01 Leclair Six SonatasViolinists Gwen Hoebig and Karl Stobbe have been sitting together on the front desk of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra for 20 years, and have been playing duets together for almost that long. A staple of their repertoire, the Six Sonatas for Two Violins by Jean-Marie Leclair is featured on a new CD from Analekta (AN 2 8786 analekta.com).

Leclair (1697-1764) was considered the father of French violin playing, merging the Italian influence he picked up while working for the ballet in Turin in his 20s with the French dance forms. These Op.3 Duos are known for their difficulty, but despite the need for technical mastery and virtuosity are never merely brilliant show pieces but works full of elegance and reserve, and of “lilting pastorals, graceful sarabandes and fiery jigs.”

Hoebig and Stobbe have technical mastery to spare, with a bright, clear sound and beautifully clean playing. The first and second violin parts are equally important here, with constant interplay and textural depth, and it’s virtually impossible to tell them apart.

Leclair had what the publicity release calls a tumultuous life, and was stabbed to death in front of the house he owned in a rather seedy area of Paris, possibly at the instigation of his former wife, who had been left penniless upon their divorce and who inherited his house and possessions, or by his nephew, an aspiring violinist angered at Leclair’s refusal to help advance his career. In the booklet notes Stobbe suggests that the nature of the duos – “the intimacy of two violins working together through tribulations and trials, romance, and violence” – may well reflect the circumstances of Leclair’s life, giving the performers a good starting point to explore the music’s character. His hope that these performances go beyond the technical challenges to give a sense of the man who created them is more than fulfilled in an outstanding CD.

02 Faust Bach coverViolinist Isabelle Faust and harpsichordist Kristian Bezuidenhout are in outstanding form in a 2CD set of J.S. Bach: Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord (harmonia mundi 90225657).

These six works BWV 1014-1019 probably date from the Cöthen period of 1717-23, but Bach apparently continued to revisit and revise them throughout his life, suggesting that they were works that meant a great deal to him. From a historical perspective they form a crucial link between the Baroque trio sonata and the violin and piano sonatas of the Classical and Romantic periods, Bach treating the left and right hand keyboard parts as bass line and melodic voice respectively, with the violin interacting primarily with the melodic voice.

The performances here are quite superb, with a lovely balance between the instruments and a striking warmth and clarity. In his perceptive booklet notes Bezuidenhout offers the suggestion that the acquisition of a new double-manual harpsichord by Michael Mietke of Berlin at Cöthen in 1719 may well have provided the inspiration for Bach’s sudden keyboard innovations; there seem to be no other sources for this sudden departure from the standard trio sonata form.

The harpsichord used here, courtesy of Trevor Pinnock, is a modern John Phillips instrument modelled after a 1722 harpsichord by Johann Heinrich Grabner. Bezuidenhout notes that the sound “is both full… and wonderfully articulate,” the clarity between the registers ideal for the three-voice counterpoint so much at the heart of these sonatas. Faust plays a 1658 Jacob Stainer violin, which Bezuidenhout notes has the “necessary brilliance... but also a certain warmth and darkness of tone that is ideally suited to the more melancholy moments.”

All in all, it’s a wonderful set.

03 Kotik MozartI didn’t know the playing of Tomas Cotik before last month’s outstanding Piazzolla Legacy CD, but his latest release, a simply beautiful 4CD set of the Complete Mozart 16 Sonatas for Violin and Piano with his regular partner Tao Lin (Centaur CRC 3619/20/21/22 centaurrecords.com), leaves me in no doubt as to what I must have been missing.

This set – Cotik’s 14th issue – does not include the “juvenile” sonatas for keyboard and violin from 1763-66, where the violin rarely does little more than conform to the keyboard right hand, but presents the 16 sonatas written in the period 1778-88: the six sonatas K301-306 published in Paris in late 1778 and known as the Kurfürstin or Palatine Sonatas; the six sonatas K296 and K376-380 published by Artaria in Vienna in late 1781 and dedicated to Mozart’s pupil Josepha Aurnhammer; and the later Viennese sonatas K454 (1784), K481 (1785), K526 (1787) and K547 (1788).

In the accompanying publicity material, Cotik describes the lengths to which he and Lin had to go to reduce and eliminate the extraneous noises from the Fort Lauderdale church they had chosen as the recording venue. The resulting full-movement takes more than justify their efforts: the sound quality and balance are excellent, with the violin never too far forward but never overshadowed by the piano either. Both performers play with a resonant, clear and warm tone, and dynamics, phrasing and tempi are all perfectly judged.

Cotik readily admits to having always loved Mozart’s music, and calls his recordings of these sonatas a milestone in his musical life. It’s a sentiment that is clearly evident in every single track of this exemplary set.

04 Rachel Barton PineThis really has been a tremendous month for violin CDs. The American violinist Rachel Barton Pine marks her 36th recording and her fourth album for the Avie label with the Elgar and Bruch Violin Concertos, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton (AV2375 avie-records.com).

Pine calls the project an “indulgence in Romanticism,” being the first time that the shortest of the regular repertoire Romantic concertos – the Bruch Violin Concerto No.1 in G Minor Op.26 – has been recorded together with the longest – Elgar’s Violin Concerto in B Minor Op.61. Although they have little in common from a historical perspective, Pine has long thought of them together because each work reminds her of the warm, rich and soulful sound she looks for in the other.

