01 Tafelmusik Beethoven 1 9Last month saw the release of a compiliation of recordings of Beethoven – Symphonies 1-9 featuring Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir under the direction of Bruno Weil (TMK1034CD tafelmusik.org). All of the symphonies, recorded live at the George Weston Recital Hall (Nos.5 & 6 in 2004, 7 & 8 in 2008, for Analekta) and Koerner Hall (Nos.3 & 4 in 2012, 1 & 2 in 2013 and No.9 in 2016 for Tafelmusik Media), have been previously available but are here collected in an attactively priced boxed-set. Here’s what our reviewers had to say of the original releases:

Symphonies 1-4: Bruno Weil, a longtime collaborator with the orchestra, draws a finely articulated and transparent response from the rarely seen Tafelmusik podium. The performances of the first two symphonies, though rich in detail, seem to take their time to fully blossom. […] though it gradually becomes evident that Weil is a master of the slow burn […] with a pair of powerful and scintillating finales. The renderings of the Third and Fourth Symphonies can be recommended without qualification; both are superb throughout. Daniel Foley, June 2014

Symphonies 5 & 6: Tafelmusik […] seem ever confident of bringing a revitalizing touch to works we’ve known intimately for a lifetime […] The strings are sparse and largely straight-toned, revealing surprising hues of colour in the wind parts. After years of big romantic orchestra performances this sound is wonderfully new, especially in the second and third movement of the Sixth Symphony. Their fourth movement “storm” is delightfully bad weather, reminiscent of The Four Seasons and the finale offers a slightly slower tempo than usually heard but works well nevertheless. […] It’s been a long time since Five and Six sounded so new. Alex Baran, May 2005.

Symphonies 7 & 8: Their bright and animated approach brings a breath of fresh air to these familiar pieces. David Olds, December 2008

Symphony No.9: Make no mistake – Tafelmusik sounds just as powerful as any contemporary symphony orchestra. It builds the momentum of the emotional narrative with conviction, starting from the solemn D-Minor theme of the first movement all the way to the jubilant ending of the fourth in D Major. Tafelmusik Chamber Choir and soloists – Sigrid Plundrich, Mary-Ellen Nesi, Colin Balzer and Simon Tischler – are all superb in bringing out the purity and drama of Beethoven’s music. Ivana Popovic, October 2016.

So all in all, reviews are favourable and at $40 for the complete set this collection should not be missed. The booklet includes bilingual biographical notes, an appreciation by conductor Bruno Weil, reflections on the journey with Weil during the more than decade-long project by music director Jeanne Lamon and extensive program notes by Allen Whear. As Tafelmusik launches its first season under the direction of Elisa Citterio this release provides a fitting monument to the orchestra’s first three decades under Lamon’s guiding hand.

While I’m looking into the past through rose-coloured glasses, here’s what I wrote about Toronto guitarist William Beauvais’ suite Appalachian Colours – Gold; Red; Green; Blue from his Old Wood – New Seeds when I reviewed it back in June 2016. “...evidently inspired not by Copland’s Appalachian Spring, but rather by that iconic American composer’s orchestral suite Rodeo. From the contemplative opening movement through the lilting second and the lullaby-like third, our attention is held by the lush colours Beauvais draws from his instrument. The gently ebullient final movement, glistening like sunlight off the surface of a rippling lake, held me wrapped in its thrall from start to finish.” In the program note in the version published by the Canadian Music Centre Beauvais says “This work is dedicated to Emma Rush, the very fine guitarist from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Upon discovering that we both had a great affection for Gerald Garcia’s Esquisse 17 - Tournesol – I felt a certain comradeship.”

02 Emma RushNow, just over a year later, we are presented with a performance by the dedicatee on Canadiana – Emma Rush, guitar (guitarhamilton.com), a disc supported in part by Hamilton’s City Enrichment Fund. Rush tells us that the suite “uses a partial capo to provide a sense of open tuning, along with employing elements of finger-style guitar playing, bluegrass, and ragtime music.” My initial impressions of Appalachian Colours remain unchanged with this new recording, which as you might expect from composed music does not differ much from the version presented by Beauvais. But Rush has obviously spent enough time with the luscious suite to make it her own. The tempos vary slightly, with the dreamlike opening movement just a bit slower and the tumbling finale a shade quicker.

The remainder of the disc is comprised of Floyd Turner arrangements of songs by iconic Canadian folk singer-songwriters Joni Mitchell (Blue and Marcie), Gordon Lightfoot (Pussywillows, Cat-tails and Canadian Railroad Trilogy) and Stan Rogers (Northwest Passage). All are beautifully crafted and masterfully performed, with Blue and the Trilogy being personal favourites. Rush’s technique is flawless throughout, with no extraneous finger noise and much attention to nuance. My only complaint is that from this evidence one might conclude that all Canadian folk songs are dreamy or introspective, written in a slow to moderate tempo, with an almost lullaby feel. I would have enjoyed the inclusion of something a bit livelier, for instance Mitchell’s Carey or Rogers’ Watching the Apples Grow.

03 Patricia CanoOne of the most enjoyable theatrical experiences I’ve had in a long time was Tomson Highway’s one-woman musical The (Post) Mistress last November at the Berkeley Street Theater. It featured Patricia Cano (patriciacano.com) who went on to win the Toronto Theatre Critics Award for Best Actress in a Musical. On October 4 at Lula Lounge Cano will launch her multilingual new CD Madre Amiga Hermana (Mother Friend Sister). While Highway’s production was in French, English and Cree, in the current release the Sudbury-based Peruvian-Canadian adds the Spanish, and in one case (Terre Mère), Indigenous Quechua language, of her motherland. The overall mood of the CD is joyous, replete with samba rhythms, contemporary jazz and soul, plus a smattering of nostalgia and thoughtful ballads, culminating in the anthemic Woman on the Rise.

The welcoming opening track, Caminando, has a Spanish chorus and English verses telling a love story that culminates in the birth of a (we assume her) son, and the lines “I was so grateful for the fateful day back when / all the stars aligned and you and I / collided into love.” This is followed by the French-language Juana Guerrière, “an honour song for my great grandmother…a beautiful strong and resilient woman of Afro-Peruvian descent.” Over an infectious ostinato Cano tells the story of a decades’ long courtship – resulting in seven children – with an unscrupulous white man who eventually turns out to be already married with six “legitimate” offspring. Mi Maru is a beautiful Spanish ballad written “to record my son’s first words (water, owl, more, and his favourite word of all, ‘caca’).”

