01 Verdis GuitarThere seem to have been several CDs lately featuring outstanding Canadian classical guitarists, and you can add another one to the list with Verdi’s Guitar – Fantasies for Solo Guitar by J. K. Mertz based on operas by Giuseppe Verdi, performed by British Columbia guitarist Alan Rinehart (Ravello RR7975).

Operatic transcriptions were very popular throughout the 19th century in the days before recordings and radio, and were usually made with home performance in mind. These Mertz transcriptions, though, were clearly not aimed at amateurs, gifted or otherwise. The technical challenges of reproducing operatic scores within the limitations of the guitar must have been daunting, but Mertz – an important figure in the development of the Romantic guitar style – produced an Op.8 Opern-Revue that consisted of 34(!!) transcriptions of operas by composers from Adam to Wagner.

The six Verdi transcriptions – all included here – are from Ernani, Rigoletto, Nabucco, Il Trovatore, La Traviata and I Vespri Siciliani. They are delightful fantasia-style works, with familiar arias popping out from time to time: Ernani, involami; Caro nome; Questa o quella; and La donna e mobile.

Rinehart’s playing is clean and stylish throughout, especially in the tremolo passages in Ernani and I Vespri Siciliani, a technique later used to great effect by Francisco Tárrega.

Now, if we could only hear Wagner’s Flying Dutchman

Review

02 Holly BlazinaAnother very interesting Canadian guitar CD is Transcendencia, the debut disc from Alberta flamenco guitarist, Holly Blazina (iTunes; Spotify; hollyblazina.com).

Originally trained as a classical guitarist Blazina has a solid grounding in the traditional flamenco technique and has been composing her own pieces in the genre for more than a decade, workshopping them with noted flamenco masters Paco Fernandez in Seville and Ricardo Diaz in San Francisco. They are in traditional flamenco forms – Alegría, Bulería, Abandolao and Farruca, for instance – and mostly with the traditional accompaniment of male and female voices, palmas and percussion, but often introduce instruments from other musical worlds, such as violin (on three tracks), and saxophone, piano and Persian santur dulcimer (on different single tracks). The result is not so much a mixing of genres as an extension of the flamenco musical style with an added dimension, and it’s very effective.

Blazina’s playing is clean, crisp and idiomatic – especially in Invocación, the solo final track with its excellent tremolo – and the contributions from the nine other musicians fit in seamlessly. A lovely recorded sound adds to a highly entertaining disc.

03 Joel QuarringtonTranscriptions form the entire program of another Canadian CD this month, as bassist Joel Quarrington is back with another recital disc of transcriptions for double bass and piano (his Brothers in Brahms was reviewed here in September 2013), this time in Schubert “AN DIE MUSIK” with pianist David Jalbert (joelquarrington.com).

Although transcriptions served a specific purpose in the pre-gramophone days, making otherwise unavailable music available for home performance, in many instances since then they have served primarily to enlarge the repertoire for certain instrumentations, not always with complete success. Any misgivings you may have in that respect are simply blown away by Quarrington’s playing, however, with his astonishing agility, his sensitivity and delicacy and the warmth and richness of his tonal colour dispelling any lingering doubts. Granted, part of the attraction is listening to him doing the impossible on what is usually considered a large and unwieldy instrument, but his performances go way beyond the novelty attraction – this is pure music-making of the highest order.

The title track is one of seven short pieces here, but the two major works are the “Arpeggione” Sonata in A Minor D821 and the Violin Sonatina in D Major D384. Both are completely satisfying in all respects, with the final Allegro vivace movement of the latter providing a simply dazzling end to the disc.

With the sensitive accompaniment of David Jalbert the CD is an absolute delight, as well as an absolute wonder, from beginning to end.

04 Euclid QuartetThe American Euclid Quartet presents two works separated by almost exactly 100 years on American Quartets, featuring works by Antonín Dvořák and Wynton Marsalis (Afinat Records AR1701).

The Dvořák is the String Quartet No.12 in F Major Op.96, “American,” written during the composer’s three years as director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York and first performed in 1894. The performance here is warm, effusive, vibrant and dynamic.

It seems a long journey from such a completely familiar and frequently heard work to the Marsalis String Quartet No.1 “At the Octoroon Balls,” written at the request of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in 1995, but what a fascinating contrast it presents.

The quartet is named for the legendary 18th- and 19th-century balls in the composer’s native New Orleans, described in the booklet notes as being “…given as a way to facilitate long-term relationships between wealthy White men and usually fair-skinned women of colour.” The work has been called Marsalis’ conscious exploration of the American Creole contradictions and compromises – cultural, social and political – exemplified by life in New Orleans.

It’s a long (almost 45 minutes) but utterly engrossing work of seven sections, the longest of which – at ten minutes – is the astonishing opening Come Long Fiddler for solo violin, recalling, in dazzling fashion, the old Black country dance fiddle tradition. Blues, jazz, African, folk, spiritual and ragtime influences abound in the remaining sections, with simply terrific writing and playing: Mating Calls and Delta Rhythms; Creole Contradanzas; Many Gone; Hellbound Highball; Blue Lights on the Bayou.

Finally, with Rampart St. Row House Rag, here we are at what Dvořák envisioned and encouraged – the use of New World musical material as the basis for classical composition. It makes perfect sense of an apparently diverse program on an outstanding CD.

05a Bach Cello NarrowayThere are another two excellent sets of the cello suites by Johann Sebastian Bach to add to the already extensive list: Six Cello Suites BWV 1007-1012 by the Australian cellist Richard Narroway (Sono Luminus SLE-70010); and Suiten für Violoncello by the Swiss cellist Thomas Demenga (ECM New Series 2530/31).

