01 Die schone Mullerin guitarAs a folk singer of sorts I was intrigued to read somewhere that Franz Schubert sometimes accompanied his songs on guitar. For several issues now I’ve meant to write about a new version of Die schöne Müllerin but each time I’ve run out of space, or it just didn’t seem appropriate to the theme of the column. Guitarist David Leisner has adapted the original piano score for guitar and is joined by baritone Michael Kelly in a compelling performance (Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0175 brightshiny.ninja). I wrote back in December that the lack of texts for Victoria Bond’s song settings on the album Blue and Green Music was not an issue due to Kelly’s clear diction. I’m sure if I were conversant in German the same would be true in the case of the current recording, but as I’m not I’m glad that there is a QR code linking to full lyrics and translations. Leisner’s clever adaptation of the accompaniment and his clear and fluent playing provide a transparent, yet supportive framework for Kelly’s nuanced interpretation. The sparser textures produced by the guitar allow Kelly to really shine, especially in the tender, quieter moments, without compromising the effect of the more dramatic sturm und drang aspects of the song cycle.

02 Leisner Letter to the WorldIt seems that, like me, David Leisner got his start singing folk and pop songs, accompanying himself on guitar as a teenager. As his horizons expanded through choral singing and composition studies, he established himself as an accomplished classical guitarist and composer, with a focus on art song. On Letters to the World (Azica ACD-71353 davidleisner.com/composition-recordings) we are presented with four examples of this spanning the 1980s to 2011. The disc opens with Confiding, a cycle of ten songs for soprano and piano, featuring Katherine Whyte and Lenore Fishman Davis, with texts by Emily Dickinson and Emily Brontë, four each, and single offerings from Elissa Ely and Gene Scaramellino. The disc’s title is taken from the final song of the cycle, Dickinson’s This is my letter to the World (That never wrote to Me). Dickinson is also the source of the texts of Simple Songs from 1982, for baritone and guitar featuring Michael Kelly and the composer. Leisner chose (and rendered into English for the programme booklet) five selections from Richard Wilhelm’s German translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching for the cycle Das Wunderbare Wesen (The Miraculous Essence) for baritone and cello. Leisner says, “The songs emerged less out of deference to the melodic line and more in response to a structure established in the cello part, e.g., a repeated alternating metric pattern or a melodic theme that is repeated in the fashion of passacaglia throughout a movement.” Once again Kelly shines, in equal partnership with cellist Raman Ramakrishnan. The final track is the powerful Of Darkness and Light, written in response to the 9/11 tragedy. Leisner says, “To ‘know the light’ and ‘know the dark’ is essential, especially in times of trouble.” Of Darkness and Light uses five poems by Wendell Berry written between 1968 and 1970 which the composer found to “have special resonance in 2002 as well.” Set for tenor, violin, oboe and piano, this moving performance features Andrew Fuchs, Sarah Whitney, Scott Bartucca and Dimitri Dover respectively, drawing this intimate composer-portrait disc to a successful close. 

03 Eine WinterreiseSchubert’s songs have been subjected to many diverse interpretations and adaptations over the past two centuries. One of the most effective that I have had the pleasure to witness was Chimera Project’s Winterreise featuring bass baritone Philippe Sly as staged during the 21C festival at Koerner Hall just a couple of months before the COVID lockdown in 2020. I have just encountered another intriguing evening-long production conceived and staged by Christof Loy for Theater Basel. Eine Winterreise (A Winter Journey) features soprano Anne Sofie von Otter accompanied by pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout and a sparse cast of silent characters representing various aspects of the drama (Naxos DVD 2.110751 naxos.com/Search/KeywordSearchResults/?q=Eine%20Winterreise). Loy writes, “Anne Sofie plays the soul of Schubert in a kind of fictionalized account of the composer if he had lived to grow old rather than dying so young. Other characters gather round her, played by non-speaking actors and dancers. Like shadows from the past, inspired by Schubert’s biography. There is a double who is kind of a younger mirror image of the ‘mature Schubert’ – a melancholy soul for whom life is complex in its beauty but also in its difficulty. The other man, Schober, is based on Schubert’s friend, a reckless young man with a freewheeling lifestyle who […] a number of biographers even accuse of having taken Schubert to the prostitute who gave him the syphilis infection that killed him. In this sense, the courtesan in A Winter Journey is associated with death though conversely she’s also full of vitality. The other female character, whom we christened Viola, imparts a gentle, hopeful strength to the whole production.” Stand alone songs – the play opens with Die Sommernacht – and selections from the cycles Schwanengesang and Winterreise, are interspersed with solo piano works and text fragments taken from Schubert’s Mein Traum, often with dramatically choreographed accompaniment. The evening ends quietly and mournfully with the beautiful Des Baches Wiegenlied (The Brook’s Lullaby) from Die schöne Müllerin as snow falls on the darkened set and the cast slowly disperses into the night. There is a momentary respite from the gloom as von Otter steps out of character and recites Wilhelm Müller’s sardonic epilogue from that cycle of poems arresting the audience’s suspension of disbelief and bidding them a safe journey home. A stunning performance.

04 The Wanderer Brooklyn RiderOne of the most striking usages of Schubert’s music in another medium is Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden which he later adapted for Roman Polanski’s 1994 mystery-drama film. But it was Schubert himself who first reinterpreted his 1817 song Death and the Maiden and used it as the theme for a set of variations in the slow movement of his 1826 String Quartet No.14 in D Minor. It is this work which is the cornerstone of a new (digital only) release by Brooklyn Rider, a New York-based string quartet, titled The Wanderer (In A Circle Records ICR025 brooklynrider.com). The title refers to another Schubert lied that the composer incorporated into a late work, the devilishly difficult Wanderer Fantasy for solo piano. The album is “bound together by the dualities of memory and remembrance, melancholy and bliss, old and new, and life and death” made all the more poignant by the fact that the disc is a recording of a live performance in eastern Lithuania shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It opens with Aroma a Distancia, a work composed for the quartet by Gonzalo Grau. The composer lived the first 20 years of his life in Venezuela before moving to the United States. He says, “the aroma, the remembrance of my past, is what makes me who I am today. After all, it often happens when I am in Venezuela, I miss Madrid or New York, or if I’m in Boston I miss Caracas.” The brief work incorporates flavours from these various influences. Another South American transplant, Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov’s Um Dia Bom (A Good Day) “depicts the story of a life from morning to midnight and beyond, but as told to a child” with movements titled Hovering in the Cradle, While the Rain, Around the Fire, Riding with Death and Feather. Acknowledged influences include a traditional Yiddish song, a sparse painting by Basquiat of a horse carrying the Death Rider, Blind Willie Johnson’s song Dark was the Night and the spirit of the late Chick Corea. The crowning glory is a stunning performance of Schubert’s masterpiece, his penultimate contribution to the string quartet genre, especially nuanced during the variations on the tune that gives the work its name and the flamboyance of the breakneck galloping horse-like finale.

