01 Kolk coverThe only problem with my reviewing CDs by guitarist Michael Kolk is that I keep running out of superlatives, and his latest disc – 20th Century Guitar Sonatas – presents the same welcome problem (michaelkolkguitar.com).

There are several connecting themes with the works here. Both the Sonata para guitarra from 1933 by the Spanish composer Antonio José (born in 1902 and a victim of the fascist regime in 1936) and the 1927 Sonatina by Cyril Scott (1879-1970) were the only works those composers wrote for guitar. In addition, both works were unknown or lost until their relatively recent publications, the José in 1990 and the Scott in 2002.

This also applies to the 1994 Sonate in A Minor by the Austrian composer Ferdinand Rebay (1880-1953), most of whose solo and chamber guitar music has only recently been discovered. The 1967 Sonata No.1, the first of three by the Argentinian composer Carlos Guastavino (1912-2000) completes an outstanding recital.

Technically Kolk – as always – seems faultless, but it’s the range of tone, colour and dynamics as well as the constant sense of a highly developed musical intelligence and an innate understanding of and feel for form, line and phrase that continually impresses. Beautifully recorded in the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene in Toronto and engineered by Kolk’s duo partner Drew Henderson, it’s another masterclass in guitar performance.

02 Lara St JohnViolinist Lara St. John has always been a bit of a free spirit and not afraid to take risks, so you would be safe in assuming that her latest CD, Key of A, featuring Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No.9 in A Major, “Kreutzer” and the Franck Violin Sonata in A Major with pianist Matt Herskowitz (Ancalagon ANC144 larastjohn.com), would be anything but routine playing. 

St. John says she wanted a pianist “free of traditional ideas” for the Franck, and one who would “be able to keep up with the extremes” she envisioned for the Beethoven, tempo and volume-wise. Well, she certainly got her wish with the brilliant Herskowitz. The Beethoven features breathtaking tempos for the two outer movements with a wide dynamic range, St. John using portamento and an almost violent attack at times, with Herskowitz matching her step for step. It’s hair-raising stuff.

The Franck features almost decadently Romantic playing, with St. John never afraid to pull things around in the tempestuous second movement, sounding almost improvisatory in the third and never resorting to the usual merely smooth and flowing melodic line in the canonic finale. It’s not often that this piece sounds different, but this is risk-taking at its best and most exciting, with tremendous piano work from Herskowitz.

Fritz Kreisler’s Schön Rosmarin completes a quite startling CD.

download 13The Eybler Quartet is back with another superb 2CD set of works by a neglected 18th-century composer, this time Franz Asplmayr Six Quartets, Op.2, early works by the Austrian composer who lived from 1728 to 1786 (Gallery Players of Niagara GPN20001 galleryplayers.ca/shop/music).

Although best known for his theatre works, Asplmayr produced 41 symphonies, 70 trios and 43 string quartets, the six four-movement works here – in G, D, F, E, C and E-flat majors – described in Patrick Jordan’s erudite and insightful notes as being “wonderfully unique and highly underappreciated.” They were published by Huberty in Paris in 1769, although probably written much earlier.

The Eybler players are in top form again, displaying their customary perfect ensemble, faultless intonation and vitality and warmth, with technique to burn. Recorded at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto, sound and balance are both ideal in simply delightful performances.

Listen to 'Franz Asplmayr Six Quartets, Op.2' Now in the Listening Room

04 Duo Concertante SchubertThe superb Duo Concertante husband-and-wife team of pianist Timothy Steeves and violinist Nancy Dahn add another stellar CD to their discography with Franz Schubert Music for Violin and Piano (Marquis Classics MAR611 marquisclassics.com).

The duo’s trademark musical qualities – perfect ensemble, clarity, tone, a fine grasp of phrase and form, and an exquisite sensitivity – are all fully evident in a recital consisting of the Fantasy in C Major Op.159 D934, the Sonata in A Major Op.162 D574 and the Rondo in B Minor Op.70 D895. These works are available digitally as well as on CD, while the three Sonatinas Op.137: No.1 in D Major D384; No.2 in A Minor D385; and No.3 in G Minor D408 are available only from streaming and download services. 

In another Glenn Gould Studio recording the sound and balance are ideal, capturing every nuance of Steeves’ rich piano and Dahn’s expressive and distinctive violin. In the booklet notes the players comment on the vocal quality of Schubert’s melodic writing. It’s a clear insight into their approach to this recording project, for it’s a CD that sings from beginning to end.

05 Boundless The three Schubert Sonatinas are also featured on Boundless – Schubert Sonatinas Performed on historical instruments, a new Sono Luminus CD with another husband and wife team, violinist Zachary Carrettín and pianist Mina Gajić (DSL-92240 sonoluminus.com/store/boundless). Carrettín plays a rare Franz Kinberg violin with gut strings, set up for late classical and early-Romantic performance, and uses a late classical John Dodd pre-Tourte bow c.1800. Gajić’s piano is an Érard concert grand from 1835. 

We’re obviously in another sound world here, with less power and different sonority in the piano and less vibrato from the violin, which sounds a bit drier but not necessarily softer. The playing is top-notch technically, with accuracy and agility, but despite the different tonal colours it tends to lack the warmth of the Duo Concertante sound.

It’s clearly closer to what Schubert would have heard in his lifetime, though, the performers describing the choices regarding pedalling, chord voicing, balance, articulation and score indications as a fascinating exploration as they sought – successfully, clearly – to pay homage to the original intent as well as to the authentic sounds.

06 Plave BosmansImpressions – The Rediscovery of Henriëtte Bosmans (leahplave.com/media) is the debut album from McGill graduate cellist Leah Plave, accompanied by pianist Dan Sato.

