05 Ernesto CerviniTetrahedron
Ernesto Cervini
Anzic Records ANZ-0067 (ernestocervini.com)

Ernesto Cervini, famed jazz drummer, has yet again brought together a greatly talented group of musicians on this debut release by his new venture Tetrahedron. The name is derived from the flags that indicate wind direction at airports, carrying on a theme of “flight” from Cervini’s other well-known sextet Turboprop. But more importantly, the tetrahedron is also “a three-dimensional triangle (with four sides) which seems to fit a chordless trio… recording with a fourth member and special guest.” On this album, the trio consists of Cervini, Luis Deniz on alto saxophone and Rich Brown on electric bass; with renowned guitarist Nir Felder as the “fourth.” Together, these musicians breathe life and direction into Cervini’s musical imagination and the journey that emerges from it. 

Starting off the album with a righteous bang is the track Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise. Brown’s soft and unique bass intro moves into a rhythmically complex and dancing line that is overlaid by Felder’s signature Stratocaster sound, Cervini’s equally tricky drum groove and Deniz’s smooth, melodic sax tune. Angelicus is a beautiful, slower piece composed by Vince Mendoza which had stuck with Cervini since his first year studies at the University of Toronto. Meandering throughout the album, the end track The Sneaky Two is similar to the opening track in that it leaves the listener tapping their foot, hooking into the rhythm and awaiting what the next release by this supergroup will be.

Listen to 'Tetrahedron' Now in the Listening Room

06 Peter HumOrdinary Heroes
Peter Hum
Independent (peterhum.com)

Canadian musicians, it appears, are no less exempt (than US ones), from the unpleasant vagaries of the seemingly pervasive, angst-ridden socio-political climate in the continent. We like to think that ground zero for all of this is the US, but the ripples are often felt in Canada. At least this is what pianist and composer Peter Hum seems to say as he references, in his music, numerous disturbing incidents that have left our society shaken to its core. 

Much music that makes reference to manmade tragedies is often strident in tone and utilizes disturbing dissonances to make its point, but Hum’s music doesn’t do so. The very title of the recording, Ordinary Heroes, provides an insight into Hum’s poetics and aesthetic and it is this: principally, disquiet is viewed from a perspective apposite to the violence that causes it. He evokes this in the emotion and intellect of his pianism. 

Thus we hear the voices of victims instead of perpetrators – innocent worshippers shot to death in a mosque (Tears for the Innocent), Japanese migrants imprisoned in internment camps during World War II (Ordinary Heroes) and refugees from Latin American countries, Myanmar and Syria (Safe Passage), for instance – soar in the deeply meditative pathos of melodic and harmonic conceptions.

And when rhythms are employed to bring stories to life, even in music such as Rabble Rouser, Hum does so in a manner that is artfully idiomatic.

07 Mark GodfreySquare Peg
Mark Godfrey Quintet
Independent PRAM004 (markgodfreybass.com)

Square Peg is a collection of jazz tunes bassist and composer Mark Godfrey wrote while commuting between Toronto and New York over a four-year period in his Dodge Caravan (a great vehicle for holding an upright bass). The album title could refer to how a vehicle associated with families and soccer is turned into a conduit for art and music. Many of the tunes are meditative, possibly because driving a familiar route often leads to introspection.

Highlights include the title piece which starts with a lilting melody played together by Allison Au (alto sax) and Matt Woroshyl (tenor sax) slightly in and out of sync giving it a nice edge. Then Chris Pruden plays a tinkling, arpeggiated and out-of-tempo piano solo that is quite beautiful. No Gig Today is a breezy up-tempo bossa nova tune that seems to say, “If we can’t get a gig, let’s groove on our own.” Nick Fraser’s stylish and complex drums provide the perfect jazz-samba backbeat. After a sophisticated solo by Pruden the two saxes heat things up with an unaccompanied duet break which evolves into trading eights when the rhythm section returns. This is a great tune with many nuances.

Square Peg is accessible yet sophisticated, with all musicians sounding impeccable. May I suggest slipping this CD into your car (or van) stereo system for one of those lengthy drives?

08 Heidi LaingeLet Your Honesty Shine – The Simon Project
Heidi Lange
Independent (music.apple.com)

Talented jazz vocalist and professor Heidi Lange’s newest release is a pleasant modern jazz take on famed singer-songwriter Paul Simon’s music, mixing in elements of pop and rock to create a unique whole. With current jazz greats like Mark Kieswetter on piano, Jordan O’Connor on acoustic bass, Eric St-Laurent on guitars and Ben Riley on drums, the album is a perfect soundtrack for a rainy day, for contemplation or relaxing. Lange’s voice is a balanced combination of wispiness and depth, pulling in the listener and invoking complete focus on her. 

Each track features a prominent piano melody that blends in outstandingly with Lange’s timbre and is further supported by beautiful guitar riffs, a moving, yet calming, drum rhythm and a sultry bass line. A touching version of Bridge Over Troubled Water is a definite highlight of the album, as is the unique take on Dazzling Blue and the captivating Another Galaxy. Standing out from the rest of the tracks for its upbeat tempo and slightly more driving melody and rhythm is The Boy in the Bubble, also unique for the fact that the entire band sounds the most blended here, intricacies of each instrument played out to create a cohesive but dynamic whole. This is where the listener can hear just how well these talents merge together. For longtime fans of Paul Simon’s work or for music fans interested in a modern jazz sound, this album is a definite recommendation.

09 John SneiderThe Scrapper
John Sneider
Cellar Music CM072819 (cellarlive.com)

In the same way a plethora of Canadian jazz fails to reach our neighbours to the south, there are also many American artists that we are not exposed to here. This is why I was delighted to see trumpeter and composer John Sneider’s first release under his own name in over 20 years appear on the Canadian Cellar Live label. Sneider’s album The Scrapper fits in perfectly with Cellar Live’s usual programming, which hosts artists from both sides of the border who play “timeless, swinging, heartfelt and resonant” music, as their website states. 

The core members of Sneider’s band remain the same as on his last release Panorama from 2000: John Hart on guitar, Larry Goldings on organ and Andy Watson on drums. It is the shared influences among these veterans of the New York City scene that give the group its contemporary yet grounded sound. The tracks on the album are a unified flow of originals by Sneider and Goldings, small-group arrangements of two Duke Ellington pieces, and tracks that feature its guest artists: vocalist Andy Bey and young trumpeter David Sneider. Bey contributes a conversational rendition of Miles Davis’ classic Solar, and Sneider demonstrates he shares his father’s mature yet playful compositional style on the two-trumpet closer Dinosaur Eggs. Overall, The Scrapper is an excellent release that pays homage to the tradition while still sounding current in 2020.

10 Nick FinzerCast of Characters
Nick Finzer
Outside In Music OiM 2000 (nick-finzer.myshopify.com)

With the release of his new 14-song concept recording, respected trombonist, producer and educator, Nick Finzer, has pushed the creative envelope into new, vital and challenging emotional territory. Long known as a formidable storyteller, Finzer’s new opus is a musical exploration of influential archetypes who are often common to the human experience, e.g. inter-connections with those individuals who inspire us, disappoint us, break our hearts, support us tirelessly and love us unconditionally. Finzer’s stellar sextet includes Lucas Pino on reeds, Alex Wintz on guitar, Glenn Zaleski on piano, Dave Baron on bass and Jimmy Macbride on drums.

There is no gratuitous soloing on this project, but there is intense and emotional, post-bop group exploration in which all of the members have a voice. On the evocative opener, A Sorcerer, the Ellingtonia is palpable. The sextet is pristine and swinging, gliding over the complex musical motifs with skill, insight and taste, and Pino’s inspired sax solo is full of longing and youthful joy. Another outstanding track is Evolution of Perspective – a sobering introspection that bounces back with a gymnastic, rapid-fire solo from Finzer, as well as equally superb, vibrant solos from the ensemble. 

Other standouts include Patience, Patience – a haunting ballad perfectly parenthesized by Zaleski’s luminous piano work, and Venus – a sensuous rhapsody, silkier than the finest satin. With this thought-provoking recording, Finzer guides the listener on a journey through seemingly chaotic, quantum entanglement, which eventually morphs into our sense of self as so eloquently put by the title of the last offering in the cycle, We’re More than the Sum of Our Influences.

11 AirCD007Air
Asmus Tietchens; Dirk Serries
New Wave of Jazz nwoj 0026 (newwaveofjazz.bandcamp.com)

Not lighter than air, but certainly as omnipresent, Air is a singular instance of what could be termed brazen (un)ambient music. Belgian Dirk Serries improvised sounds on accordion, concertina, harmonica, melodica and clarinet, which were then used as source material manipulated, splintered and sewn together again by the computers and electronics of German composer Asmus Tietchens. The result is a collection of six tracks that challenge much more than they soothe. 

