02 Vivaldi String Concertos 3Vivaldi – Concerti per archi III; Concerti per viola d’amore
Accademia Bizantina; Ottavio Dantone; Alessandro Tampieri
Naïve OP 30570 (vivaldiedition.com)

When the Italian National Library in Turin purchased the collection of autograph manuscripts by Antonio Vivaldi in 1930, they acquired nearly 450 works by the great Venetian composer. The creation of the Italian musicologist Alberto Basso, the Vivaldi Edition project, then set out to record the works in their entirety. This beautiful and touching recording is part of that rich project. It contains 13 concertos for string orchestra and five concertos for viola d’amore, relatively unexplored repertoire but one very much worth the attention.

Vivaldi was a master of concertos for string orchestra without soloist and the ones on this recording are exciting and incredibly engaging miniatures. Each one contains a whole array of characters and emotions and is presented with flair and style. But the hidden gems are the viola d’amore concertos. Here we have the exuberant display of the full magnificence of this instrument – 12 strings, unusual timbres, resonant sound, chordal passages and tuning variations depending on the style and the key. Alessandro Tampieri is undeniably the master of his instrument. His playing is virtuosic, his sound heavenly and his execution perfectly precise. I have especially enjoyed the wild rustic cadenza of the third movement of Concerto RV 394 and the sublime Largo of the Concerto RV 393. Led by a fantastic harpsichordist, Ottavio Dantone, Accademia Bizantina’s performance is energetic and passionate, making this recording one of my favourites.

04 Schubert Early SymphoniesSchubert – Early Symphonies and Stage Music
Copenhagen Phil; Lawrence Foster
Pentatone PTC 5186 655 (naxosdirect.com)

In today’s busy society and fragmented music business, it is a true privilege to have the opportunity to listen through a two-disc set of large-scale ambitious symphonic work, particularly when it is performed, recorded and released as expertly and beautifully as has been done so by Pentatone Records on their recent Franz Schubert release: Early Symphonies and Stage Music. Comprised of some of Schubert’s lesser-known work, the Copenhagen Philharmonic, under the watchful direction of longtime Pentatone artist, conductor Lawrence Foster, wrings expressive beauty from Schubert’s masterful classical works, written when the Austrian composer was but a teenager. With the clear time, effort and degree of musical specificity that has gone into the performance and presentation of this music, this is truly a recording worth attention and will be time well spent when immersing yourself in these documented sounds.

Symphonic work truly has the ability to inspire and, to paraphrase a well-known adage, to wash away the banality of everyday life and move the needle forward to something more otherworldly and profound. While such lofty platitudes are most often reserved for the more famous symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, Schubert’s music can be equally inspiring, as evidenced here. Presented alongside his Romantic Italian Overture in D Major and captured in 2017 at the Concert Hall of the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen, this 2019 release is a welcome addition to the collections of Schubert fans everywhere wanting to expand their knowledge of his music beyond lieder.

05 DopplerDoppler Discoveries – Flute Compositions by Franz and Carl Doppler
András Adorán; Emmanuel Pahud; Jan Philip Schulze; Arcis Hornquartett
Farao Classics B 108104 (farao-classics.de)

Brothers Franz (1821-1883) and Carl Doppler (1825-1900), their era’s leading flute virtuosi, worked chiefly in the urban centres of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Both were engaged as flutists in major orchestras, toured Europe as soloists, and were successful conductors and composers of recital repertoire, opera and ballet (mostly in Budapest). They hobnobbed with music celebrities of the day like Liszt and Brahms.

Then, sadly, they were all but forgotten. Until well past the mid-20th century the Doppler name was virtually unknown save for classical flute players. Due to research begun in the 1970s by the Hungarian flutist András Adorján however, that neglect has begun to be remedied.

Adorján’s discoveries challenged the long-held misconception that a Doppler flute composition consisted of hackneyed paraphrases and facile variations. But when he found Franz Doppler’s unpublished Double Concerto for two flutes, the work proved so attractive that it immediately became part of the standard repertoire. Seven such Doppler compositions, featuring one or two flutes, played by renowned flutists Adorján and Emmanuel Pahud, grace the Doppler Discoveries album. The works are delightful and the playing aptly brilliant.