Featured prominently on the album is an awesome rhythm section comprised of longtime associates Kevin Barrett (guitar), Paco Luviano (bass), Luis Orbegoso (percussion and vocals) and Carlos Bernardo, a Paris-based Brazilian guitarist and composer. The booklet contains lyrics for the original songs – the three outlined above with words and music by Cano and six co-written with Orbegoso or Bernardo – although no translations are included except from the Quechua into Spanish. The two covers are the lyrical Bridges (Travessia) by Milton Nascimento (sung in English with words translated by Gene Lees from the original by Fernando Brant) and the gentle thanksgiving Gracias a la Vida by Violeta Parra (1917-1967), a Chilean composer, songwriter, folklorist, ethnomusicologist and visual artist.

Cano invites us on a beautiful, and personal, journey; she is a wonderful guide and a wondrous talent.

There are likely many instruments in this world with which I am unfamiliar, but now I can scratch santur off the list. Wikipedia – and yes I do make a small monthly donation to the Wikipedia Foundation – tells me that “The santur (also santūr, santour, santoor) is a hammered dulcimer of Persian/Iranic origins” and that the term originally meant “100 strings.” I’m not sure that is meant literally, but the instrument does boast 18 bridges dividing a plethora of strings. I am more aware of the santur’s European counterparts the cimbalom (Hungary) and the hackbrett (Germany and Austria) used in concert works by Kodály, Stravinsky, Boulez, Kurtág and Eötvös, and with its American cousin, simply named the hammered dulcimer, heard in Appalachian folk music.

Review

04 Sina BathaieThis month I’ve become aware of a local santur virtuoso, Sina Bathaie, who plays the Persian version of this intriguing instrument. Ray of Hope (sinabathaie.com) is a (mostly) instrumental album which blurs the borders between Middle Eastern and Western popular musics, combining the santur with guitar (Alexei Orechin or Nima Ahmadieh), bass guitar (Oriana Barbato or Semco Salehi), cello (Raphael Weinroth-Browne), percussion (Siavash Sadr Mahdavi) and guest appearances by drummer Adam Campbell and vocalist Alireza Mahdizadeh.

Bathaie’s note tells us that the music is inspired by the verses of poems that “celebrate our timeless elusive pursuit for peace, hope and the most important of all these, love.” The texts, in Farsi, Italian, Russian, Chinese, and Korean, are seen “tattooed” on Bathaie’s face in the CD’s cover image.

The disc begins with Rebirth, where a banjo-like bed track (shades of Appalachia) from santur, bass and percussion support a soaring melody from the cello. Ray of Hope opens ominously with the sound of jets, gunfire and sirens, overtaken by santur in both accompaniment and melody, gradually growing to include bass, drums and an electric guitar line that borders on feedback as it rises to a triumphant conclusion. Into the Sky brings back the cello in the lead role, in a quieter, but not subdued, flight. The disc progresses through Journey, Invocation (a solo for santur where we hear more clearly Bathaie’s ability to play melody and accompaniment at the same time), I Remember, Dance of Delight (with its long, languid opening that eventually gives way to the ecstatic feeling suggested by the title), the only vocal track on the album Lullaby of Spring and finally Light Like a Feather, with Orechin’s finger-style guitar setting the stage for a rousing finale.

I would like to say that Bathaie is one of Toronto’s best kept secrets, but I have a feeling it is just the sheltered life I lead that makes me think so. I learned from his website that he has been featured on CBC radio Metro Morning and at festivals such as Luminato, In/Future, Small World Music, Mundial Montreal, Open Mind, Quiet Strings, South Asia Calling and at the Aga Khan Museum. Shame on me.

05 DCXDo I have time for one quick guilty pleasure? I spent a marvelous evening a couple of weeks ago watching the DVD documentary included with the double CD DCX MMXXVI Live (Columbia 88985 46031 2), recorded during the Dixie Chicks’ (DCX) 2016 tour that culminated at the Forum in Los Angeles where the video was shot. The nearly two-hour performance was received with near-hysteria by the 17,000 standing-room-only fans in attendance. I never experienced live Beatlemania but I can’t imagine it would have been any more over-the-top than this. Whatever animosity garnered by DCX for their anti-war stance sparked by America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 seems to have been forgiven by their fans, at least the ones in this urban West Coast centre. Again resorting to Wikipedia, I note that “By December 2015, with 30.5 million certified albums sold, they had become the top selling all-female band and biggest-selling country group in the U.S.”

It was an energized performance from the trio and their five-piece band, sometimes fully charged and wall-of-sound, but with some intimate moments – including touching personal stories from lead singer Natalie Maines about their progress from no children to nine kids between them over the past 15 years – and some acoustic tunes (if you can still call them acoustic when they are amplified to fill an amphitheatre). The repertoire spanned most of what we have come to expect from DCX, with a few surprises, including covers of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U and (on the CD only) Thunderclap Newman’s Something in the Air. A highlight for me was the bluegrass instrumental medley with just the trio, Emily Strayer on banjo and Martie Maguire on fiddle, and Maines simply keeping time on a bass drum. Boy, can this woman play! I refuse to be ashamed of my absolute enjoyment of their high-energy, but thoughtful, performance.

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website thewholenote.com where you can find enhanced reviews in the Listening Room with audio samples, upcoming performance details and direct links to performers, composers and record labels.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

discoveries@thewholenote.com

04 Sina BathaieRay of Hope
Sina Bathaie
sinabathaie.com

Review

The following review is an excerpt from Editor's Corner (October 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.

This month I’ve become aware of a local santur virtuoso, Sina Bathaie, who plays the Persian version of this intriguing instrument. Ray of Hope (sinabathaie.com) is a (mostly) instrumental album which blurs the borders between Middle Eastern and Western popular musics, combining the santur with guitar (Alexei Orechin or Nima Ahmadieh), bass guitar (Oriana Barbato or Semco Salehi), cello (Raphael Weinroth-Browne), percussion (Siavash Sadr Mahdavi) and guest appearances by drummer Adam Campbell and vocalist Alireza Mahdizadeh.

Bathaie’s note tells us that the music is inspired by the verses of poems that “celebrate our timeless elusive pursuit for peace, hope and the most important of all these, love.” The texts, in Farsi, Italian, Russian, Chinese, and Korean, are seen “tattooed” on Bathaie’s face in the CD’s cover image.

The disc begins with Rebirth, where a banjo-like bed track (shades of Appalachia) from santur, bass and percussion support a soaring melody from the cello. Ray of Hope opens ominously with the sound of jets, gunfire and sirens, overtaken by santur in both accompaniment and melody, gradually growing to include bass, drums and an electric guitar line that borders on feedback as it rises to a triumphant conclusion. Into the Sky brings back the cello in the lead role, in a quieter, but not subdued, flight. The disc progresses through Journey, Invocation (a solo for santur where we hear more clearly Bathaie’s ability to play melody and accompaniment at the same time), I Remember, Dance of Delight (with its long, languid opening that eventually gives way to the ecstatic feeling suggested by the title), the only vocal track on the album Lullaby of Spring and finally Light Like a Feather, with Orechin’s finger-style guitar setting the stage for a rousing finale.

