In the two months since the last issue so much, and yet so little, has happened that it’s hard to know where to begin. One true highlight was spending a week savouring Welsh writer and musicologist Paul Griffiths’ latest novel Mr. Beethoven. I received an inscribed copy of the small press UK edition sent just before Christmas by the author, but I’ll wait to write about that, and the music it led me to, until later this year when the book is released in North America. 

01 Francis Dhomont 20167 IMEDI suppose the best place to start is with old friends. During my tenure as host and producer of Transfigured Night (1984-1991) at CKLN-FM, I became interested in the field of electronic music, to the extent of becoming a founding member of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community (CEC). On a trip to Montreal in 1986, for a conference that led to the establishment of that national organization, I met and became friends with a number of movers and shakers in that rarified field, including Jean-François Denis, who went on to found the internationally renowned empreintes DIGITALes (electrocd.com). At time of writing, the Montreal-based label has 171 releases featuring the most distinguished practitioners of electroacoustics, acousmatics and musique concrète from around the world. While at CKLN, I commissioned radiophonic works from a dozen composers, one of the most successful of which was Figures de la nuit/Faces of the Night by Francis Dhomont. Since the late 1940s working with magnetic wire recorders in Paris – one of the first exponents of what Pierre Henry would later call musique concrète – Dhomont has been a pioneer of electroacoustic composition, and has worked exclusively in fixed media (i.e. magnetic tape and its digital progeny) since the 1970s. From 1978 until 2004, Dhomont split his time between France and Quebec, where he taught for 16 years at the Université de Montréal. I am pleased to see, as witnessed by the recent CD Images nomades (IMED 20167), that at the age of 94 Dhomont is still active in his studio in Avignon, France. This release includes three recent works – a particular favourite is Perpetuum mobile (Pluies fantômes) – plus a cycle of 15 shorter tributes to friends and colleagues such as composers Bernard Parmegiani and Jonty Harrison he calls Ami-versaires  – composed between 2002 and 2020. This and the dozen or so discs of Dhomont’s music available from empreintes DIGITALes confirm him not only as a pioneer in the field, but also as a master of his craft. 

02 Molinari PendereckiA new ATMA release – Krzysztof Penderecki featuring Quatuor Molinari (ACD2 2736 atmaclassique.com/en) – also feels like an old friend. Although I did meet Penderecki on several occasions, I did not have the opportunity to get to know him. But I have met founding violinist Olga Ranzenhofer and through her the quartet’s namesake, the late painter Guido Molinari, both of whom I would consider friends. This latest disc in the Molinari’s extensive catalogue includes Penderecki’s two early avant-garde string quartets from 1960 and 1968 with their graphic scores and extended techniques, and the much later, more conservative String Quartet No.3 “Leaves from an Unwritten Diary” from 2008, a kind of autobiographical reminiscence replete with references to earlier works. Being familiar with these from a number of recordings, particularly those of Kitchener-Waterloo’s Penderecki String Quartet, of more interest to me are the in-between works included here, that give a kind of context to the transition from angry young man of the 60s to the successful gentleman of his later years. They include the brief movement for string quartet, The Broken Thought (1988), the String Trio (1990) and a Quartet for Clarinet and String Trio (1993). The trio opens aggressively but gradually subsides into variations on Penderecki’s signature descending-note motif. The clarinet piece begins gently, and even in its more strident moments is playful and melodic. Clarinetist André Moisan proves to be the perfect foil for the members of the Molinari, whose playing, as always, is exemplary in its expressivity. A fitting tribute to Penderecki, who died in late March, 2020 after a long illness (not related to the coronavirus). He was 86.

Listen to 'Krzysztof Penderecki – String Quartets' Now in the Listening Room

03 Tigran MansurianMy first exposure to Penderecki’s clarinet quartet was on a Sony recording from the 1993 Penderecki Gala celebrating the composer’s 60th birthday. That performance featured, among others, the exceptional American violist Kim Kashkashian, who is a key player on one of two recent ECM releases that I’ve spent a lot of time with over the past two months (ecmrecords.com/shop). Kashkashian is joined by eight other A-list musicians, who mostly share her Armenian heritage, on Con Anima (ECM New Series 2687), devoted to the chamber music of Tigran Mansurian, an Armenian composer born in 1939. Again the highlights include a String Trio and a clarinet quartet, Agnus Dei. The clarinet is accompanied by violin, cello and piano in this instance and this is the only work on which Kashkashian does not appear. The earliest piece on the disc is String Quartet No.3, dating from 1993, which Kashkashian performs with violinists Movses Pogossian, Varty Manouelian and cellist Michael Kaufman. Two recent works from 2015 and 2016 are duos: Die Tänzerin where Kashkashian is joined by Manouelian and Sonata da Chiesa with pianist Tatevik Mokatsian. Mansurian’s music is characterized by restrained pointillism, subtle rhythms and delicate impressionistic beauty. Most of his works begin and end quietly, as in the opening Agnus Dei, dedicated to the memory of violinist Oleg Kagan, which sets the tone for the entire disc. Contrary to expectation, the title work Con anima (in a spirited manner), is no exception. Completed in 2007, this string sextet, which adds former TSO principal violist Teng Li and cellist Karen Ouzounian to the string players noted above, is a gloss on Shostakovich’s String Quartet No.13 in which the viola dominates. That role is given here to first violist Kashkashian, whose gorgeous dark tone leads the others on a transformative journey. A brilliant, subdued and contemplative disc, perfect for our troubled times. 

