04_anderszewskiPiotr Anderszewski - Unquiet Traveller
Bruno Monsaingeon
Medici Arts 3077938
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Voyageur intranquille, Unquiet Traveller, opens with pianist Piotr Anderszewski boarding the train that, by choice, will be his home, complete with grand piano and a kitchen, until the end of this tour. So begins the documentary of an extraordinary musical figure.

During this winter’s journey across Poland we will listen in on his conversations about musical aesthetics, love, and the composers for whom he has a special affinity. He speaks about his personal journey and the decisions that have led him to this point in his life.

His profound favourite composer is Mozart and he is delighted to vocalise passages from The Magic Flute, reducing the orchestral accompaniment to some basic keyboard figures. We also hear him in various venues across Europe playing Bach, Chopin, Szymanowski, Beethoven, Brahms, and Schumann. The film ends with a most affectionate tribute to Lisbon, now his home.

Anderszewski has the rare gift of sharing every performance with his audience, conveyed by his sincere, overflowing personality. Incidentally, he plays only works he likes!

Born in Warsaw in 1969, Anderszewski is a pianist with ample technique and an intriguing personal philosophy, proof that there is true musical force in his generation.

01_francaixJean Françaix 1912-1997
Trio di Colore
XXI XXI-CD 2 1580

 

Nadia Boulanger pronounced to the mother of 10-year old Jean Françaix: “I don’t know why we’re wasting our time teaching him harmony, which he obviously knows already. How he became so proficient at it is a mystery; he seems to have been born with it. Let us rather do counterpoint.” That love of harmony persisted throughout his life and career. Françaix was criticized in the 1950’s for not moving ahead with the serialists and dodecaphonic composers. His reply was disarming: “I would gladly be the spiritual grandson to Grand-Papa Haydn. The limpidity, the calm and the humour of his art seem to me the antidote to the contemporary idiom.”

 

Despite his protestations that he never changed, Françaix obviously evolved. As the composers of the minimalist movement (most notably John Adams) re-discovered harmony, so did Françaix discover his own version of minimalism. The perfect example of that evolution is one of his late compositions, the 1990 Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano. Together with his compositions from the 1970’s, 1940’s and even 1930’s, this disc becomes a great Françaix primer, beautifully executed by Trio di Colore. This young ensemble, formed at the acclaimed Indiana University – Jakob School of Music, received the First Prize and Gold Medal at the prestigious 2004 Fischoff Chamber Music Competition. The individual musicians are also winners of multiple competitions, guaranteeing an intelligent and beautiful reading of thes harmonic treasures by Jean Françaix.

 

Mentors and heroes have been celebrated musically for years. In improvised music interpretations are more individual, the choice of honourees is quirkier, but the sounds are just as impressive – as these CDs demonstrate.

Montreal bassist/composer Normand Guilbeault’s Ensemble has played the music of bassist/composer Charles Mingus (1922-1979) for years. Hommage à Mingus: Live at Upstairs (ambiance magnétiques AM 185 CD www.actuelle.com) finds the six man – and one woman, vocalist Karen Young – combo preserving Mingus’ purposely jagged stop-time themes and tempo switches. With Jean Derome’s snorting baritone saxophone and the broken phrasing of Mathieu Bélanger’s bass clarinet, the arrangements have more bottom. Young’s delivery adds emotion to a piece like Weird Nightmare, which benefits from Ivanhoe Jolicoeur’s whispering trumpet. Pianist Normand Devault consistently lays on the blues notes. Yet these link to the trumpeter’s sometime pre-modern plunger work and the steady pulse of drummer Claude Lavergne. The band proves that homage includes irreverence, when the pianist weaves a pastiche of other Mingus tunes into Song with Orange; and on Passions of a Woman Loved, the reeds quote Tequila.