I would like to say that Bathaie is one of Toronto’s best kept secrets, but I have a feeling it is just the sheltered life I lead that makes me think so. I learned from his website that he has been featured on CBC radio Metro Morning and at festivals such as Luminato, In/Future, Small World Music, Mundial Montreal, Open Mind, Quiet Strings, South Asia Calling and at the Aga Khan Museum. Shame on me.

Concert note: Ray of Hope will be launched at a concert in the Lyric Theatre of the Toronto Centre for the Arts on October 13.

Review

01 Michael Kolk PerosThe outstanding Michael Kolk is the soloist in the world premiere recording of Nocturnes: 24 Nocturnes for Solo Guitar by the Canadian composer Nick Peros (DeoSonic Music DSM54536 nickperos.com). Peros has written numerous other solo works for classical guitar, including five Suites and a Sonata, and is clearly someone who knows and understands the instrument’s potential for tone and colour.

The short pieces here are predominantly quiet, slow and pensive – they are nocturnes, after all – 16 of them with subtitles like relaxed; atmospheric, mysterious; reflective; as a dream; with mystery and longing; peaceful, gentle. Only two are noted as with fire and passion. They appear to be centred on traditional major and minor keys, predominantly the open guitar strings of E, A and D, but it’s never that simple – there is actually a good deal of tonal ambiguity here, and an abundance of rich chromatic expression.

They are well-crafted, attractive and quite beguiling pieces, with the occasional faster numbers in particular much in the style of the standard 19th- and 20th-century guitar etudes. The final two Nocturnes in particular are really lovely.

One thing is certain: they couldn’t possibly have a better interpreter than Michael Kolk, whose playing, as always, is of the highest musical standard – technically faultless, with a clear, clean and resonant sound, and a complete absence of left-hand finger noise. The CD was produced by the composer, and it’s difficult to view these beautiful performances as anything other than definitive.

Although violinist Jacques Israelievitch was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer part of the way through the recording of the complete Mozart violin sonatas with Christina Petrowska Quilico, the duo did manage to complete the project before he passed away in September 2015.

02 Mozart Israelievitch QuilicoMozart: Sonatas and Variations for Piano and Violin Vol. II is the second release in the series (Fleur de Son Classics FDS 58040 fleurdeson.com), and features three of the sonatas from the group known as the Auernhammer set – the Sonatas No.24 in F Major K376, No.25 in F Major K377 and No.27 in G Major K379 – together with the Sonata No.33 in E flat Major K481.

When reviewing Volume I in June of last year I noted that these works are perfectly suited to Israelievitch’s distinctive style and sound, which was always warm, gentle and sensitive; it should go without saying that Petrowska Quilico’s playing is the perfect complement. Again, it’s obvious that the two are of one mind in their performances here.

It’s another volume in what will clearly be a series to treasure, and one that continues to be a wonderful tribute not only to a greatly missed and much-loved violinist but also to his companion at the keyboard.

03 True NorthTrue North is a new CD on the Canadian Music Centre Centrediscs label featuring the Canadian duo of violinist Véronique Mathieu and pianist Stephanie Chua (CMCCD 24417 musiccentre.ca).

Given the CMC’s outstanding promotion of contemporary Canadian composers and the booklet description of Mathieu as “an avid contemporary music performer” it’s no surprise to see that five of the six works are from the period 1996 to 2016; what perhaps is a surprise is the inclusion of Healey Willan’s Sonata No.1 in E Minor, which opens the disc. Written a hundred years earlier than the latest works on the CD (although revised in 1955) it is a solid work, firmly in the early 1900s tradition, which sounds decidedly anachronistic in this setting. Still, its appearance is welcome.

Gradual Erasures by the Toronto composer Adam Scime was written for the duo in 2016 and dedicated to them. Its two movements were inspired by the poem Water Island by Howard Moss, which was in turn prompted by the accidental drowning death of a friend.

Brian Harman’s Cherry Beach for violin, piano and field recordings from 2016 explores connections between music, the environment and the body by combining the musical material with the sounds of running footsteps and waves, all recorded on the shores of Lake Ontario in Toronto.

Maria Molinari’s Danza is a short piece from her 1997 Tre Pezzi per Violino e Pianoforte. Heather Schmidt’s Adagio from 1996 and Alice Ping Yee Ho’s Éxtasis from 2012 complete a very interesting disc.

Mathieu has a sweet, delicate sound with a fairly slow vibrato and a tone that tends to sound a bit thin on occasion, but the contemporary technical and musical challenges as well as the Willan sonata are handled faultlessly. And let’s not forget the pianist, too often overlooked in duo recitals: Chua is terrific as well.

04 stephen NordstromIt would be difficult to imagine a recital CD more in contrast to True North than A Musical Portrait of the American Southwest, featuring works for viola and piano by the American composer Dominic Dousa with violist Stephen Nordstrom and the composer at the piano (Blue Griffin Recording BGR 429 bluegriffin.com).

Dousa has been on the faculty of the University of Texas at El Paso Department of Music since 2004, and has been fascinated by the landscapes of the Texas Panhandle and eastern New Mexico since moving to the region from his native Minnesota. The works on this CD evoke the spirit of this land.

Reflections on a Desert Winter is a five-movement suite inspired by travels in the desert lands of southern New Mexico in the winter of 2014/15; with titles like On the Spirit Path, Desert Glow and The Rugged Pioneer Trail it puts one in mind of the works of Ferde Grofé. Musically they’re along those lines as well: completely and unashamedly tonal; full of constantly flowing melody; and beautifully crafted, with excellent piano writing.

Mountain Song, inspired by a day in the Rocky Mountains near Denver, is in much the same mould. The Sonata for Viola and Piano, “From a Land Wild and Free” was mostly composed in 2008, but the initial ideas and themes were sketched as a result of the experience of that 2004 summer journey from Minnesota to El Paso.

Nordstrom plays with a fine tone across the full range of the instrument, and certainly has more than enough melodic writing in which to immerse himself. Dousa is a fine pianist as well as a fine composer. If I have one quibble it would just be that the music could possibly do with a bit more contrast and fire.

Dousa’s own colour photographs of the Southwest landscapes complement the booklet.