Banjo is the glue that binds the remaining discs in this column. When I was preparing for retirement from my day job at New Music Concerts four years ago, I began to collect instruments I thought I would enjoy getting to know better, including mountain dulcimer, accordion and banjo. Although I did gather some instruction books, took a few lessons and even learned a few banjo songs, I must admit that when COVID hit and my work at The WholeNote expanded into a near-fulltime job organizing CD reviews to fill the void left by the empty concert halls, my best laid plans fell by the wayside. 

05 Kate WeekesAll that is to say that I’m envious of guitarist and singer Kate Weekes who took advantage of her isolation in the Gatineau Hills during the pandemic to learn how to play clawhammer (old-timey, rather than bluegrass style) banjo and pursue new directions in song writing. The result is a new CD, Better Days Ahead (kateweekes.com), featuring ten original songs all penned by Weekes. Although not flashy, there is nothing about Weekes’ banjo playing to indicate her neophyte status; the banjo provides rhythmic and harmonic structure to the quirky songs and supports her simple soprano voice lines. She is accompanied by a trio of accomplished musicians who play nearly two dozen instruments, primarily sousaphone and other brass (Brian Sanderson), fiddles, bass and mandolin (James Stephens, who also produced and engineered the disc) and various exotic percussion instruments (Rob Graves). The arrangements are simple and straightforward, always complementing Weekes’ singing and not interfering with the clarity of the lyrics. I particularly enjoy the use of sousaphone (marching tuba) for the bass line on most songs. Highlights for me include Liminal Space about sheltering in place; the haunting title work co-written with Brenda Berezan; Floating Face Down, a cryptic and surprisingly upbeat, quasi-English ballad about the narrator’s drowning in the Thames “wearing my mother’s dress”; and Time by the Moon, a song written during a month-long banjo tune writing workshop hosted by Chris Coole during the late fall of 2021. Videos for these last two can be seen at youtube.com/results?search_query=kate+weekes. It’s well worth the visit. 

Listen to 'Better Days Ahead' Now in the Listening Room

One of my problems with the traditional five-string banjo is trying to get my head around the counterintuitive fact the highest sounding string is on top, whereas on every other stringed instrument I’ve played it’s on the bottom. One day about five years ago I found myself at the corner of Danforth and Broadview where I was met by the intriguing sight of a young man playing a banjo with six strings. I asked if it was tuned like a guitar, and he said yes. Well, I thought to myself, that’s cheating! I’d also like to think that I’m not too old to learn a new trick or two, so it was a five-string banjo I eventually bought. I’m still stymied though because when my ear knows a high note is called for, I instinctively pluck the first string instead of the fifth… 

06 Eric Bibb RidinMy mother is a big fan of the late Leon Bibb, folksinger, actor and civil rights activist – he marched at Selma with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – and through her interest I became familiar with his son, renowned bluesman Eric Bibb. Eric’s youth was spent immersed in the Greenwich Village folk scene. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger were visitors to his home, and he was deeply influenced by Odetta, Richie Havens and Taj Mahal. Mom and I had the pleasure of seeing him perform at Hugh’s Room some years ago and my biggest takeaway from that evening was his statement “I just need one guitar… more!” Imagine my surprise when I watched a video from his new album Ridin’ (Stony Plain SPCD1472 stonyplainrecords.com) and saw him playing a six-string banjo (aka banjitar). Bibb plays it more like a blues guitar than a traditional banjo, but the snare drum-like membrane of the banjo head and the hollow round body give it a very distinctive sound. 

It this sound that opens the disc in a paeon to kith and kin, aptly titled Family, the lyrics of which nicely sum up the overall message of the album: “I am like you – born of a woman | I am like you – a child of God | You are like me – here to learn from History | You are like me – Family.” Bibb says, “As a songwriter, studying African American history has always been a deep well of inspiration. The true stories of my ancestors and their communities are at the heart of many of the songs on my new album. Together with co-writer/producer Glen[vin Anthony] Scott, we’ve created a concept album focusing on the ongoing task of understanding systemic racism and purging it from our world.” The history lessons include songs about the 14-year-old Emmett Till, kidnapped, tortured and lynched in Mississippi in 1955 (the title track); another about the white author who underwent skin pigment transformation to write Black Like Me, and the persecution he faced from his own community as a result in The Ballad of John Howard Griffin; and the destruction of “Black Wall Street” by white mobs in 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma in Tulsa Town, among others. These are interspersed with traditional folk songs like 500 Miles and Sinner Man. I cannot find credits for the backup band, but there are a number of identified cameos throughout the album including star turns by Taj Mahal and Jontavious Willis on Blues Funky Like Dat. Bookending the disc is People You Love (People you love pass on, but they’re not gone | the ones who love you, stay by your side…) bringing a bittersweet but hopeful portrait of a troubled land to a gentle close. 

07 Lynn MilesI see I have not left myself much space for the final disc, TumbleWeedyWorld, the latest from Canadian country icon Lynn Miles (True North Records TND802 lynnmiles.ca). On this, her 16th studio album, the Juno Award-winning and three-time Canadian Folk Music Awards Songwriter of the Year is accompanied by an outstanding band featuring Michael Ball (bass), Joey Wright (mandolin/acoustic guitar), Stuart Rutherford (dobro), Rob McLaren (banjo) and James Stephens (violin). Wright’s mandolin is front and centre on one of my favourite tracks Cold, Cold Moon which features Miles’ signature octave breaks in the moving melody line. Although at times during the disc I felt that this vocal effect was a little overused, it is particularly moving and effective on Moody, where it borders on yodelling. Julie Corrigan and Dave Draves contribute harmonies on the upbeat Sorry’s Just Not Good Enough This Time and dobro and banjo come to the fore in All Bitter Never Sweet with Rebecca Campbell providing duet vocals. This traditional country-flavoured disc comes to a poignant conclusion with Miles in fine voice on the ballad Gold in the Middle

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

01 Mendelssohn Vol.2With Mendelssohn Complete String Quartets Vol.2 the Quatuor Van Kuijk complete the cycle of the composer’s string quartet output. Included here are the String Quartets No.4 in E Minor Op.44 No.2, No.5 in E-flat Major Op.44 No.3 and No.6 in F Minor Op.80 (Alpha Classics ALPHA931 outhere-music.com/en/albums/mendelssohn-complete-string-quartets-vol-2).