Joe McPhee’s Angels, Devils & Haints (CJR 7 www.joemcphee.com) re-imagines the work of saxophone avatar Albert Ayler (1936 -1970). Besides two standards, the music is improvised. While Ayler’s themes were driven by thick percussion and raucous horns, McPhee plays alto or tenor saxophone or trumpet, backed by four bassists – Michael Bisio, Dominic Duval, Paul Rogers and Claude Tchamitian. Separated by heartfelt saxophone readings of Goin’ Home and Ol’ Man River, the outstanding originals capture the Ayler persona. The Gift is a pointillist exercise divided into saxophone tongue stops, flutter tonguing and frayed trills, while the bassists strike and slap cantilevered timbres, then divide into arco string stretches and pizzicato plinks. The title tune is the real stunner. As the bassists thump or pluck to unify pedal point undertow, McPhee reed bites, squeals and chirps. When the bassists use tremolo pumps to meet the saxophonist’s slip-sliding smears, multiphonics are exposed. McPhee then switches to spidery chromatic triplets on trumpet confirming underlying lyricism. Ultimately he returns to saxophone with ceiling-scraping altissimo. The finale finds the bassists’ portamento runs and McPhee’s floating and stuttering trills melding.

Four Torontonians and two Swiss honour Urs Blöchlinger on Tribute (Pet Mantis Records PMR 004 www.petmantisrecords.com). The compositions of Blöchlinger (1954-1995) reflect the saxophonist’s sardonic humour and hint at the depression that led to his suicide. Organized by local bassist Neal Davis, plus two Swiss who worked with Blöchlinger – pianist Christoph Baumann and drummer Dieter Ulrich – the horn section is all Torontonian: trombonist Tom Richards plus reedists Peter Lutek and Kelly Jefferson. Aylerian echoes animate Lutek’s nephritic cries, with Jefferson lyrical and Richards as fond of plunger work as Jolicoeur. This is especially effective on the lurching theme of King Arthur meets Hans Eisler in Hollywood. The trombone blats, Lutek’s alto saxophone slithers and Jefferson’s soprano saxophone trills draw out the narrative. Davis’ walking, Baumann’s comping and Ulrich’s ruffs let the horns interject quotes from other tunes which are diaphanous enough to expose a climatic round of honks and peeps. Kungusische Arbeitslied layers themes in sequence. Contrapuntally contrasting trombone growls and reed chirps, the group switches to a marching band emulation following a drum roll. Sluicing horn lines quicken the pace as Ulrich nudges the melody with montuno rhythm. Baumann’s sprawling dynamics signal another shift and suddenly roles reverse. Lutek’s nasal alto, Jefferson’s smooth soprano and Richards’ gutbucket trombone play the melody as the pianist’s key wandering replicates a fantasia. A bass string spank completes the tune.

The strangest acknowledgment is Hommage à Syd Barrett (Imuzzic CRCD 0821 www.cristalrecords.com). The Lyon-based i.overdrive trio honours Barrett (1946-2006), the songwriter/guitarist whose idiosyncratic tunes dominated Pink Floyd’s first LP before he left the group. With guitarist Philippe Gordiani using the pre-eminent rock instrument; trumpeter Rémi Gaudillat representing jazz sophistication; and drummer Bruno Tocanne weaving between the two, Barrett tunes are reinvigorated. Astronomy Domine balances Gordiani’s flanged and elongated riffs with melodiousness from Gaudillat and Tocanne’s mid-range banging. Distorted notes from effects pedals and whammy bars, plus prickly guitar licks are in the mix, but so are muted overtones and romantic obbligatos from the trumpet plus the drummer’s crunching rebounds and cymbal-splashes. Deference and deconstruction are realized with Interstellar Overdrive. Replicating the familiar riffs, Gordiani could be playing two guitars, while Gaudillat’s grace notes include a near-Arabic motif. Slurry brass triplets and staccato strumming combine for final redefinition.

The honourees aren’t around to hear these tributes, but each would be proud.