On a sequence like Air Akkordeon for instance, as tremolo accordion reaches a juddering crescendo that spreads over the track like jam on toast, fragments of those vibrations, treated by Tietchens’ computer, are reflected mirror-like back into the mix, moving with hints of aviary whistles that hover alongside Serries’ initial tones, before both glide away.

That type of scenario evolves throughout the disc, as wafting clarinet quivers confront Big Ben-like repetitive chiming or minimalist concertina squeezes and/or harmonica breaths mix with whispery vocal-like echoes that ascend to ululating choral refrains. Carefully layered through granular synthesis and pitch manipulations, these congruent tones transcend solo instrument-like resemblance, to become mechanized or otherworldly-like vibrations by the final Air Klarinette 2. Becoming louder and more diverse, the layers of interspaced oscillations negate “real” or “treated” origins to become almost symphonic with impressionistic colourations.

Overall though, what’s also distinctive about Tietchens’ and Serries’ program is that kernels of impulsive audacity and strength can be heard beneath the unfolding ambience.

12 CanadaDayCD006Canada Day Quartet Live
Harris Eisenstadt
Clean Feed CF 533 CD (cleanfeed-records.com)

Perhaps an inadvertent comment on Canadians’ welcoming nature, this iteration of Toronto-born drummer Harris Eisenstadt’s Canada Day band is filled out by American trumpeter Nate Wooley, British pianist Alexander Hawkins and French-German bassist Pascal Niggenkemper. However, the equality expressed as the four animate Eisenstadt’s eight compositions in his Poschiavo series could relate to the harmonious melting pot-ideology that was a mark of the pre-Trump US.

Relaxed, but with a powerful, though understated rhythmic pulse, the tracks often feature hand-muted plunger expositions or open-horn clarion rasps by Wooley, a band member since it began in 2009. These are propelled in double counterpoint with the swift shading and lightly voiced textures by Hawkins, with whom the drummer plays in other bands. Leisurely or accelerated percussion ruffs, rolls and raps encourage this interaction. Meanwhile Poschiavo Four-Voice 4 is the one time Niggenkemper moves upfront with creaking sul tasto extensions and later col legno recoils which usher in moderato keyboard animation and a final lyrical brass blend.

Still, it’s the extended Poschiavo 36 that is most outstanding. As Wooley’s insentient bestial yaps sourced from trumpet innards dominate the exposition, double-bass stops and expressive piano patterning subsequently lighten the narrative. The climax exposes a melodic groove seconded by drum backbeats and expressed by the trumpeter in warm heraldic tones.

For followers of expressive improvised music this live disc should be as welcome as Canada’s July 1 holiday.

01 Kora FlamencaKora Flamenca
Zal Sissokho
Analekta AN 2 9171 (analekta.com)

Zal Sissokho is a griot, continuing the grand oral traditions of his Mandinka people of Senegal in Montreal where he settled in 1999. His long clan lineage and deep improvisation skills are on full display when he plays the 21-string kora and sings in Malinke and Wolof as a solo performer and collaborator with numerous bands.

Ever since he heard flamenco performed live in Seville, Sissokho dreamt of combining Andalusian music and the Mandinka culture of his native West Africa. Kora Flamenca – a musical collaboration with composer and virtuosa flamenco guitarist Caroline Planté – is the result. The album’s ensemble also includes percussionist Miguel Medina, first-call Montreal oudist Mohamed Masmoudi and bassist Jean Félix Mailloux. Sissokho explains, “I sought to expand the limits of my instrument, the kora, as far as possible. Inspired by soaring improvisational flamenco riffs, I tried to create a hybrid style… [To me] musical inspiration begins with respect for the instrument’s tradition, history and sounds. Then… I sought to… push my collaborators to create music in which composition, technical prowess and improvisation unite…” 

Musically and stylistically, kora and flamenco guitar are worlds apart. Linked by their common plucked string heritage however, Sissokho and Planté find ample common musical ground on which to hang flights of melodic fancy. Characterized by fast tempi, pop-forward arrangements, brief modal improvisations and Sissokho’s vocals, this set of ten concise songs makes a convincing case for combining kora and flamenco

02 Levantine RhapsodyLevantine Rhapsody
Didem Başar
Analekta AN 2 9172 (analekta.com)

Didem Başar is a professionally trained player of the kanun, or Turkish zither. On this CD, she unites Turkish and Western classical music under her own compositions, scoring them for kanun and Western instruments played by Guy Pelletier (flutes), Brigitte Dajczer (violin), Noémy Braun (cello) and Patrick Graham (percussion). Başar works with the Centre des Musiciens du Monde, which enables such cross-cultural experiences to happen. 

Başar’s initial composition Devr-i Raksan will immediately remind visitors to Turkey of that country’s rich musical heritage; listen to its thoughtful kanun solo sections as they build up to a climax of plaintive string playing, a lively flute part and vigorous drumming. Often, the compositions are short; Bird Song lasts just 2:26, but I challenge anyone to find so many variations on percussion instruments to create as many bird sounds as there are on this single track! 

On one occasion, Başar dips into classical Turkish music. She states that Kantemiroğlu’s Rast Peşrev still has the power to inspire even though that composer died almost 300 years ago; complex playing by all the instrumentalists contributes to an arrangement unfamiliar to Western ears.

Başar offers Cry as a plea for all those suffering the consequences of deadly conflicts. The endless wanderings of refugees are echoed in the flute part as it intermingles with the kanun to represent pain and sorrow. Riddle is her other intensely personal composition. Short but intense and loud phrases on the kanun and cello are intended to represent contrasting feelings: is life itself not a riddle?

And Canada is not forgotten. 5 à 7 is “happy hour” in Quebec. What with the five- and seven-beat textures of Başar’s composition of that name, it is just the right time to invite guests round to enjoy traditional Turkish cuisine to the backdrop that is Levantine Rhapsody.

03 Jessica DeutchjpgTraces
Jessica Deutsch and Ozere
Independent (jessicadeutsch.com)

The music of Jessica Deutsch on Traces may not appear to require a virtuosic, high-flying performance on the violin but make no mistake; it is diabolically difficult to play. There is great demand for atmospheric playing complete with subtle innuendo, dynamics and colour. Deutsch has this in spades and brings all of it to the repertoire on the album.

Each of the works – exquisite miniatures borne aloft by her lonesome violin, supported by mandolin or guitar, glued together by cello and contrabass, with occasional keyboards and voices – is laden with intimacy and an emotional intensity that can only be described as the poetry of feeling. Deutsch’s performance throughout is lightly perfumed and evocative, especially in the slower songs, where her sensitivity shows best. The ephemeral Traces and The Bones of Clouds, with its wispy imagery not unlike the early poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, are superb examples of her playing. 

Deutsch creates a perfect blend of delicacy and muscularity. Her ingenuity enables her to combine phrasing and touch with subtle shifts of emphasis that refashions phrases in an unexpected but utterly convincing manner. Her playing throughout, combined with cello and bass is highly redolent of the rustle of expensive raw silk. The rest of the group is completely harmonically and rhythmically entwined with Deutsch’s artistry. Their performances are altogether remarkable, possessing sinewy vigour and dynamism which contributes to putting a unique stamp on this music.

Probably the most popular instrument in the world in its various forms, the guitar poses unique challenges for analytical players. With the six-string front-and-centre in so many branches of music, how can one forge an individual path? Yet each of the plectrumists here has done so as uniquely as there are makes of guitars.

01 RadicalCD005For instance Nels Cline is in a situation many others would envy. As lead guitarist for American alternative rock band Wilco, he has a steady gig with a large following. Yet Cline has been an integral part of Los Angeles’ improvised music scene since the 1980s and immerses himself back in that context any chance he gets. The Radical Empathy Trio’s Reality and Other Imaginary Places (ESP 5035 espdisk.com) is a recent example. During two extended tracks the guitarist finds a place among the swirling dynamics propelled by two committed improvisers: drummer Michael Wimberley and keyboardist Thollem McDonas. 

Propelling relaxed finger-style chording alongside McDonas’ acoustic piano on the second track and challenging a miasma of swirling synthesized kinetics from the keyboardist with corrosive string distortions on the first, Cline references either mainstream or fusion jazz. Yet in both cases backed by explosive rattles and ruffs from the drummer, confounding patterns trump convention. McDonas’ keyboard expression moves from sentient hunt-and-peck chording to repetitive extraterrestrial-like glissandi during his solos. Cline’s amplified bugle-like pulsations easily make common cause with McDonas’ distinctive sounds on the latter, as the guitarist’s gentling impressionistic fills do with the first strategy. Despite on-the-mark finger-styling guitar riffs alongside acoustic piano runs or knob-twisting guitar flanging meeting kinetic keyboard expansions, no one would confuse the two for Joe Pass with Oscar Peterson or, in the other case, with Sun Ra meeting Jimi Hendrix. Still, the way Cline fits both roles, while managing to propel his own guitar definition, demonstrates accomplishment. His individual musical empathy – and that of the others – comes across as radical as well as sympathetic, making the trio’s name highly appropriate.