There are several immediate differences: at the time of the recordings (2015 and 2014 respectively) Narroway was 24, Demenga 59; it’s the first recording of the suites for Narroway, the second for Demenga; Narroway uses a modern cello and bow, Demenga a Baroque bow and gut strings on 18th-century instruments; Narroway plays at modern pitch, Demenga down a full tone.

There are also similarities though: both players are fully aware of early performance issues and have made extensive study of contemporary sources; and both see these works as essentially dance suites, with lively – but not necessarily fast – tempos.

Narroway has a lovely rich sound that never overwhelms, with beautiful phrasing and a fine rhythmic sense that is given room to breathe and expand. It’s all bursting with life and sounds quite effortless.

05b Demenga Bach Six Cello Suites CD bklt Page 01Demenga’s tone can sound a bit tight at times, but again there is freedom in the phrasing and rhythms. On the down side, there is a fair amount of noise from the left-hand fingers hitting the fingerboard. You may or may not find that to be distracting, but it does mean that with Demenga you are frequently aware of the presence of the performer; with Narroway, however, rarely if ever are you aware of anything but the music, and it’s his recordings that I will keep returning to.

06 Danish String QuartetThere’s more immensely satisfying quartet playing on Last Leaf, a recital of Nordic folk tunes all arranged by the Danish String Quartet (ECM New Series 2550). There’s a wide range of sources for the 16 short pieces here, from ancient hymn tunes and medieval ballads to boat songs and traditional dance music. In addition, there are original compositions by two members of the quartet – three by cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin and one by violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen – as well as a polska by Swedish fiddler Eva Sæhter. Sjölin and Sørensen also add the occasional harmonium, piano and glockenspiel and double bass contributions to enrich the sound.

It’s a really lovely collection, beautifully arranged and played. The quartet members say that they “gathered a bunch of amazing tunes and hope you will enjoy what we have done to them.”

Well, consider it job done.

Review

07 Altius ShostakovichDmitri Shostakovich wrote four string quartets in the period 1946-56, years in which his standing with the Soviet regime was still uncertain, so I’m not sure I agree with the statement by the Altius Quartet, on their new CD of Shostakovich String Quartets 7, 8 & 9 (Navona Records NV6125) that these three works, from 1960-64, were written “directly after World War II when art was often oppressed.” By 1960 Stalin had been dead for seven years and the composer’s rehabilitation was well under way.

There is, however, no doubting the quartet’s assertion that these three highly personal works form a triptych, dedicated as they are to the composer’s first (No.7) and third (No.9) wives and ostensibly to the victims of fascism (No.8) including Shostakovich – indeed, his daughter Galina claimed that he originally dedicated it to himself, with the published dedication imposed by Soviet authorities.

There’s a lovely feel to the playing from the outset, from the String Quartet No.7 in F-sharp Minor Op.108 through to the highly positive ending of the String Quartet No.9 in E-flat Major Op.117, but it’s the String Quartet No.8 in C Minor Op.110 that is at the heart of this group, not merely physically but also emotionally. The opening four notes D, E-flat, C and B (or D, S, C, H in German notation) that form the composer’s musical signature reappear in every movement, and the autobiographical nature of the music is constantly underlined by numerous quotations from earlier works.

It’s a committed and moving performance by the Altius, albeit perhaps with not quite the air of utter desolation and despair that some performances wring from the final pages.

08 Martin BoykanThe American composer Martin Boykan, who turned 86 in April, may be a new name to a lot of people, but there is no doubting his pedigree: he studied with Copland, Piston and Hindemith. His output is predominantly in the chamber music realm, which probably makes the new CD Rites of Passage – Chamber Music 1993-2012 (Bridge Records BRIDGE 9483) a fairly representative introduction to his works.

A good deal of American classical music over the past 25 years or so has been unabashedly tonal, but Boykan is clearly not of this persuasion. There’s not a great deal of emotional warmth or purely melodic material, and the absence or ambiguity of tonality together with the often extreme dynamics means that it’s not always easy listening. Still, there’s no doubting that this is a strongly individual and skilled composer fully in control of his structures and material.

The works, recorded between 2011 and 2015 by combinations of ten different players, are: Impromptu for Violin Solo (1993); Sonata #2 for Violin and Piano (2009); Piano Trio #3 “Rites of Passage” (2006); Sonata for Viola and Piano (2012); and Psalm 121 (1997) for mezzo-soprano and string quartet. The violin and viola sonatas were written for the soloists here, Curtis Macomber and Mark Berger respectively.

01 Satie ErardNoriko Ogawa has just released the second volume of her project to record all the solo piano works of Erik Satie, Noriko Ogawa plays Erik Satie (BIS 2225 SACD). Both this disc and Volume I are performed on an 1890 Erard grand piano, an instrument from the period of Satie’s life (1866-1925). The piano maker Erard was noted for numerous innovations in piano design, especially the double escapement action which allowed for rapid note repetition, a feature ever more in demand by composers of the late 19th century. The instrument used in this recording is in remarkably fine condition, sounding well-voiced and mechanically capable of the frequent staccato touch, often at great volume, that Satie requires.

Ogawa’s choice of repertoire for Volume II offers a more esoteric and quirky side of Satie’s personality, the two sets of preludes for flabby dogs, Préludes flasques (pour un chien) being a case in point. The Trois sarabandes are untitled early works, although the second of the three is dedicated to Ravel. These are surprisingly forward-looking, with a feel that occasionally evokes a modern jazz club. Sports et divertissements is a catalogue of 21 social pastimes, often quite comical, and each requiring less than a minute to play.

