tremendous chords. The pace quickens with a formidable crescendo masterfully controlled and developed into fortissimo. At that point the piano roars and seems to explode and Lisiecki becomes a lion, a total master of the instrument. When it was over, the audience, the orchestra and the conductor were spellbound, the applause deafening and for me Lisiecki then became one of my piano heroes.

Lisiecki was a teenager at that time, a lanky boy from Calgary, very tall with bushy hair. Now he is literally conquering Europe. Deutsche Grammophon picked him out very quickly at age 15 and this is his eighth recording for the Gesellschaft, having already recorded the Concertos and the Etudes of Chopin. Now he turns to the Nocturnes, the composer’s most intimate and some of the most beautiful and best-loved pieces ever written for solo piano. Perhaps his Polish origins give Lisiecki a natural affinity to Chopin; with his youthful energy, impeccable technique, exquisite touch and profound insight he certainly does justice to these masterworks.

Some highlights are of course the famous and popular Op.9 No.2 in E-flat Major, the Op.15 No.2 in F-sharp Major with its haunting, chromatic melody and agitated mid-section, the tremendous Op.27 No.2, in D-flat Major with a grand melody and passionate outbursts, and the wistful, yearning Op.37 No.2 in G Major with its barcarolle-like mid-section and more. Happy listening!

04 Brahms DespaxBrahms – Piano Concerto No.1; 16 Waltzes
Emmanuel Despax; Miho Kawashima; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Andrew Litton
Signum Classics SIGCD666 (signumrecords.com)

Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.1 is a renowned masterpiece, frequently performed by orchestras and soloists since its premiere in 1859. Expansive and majestic, this work combines classical-period form with distinctly Romantic harmonies and progressions to create a captivating and large-scale concerto that ranks among the finest works of its time.

This recording, featuring the BBC Symphony Orchestra and pianist Emmanuel Despax, acknowledges the weightiness of Brahms’ writing, choosing an approach to tempo and style that accentuates the depth and density of the concerto’s progressions and development. For example, the first movement, marked Maestoso, is performed in 24’28”, a minute or two slower than many modern recordings (but faster than Glenn Gould’s infamous 25’37” performance of the same with Leonard Bernstein), while the following two movements fit within the slower averages. 

Rather than coming across as drab and dull, however, the melodiousness that is revealed by this slightly lugubrious opening tempo is captivating and made utterly logical by the clarity revealed in the fleeting piano part towards the middle of this first movement – every keystroke is audible, resulting in gestures made up of distinct yet rapid notes rather than a murky approximation of the notated score. Expression is paramount in late-Romantic music, and Despax’s pacing allows for great clarity and sincerity in his interpretation.

Despax is joined by pianist Miho Kawashima for the 16 Waltzes, presented here in their original version for piano four hands. These are short works, the longest lasting only 2’01”, yet their beauty is remarkable. An essay in compositional dexterity, the diversity present in these 16 pieces, all based on the same form, is a delight for the listener; it is difficult to take in only one of these charming, bite-size pieces at a time.

Covering both the orchestral immensity of the Piano Concerto No.1 and the levity of the 16 Waltzes, this disc is highly recommended to anyone who appreciates Brahms’ music and the pluralities present therein: joyful solemnity and tragic sweetness.

05 MoszkowskiMoritz Moszkowski – Complete Music for Solo Piano Volume One
Ian Hobson
Toccata Classics TOCC 0572 (toccataclassics.com)

Moritz Moszkowski composed in all genres, but he’s remembered today, if at all, for his 250-plus piano pieces, still occasionally sourced for recital encores. This CD, the first in a projected comprehensive compilation, presents Moszkowski’s earliest piano works, all dating from 1874-1877, when the composer was in his early 20s.

The playful opening Conservatoristen-Polka, humorously labelled “Op.½,” and identified as composed by “Anton Notenquetscher” (Note-Squeezer), references a much-reprinted satiric poem by Moszkowski’s older brother Alexander.

