As The WholeNote celebrates the stellar achievement of 25 years of publication, I note that the DISCoveries section has entered its own 20th year. There have been a number of changes since our first modest column back in July 2001 with just 13 discs reviewed by eight writers. In the interim we’re had contributions from 125 reviewers and, with the current issue, have covered more than 8,800 CDs and DVDs. In recent years we’ve seen an enormous growth in the number of independent releases, physical and digital, primarily by jazz and contemporary artists, as evidenced in our burgeoning Jazz & Improvised and Modern & Contemporary sections. But all sectors remain very active and we receive two or three times the number of discs we actually have room to cover. A large part of my job entails collating and prioritizing the enormous number of releases that arrive each month. It’s a daunting but satisfying task, especially when it comes to matching selected titles with appropriate writers, some of whom have particular interests and specialities and some who constantly amaze me with the breadth of their knowledge and eclecticism. 

Looking back at the first edition of DISCoveries it was interesting to note that Bruce Surtees’ first review was of an EMI reissue of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra under the direction of János Ferencsik. In his Rimsky-Korsakov review further on in these pages Bruce relates an anecdote about advice given to a fledgling record producer: “Look for the composition that has the most recordings and make one more.” I chuckled when I realized that Bruce has reviewed 12 different recordings of Gurrelieder for The WholeNote, evidence that the old adage still applies. But Gurrelieder is far from the most reviewed title in our archives. Other greatest hits include The Goldberg Variations tied with Das Lied von der Erde and Winterreise at 18 versions each, Bach’s Six Suites for Solo Cello (15), Mahler’s Symphony No.2 (12), the complete Der Ring des Nibelungen and Pictures at an Exhibition (11), and Le Sacre du Printemps and Symphony Pathétique with ten…

I took a bit of a cheap way out last issue writing, “What to say about yet another recording of the Bach Cello Suites?” in regards to Alisa Weilerstein’s release. I’m about to do it again with Yo-Yo Ma The Bach Project (Cmajor 754408 naxosdirect.com), but in this instance I feel excused by the fact that Ma does the talking for me. The two-DVD set includes one with an outdoor concert performance of all six Bach suites and a separate disc of Ma speaking about Bach, the suites, and their importance in his own life. It’s quite an extraordinary extrapolation of his thoughts about Bach as scientist and psychologist/philosopher. He is very articulate and thoughtful, and his ideas are both intriguing and enlightening. 

01 The Bach ProjectThe website bach.yo-yoma.com tells us that “In August 2018, Yo-Yo Ma began a two-year journey to perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s six suites for solo cello in 36 locations around the world, music that is among the first he ever learned when he began playing the cello at age four. The project is motivated not only by his six-decade relationship with the music, but also by Bach’s ability to speak to our shared humanity at a time when our civic conversation is so often focused on division. For Yo-Yo, Bach’s 300-hundred-year-old music is one extraordinary example of how culture connects us and can help us to imagine and build a better future, but he believes there are many, many more. And for Yo-Yo, culture includes not just the arts, but everything that helps us to understand our environment, each other, and ourselves, from music and literature to science and food. The Bach Project explores and celebrates all the ways that culture makes us stronger as individuals, as communities, as a society, and as a planet. Alongside each concert, Yo-Yo and his team partner with artists and culture makers, cultural and community organizations, and leaders from across sectors to design conversations, collaborations, and performances. These public events and creative experiences are different in every location; they aspire to local relevance and global significance; they demonstrate culture’s power to create positive change; they inspire new relationships, connect partners across locations, and ask us all to keep culture at the centre of our efforts to build a shared future.” 

This DVD set is Ma’s fourth release of the suites. The first dates back to 1983 on vinyl for Columbia Records and subsequently released on CD. I don’t think it has ever been out of print. The second was his reimagining of them in collaboration with artists from a variety of fields for the TV series Inspired by Bach produced by Toronto’s Rhombus Media in 1997, later released on DVD by Sony Classical. It is a lasting legacy of this series that the city acquired The Toronto Music Garden, on the waterfront, designed by Julie Moir Messervy when plans to build it in Boston fell through. The third iteration was a studio recording in 2018 released on CD by Sony as Six Evolutions – Bach: Cello Suites

This CD release was a direct precursor to The Bach Project represented here by live concert footage of one of the 36 recitals that took place between 2018 and 2020 over six continents featuring Ma’s current interpretation of the suites. It was recorded on June 30, 2019 in the open air at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a stone Roman theatre structure completed in 161 CE on the southwest slope of the Acropolis of Athens, Greece. The set is stunning with the stage backlit by a wash of purple light on the Acropolis and the surrounding terraces filled to their 5,000 seat capacity in the evening darkness. The audience is silent, in rapt attention until breaking into thunderous applause at the end of each suite. 

The DVD is edited so that we hear the entire cycle without breaks (although there are cues for each movement for selective viewing). In a way this is a shame because during the applause after each suite we see Ma bend down to pick up a microphone to address the audience, but never get to hear what he says. This is especially unfortunate after the second suite, because during the last movement the audio is interrupted by a strange metallic noise that is unexplained in the booklet. With the help of the distributor’s publicist – thanks Paula Mlyn – I was able to find out that, as sometimes happens on a hot summer night, it was not a mechanical sound but actually a cicada that had landed on the microphone. Knowing that put me in mind of Josquin’s El grillo è buon cantore, one of my favourite Renaissance madrigals. Now I know that a cricket and a cicada are not the same thing, but I think this cicada, inspired by the music, was aspiring to be a “good singer” as the song says. We can see Ma smiling in recognition at the sound as he continues undaunted and undistracted through the final two minutes of the gigue, but I would dearly like to know what he shared with the audience after that! Obviously the show went on with no retake and we are presented with an outstanding non-stop performance of nearly two and a half hours of music, played flawlessly from memory.
It was during my years as a music programmer at CJRT-FM that I became familiar with Josquin’s madrigal, and also at that time that I got to meet Yo-Yo Ma. The occasion was the filming of Atom Egoyan’s Sarabande, the dramatic film of the Suite No.4 from the Inspired by Bach series. I heard there was a call for extras for the scenes that were being shot at The Royal Conservatory and I was happy to find myself chosen. In the holding room in the morning the charming cellist appeared and introduced himself to each extra, mostly RCM students, and asked something about each of us. There were shoots both morning and afternoon, and over the lunch hour he welcomed many of the cello students to play his cherished instrument, which I believe was the 1712 Davidoff Stradivarius. What a kind and generous soul. At the end of the day he turned up in holding again and not only spoke to everyone, but actually remembered what he had learned about us earlier in the day. He is truly a remarkable and gracious man, and I’ll let him have the last word. “The shared understanding that culture generates in these divisive times can bind us together as one world, and guide us to political and economic decisions that benefit the entire species. We are all cultural beings – let’s explore how culture connects us and can help to shape a better future.”