Ogawa has a very credible understanding of French music of this period, although Satie admittedly sits comfortably outside the mainstream. Still, her previous recordings of the complete piano works of Claude Debussy reveal a studious and comprehensive approach that offers a convincingly genuine feel to her interpretation of Satie’s music.

02 GodowskyEmanuele Delucchi is a young Italian pianist with extraordinary technical ability. His recording Godowsky Studies on Chopin Op.10 (Piano Classics PCL0122) is a rare opportunity to hear this unusual repertoire. Godowsky claimed his studies were equally appropriate for public concert as well as private playing. The music is always immediately recognizable as Chopin, but Godowsky has taken the material and recomposed it as a series of studies for aspiring players. They are devilishly difficult and intentionally so. Many are written for left hand alone and just one is for a solo right hand.

Godowsky takes Chopin’s main thematic material and moves it around, often from one hand to the other, meanwhile creating Chopin-style cascades of other figures around it. Some of these transcriptions are quite strict, others freer, and still others structured as cantus firmus and variation versions. It’s altogether quite an experiment and in its day would have sparked a debate about originality and legitimacy. Anticipating this, Godowsky was careful to include introductory remarks in his publication to clarify his aims. Essentially, he believed that pianists, composers and piano builders had more evolutionary potential to realize. Hence, the Herculean challenge.

Despite all the muscle and stamina, Godowsky’s music is not without its beauty. Chopin’s genius remains intact, both musically and technically. Delucchi ensures that technique is never glorified at the expense of art. He plays a beautifully restored 1906 Steinway, from Godowsky’s day.

03 Piano at Ballet 2Known as “Tony” to his friends, British pianist Anthony Goldstone passed away early this year (2017) and was unable to see his last CD released. A superb pianist equally appreciated as a soloist as well as half of the Goldstone and Clemmow Duo, his final recording, The Piano at the Ballet Volume II - The French Connection (Divine Art dda 25148) is dedicated to his memory.

Goldstone delighted in transcriptions and recorded several featuring music from opera and ballet. This disc is the conclusion of the latter project and uses French composers as the thematic link. Most of the pieces are world premiere recordings, transcribed by various others, although the notes admit that Goldstone made a few improvements along the way.

Goldstone’s playing at age 72 is simply incredible. Speed, reach, accuracy and, above all, unerring musicality mark every transcription he performs. The music tends, understandably, to be extremely athletic and Goldstone’s level of sustained energy is impressive. The finales of Poulenc’s Les Biches and Maurice Thiriet’s L’Oeuf à la coque are fine examples of this. He also captures the grandness of the orchestral score in these transcriptions. Claude Debussy’s Printemps (Suite Symphonique) is the best example of this, with its great washes of sound that conclude the second movement.

04 Ivan IlicReicha Rediscovered Vol.1 (Chandos CHAN 10950) is the promising launch of a series that will see pianist Ivan Ilić record the largely unheard solo piano works of a composer better known for his wind ensemble pieces. A contemporary of Beethoven, Reicha was highly educated and musically intelligent. A number of his later theoretical and philosophical treatises were translated for major European music circles.

The challenge for Ilić is to find and integrate the unique features of Reicha’s language into his playing. The modern ear hears Reicha and understandably recognizes some Haydn, some Mozart and occasional tempestuous bursts of a young firebrand named Beethoven. But the new ground Reicha was breaking was harmonic. The disc contains three pieces from Reicha’s collection titled Practische Beispiele. Ilić encounters each of the composer’s adventurous modulations and plays through them with confidence that pianists of Reicha’s day might well have lacked.

Other tracks include a wonderful set of variations on a theme from Mozart’s The Magic Flute and a substantial mid-career Grande Sonate in C Major that reveals a composer struggling to be free of classical forms. The following volumes by Ilić look promising indeed.

Review

05 Eliane RodriguesBrazilian pianist Eliane Rodrigues has recorded the 21 Nocturnes by Chopin on her newest disc Frédéric Chopin – Notturno (Navona Records NV6123). The two-disc set also includes the Ballades No.1 in G Mino, Op.23 and No.4 in F Minor, Op.52.

Rodrigues teaches at the Royal Conservatoire in Antwerp, performs frequently and has more than 25 recordings in her discography. She traces her Chopin connection to her earliest years at the keyboard playing the Waltzes and Mazurkas. But her affection for the Nocturnes is more than wistful nostalgia. A passing reference in her notes suggests a very deep and personal experience made the sadness and melancholy of the Nocturnes profoundly meaningful to her. As if to underscore this, she uses quotations from a fictitious Chopin diary to capture the mood of each Nocturne.

The playing, however, is the proof of her ownership. Entirely consistent and sustained throughout both discs, her interpretations never stray from the beauty and tenderness that Chopin poured into these pieces. Rodrigues never rushes anything. Arching phrases, ornaments and grace notes are all critical to completing the composer’s every utterance, and she gives each one the time it needs to unfold. It’s an arresting and beautiful performance.

06 KartvelishviliKetevan Kartvelishvili is a power pianist. The title of her new recording The Chase – Liszt, Bartók, Prokofviev (Blue Griffin BGR 437) says it all. Using the title of the final movement from Bartók’s Out of Doors Sz.81 BB89, Kartvelishvili establishes an ethos for this remarkable disc by demonstrating her formidable technique through this relentless onslaught of musical passion. It’s not surprising that Bartók used this piece in his rather dark ballet The Miraculous Mandarin.

