Recording with a group of stringed instruments has always posed particular challenges for committed improvisers. Since the groupings of violin, viola, cello and the like are usually valued for their harmonic and melodic qualities, the challenge is to avoid a mawkish “& Strings” session, that buries innovation in schmaltz. Luckily these discs impress by using string players not as backup or afterthought, but as an integral part of the creative process.

01 Strings1CD007Take Brazilian tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman for instance. As part of a seemingly endless series of discs that link his horn with other instruments, on Strings 1 (Leo Records CD LR 850 leorecords.com), the saxophonist creates a free music interpretation of high-art string quartet literature. Perelman, who played cello as a youth takes that part, while the others fit traditional roles: violinists Mark Feldman and Jason Hwang plus violist Mat Maneri. During the nine-track, 74-minute program, the four subdivide frequently so that when one violinist concentrates on sul ponticello squeaks, the other paces a moderato theme; or the saxophonist’s yelps, peeps and growls are answered with contrapuntal viola sweeps. Throughout, the fluctuating sequences move from stop-time to fragmented to extended legato, with abstracted string scratching as much a part of the expositions’ evolution as Perelman’s multiphonic asides. Although all four are capable of creating elevated timbres – despite the fact that the string players sometimes approximate angry birds – uncomfortable shrillness is usually avoided, with the quartet confirming that moderato storytelling can encompass just enough jagged and jerking notes to enliven the tracks without derailing them into atonality. The extended fourth track, for example, which begins with dissonant pizzicato plucks from the string players and elaborated sibilant reed squeaks, courses into a narrative where Perelman’s caustic tones settle within circling string layering, so that no matter how many spiky reed detours are tried, by the finale the parallel improvising becomes a four-part coordinated theme.

02 LisbonStringCD003American clarinetist Blaise Siwula is in somewhat the same situation on K’ampokol Che K’aay (Creative Sources CS 453 CD creativesourcesrec.com), Except in this case the Lisbon String Trio consists of violist Ernesto Rodrigues, cellist Miguel Mira and bassist Alvaro Rosso. Recorded at a Lisbon concert, the music on the disc – titled for a Mayan coffee-like shrub – gets steadily more salient as the program evolves and each player becomes more comfortable with the others’ skills. Initially, either strident or wispy, Siwula’s clarinet parts evolve to sinewy mid-range, with a woody overlay, as flutter-tongued elaborations become expressive storytelling. When the string trio isn’t involved with mid-range harmonies, each takes on a particular role. Rosso’s rugged program includes applying ground bass plucks to the tracks; Mira’s repetitive counterpoint challenges the narrative; and Rodrigues’ staccatissimo thrusts decorate the fluid interface with pumps and jumps. The four reach a climax midway through the third untitled improvisation when a section of high and low pitches dissolves into individual showcases. From that point on, despite ragged string sweeps, spiky textures, and slap-tonguing and modulated shrilling from the clarinetist, the polyphonic program touches on the pastoral, but includes enough sudden and unexpected pitch and tone switches that, symbolically, the hardscrabble work that underlies any bucolic scene ia sonically obvious as well.

03 BlackPokeCD004Another method of pushing an already constituted string section into an anomalous challenge is to mate it with another group. Black Poker (Clean Feed CF 504 CD cleanfeed-records.com) does just that, as Italian drummer Francesco Cusa and his band the Assassins with trumpeter/electronics manipulator Flavio Zanuttini, tenor saxophonist Giovanni Benvenuti and keyboardist Giulio Stermieri are joined by the violinists Daniele Iannaccone and Lorenzo Borneo plus violist Agostino Mattioni and cellist Cristiano Sacchi who make up the Florence Art Quartet (FAQ). Although the two quartets each have a track to themselves – with the result too syrupy in the FAQ’s case – Black Poker’s achievement is how well the ensembles’ dissimilar textures integrate. Starting with Spades/Picche, the first track, the polished swing of the Assassins, expressed most obviously in processed upsurges from Zanuttini and pensive reed breaks from Benvenuti, is first buttressed and then challenged via pizzicato pops from the FAQ. Sophisticated enough to divide its role on Clubs/Fiore into high-pitched violin swirls and mid-range viola and cello vibrations, the FAQ is the antithesis of a clichéd string section. As Benvenuti’s altissimo runs plus Stermieri’s tremolo cadenzas – as well as Cusa’s faultless yet hard rebounds – move the narrative forward while making it more overtly rhythmic, the string shimmies provide the theme with flexibility and sparkle. Key role reversal occurs in the penultimate Kirtimukha (Hearts/Cuori), where the tenor saxophonist’s heartrending solo is more pulpy than anything the individual strings play; and it’s the FAQ’s bent note refrain and string scrubbing, plus shrill notes dug out from the trumpet’s innards, that ensure the tune returns the head’s jolly march and away from mawkishness.

04 CordameCD001With a sextet consisting mostly of orchestral instruments and half the 16 tracks based on works of Claude Debussy, Montreal-based Cordâme has given itself a challenge that goes beyond instrumentation. However on Debussy Impressions (Malasartes Mam 033 cordametrio.com), the composition and arrangements of bassist Jean Félix Mailloux, plus the playing of violinist Marie Neige Lavigne, cellist Sheila Hannigan, harpist Éveline Grégoire-Rousseau, pianist Guillaume Martineau and percussionist Mark Nelson, manage to use the French Impressionist composer’s concepts as a base to blend and broaden sounds on the 70-minute CD to much more than a Debussy homage or mimicry. While glissandi from the harp and the violin on a track such as Debussy au clair de lune may follow expected dancing expressionism, the seamless integration of a thumping bass line and piano syncopation introduce a jazz sensibility that buoys the piece. Similarly L’égyptienne may include some faux-Middle Eastern motifs like its model, but downcast fiddle cadenzas are secondary to percussive rebounds from Nelson and sweeping piano patterns that almost push the piece into rock music territory. Orchidées chatoyantes depends on below-the-bridge plucks from the strings plus a castanet-like clatter, giving the track a unique Spanish tinge. Meanwhile the polyrhythmic Ondine advances with keyboard rumbles and swinging harp pops, and includes sprightly violin sweeps that relate more to rural Quebec than Edwardian Paris. This old-timey fiddle concept also appears on Fougères, inserted in the middle of a stirring duet between double bass and harp, both swinging in a non-18th-century manner. This and other originals show off Mailloux’s skill even more. However he’s crafty enough to compose pieces that harmonize with the French composer’s ideas. Lotus bleu, for example, is lighthearted and speedy. Yet lurking among the piano clusters and bass-and-drum cross-rhythms is a hint of lighter syncopation close to what Debussy found in the sound of gamelan ensembles.

05 AmorgosCD002In a more contemporary setting and with a reduced ensemble, Athens-based composer/vocalist Ada Pitsou has created a suite of ten miniatures reflecting the most eastern Greek island in the South Aegean Sea with Amorgos (SLAM 592 slamproductions.net), interpreted by handpicked musicians: violinist Dionisis Vervitsiotis, cellist Angelos Liakakis, pianist Thodoros Kotepanos and drummer Niklos Sidirokastritis. Chief distinction is how well pre-recorded sounds of lapping waves, running water and breezy and blustery winds are adapted to sync with the instrumentalists’ expositions. However once this is accomplished, Pitsou’s compositions don’t take much advantage of the broad textures that could be sourced from unconventional string settings. More interested in mood and colouring than ambulation, unlike Mailloux’s re-orchestrations, here sprightly interchanges and austere harmonies are used for scene-setting rather than timbral advancement. There are a few instances where the mould is broken briefly, as on Yassemi, where drumming patterns interrupt a romantic string exposition; or on Seladi, where tempo-changing iterations cycle through percussive piano clips, warm violin and cello harmonies and inflated wind whooshes. But these attempts aren’t extended to full innovative dissonance or tried elsewhere. Overall, despite the CD’s somewhat unusual instrumentation, only simple musical goals are aimed for; and they are just as easily attained.

String groups have been utilized for fine chamber music since the 18th century. In the 21st century however, coupling the expected with output from other sources – mostly improvised creations – produces even more memorable results. 