05 4 Seasons 4 ViolesThe Four Seasons concertos appear in yet another re-worked version in Antonio Vivaldi 4 saisons, 4 violes, featuring the Canadian viol ensemble Les Voix humaines – Margaret Little and Mélisande Corriveau on treble, Felix Deak on tenor and Susie Napper on bass (lesvoixhumaines.org). Founding members Little and Napper made the arrangements, Napper transcribing the Spring and Autumn and Little the Summer and Winter concertos.

The resulting performances are much more effective than you might possibly expect, with a really nice period performance feel to the concertos despite the lack of a clear solo violin line. What you won’t be expecting is the interpolation of a short appropriate insert in each of the concertos – well, appropriate from a title viewpoint, that is, but not necessarily a musical one. The traditional En montant la rivière (with tenor Philippe Gagné) is inserted in Spring; Gershwin’s Summertime (arranged by Jay Bernfeld) in Summer; Autumn Leaves (jazzed up with a pizzicato bass) in Autumn; and Petit berceuse du début de la colonie in Winter. Corriveau plays recorder in the Gershwin.

It’s an interesting concept, but obviously raises questions: Are the additions enriching the concertos, or just an inappropriate distraction? Do these additions – especially within these specific arrangements – create new works, or do they merely compromise the original scores? And most important: Do they work? That will probably depend on your personal taste, and you may like to add a further question: Does it really matter? It does certainly make for interesting listening, and given that the movements are played without breaks, the inserts really don’t stand out as much as you would imagine; they’re integrated more than inserted.

The overall sound throughout the CD has a lovely resonance, with nice dynamics, superb definition from all four performers and a satisfyingly wide range – essentially that of a string quartet. The arrangements are extremely well done, and the playing throughout is really quite outstanding. All in all, a very interesting disc, and one that becomes more satisfying the more I listen to it.

Review

06 Roman MintsI don’t recall ever hearing any music by the Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov (b.1955) before, but I’ve clearly been missing out on some strikingly individual compositions. Two of his works – Sketches to Sunset and Russian Seasons – are featured on a new CD on which violinist Roman Mints is the primary artist (quartz QTZ 2122 quartzmusic.com).

Sketches to Sunset from 1992 is based on music written for the film Sunset, about the lives of Jews in pre-Revolution Odessa. Written for violin, piano and orchestra and consisting of nine short connected movements, it also features pianist Alexey Goribol and the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra under Philipp Chizhevsky. Mints is superb in this eclectic work that first introduced him to Desyatnikov’s music some 20 years ago.

Russian Seasons for Voice, Violin and Strings from 2000 has a quite different feel. There are 12 movements, three for each season: Spring, Summer and Winter each have two instrumental tracks and one vocal; Autumn has one instrumental and two vocal tracks. Yana Ivanilova is the soprano in vocal sections that are strongly reminiscent of Stravinsky of Pribaoutki and Les Noces, with the orchestra this time being the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra. It’s difficult music to describe, but in his excellent booklet notes Mints says that “while the instrumental movements feature moments of joy and merriment, utter hopelessness dominates the five vocal movements, in which the composer addresses listeners directly in words.” Shades of Shostakovich, indeed.

Both works were recorded under the supervision of the composer, with the Sketches to Sunset being a world premiere recording.

07 Moscow Quartet clarinetThe Moscow String Quartet CD of the Clarinet Quintets of Weber and Brahms with the Russian clarinetist Alexander Ivanov is a bit of a mystery disc: apparently self-issued, there is no sign of any information regarding recording or copyright dates, and the CD does not appear on the ensemble’s website (moscowquartet.com) or on any independent CD sales sites.

Still, if you can track it down, the performances are excellent. Ivanov plays with warmth, agility and fluency in the opening movement of the Weber Quintet in B-flat Major Op.34, and with great expression in the slow movement. There’s more agility in the third movement Menuetto and some superlative clarinet playing in the final Rondo Allegro.

The string playing from the Moscow ensemble is in the rich Russian tradition with full vibrato, which clearly bodes well for the Brahms Quintet in B Minor Op.115. All the Brahmsian autumnal warmth you could want is fully in evidence, and Ivanov is again in top form.

01 Michael Kolk PerosNick Peros – Nocturnes: 24 Nocturnes for Solo Guitar
Michael Kolk
DeoSonic Music DSM54536 nickperos.com

Review

The following review is an excerpt from Strings Attached (October 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.

The outstanding Michael Kolk is the soloist in the world premiere recording of Nocturnes: 24 Nocturnes for Solo Guitar by the Canadian composer Nick Peros (DeoSonic Music DSM54536 nickperos.com). Peros has written numerous other solo works for classical guitar, including five Suites and a Sonata, and is clearly someone who knows and understands the instrument’s potential for tone and colour.

The short pieces here are predominantly quiet, slow and pensive – they are nocturnes, after all – 16 of them with subtitles like relaxed; atmospheric, mysterious; reflective; as a dream; with mystery and longing; peaceful, gentle. Only two are noted as with fire and passion. They appear to be centred on traditional major and minor keys, predominantly the open guitar strings of E, A and D, but it’s never that simple – there is actually a good deal of tonal ambiguity here, and an abundance of rich chromatic expression.

They are well-crafted, attractive and quite beguiling pieces, with the occasional faster numbers in particular much in the style of the standard 19th- and 20th-century guitar etudes. The final two Nocturnes in particular are really lovely.

One thing is certain: they couldn’t possibly have a better interpreter than Michael Kolk, whose playing, as always, is of the highest musical standard – technically faultless, with a clear, clean and resonant sound, and a complete absence of left-hand finger noise. The CD was produced by the composer, and it’s difficult to view these beautiful performances as anything other than definitive.

06 Roman MintsLeonid Desyatnikov – Sketches to Sunset; Russian Seasons
Roman Mints
quartz QTZ 2122 quartzmusic.com

Review

The following review is an excerpt from Strings Attached (October 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.

I don’t recall ever hearing any music by the Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov (b.1955) before, but I’ve clearly been missing out on some strikingly individual compositions. Two of his works – Sketches to Sunset and Russian Seasons – are featured on a new CD on which violinist Roman Mints is the primary artist (quartz QTZ 2122 quartzmusic.com).

Sketches to Sunset from 1992 is based on music written for the film Sunset, about the lives of Jews in pre-Revolution Odessa. Written for violin, piano and orchestra and consisting of nine short connected movements, it also features pianist Alexey Goribol and the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra under Philipp Chizhevsky. Mints is superb in this eclectic work that first introduced him to Desyatnikov’s music some 20 years ago.