Kartvelishvili opens her CD with Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No.1 S514. She takes this at a blistering speed without ever losing momentum or intensity. Her performance of the Liszt Sonata in B Minor S178 is marvellous. By this point her technical skills are beyond question and what emerges is the tenderness Liszt requires to withdraw into his crucial moments of repose. Even at the sonata’s conclusion, those final measures are powerfully hesitant and highly effective.

Prokofiev’s Sonata No.7 in B Flat Major, Op.83 concludes the disc. It’s the second of his three “War Sonatas” and is sometimes called the “Stalingrad.” The outer movements are violent and destructive and leave no doubt about the work’s origin in 1942 Soviet Russia. The middle movement offers Kartvelishvili another opportunity to reveal the depth of her musicality. With an allusion to a Schumann lied, the movement is fairly withdrawn until she builds it to a near climax in the second half before returning to a quiet ending.

Kartvelishvili plays with both impressive might and tender conviction.

07 dont push pianoFlorian Wittenburg is a German-born contemporary composer. He is active throughout Europe but his academic and early career years were spent in the Netherlands. Don’t Push the Piano Around (NurNichtNur 117 01 26) is his latest disc and it adds to an already substantial discography and body of works. Pianist Sebastiaan Oosthout performs on this disc and reveals a strong affinity for Wittenberg’s music. Wittenberg is highly creative and takes his artistic inspiration from everything around him. As a composer, he revels in playing with patterns and sequences. Whether animal sounds, words, or the spelling of a name, Wittenberg is quick to place his subject into changing structures where he plays with progressions and variants.

Oosthout’s grasp of Wittenberg’s language gives him access to the deep emotion of the music, especially in several of the Quotes. Litany for one pianist is particularly effective as a thoughtful and searching work, in which Oosthout is required to whistle along with a few specific notes he plays. But the most captivating of Wittenberg’s works on this disc is the opening track Eagle prayer. It’s based on the call of an African fish eagle, notated and harmonized in a highly engaging and creative way. This is an intriguing recording worth hearing.

08 Russian Four HandsIt’s uniquely gratifying to hear the work of piano duos when they have performed together for many years. Peter Hill and Benjamin Frith have been crafting their sound for more than three decades into an impressive single voice. Their newest recording, Russian Works for Piano Four Hands (Delphian DCD 34191) is an example of how remarkable the combination of such talents can become. They have moved far beyond simply playing together and evolved a unified conception of making music.

This disc presents the music of three composers for whom folk music played an inspirational role. While Rachmaninov’s Six morceaux Op.11 quotes no folk material, it’s written in a style that recalls the dance and energy of folk traditions. Rachmaninov was just 21 but his writing already shows the now-familiar ability to think in large-scale terms. He uses the entire range of the keyboard without hesitation and draws on its dynamic power, amplified under the hands of two players. Hill and Frith are superb in meeting the contrasting demands of this piece, from the gentlest moments of the Romance to the magnificent ending of Slava.

The selections from Tchaikovsky’s Fifty Russian Folk Songs quote directly from folk material, although much of it very briefly; there is, however, no mistaking the focus that Hill and Frith bring to this work. Their touch and tone are wonderfully connected to the often dark modal nature of the melodies.

Stravinsky’s Petrushka is brilliantly played throughout. Flawless execution is matched by complete immersion in the music. The piano duo delivers the Russian Dance with all the wild energy it requires and Petrushka’s Death with the contrasting gravitas the composer intended. Hill and Frith are true masters of their art. clip_image009.png

01 Rossini William TellRossini – William Tell
Gerald Finley; Malin Byström; John Osborn; Royal Opera Hous; Antonio Pappano
Opus Arte OA 1205 D

I first heard William Tell in the spring of 1972, in Florence. That production was billed as the first complete performance since the 1830s. It was clear where a major problem lay. The principal tenor role is long, loud and high. Nicolai Gedda, who was Arnoldo in 1972, had totally lost his voice by the last act.

Since then performances have become more frequent (in Toronto we recently heard a concert performance by the Turin opera) and singers are more able to cope with the demands that their roles impose. It is also notable that, whereas the 1972 performance had been in Italian, companies are now giving it in French, the language in which William Tell was composed.

John Osborn has no trouble with the notorious tenor part, while Gerald Finley is magnificent in the title role. A blot on the 1972 performance was the soprano who sang Mathilde, the Habsburg princess. Malin Byström is much better but her high notes are shrill and unpleasant. There are good performances from Eric Halfvarson as the patriarch Melcthal, from Sofia Fomina in the travesti role of Tell’s son and from “our own” Michael Colvin as a very unpleasant army commander.

The DVDs come with a booklet and an interesting essay by Jonathan White, who argues convincingly that the opera is primarily about the occupation of the land and the enslavement of its citizens. That emphasis finds physical expression in a prominently displayed uprooted tree, an emphasis that is reinforced by the excellent chorus.

02 Laitman Scarlett LetterLori Laitman – The Scarlet Letter
Claycomb; Armstrong; MacKenzie; Belcher; Knapp; Gawrysiak; Opera Colorado; Ari Pelto
Naxos 8.669034-35

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic American novel, abridged into libretto form by David Mason, premiered in 2016 as a two-act opera composed by Lori Laitman. Strict and stifling moral codes in a c.1600 Puritan community result in the punishment of young Hester Prynne and torment the secret father of her child, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, as well as her long-lost husband (now returned under an assumed name). Operatic fodder indeed, but strangely juxtaposed with a rather dismal and restrictive setting.

