Here we are at the summer issue, the final installment of Volume 27 (the completion of our 27th year of publishing The WholeNote). This means my last chance until September to try to make it through the pile of excellent discs that have caught my attention. I have winnowed them down to a top ten, but even so I will be hard pressed to cover them all within my allotted space. Of course it would be a much simpler task if I restricted myself to talking more about the discs and less about my own connections to them, but as regular readers know, the chances of that are slim at best.

01 Philip Glass MolinariThe latest release by Montreal’s Quatuor Molinari is Philip Glass – Complete String Quartets Volume One (ATMA ACD2 4071 atmaclassique.com/en). Glass continues to add to the repertoire – he has eight quartets so far – heedless of those artists who have already published “complete” recordings. The first four are arranged here in a non-sequential, but quite effective order. String Quartet No.2 “Company” – with its haunting opening – is first up, followed by No.3 “Mishima” which was adapted from the soundtrack of the film by that name. Both of these works reflect Glass’ mature minimalism and it comes as a bit of shock when they are followed by his first venture into the genre, written in 1966 before he developed his signature style. This quartet is more angular and searching, although it too features a cyclical return to its starting point, a feature that the notes point out may “evoke for some the mythical Sisyphus, condemned to eternal repetition.” String Quartet No.4 “Buczak” – commissioned as a memorial for artist Brian Buczak – returns us to more familiar ground – its slow movement is even reminiscent of the opening of the second quartet – and brings an intriguing disc to a fitting close. 

This Molinari release is digital only at the moment, but on completion of Volume Two, ATMA says they will be issued together as a double CD. Although founder Olga Ranzenhofer is the only remaining original member of the quartet, which has undergone myriad personnel changes in its 25-year history, the Molinari sound remains consistent and exemplary, and their dedication to contemporary repertoire is outstanding. Molinari’s impressive discography now numbers 14 in the ATMA catalogue, and includes such international luminaries as Gubaidulina, Schnittke, Penderecki, Kurtág and Zorn, along with Canadians Jean-Papineau Couture, Petros Shoujounian and the 12 quartets of R. Murray Schafer.

Listen to 'Philip Glass – Complete String Quartets Volume One' Now in the Listening Room

02 Canadian SoundscapesCanadian Soundscapes: Schafer; Raminsh; Schneider (CMCCD29722 cmccanada.org/shop/cd-cmccd-29722) opens with The Falcon’s Trumpet, a concerto R. Murray Schafer wrote for Stuart Laughton, a longtime participant in Schafer’s Wolf Project in the Haliburton Forest. Schafer wrote the piece while working at Strasbourg University in France and says “no doubt my nostalgia for Canadian lakes and forests strongly influenced the conception of this piece.” Certainly it is evocative of the wilderness, as the trumpet soars above the orchestra like a falcon in flight. In this performance soloist Guy Few joins the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra (OSO) under the direction of Rosemary Thomson. Thomson has been music director of the OSO since 2006, previously serving as assistant conductor of the Canadian Opera Company and conductor-in-residence of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. The OSO is the third largest professional orchestra in B.C. and this is its inaugural recording. A striking feature of Schafer’s concerto is the wordless soprano obbligato in the final minute, in this instance sung by Carmen Harris. Perhaps more surprising, considering Schafer has frequently used high sopranos in his wilderness pieces, is the inclusion of a soprano in a vocalise duet with the soloist in Imant Raminsh’s Violin Concerto.  Raminsh, best known and well-loved for his lush choral music, says he felt some trepidation when approached to write a piece for Vancouver Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Robert Davidovici. He felt no affinity for works of “flash and little substance” but ultimately felt comfortable creating something “more along the Brahmsian line – a symphonic work with solo violin obbligato.” At more than 40 minutes in four movements, it is truly grand in scope and lusciously Romantic in sensibility. Soprano Eeva-Maria Kopp is first heard in the final minute of the Agitato Appassionato movement and throughout the following Andante con moto. She re-enters briefly towards the end of the Con Spirito finale. The shared timbres are scintillating and violinist Melissa Williams shines throughout this remarkable work. Ernst Schneider’s self-proclaimed Romantic Piano Concerto is the earliest piece here, dating from 1980, at a time when the composer was immersing himself in the study of piano concerti of the Baroque, classical and Romantic eras. It is just as advertised and young Canadian soloist Jaeden Izik-Dzurko rises to the occasion admirably. I was particularly taken with the Adagio Molto Espressivo second movement, to my ears reminiscent of the same movement in Ravel’s Concerto in G

03 MascaradaThe Canadian Music Centre’s latest release is a digital EP, Mascarada by Alice Ping Yee Ho (Centrediscs CMCCD 29922 cmccanada.org/shop/cd-cmccd-29922) featuring cellist Rachel Mercer, flamenco dancer Cyrena Luchkow-Huang and the Allegra Chamber Orchestra under Janna Sailor. The press release included a link to a video of Mascarada (youtube.com/watch?v=3hb7fvsAJ2o) and at first I was confused as to whether this was a video or an audio release. It seemed strange to credit a dancer in an audio-only recording, but once you hear it you will understand why. The flamboyant, percussive choreography is an integral part of the composition and is very present on the recording. Watching the video where all the performers are masked and socially distanced, it seems likely that this is yet another result of the current pandemic, but it is also an apt touch for a piece called a masquerade. Ho has successfully captured the flamenco spirit and it could just as easily have been called “My Spanish Heart.” I first met Mercer as a young artist while working as a music programmer at CJRT-FM in the early 90s. Since that time she has gone on to a stellar solo and chamber career, and now serves as principal cellist for Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra. She shares the spotlight with Luchkow-Huang here, and it’s hard to decide who is stealing the show from whom in this stunning performance. 

04 Quarrington plays ThompsonI will venture out of my field of expertise for this next one, but not so much out of my comfort zone. Joel Quarrington – The Music of Don Thompson (Modica Music joelquarrington.com/store) is a fabulous collaboration between two of Canada’s top musicians. Although the overall feel of the disc is rooted in Thompson’s more-than-half-century career as jazz bass, vibes and piano player, he is featured here as composer and accompanist to Quarrington, a world-renowned musician who has served as principal double bass player for the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto Symphony, Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra and most recently the London Symphony Orchestra. The first four tracks feature Quarrington with Thompson on piano, beginning with Thompson’s arrangement of the classic A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, followed by three Thompson originals. Quarrington’s tone is sumptuous and his ability to swing is truly impressive, as rarely heard from a classical musician. 

