There are two Beethoven string quartet issues this month, featuring works from both ends of the canon.

01 Miro BeethovenThe Miró Quartet, now in its 24th year and with two original members still playing, gives an excellent performance of the remarkable String Quartet No.14 in C-sharp Minor, Op.131, part of its ongoing series of the complete cycle (Miró Quartet Media MQM 2909 2 miroquartet.com). It’s a deeply satisfying recording, but in an extremely competitive field not necessarily one which challenges your perceptions of the music or forces you to re-evaluate them.

02 Eybler BeethovenThat, however, is exactly what Toronto’s Eybler Quartet does with its simply stunning CD of Beethoven’s first efforts in the genre, the String Quartets Op.18 Nos.1-3, on instruments appropriate to the period (Coro Connections COR16164 eyblerquartet.com).

In his perceptive booklet essay violist Patrick Jordan notes that the Eybler’s emphasis on pre-Beethoven repertoire meant that they approached the early Beethoven quartets as “new music,” with the aim of re-learning how to play them to Beethoven’s exact specifications. This entailed not only sorting out issues with the various sources but also – and most importantly – deciding to adhere to Beethoven’s tempo markings, which at times are excessively fast or slow and have long been the subject of animated discussion, though rarely followed.

The results, particularly with the faster movements, are quite astonishing, from the brisk opening of the F Major Op.18 No.1 through to the dazzling Presto finale of the D Major Op.18 No.3. Technical virtuosity doesn’t begin to do justice to the playing here – there’s jaw-dropping agility, clarity and accuracy in the playing, allied with terrific dynamics and nuance, outstanding ensemble work, a lovely warm tone with a judicial use of vibrato and an unerring sense of period style.

I doubt if you’ve heard these works sound like this before – it’s absolutely essential listening. Volume 2 with Op.18 Nos.4-6 is apparently in preparation. I can hardly wait!

Listen to 'Beethoven String Quartets Op.18 Nos.1-3' Now in the Listening Room

03 New Orford QuartetFast forward 210 years or so and there’s Canadian string quartet music from the 21st century on Par quatre chemins, the latest CD from the New Orford String Quartet (ATMA Classique ACD2 2740 atmaclassique.com).

The CD takes its title from the five-movement work by François Dompierre that opens the disc. It’s a really attractive and strongly tonal work with decided dance influences. Commissioned by the Orford Arts Centre, it was premiered by these performers in 2015.

The other two works on the CD were both commissioned by the New Orford quartet. Airat Ichmouratov wrote his String Quartet No.4 Op.35, “Time and Fate” in 2012, following the sudden death of his close friend Eleanor Turovsky, the first violinist of I Musici de Montréal. Again, it’s an extremely attractive four-movement work with a particularly lovely third movement.

Tim Brady’s Journal (String Quartet No.2) was written in 2013, 33 years after Brady’s previous work in the genre. Inspired simply by “the opportunity to write music for such amazing players,” it has seven sections played without pause, the composer likening this to turning pages in a diary or journal. It’s a tougher work than the other two, with a cinematic feel to the music at times, but is another very strong and extremely well-written composition.

The NOSQ’s playing throughout is exemplary in what can be viewed as definitive performances.

04 Danielpour quartetsThere’s also American string quartet music from the current century on Richard Danielpour String Quartets Nos.5-7, performed by the Delray String Quartet in the Naxos American Classics Series (8.559845 naxos.com). The second violinist in the group is Tomás Costik, whose Piazzolla and Mozart solo CDs were recently reviewed here.

String Quartet No.5, “In Search of La vita nuova” (2004) deals with the composer’s longstanding relationship with Italy. String Quartet No.6, “Addio” (2009) deals with the string quartet as a metaphor for family, and how families are eventually broken apart through distance, time and loss. Both works were written in Northern Italy, and are about what Danielpour calls “letting go.”

String Quartet No.7, “Psalms of Solace” (2014) is about a “search for the Divine.” The last movement features a soprano part written specifically for Hila Plitman, the excellent soloist here.

All three works are very much in a late-20th-century style, strongly tonal and very accessible, and with some truly beautiful writing and lovely textures.

05 Sybarite5The American string quintet Sybarite5 was formed in 2006, since when it has commissioned, premiered and promoted over 60 new works. Its new CD Outliers (Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0121 sybarite5.org) debuted at No.1 in the Billboard Traditional Classical Album charts in February.

There was no booklet with the digi-pak we received and no information on any of the composers or the 13 works, virtually all from the period 2012 to 2015 and all quite short; the brief information on the cover says that “each track has been carefully selected to demonstrate a decade of musical growth and the relationships developed between Sybarite5 and these accomplished American composers.”

Those represented here are: Jessica Meyer; Shawn Conley; Eric Byers; Dan Visconti; Andy Akiho; Mohammed Fairouz; Kenji Bunch; Daniel Bernard Roumain; Michi Wiancko; and Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin. It’s a fascinating selection of solid and appealing compositions with nothing too challenging aurally.