01_kate_shuttTelephone Game
Kate Schutt
Cuto CUTO 001
(www.kateschutt.com)

 

Kate Schutt came out with a very accomplished debut CD “No Love Lost” in 2007, which was especially impressive for a young artist with no label backing. She has built on that artistic success and reached further into her considerable creative storehouse for “Telephone Game”. Subtle and stylish, the record is not easily categorized, but leans to pop, soul and jazz, with a full roster of skilled instrumentalists (most notably Teri Lyne Carrington on drums) adding variety and depth. Schutt wrote all of the songs and the one that’ll have you reaching for the replay button is Open Window, with its sweet story of young love and Gregoire Maret’s epic harmonica playing.

 

Her strong resemblance to Rickie Lee Jones, both in singing style and lyric writing – at once gritty and vulnerable - can’t be ignored. Still, Schutt is carving her own path and although she draws on a few genres, she has a distinctive voice that asserts itself throughout the work. The only minor flaw with the record is that the arrangements are a bit inconsistent. On the one hand, horns add gutsy heft to Take Me With You and strings give a clever nod to the disco era on Fake ID, however on Take Everything and Blackout some of the background vocals sound disjointed and out of place. But it’s a minor distraction from what is otherwise a great record from a gifted musician and songwriter.

52Mendelssohn by Colin Eatock
Ashgate
206 pages, illustrations; $99.95 US

German composer Felix Mendelssohn, whose two-hundredth birthday is being celebrated this year, first visited England when he was twenty years old. He made nine more trips before he died in 1847, when he was just thirty-eight years old. It was in England that he scored his earliest successes, and for much of his career he was more appreciated in London than in his hometown of Berlin. In fact, as Colin Eatock writes in this groundbreaking study, “his musical ideals were uncannily aligned with the predominant English tastes of the mid-nineteenth century.”

Eatock, a composer, scholar and journalist who recently became editor of this magazine, paints a vivid picture of Mendelssohn’s visits to England. He describes how many of Mendelssohn’s  works were directly inspired by his travels around the British Isles, works like the ‘Scottish’ Symphony, The Hebrides overture, the three Fantasias, which he called his ‘Welsh’ piano pieces, as well as a number of Lieder ohne Worte, including the familiar Frühlingslied. The String Quartet Op.12 was written in London, and the ending of the ‘Reformation’ Symphony came to him at the bottom of a mine in Wales. Mendelssohn immersed himself in English musical life, even accompanying Queen Victoria on the piano as she sang songs written by him and his sister Fanny. No wonder a newspaper of the time called him an ‘adopted son of England.’

But what is even more significant for Eatock than the influence England had on Mendelssohn’s music is the influence Mendelssohn had on British music. Mendelssohn, writes Eatock, “did more to improve the status of music in England than any other continental composer of the nineteenth century.” In fact, he claims, he “shaped the nation’s musical values.” Yet following Mendelssohn’s death, his reputation in Britain declined. Eatock links the shift in attitudes towards his music to growing English  nationalism and its unfortunate companion, anti-Semitism – even though Mendelssohn, who was born Jewish,  had been baptized as a Lutheran when he was seven years old.

With quotations from contemporary sources, especially Mendelssohn’s letters, detailed footnotes and a useful glossary of names, this fascinating study of Mendelssohn’s ties to England deepens our understanding of his work, and increases our appreciation of his accomplishments.

Pamela Margles, theWholeNote’s regular book reviewer, can be contacted at

bookshelf@thewholenote.com

52Zubin Cover Hi Resby Zubin Mehta with Renate Gräfin Matuschka
Amadeus Press
224 pages, photos;  $27.99 US

“As a conductor,” writes Zubin Mehta in this memoir, “I see in myself a friendly cultural policeman who shows people the way and directs everything.” Mehta is a self-described generalist – his conducting does not bear a personalized stamp, and his repertoire is too broad to provide him a distinctive niche. But his accomplishments, both musical and humanitarian, are significant. It’s a treat to be able to read about them here.

