In the summer issue we published Alex Baran’s final column, which is sad news indeed for me and has made my job as assignment editor a bit more onerous. But as far as I know, there is no grave understory to his announced retirement, it was simply time to move on and focus on other things. During the past decade he contributed a variety of reviews to The WholeNote – his first pair appeared in December 2009 – but for the past four years he has focused on keyboard recordings under his own Keyed In masthead.

As with Terry Robbins’ Strings Attached, Alex’s column simplified my editorial duties by enabling me to ship out any and all applicable discs to him and leave sorting out their relevance to his discretion. It always amazed me how Alex could write about a dozen discs each month and make them all sound individual, finding positive aspects to each performer’s approach and describing them in terms as nuanced as the recordings he was writing about.

Although my WholeNote relationship with Alex goes back a decade, my professional association with him dates back to the early 1990s when I was a music programmer at CJRT-FM where he was an on-air host and later program director. I worked closely with him writing scripts for CJRT Concert and selecting recordings for Music for Midday for five years at what I still consider to be, New Music Concerts and The WholeNote notwithstanding, the best job I’ve ever had (and the only one that generated a pension thanks to its affiliation with Ryerson University).

So that being said, I will miss Alex’s insights and his diligence. For the moment you will find the Keyed In banner maintained, with a number of writers contributing their own insights, both seasoned WholeNote reviewers and some new voices. In this issue I’m very pleased that outstanding young Toronto pianist, Adam Sherkin, has taken on three discs in his WholeNote debut, and I think you’ll agree he is an excellent addition to our team. Welcome Adam!

To keep this “all about me” as is my wont, I’ll mention that some of the highlights of my career at CJRT included selecting the music for Peter Keigh’s Music before 1800, working with engineer William van Ree to record the live performances that aired on CJRT Concert, doing on-air interviews with celebrities such as Ben Heppner for This Week In Music and producing a week-long tribute to Tālivaldis Ķeniņš (a distinguished Latvian-Canadian composer mentioned in the Canadian Amber review later on in these pages). It was not all “days of wine and roses” however. Occasionally my penchant for contemporary music would land me in hot water for programming music a little too strident for the mainstream tastes of our core listeners (and the management). One notable instance was selecting Canadian composer Henry Kucharzyk’s Figure in a Landscape, a 32-minute orchestral work written for choreography by Christopher House at Toronto Dance Theatre. I thought its performance by the National Arts Centre Orchestra under Trevor Pinnock provided enough classical credibility, but it ultimately proved a bit “much of a muchness” for Music for an Afternoon and host Adriane Markow. I did not program it in isolation, however, and cleverly, I thought, had it follow Schumann’s Carnaval, a 30-minute piano suite whose opening chord sequence is exactly mimicked, although one tone higher, in Kucharzyk’s orchestral score. I’m not sure if anyone else noticed the similarity, but to me it provided a significant entry point into the modern work. It was this sort of jigsaw-puzzle placement of pieces that provided real satisfaction in my job as music programmer.

01 Sheng Cai SchumannAll this seems a long introduction to the first disc I’ll write about, but you’ll see the connection in a moment. In one of the eerie synchronicities that I have mentioned before, while editing this month’s Keyed In, I had just finished Roger Knox’s review of Sheng Cai’s ATMA release of Liszt etudes when I received an email from that distinguished young Chinese-Canadian pianist himself. He said he was writing at the suggestion of producer Keith Horner to tell me about his album Robert Schumann Piano Music that has recently come out on the Centaur label (CRC 3696 naxosdirect.com). I told him that seemed strange because we were reviewing his Liszt CD in the coming issue. He explained that although recorded at Glenn Gould Studio in 2017, Centaur had some problems with the release and it was delayed nearly two years.

Born in China, Cai studied at the Shanghai Conservatory where he was a top prizewinner of the National Competition in 1998. The following year, his family immigrated to Canada where he began studies at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto with Anton Kuerti. Cai later earned his bachelor of music degree under full scholarship at the New England Conservatory in Boston. Since his debut with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1 – a performance for which the Toronto Star praised his “…subtle sense of rubato to a judicious choice of tempi...” – he has gone on to perform concerti by Bartók, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Gershwin, Grieg, Mozart, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saëns, Schumann and Tchaikovsky, with numerous orchestras across North America and in Shanghai.

I’m sure that delay in the release of this disc was very frustrating to Cai, but as far as I’m concerned it was worth the wait. Opening with the brilliant Toccata in C, Op.7 where the interlocking lines are skilfully brought out, the disc continues with the extended Humoreske in B-flat Major, Op.20 with its contrasting, though mostly delicate movements. The one exception is the boisterous Sehr lebhaft in which Cai shines and is obviously having a great time. The gently rolling Arabeske in C Major, Op.18 provided an oasis of respite before the stately opening chords of Carnaval Op.9 brought back the flood of memories mentioned above. Subtitled Scènes mignonnes sur quatre notes (tender scenes on four notes), the 20 brief movements are musical cryptograms centred on the notes A, E-flat, C and B represented in German as AEsCH (with Es pronounced S). Asch is the name of the town where Ernestine von Fricken, Schumann’s then fiancée was born, and also are letters which appear in the composer’s own name Robert Alexander Schumann. The sequence of letters also appears in the German word fasching, meaning carnival, hence the title of the work. There are many more encryptions in the collection, but none of this is really necessary for enjoyment of the wonderfully playful, charming and, at times, dramatic work.

While I tend to avoid solo piano recitals and recordings because, as I may have said before, eventually to my ears it all seems like “just so much banging,” that was certainly not the case in this instance. My attention was held throughout the 72-minute performance by this exciting young pianist, a result of his choice of repertoire, his mastery of technique and his inherent musicality. Makes me wish I had listened to his Liszt disc before sending it off to Roger.

02 Kernis DebussyI see that I’ve pretty much used up my allotment of words for the month already, but there is another disc that I’ve been enjoying and wanted to mention. The Kernis Project: Debussy (Sono Luminus DSL-92233 sono-luminus.squarespace.com) is the culmination of the Jasper String Quartet’s “decade-long journey with Aaron Jay Kernis’ music for string quartet… [during which] we realized his special voice and our connection to his music’s ability to capture both the complexity of the world and the simplicity of the moment.” Having recorded Kernis’ first quartet, paired with Beethoven in 2011 and his second, paired with Schubert the following year, the Jaspers commissioned Kernis to write a third, which he subtitled “River” and completed in 2015. The American composer (b.1960) says it “is a significant departure from my earlier two quartets, which looked to the distant past for form and inspiration. Instead, this new work dispenses with classical structure and influences almost completely, touching continually on processes of change and flux.” That being said, it is an extended work lasting more than 35 minutes and showing the influence of both Beethoven’s Op.131, particularly in the sombre Cavatina fourth movement, and Bartók’s String Quartet No.4, with “night music” aspects in both the second movement Flow/Surge and third Mirrored Surface – Flux – Reflections, and from which it takes its five-movement form.