06 Francesca DegoThe Italian violinist Francesca Dego signed with Deutsche Grammophon in 2012, and following her debut albums of the Paganini Caprices and the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas the label has released her first orchestral CD, Paganini/Wolf-Ferrari Violin Concertos with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dego’s husband Daniele Rustioni (DG 4816381). It’s quite outstanding.

If you’re going to play Paganini’s Concerto No.1 in D Major Op.6 then you need not only impeccable technique so that the sheer difficulty is never the focus of the performance but also musical sensitivity and intelligence to make any criticisms about empty virtuosity redundant. Dego has all these qualities in abundance and is clearly well aware of the operatic vocal nature of the music; Paganini was a close friend of Rossini, and his concertos make much more sense when heard with the contemporary Italian opera style in mind.

The Violin Concerto in D Major Op.26 of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari is little known and seldom performed. It’s a late work, completed in 1944 a few years before the composer’s death and written for the American violinist Guila Bustabo, who revised a subsequent edition after the original copies were destroyed in an Allied bombing raid. Dego correctly likens it to “an Italian opera for violin” – albeit opera from an earlier period than Wolf-Ferrari’s – in which respect it shares much with the Paganini. A long but very attractive four-movement work, it has much to recommend it.

Dego is absolutely superb in both works, but particularly in the lengthy first movement of the Paganini; Rustioni draws excellent support from the CBSO. The Wolf-Ferrari was recorded live in Birmingham in March 2017 at its UK premiere, the lengthy applause well deserved.

Contemporary American composers are featured on two new CDs.

07 Into the SilenceThe husband-and-wife team of violinist Nicholas DiEugenio and pianist Mimi Solomon are the performers on Into the Silence, a tribute to the late Steven Stucky (who taught at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY from 1980 to 2014) and the three generations of composers associated with Cornell (New Focus Recordings FCR 188 newfocusrecordings.com).

Stucky’s 2013 Sonata for Violin and Piano is surrounded by works by two of his students: 2013’s . . . in dulcet tones, by Jesse Jones; and 2014’s Plush Earth in Four Pieces by Tonia Ko. Stucky himself studied at Cornell with Robert Palmer, who founded the doctoral composition program and taught there from 1943 until 1980. Palmer’s excellent Sonata for Violin and Piano from 1956 closes the CD.

The Ithaca “sound” is described as “a blend of east coast modernism with neo-romantic and neo-classical sensibilities, with a rich sense of colour,” an accurate description of these premiere recordings.

DiEugenio and Solomon were Ithaca neighbours of Stucky, who introduced them to Palmer’s music and supported this project prior to his death in 2016.

08 Peter DaytonNotes to Loved Ones features music for strings and piano by Peter Dayton (Navona Records NV6143 navonarecords.com).

The brief but lovely Fantasy for Viola and Piano is followed by Morceaux des Noces for String Quartet, another work with a quite beautiful sound.

The Sonata “Los Dedicatorias” for Violin and Piano reflects Dayton’s relationship with the art and family of Peruvian painter Fernando de Szyszlo. Variations for String Quartet, a tougher and darker work, resulted from an exchange program with the Royal Academy of Music in London, the virtuosic violin cadenza inspired by the program leader, violinist Peter Sheppard-Skærved.

An abrasive and edgy two-movement Sonata for Violoncello and Piano (the second movement marked “Stark, Percussive”) ends an interesting and promising Navona debut CD.

Yang Guo (viola), Sarah Jane Thomas (violin), Lavena Johanson (cello) and Michael Sheppard (piano) are the soloists.

Listen to 'Notes to Loved Ones' Now in the Listening Room

09a Monteiro SchulhoffFor some reason, three CDs received this month are way past their initial release date. Two of them are from the Brilliant Classics label (brilliantclassics.com), both Complete Works for Violin and Piano – one by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (2 CDs 94979) and the other by his contemporary, the Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, who died in a concentration camp in 1942 at the age of 48 (95324). The performers on both are the Portuguese duo of violinist Bruno Monteiro and pianist João Paulo Santos.

Critical opinion of Monteiro’s playing was mixed when the Schulhoff CD was released in 2016, with opinions ranging from praising his golden tone and interpretations to Gramophone magazine’s noting his “effortful and sometimes insecure” playing. Personal taste probably played a large part: Monteiro’s often slow and wide vibrato does tend to make the intonation sound suspect at times, and his tone in the highest register can sometimes sound tight and thin. There are moments in the Sonata for Solo Violin when his playing seems a bit tentative. Still, there is much to enjoy here. In particular, the piano playing in the Suite and the Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 is outstanding, with a rich, resonant sound and an excellent balance with the violin.