04 Erkki Sven TuurThe other ECM release, Lost Prayers (ECM New Series 2666), features chamber works by Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür. I had the pleasure of meeting Tüür several times, when he was in Toronto for the Border Crossings Festival in 1990, and again in 2010 when he was featured on a Soundstreams concert. This disc is bookended by two piano trios effectively performed by Harry Traksmann (violin), Leho Karin (cello) and Marrit Geritz-Traksmann (piano) which are the earliest and latest works presented. The dramatic Fata Morgana (2002) is a quasi moto perpetuo whereas Lichttürme (2017) is relatively introspective.  Although rollicking string ostinati echoes of the former work emerge from time to time, the latter begins and ends with a sense of calm. The same can be said of Synergie (2011) featuring violinist Florian Donderer and cellist Tanja Tetzlaff. Written the following year, String Quartet No.2 “Lost Prayers,” performed here by the Signum Quartet, is atypical of Tüür’s output, at least thematically. His focus is more often identified by “rational-systematic designations” as in his series of Architectonics pieces (the fourth of which was commissioned by Toronto’s Sound Pressure and premiered here in 1990). In the quartet, Tüür says, “I tried to imagine a cloud of cries for help – from believers, non-believers, people of different traditions, of different periods of history. Are these cries lost? The music is dealing with the energetic field of the accumulation of these spontaneous outcries.” Fitting music for these distressing times, hauntingly performed. With ECM founder Manfred Eichmann’s characteristic concern for pristine sound, the disc was recorded in Bremen’s acoustically responsive Sendesaal, a venue that gained international attention in audiophile circles in 1973 when ECM released Keith Jarrett’s Solo Concerts: Bremen/Lausanne.

05 Olivier GreifVery different from the quiet and meditative offerings from ECM is a new release from the Centre International Albert Roussel in Bavinchove, France. Olivier Greif – A Tale of the World (CC 002 ciar@free.fr) is a 48 minute piano quintet performed by Quintette Syntonia. It is a truly remarkable work integrating texts in Sanskrit, Elizabethan and modern English, Italian, French and German, meant to be spoken, sung and chanted by the musicians, all while playing their instruments with virtuosity. Greif (1950 -2000) began his studies at the Paris Conservatoire and continued them at the Juilliard School in New York. His first creative period (in the sense of Western art music) lasted from 1961 through 1981 when he became a disciple of the Indian spiritual master Sri Chinmoy. During the next decade, the bulk of his creativity went to composing devotional songs on Chinmoy’s texts and writing small piano pieces dedicated to friends. In 1991 he returned to “classical” composition and in 1994 was commissioned to write this remarkable quintet by a festival in Kuhmo, Finland. Originally scheduled for premiere that year, the first performance was postponed for health reasons and A Tale of the World was not heard until 1996 when performed by Jean-François Heisser and the Sibelius Quartet. The Syntonia Quintet was founded in 1999 and had the opportunity to work briefly with Greif before his death the following year. The meeting had a profound effect on the young musicians who were then studying at the Paris Conservatoire. They have gone on to become champions of contemporary music and have recorded a number of Greif’s works, including String Quartet No.2 with voice “On Three Sonnets by Shakespeare” and the Ulysses Quartet which they premiered. In 2020, after years of preparation, they felt ready to record A Tale of the World, with its “wall of sound” textures sometimes reminiscent of the Ramayana Monkey Chant from Bali juxtaposed with moments of extreme delicacy and beauty; they realized this goal in late February just before COVID-19 overtook the world. A stunning achievement.

06 Iceland SO OccurenceSono Luminus has just completed its project with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra under Daníel BjarnasonVolume Three: Occurrence (sonoluminus.com) includes Bjarnason’s own Violin Concerto, the atmospheric Lendh by young Canadian expatriate Veronique Vaka and works by Haukur Tómasson, Þuríður Jónsdóttir and Magnús Blöndal Jóhannsson. Bjarnason’s concerto opens eerily with the soloist whistling high-pitched tones accompanied by sparse pizzicato notes before the violin melody begins in earnest. Later in the piece the quiet whistling returns, effectively trading off of “whistle tones” produced with harmonics high up the neck of the solo instrument. The effective cadenza was composed by the soloist Pekka Kuusisto. Vaka’s body of work “intends to create a poetic context between what she sees, hears and feels in the unspoiled nature” and this is obvious from the dramatic opening low chords of double basses and percussion in Lendh, reminiscent of calving icebergs. After its premiere during the Dark Music Days festival in January 2019, it went on to receive nominations for Composition of the Year in the Icelandic Music Awards and the Nordic Council Music Prize. Whistle tones, mentioned above, are more often created on the flute than on string instruments, and we hear these and other extended flute techniques, along with an insect-like electronic soundtrack, interacting with the orchestra in Jónsdóttir’s Flutter with soloist Mario Caroli. The disc ends with its most traditional piece, the breathtakingly beautiful Adagio for strings, celesta and percussion by Jóhannsson, a work that marked his return to composition in 1980 after a troubled decade following the death of his wife. Its quiet grandeur evokes in me visions of a still Arctic landscape during an endless night, and brings this orchestral tribute to the music of Iceland to a fitting close. 

07 Anna ClyneLondon-native Anna Clyne (b.1980) has impeccable credentials. She has served as composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, L’Orchestre national d’Île-de-France and Berkeley Symphony. She is currently the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Associate Composer and a mentor composer for Orchestra of St Luke’s DeGaetano Composer Institute. 2020 saw the release of a portrait disc Mythologies (Avie AV2434 avierecords.com), featuring five works performed live by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the direction of four distinguished conductors including Marin Alsop and Andrew Litton. It opens with bombastic drama in the form of Masquerade, commissioned by BBC Radio 3 to open the Last Night of the Proms in 2013, and continues in much the same vein with This Midnight Hour. The centrepiece is an intriguing violin concerto titled The Seamstress. Unusual for Clyne, the work is based on a 12-note row, but more interesting is the whispered, almost inaudible recitation of William Butler Yeats’ stanza, A Coat, late in the work. (“I made my song a coat/Covered with embroideries/Out of old mythologies…”) Jennifer Koh is in stellar form as soloist, with Irene Buckley the speaker. The last two works return to the bombast of the opening with the stormy Night Ferry and the unrelenting <<rewind>>. All in all, an exhilarating introduction to a composer I look forward to hearing more from soon. 

