I have enjoyed the extended hiatus since the last issue and took advantage of the break to spend almost a month away from my computer and my stereo system; a kind of purge during which the only music I experienced was the sound of waves pounding the shore of Lake Erie, loon calls across Canning Lake and the wind in the trees in my backyard accompanying the chattering of squirrels and chirping birds. Oh, and some homemade string music with a few friends. It was lovely to be “unplugged.”

01 Amber Zebulun SoNEoWWhen I was back at my desk, I found solace in a unique recording by two (now) local musicians Amber & Zebulun whose self-described “ambient instrumental post-rock music” provided a perfect background as I faced the daunting task of editing nearly a hundred reviews that had been filed in my absence. South of North, East of West (amberzebulun.bandcamp.com) also rewards as foreground listening, but its gentle ambience was just what I needed to help keep me focussed. Born in Yellowknife NT, and raised in Marysville ON, Amber Walton-Amar is a classically trained cellist. Husband Zebulun (Zebulun X Barnow, although I had to do some Googling to find that out), originally from Marquette MI via Chicago IL, is a multi-instrumentalist who seems to be responsible for the plucked and bowed bass lines, drum kit and melodic mallet instrument layers here. They have been making music together for more than a decade since first getting together in a Chicago-based Tom Waits cover band (an unusual context in which to find a cello). The liner notes tell us “South of North, East of West is about who you are, as defined by where you are. […] The meaning of each of [the] four directions is defined by its opposite, its relationship to the others. If we remove the meaning of our origin, of our destination, we are either lost or exactly where we should be.” With intriguing titles such as Cognitive Dissonance, Advice by Coincidence and Forgiving Garden, the music itself is mesmerizing; mellow and melodic, generally slow-paced with long cello lines, often in tandem with bowed double bass, soaring over compelling rhythm beds. It did indeed place me “exactly where I should be.” 

02 ThorvaldsdottirA disc that I had spent some time with before my self-imposed exile from technology provided a welcome re-entry into the craggy world of contemporary string writing upon my return. Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir has embarked on a long-term multidisciplinary project with the Spektral Quartet and video artist Sigurdur Gudjonsson entitled Enigma. Ultimately there will be a 360-degree immersive film magnifying the music when it is performed in the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and later taken on a national planetarium tour, but like so many current projects that has been put on hold during COVID-19. What we have at this point is a Sono Luminus audio recording of the striking three-movement, half-hour-long quartet (DSL-92250 sonoluminus.com). Like much of her music, which has garnered the Nordic Council Music Prize, the New York Philharmonic’s Kravis Emerging Composer and the Lincoln Center’s Emerging Artist Awards, Enigma is replete with extended techniques, extra-musical effects, unusual timbres and juxtapositions. There are few melodies per se, but rather moments and strings of events that constantly surprise and command rapt attention. Ranging from near silence, eerie harmonics and glissandi to percussive bursts, scratches and scrapes, there is also a meditative final section reminiscent of medieval harmonies that gradually rise in pitch and fade into breath sounds or, perhaps, the gentle lapping of waves upon a shoreline. The three-time Grammy-nominated Spektral Quartet is obviously well within its comfort zone with this challenging though beautiful music, even while the listener is sometimes left discomfited. 

03 Karen GomyoThe final disc this month is the most traditional, although there was a time not too long ago when the music of Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) was considered outside the mainstream. There has been a wealth of discs released in recent months in celebration of his centenary – you’ll find Tiina Kiik’s appraisal of one of them in the Modern and Contemporary section of this issue. Another is A Piazzolla Trilogy (BIS 2385 SACD bis.se) which features violinist Karen Gomyo who was born in Tokyo, raised in Montreal and studied at the Juilliard School at the invitation of Dorothy DeLay, before embarking on an international career as soloist and chamber musician. She is heard here performing a selection of unaccompanied Tango Etudes (1987), joining guitarist Stephanie Jones in Histoire du Tango (1986) and as soloist and director of L’Orchestre national des Pays de la Loire in Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires). 

Among the interesting biographical information included in Eric Johns’ extensive essay in the program booklet is that, at its first performance, Piazzolla’s Sinfonía Buenos Aires Op.15 (1951) “scandalized the audience to the point of fistfights and shouting, supposedly in response to the inclusion of two bandoneóns [concertinas] in an orchestral work.” It seems that he managed to alienate the tango community as well, with his introduction of classical stylings, techniques and instrumentation to the traditional form. Eventually, as we know, his Nuevo Tango style became widely accepted and is now lauded in concert and dance halls alike. Although originally written for flute, both the Etudes and Histoire are published in alternate versions for violin, and are well suited to the stringed instrument which, along with bandoneón and flute, was a staple in the traditional tango ensemble. In fact, again from Johns’ notes, “When performed on violin, Etude No.5 allows for the inclusion of double-stops, impossible on flute, to outline the alternation in the rhythmic pattern between 3+3+2, 3+2+3 and 4+4.”

Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas was originally scored for Piazzolla’s quintet of violin/viola, piano, electric guitar, double bass and bandoneón but is heard here in a string orchestra arrangement by Leonid Desyatnikov. It is the earliest work presented here, having been written between 1965 and 1970. It was not originally conceived of as a suite – the first movement Verano (Summer) was written as incidental music for a play by Alberto Rodríguez Muñoz – nor evidently as a tribute to Vivaldi, but there are a number of quotations from that Baroque master’s own Quattro Stagioni and it certainly serves as one. 

