01 marie nadeau tremblayh ef7k3On Préludes et solitudes the Quebec violinist Marie Nadeau-Tremblay provides one of the best CDs of Baroque solo violin works that I’ve encountered (ATMA Classique ACD2 2823 atmaclassique.com/en).

There’s a lightness of touch in the idiomatic playing, with a rhythmic freedom which adds character to the music and which, far from weakening the sense of line or structure actually enhances it. It’s perfectly illustrated in the Telemann Fantasies Nos.7 in E-flat Major and 9 in B Minor but is never absent in short works by Pedro Lopes Nogueira, J.H. Roman, Nicola Matteis Jr., Torelli, Thomas Baltzar and Purcell, and a terrific performance of the Passacaglia in G Minor from Biber’s Mystery Rosary Sonatas. 

Nadeau-Tremblay adds her own brief Prélude improvisé to complete an outstanding disc.

Listen to 'Préludes et solitudes' Now in the Listening Room

02 jansen cover 89tu1On 12 Stradivari, violinist Janine Jansen – who herself plays the 1715 Shumsky-Rode Stradivari – experiences a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a ground-breaking project devised by Steven Smith of J & A Beare that brought together in London 12 of the best violins of Antonio Stradivari, some not played for many years, others having belonged to the likes of Fritz Kreisler, Nathan Milstein and Ida Haendel. This resulting album, with pianist Antonio Pappano, music director of the Royal Opera House, captures the individual characters of each instrument (Decca 4851605 deccaclassics.com/en).

Unfortunately, there’s no information identifying the individual violins. Still, no matter; Jansen’s inspired and ravishing playing of well-known short pieces by Falla, Suk, Clara and Robert Schumann, Vieuxtemps, Tchaikovsky, Szymanowski, Ravel, Elgar, Rachmaninoff, Kreisler, Heuberger and Jerome Kern takes your breath away.

The entire project has been captured in the documentary film Janine Jansen: Falling for Stradivari

There have been three recent CDs of the Beethoven Violin Sonatas, two of which complete a three-CD set of the entire canon:

03 wan beethoven muk7lBeethoven Violin Sonatas Nos. 4, 9 & 10 with Andrew Wan and Charles Richard-Hamelin is the third issue in their Analekta series (AN 2 8796 analekta.com/en).

Wan’s warm, smooth and expressive playing is well-matched by Richard-Hamelin in lovely performances of the Sonatas No.4 in A Minor Op.23, No.9 in A Major Op.47 “Kreutzer” and No.10 in G Major Op.96. There’s excellent balance in a crystal-clear recording that completes a highly satisfying set.

Listen to 'Beethoven Violin Sonatas Nos. 4, 9 & 10' Now in the Listening Room

04 zimmermann cover cfhtkThe last two sonatas are also featured on Beethoven: The Violin Sonatas Nos. 8-10, with which Frank Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen complete their series for BIS (BIS-2537 bis.se).

 A lively and dazzling reading of the Sonata No.8 in G Major Op.30 No.3 opens the disc, with the Op.47 “Kreutzer” and the G Major Op.96 receiving equally animated and high-octane performances, although sensitivity and nuance are never lacking when needed. 

05 tetzlaff cover je58vThe Sonata No.8 in G Major, along with Sonatas No.6 in A Major and No.7 in C Minor, is also featured on a CD of the three Beethoven Sonatas Op.30, the latest release by Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt on the Ondine label (ODE-1392-2 ondine.net).

The publicity blurb says that these relatively early but completely original sonatas belong to the artists’ favourite works by Beethoven, and it shows in every bar of beautifully judged and nuanced performances, with the Adagio middle movement of the A Major Sonata in particular drawing breathtakingly beautiful playing from Tetzlaff.

06 remembering russia 2xqzzOn Remembering Russia the Spanish violist Jesús Rodolfo, accompanied by pianist Min Young Kang makes his Pentatone label debut in a recital showcasing three 20th-century Russian composers all of whom left their homeland (PTC 5186 287 naxosdirect.com/search/ptc5186287).

Six selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, arranged by the Russian violist Vadim Borisovsky make a strong opening to the disc. Borisovsky also made the wonderfully effective 1950 transcription of Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata in G Minor Op.19, a work perfectly suited to the viola’s tonal quality and range. Rodolfo’s own transcription of Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne “Pulcinella” completes the CD.

Rodolfo is a terrific player with a gorgeous tone. He is fully matched here by Kang, with the Rachmaninoff in particular drawing quite superb playing from both performers.