Mehta is candid about his thoughts on leading an orchestra and interpreting a composer’s score. But in spite of the title of his book, when it comes to the ‘score’ of his life he is more reticent - whether because of a reluctance to offend, or the presence of his second wife, actress Nancy Kovack, who has contributed a few pages of her own here. Perhaps understandably, there’s no acknowledgement of his intense relationship in the 1960’s with the great Canadian soprano Teresa Stratas, even though she is mentioned twice. But it’s odd that he is reluctant to write much about the event for which he is best known, the first - and most magical - Three Tenors concert, and the three singers involved, Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti.

He discusses great conductors from the previous generation, like Bruno Walter, von Karajan, and especially his beloved teacher Hans Swarowsky. But there’s little about conductors of his own generation, except for his friend Daniel Barenboim. There is even less about younger conductors like Kent Nagano, who has assumed two of his most long-standing positions, at the  Munich Opera and the Montreal Symphony.

Mehta is a compassionate and amusing storyteller. I especially enjoyed his descriptions of his early life in India as part of a remarkable family belonging to the tiny Parsi religious community. His exceptional loyalties, especially to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, yield unique relationships, and show how his stated credo, to give audiences ‘a chance to forget their troubles and their disagreements for at least a couple of hours’ is in fact far more meaningful – and valuable - than it sounded when I first read it.

Mehta’s ties to Canada are strong, especially with both children from his first marriage (to a Canadian) now living here. His son Mervon Mehta recently became director of the Royal Conservatory of Music’s new concert series in the just-opened Koerner Hall.  Reading Mehta’s compelling voice here leads me to hope that we will again be able to hear him conduct in Toronto, after many years away.

Pamela Margles, theWholeNote’s regular book reviewer, can be contacted at

bookshelf@thewholenote.com

 

52Adams - Place 4cby John Luther Adams
Wesleyan University Press
176 pages, photos & diagrams; US $24.95

This book by Alaska-based composer John Luther Adams describes the process he went through to create his most ambitious work yet, The Place Where You Go To Listen. In a room located above the entrance to the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska, Adams has constructed a complex, self-contained environment filled with lights and sounds. The rhythms of sunlight and darkness, phases of the moon, seismic vibrations of the earth, fluctuations of the earth’s magnetic field, are all monitored from stations around Alaska, then electronically  translated into music and visuals.

Adams’ journal documents two-and-a-half years spent dealing with innumerable challenges and frustrations. So we understand how exasperated he must have felt when a member of the museum staff suggested hanging a painting of the aurora inside the space.  As New Yorker music critic Alex Ross points out in his foreword, and as Adams’ diaries makes clear, what came out of the difficult process is a deeply personal work.

As the work nears completion, he wonders whether he has enough courage for a life in art, writing that  “sometimes I feel like a fraud, as though my life doesn’t live up to the aspirations of my work.” Inevitably, he wonders about his place in the tradition of European classical music. Yet he finds confidence knowing he is carrying on the tradition of his teachers, the experimental visionaries Lou Harrison and James Tenney, who taught at York University in Toronto for many years.  “Those of us who believe that music can help change the world,” he writes, “must use whatever tools we can get our hands on to envision and create change.”

I enjoyed Adam’s previous book, Winter Music: Composing the North, enough to want to read this one. This new book leaves me longing to fly up to Alaska to experience The Place Where You Go to Listen first-hand.

Pamela Margles, theWholeNote’s regular book reviewer, can be contacted at

bookshelf@thewholenote.com

This month I have the pleasure of welcoming two new members of the DISCoveries team, free-lance writer Michael Schwartz who is an Early Music aficionado, and well known Toronto Jazz commentator Geoff Chapman. Mr. Schwartz has chosen an oboe-centric recording of music from the court of Frederick the Great for his maiden voyage and Mr. Chapman takes us on a tour of recent piano-based jazz releases. This latter is a theme repeated in our Classical reviews as well, with four solo piano discs and a collection of pretty much the entire standard repertoire of the Piano Quartet. But for me, September has turned out to be the Month of the Piano Trio.