Gomyo’s playing is stellar throughout, full of idiomatic nuance and enthusiasm, with a rich warm tone in the lilting melodies, but suitably gruff as the sometimes gritty music requires. The same is true of Jones’ guitar, lyrical and percussive by turns. There is a lovely cello solo in Otoño Porteña (Autumn) superbly performed by Paul Ben Soussan, but the highlight of the movement is Gomyo’s extended and extravagant cadenza. A fine disc, and a wonderful centennial tribute to the Argentine master.

04 PhoenixWell, I thought that was all I had this time around, but as I was putting the finishing touches on my screed I received an advance copy of the latest from Toronto (former) wunderkind Stewart Goodyear. Phoenix (Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0154 brightshiny.ninja) will be released on October 8 and adds a glimpse into yet another side of this many-faceted musical force to an already impressive discography. The press release tells us that “The ashes from which Phoenix rises are, as the pianist says: the ‘soundworld, past traditions, and gestures of Franz Liszt’ [who was] thought to have had a profound influence on Debussy and Ravel, the latter of whom famously orchestrated Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.” Mussorgsky’s masterwork, masterfully performed in the original solo piano version, is the centrepiece of this impressive sonic essay. The disc is bookended by unaccompanied renditions of original works by Goodyear himself – the quasi moto perpetuo Congotay, recently released as a single with his jazz quintet, and the ebullient Panorama, extracted from Callaloo, a Gershwin-inspired work for piano and orchestra – both based on his half-Trinidadian heritage. Jennifer Higdon’s Secret and Glass Gardens, called by the composer “a journey of wonder and discovery” that “reflects the paths of our hearts,” is contrasted by Anthony Davis’ more introspective and ultimately tumultuous Middle Passage, inspired by a poem of Robert Hayden that, according to Davis, “speaks to the essential irony of our people and culture born of the horror of slavery.” Middle Passage includes two sections in which the performer is instructed to improvise and this recording marks Goodyear’s debut as an improvising pianist. Two works by Debussy, L’isle joyeuse and La cathédrale engloutie, complete a thoughtful and fascinating disc. 

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 Marie BéginThe new CD Debussy-Franck-Szymanowski finds the Canadian duo of violinist Marie Bégin and pianist Samuel Blanchette-Gagnon in quite superb form (ATMA Classique ACD2 2850 atmaclassique.com/en).

Bégin’s Carlo Bergonzi violin from 1710-1715 produces a glorious sound, and there’s a lovely range of tone colour from both players in the Debussy Sonata in G Minor and in the shimmering, atmospheric performance of the three Szymanowski Mythes Op.30. The heart of the disc is a wonderfully expansive and insightful reading of the Franck Sonata in A Major, with a slow build-up through the opening Allegretto, a brooding and passionate Allegro second movement, a heartfelt Recitativo: Fantasia and a final canon of depth and strength.

Two short transcriptions – Fauré’s Après un rêve and Debussy’s Beau soir, the latter in the Heifetz arrangement – complete a superlative CD.

02 Randall Goosby RootsRoots, the debut CD from the young American violinist Randall Goosby has been attracting a lot of interest, and with good reason. Described as “an exploration of the music written by Black composers and inspired by Black American culture” it’s a strong recital that features fine playing from Goosby and pianist Zhu Wang (Decca Classics 4851664 store.deccaclassics.com/*/CD-Classics/Roots/6Z5A16YW000).

Xavier Dubois Foley’s Shelter Island for violin and string bass (with the composer on bass) is a world-premiere recording, as are the three pieces by Florence Price: Adoration and the two Fantasies, No.1 in G Minor and No.2 in F-sharp Minor. Also here are Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s Blue/s Forms for Solo Violin, four songs from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in the Heifetz transcriptions, William Grant Still’s Suite for Violin and Piano (with its gorgeous second movement), Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Deep River (in an arrangement by violinist Maud Powell) and Dvořák’s three-movement Sonatina in G Major.

Goosby draws a full, warm tone from the 1735 “Sennhauser” Guarneri del Gesù violin, and has a lovely feel for line and phrase. Wang provides excellent support on an impressive debut disc.

03 Wernig Viennese ViolaFrom the opening bars of The Viennese Viola: Emma Wernig, the debut CD from the winner of the 2017 Cecil Aronowitz competition with Albert Cano Smit at the piano, it’s clear that we’re in very good hands. Wernig’s warm, assured playing is supported by Cano Smit’s perfectly matched accompaniment in a beautifully balanced recording of Austrian rarities for viola and piano (Champs Hill Records CHRCD163 emmawernig.com).

Hans Gál wrote his Viola Sonata in A Major Op.101 in Edinburgh in late 1942, having fled Austria in 1938. It’s a lovely work, lyrical and passionate but with moments of melancholy and gloomy introspection.

Two fine works by Robert Fuchs are at the centre of the recital: his Sechs Phantasiestücke Op.117 from 1927 and his Viola Sonata in D Minor Op.86 from 1899. Brahms greatly admired Fuchs, and his influence – as well as that of Schubert – is keenly felt.

Four Schubert songs – Am See, Frühlingstraum, An die Musik and Litanei auf das Fest Aller Seelen – chosen and arranged by the two performers, complete an outstanding CD.