The biggest revelation for me is how convincing the three Hungarian-themed works are, reflecting the Dopplers’ deep engagement with Hungarian vernacular music and society of the mid-19th century.

I typically choose a favourite track or two in my CD reviews. On this album that isn’t possible: they’re all terrific. Just try not to smile while listening to two of today’s crack flutists revive long-lost scores by those fascinating Dopplers.

Listen to 'Doppler Discoveries: Flute Compositions by Franz and Carl Doppler' Now in the Listening Room

07 SerenadesTchaikovsky; Dvořák – Serenades
Archi di Santa Cecilia; Luigi Piovano
Arcana A 457 (naxosdirect.com)

Nice surprise, hearing again my two favourite Serenades for strings back to back on a single disc, the Dvořák E Major and the Tchaikovsky C Major. These two are probably the most beautiful of the genre that began with Mozart and later, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. Serenades are light symphonies, with less complex structures, written for entertainment like divertimentos with the emphasis on melody.

I first heard the Dvořák at a concert with a very young István Kertész conducting in Budapest around 1954, but not even once ever since, so it comes back as an old friend, opening with a heavenly melody one hears and never forgets. The five movements vary in mood, tempo and dynamics, each bursting with gorgeous, fresh melodies and even a Czech folk tune in the presto Finale, ending in a festive spirit. The Tchaikovsky is a masterwork of the first order with an all-pervasive melancholy and one of Tchaikovsky’s best-loved waltzes as its second movement. The virtuoso strings amazed me particularly in the first movement’s polyphonic intricacy and the third movement Elegy, so heartrending one could cry. The boisterous Russian dance Finale bounces along with energy and excitement.

This superb new recording by Archi di Santa Cecilia, formed from the best string players of Rome’s famous Santa Cecilia Orchestra and led by an equally talented conductor, Luigi Piovano – and how! He delves into the music with body and soul and I imagine the orchestra moves with him and his every gesture. A tremendous rapport, like hypnosis, that only a Gergiev, Ozawa, Solti or the great Karajan could muster. Highly recommended.

08 Bruckner 4Bruckner – Symphony No.4 “Romantic”
Philharmonia Zurich; Fabio Luisi
Philharmonia Records PHR 0110 (opernhaus.ch)

Great Bruckner conductor Sergiu Celibidache once put a question to his conducting class: “Why is the second scherzo different from the first scherzo?” Only one student knew the answer: “Because we already heard the first scherzo.” Well, Fabio Luisi certainly kept this in mind in his new recording of Bruckner’s Fourth as the scherzo repeat brings many surprising, previously unheard details like birdcalls, strange little chirpings on the woodwinds and other bells and whistles.The famous “Hunt” Scherzo, rarely sounded better. The Zurich brass is gorgeous, the Ländler Trio graciously shaped. A real auditory adventure.

I first came across Fabio Luisi as principal conductor of the Met when he bravely took over their revolutionary Ring project in 2011 after James Levine became ill. So it’s not surprising, being also an outstanding interpreter of Italian opera, that his approach to Bruckner is essentially melodic. This becomes immediately apparent in the secondary theme of the first movement which is lovingly handled and sings so beautifully. Right at the outset the emerging horn theme from the near inaudible tremolo of strings creates a mystical atmosphere, and the crescendo at the end of the movement is carefully paced to a resounding Brucknerian brass peroration.

This is a very relaxed reading; the tempo is slow, which helps to uncover all the wonderful details the conductor brings to attention, such as after the tremendous climax in the second movement when everything calms down, all is quiet with only the tympani pounding softly like a heartbeat and the horn quietly answering. It’s pure magic.

Beautifully detailed, gorgeous modern sound, eloquent and gracious Bruckner.

11 Saint SaensCamille Saint-Saëns – Symphony No.2; Danse macabre; Symphony in F
Utah Symphony; Thierry Fischer
Hyperion CDA68212 (hyperion-records.co.uk)

Is Camille Saint-Saëns an undervalued or unjustifiably obscure composer? An answer is proposed in the recording and accompanying liner notes released by the Utah Symphony under Thierry Fischer. The argument presented suggests both are true, with the second being attributed to the fact that his later compatriots such as Fauré (student of the master) and Debussy gathered more attention while his own material was overlooked by conductors and thus by the musical public. His elder, Berlioz, famously summed up the young composer thus: “He knows everything, he lacks inexperience.”