Russian Seasons for Voice, Violin and Strings from 2000 has a quite different feel. There are 12 movements, three for each season: Spring, Summer and Winter each have two instrumental tracks and one vocal; Autumn has one instrumental and two vocal tracks. Yana Ivanilova is the soprano in vocal sections that are strongly reminiscent of Stravinsky of Pribaoutki and Les Noces, with the orchestra this time being the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra. It’s difficult music to describe, but in his excellent booklet notes Mints says that “while the instrumental movements feature moments of joy and merriment, utter hopelessness dominates the five vocal movements, in which the composer addresses listeners directly in words.” Shades of Shostakovich, indeed.

Both works were recorded under the supervision of the composer, with the Sketches to Sunset being a world premiere recording.

Review

01 J P SylvestreJean-Philipe Sylvestre is the recipient of many prestigious Canadian and international piano performance awards. His new recording André Mathieu – Concert de Québec, Sergei Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2; Orchestre Métropolitain, Alain Trudel (ATMA ACD2 2763) is an important document for several reasons. It presents this extraordinary artist in an impressive light, revealing his technical power and profound musicality.

It also brings back to the Canadian recording marketplace the rare music of a young 13-year-old André Mathieu, trapped with his family in North America by the outbreak of the Second World War. The simple version of the story is that the young Canadian composer won the New York Philharmonic’s Composer Competition celebrating the orchestra’s centennial. His subsequent work fared less well, but his Piano Concerto No.3, written in 1942-43 and eventually renamed Concert de Québec so as to work better as a film score, is now winning renewed admiration. The score used for this recording is deemed fairly complete and authentic, based on the original score for two pianos. Still, a definitive final version is currently underway and is promised for a couple of years hence.

There’s no mistaking the affinity Mathieu’s music has with Rachmaninov’s. Mathieu’s mother long cherished and promoted the undocumented notion that Rachmaninov had seen young Mathieu’s scores in Paris and responded flatteringly to them. True or not, this music restores a creative work that brought musical life to an early French Canadian film. It’s big, gorgeous and so very Hollywood. Sylvestre and Trudel have produced a superb disc!

02 Schubert DuetsThe Goldstone & Clemmow piano duo have been performing together for more than 30 years. Their latest, and sadly final, release is Franz Schubert – The Complete Original Piano Duets (Divine Art dda 21701 divineartrecords.com). Anthony Goldstone passed away just as the packaging details of the current recording were being finalized. These two pianists created a remarkable four-hands keyboard presence. Unity was the hallmark of their playing. They shared every nuance of the music without hesitation, as though a single mind controlled all four hands.

Their playing has been utter perfection, with a pianistically Zen oneness to all articulation, dynamics and phrasing. It always takes a few minutes of wonder at the technical beauty of their performance before you can relax into what the composer has actually intended to say. All the more reason to laud this substantial seven-CD set as the pinnacle of their lifetime’s work.

Rather than organize the recording by genre or chronology, the duo has taken the complete Schubert piano duo repertoire and created seven recital programs, balancing key relationships, moods and artistic weight. The result is a wonderfully listenable collection that also includes a Schumann Polonaise for piano four hands, at the end of each recital disc. These date from 1828 and are believed to have been inspired by Schubert’s piano duets – a fitting match.

It’s a beautiful set, brilliantly assembled and as inspired as anything they have ever done. Goldstone & Clemmow’s final recording project is definitely an item to collect.

Review

03 Nagano BachKarin Kei Nagano is the daughter of the conductor Kent Nagano and concert pianist Mari Kodama. Her debut solo recording J.S. Bach Inventions & Sinfonias BWV 772-801 (Analekta AN 2 8771) presents a favourite and meaningful repertoire choice from her early piano studies.

The story is well known, of how Bach intended these two- and three-part exercises to teach his students the fundamentals of keyboard playing and composition. Equally important for him was that his pupils develop a true lyrical style to their playing. For Nagano, the connection to these early studies is their beautiful melodic potential. Whether Bach uses a short motif or a longer idea, Nagano is seized by the possibilities they offer. Consequently her playing goes far beyond meeting the technical requirements of counterpoint lessons and reaches for the beauty of what only a creative mind such as Bach’s could have placed there.

Nagano’s playing reveals a level of care and consideration that directs her inquiry into the pursuit of the art before the form, as if somehow the latter will look after itself. This characteristic is more evident in her treatment of the three-part Sinfonias, where the material is richer and offers a greater reward for the player’s attention to it.

Now embarking on her 20s, Nagano is off to Yale in pursuit of medical studies. Let’s hope this recording whets her appetite to do more before too long.

04 Boris Giltburg RachmaninovBoris Giltburg is a profound thinker and an original artist. His new CD Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2, Études-tableaux, Op.33, Royal Scottish National Orchestra Carlos Miguel Prieto (Naxos 8.573629) proves it, once again.

Giltburg’s performance of the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2 demonstrates just how maniacally frenetic the opening movement can be. This kind of barely constrained raw energy has no match. It’s far more intense than it is fast, and it leaves a lasting impression. His approach to the second movement sets the expressive limits further apart than usual. The quiet moments, either solo or with a few wind players, are powerfully intimate. But he also injects a few surprising intensifications in unexpected places, consisting of a single line in the right hand. The effect is arresting.

The orchestra (RSNO) needs a laudatory remark here too. The guilty pleasure of smaller size is worth the indulgence; it lets us hear so much at a personal level. Closer recording gives us subtle sounds of bows, fingerboards and occasional wind keys. And then there’s the stunningly good horn section. Giltburg writes a little in his wonderful recording notes about the challenges of playing the Rachmaninov Concerto No.2. He cites examples of regular acoustic problems that challenge every performance and how they resolve them. It’s a brief but informative look into the dark art of recording.

The disc also includes the Études-tableaux, Op.33. Giltburg has included the missing three pieces that Rachmaninov mysteriously withdrew just before publication in 1914. The CD closes with a couple of Viennese flavoured tunes, of which the Kreisler Liebesleid is best the known.

05 Goldberg HuThe Goldberg Variations should always be a memorable experience. To that end, performers have, to be sure, taken some wildly differing approaches to them. In Goldberg Variations (Blue Griffon BGR423 bluegriffin.com), pianist Chih-Long Hu has chosen to be rather laissez-faire in his treatment, believing that the music benefits most when left largely as is. It’s certainly a legitimate approach and based on the results, a highly credible one.

