01_wuhrerFriedrich Wührer (1900-1975) was an Austrian pianist and academic, sadly almost forgotten today, who is possibly remembered only by collectors via his VOX recordings from the vinyl era. His forte was, as might be expected, Beethoven and Schubert but he played and recorded Chopin, Prokofiev, Schumann and others. Tahra has issued a four CD set of Wührer playing Beethoven containing the five piano concertos, the Triple Concerto and the last three piano sonatas (TAH 704-707). As I don’t recall listening to these performances before, there were no feelings of nostalgia or sentimentality attached. That said, I was totally absorbed into a world where musicians recorded those works that they understood and embraced, passing their pleasure along to the listener without the all too pervasive practice of “listen to me”. These performances unfold like a narrative, driven by Wührer’s joy filled playing. The collaborating artists in the Triple Concerto are Bronislaw Gimpel and Joseph Schuster; the orchestras are the Pro Musica groups from Vienna and Stuttgart, the Bamberg Symphony and the Württemberg State Orchestra. Conductors are Heinrich Hollreiser, Walther Davisson and Jonel Perlea. The surprisingly fine sound completely belies the dates of the originals, 1953-1957, being sinewy, lucent and free of artefacts. The booklet promises a further Wührer collection. Reviewing this set has taken far too long because instead of writing the impulse to simply sit back and listen has been irresistible as I’m sure it will be for many others.

02_mahler2The London Philharmonic Orchestra has been issuing live concerts by their late conductor, Klaus Tennstedt of music by Haydn, Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler, the latest of which is the Mahler Second. The performance dates from 20 February 1989 with soprano Yvonne Kenny and mezzo Jard van Nes together with the London Philharmonic Choir (LPO 0044 2CDs at a reduced price). Like Bruno Walter, Tennstedt took Mahler deeply to heart and his performances reflect his total absorption into the score, far beyond the usual technical matters. There is an uncommon but perceptible celebration of life as a fleeting experience in every movement. This is achieved in part because there is a pulse, either heard or felt, and by ever so delicate fermatas both in the music and the rests. All this is accomplished without any histrionics. Running 93 minutes, some 10 to 15 minutes longer than other versions, this is a glorious presentation of Mahler’s masterpiece by a disciplined apologist. The archive recording was engineered by Tony Faulkner and excels in every respect including dynamics and perspective. This is a remarkable document.

03_rabinDOREMI has issued a third volume in their Michael Rabin Collection composed of 14 more live performances (DHR-7970/1, 2CDs). The set opens with the Mozart Fourth Concerto, a work he never recorded commercially and only infrequently played in concert. Rabin may have thought that the strict classical repertoire was not suitable for his flamboyant virtuoso style in which he was a true champion. Nevertheless, he is graceful and stylistic. The next two concertos, Tchaikovsky and Glazunov, are works that he played frequently, heard here in performances appearing for the first time. Items from the legendary 1952 Australian tour were discovered only three years ago. The ABC hosted the tour but did not archive them and for over half a century they were considered lost. Rabin was a frequent guest on the Bell Telephone Hour and the June 18, 1955 items appear for the first time, including several gems with orchestra which he recorded later with piano accompaniment.

Universal continues to issue The Originals, re-mastered versions of critically acclaimed recordings from the DG, Decca, and Philips catalogues. Newly re-energised and dynamic sound make these much sought after by discerning collectors who look for the best performances in the best sound. From recent additions here are two that I remember being excited about when they were first published...

04_mahler9Mahler 9th Symphony played by The Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein (4778620). This prize-winning performance, live from the Philharmonie in October 1979, was seen on PBS-TV accompanied by Bernstein’s penetrating analysis of the work. From the opening there is a pervading aura correctly presaging a performance of uncommon perception and intensity. Karajan recorded the Ninth twice with his Berliners, in 1979-80 and then two years later an ardent live performance of September 1982 was issued. But neither of these could displace the transcendent Bernstein.

05_white_nightsWHITE NIGHTS: Romantic Russian Showpieces; Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra and Chorus (4782122). This material suits Gergiev to a T: a crack orchestra and the expertise to galvanise them to transparent perfection. Selections include Russlan and Ludmilla Overture; Sabre Dance and the Adagio from Spartacus; The Polovstian Dances; Baba-Yaga and Kikimora; and The 1812 Overture. These pieces demand little more than fervour and technical excellence to bring down the house and that they do. This brilliant CD is a model of its kind.