09b Monteiro SzymanowskiThe Szymanowski set fares much better, especially CD2 with Mythes Op.30 opening the disc and the Nocturne and Tarantella Op.28 providing a strong finish. The Sonata in D Minor Op.9, the Romance in D Major, the Three Capriccios of Paganini Op.40 and the lullaby La Berceuse Op.52 are the other original works in the set, with the remaining five tracks either transcriptions by the composer’s compatriot, the violinist Pawel Kochanski, or – in two cases – joint compositions by them.

10 ForestareThe third latecomer is Forestare Baroque, a program of works by Bach, Vivaldi and Jean Baptiste Lully arranged for guitar ensemble and performed by the Montreal group Forestare with their 12 guitars, two contrabasses and – in the Lully – percussion (2xHDFO1043 forestare.com).

The works are Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3 and Fantasia on Komm, heiliger Geist, Vivaldi’s Sonata Op.1 No.12, “La Folia” and the Concerto for Two Violins and Cello Op.3 No.2, and Lully’s suite Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. The Vivaldi concerto was arranged by the Swiss guitarist Jürg Kindle, the other works by Forestare’s music director Dave Pilon and guitarist David Ratelle.

Recorded in l’Église St-Augustin in Mirabel, the sound is full and warm throughout a thoroughly enjoyable disc.

01 Stewart GoodyearStewart Goodyear’s new CD For Glenn Gould (Sono Luminus DSL 92220 sonoluminus.com) is an expression of Goodyear’s deep admiration of Gould’s music and his peculiar take on just about everything. The disc includes a generous amount of Bach, some Sweelinck, Gibbons, Brahms and Alban Berg. The pieces represent a selection of works that Gould chose for his debuts in Montreal and Washington. Far from being an imitation of Gould’s keyboard style, Goodyear’s recording seeks to recognize the genius behind the programming, by which Gould included works that bore some relationship to each other.

The striking feature of Goodyear’s playing is the authenticity and stylistic confidence he brings to each piece. From the early Baroque through Bach, Brahms and Berg, Goodyear plays with a keen ear for clarity, whether structural or melodic. The Bach Sinfonia No.8 in F Major, BWV 794 is an excellent example of this. His technique is crisp, incisive yet fluid.

The two Brahms Intermezzi, Op.118, No.2 and Op.119, No.3 come from what Goodyear believes was Gould’s best recording. In it, Gould reveals himself as the salon artist looking for the most intimate expression of his music. The recording studio became the ultimate refuge for Gould’s flight from the public stage. Accordingly, Goodyear admits that his studio time with this disc was largely intended to recreate that intimacy. Like Gould, Goodyear is careful with his tempi and always lets the forward movement of a phrase govern the amount of hesitation and drama he applies.

For Glenn Gould is a unique, creative project, and played brilliantly.

02 Sudbin RachmaninovYevgeny Sudbin has an impressive performance CV that includes nearly every major European orchestra. His newest recording Rachmaninov – Piano Concertos 2&3; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Sakari Oramo (BIS 2338 SACD bis.se) offers a truly exciting performance of these two repertoire stalwarts. The orchestra is, as expected, reliably superb. Sudbin, for his part, brings some new ideas to these two familiar works. With the Concerto No.2 Sudbin introduces several brief tempo pullbacks in unusual places, very subtle but arresting nevertheless to all who know these pieces well. He plays a few passages in the second movement with a speed more daring than is usually heard, but his unerring musicianship makes these small unconventional moments entirely convincing.

Sudbin makes an immediate impression of technical brilliance in the Concerto No.3. He skillfully navigates the opening movement, replete with high emotional contrasts. The second builds on this energy and Sudbin rides it right into the Finale where he and the orchestra build to a spectacular conclusion that is hard to describe. Anyone who loves these Rachmaninov concertos must have this disc.

03 Herten BrahmsDirk Herten is a pianist who marches to the beat of a different metronome. His latest recording Johannes Brahms – Opp. 76, 79, 116-119 (White Records white-records.com) introduces an approach to Brahms not often heard. Herten puts his music into a freely modern context. His principal tool is to slow down works that are usually played at considerably faster tempi. And while he does this with several pieces, the most dramatic effect is on the Rhapsodie Op.119. The reduction in speed takes much of the traditional turmoil out of the music. The boiling Romantic cauldron is reduced to a simmer. This suddenly puts the music into a stricter rhythm, forcing the ear to listen for new things, and this is how Herten makes his point with Brahms. The usual dramatic changes in speed are curtailed and Brahms’ bold key changes and harmonic wanderings suddenly become more noticeable.

The Steinway D that Herten plays is very closely miked and possibly specially voiced for this session. In any case, he plays the instrument with a heightened intimacy that will make this Brahms repertoire a new experience for many. His touch can be mechanistically perfect as in the Intermezzo Op.117 No.1 or lusciously fluid as in the Intermezzo Op.118 No.2. Herten pedals very lightly if at all, and uses the instrument’s natural resonance to fill the newly created microseconds of time. It’s a courageous and provocative disc.