Among the disc’s other 13 pieces, three are fairly substantial, at over nine minutes each. Fantaisie (Hommage à Schumann), Op.5, successfully echoes Schumann’s style and its extremes of assertiveness and tenderness, with lyricism prevailing. In Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op.6, warm, gently rippling melodies slowly build to a fortissimo climax, marked grandioso. Humoreske, Op.14, is a buoyantly cheerful, virtuosic essay in dotted rhythms and rapid runs.

Of the shorter pieces, I particularly enjoyed the reflective, Schumannesque Albumblatt, Op.2, the sentiment-laden Melodie (the first of the Skizzen, Vier kleine Stücke, Op.10) and, most of all, Con moto (the second of Trois Moments Musicaux, Op.7), in which episodes of urgent plaintiveness are offset by beautiful, serene, hymn-like reassurances.

Ian Hobson’s many recordings include all of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas and Chopin’s complete piano works. He also conducted Moszkowski’s orchestral music on the fine CD I reviewed in the December 2020/January 2021 edition of The WholeNote. In Hobson’s very capable hands, future Moszkowski CDs promise many more hours of enjoyable discoveries.

06 Ravel Saint SaensRavel & Saint-Saëns – Piano Trios
Sitkovetsky Trio
Bis BIS-2219 SACD (bis.se)

The subtle colours and evanescent textures of Ravel’s piano music are often compared to those of his older contemporary Debussy, but, in fact, Ravel got there first. Like in Jeux d’eau from 1902, his Piano Trio in A Minor (1914) which features rippling liquid arpeggiated figurations derived from Liszt, is imbued with a singular new delicacy. The four wistful movements of the trio seek to convey an increasingly wide range of vivid sensations, aural and visual to create what is, in effect, a miniature tone poem. 

In one of their best recordings, the Sitkovetsky Trio interpret this piece with idiosyncratic brilliance. The variety of touch and the extraordinary control of dynamics that violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky, cellist Isang Enders and pianist Wu Qian bring to this performance balance limpid tonal clarity and questing energy.  

The other work on this scintillating album is Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Trio No.2 in E Minor Op.92. A child prodigy with Mozartian potential, the composer remarked that he lived in music “like a fish in water.” That is eminently clear from this Piano Trio, which, like his concertos, is pleasant on the ear but murder on the fingers. Like their Ravel, the Sitkovetsky Trio’s Saint-Saëns sounds startlingly fresh. Qian’s enthusiastic pianism displays great technical assurance and a sense of tremendous forward momentum. Sitkovetsky’s and Enders’ playing is sinewy and dramatic. Together the trio also give this work a spirited reading.

08 Sibelius LuonnotarSibelius – Luonnotar; Tapiola; Spring Song
Lise Davidsen; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra; Edward Gardner
Chandos CHSA 5217 (naxosdirect.com/search/chsa5217)

Jean Sibelius – together with Grieg and Dvořák – was largely responsible for the late-19th-century upsurge of musical nationalism. Sibelius’ greatest achievements were to reassert the Finnish ethos as something distinct from both Russia and Sweden – something that made him a cultural figurehead in Finland. This could be attributed to his splendid compositional technique, and a special skill that enabled him to unite the heroic imagery of the Finnish epic Kalevela and the sounds that characterized Scandinavia with the influences of the greater European tradition. 

Though Sibelius’ output is dominated by his seven symphonies, by the time he had written the first of these he had already honed his craft with a series of orchestral pieces on national themes written during the 1890s. This album includes two of these: Rakastava (The Lover) Op.14 and the tone poem Vårsång (Spring Song) Op.16. It also includes two other tone poems, Luonnotar Op, 70 and, arguably Sibelius’ greatest tone poem – Tapiola Op.112, Finlandia notwithstanding. 

The Bergen Philharmonic and Edward Gardner’s account of these works has a truly magisterial authority; Gardner’s control of the imagery of the works – in fine gradations of mood and colour – is utterly convincing. Lise Davidsen’s luminous soprano is heard on Luonnotar and the album’s longest work Pelléas och Mélisande – incidental music for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play. Orchestra and soprano have rarely sounded so beautiful and profoundly absorbed as in these stellar works. An album to die for.

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