Listen to 'Remembering Russia' Now in the Listening Room

07 heritage cover 3kmqvHeritage, another CD celebrating mid-20th-century Russian composers, sees the French-Russian violinist Fedor Rudin accompanied by pianist Boris Kusnezow in a recital of works by Prokofiev, Shostakovich and, in particular, his own grandfather Edison Denisov (Orchid Classics ORC100183 orchidclassics.com).

Denisov’s rarely heard Three Concert Pieces Op.15 from 1958 opens a CD which also includes his short 12-tone Sonata from 1963 and the unpublished 1972 Sonatina that marked a return to more melodic tonality. In between are Prokofiev’s Sonata No.1 in F Minor Op.80, the incomplete Moderato con moto movement rom Shostakovich’s unfinished 1945 Sonata in G Minor and Rudin’s own transcription of Denisov’s orchestration of the Prelude and Duo from Debussy’s unfinished opera Rodrigue et Chimène.

Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Hopak completes a terrific CD.

08 schubert late quartets vhpnuIt’s difficult to imagine better interpretations of Schubert’s last two string quartets – No.14 in D Minor “Death and the Maiden” D810 and the quasi-symphonic No.15 in G Major D887 – than those by the Aviv Quartet on Schubert: The Last Quartets (Aparté AP266 apartemusic.com/?lang=en).

The two works were composed during the final years of the composer’s life as he struggled to come to terms with his own mortality. I can’t do any better than quote the publicity release, which says that the Aviv Quartet “brilliantly illuminates the elegiac and tragic melodies in which Schubert wrapped his torments.” That they certainly do, in stunning performances that grab you from the opening bars of No.15 and hold you enthralled until the last note of the great D minor. 

09 brahms asq 8i1ukThe Alexander String Quartet marks its 40th anniversary as well as the departure of founding violist Paul Yarbrough with Brahms: String Quartets, the final volume in the ensemble’s series of the complete string chamber works of Brahms (Foghorn Classics FCL2022 foghornclassics.com).

Yarbrough notes that the ASQ took decades to feel ready to record these quartets, and they certainly get to the heart of the music in powerful performances of strength and depth in the String Quartets in C Minor Op.51 No.1 and in A Minor Op.51 No.2. The String Quartet No.3 in B-flat Major Op.67 – Brahms’ favourite of the three – is bright and playful.

A transcription of Brahms’ Intermezzo in A Major Op.118 No.2 by the ASQ’s first violinist Zakarias Grafilo completes a fine disc.

Listen to 'Brahms: String Quartets' Now in the Listening Room

10 mendelssohn takacs ltuy0Works by the brother and sister Mendelssohns are given committed performances by the Takács Quartet on Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn String Quartets (HyperionCDA68330 hyperion-records.co.uk/a.asp?a=A1355).

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel`s String Quartet in E-flat Major from 1834 was her only work in the genre and may never have been performed in her lifetime, the score and parts not being published by Breitkopf & Härtel until 1988. It`s now favourably compared with quartets by her younger brother, Schubert and Schumann.

The central work on the disc is the String Quartet in F Minor Op.80 from 1847, written by Felix in the closing months of his life and into which he pours his grief over the death of his sister in May of that year. His String Quartet in A Minor Op.13 from 1827 completes a lovely disc.

11 dover beethoven 2 x9y7eThe high standard set by the Dover Quartet with its first volume of Beethoven Complete String Quartets continues with the 3CD set Volume 2 The Middle Quartets (Cedille CDR 90000 206 cedillerecords.org).

This release covers String Quartets No.7 in F Major Op.59 No.1, No.8 in E Minor Op.59 No.2, No.9 in C Major Op.59 No.3 (all commonly referred to as the Razumovsky quartets), No.10 in E-flat Major Op.74 “Harp” and No.11 in F Major Op.95 “Serioso.”

My December 2020 review of the previous volume described the performances as being full of conviction and depth, and noted that this promised to be an outstanding set. There’s certainly no reason to change those opinions.

12 rhythm cover 8cmxtRhythm & the Borrowed Past features violinist Daniel Kurganov and pianist Constantine Finehouse performing world premiere recordings of works by Lera Auerbach and Richard Beaudoin, along with works by John Cage and Olivier Messiaen (Orchid Classics ORC100182 orchidclassics.com).

Auerbach`s Sonata No.3 for violin and piano and Beaudoin`s In höchster Not (in deepest need) were both written in 2005, the former a powerful and striking work that makes an immediate impact and the latter described by the composer as being marked by a constant evasion of stabilities, the contrapuntal lines in all three movements not necessarily coinciding.

