02 Fantasia BellissimaFantasia Bellissima
Bernhard Hofstotter
TYXart TXA 18115 (tyxart.de; bernhardhofstotter.org)

As if you hadn’t heard enough about Ukraine in the news lately, this superb disc features premiere recordings from the so-called Lviv Lute Tablature, named for its current location. The booklet includes excellent notes on this interesting source by Dr. Kateryna Schöning -- though I believe she may be mistaken when she states that “besides two lost sources… the manuscript is the only lute tablature from the Polish-Lithuanian region.” Canada’s own Magdalena Tomsinska of Waterloo edited the Gdansk Lute Tablature MS 4022 and recorded selections in 2014.

Beyond just music, the source’s 124 folios also contain Latin aphorisms, graphic patterns and other visual ornaments, as well as some Polish poetry. The manuscript’s music comes from a variety of different nations, composers, and time periods. On the disc you’ll find pieces from the early 16th century, such as Joan Ambrosio Dalza’s Pavana alla Ferrarese, yet also two fantasias by John Dowland which were composed towards the end of the century. This makes for a nice variety.

Bernhard Hofstötter’s lute playing is superb, as is the sound of his Renatus Lechner seven-course lute in the acoustic of the Landesmusikakademie Sachsen in Colditz Castle. The dance rhythms have articulation and buoyancy, the counterpoint clarity and grace. Chanson intabulations by Sermisy, Sandrin, and Jannequin are high points. However, purists should be prepared for what I assume is an off-book strum-fest in the anonymous Tarzeto which opens and closes the disc.

03 Morel violleMorel – Premier Livre de Pièces de Violle
Alejandro Marias; La Spagna
Brilliant Classics 95962 (naxosdirect.com)

French composer and viola da gamba player Jacques Morel (c.1690 - c.1740)’s biography is so obscure that even the dates and places of his birth and death are unknown. Sadly, he doesn’t even have a wiki page. We do know he was a pupil of Marin Marais, the composer and foremost viola da gambist of his day, to whom Morel dedicated this Premier Livre de Pièces de Violle (c.1709), his major legacy and the subject of this CD.

There hasn’t been a complete recording of these suites, prompting virtuoso gambist Alejandro Marias to spearhead this project to record several of them for the first time. At the core of the album are Marias’ stylish and musically secure performances of four suites from the Premier Livre for the seven-string bass viola da gamba in differing keys. The continuo parts are provided by members of the award-winning Spanish period music group La Spagna.

Morel’s music is attractively varied in the best high-French Baroque tradition. Seven or eight characteristic period dance movements typically follow the emotive rubato opening prelude in each suite. Judging from this album, Morel’s attractive oeuvre is imbued with his idiosyncratic voice, even though the influence of his teacher Marais’ style is also present. My album picks: Suite in A minor’s Sarabande l’Agréable, the Gigue à l’anglaise and the Échos de Fontainebleau in the Suite in D.

Even though long neglected, this music is full of delightful discoveries and should be better known.

04 Bach OuverturesJohann Sebastian Bernard Ludwig Bach – Ouvertures for Orchestra
Concerto Italiano; Rinaldo Alessandrini
Naïve OP 30578 (naxosdirect.com)

How pleasant to explore music by relatives of Johann Sebastian Bach other than his sons. Johann Ludwig was a third cousin of Bach, Johann Bernhard a second cousin. On this CD, they each contribute an Ouverture to accompany the four by the Bach.

So is Concerto Italiano’s choice justified? The works by the two cousins are substantially shorter than the great man’s. Yet listening to them shows how highly enjoyable they are: listen to the Rigaudons and Gavotte en Rondeaux in Johann Bernhard’s Ouverture-Suite in E Minor.

Then there is Johann Ludwig’s contribution to the CD, namely, his Ouverture in G Major. This is even shorter than Johann Bernhard’s work but much more spritely. The movements all ask to be danced to, whether or not they actually were at the time. Indeed the Ouverture by Johann Ludwig could even be played as background music at any event, no matter how formal.