02 Her Own WingsAmerican Gabriela Lena Frank (b.1972) is currently composer-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra who will premiere a major orchestral work of hers in 2021. Featured on the Washington Post’s list of the “Top 35 women composers in classical music,” Frank was also 2017 composer-in-residence at the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival. Her Own Wings (brightshiny.ninja/her-own-wings) grew out of this collaboration, and includes the world premiere recording of Milagros (2010), plus Frank’s acclaimed string quartet, Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout

Identity has always been at the centre of her music. Born in California to a mother of mixed Peruvian/Chinese ancestry and a father of Lithuanian/Jewish descent, Frank explores her multicultural heritage through her compositions. Comprised of eight short movements for string quartet, Milagros was inspired by Frank’s mother’s Peruvian homeland. She writes: “It has been a remarkable, often difficult, yet always joyous experience for me to visit, again and again, this small Andean nation that is home to not only foggy desert coasts but also Amazonian wetlands. Usually a religious and marvellous occurrence, milagro here refers to the sights and sounds of Peru’s daily life, both past and present, which I’ve stumbled upon in my travels. While probably ordinary to others, to me, as a gringa-latina, they are quietly miraculous.” Composed in 2001, Leyendas draws inspiration from the idea of mestizaje as envisioned by the Peruvian writer José María Arguedas, where cultures can coexist without the subjugation of one by the other. As such, this piece mixes elements from the Western classical and Andean folk music traditions.

Recorded in the unique acoustic of a winery barrel room, the performers are Willamette Festival founders Sasha Callahan (violin) and Leo Eguchi (cello) who are joined by violinists Greg Ewer (Milagros) and Megumi Stohs Lewis (Leyendas), and violist Bradley Ottesen. The warmth and clarity of the recording combined with these stunning and nuanced performances makes this a disc to treasure.  

03 Koan Quartet largerThe Koan Quartet has just released its debut recording, J.M. Beyer – String Quartet IV (koanquartet.bandcamp.com). Johanna Magdalena Beyer was a German-American composer born in Leipzig in 1888. The quartet’s website tells us that she was an important experimental composer of the 1930s who worked closely with Henry Cowell, Percy Grainger and Ruth Crawford, and wrote the first known work scored for electronic instruments by a female composer (Music of the Spheres, 1938). Beyer died of ALS in 1944 and her work would have been completely forgotten were it not for Frog Peak, a composers’ collective, who made her scores available through research and volunteer score copying. There is no record of String Quartet IV having been performed within Beyer’s lifetime. It is composed in a very intimate, almost post-Romantic style which differs from some of the other works in her collection. 

Koan Quartet, a subset of the Los Angeles experimental performance group Southland Ensemble, brings years of experience presenting thoughtful and meticulously researched performances of rarely heard works to their interpretation. This is an important addition to our understanding of a significant and nearly forgotten voice. The music is playful at times, with hints of children’s melodies, but also dark and contemplative, especially in the second movement. The performance is well balanced and the recorded sound pristine. 

Bang on a Can was founded in 1987 by three American composers who remain its artistic directors: Julia Wolfe, David Lang and Michael Gordon. During the current COVID-19 crisis, particularly devastating in New York City, the renowned Bang on a Can Marathon, a celebration of the best and latest contemporary music from the Big Apple, has migrated to the internet, morphing from an annual live event into periodic streaming blasts. There have been three six-hour iterations so far (May 3, June 14 and August 16) and plans are to continue these online activities until performances for live audiences can fully resume. You can stay apprised of future events at bangonacan.org

Michael Gordon – Anonymous Man
The Crossing; Donald Nally
Cantaloupe Music CA 21154 (cantaloupemusic.com)

Meredith Monk - ..M…EM..O.R…Y ….G.A….ME….
Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble; Bang on a Can All-Stars
Cantaloupe Music 21153 (cantaloupemusic.com)

Singing in the Dead of Night
Eighth Blackbird
Cedille Records CDR 90000195 (cedillerecords.org)

David Lang – Love Fail
Lorelei Ensemble; Beth Will
Cantaloupe Music 21158 (cantaloupemusic.com)

David Lang – Love Fail
Quince Ensemble
Innova 056 (innova.mu)

The human voice, one of the first instruments in our world (there are likely others, such as interstellar “noise”), has rarely been glorified in better circumstances than in the five recordings mentioned above. Perhaps this is because in all of the recordings in question the purest of sound – that of the human voice – has been pushed to both define exactly what it means to give praise to the arts melodically, harmonically and rhythmically. But each of these works also redefines polyphony – within the continuum of music – in the grand manner. Coincidentally (or perhaps not at all) members of the ineffably brilliant musical New York City cooperative, Bang on a Can, have been associated with each of the recordings and this means, of course, that you can expect the unexpected in the most sublime sense of the term.

Musicians such as Meredith Monk, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang are – together and separately – proverbial forces of nature. They represent everything that is transcendent about human vocalastics. Impossible leaps in register, manipulating breathing whether nasal, throat or diaphragmatic, weaving voices (using harmony and electronic manipulation) into diaphanous musical fabrics of breathtaking beauty or simply singing with lustrous simplicity and honesty are just some of their many phenomenal characteristics. And then there is the interpretation – or sometimes using the non-interpretation of the works to deliver the finest quality of music and musicianship – which catches us off guard. This is something that happens across all of the works and recordings in question. 