Both Op.44 quartets receive outstanding performances, but the real gem is Op.80, the last work Mendelssohn completed before his death and written in an outburst of grief following the death of his beloved sister Fanny. Described as “a confrontation with grief” it’s a striking work in which the composer’s pain is palpable, the performance here being one of quite stunning emotional impact and remarkable sensitivity and intensity.

The CD runs to a commendable 83 minutes, giving Quatuor Van Kuijk an edge over competing sets, many of which run to three volumes. Not that they need any advantage – it’s difficult to imagine any playing coming close to this.

02 Rosebud QuartetThree late works by the masters of Viennese classicism are presented on Haydn & Mozart, the new CD from Canada’s Rosebud Quartet and violist Steven Dann (Leaf Music LM252 leaf-music.ca).

The CD has been getting frequent airplay on CBC Radio, and with good reason, all aspects of the release being of exceptional quality. The Haydn works are his two String Quartets in G Major Op.77 No.1 and F Major Op.77 No.2, apparently originally intended as part of a set of six. They are his last complete works in the medium, two later middle movements of an unfinished D minor quartet being published as Op.103.

Dann joins the quartet for Mozart’s String Quintet in E-flat Major K614, the last of his six and from April 1791, just eight months before his death.

Beautifully recorded at Quebec’s Domaine Forget, it’s an outstanding disc.

Listen to 'Haydn & Mozart' Now in the Listening Room

03 London Haydn QuartetFine performances of the two Haydn Op.77 quartets are also featured on Haydn String Quartets Opp.42, 77 & Seven Last Words, a two-for-the-price-of-one CD set with which The London Haydn Quartet complete their much-admired survey of the composer’s mature quartets using the original published editions (Hyperion CDA68410 hyperion-records.co.uk/dw.asp?dc=W13661_68410).

The String Quartet in D Minor Op.42 completes the first disc, with the second CD filled by the lengthy – over 75 minutes – Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross Op.51, Haydn’s own arrangement of his orchestral original. Described as a fitting testimonial to the composer’s deep, enduring faith it compensates for the inevitable loss of orchestral colour and power by an increased sense of intimacy. Given the subject matter it’s not always an easy listen, but its emotional impact is considerable.

04 Protean QuartetIn the booklet notes for the new CD Haydn Almeida Beethoven on the Spanish Eudora label the Protean Quartet members say that since 2018 they have focused their activity on historical performance on period instruments, and that one of their major creative engines is the recovery of Spanish music heritage and its dissemination. Their contribution here is the first recording of the String Quartet in G Minor Op.7 No.1 by the Portuguese-born Juan Pedro Almeida Mota (1744-c.1817), who developed his career in Spain (EUD-SACD-2301 eudorarecords.com).

Haydn’s String Quartet in D Major Op.33 No.6 is a lovely opening to the disc, the freshness and elegance of the work conveyed perfectly through light and sensitive playing. The same performing qualities are evident in the Mota quartet – again, a light but attractive and not insubstantial work.

The beautifully clean and articulated performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Major Op.18 No.1 gives the whole CD a decided consistency, with a delightfully playful touch mixed with sensitivity and insight.

05 Big House Ruisi QuartetThe Ruisi Quartet make their Pentatone label debut with Big House, featuring music by Joseph Haydn, Matthew Locke and the young British composer Oliver Leith (Pentatone PTC 5187040 pentatonemusic.com/product/big-house).

Finely judged performances of two Haydn works – the String Quartet No.11 in D Minor Op.9 No.4 and the String Quartet No.23 in F Minor Op.20 No.5 – open and close the disc. The brief Fantasie from Locke’s Consort of 4 Parts: Suite No.3 in F is paired with Leith’s equally brief 2020 reworking of A different Fantasie from Suite No.5 in G Minor (After Locke’s Consort of 4 Parts).

The central and largest work is Leith’s seven-movement string quartet The Big House, inspired by the 1980 book In Ruins: The Once Great Houses of Ireland by photographer Sir Simon Marsden, who specialized in black-and-white photographs of allegedly haunted houses. There’s certainly an eerie air of decay in the slow, distinctive and unusual but effective writing, albeit with very little variation.

06 V W HowellsJohn Wilson leads the Sinfonia of London in simply outstanding performances of English string music on Vaughan Williams, Howells, Delius, Elgar: Music for Strings (Chandos CHSA 3291 chandos.net/products/catalogue/CHAN%205291).

Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for Double String Orchestra was written for the 1910 Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester Cathedral and designed to exploit the cathedral’s acoustics. The antiphonal forces – the smaller second orchestra and a featured string quartet – are captured here in stunning detail.

Herbert Howells was an organ student at Gloucester and present at the Fantasia premiere. A few weeks later he heard Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings (Quartet and Orchestra) Op.47, calling the events “two intensely timely, kindling, formative experiences.” His own Concerto for String Orchestra from 1938 was begun in 1934 as a tribute to Elgar, who had died that year, but the middle movement became an In Memoriam tribute to both Elgar and Howells’ own nine-year-old son, who died suddenly in 1935. Using the same forces as the Elgar, it’s an impressive and impassioned work that should really be much better known.

The Delius work is Late Swallows, the slow movement of his 1916-1917 String Quartet arranged by Eric Fenby in 1962-63. A rich and glorious reading of the Elgar work concludes a superb disc.

07 Ellinor DMelonViolinist Ellinor D’Melon is outstanding on her debut album on the Rubicon Classics label, pairing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major Op.35 with Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole in D Minor Op.21, ably supported by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under Jaime Martin (RCD 1106 rubiconclassics.com/release/rteso-ellinor-dmelon-tchaikovsky-lalo).

