Having retired from my day job at New Music Concerts and recently undergone knee replacement surgery which involves an extended recovery, I have found myself lately with a luxury of leisure time. This has given me the opportunity to listen in more depth to the discs I select for my own column. It has also enabled me to select a bumper crop to write about, without however, providing any extra space in which to do so. With apologies to the artists, I will try to keep my assessments brief.

01 Veress and BartokIn my formative years, while immersing myself in the music of the 20th century, I set out to collect recordings of all the works of Arnold Schoenberg and Béla Bartók. Schoenberg proved to be the greater challenge, because in those days there was not yet a definitive collection of his oeuvre, so I had to gather the recordings wherever I could. The quest for Bartók was simplified by a comprehensive Complete Edition Bartók Béla issued in 33 volumes by the Hungaroton label. It was there that I first encountered the quintet for string quartet and piano dating from 1904, an unpublished student work that although well received at its first performance, was later withdrawn by the composer. I was pleased to receive a new recording of the youthful work on Veress – String Trio; Bartók – Piano Quintet featuring violinists Vilde Frang and Barnabás Kelemen, violists Lawrence Power and Katalin Kokas, cellist Nicolas Altstaedt and pianist Alexander Lonquich (ALPHA 458 alpha-classics.com). Frankly, the disappointment I had felt on my initial encounter some decades ago was confirmed upon re-listening to the quintet. Although I’m sure purists would not agree, to my ear the accomplished and virtuosic work would be more at home in Brahms’ catalogue than in Bartók’s. It shows a masterful control of late-Romantic-period nuances and exuberant bombast, especially in the czardas of the final movement, but none of the subtlety of the night music, nor the harmonic and rhythmic complexity of later Bartók. I was pleased to find that the music of Sándor Veress (1907-1992), who was a piano student of Bartók and later his assistant at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, fits better into my idea of what modern Hungarian music should sound like. The trio dates from 1954 and incorporates Schoenberg’s 12-tone method of composition, thus providing a convincing hybrid of the styles of two of my favourite composers. Veress’ music was a welcome discovery for me, and I look forward to hearing more of this under-sung composer.

02 Tchaikovsky BabajanianTchaikovsky & Babajanian features violinist Vadim Gluzman, pianist Yevgeny Sudbin and Canadian-born cellist Johannes Moser (BIS-2372 SACD bis.se). The bread and butter of this disc is the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio in A Minor, Op.50 which receives a stellar performance, amply illustrating the points addressed in the comprehensive liner notes by Horst A. Scholz. But of more interest is the Piano Trio from 1952 by Armenian composer Arno Babajanian (1921-1983) who was previously unknown to me. The work is both rooted in the Romantic world of Rachmaninoff and imbued with folkloristic flourishes from Babajanian’s native land. The notes point out that it was written under the constraints of the Stalin regime and go on to say that after Stalin’s death in 1953, Babajanian’s style opened up to embrace atonality, aleatoric music and microtonality, among other modern techniques. It makes me wish we were presented with a later example of his work, but my preferences notwithstanding, this is a solid composition that holds its own in a crowded field of late-Romantic chamber music, and once again the performance is committed and convincing. The “encore” piece on this CD is Sudbin’s trio arrangement of the Tango from Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No.1 for two violins, harpsichord and strings from 1976, which draws this eclectic disc to a somewhat tongue-in-cheek conclusion.

03 Kira BraunThis year saw the passing of numerous cultural icons, but two in particular are brought together on Kira Braun’s new disc Mosaic (Centaur Records CRC 3779 centaurrecords.com), Glenn Gould Prize-winner André Previn and Nobel Prize Laureate Toni Morrison. Previn first set the poetry of Morrison in the cycle Honey and Rue in 1992 for soprano Kathleen Battle, jazz trio and symphony orchestra. Two years later he went to the well once more, to set Four Songs for the more modest forces of soprano, cello and piano. On this disc Braun is joined by cellist Kirk Starkey and pianist Linda Ippolito in performances recorded February 23, 2019 just three days before Previn’s death at the age of 89. Morrison died just six months later making this an apt memorial tribute, although that was not the intention of the recording. Braun’s voice is well suited to the dark opening poem Mercy, the wistful Shelter and the concluding poem The Lacemaker, but I wish there was a little more edge to the brash and boastful Stones. Starkey’s cello is warm and lyrical throughout and Ippolito’s accompaniment balanced and tasteful. Although Braun’s diction is clear, I wish the texts had been included, along with some information about the composer and poet, their fame notwithstanding. The disc concludes with Previn’s Vocalise written for, and first recorded by, Sylvia McNair and Yo-Yo Ma with the composer at the piano in 1995. It makes a beautiful conclusion to this all-too-brief, 22-minute tribute.

04 Mirrored SpacesOne disc I’ll certainly not be able to do justice in this limited space is guitarist Daniel Lippel’s double CD Mirrored Spaces (FCR239 NewFocusRecordings.com). I would normally be daunted by the prospect of two and a half hours of solo guitar music, but to my delight Lippel has produced such a diverse program that I didn’t notice the time passing. First and foremost, let me state that although he is a truly accomplished classical guitarist, from the dozen composers represented here, there are very few offerings that would be at home on a traditional Spanish guitar recital. Even in pieces such as Lippel’s own Reflected with its quasi-Renaissance feel, our equilibrium is thrown off-kilter by rapid microtonal passages. A number of the pieces involve electronics, live or otherwise. One that particularly struck me was Christopher Bailey’s Arc of Infinity in which I found myself wondering “What if?” the subtle electronic part was transcribed for live cimbalom – how different would that piece be? At any rate, it is extremely effective. While most of the recital is played on a traditional nylon string acoustic guitar, a number of tracks employ an electric instrument, from the gentle harmonics of Sidney Corbett’s Detroit Rain Song Graffiti, to the distortion, feedback and note bending of Lippel’s concluding Scaffold (live). Interspersed throughout the two discs are the nine movements of Kyle Bartlett’s Aphorisms, all using a traditional Spanish guitar, but utilizing a number of extended techniques. If you think you already know what a guitar sounds like, or think that a double CD would be a bit “much of a muchness,” I urge you to check out this remarkable disc.

Listen to 'Mirrored Spaces' Now in the Listening Room

05 Her VoiceLast month I wrote about Rebecca Clarke’s Viola Sonata, and the controversy it caused at the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge-sponsored competition where the judges considered that such a beautiful piece “could not have been written” by a woman. This month Clarke has reappeared on my desk with another work that also was a runner-up in that Berkshire Festival of Chamber Music Competition, the Trio from 1921. Her Voice features the Neave Trio playing works by Clarke, Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944) and Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) (Chandos CHAN 20139 naxosdirect.com/). Although Clarke (1886-1979) was a generation younger than Beach, her trio was written 17 years before that of her older colleague. Beach’s Trio, Op.150 was a mature work, written in late-Romantic style while showing the influence of French Impressionism. French composer Farrenc on the other hand, whose Trio No.1 Op.33 dates from 1843, writes in a much more Germanic fashion, honouring the genre’s origins with Haydn, and more specifically the music of Beethoven. As a matter of fact, as an amateur who has enjoying playing Beethoven trios, I feel that Farrenc’s is a welcome contribution to the repertoire and I’m glad that it has come to light. Kudos to the Neave Trio for continuing to bring lesser-known works to life in sparkling fashion.