Bosmans (1895-1952) was a distinguished Dutch pianist and composer who was much admired in her time. As a bisexual Jewish woman her music was banned by the Nazis, but she kept performing and composing in secret. For many years following her death her music remained virtually unknown, even in the Netherlands.

Plave’s CD contains Bosmans’ complete works for cello and piano, music that reflects a personal style that mixed German Romanticism with French Impressionism. The 1919 Cello Sonata is a four-movement work with a strong, brooding opening movement. The Trois Impressions from around 1926 – I. Cortège; II. Nuit Calme; and III. En Espagne – feature a quite lovely middle movement and some dazzling piano writing in En Espagne that not only reflects Bosmans’ abilities as a pianist but also draws terrific playing from Sato.

Two short pieces – Chanson and the lovely Arietta – complete the CD. Plave gives effective and committed performances, strongly supported by Sato’s fine accompaniment.

Interestingly, all nine tracks appear to be available on YouTube under Top Tracks – Leah Plave.

07 Alina IbragimovaThere’s another terrific CD of the two Shostakovich Violin Concertos, this time with the brilliant and always exciting Alina Ibragimova with the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia ‘Evgeny Svetlanov’ under Vladimir Jurowski (Hyperion CDA68313 hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA68313).

The Concerto No.1 in A Minor Op.77 was written for David Oistrakh in 1947/48, but withheld due to the infamous Zhdanov decree and not premiered until October 1955. It’s a four-movement work, with an ethereal, uneasy opening Nocturne, a demonic Scherzo and a massive central Passacaglia leading to the famous, towering solo cadenza.  Ibragimova is superb throughout, opting to play the opening theme of the following grim-humoured Burlesque on the violin, as originally scored by Shostakovich before he re-scored it for orchestra alone at Oistrakh’s request to enable the soloist to at least wipe his brow. It’s the first commercial recording thus.

The Concerto No.2 in C-sharp Minor Op.129 was written in 1967 for Oistrakh’s 60th birthday, albeit a year early. There’s simply beautiful playing from Ibragimova in the middle movement, and another tough cadenza handled superbly.

Great sound, great balance, dazzling playing and interpretation all add up to an outstanding disc.

08 Hunka ICO WebCover 1Violinist Katherine Hunka is the soloist as well as the director of the Irish Chamber Orchestra on a new CD of music for strings by Piazzolla, Schubert and Schnittke (Orchid Classics ORC100130 orchidclassics.com/releases/orc100130-irish-chamber-orchestra-katherine-hunka).

Leonard Desyatnikov’s arrangement of Piazzolla’s hauntingly beautiful The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires adds direct quotes from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in what is almost a recomposition. The resulting work is extremely effective, drawing sumptuous playing from Hunka that is stylistic, warm and impassioned. The ensemble matches her in a vividly successful re-imagining of Piazzolla’s highly personal sound.

Schubert’s lovely Rondo in A Major for Violin and String Orchestra D438 shows clear influence of Mozart’s violin concertos. The Schnittke work is Moz-Art à la Haydn from 1977, described in the notes as combining “an unfinished fragment by Mozart – his Pantomime Music K446 – with the theatricality of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony.” The noise of the players changing positions is deliberately audible, complete with heavy footsteps, wailing and crying!

A beautifully idiomatic performance of Oblivion, one of Piazolla’s most celebrated and traditional tangos, provides a lovely close to an excellent CD.

09 Camerata TchaikovskyThe London-based Russian violist Yuri Zhislin is the conductor and arranger as well as the soloist on Russian Colours, a CD of music from the Russian Romantic era arranged for string orchestra and featuring his own ensemble, the Camerata Tchaikovsky (Orchid Classics ORC100136 orchidclassics.com/releases/orc100136-camerata-tchaikovsky-2).

Zhislin is the fine soloist in his own transcription of Alexander Glazunov’s Concerto in E-flat Major for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra Op.104 from 1934, a fairly brief four-movement work that doesn’t appear to lose anything in the transcription, the warmth of the viola – especially in the middle register – being very close to the saxophone timbre.

Anton Arensky’s three-movement String Quartet No.2 in A Minor Op.35 from 1894 is the other major work, its second movement Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky proving so popular that Arensky himself arranged it for string orchestra as Op.35a. It’s the only track on the CD not arranged by Zhislin.

Three perennial favourites complete a beautifully played and highly enjoyable CD: the Andante from Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No.1 from 1871; Borodin’s Nocturne from his 1881 String Quartet No.2; and Rachmaninoff’s 1912 Vocalise Op.34.

10 VasksMaxim Rysanov is the viola soloist and also conductor of the Sinfonietta Riga on Viola Concerto/String Symphony ‘Voices’ featuring music by the Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks (BIS 2443-SACD naxosdirect.com/items/peteris-vasks-viola-concerto-symphony-no.-1-voices-533230). 

The Concerto for Viola and String Orchestra from 2014/15 was dedicated to Rysanov and premiered by him in 2016; the performance here is a world premiere recording. It’s a quite beautiful, highly tonal and deeply emotional work, in which Vasks “returns to two essential concepts: chant and monologue.” The opening movement rises to the heights of serenity and despair, with the second movement a joyful – but still minor-key – contrast. Despair seems to be the dominant factor in the final two movements.

The Symphony for Strings was written in 1991 as Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania were breaking free from the crumbling Soviet Union. “The new beginning was difficult,” says Vasks. Certainly the work reflects that feeling, with tenuous openings to both the first and the fairly hostile middle movement, followed by a quite brutal third movement which eventually dies away to nothing.