From the lush, glowing tones of the opening of the Tchaikovsky it’s obvious that this is a player with complete technical command and a fine sense of phrasing and shaping, and nothing in the rest of the concerto or in the Lalo does anything to challenge that assumption. There is a link between the two works – Tchaikovsky’s playing through the Lalo with violinist Iosif Kotek in early 1878 led directly to Tchaikovsky composing his own concerto.

The spacious recorded sound perfectly showcases the tonal quality of the two Guarneri “Del Gesù” violins D’Melon plays here: the c.1744 “Sainton” in the Tchaikovsky and the c.1724 “Caspar Hauser” in the Lalo.

08 BevilacquaDream Catcher, the latest release in the ongoing survey of the works of American composer Augusta Read Thomas is the debut album by the young violinist Clarissa Bevilacqua, who was instrumental in devising the program after getting to know Read Thomas and performing her violin compositions. The complete works for solo violin are here, along with the 2008 Violin Concerto No.3 “Juggler in Paradise” with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Vimbayi Kaziboni (Nimbus Records NI8109 wyastone.co.uk).

The nine solo works to date range from 1995’s Incantation to three works from 2016. The CD’s title track from 2008 is intimately linked with the concerto, being essentially the opening and closing violin sections without the orchestra.

Bevilacqua says that this album is the first of “hopefully many projects” championing works that reflect our present instead of our past. Certainly her technical prowess and interpretative skills promise great things ahead.

09 Arctic HelmsingThe Norwegian violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing makes her Sony Classical label debut with Arctic – A Musical Journey with the Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra (19439936082 eldbjorgmusic.com/album/arctic). 

Celebrating the matchless beauty of the largely unexplored regions of Norway and acknowledging the threat posed by climate change, the CD is full of exhilarating melodies and impressively scored soundscapes, combining elements from American film music and European neo-classical music. 

The former is certainly covered by the one substantial work on the disc, the lush, cinematic six-part Arctic Suite by Los Angeles-based film composer Jacob Shea. The remaining nine tracks, mostly in arrangements by Ben Palmer, are short pieces by Henning Sommero, Frode Fjellheim, Ola Gjeillo, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Selim Palmgren, Ole Bull and James Newton Howard, with Grieg’s The Last Spring closing the disc.

It’s all beautifully played and recorded, with Hemsing in superb form.

10 Capucon ArgerichPut two superb musicians together and three standard repertoire sonatas suddenly become anything but routine. So it is on Beethoven, Schumann, Franck: Violin Sonatas, where violinist Renaud Capuçon joins pianist Martha Argerich in thrilling performances of Schumann’s Sonata No.1 in A Minor Op.105, Beethoven’s Sonata No.9 in A Major Op.47 “Kreutzer” and the Franck Sonata in A Major (Deutsche Grammophon 486 3533 deutschegrammophon.com/en/catalogue/products/beethoven-schumann-franck-renaud-capucon-martha-argerich-12809).  

The two have performed together for many years, with Capuçon saying that Argerich makes him play “like nobody else makes me play.” Certainly this recital, recorded live in concert at the Aix-en-Provence Easter Festival in April 2022, more than bears that out, with a remarkable final movement of the Franck in particular bringing a stellar recital to an electrifying close.

11 Nuits ParisiennesViolinist Manon Galy and pianist Jorge González Buajasán perform an engrossing recital of French music on nuits parisienne, with works by Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc and Milhaud (Aparté AP306 apartemusic.com).

Debussy’s Beau soir and 1917 Violin Sonata open the disc, followed by Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte and the lush and expansive early Violin Sonata M.12 from 1897, not published until 1975. 

It’s Poulenc and Milhaud who steal the show however, with the former’s 1934 Presto and a welcome reappearance of his fascinating 1942 Violin Sonata setting the stage for Milhaud’s 1937 Brazileira (Scaramouche) and the tour-de-force Cinéma-fantasie (after Le boeuf sur le toit) Op.58b from 1919, a dazzling work that uses fragments of Brazilian songs in a rondo-like structure and includes a huge solo violin cadenza in the middle, apparently contributed by Arthur Honegger. It draws simply fabulous playing from both performers.

12 Mozart Sonatas jpegOn the digital-only release Mozart Sonatas for Piano and Violin Vol.2 violinist Claudio Cruz and pianist Olga Kopylova perform six of the mature sonatas Mozart wrote between 1778 and 1781 (Azul Music AMDA1813 azulmusic.com.br).

The title reflects the developmental stage of the sonata at the time, with the violin not yet the main protagonist. The piano is certainly much to the fore here, with a warm tone and minimal resonance, but the balance never suffers; more importantly, there is beautifully judged playing from both performers, with crystal-clear, sensitive and unaffected performances of the Sonatas No.17 in C Major K296, No.24 in F Major K376, No.25 in F Major K377, No.26 in B-flat Major K378, No.27 in G Major K379 and No.28 in E-flat Major K380. 

13Lionel HandyCellist Lionel Handy and pianist Jennifer Walsh are building an impressive discography of British works for cello and piano, their previous CDs of British Cello Music and works by Ireland, Delius and Bax being followed by their latest CD British Cello Works Volume 2 (Lyrita SRCD.412 wyastone.co.uk).

The works here range from Ethel Smyth’s 1887 Sonata in A Minor Op.5, written in her post-Leipzig study period but not premiered until 1926 in London, to Britten’s Sonata in C Major Op.65 from 1960-61, its five individually-titled movements – Dialogo, Scherzo-Pizzicato, Elegia, Marcia and Moto Perpetuo – giving the work the feel of a suite of characteristic studies.

In between are Delius’ 1916 three-part single-movement Sonata and the Armstrong Gibbs Sonata in E Minor Op.132 from 1951, a lovely work that draws particularly attractive playing.

14 Album for the LuteOn Album for the Lute – Music from the former library of Dr. Werner Wolffheim the lutenist Bernhard Hofstötter has selected a number of characteristic pieces – all but one first recordings – from the handwritten and bound manuscript collection sold at auction in Berlin in 1929, the original context and ownership of which remains unknown (TYXart TXA22172 tyxart.de/en/txa22172_album-for-the-lute.html). 

All pieces in the collection are in D major (the “Käyserliche Stimmung” or imperial tuning) as opposed to the characteristic D minor tuning of the Baroque lute. Hofstötter has created three groups of selections – or “partitas” – and separated them with chaconnes in different keys and from other manuscripts. Most of the pieces are anonymous, but composers represented are Achaz Casimir Hültz, Esaias Reusner the Younger, Germain Pinel, Ennemond Gaultier, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer and the wonderfully named but otherwise untraceable Jean Berdolde Bernard Bleystein de Prague.