Listen to 'Her Voice' Now in the Listening Room

06 Bright and GippsTwo more composers previously unknown to me appear on the next disc, Piano Concertos by Dora Bright and Ruth Gipps (Somm Recordings SOMMCD 273 somm-recordings.com/). Both English, Bright lived from 1862-1951 and Gipps from 1921-1999. Bright was an accomplished and celebrated pianist of whom Liszt said “Mademoiselle, vous jouez a merveille!” and who was described by George Bernard Shaw as “a thorough musician.” In 1888 she became that first woman awarded the Lucas Medal for Composition, and, after leaving the Academy of Music in London, established herself as a double threat, performing her own Concerto in A Minor at the Crystal Palace in 1891. That impressive work is featured in its first recording on this disc with Samantha Ward as soloist.

Gipps was also a stellar pianist, celebrated as a child prodigy both as performer and composer. A hand injury thwarted her performing career, but she then focused on composition and added conducting to her portfolio, becoming the first notable British woman in the field and founding several orchestras. She went on to produce five symphonies and several significant concerted works. Her Piano Concerto in G Minor dates from immediately after the Second World War and Ambarvalia, Op.70 is from 1988. Both are performed with conviction by Murray McLachlan. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s nuanced performances on this important disc are directed by Charles Peebles. 

07 KorngoldErich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) was another child prodigy. Born in Vienna, his ballet Der Schneemann (The Snowman) caused a sensation when he was just 11, and his Second Piano Sonata, written at 13, was played throughout Europe by Artur Schnabel. At 21 his opera Der Tote Stadt (The Dead City) was produced in Hamburg and Cologne. Korngold composed a wealth of concert music and six operas, but is best known for the Hollywood film scores he wrote following an invitation to America from director Max Reinhardt in 1934. He stayed in Hollywood for the duration of WWII, and never returned to his homeland. Although his film scores were a huge success, revolutionizing the field along with Max Steiner and Alfred Newman, his later concert music was dismissed by the critics and cognoscenti of the time who were by then focused on the post-war avant-garde doctrines of Boulez and Stockhausen. The Symphony Op.40, was begun in 1947 while on vacation in Canada and completed in 1952. With its lush orchestration, rich melodic content and cinematic scope, the symphony was rejected by the cultural powers that were, and was not revived until the 1970s when Korngold’s star began to rise again. Korngold: Symphony in F Sharp; Theme and Variations; Straussiana is a new recording on the Chandos label featuring Sinfonia of London under John Wilson (CHSA 5220 naxosdirect.com/). It is a stunning realization of the symphony, but unfortunately I find the companion pieces – one written for school orchestra and the other a pastiche – to be just too much fluff. But the symphony is well worth the price of admission. 

08 Daisy DeboltThe final disc is a little strange in that it no longer exists as such. Daisy DeBolt – Ride Into the Sunset was a limited edition archival collection produced by George Koller for a memorial tribute to DeBolt at Hugh’s Room back in 2011. Although perhaps best known as half of the iconic Canadian acid-folk duo Fraser & DeBolt, active in the late 1960s and early 1970s, DeBolt’s career continued as a solo artist active on the concert stage, composing for the National Film Board and participating in various theatrical productions throughout her lifetime. The recordings included in this compilation date from as early as 1971 – a track with Allan Fraser, presumably an outtake from their first album – right up to four tracks from 2008 co-written with Koller. There’s a 1975 DeBolt composition which she later choreographed for Ballet Ys, and eight tracks from the 1989 cassette-only release Dreams Cost Money. This latter features a number of familiar names including Robert David (woodwinds), David Woodhead (bass), Brent Titcomb (vocal and percussion), Chris Whitely (trumpet), Zeke Mazurek (violin) and Scott Irvine (tuba) to name but a few. Fraser & DeBolt were a formative influence on me and it is a great pleasure to discover this trove of material as a reminder of just how innovative DeBolt was. Last month DeBolt’s estate decided to reissue Ride Into the Sunset digitally. It is available on all the major platforms, including iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora and CD Baby. 

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 Time EternitySpace restrictions make it difficult to fully describe Time & Eternity, the remarkable new CD from the brilliant and visionary violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja with Camerata Bern (Alpha Classics ALPHA 545 naxosdirect.com). This is the fifth in a series of “staged concerts,” a concept that Kopatchinskaja has been developing since 2016, and her second with this ensemble, of which she has been artistic director since autumn 2018.

Described as “music made out of the blood and tears of tortured souls,” the core works are the Concerto funèbre by Karl Amadeus Hartmann, written in 1939 in response to the Nazi outrages, and Frank Martin’s violin concerto Polyptyque, inspired by six 14th-century altar panels of the Passion of Christ.

That barely scratches the surface of a continuous performance that often feels like a religious service: there’s John Zorn’s solemn and moving Kol Nidre; contributions by cantors and Polish and Russian Orthodox priests; song; and, around and between the six Polyptyque movements, the Kyrie from Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame, transcriptions of five Bach chorales and – in place of the Crucifixion panel that Martin omitted – Luboš Fišer’s pain-laden Crux for violin, timpani and bells.

It’s an enthralling and emotional journey from the opening spoken Kol Nidre to the fading tolling bell of the final track, with faultless performances from all involved.

02 BoismortierThe Canadian violinist Olivier Brault is Professor of Baroque Violin at McGill University and has been active in the Baroque music world for over 30 years. In 2007 he completed a doctorate on French music for violin and figured bass, so it’s no surprise to find that his new CD, Boismortier Sonates pour Violon Op.20, beautifully performed here by Sonate 1704, the ensemble Brault formed in 2003 with Dorothéa Ventura on harpsichord and Mélisande Corriveau on bass viol, is an absolute gem (Analekta AN 2 8769 analekta.com/en).

The six sonatas by the French composer Joseph Bodin de Boismortier were published in Paris in 1727, and while they show the increasing influence of Italian violin playing, the French style is still much in evidence, especially in the use of dance movements, with Giga, Corrente, Gavotta, Allemande and Sarabanda accounting for more than half of the movements.

Warm, sparkling playing of richly inventive works makes for an immensely satisfying CD.

03 Tetzlaff Beethoven SibeliusYou can always count on violinist Christian Tetzlaff for something insightful and challenging, and so it proves to be again in Beethoven and Sibelius Violin Concertos, his new CD with Robin Ticciati and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Ondine ODE 1334-2 naxos.com/).

Tetzlaff has recorded both concertos before, but clearly feels he has more to say – or to add, perhaps – this time around. Quite striking, given our being accustomed to the Auer, Joachim and Kreisler cadenzas, is the use of the first movement cadenza with added timpani that Beethoven wrote for his transcription for piano and orchestra, as well as cadenzas and ornamentation by Beethoven in the other two movements (again presumably back-sourced from the piano version, as there were none in the original violin score), although Tetzlaff says in the booklet conversation that he has never done it differently.

Insightful comments on both the Beethoven and Sibelius help to illuminate his approach to their performance and both the physical and intellectual demands. The performers are clearly of one mind in engrossing, intelligent and deeply satisfying performances.