I have mentioned the overlap of literature and music in my life, and I was intrigued to read in the program note to this quartet that it was influenced by two books that both had a profound effect on me: Jean-Christophe by Romain Rolland, and My Struggle (actually a series of six books) by Karl Ove Knausgaard. First read at an age when “3/4 of the [Rolland] book would’ve been incomprehensible to me,” Kernis says that the central image of the Rhine River and “its inexorable flow” were indelibly etched in his memory. “While the Romanticism of the book does not have any parallel in the music at all, its intense emotions do, and the River and its continual movement became central to the conceptualization of my work.” Regarding My Struggle, Kernis says it was “vitally influential for my musical processes… The book sets forward the trajectory of one man’s life, the flow of the quotidian along with meditations on the psychological underpinnings of the center of existence.” As with Schumann’s Carnaval, knowledge of the backstory is not essential to enjoyment of the work. I listened to this compelling piece a number of times before I read the liner notes and discovered the serendipitous connection to my own life interests.

The companion piece is a beautifully nuanced performance of one of my favourite pieces of music, Debussy’s String Quartet in G Minor Op.10. As an amateur cellist I’m proud of the fact that I’ve advanced to the stage where I can reasonably attempt, and obtain satisfaction from, performing with friends some of the great chamber works that influenced me in my formative years. This has included trios, quartets and quintets by Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Borodin, Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, Robert and Clara Schumann, and even a few movements from the modern canon by Ravel, Webern, Shostakovich and sometime WholeNote contributors Colin Eatock and Daniel Foley. One that I’ve not yet tried is this Debussy quartet, and I’d like to thank the Jaspers for inspiring me to rectify this situation in the near future. Incidentally, although I don’t see any mention of a Canadian connection in the members’ biographies, the group, which was formed at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, takes its name from Jasper National Park in Alberta. 

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 Eybler Beethoven 2The much-anticipated second and final volume of the Beethoven String Quartets Op.18 (Nos.4-6) in groundbreaking performances on period instruments by Toronto’s Eybler Quartet is finally here, and it was well worth the wait (CORO Connections COR16174 eyblerquartet.com).

Beethoven’s metronome markings, viewed by many as impossibly fast, have long been the subject of heated debate, and the Eybler’s decision to take them head-on and see what they revealed created quite a stir when the first volume was released last year (reviewed here in April 2018). The astonishing speed of some of the movements had some reviewers shaking their heads even while acknowledging the brilliant playing, Gramophone going so far as to call it – in a not entirely negative way, given the wit and humour the Eybler Quartet found in Beethoven’s writing – “straight-up hilarious.”

The three works on this second volume don’t seem quite as radically fast, perhaps because our ears know what to expect this time, but the performance standard remains consistent – technique, clarity, intonation and ensemble playing are all stunning in performances full of depth and life.

Violist Patrick Jordan’s intelligent and insightful booklet notes add a great deal to an understanding of the performance approach, in particular his illuminating comments on tactus, the sense of a relatively steady and consistent pulse within a movement.

It’s not often that you encounter performances that challenge your preconceptions and radically and permanently change how you hear certain core repertoire works, but this indispensable set does exactly that.

Listen to 'Beethoven String Quartets Op.18 (Nos.4-6)' Now in the Listening Room

02 Kremer WeinbergWhen he was a student in 1960s’ Moscow, Gidon Kremer frequently saw and heard the composer and pianist Mieczysław Weinberg in performance although, despite his interest in composers negatively affected by Soviet ideology, he never met him. Kremer has done more than most in recent years to promote Weinberg’s music, and now adds a personal contribution with his brilliantly successful arrangements for solo violin of Weinberg’s 24 Preludes for Violoncello Solo, Op.100 (Accentus Music ACC 30476 naxosdirect.com).

The preludes, written in 1969 but only premiered in 1995, were dedicated to Rostropovich, who never played them. They are complex pieces full of quotations from works in Rostropovich’s repertoire as well as referencing other composers and folk songs. The transfer from cello to violin apparently presented few major challenges, Kremer noting that “only a few of the pieces needed to be put into a different tonality.”

His superb performance befits such a towering achievement, one which is a monumental addition to the solo violin repertoire.

03 Hattori scanThe young Japanese violinist Moné Hattori was only 16 when she recorded her astonishing debut CD. Released in Japan in late 2016 it has now been given a world-wide release on International Classics Artists (ICAC 5156 naxos.com).

It features outstanding performances of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No.1 in A Minor Op.77 and Franz Waxman’s Carmen-Fantasie with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Alan Buribayev. Hattori is dazzling in the Waxman and is quite superb in a commanding performance of the Shostakovich. She has a sumptuous tone, flawless technique, emotional depth and physical strength, and wrings every drop of emotion from this deeply personal work.

Hattori has been active mostly in Japan and Asia, although she is making inroads in Europe this year. She is clearly one to watch.

04 Duo Fantasyduo 526, the pairing of Canadian violinist Kerry DuWors and Japanese pianist Futaba Niekawa, is in fine form on Duo Fantasy, a CD featuring works by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Arnold Bax and William Bolcom (Navona NV6231 navonarecords.com).

Villa-Lobos’ Sonata Fantasia No.2 was completed in 1914 although not published until the early 1950s. It’s a lovely work that reflects many of the musical influences of the period.

The English Bax is represented by the substantial four-movement Violin Sonata No.2, completed in 1915 and revised in 1920. It’s another very attractive and compelling work, full of contrast and with much writing of great beauty.

Bolcom’s Duo Fantasy from 1973 is exactly what you would expect from this wonderfully eclectic American musician – a kaleidoscope of popular styles leading to a quite unexpected ending.

DuWors plays with a commanding combination of strength, sweetness and brightness, fully supported by Niekawa’s rich, expansive piano playing.