Hofstötter’s warm, rich tone and superb technique, together with the clean and beautifully resonant recording, make the 73 minutes of a fascinating recital simply fly by.

15 Justin Holland Guitar WorksThe free-born African American, Justin Holland (1819-1887), was not only an important figure in the anti-slavery and civil rights movements but also the most influential and significant American guitarist of the 19th century, writing the country’s first published guitar method and publishing some 35 original works and 300 arrangements and variations on popular European and American themes. On Justin Holland Guitar Works and Arrangements the American guitarist Christopher Mallett gives us a fascinating look at a seldom-heard musician (Naxos Classics 8.559924 naxos.com/CatalogueDetail/?id=8.559924).   

Only two of the 14 tracks – An Andante in C Major and Variations on L. Mason’s “Nearer My God, to Thee” – are Holland originals, with arrangements varying from standards like ‘Tis the Last Rose of Summer and Henry Bishop’s Home Sweet Home, to traditional pieces and works by little-known names like Alfred Humphreys Pease, Ferdinand Beyer, W. H. Rulison, Alphons Czibulka, Tekla Badarzewska-Baranowska and Alphonse Leduc. Seven tracks are world-premiere recordings.

Mallett’s idiomatic playing makes for an immensely enjoyable disc.

16 Mozart Haydn Schubert guitarsVienna was the centre of European musical life in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, and while there were hardly any original works for the rapidly emerging classical guitar there were many arrangements and transcriptions for the instrument. New arrangements of three emblematic works of the period are presented on Mozart Haydn Schubert, with the Bosnian lutenist Edin Karamazov and the Czech guitarist Pavel Steidl playing Karamazov’s transcriptions for two guitars of two keyboard works – Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat Major Hob.XVI:49 from around 1790 and Mozart’s Fantasia in C Minor K475 from 1785 – and Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata D821 from 1824 (Aparté AP309 apartemusic.com).

Both players use modern copies of contemporary instruments, Steidl, a Bernd Kresse guitar after Johann Anton Stauffer and Karamazov, a Gabriele Lodi guitar after René Lacôte. The soft, warm sounds create beautiful and interesting tone colours, and the very effective transcriptions make for a delightful CD.

01 William ByrdWilliam Byrd
Stile Antico
Decca 485 3951 (stileantico.co.uk/recordings/william-byrd)

England under Elizabeth I was a dangerous place for Catholics. William Byrd was fined for not attending Anglican services, his movements monitored and restricted owing to his connections with known Catholic dissidents. Yet there’s evidence he received official dispensation to practise his faith, albeit covertly, perhaps because Elizabeth loved music and was a keyboard player herself.

Most of the music on this richly rewarding CD comes from Byrd’s later years, all composed for small groups of singers. The main offering is the 26-minute Mass for Four Voices, printed in the late 1590s with no title or composer identified, intended for secret services in clandestine chapels. This gorgeous music is gorgeously sung, from the tender, affectionate Kyrie and Gloria to the earnest, complex Credo, fervently reverent Sanctus-Benedictus and, most strikingly, the haunting Agnus Dei.

The CD concludes with the grandiose, 13-minute Tribue Domine for six voices, a work from Byrd’s younger years. The nine shorter selections include examples from Byrd’s publicly issued songbooks, music that appealed to singers and listeners of all persuasions, widely performed and appreciated. I particularly enjoyed the elegiac Retire, my soul, the jubilant Gaudeamus omnes, the prayerful Turn our captivity (Psalm 126) and the celebratory Laudate Dominum (Psalm 117).

The 12-member, London-based Stile Antico, performing without a conductor, has won raves from its worldwide tours and numerous awards for its recordings; this latest CD will add to its well-deserved laurels. Texts and translations are included.

02 Nicola PorporaNicola Porpora – L’Angelica
Ekaterina Bakanova; Teresa Iervolino; Paola Valentina Molinari; La Lira Di Orfeo; Federico Maria Sardelli
Dynamic 37936 (naxos.com/CatalogueDetail/?id=DYN-37936)

I’ve enjoyed my CDs of Karina Gauvin, Cecilia Bartoli and Franco Fagioli singing arias by Nicola Porpora (1686-1768), wondering why hardly any of Porpora’s 50-plus operas are being performed or recorded.

After watching this DVD of L’Angelica from the 2021 Valle d’Itria Festival, I’m even more perplexed. Porpora’s score provides nearly two-and-a-half hours of affecting melodies, enlivened by frequent changes of tempi, rhythms and instrumentation, expressing moods from despair and anger to delight. Here, it’s all brilliantly sung by a superb cast and energetically propelled by the orchestra – La Lira di Orfeo – conducted by Federico Maria Sardelli.

Pietro Metastasio’s libretto tells of the amatory anxieties of two couples: Princess Angelica (soprano Ekaterina Bakanova) and Saracen soldier Medoro (soprano Paola Valentina Molinari); shepherdess Licori (mezzo Gaia Petrone) and shepherd Tirsi (soprano Barbara Massaro). The Christian knight Orlando (mezzo Teresa Iervolino), in pursuit of Medoro, lusts for Angelica; the old shepherd Titiro (baritone Sergio Foresti) offers sage advice. (At L’Angelica’s 1720 premiere, Tirsi was sung by a 15-year-old student of Porpora who would go on to become the most celebrated of all operatic castrati – Farinelli!)

Less pleasing were this production’s visual aspects: the single set, dominated by a banquet table; the singers’ unattractive, era-ambiguous costumes; meaningless masks; a large, grotesque sculpture of a bloody heart; inscrutable antics of four bizarrely attired dancers. Nevertheless, L’Angelica’s many musical felicities argue strongly that renewed attention to Porpora’s long list of forgotten operas is well overdue.

03 AlbertineAlbertine en cinq temps – L’opéra (play by Michel Tremblay; music by Catherine Major)
Collectif de la lune rouge
ATMA ACD2 2875 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Filmed partially in Toronto, Norman Jewison’s amazing 1987 film Moonstruck deals with what once was (still is?) the truism that opera is, in fact, not the sole province of the well-heeled elites who frequent the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center, but a big-tent-accepting musical genre whose aficionados can include Brooklyn bookkeepers (Cher) and one-handed bakers (Nicolas Cage). In other words, there is a folk quality to opera’s history and appeal that, despite its more recent classification as European classical music, blurs hierarchical boundaries of class, status and earning potential.