02 Beausejour coverLe Rappel des Oiseaux
Luc Beauséjour
Analekta AN 2 8797 (analekta.com/en/albums/le-rappel-des-oiseaux-luc-beausejour)

Now here’s a real treat: a full course of tastefully chosen Baroque miniatures of the aviary art from a rich trove of 18th-century French harpsichord works by Rameau, Couperin, D’Agincour, Daquin, Dornel, Duphly, Dandrieu and Février. The love of birds would seem to be a Gallic specialty, whether it be imitative (Messiaen reigns supreme in the 20th century) or allegorical; all are amply stuffed with scrumptious ornaments for your delectation. Hens, cuckoos, nightingales and swallows abound, along with the amorous adventures of the turtle doves. 

Luc Beauséjour is well known for his mastery of the Baroque keyboard repertoire and has released over 35 recordings throughout his career. He performs here on a harpsichord from the Montreal atelier of Yves Beaupré, a sweet two-manual instrument modelled after a 1681 design by Vaudry, expertly recorded by Carl Talbot. 

Speaking of birds, the quills of this harpsichord are fashioned from the feathers of indigenous Canada geese, which Beauséjour carves himself. It’s finger-lickin’ good.

Daniel Foley

03 Vikoingur Olafsson Debussy RameauDebussy; Rameau
Víkingur Ólafsson
Deutsche Grammophon 4837701 (deutschegrammophon.com/en/artists/vikingur-olafsson)

Fresh on the heels of last year’s array of accolades and honours, the young Icelandic pianist, Víkingur Ólafsson, has just released his third record on the Deutsche Grammophon label. He is known for communicative and colouristic prowess, winning the hearts and ears of many listeners with uncommon interpretations of keyboard music by J.S. Bach and Philip Glass.

For this new album, Ólafsson interweaves short pieces by Jean-Philippe Rameau and Claude Debussy – repertoire written nearly 200 years apart – in a winsome, 28-track presentation that reveals intriguing textural kinships. (Ólafsson considers the two composers “soulmates.”)

This insightful pianist perceives relationships amongst the repertoire on various levels from which components of sonority, texture and polyphony are admirably distilled with interpretive command. The resulting (and likely intended) effect is of partial fusion and mutual application: the impressionist, painterly sonic canvases of Debussy begin to sound like Rameau’s elegant, clean-lined character pieces of the High Baroque, and vice versa. 

While this curatorial vision is appealing, the disc tends to resemble a recital program rather than a long-playing album. The live concert experience of such repertoire might be more compelling, even revelatory. At the recording’s midpoint, the multidimensionality that Ólafsson seeks to convey devolves into two-dimensional space, bereft of varied access points. As we journey from Rameau to Debussy and back again, the programmatic permutations lose their lustre, a case in point for urging the differentiation of genre, i.e. The LP Album ≠ The Recital Program.

Adam Sherkin

04 Zoltan Fejervari SchumannSchumann – Waldszenen; Nachtstücke; Humoreske
Zoltán Fejérvári
ATMA ACD2 2816 (atmaclassique.com/En/Albums/AlbumInfo.aspx?AlbumID=1648) 

A perfectly considered new album from Hungarian pianist, Zoltán Fejérvári, presents three works by Robert Schumann in reverse chronological order: the Humoreske, Op.20, the Nachtstücke Op.23 (both written in 1839) and the later Waldszenen, Op.82 of 1849. 

Recorded at Domain Forget’s Salle de concert, this all-Schumann record features slightly offbeat choices from the composer’s catalogue. But taking the road less travelled has paid off for Fejérvári, as he brings a unique sensibility to Schumann’s music and dwells happily in the curious – at times unnerving(!) – realms of these three cycles.

One can, rather fancifully, divide the nine pieces of the Waldszenen into two groups: those that depict the natural world (i.e. the life of the forest and its nonhuman inhabitants) and those that do not (i.e. a hunter, an inn and a farewell). Fejérvári delivers a slight heft-of-hand in this playing, rather effective for those human narratives that require warmth and tonal weight; the more ephemeral music, (inspired by the woodland itself), urges a defter touch. 

The latter two-thirds of the record are filled, quite simply, with beautiful music making. Fejérvári embraces Opp.23 and 20 with spirited imagination and stylistic aplomb. A personalized probing of material is balanced with refinement of sonic design and the mercurial nature of Schumann’s art is coalesced for the listener with a favourably fresh approach that connects hallmark performance practice from the early Romantic piano with that of our present day.

Adam Sherkin

Listen to 'Schumann – Waldszenen; Nachtstücke; Humoreske' Now in the Listening Room

06 Janacek AdesJanáček – Solo Piano Works
Thomas Adès
Signum Classics SIGCD600 (naxosdirect.com/items/janácek-solo-piano-works-531008)

The mighty Thomas Adès has long commanded almost any stage he graces with tireless innovation and a lion’s share of good musical sense. Audiences have marvelled at his performative abilities (alongside his compositional skill) since the brink of his career and a recent disc from Signum Classics, featuring Adès in readings of piano music by Leoš Janáček, is no exception. 

Janáček is, arguably, the archetypal composer’s composer, celebrated for his singular musical voice as both a Slav and cosmopolitan craftsman of the 20th century. The strides made by this innovative Czech composer are inevitably admired today by those musicians and audiences in the know.

How fitting, then, for Adès to investigate the cornerstones of such a composer’s piano repertoire and present his findings. In many respects, the two men have much in common: they have both sought out an individuality of expression through the musical tools of their own time. As such, their art greets the contemporary listener with an immediacy – recognizable in a way – but with a unique perspective possessing blindingly ingenious modes of construction.