04 Bacewicz Complete ViolinAnnabelle Berthomé-Reynolds is the soloist on Bacewicz Complete Violin Sonatas, with pianist Ivan Donchev joining her in a 2-CD recital of works by the Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz (muso mu-032 muso.mu).

Bacewicz was an outstanding violinist as well as a more than capable pianist, and numbered seven violin concertos, seven string quartets and concertos for piano, viola and cello in her output. The five numbered sonatas for violin and piano span the period 1945-1951, with the Partita for Violin and Piano following in 1955. All display a high level of both structural assurance and familiarity with the technical and expressive potential of the instruments.

There are also two powerful Sonatas for Solo Violin – the clearly Bach-inspired No.1 from 1941, written in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, and the quite progressive No.2 from 1958, with its haunting Adagio and brief but dazzlingly virtuosic final Prelude, described in the excellent booklet notes as a “breathtaking frenzy of double-note glissandi spiccato.”

Engrossing performances make for an exceptional set. 

05 Weinberg Complete Solo Viola SonatasAnother exceptional 2-CD set of complete works is Miecysław Weinberg Complete Sonatas for Solo Viola in quite superb performances by Viacheslav Dinerchtein (Solo Musica SM 310 naxosdirect.com).

The four numbered sonatas were composed between 1971 and 1983, and are issued here in a centenary edition in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

Weinberg’s music continues to be reassessed and promoted, and outstanding releases like this one will clearly help to cement his standing in 20th-century music.

06 Tessa LarkThe American violinist Tessa Lark makes a stunning solo CD debut with Fantasy, a selection of fantasies and rhapsodies from four centuries (First hand Records FHR86 firsthandrecords.com).

Three of Telemann’s 12 Fantasias for Solo ViolinNo.1 in B-flat, No.4 in D and No.5 in A – are spread throughout the disc, with Lark’s own Appalachian Fantasy providing a breathtaking display of virtuosic fiddling in her native Kentucky tradition, reworking the Schubert song that opens his Fantasie in C Major and melding it with tunes from Appalachia. Pianist Amy Yang joins Lark for an outstanding performance of the Schubert Fantasie, as well as for Fritz Kreisler’s Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta – Lark producing ravishing tone and perfect style – and a simply dazzling and passionate performance of Ravel’s Tzigane – Rhapsodie de concert.

It’s a recital of the highest calibre.

07 Yorick Alexander AbelCellist Yorick-Alexander Abel is outstanding in Hommage à Pablo Casals, a program honouring the legendary Catalan cellist (Naxos 8.551418 naxos.com).

Two of Abel’s own improvisations – Prélude “Lampes de Sagesse” (Lamps of Wisdom) from 2000 and Prélude “Sagesse Amérindienne” (Native American Wisdom) from 2010 – frame a fine performance of Bach’s Suite in G Major BWV1007.

The Suite Per Violoncel Sol “A Pau Casals” is a striking work in remembrance of his older brother written by Casals’ violinist/composer younger brother in 1973, the year of Pablo’s death. Arthur Honegger’s brief Paduana from 1945 and Pablo Casals’ own Cant dels Ocells (Song of the Birds), based on a Catalan Christmas song, round out a memorable CD.

There are two excellent string quartet CDs from Alpha Classics this month, both featuring Mozart’s String Quartet No.15 in D Minor K421 and with little to choose between them.

08 Quatuor Voce Mozart SchubertQuatuor Voce is the ensemble on Mozart Schubert Quartets Nos.15, the Mozart paired with Schubert’s String Quartet No.15 in G Major D887 in recordings made with a mix of live concert and studio sessions – not that you can tell (ALPHA 559 outhere-music.com/en). There’s a warm, measured opening to the Mozart, a work often played with a stress on the inner turmoil of this significant key for Mozart – the key of Don Giovanni, the Piano Concerto No.20 K466 and the Requiem. There’s passion here though, albeit implied rather than explicit, with the hint of despair always restrained.

The same sensitivity and depth is equally evident in the monumental Schubert quartet.

09 Quatuor van Kuijk MozartOn the Quatuor Van Kuijk’s MOZART the K421 quartet is paired with the String Quartet No.14 in G Major K387 and the Divertimento in F Major K138, the latter in its original form for four solo strings (ALPHA 551 outhere-music.com/en).

The D-minor quartet leans more towards the dramatic here than in the Quatuor Voce performance, with less vibrato, more articulation and dynamic contrast and more overt anguish – in the final chords, for instance. There’s never a shortage of warmth, however, and the same qualities are evident in a vibrant performance of the K387 G-major work.

10 Eisler Ravel WidmannViolinist Ilya Gringolts and cellist Dmitry Kouzov are the performers on Eisler Ravel Widman Duos, a CD that features two 20th-century works and one from the 21st (Delos DE 3556 delosmusic.com).

Hans Eisler studied with Arnold Schoenberg, and the latter’s influence can be heard in the brief two-movement Duo for Violin and Cello Op.7 from 1924, albeit with the 12-tone approach given a softer and more audience-friendly treatment.

The central work on the disc is the two-volume 24 Duos for Violin and Cello from 2008 by the German composer Jörg Widmann. Nine of the pieces are under one minute in length and the longest only just over three minutes, but the double stopping and special effects present technical difficulties that bring brilliant playing from Gringolts and Kouzov in music that is challenging but always interesting. With Widmann himself saying “Sensational!!! You understand every fibre of my music” about the performances, these world-premiere recordings can be considered definitive.

A fine reading of Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello from 1922 completes a fine CD.

11 Margaret BatjerThe Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and their concertmaster Margaret Batjer perform concertante works for violin from across three centuries on Jalbert & Bach Violin Concertos, with Jeffrey Kahane conducting (BIS-2309 bis.se).

The 2017 two-movement Violin Concerto by the American composer Pierre Jalbert was co-commissioned by the LACO and is heard here in a world-premiere recording. The violin’s lyrical qualities are fully exploited from the quiet and ethereal opening through the rhythmic contrasts of the energy-filled second movement.

Bach’s Violin Concerto In A Minor BWV1041 follows in a solid performance, and the disc closes with two 20th-century works by Baltic composers: Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, written in 1977 and heard here in the composer’s own 1992 arrangement for violin, string orchestra and percussion; and Pēteris Vasks’ quite beautiful Lonely Angel, a 2006 re-working of the final movement from his 1999 Fourth String Quartet. Batjer shows gorgeous tone and control in a solo line written mostly in the highest register.

12 Ries Complete Cello 2The excellent cellist Martin Rummel is back with Volume 2 of Ferdinand Ries Complete Works for Cello with pianist Stefan Stroissnig (Naxos 8.573851 naxos.com). Volume 1 is available on Naxos 8.57726.

Ries left a sizeable œuvre of over 200 compositions on his death in 1838, few of which are remembered. Included here are: the Cello Sonata in C Minor WoO2 from 1799, one of the earliest of its genre and written when Ries was only 15; the Trois Aires Russes Variés Op.72 from 1812; the Introduction and a Russian Dance Op.113 No.1 and the Cello Sonata in F Major Op.34, both from 1823. Eric Lamb is the flutist in the 1815 Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano in E-flat Major Op.63.