2009 is the bicentenary of the death of Joseph Haydn and to mark the occasion the Haydn Festival Eisenstadt (seat of Haydn’s patrons the Esterhazy family) commissioned piano trios by 18 composers for the festival’s resident ensemble, the Haydn Trio Eisenstadt. While Dedicated To Haydn (Capriccio 7020) is described as a “global composition project”, it is in fact quite Euro - and more particularly - Austro-centric, with 6 composers from Austria, 6 more from Europe (U.K., Spain, Belgium, Germany, Hungary and France) and 6 from the rest of the world (China, Japan, U.S.A., South Africa, Argentina and Australia). Canada is included in a peripheral way – South African composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen, who spent a number of years in Toronto as director of Musica Noir, contributed Two Nguni Dances to the collection. As well as geographical spread, there is also a broad spectrum of ages represented here with birth years ranging from 1926 (Betsy Jolas) to 1976 (Gernot Schedlberger).

With almost three hours of diverse offerings, this multi-disc set kept me busy for most of the month. The range of styles is vast, from quite conservative works by John Woolrich and Xiaogang Ye to the thoroughly modern from José Maria Sánchez-Verdù, Màrton Illès and Elisabeth Harnik, with plenty of adventures in between. Although there is a dearth of biographical information, each of the pieces does have a note by the composer explaining the (sometimes quite tenuous) link to Haydn. But I also enjoyed listening “blind” as it were, trying to guess how the music related to the master, or which part of the world the composer was from, sometimes with quite erroneous results. For instance I knew there was a piece by an Australian composer, so when I heard something that to my ear was reminiscent of the Aboriginal-inspired music of Peter Sculthorpe I had an “ah ha” moment. It turned into a “ha ha” though when I checked to find I was actually listening to KAGETSU – Etude on the name of Haydn by Yui Kakinuma (Japan). Mind you when I did get to Australian Elena Kats-Chenin’s Calliope Dreaming its repetitive dance-like motifs again sent my thoughts “down under” notwithstanding the fact that all the themes were evidently drawn from Haydn’s “Mourning Symphony” and the composer spent the first half of her life in Uzbekistan. The music that is most obviously reminiscent of Haydn came from two composers known for their humour, American William Bolcom and German Dieter Schnebel. Bolcom’s HAYDN GO SEEK pays homage to some of Haydn’s famous rondos and in the words of the composer intends to “play a constant game of surprise throughout, in as Haydnesque a fashion as I could muster from two centuries remove.” Schnebel is known for his theatrics and in a reverse take on the “Surprise Symphony” the first sounds we hear are the footsteps of the musicians and a few offstage notes as they approach the performance area. What follows is a de-construction of the finale from Haydn’s string quartet “The Joke” (Op.33, No.2) replete with spiccato bowing in the violin, pizzicato from the cello, pointillist piano chording and intermittent hissing and shushing from all concerned. Other tracks of note include Lalo Schifrin’s lush and lilting (and somewhat deceptively titled) Elegy and Meditation and Ah Haydn by Betsy Jolas. This last was of particular interest to me as I had been impressed by several of this French composer’s works in my formative years, but had not encountered any of her music in more than three decades. I was pleased to note that she is still active and that her music has not lost its edge.

The Haydn Trio Eisenstadt was founded in 1992 and the current membership has been in place for just over a decade. As well as their residency at the Haydn Festival they have a very busy and successful recording career, with complete recordings of Haydn’s folksong arrangements (18 CDs on the Brilliant label) and the complete piano trios of Haydn, Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven. “Dedicated To Haydn” is their second foray into the realm of the contemporary and quite an extensive one at that. Kudos to all concerned.

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: The WholeNote, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4.

David Olds

DISCoveries Editor

01_gounod_faureGounod & Fauré
Benoit Leblanc; Pierre McLean
XXI XXI-CD 2 1584

Fauré and Gounod, despite having been born almost 30 years apart, shared a great affinity during their lifetime. Fauré landed his first “music job” through Gounod’s intervention and both frequented the French salons where many of their songs received their premieres. Despite their differing styles (Fauré was called a “living metronome” for his precise phrasing, Gounod, in Fauré’s own words was “one of those rare composers who constantly introduces new elements in his music”), their songs frequently appear together in the lieder repertoire. They share equally romantic texts and the ability to showcase voice.