From the first note of this record, comprising the 14 parts of On an Overgrown Path, the two-movement sonata From the Street and the four-part In the Mists, Adès lays bare his discoveries and convictions regarding Janáček’s art. Despite the lone harsh-sounding fortissimo chord or the odd fuzzy trill, this is recommended listening for any music lover worth their salt. (The cover art too should be noted, certainly inspired by “The Barn Owl Has Not Flown Away!” from Series I of On an Overgrown Path.)

Adam Sherkin

07 French RaritiesFrench Piano Rarities
Ralph van Raat
Naxos 8.573894 (naxosdirect.com/items/rare-french-piano-music-535795)

This fascinating disc opens with Debussy’s shimmering first version (1915) of his Étude, Pour les arpèges composés, discovered in 1977 and published as Étude retrouvée. His last-known piano piece, Les Soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (1917, discovered in 2001), was an appreciative gift to his dependable wartime coal-supplier. In both substance and mood, it closely resembles his crepuscular Prélude No.4.

In 1944, the 19-year-old Pierre Boulez began studies with Olivier Messiaen. His 27-minute Prélude, Toccata et Scherzo from that year, here receiving its first recording, reflects Messiaen’s influence with its gamelan-like percussiveness. The following year, his 12 Notations, most lasting under a minute, reveal Boulez newly embracing Webern’s succinct serialism, introduced to him by another mentor, René Leibowitz. Boulez’s last completed piano work, the four-minute Une Page d’éphéméride (2005), filled with abrupt outbursts, was composed as a piece for piano students.

Messiaen himself is represented by four selections. Morceau de lecture à vue (1934), written as a sight-reading exercise for his students, would later provide the Thème d’amour for his piano-masterpiece, Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus. Birdsongs of several different species saturate La fauvette passerinette (1961, discovered in 2012) and two movements for solo piano from Messiaen’s monumental orchestral work Des canyons aux étoiles… (1974).

The CD ends with Ravel’s exquisite, antique-sounding, one-minute-long Menuet in C-sharp Minor (1904). Each of these “rarities” merits greater exposure; Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat’s richly-coloured performances enhance this disc’s eminent recommendabilty. 

Michael Schulman

01 ScarlattiAlessandro Scarlatti – Gli equivoci nel sembiante
Capella Intima; Gallery Players of Niagara; Nota Bene Baroque Players; Bud Roach
Musica Omnia mo0803 (galleryplayers.ca/shop/music) 

Alessandro Scarlatti’s first opera, Gil equivoci nel sembiante, was conceived and performed in the dark days of the papacy of Innocent XI. The virtual ban on secular art meant that the defiance of its composition and its performance, albeit privately, in 1679 must rate as one of the most glorious conceits of the religious censorship of the Baroque era. This extraordinary recording captures the dizzying episodes of mistaken identity with delightfully translucent obfuscation and appropriate comedy. 

The shepherd Eurillo and Clori, a nymph and object of his affection, are engaged in a hilarious, dizzy mix-up with a Eurillo look-alike, Armindo, and Clori’s envious younger sister Lisetta. Each is swept up in an interlinked romantic affair that becomes so awkward that it takes a near-miraculous appearance of all four characters together at once to unknot the whole affair.

Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725), the most celebrated name in Baroque opera, composed more than 60 operas during his life, changing with the times and influencing the genre through significant artistic reform. His brilliant work is brought to life with uncommon vividness by these performers. The vocalists of the Capella Intima embrace the radiance and foibles contained in Domenico Filippo Contini’s libretto. The Gallery Players of Niagara and the Nota Bene Baroque Players – playing period and contemporary instruments beautifully – add colourful realism to Scarlatti’s exquisite music. Bud Roach adds his masterful direction to bring it all to life.

Listen to 'Alessandro Scarlatti – Gli equivoci nel sembiante' Now in the Listening Room

02 Rolando VillazonnMozartissimo
Rolando Villazón
Deutsche Grammophon 4837917 (rolandovillazon.com/now-available-mozartissimo-from-deutsche-grammophon)

Mexican lyric tenor Rolando Villazón has justly become world famous while conquering most of the bel canto and even the heavier roles (e.g. Don Carlo, Werther etc.) and has become the darling of the opera-loving public by teaming up with Anna Netrebko creating a “dream couple” with their youthful and attractive looks, natural compatibility and lovely stage presence. His youthful exuberance, intensity and taking of chances unfortunately led him into trouble and surgery, but he successfully recovered. Now he has turned to Mozart whom he reveres and calls his “most beloved composer and dearest friend.”

 My first encounter with him in Mozart was a recent recording by DG of Don Giovanni, which I reviewed in these pages (April 2016), singing Don Ottavio and bringing an erotic Latin sensuality to the part. Since then DG has recorded all seven Mozart operas with him taking the tenor role in most. This new issue contains almost all of Mozart’s work for the tenor. A tremendous undertaking.

Villazón begins with the two famous arias from Don Giovanni including my favourite Il mio tesoro intanto, immediately showing his virtuosity with a voice that triggers varied emotions often within the same aria. What follows are excerpts from Cosi fan tutte, Abduction from the seraglio, Le nozze di Figaro, La clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte where he takes the role of Papageno, again showing his versatility with this buffo role. All the foregoing are accompanied by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted with exquisite Mozartian style by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

A most rewarding disc that should be enjoyed piecemeal, one or two items at a time, to come to you fresh with each listening.

03 Sturm and Drang 1Sturm und Drang Volume 1
Chiara Skerath; The Mozartists; Ian Page
Signum Classics SIGCD619 (signumrecords.com/product/sturm-und-drang-volume-1/SIGCD619)

The Sturm und Drang movement (often translated as “Storm and Stress”) was a brief moment in post-Baroque art, lasting from the 1760s to the 1780s, characterized by extremes of subjectivity, passion and sentimentality. In some ways this movement anticipated the ideals of Romanticism, using dramatic and turbulent musical ideas to express intensely moody atmospheres, but it was also reactionary and revolutionary against the rococo backdrop of the late Baroque era.