01 Michael Gordon

Michael Gordon’s Anonymous Man deals with the existential loneliness of community. The music describes both the discovery and effects that something like that could have on the human sensibilities. Gordon’s work comprises the music and accompanying narratives that, when sung solo or in ensemble, speak to the existential angst of Gordon’s character as the Anonymous Man. The music startles and the words constantly enliven it through their beautifully bizarre and almost neurotic sensitivity to feeling and experience. The musicians of The Crossing, conducted by Donald Nally, capture all of Gordon’s angst by investing the music with just the right amount of drama and emotion – which is also often delightfully deadpan. The textural light and shade of music in On That Terrible Beautiful Morning is perfectly judged in terms of both phrasing and intonation.

02 Meredith MonkMeredith Monk’s work on Memory Game is a traversal through the topographical landscape of the mind and is somehow viewed through the spatial and the horological. Just as you would need a small leap of imagination to see hour in horology, but could nail the meaning by envisioning the study of time and the art of making timepieces, in Monk’s case you are drawn forwards and backwards in time by playing the proverbial Memory Game. The members of Bang on a Can bring with them instruments to evoke a kind of musical séance in the fullest and most magical sense of things supernatural and brilliantly entertaining. In these nine pieces the listener is led slowly through subtly changing mental-musical scenery. There are often deliberately comical (spoken, sung and instrumental) effects. Slowly, like a brilliant jigsaw puzzle these brightly coloured musical fragments evoke a Memory Game that is dismantled and reassembled in constantly hypnotic patterns. 

03 Eighth BlackbirdThe eighth stanza of Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird describes metaphorical antecedents of the dizzying exploits of the ensemble Eighth Blackbird who make music by means of “…noble accents/and inescapable rhythms…” While not strictly speaking a vocal recording, the album, Singing in the Dead of Night, is certainly creatively and evocatively a singing one. Although it is David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon of the formidable group Bang on a Can, who have splintered the iconic Beatles song, Blackbird, by reimagining it in five fractured segments of the original lyric in a somewhat darker realm than its original creation, Eighth Blackbird must also be credited with its most magical reconstruction. Instruments – specifically the exquisite manner in which they have been played – don’t simply recreate the whispers, murmurs, moans and groans of the human voice as well as the proverbial flutterings of the blackbird of the Beatles song, but, in fact, propel the music into a proverbial orbit. 

04 David Lang LoreleiFinally, David Lang’s deeply introspective almost operatic meditation Love Fail fuels the endeavours of two accomplished chamber groups – the Lorelei Ensemble and the Quince Ensemble. The release of both concurrently is probably a coincidence but to imagine that this fact may not do either release any favours would be a fallacy. Both releases are superb and recommend themselves for different reasons. The Lorelei’s a cappella version affects with a performance that is forthright and deeply moving; unravelling in the ensemble’s wonderfully flexible approach, creating imagery that befits something of great density and import as well as something delicate and light.

05 David Lang QuinceQuince Ensemble’s performance adds minimalist instrumentation and is equally profound, bringing wonderful shape and motion to the simpler pieces and musical clarity to the most dense. 

Together these five recordings offer a rare and uplifting musical repast in this time of great consternation and stress.

01 Dana Zemtsov Anna Fedorova SilhouettesThe compositions by French and non-French composers on Silhouettes, the new CD from violist Dana Zemstov and pianist Anna Fedorova (Channel Classics CCS 42320 channelclassics.com) purportedly were all inspired by French poetry, a link that seems tenuous at best and in some cases non-existent, but when there’s playing as rapturous and ravishing as this, who cares?

The 1919 Sonata by Rebecca Clarke opens the CD, and what an opening it is – flowing, passionate, intense and finely nuanced playing from both players in a gem of a work that combines Debussy and Ravel influences with an English mood. The “French connection” is a quote from Alfred de Musset that Clarke wrote on the opening page.

The first of three effective transcriptions of short pieces by Debussy – La plus que lente – precedes the 2007 Suite Op.51 by Netherlands composer Arne Werkman, its Allemande, Branle, Pavane and Tarantella movements providing Baroque form for modern musical content. Debussy’s Clair de lune is followed by Darius Milhaud’s four-movement Sonata No.1 Op.240 from 1944, another work that glances back at the Baroque style. Based on unpublished and anonymous themes of the 18th century, it has a really lovely third movement Air, later arranged by the composer for viola and orchestra. The rhapsodic and impassioned 1906 Concert Piece by the Romanian composer George Enescu precedes the final Debussy transcription, Beau Soir, providing a beautiful ending to an outstanding CD. 

Both performers have technique, tone and musicality in abundance, but it’s a long time since I’ve heard such beautiful viola playing in particular, Zemstov displaying a wide range of tonal colour without any hint of the nasal quality that you sometimes encounter in viola recitals.

02 MILLER PORFIRIS DUOThere’s more excellent duo work featuring viola on Threaded Sky, the new CD from the Miller-Porfiris Duo of violinist Anton Miller and violist Rita Porfiris (millerporfirisduo.org/store). Their Divertimenti CD was enthusiastically reviewed here in May 2017, and this latest recital of short works easily lives up to the same standard.

Three works by American composer Augusta Read Thomas – her complete violin-viola duo music – form the first half of the disc. Rumi Settings was written in 2001, its four movements – Dramatic, Resonant arpeggio, Suspended and Graceful and Passionate – inspired by the 13th-century Persian poet. Double Helix from 2011 was originally for two violins; Silent Moon was premiered in 2006.

Krzysztof Penderecki’s Ciaconna in Memoria Giovanni Paolo II from 2005 was the last movement of his Polish Requiem, a work that took 25 years to complete. Originally for string orchestra it was transcribed for violin and viola by the composer in 2009, the Miller-Porfiris Duo returning some of the omitted voices to the transcription here. Angel Fire by the Asian-American composer Bright Sheng has four movements, the third based on a Chinese folk song.

Finally, the very brief The Weight of Shadows from 2019, by the Iranian-American composer Mani Mirzaee, uses santoor mallets and not bows to produce sound, bouncing the light Persian hammers on the strings with a dulcimer-like effect.