How nice, then, it is to encounter a uniquely Canadian, and specifically Québécois opera that beautifully and sonically charts the life of the decidedly regular, but no less intriguing, Albertine, as she reflects back on her life cycle through five decades from her present perch in a retirement home. With each decade represented by a unique female voice – Chantal Lambert (age 70), Monique Pagé (age 60), Chantal Dionne (age 50), Florence Bourget (age 40) and Catherine St-Arnaud (age 30) – Albertine’s life in reflection (best listened to in a single session, of course) demonstrates both the banalities and unique challenges that we all endure in this captivating musical realization of National Order of Quebec recipient Michel Tremblay’s play of the same name. In addition to the acknowledgment given to the fine aforementioned singers, the accompanying all-female instrumentalists, musical score by Catherine Major, and libretto by Collectif de la lune rouge all factor significantly in making this recording a fine 2022 addition to our expanding canon of meaningful and vital Canadian original music.

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04 Silvestrov Silent SongsValentin Silvestrov – Silent Songs
Konstantin Krimmel; Hélène Grimaud
Deutsche Grammophon 486 4104 (deutschegrammophon.com)

The fact that Hélène Grimaud is not simply a prodigiously gifted pianist, but a great artist was never in any doubt. But to be confronted with her considerable attributes in this recording of modern lieder is to be beholden to her elegant pianism in a completely new light. Even though these pieces from Silent Songs by the Ukrainian composer, Valentin Silvestrov, have been part of her repertoire for almost two decades, she helps us experience them in a completely new context, thanks in part to another Ukrainian – the formidable baritone Konstantin Krimmel. 

Throughout, Grimaud’s piano, of necessity, often inhabits the shadows until the music calls upon her instrument to advance into the limelight. When it does, Grimaud’s dainty fingers seem to make balletic moves over the melodies, almost as if she likes her Silvestrov lieder unhurried and stoic, bejewelled with judiciously applied ornamentation. While no one song may be singled out from this brilliant cycle for special attention, Grimaud’s playing on Mandelstam’s poem I will tell you with complete directness is stunning.    

This recording also reaches dizzying heights because of the ardent nobility of Krimmel’s silken baritone as he navigates his way through these songs, inhabiting the music and poetry as if both were written expressly for him. In Krimmel’s voice and Grimaud’s hands we experience real lyric generosity and warmth – like sliding glass panels of melodies and harmonies constantly and delicately navigating truly damask-upholstered Romanticism.

05 These Distances Between UsThese Distances Between Us – 21st Century Songs of Longing
Emily Jaworski Koriath; Tad Koriath
Naxos 8.559908 (naxos.com/Search/KeywordSearchResults/?q=8.559908)

On this rather remarkable, multi-disciplinary recording, the significant works of four American “Art Song” composers is explored – both as lyricist/poets and composers. All of the contemporary artists here are award-winning – and in addition to the thrilling vocals of famed mezzo-soprano Emily Jaworski Koriath, Tad Koriath performs on piano and has also created the stunning arrangements for the collection. The concept stems from Jessica Rudman, composer of the title track. It has been said that, “These Distances Between Us charts a cycle that recognizes the precarious nature of personal connections.” Joining the Koriaths on this CD are Jonathan Santore and Craig Brandwein, who are not only composers, but also magicians of computer-generated electronics.

Included here are Edie Hill’s The Giver of Stars: Six Poems of Amy Lowell. Each of the six movements is lovingly imbued with the majesty of the composition and the beauty of the poetry. Jaworski Koriath’s vocal instrument is both supple and salient – embodying the cornucopia of emotions arising from the material. Hill’s music has been described as “full of mystery,” which is self-evident in the other aptly titled poetic movements such as Vernal Equinox (which feels like a summoning of the spirts of lost lovers in the moist Spring). The innate lyricism of Lowell’s poetry meshes perfectly with the enchanted piano work of Tad Koriath throughout the final three poetic movements. 

Next up is Santore’s mind-opening Two Letters of Sulpicia (version for voice and electronics), which utilizes the technology to enhance and support – such as digital creation of highly realistic pipe organ stops and tubular bells. Also of note is the almost unbearable beauty of Brandwein’s Four Songs of John Charles McNeill. Of particular note is Rudman’s four-movement title piece, in which Jaworski Koriath’s voice easily reaches into the nearly unplumbable depths of human longing. The collection closes with Emmy-nominated Brandwein’s breathtaking Three Rilke Songs, gilded by perfectly placed and executed electronica.

06 Carols after PlagueCarols after a Plague
The Crossing; Donald Nally
New Focus Recordings FCR357 (newfocusrecordings.com)

During the long global pandemic of 2020/21, our existential states were so fraught with death, that rarely did we think of ourselves as inhabiting a living planet teeming with a thriving humanity. We may have lived our lives together, yet we were hopelessly alone. And though the deadly virus may not quite be in the rearview mirror, communities of artists like The Crossing – led by Donald Nally – continue to challenge us to move forward, beyond the ubiquitous facemask; beyond our omnipresent fear of death by pandemic. 

A title such as Carols after a Plague calls for us to return to joyfulness. The carol is, after all, associated with communal singing after darkness falls, albeit to usher in thoughts of the brightness and joys of the Christmas season. 

This 12-song repertoire is woven into the three movements of Shara Nova’s Carols after a Plague, I - Urgency, II - Tone-policing, and III - Resolve. This song becomes the artistic canvas for the whole album. It describes the interconnectedness of human life and is eerily reminiscent of Nova’s song from her baroque chamber opera, You Us We All. The 11 other songs come from the crème de la crème of contemporary composers, each of which thematically examines the impact of the pandemic on global society.

Through the soaring, hour-long repertoire The Crossing, itself a living embodiment of an interconnected community superbly directed by Nally, shines as always, one glorious harmonious progression after the other.

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01 Viva piccoloViva Piccolo
Jean-Louis Beaumadier; Véronique Poltz
Calliope-indeSENS CAL22104 (indesensdigital.fr/?s=viva+piccolo)

The cover photo of the artists, incongruously standing in a field of poppies, Beaumadier holding his flauto piccolo in front of his left shoulder and Poltz with her bright red Schroeder-esque  “pianoforte piccolo” resting on her right shoulder, suggests the spirit of fun lying behind this recording. The wildly varied repertoire indicates that there are no limits to where the fun can be had or to the capabilities of these highly accomplished musicians!