This disc, the first in a seven-volume series exploring the Sturm und Drang movement incorporates iconic compositions from the 1760s by Gluck and Haydn, as well as largely forgotten or neglected works by less familiar names such as Niccolò Jommelli and Franz Ignaz Beck. 

Whether the composer and the repertoire are firmly in the contemporary canon or not, these works are clearly connected in style and substance. Beck’s Symphony in G Minor, for example, has all the characteristic features of an early symphony by Mozart or Haydn, including formal structures, modulatory formulae and thematic development, while Jommelli’s opera Fetonte is, in retrospect, a decidedly Mozartean effort. It is essential to note, however, that Jommelli was born in 1714, 42 years before Mozart, and it is Jommelli who is credited for advancing opera seria to a level of freedom and complexity that paved the way for Mozart and his contemporaries. 

A universal feature of the Sturm und Drang composers is a juxtaposition of relatively simple melodic and harmonic material with vibrant, aggressive and engaging rhythms. It is paramount that a performer conveys the vitality of these rhythms while still reflecting the chiaroscuro subtleties of the overall work. Fortunately, conductor Ian Page and the Mozartists are enormously capable interpreters and breathe life into these works in a way that sounds both effortless and tremendously satisfying.

04 Verdi OtelloVerdi – Otello
Jonas Kaufmann; Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia; Antonio Pappano
Sony Classical 19439707932 (jonaskaufmann.com/en/192/all-cds.html) 

My fondest memory of Otello was, as I recall, around 1960, walking in from the street to the Royal Alexandra Theatre to hear Jon Vickers sing the title role! Seven dollars for the ticket. Those were the good old days...

Now in the 21st century it is world-famous German heldentenor Jonas Kaufmann who steps into a long line of great Otellos: Vickers, Ramòn Vinay, Mario del Monaco, Plácido Domingo, José Cura et al. But it took a long period of hesitation and gestation before he decided to attempt this Mount Everest of tenor roles. Much like it took Verdi, who hadn’t composed anything for the stage for 15 years, a great deal of agonizing before he was persuaded by a brilliant librettist, Arrigo Boito, and the Shakespearean subject matter, to write again at age 74. The result was an astounding masterwork, unlike anything he had written before.

Kaufmann’s first attempt to sing the role was in 2017 at Covent Garden under Antonio Pappano’s masterly handling of the score and it was a breakthrough success. Sony Classical decided to make a recording in Rome with the same principals and the famed Santa Cecilia Orchestra and Chorus. This is actually the second “Roman” Otello, the first being from 1960 with Vickers, Rysanek and Tito Gobbi, Tullio Serafin conducting. 

Kaufmann superbly delivers a role that exhausts all emotions, the power, the passion, the grief, but also lyrical tenderness in Gioia nella notte dense, one of the most beautiful love duets ever written. His triumphant entry, the exuberant Esultate, is shattering. Italian soprano Federica Lombardi is an ideal Desdemona who “successfully brings off a marvellous musical depiction of wounded innocence” with her beautiful, many-shaded voice. Of course there is Iago, Carlos Álvarez, a veteran of the role who is suitably conniving and malevolent, but Kaufmann and Pappano’s collaboration is symbiotic and the magnum force that binds it all together. “An Otello for the ages.” (The New York Times)

05 Gurrelieder GlagoliticSchoenberg – Gurre-Lieder; Janáček – Glagolitic Mass
Soloists; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Rafael Kubelík
Urania Records WS121388 (naxosdirect.com/items/schoenberg-gurre-lieder-janácek-glagolitic-mass-534288)

This sprawling, two-disc release pairs Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder with Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass. There is an unexpected symbiosis achieved from juxtaposing the two works, both masterstrokes of their respective composers’ catalogues. 

The record opens with the Gurre-Lieder. Bavarian Radio Symphony and Choir and Rafael Kubelik offer a gilded rendition of the orchestral prelude, celebrating its expressionist sonorities with a vibrant, contemporary veneer to the sound profile and design. One feels that this could almost be the work of an orchestralist titan of our own century: John Adams or Kaija Saariaho. Of course, this is due in no small part to the expert insights and overarching concept Kubelik brings to Schoenberg’s art; the conductor has a remarkable talent for breathing urgent new life into scores from the past, imbuing everything he touches with brilliance and finesse.

The singing itself and delivery of text is equally compelling. Every voice contributes a unique component to the narrative arc, expertly balanced and stylistically suitable to such sumptuous orchestral direction. The final installment of Part III, “The Summer Wind’s Wild Hunt,” proves an impressive convergence of all elements in a whirling, bristling finale where not a single musical stone goes unturned – a thrilling end to a monumental work of love and tragedy.

The second half of Disc Two is occupied by Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, JW III/9. As is typical of the composer’s best scores, this music boasts laser-precise allocations of material: instruments and voices are grouped via singular senses of registral timbre and colour. The efficiency of expression here almost surpasses Schoenberg’s longer work, as Janáček finds the perfect compositional solution for each verse of text and instrumental interlude. 

Additionally, the composer’s penchant for writing choral music is on full display – not to mention the infamous organ solo! – all expertly enhanced by impeccable diction from the vocal soloists. While more modest in scope than the Gurre-Lieder, Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass is performed here with a breadth of expression and understanding that matches the lineage of pan-Slavic history and its corresponding inheritance. The darker Eastern tunes of old fittingly conclude this indomitable two-disc set, worthy of a second – and even a third – listen!