03 Violins of HopeNiv Ashkenazi: Violins of Hope is a celebration of the artistic and educational project founded by Israeli luthier Amnon Weinstein and his son Avshalom in which instruments that were owned by Jewish musicians before and during the Holocaust are restored and played in the best concert halls by the world’s best players, the latter including Shlomo Mintz and Daniel Hope (Albany Records TROY1810 albanyrecords.com).

Violinist Ashkenazi and accompanist and fellow Juilliard graduate Matthew Graybil first became involved with Violins of Hope in 2017, and Ashkenazi is the only violinist to hold an instrument from the collection – in this case an early 20th-century Eastern European or German violin – on long-term loan. For this CD he chose Jewish repertoire that covers the instrument’s lifetime.

Robert Dauber’s Serenade (1942) makes a beautiful opening to an excellent recital that comprises Bloch’s Nigun (1923), John Williams’ Theme from Schindler’s List, Julius Chajes’ The Chassid (1939), Sharon Farber’s recent Bestemming: Triumph, Szymon Laks’ Trois pièces de concert (1935), George Perlman’s Dance of the Rebbitzen (1929), Ravel’s Kaddisch (1914) and Ben-Haim’s Berceuse sfaradite (1945) and Three Songs Without Words (1952).

It’s easy to understand why the Weinstein family has such trust and faith in Ashkenazi’s commitment and performance: he clearly has an emotional bond with this instrument, lending all of these short pieces a beautifully distinctive and idiomatic sound.

04 Napoleonian GuitarWorld-premiere recordings of French Romantic guitar sonatas by Antoine de Lhoyer, Louis-Ange Carpentras and Alexandre Alfred Rougeon-Beauclair are featured on Napoleonian Guitar Sonatas, with Montreal guitarist Pascal Valois (Centaur CRC 3733 naxosdirect.com).

Valois is dedicated to reviving enthusiasm for the guitar’s role during the Romantic era, performing 19th-century repertoire on period instruments and employing contemporary stylistic practices, including improvised ornaments and cadenzas. One such practice here is that of not using right-hand fingernails, the bare fingertips resulting in a much softer and smoother sound. The guitar used is a French model built in the late 1820s by the Mirecourt luthier Cabasse-Bernard.

While the Carpentras Sonate brillante Op.1 (1816) and the Rougeon-Beauclair Sonate Op.4 No.1 are both for guitar solo, in the two de Lhoyer Sonates pour la guitare avec un violon obligé Op.17 (c.1801) Valois is joined by Montreal violinist Jacques-André Houle. The violin, though, tends to distract from, rather than enhance the guitar writing, especially being set so far back in the balance – presumably not to overwhelm the softer instrument. 

Valois’ playing is accomplished, clean and sensitive throughout music that offers a fascinating insight into the early 19th-century classical guitar world. 

05 Max RegerThe Diogenes Quartett is the central ensemble on the new CD Max Reger Clarinet Quintet & String Sextet, being joined by clarinettist Thorsten Johanns in the Clarinet Quintet in A Major Op.146 and by violist Roland Glassl and cellist Wen-Sinn Yang in the String Sextet in F Major Op.118 (cpo 555 340-2 naxosdirect.com).

Despite the advanced tonal nature of his music, Reger had a strong affinity with earlier musical eras in addition to his deep Romantic roots, and the equivalent works by Mozart and Brahms were clearly the inspiration for his own Clarinet Quintet. Despite being completed in 1915 the work shows no influence of the Great War, a contemporary review of the October 1916 premiere referencing “the deep, holy peace of a mild autumn evening, which the last rays of the setting sun dress in gold.” Shades of Brahms indeed.

The large, complex String Sextet from 1910 is full of the features that have tended to make Reger’s music misunderstood and under-appreciated over the years, but is a deeply satisfying work with a really beautiful slow movement.

Playing throughout is of the highest quality on a terrific CD.

06 Schubert SkaervedThere’s another CD of the Franz Schubert 3 Sonatas (1816), this time with violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved and Julian Perkins on square piano (Athene ath 23208 naxosdirect.com).

Skærved always excels not only in his playing but also in his exploration of and critical approach to the original musical sources, and this CD is no different, with 12 pages of fascinatingly detailed and informative notes illuminating every aspect of the performances. The German violin is by Leopold Widhalm I (1722-1776) with a very early Tourte bow probably from around 1770-80. The square piano is by Clementi & Co., London, 1812.

Skærved’s playing here is warmer than in some of his period performances; he’s not afraid to use vibrato, but a clear sense of period style is always present. The keyboard obviously lacks the fuller sound we might be accustomed to, but the tonal subtlety and nuance more than compensate. The performers admit to viewing the score as “a map that offers options rather than answers,” resulting in some interesting choices on repeats and frequent moments of surprise, particularly at the end of the Sonata No.2 in A Minor where, following the short, sharp final violin chords, the piano resonance is left to die away for fully 13 seconds.

07 Edward CowiePeter Sheppard Skærved is also the first violinist in the Kreutzer Quartet, the performers on Edward Cowie: Three Quartets & A Solo, a new CD of music by the multi-disciplined English composer born in 1943 (Métier Records msv 28603 naxosdirect.com).

An author, lecturer, academic, visual artist, natural scientist, conductor and composer with two doctorates including studies in physics and mathematics, Cowie produces music which is a fusion of science, the natural world and visual arts. “I am more inspired,” he says, “by natural history than by musical history.”

Certainly the natural world is central to the quartets here: the two single-movement works, No.1 “Dungeness Nocturnes” from 1969 and No.2 “Crystal Dances” from 1977, and the four-movement No.6 “The Four Winds” from 2012, with the North, East, South and West winds representing the four seasons. It’s difficult music to describe, with an obviously contemporary sound but not completely dissonant despite a general lack of melodies and overtly tonal writing, and with a scurrying, restless feel that invokes insects and birds and is quite nocturnal at times.

The solo work GAD was written in 2017 for Skærved at his request, and addresses the composer’s almost lifelong suffering from generalized anxiety disorder.