04 Lika BibileishviliLika Bibileishvili has been playing piano since age four. Her debut recording Prokofjew, Ravel, Sibelius, Bartók (Farao Classics B108099 farao-classics.de) introduces a powerful and versatile pianist who takes her vocation very seriously. Now 30, she is a fireball of energy that approaches Prokofiev and Bartók piano sonatas fearlessly. Prokofiev’s Sonata No.6 Op.82 is a work of considerable variety in which the outer movements, especially the finale, are extremely demanding. The two inner movements are much more wistful and humourous. Throughout this piece, Bibileishvili never falters or surrenders control of the material. She combines an inherent sense of the composer’s melodic purpose with the raw power that he demands be used at the keyboard.

This same energy fuels Bibileishvili’s playing of Bartók’s Sonata for Piano Sz80. Somewhat less bombastic than the Prokofiev and more elemental, it demands a different contemporary sensibility that she demonstrates convincingly. Here, Bibileishvili focuses intensely on Bartók’s smaller-scale ideas, as if to turn the work in on itself. Her playing is astonishingly good and conveys impressive concentration.
This pianist-as-spectre appears in Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, where Scarbo lives up to its devilish reputation for difficulty. Ondine, by contrast, flows and shimmers beautifully and shows Bibileishvili’s lighter touch to perfection.

The Sibelius 13 Pieces for Piano Op.76 (of which Bibileishvili selected ten) adds another dimension to her debut recording. Sounding deceptively simple, some very challenging keyboard work combines with Sibelius’ gift for melody to give this extraordinary pianist a chance to prove that she’s as adept with beauty and frivolity as she is with fire and brimstone.

05 Van Raat StravinskyRalph van Raat has an extraordinary keyboard technique. He is powerful, articulate and capable of extended physical demands bordering on the impossible. His latest recording Stravinsky – Rite of Spring; Debussy – La Mer (arr. for solo piano) (Naxos 8.573576 naxos.com) is demonstrable proof of this.

It’s sufficiently awe-inspiring to hear a performance of Stravinsky’s official piano duet version without imagining the work further condensed into a score for solo piano. Still, such a score exists and van Raat has now recorded it. Pianist Vladimir Leyetchkiss transcribed the duet into a solo version in 1985. It’s every bit as dense and rhythmically maniacal as the orchestral score. The familiar passages of the sacrificial dances aptly capture what Stravinsky first conceived at the keyboard before he orchestrated the ballet. In addition to the work’s elements of savagery, van Raat portrays beautifully those fewer moments of calmer, mystical darkness that occur in both Introductions as well as the Mystic Circles of the Young Girls.

The solo transcription of La Mer is a wonderful example of how such a work can be more than a mere reduction of the orchestral parts. Debussy originally set out to avoid imitative seascapes and instead chose to write music capturing the essential emotions of the sea experience. This 1938 solo version is by Lucien Garban, a director with Debussy’s publishing firm Durand. Garban uses the composer’s choices for orchestral colouration as a guide for his rewrite of the score. Van Raat instinctively draws out the heavily arpeggiated effects of massive oceanic movement and masterfully depicts what Debussy achieved so brilliantly in his orchestral score.

06 Horvath Satie 2Nicolas Horvath plays Cosima Liszt’s 1881 Érard in his latest recording: Erik Satie – Complete Piano Works 2 (Grand Piano GP762 grandpianorecords.com). In doing so, Horvath provides an example of how Satie would have heard his music in the late 19th century. This particular instrument is in surprisingly good playing condition and delivers tremendous power in the lower range.

The main work on the disc is Le Fils des étoiles, incidental music to a drama in three acts. The three preludes are brief and each is followed by a more substantial Autre musique in which Satie explores, invents and generally does the kind of thing that earned him a reputation for being unconventional. Horvath is quite comfortable with this music. He himself is a strong promoter of contemporary music and has commissioned more than a hundred works. His familiarity with modern keyboard language makes him adept at working with Satie’s material, since the composer was among the earliest to toy with minimalism, atonality and other new approaches.

The recording is a serious, weighty examination of Satie’s work by a highly capable and credible pianist. There’s nothing casual about this – it’s an all-or-nothing performance.

08 William BolcomWhen Naxos proposed to William Bolcom that they record the entire body of his piano works, he countered with the suggestion to record only those pieces not already available on disc. After agreeing on the project, they approached four pianists – Constantine Finehouse, Estela Olevsky, Ursula Oppens and Christopher Taylor – to collaborate in recording this three-disc set: William Bolcom – Piano Music (Naxos 8.559832-34 naxos.com).