This is a very contained performance. Hu is quite deliberate in adhering to the page and minimizing personally expressive deviations from the Baroque nature of the music. His most expressive playing occurs in the bookend Arias. Everything between them remains within these limits. His imposed discipline allows for interesting things to emerge. There is an immediate transparency of the forms Bach uses, a vision of both the near and the distant at the same time. Patterns begin to reveal themselves. The awareness of architecture emerges on its own without overt assistance. It’s as if Hu were an alchemist assembling elements and applying the incantation from the keyboard. After that, it just begins to happen on its own – a kind of musical chain reaction

I suspect what happens is that the ear adjusts to listening without familiar Romantic allusions to things, and suddenly new truths reveal themselves. In that vein, Hu’s own composition Afterthoughts on Bach’s Goldberg Variations, included as a bonus, is a complete table-turner. It’s his take on how the Goldberg Variations bass line might be treated by Mozart, Schumann, Bolcom and even as a deep Southern blues. It’s clever and brilliant, and sheds a revealing light on this gifted Taiwanese pianist.

06 Alfonso SoldanoAlfonso Soldano is the new champion for the music of Castelnuovo-Tedesco. In Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco – Piano Works (Divine Art dda 25152 divineartrecords.com), the young Italian pianist has expressed a deep urge to understand this composer of an earlier generation.

Transplanted from Italy to 1940s America, Castelnuovo-Tedesco ended up in the burgeoning music-film industry, where composers were churning out tunes daily under production-line expectations. Still, he never let go of the unique flavour that marks his writing. He always favoured the modernists and held a high regard for the French impressionists. Alt Wien Op.30 and Cantico Op.19 both make this very clear. Soldano captures the wisps of Ravel and Debussy that Castelnuovo-Tedesco threads through his work. The Sonata Zoologica Op.187 is uncannily similar in spirit to Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals. It’s a brilliant character piece, very demanding, and Soldano plays it with an inner knowledge of exactly where the composer intended it to go.

The most substantial piece in the disc’s program is Rapsodia Napolitana, Op.32. It’s a five-movement work highly charged with direct but complex allusions to the place of its title. Landscapes, feeling, winds, emotions and otherworldly things drift across the pages of this remarkable piece. Soldano is very at home with this repertoire, revealing a connection far beyond what academic understanding alone can forge.

It’s a real pleasure to hear this music presented by an artist who clearly believes in its revival, and who perhaps would enshrine more deeply the reputation of this composer as a national treasure.

07 Eunmi KoPianist Eunmi Ko has released a new CD, She Rose, and Let Me In (Centaur CRC 3491 eunmiko.com), that offers a compelling program of contrasting repertoire. A pair of contemporary works balances the rarely heard Suk O Matince and the better-known Schumann Phantasie, Op.17. In this latter piece, Ko performs the final movement exquisitely. Schumann had intended the work to help with the fundraising for Beethoven’s memorial monument. After numerous refusals by publishers, the dedication was eventually changed to Franz Liszt. Still, the story helps explain the grandness of the work’s conception as well as the breadth and depth of sadness that pervades the final movement that Ko captures so unerringly.

John Liberatore’s title piece She Rose, and Let Me In is a set of variations and a fugue on the Scottish tune of that name. Liberatore explains his impulse to explore the intersections of the ancient and the modern. To do so effectively, he withholds the thematic material until the final movement. Consequently, listening becomes a guessing game in which you’re never quite sure if you’ve heard the old Scottish tune or not, or even a fragment of it.

Gilad Rabinovitch’s …star dazzling me, live and elate… is an extended series of very dense chords, mostly harmonic rather than clustered masses, that builds to a remarkably rich and dark finish. It’s technically demanding and Ko demonstrates both the stamina and intellect to perform it with conviction.

01 J P SylvestreAndré Mathieu: Concert de Québec, Sergei Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2
Jean-Philipe Sylvestre; Orchestre Métropolitain, Alain Trudel
ATMA ACD2 2763

Review

The following review is an excerpt from Keyed In (October 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.

Jean-Philipe Sylvestre is the recipient of many prestigious Canadian and international piano performance awards. His new recording André Mathieu – Concert de Québec, Sergei Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2; Orchestre Métropolitain, Alain Trudel (ATMA ACD2 2763) is an important document for several reasons. It presents this extraordinary artist in an impressive light, revealing his technical power and profound musicality.

It also brings back to the Canadian recording marketplace the rare music of a young 13-year-old André Mathieu, trapped with his family in North America by the outbreak of the Second World War. The simple version of the story is that the young Canadian composer won the New York Philharmonic’s Composer Competition celebrating the orchestra’s centennial. His subsequent work fared less well, but his Piano Concerto No.3, written in 1942-43 and eventually renamed Concert de Québec so as to work better as a film score, is now winning renewed admiration. The score used for this recording is deemed fairly complete and authentic, based on the original score for two pianos. Still, a definitive final version is currently underway and is promised for a couple of years hence.

There’s no mistaking the affinity Mathieu’s music has with Rachmaninov’s. Mathieu’s mother long cherished and promoted the undocumented notion that Rachmaninov had seen young Mathieu’s scores in Paris and responded flatteringly to them. True or not, this music restores a creative work that brought musical life to an early French Canadian film. It’s big, gorgeous and so very Hollywood. Sylvestre and Trudel have produced a superb disc!

03 Nagano BachJ.S. Bach Inventions & Sinfonias BWV 772-801
Karin Kei Nagano
Analekta AN 2 8771

Review

The following review is an excerpt from Keyed In (October 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.

Karin Kei Nagano is the daughter of the conductor Kent Nagano and concert pianist Mari Kodama. Her debut solo recording J.S. Bach Inventions & Sinfonias BWV 772-801 (Analekta AN 2 8771) presents a favourite and meaningful repertoire choice from her early piano studies.

The story is well known, of how Bach intended these two- and three-part exercises to teach his students the fundamentals of keyboard playing and composition. Equally important for him was that his pupils develop a true lyrical style to their playing. For Nagano, the connection to these early studies is their beautiful melodic potential. Whether Bach uses a short motif or a longer idea, Nagano is seized by the possibilities they offer. Consequently her playing goes far beyond meeting the technical requirements of counterpoint lessons and reaches for the beauty of what only a creative mind such as Bach’s could have placed there.

Nagano’s playing reveals a level of care and consideration that directs her inquiry into the pursuit of the art before the form, as if somehow the latter will look after itself. This characteristic is more evident in her treatment of the three-part Sinfonias, where the material is richer and offers a greater reward for the player’s attention to it.

Now embarking on her 20s, Nagano is off to Yale in pursuit of medical studies. Let’s hope this recording whets her appetite to do more before too long.