All you need to know about the performances is that Cowie says that “no composer could ever be served, illuminated and translated by better or more brilliantly insightful players than the Kreutzer Quartet.”

08 Robin StevensAnother British composer whose name and music seem new to me is represented on Robin Stevens String Quartets & String Quintet, with the Behn Quartet and cellist Timothée Botbol (Divine Art dda 25203 naxosdirect.com).

For Stevens (b.1958), the String Quintet in C Minor from 1980-81 was his first major composition, revised in 2018 for this recording. It features lush melodic writing with a truly lovely slow movement. As the composer notes, “unconscious references to, and near-quotes from, 20th-century music abound.”

In his early 30s Stevens was stricken with post-viral fatigue, a debilitating illness that kept him out of work for 17 years and limited his compositional activity to experimental miniatures. On regaining full health in 2007 he began a PhD in Composition, producing a major work in each of his six post-graduate years. The single-movement String Quartet No.1 uses “a handful of ideas, which are subjected to contrapuntal development of considerable complexity” in a work of “unremittingly dissonant harmonic language.” The String Quartet No.2, “Three Portraits” has three continuous sections – Impulsive One, God-Seeker and Arguer – followed by a brief Epilogue.

A bequest has enabled Stevens to begin recording his considerable catalogue of works; if future performances are of the same high quality as these then his music will certainly be well served.

09 Lawrence Power BBC Philharmonic Orchestra Martyn Brabbins MacMillan Symphony No.4 Viola ConcertoFinally, if you’re interested in contemporary concertos for viola then you should know that the latest CD of music by the Scottish composer James MacMillan, Symphony No.4 & Viola Concerto, features soloist Lawrence Power with the BBC Philharmonic under Martyn Brabbins in a terrific performance of the concerto written for Power in 2013 (Hyperion CDA 68317 hyperion-records.co.uk).

It’s a three-movement work with an ominous, uneasy first movement, a central movement of a devotional character with a lovely main theme and occasional “primal sreeam” outbursts and a sparkling finale with decided hints of Barber’s Violin Concerto at the end.

It’s a significant addition to the contemporary repertoire and discography. 

02 Beethoven LiederBeethoven – Lieder; Songs
Matthias Goerne; Jan Lisiecki
Deutsche Grammophon 483835 (deutschegrammophon.com/en)

A new disc featuring baritone Matthias Goerne and pianist Jan Lisiecki is a heartily welcomed release in what has become a much-curtailed Beethoven anniversary year. This album showcases oft-neglected songs: music that is sometimes given a wide berth by performers opting for more standard cycles from the lieder repertoire. But unlikely corners of the repertoire require unlikely artistic partners as champions and this recital is a case in point for such declarations.

Goerne (b.1967) is, doubtless, one of the most considerate, insightful and committed lieder singers of his generation. He seems to veritably live and breathe this repertoire, always delivering an incredible depth of expression and narrative. Lisiecki (b.1995), while not especially known for his collaborative activities, brings a similar brand of devotion to his art, embracing – with equal measure – the composer whom he interprets, and the listener to whom he performs. This is the common ground between Goerne and Lisiecki and proves an ideal starting point for a wondrous creative match.

Character and conviction are paramount to the poetry and the expression thereof in these songs. Goerne commands every turn and surprise as the well-seasoned pro that he is. Lisiecki follows suit, offering his own arsenal of colours and tonal insights within some rather off-the-beaten-path piano parts. Lisiecki plays the supportive role, never overpowering nor taking the reins too willfully. It’s everything one could look for in a supportive musical partner. Thrilling results indeed, as “youth and experience unite.”

03 Fernand CortezGaspare Spontini – Fernand Cortez
Schmunck; Voulgaridou; Lombardo; Margheri; Ferri Durà; Orchestra e Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino; Jean-Luc Tingaud
Dynamic DYN-37868 (naxosdirect.com)

In 1803, the 28-year-old Gasparo Spontini, having already composed 15 operas (!) in his native Italy, moved to Paris. There, as “Gaspare,” he became a favourite of Napoleon and Josephine, who commissioned Fernand Cortez (1809) as wartime propaganda. The contra-historical libretto by Étienne De Jouy and Joseph-Alphonse d’Esménard depicted Cortez as a Napoleon-like heroic conqueror, benevolently “liberating” the “oppressed” Mexican people while rescuing his lover, the Mexican princess Amazily, and his brother Alvar as they were about to be sacrificed by the Mexican High Priest.

Fernand Cortez was a sensational hit, soon performed throughout Europe. In 1817, Spontini revised it, shifting scenes and adding the role of Montezuma. Today, however, the once-celebrated composer and his 24 operas are all but forgotten. This 2019 Florence production of the original version was its first staging in nearly two centuries.

Heading the excellent cast are steely toned tenor Dario Schmunck (Cortez), the thrilling chocolate-voiced soprano Alexia Voulgaridou (Amazily), tenors David Ferri Durà (Alvar) and Luca Lombardo (Amazily’s warrior-chieftain brother Telasco), baritone Gianluca Margheri (Cortez’s comrade-in-arms Moralez) and bass-baritone André Courville (High Priest).

Conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud propels the energized score throughout the opera’s three hours, including two extended ballet sequences. In its dramatic vocal lines, bold orchestration, epic scenario, considerable length and vivid imagery (the Spaniards’ historically appropriate silver-grey armour contrasting with the Mexicans’ colourful costumes), Fernand Cortez anticipated the operas of Berlioz (who admired it) and Meyerbeer. It’s an important – and entertaining! – operatic landmark.

04 Verdi BoccanegraVerdi – Simon Boccanegra
Luca Salsi; Marina Rebeka; René Pape; Charles Castronovo; Wiener Philharmoniker; Valery Gergiev
Unitel 802608 (naxosdirect.com)

Verdi’s 21st opera about a 14th-century corsair who became Doge of Genoa had a difficult time. It failed at its 1857 premiere but Verdi never to give up, revised it drastically for La Scala in 1881 where it was vindicated, but the opera never caught on with the public until 1977 thanks to Claudio Abbado and the stereo era. This present reincarnation is from the hands of German director Andreas Kriegenburg who brought it into the present with its political turmoil, civil unrest, urban chaos etc., featuring people dressed uniformly in dark suits running around with smartphones. The set is architectonic, stark and monumental in black and white and fills the wide stage of the Grosses Festspielhaus admirably while creating a sinister and foreboding effect. Now and again we catch a glimpse of the Ligurian Sea in blue that’s picked up in the colour of Amelia’s dress, the only colour in the set.