Two symphonies form substantial brackets to a rousing rendition of Danse macabre (with violin soloist Madeline Adkins). Symphony No.2 in A Minor, Op.55 opens the disc. At just under 23 minutes, the work is modest, beautifully structured and completely delightful. The scherzo movement is what Saint-Saëns should be known for, wit and agility.

Saint-Saëns no doubt felt that seriousness and long-windedness were the province of the Germans, or maybe he was atoning for the heavy-handedness of his previous effort: Symphony in F Major “Urbs Roma” (the subtitle was the pseudonym required by the terms of the competition in which it was entered). This is a more ponderous work, nearly double the length of Symphony No.2 and lacking the inspired brevity of the latter. One almost hears the composer ticking the boxes beside all the elements he knew would sway a jury on Bordeaux, and he was right; the piece took the prize, but remains on the shelf today.

12 Sibelius 1Sibelius 1
Orchestre Metropolitain; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
ATMA ACD2 2452 (atmaclassique.com/En)

Jean Sibelius was still under the influence of Tchaikovsky when he wrote his Symphony No.1 in E Minor Op.39, but these Russian overtones coexist with assuredly individualistic orchestral textures and themes. At the very opening, for example, in a highly original stroke, a clarinet over a gentle timpani roll introduces the main theme, which achieves its apotheosis at the climax of the finale.

In the second movement the debt to Tchaikovsky is clearly revealed in the way the languidly mournful opening theme is developed prior to the stormy climax. An emphatically rhythmic Scherzo reveals another influence: Bruckner, a composer whose music Sibelius had first encountered in Vienna in 1890. The finale, marked quasi una fantasia, veers between frenzied agitation and a grandly refulgent big tune in which the strings predominate.

As this disc reveals, in the right hands the First Symphony can be an extremely exciting work. Yannick Nézet-Séguin seems to give notice that he is one of the great Sibelians of the contemporary era, as he finds just the right level of energy. His control of the mood and poetics of the work – its gradations of bleakness and majesty – is affecting. As the symphony unfolds the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal, for its part, responds with a brilliance that is never forced.

13 SzymanowskiSzymanowski: Violin Concerto No. 1; Zemlinsky: Lyric Symphony
Elina Vähälä; Johanna Winkel; Michael Nagy; Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Alexander Liebreich
Accentus Music ACC 30470 (accentus.com)

Many recordings that include the Violin Concerto No.1 by Karel Szymanowski (1882-1937) or the Lyric Symphony by Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) are now available. This Polish CD features idiomatic orchestral playing of the Szymanowski; also, its particular pairing points up what the two composers have in common. French-Impressionism-influenced exoticism, romance and fantasy figure in their works, and both set Rabindranath Tagore poems from the same translation (Szymanowski in Four Songs, op. 41). Violinist Pawel Kochański’s 1915-16 collaboration gave Szymanowski great confidence; here, the resulting concerto’s fiery virtuosity and sensual melodies receive nuanced, secure treament from Elina Vähälä. By contrast, Anne Akiko Meyers’ 2017 Avie recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra features more assertive bowing and tone, with a broader sweep to lyrical passages and the cadenza.

Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony (1923) includes seven Tagore settings, presenting a love affair’s successive moods. In the central fourth movement (“Speak to me...”), Johanna Winkel’s soprano is magical, its long tones suspended over a soft ostinato plus harp and celeste glissandi. Michael Nagy brings a powerful, attractive baritone to the following riposte, “Free me ...,” whose swagger fails to mask underlying despair. I find the Polish National RSO orchestra led by Alexander Liebreich excellent; the recorded sound, however, needs more instrumental definition, as in the Orchestra de Paris version (Capriccio, 2007) conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. Still, for those whose collection lacks these two works, this Accentus disc would be a valuable addition.