The Bruch was the first Romantic concerto that Pine learned (at the age of eight!) and the Elgar was one of the last, its highly technical challenges, numerous tempo changes and sheer length making it particularly difficult to learn (James Ehnes expressed the same concerns prior to his recording with Andrew Davis in 2007). The original conductor for this project was Sir Neville Marriner, who conducted the Academy of St Martin in the Fields on Pine’s critically acclaimed Avie album of the complete Mozart violin concertos, but he passed away shortly after Pine visited London to play and discuss the Elgar with him. It was a sad loss, for Marriner’s teacher was Billy Reed who, as the young concertmaster of the London Symphony Orchestra, had helped Elgar with the solo violin part. What would Sir Neville have brought to his first recording of the work, one wonders.

Still, Litton does an excellent job with a concerto that can be difficult to hold together, his accompaniment having a quite different sound at times – not exactly lighter or smaller, but perhaps not as serious as some, with a great deal of sensitivity and attention to detail. There is certainly no tendency toward Elgarian pomp or Edwardian stuffiness that can sometimes make the concerto sound a bit laboured or meandering in less experienced hands.

Pine’s playing in the Elgar is thoughtful and unerringly accurate with no hint of mere virtuosity, although there is perhaps less of a feel of sweeping grandeur than in some other performances. Much the same can be said of the Bruch, where again the foremost impression is one of intelligence and sensitivity in the playing rather than unabashed Romantic passion. It supports Marriner’s observation of Pine’s playing in the Mozart set, when he said “...there is no utter embellishment, everything is there for a purpose, and musically speaking, it makes such good sense.”

Dedicated “to the memory of a musical hero and generous friend, Sir Neville Marriner,” the CD is an excellent addition to Pine’s impressive discography.

05 Dvorak coverThere’s playing of the utmost warmth and sensitivity on Antonín Dvořák: String Quintet Op.97 & String Sextet Op.48, featuring the Jerusalem Quartet with violist Veronika Hagen and, in the sextet, cellist Gary Hoffman (harmonia mundi 902320).

The Sextet in A Major was written in 1878 and was clearly modelled on the two string sextets of Brahms, who commented many years later on the “wonderful invention, freshness and beauty of sound” in the work. It was Brahms who had recommended Dvořák to his own publisher Simrock in 1877, and there is certainly more than a hint of the German Romantic tradition here as well as the inevitable Slavonic folk influence. The performance has effusiveness and passion, with a lovely Dumka movement and a terrific Finale.

There’s no less passionate and committed playing in the Quintet in E-flat Major, which simply abounds in lyrical warmth and beauty. It was written, along with the “American” string quartet, in the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa in the summer of 1893 during Dvořák’s stay in the United States.

These are simply ravishing performances, with Alexander Pavlovsky’s gorgeous first violin playing leading the way and setting a standard that the other performers have no problem matching.

06 Jupiter DuoThe Russian pianist, composer and teacher Alla Elana Cohen came to the United States in 1989 and is currently a professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Jupiter Duo is the title of a new CD of her music, as well as the name of the performing duo of cellist Sebastian Bäverstam and Cohen herself on piano (Ravello Records RR7978 ravellorecords.com).

Cohen discovered Bäverstam, now 29, when he was barely 12 years old, and the first work of hers that they performed then, the Book of Prayers Volume 1, Series 7, opens the CD. All subsequent Cohen cello works were written for Bäverstam, and there are three other cello and piano works here: Third Vigil, an arrangement (which Cohen prefers) of her Concerto for Cello and Orchestra; Querying the Silence Volume 1, Series 2; and Book of Prayers Volume 2, Series 4, which closes the CD.

Sephardic Romancero Series 2 is a challenging solo work ably handled by Bäverstam, although Cohen’s statement that “for anybody else it will be almost impossible to play this piece” says little for her awareness of contemporary world-class cellists. Cohen also contributes two works for solo piano: Three Film Noir Pieces and Spiral Staircases.

It’s tough music to get a handle on, with little melodic content, a lot of thick, dense texture in the predominantly discordant piano writing and a good deal of large, heavy chords spread across the entire keyboard range. From the cello perspective Bäverstam handles all the technical challenges with ease; his lower tone in particular is beautifully rich.

Of the final work on the CD, Cohen says that it is one of the rare-for-her compositions “in which lighter colours prevail. It is also the most ‘consonant’ by sonority, at times even quasi-tonal.” That should give you some idea of the music on the rest of the disc, which generally seems to be tough, abrasive and frequently decidedly dark.

01 Radiant ClassicsIn this debut release (recorded at Glenn Gould Studio), Radiant Classics (Really Records, really-records.com), Nina Soyfer demonstrates her innate ability to meet the stylistic demands of a remarkably varied program. This admirable skill rests on the foundation of an impressive keyboard technique and artistic insight. She performs the Bach Toccata in D Major BWV912 with freedom and sensitivity. The Fugue in particular dances beautifully under the lightness of her touch.