02 VillageCD004Far away from mainstream jazz and jazz-rock fusion are the specially configured musical cycles of American guitarist Joe Morris and British saxophonist Evan Parker on The Village (Fundacja Słuchaj FSR 13/2019 sluchaj.org). A first-ever duo recording, each player arrives with a distinctive instrumental approach worked out over years of experimentation. Copasetic but not compounded, the key to the Morris-Parker duo is that neither abandons individual expression while propelling tandem association in double counterpoint. Sticking to moderated tenor saxophone smears on the nearly 40-minute opening, The Mound – a similar linkage with Parker’s intense nasal soprano saxophone tones is highlighted on the other brief track – the reedist’s multiphonics splutter, smear and slap beside Morris’ canny use of pointed patterning that encompasses high-pitched stings sourced from near the tuning pegs and mid-range, folksy strums. Meanwhile, as the duo’s key-in-lock cooperation is activated, enough distance is maintained so that episodes of Parker’s instantly recognizable circular breathing develop logically, as do those passages when Morris’ string pressure gives the sequence a low-pitched rhythmic feel. Eventually, scratching string fills backed by reed vibrations confirm that each player has adapted enough of the other’s distinctive approach to improvisation to create an intertwined finale. 

03 NomadCD003Nomad Trio (Skirl Records 044 skirlrecords.com), as a trio filled out by Americans, pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Jim Black join Vancouver’s Gordon Grdina to interpret six of his compositions. While only the final Lady Choral picks up the exquisite bass and treble patterns Grdina can create using the multi-string oud, playing guitar his robust finger styling sounds nothing like Morris’ introverted interval stings or Cline’s throbbing rock-inflected fills. Instead his playing is both sharp and swift, as if he’s an elated Jim Hall, coursing and flaring against the drummer’s active clatter or cymbal rebounds, as the pianist slides from Grdina’s string-and-fret architecture on Ride Home allows for story-telling reflection, as he moves from note constriction to expansive flanges. Meeting percussion splashes and processional keyboard lines, guitar pulsations make the finale so connectively opaque that it’s almost overbearing.

05 qloopCD001On the other hand, few tropes point out the diversity that can exist among guitar-focused combos than the following sessions, both of which include French cellist Valentin Ceccaldi. One-quarter of the oddly named qÖÖlp group, the band’s eponymous CD (BMC CD 257 bmcrecords.hu) defines the symmetry expressed by a working group that includes the cellist and his violin-playing brother Théo Ceccaldi, as well as two Germans, guitarist Ronny Graupe and drummer Christian Lillinger. With Graupe and Lillinger serving as the counterbalance to the cultivated arco and pizzicato strategies of the Ceccaldis, guitar motifs are all over the ten selections in solo features or in duo or trio pairings. The antithesis to this is Points (MultiKulti Project MPSMT 016 multikulti.com). Consisting of four lengthy improvisations, the performances featuring cellist Ceccaldi and three Lisbon-based players are better integrated. Connection is such in fact, that the string shadings of guitarist Marcelo dos Reis sometimes almost vanish into the synchronous sounds created by the blended textures of percussionist Marco Franco, trumpeter Luis Vicente and the cellist.

On the qÖÖlp session, Graupe’s assertive soloing is best defined on WröökJ. Sweeping up from an interconnection of string-based tones, the guitarist suddenly breaks out rock-related runs that almost literally punch a hole in the sequence and, backed by Lillinger’s power pops, quickly expose a series of frailing and plinking theme variations. With a selection of moods ranging from refined to raw, the four musicians take cohesion to its logical conclusion. No matter how radical the motifs become, continuity remains. This is expressed best on the textural framed finale of Get Together, when a combination of energetic, near impenetrable ruffs from the drummer and intermittent picking from the guitarist threaten to spin out of control before being reined in. Additionally, there’s the, unusual-for-a-European-band, track titled Toronto. Yet this stop-time near-ballad seems to describe the city with a moody collection of sliding string harmonies. In fact, when the four stretch out, as on extended tracks like Mermaids and Sperm Whales the qÖÖlp members can dazzle. Speedily they move from unison moderato expositions to delicate minuet-like narratives. Fusing arco cello and violin lyricism to guitar frails that emphasize impressionism, they’re completed by favouring the metallic properties of energized violin and guitar runs plus precise drum runs. Never is momentum lost nor does any linkage seem artificial.

04 PointsCD002Valentin Ceccaldi’s other affiliated outing is much more exploratory, but no matter how long the tracks are, or how the extended techniques upend the program, the tracks always right themselves into harmony variants. Rotating the introductions among band members, as themes are elaborated, spontaneous interactions occur, such as having downward slithering Harmon-muted trumpet tones underscored by sul tasto cello responses; or how melding cymbal splashes, gutbucket brass smears and spiccato strings produces memories of both Debussy and Dixieland. Throughout, dos Reis forges a singular path, with his contributions more felt than heard. Only at the very end of the Exclamation Mark for instance, are distant flanges and plucks audible. Meanwhile among sequences where all members’ elevated pitches or foundation croaks are emphasized, Question Mark is the most fully realized. Almost an assembly line of effects, it begins with distant guitar string plucking, exposes pure air forced through the trumpet without valve motion, introduces drumming clip clops and completes the first cycle with swift strokes from the cellist. The climatic resolution finally arises as brass tones brightly flutter on top of drum press rolls while Ceccaldi and dos Reis combine into a flurry of percussive near-Andalusian cadences. Instructively the finale evolves into warm lyricism as trumpet peeps and finger-style string emphasis gently combine.

Upfront or reticent, each of these guitar strategies uniquely complements the improvised musical situation in which it is placed and suggests that many other strategies are feasible. 

One of the treasures of recorded music is Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde recorded over three days in May 1952, in Vienna. The Vienna Philharmonic was conducted by Bruno Walter and soloists were Kathleen Ferrier and Julius Patzak. That Decca recording has never been out of print. Back in 1947-48 Walter wanted to conduct a festival performance of Das Lied and had searched in vain for a contralto who could live up to the demands of this remarkable work. “I was told of a young English singer who made quite a great impression on all those who heard her… and she came and sang for me and she began to sing the Sapphic Ode of Brahms and I said, ‘You are engaged.’ Because it was of such rare beauty, beauty of expression, beauty of voice and purity and beauty of personality. It was one of my greatest impressions in my life. Since then we became very great friends and she sang this work with me. I engaged her to sing with me in New York. She sang Lied von der Erde in New York.” He goes on to speak about making the 1952 recording, “It was unforgettable how this very beautiful girl stood at my side already in the throes of the most terrible disease. And it was the last time I saw her.” Kathleen Ferrier succumbed in 1953.

01 Kathleen FerrierThe British label SOMM, in their continuing Kathleen Ferrier series, has issued the recording of the actual New York Philharmonic’s inspired performance of Das Lied with Walter and Ferrier, January 18, 1948, Kathleen Ferrier in New York (SOMM Ariadne 5007 naxosdirect.com). The tenor is Set Svanholm whose prophetic Das Trinklied sets the stage for the kinetic performance to follow. And here is the pristine voice of Ferrier confirming to those in Carnegie Hall and the radio listeners that Walter had not exaggerated one little bit. The CD also has an informative 1956 interview by Arnold Michaelis with Walter, excerpted above, in which he talks about Ferrier, his close friend Gustav Mahler and Bruckner. The sound has remarkable presence and is not an aircheck but an in situ recording by the Carnegie Recording Company. Some unobtrusive, slight surface noise occasionally, but the balances are perfect.

After Der Abschied (Farewell), SOMM adds three short, gentle Bach settings of love songs from a recital in Town Hall, New York on January 8, 1950. Vergiss mein nicht (Do not forget me) BWV505; Ach, dass nicht die letzte Stunde (Ah! Why has not the final hour) BWV439; and Bist du bei mir (If thou art near) BWV508. Perfect choices. Her accompanist is pianist and friend John Newmark.

This is a unique document, earning a place in every collection.

02 GuldaPianist Friedrich Gulda is certainly not a household name today but from the 1960s on he was indeed recognized by classical LP collectors as a master, and by thinking jazz fans as a progressive jazz innovator. He toured worldwide, including appearances with the polished SWR Radio Symphony Orchestras of Stuttgart and Baden-Baden. The SWR recorded all the performances that they presented and their CDs reflect care and expertise in documenting these concerts. Their latest release is a three-disc set of concertos by Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Richard Strauss (SWR Classic SWR19088CD naxosdirect.com). Here they are all recorded between 1959 and 1962 with their conductors: Mozart No.14 in E-flat Major K449 and No.23 in A Major K448, Hans Rosbaud; No.24 in C Minor K491, Joseph Keilberth; Beethoven No.4 in G Major Op.58, and Haydn No.11 in G Major XVIII:11, Hans Muller-Kray;  Strauss Burleske in D Minor, Muller-Kray, with a solo encore, Zugabe; and finally Debussy’s solo piano Feux d’artifice.