The album notes comprise an extended reminiscence from Thompson in which he tells of early meetings with Quarrington and how their paths continued to cross over the years. One example was in 1989 when Quarrington asked him to write a piece for a gig he was doing for New Music Concerts involving multiple bass players, including Wolfgang Güttler, principal of the SWR Symphony Orchestra, Baden-Baden and Freiburg. The result was Quartet 89 for four double basses. Thompson, who was to play pizzicato in the ensemble, says “I knew I couldn’t write a real ‘classical’ piece, so I just tried to come up with something we could play that might be fun. I wrote a big part for myself with a solo intro, a solo in the middle plus a cadenza, and left it up to the rest of them to decide who played [what].” I was at that concert, although it was before my association with NMC began, and I can tell you they had fun indeed. In the current iteration, which completes the disc, Thompson sits out and Roberto Occhipinti takes his spot with aplomb, and great sound, with Quarrington, Joseph Phillips and Travis Harrison on the arco parts. Not a classical piece per se, but somewhere between that and the world of jazz with a foot in both camps, much like this unique collaboration.

05 Im WaldAnother disc that falls between two worlds is Im Wald conceived by, and featuring, pianist Benedetto Boccuzzi (Digressione Music DCTT126 digressionemusic.it). In this instance the two worlds are the piano music of the late classical/early Romantic era, juxtaposed with contemporary works by Jörg Widmann, Wolfgang Rihm and Helmut Lachenmann. While purists will likely be offended by the imposition of sometimes abrasive works into such beloved cycles as Schumann’s Waldszenen and Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin (in a piano arrangement) I personally find it refreshing and even invigorating. The first half of the disc involves a complete performance of the Schumann (Forest Scenes in English) with selected movements from Widmann’s Elf Humoresken (11 Humoresques) interspersed. Then as a “palette cleanser” Boccuzzi inserts an electronic soundscape of his own creation, Im Wald (Into the Woods). In the second half of the disc we hear eight of the 20 movements of the Schubert, this time “interrupted” by a Ländler by Rihm and Fünf Variationen über ein Thema von Schubert (not from Die schöne Müllerin) by Lachenmann. This latter is of particular interest to me as it is an early melodic work (1956) that predates the mature style I am familiar with in which Lachenmann focuses mainly on extra-musical timbres achieved through extended instrumental techniques. Boccuzzi is to be congratulated not only for the overall design of this project, but for his understanding and convincing realization of the varying esthetics of these diverse composers. 

Listen to 'Im Wald' Now in the Listening Room

06 Schubert FinleySpeaking of Die schöne Müllerin, I was surprised when no one spoke up when I offered Gerald Finley’s new Hyperion recording with Julius Drake to my team of reviewers (CDA68377 hyperion-records.co.uk/dw.asp?dc=W1922_68377). I was also surprised to find that the renowned Canadian bass baritone had not previously recorded the cycle, familiar as I am with his other fine Schubert recordings. As we have come to expect from Finley and Drake’s impeccable performances of Winterreise and Schwanengesang, this latest release is everything one could ask for: nuanced, emotionally moving, pitch-perfect and well balanced. Finley is in top form and Drake is the perfect partner. 

I was unfamiliar with the Bergamot Quartet before their recording In the Brink (New Focus Recordings FCR316 newfocusrecordings.com). Founded at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore in 2016, the quartet is “fueled by a passion for exploring and advocating for the music of living composers” and this disc is certainly a testament to that. It opens with a work by American cellist and composer Paul Wiancko, commissioned by the Banff Centre for the Toronto-based Eybler Quartet during the 2019 Evolution of the Quartet festival and conference. (The Eybler were on the faculty and the Bergamot were participants in the program that year.) Ode on a Broken Loom is evocative of a spinning wheel and its rhythmic drive is compelling. Tania Léon’s Esencia (2009) is a three-movement work that incorporates influences from the Caribbean and Latino America, cross-pollinated with Coplandesque harmonic overtones. Suzanne Farrin’s Undecim (2006) is the earliest work here, and is in some ways the most intriguing. The composer says it was written “when I was thinking about how memory could be applied as a process in my music. I was fascinated by the long lifespan of stringed instruments. In this work, I liked to imagine that the bow remembers all of the repertoire of its past and could […] utter articulations of older pieces in an ephemeral, non-linear [gloss on] the present.” It’s a wild ride. The final work, the group’s first commission, is by first violinist Ledah Finck. In the Brink (2019) adds a drum set (Terry Feeney) to the ensemble, and requires the string players to vocalise, exclaim and whisper while playing. Not your traditional string quartet!

07 Bergamot In the BrinkThe San Antonio-based SOLI Chamber Ensemble has been championing contemporary music since their founding in 1994. They are comprised of violin, clarinet, cello and piano, the formation immortalized in Messiaen’s iconic Quatuor pour la fin du temps. Their latest CD presents The Clearing and the Forest (Acis APL50069 acisproductions.com), “an evening-length, staged work that dramatizes the relationship between landscape, migration and refuge through music, theater and sculpture” by Scott Ordway. A very brief Prologue featuring quiet wind chimes leads into Act I – we must leave this place forever in five instrumental sections, mostly calm but with occasional clarinet and violin shrieks reminiscent of ecstatic passages in Messiaen’s work. The six-movement Act II – we must run like wolves to the end begins with quiet solo clarinet, once again echoing Messiaen. In Ordway’s defence it must be virtually impossible to write for this combination of instruments without referring to that master; however, there is much original writing here in Ordway’s own voice. A contemplative Intermezzo – a prayer of thanksgiving leads to the final Act III – the things we lost we will never reclaim. This single extended movement gradually builds and builds before receding and fading once again into the sound of chimes. Ordway says “I have tried to create a work which honors and embodies the values of welcoming, of care and concern for others, of keen attention to the small and secret phenomena unfolding around us in the living world every day.” I would say he has succeeded, as has the SOLI Ensemble in bringing this work to life. 