Laitman’s challenge as a composer to reconcile the two is an interesting conundrum. She does indeed provide highly dramatic moments, such as the crowd’s raging at Prynne and the taunting of Dimmesdale by Mistress Hibbons, the town witch (sung by the formidable mezzo Margaret Gawrysiak). As Dimmesdale, tenor Dominic Armstrong’s talents are showcased with long, dramatic episodes of hysteria and guilt. Also remarkable is baritone Malcolm MacKenzie, as the husband bent on revenge. Prynne, on the other hand, proving to be much more stalwart of character, is given a much calmer, gentler musical portrayal. Soprano Laura Claycomb shines in the lullaby sung to daughter Pearl; as a singer, she manages some amazingly high notes without ever sacrificing Prynne’s aura of tenderness. The Opera Colorado Chorus does an excellent job standing in judgement of all. An interesting project indeed and well executed.

03 Thousands of MilesThousands of Miles
Kate Lindsey; Baptiste Trotignon
Alpha Classics ALPHA 272 (alpha-classics.com)

Kurt Weill may be correctly described as a misunderstood genius. He was very serious about his music, yet was (and still is by many) dismissed as a “cabaret composer.” Despite the success of his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht, these works were banned in Nazi Germany and took the better part of the 1970s to reclaim their place in the repertoire. Similarly, his American works (One Touch of Venus, Street Scene, Lost in the Stars) were judged to be “not American enough” and not sufficiently “jazzy.” Here is a pairing of two artists to put both of these myths to well-deserved rest.

Kate Lindsey, a classically trained mezzo, takes on Weill as if his works were more traditional German and Austrian lieder. In fact, when intermingled with songs by Alma Mahler, Erich Korngold and Alexander von Zemlinsky, the interpretative point is beautifully made. On the other hand, jazz pianist Baptiste Trotignon eschews often sketchy and reliably non-Weill arrangements and reductions and instead interprets the melodies in the best jazz tradition. The result is as fresh and surprising as you would expect: Weill the classical composer, and Weill the Gershwin rival! Although for many of us it may be hard to get the voice of Lotte Lenya out of our heads, the genius of Weill demands no less than that.

05 O Gladsome LightO Gladsome Light
Lawrence Wiliford; Marie Bérard; Keith Hamm; Steven Philcox
Stone Records 506019278065 (stonerecords.co.uk)

That tenor Lawrence Wiliford’s voice is perfectly suited to English repertoire is clearly illustrated on this recording. In songs and hymns by Gustav Holst, his lesser-known student Edmund Rubbra and contemporary Ralph Vaughan Williams, Wiliford displays his gift for expressiveness, sensitivity to text and challengingly high tessitura. These qualities were assimilated through his experiences singing in the church since boyhood, roles in Canadian Opera Company productions and as co-founder of the Canadian Art Song Project along with pianist Steven Philcox (who also accompanies beautifully on this recording).

Because Rubbra is relatively unknown, we are grateful for the singer’s inclusion of transcendent modal songs such as The Mystery and Rosa Mundi as well as Meditations on a Byzantine Hymn for solo viola played sublimely by Keith Hamm and Variations on a Phrygian Theme for solo violin on which Marie Bérard displays her signature sweetness of tone. (Both Hamm and Bérard are members of the COC orchestra.) Also of note from Rubbra is Hymn to the Virgin and Jesukin. Upon first hearing, I spent several minutes searching through liner notes for the name of the harpist. In fact, Rubbra had cleverly composed his accompaniment by the use of spread piano chords, resulting in a “harp-like rendition” played so rockingly gentle by Philcox that one is easily lulled and thus bewildered, but happily so.

06 Donizetti FavoritaDonizetti – La Favorite
Elīna Garanča; Bayerische Staatsoper; Karel Mark Chichon
Deutsche Grammophon 073 5358 

This is indeed a superlative performance from Munich, to be remembered for a long time to come. It brings out all the glory that lay partly dormant in past performances, although the opera did well for the last 177 years since first performed in Paris with great success. This new production perhaps wouldn’t have happened without Elīna Garanča’s keen interest in the project; the role seems written for her and she even brought along her husband Karel Mark Chichon to conduct as if the score was written for him. A happy situation, as there is a symbiotic relationship here; the two inspire each other and it sparkles like electricity in the air.

The great mezzo towers over everything, vocally, artistically and even physically with tremendous vocal and emotional range and an incredible commitment to the character she plays. Léonor de Guzman is a beautiful woman literally enslaved by the King of Castile in 14th-century Spain, trying to break out by finding true love with a young man, only to be outwitted by the King, losing everything including her life. No less memorable are the men: American lyric tenor Matthew Polenzani, as Fernand the hapless lover, is glorious in his passionate love for Léonor and displays magnificent emotional and vocal fireworks in his grand scene at the third act finale when he finds out he’s been cheated by marrying the King’s mistress. Internationally famous Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien is perfectly cast as the charming, but utterly ruthless, powerful monarch who, also infatuated with Léonor but having to give her up, is thirsty for revenge.

Talented director Amélie Niermeyer has a well-thought-out konzept definitely centring on the woman. Sets are minimal but powerful and create intimacy as well as religious fervour, not to mention space and grandeur that works so well that it even invokes the Grand Opera in Paris.

Serenade
Thomas Hampson; Maciej Pikulski
Pentatone PTC 5186 681 (pentatonemusic.com)

Dominick Argento – The Adree Expidition
Brian Mulligan; Timothy Long
Naxos 8.559828 (brian-mulligan.com)

07a Thomas HampsonPoor baritone – the undisputed “viola of voices.” You see, among orchestral instruments, the violas get no respect. All the best jokes about musical instruments start with something like this: “What do you call 100 violas at the bottom of the ocean….” Seemingly, baritones get the same dismissive treatment. You’ve heard the Three Tenors, you know of the Celtic Tenors. There are superstar sopranos, diva sopranos – even an occasional mezzo star (Magdalena Kožená, Frederica von Stade and many others). But when, oh when, have you heard about a baritone superstar? A part of this neglect is rooted in the repertoire – baritones are usually the villains, scoundrels, humourless fathers or sour priests. But the true mystery to me is why a baritone (one of the loveliest voices you are likely to hear, and for me THE best voice for chanson, lieder and any other voice-and-piano music) has never reached the levels of adoration that other voices have.