The repertoire includes unrecorded material from Bolcom’s teen years right up to 2012. There’s tremendous variety in this program, reflecting the broad creative expression that has marked Bolcom’s career. The works are neither arranged chronologically nor given in any large block to a single pianist. Instead they’re laid out as an intellectual progress that’s as entertaining as it is stimulating.
It’s a credit to the four performers that their interpretive approaches are so similar, allowing Bolcom to appear consistently as a composer whose language is bold and clear. Equally comfortable with swinging rags as with contemporary forms, Bolcom emerges from this recording project as a rich creative spirit capable of both profound iteration and light-hearted humour.

07 McEnroe Musical Images Yoko HaginoMusical Images for Piano (Navona NV6144 navonarecords.com) is a two-disc set of works by Australian composer Mark John McEnroe, performed by pianist Yoko Hagino. The set is subtitled “Reflections & Recollections Vol. 1 & 2” and is written in an introspective mood. McEnroe’s style shows, at least in these works, the strong influence of Debussy and Satie. In his liner notes, McEnroe describes a desire to capture the increasingly reflective moments that occur in later life. He draws further similarities between Monet’s inspiring gardens and his own as a stimulus for this collection.

The French impressionist style is a perfect vehicle for what McEnroe sets out to achieve. Serenity is the immediate feeling conveyed in this music, although the composer also ventures very effectively into dark corners for variety and balance. This well-planned tension and release is occasionally punctuated by touches of humour with pieces like A Fish with the Blues. Jazzy harmonies recur through the set, giving an eclectic sound to McEnroe’s voice.

He writes with a strong affinity for melodic line and this feature has attracted a number of orchestrations of his piano works, resulting in subsequent recordings by several European orchestras.

Listen to 'Musical Images for Piano' Now in the Listening Room

01 Haydn and MozartHaydn – Symphonies 26 & 86; Mozart – Violin Concerto No.3
Aisslinn Nosky; Handel and Haydn Society; Harry Christophers
Coro COR16158 (naxos.com)

The Handel and Haydn Society, the Boston-based chorus and period orchestra and one of the oldest art organizations in North America, continues to unravel new complexions and nuances of well-loved and well-known works with gusto. This new live recording, under the artistic leadership of Harry Christophers, presents Haydn and Mozart’s works with candour and exuberance.

Pairing the early “Lamentatione” Symphony with a more extensive one from Haydn’s later period works quite well. The juxtaposition of Sturm und Drang style with plainsong chant in Symphony No.26 reveals Haydn’s creative spirit, but it is the more mature No.86 (arguably the best of the six “Paris” symphonies) that shows what an original thinker he was. The orchestra’s playing is dynamic and uniform, underlying every single nuance, blending ardour with measured restraint.

Canadian violinist Aisslinn Nosky, the orchestra’s concertmaster and soloist in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.3, is a marvel. The chemistry between her and the orchestra is obvious. If you are not already enthralled by Nosky’s spiritedness and playful abandon in the first movement, then she will have you in the palm of her musical hand (so to speak) with the otherworldly opening phrase of the second. Her cadenzas are a bravura of virtuosity and humour and at one point on the recording we can even hear the audience chuckling with delight.

Very enjoyable, suitable for any season or time of the day.

02 Tchaikovsky PathetiqueTchaikovsky – Pathétique
Park Avenue Chamber Symphony; David Bernard
Recursive Classics RC2059912 (chambersymphony.com)

Tchaikovsky’s great Symphony No.6 being performed by a chamber ensemble? I admit I had my doubts as to whether this New York-based group numbering roughly 50 members could do full justice to the composer’s symphonic swan song. Admittedly, the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony under the direction of conductor David Bernard has earned an enviable reputation since its formation in 1999, and its three First Prizes in the American Prize Competition in Orchestra or Performance (2011, 2012, 2013) and an extensive tour to the People’s Republic of China should be ample evidence of its musical heft.

Rest assured – the PACS may not have the numbers usually associated with orchestras who perform this daunting repertoire, but it delivers a thoroughly convincing performance. Following the lugubrious opening measures, the Allegro non troppo of the first movement is spirited and elegant, the well-balanced phrasing clearly articulated, featuring a deft interplay between woodwinds and strings.

The second movement “waltz” (in 5/4 time) is all grace and charm, while the brisk third movement march provides a perfect showcase for the ensemble’s stirring brass section before the anguished and despairing finale.

My only quibble is the occasional lack of the luxuriant sound found in other recordings, due to the PACS’ smaller string section. And at times, the brass section – as ebullient as it is – tends to overshadow the strings. Yet neither of these minor faults detracts from an otherwise fine performance. While this may not be a touchstone recording of the Sixth Symphony, it has a certain energy and style all its own and is a worthy companion to existing performances by much larger orchestras. Recommended.