13 Miguez VelasquezViolinist Emmanuele Baldini and pianist Karin Fernandes perform sonatas by two leading figures in Brazilian classical music at the turn of the last century on Miguez and Velásquez Sonatas in the Naxos Music of Brazil series (8.574118 naxos.com/).

The Sonata No.1 for Violin and Piano, “Delirio” from 1909 and the Sonata No.2 for Violin and Piano from 1911 by Glauco Velásquez, who was only 30 when he died in 1914, are really attractive works with a warm Latin feel. The Sonata for Violin and Piano Op.14 by Leopoldo Miguez (1850-1902) is from 1885, and while it feels structurally stronger than the Velásquez works and more in the standard 19th-century sonata mode, it also has less of a Latin feel.

Baldini’s playing is radiant and idiomatic, with Fernandes particularly brilliant in the demanding piano writing in the Miguez sonata.

Scarlatti – 52 Sonatas
Lucas Debargue
Sony Classical 19075944462 (lucasdebargue.com)

01 Debarque ScarlattiWhen the jury at the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition placed French pianist Lucas Debargue fourth (which was actually sixth, since the second and third prizes were each shared by two contestants), the outrage was predictable. For it was Debargue who had won over the audience – and the critics – with his dazzling mix of brilliant technique and poetic sensibility.

In any case, Debargue’s career has flourished. In January he’ll make his third appearance at Koerner Hall in Toronto. And Sony has just released his fifth recording, a four-disc set of sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, the innovative Italian Baroque composer who was born in 1685 – the very same year as Bach and Handel – and spent his later, most productive, years at the royal courts in Portugal and Spain.

These short works are fundamental to the repertoire of harpsichordists. Though heard less often in piano recitals, they have been championed by pianists from Vladimir Horowitz and Alicia de Laroccha to András Schiff, Glenn Gould and Angela Hewitt. Many last just three or four minutes, even with Scarlatti’s repeats. But they have the impact of much grander works. Debargue’s selection of 52 sonatas represents less than a tenth of the 555 that Scarlatti wrote. But that’s four hours of some of the most glorious keyboard music ever written.

Scarlatti, a virtuoso harpsichordist, wrote these sonatas to play on his own instrument. So Debargue, ever mindful of the perils of playing them on a piano, makes minimal use of one of the piano’s most valued assets, the sustaining pedal. As a result, he is able to weave textures of delectable lightness and harpsichord-like clarity. But right from the first – and longest – work here, K206, Debargue makes full use of other resources offered by the piano to create an orchestra-scale range of colours and a variety of textures not possible on the earlier instrument. In K115 he highlights Scarlatti’s alluring harmonic shifts by shaping the broken chords and chromatic scales with dramatic crescendos and diminuendos. He does rush the tempo at times, though there are definite payoffs. K25, which is marked allegro, becomes more dramatic at his presto tempo, with the exquisite melodic lines emerging magically. I especially enjoy his bold use of rubato throughout. His ornaments are gorgeous, especially in episodic works like K268, though they can disrupt the pulse and prevent the Iberian rhythms from dancing.

The way Debargue combines the clarity of the harpsichord with the expressive power of the piano is fresh, imaginative and invariably enjoyable – a thoroughly modern approach to these exquisite works.

Pamela Margles

Bach – The Well-Tempered Clavier I & II
Heidrun Holtmann
Musicaphon M56922 (cantate-musicaphon.de)

02 Holtmann Well TemperedThe Well-Tempered Clavier compositions have always represented a sanctuary of sorts for me; a sonic space for contemplation and stillness, unaffected by the fast pace of modern living, and a doorway to a singular notion of the reciprocity between the laws of music and the cosmos. A collection of two sets of preludes and fugues in 24 major and minor keys for solo keyboard, it is also a wonderfully useful treatise on the forms and style of Baroque times.

The Well-Tempered Clavier is structurally complex and creatively abundant, yet orderly and conceived with a teaching purpose in mind. And that is precisely what Heidrun Holtmann connects to in her interpretation – the magnificent architecture that varies from one key to another comes alive vibrantly on this album. She clearly outlines the relationships between preludes and fugues and subtly indicates the different characters of each key (not an easy task in a well-tempered tuning). Although the term clavier applied to a number of keyboard instruments in Bach’s time (hammerklavier, clavichord, spinet, harpsichord and organ) and it is clear that some of the pieces are better suited to a specific kind of keyboard, Holtmann succeeds easily in displaying how the richness and diversity of the piano supports and enriches the colours in the preludes and the virtuosity in the fugues.

Compositional masterpiece, insightful performance – perfect for solitary late autumn musings.

Ivana Popovich

Haydn – Early and Late Sonatas
Denis Levaillant
DLM Editions DLM 3018 (denislevaillant.net)

03 Haydn LevaillantThe keyboard sonatas of Franz Joseph Haydn represent a great feat of an opus, broad in range, dating from the composer’s youthful period to his final decades. The early 1790s – about 15 years before his death – saw Haydn in London, where he encountered new-fangled Broadwood pianos, outfitted with damper pedal and an extended range. Three irresistibly inventive London Sonatas were spawned. Today, so often are these late Beethovenian sonatas performed and celebrated that a listener rarely hears Haydn’s early essays for the keyboard, even in our contemporary age of rediscovery, mining the catalogues of infamous composers for their un-famous works.

French composer, writer and pianist, Denis Levaillant, celebrates Haydn’s early works – as foil to later ones – in his new disc featuring Sonatas No.13 in E, No.14 in D, No.41 in B-flat, No.48 in C, No.49 in E-flat and No.51 in D, all recorded on a modern (Yamaha) grand. As is stipulated in the artist’s eloquent afterword to the liner notes, Levaillant has chosen to access the interpretive world of Haydn’s early sonatas through the stylistic lens of the later ones. He imagines (and supplements) “missing” indications from the composer and offers touches of pedal, pauses and anachronistic colours.

The results are satisfying, for the most part. A correlative access point for Levaillant’s readings is the functionality of early keyboard instruments: the harpsichord and clavichord. Sonatas Nos.13 and 14 most surely would have been realized on such instruments and Levaillant approaches the music with a certitude of form and fortitude of style that permeate the disc’s 15 tracks. The slightly rough and tumble edges – the rustic origins – of Franz Joseph Haydn’s art are brought into relief through Levaillant’s rendering.

Adam Sherkin

Mozart Piano Sonatas
David Fung
Steinway & Sons 30107 (steinway.com/music-and-artists/label)

04 Mozart FungSteinway artist David Fung offers four lesser-known piano sonatas on his new album: the Piano Sonatas No.2 in F Major, K280, No.4 in E-flat, K282, No.5 in G Major, K283 and No.17 in B-flat, K570. Upon first hearing, Fung’s vision of Mozart’s keyboard music is immediately apparent. The (scant) liner notes make much of Fung’s musical upbringing and exposure to the opera – the Mozartian operatic stage in particular – but these references seem status quo and rather obvious in analogy; the comparisons do not quite do justice to Fung’s interpretive approach.