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

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com

01 Mon Ami Mon amourIn 2017, cellist Matt Haimovitz was working on the Poulenc Sonate with a student when he tripped and fell, dropping his 1710 Venetian Matteo Goffriller cello – his “friend” – and breaking the neck clean off the body. Following 15 months of painstaking repair, MON AMI, Mon amour is the first CD on which Haimovitz and his cello are reunited, accompanied by Mari Kodama in a recital of French music (PENTATONE Oxingale PTC 5186 816 naxosdirect.com/search/ptc5186816). 

That same Poulenc Sonate opens a disc which includes the Debussy Sonate, Fauré’s Papillon and Après un rêve, Milhaud’s Élégie and Nadia Boulanger’s Trois pièces. Completing the program are Haimovitz’s own arrangements of Ravel’s Kaddish and the Deux pièces pour violon et piano by Nadia’s younger sister Lili Boulanger, the latter work featuring terrific agility and technique in the highest register by Haimovitz.

Recorded in June 2019 with “no worry of social distancing and masks,” an outstanding CD is complemented by Haimovitz’s excellent booklet notes, written in Montreal in June 2020 after four months of quarantine and highlighting the stifling restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

02 Wan Bernstein GinasteraOn Ginastera – Bernstein – Moussa violinist and OSM concertmaster Andrew Wan presents three major works with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal under Kent Nagano (Analekta AN 28920 analekta.com/en).

Alberto Ginastera’s Violin Concerto Op.30 from 1963 makes for an interesting opening to the CD. Ostensibly in three movements, it consists of 11 short sections. An opening Cadenza is followed by six extremely brief Studies and a Coda, an Adagio for 22 Soloists acting as a second movement before a Scherzo pianissimo and a Perpetuum mobile provide a two-part third. The soundscape is very much mid-20th century, reminiscent of Berg at times and with more than a hint of the Barber concerto in the Perpetuum mobile.

Bernstein’s Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion (after Plato’s Symposium), from 1954, is an attractive five-part work described by the composer as a series of related statements in praise of love, inspired by his reading of the Plato work. 

Samy Moussa was born in Montreal in 1984. His Violin Concerto “Adrano, written in 2019 on an OSM commission, was inspired by a visit to Mount Etna, Adrano being an ancient fire god said to have lived beneath the volcano. It’s a very effective and accessible work of four relatively brief sections.

Wan is a terrific player, handling the varying stylistic and technical challenges with impressive ease on a fascinating CD.

03 Charlie SiemThe English violinist Charlie Siem is in great form on Between the clouds, ably supported by his regular recital partner Itamar Golan in a recital of light but never insubstantial pieces (Signum Classics SIGCD652 naxosdirect.com/search/sigcd652).

Siem has just the right blend of virtuosity, style and taste to show these charming works at their best, playing with effortless ease throughout a delightful disc. There are three pieces by Wieniawski –Légende Op.17, Polonaise No.1 Op.4 and Polonaise Brillante No.2 Op.21 – and five by Kreisler: Tambourin chinois Op.3; Recitativo und Scherzo-Caprice Op.6 and Three Alt-Wiener Tanzweisen – Schön Rosmarin, Liebesfreud and Liebesleid. Elgar’s Chanson de Matin and Chanson de nuit, Sarasate’s Introduction et Tarantelle, Paganini’s Cantabile, Godowski’s Alt Wien (in the Heifetz arrangement) and the Chaconne attributed to Vitali fill out a dazzling program that ends with Siem’s own arrangement of Britten’s gentle The Sally Gardens.

Siem draws a rich, warm tone from his 1735 Guarneri del Gesù “D’Egvill” violin on an absolute gem of a CD.

04 Lucy Russell BeethovenLucy Russell, the leader of the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, is the violinist on Beethoven Violin Sonatas, accompanied on fortepiano by Sezi Seskir in performances of the Sonatas No.4 in A Minor Op.23, No.5 in F Major Op.24 “Spring” and No.6 in A Major Op.30/1 (Acis APL29582 acisproductions.com).

Despite the CD’s title these works were originally designated (as were similar compositions at the time) as being for keyboard with accompanying violin, and the excellent balance here never lets the violin dominate.

Both players are equally at home on modern or period instruments, which seems to add an extra dimension to the playing in the period set-up here: the fortepiano is a Thomas and Barbara Wolf copy of a Johann Schanz instrument; the violin a Ferdinando Gagliano from the late 1700s with an open gut D string in addition to the A and E, and a John Dodd bow.

The performances are absolutely top-drawer, simply bursting with life and with excellent ensemble work, great dynamics and virtuosity galore.

05 Koh Bach 3Violinist Jennifer Koh completes her outstanding solo series Bach & Beyond with Part 3 Bach – Harbison – Berio, a 2CD set priced as a single disc and featuring Bach’s Sonatas No.2 in A Minor BWV1003 and No.3 in C Major BWV1005, Luciano Berio’s Sequenza VIII for solo violin from 1976 and John Harbison’s For Violin Alone, written for Koh in 2019 (Cedille Records CDR 90000 199 cedillerecords.org).

CD1 has the A-minor sonata and the Berio work, the latter a tribute to the Ciaccona from Bach’s D-minor partita. CD2 has the C-major sonata with its monumental Fuga, and the world-premiere recording of the Harbison, a seven-movement dance suite that is closer in spirit to the Bach partitas than the four-movement sonatas. Koh, as always, is faultless in her technique and sensitive and intelligent in her interpretations.

Based on her recital series of the same name, Koh’s three-volume Bach & Beyond set has brilliantly realized her desire to “strengthen the connection between our past and present worlds through a historical journey.” It’s an outstanding addition to the solo violin discography.