More an enhancement than a replication of Quebec’s Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville (FIMAV), Toronto’s VTO2010 festival cherry picks some of FIMAV’s international performers, presenting them with invited Canadian musicians. As these CDs indicate, the improvisers are impressive no matter the location or formation.

04_ShamanOne of the most anticipated concerts is the Six at the Music Gallery May 26. An all-star European ensemble, one of its distinguishing characteristic is the supportive synthesizer work of Köln’s Thomas Lehn. Close Up (MonotypeRec. mono024 www.monotyperec.com) demonstrates Lehn’s skills providing the underpinning for Bertrand Gauguet, a technically adroit French saxophonist, plus Viennese quarter-tone trumpeter Franz Hautzinger. As with the Six, electronics are part of this trio’s mix. So on Close Up’s three extended tracks blurry intonation encompasses loops of granulated tones mixed with rumbles and pulses from Lehn, air burbled through the body tube of Gauguet’s saxophones and tremolo buzzing from Hautzinger. Building up in sonic fervor through the intersection of synthesizer pitch shifting, distortion and flanging plus wide-bore whizzes and echoing patterns from the acoustic instruments, the CD climaxes with the over 26-minute Close Up 03. Cricket-like reed chirps and hand-muted brass vibrations are put aside for spectral processing which adds the affiliated extensions of most timbres as they sweep by staccato or glissandi. While the electronics’ wave forms undulate symmetrically, they also output enough percussive drones to subsume technical flaunting. The trumpeter’s braying bell-like reverb and the saxophonist’s feral animal-like squeals consequently meld with thumping synthesizer pedal-point expressions for a satisfying finale.

02_AndyMoorColin McLean’s computer processing is also prominent on Everything but the Beginning (Unsounds U17 www.unsounds.com). But so is the prowess of British guitarist Andy Moor, a member of the EX. In Toronto his Music Gallery performance – also on May 26 – is as part of a long-standing duo with French poetess Anne-James Chatton. On this CD, his technical command of the six-string is showcased with McLean’s hardware usually confined to patched rumbles and processed burbles and rebounds. Moor often uses the laptop undercurrent as a click track, linearly exposing single-string snaps, rough twangs or chuffed reverberations. His improvising can be playfully decorative, as when he seconds the sample of a squeak toy on Delta Block. In contrast on The Flower of fixed idea it appears that piezo pickups multiply his twangs so that the theme is pulsed, pushed and twisted into voltage-shaking signals.

03_zachAcoustic interaction is also featured on May 19, with the Dans Les Arbes quartet at the Music Gallery. Consisting of one French and three Norwegian musicians, it offers the same sort of extrasensory perception its percussionist Ingar Zach brings to Mural Nectars of Emergence (SOFA Records 528 www.sofamusic.no). Interestingly enough Zach’s “Mural”-mates, Australian flautist/saxophonist Jim Denley and guitarist Kim Myhr, are at FIMAV in a different configuration. Minimalist and atmospheric, the CD’s seven tracks are built up from pointillist dabs of sonic colors, soaking together without abrasion. That doesn’t mean the performance is modest, just unshowy. Zach for instance use wood pops, bowl scrapes, chiming bells and drum-skin rubs to make his points. Meantime Myhr’s guitar preparations allow him to produce hefty church-organ-like chords in some instances, loops of electrified signal-processed clangs elsewhere and constant harsh strumming. Throughout Denley’s masticated split tones propel his saxophone pitches to the patchy edge of hearing with strident wolf whistles, tongue slaps and subterranean growls, while there’s nothing delicate about his buzzing flute expositions. Flash Expansion is particularly noteworthy. With Myhr’s rhythmic rasgueado meeting up with amplified drum-top rubs and harsh reed reflux, the processed loops bring the narrative in-and-out-of-focus, with the sound menacing and motor-driven one minute, the next as weightless as waves lapping against the sea shore.

04_ShamanA weightier Canadian balance to the international sounds is the exclusive-to-VTO triple bill at the Tranzac club May 14. The Rent and Hat + Beard are locals, while Shaman from Montreal is also on hand. Consisting of Jean Derome and Joane Hétu on woodwinds, voices and objects Nous perçons les oreilles (Ambiances Magnétiques AM 200 CD www.actuellecd.com) exposes Shaman’s strategy of D-I-Y ethnomusicology. Like ancient tribal healers the duo expresses itself through verbal screams, squeaks, murmurs, mumbles and cries as well as inchoate instrumental textures. The two recount 12 short narratives which are as much Dada as primitive, wrapped in onomatopoeia that bonds mouth expressions such as cheers, yelps and gurgles with slide-whistle peeps, unsequenced altissimo saxophone stridency, key percussion, clipping chromatic timbres and reverberating body tube echoes.