05 Hindemith violinOn Hindemith Complete Works for Violin & Piano violinist Roman Mints and pianist Alexander Kobrin give quite superb performances of the four violin sonatas – in E-flat Op.11 No.1 and in D Op.11 No.2 (1918), in E (1935) and in C (1938) – together with the Trauermusik from 1936, the Meditation from the ballet Nobilissima Visione (1938) and the Sonata for Viola d’amore and Piano, “Kleine Sonate” Op.25 No.2 from 1922 (Quartz QTZ 2132 quartzmusic.com)

Mints in particular plays with tremendous strength, power and brilliance in music that clearly has special meaning for him. The Sonata in D was “the first window into contemporary music” for the 13-year-old Mints; later Hindemith was his ”window into Romantic music” and the composer continues to hold a special place in Mints’ heart. It’s certainly difficult to imagine better performances of these fascinating works.

Listen to 'Hindemith Complete Works for Violin & Piano' Now in the Listening Room

06 Hindemith Viola RodolfoThere’s more terrific Hindemith playing on Hindemith Sonatas for Viola Solo by the Spanish violist Jesus Rodolfo (IBS Classical IBS52019 naxosdirect.com)

The three numbered Sonatas for Viola Solo – Op.11 No.5 (1919), Op.25 No.1 (1922) and Op.31 No.4 (1924)together with the Sonata for Viola Solo from 1937 are challenging and extremely difficult works by a composer who was himself a world-class violist. They are often strident and dissonant, but there is more than enough lyrical and tonal writing to make them compelling listening.

Rodolfo plays with a deep, rich tone and a commanding technique in performances that hold you from beginning to end. 

07 Janet SungOn Edge of Youth, her first recording for the Sono Luminus label, violinist Janet Sung presents a program of works that she feels were significant in her development of a more mature musical voice (DSL-92230 sono-luminus.squarespace.com).

Two 20th-century masterpieces – George Enescu’s astonishingly original Impressions d’enfance Op.28 and Benjamin Britten’s early Suite for Violin and Piano Op.6 – are paired with three recent compositions: Missy Mazzoli’s Dissolve, O My Heart (2011) and Gabriel Prokofiev’s Sleeveless Scherzo (2007), both for solo violin; and Dan Visconti’s Rave-Up for violin and piano (2012). William Wolfram is the excellent pianist in the duo pieces.

Sung’s technique and musicianship are quite superb, hardly surprising for someone who studied with both Josef Gingold and Dorothy DeLay.

09 Mozart Mi Sa YangFour violin sonatas from the middle of Mozart’s canon are featured on Mozart sonates pour piano et violon, with violinist Mi-Sa Yang and pianist Jonas Vitaud (Mirare MIR420 mirare.fr). The two Sonatas in E Minor K304 and D Major K306 are from the six sonatas finished in Paris in 1778 and known as the Palatine Sonatas, while the two Sonatas in G Major K379 and E-flat Major K380 are also from a set of six, the Viennese sonatas of 1781.

There’s a lovely balance here, with a clear, resonant sound. Yang’s tone is warm and sensitive with a judicious use of vibrato, and there is equally fine playing from Vitaud. The two Palatine sonatas feature particularly strong playing, with excellent articulation and intelligent nuance.

The CD doesn’t appear to be intended as part of an ongoing series, but as a one-off with almost 80 minutes of music it’s certainly a very worthwhile release.

08 HenriquesFini Henriques Works for Violin and Piano features 21 short pieces plus two multi-movement collections from the period 1899-1923 by a composer who was one of the most popular Danish musical figures of his time. Violinist Johannes Søe Hansen and pianist Christina Bjørkøe are the performers on Denmark’s national record label (Dacapo 8.226151 naxos.com).

Henriques enjoyed a stellar career as a virtuoso violinist, and clearly knew how to write for his instrument. He was at his most effective with short recital pieces, the excellent booklet notes describing him as “almost unrivalled in his ability to compose small pieces with a sharp characterisation – works with charm and warm-heartedness.” And they are exactly that – lovely works, light but never trivial, and beautifully played and recorded on an absolutely delightful CD.

10 Haydn scanJoseph Haydn String Quartets Op.71 is the excellent new CD from Scotland’s Maxwell Quartet (LINN CKD 602 naxosdirect.com).

The quartet’s perceptive booklet notes make it clear that they have a strong affinity for Haydn’s quartets, and it really shows in warm, sympathetic performances of the quartets No.1 in B-flat Major, No.2 in D Major and No.3 in E-flat Major. Each quartet is followed by a “Scottish epilogue” – Gaelic folk and fiddle tunes by the likes of James Scott Skinner and Niel Gow, arranged by the quartet members and with one written by Maxwell violinist George Smith. It’s an extremely effective addition, fully supporting the ensemble’s view that “just like Haydn’s quartets, this is music that is capable of speaking to everyone.” All in all, a lovely CD.

11 KovarovicThe three string quartets of the Czech composer Karel Kovařovic (1862-1920) were never published, the source material for the world premiere recordings of The Complete String Quartets by the Czech Stamic Quartet being the manuscripts in the National Museum – Czech Museum of Music in Prague (Supraphon SU 4267-2 supraphon.com).

There is much to remind you of Smetana and Dvořák here, so consequently much to enjoy, from the 17-year-old composer’s Quartet No.1 in D Major from 1879, through the substantial Quartet No.2 in A Minor from 1887 (dedicated to Dvořák and admired by him) to the unfinished Quartet No.3 in G Major from 1894 – there is no fourth movement and the third remains incomplete but performable.

The Stamic Quartet was formed in 1985 – the second violin and viola are original members – and is clearly in its element here on a generous (at over 80 minutes) and beautifully played and recorded CD

12 Atma QuartetPoland’s Ãtma Quartet chose relatively brief but engrossing works by three 20th-century Polish composers for their debut CD, Penderecki Szymanowski Panufnik String Quartets (CD Accord ACD 252-2 naxosdirect.com).

Karol Szymanowski’s Quartet No.2 Op.56, written in 1927 for a Philadelphia competition (it lost out to quartets by Bartók and Casella) was actually the first he completed. Its three movements total less than 18 minutes, but it’s a very attractive work amply demonstrating the composer’s distinctive style and sound.

Andrzej Panufnik’s Quartet No.3 Paper-Cuts from 1990 is even shorter at less than 11 minutes despite having five sections which explore various aspects of string playing. Krzysztof Penderecki’s Quartet No.3 Leaves of an Unwritten Diary is a single-movement but episodic work lasting 18 minutes.

The performances of these fascinating works are top-notch on a very impressive debut album.