Cage`s very effective Nocturne from 1947 is written in fluid notation, resulting in some performances being twice as long as others. An outstanding performance of Messiaen`s Thème et variations from 1932 completes a top-notch CD.

13 crossroads cover ruyvvOn Crossroads, the Duo Dramatique – violinist Dominika Dancewicz and pianist Donald Doucet – presents a recital of modern American works for violin and piano (Navona Records NV6380 navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6380).

Arthur Gottschalk’s Sonata pays homage to the jazz violinists Stephane Grappelli, Johnny Frigo and Joe Venuti in a delightful work with echoes of “Bluesette” and “When Sunny Gets Blue,” and a Bebop last movement.

Karl Blench’s Sonata “In D” (a reference to the performers’ names) uses extreme contrasts in music meant to depict sarcasm, humour and quiet serenity, with a virtuosic moto perpetuo Finality last movement. Erberk Eryilmaz’s terrific Insistent Music draws on Eastern European folk music, with percussive patterns and explosive melodic lines.

Both players are quite outstanding in a CD simply bursting with life and energy.

14 reger s1u2uThe recent pandemic has provided the impetus for numerous solo recording projects, the latest of which to reach me is Reger Three Suites for Solo Viola Op.131d played by violist Tonya Burton (Tōnsehen TSN-009 tonsehen.com).

Reger wrote the suites in 1915. They are short four-movement works (total CD time is only 30 minutes) which look back to Bach, whom Reger idolized, but also forward with early-20th-century traits. Each movement is written in Baroque or Classical form, with Reger’s usual chromaticism balanced by lyrical melodies.

Burton calls the suites “enticing, expressive and dramatic, all the while full of humour and charm,” qualities amply displayed in her excellent performance.

15 adam levin 98gc5With the 2CD set 21st Century Spanish Guitar Vol.4 the outstanding guitarist Adam Levin completes his 13-year commissioning project that produced more than 30 new works (Frameworks 793888175143

CD1 is the brilliant and striking Concierto de La Herradura by the Cuban composer Eduardo Morales-Caso, with the Orquesta de Extremadura conducted by Álvaro Albiach.

CD2 features world-premiere recordings of four solo works: Leonardo Balada’s Caprichos No.14; the bluegrass-influenced Portraits from the Heartland by Jorge Muñiz, written in 2015 for the bicentennial of Indiana and built on the state anthem On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away; José Luis Turina’s Arboretum; and Salvador Brotons’ Sonata Sefardita Op.143, a gathering of songs in the Sephardic tradition.

16 david tanenbaum ho7gdMusic written specifically for the guitarist, in this case David Tanenbaum, also features on As She Sings, a CD showcasing works created for him during the past five decades (ReEntrant REN01 newfocusrecordings.com).

Sérgio Assad’s Shadows and Light is followed by Ronald Bruce Smith’s fascinating Five Pieces for guitar with live electronics, in which different playing styles combine with a range of electronic processing.

Music for Guitar is an early piece by Tanenbaum’s father Elias Tanenbaum. Tanenbaum is joined by mezzo-soprano Wendy Hillhouse, flute, bass and ceramic gongs for Dušan Bogdanović’s Games, seven short settings of poetry by the Yugoslavian poet Vasko Popa.

John Anthony Lennon’s elegiac title track completes an intriguing and sometimes challenging disc.

01 scarlatii knox xjk78Scarlatti – Essercizi Per Gravicembalo
Hank Knox
Leaf Music LM248 (leaf-music.ca)

Hank Knox has used the lockdown period very fruitfully. He spent ten months immersed in this, the only authorized publication by Domenico Scarlatti and, to its credit, one that has remained in print since it was published in 1739. Essercizi per gravicembalo is accurately translated as Exercises for harpsichord, underpinned by Hank Knox’s choice of a harpsichord after the Dulcken family of Flemish harpsichord makers. 

From the start, the combination of Scarlatti’s very lively composing, its consequently demanding playing techniques and the brilliance of Knox, create a solo harpsichord masterpiece. For example, in its complexity the Sonata in A Minor (track 3) is reminiscent of everything J S Bach could create. Perhaps Scarlatti and Bach learned by listening to each other’s works.

Even the longest sonatas, such as that in G Major (track 13) do not let up in their demands on the harpsichordist. This is especially true of the significantly longer second CD. Here, the Sonata in D Major (track 29) continues to bring out the best in Knox.   

It is rare to find a collection of pieces so consistent throughout. Consequently, the sheer consistent joyfulness and exhilaration of these 30 Sonatas mean it is difficult to isolate any particular one as being superior to the others; we are spoiled for choice.