09 SierraI first listened to Vicky Chow’s CD Sierra (Cantaloupe Music CA21174 cantaloupemusic.com/albums/sierra) without reading the press release or the program notes and initially assumed I was hearing a remarkable piano solo. It turns out however that the compositions by Jane Antonia Cornish presented here are actually works for multiple pianos (up to six) with all the parts overdubbed by Chow in the studio. The lush, and luscious, pieces are beautifully performed, their multiple layers seamlessly interwoven to produce an entrancing experience. The five pieces, Sky, Ocean, Sunglitter, Last Light and the extended title work for four pianos, comprise a meditative, bell-like suite that I found perfect for releasing the tensions of everyday tribulations. Hmm, tintinnabulations as antidote to tribulations, I like that. 

10 Quatuors pour troisI did not know what to expect from the title Quatuors pour trois instruments (Calliope Records CAL2195 calliope-records.com). I am familiar with trio sonatas – which, while called trios, actually require four musicians, two melody instruments and continuo often made up of a keyboard and a bass, kind of a Baroque rhythm section – but in this instance “quartet for three instruments” refers to a piano trio – violin, cello and piano – with two players in piano four hands formation. Evidently it was a common 19th-century grouping, which has since virtually disappeared. Violinist Hector Burgan and cellist Cyrielle Golin are joined by Antoine Mourlas and Mary Olivon sharing the piano bench in delightful multi-movement works by Hermann Berens (1826-1880) and Ferdinand Hummel (1855-1928). (Hummel is not related to Johann Nepomuk Hummel, the only composer of that name of whom I was previously aware.) The only composer represented here whom I did recognize is Felix Mendelssohn, whose Ruy Blas Overture was written in 1839 for a Leipzig production of Victor Hugo’s play of the same name. Fresh and sprightly, Hummel’s Sérénade Im Frühling from 1884 depicts Vienna in sunny springtime, while Berens’ two quartets from the 1860s are in a more classical style, harkening back to the aforementioned Mendelssohn. I was initially concerned that the four hands on the piano would make for muddy textures, hiding the two string instruments, but these well-balanced performances put the lie to that. I’m pleased to have made the acquaintance of these composers, and these fine players, in this great introduction to some little-known repertoire. 

We invite submissions. CDs, DVDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com

01 Karl Stobbe jpegCanadian violinist Karl Stobbe recently created a series of online concerts featuring video recordings of solo violin repertoire, including all six of the Bach Sonatas & Partitas. These recordings are now being turned into a series of albums, with Bach & Bartók the opening volume (karlstobbe.com).

Stobbe pairs Bach’s Sonata No.3 in C Major BWV1005 with the Bartók Sonata for Solo Violin for historical as well as musical reasons: Bartók heard Yehudi Menuhin play the Bach in early 1944 when he was working on his own sonata, commissioned by Menuhin after their late-1943 meeting. Stobbe senses a connection, feeling that the Bach C Major is the only one of the Bach works that has a similar musical journey to the Bartók – from darkness to light, through uncertainty and wandering harmonies to an expression of celebration and joy.

Stobbe has a big, rich sound, and the strength to navigate the fiendishly difficult Fuga in the Bach as well as the technical challenges in the Bartók. It promises to be a fascinating series.

Concert Note: Karl Stobbe performs at the Festival of the Bay, Midland Cultural Centre, on July 26 and at the Festival of the Sound on July 28.

Listen to 'Bach & Bartók' Now in the Listening Room

02 Telemann CotikThere’s more Baroque violin music from an exact contemporary of Bach on Telemann 12 Fantasias for Violin Solo in supremely satisfying performances by Tomás Cotik (Centaur CRC 3949 tomascotik.com).

In previous reviews I’ve noted that the Fantasias, written some 15 years after Bach’s Sonatas & Partitas at first appear less challenging than the Bach. They seem so much easier on the page, shorter and with simpler lines and less multiple-stopping, but they’re fraught with technical pitfalls – angular, awkward intervals, tricky string-crossing – and they play much faster than they look.

Still, nothing challenges Cotik, who uses a Baroque bow to lovely effect in the slow sections and to simply dance through the Allegro, Presto and Vivace movements. There are 44 sections in all, some only a few bars long, but all are inventive, varied and charming. The booklet essay says that “every note of these often complex pieces lies perfectly, if not easily, [my italics] under the bow.”

Well, yes – if you’re as superb a player as Tomás Cotik.

03 OstinatoThe Bartók sonata also turns up in Ostinata: works for solo violin, the excellent debut recording from the young London-based French violinist Charlotte Saluste-Bridoux (Champs Hill CHRCD158 champshillrecords.co.uk).

Biber’s Passacaglia in G Minor, “The Guardian Angel”, the final piece from his Rosary Sonatas, is followed by Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin and the Prokofiev Sonata in D Major Op.115. Grażyna Bacewicz’s Sonata No.2 from 1958 and Ysaÿe’s Sonata No.4 in E Minor Op.27, dedicated to Kreisler, complete the disc.

There’s smooth, clean playing throughout, with technical assurance, strong melodic lines and no hint of roughness – I’ve certainly heard the Bartók Fuga (which Karl Stobbe interestingly terms “brutal”) played with more attack and spikiness. The Presto final movement in the Bacewicz is quite brilliant, and an idiomatic reading of the Ysaÿe sonata completes a highly satisfying recital.

04 Le Monde Selon AntheilThere should be a warning label on violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja CDs: “Fireworks – handle with care.” You always get something different and incredibly exciting from this player who never hesitates to take risks, and so it is with her latest CD Le Monde selon George Antheil with pianist Joonas Ahonen (Alpha Classics ALPHA797 outhere-music.com/en/albums/le-monde-selon-george-antheil).

Antheil, the American composer and pianist, caused riots in early 1920s Europe as a “Pianist-Futurist” who wrote machine-like and explosive piano works. Presented here is his astonishing Violin Sonata No.1 from 1923, its percussive and machine-like outer movements in particular drawing terrific playing from the duo.