01 Bach CantatasPour L’éternité: Bach – Cantatas 4; 106; 9; 181
Bilodeau; Lachica; Gagné; Santini; Montréal Baroque; Eric Milnes
ATMA ACD2 2406 (atmaclassique.com)

Review

This CD contains recordings of four cantatas: two very early ones, composed when Bach was working in Mühlhausen (including the earliest one, the beautiful funeral cantata Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, and two later ones which date from Bach’s Leipzig period. Two things stand out: firstly, that following the theories and the practice of Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott, the choral sections are sung by the soloists one to a part (which is probably historically correct and produces a real gain in clarity) and secondly, that the soloists are all young singers at the beginning of their careers; they were the winners of a competition held in 2014.

Tenor Philippe Gagné is the only one whom I have heard in concert. He is very good and so are the other three: Odéi Bilodeau, soprano, Elaine Lachica, alto, and Drew Santini, baritone. I found the baritone especially impressive.

In the 18th century it was expected that instrumentalists could play more than one instrument. Here we find that that practice is not entirely obsolete: Margaret Little plays viola and viola da gamba, Susie Napper plays cello as well as viola da gamba, Mélisande Corriveau plays cello and recorder and Matthew Jennejohn plays both oboe and cornetto.

There are now a number of complete recordings of Bach’s cantatas. Montréal Baroque has never presented their cantata recordings as a complete cycle but I hope that is what they will become.

02 Handel ParnassoHandel – Parnasso in festa
Various soloists; La Cetra Barockorchester & Vokalensemble Basel; Andrea Marcon
PentaTone PTC 5186 643
(pentatonemusic.com)

For those of us convinced by the comic Adam Sandler movie that wedding music usually consists just of bad karaoke, here is an antidote: music written for the royal marriage of Princess Anne, the second daughter of King George II of England, and Prince William IV of Orange. Well, let’s say adapted, as Handel used mostly existing music from his oratorio Athalia, not yet heard in London at that time. Only nine passages were new ones, but the text was suitably changed.

Depicting the dogged pursuit of the nymph Thetis by King Peleus (that resulted in nuptials and the birth of Achilles), the libretto is probably by Giacomo Rossi, but its full provenance was never confirmed. The central event, the Celebration at Parnassus, home of Apollo and the muses, is the wedding. Though not a musical drama, the piece is filled with philosophical observations and dialogues on the nature of virtue and love – a perfect wedding present! This recording qualifies as such a gift, as La Cetra under Andrea Marcon is one of the best Baroque ensembles around. The celebrated countertenor David Hansen is nothing short of sensational as Apollo, and PentaTone sets a new standard for clarity in the recording of a period performance.

04 Rossini SigismondoRossini – Sigismondo
Gritskova; Aleida; Tarver; Bakonyi; Sánchez-Valverde; Arrieta; Camerata Bach Choir Poznan; Virtuosi Brunensis; Antonino Fogliani
Naxos 8.660403-04

By the age of 23 Rossini had written 13 operas, including two masterpieces inspired by and under the spell of his muse/innamorata Maria Marcolini, the greatest mezzo at the time. Not all were successful, but resourceful fellow that he was, he recycled some of the music later and no one knew the difference. As I was listening to Sigismondo I couldn’t help but recognize several melodies of the Barber of Seville, one in particular, the famous crescendo of the La calunnia aria first appearing here. Sigismondo was Rossini’s last opera for Venice, an opera seria written for Marcolini, who was supposed to be King of Poland. A travesti role, it is here sung by Margarita Gritskova, singing up such a storm with a voice of phenomenal range, power and emotion that one can certainly get an idea what La Marcolini must have been about.

Naxos’ latest release in this series of Rossini's complete 39 operas is a winner on many counts: soprano Maria Aleida (as Aldemira, the King’s wife whom he expelled from the court but on second thought wants her back badly) gives an extraordinary vocal display that’s quite a match for Gritskova. Rossini excelled in writing for female voices; their duets are simply heavenly and rival Bellini. Tenor Kenneth Tarver, familiar to us in this series, is the villain who planned the murder of the Queen and is so severely tested in the high-flying tessitura that I felt Rossini planned to murder him instead. Antonino Fogliani can hardly be bettered in his magisterial handling of the score. Most enjoyable, highly recommended.

05 Faccio HamletFranco Faccio – Hamlet
Paul Cernoch; Claudio Sgura; Julia Maria Dan; Dshamilja Kaiser; Wiener Symphoniker; Paolo Carignani
Cmajor 740608

In 1887, Franco Faccio conducted the world premiere of Verdi’s Otello, set to a libretto by Arrigo Boito. More than 20 years earlier, Faccio and Boito had collaborated on a different Shakespearian opera, Amleto (Hamlet). Well-received at its 1865 premiere, a poorly performed revised version flopped in 1871 and Faccio, disheartened, withdrew the work. It remained unperformed until 2014 in concert in Albuquerque, and the fully staged 2016 Bregenz (Austria) Festival production recorded here.

What a wonderful discovery! Faccio’s Hamlet, with its intense, powerful score that anticipates verismo, deserves to be welcomed to all the world’s major opera houses. The fiery “Get thee to a nunnery” duet between Hamlet and Ophelia foreshadows the Santuzza-Turiddu duet in Cavalleria Rusticana; the dreamy music of Ophelia’s mad scene is hauntingly beautiful; and the poignant, stirring strains of her funeral procession could easily be mistaken for a Mascagni intermezzo.

Boito’s skillful libretto tightens Shakespeare’s play but retains all the famous episodes, adding a remorse aria for Gertrude to match the aria on Shakespeare’s prayerful text for Claudius. Heading the excellent cast is Pavel Černoch, superb as Hamlet with his dark, focused tenor and rock-solid high notes. Thankfully, stage director Olivier Tambosi eschews the grotesqueries common at Bregenz, although he introduces some inexplicable movements by silent courtiers into the otherwise traditional, un-updated mise-en-scène. Another puzzling touch – large images of eyes on most of Gesine Völlm’s period costumes.

That aside, this DVD is an absolute must-see-and-hear for every opera lover.

08 HvorostovskyRussia Cast Adrift
Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Delos DE 1631 (delosmusic.com)

The relationships between composers and their favourite interpreters are responsible for some of the best vocal music ever written. Sometimes they are romantic in nature, as in the case of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. On many occasions, they are simply a meeting of two musical geniuses – both attuned to a secret chord within, as with Gerald Finley and the late Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. Georgy Sviridov found his muse in Dmitri Hvorostovsky. They met for the first time just four years before the composer’s death in 1994. The occasion was an auspicious one: Hvorostovsky was performing Russia Adrift, a “poem” for voice and piano, immortalized in performances by the redoubtable Elena Obraztsova. Upon hearing Hvorostovsky’s version, the composer was enchanted and a beautiful friendship followed. In the remaining years, Hvorostovsky became “the” voice for Sviridov’s music.