All these were recorded before appreciative audiences, resulting in personal performances closer to the heart and different from playing to microphones. This is perhaps not always the case, but certainly is so in the music-making on these three discs. The kind of music-making that has you hanging on every note. There is the age-old question of who is in charge in a concerto, the conductor or the soloist? Here we have three different conductors each tuned to this articulate pianist. 

03 RichterThe 1960s was the era during which many prodigiously talented USSR instrumental virtuosi were at last permitted by their government to concertize in the West. None elicited more universal excitement than Sviatoslav Richter who possessed a seemingly limitless technique, equally at home in Beethoven and the German Romantic composers, the French Impressionists and, of course, contemporary Russian composers. He is now recognized as one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. He made his American debut in Chicago on October 15, 1960, gave a series of concerts in New York that season and appeared as soloist with the New York Philharmonic. To hand is an 11CD set Sviatoslav Richter plays Rakhmaninov & Prokofiev (Profil PH19052 naxosdirect.com).

Many of these recordings pre-date his American debut. There are two versions of the Rachmaninov First Piano Concerto: the version from March 9, 1949 is conducted by Oleg Azarov followed by a performance from February 18, 1955 under Kurt Sanderling. The second concerto also has two performances: live under Agarkov on May 19, 1948 and with Sanderling on February 6, 1959. He also plays eight of the Etudes-Tableaux from Opp.33 and 39. The “bonus” on this disc is two songs sung by soprano Nina Dorliac, Richter’s lifelong partner. Rounding out the Rachmaninov entries are some preludes. Richter had put together a suite of 12 preludes heard live, also another of six preludes. 

There are so many works of Prokofiev on the seven remaining discs! The First Piano Concerto with Kondrashin and the Moscow Youth Symphony Orchestra in 1952, followed by two performances of the Fifth: with Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic on April 24, 1961; and a real gem, a previously unreleased concert recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy in Leningrad from June 14, 1958. Another interesting entry is the recording of the world premiere performance of Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in E Minor, Op.125. The dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich, is the soloist, and the conductor is Sviatoslav Richter. There are seven piano sonata performances, 11 Vision Fugitives, Op.22; piano transcriptions from the ballet Cinderella; the second and third cello sonatas, two performances of the Suggestion diabolique No.4, Op.4, and eight songs sung by Nina Dorliac.  

04 TortelierPaul Tortelier was a French cellist born Paris in 1914. He won First Prize in cello at the Paris Conservatoire at 16. He became principal cellist of the Boston Symphony in 1935 returning to France in 1939. He settled in Israel in 1955, travelling to Europe for concerts. He recorded major concerted works for EMI and was also a member of the Casals Festival in Prades with Casals, Stern, Istomin, Menuhin and the rest. He died in 1990.

A three-CD set Paul Tortelier – The RIAS Recordings (Audite 21.455 naxosdirect.com) is devoted to cello sonatas recorded by the Radio in the American Sector in 1949, 1962 and 1964 and are released here for the first time. These are superlative performances that from the first bar of the Beethoven Sonata No.5 leave no doubt that these musicians love what they are doing. The accompanist, or rather partner, is Lothar Broddack with whom he collaborates in the Mendelssohn No.2; Fauré No.2 and Papillon; Paganini Introduction and Variations on Dal tuo stellate soglio from Moses in Egypt; and Casella’s Sonata No.2. Pianist Klaus Billing replaces Broddack for Brahms Sonata No.1, Schumann’s Fantasiestücke Op.73 and Tortelier’s own Trois p’tits tours. He needs no accompanist for the Kódaly Sonata Op.8. These are immaculate recordings of wonderful performances. 

01 12 Ensemble Death and the Maiden In Terry Robbins’ Strings Attached column you will see Schubert’s string quartet Death and the Maiden referred to as an “almost symphonic work,” which fits right in with my first selection. 12 Ensemble is a string orchestra from the UK founded in 2012 by co-directors Eloisa-Fleur Thom and Max Ruisi. Touted on its website as a “modern, versatile and virtuosic ensemble, the group is built around a core of 12 of London’s finest chamber musicians. Always playing without a conductor, the ensemble’s acclaimed performances combine the energy, excitement and creativity of a small ensemble with the breathtaking sound afforded by a string orchestra.” The core membership is supplemented as required by the repertoire and by my count from the video clip, there are 14 players involved in the group’s transcription of the title work from Death and the Maiden (Sancho Panza digital release the12ensemble.com). The disc opens with John Tavener’s transcription of his tranquil choral setting of Blake’s The Lamb, which is followed by the tumultuous Schubert. Ruisi’s program note includes an extended explanation of why 12 Ensemble chose not to use Mahler’s well-known transcription of this iconic work. Instead they decided to go “back to basics, using Schubert’s quartet parts and creating a double-bass part that adds impact and depth when required but is sensitive to the delicate balance of Schubert’s orchestration.” To my ear this is an effective treatment with only occasional moments of overbearingly thick textures. For the most part the playing is light, dynamic and convincing.

Some 45 minutes later we are granted respite from Schubert’s emotional rollercoaster with Honey Siren, a three-movement work by Oliver Leith written especially for the ensemble in 2019. Leith tells us “I was thinking about sirens; the wailing kind, not the bird women singing on rocks. [...] They usually signal something ominous; these sirens do not. They are honeyed, dripping in globules of sweetness [...] like a smiling alarm.” All is not entirely placid however and the last movement ends with some near-strident tension before the sirens fade. The brief final work is truly calming. It dates from an Icelandic residency in 2016 when ensemble member Guy Button came up with a string arrangement of Fljótavík by the band Sigur Rós. The sense of the original words – “We’re sailing, stretching ourselves…We’re sailing into land, unknown place…I felt myself happy there…we are really thankful” – is aptly captured in this gentle closer.

02 Gould GuldaI am always pleased to encounter another recording of Glenn Gould’s String Quartet Op.1. Since the original recording by the Symphonia Quartet under Gould’s direction in 1960, there have been half a dozen or so more, most under the auspices of Gould anniversaries and celebrations, but in recent years a few stand-alone releases have appeared. You can find reviews of Alcan and Catalyst Quartet recordings in The WholeNote back catalogue (searchable on the website) from April 2009 and September 2015 respectively. The latest to appear is Glenn Gould; Friedrich Gulda – The String Quartet featuring the Austrian Acies Quartet (Gramola 99028 naxos.com). This intriguing pairing features quartets from early in the careers of two eccentric, accomplished pianists, their only ventures into the genre. While Gulda (1930-2000) is described as a pianist and composer, Gould is almost exclusively known as keyboard virtuoso. Of course we know of Gould’s work as a radio documentarian, a genre which he approached in a most composerly fashion, but his actual musical output was minimal with the string quartet accounting for roughly half if considered by duration (about 35 minutes). We can be forgiven for looking on this work, composed around the age of 21, as an aberration. Unlike his performance practice of focusing on the Baroque era, and to a certain extent the 20th century, the quartet seems rooted in the romanticism of the 19th century and is positively lugubrious in its thick textures at times. I note that the first recording described it as “reflect[ing] Gould’s love for Bruckner, Wagner, and Richard Strauss,” a love that, as far as I can tell, was only otherwise manifest in his lone venture as a conductor (other than his own chorales) in his recording of A Siegfried Idyll. Be that as it may, this somewhat anachronistic work stands as testament to his understanding and command of the idiom.

Gulda, a man of broad tastes and talents, was as well versed in jazz as in the contemporary classical world. Born two years before Gould, Gulda’s lifespan exceeded his coeval’s by two decades, but he too wrote his only quartet at the age of 20. The String Quartet in F-sharp Minor was premiered in Vienna in 1953. Although not particularly forward-looking – no hints of postwar avant-garde tendencies here – it is firmly rooted in idioms of the first half of the century. With contemplative outer movements that are interrupted by a sprightly scherzo which itself gives way to a gentle middle section, the overall quartet has a slow-fast-slow-fast-slow arc. Incidentally, for those of you not familiar with Gulda the pianist, in the April edition of Old Wine in New Bottles, Bruce Surtees will be reviewing a newly issued set, Friedrich Gulda: Piano Concertos by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Strauss on the SWR Music label.

The Acies Quartet, founded some 15 years ago, is now in the fifth year of its current membership. Having studied and participated in masterclasses with some of the world’s outstanding ensembles – including the Alban Berg and Guarneri Quartets – it is not surprising that these still-young musicians play with an understanding beyond their years. Of note, besides excellent musicianship is their curatorial inspiration in bringing these two little-known works together. And kudos for the booklet which gives an insightful context to each, with essays by Jens F. Laurson (Gould) and Walter Gürtelschmied (Gulda).