06 Bach Yuri LibezonThe two Bach works turn up again on 3 Violin Sonatas, a simply superb CD with classical guitarist Yuri Liberzon playing the Bach Unaccompanied Violin Sonatas in G Minor BWV1001, A Minor BWV1003 and C Major BWV1005 in transcriptions by Liberzon’s former teacher Manuel Barrueco (Laudable Records yuriguitar.com).

The transcriptions faithfully follow the Bach Gesellschaft Edition with very few additions or digressions; there’s the occasional filling-out of a chord or of an implied harmony, a pedal note allowed to sound through the bar or an octave change in the bass, but essentially the music runs as written, particularly in the fast linear movements.

In fact, at times it sounds even better than with violin. The multiple stops – particularly the triple and quadruple stops – present huge technical challenges for the violinist, especially when the melodic line runs through the middle, but on the guitar the issue presents less of a problem, the three Fuga movements in particular sounding smoother, cleaner and more clearly defined.

With beautifully clean playing, outstanding definition and line, a lovely variation of tonal colour and a perfect recorded sound, Liberzon gives a performance that fulfills all the technical and interpretative requirements that this challenging music demands. It’s an immensely satisfying musical experience on every level.

07 Leo BrouwerOn Leo Brouwer – The Book of Imaginary Beings: The Music of Leo Brouwer for Two Guitars, the Newman & Oltman Guitar Duo of American guitarists Laura Oltman and Michael Newman celebrate not only their 40th anniversary season but also the world-premiere recording of Brouwer’s new guitar duet El Libro de los Seres Imaginarios, the centrepiece of a CD dedicated to his works for two guitars (Musicmasters Classics CD 1001 musicmastersclassics.com).

Beatlerianas consists of quite beautiful arrangements of The Fool on the Hill and She’s Leaving Home, credited to Lennon & McCartney but essentially two of Paul McCartney’s loveliest songs. Música Incidental Campesina from 1978 is a series of extremely short vignettes – about one minute each – inspired by Cuban folk music.

The four-movement title work from 2018 portrays figures from the book of the same name by the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges. It is dedicated to the duo, who describe it as “an entirely Latin American creation, wildly intense and softly intimate.”

Superb playing, perfectly recorded, makes for a captivating, albeit at 28 minutes a disappointingly short, CD.

08 Avi AvitalOn Art of the Mandolin the brilliant Avi Avital presents original compositions for the instrument that span almost 300 years (Deutsche Grammophon 00289 483 8534 deutschegrammophon.com/en/catalogue).

Vivaldi is represented by his Concerto in G Major for 2 Mandolins, Strings and Basso continuo, Avital being joined by Alon Sariel on second mandolin and the Venice Baroque Orchestra. Beethoven’s Adagio ma non troppo in E-flat Major WoO43/2 for Mandolin and Harpsichord or Harp features Anneleen Lenaerts on harp, with the other early work being Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata In D Minor K89 for Mandolin and Basso continuo

In the latter work Avital is joined by several players who feature in the remaining contemporary works: Death is a Friend of Ours for Mandolin, Guitar, Harp, Theorbo and Harpsichord by David Bruce (b.1970), Sonata a tre for Mandolin, Guitar and Harpsichord by Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984) and Carillon, Récitatif, Masque for Mandolin, Guitar and Harp by Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012).

The terrific Prelude for Solo Mandolin by Giovanni Sollima (b.1962) with its southern Italian folk dance styles completes the disc.

09 Touch HarmoniousTouch Harmonious (In a Circle Records ICR018 inacircle-records.com) is the second solo album from Brooklyn Rider and Silk Road Ensemble violist Nicholas Cords, following his 2012 CD Recursions.

Much of the work on the CD was done when the COVID-19 situation was developing, and the album’s title is taken from a 1740 Samuel Johnson epitaph for a musician that, says Cords, reminds us that music’s power to sooth and heal is essential.

Cords’ arrangement of the Prelude by viola da gamba virtuoso Carl Friedrich Abel opens the CD, with Bach’s Cello Suite No.1 in G Major BWV1007 and Handel’s Rinaldo aria Lascia ch’io panga in Toshio Hosokawa’s arrangement closing the recital. Inspired by Rostropovich’s Bach playing, Britten’s Cello Suite No.3 Op.87, in a transcription by Nobuko Imai, is at the heart of the CD, surrounded by Anna Clyne’s Rest These Hands and world-premiere recordings of two works written specifically for this album: Dana Lyn’s endlessly i would have walked; and Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky’s Short Epitaph, based on the La Folia progression.

Cords is in great form throughout this fascinating program, technically superb and with a clear, warm tone across the whole range of his instrument.

10 Calidore BabelOn Babel, the new CD from the Calidore String Quartet, the focus is the desire “to explore the innate human drive for communication” and also to explore what happens when music substitutes for language (Signum Classics SIGCD650 naxosdirect.com/search/sigcd650).

Schumann’s String Quartet No.3 Op.41, written just months after he was finally able to marry his beloved Clara, and Shostakovich’s String Quartet No.9 in E-flat Major Op.117, in which Shostakovich showed music’s power to substitute for language as an act of defiance by using Jewish idioms in a work otherwise clearly acceptable to the Soviet regime, surround Caroline Shaw’s Three Essays, written for and premiered by the Calidore ensemble at the 2018 BBC Proms but inspired by Shaw’s concern at the national unrest leading to and resulting from the 2016 presidential election, and the language being used increasingly to spread confusion and misinformation.

The serious intentions threaten to overwhelm the actual music, but there’s fine playing on a CD that again reflects the COVID-19 situation, the quartet saying that they hope this album “will connect us with our audiences at a time when we are prevented from performing in-person concerts.”