And so to the four Orchestral Suites by Johann Sebastian. From the movement which opens the CDs (the Ouverture to the Orchestral Suite No.3) there is a complexity to Bach’s composition which marks him out for the composer he was. Real demands are made on the string-players, an aspect repeated throughout the four Suites. It is quite clear that by Bach’s time the movements named after French country dances were well advanced from their original rural simplicity.

Although his own writing shines through on these CDs, the sleeve-notes state how much Johann Sebastian respected his two cousins. The beautiful pieces selected by Concerto Italiano and their sheer vivaciousness demonstrate why.

05 GiordaniTommaso Giordani – Sonatas Op.30; Antonin Kammell – Sonata in D Major
Luchkow-Stadlen-Jarvis Trio
Marquis Classics MAR 81495 (marquisclassics.com)

The viola da gamba’s persistence in late-18th-century England owed something to the aristocracy. It appears that Lady Lavinia Spencer (1762-1831) was the gamba-playing dedicatee of this CD’s Giordani sonatas, and yes, she is a direct ancestor of the late Princess Diana Spencer and sons William and Harry! From a musical standpoint gamba players could by then hold an equal role in sonatas for violin, viola da gamba and fortepiano, such as the Three Sonatas, Op. 30 (published c.1782) by Naples-born, later Ireland-based, Tommasso Giordani (c.1738-1806). The textures Giordani achieves through familiarity with the gamba’s high register liberated the instrument from bass-playing, allowing imitation and echoing between instruments and octave doubling of melody in the violin and gamba, for example in the opening movement of Sonata No.2 in D Major. I find this to be the best of the sonatas, with a particularly fine slow movement; Giordani was a natural melodist whose use of contrasting minor keys and quiet fortepiano solos is notable. His active gamba part in the finale illustrates the instrument’s development towards virtuosity.

The Canadian Luchkow-Stadlen-Jarvis Trio is convincing, with clean solo and ensemble playing free of affectation, with attractive tone and balance, and expressive inflections in the slow movements. And although the Sonata in C Major, Op.1, No.1 by Czech composer Antonin Kammell (1730-1785) that ends this disc has other requirements – ornamentation, accentuation and hairpin crescendos – they meet those demands equally well.

07 Paul MerkeloThe Enlightened Trumpet
Paul Merkelo (principal trumpet OSM); Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra; Marios Papadopoulos
Sony Classical S80463C (paulmerkelotrumpet.com)

With repertoire spanning the Baroque through the classical eras; Telemann through Haydn, Leopold Mozart and Hummel, The Enlightened Trumpet showcases the bona fide genius of Paul Merkelo, principal trumpet of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. After his epic confrontations with Baroque Transcriptions and French Trumpet Concertos, Merkelo deftly combines trumpet and strings in the incisiveness of Haydn’s Concerto in E-flat Major (Hob.Vlle.1) with its famously breathtaking Allegro finale, the not inconsiderable demands of which he takes in his stride.

Merkelo then nimbly navigates his way between the rhetoric and energy of Telemann’s Concerto in D Major (TWV 51:D7) and Leopold Mozart’s Concerto in D Major for trumpet, two horns and strings with appealing melodiousness and – in the second instance – robust interplay with the other horns. The performance of the Hummel Concerto in E Major (S.49) sees its melodic ingenuity projected with due vitality, as well as a stunning degree of spontaneity and expressive poise redolent of Maurice André, Merkelo’s legendary predecessor to whom he has been likened. Not without good reason, as this disc attests.

The crowning moments come during the Rondo finale of the Hummel, the cadenza of which has been credited to Timofei Dokshizer. By then, of course, Merkelo has already made his mark, through a bracing workout across three other famous trumpet concertos, with heartfelt eloquence worthy of the reputation he has gained among his trumpet-playing orchestral peers across the globe.

08 Old SoulsOld Souls
Gili Schwarzman; Guy Braunstein; Susanna Yoko Henkel; Amihai Grosz; Alisa Weilerstein
Pentatone PTC 5186 815 (naxosdirect.com)

This recording of four works, transcriptions of two solo violin pieces and of two string quartets, in which flutist Gili Schwarzman plays the solo part in the solo pieces and the first violin part in the quartets, presents the reviewer with the double challenge of considering both the arrangements and the performances.