03 BoulangerI have WholeNote alumna Simone Desilets to thank for bringing the next disc to my attention. Pianist Clare Longendyke was the recipient of the George Brough Memorial Endowment scholarship at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in 2017 and the following year Desilets invited her to Toronto to participate in celebrations to mark Brough’s centennial. Together with recital partner violist Rose Wollman, Longendyke recently released Homage to Nadia Boulanger (rosewollman.com) featuring works by the iconoclastic teacher and her lineage on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of her death. Boulanger (1887-1979) mentored many of the leading composers and musicians of the 20th century, among them such notable Canadians as Gabriel Cusson, Jean Papineau-Couture, István Anhalt, Maurice Blackburn, Gabriel Charpentier, Pierre Mercure, John Beckwith, Sterling Beckwith, Roger Matton, Walter Buczynski and Arthur Ozolins, to name a few of the more than 60.

This Homage begins with Le Grand Tango by Astor Piazzolla, who studied with Boulanger in his 30s when he was already an established tango artist. Wollman says the duo worked extensively with tango experts to ensure an authentic performance of this idiomatic work and that she is currently preparing a transcription of their approach into an “edition that will help classically trained musicians perform this piece stylistically.” The disc continues with Boulanger’s own Trois pieces pour violoncelle et piano in Wollman’s arrangement for viola. Two gentle movements of great beauty are followed by a driving finale reminiscent to my ears of Prokofiev, described as vite et nerveusement rythmé.

The project claims to include Boulanger and her students and “great grandstudents.” I wondered what this latter term meant and was told that the youngest of the composers included – Gabriela Lena Frank (b.1972) – studied with William Albright and Samuel Jones who studied with Ross Lee Finney and Bernard Rogers respectively, who in turn were themselves students of Boulanger. A bona fide lineage indeed. Frank’s contribution is a lilting and mostly lively dance suite titled Cinco Danzas de Chambi (2006), inspired by the work of Peruvian Martín Chambi (1891-1973), the first Amerindian photographer to achieve international acclaim. The suite ends hauntingly with the mournful Harawi de Chambi.

The most substantial work presented here is also the last on the disc. Emile Naoumoff is a French pianist and composer who was born in Bulgaria in 1962. Wikipedia tells me that “At the age of eight, after a fateful meeting in Paris, he became the last disciple of Nadia Boulanger, who referred to him as ‘the gift of my old age’. He studied with her until her death in late 1979.” The Sonata for Viola and Piano dates from 2001 and was revised eight years later. It is in one extended movement, beginning darkly but gradually moving toward the light. A pizzicato theme passed back and forth between the instruments introduces a lyrical section before the piece gradually returns to quiet calmness. The Wollman-Longendyke duo worked extensively with Naoumoff in preparation for this recording, about which he has said, “Wonderful playing and captivatingly generous narrative sound quality! Thank you for playing my sonata with such solar depth!” No argument from me – I expect the other composers would (have) agree(d).

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04 En SoloI seem to be shedding instruments at every turn in this column. I’m down to one cello in the final entry, En Solo,featuring challenging works by Canadian composers very ably performed by Pierre-Alain Bouvrette (ATMA ACD24039 digital release atmaclassique.com). As an amateur cellist and avid collector of Canadian music, I welcome this addition to the catalogue, but I must admit a number of frustrations with this digital only release. I find the recording quality and performance very satisfactory, but the digital booklet leaves much to be desired. There is a biography of this young and accomplished cellist, who for more than a decade has played with the renowned Molinari Quartet, but about the composers there is no information except for their years of birth (and death in the case of one) or about the pieces. There are hyperlinks which in three cases lead to Canadian Music Centre biographies, and in the fourth to Michel Gonneville’s own French-only website. There is also a link to Gonneville’s program note, but no notes for the other works even on the CMC site. Frankly I have come to expect more from the otherwise excellent ATMA label.

The opening selection is Paean, a 1989 composition by Otto Joachim (1910-2010, two and half months shy of his 100th birthday!). I believe this is its first commercial recording, but fortunately I have in my collection a Radio Canada portrait disc devoted to the works of Joachim which includes a broadcast recording of the premiere in 1992 by the dedicatee Guy Fouquet. (I believe my photographer friend André Leduc and I were actually at that performance which took place during the Quinzaine du violoncelle in Montreal.) Thanks to the Radio Canada release I am able to tell you that in his program note Joachim says that “Paean is mainly a 12-tone work but I subconsciously integrated into the series a melodic pattern from a Tamil raga that I knew, thereby creating a haunting melisma. I added to those long sustained notes a rhythm based on the tabla heard in this very raga…” He added “One assumes that it is harder to find ideas at 80: this was not the case with Paean, which I wrote in a relatively short time.” Now that’s the kind of information and insight that I find helpful when listening to a contemporary work.

It’s a shame that we are left wanting with two of the other pieces, Antoine Ouellette’s Psaume, Op.5 which dates from 1982 and was revised in 2013, and Denis Gougeon’s Six Thèmes Solaires: Pluton from 1990, revised in 2014. These meagre details I was able to glean from the CMC catalogue of works, along with the information that Gougeon’s six themes are each scored for different instruments or instrumental combinations and take their names from planets (Pluton = Pluto); and I suppose that Ouellette’s title is self-explanatory. As mentioned, Gonneville’s website does provide a description, in French, and a translation of the German title Hinauf, dem Bach entlang. My understand of the French is “walking up along the brook” and there is a pun here on the name of Bach, which means brook in German. Gonneville says the piece takes some of its inspiration from Bach’s Solo Cello Suite No.5. Perhaps a bit ironically, it is Gougeon’s piece that is most reminiscent of Bach’s solo cello writing to my ear, not Gonneville’s. All that being said, this is still an important addition to the catalogue, and my collection, and it’s great to get to hear Bouvrette come into his own with this solo tour de force.

Listen to 'En Solo' Now in the Listening Room

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Not many months go by without a new set of the Bach solo works for violin or cello appearing, and this month sees two new additions.

01 Mike BlockThe American cellist Mike Block is a member of the Silkroad Ensemble and inventor of the Block Strap, an attachment that allows the cellist to stand and walk around while playing. His latest release, Step into the Void (Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0132 brightshiny.ninja), is a 3CD set featuring the Complete Bach Cello Suites with a live companion album featuring phonograph performance artist Barry Rothman.

Normally with these releases the booklet notes mention a lifelong study of the works and an attempt to define a personal approach to the music before committing a performance to disc, but while Block admits to doing “the obligatory study” of various editions and recordings with the goal of creating his own consistent and historically informed interpretation, he now opts instead for spontaneity preferring to find different ways of playing them every time and not making too many performance decisions in advance, instead letting the feel of the audience and the acoustic space be his guide.

Certainly there’s a refreshing freedom and a sense of exploration in his beautiful playing here, a feeling of “let’s see where this goes” with delightful results. For this album he limited himself to two takes for each movement in order to “stay in the moment” and “play from the gut.” He also chose not to observe repeats in the dance movements (i.e. 30 of the 36 movements – all but the opening Preludes) so the two Cello Suite CDs are relatively short at about 37 and 50 minutes respectively.

The third CD, recorded live at a sold-out show a few days after the recording of the Bach Suites, grew from an earlier free-improvisation performance with Rothman. Block asked if they could play a completely improvised live duo concert with him using only material from the Bach Cello Suites. The results are quite fascinating – with less LP interaction than you might expect – although probably not to everyone’s taste.

A bonus track of Block’s own pizzicato Prelude to a Dream completes a quite special set.

02 Bach CotikViolinist Tomás Cotik’s brilliant recording of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin (Centaur CRC 3755/3756 tomascotik.com) is released this month to mark the 300th anniversary of their composition.

The promo copy came with an extremely detailed 32-page booklet which appears to be a collection of the ten brief articles Cotik wrote for The Strad magazine last year, and which can be accessed through his website at tomascotik.com. Just about every approach to performance issues is addressed – everything from the physical instrument and bow through early treatises and editions, to the implementation of slurs, dynamics, chords, vibrato, pitch, ornaments, trills and much more.

Cotik uses a modern violin – albeit with softer and more resonant strings than usual – with a Baroque bow, which he feels offers more expressive potential, subtle nuances and transparent textures and allows for “a lighter sound, quicker, more flowing tempi, and lively articulations.” That’s exactly what we get here, with Cotik producing a smooth but bright sound with a lightness and agility that is quite breathtaking and never in any danger of becoming heavy-handed or over-stressed. Slower tempos are relaxed but never allowed to drag; faster tempos are dazzlingly brilliant, with faultless intonation.

The result is a very personal and distinctive sound and style, with even the massive D-minor Chaconne never approaching the heavy and ponderous tones of some recordings.

Interestingly, Cotik repeatedly returns in his writings to the need not to be hide-bound by rules of interpretation; studying the music is just the starting point of a journey where interpretation changes along the way. He admits that many of those challenges “can ultimately be solved only by each of you in performance – not to mention differently every time” (my italics).