03 Bruckner 1 9Bruckner – Les 9 Symphonies
Orchestre Metropolitain; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
ATMA ACD2 2451 (atmaclassique.com)

This box of ten CDs comprising Les 9 Symphonies sports a gold trim that gives it a rather deluxe look and manages to fit quite a bit of detail in its Spartan-looking 24-page booklet. Significantly, for an Anton Bruckner box, it lists the version and premiere details, which are critical as Bruckner was known to be a sort of serial reviser of his symphonic work. For dyed-in-the-wool fans – and aficionados of classical music – version is, indeed, everything and would explain idiosyncrasies of the opuses performed. Important also is to note that these magnificent versions are an enormous decade-long quest by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal to put down on record the complete symphonic work of a composer as consumed by spirituality as he was by a seemingly obsessive compulsion to refine, time and again, what he had written.

The booklet notes may not explain why certain Bruckner versions of these symphonies were chosen above others and one might question – as Bruckner is said to have – Franz Schalk’s 1894 version of Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major WAB 105, which is reported to have 15 to 20 minutes of music cut from it (the composer certainly disagreed with the cuts). Still, what seems to have motivated Nézet-Séguin is certainly the mission to capture the depth of Bruckner’s mysticism and joyful recreation of the composer’s “cathedrals of sound.” This would also explain why Symphony No.7 in E Minor WAB 107 is a version premiered by the legendary Arthur Nikisch and why Symphony No.1 in C Minor WAB 101 is taken from Hans Richter’s version premiered on December 13, 1891 (which is what Bruckner seems to have approved for performance on May 9, 1868).

If the determination to capture Bruckner at his most intense was the driving force behind Nézet-Séguin’s quest to complete his Bruckner cycle then he has certainly succeeded beyond belief and this box is comprehensive proof. It bears mention that at various points in time completed recordings of the symphonies have been released and reviews of Nos. 2 to 4 and 6 to 9 have also been featured within these pages, which leaves us with Nos.1 and 5. Symphony No. 1 in C Minor establishes many of Bruckner’s most distinctive characteristics, from the sense of scale to the organ-like washes of orchestral sound and the construction of long expanses from short repeated phrases. The electrifying performance with the leonine power of the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal in full throttle is shaped with fantastic conviction by Nézet-Séguin. His speeds are sometimes quite leisurely, but this only increases the symphony’s sense of scale and magnitude. This “Vienna Version” is a terrific achievement.

The Symphony No.5 in B-flat Major is the first of Bruckner’s mature symphonies to survive in a single version and was his most monumental, being both longer and more finely worked out than its predecessors. It has a sense of solemnity not found in earlier symphonies, with a dramatic sense of conflict generated by the suggestion that passion is always being kept in check. What’s especially impressive about Nézet-Séguin’s performance is the way momentum is always maintained, even in the tricky last movement, where he sails through the unmannered eloquence and power that are the hallmarks of this great performance from the beginning. The devotional, awestruck intensity of the final movement is effectively captured in this recording. Indeed this and the other performances in this box almost certainly comprise the defining recordings of Nézet-Séguin’s career.

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04 Kodaly Concerto for OrchestraKodály – Concerto for Orchestra
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta
Naxos 8.573838 (naxos.com)

These days, when symphony orchestras are going bankrupt all over America, the nearby Buffalo Philharmonic is flourishing. This is the second recording that came to my attention by JoAnn Falletta, their music director, recorded at Kleinhans Music Hall, with fabulous acoustics and designed by one of the forefathers of modern architecture, Eliel Saarinen.

Zoltan Kodály’s best and most popular orchestral works are played with such gusto, enthusiasm and flair that one wonders if Falletta has some Hungarian blood in her veins. Folk music of Hungary is unique in Europe as the Magyar tribes came from the east in the ninth century, their music and rhythms more in common with the Mongols. The two dance pieces Dances of Galánta and Dances of Marosszék are skilfully composed, colourful collections of folk tunes, sometimes melancholic or driven to a frenzy, which often demonstrate a rhythmic pulse found in Mongolian dances (said Lang Lang), not to mention Hungary having been invaded by the Mongols in the 13th century.

Kodály’s Concerto for Orchestra (1940) was commissioned by and written for the 50th anniversary of the Chicago Symphony. Although less well-known than its counterpart by Bartók, it is a fascinating mixture of high-stepping folk dance and Baroque passacaglia, echoing the concerto-grosso style. Sparklingly performed by the Philharmonic’s superb instrumentalists, conducted with surgical precision by Falletta and rendered in spectacular sound, I was thoroughly enchanted.

The enchantment continues with “The Peacock” Variations (1939), a “very virtuoso showcase of scintillating effects” based on a folk song that became a rallying tune of the fight for freedom in the 1848 uprising of Hungary against the Habsburg oppression. Superb recording, highly recommended.

01 Leclair Six SonatasViolinists Gwen Hoebig and Karl Stobbe have been sitting together on the front desk of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra for 20 years, and have been playing duets together for almost that long. A staple of their repertoire, the Six Sonatas for Two Violins by Jean-Marie Leclair is featured on a new CD from Analekta (AN 2 8786 analekta.com).