 Antheil’s world, referenced in the CD title, included Morton Feldman and John Cage, the former represented here by the brief Piece (1950) and Extensions 1 (1951) and Cage by his 1947 Nocturne. It’s the Violin Sonata No.7 in C Minor Op.30 No.2 by Antheil’s lifelong hero Beethoven, however, that sees Kopatchinskaja really upping the excitement levels in a quite remarkable performance.

05 Weilerstein BeethovenThere’s an outstanding new set of the complete Beethoven Cello Sonatas, this time with cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan (Pentatone PTC5186884 pentatonemusic.com/product/beethoven-cello-sonatas).

The two have been playing together since 2008 and are close friends, and their mutual understanding shows in every moment of these beautifully judged performances. They were recorded during the pandemic in 2020 for the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, with Weilerstein saying that doing so “at such a fragile, chaotic time” helped make it an immensely rewarding experience. 

It certainly shows in superb performances that will more than hold their own against any competition.

06 Vagn Holmboe 2Denmark’s Nightingale String Quartet follows up its outstanding first volume of fellow-countryman Vagn Holmboe’s complete works in the genre with Vagn Holmboe String Quartets Vol.2 (Dacapo 6.220717 naxos.com/catalogue/item.asp?item_code=6.220717).

The three works this time are the String Quartet No.2 Op.47 from 1949, the String Quartet No.14 Op.125 from 1975 and the two-movement Quartetto sereno Op.197 posth., the shortest of Holmboe’s quartets and unofficially No.21. Started just two months before the composer’s death in 1996, it was completed by his friend and former pupil Per Nørgård.

The exceptionally high standard of the initial volume is continued here, the publicity material accurately describing the performances as “energetic, precise yet lively and poetic interpretations” of works which “stand among the most significant contributions to the genre in the 20th century.”

07 Saint Georges QuartetsSwordsman, horseman, athlete, violinist, composer – what a fascinating individual Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges must have been. SAINT-GEORGES Six Concertante Quartets is the fourth Naxos CD devoted to his works, in performances by the Arabella String Quartet (8.574360 naxos.com/catalogue/item.asp?item_code=8.574360).

Saint-Georges wrote three sets of six quartets, starting with Six Quatuors Op.1 in 1772 and ending with Six Quatuors concertans Op.14 in 1785. The quartets in the current set, written in 1777 and published without opus number in 1779, are all short works of only two movements each. 

The string quartet form in France was in the early stages of development at the time, the four-movement form being developed by Haydn having little influence. Still, as the booklet notes remark, while small in scale these quartets are exceptionally rewarding, amply demonstrating Saint-Georges’ rich lyrical gifts and natural ability to delight performers and audiences alike.

Lovely playing makes for an absolutely delightful CD.

08 Beethoven PouletThe French violinist Gérard Poulet, who turns 84 later this year, is no stranger to the Beethoven violin sonatas, having released a 4CD box set in 2001 in addition to a few single releases, all with different pianists. His latest recording is Beethoven Sonates pour violon et piano nos. 3, 5 et 7, with pianist Jean-Claude Vanden Eynden (Le Palais des Dégustateurs PDD026 lepalaisdesdegustateurs.com).

The sonata keys and opus numbers aren’t identified, but they are No.3 in E-flat Major Op.12, No.5 in F Major Op.24 “Spring” and No.7 in C Minor Op.30 No.2. Poulet has a lovely sound – warm, sweet and never forced or over-stressed. These are simply lovely readings, with the “Spring” sonata (which also features in all the above-mentioned recordings) at the heart of a delightful recital. 

09 ChinoiserieChinoiserie – Building New Musical Bridges is the fascinating debut CD from the Duo Chinoiserie of classical guitarist Bin Hu and Jing Xia on guzheng, the Chinese plucked string instrument similar to a zither. Described as a true melding of Eastern and Western cultures, it features arrangements of works by Granados, de Falla and Debussy as well as contemporary compositions (Navona NV6417 navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6417).

Newly commissioned works by Sérgio Assad and Mathias Duplessy, along with Yusuke Nakanishi’s Inari open and close the disc. All other titles are transcriptions by the Duo Chinoiserie, including Stephen Goss’ Cantigas de Santiago, three excerpts from El amor brujo, the Granados Oriental and Debussy’s Girl with the Flaxen Hair and Golliwog’s Cakewalk.

The guzheng’s clear, distinctive sound obviously tends to dominate, especially if it’s taking the melodic line, but it combines perfectly with the guitar to produce a quite unique musical experience.

10 ConsolationsConsolations – Liszt Six Consolations and other reflective pieces for violin and piano, featuring violinist Maya Magub and pianist Hsin-I Huang is another lockdown project, started when Nathan Milstein’s transcription of the third of Six Consolations for Solo Piano inspired Magub to transcribe the remaining five for violin and piano herself (CRD Records CRD3540 crdrecords.com).

The big difference here was the decision to record the tracks independently and then combine them in the studio, although having to decide which to record first possibly contributed to a sense of treading carefully and a general absence of risk-taking.

Accompanying the Liszt are 12 short pieces, with evergreen favourites by Schumann, Massenet, Rachmaninoff, Kreisler, Bach/Gounod, Dushkin/Paradis, Handel, Chopin and Mendelssohn.

Magub’s violin sound is clear and warm and quite distinctive – a slow vibrato (if any at all) and occasional portamento. Both instruments are clearly recorded.

11 AznavoorianThe Armenian-American Aznavoorian sisters Ani, cello, and Marta, piano, make their duo recording debut with Aznavoorian Duo: Gems from Armenia, a CD that explores their musical heritage (Cedille Records CDR 90000 209 cedillerecords.org).

The disc opens with five ancient folk songs arranged by the Western-trained orthodox priest, composer and musicologist Komitas Vartabed (1869-1935), a seminal figure in Armenian classical music. Four Soviet-era composers are represented: Aram Khachaturian with two brief pieces; Arno Babajanian (1921-83) with the lovely Elegy for solo piano and the Aria & Dance; Alexander Arutiunian (1920-2012) with the lively Impromptu; and Avet Terterian (1929-94) with the really impressive three-movement Sonata for cello and piano from 1956.