His is a unique and bold reading. Often, contemporaneous interpreters attempt to subdue their own (romantic) leanings, fearing to obscure the ideals of neoclassicalism as manifested in the music of W.A. Mozart. Fung, however, has no such qualms. He portrays a pianistic tableau of striking contrasts, unusual voicings and wanton manipulation of the dimension of time.

Employing a declamatory style, Fung directs the musical action from his keyboard with a strong command of phrasing and rhythmic impetus. He goes far beyond the customary approach to pulsation and accompaniment figures, in search of an inner energy of syncopated beats and subtle ostinati.

Upon repetition of A and B sections, Fung offers fresh takes on voicings that surprise the listener, challenging established conceptions of such material. By far his boldest strokes come in the form of timescale bending: the stretching out of rests, fermati and cadences, as he pushes values to the limit of neoclassical good taste. The resultant effect is generally pleasurable but does, on occasion, turn to parody. Notwithstanding, variety is the spice of life and let’s applaud Fung’s triumph in delivering his singular vision.

Adam Sherkin

Listen to 'Mozart Piano Sonatas' Now in the Listening Room

Mozart Piano Concertos Vol.1
Anne-Marie McDermott; Odense Symfoniorkester; Scott Yoo
Bridge Records 9518 (bridgerecords.com)

Mozart – Piano Concertos Nos.17 & 24
Orli Shaham; St. Louis Symphony Orchestra; David Robertson
Canary Classics CC18 (canaryclassics.com)

05a Mozart Concerti Vol.1Charm, grace and cordiality are fading qualities in today’s hard-hitting, ego-driven age. Attributes from an older world and its refined modes of human interaction continue to recede from us, seemingly destined for near extinction. Every now and then, however, a specialized, sensitive artist will draw us back, time-capsule-like, to a continental European past where art and music existed to elevate, illuminate and beguile.

Ushering the listener toward this very world of period sensibility, Anne-Marie McDermott’s most recent Mozart disc features two lesser-known piano concerti, the Concerto in C, K415/387a and an earlier work of the same genre, in B-flat, K238. McDermott’s exceedingly good taste and technical prowess make for an ideal blend of musical pleasantries, delighting the listener with her innate ability to shape Mozartian lines, equal in parts lyrical, harmonic and rhythmic. This is an 18th-century pianism of poise and courtliness, neoclassical elegance and Viennese affability. 

05b Mozart ShahamAnother such record of Mozart keyboard concerti hails from a collaboration between pianist Orli Shaham and the St. Louis Symphony, under the direction of David Robertson. Here, two later concertos are presented: the airy No.17 in G Major, K453 and the brooding No.24 in C Minor, K491. Soundworlds apart, these pieces juxtapose handsomely on disc, showcasing the dazzling musicianship of pianist, conductor and orchestra with the personal relationship between Shaham and Robertson clearly audible.

This fruitful partnership gleans splendour and lucidity from every note; the conversational exchange between soloist and orchestra is delectable – hefty at times – but largely cajoling in nature. Robertson encourages his players to take their rightful place in crafting the beauty of line and sculpting of colour that behooves the performance of any Mozart concerto. Like McDermott, Shaham enlivens each phrase with a graciousness and purpose, nearly anachronistic with its old-fashioned aplomb.

Shaham’s readings of Mozartian slow movements are of particular note. Her keen ear for colouristic novelty and lucid intonation rewards the listener again and again. Both Shaham and Robertson divine such a spirit of warmth – such love – from the heart of Mozart’s art that even the most probing pundit or cantankerous curmudgeon couldn’t help but be disarmed. What a thrill to hear Mozart’s music expressed with such timeless insight and overarching reverence for those inventive masterstrokes, born of another time and place.

McDermott and Shaham, in league with conductors Scott Yoo and David Robertson, are integral, generous artists who have conceived these four concerti in a manner both simple and satisfying. In today’s discographic landscape awash with record upon record of Mozart’s piano music, here we meet an old school oasis of felicity and joy, on par with the sublime Mozart interpretations that celebrated pianist Emanuel Ax is so well known for. Such recordings highlight, for the contemporary listener, the true nature and benefit of classical masterpieces, penned by the hand of that perennial favourite of involuntary geniuses: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Adam Sherkin

Schubert – The First Romantic
Mathieu Gaudet
Analekta AN 2 9181 (analekta.com/en/)

06 Schubert Mathieu GaudetIn view of his broad-based career Mathieu Gaudet should not be typecast, but this CD certainly adds to his credentials as a Schubert pianist. Consistency and long-range projection of moods, whether meditative, passionate or joyful, are required of the artist. Consider what Gaudet writes of the G Major Sonata (D894; 1826) finale: “The coda strives for transcendence, giving the impression of rising all the way to heaven.” I didn’t quite get that far — but his recording I find very moving. In the opening movement, with its sustained chords paced and balanced perfectly, this listener became meditative. The contrasting dotted-rhythm episodes and huge, anguished development section climax unfolded naturally; the long (19-minute) movement that I dread hearing in superficial readings achieved unforced inevitability here. Skipping the middle movements, I’ll just mention the rustic Austrian charm in Gaudet’s playing of the finale, with its festive character and bagpipe drones.

The early Schubert Sonata in F-sharp Minor (1817; its tangled history is too complex for this review) begins like a lied with the melody in plain octaves and the accompaniment figure’s rhythm repeated — excessively. Some interesting harmonic twists hint at what was to come from the prodigious composer. Gaudet convinces in the attractive middle movements: a sweet Romance and folk-like Scherzo and Trio. This disc is especially significant in view of plans for Gaudet’s 12-disc box-set comprising Schubert’s complete sonatas plus other major works, on the highly regarded Analekta label.

Roger Knox

First and Last Words
Yerin Kim
Sheva SH 217 (yerinkim.com)

07 Schumann Schnittke KimYerin Kim’s new solo disc features early and (very) late piano music by Robert Schumann, plus two novel cycles by Alfred Schnittke. Schumann’s “Abegg” Variations, Op.1, opens the album: an earnest curatorial choice and one that sets a high standard of interpretive credibility to impress the listener thereafter. Kim’s playing is supple and clear with a sincere directness of expression. Following Schumann’s first opus, we greet the sturdy Allegro, Op.8 with similar pianistic appreciation. Onwards to the last of Schumann’s pieces: the Geistervariationen, (“Ghost Variations”) WoO 24 of 1854 were eerily written during the time leading up to the composer’s admission into a mental asylum, ostensibly the darkest period of his life. Kim’s own program notes identify the “angels and demons” that pervaded Schumann’s mind and pen during those haunted late years.

True standouts come next: the Five Preludes and a Fugue (1953-54) and Aphorisms (1990) by Alfred Schnittke. Kim evidently has a knack for this unusual repertoire in which her virtuosity – of both the technical and intellectual variety – can be aptly demonstrated. This is highly focused music with a taut contrapuntal sense and localized formal design – an appropriate complement to Schumann’s first and last piano works.

The final cycle on this disc, Five Aphorisms, represents a late stage in Schnittke’s output, less accessible in its abstracted lyricism and esoteric brevity. Suddenly, the listener is thrust into a contemporary soundscape of jarring gesture: the sonic by-products of an age where man has made, met and managed machines. Here are the very real angels and demons of our own brave new world. And Kim governs them all, with just as much assurance as she does the last, ghostly “words” of Robert Schumann.