Conductor Valery Gergiev, to whom the director dedicated the show, concentrates on the inner life and conflicts of each character and the lyricism of the music, although the latter gathers excitement and tremendous dynamics especially in the council chamber scenea gripping focal point of the opera featuring Verdi’s masterful ensemble writing. The cast is superb: Luca Salsi is a strong but conflicted Simon Boccanegra with a warm lyrical voice. His pianissimo singing of the word figlia after the famous Recognition Duet is quite incredible. As his daughter Amelia, Polish soprano sensation Marina Rebeka, is a genuine treat and very strong in the high registers. American tenor Charles Castronovo is a youthful, passionate Adorno, her lover. Basso profundo René Pape, as Simon’s nemesis, is a dignified, noble Fiesco, with an impressive vocal range.

A memorable musical experience with strong emotional impact.

06 Mahler Lied Budapest Festival OrchestraMahler – Das Lied von der Erde
Gerhild Romberger; Robert Dean Smith; Budapest Festival Orchestra; Iván Fischer
Channel Classics CCS SA 40020 (prestomusic.com)

“Is it really bearable? Will it not drive people to self-destruction?” Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) asked of Bruno Walter in 1909 concerning his latest work, Das Lied von der Erde. In truth, few works of art are so life affirming as this supposed “final farewell,” especially so when it receives such a compelling interpretation as we have here from the incomparable Budapest Festival Orchestra in this stunningly well-produced studio recording. Scored for large orchestra and two vocal soloists, it is in all but name Mahler’s Ninth, and, as he presaged at the time due to his ill health, possibly final symphony. The vocal soloists include the American Heldentenor Robert Dean Smith, who shows some evident strain in the heavily scored Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde that opens the work (not an unusual occurrence in this taxing movement). Elsewhere he is much more at ease, lending a winsome charm to the delicate Von der Jugend and convincingly swaggering his way through Der Trunkene im Frühling. The German contralto Gerhild Romberger, best known for her lieder and oratorio performances, sings with a subtle intensity and purity of tone well suited to her more intimate selections, including the autumnal Der Einsame im Herbst, a rollickingly lively Von der Schönheit and the prolonged and deeply moving finale, Der Abschied. This album brings Iván Fischer’s estimable survey of the Mahler symphonies to a close, with the notable and deliberate omission of the Eighth and incomplete Tenth symphonies. 

07 Zemlinsky ZwergZemlinsky – Der Zwerg
Philip; Tsallagova; Magee; Mehnert; Orchestra and Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin; Donald Runnicles
Naxos 2.110657 (naxosdirect.com)

Watching Alexander von Zemlinsky’s one-act opera Der Zwerg (The Dwarf; 1921), I was soon persuaded of his dramatically relevant gifts: attractive melodic contours, compelling dialogue and ensembles, enchanting orchestration. This DVD features strong individual and group contributions, plus Tobias Kratzer’s innovative staging. The latter includes an added Prologue with Arnold Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene (1930) music, adding historical and biographical context.

Given the plot of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale The Birthday of the Infanta, one expects the unexpected; the Dwarf is a surprise “birthday present” to entertain the Infanta Donna Clara who ends up both playing with and mocking him. In Kratzer’s modern-dress version the Dwarf exists in two guises: a singer/composer (tenor David Butt Philip) and a speaking actor of small size (played by Mick Morris Mehnert). This choice is highly effective, with brilliant coodination between the two cast members, and also with two women leads who have to interact precisely with each. Vocally, I was taken with both Philip and stellar soprano Elena Tsallagova as Donna Clara, while the warmth and concern her attendant Ghita (Emily Magee) conveys contrasted effectively. I recommend the women’s fine flower chorus with glittering harp and percussion near the opening; soon trendy choristers are manouvering their pink phones to take selfies with the Infanta! Later, music-induced feelings warm between the Infanta and the Dwarf; do not miss Zemlinsky’s soaring lyricism as vocal lines and complex instrumental harmonies entwine.

08 Korngold ViolantaKorngold – Violanta
Annemarie Kremer; Michael Kupfer-Radecky; Norman Reinhardt; Orchestra and Chorus Teatro Regio Torino; Pinchas Steinberg
Dynamic 37876 (naxosdirect.com)

Vienna, 1914: the exotic, erotic and ecstatic sonorities of Salome and Der Rosenkavalier are in the air and the Strauss-admiring 17-year-old Korngold inhales and transforms them into his own personal style, composing both the comedy Der Ring des Polykrates and the tragedy Violanta. In 1916, Bruno Walter conducts the operatic double-bill’s world premiere in Munich; that same year, performances follow in Vienna and 11 German cities.

Violanta opens with spooky, harmonically indeterminate ninth-chords spanning over four octaves; the suspenseful, feverish atmosphere will continue throughout the one-act opera’s 82 minutes. Soprano Annemarie Kremer is convincingly ferocious as Violanta, persuading her husband Simone (baritone Michael Kupfer-Radecky) to murder Alfonso (tenor Norman Reinhardt), the seducer she blames for her sister’s suicide. But when Alfonso arrives, Violanta admits to herself, and to him, that she has always loved and desired him. They join in a rapturous duet before Violanta, shielding Alfonso from Simone, is pierced by Simone’s sword and dies.

Hans Müller’s libretto was set during Carnival in 15th-century Venice. Surprisingly, Violanta wasn’t staged in Italy until this January 2020 Turin production, needlessly updated to the 1920s by Pier Luigi Pizzi, typical of today’s breed of opera directors who simply can’t leave well enough alone. Pizzi’s set and costumes, though, are suitably lurid – black, white and blood red.