The opening tracks, Four Hungarian Dances by Brahms for example, sound so right that you could assume that they had been written by the composer himself! The fifth track, Théobald Boehm’s Capriccio 16, Op.26, a study for flute students, has been transformed into a charming recital piece, with the piano accompaniment composed by Poltz herself, as is the piano part of Joachim Andersen’s Moto Perpetuo. Beaumadier’s virtuosity in this is staggering, as it is in Benjamin Godard’s Valse, the third movement of his Suite of Three Pieces, Op.116

The great French flutist, Philippe Gaubert, carried the French School of flute playing into the 20th century not only through his students, most notably Marcel Moyse, but also through his compositionsrepresented on this disc by Deux Esquisses. Beaumadier plays these elegiac soliloquies with a tenderness that reveals both another side of his artistry and the capabilities of his instrument.

This is a most engaging recording, to be recommended to all flutists and everyone else interested in expanding their musical horizons.

02 Schumann MahlerSchumann – Symphonies 3 & 4 (reorchestrated by Mahler)
Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien; Marin Alsop
Naxos 8.574430 (naxos.com/Search/KeywordSearchResults/?q=8.574430)

Leonard Bernstein’s erstwhile student and disciple, Marin Alsop, has certainly taken a big step since I reviewed her in June 2018 with the Sao Paolo Symphony, to that holy shrine of classical music, the city of Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Bruckner and Mahler: Vienna. At present she is regarded, as The New York Times put it, not only “a formidable musician and a powerful communicator” but also “a conductor with a vision.” Having appeared as guest conductor with the Vienna Radio Symphony in 2014, in 2019 she became the orchestra’s first woman chief conductor. This new issue completes their cycle of Schumann’s symphonies.

Although much maligned for their orchestration as being weak and uneven, typically by Wagner (but not by Brahms), the symphonies were reorchestrated by Mahler. Expanding to the size of a modern orchestra, increasing the strings, strengthening the winds and the brass, now, in stereo and digital splendour, they sound as never before.

Schumann having just moved from Leipzig to Dusseldorf for a well-paying job, the “Rhenish” Symphony No.3 in E-flat Major is an exclamation of sheer joy, greeting that city on the Rhine River. Alsop drives it beautifully and we can watch her on YouTube having a lot of fun with the great outburst of the Vienna brass at the finale of the exuberant, horn-dominated first movement. This optimism carries through in the lovely Scherzo (Landler) second movement and that resplendent fourth movement, inspired by the magnificent Cologne cathedral.

With the Fourth Symphony I cherish the memory of the legendary Georg Solti conducting it here in Massey Hall c.1964. It is the most innovative of Schumann’s four. No doubt influenced by Liszt and Wagner it is composed as one single movement, the sections blending into each other with one theme cropping up like a leitmotif throughout. Alsop’s tempo is perfect and with a slight accelerando, the cycle ends triumphantly on a high note.

03 Soiree de VienneSoirée de Vienne
Rudolf Buchbinder
Deutsche Grammophon 486 3072 (deutschegrammophon.com/en/catalogue/products/soiree-de-vienne-rudolf-buchbinder-12855)

Vienna reveres her composers. I remember strolling along the beautiful chestnut tree-lined Ringstrasse with a statue of Johann Strauss playing the violin and others of Schubert, Bruckner and more. Now imagine five of your favourite composers namely Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann and Johann Strauss having been invited to some music-loving aristocrat’s Salon to fill the evening with piano playing. 

Rudolph Buchbinder is the very accomplished Viennese pianist who takes us into such an evening. The pieces that follow show the light side of each composer; the purpose is to entertain, not compete. And who should we begin with if not the quintessential Viennese: Johann Strauss II to set the tone – a Concert paraphrase or potpourri from Die Fledermaus followed by the Pizzicato Polka, the very essence of good humour played with infinite charm and delicacy. Schubert is next with the March Militaire, again a rather humorous piece I last heard played by 100 teenagers collected from all over Berlin and conducted by none other than Lang Lang.

Schubert is further represented by Four Impromptus, which are mandatory for any aspiring piano student. My big accomplishment was playing No.4 in A-flat Major with those rather difficult cascading runs and a grand melody emerging in between. I loved playing my heart out with the passionate middle part. These impromptus are easy compared to those of Chopin, particularly the magnificent Fantasie-Impromptu in C-sharp Minor Op.66. And so it goes. Chopin Waltzes and Nocturnes, a Beethoven Bagatelle and Schumann’s Liebeslied. Oh, then my favourite Strauss waltz: Voices of Spring – I wish it comes soon!

04 Liszt PolgarLiszt – Harmonies Patriotiques et Religieuses
Eva Polgar
Hunnia Records HRCD2101 (evapolgar.com)

In contrast to Liszt-the-magician-of-the-keyboard’s turbulent side of his heyday, this interesting new recording shows his quiet and contemplative persona. It came about that the aging Liszt, disappointed that by order of Pope Pius IX he was unable to marry his beloved Princess Carolyne, a divorcee, he took religious vows and withdrew to a monastery near Rome. He actually lived in a cell with minimal furnishings and an old beat-up piano with the middle D key missing.

Eva Polgar, a very talented and celebrated Hungarian pianist praised for her intelligent interpretations and emotional power, here performs pieces that resonate with the deep-seated Catholicism and patriotic aspect of Liszt’s late works. This new style is most noticeable by strange unearthly harmonic progressions bordering on the atonal, like the very first piece, Sursum Corda Erhebet eure Hertzen (Lift up your Hearts) and the Coronation Mass, composed for the coronation of Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. Religion notwithstanding, his love for his homeland is manifest in the Hungarian Rhapsodies, here represented (and gracefully performed) by No.11 a quiet, gentle piece that only turns into a lively Hungarian dance at the very end.

Liszt’s wandering around the Eternal City inspired some works I love most on this album, namely Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este, an impressionistic piece depicting the play of water of the hundreds of beautiful fountains of the unbelievable Baroque gardens of Villa d’Este in Tivoli. Another lovely piece, Legend No.1, is where St. Francis of Assisi preaches to the birds, an exercise of trills and a real test for the flying fingers of our master pianist.