Born in 1685, along with Handel and Bach, Scarlatti is by far the least recognized composer of these three greats. The virtuosic exuberance of his Essercizi in this rendering makes a strong case for diminishing the recognition gap.

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02 melisande corriveau dg7w5Bach – Au Pardessus de Viole (transcriptions of diverse sonatas with clavecin)
Mélisande Corriveau; Eric Milnes
ATMA ACD2 2826 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Although relatively obscure today, it is not hard to imagine pardessus de viole being the queen of the instruments in mid-18th century France, albeit for a short period of time. The smallest member of the viola da gamba family was invented in France to counter the newcomer of that time – the violin. Its uniquely delicate sound and slender shape were particularly popular with women, inspiring a slew of new compositions and arrangements before falling off the musical radar. 

Multi-instrumentalist Mélisande Corriveau shines spectacularly on this recent release of selected Bach compositions adapted for pardessus de viole. An imaginative and elegant player, Corriveau ventures on a fine exploration of the contemplative aspects of Bach’s music, further enhanced by the sonic qualities of her instrument, which, interestingly, was made during the reign of King Louis XV. On the other end of this musical equation is harpsichordist Eric Milnes, an intrinsic performer with a splendid feel for balance and flourish. Here the voices are so finely attuned to the nuances of Bach’s music that we never question the fact that Bach did not write a single piece for this instrument and, in fact, may not have been aware of its existence. 

The album is comprised of sonatas and trios originally for violin, viola da gamba and organ, rich with counterpoint and dialogue between instruments. There is a stillness and beauty to the ensemble playing that engages the listener on a deep level.

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03 fabio biondi bach lqr83Bach – Sonatas & Partitas
Fabio Biondi
naïve (highresaudio.com/en/album/view/xhdnab/fabio-biondi-bach-sonatas-partitas)

These timeless works receive a superb and fanciful recorded performance from one of the most interesting and adventurous violinists alive today. 

The Six Sonatas and Partitas were written sometime between 1717 and 1723, while Bach was employed by Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. The sonatas are each made up of four substantial movements, including brilliant and virtuosic fugues. The partitas are jammed with a variety of dance movements and “doubles,” the D Minor Partita concluding with the justly renowned extended Chaconne.

The brilliant Fabio Biondi is a celebrated violinist, conductor and the founder of Europa Galante who has made a specialty of Baroque works large and small, including recital tours with pianists, harpsichordists and fortepianists. That said, he plays on a fortified modern violin with technical prowess, confidence and a big personality that would not be mistaken for being historically informed. He made this recording a special project as he turned 60, saying in the notes that he has long felt intimidated by these towering works “so intimate, yet so universal, so close to the essence of things and so technically demanding as well.”  

These performances are fresh, assured, lyrical, exciting and full of vitality. Highlights include the Presto of Sonata I, the Giga and Chaconne of Partita II, the three enormous fugues, the heartbreakingly nostalgic F Major Largo of Sonata III and the Gavotte en Rondeau of Partita III. Some of the tempi are a little too breakneck, some of the ornamentation is outrageous and at times the overall sound gets a little too heavy and intense. But this is playing with a self-assured point of view, a big heart, a rock-solid technique and a humble wisdom, full of respect for how these pieces connect to the human soul. Highly recommended.

04 schumann organ tjmhsSchumann – The Roots & The Flower: Counterpoint in Bloom
Jens E. Christensen
Our Recordings 6.220675 (naxosdirect.com/search/6220675)

A prolific and highly respected composer of the Romantic era, Robert Schumann wrote in a variety of styles for a range of instruments, from solo piano to large orchestra. Tucked within Schumann’s 148 opus numbers are a few works written for the pedal piano which, rather than having the standard three foot pedals, contained an entirely separate keyboard, similar to that found on pipe organs, which was manipulated by the feet. Once a relatively common household instrument, the pedal piano has since become extinct, though separate foot pedal attachments and even complete replicas can still be found.

The presence of a pedalboard is a unique similarity between the pedal piano and the modern organ which has led to a number of works for the former instrument being adapted to the latter. Schumann’s pedal piano works are of particular note in this regard – their contrapuntal dexterity and complexity are conveyed particularly well on the organ, as demonstrated by renowned Danish organist Jens E. Christensen. 