Contemporary Armenian composers are represented by single short pieces by Serouj Kradjian (b.1973), well known in Toronto as the pianist in Amici, and Vache Sharafyan (b.1966), plus the world-premiere recording of Mount Ararat, commissioned from Peter Boyer (b.1970) for this recording project.

There’s some really lovely music here, all beautifully played and recorded.

12 Three Generations TcherepninThe Tcherepnin family of composers is celebrated on Three Generations: Chamber Music by Ivan, Alexander and Nikolai Tcherepnin. Violinist Quan Yuan and pianist David Witten are the duo for almost the entire CD (Toccata Next TOCN 0012 toccataclassics.com).

Works by Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977) open the disc, his Romance WoO from 1922, his Élégie Op.43 from 1927 and Arabesque Op.11 No.5 from 1921 all being first recordings. The major work here is his three-movement Sonata in F Major Op.14.

The most attractive music on the disc is by the composer most active in the Russian late-Romantic era, Nikolai Tcherepnin (1873-1945). His Poème Lyrique Op.9 from 1900 is a simply lovely work that draws particularly fine playing from Quan, and his Andante and Finale Op. posth. from 1943 (another first recording) is also a gem, the dazzling folk-influenced Finale having more than a hint of Stravinsky’s Petrushka.

Two flute works by Ivan Tcherepnin (1943-98), Pensamiento and Cadenzas in Transition are played here by his wife, Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin. She is joined by pianist Donald Berman and clarinetist Ian Greitzer for the premiere recording of the latter.

13 Brahms with viloaAlthough it was apparently released in 2020 I only recently received the CD of Brahms Trio Op.114 and Sonatas Op.120 in the composer’s own viola arrangements of three of the four late chamber works inspired by his friendship with clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, but I’m including it because it features some of the loveliest viola playing I’ve heard in a long time (Le Palais des Dégustateurs PDD023 lepalaisdesdegustateurs.com).

Ettore Causa is the outstanding violist, ably supported by pianist Boris Berman throughout and by cellist Clive Greensmith in the Trio. The Steinway D piano adds depth and body to beautifully judged performances of Brahms at his most autumnal.

01 Marianne LambertCanzone di Notte
Marianne Lambert; Valerie Milot
Fidelio FACD052 (mariannelambert.com)

The grand conception of this disc, intended to be in praise of bel canto, is instantly discernible. Why would it not be? Quebec soprano Marianne Lambert inhabits this repertoire, sliding into it as if into a second skin; musical secrets revealed from the tablet of her heart. 

The singer’s lustrous voice soars in melismatic and arpeggiated leaps, sometimes with sly, but glorious coloratura. She is an eminently graceful singer who can generate genuine pathos, as superbly captured on Vivaldi’s Sposa, son disprezzata or Rossini’s Giusto Ciel, in tal periglio!; conjure great hope as in Mozart’s Ridente la calma and Rossini’s La promessa; and unfettered joy on Donaudy’s Vaghissima sembianza

Lambert is an artist of the first order. She makes key phrases in these arias come alive and spring in balletic arcs, cutting through the still air of this room. She digs into the meaning of words and phrases and infuses their poetry with a sense of nostalgia and melancholy, painting the song’s fluid melodies with poignant candour.

With radiant chromaticisms and splendid sonorities the harpist Valérie Milot complements the plaintive soundworld of the characters played by the singer. Her notes are ideally weighed and measured, and fit perfectly onto Lambert’s vocals as if punctuating these songs with wistful and melancholy accents. Together Lambert and Milot create a grand edifice of song through this well-chosen repertoire.

03 Brian FieldBrian Field – Choral and Orchestral Works
Budapest Symphonic Orchestra and Choir; Lviv Philharmonic Society and Chorus; Composers’ Choir; Heelan Chorale
RMN Classical RMN70709 (brianfield.com)

I grew up in the Anglican tradition: high mass, chant choir in front, choir and organ in the loft behind, masses by Healey Willan, smells and bells, the lot. All this to say, “I get how American composer Brian Field can sound so English. His music is shamelessly ear-friendly, his instrumental writing idiomatic and choirs seem to revel in the beautiful sonorities he elicits from them.” I’m back as a bored altar boy dozing off amidst incense and anthems. Snapping awake to assure you this is a very enjoyable recording, I take issue with one reviewer’s pronouncement that Field “stretches tonality to and beyond its limits.” He seems quite content within tonality’s limits, whatever those are. 

Choral excellence from a variety of groups sets a standard not met by the instrumentalists of the Budapest Symphonic Orchestra. While the ensemble’s standards of rhythm and phrasing are acceptable, they seem casual regarding intonation; “stretched tonality” might have masked this, but Field’s tonal palette deserves more care. Carping aside, Shiva Tandava is a compelling concerto grosso and makes a nice change from the very fine choral writing. 

Perhaps more generous liner notes would explain how the Hindu god of destruction gets along with the reputedly benign Christian version, or at least what the title references. I’d appreciate knowing too, which choirs sing which of the various sacred (Christian) texts. His lovely setting of the Christina Rosetti poem In the Bleak Midwinter adds just a few pounds of tonal stretch to Gustav Holst’s version.

Listen to 'Brian Field: Choral and Orchestral Works' Now in the Listening Room

04 Sharon AzrieliSecret Places – A Tribute to Michel Legrand
Sharon Azrieli; Tamir Hendelman
LML Music (sharonazrieli.com)

The brilliant composer and pianist Michel Legrand died in 2019, and yet his work continues to resonate – not only in the films in which his compositions were heard, but in the many fine versions of his body of work that have been lovingly interpreted by international artists, including Canadian Sharon Azrieli. The arrangements and orchestrations on this fine collection were created by pianist Tamir Hendelman and Azrieli, who also co-produced the disc with David Merrill. First up is If There Were No Dreams (with lyrics by Neil Diamond). Azrieli brings her well-seasoned, classically trained and sibilant voice to this gentle, lilting and rarely performed ballad, while Lori Bell’s elegant flute and Alex Frank’s sinuous bass lines intertwine with an unaffected loveliness. Another delight is Secret Places – with snappy lyrics from master wordsmith, Alan Jay Lerner, the well-chosen title track displays the irrepressible joy of Legrand’s musical sensibility with a stunner of a piano solo by Hendelman and fine bass work by Frank.