The disc opens with Beethoven’s 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C Minor WoO 80 and closes with his Appasionata Sonata. The Variations demand many changes in mood and the sonata depends greatly on the convincing delivery of the first movement’s heroic theme. Soyfer comes to these works with an unerring sense of who Beethoven is in all his emotional complexity, and creates an experience that is both authentic and profound.

The recording’s most interesting pieces are the two Preludes by Ukrainian composer Vasyl Barvinsky. Not many of his works survive. His late-Romantic, impressionistic style is highly crafted and somewhat reminiscent of Chopin. Soyfer brings considerable emotion and power to his music, leaving the clear impression that more of it needs to be heard.

02 Lindsay GarritsonLindsay Garritson is no stranger to competitions, touring and live performance. Her impressive list of achievements makes this first disc, Lindsay Garritson, piano (lindsaygarritson.com), a welcome recording. It shows the intensity of her style and the eloquent expression of which she is so remarkably capable.

She begins the disc with the Liszt Rhapsodie Espagnole S.254. It’s a full-on engagement with all the power and nuance that the composer’s work requires. The major item on the CD is the Schumann Sonata No.3 in F Minor Op.14. Its four movements demand a great deal of scope from the performer, from the often deep introspection of the second and third movements to the blazing technique of the Finale. Garritson’s technical and interpretive abilities are inspiring. She has clearly lived with this piece for a long time and justifiably owns it.

Rachmaninov’s setting of the Kreisler Liebesleid completes her program in a show of capricious keyboard genius. It’s the kind of playing that brings audiences to their feet after encores. You can do it in the privacy of your living room – your secret will be safe with us.

03 Bruce LevingstonThis beautiful CD Windows (Sono Luminus DSL 92218 sonoluminus.com) is the seventh in Bruce Levingston’s discography. The main work is Schumann’s Kinderszenen Op.15. Levingston proves himself an artist whose first impulse is to find and reveal a composer’s most fragile moments. His ability to do this is quite disarming. The best example of this is Träumerei. Not since Horowitz played this as the encore in his 1986 Moscow concert near the end of his life, have I heard such playing. Words completely fail. Levingston brings this approach to the whole piece and thereby creates something quite unlike anything recorded of late.

The other works on the CD are commissions from two contemporary composers. The Shadow of the Blackbird by David Bruce is the program’s opening piece and is very much in the character of the Schumann that follows it. It’s deceptively simple yet searching and contemplative. A perfect beginning to Levingston’s program.

The CD’s title tracks Windows are James Matheson’s five-movement composition inspired by the stained glass windows of Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse. Matheson uses the piano’s colours very effectively in his writing. Levingston plays this in a way that draws an interpretive thread convincingly through the works of all three composers.

04 Liza StepanovaLiza Stepanova takes an unusual and creative approach to her new CD Tones & Colors (Concert Artists Guild CAG 120 concertartists.org). Using paintings as the inspiration for her four-part program, she blends music from Bach to Ligeti into themes depicting A Spanish Room, Nature and Impressionism, Conversations Across Time, and Wagner, Infinity and an Encore.

It’s a skillfully assembled repertoire list and beautifully played throughout. A number of tracks stand out. El pelele by Granados makes a brilliant opening, with its rich harmonies and sparkling writing. Stepanova has equal success with the three impressionist pieces in the second set. Fanny Hensel’s September: At the River is especially effective.

The third set uses four pieces in the key of E-flat minor. A Bach Prelude and Fugue BWV853, George Crumb’s Adoration of the Magi and a second fugue by Lyonel Feininger based on the subject used by Bach in his fugue. It’s quite striking to hear how the shared key draws these disparate works so tightly together.

Stepanova begins her final set with Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser. It’s magnificent playing that captures the grand scale of Wagner’s work, from the solemn chorale-like opening to its towering climax. Ligeti’s Etude No.14 Infinite Column is a devilish piece to perform and reveals Stepanova’s true power at the keyboard. A graduate of Juilliard and a seasoned performer, Stepanova is one to follow in the piano world.

Listen to 'Tones & Colors' Now in the Listening Room

05 Robert PresterRobert Prester may be better known today as an accomplished jazz pianist, but his new CD Robert Prester – Rapsodya (robertprester.com) is a reminder of his many years as a young pianist absorbing the classical repertoire. The learning of this period has shaped his playing with a light and precise touch, a keen interpretive impulse focused clearly on emotion, and a remarkable grasp of musical architecture.

This new recording contains the Beethoven Sonata No.12 in A-flat Major Op.26 performed with a fresh and energized enthusiasm – as if it were a world premiere. Debussy’s Jardins Sous la Pluie is an impressive example of Prester’s keyboard agility. The Bach Prelude and Fugue No.6 in D Minor WTC Book II is an excellent example of the musical discipline and intuition that Prester brings to all his playing.

The real gem on this disc, however, is Prester’s own composition. The Sonata in F Minor is a fusion of classical and jazz harmonies. It adheres closely to the structure of sonata form but is deeply imbued with the harmonic clusters, intervals and rhythms we associate intimately with jazz. This mix is seamless and well balanced. If anything, it’s a reminder of our enduring tendency to keep these two genres isolated in their own worlds without believing their co-mingling can produce something unique and truly beautiful.

It’s a terrific recording. Visionary, successful and altogether brilliant.