07b Dominick ArgentoHere to prove my point, two gentlemen poles apart in their careers. Thomas Hampson, arguably the “old guard” baritone, with several decades, and some 170 CDs to his name, is pitted against Brian Mulligan, a young and already accomplished graduate of the Juilliard School, here making his recording debut. Even their choice of music underlines the elegant divergence in their approaches: Hampson recorded his first record exclusively dedicated to French songs by opera composers, while Mulligan chose new vocal works by the American, Dominick Argento. Both are passionate, lyrical, thoughtful singers. Both fully understand the works they sing – no empty sound-making typical of some sopranos here. Both have the benefit of intelligent accompaniment by great piano players: Hampson with the phenomenal Maciej Pikulski, and Mulligan with the equally redoubtable Timothy Long. So maybe the recording quality will give one of them an edge? Alas, the PentaTone transparent recording is matched here by the more present Naxos studio job – both excellent. So the contest is a complete draw, as both singers are wonderful, unabashed, triumphant and resounding baritones!

The king of voices (in my small universe) proves again its power and beauty, showcased by both a seasoned and a novice singer, delivering the most satisfying vocal music of the past and the present and leaving the listener with an urgent need to hear more. Now, about those violas…

08 Aldridge Sister CarrieRobert Aldridge – Sister Carrie
Zabala; Phares; Morgan; Jordheim; Cunningham; Florentine Opera Chorus; Florentine Opera Company; Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra; William Boggs
Naxos 8.669039-40

Moby-Dick, The Grapes of Wrath, Little Women, The Scarlet Letter… The list of new operas based on classic American novels keeps growing. In 2012, the Naxos recording of Robert Aldridge’s Elmer Gantry, with a libretto by Herschel Garfein, won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. That same year, Aldridge and Garfein completed Sister Carrie, based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel. It was premiered and recorded in 2016 by Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera Company.

It’s 1900. Carrie (mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala) leaves her job in a Chicago shoe factory, becoming the mistress of salesman Charlie Drouet (tenor Matt Morgan). Besotted with her, restaurant manager George Hurstwood (baritone Keith Phares) steals $10,000 from the restaurant safe, abandons his wife and children, and tricks Carrie into joining him on a train to New York.

Tracked down, Hurstwood avoids prosecution by returning $7,000, promising to repay the balance. Suddenly impoverished, he becomes depressed and reclusive. Carrie leaves him, finding work as an operetta chorister (the dress-rehearsal scene is hilarious). Hurstwood, unemployed and homeless, is severely beaten leading homeless replacement-workers during a labour strike. The opera ends with a chorus of homeless men, Hurstwood’s suicide and Carrie, now a star, singing in the operetta production-number, Why I’m Single.

Naxos describes Aldridge’s two-and-a-half-hour score as “richly melodic and unapologetically tonal.” Drawing upon the energy and bright colours of Broadway musicals (although a darker palette would have been more appropriate), Sister Carrie succeeds as very accessible, highly theatrical entertainment.

01 Beethoven Trios 260Beethoven: Piano Trios Vol.5 – “Archduke” Trio, Kakadu Variations
Xyrion Trio
Naxos 8.572343

Just like the Emperor Concerto, Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B-flat, Op.97 is also aptly named. Apart from Archduke Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria to whom it was dedicated, it is also the grandest, most noble of the six works in this genre, a real Archduke of trios. It has an unforgettably beautiful opening theme that Beethoven breaks down into small fragments with ever-changing instrumental combinations and moods so they become sources of further surprises. My love affair with it began in my youth after hearing the legendary Cortot/Thibaud/Casals recording on EMI; it reverberated in me so much that I resisted listening to any later version. Until now that is, when I came across this new recording by three young women from Germany who have recorded all of Beethoven’s trios as their debut with Naxos, winning some prestigious prizes and world acclaim thereafter.

I was immediately surprised by the upbeat tempo, a bit faster than I remembered, and quite taken by the youthful, exuberant and fresh spirit, where the strong personalities and virtuosity of the individual artists add a new insight, achieving a “vibrant and glowing” (Fono Forum) and intense performance.

The Archduke Trio is flanked by two lesser works. First is the earlier (1803) Kakadu Variations, where Beethoven’s sense of humour is evident with its long, gloomy slow G-minor introduction that abruptly bursts into a popular ditty and a set of bravura variations. At one point one can even hear the kakadu (cockatoo) shrieking on the violin. The even earlier Trio in E-flat Major, WoO 38 from 1790 closes and adds further richness to this delightful recording.

Programs 13 & 14; Programs 15 & 16
All-Star Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz
Naxos 2.110561 and 2.110562

02a All Star 13 14It’s been three years now since the American conductor Gerard Schwarz embarked on an ambitious project: assemble 95 leading musicians from top orchestras across 22 states and record an annual series of concerts without an audience over a brief four-day period using high-definition video cameras. The undertaking has garnered considerable critical acclaim, and since 2014, the All-Star Orchestra has made a significant name for itself both through television performances on PBS and WNET and by means of a series of DVDs on the Naxos label. The recording sessions made during the third season have been captured on two DVDs – programs 13/14 and 15/16 respectively – and together they present eclectic programs of music from the late Romantic period to the 20th century.