Adam Sherkin

01 Dowland Heavenly TouchDowland – Whose Heavenly Touch
Mariana Flores; Hopkinson Smith
Naïve E 8941 (naxosdirect.com)

Perhaps the most renowned composer of music for lute and voice in the history of the genre, John Dowland’s songs continue to captivate modern performers and audiences with their esoteric melancholy and expressivity. Far from being a downer, Dowland’s seemingly depressing themes were as much a practical choice as an artistic one, reflecting the melancholia that was so fashionable in music at that time. In fact, Dowland wrote a consort piece with the punning title Semper Dowland, semper dolens (always Dowland, always doleful), reflecting his tongue-in-cheek self-awareness.

Whose Heavenly Touch presents selections from Dowland’s First and Second Book of Songs, published in 1597 and 1600 respectively, and begins with the striking and enduringly popular Flow, my tears. This recording features Argentinian soprano Mariana Flores and American lutenist Hopkinson Smith, who has received numerous accolades for his work in a wide range of early music, from Dowland to lute arrangements of Bach’s sonatas and partitas. From the beginning of this first song through to the disc’s end, Smith’s mastery of the lute is apparent in his clarity and control, arpeggiations and scalic interpolations providing rhythmic motion through tasteful and virtuosic interpretation.

Perhaps the most conspicuously atypical aspect of this recording is Flores’ distinct Spanish accent, a rather disorienting imposition on this Tudor music which can occasionally mask textual subtleties through excessively rolled “R”s and unexpectedly modified vowels and diphthongs. While her tone and interpretations are delightful, it occasionally takes attentive listening to discern the words that Flores considers worthy of such thoughtful expression.

Gluck – Orfeo ed Euridice
Iestyn Davies; Sophie Bevan; Rebecca Bottone; La Nuova Musica; David Bates
Pentatone PCT 5186 805

Gluck – Orphée et Euridice
Marianne Crebassa; Hélène Guilmette; Lea Desandre; Ensemble Pygmalion; Raphaël Pichon
Naxos 2.110638 (naxos.com)

03a Orfeo ed EuridiceGluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice is a landmark work in the operatic canon, as famous for its restoration of the ideals of Greek art in opera seria as it is for its musical and dramatic content. As well as being aesthetically progressive through its deliberate conservativism, Orfeo merges French and Italian styles into a synthetic whole, combining the Italianate style utilized by Handel and Vivaldi with the influence of Lully and Rameau. First premiered in Vienna in 1762, Gluck later re-adapted the opera to suit the tastes of a Parisian audience at the Académie Royale de Musique and several alterations were made in vocal casting and orchestration to suit French tastes.

Between 1784 and 1859 the concert pitch in Paris rose so significantly that the French government passed a law which set the A above middle C at 435 Hz. To combat the effects of this inflation in pitch, Hector Berlioz prepared a version of Gluck’s opera (Orphée et Eurydice) in which he adapted the title role for a female alto using the key scheme of the 1762 Vienna score, and incorporating much of the additional music of the 1774 Paris edition. Although Berlioz’s version is one of many which combine the Italian and French scores, it is the most influential and well regarded and has since been revised and reissued in numerous editions.

03b Orphee et EuridiceIt is Berlioz’s 1859 version of Gluck’s opera which the Opéra Comique presents in their DVD Orphée et Eurydice, a wonderful representation of Gluck’s artistry and reflection of Berlioz’s craft as adapter. The style and performance practice are decidedly classical, rooted in the 18th-century tradition, and Berlioz’s personal influence is appropriately indiscernible. There are, however, some notable modifications to Gluck’s original score: the overture has been replaced with another of Gluck’s orchestral overtures; and the harpsichord is nowhere to be found, a decision that is open to interpreters, as the instrument was removed from the Parisian orchestral pit around the time of Orphée’s premiere. This is an overall weightier approach to Gluck, with a larger orchestra playing with full sound and prominently voiced soloists, suggesting a 19th-century approach commensurate with the sound Berlioz likely had in mind.

In contrast with the Opéra Comique’s presentation, Pentatone has issued a new recording of the 1762 Orfeo which includes both harpsichord and the original overture, as well as a countertenor Orfeo. This version is, although very similar to the Berlioz edition, considerably leaner in its orchestral timbre and more fluid with its Italian text, further emphasized through an interpretation that is deliberately direct and essentially Baroque, rather than bold and Romantic. In both instances the singers, choruses and orchestras are magnificent, presenting Gluck’s music in equally superb and successful ways.

05 Flying DutchmanWagner – Der Fliegende Holländer
Samuel Yuon; Lars Woldt; Ingela Brimberg; Bernard Richter; Les Musiciens du Louvre; Marc Minkowski
Naxos 2.110637 (naxos.com)

Richard Wagner’s opus, Der Fliegende Holländer was completed in 1840, and then revised three times during the next 20 years. Arguably the opera in which Wagner found his voice, it was inspired by the story of a Dutchman whose blasphemy led to his being condemned to sail the seas for eternity unless he could be redeemed by a faithful woman.

The action begins in a Norwegian fjord where a sailor named Daland is sheltering his vessel from a storm. A ghostly ship pulls alongside and its captain – the Dutchman – offers Daland vast wealth in exchange for a single night’s hospitality. Daland’s daughter, Senta, who is obsessed by the tales she has heard about the Dutchman’s fate, vows to be his salvation. Forsaking her lover, Erik, she joins the Dutchman and proves her fidelity to him unto the end, when she throws herself into the sea after him. In the climax that follows, the lovers are seen transfigured, rising above the waves.

Der Fliegende Holländer is set in three acts but is often performed as a continuous two-and-a-half-hour whole. Highlights are Die Frist ist um and Johohoe! Johohoe! Marc Minkowski’s conducting is triumphant. Olivier Py’s direction – amid a bleak set – brilliantly captures Wagner’s opera with cohesion and fluency. Samuel Youn’s full-voiced, bass-baritone Dutchman has anguish and desperation, Ingela Brimberg’s Senta is sweet and effortless and Lars Woldt’s Daland is resonant and noble. Orchestra and chorus are in glowing form too.

06 Boris GodunovMussorgsky – Boris Godunov
Tsymbalyuk; Paster; Kares; Skorokhodov; Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra; Kent Nagano
BIS BIS-2320 SACD (bis.se)

Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov with its grandeur, epic sweep and forward-looking music is possibly the greatest Russian opera, but it had a difficult time. The original “dark and raw” 1869 score had to be revised drastically to be acceptable for the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg; later Rimsky-Korsakov (and Shostakovich) changed the orchestration to suit Western ears. It was Rimsky-Korsakov’s version that became successful outside of Russia. Now there is a trend towards authenticity so Kent Nagano, music director of the Bavarian State Opera, chose the original score for the opera’s visionary avant-garde and very successful revival in 2013, in Munich. He later performed it in Stockholm in concert form which is the basis of this recording.

The original version is brutal, concise and dark-hued and concentrates mainly on the Tsar Boris – who came to the throne by murdering the legitimate heir – his ascent, his struggle with a guilty conscience and a final decline into madness.