06 ParryParry – Songs of farewell
Westminster Abbey Choir; James O’Donnell
Hyperion CDA68301 (hyperion-records.co.uk/tw.asp?w=W47)

For lovers of choral music, the British label Hyperion has championed the genre ever since its founding in 1980. This latest offering, featuring works by Parry, Stanford and Gray performed by the Westminster Abbey choir under the direction of James O’Donnell, is a splendid addition.

The disc opens with Stanford’s three Latin Motets Op.38, one of the composer’s few settings of church music using Latin texts. Completed in 1892 and published 13 years later, they have long been regarded as among his finest choral compositions. The Westminster choir approaches the music with a satisfying conviction, with the second, Caelos ascendit hodie, sung with particular buoyancy.

Alan Gray was Stanford’s successor as organist at Trinity College. His Magnificat and Nunc dimittis for double choir from 1912 make use of attractive counterpoint and antiphony, while Stanford’s Magnificat in B-flat was written as a “truce” to his friend Hubert Parry with whom he had had a brief falling out. Completed in 1918, the piece draws from Renaissance and early Baroque mannerisms, and at times contains a hint of the great Magnificat by J.S. Bach.

The bulk of the recording is devoted to Parry’s six Songs of farewell, written between 1914 and 1915 using texts spanning a 200-year period. The choir’s wonderful control of phrasing and dynamics, in addition to the superb acoustics of the All Hallows Church in London, make this a memorable performance.

The final song, Lord let me know mine end based on Psalm 39, is not only the lengthiest of the set, but also the most moving and personal. It contains a range of varying tempos but ends quietly, thus bringing the set – and the disc – to a satisfying conclusion.

07 Thais600x600Massenet – Thaïs
Erin Wall; Joshua Hopkins; Andrew Staples; Toronto Mendelssohn Choir; Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Sir Andrew Davis
Chandos CHSA 5258(2) (naxosdirect.com/items/massenet-tha%c3%afs-535854) 

Jules Massenet may be best-known for his operas Manon and – his magnum opus – Werther, but it is for his opera Thaïs that he wrote arguably his most iconic piece of music: the gossamer-like Méditation for violin and orchestra. This five-and-a-half-minute interlude – a theme for everything that flows out of the Premier Tableau, Chez Thaïs – just after Thaïs, idole fragile, from where the entire work is raised to a level of great intensity and exquisite delicacy.

Massenet’s work is Wagnerian in more ways than one. Not only does he adopt (Wagner’s) dramatic, Germanic tradition but also dwells on the inner struggle between the spiritual and the sensual. Thaïs (1894/98), like his celebrated oratorio Marie-Magdeleine (1873), explores this theme. Thaïs, like other French music of the day, also reveals Massenet’s fascination with, and affection for, orientalism. 

Based on Anatole France’s eponymous book, the story is woven into the cultural topography of Coptic Egypt – specifically Hellenistic Alexandria – where Thaïs earns the consternation of the Cenobites, especially Athanaël, the most rigorous ascetic of them all; and beguiles, among others, the wealthy voluptuary, Nicias. The titanic battle for Thaïs, body and soul – the struggle between spirituality and sensuality in Louis Gallet’s French libretto – is magnificently directed in this version by Sir Andrew Davis. Erin Wall’s Thaïs is lustrous and magical. Joshua Hopkins’ Athanaël is magical; Andrew Staples’ Nicias is superb, the TSO and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir are in top form throughout.

08 Christina Raphaelle Haldane…let me explain
Christina Raphaëlle Haldane
Redshift Records TK464 (redshiftrecords.org/releases/tk464) 

It would be a travesty if the celebratory and de rigueur noise of multiculturalism should drown out the voice of homegrown Canadiana in poetry and song. But worry no more, for here is an outstanding recording by a breathtaking artist that celebrates just that. Christina Raphaëlle Haldane’s recording of contemporary Canadian compositions …let me explain – a collection of Canadian Art Songs is a marvellous performance of contemporary Canadiana that brings together poetry and music in repertoire that is at once silken in its lyricism and powerfully and vividly atmospheric in colour and tone texture. 

Haldane’s inspirational and poetic soprano throughout this repertoire is something to treasure for a lifetime. Her traversal of pianist and composer, Carl Philippe Gionet’s Three Acadian Folklores is sweetly scented poesy, floribunda that would fill a whole flowershop. The pervasive melancholy of Ahania’s Lament is deeply affecting. David Jaeger’s delicately coloured music for the singer’s father Seán Haldane’s poems in The Echo Cycle is the record’s crowning glory. Haldane brings exquisite tenderness, expressive depth and consummate beauty to this cycle.

Haldane also, thankfully, celebrates the legendary Oscar Peterson with two pieces – Why Think About Tomorrow, the lyrics for which were penned by Peterson himself, and Land of the Misty Giants from his iconic Canadiana Suite. Sharing the spotlight with Haldane are the brilliant pianist Stu Harrison and bassist Ross MacIntyre. Both men perform this music with outstanding integrity and a wholly appropriate sense of occasion.

Listen to '…let me explain' Now in the Listening Room

09 Monkiest KingAlice Ping Yee Ho – The Monkiest King
Canadian Children’s Opera Company; Teri Dunn
Centrediscs CMCCD 28020 (cmccanada.org/shop/cmccd-28020) 

The Monkiest King is Canadian composer Alice Ping Yee Ho’s fourth opera. Commissioned by the Canadian Children’s Opera Company for its 50th Anniversary, the 60-minute one-act opera features the most excellent soloists of the CCOC and six choruses of different ages interpreting over 30 characters.