The arranger is Guy Braunstein, a former concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and now a soloist, conductor and arranger. He is also Schwarzman’s husband. His skill as an arranger, deeply informed by his knowledge of the violin, is formidable. The first composition on the disc, Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No.4, is a masterful orchestration for flute and string quartet. Braunstein did not merely assign the notes of the piano part, according to their pitch, to the corresponding instruments, but rewrote it for string quartet. One could be forgiven for assuming that it was an original composition by Beethoven himself.

The performances are energetic and nuanced, models of musical artistry. My favourite moment in the entire CD is the second movement of Dvořák’s String Quartet Op.96, which sounds absolutely natural played on the flute. The long, languorous melodic line, as played by Schwarzman, is never rushed and at the same time, never loses energy.

So it is great having this recorded new take on some well-known chamber music. Now let us hope that Braunstein’s arrangements will be published.

09 Alexander String Quartet DvorakAntonin Dvořák – Locale
Alexander String Quartet; Joyce Yang
Foghorn Classics FCL 2020 (foghornclassics.com)

If I was asked to describe Dvořák’s chamber music, I would say it has the characteristics of an abundant ball of energy, the one that brings joy no matter what and is enriched by the occasional touch of Slavic melancholy. The Alexander Quartet and Joyce Yang seem to be particularly attuned to that joy – here is a recording of exuberant energy and vitality that never crosses the line of being too much.

The “American” quartet is probably one of the most beloved pieces in the chamber music repertoire and it shares a number of similar elements with the Piano Quintet Op.81, thus making it a perfect pairing for this album. Although they were written some years apart and on different continents, both pieces are wonderful creations of a showcase of rhythms, dramatic gestures and, above all, memorable melodies, all of which are tastefully presented by the artists on this album. What I find the most pleasurable is the intricate tapestry of textures created by the Alexander Quartet. Their playing brings forth the elegance and lavishness of 19th-century Europe yet it does have a slight contemporary edge in terms of expression. Joyce Yang is on fire here – she displays a perfect interpretational balance between virtuosic agility and grandiose statements so typical for piano music of the Romantic period. Together they make this recording unapologetically exciting.

10 Mahler 10Mahler – Symphony No.10
Lapland Chamber Orchestra; John Storgårds
BIS BIS-2376 SACD (bis.se)

When Gustav Mahler died in 1911 at the age of 50 he left behind sketches for his tenth and final symphony. Of the five movements, we have Mahler’s full scores of the first and third movements with the remainder in an abbreviated short score format. These preliminary sketches, skeletal though they may be, define the entire melodic structure of the work. In this sense Mahler’s final testament is less unfinished than unrealized. It was not until the mid-1920s that efforts were made to bring the symphony to light with the publication of Ernst Krenek’s edition of the first and third movements and the release of a facsimile edition of the sketches. Numerous subsequent efforts have been made to refine the other three movements; the most successful of these has proved to be the “performing version” by Deryck Cooke first heard in 1960.

Over 30 recordings of the complete work in various versions have been issued since. This new chamber orchestra arrangement, by the Maltese conductor and musicologist Michelle Castelletti, is an exceptional accomplishment, quite brilliantly executed by the phenomenal John Storgårds and his Lapland Chamber Orchestra. I was initially quite skeptical that an orchestra of a mere 24 players (single woodwinds, a lone trumpet and horn, 14 strings, piano, harmonium, harp and percussion) would prove adequate to convey the impact of the 100 musicians Mahler normally employed. I was mistaken; even in these reduced circumstances the pathos of Mahler’s message still shines through in Storgårds sublime interpretation. This ranks as one of the most exciting and accomplished performances I have heard in my lifetime of terminal Mahleria.

11 Buzz BrassInspirations
Buzz Brass
Analekta AN 2 8776 (analekta.com/en)

Canada’s renowned Buzz Brass ensemble presents “brand new transcriptions of major works” from celebrated composers Antonín Dvořák, Maurice Ravel and Erik Satie. Victor Ewald’s Quintet No.3 in D-flat Major (Op.7) is the only work on this disc originally intended for brass.