13 Raphael FeuillatreClassical guitarist Raphaël Feuillâtre, the winner of the 2018 Guitar Foundation of America Competition, is simply outstanding in a recital of transcriptions and original works on the Naxos Laureate Series (8.574127 naxos.com).

The transcriptions are of works by Ariel Ramírez, Rameau, Scriabin and Rachmaninov, with Feuillâtre’s own transcription of the Granados 8 Valses poéticos particularly dazzling, while the original works are by Agustín Barrios Mangoré, Heitor Villa-Lobos and – a particularly virtuosic showpiece – Miguel Llobet Solés’ Variations on a Theme of Sor, Op.15.

Feuillâtre’s playing is technically superb – clean, sensitive and nuanced, and with a sense of style and phrase to match the virtuosity. There’s a complete absence of left-hand noise in the resonant recording, engineered and produced by the always reliable Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver in Florida. 

01 Jae Hyuck ChoBeethoven & Liszt Piano Concerti No.1
Jae-Hyuck Cho; Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Adrien Perruchon
Sony Classical S80403C (amazon.com)

The most recent collaboration on disc between pianist Jae-Hyuck Cho and conductor Adrien Perruchon directing the Royal Scottish National Orchestra offers first piano concertos by both Liszt and Beethoven. This recording exhibits poise, candour and marked esteem for the well-worn music at hand.

Cho approaches Beethoven’s youthful first piano concerto with a Haydnesque profile, achieving this with his own earnest brand of pianism, both tactile and circumspect. The lighter side of Beethoven’s early period is revealed here, as is the German composer’s debt to neoclassical attributes such as a Mozartian savvy for crafting melodic lines. Cho’s faithful – at times predictable – reading of the score contains just enough bravura to affirm that we are experiencing a concerto.

With conductor Perruchon’s background as both percussionist and bassoonist, one hears vividly planned out orchestral accompaniments, laser-precise and metrically refined. This kind of rhythmic cultivation is what Leon Fleisher so often refers to as performative “irresistibility,” and Perruchon’s orchestra and Cho’s keyboard both seem to have it in ample measure. Crisp and carefully wrought woodwind lines squint through the textures in classical and Romantic scoring alike, with Perruchon’s prizing of oboe and bassoon parts enhancing this effect.

With affectionate, palpable exchange between soloist and conductor, (especially in the Liszt concerto), this disc is also aided by a notably high standard of audio recording. Producer Michael Fine and engineer Jin Choi are to be applauded for such a balanced and crystalline achievement.

Adam Sherkin

 

02 Sheng Cai LisztLiszt – 12 Etudes d’exécution transcendante; 2 Etudes de concert
Sheng Cai
ATMA ACD2 2783 (atmaclassique.com)

Sheng Cai is a Canadian pianist with a growing international reputation. The playing on this disc is remarkable. In Franz Liszt’s 12 Transcendental Etudes (1852), what stand out are clear voicing, fine control of dynamics and a sense of expressive freedom. For example, in Paysage (No.3) pacing is flexible and there are several grades of softness. Ricordanza (No.9) opens with comparable expressiveness in movement and dynamics but on an expanding scale, meeting this longer work’s more dramatic and extreme demands. In other words, Cai is fully up to the Etudes’ diverse challenges! We haven’t yet considered that he successfully matches such technical demands as the fearsome leaps in Mazeppa (No.4), the colouristic intricacies of Feux follets (No.5), or the tremendous approaching storm tremolos in Chasse-neige (No.12). Throughout the disc, effective groupings of pedalled notes and precise phrase cut-offs are among the ways this pianist has avoided the banging and noisiness I have heard in some well-known artists’ Liszt renderings.

Through the artist we meet the composer, and I have enjoyed Liszt’s humour in the characterization of the Eroica (No. 7) and the composer’s artistry with what seem like painters’ brush strokes in Waldesrauschen (Forest Murmurs), one of the Two Concert Etudes (1862-63) also included on this recording. Do not fear for lack of variety among all of these etudes, no two are alike and Cai makes the listening experience a distinct pleasure.

Roger Knox

Listen to 'Liszt: 12 Etudes d’exécution transcendante; 2 Etudes de concert' Now in the Listening Room

 

03 Donna VoceDonna Voce (Fanny Mendelssohn; Amy Beach; Clara Schumann; Cecile Chaminade; Lili Boulanger; Chia-Yu Hsu)
Anna Shelest
Sorel Classics n/a (sorelmusic.org)

It is unfortunate that to record an entire album featuring beautiful and stylistically diverse music from a well-chosen program of women composers is still, in 2019, an inherently political statement, but here we are. Unlike both piano playing and pedagogy which have long been gendered activities coded as “safe” or “acceptable” entrees into the music business for women, historically composition was seen as the realm of men. Upon occasion, as featured on the recording, some who are related to better known male figures (i.e. Fanny Mendelssohn’s brother Felix and Clara Schumann’s husband Robert) were allowed to “dabble” in the form, but not encouraged, nor taken particularly seriously.

Anna Shelest, a Ukraine-born pianist who graduated from Juilliard and who currently lives in New York City, is a wonderfully expressive and talented musician who unites these composers, some of whom are separated by multiple centuries, with her deft touch and clear lyricism on this Sorel Classics release. Partially, this is exploration of lost histories, in the sense that some of this music has not been given its rightful place in canon of Western art music due, undoubtedly, to antiquated views on what constituted “acceptable” activities for married women (in the case of American composer Amy Beach); patriarchally established family responsibilities that curtailed artistic practice and output (Clara Schumann) and outright sexism masquerading as musical criticism (Cécile Chaminade, who was undermined in a New York Post review of her 1908 Carnegie Hall recital that stated, in part, “on the whole this concert confirmed the conviction held by many that while women may someday vote, they will never learn to compose anything worthwhile,” this recording is no mere historical exercise.

Through Shelest’s clear musicality and performance prowess, Donna Voce is an extremely musical and satisfying contemporary classical release that will hopefully (and deservedly) present this collection of music, as well as Shelest’s many talents, to a wide audience of listeners around the world.

Andrew Scott

 

04 Artur SchnebelArtur Schnabel – Complete Works for Solo Piano
Jenny Lin
Steinway & Sons 30074 (steinway.com)

Some wonders will never cease, as evidenced by the latest Steinway & Sons disc of Artur Schnabel’s Complete Works for Solo Piano with pianist Jenny Lin. That’s right: Artur Schnabel, composer.