The first of these, subtitled “Russian Treasures” and “Northern Lights,” features Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, excerpts from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet and the Symphony No.2 by Jean Sibelius. Prior to each performance, Schwarz provides an informal commentary, while various members of the orchestra offer their thoughts on the music as well, all of which makes for an engaging personal touch – and the myriad of effective camera angles throughout gives the ensemble a strong sense of presence. The performances of all three works are uniformly excellent. The individual movements from Pictures are finely crafted, while the familiar segments from the ballet – Capulets and Montagues, Portrait of the Young Juliet, Minuet and Death of Tybalt, are in no small way aided by the warm strings, a full and well-rounded brass section and woodwinds with impeccable clarity. Sibelius’ grand and expansive symphony from 1902 is treated with much aplomb, from the gentle opening movement to the jubilant finale.

02b All Star 15 16Programs 15 and 16 take the viewer from Northern Europe to England and America of the 19th and 20th centuries. “British Enigmas” presents Elgar’s noble and dignified Enigma Variations and Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Less well known are the ethereal Symphony No.2Mysterious Mountain” by American composer Alan Hovhaness and the Jubilee Variations, a collaborative work by English composer Eugene Goossens and ten American composer friends. The final movement of the variations, written by Goossens himself, is a true tour de force requiring the ensemble to pull out all the stops, thus bringing the work – and the DVD – to a fitting conclusion. The viewer is left almost wishing there was a live audience present to offer a round of well-deserved applause!

So to Gerard Schwarz and the ASO, a big bravo – here’s hoping this ambitious undertaking will be around for many years to come, bringing fine music-making to home audiences around the world.

03 Tchaikovsky ManfredThe Tchaikovsky Project – Manfred Symphony
Czech Philharmonic; Semyon Bychkov
Decca 483 2320

This CD is the second release in Decca Classics’ orchestral Tchaikovsky Project that features the Czech Philharmonic and conductor Semyon Bychkov. For a lonely Romantic symphony needing advocacy, this loving version of the much-criticized Manfred Symphony (1886) is the answer. An hour long and very difficult, the work here receives extraordinary endorsements in both performance and program notes. In the Lento lugubre movement, action begins with Manfred’s gloomy descending theme in B-minor, a key associated with tragedy (as in Swan Lake). The drama is well-paced, with the orchestra holding nothing back. The music of Manfred’s beloved Astarte is an abrupt contrast, delicate strings in delightful interplay with enticing woodwinds. But the mood is temporary; through a controlled build-up, brass forceful but not blaring, Bychkov ushers in her climactic death.

In the accompanying booklet, Bychkov’s rebuttals to criticisms of repetitiveness and episodic structure emphasize the work as drama. While he compares it to opera I think of ballet, for example in the light-on-its-feet second movement where grieving Manfred spots a water spirit; tremendously fast woodwind runs precede strings of supernatural virtuosity. In the following movement the ländler’s dance rhythm along with instrumental drones portray the Alpine people’s rustic life, Manfred looking on sadly. The Czechs’ idiomatic playing makes me want to get up and dance! The orchestra’s energy and aplomb through the bacchanal and ensuing fugue are remarkable, though only in heaven are the lovers reunited. Strongly recommended.

01 Shostakovich Golden AgeShostakovich – The Golden Age
Bolshoi Ballet
BelAir BAC443

A friend and I watched this video of, as we used to call it, The Age of Gold, with neither of us knowing the story nor what they were dancing about. Nevertheless, it was so brilliant that we watched it with delight for quite some time, simply revelling in the joyous and boisterous music while captivated by the goings-on onstage.

Shostakovich had a gift for musical satire, as his opera The Nose exemplifies. This story plays out on the floor of the Golden Age, a restaurant in the south of Russia and a favorite haunt of petty criminals in the 1920s. Interlaced with a floor show in progress at the restaurant, a young girl, Rita, now known as Mademoiselle Margot, is desired both by Boris, a young fisherman and aspiring actor and Jacques, Rita’s dance partner, in reality Yashka, the leader of a local gang of bandits. Inevitably, as in any good melodrama, eventually someone is stabbed to death. The librettist and choreographer is the legendary Yuri Grigorovich, well known and adored in ballet circles. Thanks to Shostakovich and Grigorovich the action is vibrant and non-stop. There are a few familiar tunes, including the Polka and Tea for Two. For those in the know, the principal dancers are Nina Kaptsova (Rita), Ruslan Skvortsov (Boris), Mikhail Lobukhin (Yashka), Ekaterina Krysanova (Lyuska, Yashka’s accomplice) and Vyacheslav Lopatin (variety show compere at the Golden Age). The high-definition video is, as expected, breathtakingly real, as is the usual astonishing virtuosity of the Bolshoi orchestra as heard in earlier releases.  For fans of Shostakovich and/or Grigorovich this is a self-recommending must-have.

As we are getting to that time of year, here are two apropos serious gift suggestions: The Great Bolshoi Ballets: four Blu-ray discs in one package – Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle and The Flames of Paris (BelAir BAC610), breathtaking in every respect; and Shostakovich: The Complete Symphonies & Concertos with Valery Gergiev and the Orchestra and Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre & six soloists (Arthaus Musik 107552, four Blu-ray discs plus hardbound book). These are definitive live performances recorded over the span of a year in the Salle Pleyel in Paris. Unique.