The one project the composer did not finish before his death was an orchestral version of Russia Adrift. Here it is recorded by an orchestra and folk-instrument ensemble, in a version completed by Evgeny Stetsyuk. The words of Sergei Yesenin, the once-blacklisted Soviet poet from the 1920s, are filled with nostalgia for the Russia of yesteryear. Given the present situation in that great nation, those words acquire additional poignancy. Hvorostovsky’s voice does not betray any traces of the serious health crisis he has been undergoing of late. The album closes with a spine-tingling song, The Virgin in the City, from the vocal poem Petersburg, written especially for him.

09 Stephen ChatmanStephen Chatman – Dawn of Night
University of Toronto MacMillan Singers; Hilary Apfelstadt
Centrediscs CMCCD 24617
(musiccentre.ca)

As a choral singer, I have always enjoyed the works of Stephen Chatman. Infusing softness of tone with luscious harmonies, his music always sounds deceptively simple, yet, as both he and conductor Hilary Apfelstadt point out, it requires a fair amount of preparation for a chorus to get it right. After all, the heartfelt texts Chatman chooses, such as those by Sara Teasdale, Walt Whitman, Christina Rossetti and poet/wife Tara Wohlberg, require an elegant and sensitive touch, which he applies with great care in order to enhance the essential meaning.

The benefit of collaborating with Chatman, who worked as co-producer of this recording, clearly shows in the exquisite performance by the MacMillan Singers led by Apfelstadt. For pieces using piano, Laura Dodds-Eden provides a vibrant and robust accompaniment. There is also in these pieces beautiful writing for other instruments; for example, poignant trumpet interludes played by Anita McAlister in Reconciliation (from Whitman’s Drum Taps), gorgeously pulsing harp and intoning cello provided by Angela Schwarzkopf and Jenny Cheong in Dawn of Night, and Clare Scholtz’s soaring oboe in June Night and Dreams Offer Solace. Recorded at Toronto’s Grace Church on-the-Hill, this recording must have truly been a labour of love for students and mentors alike.

Beethoven
Anton Kuerti
Concertmasters AKR2017CD-1

Beethoven – Profound Passion: Diabelli Variations
Anton Kuerti
Concertmasters AKR2017DVD-1 (antonkuerti.com)

01a Kuerti CDAn icon in the world of Canadian classical music, Anton Kuerti has enjoyed a long and distinguished career, not only as a performer and pedagogue, but also as a concert organizer, artistic director and social activist – a true Renaissance man! Among his extensive recordings, the music of Beethoven has always been a focus (he won a JUNO for three recordings of Beethoven sonatas in 1977), so perhaps it isn’t surprising that he’d return to music by “the great mogul” in this two-disc set featuring Piano Sonatas 21, 23 and 26 in addition to the famous Diabelli Variations.

Sonata No.21, the Waldstein, from 1804, is surely one of Beethoven’s most formidable, both in terms of technique and nuance. Not only is Kuerti’s impressive technique clearly evident from the outset, but the sound he creates is warm and lyrical. The tranquil, gentle second movement gracefully merges into the expansive third movement Rondo, where Kuerti gives full weight to the piano, clearly allowing the music to speak for itself.

The tempestuous mood of the Appassionata is artfully conveyed, but done so with dignity and never to excess. Phrases are well articulated and while the tempos are perhaps more leisurely than the listener might be accustomed to – particularly in the third movement – they never lag. The programmatic Sonata No.26Les Adieux” from 1810 is one of Beethoven’s most challenging through the contrasts of emotions, but again, Kuerti easily meets the demands, delivering a polished and elegant performance.

The second disc is devoted entirely to the Diabelli Variations, a simple tune that Beethoven fashioned into one of his most famous compositions. Kuerti brings a special sensitivity to this performance, crafting each one with particular care – a true study in contrasts.

01b Kuerti DVDThe variations appear again as the sole work on a worthy companion to this set, a DVD titled Profound Passion. The introduction states that while this monumental piece has long held a particular fascination for Kuerti, its length may prove too daunting for the average listener and, without a proper explanation, it may not receive the appreciation it deserves. Hence, Kuerti provides an informal but lucid program guide prior to the performance, using various musical examples. Once again, the final performance is stellar – and for those who enjoy watching a pianist’s hands, this DVD is a treat.

Either singularly or together, these recordings are a fine tribute, both to an outstanding Canadian artist and to music written by a composer at the height of his musical creativity. Highly recommended.

02 Mendelssohn NezetMendelssohn – Symphonies 1-5
Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Deutsche Grammophon 00289 479 7337

It is a genuine pleasure to take a deep dive into these remarkably diverse and interesting symphonies, especially when they are played (and sung) with such enthusiastic vigour and passion as they are here. Photos of Canada’s latest star, the charismatic Montrealer Yannick Nézet-Séguin, adorn the cover and several of the inside pages of the booklet; quotes from the maestro pepper the informative liner notes, such as “what I always admire in Mendelssohn, over and over again, are his abilities as a melodist.” You can’t argue with success and it’s clear that Deutsche Grammophon are milking their exclusive partnership with Nézet-Séguin. They have a winner with this smart and attractive recording.

The Chamber Orchestra of Europe was founded in 1981 by young graduates of the European Union Youth Orchestra. This recording was a result of a week of concerts under Nézet-Séguin’s baton, in the Philharmonie in Paris in February 2016. It has the vitality of a live performance, with fine playing from all the sections.

The numbering of Mendelssohn’s symphonies does not reflect their chronology. Their true order is 1-5-4-2-3. This doesn’t matter, though, as there is a stylistic homogeneity that runs through all five. Clear counterpoint, rugged drama hearkening back to Haydn’s Sturm und Drang (most notably in the last movement of the Fourth), nostalgic beauty and yes, those attractive melodies.

The collaboration between Nézet-Séguin and the COE shines in each of these works. The pacing and tempi illuminate the structure and breadth of Mendelssohn’s expression. There are highlights in all five symphonies: the great journeys of the First and Third, the exuberance of the Fourth, Baroque religiosity of the Fifth.

For me, the greatest achievement of this disc is the superb performance of the Second Symphony or Hymn of Praise (Lobgesang). On the surface, it’s a strange work: symphony? Cantata? Oratorio? There are obvious comparisons to be made with Beethoven’s Ninth (which don’t favour Mendelssohn), but – taken on its own and knowing that it was written as an occasional work to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press – the piece is an irrepressible celebration of life and intelligence. Nézet-Séguin, the RIAS Kammerchor and three fabulous soloists (including Canada’s Ruby Award-winning luminous diva, Karina Gauvin) raise the roof in a sincere and joyful rendering of a unique score.

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