04 Elegy Toby HughesA third – and equally accomplished – debut CD is Elegy: Toby Hughes, featuring the young English bassist accompanied by pianist Benjamin Powell in a recital that Hughes feels offers an insight into the instrument’s versatility (Champs Hill Records CHRCD162 tobyhughesdoublebass.com)

Hughes’ bass is built for solo playing, custom made for him, and what a sound it has – the warmth and agility of a cello, but with heft.

The Aria et Rondo from 1952 by the French composer Alfred Desenclos opens the disc, followed by Reinhold Glière’s Four Pieces – the Prelude and Scherzo Op.32 Nos.1 & 2 and the Intermezzo and Tarantella Op.9 Nos.1 & 2 – the Tarantella drawing dazzling virtuosity from Hughes. The brief Ekskize No.1, in a transcription by its composer Richard Dubugnon, was originally for voice and piano. 

The other major work on the CD is the four-movement Sonata No.2 in E Minor Op.6 from 1911 by Czech composer Adolf Mišek; it’s a passionate work with shades of Brahms and Dvořák. Bottesini’s lovely Elegia No.1, which takes Hughes to the instrument’s highest register, brings an impressive debut CD to a close. 

05 Fullana BachOn the outstanding Bach’s Long Shadow, his first solo album, the Spanish-American violinist Francisco Fullana builds a program of interlinked yet contrasting works around the Bach Partita No.3 in E Major BWV1006 (Orchid Classics ORC100165 orchidclassics.com).

Ysaÿe’s Solo Sonata Op.27 No.2 directly quotes the Bach Partita. Kreisler’s Recitativo & Scherzo Op.6 was dedicated to Ysaÿe, and Fullana is playing Kreisler’s first Guarneri violin, the 1735 “Mary Portman” Guarneri del Gesù which, for the Bach, is set up with gut strings, Fullana using a Baroque bow and historically informed ornamentation for that performance.

Striking transcriptions of Albéniz’ Asturias and Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra, the latter particularly difficult and effective, end a dazzling solo recital, Fullana being joined in an “encore” by Stella Chen, the most recent winner of the Queen Elisabeth Competition, in the first movement of Ysaÿe’s Sonata for Two Violins.

06 Brieuc VourchOn Richard Strauss/César Franck the French duo of violinist Brieuc Vourch and pianist Guillaume Vincent present the Strauss Sonata in E-flat Major Op.18 together with yet another recording of the Franck Sonata in A Major (FARAO Classics B 108112 farao-classics.de).

There’s a strong, bright tone to Vourch’s 1690 Francesco Ruggeri violin in a suitably passionate performance of the Strauss.

Interestingly, the performers’ booklet notes for this and the Bégin/Blanchette-Gagnon disc both mention the tough challenge of trying to find an authentic personal voice in the much-recorded Franck sonata, but the resulting performances could hardly be more different. Vourch and Vincent push the tempo throughout, especially in the Allegro and in a final canon faster than any of the four other Franck CDs I’ve received recently, but at times it simply feels rushed and lacking in subtlety – certainly not as thoughtful or satisfying as the Bégin disc.

07 Diffusion Verona QuartetDiffusion, the outstanding debut CD from the Verona Quartet is described as exploring a mosaic of folk cultures through the lens of three quartets from the early 20th century (Azica Records ACDF-71339 veronaquartet.com).

As musicians hailing from across the world, the quartet wanted their first album to reflect the essence of the cultural migration that is such a big part of their identity. The performances of the three works – Janáček’s String Quartet No.2 “Intimate Letters”, Szymanowski’s String Quartet No.2 Op.56 and Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major – are quite superb in all respects.

The intensely personal intimacy and passion of the Janáček, written near the end of his life and inspired by his unfulfilled love for a much younger married woman, are beautifully captured in a performance that penetrates to the heart of the work. The Szymanowski, similar in style and tone, is equally striking, and a shimmering performance of the Ravel completes an extremely impressive disc full of breathtaking interpretations and playing.

08a Daniel Lippel BachThe two guitarists who form the contemporary FretXDuo, Daniel Lippel and Mak Grgic have both issued solo CDs of music by Johann Sebastian Bach played on the well-tempered guitar. The guitar is by the German luthier Walter Vogt, using his invention The Fine-Tunable Precision Fretboard, in which each fret is split into six individual moveable frets, placed according to the Well-Tempered III tuning designed by Johann Kirnberger, a composer who studied with Bach. This not only enables the music to be heard in its original keys but also retains the specific Baroque character of each key that is lost with today’s equal temperament, where the subtly varying interval sizes are smoothed out.

The Lautenwerk was a Baroque keyboard instrument, essentially a lute-harpsichord with gut strings that could be plucked with different quill materials at different points along their length. On aufs Lautenwerk, Lippel performs two works for the instrument – the Suite in E Minor BWV996 and the Sonata in C Minor BWV997 – along with the Prelude, Fuga & Allegro in E-flat Major BWV998, written for lute or harpsichord (New Focus Recordings FCR920/MicroFest Records MF 18 microfestrecords.com).

Listen to 'aufs Lautenwerk' Now in the Listening Room

08b MAK BACHOn MAK/Bach Grgic presents a simply beautiful recital of solo masterworks and chorales: the Flute Partita in A Minor BWV1013; the Solo Violin Sonata in G Minor BWV1001; and the Cello Suite in D Major BWV1012. Four brief chorales fill out the disc (MicroFest Records MF19 microfestrecords.com).