Nagano’s selection of Alexander Tsymbalyuk, relatively young and a voice more lyrical than that of the legendary Chaliapin (who owned the role for decades), was ideal for the vulnerable and tormented Boris. Of the other bass voices, young Finnish basso Mika Kares (Pimen) and Alexey Tikhomirov (Varlaam) with his iconic song Once upon a time in the city of Kazan, stand out. The tenor Grigory, the false pretender who causes Boris’ downfall but curiously disappears from the plot after a short appearance, is Sergei Skorokhodov. Another protagonist, the Chorus, “the voice of Russia” ,has tremendous power, but the real star is Nagano who is by now one the greatest conductors of our time. His superb control and total immersion into the score remind me of Abbado a generation before him.

07 Bartok BluebeardBartók – Bluebeard’s Castle
John Relyea; Michelle DeYoung; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra; Edward Gardner
Chandos CHSA 5237 (naxosdirect.com)

There are many fine recordings of Bartók’s gothic, two-character psychodrama; this one is special because both singers have made this opera their own, performing it around the world. As a tandem, American mezzo Michelle DeYoung and Toronto native, bass John Relyea, have sung these signature roles on many stages from Carnegie Hall to the Sydney Opera House.

It’s essential that Judith and Bluebeard be, as here, evenly matched vocally and dramatically, in their life-or-death battle of wills. (I’ve attended performances featuring very unequal pairings.) DeYoung’s impassioned singing convinces us of Judith’s love for Bluebeard and her determination to bring light into his gloomy abode, demanding to see what lies behind his castle’s seven locked doors. Relyea’s firm, resonant bass, plumbing the emotional depths of Bluebeard’s ghastly secrets, makes him today’s definitive Bluebeard.

Conductor Edward Gardner relishes the phantasmagoric colours and textures of the largest orchestra Bartók ever used, creating vivid sonic imagery of the grim, blood-soaked scenes behind the opened doors. The fortissimo tutti when the fifth door opens to reveal the magnificence of Bluebeard’s realm and Judith’s ecstatic, sustained high-C reaction, is truly one of the most thrilling moments in all opera.

The Hungarian-sung text is included along with an English translation. Librettist Béla Balázs’ two-minute spoken Prologue, not always performed, is also heard here, asking (in Hungarian) “Where did this happen? Outside or within? Ancient fable, what does it mean…? Observe carefully.”

Listen to this CD carefully, too.

08 Mahler Orchestral Songs organMahler – Orchestral Songs: The Organ Transcriptions
David John Pike; David Briggs
Analekta AN 2 9180 (analekta.com/en)

The English organist David Briggs, a student of the renowned Jean Langlais, is no stranger to these parts, having served as artist-in-residence at the Cathedral Church of St. James in Toronto from 2012 to 2017 before moving on to his current post at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. Briggs is also a composer, a stalwart transcriber of the improvisations of the legendary Pierre Cochereau, and an arranger with a particular interest in the symphonies of Mahler, five of which he has refashioned for the organ. He is joined on this recording by the excellent young Canadian baritone David John Pike (now based in Luxembourg) in commanding performances of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Kindertotenlieder and Rückert-Lieder orchestral song cycles.

One might think it a bit of a stretch to re-imagine these works in this unusual context, but in truth Mahler rarely ventures beyond three-part writing even at his most gargantuan moments and these works are routinely performed in the composer’s own piano versions. Briggs’ thoughtful choice of timbres reflect Mahler’s own instrumentations quite convincingly. The recording venue is quite an interesting one: The Basilica of Constantine (Konstantin-Basilika) at Trier, Germany dates from the beginning of the fourth century. Burned in an air raid in 1944, subsequent repairs exposed the original inner brick walls; at the back of this spartan edifice hangs a newly built organ from 2014 designed by the firm of Hermann Eule. Though Eule normally specializes in neo-Baroque Silbermann-era designs, this particular installation is symphonically arranged with 87 stops (over 6000 pipes) on four manual works and pedal, making it the largest organ in Trier and offering a vast palette of exceptionally beautiful tones to choose from.

09 Magdalena KozenaSoirée
Magdalena Kozena & Friends
Pentatone PTC 5186 671 (pentatonemusic.com)

How nice it is that a singer would take some time out of her crazy, busy life, sit down with friends and a few drinks and sing her favourite songs. And that’s exactly what by-now-world-famous-Czech mezzo, award-winning recitalist, recording artist and opera star, Magdalena Kožená, does here. This is her debut issue on the Pentatone label. The “friends” include a string quartet, a clarinet, a flute and a piano, the latter played by her husband, Sir Simon Rattle. Each combination of these instruments creates different tonal effects and colouring for an idiomatic and unique accompaniment.

Her choice of program gives a cross section of lieder literature from the late Romantics (Chausson, Dvořák, Brahms and R. Strauss) through French Impressionism (Ravel) and some Moderns (Stravinsky and Janáček). In fact we can follow the development of the art song with a fascinating variety and style where the golden thread of Kožená’s imagination, wonderfully expressive voice, beautiful intonation and some lovely inflections are evident throughout. Just listen to her inflection on “Vögelein” in Gestillte Sehnsucht, by Brahms!

Naturally she is strongest in her native Czech and Moravian idiom. She sings with youthful freshness and confidence. Especially impressive and unique are the Nursery Rhymes by Janáček; some are outrageously funny. And I am happy she included one of my all-time favourite songs by Dvořák, When my mother taught me.

A lovely, relaxed musical evening you will cherish.

10 RencontreRencontre – Debussy; Delage; Poulenc; Ravel
Raquel Camarinha; Yoan Héreau
Naïve V 5454 (naxosdirect.com)

Despite competition in this repertoire from other discs, I think that readers partial to the mélodie (art song) will find much to appreciate in this first recording by the young French duo of Raquel Camarinha, soprano, and Yoan Héreau, piano. Already these artists have busy European careers as recitalists, chamber musicians and opera professionals.

On this disc Camarinha’s tone stays rich and consistent through the top register, while Héreau rises to the works’ colouristic challenges whether playing rapid figuration or subtle sonorities. In Ravel’s three-song Schéhérazade, Asia’s imagined voyage receives evocative treatment. The Enchanted Flute, a favourite of mine, is concise and flowing. Turning to well-known Debussy settings of two groups of symbolist Paul Verlaine’s poems, the combination of langour and sadness in Ariettes oubliées is conveyed effectively; the wonderful Fairground Horses breaks those moods with brio and virtuosic pianism from Héreau. In Fêtes galantes I was struck by soft floating high tones from Camarinha at the close of Clair de lune (incidentally, this music is completely different from Debussy’s identically titled piano piece).

Quatre poèmes hindous by Maurice Delage (1879-1961) adds the influence of Eastern scales and melody to idioms of Debussy and Ravel. Lahore is especially worth hearing for Camarinha’s vocal flexibility and sensitivity in a gorgeous extended vocalise. Finally, a generous selection of songs with exquisite syllabic text settings by Poulenc demonstrates her wonderfully clear diction – including the adept execution of the rapid tongue-twisters Fêtes galantes and He steals!