In this new recording, the voice being showcased is that of a young Montreal artist, Benoit Leblanc, accompanied beautifully by the acclaimed Montreal pianist and vocal coach, Pierre McLean. Leblanc’s baritone is a beautiful instrument of warm timbre and velvety texture. It occasionally and comfortably drifts toward the lower range of bass-baritone and sometimes strays, somewhat less comfortably, onto the tenor’s turf.

 

It never loses, however, the lyrical strength that permeates the melodies. Small wonder that - Leblanc possesses not only a Bachelor of Music Degree, but also a Masters Degree in interpretation. I for one look forward to hearing him sing some other gems of the lieder repertoire, especially Mahler and Schubert. If his command of German proves as irresistible as his knack for French songs, we can expect some major revelations in this seemingly crowded field. A must buy for lovers of the human voice.

 

02_faureFauré - Treize Motets; Messe Basse;
Cinq Cantiques
Ensemble de la chapelle du Quebec;
Bernard Labadie
XXI XXI-CD 2 1670

This disc is a re-release of La Chapelle de Québec’s very first recording from 1989, originally released on the ADES label. Founded in 1985 as the Ensemble vocal Bernard Labadie, it was this ensemble of young professional singers and graduating students that the famous Violons du Roy was originally created to accompany.

This collection features music written by Fauré during his 40 year career as a church musician and includes 13 motets, the Messe basse for women’s voices and five cantiques, including the beloved Cantique de Jean Racine as well as settings of traditional Noëls. Though prolific in the output of sacred vocal music, the composer wrote no music for solo organ. He obviously delighted in incorporating his own modern style into church music, continually creating variations in vocal groupings and innovation in harmonic sonorities. The ensemble handles these cleverly, providing great variety in the voices assigned to solos, duets and trios, proving Labadie to be quite generous in allowing a good number of the individual ensemble members to shine. And shine they do, as well with this relatively modern repertoire as with the Baroque and Classical fare that is their usual focus.

03_rheingoldWagner - Das Rheingold
Mario Hoff; Erin Caves;
Christine Hansmann; Tomas Möwes; Staatskapelle Weimar; Carl St. Clair
ArtHaus Musik 101353

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Ever since Patrice Chereau’s revolutionary Centennial Ring of 1979, televised around the world, Wagner’s monumental cycle has become a household name with new productions cropping up regularly at opera houses of Europe and America. Being an expensive proposition and risky investment, there is great pressure (and great opportunity) for directors and designers to come up with something new and valid to say to justify the expense. Judging by Das Rheingold only (I haven’t seen the rest of their cycle) I believe the Weimar team has succeeded with this different, interesting and entertaining new version.

Wagner’s connection to Weimar and his effort to gain Liszt’s support for the project is what gave the designers the idea to use Siegfrieds Tod, the very first drama Wagner wrote and dedicated to Liszt, as a framework for their cycle. The struggle for world domination between two powers, in this case Wotan and Alberich, is the central theme with both willing to take part in the stage action. Alberich is a powerful figure, by no means a dwarf, but puts on the dwarf costume deliberately to break through the “partition” that separates him from the action.

The gods are a bunch of half-drunk, decadent and stupid wasters sitting around the kitchen table waiting for the underprivileged but very clever demi-god Loge to help them out of the trouble Wotan got them into. As this most action packed opera unfolds, with Wagner’s powerful and compassionate dramatic music there is an uneasy triumph at the end, but signalling tragedy yet to come.

A small theatre working with local, but excellent singing artists - Möwes as Alberich and Caves as Loge are absolutely superb - this performance works on all levels and is very satisfying. The young conductor from Texas, Carl St. Clair breathes musical life into it and certainly sounds dynamic and passionate, truly Wagnerian.