01 LudwigThe Christa Ludwig Edition (deutschegrammophon.com), is a 12-CD portrait of her artistry heard through a cross section of recordings spanning repertoire from oratorio, lieder, opera, symphony and Broadway; from Bach to Bernstein. Only one of the composers could contribute an opinion. On March 2, 1990 Leonard Bernstein wrote this in praise of the mezzo soprano: “I always thought Christa Ludwig the greatest Brahms singer among her peers, but that was only until I heard her sing Strauss. Then she was the greatest Marschallin until I heard her do Mahler. Again I had to reassign her to another throne. But then I heard her sing Wagner and the same thing happened, and then recently I heard her incredible interpretation of the Old Lady in my operetta Candide. Then I had to give up. She is simply the best, and the best of all possible human beings.”

The first CD contains 15 arias from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, St. Matthew Passion and Mass in B Minor and the final CD features Schumann’s, Liederkreis Op.39, and Hugo Wolf’s Mignon-Lieder and Italienisches Liederbuch, accompanied by Erik Werba and Daniel Barenboim. In between, there is a treasure trove of outstanding performances reflecting her reliability to be present in the role.

A CD of Ludwig and Karl Böhm has arias from Nozze di Figaro and Cosi fan tutte that are so exquisite that I gave them an immediate encore. On the same disc are two arias from Tristan und Isolde and four from Rosenkavalier. Rounding out this program there are about 15 minutes of three interviews in German. There’s a very fine Alto Rhapsody with Böhm and the VPO and then her collaborations with Karajan including Abscheulicher from Fidelio and much Wagner with excerpts from The Ring. Karajan continues with works by Mahler, the three songs for soprano from Das Lied von der Erde, Kindertotenlieder and five Rückert Lieder. There is the Lux aeterna from the Verdi Requiem and an aria from Madama Butterfly, Reverenza! from Verdi’s Falstaff and two arias from Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten. The selections with Bernstein begin with the final 15 minutes of Mahler’s Second Symphony from Urlicht and O glaube with Barbara Hendricks, the Westminster Choir and the New York Philharmonic. From Mahler’s Third Symphony she sings O Mensch! Gib Acht! From Bernstein’s First there is the Lamentation followed by the Love Theme from his music for the soundtrack of On the Waterfront. There are three songs from Candide including I Am Easily Assimilated (The Old Lady’s Tango) of which Bernstein wrote in his above quoted appreciation.

CD8 is titled “Great Songs and Arias with Various Conductors.” Those conductors are Lorin Maazel, Ferdinand Leitner, Daniel Barenboim, Claudio Abbado, Georg Solti, Ricardo Chailly, Richard Bonynge, Colin Davis, Seiji Ozawa, István Kertész and Karajan. Composers range from Pergolesi to Orff in 19 great songs and arias. The last four discs are devoted to Schubert lieder. Winterreise D911 accompanied by James Levine was recorded in Vienna in 1986, and 29 assorted lieder accompanied by Irwin Gage were recorded in Vienna in 1973 and 74.

In sum, the above entries and more should prove to be a gift to Ludwig’s admirers and others to whom the repertoire might appeal. Her mezzo voice illuminates the words, serious to the whimsical. Charming where called for. 

03 NikolayevaEight years ago Doremi issued Volume One of Tatiana Nikolayeva that includes Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op.87. Her version was the composer’s very favourite… He had written them for her.

Nikolayeva was an incredible musician and among her most admired specialties were her performances of Bach. She excelled in all classical styles, but for her Bach she is considered “a priestess,” similar to Rosalyn Tureck, with the exception that Tureck was devoted to Bach exclusively. Nikolayeva’s repertoire included all his compositions for the keyboard and many other Bach works which she transcribed for the piano. Volume 2 (DHR-8056-8, 3CDs naxosdirect.com) includes all 12 concertos, BWV1052 though BWV1065, for one, two, three and four keyboards heard in live concerts from December 11,13 and 14, 1975. She is accompanied by the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Saulius Sondeckis, an elite group with whom she often performed. These concertos were written for harpsichord, however the piano maintains the spirit and style admirably as is also clearly demonstrated by such authorities as Rosalyn Tureck and Glenn Gould. No doubt Bach himself, given the opportunity, would have embraced the use of piano, for as we know Bach transcribed many of his works for diverse instruments. Most of these piano concertos existed before as concertos for violin and were transcribed by Bach himself. Furthermore, Bach’s concerto for four keyboards is actually his transcription of a four-violin concerto by Vivaldi.

Bach is played throughout with profound authority and hearing these treasured performances from long ago is such a pleasure. The crisp and faultless sound comes from Melodiya originals, not air-checks. There is a significant bonus. From the recital in Tokyo on April 22, 1988 are the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV565; the Partita No.2, BWV826; the Ricercar from The Musical Offering, BWV1079 and the Contrapunctus 1 and 9 from The Art of The Fugue, BWV1080. Different repertoire, same empathy. 

One of the most memorable moments while courting my wife Sharon was one evening visiting my friend Sheryl’s mom’s farm in Bowmanville on a warm August summer night back in 1979 or 80. The occasion was a birthday party for one of Sheryl’s brothers – a tradition carried on to this day, now with the most incredible live music gatherings in Sheryl and Brian’s backyard overlooking Musselman Lake. It has become a multigenerational affair and a great time is always had by young and old and everyone in between. But it is that first occasion which has stuck with me over all these years, specifically the visceral experience of hearing Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir blasting out from an incredible sound system set up across farm fields more than a quarter of a mile away. From then on Kashmir became an anthem of sorts for Sharon and me. Since that time I have heard a vast array of interpretations of that iconic work in any number of instrumental combinations. Some of the most effective have been cello ensemble performances, a formation close to my heart, but I must say as impressive as they have been, none hold a candle to the original.

01 Margaret MariaThese thoughts came to me when I put on the latest release from Canadian cellist Margaret MariaHeroines in Harmony (enchanten.com), which won a silver medal at the Global Music Awards in 2018 – not because it includes the Led Zeppelin classic – it doesn’t – but because of the sheer power of the opening track Stand Tall. As I listened in awe to Maria’s multi-layered cello – a virtual wall of sound – I had no idea of the context of the music. In fine print on the cardboard slip case it states “Each track is honouring a CANADIAN woman who inspires me.” I had to visit the website noted above to find out “Who they are and how the music embodies their legacy.” It turns out that the dedicatee of that most powerful first piece is Buffy Sainte-Marie whose authorized biography by Andrea Warren I had just finished reading (cf. the coincidences/connections I was talking about in December’s column!). Other tracks are inspired by such notables as astronaut Roberta Bondar, Snow Birds commander Maryse Carmichael, ballerina Evelyn Hart and civil-rights icon Viola Desmond, among many others. In an almost industrial setting, Chaos Reigns honours “the creative life force of novelist, poet, inventor and activist,” Margaret Atwood.

All but two of the 16 tracks are composed and performed by Maria in a brilliant display of virtuosity, both in her command of the cello in all its facets, from warm lyricism to growling grunge, and in her command of technology enabling almost orchestral realizations of her conceptions. The two exceptions are collaborations with flutist Ron Korb: the lush Dream Painting celebrating the unsung life of the painter and writer Emily Carr, and the moving To What End honouring the missing and murdered Indigenous women with its three sections subtitled Death, Darkness, and Spirits Awakening. All in all this is another exceptional outing from Margaret Maria. If she ever does decide to perform Kashmir, Sharon and I will be at the front of the line. Or perhaps across the field letting the waves of sound wash over us in the night.

Listen to 'Heroines in Harmony' Now in the Listening Room

02 Nordic AffectThe Icelandic chamber ensemble Nordic Affect presents a very different celebration of women, in this case Icelandic and Estonian women composers, on the disc H e (a) r (Sono Luminus DSL-92224 sonoluminus.nativedsd.com). Six mostly sparse sonic landscapes are framed and separated by the seven sections of the disc’s namesake, brief poetic statements by artistic director Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir. In her introductory statement Stefánsdóttir says “H e (a) r is an ode to hear, here, hér (Icelandic for here) and her. It springs from treasured collaborations that allowed us to ‘send sound and receive sound’ (Pauline Oliveros). We now extend it to you, this meditation on embodiment, acoustics and ecology.”