01 PoulencFrancis Poulenc – Kammermusik
Ensemble Arabesques; Paul Rivinius
Farao Classics B 108103 (farao-classics.de)

Certain composers of the 20th century were determined to complete cycles of works for all of the orchestral wind instruments. Paul Hindemith largely succeeded, Carl Nielsen fell short of his intention to write a concerto for each member of the Danish Winds, and Francis Poulenc gave the world a wealth of pieces for all of them. His contributions are given a representative sampling on this disc featuring the wind quintet Ensemble Arabesques, joined by the excellent Paul Rivinius on piano.

The largest work (from 1932, revised 1939) is the Sextet for Winds and Piano. In it you’ll hear echoes and precursors of material Poulenc used in all of his smaller ensembles, notably of his final three wind sonatas: for Flute (1956), Clarinet (1962), and Oboe (1962). He intended to add a sonata for bassoon, but died shortly after completing the oboe work. The sextet is full of fun, played with sparkle and élan, but also with the disguised melancholy found in the three later works. Like Matisse’s paper cutouts, Poulenc’s pieces can seem like collages of recurrent musical gestures and tropes, and his forms repeat through most of these pieces. For my money, naturally, the clarinet sonata is the most beautiful, played here by Gaspare Buonomano. The second movement is heartbreaking and so simple. Buonomano’s rendition is understated, elegant and respectful of the music, though sadly not without the clarinet’s most vexing pitch peccadilloes. Eva Marie Thiébaud’s flute sonata is utterly fine; likewise Nicolas Thiébaud on oboe.

02 Instruments of HappinessThe Happiness Handbook
Instruments of Happiness
Starkland ST-232 (starkland.com)

Tim Brady is internationally recognized as a leading experimental guitarist and a prolific composer of chamber, orchestral and music theatre works. He writes, “For over 30 years I have been exploring a new approach to the electric guitar, a vision as both a composer and a guitarist. Instruments of Happiness [IOH] is … the next step in this evolution.” Leader of IOH groups, Brady considers the guitar an “instrument of happiness,” and he gave that title to the electric guitar ensembles he formed as a platform for his wide-ranging music projects.

IOH performs in three formats: as a 100-piece electric guitar orchestra rendering site-specific new works; as a 20-piece ensemble; and as a quartet performing new compositions. It’s the last configuration we hear on The Happiness Handbook in premiere recordings of works by six Canadian composers: Brady, Jordan Nobles, Scott Godin, Maxime McKinley, Gordon Fitzell and Emily Hall. The music on the album reflects many of Brady’s own musical interests. These include contemporary classical, experimental and musique actuelle, but also embrace guitar-based vernacular genres such as blues, progressive rock, flamenco and the electric guitar sounds popularized by 20th-century innovators Duane Eddy and Link Wray.

If you enjoy virtuoso electric guitar shredding, edgy minimalism, jaggedly incisive rhythms, noisy textures and rock’s propulsive energy paired with the guitar’s gentler voice – soft harmonics, cantabile slide guitar and sustained tones – then this is an album to savour and add to your collection.

03 John RobertsonJohn Robertson – Virtuosity
Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra; Anthony Armoré
Navona Records NV6223 (navonarecords.com)

In my review of a CD of orchestral works by John Robertson (Navona NV6167) that appeared in the September 2018 issue of The WholeNote, I called his neo-Romantic music “unfairly neglected” and praised his “lyrical gift… colourful and inventive scoring, unpretentious and essentially cheerful.”

Not all of Robertson’s music is “essentially cheerful,” however, as shown by this latest CD. In three concerted works featuring as soloists three principal players of the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra, the Kingston-based Robertson (b.1943) reveals his more inward-looking side, at times tinged with melancholy. His “lyrical gift,” though, remains evident and continues to please in his Concerto for Clarinet and Strings Op.27 (1989), Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra Op. 58 (2013) and the tone poem Hinemoa and Tutanekai Op.22 (1987), based on a legend of two Maori lovers from rival warring tribes. In it, Hinemoa hears and responds to the plaintive sound of Tutanekai’s flute as it wafts across the lake that keeps them apart.

Robertson’s even darker side is displayed in the opening Andante of his 27-minute Symphony No.3, Op.71 (2017), filled with dramatic foreboding, sinister repeated arpeggios and pounding rhythms. The mood lightens with the syncopated, Latino-like accents of the Vivace, while the concluding Allegro is lighter still, even “cheerful.”