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05 ConsolationsConsolations
Antoine Malette-Chénier
ATMA ACD2 2855 (atmaclassique.com/en)

There are perhaps no more beautiful sounds in European art music then the classical pedal harp, particularly so when the instrument is masterfully played, exquisitely recorded and gorgeously captured within a naturally resonant acoustic environment such as the Église St-Benoît in Mirabel, Quebec. Further, there are few more intimate musical experiences than the solo performance. Here, with the artist alone and exposed, one traverses a performative tightrope as both artist and listener, edging on the precipice of exhilarating beauty and potential pitfall. Thankfully, it is the former, rather than the later, that is the case on this fine 2022 recording from the Quebec-based harpist, Antoine Malette-Chééénier.

Principal harpist for the l’Orchestre Symphonique de Trois-Rivières and a graduate of McGill, the University of Montreal, Yale and the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Lyon, France, Malette-Chénier brings experience, considerable education and training, as well as valuable artistic interpretation to Consolations, his first disc of solo harp pieces for the ATMA Classique label. In addition to achieving his “central desire… to touch souls, to communicate heart to heart” by prefiguring music that resides at the nexus of romance, Christian spirituality and beauty, Malette-Chénier has also used this platform to shine a light on the compositions of fellow harpists Albert Zabel, Charles Schuetze and Henriette Renié, programming their exquisite (and new to me) music alongside such better-known 19th-century composers as Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt. The album’s title, Consolations, comes from the 1830 Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve poetry collection, Les consolations, which provides the needed conceit for Malette-Chénier to delve into the themes of romantic spirituality and divine power that he mines so gracefully here.

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06 Francine KayThings Lived and Dreamt
Francine Kay
Analekta AN 2 9004 (analekta.com/en)

There are relatively few Czech composers regularly featured within the Classical canon, and the majority of these are renowned for their large-scale orchestral and choral works. Antonín Dvořák’s symphonies, Bedřich Smetana’s Má vlast and Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass are all examples of such composers and their expansive, oft-performed music.

In addition to these great works, each of these composers also wrote a variety of piano music, featured here on Canadian Francine Kay’s Things Lived and Dreamt. With repertoire by Dvořák, Smetana and Janáček, as well as Josef Suk and Vítězslava Kaprálová, this recording provides a comprehensive overview of 19th- and 20th-century Czech piano music.

Each selection on this disc is notable for its expressive power and poignancy, from Janáček’s solemn and profound Sonata 1.X.1905 – written after the composer witnessed the killing of an unarmed Czech protester by a German soldier – to the levity of Dvořák’s Humoresques, which are both delightful and ingenious little pieces. Suk’s Things Lived and Dreamt is a Schumann-esque diary portraying people, places and events through lyrical movements that express far more in three or four minutes than some composers can in 30 or 40.

Kaprálová’s April Preludes is a highlight of this recording, a stunning suite of pieces by a quite unknown composer. Kaprálová studied in Prague and Paris, passing away at the age of 25 while fleeing the Nazi occupation. Despite her young age, the April Preludes are strikingly mature and complete, demonstrating a mastery of late-Romantic technique that stretches the limits of tonality through dissonance and bitonality.

A testament to the greatness of Czech music, Kay’s recording is fertile ground for those who are interested in the Czech symphonic tradition – from Dvořák’s Humoresques to Kaprálová’s April Preludes, this disc goes from strength to strength.

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07 Kenny BrobergSonatas by Medtner; Rachmaninov; Scriabin
Kenny Broberg
Steinway & Sons 30198 (kennybroberg.com)

The music of three Russian composers – Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Medtner – all of whom worked against the backdrop of a particularly turbulent political scene, and each with dissimilar ideals, are presented here on this Steinway & Sons recording featuring American pianist Kenny Broberg. Born in Minneapolis, he was the silver medalist at the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and won bronze at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2019.

Rachmaninov completed his Piano Sonata No.2 in 1913 and although the piece was well received, he revised it in 1931, shortening the length and simplifying many of the difficult passages. The original must have been daunting indeed, as technical challenges still abound from the very beginning. Nevertheless, Broberg demonstrates a formidable technique, delivering a polished and exuberant performance. 

No less daunting is the Scriabin Sonata No.5 Op.53 from 1907. Scriabin, a piano virtuoso, infused his music with mysticism resulting in a thoroughly modern style which closely paralleled Symbolist literature of the period. The one-movement piece – barely 12 minutes in length – has long been regarded as among his most difficult.

A younger contemporary of Rachmaninov and Scriabin, Medtner was born in Moscow in 1880. His Sonata Op.25 No.2 “Night Wind” written in 1912 is his most extended of the genre. The score is archly Romantic with a second movement Allegro molto sfrenatamente which is no less demanding than the first – the night wind never ceases. The third movement Danza Festiva proves a rousing conclusion that Broberg performs with great bravado.

In all, a fine recording by a young artist from whom we can hope to hear again.

08 Orion WeissArc II: Ravel; Brahms; Shostakovich
Orion Weiss
First Hand Records FHR1128 (firsthandrecords.com)

This FHR CD titled Arc II featuring American pianist Orion Weiss, is the second in a projected three-disc set, all of which aim to address the ways composers come to grips with the emotion of grief. A native of Cleveland, Weiss studied at the Cleveland Institute and the Juilliard School and has an impressive list of awards including winner of the Classical Recording Foundation’s Young Artist of the Year.

The disc opens with Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin, an homage not only to the French Baroque tradition, but to fallen friends in the First World War. Weiss’ playing is elegant and thoughtfully nuanced where he artfully captures the spirit of the early clavecinists.

Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Schumann from 1854 was written when the composer was all of 20, shortly after his introduction to the Schumann family and just four months prior to Schumann’s attempted suicide. The piece is very much a study in contrasts which ultimately lead to a gentle finale.

In complete contrast is the Piano Sonata No.2 by Dmitri Shostakovich, composed in 1943 and dedicated to the composer’s teacher and friend Leonid Nikolaev who perished that year in the mass evacuation from Leningrad. The opening movement is raw and emotional with Weiss easily handling the formidable technical demands, while the second movement largo is clearly a haunting epitaph for his late friend. The finale opens with a sombre theme followed by nine variations and a quiet conclusion.

The final two choral preludes from Brahms Preludes Op.122 written shortly after the funeral of Clara Schumann round out a well-chosen program, masterfully performed – we can look forward to the third disc in the series.

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