Arguably, Legrand’s most constant collaborators were luminous lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman, bringing us many memorable compositions written for an array of fine films, including Les Moulins de Mon Coeur (better known as The Windmills of Your Mind) from 1968’s The Thomas Crown Affair.  Azrieli renders this excellent interpretation in English, and also in flawless French, expertly capturing the romance and passion of the cinematic plot. Also with the Bergmans, in What Are You Doing For the Rest of Your Life? Azrieli evokes an aura of deep emotion and mystery here – just as Legrand intended.

Two additional stunners include Watch What Happens and I Will Wait For You – with English lyrics by Norman Gimbel. Both of these gorgeous songs appeared in the equally gorgeous 1964 film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and feature fine soloing from Ricky Woodard on sax and Dean Koba on drums with Frank on bass. A superlative tribute to an eternal international artist.

01 Fabio BiondiOpera in Music – Carlo Monza Quartets
Europa Galante; Fabio Biondi
Naïve v 7541 (bfan.link/opera-in-musica-carlo-monza-quartets)

This is a world-premiere recording for these six quartets, an amazing fact because the sheer dramatic quality of these works means they deserved much earlier appreciation. In addition, recognition of Carlo Monza should surely have been forthcoming as a certain Mozart had been a 14-year-old in Monza’s native Milan looking out for local composers in order to make his own technique more locally acceptable. 

From the initial Quartetto in C Major “Gli amanti rivali” there is a spirited, operatic character to Monza’s compositions, as if the instruments are singing their own private ariassometimes almost arguing with each other. The same quartet brings us the haunting, slow, subdued strings of the largo L’amante favorito muore.

The more one explores this collection, the more one wonders why Monza’s music was lost for so long. There is a stateliness to the adagio from Il giuocatore reminiscent of Pachelbel’s famous canon; the following allegro is worthy of Mozart or any of his contemporaries, while the same suite’s ravveduto appears to draw on the pastoral movements of the early Baroque.

Finally, there is the La caccia suite, unmistakable for the boisterousness of its opening movement, conjuring up the sounds of the hunt from which it is inspired. Monza saves perhaps his most intricate movement for last; Rondò de’ pastori frattanto che i cacciatori cenano creates the images of a hunt concluding in a quiet, satisfied atmosphere.  

Fabio Bondi devoted much time to finding Monza’s manuscript. A private library refused to lend it; kudos then to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France for lending its copy. And to Bondi for his perseverance in finding it.

Listen to 'Opera in Music: Carlo Monza Quartets' Now in the Listening Room

02 Melisande McNabneyFantasias
Mélisande McNabney
ATMA ACD2 2812 (atmaclassique.com/en)

The fantasia is an old and well-traversed musical form that reached its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries, combining improvisational flourishes, compositional skill and virtuosic panache into a single work. Many of music’s greatest minds have written fantasias for a range of keyboard instruments, including J.S. Bach’s works for harpsichord and organ, Mozart’s pianoforte fantasias and Liszt’s immense organ fantasias. This disc focuses on music written by three Baroque and classical-era luminaries: Johann Sebastian Bach; his son, Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach; and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, performed on the fortepiano by Montreal-based keyboardist Mélisande McNabney.

The decision to begin a fortepiano-centred recording with J.S. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, BWV903 is an interesting one, as Bach almost certainly composed this work with the harpsichord in mind. (The fortepiano was invented in 1698, while J.S. Bach died in 1750; it’s not implausible to think that Bach was acquainted with early models of the fortepiano, but there is no evidence that he composed anything specifically for that instrument.) For those familiar with BWV903 performed on rhythmically percussive, reverb-rich harpsichord recordings, McNabney’s choice of instrument provides a drier and less aggressive approach, with more room for flexibility and rubato.

The remainder of the disc is comprised of smaller works by C.P.E. Bach and Mozart, as well as the large-scale Fantasia in C Minor, K475. This is, perhaps, the most successful combination of composition and instrument, as the moody affect combines with the fortepiano’s unique timbre and ability to produce contrasting dynamics with great success. Fantasias leaves little doubt that McNabney is a master keyboardist and skillful interpreter; this, combined with the charming and dramatic music itself, makes for a highly recommended recording, especially for those with a particular interest in early instruments.

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04 Haydn Schubert BermanHaydn; Schubert
Boris Berman
Le Palais des Degustateurs PDD025 (lepalaisdesdegustateurs.com)

Boris Berman has had a long and distinguished career as a concert pianist, teacher and author. Many will remember his impeccable performances with orchestras around the globe, as well as his recordings of numerous solo piano works. He is most certainly a performer who projects a technical prowess within the gentle curves of the heart and, as such, late music by Haydn and Schubert suits him very well. 

Perhaps it is only fitting for a performer of that calibre to revisit, at some point in their career, the music that seems simple in structure and expression yet complex in nature. The pairing of late sonatas by Haydn (E-flat Major No.62 and D Major No.61) and Schubert (the “grand” Sonata in A Major D959) is simply wonderful. These two composers shared a similar structural architecture, rarely wrote flamboyant music and often left plenty of interpretative choices to the performers. Berman takes full advantage of it and is very successful in finding and bringing out commonalities, especially the splendid elegance of the phrases. On the other hand, he is equally brilliant in underlining the emotional restraint of Haydn versus the deep emotions of Schubert, without losing sight of the form and intentions of the composers. 

To me Berman’s playing feels like a narration of the story, and this narrator knows all the secrets behind the scenes.

05 Schubert GaudetSchubert – Relics
Mathieu Gaudet
Analekta AN 2 9186 (analekta.com/en)

When Schubert’s unfinished Sonata in C Major D840 was published in 1861, the publisher gave it the title Reliquie (Relic), a name which shall forever remain a mystery. The title was deemed worthy enough to be given to this Analekta recording featuring this and the Sonata in A Major D664 with pianist Mathieu Gaudet, the sixth volume in an ongoing series presenting Schubert’s complete piano sonatas and major piano works.