06 Nancy Zipay DesalvoNancy Zipay DeSalvo presents the work of two contemporary composers in her new recording Small Stones – Modern Piano Music (Navona Records NV 6139 navonarecords.com).

Jason Tad Howard’s Piano Sonata No.2 is not really a sonata in the formal sense. Rather, it explores eight short musical ideas that the composer calls Short Shorts, before bringing them together in a final expression amusingly described as a Not Quite So Short Short Short. Despite the light humour, the work is quite substantial and at times very technically demanding. The eight pieces are varied in style and mood, and kept to less than two minutes’ playing time. They tend slightly toward a minimalist form and finally emerge in the complexity of the last movement.

Daniel Perttu’s Sonata for Piano is inspired by a visit to Stonehenge. Perttu uses many compositional devices to evoke the ancient mystery associated with this landmark: minor modes, atmospheric writing and plenty of technical exploitation of the piano’s potential in evoking the moods he requires. This sonata is more challenging for the performer than the earlier work. DeSalvo handles it all with a confidence that speaks to her lifetime as a performer and teacher.

The two sonatas are a good selection and represent a fine example of contrasting approaches to contemporary piano writing.

07 Lynell JamesLynelle James has recorded her first solo piano CD, Lynelle James Piano (Blue Griffin Recording BGR435 bluegriffin.com). She includes the Beethoven Piano Sonata No.28 in A Major Op.101, in which the third movement emerges as a masterpiece of deeply touching melancholy. It’s a very satisfying performance that is even more thrilling for the energy that erupts in the final movement. Her command of the keyboard is inspiring, especially in the frequent restatements of the fugal subject in the bass line.

Some of James’ academic work has focused on the life and music of Russian avant-garde composer Nikolay Roslavets. It’s natural that she would use her first recording to bring this lesser-known repertoire to public attention. Roslavets’ Five Preludes reveals an ethereal and somewhat mystical language that James captures with conviction and authenticity. The music is replete with dynamic and emotional changes and moves strongly in the direction of atonality while never quite losing a tonal centre, however distant.

Her performance of the Scriabin Sonata No.4 in F Sharp Major Op.30 is extraordinary. The two movements are of such contrasting character, it’s difficult to believe they’re by the same composer. James understands the core of Scriabin’s expression and holds the work together wonderfully.

The Schumann Symphonic Etudes Op.13 concludes the CD. Structured as a theme and variations, the bulk of the piece is a series of etudes on the opening idea. As such, it quickly becomes a beautiful display of keyboard technique and varied musical devices that Schumann conceived in his own brilliant way. James plays these with flair and an expansive grasp of their symphonic scale.

08 Panayiotis DemopolisPanayiotis Demopoulos’ latest recording Brahms, Demopoulos, Mussorgsky (Diversions ddv 24166 divineartrecords.com) is his third and includes one of his own compositions, Farewells for Piano. The work is a tribute to his two principal teachers in the UK. It’s structured in four parts, each representing a farewell offered in one of the four seasons. Demopoulos writes that the work has no explicit program beyond its title. The four short pieces are very modern in their language and surprisingly abrupt in mood change.

The main work on the CD is the Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition. Demopoulos uses the 1931 edition edited by Pavel Lamm that corrected the numerous and questionable portions of the 1886 version edited by Rimsky-Korsakov. The 16 short pieces that comprise the Pictures encompass the entire expressive spectrum and call upon the pianist to be everything from sprite to superhero. It is Mussorgsky’s demand for contrast on such an enormous scale that presents performers with the daunting task of playing the piece complete in live performance. At least the recording studio offers the respite of breaks between takes.

However Demopoulos did it, it’s breathtaking. By the time he’s portrayed little chicks, the busy market place, the realm of the dead and arrives at the Great Gate of Kiev, awe is all that remains.

01 Secret Fires of LoveSecret Fires of Love
Daniel Thomson; Terry McKenna; Thomas Leininger; Studio Rhetorica; Robert Toft
Talbot Productions TP1701 (belcantohip.com)

The love song has been a mainstay of vocal music, through its incarnations as performed by minnesingers or troubadours, followed by lieder or chanson artists, to John Cusack with a boom box above his head in Say Anything, to the seemingly ubiquitous Ed Sheeran. Throughout this time, it grew steadily louder: the meekest of instruments, the lute, has been supplanted by the guitar (sometimes electric) while the harpsichord yielded to the pianoforte and synthesizers. One thing, seemingly, has been lost: the contemplative, almost meditative quality that permeated the Renaissance and Baroque songs of courtly love. The intimate connection is still there in modern music, the sweet pain of love still exerts its pangs, but the whisper has turned to a shout. No wonder – in our crazy 24/7 world, who really does take time to smell the roses? Robert Toft, that’s who! The music scholar from Western University in London brings together a stellar cast to survey the love songs of the Italian and English Renaissance and Baroque. The unique talents of Daniel Thomson, Terry McKenna and Thomas Leininger recreate the very intimacy, closeness and wonder of music played and sung pianissimo, requiring us to tune out the world and meditate alongside.

Thomson, an Australian countertenor, is having “his” moment: his muscular, precise voice is pure joy. McKenna, a Canadian lutenist, coaxes his “meek instrument” into a commanding performance. Leininger, a German master of the harpsichord, makes one long for the days before the invention of the pianoforte. Arriving a few weeks late for Valentine’s Day, nevertheless this will be the best gift for the one you love.