Bassist John Geggie is based in Ottawa but has achieved much in jazz and other art forms nationwide. Two new additions to his huge discography are of gripping interest.

01_geggie_project_across_skyHis Geggie Trio + Donny McCaslin - Across The Sky (Plunge Records PR00632 www.plungerecords.com) particularly emphasizes his compositional skills, seven of the 14 tracks here his, the rest collaborative contributions from the foursome with pianist Nancy Walker, drummer Nick Fraser and saxman McCaslin. The album is zesty, tunefully inventive, stacked with shifting time signatures and superior, finessed work on the bass. This is top-grade contemporary jazz, McCaslin often straying outside the mainstream with dramatically engaging work that has a meaty individuality to match the forceful leader and Walker’s ability to make surprise connections and balance lyricism with toe-tapping passion. Quick-witted and poised, the group creates playful experimental music though it’s anchored by restless, absorbing imaginations.

02_geggie_projectWith Geggie Project (Ambiances Magnetiques AM 179 CD www.actuelle.com), Geggie is in more avant-jazz heavyweight mode, with spacey Marilyn Crispell on piano and Nick Fraser drumming. Again there are 14 tracks, seven spontaneous appetizers by the trio and seven entrees from the leader - you get the idea with Geggie’s pliant and expressive if sober opening Credo with bass predominant, haunting colours and suggestions of anguished subtext and then the trio’s mercurial Ice And Meltwater. The album teems with incredible invention. Run-Away Sheep shows off superb bass craft and hints at Fraser’s pyrotechnic tendencies before gate-crashing Crispell-fuelled chords arrive. The threesome covers a wide swath of stylistic territory with lofty flights of notes yet remains very accessible compared to free skronk mayhem. The music’s impish and erudite, keeping the peace between energy and atmosphere, sometimes luxuriant, sometimes wallowing in dark sonorities and overall more melodic than impassioned. Especially attractive are the trio’s Weather Forecast and the leader’s Canon.

03_alex_bellegardeA third recording led by a bassist is also a great buy. The CD/DVD package is the Alex Bellegarde Quintet’s Live (Chien Noir 09-999 www.alexbellegarde.com) with the boss in virtuoso form at a Montreal Maison de la culture Mercier concert. He wrote the 10 cuts, including some with a global jazz viewpoint and an elastic pulse that’s underlined with the presence of Kiko Osorio on congas. Bellegarde’s other comrades - pianist Yoel Diaz, alto saxist Erik Hove and drummer Yvon Plouffe – are almost his match in versatility, with many tunes featuring unison leads, lucid soloing and passages that vary from church calm to bucolic celebration. This band plays with impetus and conviction, aided by miraculously layered textures and a sensitive range of inflections, with Bellegarde’s bass a brilliantly crucial inner voice.

04_chet_doxasMontreal is the base, too, for another rising star whose bold new quartet CD should fly off record shelves. On tenor saxist Chet Doxas’ Big Sky (Justin Time JTR 8558-2 8558-2 www.justin-time.com) he has the support of a close-knit, sympathetic team - Ben Charest (guitar), Zack Lorber (bass) and brother Jim on drums. The leader penned six of the eight lengthy tunes and from the opening For Jim games swiftly begin with time, harmony and undulating narrative themes, which leader Doxas attacks with confident tones and a breadth of ideas in the manner of Chris Potter, with Charest effectively counterpointing all the way. There’s delicate treatment for L’Acadie, off-meter challenges and twisting lines outside the melody on Sideshow and a melancholic farewell to Jimmy Giuffre with Goodbye, all of interest, and outstanding work on the title piece, a homage to guitarist Bill Frisell.

05_gale_rodriguezMontreal supplies half the Gale/Rodrigues Group in B3 organist Vanessa Rodrigues and guitarist Mike Rud for the quartet’s debut release Live At The Rex (Indie CGVR01 www.vanessarodriguez.com), a potent package that also features Torontonians in saxophonist Chris Gale, and drummer Davide DiRenzo. Here’s a bustling session that exploits the famed tenor-organ combos of yesteryear with great aplomb with a pleasing mix of standards and hard-hitting originals. Players take long, often bruising solos, notably the versatile Gale on the opening Wes Montgomery’s Full House with Rud in fine comping form as well as constructing clean lines. The big-hearted ballad Statement gets a searching reflection from its composer Gale while throughout the more-grounded Rodrigues ratchets up tension when needed to the level of bristling exchanges. The co-leaders have fun on the happy honker One-Eyed Monster while elsewhere the room’s full of quick turns of phrase, fierce careening solos and runaway grooves, with timely relief on calmer pieces such as Bye Bye Blackbird.