Despite its incomplete state, the Sonata D840 is monumental in size and there were opinions that it may even have been intended as a piano version of a large-scale symphony. Indeed, the majestic opening movement – all 16 minutes of it – is truly symphonic in spirit with large block chords and much unison writing which Gaudet handles with a solid assurance. The minuet and trio – which never progressed beyond the recapitulation – is more “scherzo” than “minuet” while the sprightly Rondo Finale is halted at mid-development. (The recording uses an alternate ending by pianist Paul Badura-Skoda.)

The Sonata D664 was composed during the summer of 1819 and is now known as the Little A Major Sonata to differentiate it from the much lengthier work (D959) in the same key from 1828. This is placid and lyrical music, with Gaudet offering up a fine legato, a fluid sense of rhythm and a keen sense of phrasing. The well-known Finale-Allegro is particularly joyful where Gaudet’s hands breathe new life into this familiar repertoire.

An added bonus is the brief Danse Allemande et Ecossaise D643, an appealing interlude between the two sonatas. For lovers of Schubert – or Romantic period piano music – this is another welcome addition to the series and we can look forward to more.

06 Ruth SlenczynskaMy Life In Music
Ruth Slenczynska
Decca B0035175-02 (deccaclassics.com/en)

Like it or not, success in the world of recorded music (classical, pop, jazz or otherwise) no longer, if it ever did, results exclusively from musical excellence. Rather, what is required is the coalescing of good music and a compelling backstory in order to command listener and record label attention. Though not a simple binary, examples abound, of course, of music more heavily weighted in one area, and not the other. There is the classic “style-over-substance” designation. Conversely, examples are many of truly great playing that has no extra musical narrative to help push its reception towards broader recognition. 

As music lovers, I am sure that we can all think of examples that reside in either of these two categories. Rarely, do both imperatives come together. But, thankfully such is the case on Ruth Slenczynska’s My Life In Music, new from Decca Records. The music: Samuel Barber, Debussy, Grieg, Bach and, of course, Chopin (Slenczynska had earned a reputation as among the most celebrated of Chopin interpreters while still a child prodigy) is, given the considerable time spent working on this repertoire, predictably amazingly played, recorded, interpreted and executed. But it is the extra musical bits, most notably the fact that this 2022 album was recorded when Slenczynska was 97-years old, representing a return to the Decca label after an absence of nearly 60 years, that makes this recording both a satisfying musical statement and a punctuation note on a fascinating life in music that I knew little about prior to the record’s release, the ensuing press and the considerable interest in this remarkable story.

07 Chopin Peter SchaafChopin Polonaises
Peter Schaaf
Schaaf Records SC 104 (peterschaaf.com)

Let me introduce you to an exceptionally talented artist, Peter Schaaf. Not only he is having a brilliant career as a concert pianist and accompanist but he is also a remarkable portrait photographer with such clients as Seiji Ozawa, André Laplante, Janina Fialkowska and Peter Schickele.

Due to the COVID epidemic his photographic career came to a halt, so for the past two years he has focused on the piano, practising more than ever, learning new pieces and expanding his repertoire. During this time he created and issued four CD recordings: 1) Chopin Polonaises, 2) Chopin Waltzes 3) Albeniz Iberia and 4) a miscellaneous waltz album from a few different composers like Schubert, Brahms, Ravel and Dvořák. And imagine, the four albums are available on his website for free download! I wouldn’t mind having any of them in my collection.

The Polonaise is a genuinely Polish, elegant dance especially suited to festive occasions. The couples line up one behind the other and move forward gracefully in a unique 3/4 time rhythm. It’s beautiful to watch and is sometimes even included in symphonies, concertos and operas. Chopin wrote eight of them (and my fondest wish was to be able to play the “Heroic” A flat Major Op.53, which I fell in love with). Schaaf plays it with joy and panache and the middle ostinato is particularly menacing. The Andante Spianato is flowing gracefully in sustained piano and the following Grand Polonaise erupts in fortissimo as a magnificent contrast. This is highly accomplished, technically brilliant, enthusiastic piano playing and a recording to match.

08 Anna PetrovaSlavic Heart
Anna Petrova
Solo Musica SM383 (anna-petrova.com)

Classical music is rarely political anymore, although extra-musical narratives can be unpacked from much of Western Art Music and be applied both for the purposes of historical contextualizing and in an effort to make sense of today’s world. And while making sense of today’s world may seem like a yeoman’s task as of late, classical music listeners should not avoid listening to and reflecting on the music of the many great Russian composers of yesteryear whose gifts to the world were many indeed. 

It would be a shame to make the legacy of such 20th century Russian composers as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev and Alexander Scriabin yet another casualty in the ongoing and horrific war in Ukraine. Recorded prior to the Russian invasion of February 2022, Hungarian pianist Anna Petrova, a highly feted pianist and Doctor of Musical Arts who is on faculty at the University of Louisville, takes on the challenge of interpreting this fine music with aplomb on her Solo Musica release, Slavic Heart

Capturing the music of the three aforementioned composers, along with the work of Bulgarian Pancho Vladigerov, this excellent new recording mines what must have been a creatively fertile geographic area and 50-year time period (1892 to 1942) to bring these haunting melodies back into focus. I can only imagine that solo pianists love (and perhaps dread?) the inherent challenges that the canon of these four composers presents. But with marvellous technique, a deft touch on the piano and an ability to coax new insights from these canonic pieces, Petrova makes it clear on Slavic Heart that she is up to the task.

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09 Philip ChiuFables – Maurice Ravel; Barbara Assiginaak
Philip Chiu
ATMA ACD2 2843 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Indigenous issues are an important topic in Canada today and Canadian pianist Philip Chiu addresses their significance on this ATMA recording by pairing music by Maurice Ravel with that of Anishinaabekwe composer Barbara Assiginaak. Inaugural winner of the Mécénat Musica Prix Goyer, Chiu has made a name for himself as both soloist and chamber musician. His musical partners have included Emmanuel Pahud and Raphael Wallfisch.