To be honest, it will probably take a very good ear to fully distinguish the nuances in the tuning here, but there’s no denying the beauty of the sound or the beauty of the playing, with both performers displaying faultless technique – no easy task given the variations in individual fret placements – and an unerring feel for the period style. The Grgic CD, especially his own transcriptions of the Violin Sonata and the Cello Suite is perhaps the more satisfying program of the two, but with music and playing of this remarkable quality there’s no need to choose between them.

09 Roncalli HofstotterThe guitar works of Ludovico Roncalli have long been popular in modern transcriptions, but on Roncalli Complete Guitar Music they are performed by Bernhard Hofstötter on a Baroque guitar attributed to Matteo Sellas of Venice, c.1640 (Brilliant Classics 2CD 95856 brilliantclassics.com).

The five-course Baroque guitar had five pairs of gut strings (the first course often single-strung, as here) with the fourth and fifth sometimes octave-strung (here with a low octave on the fourth course only).

Roncalli’s 1692 Capricci armonici sopra la chitarra spagnola consists of nine sonate (suites), with eight paired in major and relative minor keys, an opening Preludio and Alemanda being followed by various dance forms. Movements are really short – mostly under two minutes. There’s no indication of pitch or tuning, but the actual pitch heard is down a minor third from the listed keys.

Monica Hall’s excellent booklet essay notes that Roncalli’s “exquisite melodic lines and elegant counterpoint are seamlessly combined with the strummed five-part chords which were still a defining feature of guitar music at the time.”

Hofstötter’s masterful playing is an absolute delight throughout.

10 David JacquesThe addition of a sixth string (the low E) in the 1790s established the guitar form that would flourish throughout the 19th century. In his second volume of Histoires de guitares Quebec guitarist David Jacques features 15 historical guitars from his astonishing private collection, all but one from the period 1800-1880, and each one illustrated in colour in the excellent booklet (ATMA Classique ACD2 2821 atmaclassique.com/en).

The 28 short, charming pieces by Giuliani, Sor, Carulli, Paganini and 13 lesser-known composers were chosen specifically to showcase each instrument’s individual qualities and character, and they include some real gems – the three pieces by the English composer Ernest Shand, for instance.

They’re all beautifully played too, with clean technique, sensitivity and a nice range of tonal colour.

11 Lullaby 3 DriftingDrifting, Volume 3 of the New Lullaby Project is the latest CD from guitarist Aaron Larget-Caplan in his excellent series of specially commissioned guitar solos which began in 2007 (Six String Sound 888-03 stonerecords.co.uk).

The 15 short pieces here were written between 2010 and 2020 by 15 different composers, and while they’re not intended to help children get to sleep there’s nothing strident or challenging to the ears. “The compositional language leans tonal and the tuning remains mostly standard,” says Larget-Caplan, “but don’t worry, harmonics still abound.” Indeed they do, in another captivating addition to a significant series that continues to add miniature gems to the contemporary guitar repertoire.

You can find my review of Nights Transfigured – Volume 2 of the New Lullaby Project in the May/June 2021 edition of Strings Attached.

Listen to 'Drifting, Volume 3 of the New Lullaby Project' Now in the Listening Room

01 On Wings of SongOn the Wings of Song
Kira Braun; Peter Krochak
Independent (kirabraunsoprano.com)

The soprano Kira Braun has been a performing soloist since just 2014. Yet she has already released six recordings – five with pianist Peter Krochak – the latest of which is, very possibly her best. Picking up from where their last album The Echoing Air left off, On the Wings of Song – with more art songs by Poulenc, together with works by Mendelssohn and Obradors – is a ravishing duet between a singer who excels at being both a lyric and dramatic soprano and a pianist who springs and leaps with much agility and nuance.   

All the songs receive terrific performances and although the program is weighted slightly in favour of Poulenc and Obradors, Mendelssohn’s Wanderlied is particularly radiant – perhaps predictably so, given Braun’s German heritage. She strikes an ideal balance between a certain compassion and sophistication, something that makes Mendelssohn seem quite ideally suited for Braun as she delivers his songs with affectionate communication of the poetry. Her command of Poulenc is unrivalled and she proves this with her airy sculpting of Les chemins de l’amour. She also grows into the characters of Obradors’ songs with great feeling and intensity.  

Krochak’s contribution to the unique musicality of this disc cannot be overestimated. Being a singer himself seems to give him an added edge over others who might have accompanied Braun. This is what gives his playing a beguiling refinement, enabling him to traverse this repertoire with judicious melodiousness and delicacy.

02 A Sanctuary in SongA Sanctuary in Song
Daniel Cabena; Stephen Runge
Chestnut Hall Music (chestnuthallmusic.com)

A Sanctuary in Song is a collaboration between countertenor Daniel Cabena and pianist Stephen Runge. The album follows a man’s journey via the stages of life, love, loss and death. We follow him first in a prelude, and then, in his wanderings and sanctuary explorations interspersed with instrumental commentaries.