The award-winning Nordic Affect was founded in 2005 by a group of female period instrument musicians “united in their passion for viewing familiar musical forms from a different perspective and for daring to venture into new musical terrain […] From the group’s inception, [it has] combined new compositions with the music of the 17th and 18th centuries [and] has brought its music making to contemporary and rock audiences alike to critical acclaim.” The booklet is quite extensive, including complete texts for H e (a) r and program notes provided by the composers but contains no biographical information about them. I had to Google Mirjam Tally to find out she is Estonian.

Nordic Affect comprises violin, viola, cello and harpsichord and all four women also vocalize. I must say that in most of the atmospheric compositions included here, only the harpsichord is recognizable with any certainty, although Hildur Guodnadóttir’s Point of Departure uses the instruments in a fairly traditional way. The other works, including two by María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, are more mysterious and ethereal, ambient pastel washes depicting a mystical northern world. Having spent an enchanted ten days touring Iceland with my wife Sharon, Bob Aitken and his wife Marion about a decade ago, memories of that stark and magical landscape came flooding back as I listened to this enthralling disc. Highly recommended!

03 Saariaho KohI heard a stunning live performance of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s Cloud Trio last March when New Music Concerts presented Trio Arkel – Marie Bérard, Teng Li and Winona Zelenka – at Gallery 345. I was happy to find the string trio included in a new recording by violinist Jennifer Koh, Saariaho X Koh (Cedille CDR 90000 183 cedillerecords.org). Koh is joined by violist Hsin-Yun Huang and cellist Wilhelmina Smith in the four-movement work that begins in a meditative calm, then a Sempre dolce, ma energico movement followed by an energetic third before a tranquil and expressive finale. Next is a one-movement piano trio, Light and Matter, for which Koh is joined by cellist Anssi Karttunen and pianist Nicolas Hodges. This world-premiere recording starts quietly with both the piano and the cellist roiling darkly in their lower registers before the entry of the violin with harmonics and trills high above. Over its 13 minutes there is dramatic development, with furious arpeggiated passages interrupted by pounding piano chords, moments of angst juxtaposed with calm and lyrical intensity. A captivating performance.

The disc also includes a short violin and piano duo, Tocar, with Hodges, and the first recording of the violin and cello version of Aure, originally for violin and viola. The latter was written in honour of Henri Dutilleux’s 95th birthday and takes its material from a line of text from Anne Frank’s diary – “Why us, why the star?” – which Dutilleux set for a single child’s voice in his large orchestral work The Shadows of Time. The question is first asked by the cello alone and then passed back and forth with the violin, transforming according to instructions in the score to be “calm,” then “intense” and “fragile” until the end when there is just a memory of the motif, “just a breath or breeze – aure – now lost in time.”

The most substantial work on this intriguing disc is a chamber orchestra version of Saariaho’s violin concerto, Graal théâtre, a 28-minute work inspired by a novel of Jacques Roubaud of the same name. Saariaho says “I was interested in the combination of the words Graal (Grail) and theatre, thinking of an abstract search for the holy grail – whatever it would mean for each of us – and the concrete art form of the theatre. I imagined the violinist as the main character in a play.” The work was originally written for Gidon Kremer in 1994. Koh first performed it in 2006 with the LA Philharmonic and has played it many times since. This recording features the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble under the direction of Conner Gray Covington. It was recorded at the Curtis School of Music in 2016. The concerto complements the smaller chamber works to present a rewarding portrait of one of the most successful composers of the generation born after the Second World War. The playing is outstanding throughout.

04 Slience ProjectThe final disc, by Guelph’s Silence Collective, is a bit out of my comfort zone, but I found the premise intriguing enough to want to have a go at it myself, rather than assigning it to one of our more specialized reviewers. The Apprehension Engine is a unique all-acoustic instrument originally envisioned by Canadian composer Mark Korven for use in creating “an eerie film soundtrack.” It was realized by master luthier Tony Duggan-Smith and is a strange-looking contraption pictured on the cover of The Murmuring (barcodefreemusic.com). It is comprised of various strings, fret boards, a hurdy-gurdy-like rotator for sustained drones, metal teeth for banging and bowing, thinner wire extensions that act as flexitones, springs and a host of resonators, to mention just some of its potential sound making sources. To get a fuller understanding of this wondrous instrument, check it out on YouTube: Horror Musical Instrument - The Apprehension Engine. It’s hard to tell the scale of it from the image on the CD package, and I imagined the members of the Silence Collective all gathered around the “Engine” and each playing a different aspect of it. Before doing any further research I put on the disc and marvelled at all the different sounds that were seemingly coming out of this one source. It turns out my initial impression was mistaken and that it is just the right size for one performer, Korven himself. The other players – Matt Brubeck (cello), Gary Diggins (trumpet and too many other things to enumerate), Daniel Fischlin (guitar, also constructed by Duggan-Smith, and flutes), Lewis Melville (pedal steel and banjo) and Joe Sorbara (percussion) – all brought their own instruments to interact with Korven in three sets which took place at Silence – an independent, not-for-profit venue in Guelph – one evening in September 2017. The results are beyond my capacity to describe but not to enjoy, and I urge you to do the same. 

01 ClarkeEnglish cellist Natalie Clein and Norwegian pianist Christian Ihle Hadland are quite superb on a new CD of Sonatas by Rebecca Clarke and Frank Bridge (Hyperion CDA68253; hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA68253).

Clarke’s Viola Sonata – here in the alternate cello version – is a sweeping, passionate work completed in 1919, and seems to benefit from the added depth the cello brings. And what inspired playing it draws from Clein! Bridge’s two-movement Cello Sonata in D Minor is also from the Great War period. Begun in 1913, it was finished in 1917, the second movement reflecting the darker times and the composer’s deep dismay at the course of world events. Three brief pre-war pieces precede the sonata: the Serenade (1903); Spring Song (1912); and the Scherzo (1901-03) that was rediscovered in 1970.

Besides the obvious English connection there is another link with Ralph Vaughan Williams here, his Six Studies in English Folk Song having been written in 1926 for cellist May Mukle, Rebecca Clarke’s longtime chamber music partner. They provide a lovely end to an outstanding disc.

02 Hopcker BrahmsThe German violinist Sabrina-Vivian Höpcker is the brilliant soloist in Brahms Hungarian Dances, a recital of all 21 pieces originally written for piano four hands and heard here in the arrangements by Joseph Joachim; Fabio Bidini is a perfect collaborator (Delos DE 3558; delosmusic.com/recording/brahms-hungarian-dances).

Only a few of the dances were actually written by Brahms, the remainder being a mixture of contemporary Hungarian Roma compositions, some of which were probably settings of traditional tunes. Höpcker’s playing of these technically demanding pieces has everything you could possibly wish for: stunning technique; faultless intonation; great dynamics; passion; energy; style; and a tone that is brilliant in the upper register and deep and warm in the lower. Bidini knows the original piano settings well, and it shows.

There are some familiar old favourites here, but all are gems. There’s never a dull moment in an outstanding disc.

03 Jinjoo ChoThe Indianapolis Commissions 1982-2014 is a fascinating CD issued for the tenth Quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis (IVCI) in 2018, and presents all nine specially commissioned works written through the 2014 competition (Azica Records ACD-71321; naxosdirect.com/items/the-indianapolis-commissions-468596).

Violinist Jinjoo Cho, the Gold Prize Winner in the 2014 IVCI, is quite stunning in a wide range of pieces that include three – by Joan Tower, Leon Kirchner and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich – for solo violin. Pianist Hyun Soo Kim supplies first-rate collaboration in works by Richard Danielpour, George Rochberg, Bright Sheng (the particularly dazzling A Night at the Chinese Opera), Joonas Kokkonen, Witold Lutosławski and Ned Rorem. One gets the impression that Cho could probably have won every one of the other eight competitions as well.