The Django Reinhardt tribute band Croque Monsieur has won the Canadian Collectors Congress annual album–of-the-year award given out at the organization of vintage jazz lovers’ 39th gathering in Toronto. The winner beat out four other finalists - the Happy Pals, Ron Joseph and friends, Dinny and the All-Stars and Braithwaite & Whiteley.

03_wm_parkerAt Somewhere There
William Parker
Barnyard Records BR 0313

An almost hour-long solo recital may seem daunting, but New York bassist William Parker easily impresses, as this bravura invention recorded at a local performance space attests. Cathedral Wisdom Light, this CD’s over-48-minute showpiece, is animated by his nearly limitless technique which prods, pulses, pummels and propels polyphonic tones and textures from the four-strings and resonating wood of the bull fiddle.

Resolutely arco – although sporadic plucks sometimes parallel the bow movement – the tempo is never less than andante or more than allegro. Within these parameters Parker layers phrases, note clusters and unexpected vamps, chafing wood and splitting string tones as well as agitato stops and chunky sul tasto expansions into the multiphonic narrative. As the shuffle-bowed fantasia evolves, taunt, creaking and swabbed timbres distend so that these pressured strokes shudder with affiliated partials as well as fundamental notes. Sometimes displaying portamento finesse, at points Parker mercurially showcases split-second variants on reveille, parallel bebop vamps and even a minor variant on legato chamber music.

With every part of the instrument in use, including the belly, waist and the strings beneath the bridge, the bassist is able to craftily shift the tonal centre throughout, introducing novel harmonies and rubato asides to the ongoing improvisation. A final variant drives the chromatic performance to a mellower low-pitched climax, before replicating the exposition with shrill sawing.

Short addenda on dousin’gouni and double flute complete the program, but after Parker’s exceptional bass solo, these are somewhat akin to hearing Glenn Gould’s harpsichord recording.

02_ellington_queenieDuke Ellington’s Queenie Pie
Carmen Bradford; University of Texas Jazz Orchestra; Huston-Tillotson
University Concert Choir
Longhorn Music LHM2010003

Originally envisioned as a television production, Queenie Pie was a work in progress at the time of Duke Ellington’s death in 1974. There were only lead sheets, lyrics and basic harmonic outlines to work from and the resulting arrangements were created in the style of Ellington, not by the master himself. The music does indeed capture the Ellington sound and at times even uses musical quotations from the Duke’s library. For example, the Duke’s intro for Such Sweet Thunder shows up in the middle of track 12, Commercial Medley. In this 2009 production from the Butler School of Music the orchestra plays extremely well throughout, but in the solo department one can’t help but wish for the warmth of a Hodges or the authority of a Jimmy Hamilton.

The principal vocalist on the CD is Carmen Bradford who has had a distinguished career. She was a feature of the Basie band for several years and has since worked with a very substantial list of great performers ranging from George Benson to the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

I did find myself making comparisons with Duke’s A Drum Is A Woman which of course had the advantage of being genuine Ellington. It also had clever lyrics, some catchy melodies, although less than memorable, but there is no denying that the posthumous construction of Queenie Pie is indeed an ambitious project and worthy of a listen.

01_holland_octetPathways
Dave Holland Octet
Dare 2 Records DR2-004

For some years I’ve labelled groups led by the great British-born, American-based composing bassist David Holland as the world’s best jazz band. There’s no need to alter this judgment after hearing his newest album, his first employing an octet.

Recorded at New York’s Birdland club, it’s vintage Holland - fierce soloing, crisply-clean ensembles crammed with multi-layered ideas and irresistible momentum on seven long tracks, five penned by the leader.

To his stellar regular quintet (imaginative tenor Chris Potter, pioneering trombonist Robin Eubanks, delicate vibraphonist Steve Nelson and relentless drummer Nate Smith) he’s added more saxes - alto Antonio Hart, baritone Gary Smulyan - and trumpeter Alex Sipiagin. The result is a combo that demonstrates exceptional playing skill and can sound like a roaring big band or an intimate small unit.