Bravo to conductor Pinchas Steinberg, who draws from the 11 vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra a truly impassioned performance of Korngold’s impassioned, hyper-Romantic, very, very beautiful music. 

09 Shostakovich 13Shostakovich – Symphony No.13 “Babi Yar”
Oleg Tsibulko; Russian National Orchestra; Kirill Karabits
PentaTone PTC 5186 618 (naxosdirect.com)

In the absence of a memorial marking the scene of one of the many great atrocities committed by the Nazis in WWII, Dmitri Shostakovich erected his Symphony No.13, “Babi Yar” (1962). Initially, Shostakovich set only the title poem by his younger compatriot Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Later, he encouraged the poet to provide more, ending up with a total of five movements, all of them choral settings. 

This is post-Stalin Shostakovich, a time when the composer allowed his musical utterances to be “modern,” encouraged by the “Khrushchev Thaw.” His choice to set a poem that more or less accuses his compatriots of anti-Semitism was nonetheless full of personal risk, given how poorly the poem had been received by critics and the Russian public. Disturbing echoes can be found when one reads the text in today’s context, as nationalists again repeat the phrases that disguise hate. The music that accompanies the part of the text echoing Anne Frank’s diary is heartrending.

On this recording the chorus, orchestra and soloist are uniformly excellent. Oleg Tsibulko has the classic Russian basso voice, warm and powerful. The recording was made in a studio, but one hears a reverberant hall. At times overbearing, as one might expect given the subject matter, there are lighter moments. The second movement, for example: Humour is a celebration of how mirth and mockery always triumph over tyranny; it’s a scherzo where Shostakovich pulls out all his favourite tricks. 

The text of the other poems veers between subversion and sloganeering, treading a line between orthodoxy and rebellion. The most interesting is the final poem, A Career. Its ambiguity is matched quite cleverly to the most tonal and tuneful music in the symphony. Trust Shostakovich to loose the arrows of irony toward an unsuspecting target.

10 Voces8After Silence
VOCES8
Voces8 Records VCM129 (voces8aftersilence.com)

Multiple-award winning British vocal ensemble, VOCES8, has just released a two-CD collection rife with diverse works from Bach, Mahler, Monteverdi, Byrd, Britten, Dove, Fauré and more. Known for their eclecticism, the ensemble performs in a cappella format, in collaboration with a wide variety of orchestras and specialized ensembles, as well as with noted soloists. The title of this ambitious project refers to a quote from Aldous Huxley, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible, is music”.

The program here is divided into four sections: Remembrance, Devotion, Redemption and Elemental, with each containing enervating, multi-influenced compositions. Produced by Adrian Peacock and under the artistic direction of Barnaby Smith, the recording utilized the stunning natural acoustics of the Chapel of Trinity College at Cambridge, St. George’s Church in Chesterton and St. John the Evangelist in Islington. The uber-gifted members of VOCES8 include sopranos Andrea Haynes and Eleonore Cockerham; altos Katie Jeffries-Harris and Barnaby Smith; tenors Blake Morgan and Euan Williamson and basses Christopher Moore and Jonathan Pacey. 

Remembrance begins with the sombre beauty of Orlando Gibbons’ Drop, Drop, Slow Tears, which initiates the emotional four-song exploration of the depth and nature of grief and loss. Through each track, the ensemble exercises not only magical dynamics, but a breathtaking relationship to A440 and heavenly intonation. The vocal blend and control of the respective vocal instruments here is nothing short of incomparable. Devotion examines filial, venal, sacred and romantic love as illustrated in Monteverdi’s heart-rending madrigal Lagrime d’amante al sepolcro dell’amata. Redemption and Elemental contain a nearly unbearable amount of beauty, but an exquisite track is Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. In short – After Silence is perfection. 

01 LUniqueL’Unique – Harpsichord Music of François Couperin
Jory Vinikour
Cedille CDR 90000 194 (cedillerecords.org)

The harpsichord is one of those instruments that simultaneously fascinates and confounds, its plucked-string effect and resulting sound so unlike any other keyboard instrument that it is without parallel in the realm of modern instruments. Its players, too, can be considered atypical, collecting birds’ feathers to harvest and refine the quills, thereby crafting the plectra that pick at each individual string, and exploring repertoire that has often been cast aside by the more conventional pianoforte crowd.

Such is the case with the harpsichord music of François Couperin, a master of Baroque keyboard music whose works have long remained in a niche category – the Ordres performed by harpsichordists and the Masses by organists – frequently recorded but less often celebrated in wider musical circles. Vinikour’s recording demonstrates once again why this is so: Couperin’s harpsichord music is inherently and essentially crafted for that specific instrument, its unique percussiveness and relative lack of resonance.

It is this exclusive reliance on the harpsichord that makes these works so fascinating; in addition to being expressive, articulate and strikingly beautiful, Couperin’s conception of these pieces is so specific, both in the written score and resulting sound, that they simply do not work as well on any other keyboard instrument, a point reinforced by Vinikour’s measured approach to the Sixième, Septiême and Huitiême Ordres.

Couperin, as with much of the French Baroque, can sound frenetic and indecipherable if tempi are taken too briskly and ornamentation loses its melodic intentions. Fortunately for us, Vinikour never loses sight of the melodiousness of Couperin’s music, resulting in nearly 80 minutes of utterly delightful early music.

03b FrobergerFroberger: Complete Fantasias and Canzonas
Terence R. Charlston
Divine Art DDA25204 (naxosdirect.com)

So rarely does it happen that performer, composer, instrument and instrument maker(!) equitably join in artistic synthesis. This new record, featuring period instrument specialist Terence Charlston, is a fine specimen of expertise and craftsmanship, with each of the above components keenly harmonized. 

Today, there remain aspects of Johann Jacob Froberger’s art that are unknown to the public at large. The Middle Baroque composer’s contrapuntal works, in particular, are relegated to small circles of listeners and scholars – neglected, despite their ingenuity. Charlston understands this all too well. He looks not only to the impressive compendium, the Libro Secondo (an autograph manuscript dating from 1649), but to a fitting choice of instrument: a copy of a South German clavichord, the MIM 2160, as reconstructed by contemporary keyboard maker, Andreas Hermert.