04 HaydnThere’s another 2CD volume available in the outstanding ongoing series of Haydn String Quartets by The London Haydn Quartet, this time the Six Quartets Op.64 from the London Forster edition (Hyperion CDA68221; hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA68221).

The previous six volumes over the past 11 years have garnered rave reviews, and rightly so. These are period instrument performances simply bursting with life and energy, and with faultless intonation on gut strings – no easy feat. Hyperion’s two-CDs-for-the-price-of-one deal makes these terrific issues even more of a bargain.

05 Schubert Die Nacht track CD bklt 1Cellist Anja Lechner and guitarist Pablo Márquez team up on Die Nacht, a recital of works by Schubert and his contemporary Friedrich Burgmüller (ECM New Series 2555; ecmrecords.com/catalogue/1534923762).

A lovely performance of Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata is the centrepiece of the disc, surrounded by five Schubert songs interspersed with Burgmüller’s Trois Nocturnes for cello and guitar. Songs with guitar accompaniment were a strong tradition in 19th-century Vienna, many of Schubert’s being published in guitar versions. The songs here are Nacht und Träume D827, Fischerweise D881, Meeres Stille D216, Der Leiermann from Die Winterreise and the Romanze from Rosamunde, the last two in transcriptions by the artists. A rich cello sound and warm guitar tone add greatly to a simply lovely CD.

06 Sol GabettaSchumann is the latest CD from cellist Sol Gabetta and features three works for cello and piano with her long-time collaborator Bertrand Chamayou and the Cello Concerto in A Minor Op.129 with the Kammerorchester Basel under Giovanni Antonini (Sony Classical 88985352272; sonyclassical.de/sonyclassical_neu/CD/88985352272.html).

The works with piano are 5 Pieces in Folk Style Op.102, the Adagio and Allegro Op.70 (originally for horn and piano), and the Fantasiestücke Op.73 (originally for clarinet and piano), Schumann allowing that the latter two could be played “also on melody instrument.”

Gabetta has a deep strong tone but never lacks warmth and subtlety. She has performed with and known the members of the Basel orchestra for many years, and the comfort level is apparent in a warm and engaging performance.

07 BraumfelsI don’t recall receiving any CDs of the music of German composer Walter Braunfels (1882-1954) before, which made his Works for String Orchestra performed by the Münchner Rundfunkorchester under Ulf Schirmer all the more interesting (cpo 777 579-2; naxosdirect.com/items/braunfels-string-quintet-op.-63-sinfonia-concertante-op.-68-459907).

Both works here are relatively late compositions from the mid-1940s. The Quintet for String Orchestra Op.63a is a setting of Braunfels’ Op.63 String Quintet by his student, the conductor and musicologist Frithjof Haas. It’s a fine work with a particularly lovely Adagio movement, although one gets the feeling that some of the intimacy of the original is lost in the bigger sound.

The Sinfonia Concertante Op.68 for Violin, Viola, 2 Horns and String Orchestra is a shorter but more substantial and impressive work. Described in the notes as “more modern and radical” it is decidedly in the German Romantic tradition with a strong post-Mahlerian and Straussian feel to it, the prominence of the solo violin in particular giving the work more the feel of a concerto.

The excellent recordings were made in 2007 and 2009, presumably for radio broadcast.

08 Great NecksThe Great Necks – original arrangements for three guitars is the excellent debut CD from the guitar trio of Scott Borg, Adam Levin and Matthew Rohde (thegreatnecks.com/shop).

Borg is the arranger for the first four offerings: Sibelius’ Finlandia, the three-fold heavy strumming making for a rather thick texture; four unrelated individual movements by J. S. Bach; Villa-Lobos’ Chóros No.5 “alma brasileira”; and Albeniz’s Asturias. Rohde joins him in transcribing four brief preludes from Scriabin’s Op.11 keyboard set, but is solely responsible for, by far the most effective track on the disc, an engrossing arrangement of the hypnotic Danzón No.2 by Arturo Márquez.

Recorded in Toronto and engineered by the always reliable guitarist Drew Henderson, the sound is clear and resonant.

09 Czech StringsThe Orchestre d’Auvergne under Roberto Fores Veses performs string works by Dvořák, Janáček and Martinů on a new CD described as “a testimony to the Czech musical soul over a period of more than a century.” (Aparté AP 195D; apartemusic.com/discography/dvorak-janacek-martinu).

Dvořák’s Serenade in E Major Op.22 from 1875 is heard here in its complete version, the composer’s cuts and corrections from 1879 reinstated. Janáček’s Suite for String Orchestra was written in 1877, a year in which the composer spent the summer walking in Bohemia with Dvořák. The latter’s influence is apparent in a delightful work. Martinů’s String Sextet dates from 1932, and is heard here in the string orchestra arrangement made by the composer in 1951.

Performances full of warmth of works that all came from happy periods in the composers’ lives make for a highly satisfying disc.

10 WeinbergTwo rarely performed works by the Polish/Russian composer Mieczysław Weinberg are presented on Weinberg – Concertino, 24 Preludes, with the Russian cellist Marina Tarasova and the Music Viva Chamber Orchestra under Alexander Rudin in the Northern Flowers St. Petersburg Musical Archive series (NF/PMA 99131; altocd.com/northernflowers/nfpma99131/).

The Concertino for Violoncello and String Orchestra Op.43 was written in 1948; never played, it became the basis for the Cello Concerto with the same opus number, and was not discovered until 2016. It’s a lovely if brief work – the four movements are each under five minutes long – with a strong Jewish klezmer influence and more than a hint of Weinberg’s close friend Shostakovich. This is its premiere studio recording.

Weinberg’s 24 Preludes for Cello Solo were written for Rostropovich in 1960 but never performed by him. In 1979 the composer presented the score, inscribed with his compliments, to the young Marina Tarasova, although again they remained unplayed for nearly four decades. Wide-ranging in style and quoting from Schumann, Mozart and Shostakovich as well as his own works and popular song, they draw outstanding playing from Tarasova.

11 LanggaardThe Danish composer Rued Langgaard never gained acceptance in his home country during his lifetime, his rejection of his contemporary Carl Nielsen’s modernist path assuring him of a life in the musical backwaters. The last 50 years, however, have seen a reassessment and major change of opinion.

Complete Works for Violin and Piano Vol.2 is the second of three planned CDs of Langgaard’s compositions in the genre, with outstanding performances by violinist Gunvor Sihm and pianist Berit Johansen Tange (Dacapo 8.226131; naxosdirect.com/items/langgaard-complete-works-for-violin-piano-vol.-2-469744). Sihm is a member of the Nightingale String Quartet, which released an outstanding 3CD set of Langgaard’s complete string quartets between 2012 and 2015.

The Sonata No.1 “Viole” is a large work from 1915, the first and third movements being thoroughly revised by the composer in 1945. It’s a sweeping, passionate work, its changing moods brilliantly captured by the performers. The Andante Religioso, Langgaard’s final work for violin and piano following a burst of activity in the genre in the late 1940s, is a short work from 1950.

The final work here, the Søndagssonate (Sunday Sonata) for violin, piano, organ and orchestra is accurately described in the notes as “bizarre and unpredictable.” It was originally three separate compositions: the Sunday Sonata for violin and piano (movements 1 and 2); the Marble Church Prelude for organ (movement 3); and the Small Grand Symphony for orchestra with organ (movement 4 – and small indeed, at 2’47”). Organist Per Salo and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Søndergård are the additional performers in a world premiere recording of a unique work not heard until 2016.

12 Ries 3Violinist Eric Grossman and pianist Susan Kagan are the performers in the third volume of Ferdinand Ries Sonatas for Violin and Piano (Naxos 8.573862; naxosdirect.com/items/ries-sonatas-for-violin-piano-vol.-3-466993).

Ries was an exact contemporary and close friend of Beethoven, both composers having studied with Ries’ father Franz. The three sonatas here – in E-flat Major Op.18 from 1810, in G Minor Op.38 No.3 from 1811 and D Major Op.83 from 1818 – are clearly a continuation of the Viennese style developed by Mozart, but are closer to Beethoven in sound. They are delightful and charming works though, and the performances, balance and recorded sound here are all first class. 