Inspirations is an attractive recital with each of four gems in this repertoire being polished to a glittering sparkle. This is the work of two Québécois arrangers, François Vallières and Hugo Bégin who – judging by these inspired re-imaginings – certainly ought to be better known than they might be in Québec. The imaginative arrangement of Satie’s Gymnopédies ought to be proof enough. But if there needs to be further evidence of highly original musical transcriptions, there is also proof in the transformations of Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major (Op.35) and Dvořák’s String Quartet No.12 in F Major “American” (B.179). All are highly creative re-arrangements; wholly satisfying both structurally and expressively.

The Buzz Brass parley with the familiarity of old friends, yet their playing always retains the sense of gracious etiquette associated with noble academies for which this music was no doubt originally intended. Nothing is forced, exaggerated or overly mannered; tempi, ensemble and balance all seem effortlessly and intuitively right. The brass sound is lucid. These are, in sum, sincere and poised accounts, a fitting tribute to the faultless character of the original music of the composers.

01 New Jewish Music 2New Jewish Music Vol.2
Lara St. John; Sharon Azrieli; Couloir; Orchestre classique de Montreal; Boris Brott
Analekta AN 2 9262 (analekta.com)

This Analekta release of new orchestral works features the powerful musical abilities of the Orchestre Classique de Montréal under the internationally respected Canadian conductor Boris Brott. The disc centres around the Azrieli Foundation’s prizes for newly created works. Two prizes are awarded: The Azrieli Prize for Jewish Music – recognizing an existing work – and the Azrieli commission for Jewish music, an initiative created to encourage composers to critically engage with the question of “What is Jewish music?”

The first piece on the disc – the premiere performance of En el escuro es todo uno (In the Darkness All is One) by Canadian composer Kelly-Marie Murphy – is a tour de force of orchestral imagination. Murphy is clearly a confident orchestral writer and it shows in this piece. The work is scored for solo harp, cello and orchestra, and Murphy expertly delivers a fine example of the concertante idiom. This piece represents the results of the 2018 Azrieli Commission Prize and features B.C. duo Couloir, Heidi Krutzen (harp) and Ariel Barnes (cello), as soloists.

The 2018 Azrieli Prize for Jewish Music was awarded to the Israeli-born composer Avner Dorman for Nigunim – a violin concerto in four movements. Dorman writes highly idiomatic and playful passages for the soloist answered by equally light dances and trifles in the orchestra. This work makes for an excellent showpiece for the soloist, Lara St. John in this instance, while not being overly dramatic in the virtuosic sense.

Last on the disc is a new recording of Seven Tableaux from the Song of Songs by the late Canadian composer Srul Irving Glick. This music is lyrical and melancholy. Glick had a particular affinity for creating an emotional painting with his music without being overtly sentimental. Soprano soloist Sharon Azrieli performs this work with stunning colour and musical prowess.

02 James OCallahanJames O’Callaghan – Alone and Unalone
Ensemble Paramirabo
Ravello Records rr8020 (ravellorecords.com)

While listening to music one might consider, “I like these sounds” or “I like how this music moves forward.” While neither of these thoughts can provide an adequate basis for the judgement of artistic value, the latter says more than the former and also comes closer to being such a basis. One might say that “I like how it goes” captures a feature fundamental to music’s being good at a level less abstract than that of the experience of it being intrinsically rewarding.

When listening to the highly personal, compelling and frankly compulsory environments created by Canadian composer James O’Callaghan, one invariably approves of how it sounds and how it goes. In this release of works written especially for the Montreal-based Ensemble Paramirabo, the “I like how it goes” nature of the music connects the listener with the absolutely crucial notion of following music with anticipation – but also with harmonious and welcomed disassociation. With titles such as subject/object and Alone and unalone, there is a certain amount of obfuscation – delivered on an abstract level – but also literally, as admitted by the composer himself in an effort to provide a conceptual motivation of the “transference of concrete sound into abstraction, returned to the conditions from which they were derived.” While the musico-philosophical liminality of this music would make for interesting discussion, one can’t help but simply appreciate the raw and unfettered imagination produced by O’Callaghan’s manner of putting pen to page, and with the electronic aspects of the works, world to speaker.