And perhaps, as with Mike Block, that’s the secret here; never settle for one consistent interpretation and always let curiosity be a constant inspiration. If Tomás Cotik ever revisits these works on record it will be fascinating to hear the results, but it’s hard to see how they could be better than this.

03 FewerManchester isn’t exactly a city you associate with Baroque violin sonatas, but it’s front and centre in Vivaldi – Manchester Sonatas, an excellent new 2CD set from violinist Mark Fewer and harpsichordist Hank Knox (Leaf Music LM229 leaf-music.ca).

The manuscripts for this collection of 12 works by Antonio Vivaldi originated in the private collection of Vivaldi’s contemporary Cardinal Ottoboni, passing through several owners (including Handel’s Messiah librettist Charles Jennens) before being purchased by the Manchester Public Library in 1964. Even so, they were only discovered in Manchester’s Henry Watson Music Library in 1973 by musicologist Michael Talbot.

Apparently dating from the 1716-1717 period the collection contains only four sonatas that were completely new – Nos. 5, 10, 11 and 12 – the remaining eight known to exist in earlier sources although reworked in numerous ways here to fit the duo genre. The violin part, while quite detailed for the period, still leaves room for embellishment by the performer; the harpsichord part, meanwhile, does not even feature a figured bass line most of the time, so Knox has full rein when it comes to realizing the accompaniment.

Fewer’s playing is bright, assured and technically brilliant, with Knox supplying a rich accompaniment that focuses more on harmonic support than contrapuntal interplay of melodic voices. The sonatas themselves are highly entertaining and inventive, featuring less of the usual Vivaldi arpeggios, scales and sequences than you might expect. The fast movements in particular are quite exhilarating.

There are no track timings, but the two CDs run to 68 and 63 minutes respectively.

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04 Lena NeudauerThere are quite lovely performances of the Beethoven Violin Concerto & Romances on a new CD featuring Lena Neudauer and the Cappella Aquileia under Marcus Bosch (cpo 777 559-2 naxosdirect.com).

The ensemble, founded by Bosch in 2011 as the orchestra for the Heidenheim Opera Festival, draws top-level musicians from across Germany and beyond, with its size based on the original chamber-symphony proportions of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. There’s a resulting clarity and transparency to the playing that makes the concerto in particular less heavy than in many performances, the quite dry and short opening timpani strokes setting the stage for an idiomatic performance that never lacks emotional depth. The timpani also features in the first movement cadenza, Neudauer drawing on Beethoven’s own cadenza for his piano transcription of the concerto. The Romances in G Major Op.40 and F Major Op.50 have the same delightful feeling of light and clarity without ever sounding lightweight.

Neudauer’s playing throughout is exemplary and stylistically beautifully judged – hardly surprising given her admission that it was Thomas Zehetmair’s recording with Franz Bruggen’s Orchestra of the 18th Century that was the key to her understanding the concerto. Bosch provides sympathetic support on an outstanding CD.

05 Liebeck LGCover 1I can’t remember when I last heard the Schoenberg Violin Concerto, which made Schoenberg Brahms Violin Concertos, the latest CD from the outstanding violinist Jack Liebeck, even more welcome. Andrew Gourlay conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Orchid Classics ORC100129 orchidclassics.com).

The album, celebrating Liebeck’s upcoming 40th birthday, is a deeply personal one for him, described in the booklet notes as a “visceral and passionate portrait of two major violin concertos, emotionally drawing from the experience of his grandfather and honouring the many members of his family who perished during the Holocaust.” More than three dozen of Liebeck’s mother’s Dutch relatives died. Liebeck’s grandfather, Walter Liebeck, was a decent amateur violinist; a student in Germany when Hitler came to power in 1933, he left for South Africa the following year. The Brahms was his favourite concerto.

Schoenberg himself left Germany in 1933 for the United States. His 1936 concerto marked a return to atonality after a relatively tonal period, but despite its 12-tone basis and the composer’s own description of it – “extremely difficult, just as much for the head as for the hands” – it’s a quite stunning work that is emotionally clearly from the heart, and that really deserves to be much more prominent in the mainstream violin concerto repertoire.

Liebeck displays all of his usual qualities – clarity and strength, brilliance of tone, impeccable technique, faultless phrasing and interpretation – in immensely satisfying performances of two quite different but perfectly-paired works. Gourlay and the BBCSO are quite outstanding partners.

06 Philip GlassViolinist Piotr Plawner is the soloist on Philip Glass American Four Seasons, a new CD in the Naxos American Classics series that features the composer’s Violin Concerto No.2, with Philippe Bach conducting the Berner Kammerorchester, and the Sonata for Violin and Piano with Gerardo Vila (Naxos 8.559865 naxos.com).

It was violinist Robert McDuffie who, enamoured with Glass’ Violin Concerto No.1, suggested the idea of an American Four Seasons as a sequel that could be programmed with the Vivaldi classic. Jointly commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the new work was premiered by McDuffie and the TSO under Peter Oundjian in Toronto in December 2009.

Scored for strings and synthesizer (set for harpsichord sound but not used as a continuo) the four movements were deliberately left untitled by Glass, inviting listeners to decide for themselves which movement best depicts each season. A solo violin Prologue and three numbered Songs between the movements – which Glass felt could be extracted as a separate work for solo violin – act as cadenzas. Several Glass characteristics – arpeggios and sequences, for instance – provide a link with the Vivaldi era, but in a strongly tonal work the sound is unmistakably Glass.

Much the same can be said of the Violin Sonata, apparently written with youthful memories of the violin sonatas of Brahms, Fauré and Franck in mind, but again unmistakably Glass, with a show-stopping third movement.

Top-notch performances all round make for a highly enjoyable disc.

07 FitzwilliamThe Fitzwilliam String Quartet continues the celebration of its 50th anniversary with another outstanding CD following the Shostakovich Three Last Quartets reviewed here last month. This time it’s Franz Schubert String Quartets – those in A Minor D804 (often called the “Rosamunde”) and the monumental D Minor D810 “Death and the Maiden” – performed on period instruments with Viennese gut strings (Divine Art dda 25197 naxosdirect.com).

Violist Alan George’s outstanding booklet notes once again add immensely to our understanding of these almost symphonic works and the performance questions they raise – questions superbly answered by the FSQ. Vibrato – if used at all – functions as an expressive device, emphasising accents, increasing intensity and employed as decoration or ornamentation. Similarly, historically informed use of the bow, the treatment of the abundant dynamic markings and the approach to choice of tempo were all subjects with which the ensemble took great pains.

The resulting performances consequently have a feeling of authenticity that is quite remarkable and perfectly exploits the emotional range of these visionary works. In spite of knowing and coaching the Death and the Maiden quartet for many years, the Fitzwilliam only added it to their own repertoire eight years ago, although it sounds as if they’ve been performing it all their lives; the wild finale, says Alan George, “still leaves us all physically and emotionally shaking.”

01 CPE Bach
CPE Bach – The Solo Keyboard Music Vol.39

Miklós Spányi
BIS BIS-2370 (naxosdirect.com) 

Verschiedener (varied) is perhaps an understatement for the sheer variety of compositions on this CD. The 22 movements break down into forms as intense and individual as Fantasias lasting less than two minutes and as structured as a 23-minute conventional three-movement Concerto. Miklós Spányi has thus set himself a challenge. In fact, regardless of the type of movement, throughout the whole of this CD he has to draw on the tremendous expertise normally required for compositions by the (i.e. JS) Bach. The aforementioned Concerto in its Allegretto and Allegro movements bear this out.

As if the compositions themselves were not sufficiently testing, Spányi discusses at great length the problems posed by the harpsichords of the day. There was a trend at the court of CPE Bach’s employer (Frederick the Great), to commission harpsichords from one highly fashionable centre, London. These instruments often incorporated specialized attachments not usually found on other harpsichords, something reflected in CPE Bach’s work – and adding to Spányi’s task. 

While it is difficult to single out the most attractive tracks on this highly varied and attractive CD, the measured Allegro ma non troppo from the Sonata in D Minor is highly enjoyable, as are the demandingSinfonia in G Major and Fugue in G Minor.  

Spányi has taken on so much to bring us this particular demonstration of CPE Bach’s skills and ingenuity. His interpretations deserve a wide audience.

Michael Schwartz

02 Jean Muller Mozart
Mozart – Piano Sonatas Vol.2

Jean Muller
Hänssler Classics HC19074 (naxosdirect.com) 

In a 21st-century sonic sea, awash with dozens of recordings of Mozart sonatas released each year, the savvy listener must scrutinize attributes from one such disc over another, divining the hallmarks of Mozartian keyboard perfection simply via one’s own tastes. In the case of Luxembourgian pianist Jean Muller’s newest release on the Hänssler Classic label, the listening experience is immediately amicable: we deeply appreciate Muller’s gifts at delivering this repertoire with expertise and humbled reverence.