13 Murasaki DuoWorks for Cello and Piano Book 1 is a CD of music by the American composer Maria Newman with the Murasaki Duo of cellist Eric Kutz and pianist Miko Kominami (Montgomery Arts House Press MAHMR 1205209; store.cdbaby.com/cd/marianewmanandwendyproberandpi).

The two excellent three-movement works, Peccavi Duo and Tri Follis were commissioned for these performers, but the real gem here is Othmar, An Eccentric Tone Poem for Violoncello Alone based on characters by the 19th-century English author and suffragette Mary De Morgan, whose fairy-tale stories often featured women noted for their personal – as opposed to physical – qualities. Kutz is simply outstanding in a quite dazzling and virtuosic work. 

01 KuulaAdam Johnson introduces a lesser known Finnish composer in his new recording Kuula – Complete Works for Solo Piano (Grand Piano GP 780; naxosdirect.com/items/kuula-complete-works-for-solo-piano-467079). Toivo Kuula (1883-1918) was a conductor and composer who studied in a number of European centres and spent some time as a composition student of Sibelius. His piano works represent only a modest portion of his oeuvre which includes more than 50 works plus a few posthumous items.

Kuula was a self-taught pianist whose earliest compositions date from 1900. While he never achieved virtuosic stature with the instrument, his eloquent writing suggests that he understood it profoundly. Johnson’s playing immediately captures the stylistic brew of Kuula’s late Romantic and early modern influences. His technique is fluid and confident and suits this music perfectly.

The disc’s program includes Two Song Transcriptions Op.37 which are especially beautiful and whose distinctive character easily sets them apart from the piano pieces. Johnson has done a wonderful job of drawing attention to a worthwhile creative voice not often heard.

02 Musica BrasilieraLuiz Carlos De Moura Castro’s new disc Musica Brasileira II (store.cdbaby.com/cd/luizdemouracastro10) is a collection of three substantial works: one by José Antônio Almeida Prado and the others by Villa-Lobos.

Prado’s Sonata No.5 “Omulu” is part of his cycle of Afro-Brazilian compositions. It’s a wild conception of ideas, dense, colourful and highly energized. The architecture is formal but the spirit of the piece is raw and untamed. De Moura Castro performs it with astonishing force and insight in an impressive combination of wild abandon and discipline. The composer dedicated the work to him and he premiered it in 1986 in Switzerland.

Villa-Lobos dedicated Rudepoema to Arthur Rubinstein. It’s a huge work of nearly half an hour and reflects, in an extended fantasy format, the composer’s deep affection for and artistic admiration of Rubinstein’s playing.

The other Villa-Lobos work is the fantasy for piano and orchestra Momo Precoce. This track was recorded live at a March 1985 performance and carries the acoustic colour of its period’s recording technology. It too is a lengthy piece, with some programmatic content depicting a Brazilian children’s carnival. Despite its vintage, the performance is first rate and completely engaging.

03 LisztomaniaMikolaj Warszynski is an accomplished performer and teacher. His latest recording Liszt-O-Mania (University of Alberta - Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies WIR07/2018; mikolajwarszynski.net/lisztomania) is a well-chosen program of favourites by Liszt, and therefore, an easy program to sell but a tough one to perform. As an academic, Warszynski brings his love of history and research to his liner notes. They are concise, captivating and inspiring. Moreover, they create the right expectation for his performances.

Warszynski sees Liszt as a spiritual explorer rather than solely a wild keyboard demigod. He expresses this by creating greater distances between moments of ferocity and moments of repose. This contrast is powerful, spellbinding and reflects a mature understanding of the composer’s intentions. Ballade No.2 in B Minor is a fine example of this device but the bonus track, Sonetto del Petrarca 123 is the most memorable, because of its artful application.

Lisztomania is less manic than its title might suggest, and it offers far more than a recital of “favourites” can usually manage. There’s some arrestingly beautiful playing on this disc.

04 Peter SchaafPeter Schaaf has released a third recording following his return to the keyboard after a lengthy hiatus pursuing other creative ventures. Chopin: 17 Waltzes (Schaaf Records SR 103; schaafrecords.com) is a collection of waltzes divided between those published during Chopin’s lifetime and those published posthumously.

Schaaf’s approach is relaxed and the tempos reflect this, often being a touch slower than is commonly heard. His playing is wonderfully clear and articulate. The all-important ornaments that give Chopin’s writing its identifying signature are unerringly executed with impressive consistency. Waltzes Op.34, No.3 and Op.69, No.2 are terrific examples of this splendid technique. Schaaf also brings a welcome degree of introspection to this music that is especially poignant in the minor keys. He creates a feeling of heightened mystery that, combined with a slower tempo, make pieces like the Waltz in C Sharp Minor Op.64 No.2 an entirely new experience.

05 Shoshana TelnerShoshana Telner’s latest release is a 2CD set titled Johann Sebastian Bach – The Six Partitas BWV825-830 (Centaur CRC 3642/3643; centaurrecords.com). The joy of playing or hearing Bach lies in the search for melody. Regardless of how familiar a work may be, chances are that a hidden fragment of melody will reveal itself, making the already beautiful impossibly better. This is how Telner plays. From her first phrase she declares her intention to mine every treasured nugget in Bach’s motherlode of counterpoint. These French dance suites are replete with ideas great and small lying in every range of the keyboard voice. Telner’s technique unfolds each one carefully. The versatility of the nine-foot Fazioli she plays allows for rich dynamic contrasts and subtle touch variations to highlight each new idea she encounters, as if to coax them out of hiding. It’s a mindful, disciplined and loving way to handle this music and the result is a breadth of beauty difficult to describe.

06 Quattro ManiSteven Beck and Susan Grace are the second incarnation of the piano duo Quattro Mani. Their new recording Re-Structures (Bridge 9496; bridgerecords.com/products/9496) is a wonderfully programmed disc of contemporary works for two pianos plus a variety of other instruments.

Poul Ruders’ Cembal D’Amore for piano and harpsichord places the piano mostly on the left audio channel while the harpsichord occupies the centre and right of the audio spectrum. Not only is the stereo effect immediately engaging but the writing too grabs the attention with very clever keyboard combinations and colouristic effects.

György Kurtág’s Életút Lebenslauf Op.32 uses a normally tuned piano in combination with another tuned a quarter tone lower and also calls for a pair of basset horns.

The title track Re-Structures by Tod Machover is written for two pianos and live electronics. It’s dedicated to Pierre Boulez for his 90th birthday and is inspired by Boulez’s own works for two pianos Structures.

The opening and closing tracks are for the duo alone. The final one is particularly intriguing for its relentless adherence to a Latin beat. Ofer Ben-Amots’ Tango for the Road provides a memorable finish to this excellent production.

07 David McGroryDavid McGrory’s new release Remember the Fallen (store.cdbaby.com/cd/davidmcgrory2) marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War, 1914-1918. He’s chosen three works to represent the responses of composers affected by the conflict.

Le Tombeau de Couperin is Maurice Ravel’s memorial to people he knew who had lost their lives in military service. Each of the work’s movements is dedicated to them. It’s not a directly programmatic piece and doesn’t set out to capture the mood of the period. It’s simply a contemporary expression inspired by Couperin’s 17th-century keyboard suites. McGrory has an impressive facility with the speed Ravel requires to execute the Prelude, Rigaudon and Toccata but he makes his greatest impact with the very tender and heartfelt Minuet. There’s a tremendous feeling of suspended melancholy that hangs over the entire movement. Gorgeous.

Frank Bridge’s Piano Sonata gives McGrory a similar opportunity. Its second movement is an extended calm between the work’s violent outer movements and his performance of it is profoundly moving.