The excitement level is established early, with Smulyan’s deep sounds careering through the opening title piece before the leader takes a bounding, tension-filled solo and the mood’s maintained as an older Holland tune, How’s Never, is tackled. Some relief from the up-tempo charge comes on the Holland song Blue Jean with Smulyan and Sipiagin prominent. All the bandsmen solo, though Nelson’s vibes are unfortunately only remotely present except on the wonderful Holland oldie Shadow Dance, but overall the sidemen are never at a loss for stimulating notions.

Holland’s been around, playing with Miles Davis in Bitches Brew days, but soon leading his own teams and trying out solo albums of acoustic bass and cello. He has the knack of generating arresting, thought-provoking music with emotional impact and remains unfailingly interesting. Let’s hope Canadian jazz festivals snatch him up this summer.

05_adesThomas Adès – Tevot; Violin Concerto
Berliner Philharmoniker; Sir Simon Rattle; Anthony Marwood; Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Thomas Adès
EMI Classics 4 57813 2


This tremendous CD of recent orchestral works by the English composer Thomas Adès offers convincing proof that, while contemporary composers may have difficulty gate-crashing the standard repertoire, their efforts deserve - and reward - our fullest attention.

Born in 1971, Adès is clearly a composer with ‘something to say’. There isn’t a weak or unconvincing track here, and the orchestration is outstanding. Tevot, written for Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic in 2007, is a live recording from a Berlin concert the same year. The haunting Violin Concerto, Concentric Paths, written in 2005 for Anthony Marwood and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, is a live 2007 performance by them at London’s Barbican Hall, with Adès conducting. The same concert included the UK premiere of Three Studies from Couperin (2006), fascinating re-workings of Couperin keyboard pieces that retain the same number of bars as the originals as well as the same rhythms and harmonies. Finally, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain under Paul Daniel gives us the richly decadent Overture, Waltz and Finale, the suite that Adès made in 2007 from his first opera, Powder Her Face, although this time using full orchestra instead of the original 15 instruments.

It’s tempting to play the ‘sounds like…’ game – here’s Britten (Adès was artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival from 1999 to 2008); there’s Janacek; that’s Ravel – but there is no doubting that this is an original and accomplished individual voice.

04_lindbergMagnus Lindberg – Graffiti;
Seht die Sonne
Helsinki Chamber Choir; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Sakari Oramo
Ondine ODE 1157-2

Magnus Lindberg is on a roll these days, carving out a solid position as the leading Finnish composer of his generation. Graffiti is Lindberg’s first major choral work, and it’s a winner. Its text, derived from first century Latin texts preserved on the walls of the doomed city of Pompeii, would certainly have appealed to Carl Orff, and while it is true that there are archaic harmonies to be heard from the thirty throaty voices of the admirable Helsinki Chamber Choir, Lindberg’s bracing sonorities and teeming orchestral textures are far more daring than anything Orff could possibly have imagined.

The title of the companion work, Seht die Sonne (Behold the Sun), is derived from the conclusion of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, that composer’s lavish vocal farewell to Romanticism. Lindberg’s work, originally commissioned by Simon Rattle for the Berlin Philharmonic, received its Canadian premiere by the Toronto Symphony during Lindberg’s memorable visit to Toronto in 2008. It is a broad work on the scale of a Sibelius tone poem, flamboyantly rhapsodic and emotional. Though the abrupt and often unaccountable changes of mood make this a more challenging item than the immediately accessible Graffiti, Oramo and his Finnish radio orchestra prove themselves up to the challenge. Though texts and translations are provided and Kimmo Korhohen provides pithy program notes, it’s a pity that neither the soloist for the prominent piano part in Graffiti nor the solo cellist in the subsequent work are identified.

03_schlagartigSchlagArtig – Percussion Solo
Markus Hauke
New Classical Adventure 60171

Percussion can be an alien world. It speaks, however, with a language strangely familiar to some deeper part of us that doesn’t need a “tune” to recognize music. Those who write for it and those who play it understand its architecture and philosophical constructs well, but even audiences can be drawn quickly and seductively into this world of sounds.

The interpretive role of the performer as guide on any such journey is critical. Deciphering the “code” of notation into a meaningful aural experience is no less daunting when a composer leaves much to the imagination of the player. German-born Markus Hauke is brilliant in his ability to illuminate the manuscripts of composers like John Cage, Iannis Xenakis, Bryan Wolf and Maki Ishii on this disc. His own composition, based on rhythmic themes from Wagner’s “Ring” is also testimony to his ability to speak the language convincingly.