02 Peoples PurcellThe People’s Purcell
Michael Slattery; La Nef
ATMA ACD2 2726 (atmaclassique.com)

As with his 2012 recording, Dowland in Dublin, tenor Michael Slattery has collaborated again with La Nef to present the music of a beloved composer, reworked and transformed in fresh and novel ways that prove most pleasing (and accessible) to a modern listener. Though Henry Purcell enjoyed an elevated position as composer at the court of Charles II, his theatrical music, based on popular song and dance forms of the time, was clearly loved by the more common folk. As well, there has been a long tradition of re-arranging Purcell’s sublime melodies for public use, beginning with Playford’s collection The Dancing Master in 1651.

Each piece selected for this recording has been individually stamped by either Slattery or a member of La Nef, without compromising the original intent of the music. Baroque cellist Amanda Keesmaat and cittern player Seán Dagher infuse their arrangements of instrumental suites from The Fairy Queen and King Arthur with playful interplays and folksy articulations. Flutist Grégoire Jeay and tenor Slattery take turns providing arrangements of the songs, with stunning results. The recording ends with Slattery’s reworking of Dido’s Lament in which a vacillation between the minor and major key provides a surprisingly dramatic and rather surreal effect, poignantly enhanced by the tenor’s artful and subtle delivery.

Listen to 'The People's Purcell' Now in the Listening Room

03 sony yonchevaThe Verdi Album
Sonya Yoncheva; Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Massimo Zanetti
Sony Classical 88985417982

“A high C that takes no prisoners,” muses Presto Classical editor Katherine Cooper wittily about the final note on this disc. And neither does Verdi. In fact, he “murders” sopranos so the legend goes (even though he married one). Bulgarian dramatic soprano Sonya Yoncheva is his latest intended victim. I’m happy to report that she is alive and well after her sensational debut at the Met’s Tosca and this, her latest CD issued on February 2, has already won an award. The final high C comes from Abigaille’s hair-raising cabaletta in the second act of Nabucco, young Verdi’s first breakthrough success.

Verdi is the ultimate challenge for the soprano. Not just for the voice, but a certain quality the great master insisted on: beauty of tone, intelligence and feeling. Right at the outset in Leonora’s opening cavatina (Il Trovatore, Act I), Yoncheva’s handling of the wonderful soaring tune that culminates in a heartrending fortissimo makes her rich vocal colour and emotional intensity immediately manifest. In the ensuing cabaletta, her voice becomes light as a feather by contrast. Her stunning high register further impresses in Come in quest’ora bruna from Simon Boccanegra: the heroine sings her heart out to a shimmering spring morning in Genoa on the Ligurian Sea, and I shiver in delight whenever I hear it.

But the real test is far more difficult: the tragic, the defiant, the anguished, the women in despair (Odabella in Attila, Luisa Miller, Lina of Stiffelio, Desdemona or Elisabetta in Don Carlo), where Yoncheva’s congenital empathy and effortless mid- and low register dominate. And then there are those iconic prayers sung in hushed near silence like Ave Maria from Otello... and more. Massimo Zanetti of Tutto Verdi fame conducts with zest and vigour.

A daring new issue by a singer with a great future.

04 Sarah WegenerInto the Deepest Sea!
Sarah Wegener; Gotz Payer
SWR2 8553374 (sarah-wegener.de)

For the profound beauty of Brahms’ Meine Liebe ist grün Op.63 No.5 to have its greatest impact on the senses, its majestic beauty must unfold in a mere minute and 44 seconds. It does so here in the voice of lyric soprano Sarah Wegener. At her command even the shortest of phrases are sung with gilt-edged, almost liquid silkiness. This is, however, not only the case with Wegener’s Brahms. It’s true of her Schubert, Strauss and everything else.

Throughout Into the Deepest Sea! not only does Wegener sing with utter beauty, but her interpretations of Brahms, Schubert, and indeed, the other composers, communicate very strongly the meanings of the words, as if each song speaks to her in the secret of her heart before reaching her lips. Her expressive manner of communicating pure poetry of feeling is echoed in the pianism of Götz Payer, who enters into each lied as a protagonist in his own right, playing his part in the music with vim and verve.

Wegener is wonderfully adept at maintaining the emotional centre of gravity of each song, navigating with graceful beauty around the outermost extremities of its narrative, yet always returning to the beating heart of the song. Her passionate performance extends to the mystical songs of Sibelius and the pastoral grandeur of Grieg, too. Everywhere on this disc, every nuance and subtlety has been carefully considered and beautifully sung, performed with both sublime delicacy and intense contrasts.

01 Beethoven StraussBeethoven – Septet; Strauss – Till Eulenspiegel einmal anders!
OSM Chamber Players
Analekta AN 2 8788 (analekta.com)

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Septet, Op.20 (1799) was a pivotal work. Such learned musicians as the composer’s former teacher Joseph Haydn applauded its expert deployment of four stringed and three wind instruments: violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, bassoon and horn. Energy, wit and sunny moods gained it public popularity, and listeners will likely find this recording by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal Chamber Soloists attractive. Variety in sound brings the work its distinctiveness. While artistic director Andrew Wan’s agile violin and Todd Cope’s impeccable clarinet take the lead, other instruments also have solo turns, and wonderful instrumental groupings sustained this listener’s interest. In the Adagio, instrumentalists make the most of expressive opportunities; Neal Gripp’s viola solo is particularly attractive. All players bring fine articulation to the minuet, while in the trio Cope, Stéphane Lévesque, bassoon, and John Zirbel, horn add beautiful decorative arpeggios. Cellist Brian Manker and double bassist Ali Yasdanfar contribute greatly to overall balance and tight ensemble; the finale is a tour de force.

Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel (einmal anders!), abridged and arranged by Franz Hasenöhrl (1885-1970) for the above forces minus viola and cello, is a tour de force of a different kind. Premiered in 1954, it squeezes the familiar tone poem’s thematic material into less than nine minutes, including exciting virtuosity and humorous touches that in the Chamber Soloists’ capable hands remain within the bounds of taste!

02 French Flute musicNouvelle Vie – A Rediscovery of French Flute Music
Michelle Batty Stanley; Margaret McDonald
Navona Records NV5135 (navonarecords.com)

Nouvelle Vie, by flutist Michelle Batty Stanley and pianist Margaret McDonald introduces us to some lesser-known compositions and composers working during the years of the Belle Époque in Paris. It also includes three better-known works by Philippe Gaubert, who might be considered a child of the Belle Époque, since the year of his birth was 1879.

René de Boisdeffre’s Canzonetta, Op.39 No.8, provides the recording with a strong opening and is played with vivacity, precision and grace. Stanley’s articulation, something much more difficult on the flute than on most other instruments, is terrific, pretty well as good as Aurèle Nicolet – and her use of rubato at the ends of phrases and the subsequent a tempi are an inspiration!

Émile Bernard’s Romance, Op.33, which, with its long, languorously lyrical phrases, could only have been written by a French composer, was also new to me, as were Émile Pessard’s Troisième and Quatrième Pièces, every bit as interesting as his delightful and better known Andalouse.

Alphonse Catherine’s Barcarolle, with its nautical undulating 6/8 piano part (played exquisitely on this recording by McDonald), and his Sérénade Mélancolique, which begins evocatively, a bit like Taffanel’s Andante Pastoral et Scherzettino, are both charming and suggest that the golden age of the flute continued beyond the 1880s and 90s, since Catherine lived until 1927.

Victor-Alphonse Duvernoy’s Deux Morceaux and Joseph-Henri Altès’ Romanza, Op.33 No.1, also new to me, are also wonderful.

03 Saint SaensSaint-Saëns – Symphonic Poems
Lille National Orchestra; Jun Märkl
Naxos 8.573745 

There is a wonderful part in middle of the tone poem Phaéton: as the audacious but foolish young man dares to take Apollo’s chariot for a forbidden ride, with urgent, syncopated rhythms the horses swing into action, the chariot begins to rise upwards and suddenly vistas open up in heavenly radiance – all this depicted in glorious music. Phaéton gleefully revels in it, but his joy is short-lived. There is a brutal ending to his offending the god.

This and many more delights are in store for us, like Hercules’ punishment of having to spin wool dressed as a woman, in probably the finest of Saint-Saëns’ tone poems and a favourite of Sir Thomas Beecham, Le Rouet d’Omphale: here, a delightful rondo imitates the spinning of the spool, but in the midst of all this a powerful roaring melody emerges towards a shattering fortissimo climax. This is no joke anymore. This is Hercules!

Invented by Liszt and a product of Romanticism, the symphonic poem was happily brought to France by Saint-Saëns, who applied to it his considerable gifts of “melody and form” and “impeccable craftsmanship,” not to mention his vivid imagination and love of Greek mythology. All of this is coupled by Naxos’ choice of a lesser-known but excellent, dedicated orchestra and the young, imaginative and talented conductor Jun Märkl, breathing new life into these pieces.

With state-of-the-art spacious sound, the brilliant and colourful orchestral palette shines through and the disc has already become Presto’s Editor’s Choice for December 2017.

04 Suengkee Lee clarinetFull Circle
Seunghee Lee; Katrine Gislinge
Musica Solis (seunghee.com)

Full Circle is a collection of clarinet music performed by Seunghee Lee accompanied on piano by Katrine Gislinge. According to the liner notes, the collection represents the musical journey Lee has followed over the course of her recording career. She has a singing quality that suits the lyricism of all of the works, not one of which will give your ear any difficult sounds to sort through. Her earlier releases are colourful renderings of “classical” reworkings, segments of symphonies, opera arias, art song, etc. She is a player with indisputable technical strength and expressive tone, who on recordings stays away from more “difficult” repertoire. This is fine; she plays this material with grace and lovely conviction.

Included are two of the more substantial works of the Romantic era: the Fantasiestücke of Robert Schumann (Op.73) and Fantasy Pieces Op.48 of Niels Gade. Lee demonstrates the depth of expression needed to bring both to life, and if you’ve never heard the Gade, this is a great introduction. Bent Sørenson provides a somewhat syrupy confection in his Romance, premiered herein; Lucas Foss’ Three American Pieces for violin and piano, transcribed for clarinet by Richard Stoltzman and edited by Lee under the composer’s supervision, lend a somewhat more bracing counterpoint to the easy-listening character of most of the tracks. Music from a British television series, an Italian film-scoring composer, a little-known Vocalise (1935) by Olivier Messiaen and the well-worn Pièce en Forme de Habanera by Maurice Ravel round out this quirky collection. 