Amongst the great 20th-century pianists, Schnabel was the first to record the entire cycle of Beethoven sonatas, a practice now well-entrenched – and a yardstick oft’ attained – by numerous keyboardists on a regular basis. But the legacy of Schnabel’s pianism remains sacrosanct, as does his pedagogical lineage. So then, how well-perceived is his compositional output? Not well, it would seem. Consequently, Steinway & Sons and intrepid pianist Jenny Lin “aim to correct this imbalance of perception.”

A new double album presents Schnabel’s works in chronological order, an edifying curatorial decision and one that reveals the breadth of his compositional development, starting with the Three Fantasy Pieces of 1898 – written when the composer was just 16 years old – and ending in 1947 with seven austere, Webern-like miniatures.

It is in the early pieces that we glimpse a refined era of waltzes and foxtrots, elegantly wrought with an audible fondness for the Austro-Hungarian imperial ballroom. Schnabel’s Dance Suite of 1920/21 is beguiling in its invitational charm and expressivity; quirky and yet intriguing in a slightly mangled mode. How delighted his audiences might have been, after hearing him stride through late Beethoven piano sonatas in recital, to finish the evening with encores of the pianist-composer’s own! The Sonata of 1923 probes a darker, dissonant world. Shadowy spectres of Charles Ives seem to rush in at the resolute opening. Now far off from waltzes-of-old, Schnabel’s oeuvre can proclaim a newfound dimension.

Jenny Lin is a contemporary titan of the keyboard, already boasting an impressive discography. This latest addition only reaffirms her bravery and fierce commitment to all things new and different. Possessing a truly unique pianistic skill set, Lin manages the character and style of old Europe remarkably well in this recording, considering how distant Schnabel’s music sits from the sights and sounds of 2019.

Lin’s singular devotion to Germanic literature, (she has an undergraduate degree in the subject), must come to bear when interpreting these pieces. There’s a lingua franca here that few artists of today would comprehend and, moreover, command with such conviction. Not many could pull off a feat of one such disc, let alone two. Such accomplishment urges the question: what will she tackle next?

Adam Sherkin

 

05 Stefan WolpeStefan Wolpe Volume 8 – Music for Two Pianos
Quattro Mani
Bridge Records 9516 (bridgerecords.com)

German, Jew, Communist, American, activist, modernist and eminent teacher, composer Stefan Wolpe and his impressive catalogue of works should probably be better known today. Volume Eight from Bridge Records’ projected complete recordings forms the most recent release to date, featuring Wolpe’s music for two pianos.

This disc runs the gamut of styles, presenting Wolpe’s stern and structured March and Variations and Two Studies on Basic Rows, (both from the 1930s). These works are punctuated by the Ballet Suite in Two Movements: The Man from Midian, (1942) which is filled with rousing populist gestures and extramusical inspiration. These two extremes of Wolpe’s art – aptly represented and admirably executed by pianists Steven Beck and Susan Grace of Quattro Mani – lend themselves well to the dual keyboard medium.

The most arresting and remarkable work on the record, Two Studies on Basic Rows, is delivered with analytical focus and an informed musical intelligence. The complexity of the Passacaglia, (the final track on the album), is so well conceived that the brightness and fury at the heart of Wolpe’s art can distinctly shine through.

The Man from Midian ballet suite serves as a welcome bit of fun – nearly 30 minutes in length – that takes the listener on a kind of mid-century musical romp through various styles, political commentary and Judaic narrative, all channelled via the mind of a relatively unknown 20th-century composer who just might have something important to tell us in our 21st-century reality.

Adam Sherkin

02 Schone MullerinSchubert – Die Schöne Mullerin
Thomas Meglioranza; Reiko Uchida
Independent 004 (meglioranza.com)

Thomas Meglioranza is a young American baritone with an impressive background of recitals, oratorio singing, even opera, and together with California pianist Reiko Uchida has formed a duo mainly for lieder recitals. To date they have issued three recordings with considerable success and international acclaim. This new disc of Die Schöne Müllerin is their fourth recording and comes with a recommendation from the legendary Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau praising their “healthy and beautiful sounding way of performing these difficult songs”.

The selection of the piano was of paramount importance as Meglioranza’s personal preference for this cycle was an early keyboard sound. After much research and deliberation the final choice was a Zierer, a Viennese fortepiano from 1829 that had a “rustic twang” and a lovely, crisp and non-intrusive tone.

The Schöne Müllerin is a particular favourite of mine being the most melodious, very emotional and probably the happiest of all of Schubert’s cycles. My first acquaintance with it was hearing the song Wohin? (Where to?) as a child and it made a tremendous impression on me. The story is very romantic: boy gets girl, boy loses girl. The water motive runs through the entire cycle; the brook (lieber bächlein) becomes a friend and confidante of the young man and some of the most beautiful songs are dialogues with the brook (e.g Die Neugerige and Der Müller und der Bach). My favorite moment is in the song Ungeduld where the young lover sings his heart out, declaring Dein ist mein Herz in glorious fortissimo, that’s certainly understood by anyone who has ever been in love!

Meglioranza’s fine baritone, intelligent singing and impeccable German diction, thoroughly inside the poetry, with sympathetic and stylish accompaniment by Ms. Uchida, does deserve Fischer Dieskau’s praise and mine too.

03 DonizettiDonizetti – Il Castello di Kenilworth
Pratt; Remigio; Anduaga; Pop; Orchestra/Coro Donizetti Opera; Riccardo Frizza
Dynamic 37834 (naxosdirect.com)

A double rarity: an all-but-forgotten opera and a non-updated production – the Tudor-era costumes actually reflect the period of the opera’s events. Andrea Leone Totolla’s libretto, derived from Walter Scott’s novel Kenilworth, pits the Earl of Leicester’s love for his secret wife, Amelia, against his ambition to gain the throne by exploiting Queen Elizabeth’s love for him. When Elizabeth arrives at his castle, Leicester has his squire, Warney, confine Amelia in a remote room. Warney professes his love for Amelia; spurned, he plots her death.

Leicester’s and Warney’s separate schemes begin to unravel when Amelia manages to escape and encounters Elizabeth (foreshadowing the confrontation of Mary and Elizabeth in Maria Stuarda). All four principals, together, then express their anguish at the sudden turn of events. Unlike Scott’s novel, in which Warney kills Amelia, and unlike Donizetti’s other Tudor operas, this one eventually ends happily. Warney’s murder attempt is foiled; Leicester’s love for Amelia leads him to confess his deception to Elizabeth; she forgives him and blesses his marriage.