While the array of percussion instruments on this recording seems like something capable of delivering an artillery salvo, Hauke nevertheless brings a great subtlety and sense of nuance to his playing along with the highly complex rhythms that we expect of a professional percussionist.

Most unusual on this CD is the piece by American composer Bryan Wolf. Dedicated to Hauke, the piece uses only metal instruments along with some electronic sounds. The distinctive ringing quality of the work suitably echoes its place in the Triptych “Trails of Glass”.

Surprisingly, this CD will sound as satisfying on your modest computer speakers as on your principal home sound system.

02_castelnuovo-tedescoCastelnuovo-Tedesco; Respighi; Guastavino – Violin Concertos
Jose Miguel Cueto; St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra; Vladimir Lande
Marquis 81407

José Miguel Cueto has often performed rarely heard music. Here he assembles a recital that combines not just little-known compositions but also the intricacies one would expect of a piece by Castelnuovo-Tedesco commissioned and premiered by Heifetz. In fact, all the pieces he selects are virtuosic and technically demanding.

The Castelnuovo-Tedesco Concerto looks to religious inspiration; Jewish melodies grace what the composer described as a biblical concerto. Those looking for the solemnity of synagogue liturgy, however, must wait for the second movement - the first introduces more popular, folkloric arrangements. For all that, this music remains virtuosic throughout - Cueto’s playing in the third movement underlines his reputation.

Concerto gregoriano was not well received, which disappointed Respighi. This adverse criticism is hard to understand. In the second movement one may listen to Cueto’s sensitive interpretation of the andante espressivo; in the third, masterful playing of music deeply influenced by Gregorian Chant awaits.

And so to Guastavino - a chemical engineering graduate, no less, before flourishing as a composer. Despite first impressions, Guastavino avoided direct inspiration from folk-music. And yet these last four minutes, evocative of Guastavino’s Argentine background and transcribed by Cueto himself, is a wonderful way to celebrate José Miguel Cueto’s choice of pieces, whether influenced by religion or folklore.

01_poulenc_trioPoulenc Plays Poulenc
Poulenc Trio
Marquis 81403

Named for French composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), the Poulenc Trio is a world-class chamber ensemble. Oboist Vladimir Lande, bassoonist Bryan Young, and pianist Irina Kaplan Lande all have busy orchestral and solo careers in the Baltimore/Washington DC area as well as worldwide, but find the time to come together to explore some of the most exquisite music written for their trio of instruments. To my knowledge this is their first CD, and hopefully there will be more to come. The recording opens with Russian composer Mikhail Glinka’s Trio Pathétique in D minor, which hails from the composer’s time spent in Italy. Operatic lyricism is carried in the oboe and bassoon lines, and the piece ends in an effortless-sounding blaze of technical virtuosity. Next is the well-loved and much performed trio by the group’s namesake. Poulenc was a member of “Les Six”, French composers who eschewed pretentiousness in music in favour of simplicity and sometimes satire.

Best known for his chamber music, Poulenc’s Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano expresses a wide palette of sentiment, from dark and brooding, to wildly playful, to suave sensuality, the three instruments playing off each other as equal participants in an engaging conversation. Following this is the light-hearted, single-movement Fantasie Concertante on Themes from Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, by 19th century arrangers, oboist and bassoonist Charles Triébert and Eugène Jancourt. The most interesting work to me however, is the last, and perhaps least known, the 1995 Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano by American composer, conductor and Glenn Gould Prize laureate André Previn. Its three movements, named Lively, Slow and Jaunty, reflect a 20th century aesthetic, while still tonal, and incorporate elements of jazz, and mixed meter writing.

The playing on this recording is both technically superb and musically sensitive, and the CD is well engineered in terms of balance and sound quality. The trio has also commissioned a number of new works, which is part of their mandate of expanding the repertoire for this combination of instruments. I look forward to their future recordings!

05_saint-saensSaint-Saëns – Piano Transcriptions
Lucille Chung
XXI XXI-CD2 1682

The late Arthur Fiedler once said: “there are only two kinds of music: The good and the boring kind.” Well, Saint Saëns may not be the greatest composer or even one of the greatest, but he certainly never wrote boring music. And he couldn’t have picked a better performer of his piano music than the young, immensely talented Montreal-born virtuoso, Lucille Chung. Since 1989, when only 10 years old, she has built an impressive career with the world’s leading orchestras and performed in over 30 countries. Her playing has self assured attack, virtuosity, romantic abandon and a sense of youthful exuberance, but there is still room for more subtlety.