01 MachautMachaut – The Lion of Nobility
Orlando Consort
Hyperion CDA68318 (hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA68318)

Guillaume de Machaut’s status as the 14th century’s greatest composer is borne out by the respect in which he was held by his contemporary musicians as well as by the list of aristocratic patrons who supported him. One such patron, King John II of France, must surely have been the Lion of Nobility alluded to in the title of this CD; his capture at the battle of Poitiers in 1356 personified the massive English victory.

So it is that En demantant et lamentant comprises the longest track on this CD. (At a whisker under 18 minutes, it is an eternity by early music standards!) There are no choruses in this composition, as Machaut commences his powerful lament for King John’s fate. He sums up his own distress as he recounts his sad task, going on to describe the King’s bravery: “A lion of nobility in good times, leopard of ferocity in adversity...” Listen to the Orlando Consort as they unravel Machaut’s text, the countertenor part adding its own ethereal quality.

Of course, there are other compositions. Dame, se nous m’estes lointeinne is a rarity, a monophonic composition, since Machaut is famous for his highly profound polyphonic pieces. Even stranger is his Moult sui de bonne heure nee – written from a woman’s perspective. And, yes, the lady is as passionate and romantic in her love for her lover as the male nobles are for their ladies. 

Overall, however, Machaut’s tribute to King John dominates this CD. Much as Machaut dominated 14th-century music.

02 Strozzi Vaso DesioVago Desio – Barbara Strozzi Opus 8, Part 1
Elissa Edwards; Richard Kolb
Acis APL90277 (acisproductions.com)

Venetian singer and composer Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) is perhaps one of the most prolific composers of secular music of her time. With Vago Desio, musicologist and theorbo player Richard Kolb and soprano Elissa Edwards offer Strozzi’s eighth and last known opus, performing from an edition edited by Kolb himself (Complete Works of Barbara Strozzi, Cor Donato Editions, 2019).

Vago Desio’s five arias and two cantatas are set to poetry about the intricacies of love and it is highly likely that Strozzi wrote them for herself to sing. Strozzi’s maturity as a composer is displayed throughout the opus with her powerful vocal writing style, which is lyrical, expressive, dramatic and always guided by text. Most notable is the show piece L’Astratto. The light-hearted parody cantata is sung by a distressed lover who sets out to choose an appropriate style of aria to express the pains of love. The ten-minute piece mixes aria-like phrases, short bursts of recitatives and sarcastic commentary which interrupts each of her short unsuitable attempts before finding an acceptable formula which leads to the complete aria. 

Vago Desio shows Kolb as a sensitive and audacious theorbo player while Edwards shines in interpretations that are gorgeously nuanced with engaging and passionate vocals. Edwards is also a specialist of expressive melodic gestures, which were essential to Strozzi’s style. As such, a concert version of Vago Desio would be welcome. The album also includes two sets of Correntes by Venetian composer Bernardo Gianoncelli with Kolb on the archlute.

03 Vivaldi TamerlanoVivaldi – Il Tamerlano
Soloists; Accademia Bizantina; Ottavio Dantone
naïve Vivaldi Edition OP 7080 (accademiabizantina.it/en/tamerlano)

Vivaldi Edition, an inspiring and noble project dedicated to the recording of nearly 450 works by Vivaldi (as found in the collection at the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin) has introduced many previously unknown vocal and operatic works by this prolific composer, including Il Tamerlano. Based on the popular libretto by Agostino Piovene, and including several arias by other prominent composers of that time, Il Tamerlano (Il Bajazet) is full of vitality and lyricism and, of course, drama. 

Accademia Bizantina is simply superb. Under the dynamic leadership of Ottavio Dantone, the ensemble grabs the listener’s attention at the very beginning of the gorgeous three-movement instrumental Sinfonia and never lets go. Their nuanced phrasing and marvellous sound underscore every single aria on this album. The recording features a talented cast of singers who bring in the passion, the struggle and the vulnerability of their characters, often in the same breath. Sophie Rennert is delightful in the role of Irene; and Bruno Taddia, in the lead role of Bajazet, showcases both the vigour and the mastery of an artist who is in his prime.

Enthralling music, theatrical story, stellar ensemble and cast, sophisticated performance – this recording pulls out all the stops. You will love this album for the touch of elegance and class it brings into the world of today.

Listen to 'Vivaldi: Il Tamerlano' Now in the Listening Room

04 Vivaldi LuceVivaldi – Luce e Ombra
Myriam Leblanc; Ensemble Mirabilia
Analekta AN 2 9137 (analekta.com/en/albums)

Light and shade. One of those many contrasts brought out by Vivaldi in his exceptionally thorough output. For this CD soprano Myriam Leblanc and the Ensemble Mirabilia have paired two apparently conflicting emotions. From the start Leblanc displays a real range of emotions. There is a jarring interpretation of Gelido in ogni vena reflecting the coldness identified in its title. This is supported by the ensemble’s flute, Baroque triple harp and cello. No one can be in doubt of the icy quality of Vivaldi’s score.

Exactly personifying Vivaldi’s contrasts is the chirpiness of Ercole Sul Termodonte. This draws on the flute-playing of Grégoire Jeay, which in turn forms an excellent and equally challenging accompaniment to the soprano. The musicians have made a balanced selection from the Red Priest’s works. Arsilda, regina di Ponto continues the lively tones of light (rather than shade) around which this CD is formed. Again, the Baroque flute is prominent, but it should not disguise the intensity of the other parts.  

This CD shows how deeply the musicians have looked into Vivaldi’s repertoire. The Ombra aspect of Luce e Ombra is brought to our attention by the very appropriately named All’ombra di sospetto. Listen to the intensity of Leblanc’s performance. This reviewer congratulates her on her first recording and wishes her many more.