The ensemble brings a high amount of musical excellence and an intimate bravura to this recording – a testament to their ongoing commitment to O’Callaghan’s music. Bravo to all.

03 Duo KalystaOrigins
Duo Kalysta
Leaf Music LM226 (duokalysta.com)

Flutist Lara Deutsch and harpist Emily Belvedere first met when collaborating in 2012 at McGill University. Since then Duo Kalysta has been playing chamber music to artistic acclaim, as demonstrated by this clear-sounding release recorded in Montreal.

TSO harpist Judy Loman’s colourful flute and harp arrangement of Claude Debussy’s Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune opens the CD. The flute beginning catches the listener’s attention, with sparkling arpeggiated harp, dreamy flute and astounding tight ensemble playing in the more rubato sections.

Two Canadian compositions follow. R. Murray Schafer’s three-movement Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp (2011) has violist Marina Thibeault joining them. Freely, flowing has melodic lines with changing volumes, tempi and note lengths creating the soundscape. The sonic space of Slowly, calmly is highlighted by long atmospheric viola notes doubled by the flute underneath. Dance-like Rhythmic is like listening to a musical story with viola plucks, high-pitched flute, harp flourishes and abrupt stops in a race to the end.

Composer Jocelyn Morlock notes that her two-movement Vespertine (2005) refers to night-blossoming plants and nocturnal animals. Twilight presents musically darker colours with longer phrases and more independent parts. Verdigris is performed with sweetly delicate harp staccato lines and contemplative flute notes, bird-like trills and higher notes.

Violinist Alexander Read, violist Thibeault and cellist Carmen Bruno add an orchestral feel to André Jolivet’s Chant de Linos (1944), an intense, dramatic composition highlighted by impressive flute playing.

Here’s to a promising musical future!

04 Kremer VoiceFinding Your Own Voice
Gidon Kremer
Accentus Music ACC20414 (naxosdirect.com)

In the September WholeNote, Terry Robbins reviewed the CD of Gidon Kremer’s recording of the late Polish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s 24 Preludes to a Lost Time, Op. 100. Written for solo cello, Kremer plays his own transcription for solo violin. Robbins concluded that “His superb performance befits such a towering achievement, one which is a monumental addition to the solo violin repertoire.”

Accentus Music has since issued a DVD of that unique performance and we now see Kremer spotlit alone on the dark stage in the Gogol Centre in Moscow. Behind him in the darkness is a theatre-size, rear-projection screen on which, at appropriate times, are seen original images from the 1960s taken by photographer Antanas Sutkus. Each selected photograph illuminates the mood of the particular prelude being played, often stark, sometimes sad, sometimes amusing but so appropriate. Genius.

The documentary, Finding Your own Voice, is a film by Paul Smaczny that is a totally engrossing biography of Kremer and his world of music. It revolves about music that embraces Kremer’s life and we hear and see him with musicians including conductors and composers whose music touches him. Listen in as he discusses passages in rehearsals with the likes of Arvo Pärt and others. There are so many thought-provoking observations and philosophical reflections that one may be immediately prompted to watch it again in case you missed something. Whether or not you are a Kremer fan, you will get a lot out of this unusual and illuminating film.

05 Kurtag ScenesGyörgy Kurtág – Scenes
Viktoriia Vetrenko; David Grimal; Luigi Gaggero; Niek de Groot
Audite 97.762 (naxosdirect.com)

The nonagenarian Hungarian composer György Kurtág ranks among the leading living modernist music masters. His precisely crafted, intense, compressed, emotion-filled and dramatic style evokes a kind of sonic haiku, demanding the utmost from instrumentalists and singers alike.