Opening with Mozart’s inspired D Major Sonata, K311 – written in Mannheim in December 1777 – this record gently sets two oft-played works against two more heard infrequently; this programming is subtle and perfectly balanced. As bookends to the disc, the two sonatas in D stand as points of departure and return, closing with the earlier work of the two, K284, sometimes nicknamed the “Dürnitz” Sonata. (It was written in 1775 for a Baron von Dürnitz – a bassoonist – who infamously withheld payment for the sonata!). Incidentally, it is the longest of Mozart’s 19 solo piano sonatas.

Muller brings utter neoclassical eloquence to all four sonatas on the album, charming with cajoling melodies and playful ornamentation. The imaginative – even boyish – spirit of Mozart’s keyboard is fully on display here. Every interpretive decision Muller makes is of the highest order, historically informed and beautiful to behold. He has produced an engaging, aesthetically satisfying album, sure to make any savvy Mozart listener smile with delight.

Adam Sherkin

03 Galosi Games

Melissa Galosi
Col legno CL3 1CD 15001 (naxosdirect.com) 

Italian pianist Melissa Galosi makes a strong case for the common wellsprings of both play and music on her debut album Games. She presents an argument for her thesis in piano music by master European composers of the 18th (W. A. Mozart) and 20th (György Kurtág) centuries. Kurtág rediscovered his compositional creativity in the 1970s through his observations of “…children who were spontaneously playing an instrument … who still saw the piano simply as a toy. They try to touch it, to caress it; they attack it and let their fingers run along the keyboard […] pure pleasure in the act of playing, joy of daring…” These experiences inspired his Játékok (“Games” in Hungarian), a substantial collection of piano works imbued with the creativity and wit of youthful games.

On the other hand Mozart never had a true childhood. Driven by his musician father, by the age of three he was hard at work practising the piano. His father kept him constantly practising, performing and touring: the very model of the prototypical child prodigy. Yet W.A. maintained a childlike sense of play for his entire life.

Galosi has chosen 17 aphoristic works from Játékok, interspersed with excerpts from three works by Mozart: variations on the famous Ah vous dirai-je maman (“Twinkle, Twinkle…”) and two other variation suites. I found the “mixed tape” across two centuries that Galosi presents convincing, musically delightful. Her playing is direct, unaffected, yet energetic and incisive when the music calls for it.

Andrew Timar

04 Young Ah Tak
Beethoven Piano Sonatas Nos. 23; 18; 6

Young-Ah Tak
Steinway & Sons 30106 (steinway.com) 

With his 250th birthday approaching, the popularity of Ludwig van Beethoven continues unabated for classical music audiences and performers alike. Captured here in her debut recording for the Steinway label, South Korean-born, now America-residing pianist, educator (on the faculty at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music) and academic, Young-Ah Tak, performs the late composer’s piano sonatas with a deft touch, a stylistically appropriate grand Romantic gesture and a level of familiarity with LvB’s work that is unsurprising, given the fact that her first solo recital, at age nine no less, included some of the very pieces captured here.

Recorded live at New York City’s Steinway Hall, this CD has an appropriately intimate quality to it and, as such, the engaged listener can identify, and, perhaps, even relate to the artistic struggle that occurs when an ambitious and deservedly feted pianist takes on a repertoire of well-trodden (and perhaps overly familiar) material – think Sonata No.23 in F Minor, “Appassionata” – yet desires to reify the expectations of an audience who demand that she make this material her own. Not an easy task, to be sure, but in Tak’s capable hands, new and effervescent subtleties of this music are introduced, exposed and played with to the satisfaction of both the performer and audience (and one would hope composer too). Nowhere is this more evident than in Tak’s dramatic interpretation of the clarion call “The Hunt,” (Piano Sonata No.18 in E-flat Major, Op.31, No.3). A recommended addition for piano enthusiasts and LvB collectors alike.

Andrew Scott

05 Beethoven Rosenbaum
Beethoven – Sonatas Opp.26 & 90

Victor Rosenbaum
Bridge Records 9517 (bridgerecords.com)

Victor Rosenbaum’s third recording for Bridge Records underlines his affinity for classical-era composers. Here we have a selection of Beethoven’s piano pieces ranging from early to late works and including two sonatas, variations, rondo and bagatelles. The chronological progression of pieces on this album is a wonderful treatise on the evolution of Beethoven’s compositional style and techniques.

It is especially enjoyable listening to the two sonatas on this album. Sonata in A-flat Major Op.26 is charming and unconventionally structured, opening with a relatively slow movement in the form of a theme with variations. Rosenbaum is delightfully playful in the Scherzo and introspective in his interpretation of the striking Funeral March (third movement). Written some 14 years later, Sonata in E Major Op.90 contains only two movements but they are vastly different in character. The first movement, written in E Minor, is dramatic, depicting the loneliness and anguish that will later become even more prominent in Beethoven’s music. The second movement, written in E Major is, in contrast, gentle and more Romantic in character. Rosenbaum navigates between the two worlds so naturally; his interpretation is powerful in the first movement and exquisitely nuanced in the second.

The naturalness and the candour of Beethoven’s language is very much suited to Rosenbaum, who has no difficulty communicating his musical ideas with conviction. It is as if the acumen acquired in his long performing career has been poured into every phrase, thus making this recording special.

Ivana Popovic

06 Schumann 4 hands
Schumann – Complete Music for Piano 4-Hands

Roberto Plano; Paola Del Negro
Brilliant Classics 95675 (naxosdirect.com) 

There is something deeply satisfying about playing piano duets. Perhaps it is the synergy one might feel with his fellow player or the shared delight in casual music making. The jubilant sense of teamwork is undeniable in this recording. Pianists Roberto Plano and Paola Del Negro are an unyielding force together, beautifully attuned to each other’s ideas and expressions, and clearly ardent about Schumann’s music. Here we hear it all: passion, precision, style, energy and, above all, joy.

Schumann himself loved playing piano duets and wrote an extensive collection of pieces that ranged from his beginning years as a composer to the late Op.130. This 2CD album includes the whole scope of his piano four-hands music: eight early Polonaises (homage to Schubert); 12 Vierhändige Klavierstücke fur Kleine and große Kinder (which became well-known and loved pieces of the piano repertoire); Bilder aus Osten (influenced by Eastern poetry and philosophy); and two late collections of dance pieces, Ballszenen and Kinderball.

Some of these compositions are quite complex and many became quite popular, inspiring various arrangements. Here they are played with a combination of gusto and lyricism and an evident sense of style. With this album Plano and Del Negro pay tribute to all the intricacies and wonders of Schumann’s piano music while bringing forward their own artistic perspectives.

Ivana Popovic

07 Mishka Rushdie Momen

Mishka Rushdie Momen
Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0603 (somm-recordings.com) 

The bright, young pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen has released a new recording that features works in variation form by assorted composers: Clara Wieck and Robert Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Nico Muhly and Vijay Iyer. Rushdie Momen’s thoughtful liner notes offer a rationale for her recording choices, explaining the “variation” thread that connects each piece on the disc. In some cases, there are direct quotes and reorganization of materials from an older piece to a newer one (Vijay Iyer’s Hallucination Party, After R. Schumann’s Op.99 is one such example). In other instances, works are referenced by thematic origin: Robert Schumann wrote variations on a theme by Clara and vice-versa; Brahms wrote variations on a theme by Robert Schumann, and so on.

Throughout the disc, one is struck by Rushdie Momen’s tonal command and wide-ranging technique as she wields the instrument in a quest for beauty of sound. This is a rare phenomenon today, particularly from a performer so young. Warmth and perfection of pianism seem at the forefront of Rushdie Momen’s musicianship; her attention to detail and technical confidence is on par with the artistry of such old master pianists as Clara Haskil, Sviatoslav Richter and Myra Hess.

Rushdie Momen can evidently manage any musical era with aplomb and the premiere recordings of works by Muhy and Iyer offer promise of exciting things yet to come from this gifted young artist. Composers – along with the rest of us – should flock to her keyboard side!

Adam Sherkin

08 Lortie Saint Saens
Saint-Saëns – Piano Concertos 3 & 5

Louis Lortie; BBC Philharmonic; Edward Gardner
Chandos CHAN 20028 (naxosdirect.com) 

Camille Saint-Saëns was an exceptionally gifted pianist, admired by his contemporaries for his dexterity and grand style. Yet despite his significant output of piano music, it’s only the works for piano and orchestra – including five concertos – which seem to have stood the test of time. To be certain, recordings of these compositions are by no means scarce, but this one featuring Louis Lortie and the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Edward Gardner, is a particularly worthy addition to the catalogue.

The majestic Piano Concerto No.3 from 1869 has been often overshadowed by the others – particularly the second – but the pairing of Lortie and the BBC orchestra is a sublime one. From the mysterious opening measures with the arpeggiated piano passages, Lortie demonstrates a flawless technique, his delivery strongly self-assured. The wistful second movement Andante is but a calm interlude before the buoyant and joyous third movement Allegro non troppo.