05 Helene BrunetSolfeggio: Handel; Vivaldi; Vinci; Bach; Mozart
Hélène Brunet; L’Harmonie des saisons; Eric Milnes
ATMA ACD2 2808 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Solfeggio is Canadian soprano Hélène Brunet’s first solo album. In collaboration with the excellent period ensemble L’Harmonie des saisons, and under the direction of Eric Milnes, Brunet offers a total of 13 pieces by celebrated composers Bach, Handel, Mozart and Vivaldi. Solfeggio is a well-balanced album, mixing rite-of-passage pieces such as Bach’s Schafe können sicher weiden and Mozart’s Alleluja with other Bach, Mozart and Vivaldi favourites. Brunet also offers two world-premiere recordings of arias by Leonardo Vinci, an Italian composer better known for his opera compositions. 

Solfeggio opens with Handel’s dynamic aria Scoglio d’immota fronte, which sets the tone for the rest of the album. Brunet’s impeccable technique is matched only by the beauty, warmth and fullness of her timbre in all of her vocal registers. Vivaldi’s Juditha triumphans is especially noteworthy, for the lone harpsichord accompaniment serves to highlight Brunet’s beautiful tone before she launches into a fully accompanied aria that requires great vocal gymnastics. The eponymous title, Mozart’s Solfeggio No.2, is an etude most likely written for Constanze Mozart in the early 1780s. The Solfeggio pieces (five in total) all require precise technique, which Brunet demonstrates in spades when she sings trills at very slow speed and sings the most lyrical of high notes. 

Solfeggio should garner Brunet well-earned praise and a place of choice amongst other notable singers of the Baroque and Classical traditions.

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06 Elina GarancaLieder: Robert Schumann; Johannes Brahms
Elīna Garanča; Malcolm Martineau
Deutsche Grammophon 4839210 (deutschegrammophon.com/en/catalogue)

The great Latvian mezzo-soprano, Elīna Garanča, is already a legend in our time and for the last 20 years has conquered most opera repertory, moving towards more and more complex dramatic roles. Her opera recordings are numerous and all have become runaway bestsellers.

This time however, she is turning towards the German lieder repertoire in contrast to opera. Here she can scale down her voice, become soft and intimate, where “three notes on the piano and an intricate melody can mean the world” (Garanča). For this purpose she teamed up with Scottish pianist Malcolm Martineau, himself a sensitive and brilliant accompanist ideal for the Romantic sound world of these songs. Composers chosen were Schumann and Brahms, whose careers intertwined in more ways than one (e.g. the love triangle of Robert and Clara Schumann with the young Brahms!).

The opening selection is Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben, a series of eight songs chronicling, step by step, a woman falling in love with a man. Beginning with love at first sight (Seit ich ihn gesehen) and admiration of her lover (Er, der Herrlichste von allen) to renouncing her girlish pleasures and finally total surrender (An meinem Herzen), engagement (Du Ring en meinem Finger), marriage and presumed consummation. Emotionally each song is a world in itself and Garanča always finds the right expression and mood through her wonderful intonation, inflection and her perfect German diction. Similarly for the other 13 love songs, although “Brahms is more down to earth, earnest and sincere exploring different states of mind and his beloved nature e.g. Die Mainacht, O kühler Wald” (her words again). Garanča is most impressed by the beautiful harmonic writing that influences her interpretations. Very rewarding listening.

07 Donizetti NisidaDonizetti – L’Ange de Nisida
Soloists; Orchestra e Coro Donizetti Opera; Jean-Luc Tingaud
Dynamic 37848 (naxosdirect.com/search/8007144378486)

In Search of a “Lost” Opera is the title of musicologist Candida Mantica’s detailed account in the booklet describing how she solved “the jigsaw puzzle” of L’Ange de Nisida’s “dismembered” manuscript score and libretto. Commissioned by the Paris Théâtre de la Renaissance, Donizetti completed the opera in 1839. Its premiere was cancelled when the theatre went bankrupt, so the resourceful composer incorporated parts of the score into La Favorite for its December 1840 opening at the Paris Opéra. L’Ange de Nisida remained unheard until 2018 at a concert performance in London; this 2019 production at Bergamo’s Donizetti Opera Festival is its first-ever staged presentation.

Leone, a fugitive after fighting a duel in 15th-century Naples, flees to the island of Nisida, unaware that his beloved Sylvia, called “the angel of Nisida” for her kindness, is King Fernand’s captive mistress. Spoiler alert: no happy ending.

The unconventional, theatre-in-the-round production has the soloists in modern dress, Sylvia sometimes wearing angel wings, the stage illuminated with symbolic projections, strewn with lots of paper representing Mantica’s “jigsaw puzzle.”

Musically, this two-DVD set is enthralling, Donizetti’s endlessly melodious score thrillingly sung by soprano Lidia Fridman (Sylvia), tenor Konu Kim (Leone), baritone Florian Sempey (Fernand), bass-baritone Roberto Lorenzi (Gaspar, Fernand’s chamberlain) and bass Federico Benetti (the Monk who denounces Fernand’s illicit affair). Conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud generates real excitement from the chorus and orchestra, adding to the unique pleasure of witnessing the long-delayed, world-premiere staging of a very entertaining Donizetti opera.

08 Massenet Don QuichotteMassenet – Don Quichotte
Gábor Bretz; David Stout; Anna Goryachova; Wiener Symphoniker; Daniel Cohen
Cmajor 754008 (naxosdirect.com/search/814337015404)

If Jules Massenet was discouraged by the scorn that fellow French composers and musicians poured upon his work, he showed no sign of it in lyrical new works infused with emotion. And while it is true that all of his compositions seemed to eschew the Wagnerian sense of drama, his work – especially later pieces such as Don Quichotte – could explore and evoke strong emotions. 