01 Beckwith CallingJohn Beckwith – Calling: Instrumental Music 2006-2016
Various Artists
Centrediscs CMCCD 24917 (musiccentre.ca)

Canadian composer, music educator and writer John Beckwith segued into his tenth decade last year with a fertile 70-year back catalogue, which includes well over 130 major compositions covering solo, choral, stage, orchestral and chamber genres. Calling, an album of his newest instrumental works, demonstrates that his inquisitive sonic imagination and desire to express it with both conventional and unconventional instruments and unusual sound textures shows no signs of ebbing. Let’s listen in on just two of the seven works therein.

A choice example of Beckwith’s exploration – framed within a modernist aesthetic – is his Fractions (2006), scored for Carrillo piano and string quartet. With 97 keys packed within its single octave, the Carrillo piano is tuned in 16th tones. While it looks like a conventional upright, it certainly doesn’t sound like one. In Fractions, linear melodies snake expressively, almost appearing to pitch bend over the dramatic gestures and elegiac statements provided by the Accordes String Quartet. Heightening the microtonal tension even more, two members of the quartet tune their instruments a quarter tone higher than the other two. The result is a compelling and sometimes haunting listening experience.

Quintet (2015) also questions conventional instrumental groupings. Beckwith scores it not for a standard woodwind, brass or string quintet, but rather opts for a mixed ensemble: flute, trumpet, bassoon, viola and string bass. Performed by members of Toronto’s venerable New Music Concerts, the oft jaunty work satisfyingly completes this musical survey by a composer in his prime.

02 Gryphon TrioThe End of Flowers
Gryphon Trio
Analekta AN 2 9520 (analekta.com)

There’s no explanation in the booklet about the CD’s title, The End of Flowers. An online search led to Gryphon cellist Roman Borys’ comments: “The First World War brought with it unprecedented loss of life, youth and hope. It was the end of flowers… fields lay barren, blasted and churned beyond recognition.” Borys continues: “In the winds of war Ravel and Clarke composed two remarkable piano trios… not intended as memorials but [which] stand as a testament to the enduring power of life and art.”

Rebecca Clarke left no programmatic description of her 1921 Piano Trio, two years after her other major work, the richly melodic Viola Sonata. Unlike the sonata, her trio evinces the influence of the war. Turmoil erupts immediately with the explosive opening of the Moderato ma appassionato, a movement marked by turbulent melodies, restless rhythms and a distinct bugle-call motif. The mournful Andante molto semplice is followed by the final Allegro vigoroso, alternating between a life-affirming folky tune and quiet reflection. There’s a reprise of the first movement’s agitation and the bugle call, but the trio ends on a positive, buoyant note. This gripping, emotion-filled work deserves to be much better known. Hear it!

Ravel’s familiar Piano Trio lacks obvious war-references, but it garners an especially gravitas-laden interpretation from the Gryphon Trio – University of Toronto artists-in-residence currently celebrating their 25th anniversary. Both of these marvellous works receive exemplary performances in a disc to hear and re-hear.

03 Megumi MasakiMusic4Eyes+Ears
Megumi Masaki
Centrediscs CMCCD 24017 (musiccentre.ca)

The title of this (Blu-ray+CD) package is an obvious giveaway. If you’re about to dive into its contents, then do so Blu-ray first. The reason is simple: the cover not only reads Music4Eyes+Ears, the visceral excitement of the music is also magnified exponentially by viewing Megumi Masaki perform her music on the Blu-ray. Although Keith Hamel’s Touch is the only work performed on both, its enormous impact when viewed on Blu-ray is absolute proof of the visual experience. Remember also that music was a visual experience long before the invention of recording technology. Those eager listeners who decide to jump in CD-first anyway are hardly likely to be disappointed, though.

Music4Eyes+Ears is made up of repertoire that is simply breathtaking. That has principally to do with Masaki’s pianism. Her depth of understanding of narrative is unprecedented and her ability to translate musical composition into something emotionally vivid and alive is quite extraordinary. Orpheus Drones by T. Patrick Carrabré is an evanescent work in which the legendary Greek protagonist, musician, poet and prophet is served by the closest approximation of what might be described as divine music. The follow-up, Orpheus (2), is superbly related to death and descent – the politically motivated murder of Chilean singer Victor Jara becoming its principle contemporary metaphor via Margaret Atwood’s poem.

The performance of Touch is where the worlds of eyes and ears meet. But while the music itself is statuesque and graceful, it is in the balletic performance by Masaki on the Blu-ray that it comes magically alive. The floating melody and harmony, egged on by a plethora of ethereally sounding bells (played electronically) is heightened also by the sweeping hand movements, often in the air above the keyboard, which become visual metaphors as they tell a tactile story of dancers coming together and drawing apart.