02 Antheil 4 5George Antheil – Symphonies 4 and 5
BBC Philharmonic; John Storgårds
Chandos CHAN 10941

Best remembered for his futuristic Ballet mécanique of 1926, the New Jersey-born pianist and composer George Antheil (1900-1959) was in his youth the darling of the Parisian avant-garde and a rising star of American music. Alas, his attempt to replicate his Parisian acclaim with an ambitious, high-profile American remounting of this work at Carnegie Hall in 1927 was a disaster from which the self-proclaimed “Bad Boy of Music” was slow to recover. His scandalous score (originally conceived for an orchestra of player pianos, percussionists and airplane propeller) was not to be heard again for 60 years. Dejected, the pugnacious, pistol-packing composer eventually found work in Hollywood, where he scored films and worked as a journalist. The patriotic fervour of wartime 1940s America brought him back into the spotlight with a catalogue of works radically more conventional than those of his youth. Antheil’s Symphony No.4 (subtitled “1942”) was broadcast nationwide by Stokowski in 1944 to great acclaim and received numerous subsequent performances. Later Eugene Ormandy would come calling to commission his “Joyous” Symphony No.5 (1948) for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Throughout the 1950s however, the quest for the “Great American Symphony” faded along with Antheil’s career. He died suddenly in 1959 of a heart attack.

The numerous tempo changes noted in the track details to the movements of these two symphonies hint at Antheil’s problematic sectional approach to composition. It is a challenge for any conductor to tie so many mood swings together coherently, a task that Storgårds for the most part achieves, though to my mind Hugh Wolff’s CPO recording of the same symphonies with the Frankfurt RSO from the year 2000 is superior in this regard. Despite the patchwork nature of Antheil’s music there is never a dull moment; the listener, though perhaps a tad confused, will find the music consistently engaging and effectively orchestrated. Surprisingly, despite the self-consciously upbeat all-American profile of these works, both symphonies exhibit strong influences from the leading Soviet composers of the era, notably the obsessive dactylic rhythms of Shostakovich and the harmonic twists of Prokofiev. A bonus track brings us the first recording of Antheil’s Over the Plains (1945), a cinematic evocation of the landscape of Texas. All told, an intriguing and enjoyable album, quite plushly recorded and very keenly played.

03 Facets Cline duoFacets
Cline/Cuestas Duo
Independent (clinecuestasduo.com)

There are many fine flutists in the world these days, and Jenny Cline of the Cline/Cuestas Duo is definitely one of them. She and guitarist Carlos Cuestas have put together a terrific program which combines four substantial contemporary compositions balanced by music from the late 19th and the early- and the mid-20th centuries.

At 15 minutes, Maximo Diego Pujol’s Suite Buenos Aires is the longest of the four contemporary pieces. Composed in 1995, its four movements depict different parts of the city after which it is named. The slow second movement is particularly exquisite, opening with a guitar solo beautifully played by Cuestas, setting up Cline for the heartrending solo which follows. The last movement too, is particularly noteworthy, bristling with excitement and precise teamwork.

Among the earlier compositions are six of Bartók’s Romanian Dances and Enrique Granados’ Danza Española No. 5: Andaluza, from which the duo draws haunting nostalgia for times past in pre-cataclysm Eastern Europe and Spain respectively.

Daniel Dorff’s Serenade to Eve, After Rodin (1999), beginning passionately lyrical and moving to an astonishing virtuosic conclusion, is yet another great addition to the contemporary repertoire for flute and guitar. So too is Gary Schocker’s Silk Worms, music of great refinement commissioned by the duo in 2013 and interpreted here with warmth and conviction.

Credit also goes to Oscar Zambrano, who mastered the recording, for really getting the balance between the two instruments just right. Congratulations to all who were involved for an excellent first CD.

06 Wuorinen Vol 3Charles Wuorinen Vol. 3
loadbang; Anne-Marie McDermott; Group for Contemporary Music; Charles Wuorinen
Bridge Records 9490 (bridgerecords.com)

Among the most prolific of contemporary American composers, the 79-year old Charles Wuorinen’s catalogue of 260-plus compositions includes works for opera, orchestra and chamber music, as well as solo instruments and voice. He has received many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the MacArthur Fellowship. The 2014 Madrid premiere of Wuorinen’s opera, set on Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, was covered by international media and has had several subsequent European productions.

Anthony Tommasini in his 2014 New York Times review characterized Wuorinen as an “unabashedly complex Modernist.” And while in 2008 Wuorinen called the term serialism “almost without meaning,” nevertheless his career-long commitment to 12-tone composition is clear, with Schoenberg, Berg, late Stravinsky and Babbitt cited among primary influences. Fractals and Mandelbrot mathematical sets are also central to Wuorinen’s recent compositional procedures.

Much of Wuorinen’s music makes great technical demands on musicians, including tonal leaps, extreme dynamic contrasts, and rapid exchange of pitches, all requiring extreme precision and virtuosity. This is all on ample display in the three works on Charles Wuorinen, Vol. 3.

The album opens with Alphabetical Ashbery (2013) a song cycle/motet marked by the free-flowing, playful and often disjunctive poems by the American poet John Ashbery performed by the unique forces of loadbang: Jeffrey Gavett, baritone, Carlos Cordeiro, bass clarinet, Andy Kozar, trumpet and William Lang, trombone. The muscular and substantial Fourth Piano Sonata (2007), the latest and most traditionally structured of Wuorinen’s works in this genre, is definitively rendered by the brilliant pianist Anne-Marie McDermott. It Happens Like This (2010) closes the CD. At just over 39 minutes in seven bite-sized movements, this four-voice cantata is set to American modernist James Tate’s surrealistic poems, providing a charming close to our musical visit with one of America’s enduring elder statesmen of composition. 

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