Although the repertoire is mostly curated from the English art songs of composers born in the 19th century (York Bowen, John Ireland, Roger Quilter, Charles Villiers Stanford, Peter Warlock and Ralph Vaughan Williams), other more contemporary composers are also featured (Australian-Canadian Barrie Cabena – the singer’s father – as well as British-born Gerald Finzi and Edmund Rubbra). The influence of, training in, or adherence to musical practices associated with Romantic music are felt throughout the album. Runge’s playing is sophisticated and elegant, all the while creating both intimate and grand pianistic expressive soundscapes for Cabena to soar above. Cabena’s commitment to the texts gives life to the various layers of emotional meaning that one can find in nature, love, beauty, solitude or spirituality.

With 26 pieces of music and over 70 minutes of repertoire A Sanctuary in Song is a generous offering and a thoughtfully curated story that showcases a great number of composers and poets to (re)discover. Kudos to the Canadian duo for also featuring two compositions by Canadian composer Cabena.

A Sanctuary in Song was recorded December 12 &13, 2017 at the Maureen Forrester Recital Hall, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario.

03 Artem VedelArtem Vedel – Twelve Sacred Choral Concerti
Luminous Voices; Spiritus Chamber Choir
Leaf Music LM244 (leaf-music.ca)

The choral concerto is a uniquely Eastern European form, arising in the Russian Empire in the 17th century and continuing to be written well into the 19th. In general terms, the choral concerto was defined by its multi-movement form and psalm-based texts, written for unaccompanied chorus and containing passages for full ensemble as well as soloists. While parallels can certainly be drawn between the choral concerto’s form and that of the Western instrumental concerto, this similarity is more coincidence than correlation, as the developments of these like-minded styles occurred largely contemporaneously.

The most renowned and oft-performed composer of choral concertos is Dimitri Bortniansky, an Italian-trained, Russian-Ukrainian musician whose 45 concertos are considered by many to be the pinnacle of the form. At the same time as Bortniansky was putting pen to paper, another Ukrainian composer was authoring his own essays in the choral concerto style, and it is these works by Artem Vedel that are the focus of Vedel: Choir Concertos Nos.1-12 & Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

While a relatively unknown composer in modern times, Vedel was widely respected in his homeland during his lifetime and was one of the “Golden Three” composers, along with Maxim Berezovsky and Bortniansky. Vedel’s concertos are strikingly expressive yet deceptively simple, many of them written for three- or four-part chorus, and often set anguished texts from the psalms: nine of the eleven intact concertos are written in minor keys and are of a pleading, mournful nature. 

Far from being pessimistic and despite Vedel’s angsty outlook, there are moments of great beauty and striking optimism contained within each work, particularly as the texts turn to the goodness and saving power of God; these cadences are arguably some of the most delightful and satisfying in the oeuvre and are magnificently executed by the performers.

This double-disc collection is immense, containing over 150 minutes of material, all of it performed by the Calgary-based ensemble Luminous Voices. A seven-year project, this recording is a testament both to the compositional capabilities of Vedel and the musical skill of Luminous Voices and its director, Timothy Shantz.

Listen to 'Artem Vedel – Twelve Sacred Choral Concerti' Now in the Listening Room

04 Cosi Fan Tutti HarnoncourtMozart – Cosi Fan Tutte
Eriksmoen; Dragojevic; Schuen; Peter; Kulman; Werba; Concentus Musicus Wien; Arnold Schoenberg Choir; Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Unitel Edition 804108 (naxosdirect.com/search/804108)

Collaborations between composer and librettist always create happy results, often the composer’s best operas, e.g. between Verdi/Boito, R. Strauss/Hoffmanstahl or Wagner/Wagner (as he wrote his own librettos). This is the case with Lorenzo Da Ponte with whom Mozart produced three of his masterworks: Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte. 

Nicholas Harnoncourt’s long-cherished dream has been to conduct all three of them, one after the other, as authentically as possible, in an intimate setting with close collaboration with singers while still maintaining complete control. This is a concert performance, with bare stage, no sets or costumes. Singers sing from scores, but act and move freely, interact with each other and the emphasis is entirely on the music; the most beautiful music of the three operas according to connoisseurs.

Cosi fan Tutte means all women are fickle, deceitful (even Verdi’s Duke of Mantua sings it: La donna è mobile), a thesis proven by the philosopher Don Alfonso (Markus Werba, baritone) with an experiment on two sets of lovers Fiordiligi (Mari Ericksmoen, soprano) and Dorabella (Katija Dragojevic, mezzo) vs. Ferrando (Mauro Peter, tenor) and Guglielmo (André Schuen, baritone) in this hilarious comedy. And in the music, one beautiful piece after another. Like Fiordiligi’s angry outburst: Come scoglio immoto resta in Act One, or Ferrando’s Un aura amorosa so beautiful that even Harnoncourt sings along. Dorabella’s È amore un ladroncello is tempestuous and Gugielmo’s Donne mie la fate tanti is a swaggering boast of male pride. The clever and worldly chambermaid, Despina (Elisabeth Kulman), the interlocutor who helps Don Alfonso carry out his scheme, also sings a lovely aria Una donna a quindici anni that delights Harnoncourt and garners big applause.

“Something we had never heard before like this” says the Serbian newspaper Kurir, and that just about sums it up.