Listen to 'Remember the Fallen' Now in the Listening Room

08 100 Years British MiniaturesDuncan Honeybourne performs an entire disc full of world premieres in his recent recording A Hundred Years of British Piano Miniatures (Grand Piano GP 789; naxosdirect.com/items/a-hundred-years-of-british-piano-miniatures-467080). Eleven composers’ works arranged chronologically give an illuminating view of the piano miniature’s evolution. English composers seem to have a deep and abiding affection for a sense of place, and they allow this to spark their creativity. Whether city streets or countryside, experiences had there are the prime resource for these miniatures.

The disc is full of these very short tracks, beautifully selected for their contribution to the program and historical relevance. Those from the first half of the last century seem to share a common language despite the great upheavals that changed the world in which they were conceived. The more contemporary ones are somewhat less tied to the charm of a place and are more outward-looking in concept. There is a remarkable degree of originality throughout all these works that makes this disc an engaging listen from start to finish.

09 Lorenzo MaterazzoLorenzo Materazzo takes a freely modern approach in his newest recording of Baroque repertoire Lorenzo Materazzo Plays Scarlatti & Bach (Austrian Gramophone AG 0010; naxosdirect.com/search/lorenzo+materazzo). He’s an active performer, composer and musicologist bringing a thorough rationale to his performance decisions. Materazzo extracts the greatest amount of emotional content possible from every phrase and thematic idea. His tempos are unconstrained by conventional practice and his dynamics are unashamedly romantic. He argues that both composers would have spoken this musical language had they lived today and points to the way his interpretation realizes more fully the potential of each work.

Scarlatti’s familiar Sonata in E Major K.380 proves an instructive comparison with almost any other version. Like all the other tracks, it’s an intimate recording with the mics very near the strings. Materazzo’s effort is persuasive, credible and very much worth hearing.

10 FiserZuzana Šimurdová introduces the music of a hitherto unrecorded composer in her new world premiere recording release Fišer – Complete Piano Sonatas (Grand Piano GP 770; naxosdirect.com/items/fišer-complete-piano-sonatas-417996). Luboš Fišer was a 20th-century Czech composer whose works are becoming better known through their publication by Barenreiter. His eight piano sonatas span the period from 1955 to 1995. He discarded the second sonata of which he was highly critical and the work was never recovered. Sonatas No.1 and No.3 are in three and two movements respectively while all the rest are single movements only.

Šimurdová is a powerful performer completely capable of the turmoil that is central to Fišer’s writing. Her ability to retreat into more tender moments of his music is what makes it truly human. Kudos to her for championing this voice.

11 Rubinstein Concerto 4Anna Shelest delivers a powerhouse performance in the new release Anton Rubinstein Piano Concerto No.4 (Sorel Classics SC CD 013 sorelmusic.org/Sorel/Recordings.html). She shares the stage at the Lincoln Center with The Orchestra Now (TON as they like to be called). This ensemble comprises specially chosen musicians from leading conservatories around the world. Their youthful approach breaks the mould of traditional orchestral players with their avid participation in pre-concert talks, onstage introductions and other forms of audience engagement.

The Rubinstein Concerto No.4 is gargantuan and Shelest is simply brilliant in her navigation of this iconic 19th-century Russian’s work. She captures the rich beauty of all Rubinstein’s melodies, both broad orchestral statements and intimate piano utterances. Conductor Neeme Järvi brings his extraordinary skill to the podium to direct the energies released by the music.

The CD also includes Rubenstein’s Caprice Russe Op.102 whose strong national folk content stands in contrast to the more European flavour of the concerto. It’s a thrilling live recording. 

01 Monteverdi UlisseMonteverdi – Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria
Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner
Soli Deo Gloria SDG730 (solideogloria.co.uk)

Few musicians have devoted themselves to the Baroque repertoire with the sustained passion of John Eliot Gardiner; and his relationship with Claudio Monteverdi’s music is unique. Gardiner launched the Monteverdi Choir in 1966 and the Monteverdi Orchestra in 1968, renaming it the English Baroque Soloists in 1976 with the switch to period instruments. This recording of one of Monteverdi’s three surviving operas was recorded in Wrocław during a 2017 tour celebrating the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth.

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (1640), is based on the conclusion of Homer’s Odyssey, as Ulysses reaches home to find his wife Penelope and his lands besieged by suitors. It was composed more than 30 years after Orfeo, when the 73-year-old composer was convinced to write again for the stage at the end of a career devoted largely to composing for the church.

This is a masterful realization of the work, with Gardiner, his choir and orchestra attuned to its pageantry, drama and sheer beauty, as well as Monteverdi’s sudden shifts through a broad emotional range. In the first act, the orchestra caresses and supports the sorrowful Penelope; the second concludes with rising battle music; and in the third the choirs of Heaven and Sea are graced with the elemental clarity and grace of Monteverdi’s madrigals. Il ritorno is a key document in opera’s early history, with an increasing shift from intoned text to dramatic song: Gardiner and company’s performance is both vigorous and authentic.

03 Wagner Ring CycleWagner – Der Ring des Nibelungen
Soloists; Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra; Jaap van Zweden
Naxos 8.501403 (14 CDs + USB card; naxos.com/catalogue/item.asp?item_code=8.501403)

The conductor of this new audio recording, Jaap van Zweden, has now taken over the New York Philharmonic after being the music director of the Dallas Symphony since 2009. TV audiences recently saw him conducting the New Year’s Eve concert with the Philharmonic featuring Renée Fleming. He is also active in Europe and Asia, including Hong Kong where he has been their Philharmonic’s conductor since 2012.

This new Ring Cycle was recorded in concert performances in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre each January from 2015 to 2018. In Das Rheingold from 2015 we hear Matthias Goerne’s Wotan, Michelle DeYoung’s Fricka and Kim Begley as Loge. The 2016 Die Walküre adds Stuart Skelton as Siegmund, Heidi Melton is Sieglinde and Falk Struckmann is Hunding. The Brünnhilde is Petra Lang. Siegfried in 2017 has Simon O’Neill as Siegfried and David Cangelosi as Mime. Heidi Melton is now Brünnhilde and Falk Struckmann is Fafner and the Forest Bird is sung by Valentina Farcas. Götterdämmerung, from 2018, adds choruses of the Bamberg Symphony, the Latvian State and the HK Philharmonic with Brünnhilde now sung by Gun-Brit Barkmin, Siegfried is Daniel Brenna, Michelle DeYoung is Waltraute, Gunther is Shenyang and Hagen, who gets the very last words, is Eric Halfvarson.

For these performances, Van Zweden maintains very steady tempi and does not bury the usually unheard pulse in the music. This strengthens the continuity of events and goes far in holding our attention to the unfolding epic involving the foibles of the driven principals. The recording engineers have achieved a superb job with a wide dynamic range, no spotlighting of any instruments and maintaining a firm bass line, seating us in the concert hall for these live concert performances. The casting couldn’t be better, with impeccable, secure soloists before the Hong Kong Philharmonic that, by Götterdämmerung, has become a first class Wagner orchestra. Not quite the Vienna Philharmonic but they have only been professional since 1974.

There are many spellbinding occasions on these performances that come readily to mind. Here are just a few: The last scene of Die Walküre from Wotan’s heartbreaking farewell to Brünnhilde and then his calling upon Loge to surround his sleeping daughter in an impassable ring of fire, the ethereal Magic Fire Music; in Siegfried, the Forest Bird telling Siegfried about a beautiful sleeping woman surrounded by a circle of flames and then leading him to her; the conversation between the sleeping Hagen and his dead father, Alberich in the second act of Götterdämmerung; the Immolation scene and the redeeming, all-is-well, short epilogue that follows a momentary pause. Altogether a brilliant achievement.

The four operas are available separately but the boxed set contains the four plus a USB stick with the complete librettos in German alongside English translations, together with talks about the project with photos and interviews.

This is the second Ring Cycle from Naxos, the first consisting of live performances of New York’s Metropolitan Opera productions from 1936 to 1941 (8.501106, 11 CDs). Luminaries of the era include Schorr, Varnay, Traubel, Melchior, Flagstad and Marjorie Lawrence who rides off on Grane on January 11, 1936. A collector’s collection. Noisy.