The disc opens with the Ravel String Quartet in F, composed in 1903. A truly beautiful work, the quartet is considered by many to be among the finest in the repertoire and this transcription by Lucien Gurban (and further adapted by Chiu) is exemplary. Indeed, the listener could easily be deceived into thinking it was originally scored for solo piano. Throughout, Chiu does it full justice, his approach as poised and elegant as the music itself. The frenetic finale is a true tour de force, with the young artist demonstrating a formidable technique.

Assiginaak’s piece Mnidoonskaa (A Multitude of Insects), composed in 2021, is a perfect companion. Inspired by Indigenous teachings, the work – the first of two collections of short pieces – is in five movements and pays homage to those tiny creatures that are often unseen or simply ignored. Movements such as Water Striders and Mosquito Larvae are highly atmospheric – true examples of 21st-century impressionism – while the brief third movement One Certain Mosquito Sings, is hauntingly lyrical. 

Concluding the disc is Ravel’s familiar Ma mère L’Oye (Mother Goose) as arranged for piano by Jacques Charlot. Here, Chiu evokes a true fantasy world, his playing refined and sensitively articulated, from the mysterious opening Pavane to the majestic Jardin Féerique.

These are fine fables indeed – engaging repertoire beautifully performed – how could we ask for more?

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11 iFugueiFugue – A World of Fugues
Ensemble Vivant
Opening Day ODR 7477 (ensemblevivant.com)

A homage to J.S. Bach and an imaginative exploration of fugues from around the world and across the centuries, this album is beaming with creative sonic adventures. Hop on board and you will hear music that is entertaining, stylish and absolutely daring in both programming and performances. Included here are arrangements of various fugues by Bach as well as Piazzolla, Romero, Vivaldi, Shostakovich, Franck and Villa-Lobos. Ensemble Vivant also presents three world premieres on this album, expressive contemporary fugues by Canadian composers John Burke and Michael Coghlan. 

Ensemble Vivant brings out the beauty and the precision of the form in fugues with strictly classical foundation. The arrangements include a varying number of instruments and some work better than others, but the performances are always synergetic and engaging. Burke’s innovative arrangement of Vivaldi’s Sinfonia in E Minor featuring percussion (and the clever title iFugue) works exceptionally well and Catherine Wilson’s charming rendition of Bach’s Prelude & Fugue in F-sharp Major captures the essence of Bach in small gestures. But it is the fugues in the South American tradition that light the fire in the ensemble and bring the never-ending cascades of passion and movement. Fuga con Pajarillo, written by Venezuelan composer Aldemaro Romero and arranged by Julien Labro, is simply stunning. A World of Fugues offers a journey around the world in 15 pieces, each with a message and a beauty of its own.

12 Stravinsky BalletsStravinsky Early Ballets
London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Simon Rattle
LSO Live LSO5096 (lso.co.uk)

Stravinsky told stories; his ballets are like film scores accompanying every moment of the action. Here are his three early masterpieces, musical Art Nouveau, produced with tremendous care and skill by the London Symphony Orchestra, led by Sir Simon Rattle. It’s impossible to overstate the quality of playing here, at the individual and ensemble level. 

I love how confidently they produce the now-familiar Firebird, yet the music still sounds new, and utterly Russian (notwithstanding the debt owed Ravel, in terms of the rich orchestration and harmonic colour). Sharp details emerge from the misterioso bass murmur of the introduction. The orchestra provides lush romantic gestures, but gives nothing away in rhythmic acuity. The Princess’ Game, the Firebird Variation and most of all the Infernal Dance will get you up and dancing. The detail is phenomenal! So much of what Stravinsky created has since been borrowed repeatedly, especially by film composers. It’s a marvel to hear the evergreen source material. 

In Petrouchka, Stravinsky juxtaposes concurrent “unrelated” musical events. Who came first, Ives or Igor? Muscular assurance and finesse feature throughout this performance. Can a difficult score sound too easy? Not to me, it simply sounds daring, and correct. The desolation in Petrouchka’s Cell stands in gloomy contrast to the vivid account of the Shrovetide Fair. The exuberant Rattle’s enthusiasm is infectious; all the players buy in.

Finally, the terror-filled depiction of pagan ritual sacrifice that shocks and awes the listener to this day: Le Sacre du Printemps, possibly Stravinsky’s most celebrated work. Its premiere famously provoked a riot among the audience. According to the composer’s own account, things were also fairly riotous backstage: he described Valery Nijinsky (great dancer, not-so-much choreographer), yelling step counts to the dancers from the wings, resulting in onstage chaos. The performance here is anything but chaotic, except possibly by intention. Menacing, bracing, unsettling, completely as intended. You don’t have to love this music (though I do!) to admire this performance. Nothing, not even the perfect assurance of the LSO and Rattle, diminishes its edginess.

13 Stravinsky F.X. Roth Stravinsky – Ballet Russes
Les Siècles; François-Xavier Roth
Harmonia Mundi HMX2905342.43 (store.harmoniamundi.com)

Perhaps you remember that Le Sacre du Printemps was used in the Disney film Fantasia and Stravinsky was invited to the studio for a private screening. He was offered a score as a courtesy but the maître politely declined, saying “I don’t need it; the score is in my head.” Oh, but it all changed, sir.... was the answer.(!)

Certainly nothing is changed here as the Le Sacre is played in its original form with instruments of the period by Les Siècles, a French orchestra formed by François-Xavier Roth. Do not be concerned about period instruments. Roth thoroughly researched the instruments of the period (around 1900) and his orchestra sounds every bit as good as a much larger modern orchestra.

Along with Le Sacre, the two other ballets were first presented in Paris between 1910 and 1913 as a celebration of Russian arts. A certain Russian impresario, Serge Diaghilev, was the mastermind and organizer, a “terrible, charming man who could make stones dance” as Debussy referred to him.

Paris at this time was a hothouse of invention in the arts and these ballets form a change, indeed a revolution, a turning point in the direction of music of the 20th century, Le Sacre especially. Inspired by rituals of pre-Christian, pagan Russia this is something the world had never heard before. It’s brutal, elementary, forceful, violent and upsetting.

The other two ballets are a bit more conventional but equally exciting and very colourful. The Firebird is based on a Russian fairy tale and Petrouchka conjures up a noisy village marketplace with a puppet theatre with three characters and a very sad story. A brilliant new recording.

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