This album presents six previously unreleased songs and instrumentals by Kurtág, with lyrics from literary works in Hungarian, Russian and German. Scenes from a Novel, Op.19 (1984) for example, consisting of 15 extremely varied short movements, is a prime example of Kurtág’s oeuvre. With melancholic, introspective texts by the Russian writer Rimma Dalos, the songs feature virtuoso soprano Viktoriia Vitrenko, who nails the shifting emotional-tonal terrain. She is impressively supported by violinist David Grimal, bassist Niek de Groot and cimbalomist Luigi Gaggero. Given its masterful composition, imbued gravitas, dramatic and emotional range and the near-20-minute length of this series of epigrams, the work takes on an operatic magnitude. And I found the rest of the songs here just as compelling.

The Hungarian cimbalom is a stylistic and national marker on much of the album, a sonic through-line in addition to the voice, although novice listeners should not expect even a tinge of Magyar folkloric colour. The cimbalomist Gaggero makes a solo appearance at the end of the album on Kurtág’s Hommage à Berényi Ferenc 70. His soft, wistfully sensitive rendition feels like a relaxed puff of gently perfumed smoke after the intense multicourse sonic dinner we had just experienced.

06 McCormick PercussionSoli for Tuba, Zheng, Horn, with Percussion
McCormick Percussion Group; Robert McCormick
Ravello Records rr8014 (ravellorecords.com)

The award-winning Florida-based McCormick Percussion Group specializes in interpreting non-mainstream percussion scores, often collaborating with guest non-percussionists. Its latest album presents five works by four American composers featuring one or more non-percussion soloist backed by the forces of the MPG, the size of a modest orchestra.

Album opener Loam by Kentucky composer Tyler Kline is a substantial four-movement concerto for tuba and percussion ensemble. Metaphorically, it seeks to convey the notion of natural cycles: the earth being tilled, life being born from the soil and ultimately returning to it after death. Prize-winning Taiwanese-American composer Chihchun Chi-sun Lee’s attractive Double Concerto for Tuba, Zheng and Percussion Orchestra is perhaps the first work scored for these instruments. She effectively juxtaposes the expressive upper register of the plucked strings of the zheng with the lower wind tones and multiphonics of the tuba, the texture filled in by the spatially arrayed percussion sounds. While the first movement blends colour, timbre and gesture among these disparate instruments, movement II focuses on tuba and zheng solos. The final movement balances all three forces in an energetic finale.

Lee’s other score on the album, Zusammenflusses (Confluences), is a duet for zheng and percussion, distinguishing it from the concerto forms of the other works on the album. Using a non-tonal language, Lee deftly counterposes the differences and similarities between the plucked and bowed zheng, vibraphone and various cymbals.

This album, a journey into unexpected combinations of sounds and cultures, is one well worth taking in.

07 Bellido Symphonic CanvasJimmy López Bellido – Symphonic Canvas
Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra; Miguel Harth-Bedoya
MSR Classics MS 1737 (msrcd.com)

Two novels, written nearly 400 years apart, inspired these two works, both from 2016, by Jimmy López Bellido (b.1978), composer-in-residence of the Houston Symphony.

Miguel de Cervantes’s final literary creation described two Scandinavian nobles’ adventurous pilgrimage to Rome. López Bellido says his Symphony No.1 – The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda wasn’t intended to portray the novel’s events, but “to convey [its] spirit, greatness and humor.” Nevertheless, the four-movement, 45-minute symphony contains many dramatic “events” – eerie forebodings leading to garishly scored, violent climaxes. The Latino-tinted third movement provides the only “humor” – jazzy and snarky.

In December 1996, Túpac Amaru terrorists took hundreds of people hostage after storming a reception at the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima, Peru, López Bellido’s native city. His 2015 opera, Bel Canto, was based on Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel of the same name, itself based on the four-month-long hostage crisis. The three-movement, 30-minute Bel Canto – A Symphonic Canvas, encapsulates the opera. Perú, Real and Unreal begins with the Overture and ends with the climax of Act I, the shooting of diva Roxane Coss’ accompanist. La Garúa depicts an enshrouding fog and several hostages’ plaintive emotional outpourings. The End of Utopia derives from the final scene, the attack that frees the hostages and Coss’ anguished aria, here “sung” by a trumpet, over the desolation.

Both works show López Bellido has clearly mastered the knack of building suspense and effectively ending it with climaxes of exceptional sonic power and brilliance.

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