Marjorie Chan’s libretto is based on Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West, a 16th-century novel considered one of the greatest classical works of Chinese literature. The opera is mostly set in an ancient and imaginary magical world and follows Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. Initially a bit of a trickster, the Monkey King’s journey leads him on a series of adventures where he learns about personal responsibility, compassion and, ultimately, courage.

Primarily sung in English with Mandarin and Cantonese words, the language is accessible to a young audience, yet the story is compelling for a variety of ages. Personal growth is explored via life themes and lessons as opposed to the old-fashioned fable. The use of Chinese instruments such as the dizi, erhu, gaohu, pipa and guzheng allows children of all backgrounds to either connect with sounds they are familiar with or make exciting new discoveries. Ho’s skillful contrast between Chinese and Western instruments, the well-placed dissonances and the numerous vocal and instrumental glissandi provide a unique and vibrant listening experience. Most exquisite, Chan’s libretto and Ho’s music are expertly woven together, seamlessly moving the action forward. The Monkiest King was nominated for two Mavor Dora Moore Awards in 2019 for Outstanding Performing Ensemble and Outstanding Original Opera.

01 Marin MaraisMarin Marais – Badinages
Mélisande Corriveau; Eric Milnes
ATMA ACD2 2785 (atmaclassique.com/Fr/Albums/AlbumInfo.aspx?AlbumID=1643) 

French musician and composer Marin Marais (1656-1728) served at the Sun King’s Versailles court, composing as many as six operas – and fathering 19 children. Another point of interest, he was one of the earliest composers of program music; his The Bladder-Stone Operation includes detailed descriptions of the surgery. Marais was, however, best known for his supreme skill in capturing the rich, deep, silky and nuanced voice of the viola da gamba. He poured all his skill and passion into his vast five-volume lifework Pièces de viole (1686–1725).

Together with harpsichordist and conductor Eric Milnes, Marin Marais: Badinages features Québecoise viola da gamba virtuosa Mélisande Corriveau. Gramophone magazine hailed her as leading “a new generation of players bringing formidable performing skills and knowledge of period practices.”

Badinages is devoted to 20 excerpts from Marais’ remarkable bass viol repertoire of some 500 works. He toyed with convention in some, presenting a series of character pieces rather than the dance forms then favoured.

These suites demand a high degree of virtuoso technique, application of appropriate period performance practice, and taste. Corriveau is fully up to the challenge. She renders the numerous period ornaments with finesse, the sound-swelling enflés and one- and two-finger vibratos among them, conveying a stylish, sensuously delicate musical affect. 

Adventurous both melodically and harmonically, Marais’ music marks a high water mark of the French Baroque. And to our contemporary ears, Corriveau and Milnes’ evocative performance on this album firmly sites this music in that very particular time and place.

Listen to 'Marin Marais – Badinages' Now in the Listening Room

02 Beethoven SymphoniesBeethoven – Nine Symphonies
MSO Festival Chorus; Tuomas Katajala; Derek Welton; Kate Royal; Christine Rice; Malmö Symphony Orchestra; Robert Trevino
Ondine ODE 1348-5Q (naxosdirect.com/items/beethoven-the-9-symphonies-537137) 

Young conductors must look forward to recording their first Beethoven cycle the way adolescents wait for their chance to get the keys to the car. Not every car is as finely tuned as the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, and not every kid knows how to drive as well as Robert Trevino. Still, the task must cut any ego down to size, so overdone is this amazing artifact of orchestral repertoire. What hasn’t been done with it? From the turbulence of Toscannini’s NBC recordings, at breakneck pace, to the several versions from Berlin with von Karajan, Chicago with Solti, and on and on…

And how to summarize what Trevino has achieved? First and foremost, his reading is lyrical. Beethoven can seem all elbows and knees, his angles and bangings claiming too much attention of those who only see the storm clouds gathering on the brow of his famous portrait. Trevino claims a different outlook on the famously tortured genius’ musical expression. After the jarring sequence of dominant seventh chords that opens Symphony No.1, the violins are encouraged to fill their instruments with romantic lush sound, and they manage the effect without excessive vibrato. In the iconic Fifth, whenever it stops knocking fatefully at the door, the same quality enters, especially in the first movement’s second subject. 

Any symphony cycle will chart LvB’s progress from his early punk-Haydn phase, through the tormented Heiligenstadt period of encroaching silence to his late mystically elevated, even serene mastery. His greatest two symphonies mark the divisions between those three periods: the Seventh, which precedes his late period; and the greatest of them all, his Third Symphony, subtitled Eroica, the one famously dedicated and then undedicated to Napoleon. Consider the slow movements of each. In the earlier one, the mood is extreme tragedy, which Trevino milks by taking a tempo more than ten points below the indicated 80 bpm. The only way it can work is by complete dedication to the line. He allows the pace to move forward in the fuguetto, where the composer seems to cry for mercy or justice or just relief, and then lets it positively take off in the codetta that precedes the return of the opening material, yet he never returns to that opening dirge-like pace. This is pretty radical, to my ear, and I love it. In the more recognizable marche funèbre from the Seventh, as much as Trevino allowed flexibility in the example above, here he maintains an assiduous observance of a uniform but never mechanical pace. This earns him a standing ovation from this quarter. I cannot abide this piece given the inadvertent gradual accelerando one sometimes hears; it makes me want to drive off a cliff. Both movements perch on the precipice of despair, but the later one seems less angry, more resigned, and Trevino observes this difference, it seems to me.