06 Malcolm ArnoldMalcolm Arnold – The Dancing Master
Vocal Soloists; BBC Concert Orchestra; John Andrews
Resonus Records RES10269 (resonusclassics.com)

London, 1952: Malcolm Arnold, Oscar-winner-to-be for The Bridge on the River Kwai, is rapidly churning out one film score after another; his friend, filmmaker Joe Mendoza, has written a screenplay based on a 1671 comedy, The Gentleman Dancing Master. For years, they’ve discussed collaborating on an opera; now, Mendoza turns the screenplay into a made-for-television opera libretto. Only two weeks after receiving Mendoza’s draft, Arnold completes the score for a one-act, 75-minute opera. Deemed “too bawdy for family audiences” by BBC executives, The Dancing Master languishes until an amateur concert performance with piano in 1962; it finally receives its first full production in 2015 in London. 

Miranda faces an unwanted marriage to her Frenchified cousin, “Monsieur” Nathaniel, arranged by her pompous father and puritanical aunt. Supported by her maid Prue, Miranda attempts to pass off her ardent but maladroit admirer Gerard as her dance instructor. Comic complications inevitably ensue.

Mendoza’s libretto (included in the booklet) boasts sharply drawn characters and abundant clever rhymes. It’s hardly “bawdy” – mildly risqué only when Prue tries to seduce Nathaniel. Arnold’s score is brightly orchestrated, poignant in Miranda’s lament, boisterous in the ensembles, unashamedly cinematic in the climax of Miranda and Gerard’s love duet, wickedly satiric in Nathaniel’s absurd serenade, clearly echoing Beckmesser’s hapless effort in Die Meistersinger’s song contest.

The Dancing Master is a melodic, laugh-inducing romp. While a more distinguished cast might have been desirable, this CD promises guaranteed operatic entertainment.

01 J G GraunG. Graun – Chamber Music from the Court of Frederick the Great
Augusta McKay Lodge; Georgina McKay Lodge; Eva Lymenstull; David Schulenberg
Brilliant Classics BRI96289 (naxosdirect.com/search/bri96289)

Frederick the Great’s patronage of classical musicians is well known; Frederick was himself an accomplished player and composer. Surprisingly, several of these composers did not perform before the King and are therefore less well known than they should be. This CD seeks reversal of the situation.

A comment is made in the CD notes that the pieces bridge a gap between Baroque and mainstream classical music. This is borne out in Janitsch’s Allegretto which possesses a liveliness worthy of Mozart or Haydn. When it comes to Johann Gottlieb, the slightly older Graun brother, we are treated to a highly spirited Allegro scherzando from violinist Augusta McKay Lodge, echoed literally by David Schulenberg’s harpsichord playing before all instruments proceed to a real virtuoso performance of which J. S. Bach would have been proud.

It is Bach’s oldest son Wilhelm Friedemann who tutored one of the stars of this CD, Franz Benda. Benda’s Sonata for viola brings out the best of Georgina McKay Lodge’s playing. Listen, for example, to her stately and measured approach to the Adagio. Benda, in fact, moved in exalted circles, being a pupil of Wilhelm Friedemann but also having as patron one Sarah Levy, great-aunt of Felix Mendelssohn. And yet it is the Grauns who dominate the CD. Johann Gottlieb’s Trio sonata in A showcases the string playing of both McKay Lodges. All in all, this well-chosen collection demonstrates the tremendous array of talented composers Frederick the Great attracted – which paved the way for Haydn and Mozart.

02 Von OeyenBach; Beethoven
Andrew Von Oeyen
Warner Classics 0190295020514 (vonoeyen.com)

After the silence descended over concert halls in 2020, many performing artists focused on exploring the possibilities of new sonic places through repertoire, musical approaches or unusual physical spaces. Intimate solo sessions offered these artists the opportunity for introspection and extended a salute to their audiences. According to Andrew Von Oeyen’s liner notes, his desire to turn to the repertoire that expressed the essence of current times and fortified noble feelings of resilience and perseverance resulted in this album. And what an album it is! Every piece carries a deeper meaning of our collective experiences in the times of the pandemic and Von Oeyen conveys it on both the intellectual and emotional level. The performance goes beyond his dazzling technique and splendid phrasing. It is as if he simply knows where the heart of each composition lies and he is unveiling it for the listener.

Bach’s Overture in the French Style, a quest for order and clarity, is particularly well played. Not being a Bach specialist allows Von Oeyen to hear the interweaving voices in a slightly more juxtaposed – rather than contrasting – way. Beethoven’s piano sonatas (Nos.13 and 23), embodying vitality and determination, bring in the currents of energy. The choice to end the album with Kempff’s piano arrangements of the movements from Bach’s Flute Sonata No.2 and Harpsichord Concerto No.5 are surprising but welcomed. These solitary musings of one artist are well noted and well appreciated.

03 Vitkauskaite Mozart BeethovenMozart – Piano Concerto No.20; Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.3
Rasa Vitkauskaite; Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra; Anima Musicae Chamber Orchestra; Jonathan Cohler
Ongaku Records 024-129 (ongaku-records.com)

Released in honour of Beethoven’s 250th birthday anniversary, this album also honours the long and beloved tradition of the classical piano concerto. The concept is cleverly simple: choosing to record the first concertos written in a minor key by both Mozart and Beethoven allows Lithuanian pianist Rasa Vitkauskaite to explore the multitude of interrelations in the ways both composers approached piano playing and piano writing. Furthermore, her extensive and thoughtful liner notes not only offer a wealth of historical information but also aid the listener’s aural comprehension of these two masterpieces. 