04 Britten Death in VeniceBritten – Death in Venice
Soloists; Teatro Real Chorus and Orchestra; Alejo Pérez
Naxos 2.110577 (naxos.com)

Adapted from Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, Death in Venice (1973) was 20th-century English composer, conductor and pianist Benjamin Britten’s final opera. Its libretto has a stark, dark plotline: Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous but failing German novelist, travels to Venice for invigorating inspiration only to find disturbing mystery, a troubling infatuation with a boy called Tadzio, internal vacillation and melancholy, cholera – and as the title states, death.

The spare narrative, however, allows librettist Myfanwy Piper and composer Britten room to meditate on a rich tapestry of grand themes, primarily through the voice of Aschenbach. These include reflections on dichotomous Apollonian vs Dionysian philosophies rooted in Nietzsche’s writing, Greek mythology and ideals, and the perilous dignity accorded even an acclaimed artist (as Britten was by this time in his career).

Propelling the drama however is the doomed homoerotic May-December longing at the core of the story. It’s lent poignant authenticity by Mann and Britten’s own biographies, underscored by Britten’s dedication of the score to Peter Pears, his longtime professional and life partner, who premiered the role of Aschenbach.

Musically, Britten’s score is a study in brilliant orchestration of refreshing invention, vigour and chamber music delicacy. Characters are deftly rendered in contrasting musical styles and genres. Italian opera buffa is parodied and Aschenbach’s vocals are supported by orchestral strings and winds. By way of contrast a five-piece percussion section provides a very adroit evocation of the timbre and texture of Balinese gamelan music – representing the “other” – underpinning all of the boy Tadzio’s stage appearances.

John Daszak is exemplary as Aschenbach, and Willy Decker’s 2014 Teatro Real, Madrid production brilliantly supports the cumulative impact of the final tragic scene of Britten’s last, emotionally resonant, opera.

05 Golijov AyreGolijov – Ayre: Live
Against the Grain Theatre; Miriam Khalil
Against the Grain Records ATG001CD (againstthegraintheatre.com)

After I heard Ayre: Live for the first time, I knew this recording was going to be one of my favourite albums of 2018. The immediacy of the live recording is always exciting and Osvaldo Golijov’s song cycle for soprano and a small chamber ensemble is beyond gorgeous – it is intimate yet powerful, piercing with emotion and mesmerizing in its tonal expression. Like the air we breathe (the album’s title means air in medieval Spanish), it transcends the boundaries between music traditions, languages and cultures.

Based on the interweaving melodies, rhythms and poetry of Arab, Christian and Sephardic Jewish culture in Spain, Golijov also weaves in his own compositional language thus making Ayre an elaborate historical and emotional narrative. Eleven songs flow inherently from one to another while the energy rises and falls effortlessly with each one. Una madre comió asado and Nani are heavenly sounding, tranquil lullabies (though the texts are implying more complex emotions). Combinations of electronica and traditional melodies in Wa Habibi makes this song surprisingly fresh and captivating. Tancas serradas a muru, with its bewitching vocals and tribal rhythms, is a whirl of primal energies and, in contrast, Kun li-guitari wataran ayyuha al-maa’, a poem spoken in Arabic, creates a wonderful aural sparseness.

The superb chamber ensemble of Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre has a wonderful synergy with the company’s co-founder, soprano Miriam Khalil, a true star of this recording. Her immense range of colours and fascinating vocal transformations made her performance on this album both spectacular and touching.

Listen to 'Golijov – Ayre: Live' Now in the Listening Room

01 17171717 – Memories of a Journey to Italy
Scaramuccia
Snakewood Editions SCD201801 (snakewoodeditions.com)

Imagine a journey to Florence, Rome and Venice. In 1717. Imagine, too, that you could take home with you your choice of manuscripts by composers based in those cities. This was the opportunity granted to Johann Georg Pisendel, in his own journey to Italy that same year. As if being allowed to take home manuscripts of contemporary Italian composers was not enough, Pisendel joined with some of them in composing. These joint efforts make up two tracks on this highly imaginative CD – there are even two CD world premieres.

Scaramuccia itself comprises just violinist, cellist and harpsichordist. From the start, a vigorous performance of the first Allegro from Tomaso Albinoni’s Sonata for violin and continuo proves this is no handicap. Scaramuccia’s detailed notes are more than helpful in finding out how Pisendel fared.

In the case of the Sonata for violin and continuo in D Major by Giuseppe Maria Fanfani, which here receives its world premiere, one wonders why this is so. Javier Lupiáñez’s enthusiastic violin playing in the Largo, Allegro and Tempo Giusto is first class. Giuseppe Valentini’s Sonata for violin and continuo in A Major starts imposingly before a really fervent Allegro, Minuet and Giga – at last, someone has discovered that a giga does not have to last less than two minutes! And then two pieces by Antonio Maria Montanari, the second in cooperation with Pisendel. Both opening Largos give us the chance to appreciate sensitive harpsichord playing and, once again, the passionate playing of Lupiáñez (Scaramuccia’s musicologist founder) in both Allegro movements.

This imaginatively created CD ends with its best-known composer working with Pisendel: the result a Sonata for violin and continuo which reminds us of everything that Vivaldi could create.

Listen to '1717 – Memories of a Journey to Italy' Now in the Listening Room

02 Forgotten OboeForgotten chamber works with oboe from the Court of Prussia
Christopher Palameta; Notturna
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 19075821552 (naxosdirect.com) 

The Montreal-born, Paris-based musician Christopher Palameta is widely fêted for oboe performances that are suffused with equal amounts of aesthetic beauty and historical rigour. Working since 2007 to broaden world understanding and appreciation for the music of German Baroque composer Johann Gottlieb Janitsch, Palameta has mined Janitsch’s repertoire, finding rarely heard chamber pieces that are now welcome additions to the canon of Baroque works. Collaborating on record here with the chamber music collective Notturna – which Palameta directs – Janitsch’s music, along with selections by Johann Gottlieb Graun and the little-known Christian Gottfried Krause, are captured beautifully on this 2018 release. The recording is certain to expand Palameta’s reputation as a singular musician dedicated to 18th- and 19th-century period piece work that showcases the oboe, and should be greeted enthusiastically by fans of early music.

Although music from this era could certainly be opulent and regal – the decorative ornamentations of the melodic line mirroring the exaggerated royal lifestyle, dress and mannerisms –Janitsch plumbs a galant style that fetishizes authenticity and aims for a return to more simple music-making practices. In fact, blurring the lines between the professional and amateur, Janitsch led community-wide sessions for musicians at a variety of levels to perform together called “Freitagsakademien” (Friday academies).

Like many composers of the Baroque era, Janitsch was indentured to royalty (in this case Frederick the Great, King of Prussia) and while his compositional style reflected the changing aesthetics of this time period, his considerable output was well supported by Frederick’s strong patronage of the arts and music. Thanks to Palameta, Jan Van den Borre, Catherine Martin, Emily Robinson and Brice Sailly, this important and underrepresented music lives on for future audiences.

03 KruesserKreüsser – 6 Quintettos Opus 10
Infusion Baroque
Leaf Music LM223 (leaf-music.ca/product/lm223/))

Thanks to the Montreal-based ensemble Infusion Baroque, Georg Anton Kreüsser (1746-1810) joins the list of composers whose works were lost to us until diligent research brought them to light. Kreüsser himself did not deserve to be lost – his music flourished in Mainz while he was konzertmeister of its Kapelle. His musical education took in Bologna and Amsterdam and it was there that he met Wolfgang, Leopold and Marianne Mozart – and the admiration was mutual as Leopold noted, which makes Kreüsser’s disappearance even more surprising.

The Quintettos feature flute and the four instruments of a traditional string quartet, a rare combination as most similar works follow the flute, violin, viola, cello model of Mozart’s flute quartets. It is Alexa Raine-Wright’s flute-playing that dominates this CD: listen in particular to the Tempo di menuetto of the Quintetto in C Major and the lively Allegro moderato of the G Major. Strings do, for all that, enjoy considerable prominence. For example, the violin and viola playing of the Allegro moderato and Allegretto in D major are highly enjoyable.