Piano Concerto No.5 – written in Luxor between 1895 and 1896 and suitably named the “Egyptian” – has always proven more popular. The piece is a true study in contrasts – the opening Allegro alternates between slow and fast segments; the central Andante begins with an introductory blast before settling into its more lyrical section and the piece ends with an energetic Molto allegro, the opening of which simulates the sound of a paddlewheel boat up the Nile.

Interspersed with the concertos are the popular Rhapsodie d’Auvergne and the less familiar Allegro appassionato, both from 1884, and each a satisfying melding of piano with orchestra in under ten minutes. In all, Lortie proves once again he is a pianistic supernova, one who can easily conquer the most demanding repertoire. The clarity of his interpretation and his elegant touch – along with a solid backing from the BBC Philharmonic – combine to make this a stellar recording.

Richard Haskell

10 Rubinstein 4hands
Rubinstein – Music for Piano Four Hands Vol.2

Duo Pianistico di Firenze
Brilliant Classics 95965 (naxosdirect.com) 

Pianists Sara Bartolucci and Rodolfo Alessandrini, collectively known as Duo Pianistico di Firenze (Piano Duo of Florence) have been garnering the accolades of the classical world since 1990, mining the overlooked, rarely performed or forgotten piano repertoire of the Western art music canon on a series of recordings, concerts and artistic residencies. Here, on this sprawling 2019 double CD released on the Brilliant Classics label, the Italian duo mightily dig in to the little-known, four-hand piano work of Russian composer Anton Rubinstein (1829–1894).

A touring piano soloist, composer and educator (he is perhaps best known as the teacher of Tchaikovsky), Rubinstein’s work here, similar to some of the best-known pieces of JS Bach, is didactically pedagogical by design. As founder of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, Rubinstein’s 20-movement long Bal Costumé is not a high-water mark of Russian pianistic virtuosity (for which Rubinstein was known), but rather is intentionally welcoming and accessible to amateur and student pianists, a collection of tuneful miniatures meant for parlour performances for attendees at a costume ball. Although Rubinstein the pianist would become celebrated for his virtuoso performances, he too included Bal costumé in his concerts, performing with Anna Yesipova or Monika Terminskaya, garnering accolades for the popular Toréador et Andalouse, movement seven from this suite. Captured here as the complete suite, this recommended CD set features the beautiful four-hand touch, playing and simpatico interaction of Bartolucci and Alessandrini seamlessly weaving together a unified tapestry of sound that is worth adding to one’s classical CD collection.

Andrew Scott

11 Yu Kosugi Fire
Four Elements Vol.2 Fire

Yu Kosuge
Orchid Classics ORC 100108 (orchidclassics.com)

This disc is Volume 2 of Yu Kosuge’s four-CD series Journey of the Four Elements. Fire begins intimately and after the pianist’s long, well-chosen program of late 19th-/early 20th-century compositions closes with grandeur. In Tchaikovsky’s January: At the Fireside, she conveys a family event’s togetherness well, along with imagined romantic passions. By contrast, five pieces from Max Reger’s Dreams at the Fireside evoke solitude. Here the composer remembers piano works from his youth: for example, piece No.2 references Brahms’ well-known Intermezzo No. 2, Op.118 in A Major. Reger adds complex harmony and voice-leading, but fortunately Kosuge clarifies the tonal structure well. Next, a storm arrives in the guise of Liszt’s symphonic poem Prometheus (arr. Ludwig Stark). Sizzling “lightning flashes,” a difficult fugue and bravura alternating octaves followed by cascading chords, present technical challenges that Kosuge masters ably.

Among succeeding short pieces, Debussy’s brief Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (1917) is a welcome, evocative novelty discovered only in 2001; while the Feux d’artifice (Preludes, Book II) ranks with the best recordings I have heard. Kosuge’s touch is even and crisp, her grasp of the fitful harmonic base secure. The disc’s pièce de résistance is five numbers from Stravinsky’s piano version of his great Firebird Suite (1919). Brilliant handling of the Infernal Dance’s syncopations and cross-rhythms, a mysterious mood with magical tremolos in the Lullaby and astonishing bell-like sonorities at the finale’s tremendous climax cap this marvellous CD.

Roger Knox

12Prokofiev Kempf
Sergei Prokofiev – Piano Sonatas 3; 8; 9

Freddy Kempf
BIS BIS-2390 SACD (bis.se)

Sergei Prokofiev’s music is a study in dramatic contrasts, not the least because the composer always seemed to look forward while harking back to the past. He was a brilliant piano virtuoso whose work was redolent of melodicism wedded to a tonality that was characterized by cascading warmth often spiked by the force of dramatic rhythms and broad dissonances. All of this is heard in these Piano Sonatas especially the last two – No. 8 and No. 9.

Prokofiev’s work always demanded fingers of flexible steel and those on Freddy Kempf’s hands seem to embody this to perfection. From the first dramatic rendering of the Piano Sonata No. 3 in A Minor Kempf plays like a man possessed, and his breathtaking variety of touch means that the less hard-driven passages of No.8 and No.9 have an unparalleled degree of subtlety and nuance. His muscular style is eminently suited to such tempestuous music.

The Piano Sonata No.3 in A Minor is the shortest and from Prokofiev’s earlier attempts at the form, while No.8 in B-flat Major and No.9 in C Major are much longer and infinitely more intricate. Yet all three live and breathe in sharply characterized music that demands a sense of structure and momentum. Kempf embraces their wide tonal range, sharply drawn contrasts and intricate detail with sublime energy and a wonderful sense of occasion.

Raul da Gama

13 Rachel Mahon
Canadian Organ Music on the Organ of Coventry Cathedral

Rachel Mahon
Delphian Records Ltd. DCD34234 (delphianrecords.co.uk) 

On the surface, this disc appears to be an interesting international essay: Canadian organ music played on an English cathedral organ, performed by a Canadian organist working in the UK. It seems straightforward enough but, if one looks into the historical relationship between Canada and Coventry, a much deeper and meaningful relationship is quickly uncovered. In 1940 the Coventry organ was destroyed by German air bombers, reducing the entire medieval building to a pile of rubble. At the same time, the (Royal) Canadian College of Organists was collecting donations from its members to assist with the rebuilding of damaged English instruments. In the end, the decision was made to dedicate the entire amount of raised funds to Coventry, paying for a major part of their new instrument. It is therefore no surprise that there is a large brass maple leaf on the west-end floor of the Cathedral, commemorating Canada’s generosity.

It is with this historical backdrop in mind that organist Rachel Mahon selected her program. The first work, Healey Willan’s monumental Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue bridges both countries; born in England, Willan later moved to Canada and eventually became known as the “Dean of Canadian composers.” Mahon treats this tripartite tome with the focus it requires, blending rhapsodic virtuosity with careful attention towards the structure of the composition. Gerald Bales’ Petite Suite and Ruth Watson Henderson’s Chromatic Partita are smaller pieces, but no less satisfying to hear on this magnificent organ, while Rachel Laurin’s Symphony No.1 is simply breathtaking in its immensity and dramatic content.

This disc merits repeated listening for numerous reasons, both historical and immediately practical. Mahon, recently appointed the next director of music at Coventry, is a superb performer with a keen ability to craft a satisfying program, and her debut recording is highly recommended.

Matthew Whitfield

14 Lindsay Garritson
Aphorisms – Piano Music of Carl Vine

Lindsay Garritson
Independent (lindsaygarritson.com) 

The music of composer, pianist and conductor Carl Vine so often evokes the lucidity and sun of this artist’s home country: Australia. The world premiere recording of his Fourth Piano Sonata (2019) is included on a new disc by American pianist, Lindsay Garritson, a disc entirely devoted to Vine’s varied piano catalogue. Pianists tend to revel in performing Vine’s music; it is idiomatic and expressive – Romantic at heart yet fresh and buoyant, unmistakably of our time. (American composer Lowell Liebermann’s aesthetic seems a close relative to Vine’s.)

Garritson throws herself headlong into the fulsome soundscape of Vine’s newest piano sonata, in a whorl of an opener to the record, demanding the listener’s attention. Her heart is clearly devoted to every single note of this album, with a seemingly special affection for The Anne Landa Preludes (2006). These programmatic, deeply expressive pieces are aptly suited to Garritson’s musical sensibility as she relishes their expansive resonating lines and tolling chords, born of a personal mode of expression. After these (12) preludes, the record returns to sonata form, in a rhapsodic performance of one of Vine’s most popular works from his early period, the Piano Sonata No.1 of 1990.

After five Bagatelles, including the haunting Threnody (for all of the innocent victims), Garritson treats the listener to Vine’s Toccatissimo (2011), a robust and thrilling finale to this attractive new album by a self-assured young pianist, with a career on the rise.

Adam Sherkin

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