It is somewhat curious that this late opera often hardly merits a mention in the scores of tomes dedicated to the dramatic art. Mariame Clément’s brilliant staging of it ought to alter this somewhat unfair historical narrative. This version of Don Quichotte, with Henri Cain’s libretto (after Jacques Le Lorrain’s Le chevalier de la longue figure) has been exquisitely recreated in this 2019 production and the Weiner Symphoniker directed by Daniel Cohen breathes new life into Massenet’s last opera.

After briefly referencing the original fin-de-siècle setting, Clément resets the story in a meaningful contemporary manner. With stark yet innovative sets, dramatic lighting and of course, lyrical, beautifully paced and theatrical music, this melodious dramatic tragicomedy lives again. The masterstroke is the casting; delivered here with a dazzling performance by Anna Goryachova (Dulcinée). However, Gábor Bretz (Don Quichotte) and David Stout (Sancho) all but steal the show, especially in Ecoute mon ami and in the glorious dénouement of Act V, L’Étoile! Dulcinée! Le temps d’amour a fui which makes for an evocatively tragic end.

09 Messager FortunoAndré Messager – Fortunio
Cyrille Dubois; Anne-Catherine Gillet; Franck Legeurinel; Jean-Sebastien Bou; Philippe-Nicolas Martin; Choeur Les Elements; Orchestre des Champs-Élysées; Louis Langrée
Naxos 2.110672 (naxosdirect.com/search/747313567256)

On June 5, 1907 André Messager, who had conducted the world premiere of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande five years earlier, led the first performance of his own operetta Fortunio at the Paris Opéra Comique, with two leading members of the original Pelléas cast singing principal roles, and Debussy himself in the audience. Fortunio was a great success, remaining in the Opéra Comique’s repertoire until 1948, then inexplicably shelved until its 21st-century revival.

This 2019 Opéra Comique production delights both visually and musically. The attractive, fin-de-siècle sets and costumes are historically accurate, while Messager’s lovely, sentiment-laden score receives spirited performances from the excellent cast, led by the captivating lyric tenor Cyrille Dubois, wrenching emotions as Fortunio.

Jacqueline, the sex-deprived young wife of the much-older local notary André, begins an affair with Clavaroche, a lecherous army captain newly arrived in town. Another newcomer is Fortunio, a timid fellow from the sticks whose uncle brings him to his cousin Landry, one of André’s clerks, hoping Fortunio will accept a similar position. Reluctant at first, Fortunio agrees after glimpsing the beauteous Jacqueline. To allay her husband’s suspicions of her infidelity, Jacqueline enlists the smitten Fortunio to pose as an innocuous, lovelorn “decoy,” but she eventually succumbs to his heartfelt adoration, declaring her own true love for him.

How very French! Characteristically making light of adultery, with raunchy double entendres, erotic physical byplay, clandestine intrigues and endearing, charming music, Messager’s sugary confection Fortunio succeeds admirably in every way.

10 FrulingssturmeJaromír Weinberger – Frühlingsstürme
Soloists; Orchestra of the Komische Oper Berlin; Jordan de Souza
Naxos 2.110677-78 (naxosdirect.com/search/2110677-78)

When Frühlingsstürme opened in Berlin on January 20, 1933 it seemed to be another success for its celebrated composer, Jaromír Weinberger. But ten days later the Nazis took power, crushing the creative spirit of the Weimar Republic; Frühlingsstürme was shut down. This staging from January 2020 at the Komische Oper Berlin was the first since that precarious time. It too was shut down – by COVID-19. Fortunately, it was filmed. 

Frühlingsstürme is a dramatic spy story with a doomed love affair between a Russian widow and a Japanese general at its heart. The music is sophisticated and delightful. Gorgeous melodies draw on Weinberger’s Czech and Jewish heritage, and complex rhythms recall popular styles of the day like jazz, foxtrot and tango. 

Barrie Kosky, the provocative Australian director who leads the Komische Oper, presents Weinberger’s operetta as an imaginative sequence of scenes taking place in and around an oversized, constantly transforming box. So an intimate duet like Traumversunken, liebestrunken can turn into a campy burlesque spectacle complete with a Busby Berkeley-style staircase and dancers wielding quivering ostrich feather fans. 

The cast is effective enough, with soprano Vera-Lotte Boecker a charismatic presence. Tansel Akzeybek’s well-placed tenor is lovely, if restrained. But soprano Alma Sadé as a sexually precocious teenager too often turns exuberance into shrieking, especially in the overlong passages of dialogue. 

The terrific orchestra under Canadian conductor Jordan de Souza, who is well-known to Toronto audiences for his work with Tapestry Opera and the COC, balances the frivolous and the poignant with versatility and stylishness. Their much-needed momentum reinforces the pleasures of this valuable, if uneven, addition to the operetta repertoire.

01 Bach Cello Suites for PianoBach – Six Suites for Solo Cello, transcribed for piano
Eleonor Bindman
Grand Piano GP847-48 (naxosdirect.com/search/747313984725)

For New York-based pianist Eleonor Bindman, Bach became her beacon at age ten, when she snuck a peek at her teacher’s notebook and saw the words “plays Bach well” under her name. Since then she’s never wavered.

Bindman’s intimate connection to, and study of, the music of J.S. Bach deepened over the decades. This lead to her 2018, one-piano/four-hands, transcription of all six Brandenburg Concertos, followed by several other Bach transcription projects, ultimately resulting in this transcription and recording of the six unaccompanied Cello Suites BWV 1007-1012.

Interestingly, in addition to the piano, the Cello Suites have been transcribed for numerous solo instruments including, among others, the mandolin, marimba, classical guitar, electric bass, flute, saxophone, trombone, tuba and ukulele. I can’t vouch for how successful each of these efforts has been, but I reckon it’s not an easy task, regardless of the instrument. (Even Robert Schumann, who wrote a piano accompaniment for all six Suites, had his arrangements rejected by his publisher.)