Performing Schumann’s Six Fugues on B-A-C-H, Op.60 and the Six Canonic Studies, Op.56, Christensen shows Schumann at his most cerebral, writing that is rigid in its structure yet fluid in its harmonic style. Indeed, the choice of the famous B-flat - A - C - B natural motif (B-A-C-H in German note names) is a not-too-subtle homage to Schumann’s idol. His choice to use this theme as the source of six independent fugues is a demonstration of Schumann’s devotion to his craft, a flexing of musical muscles that demonstrate his ability to exist within a defined structure while simultaneously expanding and manipulating these structures to their limits.

One of the great challenges with performing this music on the organ is the registration, or stops and pipes, that the organist must choose to best convey the composer’s intentions. Christensen is heard here on the organ in Copenhagen’s Von Frelser Church, an instrument that is historical both in age and temperament, best suited to the works of Bach and earlier composers. Despite the apparent temporal discrepancy, this sound is exceedingly effective: while Christensen may occasionally incorporate one too many Baroque phrasings into his interpretations, the combination gives Schumann’s chromatic material the backwards-looking realization it requires, reinforcing the direct references to Bach and his own contrapuntal genius.

05 yn s sibelius 3 9cuyfSibelius – Symphony No.3
Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
ATMA ACD2 4033 (atmaclassique.com/en)

After gaining world fame and plaudits too numerous to mention, Yannick Nézet Séguin is back in Canada with his first orchestra, the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal and, with ATMA Classique, is in the process of recording the seven symphonies of Jean Sibelius. This new release is part of this ambitious series.

The seven symphonies of Sibelius are certainly music the world had never heard before; music of the North, inspired by Finnish myths and sagas and a landscape with elemental forces of nature. Interestingly, there is a stylistic evolution from the first to the seventh symphony. Despite their wildly different characteristics, all progress towards the same purpose, a condensation, a telescoping of elements that comes into full fruition in the Seventh Symphony where all four movements fuse into a single one.

Nearly the shortest of the seven and in the key of C Major, the Third has almost a Mozartian clarity with transparent textures and straightforward momentum. Mysteriously however, somewhere in the first movement suddenly everything quiets down with a perpetual, nearly inaudible rustle of strings as if we would disappear into a misty thicket with only an occasional shriek of a bird (on the clarinet) breaking the silence.

A combination of the third and fourth movements, the Finale is magnificent: as the rhythmically pulsating, suspenseful Scherzo gradually dies down, a new march-like theme emerges almost imperceptibly; pianissimo on the cellos and gaining momentum, and before we know it we are in the midst of the Finale. Soon, all the strings and the woodwinds join in louder and louder. Finally the clarinets, flutes and horns raise their instruments high and the trumpets and trombones bring everything to a final glory. Nézet-Séguin manages this giant crescendo masterfully.

06 schulman goodman a net of gems cover wijqoA Net of Gems
Suzanne Shulman; Erica Goodman
Wolftone WM21061 (shulmangoodman.bandcamp.com)

The CD opens with flutist Franz Doppler’s and harpist Antonio Zamara’s co-composed Casilda Fantaisie, based on the opera, Casilda, by Ernst II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (and Queen Victoria’s brother-in-law). Erica Goodman and Suzanne Shulman navigate this mix of lyricism and virtuosity admirably, offering virtuosic lyricism and lyric virtuosity!

Next comes Bernard Andrès’ Narthex followed by David Occhipinti’s Net of Gems, which gives the disc its name. Though composed 49 years apart, they have much in common, both inspired by religious themes, the first by Romanesque church architecture, the second by Hinduism’s net of Indra. Melodic, through composed and episodic, both have the surreal quality of a metaphorical journey through a variety of distinctive and contrasting neighbourhoods. The performers’ sensitivity to the contrast between episodes is what really helped me to navigate this difficult musical structure.

Next on the program was Camille Saint-Saëns’ Fantaisie, Op. 124, originally composed for violin and harp but so well adapted for the flute by Hidio Kamioka and Shulman that you would never guess that Saint-Saëns ever had any other instrument in mind. To me this was the highlight of the CD: both players seemed so comfortably at home both with the music and with each other. In Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No.5, which might be translated as “the unknowable part of the known,” Shulman and Goodman play without expression, perfectly conveying this miniature’s implicit irony. John Keats’ words come to mind: “Heard melodies are sweet … therefore, ye soft pipes, play on….”

An afterthought:  A case could be made that wars, floods, fires, famines and pandemics, laying waste to the complacency that seems to come with peace, and destroying trust in formerly trusted institutions – governments, medicine, the judiciary, the media, universities and more – give rise to creation and the search for beauty. A friend quoted this recently: “When fishermen cannot go to sea, they stay home and mend their nets”; one might add, “When coming together to listen to music is prohibited, musicians compose, learn new repertoire and record!”

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