Leclair (1697-1764) was considered the father of French violin playing, merging the Italian influence he picked up while working for the ballet in Turin in his 20s with the French dance forms. These Op.3 Duos are known for their difficulty, but despite the need for technical mastery and virtuosity are never merely brilliant show pieces but works full of elegance and reserve, and of “lilting pastorals, graceful sarabandes and fiery jigs.”

Hoebig and Stobbe have technical mastery to spare, with a bright, clear sound and beautifully clean playing. The first and second violin parts are equally important here, with constant interplay and textural depth, and it’s virtually impossible to tell them apart.

Leclair had what the publicity release calls a tumultuous life, and was stabbed to death in front of the house he owned in a rather seedy area of Paris, possibly at the instigation of his former wife, who had been left penniless upon their divorce and who inherited his house and possessions, or by his nephew, an aspiring violinist angered at Leclair’s refusal to help advance his career. In the booklet notes Stobbe suggests that the nature of the duos – “the intimacy of two violins working together through tribulations and trials, romance, and violence” – may well reflect the circumstances of Leclair’s life, giving the performers a good starting point to explore the music’s character. His hope that these performances go beyond the technical challenges to give a sense of the man who created them is more than fulfilled in an outstanding CD.

02 Faust Bach coverViolinist Isabelle Faust and harpsichordist Kristian Bezuidenhout are in outstanding form in a 2CD set of J.S. Bach: Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord (harmonia mundi 90225657).

These six works BWV 1014-1019 probably date from the Cöthen period of 1717-23, but Bach apparently continued to revisit and revise them throughout his life, suggesting that they were works that meant a great deal to him. From a historical perspective they form a crucial link between the Baroque trio sonata and the violin and piano sonatas of the Classical and Romantic periods, Bach treating the left and right hand keyboard parts as bass line and melodic voice respectively, with the violin interacting primarily with the melodic voice.

The performances here are quite superb, with a lovely balance between the instruments and a striking warmth and clarity. In his perceptive booklet notes Bezuidenhout offers the suggestion that the acquisition of a new double-manual harpsichord by Michael Mietke of Berlin at Cöthen in 1719 may well have provided the inspiration for Bach’s sudden keyboard innovations; there seem to be no other sources for this sudden departure from the standard trio sonata form.

The harpsichord used here, courtesy of Trevor Pinnock, is a modern John Phillips instrument modelled after a 1722 harpsichord by Johann Heinrich Grabner. Bezuidenhout notes that the sound “is both full… and wonderfully articulate,” the clarity between the registers ideal for the three-voice counterpoint so much at the heart of these sonatas. Faust plays a 1658 Jacob Stainer violin, which Bezuidenhout notes has the “necessary brilliance... but also a certain warmth and darkness of tone that is ideally suited to the more melancholy moments.”

All in all, it’s a wonderful set.

03 Kotik MozartI didn’t know the playing of Tomas Cotik before last month’s outstanding Piazzolla Legacy CD, but his latest release, a simply beautiful 4CD set of the Complete Mozart 16 Sonatas for Violin and Piano with his regular partner Tao Lin (Centaur CRC 3619/20/21/22 centaurrecords.com), leaves me in no doubt as to what I must have been missing.

This set – Cotik’s 14th issue – does not include the “juvenile” sonatas for keyboard and violin from 1763-66, where the violin rarely does little more than conform to the keyboard right hand, but presents the 16 sonatas written in the period 1778-88: the six sonatas K301-306 published in Paris in late 1778 and known as the Kurfürstin or Palatine Sonatas; the six sonatas K296 and K376-380 published by Artaria in Vienna in late 1781 and dedicated to Mozart’s pupil Josepha Aurnhammer; and the later Viennese sonatas K454 (1784), K481 (1785), K526 (1787) and K547 (1788).

In the accompanying publicity material, Cotik describes the lengths to which he and Lin had to go to reduce and eliminate the extraneous noises from the Fort Lauderdale church they had chosen as the recording venue. The resulting full-movement takes more than justify their efforts: the sound quality and balance are excellent, with the violin never too far forward but never overshadowed by the piano either. Both performers play with a resonant, clear and warm tone, and dynamics, phrasing and tempi are all perfectly judged.

Cotik readily admits to having always loved Mozart’s music, and calls his recordings of these sonatas a milestone in his musical life. It’s a sentiment that is clearly evident in every single track of this exemplary set.

04 Rachel Barton PineThis really has been a tremendous month for violin CDs. The American violinist Rachel Barton Pine marks her 36th recording and her fourth album for the Avie label with the Elgar and Bruch Violin Concertos, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton (AV2375 avie-records.com).