She hasn’t recorded much as yet and this unorthodox disc proves that she is not afraid of taking chances. My first approach was sceptical. What would the 2nd Piano Concerto sound like on solo piano? One of the most impressive openings in the piano concerto literature is the impassioned solo cadenza that develops into a breathtaking crescendo leading up to the ff entry of the orchestra, a big moment indeed, which cannot be duplicated by piano solo, but this problem notwithstanding the 1st movement takes shape almost like the original. As she proceeds, the Mendelssohnian scherzo is fluttering like a butterfly over a field of flowers and the rumba-like middle section seductively swings with no effort at all. She has the time of her life, totally relaxed and happy.

The works that follow, except for the ubiquitous Bacchanale, are mostly piano/orchestra pieces transcribed for piano solo by the composer, who was a tremendous pianist in his own right. An interesting curiosity is Africa with its exotic and oriental atmosphere, ending with the Tunisian national anthem carried off triumphantly by our pianist.

04_tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky – Romeo and Juliet; String Serenade; Francesca da Rimini; Victor Ewald – Brass Quintets
Philadelphia Orchestra; Christoph Eschenbach
Ondine ODE 1150-2D

 

The Philadelphia Orchestra became famous, both live and, since 1926, through recordings, for the opulence of its sound. One has only to experience Ormandy conducting the Rachmaninov Second Symphony on the EuroArts DVD (EA 2072258) to hear exactly what I mean. Christoph Eschenbach was one of the recipients of this legacy, serving as the orchestra’s Music Director from 2003 to 2008.

Francesca da Rimini has been a favourite of mine since time began. I enjoyed it as a rather lurid piece, with swirling strings and winds, much percussion and tormented passages from the whole orchestra (I was very young). Eschenbach has a broader, romantic view of the work, perhaps prosaic, focusing more on the emotions of the condemned Francesca than on her surroundings in a sensational performance that is more expressive than ever. As he does in his Houston recording for Virgin, Eschenbach broadens out the final ten chords to make them a statement of finality. Romeo and Juliet, too, is unhurried with meticulous attention to detail, conveying the poignant tragedy of this oft told tale. Similarly, the Serenade for Strings may be the best you’ll ever hear.

Victor Ewald (1860-1935) was a contemporary of Tchaikovsky… at least for a while, and his compositions for brass are highly regarded… at least by the members of the orchestra who perform them here. These Quintets present no problems to the listener and are, in fact, rather pleasant to hear.

The sound throughout is clear, spacious, and well suited to the repertoire.

03_argerichLive from the Lugano Festival 2009
Martha Argerich and Friends
EMI Classics 6 07367 2

For your next trip you travelers, why don’t you try Lugano, capital of the Italian speaking canton Ticino near the sun drenched southern slopes of the Swiss Alps. Preferably in June when Martha Argerich’s annual festival takes place. Since 2002, BSI Bank has sponsored this event, focused on the once raven haired (now completely grey) Argentinean beauty and pianiste extraordinaire, along with a coterie of young musicians to rehearse and perform concerts of the highest caliber and inspiration.

The 3 discs are nicely subdivided into the chamber music of 1) Schumann, Mendelssohn and Chopin, 2) the Hungarians and Russians, and 3) the Spanish and French.

Already on CD 1 there is a stunning piano duet version of the Midsummer Nights Dream Overture where the shimmering pp strings are transcribed into translucent, lightning fast and wonderfully controlled virtuoso piano playing of Argerich and Cristina Marton. Chopin’s early work from his years in Poland, Introduction and Polonaise Brillante, is guaranteed to raise everyone’s blood pressure played with extraordinary flair and abandon by Martha Argerich and Gautier Capuçon (cello).

More unusual pieces follow on CD 2. First the inimitable young violinist Renaud Capuçon plays Bartok’s 2nd Violin Sonata, a “multilayered study in sonority, predominantly discordant harmony and structure yet still traceable to Hungarian folk tradition.” From the Russians we encounter Glinka and Rachmaninov, from the latter a curious rarity, a Waltz for 6 hands at a single piano(!). I would have liked to see this as I’d imagine there could be some logistical problems here.

The third disc features larger scale works and here my favorite was Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole transcribed for two pianos by the composer and played atmospherically and with imagination by Sergio Tiempo and Karin Lechner. A set to treasure. State of the art recordings.