In my previous review, I wrote that Robertson’s music “should be welcomed by Canadian orchestras and audiences.” The increasing exposure of his music on CD might just be what it takes to make that happen.

05 Victoria BondVictoria Bond – Instruments of Revelation
Chicago Pro Musica
Naxos 8.559864 (naxos.com)

Four works dating from 2005 to 2011 display some of the wide expressive range of American Victoria Bond (b.1945). Three figures from tarot cards are portrayed in Instruments of Revelation: The Magician (in Bond’s words “mysterious…dexterous”), The High Priestess (“wisdom…passion”) and The Fool (“comedy…chaos”). Cleverly scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, the first two movements are very engaging and attractively descriptive, while The Fool, in wild confusion, lurches and falls across many slippery glissandi.

In Frescoes and Ash for clarinet/bass clarinet, string quintet, piano and percussion, six artworks from Pompeii are depicted, most strikingly in the raucous Street Musicians (the CD’s cover image) and the languid rippling of Marine Mosaic. The seventh movement, Ash: Awareness of Mortality, is a haunting dirge for the doomed city.

“I’ve been drawn to Ulysses… since high school… because the writing resembles the way I think… in fleeting images and allusions, in a stream of consciousness.” Bond previously set Molly Bloom’s soliloquy and here, in her 20-minute Leopold Bloom’s Homecoming (from Episode 17), tenor Rufus Müller, accompanied by pianist Jenny Lin, speaks the questions and sings Bloom’s answers. However, Joyce’s convoluted text, included in the booklet, renders moot whether the music, lyrical or dramatic, fits the words.

Finally, pianist Olga Vinokur performs Binary, a heavily percussive seven-minute piece whose first movement reminded me of Thelonious Monk, followed by a set of variations on a Brazilian samba, ending a disc of very mixed imagery, pleasures and perplexity.

06 Fuego QuartetMigration
Fuego Quartet
Ravello Records RR8010 (ravellorecords.com)

The Fuego Quartet (Nicki Roman, soprano; Eric Elmgren, alto; Harrison Clarke, tenor, and Gabriel Piqué, baritone) was founded in 2015 at the Eastman School of Music. Their album Migration’s sophistication shows how far the saxophone quartet’s repertoire has moved from predominantly French composers and Scott Joplin rags. For example, David Maslanka’s five-part Recitation Book recomposes Bach chorales. Many of the pieces are quite meditative and the Fuego Quartet blends together seamlessly with little vibrato to create a gentle wall of harmony. The final track, Fanfare/Variations on “Durch Adams Fall,” is a lengthy piece combining the boisterous with the liturgical.

William Albright’s Fantasy Etudes is a six-part work opening with a Prelude which combines elements of the other sections and then moves into A Real Nice Number, an ironic homage to Debussy’s Claire de Lune. Pypes is a lilting piece evoking bagpipes; The Fives for Steve is dedicated to the memory of a composer friend; and the Phantom Galop was inspired by the Lone Ranger. Harmonium, based on childhood memories of the instrument, possesses an incredible and quiet intensity and could be my favourite on the album. The final section, They Only Come Out at Night, is a tribute to 50s and 60s cop shows on TV.

David Clay Mettens’ Ornithology S is a ten-minute tour de force based on Juan Fontanive’s animated sculptures of birds that are a remarkable re-imagining of flip books. It involves complex rhythmic sections, intricate pad clicking, subtle multiphonics and delicate slap tonguing, and demonstrates how impeccably the quartet plays together as they interpret difficult pieces.

07 Liptak Dove SongsDavid Liptak – Dove Songs
Tony Arnold; Alison d’Amato; Renée Jolles; Margaret Kampmeier; Dieter Hennings Yeomans; Steven Doane; Barry Snyder
New Focus Recordings FCR224 (naxosdirect.com)

American composer David Liptak composes texturally rich, colourful and contrasting musical sounds in four compositions here. The title track, Dove Songs, is a six-part song cycle composed for soprano Tony Arnold, who performs it with superb pianist Alison d’Amato. Arnold’s enchanting voice grasps all the contrasting storytelling/musical elements of the work, based on poetry by 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winner Rita Dove. Great moments include the dramatic vocal high pitches and piano tinkling like snow and frost in The Snow King, short phrases with subtle humourous undertones emulating domestic life’s ups and downs in Beauty and the Beast, and faster lighter lines with a final high-pitched vocal note and piano flourish in Flirtation.