Pine calls the project an “indulgence in Romanticism,” being the first time that the shortest of the regular repertoire Romantic concertos – the Bruch Violin Concerto No.1 in G Minor Op.26 – has been recorded together with the longest – Elgar’s Violin Concerto in B Minor Op.61. Although they have little in common from a historical perspective, Pine has long thought of them together because each work reminds her of the warm, rich and soulful sound she looks for in the other.

The Bruch was the first Romantic concerto that Pine learned (at the age of eight!) and the Elgar was one of the last, its highly technical challenges, numerous tempo changes and sheer length making it particularly difficult to learn (James Ehnes expressed the same concerns prior to his recording with Andrew Davis in 2007). The original conductor for this project was Sir Neville Marriner, who conducted the Academy of St Martin in the Fields on Pine’s critically acclaimed Avie album of the complete Mozart violin concertos, but he passed away shortly after Pine visited London to play and discuss the Elgar with him. It was a sad loss, for Marriner’s teacher was Billy Reed who, as the young concertmaster of the London Symphony Orchestra, had helped Elgar with the solo violin part. What would Sir Neville have brought to his first recording of the work, one wonders.

Still, Litton does an excellent job with a concerto that can be difficult to hold together, his accompaniment having a quite different sound at times – not exactly lighter or smaller, but perhaps not as serious as some, with a great deal of sensitivity and attention to detail. There is certainly no tendency toward Elgarian pomp or Edwardian stuffiness that can sometimes make the concerto sound a bit laboured or meandering in less experienced hands.

Pine’s playing in the Elgar is thoughtful and unerringly accurate with no hint of mere virtuosity, although there is perhaps less of a feel of sweeping grandeur than in some other performances. Much the same can be said of the Bruch, where again the foremost impression is one of intelligence and sensitivity in the playing rather than unabashed Romantic passion. It supports Marriner’s observation of Pine’s playing in the Mozart set, when he said “...there is no utter embellishment, everything is there for a purpose, and musically speaking, it makes such good sense.”

Dedicated “to the memory of a musical hero and generous friend, Sir Neville Marriner,” the CD is an excellent addition to Pine’s impressive discography.

05 Dvorak coverThere’s playing of the utmost warmth and sensitivity on Antonín Dvořák: String Quintet Op.97 & String Sextet Op.48, featuring the Jerusalem Quartet with violist Veronika Hagen and, in the sextet, cellist Gary Hoffman (harmonia mundi 902320).

The Sextet in A Major was written in 1878 and was clearly modelled on the two string sextets of Brahms, who commented many years later on the “wonderful invention, freshness and beauty of sound” in the work. It was Brahms who had recommended Dvořák to his own publisher Simrock in 1877, and there is certainly more than a hint of the German Romantic tradition here as well as the inevitable Slavonic folk influence. The performance has effusiveness and passion, with a lovely Dumka movement and a terrific Finale.

There’s no less passionate and committed playing in the Quintet in E-flat Major, which simply abounds in lyrical warmth and beauty. It was written, along with the “American” string quartet, in the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa in the summer of 1893 during Dvořák’s stay in the United States.

These are simply ravishing performances, with Alexander Pavlovsky’s gorgeous first violin playing leading the way and setting a standard that the other performers have no problem matching.

06 Jupiter DuoThe Russian pianist, composer and teacher Alla Elana Cohen came to the United States in 1989 and is currently a professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Jupiter Duo is the title of a new CD of her music, as well as the name of the performing duo of cellist Sebastian Bäverstam and Cohen herself on piano (Ravello Records RR7978 ravellorecords.com).

Cohen discovered Bäverstam, now 29, when he was barely 12 years old, and the first work of hers that they performed then, the Book of Prayers Volume 1, Series 7, opens the CD. All subsequent Cohen cello works were written for Bäverstam, and there are three other cello and piano works here: Third Vigil, an arrangement (which Cohen prefers) of her Concerto for Cello and Orchestra; Querying the Silence Volume 1, Series 2; and Book of Prayers Volume 2, Series 4, which closes the CD.

Sephardic Romancero Series 2 is a challenging solo work ably handled by Bäverstam, although Cohen’s statement that “for anybody else it will be almost impossible to play this piece” says little for her awareness of contemporary world-class cellists. Cohen also contributes two works for solo piano: Three Film Noir Pieces and Spiral Staircases.

It’s tough music to get a handle on, with little melodic content, a lot of thick, dense texture in the predominantly discordant piano writing and a good deal of large, heavy chords spread across the entire keyboard range. From the cello perspective Bäverstam handles all the technical challenges with ease; his lower tone in particular is beautifully rich.

Of the final work on the CD, Cohen says that it is one of the rare-for-her compositions “in which lighter colours prevail. It is also the most ‘consonant’ by sonority, at times even quasi-tonal.” That should give you some idea of the music on the rest of the disc, which generally seems to be tough, abrasive and frequently decidedly dark.

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