Vitkauskaite’s performance is buoyant and certainly does not lack fully fledged ideas. Whether it is the poetic opening of Mozart’s concerto or the relentless dancing bounce in the concluding movement of the Beethoven, Vitkauskaite has a strong presence and willful execution. Each composer chose specific minor keys (D minor for Mozart and C minor for Beethoven) as ideal canvases for expressing tempestuous feelings and darkness, and they continued to do so in their later works. Vitkauskaite understands that darkness perfectly. She is capable of bringing forth the intensity and tension while still retaining the lyricism of the melodies. She favours her own improvisations and embellishments in the cadenzas, which makes this performance exciting as we are able to hear something new and surprising. Jonathan Cohler is a perfect collaborator to Vitkauskaite, directing both orchestras with clarity and conviction.

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04 Mozart 3 McDermottMozart – Piano Concertos Vol.3 K449 & K595
Anne-Marie McDermott; Odense Symphoniorkester; Sebastian Lang-Lessing
Bridge Records 9538 (bridge-records.com)

This Bridge recording is the third in a series of Mozart piano concertos featuring American pianist Anne-Marie McDermott with the Odense Symphony conducted by Sebastian Lang-Lessing, this time presenting Concertos No.14, K449 and No.27, K595.

A graduate of the Manhattan School of Music,  McDermott has earned a reputation as a consummate artist during the last 25 years, one who continues to appear in concert internationally both as a soloist and a chamber musician. Her first two recordings in this series were met with considerable critical acclaim and this one is equally impressive.

Written in 1784, K449 is regarded as the first of Mozart’s mature works in the genre and was the first composition to be entered into a notebook of his music he retained for the next seven years.  McDermott approaches the score with a thoughtful intelligence, her phrasing at all times carefully nuanced, while the Odense Symphony is a sensitive and formidable partner. The second movement andantino is all heartfelt lyricism while the optimistic and sprightly finale is carried out with great gusto.

Concerto No.27, Mozart’s last contribution to the concerto form, his “swan song” so to speak, was probably written between 1788 and 1789, but the manuscript is dated January 5, 1791.Once again, McDermott’s performance is wonderfully expressive, the brisker passages marked by an adept precision. Throughout, the warm strings and woodwinds under Lang-Lessing’s skilfull baton further contribute to a most satisfying performance.

While recordings of Mozart piano concertos continue to be plentiful, this one – by an exemplary soloist and orchestra, both of whom deserve greater recognition – is a welcome addition and we can look forward to further editions in the series.

 

05 Mozart Momentum AndsnesMM 1785 – Mozart Momentum
Leif Ove Andsnes; Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Sony 19439742462 (naxosdirect.com/search/194397424621)

1785 was a landmark year in Mozart’s all-too-brief existence. He had finally achieved a degree of financial security, he commenced a period of tremendous creative energy and he was beginning to “push the boundaries” with respect to his musical style. This Sony two-disc set titled Mozart Momentum, is an intriguing presentation of seven works all composed that year – three piano concertos, the Piano Quartet K478, the Fantasia K475 and the Masonic Funeral Music K477 performed by Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. 

The Piano Concerto No.20 – the first of two Mozart wrote in a minor key – took some time to be fully accepted by Viennese audiences, but they ultimately embraced it wholeheartedly. The overall theme of “light triumphing over darkness” clearly foreshadows the 19th century, and Andsnes with the MCO are a formidable pairing, delivering a polished performance.

Similarly, the Concertos No.21 and 22 (the latter the first to make use of clarinets) demonstrate a buoyant confidence – tempos in the outer movements are brisk but never rushed, the cadenzas are creative and there’s a solid connection between soloist and orchestra.

For the G-Minor Quartet, Andsnes drew upon the principals from the ensemble and what a wonderfully intimate sound they produce! Here the listener is struck by the enthralling interplay of the musicians, particularly in the third movement scherzo where they engage in a true game of “cat and mouse” including a false ending before the jocular conclusion performed with great panache.

Andsnes sits on the sidelines for the brief Masonic Funeral Music but returns for the Fantasia in C Minor, a score that clearly anticipates Beethoven. 

Kudos to all concerned – this set is a treasure, bound to be enjoyed for many years to come.

 

06a Schumann ProjectThe Schumann Project: Robert – Symphonic Etudes; Clara – Sonata in G Minor
Inna Faliks
MSR Classics MS 1763 (msrcd.com)

Reimagine: Beethoven & Ravel
Inna Faliks
Navona Records nv6352 (navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6352)

The name Inna Faliks may not seem familiar to music lovers today, but the credentials of this Ukrainian-born American pianist are impressive indeed. Currently head of the piano department at UCLA, Faliks has made a name for herself both as a performer and pedagogue, and has appeared in concert throughout the world including a tour of China in 2016.The recording, titled The Schuman Project, is the first in a series designed to juxtapose the music of Robert Schumann with that of his wife Clara, who for too long has had the unfortunate reputation as “a pianist who also composed.”

The 19th century wasn’t kind to women composers (or any women involved in the creative arts) and Clara was no exception. Her Piano Sonata in G Minor, which opens the disc, was an early work dating from 1841 when she was all of 22. It was composed specifically for Robert and despite her youth, there is much to admire here including solid construction and fine thematic development among the four movements. Faliks approaches the unfamiliar score with a clear understanding of the music, delivering a compelling and heartfelt performance.