I can, however, vouch for the success of Bindman’s piano transcription, which is superb, embodying the true essence of the Suites, something she aspired to. As she states in her excellent liner notes, the “Suites didn’t need any improvement.”

Bindman maintains the majesty of Bach’s music, via both her transcription and her convincing command of the keyboard. Whether you’re a purist or a Bach devotee, this satisfying 2-CD set is worthy of a thoughtful listen.

02 BoccheriniMIR524Luigi Boccherini – Une nuit à Madrid
Les Ombres
Mirare MIR524 (mirare.fr)

If Boccherini had never moved to Spain – ultimately regarding it as his native country – the world might have been denied much of his fine chamber music composed for the brother of King Charles III, the infante Don Luis. His move wasn’t entirely smooth – he referred to local musicians as “inveterate barbarians” – but the Spanish influence on his musical style was not an insignificant one, evident in such pieces as the renowned “Fandango” quintet, one of five quintets presented on this splendid Mirare recording performed by the Basel-trained ensemble, Les Ombres.

Of those featured here, three are for flute and strings – Nos.2, 4 and 5 from the set of six quintets Op.19. These are remarkable not only for their brevity (each comprises only two movements and is less than ten minutes in length) but for their diversity. The second has a dark and impassioned mood, while the fourth begins with a solemn adagio followed by a gentle minuet and the fifth is all rococo grace.

Of greater scope is the four-movement Quintet G451 in E Minor. Despite the inclusion of a guitar, there is no Spanish element to this music, but the instrumental blend is an appealing one and Les Ombres perform with a solid conviction, at all times maintaining a delicate balance among the instruments. 

The highlight of the disc is surely the Quintet No.4 G448 known for its spirited Fandango finale. Performed with great panache – with the help of clacking castanets and Romaric Martin’s fine guitar playing – the movement is infused with Mediterranean exuberance – music that seems made for dancing!

Fine acoustics on this recording further enhance an exemplary performance throughout – bravo a todos!

03 Gretry LAmant JalouxAndré Grétry – L’Amant jaloux
Notturna; Christopher Palameta
ATMA ACD2 2797 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Among the most successful operatic composers in 18th-century France was Belgian-born André-Ernest Modeste Grétry (1741-1813). After studying in Rome, he arrived in France in 1767, and during the next 40 years, he enjoyed a career as a renowned composer and pedagogue.

Given the success of Grétry’s operas, and in keeping with the popular custom of the time, it was only natural that much of his dramatic music would eventually make its way from the opera house to both private salons and public gardens in the form of arrangements for small ensemble. It’s such an arrangement of music from his opera L’Amant jaloux (The Jealous Lover) that comprises the bulk of this fine ATMA recording featuring the six-member Montreal-based ensemble, Notturna, directed by oboist Christopher Palameta. The arranger is unknown, but it’s thought it may have been Grétry himself.

L’Amant jaloux was Grétry’s 23rd opera comique and met with resounding success when premiered in Versailles in 1778. While no doubt the score is unfamiliar to modern-day listeners, the music of this well-crafted arrangement is gracious and melodic, while maintaining the spirit of the vocal originals. Throughout, Notturna delivers a polished performance with a fine balance among the instruments.

Following the suite is a quartet for oboe, violins and bass by François-André Phlidor and a brief ballet movement from Grétry’s 1783 opera La Caravane du Caire. Palameta’s sonorous and well-rounded tone further enhances this brief chamber-piece from 1755, while the closing ballet is a fine example of French courtly dance music before the fall of the Ancien Régime.

Kudos to Palameta and Notturna not only for some fine playing, but for helping bring to light some music that otherwise may have been overlooked.

04 Beethoven Violin JorgensenBeethoven – Complete Sonatas for Piano & Violin on Historic Instruments
Jerilyn Jorgensen; Cullan Bryant
Abany Records TROY 1825-28 (albanyrecords.com)

This handsome and beautiful 4-CD set features Cullan Bryant playing five different keyboard instruments from the Frederick Collection of Historic Pianos in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, including an instrument built around 1805 by Casper Katholnig that had been part of the estate of the Esterházys in Eisenstadt and others by Joseph Brodmann, Johann Tröndlin and Ignaz Bösendorfer from Leipzig and Vienna. Jorgensen plays a violin built in 1797 by Andrea Carolus Leeb and employs a number of different historical bows. A great deal of care has been given to creating a specific sound world for the performance of each sonata and in all cases this produces an added element of a wide palette of aural colours that is missing from most modern instrument recordings of these brilliant works.  

Unlike Beethoven’s string quartet output, which stretches across all the periods of his remarkable career, his ten sonatas for piano and violin were written in a shorter span of time – between 1797 and 1812. There are two sets of three sonatas each – Op.12 and Op.30 – and single sonatas Opp. 23, 24, 47 and 96. As the excellent liner notes to this CD collection point out, what make these sonatas so interesting is that they feature the two instruments that Beethoven played exceptionally well. He was an active violinist in his early life in Bonn and, of course, played piano throughout his life. 

Each of these ten works is a strong, inventive, captivating piece that charts a growing independent compositional style, culminating with Op.47 – the most famous sonata, dedicated to the French violinist and composer Rodolphe Kreutzer – and the powerful and unique Op.96 in G Major. Like the quartets, the early sonatas owe a great deal, formally and stylistically, to Mozart, Haydn and Antonio Salieri. As we move to the later works, Beethoven’s unique and original style – and all of those strong and contrasting voices that we appreciate so deeply – emerges. 

The performances of Bryant and Jorgensen are of a uniformly high standard; risks are taken and, as mentioned above, the musical colours are vibrant. The early pianos also remind us of the percussive nature of the instrument and give a picture of what Beethoven was seeking with his articulation and dynamic markings. Many thanks to these two fine musicians for a thoughtful and musically satisfying recording.

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