02_beethoven_9Beethoven – Symphony No.9
Christine Oelze; Petra Lang; Klaus Florian Vogt; Matthias Goerne; Deutscher Kammerchor; Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen;
Paavo Järvi
Sony 88697576062

The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Orchestra was founded in 1980 by a group of exceptional young students and went on to become one of the most sought-after chamber orchestras, appearing at the UN in 1983. They were invited to play at Gidon Kremer’s Lockenhaus Festival where their 1986 performance of Gubaidulina’s Seven Words was issued by Philips. Since 1992 they have been based in Bremen and are self governing, owned by the players. Paavo Järvi has been their conductor since 2004 and in August of that year they began recording a new Beethoven cycle using the Barenreiter Urtext Edition, starting with the Eighth.

The reduced strings contribute to the creation of new textures that are in no way less satisfying for the audience. The winds and brass are more present without losing perspective. Listeners will have a new appreciation of the genius and beauty of Beethoven’s scores.

Järvi has a clear stamp on these performances wherein he refreshes the scores with his own phrasing and accents, with tempi that adhere to Beethoven’s metronome markings. Diehard fans of the traditional school are likely to find Järvi too acerbic and will not easily accept his approach. Even though I was very familiar with Järvi’s performances of all the others, this Ninth came as a quite a shock. It is as if Järvi has finally taken the wraps off, stepped aside and let Beethoven speak for himself, unencumbered by generations of well meaning interpreters. It works well for me and I find Järvi’s non-routine, clear headed interpretations throughout the nine fully justify their existence among a plethora of sets, new and re-issued, which are mostly indistinguishable from each other.

The state-of-the-art hybrid SACD/CDs, whether heard in stereo or surround, are of audiophile quality accurately delineating the instruments exactly as the conductor intended. The executive producers of these recordings are the orchestra itself and Maestro Järvi, which just may account for their excellence.

01_beethoven_9symphonies_liveBeethoven – Live Symphonies
Orchestra de la Francophonie; Jean-Philippe Tremblay
Analekta AN 2 9975-9

If I’m not mistaken, a particular musicologist once said, “French orchestras are incapable of playing German music.” Whoever it was who made this claim would surely have second thoughts upon hearing this fine five-disc Analekta recording of the complete Beethoven symphonies featuring l’Orchestre de la Francophonie under the direction of Jean-Philippe Tremblay. Founded in 2001 for the fourth Jeux de la Francophonie in Ottawa-Hull, this ensemble has earned a reputation as one of the country’s finest youth orchestras, having given more than 200 concerts across Canada, and undertaking a successful tour of China in 2007.

There is certainly no dearth of Beethoven complete symphonies sets, so do we really need one more? Having said that, I can assure you that this one, recorded live at Québec City’s Palais Montcalm in July of 2009, can easily hold its own against the older more established recordings. From the opening hesitant measures of the Symphony No. 1, the listener is immediately struck by the youthful freshness of OF’s approach. The playing is noble and elegant, and when dramatic intensity is called for, it is achieved without the heavy-handed bombast that has sometimes characterized Beethoven recordings from the past.

Admittedly, one of my favourite symphonies of all time is Beethoven’s No.7. I’m pleased to report that the interpretation here is splendid, particularly in the first and final movements, where the strings seemingly shimmer in joyful exuberance. The second movement, mysterious and somewhat cryptic, is treated in a deservingly subtle manner, while the boisterous finale, at one time compared to the merry-making of peasants, brings the symphony to a rousing conclusion. Wagner, who also happened to love this work, (once referring to it as “the very apotheosis of the dance”), would be pleased indeed!

The climax of the set comes with the powerful Symphony No. 9, a true world unto itself. Soloists Marie-Josée Lord, Geneviève Couillard Després, Guy Bélanger, and Ētienne Dupuis together with the Choeur de la Francophonie maintain a wonderful vocal cohesion, admirably blending with the orchestra to form a unified whole.

Despite this being a live recording, extraneous noises are minimal, and the burst of enthusiastic applause at the end of each symphony seems particularly fitting in light of the superb performances. My only quibble concerns the flimsy packaging – it may have been a cost-cutting measure, but a fine recording such as this deserves better. Kudos to l’Orchestre de la Francophonie, to the soloists, the chorus, and to Jean-Philippe Tremblay for breathing some overdue fresh air into this well-trodden repertoire.

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