In Ferrovia, Masaki aligns her visionary performance with the ethereal conceptions of composer Brent Lee and multimedia artist Sigi Torinus. The near-impossible realities of physical and mathematical sciences collide with a human presence, around which dynamic images provoke grief-suggesting sounds. Meanwhile the powerful music of Hamel’s Corona echoes with its own intercessory, who appears in the form of a spectral Gérard Grisey. And the often-terrifying Stanley Kubrick film The Shining comes alive in Kubrick Études by Nicole Lizée, which incorporates (often glitched) clips from his films. However, throughout the discs, despair and ugliness are compellingly resolved by the beauty and hope of Masaki’s musicianship.

04 KumbosKumbos
Paulo J Ferreira Lopes; Karoline Leblanc
Atrito-Afeito (atrito-afeito.com)

Even if you really, really dislike electroacoustic music, give this release a try because its strength in sound, collaboration and experimentation lead to accessible listening. Montreal-based composer/performer Paulo J Ferreira Lopes utilizes his many, many clever and established electro and percussion skills to create a fascinating musical conversation with his collaborator, acoustic keyboards performer Karoline Leblanc, in this one-track, hand-numbered 200 limited edition sound adventures release.

Kumbos begins with an attention-grabbing recurring percussive opening and dense piano chords. The subsequent soundscape of high pitched squeaks and cymbal washes against piano textures is a pleasing juxtaposition of sound effects. More melodic piano lines provide contrast in the quieter sections. Love the sudden loud electronic crashes. Highly effective are the numerous silences interspersed throughout the work, which are welcome escapes from sound, and music in their own right. These add to the creation of musical intrigue leading to the final climactic conversation of more intense electroacoustic rhythms, large held piano chords and washes of sound colour.

There are touches of field recordings by Leblanc which are a bit of a strain to hear but are colourful musical diversions. Additional melodic piano sections would be welcome, as well as more drum kit against electronic effects. The production is clear and the instrument levels are balanced. Repeated listening adds to a gratifying appreciation of detail in performance and composition.

05 Shadow EtchingsShadow Etchings – New Music for Flute
Orlando Cela
Ravello Records RR7982 (ravellorecords.com)

Orlando Cela’s Shadow Etchings is a nine-track collection of recent compositions for flute using “extended techniques,” whistle tones, harmonics, vocalizing and playing at the same time, blowing air quickly through the flute without making an actual pitch and so on. Having some experience with extended techniques I can say with some conviction that Cela does them very well.

A brief description of each track will provide an idea of what is on this recording: Jean-Patrick Besingrand’s Le soupir du roseau dans le bras du vent, the first track, is derived from Claude Debussy’s Syrinx. Beginning with the first couple of phrases of Syrinx, variations are added using vocalizations, breath tones, throat flutters and other distortions of which the flute is capable. Lou Bunk’s Winter Variations consists of distorted long tones on the flute with percussive discords on the piano. Robert Gross’ Variations on a Schenker Graph of Gesualdo, combines manipulated electronics with harsh multiphonics and vocal punctuations by the flutist. Dana Kaufman’s Hang Down Your Head is a disjointed version of the original Tom Dooley folk melody complete with vocal growls, whistles and shrieks. The three movements of Stratis Minakakis’ Skiagrafies II offer lots of multiphonics, overtones, shimmers, vibes and twitters. A Turning Inwards by Edward Maxwell Dulaney gives us high alternating overtone whistles and Self-Portrait by Ziteng Ye is built on wavering, breathy tones with some voice added.

All in all, this disc offers an intriguing introduction to some of the new sounds available to the contemporary flutist.

Listen to 'Shadow Etchings' Now in the Listening Room

06 Lachenmann clarinetAesthetic Apparatus – Clarinet Chamber Music of Helmut Lachenmann
Gregory Oakes; Matthew Coley; Jonathan Sturm; Mei-suang Huang; George Work
New Focus Recordings FCR196 (gregoryoakes.com)

Utter the name Helmut Lachenmann in a loud stage whisper, being sure to accentuate fully the consonants, exaggerating the different vowel colours, and you’ll have an idea what it is like to perform his music. He asks performers to make varying sounds which require a complete rethinking of one’s technical approach. Lachenmann, Maurizio Kagel and Heinz Holliger have led the way to innovative notations depicting the strange breath effects, kisses, clicks, squeaks and honks they demand from performers.

In Aesthetic Apparatus, clarinetist Gregory Oakes has compiled three substantial chamber works by Lachenmann. The first, Dal Niente, for solo clarinet, is an extension of silence into a variety of soundscapes. Oakes conveys conviction that all the sounds he generates belong in a congruent whole, and with more hearings I’m certain I’d agree. What is unusual in this recording is the extended periods of nearly empty time, where the effects produced might be more easily perceived if one could see them produced. It takes chutzpah to publish this performance on a sound-only recording.

Trio Fluido, for clarinet, viola and percussion, provides a richer soundscape, although the writing is still full of attenuated pauses. Early exchanges between the instruments seem full of repressed violence, which occasionally breaks out into outright hostility. Beyond this, there are delightful moments of simply elegant trialogue, as if three species of creature are employing their various intelligences to match one another’s language.

Allegro Sostenuto, for clarinet, cello and piano, completes this wonderful exploration. I use the term “tonal” modified by “somewhat more” to indicate that in contrast to the first two tracks, this work exploits more interplay between pitches than raw sounds, making it perhaps the most immediately listenable.

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