This production from the 2018 Donizetti Festival in Bergamo, Donizetti’s home town, features a bare-bones set, minimal props and no scenic backdrops, all on a postage-stamp-sized stage. What makes it very worth watching is Donizetti’s melody-drenched, rhythmically energized score, ably sung by sopranos Jessica Pratt (Elizabeth) and Carmela Remigio (Amelia), and tenors Xabier Anduago (Leicester) and Stefan Pop (Warney). The Donizetti Opera Chorus and Orchestra are energized, too; bravo to conductor Riccardo Frizza.

04 As OneLaura Kaminsky – As One
Sasha Cooke; Kelly Markgraf; Fry Street Quartet
Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0127 (brightshiny.ninja)

In the five years since As One was premiered, it has been performed, apparently, more frequently than any other new opera in North America (though it has yet to reach Toronto). No surprise there, judging by this recording. For one thing, it’s timely, following the journey of a young woman, Hannah, as she transitions from male to female. It’s concise, just 75 minutes long. The cast is minimal – two singers, a string quartet and a conductor. The music is alluring, if unprovocative, ranging from lyrical to sharp-edged, and the libretto is at once poetic and hard-hitting.

The role of Hannah is split between Hannah before, a baritone, and Hannah after, a mezzo-soprano. Both sing throughout, an inspired twist which allows composer Laura Kaminsky and librettists Kimberly Reed (whose real-life story this is) and Mark Campbell to present Hannah’s transition as an ongoing process.

This recording, the first of the complete opera, assembles the terrific musicians from the original production. Kelly Markgraff is endearingly open-hearted as Hannah before, and Sasha Cooke makes a powerfully convincing Hannah after. The Fry Street Quartet responds with irresistible immediacy to Hannah’s fraught challenges. Conductor Steven Osgood effectively balances Hannah’s hard-won moments of tranquility with dramatic urgency.

As One is a deeply moving tale of one rather extraordinary transgender woman’s complicated path to self-discovery, yet its appeal is universal. It will surely resonate profoundly with anyone who has ever grappled with who they are and where they belong.

05 VireoVireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser – An opera by Lisa Bielawa
Various Artists; Lisa Bielawa
Orange Mountain Music OMM7017 (orangemountainmusic.com)

Composer Lisa Bielawa conceived the idea of the young teenage heroine Vireo, who is lost in the world of visionaries, witch hunters, psychiatrists and artists in her auditory and visual hallucinations. Set to the libretto by Erik Ehn, the 12-episode, over-two-hour opera directed by Charles Otte was originally made for television and online viewing. There is no stage here – sets include forests, indoors, a monastery, and even the Alcatraz Prison. The singers and musicians share the action locations equally, all shot by a single camera as the opera weaves almost cryptically from 16th-century-France witchcraft all the way to the present day.

Bielawa’s dense score includes tension-building interval repetitions, nods to minimalism, descending chromatic lines, percussion effects, piano chords and even touches of familiar children’s songs. The Kronos Quartet sets the opening musical stage with violin solo to full quartet to the San Francisco Girls Chorus singing to the clear, beautiful voice of Rowen Sabala as Vireo. Sabala was herself still a teenager performing in this production and her work is amazing, from her troubled gyrations and twitches, interchanges between her mother (Maria Lazarova), Doctor (Gregory Purnhagen), teenage cohort Caroline (Emma MczKenzie), and real/imaginary witches. Though too numerous to mention, all the singers and musicians perform and look convincing.

Highlights include piano clunks as the Doctor moves his scary, lengthy medicinal needle towards Vireo; the piccolo making bird sounds sets the stage as the action moves back in time in Beginner: The Cow Song segment, though distressing, breaks into humour as a hilarious horn band performs in front of a cow while the others grab a grilled meal. Up to nine identical frames at once visually build the girls’ tensions in Boarding School. Sharp bright and dark lighting, atonal music, and hurdy-gurdy solo in Alcatraz build tension and grief. Orchestra members dressed in lab coats and characters in circus costumes fuel the busy Circus, featuring a successful stereotypical Queen-of-Sweden operatic performance by Deborah Voigt until the calming final solo departure of Vireo into the forest in My Name is Vireo.

The libretto is shown on the DVD yet the clear CD production makes understanding words with music manageable. Whether one watches the DVD film or listens to the CD, the detailed intense magic of music, sound, and visuals are uniquely compelling, troubling and entertaining! Everyone involved in the production and performances deserves a standing ovation.

01 Bach Trio Sonata ProjectJohann Sebastian Bach – The Trio Sonata Project
Tripla Concordia
Arcana A114 (naxosdirect.com)

What would Bach think? It’s the question with which the recorder virtuoso Walter van Hauwe began his proverbial quest to re-imagine Bach’s sonatas and a partita as if they were written for his instrument. Van Hauwe also takes comfort from the fact that Bach’s contemporary, the composer and writer, Johann Mattheson deemed “the elaboration of an idea” by another composer “does not harm the original inventor” and, one must assume, his original inventions as well.

It is with this in mind that one must approach this wonderfully irreverent music, which is still Bach, but with an iconic twist in articulation and dynamics. While the keyboard remains ubiquitous throughout this repertoire, the viola da gamba has been replaced by a violoncello and both have been embellished by recorders. Most notably, Bach’s basso continuo is replaced, quite ingeniously, by the contrapuntal lines of the bass recorder.

As if by magic, Bach’s original trio sonatas – the C Minor BWV1029, G Major BWV1039 (1027), F Major BWV1028, D Minor BWV527 and the Partita in D Minor BWV997 – are reborn in subtle shifts in colour as the music moves from one key to another. It is a refreshingly forthright and decidedly wide-awake performance on bright-sounding instruments by Tripla Concordia. Tempi tend to be wonderfully brisk and bright changes in the dynamics let the leading recorders do the work with verve, in crisp and buoyant style and vivid articulation.

02 PlattiPlatti – Flute Sonatas, Op.3
Alexa Raine-Wright
Leaf Music LM224 (leaf-music.ca)

There are five outstanding musicians whose contributions to this wonderful recording all deserve recognition. First and foremost, of course, is the Baroque/rococo composer, Giovanni Benedetto Platti (1697-1763), whose six Opus 3 flute sonatas have not, until recently at least, been part of the standard flute repertoire, unlike those by some of his better-known contemporaries. The obscurity of these works, as this recording demonstrates, is due not to any defects but rather to the unavailability of the printed music. The fecundity of Platti’s musical imagination, from joie de vivre to pathos to artfully crafted lyricism is evident throughout the CD.