Overall, the Quintetto in G Major is the most spirited of the six on the CD, whichever instrument is being played. For intensity and gravitas, however, the Adagietto of the E-flat Major is highly worthy of the music of this period. All in all, a spirited and successful attempt to restore Kreüsser to the ranks of 18th-century composers of note.

Péchés – Rossini Salons & Horn Virtuosi
Alessandro Denabian; Lucia Cirillo; Francesca Bacchetta
Passacaille 1039 (naxosdirect.com)

Luigi Legnani – Rossini Variations
Marcello Fantoni (guitar)
Naxos 8.573721 (naxos.com)

04a Rossini PechesIf you were an educated music-loving dilettante living in Italy during the early 19th century, musical evenings might well have been a primary source of entertainment. And if you happened to know a horn player, a soprano and someone adept at the keyboard, the pieces on the delightful new disc titled Péchés d’Opéra on the Passacaille label might well have been the type you would have chosen for an evening’s program. It features natural horn player Alessandro Denabian, pianist Francesca Bacchetta (performing on an 1823 fortepiano) and mezzo-soprano Lucia Cirillo in an engaging program of duets and trios. Sins of Old Age was the name Rossini gave to numerous compositions for small ensembles he created long after he ceased writing operas. The charming and lyrical Prelude, Theme and Variations for horn and piano is one of them, which not surprisingly, has a very vocal quality about it. Denabian handles the virtuosic melodies with apparent ease, no mean feat on a natural (i.e. valveless) instrument. Less well-known composers include Antoine Clapisson and Frederic Duvernoy whose duets are performed with a particular bravado with Bacchetta providing a stylish and solid accompaniment. The group expands to include a soprano soloist in pieces such as Fuis, laisse-moi by Donizetti and the most familiar piece on the disc, Una furtiva lagrima from his opera L’elisir d’amore. Cirillo delivers a solid performance with well-balanced phrasing, subtly nuanced. My only quibble is that at times her voice tends to overshadow the other musicians, but in no way does this mar an otherwise fine performance.

04b Legnani RossiniRemaining in the land of olive trees, a Naxos recording titled Rossini Variations presents music by Luigi Legnani, whose name is undoubtedly forgotten today. Nevertheless, during his lifetime, Legnani – an almost exact contemporary of Rossini – was famous as a virtuoso guitarist, composer and instrument maker. The disc features guitar transcriptions and variations on music from Rossini operas performed by guitarist Marcello Fantoni. To reduce full-scale orchestral works for a solo guitar would take considerable skill. Nevertheless, the enjoyment of this disc is twofold – not only are the compositions finely crafted, but they are also well performed. In Fantoni’s competent hands, the guitar becomes a complex and expressive instrument, whether in the familiar overture to William Tell or the more obscure Variations on O quanto lagrime from La Donna del lago. While he possesses a formidable technique, his performance is never mere virtuosity; rather, he lets the music speak for itself.

Two fine discs with music from sunny Italy to cast away the winter darkness – both recommended.

05 Dvorak TriosDvořák – Piano Trios 3 & 4
Christian Tetzlaff; Tanja Tetzlaff; Lars Vogt
Ondine ODE 1316-2 (naxosdirect.com/items/dvorák-piano-trios-nos.-3-4-467122)

Violinist Christian Tetzlaff, cellist Tanja Tetzlaff (his sister) and pianist Lars Vogt are three of the most eminent and sought-after performers in classical music, gracing the world’s most prestigious stages, both as soloists and chamber musicians. They are the crème de la crème.

With their 2015 release of the Brahms piano trios having garnered a Grammy nomination, the Tetzlaff-Tetzlaff-Vogt (T-T-V) Trio once again dazzles in their new recording of two Dvořák piano trios: No. 3 in F Minor and No. 4 in E Minor. The latter, also known as the “Dumky Trio,” consists of six movements, each one a “dumka,” a musical term taken from the Slavic folk tradition. Under Dvořák’s treatment, each movement comprises alternating, strongly contrasting passages, from moody and melancholic to rhythmically exuberant.

These two Dvořák masterpieces are brought to extraordinary life by the consummate musicianship of Tetzlaff, Tetzlaff and Vogt. Their virtuosic playing is muscular, raw, dramatic, intensely expressive – ideal for the sweeping, rhapsodic and near-symphonic – Brahmsian – F Minor trio. Written a few months after the death of Dvořák’s mother, the heart-achingly beautiful third movement is exquisitely executed by the T-T-V Trio.

As for the “Dumky,” with so many recordings of this beloved trio available, one might think that nothing new could possibly be brought into the recording studio. But one would be seriously mistaken. In the impeccable hands of the T-T-V Trio the “Dumky” is revelatory: fresh and exhilarating, reflective, tender and radiant. This CD is a must!

06 Bruckner QuintetBruckner – Quintet in F Major; Ouverture in G Minor (Large Orchestra versions)
Prague RSO; Gerd Schaller
Profil Edition Hanssler PH16036 (haensslerprofil.de)

Featuring conductor Gerd Schaller’s new arrangement – the first for large orchestra – of Anton Bruckner’s String Quintet in F Major (1878), this disc counts as a major success. Already Schaller has recorded the Bruckner symphony cycle; here he adds the composer’s major chamber work, in orchestral garb. The Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra’s immaculate performance is well-paced, the musicians rising to the technical and interpretive challenges of this premiere; they produce excellent tone quality at all dynamic levels. The string quintet was composed following Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony revision. Schaller’s well-informed arrangement really sounds like a Bruckner orchestral work of that era.

The pastoral first movement sets out the orchestral palette, with comforting strings followed by more varied winds, leading to brass climaxes at pivotal points. Then the Scherzo-Trio adds witty contrasts – pauses and harmonic surprises. The acclaimed Adagio makes a profound centrepiece, the organ-like orchestration reminding me that Bruckner’s genius in improvisation was legendary. Next comes Schaller’s interpolation of a shortened version of the Intermezzo that Bruckner originally composed as a simple alternative to the Scherzo-Trio. Although I don’t see the interpolation as necessary, it does serve as a transition in emotional terms from the Adagio to the Finale, whose charming opening alternates with knotty wide-ranging passages. In closing, the Quintet’s material is wonderful in both the chamber work and this orchestral arrangement; Bruckner’s early Ouverture in G Minor (1863) merely adds to the disc’s attractions.

07 Mahler 9 EssenGustav Mahler – Symphony No.9
Essener Philharmoniker; Tomáš Netopil
Oehms Classics ODC 1890 (naxosdirect.com/items/mahler-symphony-no.-9-467120)

The city of Essen is located at the heart of the industrial Ruhr area of Germany. Its rise to prominence is intimately tied to the fortunes of the Krupp family dynasty, who settled in this coal-rich region some 400 years ago and began building steel foundries mainly dedicated to the manufacture of heavy artillery. Gustav Mahler conducted the premiere of his sixth symphony there in 1906, prompting the Viennese critic Hans Liebstöckl to acerbically observe, “Krupp makes only cannons, Mahler only symphonies.”

Throughout the 20th century the orchestra maintained a low profile labouring under a series of provincial kappelmeisters. Judging by the present performance under their current director, the Czech conductor Tomáš Netopil, this highly capable orchestra makes a compelling case for greater international renown. Recorded in Essen’s Alfried Krupp Hall in April 2018 (from what I assume are edits of live performances), for the most part this rendition of Mahler’s Symphony No.9 is quite a revelation. Only the interpretation of the droll second movement Ländler shows a few interpretive seams, as Netopil sentimentalizes the structural ritardandos by consistently beginning them far earlier than indicated in the score. By contrast, the vehement pacing of the accelerandos towards the end of the subsequent daemonic Scherzo are electrifying. The cataclysmic first movement receives an immensely powerful performance, while the finale achieves a Zen-like transcendence superbly conveyed through the carefully modulated tone of the dark-hued Essen string section.

Too much is made in the liner notes of the allegedly “fateful” nature of this work, begun in 1909, two years before Mahler’s demise. Death, with few exceptions, was always a leitmotif in his works. It is not death, but life and love that make this work so exceptional.

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