Charlston has chosen this instrument for its timbral possibilities and expressive range, even citing a lute-like tonal profile. Infamous for pianissimo playing, the clavichord in general has long been commended for its intimate, (even private) character, lyrical and sensitive in its response to the player’s touch. Bemusingly, it even boasts vibrato, of a kind.

But not a single note of this disc ever sounds too private or too furtive. In the hands of Charlston, his clavichord soars and expands before our very ears. Through this incantation of counterpoint, in turns both exotic and familiar, Charlston reveals a depth of humanity on par with the great polyphonic achievements of J.S. Bach.

04 Beethoven Concertos HoughBeethoven – The Piano Concertos
Stephen Hough; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Hannu Lintu
Hyperion CDA68291/3 (hyperion-records.co.uk)

Performing – and recording – the complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano concertos is a remarkable achievement for any pianist, at any stage in their creative life. But a recent release from Hyperion Records offers a singular synthesis of extraordinary solo playing, exceptional conducting and exquisite orchestral performance. Breathing vibrant, surprising avidity into all of this is Stephen Hough, with his customary elan. Hough is a tireless artist, devoted to his craft and to the betterment of our 21st-century musical world. At this autumnal stage in his career, he is beloved and with good reason: his inheritance is of that rare and reverent keyboard tradition dating back to Beethoven’s time. 

Presumably, the British pianist has been performing these piano concertos since his youth and yet, much of the disc’s material suggests a re-envisioned approach, a wide-eyed zeal for such canonic works, always tempered, deferential and selfless. Hough brings his experience to bear: such thrilling artistry glistens through every last note – and silence – on the record. We the listeners are gladdened beneficiaries.

Highlights include both final movements of the Second Concerto in B-flat Major, Op.19 and the Fifth (“Emperor”) in E-flat Major, Op.73, where Hough’s superb taste and jovial character are on full display; he relishes such jauntiness with embellishments and good-natured glee. (In fact, he composed his own cadenza for the first movement of the second concerto.) Also of remarkable note is the Allegro moderato (first movement) of the Concerto No.4 in G Major, Op.58. Hough’s carefully synchronized reading of this music is a departure from the norm and a welcome one at that! His lyrical lines skip and soar, caper and cajole with earnest delight. After all, isn’t this music at once both so very humane and cosmic?

Admirably, Stephen Hough is donating 100 percent of sales from this new album to the charity Help Musicians. An active and noted writer, he recently released an anthology of essays, Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More (2019). It is published by Faber & Faber in the UK and by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in North America.

05 Marc Andr Hamelin Liszt Thalberg Opera transcriptions fantasiesLiszt; Thalberg – Opera transcriptions and fantasies
Marc-André Hamelin
Hyperion CDA86320 (hyperion-records.co.uk)

This remarkable new issue from Hyperion records could be subtitled “Tribute to Italian Opera” because all four masters, Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini and Verdi are well represented. In the heyday of the Second Empire, Paris was the centre of the universe for presenting grand opera and these composers had success after success, conquering the public with beautiful melodies. There were also some of the greatest pianists around who wrote paraphrases or fantasies inspired by these melodies and thereby spread the wealth, making these operas ever more popular.

Case in point: the rousing tune Suoni la tromba e intrepido from Bellini’s I Puritani was so popular that a certain countess invited some of the best pianists of Paris to compose and perform variations on it, asking Liszt to organize and contribute to the contest. Some of the other invitees were Chopin, Czerny and Sigismund Thalberg (Liszt’s principal rival in virtuoso pianism). The contest featured rapid alternations of figuration, headlong scales in thirds for one hand or two and hair-raising leaps and many other virtuoso technical feats in each participant’s unique style. Liszt cleverly prepares the ground so the theme emerges gradually from an ominous (minor key) mood into the major key glorious fortissimo theme. He also concludes the set with his own Molto Vivace quasi prestissimo and wins the contest easily.

Four more paraphrases follow: from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale (Thalberg), Verdi’s Ernani (Liszt), Rossini’s Moïse in Egitto (Thalberg) and Bellini’s Norma (Liszt) performed with astounding virtuosity and true Romantic abandon by Marc-André Hamelin. The Canadian pianist of world renown performs on a Steinway grand and let me assure you it will sound as if the piano were in your living room.

06 Yaroslav Senyshyn Senyshyn Plays Chopin & Liszt Concertos
Yaroslav Senyshyn; Czech National Symphony Orchestra; Oliver von Dohnányi
Albany Records TROY1777 (albanyrecords.com)

Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt are two of the great pianistic giants of the 19th century. Their contributions to the solo and concerto genres redefined the limits of writing and performing for the piano, resulting in almost 150 years of unbroken popularity and affection from both artists and audiences alike. This disc of Chopin and Liszt concertos features the “Number Twos:” the former’s Concerto No.2 in F Minor, and the latter’s Concerto No.2 in A Major, both interpreted by Canadian pianist and Simon Fraser University professor Yaroslav Senyshyn, with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra.

Chopin and Liszt were masters of harmonic and melodic craftsmanship, embracing and extending the reaches of chromaticism and lyricism to create strikingly beautiful material, such as that contained on this recording. Both concertos are lush and expressive – Romantic in the best possible way – requiring a depth of pathos and flash of dexterity from both Senyshyn and his orchestral colleagues, challenges that are ably and satisfyingly met. 

This expressionistic sentimentality, however triumphant or angst-filled, however loud or soft, is fulfilled within defined limits; these are not the thunderous, string-breaking interpretations that can benefit Prokofiev and Ustvolskaya, but rather finer approaches that suit these more delicate pieces. Even when the Liszt concerto threatens to erupt beyond its natural limits, it is held in place by a desire for beauty that permeates every moment of these marvellous essays in concerto form.

While the material is unlikely to be new to many familiar with the piano repertory, this disc is nonetheless highly recommended for its pure, unfiltered perspective of these much-loved concerti. The pursuit of artistic truth over vapid virtuosity and its soul-stirring sincerity make this recording a fine addition to every piano-lover’s collection.

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