01_janitschJohann Gottlieb Janitsch
Sonate da camera Volume 1
Notturna; Christopher Palameta
ATMA ACD2 2993

For all his militarism, Prussia’s Frederick the Great supported composers who left their mark on music; the role of J.J. Quantz in developing the modern flute comes to mind. Frederick’s most senior musicians included Johann Gottlieb Janitsch whose manuscripts were stored at the Berlin Singakademie; World War Two (when the Singakademie was plundered) deprived us of many of Janitsch’s works.

Twenty-seven quadro sonatas did survive. Christopher Palameta brings us five; that in G Minor (O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden) takes precedence and with good reason. The opening bars of the Largo are at once celestial and solemn; the all-but-forgotten Janitsch is no composer of dull chamber music.

Throughout the recording Palameta’s passion for the oboe is clear. Two of the three used are copies of contemporary oboes from Leipzig, one from Saxony. Both oboists in Notturna rise masterfully to the varied and demanding challenges of the Allegro in the C Minor Sonata Op 4.

It would be wrong to ignore the contribution of the strings to this recording. Janitsch was fond of using the viola which he selects slightly more frequently in his sonatas than either the flute or the violin. Two violas certainly add a slightly darker quality to the Vivace of the Sonata in E Minor Op 5B.

Through his own inspirational direction Palameta has literally revived Janitsch’s music; three of these five sonatas are recorded here for the first time ever.

02_piresChopin
Maria João Pires
Deutsche Grammophon 477 7483
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Nothing but good can be said about this set issued by DGG to celebrate Maria João Pires’ 20 years with the Gesellschaft and entirely devoted to Chopin. Now in her sixties, this rather elusive artist, inspiring teacher and ardent philanthropist has avoided the trimmings of easy fame and the nowadays so prevalent jet-setting. Even on this disc, instead of just playing “popular pieces” she focuses on Chopin’s last five years, beginning with the Third Sonata and ending with his ultimate work, the Mazurka in f minor.

Chopin as we know died very young, at age 39 and his last years were plagued with illness, an unhappy love affair and other pressures. Although already the most original innovator for the piano, by extending the keyboard to its full length and making new harmonies using the enharmonic scales and chromaticism, in his last years he even tried to break out of this bond by rejecting the tonal centre entirely. In this respect he was paving the way to Debussy and Scriabin. The 3rd sonata is “profoundly chaotic and using an energy towards an entirely new logic” (Pires). Her playing, with the beautifully seductive expression of the 2nd theme of the opening movement, the filigree dexterity of the Scherzo, the heartrendingly delicate Lento and the emotionally turbulent, exhausting Finale, makes it the most momentous performance on the disc.

The very complex Polonaise Fantasie is another example of this “new logic” that seems to go in many directions, but with the pulsating, syncopated and sometimes barely present dance tempo solidly maintained she holds the piece triumphantly together. There is also a curiosity, the Cello Sonata (with Pavel Gomziakov), and a number of Mazurkas, Nocturnes and Waltzes to round out the disc, among them the Minute Waltz played in just under 2 minutes!

03_rufus_choiA Musical Journey
Rufus Choi
Cambria CD-1188

An eclectic program of piano music played by the Korean-American pianist Rufus Choi is featured on this Cambria label CD, music described in the notes by the artist as “in the grand romantic style”. Choi is a graduate of both the Juilliard School and the Musik Hochschule in Hanover, Germany. He was a first prize winner at the inaugural Jose Iturbi International Music Competition in Los Angeles in 2007.

The disc opens with Four Chorale Preludes by Bach as arranged by Ferruccio Busoni. These are tasteful adaptations - indeed, Busoni was a brilliant arranger, and the pieces sound as convincing for solo keyboard as they do for chorus. Yet as successful as Choi is at capturing the mood of noble grandeur, I have the impression that he is more at home with the type of piece that follows - the Rachmaninoff Piano Sonata #2 from 1913. This is music of exceptional difficulty, requiring formidable technique. Happily, Choi rises to the challenge admirably, tossing off the difficulties with apparent ease, while at the same time, approaching the quieter, more introspective passages with great sensitivity.