More intense lyricism and held notes feature in Impromptus, composed for and played by violinist Renée Jolles with pianist Margaret Kampmeier. The duo shines in the contrasting conversational solo lines which shorten until they overlap simultaneously in the second movement, Lyrical. The seven-movement guitar solo suite, The Sighs, explores the melancholy of seven artists. Guitarist Dieter Hennings Yeomans brings out the clever compositional use of Rameau’s Baroque counterpoint in the fluctuating guitar line in the Les Soupirs and Petite Reprise movements. The extremely moving musical sentiment of Beautiful Dreamer, based on the Stephen Foster song of the same name, is unforgettable. Sonata for Cello and Piano has cellist Steven Doane and pianist Barry Synder perform a zippy second-movement race to the finish!

David Liptak’s memorable, lyrical, original compositions are timeless!

Listen to 'David Liptak: Dove Songs' Now in the Listening Room

02 Brodie WestKick It ’Till You Flip It
Eucalyptus
Lorna 10/ HAVN 054 (brodiewest.com)

Alto saxophonist/composer Brodie West makes music that’s both exploratory and engaging, growing from varied experiences playing jazz and its transmutations in Toronto and further afield, including stints with Dutch drummer Han Bennink and Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria. West’s groups typically emphasize rhythm (his eponymous quintet has two drummers), but his octet, Eucalyptus, takes it further. Drummers Nick Fraser, Evan Cartwright and Blake Howard feed data to West and trumpeter Nicole Rampersaud as they bounce around the multi-directional polyrhythms and ostinatos.

West’s compositions can suggest African pop music, but they also have affinities with a broad swath of work, from Terry Riley to Ornette Coleman. Something Sparkly is perfectly dreamlike, its slow theme weaving through bright electric guitar and exotic overlapping rhythms. It suggests Sun Ra’s stately early music, a resemblance heightened by Ryan Driver’s trebly clavinet, a keyboard Sun Ra called a “solar sound instrument.” West’s solo seems suspended between melody and birdcall. The title track develops with the horns playing a short, taut figure, then gradually moving out of synch with one another amidst the various rhythmic paths at hand. The entire LP testifies to West’s artful concision, but his compressed, expressionist solo here is a miracle of improvisational economy.

The final track, Triller, is another beautiful floating mystery, its minimalist components ultimately weaving a complex whole; it’s enhanced by Alex Lukashevsky’s bending guitar tones, until parts drop away and only electric bassist Mike Smith’s pulsing ostinato remains.

03 One Night in KarlsruheOne Night In Karlsruhe
Michel Petrucciani; Gary Peacock; Roy Haynes
SWR Jazzhaus JAH-476 (naxosdirect.com)

Michel Petrucciani, who once said, “I think someone upstairs saved me from being ordinary,” followed up his proclamation with a vast discography of truly extraordinary music. He had the virtuosity of an Oscar Peterson and the fluttering lyricism of Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. However, his playing is characterized by a singular voice driven by an almost primal energy and an edgy emotionality. Although he was marked, throughout his short life, with monumental pain from osteogenesis imperfecta, his music expressed unfettered feelings of joy.

One Night in Karlsruhe, made at a live performance in July 1988, captures him at the height of his pianistic powers and he appears to be made completely of music. Petrucciani always had an infectious way with dancing rhythms and the program is rich in expressive contrasts and diverse song forms in which dance and variation occupy a position of importance throughout. His playing – on 13th, In a Sentimental Mood, Embraceable You and a signature bravura version of Giant Steps – has a particularly magical touch to it and he responds to the diabolical changes on the latter with spontaneity – while at the same time communicating the music’s sense of colour and of pageant.

Petrucciani also approaches the music’s harmonic boldness and astringency with a kind of vivid bas-relief. He is accompanied, on this sojourn, by bassist Gary Peacock and living legend, drummer Roy Haynes. The intensity of this power trio is magnificently captured on this recording.

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