Then there is, of course, the soloist, Baroque flutist Alexa Raine-Wright, whose playing is full of vivacity, exquisite phrasing, breathtaking virtuosity, definite and confident articulation and all-round sensitivity to the voice of the composer. You know from the first seconds of track one that her first priorities are to be musical, that is, to play the phrases, the musical sentences, so that their meaning can be heard, and to be more than just a soloist but also part of the ensemble.

Her team (Camille Paquette-Roy, Baroque cello, Rona Nadler, harpsichord, Sylvain Bergeron, archlute and Baroque guitar) are worthy collaborators, who, while always keeping a rock-solid steady tempo, seem also able to allow space for rhapsodic freedom to the flute. Worth mentioning too are the several truly exquisite duo moments for flute and cello, as in the first movement of Sonata 4 and the second movement of Sonata 5.

Bravissimi to our musical colleagues in Montreal.

Listen to 'Platti: Flute Sonatas, Op.3' Now in the Listening Room

03 Mozart Last 3 SymphoniesMozart – The Three Last Symphonies
Ensemble Appassionato; Mathieu Herzog
Naïve V 5457 (naxosdirect.com)

A contemporary pace of living, especially in the metropolis, must include small pleasures in the form of art. Mozart’s music might be one of those necessary delights in the lives of many. Although there are countless recordings of his works, it is exciting to discover new aspects of Mozart’s music and this recording undoubtedly brings some new thoughts and sounds. I loved the spirited energy and the clear sound on this recording as well as the candour of the interpretations. Playfulness is interwoven with drama and expressed through resonant simplicity of sound – a perfect formula for bringing out the essence of Mozart’s music.

What attracted French conductor Mathieu Herzog to this triptych is the fact that there is a certain mystery surrounding these symphonies – all three were written in the summer of 1788, when things were not looking too bright in Mozart’s life. There is no evidence to suggest any of them were ever performed during the composer’s lifetime and Mozart never again returned to this genre. No.39 and No.41 are warm, expansive and buoyant and No.40 is unusually dark and melancholic. There is a common thread though – all three are powerful masterpieces.

Ensemble Appassionato, founded by Herzog and comprised of leading French musicians, is on fire here – both bows and sparks are flying and the joy of the performance is thrilling. This recording is worth hearing, not because it might be perfect but because it just might surprise you.

04 Berlioz TSOBerlioz – Symphonie fantastique; Tempest Fantasy
Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Sir Andrew Davis
Chandos CHSA 5239 (tso.ca/watch-listen)

Do we really need another Symphony fantastique? Not an unreasonable question. Many more than a few decades ago when the question was asked by a neophyte record producer, “How do you know what to record?,” the experienced answer was “Look through the Schwann Record Catalog, find the most recorded work and make another one.” That proved to be sage advice then.

There are countless recordings of the Symphonie fantastique available now, some outstanding performances and some sonic spectaculars. As far as performance is concerned, this new one is high in the outstanding category. The entire string section is splendid, “singing” immaculately together. The winds are a joy, from serene to bustling. The brass is burnished and the percussion can have fearful presence and power.

Davis’ beat is steady, without being carried away emotionally, and ever true to the score, observing every nuance. I enjoyed it cerebrally as well as viscerally. Sonically, this is what audiophiles dream of. From piccolos to the lowest notes in the basses and thumping bass drum, to articulate strings and winds this is nirvana.

Equally impressing is the Tempest Fantasy with the orchestra and the Mendelssohn Choir in this Berlioz 14-minute showpiece in four parts: Prologue, The Tempest, Action and Dénouement. Those who know their Berlioz will recognize quotations from Lelio: the return to life, the sequel to the Symphonie fantastique.

If one were buying a Fantastique this could very well be it. It stands up to repeated hearings for, as I listened for some passages to critique, there were plenty of positives but no negatives that I heard.

This disc creates a gorgeous reality in an acoustic better than any seat in Roy Thomson Hall where these recordings were made on September 20-22, 2018.

05 DvorakAntonin Dvořák – Piano Quartets Nos.1 & 2
Dvořák Piano Quartet
Supraphon SU 4257-2 (naxosdirect.com)

Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s music, presented here in a piano quartet form, is beautifully brought to life in this capture on Supraphon Records. Featuring the somewhat unusual instrumentation of piano, violin, viola and cello (inspired by both the public’s interest in his work at the time and by Dvořák’s hero Brahms’ employment of the same musical aggregation), the Dvořák Piano Quartet, a current ensemble based in the Czech Republic, performs this music in a thoughtful, and at times playful manner, bringing out, as great classical music and performance will do, the range of human emotion and expression.

A violinist and violist himself, Dvořák’s writing here places a premium on string virtuosity and the accomplished string performers, Štěpán Pražák, Petr Verner and Jan Žďánský, are more than up for the masterful task. While Dvořák is certainly known for his dramatic scope and the power of his fulsome symphonic works, the intimacy of the chamber group context heard here brings out the range of his grand musicianship and empowers listeners towards a quiet reflection of his beautiful musical ideas. This is easy, lyrical music best listened to intently, that combines the beauty of the Western art music tradition in which Dvořák worked so well, with the native folk music influences that the composer so skillfully researched and incorporated into his music. Captured with beautiful clarity and fidelity, this 2018 recording would be a welcome addition to the collections of both Dvořák and chamber music fans alike.

06 Tchaikovsky SixthTchaikovsky – Symphony No.6 “Pathétique”
Berliner Philharmoniker; Kirill Petrenko
Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings BPHR 190261 (berliner-philharmoniker-recordings.com)

Honestly, from the first bar of this performance I really felt aware of hearing the notes of this familiar symphony for the first time. After decades of hearing so many fine enhanced performances interpreted by a parade of esteemed conductors, I know the work well. None ever like this one. The essence of this performance comes from within the score and not from a conductor’s opinion as to what should be added or left out to enhance the composer’s wishes. What we hear here is a performance reflecting and respecting Tchaikovsky’s printed score as it opens out. The interesting aspect of this version with Kirill Petrenko recorded on March 22-23, 2017, one of the first two published recordings from those sessions with his new orchestra, is that, until it is heard, one doesn’t know what such a performance as this evokes. The saying that “you don’t know what you’re missing” is so true here.