Schumann’s renowned Symphonic Etudes were begun in 1834 and have long been regarded as one of the most challenging of his large-scale piano works. Faliks easily proves her grasp of the material, rising to all the technical demands. But she is no mere technician – at all times her phrasing is carefully articulated and, beginning with the mysterious opening theme, her performance is a captivating musical journey right through to the jubilant finale. 

06b Reimagine Beethoven RavelFaliks turns her attention to very different material in the disc Reimagine: Beethoven and Ravel. Here she focuses on putting a new “spin” on standard repertoire, in this case, the Beethoven set of Bagatelles Op.126 and Ravel’s suite Gaspard de la Nuit. These were used as a basis for new compositions by modern composers such as Peter Golub, Tamir Hendelman and Richard Danielpour. Just as the Beethoven set is a study in contrasts, so are the reinterpretations. For example, the mood of the Bagatelle by Golub based on the first in the Beethoven set is pensive and contemplative, closely following that of the original, while Ian Krouse’s Etude 2a based on the second is a true perpetuum mobile. For whatever reason, Faliks didn’t include any original movements from the Ravel suite, but pieces such as Variations on a Spell by Paola Prestini are an evocative reimagining of Ondine.

These are fine recordings demonstrating two sides of a gifted artist – and recorded during a pandemic no less. We can hope to hear more from Inna Faliks in the future.

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07 Brahms 3Brahms – Symphony No.3; Serenade No.2
Budapest Festival Orchestra; Ivan Fischer
Channel Classics CCS SA 43821 (channelclassics.com/catalogue/43821)

“There is no more magnificent opening of a symphony than the first 38 bars of Brahms Third” says Ivan Fischer, and obviously he is very partial to the work. Fischer is known to pursue unjustly neglected works and restore them to mainstream repertoire. Brahms Third Symphony is certainly the dark horse, the least performed of his four. Granted, it is different from the others: it’s the shortest, terse, vivid, passionate and intensely alive. It begins with a great heroic theme in an optimistic F Major fortissimo that dominates the work, but it’s also capable of becoming soft and tender as at the end of the first movement and the very end of the symphony. 

The nickname heroic fits only the outer movements. The second is quiet and peaceful and simply glows with one beautiful melody after another. It comes to a gorgeous climax and then a hushed magical moment of dialogue between various woodwinds and the lower strings echoing one another. The third movement should be a scherzo, but it isn’t. It has a “beautiful, caressing theme, loving and slightly melancholic, but all in a mildly rocking rhythm” (Clemens Romijn). It is in 3/4 time and so catchy that it became a pop song. The last movement is intense, dramatic like a battle, heroic, but the main theme returns in a quiet, peaceful manner that ends the symphony gently.

Brahms wrote the two Serenades before he composed symphonies and I first heard them by the late, great Brahmsian István Kertséz and fell in love with them instantly. The graceful Serenade No.2 provides a nice contrast to the heroic Third Symphony, performed here in a thoroughly delightful manner by the wonderful musicians of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the pride of Hungary and one of the top ten of the world.

08 Brahms Concertos SchiffJohannes Brahms – Piano Concertos
Andras Schiff; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
ECM New Series 2690/91 (ecmrecords.com/shop)

Perhaps like many classical music listeners and lovers, I mainly (and perhaps limitingly) associate the Hungarian-born pianist Sir András Schiff with J.S. Bach, whose music Schiff plays beautifully, frequently and with an insight and mastery that few have equalled. Accordingly, it was a pleasure for me to dig into Schiff’s recent double-disc recording of the reimagined piano concertos of Johannes Brahms, accompanied capably by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. 

Captured following a string of highly acclaimed European concerts in the spring of 2019, the resulting recording is magical. Doing double duty as pianist and conductor, Schiff leads this unique United Kingdom-based period-piece orchestra through some of the most musical and challenging pieces in the Western art music canon (Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.1 in D Minor, Op.15 and No.2 in B-flat Major, Op.83), mining the depths of Romantic-era dynamics and expressivity for which Brahms is revered. Further, the recording, captured at London’s Abbey Road studios, contains all of the fidelity hallmarks for which ECM Recordings has earned its blue-chip reputation over the last near half-century, exhibiting the telltale expansive sonic thumbprint of executive producer Manfred Eicher, who helps realize here a recording that captures Schiff, and the 1859 Blüthner piano on which he performs, beautifully.

09 Brahms DoubleBrahms – Double Concerto; Tchaikovsky – Romeo and Juliet; Liszt – Les Preludes
Lisa Batiashvili; Gautier Capuçon; Staatskapelle Dresden; Christian Thielemann
C Major 757108 (naxosdirect.com/search/757108)

Christian Thielemann had already established himself as a card-carrying, man-about-Brahms when he recorded the complete symphonies, the piano concertos with Pollini and the violin concerto with Batiashvili; DG was still attempting to develop a successor to the late Herbert von Karajan. 

Of course this concert with the Dresden Staatskapelle could be nothing less than a memorable event given the incomparable technique and sonorities of the soloists, violinist Lisa Batiashvili and cellist Gautier Capuçon, with Thielemann in command. This Blu-ray has had lots of play in the past weeks as I just had to hear, just one more time, my very favourite Brahms concerto. The encore, Il Zingaresca: Allegro giocoso, is a pleasing interplay between violin and cello by Schulhoff. The Tchaikovsky and Liszt war horses each enjoy a well-controlled, commanding performance,

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