Admittedly, I’ve never been a big fan of Liszt’s transcriptions of music by other composers – too much tinsel and glitter, and often too many notes! Having said that, there are two such compositions featured here, a piece by Chopin titled Meine Freuden from his Chants Polonais Op.74, and Schumann’s popular Widmung. Once again, Choi seems in his element, both in these and in the concluding work, the famous Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No, 2, a technical tour de force. Here he pulls out all the stops, and delivers an impressive performance, in true command of the music at all times. A most satisfying musical journey indeed, by a young artist on the threshold of a promising career.

05_sa_chenRachmaninov - 6 Etudes;
Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition;
A Night on Bald Mountain
Sa Chen
PentaTone PTC 5186 355
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The name of pianist Sa Chen is perhaps unfamiliar to most music-lovers today, but will undoubtedly become more famous in years or even months to come, judging from the prodigious talents exhibited on this new SACD of Russian music on the PentaTone label. Born in Chongqing, China, Sa Chen began her musical studies at the Sichuan Conservatory, and she later continued at London’s Guildhall School and the Hochschule für Musik in Hanover. Although she has been the recipient of prizes from age 14 onward, it was at the International Chopin Competition in 2000 and later at the Van Cliburn Competition, that her reputation was secured. A critic once wrote: “Fleet- fingered pianists are a dime a dozen today – where are the musicians?” From the haunting opening measures of the Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableau Op.33 No.2, it’s clear that Sa Chen is a musician of the first-rank, one who combines a flawless technique with an innate musicality. She presents 6 Etudes in all, drawn from Opp.33 and 39, and throughout, her playing is marked by a delicacy of shading with never a moment of bravura for its own sake.

As equally demanding as the Etudes-Tableaux is A Night on Bald Mountain, Modest Mussorgsky’s first major work for orchestra - a tale of spirits, witchcraft, and bells tolling at dawn, a sort of 19th century Thriller, 90 years before Michael Jackson. The piano transcription is as difficult as it sounds, and Sa Chen approaches the music with a splendid panache. Nevertheless, in my opinion, she leaves the best until last, with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition from 1874. Inspired by a group of paintings by Victor Hartmann, the work encompasses a myriad of contrasting moods, and Sa Chen captures them all effortlessly, thereby bringing to a close this most satisfying disc.

06_ames_piano_quartetComplete Dorian Recordings 1989-2009
Ames Piano Quartet
Dorian Sono Luminus DSL-90908
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Founded in Ames, Iowa, in 1976, and currently the resident chamber music ensemble at Iowa State University, the Ames is that rarity in the chamber music world - a designated and permanent piano quartet. Only pianist William David remains from the original line-up, but with just one personnel change in the past 20 years the group’s unanimity of thought and interpretation is very evident.

Apart from three CDs of 20th-century works on the Albany label, the Ames has recorded almost exclusively for Dorian, with a repertoire of French, German, Czech and Russian piano quartets from the Romantic era through the mid-1900s. All 7 Dorian CDs are included in this box set, together with a bonus CD of the Chausson and Saint-Saëns quartets originally issued by the Musical Heritage Society in 1989.

The Dorian discs cover the three Brahms piano quartets, the two by both Fauré and Dvorak, and the single opuses of Schumann, Richard Strauss, Widor, Taneyev, Paul Juon, Suk, Novak and Martinu. An effective arrangement of Borodin’s Polovetsian Dances by Iowa State alumnus Geoffrey Wilcken completes the Russian CD, although it’s completely ignored in the otherwise comprehensive booklet notes.

Recording dates are not listed, but despite the 20-year span there is a remarkable consistency in the exceptionally high performance level, as indeed there is in the sound of the recordings themselves, which are always warm, resonant and beautifully balanced. At under $50, this is an outstanding set.

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