A story Trevino tells in the notes about having attempted a strange move in a Schumann symphony with Leipzig’s Gewandhaus orchestra (the organization that premiered Schumann’s works) has him finally agreeing to try it their way, and thanking them subsequently for “making [him] a better conductor.” Malmö has perhaps significantly younger and, it might be, more flexible personnel. The ignition at the heart of this high-performance vehicle is undoubtedly a spectacularly well-regulated wind section: pitch-perfect solos and ensemble work enhance the lyrical element. Trevino loves the middle voices, and makes sure we hear them. He gives the strings license when supplying repeated rhythmic fill to celebrate the meeting of gut and horsehair. And he helps the players achieve the most startling crescendi. It’s lovely to hear Beethoven that isn’t all bumps and bruises, although the brass and (classical) timpani provide just enough of those. The low strings in the recitativo of the finale of the towering Ninth Symphony serve notice, if any were needed, that the entire band, from trunk to transmission, are an ensemble worthy of the ace driver on the podium.

03 NACOClara – Robert – Johannes: Darlings of the Muses
Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra; Alexander Shelley; Gabriela Montero
Analekta AN 2 8877-8 (analekta.com/en/albums/clara-robert-johannes-nac-orchestra)

British-born conductor Alexander Shelley assumed the role of music director of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra in 2015 and this Analekta recording is the fourth to be released under his leadership. Titled Clara-Robert-Johannes: Darlings of the Muses, it features Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero and is the first in a series of four to be released exploring the personal and professional connections among Robert Schumann, his wife Clara and Johannes Brahms.

Completed in just over a month in 1841, Schumann’s Symphony No.1 in B-flat Major “Spring” was the composer’s first attempt at orchestral writing, and its buoyant, optimistic mood was reflective of a particularly happy time in his life. From the opening fanfare, the NACO approaches the score with much panache – the playing is full and robust with a satisfying balance among the strings and brass. 

In contrast, the opening mood of Brahms’ Symphony No.1 in C Minor is dark and foreboding, aided by the steady beat of the timpani – is that really fate knocking at the door? Shelley and the orchestra successfully convey a true sense of majesty throughout the work, and today, it’s difficult to believe that this work was the source of such controversy at the time of its premiere in 1876.

For years, Clara Schumann was too often known as “an accomplished pianist who composed” – surely an unfair assessment. Her Piano Concerto Op.7 was an early work written in 1835 when she was all of 14. Gabriela Montero delivers a polished performance with the demanding solo passages allowing her ample opportunity to display a flawless technique. Clearly this music was not intended for amateurs!

Interspersed with the three major works are short improvisations by Montero based on music by Schumann, aptly demonstrating her talents as both pianist and composer.

In all, this is a promising start to an engaging series we can look forward to. Recommended.

04 Canadian National BrassConstellations
Canadian National Brass Project
Analekta AN 2 8924 (analekta.com/en/albums/constellations-canadian-national-brass-project)

The Canadian National Brass Project, founded in 2015 by artistic director James Sommerville (principal horn, Boston Symphony Orchestra) and administrative director Sasha Johnson (principal tuba, National Ballet of Canada Orchestra) is comprised of 25 Canadian brass players and three percussionists selected from 15 major Canadian and U.S. orchestras. This unbelievably outstanding big ensemble performs brass/percussion arrangements here with musicality and precise pitch/intonation.

Wagner’s Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral, arranged by Jay Friedman, opens with flawless delicate lyrical lines. As the volume and intensity build to the final majestic ending, the background musical supports hold it together while never being overwhelming. Angus Armstrong’s arrangement of Holst’s Mars and Jupiter from The Planets includes the infamous virtuosic rapid lines, loud detached notes, low rhythms and dramatic percussion crashes, performed here with so much enjoyment! Robert Fraser’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture works so well for this instrumentation from the mood-setting quiet start to the infamous melodic line, horn fanfares and breathtaking, never over the top, closing build.

Contrapuntal brass playing with vocal-like breathing and detached notes drive Timothy Higgins’ arrangement of Gabrieli’s O Magnum Mysterium and Sancta Maria. Two 20th-century works are given a brass flavour. Taz Eddy’s arrangement of Ola Gjeilo’s Sanctus incorporates its conversational sounds. Silvestre Revueltas’ dramatic Sensemaya is so well suited to the percussion and low brass of Bruce Roberts’ arrangement. 

High production values and musicianship give each work an out-of-this-world sound!

05 Tchaikovsky LeshnoffTchaikovsky – Symphony No.4; Leshnoff – Double Concerto Clarinet & Bassoon
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Mannfred Honeck
Reference Recordings (pittsburghsymphony.org/pso_home/press-room/press-releases/2019-2020/music-director-manfred-honeck-and-the-pso-release-a-new-recording-pairing-tchaikovsky-and-leshnoff)

On this 2020 release by Reference Recordings as part of their Pittsburgh Live! series, the majestic Symphony No. 4 in F Minor by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, with its famous opening clarion call that immediately commands listener attention, is paired with a lesser-known, but no less stirring, work by the American-born Jonathan Leshnoff. 

Pairings of this sort (a warhorse coupled with something new) are, of course, familiar within live musical performance practice, but here we are in a world wherein there is no current ability to mass gather and experience powerful symphonic music (perhaps one of the least socially distant musical forms). So, the recording medium will have to suffice. Good thing then that this album captures the dependably great Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, under the musical direction of Manfred Honeck, in fine form. The performance brings musical urgency and vitality to two important works capable of cleansing the banality of everyday life from one’s musical palette, and affording listeners the kind of hopeful optimism that only great music can provide during a time when, without the engagement of socialized work, friends, nightlife or human interaction, it is perhaps most needed. In this way, both works (Symphony No. 4 and Leshnoff’s Double Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon), the skillful way in which their performances were undertaken and the clear recording capture, are good for the soul. 

This indeed is life-affirming music during a difficult time, and it is nice to be reminded of the heights of human creativity and expression. Recommended!

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