No fiddling with the printed page, no shattering fortes nor wrung out tensions imposed by a creative, well-meaning interpreter to improve this perfect score. Petrenko displays a total empathy with the composer, making this debut an excellent choice for both conductor and orchestra.

Credit for this perfect CD/SACD/DSD recording must go to the regular Berlin Philharmonic team, recording producer and editor Christoph Franke and sound engineer René Möller. One could not imagine better sound in whichever mode you are listening. We know exactly who was playing and quite where they sat. Particularly telling are the textures of the just audible opening bassoon and the closing plucked basses. All with no spotlighting or enhancement. Repeated dedicated listening over the last few weeks confirms the first impressions.

07 Rachmaninoff TriosRachmaninoff
Hermitage Piano Trio
Reference Recordings RR-1475ACD (referencerecordings.com)

The Hermitage Piano trio is comprised of three exceptionally talented chamber musicians: violinist Misha Keylin, cellist Sergey Antonov and pianist Ilya Kazantsev. All have enjoyed celebrated solo careers before finding common ground in their shared nationality and uniting to explore and re-present the great Russian musical traditions on the world concert stages of today. Now based out of the United States, the ensemble has just released their debut CD for Reference Recordings, a beautifully performed and recorded capture at Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts of some of the most intricate and dynamic works of the celebrated late Romantic-era Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943).

A conductor, composer and pianist of virtuosic reputation, Rachmaninoff’s music is notoriously difficult to perform, and those musicians who take on his repertoire require a requisite amount of expressive dynamism, musical sophistication and their own instrumental virtuosity. And, like the finest Western art musicians of today, the trio here handles all of this (and more) with ease, expressively and flawlessly traversing the multiple arcs of this timeless and grand music. The iconic Romantic gestures and the endless melodies present within multiple compositional strains and parts (for which Rachmaninoff was celebrated), capture the early 20th-century Russian experience and bring forward an expressive range of both sorrow and joy that demonstrates to listeners what truly great performances of wonderful music are capable of conveying.

Bruckner – Symphony No.6
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin; Robin Ticciati
Linn Records CKD 620 (naxosdirect.com)

Bruckner – Symphonies Nos.6 & 9
Gewandhausorchester; Andris Nelsons
Deutsche Grammophon 483 6859 (deutschegrammophon.com)

08a Bruckner 6Throughout much of the century following his death, Anton Bruckner’s name was routinely paired with that of Gustav Mahler. After all, the external similarities seemed obvious: both were Austrian, both wrote vast symphonies and both needed many years of proselytizing from dedicated interpreters before their music was truly appreciated. Bruckner found his true musical calling when he heard his teacher Otto Kitzler conduct Wagner’s Tannhäuser in Linz. The revelation marked the character of Bruckner’s symphonies, taking a cue from everything Wagner did to break virtually every theoretical rule and create a new music drama.

Bruckner’s epiphany resulted in a series of truly original scores, including the Symphony in D Minor (1963-64), which he later designated No.0, three masses between 1864 and 1868 and his acknowledged Symphonies of considerable density from No. 1 (1865-66) to No. 5 (1875-76).

The Symphony No. 6 in A Major performed by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted here by Robin Ticciati proves to be a lighter, more congenial work than its predecessors – especially No. 5, say the equivalent of Beethoven’s Eighth or Brahms’ Second. Still, far from being flippant, the majestic and deeply profound slow movement, for example, has a depth and eloquence that almost demands an attitude of reverence. Ticciati handles the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester with serene confidence, and both orchestra and conductor revel in the symphony’s joyous climaxes. And there are plenty of moments in the slow movement that afford real poetry. 

08b Bruckner 6 9Andris Nelsons posits – and rightly so – that you could not have Bruckner without Wagner. His December 2018, live recording complements the Bruckner Symphonies 6 and 9 with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll – a work of flawless delicacy – and the deeply reflective Parsifal Prelude Act I. The shorter Wagner pieces that preface each of the two discs appear to have been astutely selected for their lyricism and profound beauty and serve to put one in a meditative space in which prepares one for the respective Bruckner symphonies.

Nelsons’ brilliant performance of the Sixth with the Gewandhausorchester ends in the pure splendour of praise and – especially in the sombre Adagio and the mercurial Scherzo – is a benchmark performance of the symphony; the devotional, awestruck intensity of the work is effectively captured by the recording.

Symphony No.9 is the musical summation of Bruckner’s life, with all of its struggles. It is a monumental work despite being incomplete, and is sometimes said to have a mystical quality, like that of Beethoven’s Ninth. Nelsons’ depth of insight makes for a deeply moving and humbling experience in this incomparable live recording. It is a gaunt, craggy, unforgiving affair, doubtless much as Bruckner intended it should be; a magnificent, chastening and ultimately uplifting musical event.

09 FallaManuel de Falla – El amor brujo; El retablo de Maese Pedro
Fernández; Zetlan; Garza; Garcia; Perspectives Ensemble; Sato Moughalian; Angel Gil-Ordóňez

Naxos 8.573890 (naxosdirect.com)

An interesting new issue presents two of de Falla’s stage works as noted above. I have a sentimental attachment to El amor brujo (Love the Magician). It was the very first thing I ever saw in an opera house at age nine, but it was the ballet version. De Falla adapted the score a few times; the ballet from 1929 is the most often played. This performance however is the original 1915 version, the most complete and original conception performed by a small dedicated group of instrumentalists well suited for a work of this nature.

El amor brujo is actually a one-act zarzuela telling the story of a Roma woman who is haunted by the ghost of her former faithless lover, her struggle to exorcise it and finally be able to love again. It’s a journey from darkness to light, from a night of sorcery and terror to the splendour of a new dawn, with de Falla’s atmospheric, colourful score imbued in Andalusian folk idiom with dances that express the mood of each segment. The vocal lines are either spoken or sung authoritatively by the cantaora, a full-throated flamenco singer, Esperenza Fernandez. Most famous of the dances is the Ritual Fire Dance but all the others, especially the gentle, rollicking Dance of True Love are equally impressive; and the final apotheosis with all bells ringing is simply glorious.

The second work, El retablo de Maese Pedro (Master Peter’s Puppet Show) is somewhat less characteristic. It is a mini-opera based on a chapter of Cervantes’ novel, Don Quixote, and inspired by the age of Charlemagne. The music with “incisive Spanish rhythms and acerbic harmonies” is all skillfully fused with the French impressionism of Debussy and Ravel, de Falla’s main influences. The performances are intense and very authentic.

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