11 Canadian Chamber ChoirSeasons of Life and Landscape
Canadian Chamber Choir
Independent CCCCD003 (canadianchamberchoir.ca)

A truly national ensemble, the Canadian Chamber Choir draws its membership from across the country, gathering for seven to ten-day projects in different regions in order to actualize a mandate to bring Canadian choral music to every corner of the land. This particular project is meant to guide the listener, as if walking through an art exhibit that draws on different media but is built around a common theme; in this case, the ever-changing seasons.

At the beginning of the recording, a gorgeous Intro featuring Jeff Reilly on bass clarinet, Keith Hamm, viola, and Beverley Johnston, vibraphone, sets a high bar for the rest of the program. The forces of nature and its effect on the human spirit are then conjured through pieces like Laura Hawley’s undulating Le Rideau and effervescent Singing Summer’s Praises while mystic elements shine forth in Imant Raminsh’s In the Night We Shall Go In and Cree composer Andrew Balfour’s Vision Chant, as well as Antiphon by Peter Togni and Jeff Reilly. Reminiscences shape shift like clouds in Levasseur-Ouimet’s Parlez-moi and composer-in-residence Jeff Enns’ Le pont Mirabeau. Throughout these offerings, members of the choir execute a myriad of styles soulfully, meticulously and with remarkable quality of tone. They also do a fine job with arrangements of Joni Mitchell’s River and Gordon Lightfoot’s Song for a Winter’s Night.

Listen to 'Seasons of Life and Landscape' Now in the Listening Room

01 PaladinPaladin
Alex McCartney
Veterum Musica Vm022 (alexmccartney.co.uk)

This serene disc is an exploration of the under-represented lute composer Jean Paul Paladin (c1500-1565), who was known as Giovanni Paulo Paladino before his move to France around 1516. Among the monarchs he entertained was Mary Queen of Scots, of interest to the performer Alex McCartney who lives in Scotland.

The disc comes with a single fold insert that gives McCartney space to give us detail about the composer’s life and style. His notes finish with a philosophical discussion about his choice of cover art, a gorgeous French-Gothic illumination from a late-medieval book of hours: Paladin’s fantasies for him contain a sense of the “multi-layered ritual and meditation” that the book of hours would have also provided.

Indeed, the disc comes across as very contemplative. The playing is smooth, poised, and well balanced, if a little static at times. McCartney explains that Paladin’s ten fantasias in particular attracted him to the composer, and he includes nine of the ten here. The other tracks offer two madrigal intabulations and four anonymous preludes, all of which are polyphonic in nature. This means that the whole disc is restricted to contrapuntal genres in slow duple meter – so if you’re hoping for something you can tap your foot to, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Paladin did publish a bit of dance music, but McCartney is not trying to give us a complete picture of the composer’s output. His disc offers instead a meditative escape using Paladin’s soothing and exquisite counterpoint.

02 Fantasia BellissimaFantasia Bellissima
Bernhard Hofstotter
TYXart TXA 18115 (tyxart.de; bernhardhofstotter.org)

As if you hadn’t heard enough about Ukraine in the news lately, this superb disc features premiere recordings from the so-called Lviv Lute Tablature, named for its current location. The booklet includes excellent notes on this interesting source by Dr. Kateryna Schöning -- though I believe she may be mistaken when she states that “besides two lost sources… the manuscript is the only lute tablature from the Polish-Lithuanian region.” Canada’s own Magdalena Tomsinska of Waterloo edited the Gdansk Lute Tablature MS 4022 and recorded selections in 2014.

Beyond just music, the source’s 124 folios also contain Latin aphorisms, graphic patterns and other visual ornaments, as well as some Polish poetry. The manuscript’s music comes from a variety of different nations, composers, and time periods. On the disc you’ll find pieces from the early 16th century, such as Joan Ambrosio Dalza’s Pavana alla Ferrarese, yet also two fantasias by John Dowland which were composed towards the end of the century. This makes for a nice variety.

Bernhard Hofstötter’s lute playing is superb, as is the sound of his Renatus Lechner seven-course lute in the acoustic of the Landesmusikakademie Sachsen in Colditz Castle. The dance rhythms have articulation and buoyancy, the counterpoint clarity and grace. Chanson intabulations by Sermisy, Sandrin, and Jannequin are high points. However, purists should be prepared for what I assume is an off-book strum-fest in the anonymous Tarzeto which opens and closes the disc.

03 Morel violleMorel – Premier Livre de Pièces de Violle
Alejandro Marias; La Spagna
Brilliant Classics 95962 (naxosdirect.com)

French composer and viola da gamba player Jacques Morel (c.1690 - c.1740)’s biography is so obscure that even the dates and places of his birth and death are unknown. Sadly, he doesn’t even have a wiki page. We do know he was a pupil of Marin Marais, the composer and foremost viola da gambist of his day, to whom Morel dedicated this Premier Livre de Pièces de Violle (c.1709), his major legacy and the subject of this CD.

There hasn’t been a complete recording of these suites, prompting virtuoso gambist Alejandro Marias to spearhead this project to record several of them for the first time. At the core of the album are Marias’ stylish and musically secure performances of four suites from the Premier Livre for the seven-string bass viola da gamba in differing keys. The continuo parts are provided by members of the award-winning Spanish period music group La Spagna.

Morel’s music is attractively varied in the best high-French Baroque tradition. Seven or eight characteristic period dance movements typically follow the emotive rubato opening prelude in each suite. Judging from this album, Morel’s attractive oeuvre is imbued with his idiosyncratic voice, even though the influence of his teacher Marais’ style is also present. My album picks: Suite in A minor’s Sarabande l’Agréable, the Gigue à l’anglaise and the Échos de Fontainebleau in the Suite in D.

Even though long neglected, this music is full of delightful discoveries and should be better known.

04 Bach OuverturesJohann Sebastian Bernard Ludwig Bach – Ouvertures for Orchestra
Concerto Italiano; Rinaldo Alessandrini
Naïve OP 30578 (naxosdirect.com)

How pleasant to explore music by relatives of Johann Sebastian Bach other than his sons. Johann Ludwig was a third cousin of Bach, Johann Bernhard a second cousin. On this CD, they each contribute an Ouverture to accompany the four by the Bach.

So is Concerto Italiano’s choice justified? The works by the two cousins are substantially shorter than the great man’s. Yet listening to them shows how highly enjoyable they are: listen to the Rigaudons and Gavotte en Rondeaux in Johann Bernhard’s Ouverture-Suite in E Minor.

Then there is Johann Ludwig’s contribution to the CD, namely, his Ouverture in G Major. This is even shorter than Johann Bernhard’s work but much more spritely. The movements all ask to be danced to, whether or not they actually were at the time. Indeed the Ouverture by Johann Ludwig could even be played as background music at any event, no matter how formal.

And so to the four Orchestral Suites by Johann Sebastian. From the movement which opens the CDs (the Ouverture to the Orchestral Suite No.3) there is a complexity to Bach’s composition which marks him out for the composer he was. Real demands are made on the string-players, an aspect repeated throughout the four Suites. It is quite clear that by Bach’s time the movements named after French country dances were well advanced from their original rural simplicity.

Although his own writing shines through on these CDs, the sleeve-notes state how much Johann Sebastian respected his two cousins. The beautiful pieces selected by Concerto Italiano and their sheer vivaciousness demonstrate why.

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