It’s been a simply terrific month for cello discs.

01 Rachmaninoff BarberCellist Jonah Kim and pianist Sean Kennard were together as teenagers at the Curtis Institute and again at Juilliard. For Rachmaninoff and Barber Cello Sonatas, their first album on the Delos label, they have chosen Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata Op.19 and Samuel Barber’s Cello Sonata Op.6 (Delos DE 3574 naxosdirect.com/search/de+3574).

The composers were both in their 20s when writing the works, and heart-on-sleeve romanticism and expansive melodies are common to both sonatas. Despite the balanced writing in the Rachmaninoff, there’s a notoriously difficult piano part which Kennard handles superbly.

There’s a deeply personal link to the Barber sonata here. Barber himself studied at the Curtis Institute and wrote his sonata there in 1932 with help from cellist and fellow student Orlando Cole, who premiered the work with Barber in 1933. Cole, who died in 2010 at 101, taught at Curtis for 75 years and counted Johan Kim among his students; Kim and Kennard received priceless coaching from Cole in their performance of the work.

There’s an abundance of lovely playing here, with a beautiful cello tone and a rich and sonorous piano sound perfectly suited to the flowing melodic lines that are central to these strongly Romantic works.

02 Dvorak Cello ConcertoKian Soltani is the soloist in the Dvořák Cello Concerto with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin in a performance recorded live in concert at the Berlin Philharmonie in October 2018 (Deutsche Grammophon 00028948360901 kiansoltani.com/discography).

Barenboim has been general music director of the orchestra since 1992, and the lengthy but lovely orchestral start to the concerto is a reminder of just how much of a master he is on the podium. He also has a personal connection with Soltani, having worked on the concerto with the cellist in 2014 prior to Soltani’s first concert performance of the work. Soltani plays the London ex-Boccherini Stradivarius cello on loan, and what a tone he produces! It’s a simply superb performance in all respects.

Five short Dvořák pieces arranged for solo cello and cello ensemble of six players – three of the arrangements by Soltani – complete the disc: Lasst mich allein (the song that has such emotional significance in the concerto); Goin’ Home (after the Largo from the New World Symphony); Songs My Mother Taught Me (from Gypsy Melodies Op.55); Allegro moderato (from Four Romantic Pieces Op.75); and Silent Woods (from From the Bohemian Forest Op.68).

The live performance of the concerto has richness, immediacy, depth, emotional commitment and tension and a great sound. Stay for the ensemble arrangements, but buy this CD for the concerto.

03 Shostakovich Cello ConcertosThe outstanding cellist Alban Gerhardt is back with more stellar performances on Shostakovich Cello Concertos, with the WDR Sinfonieorchester under Jukka-Pekka Saraste (Hyperion CDA68340 hyperion-records.co.uk).

Both works were written for the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and despite Gerhardt’s admitted “utter adoration” for Rostropovich and an awareness of his relationship with the composer, he admits that he has ignored his interpretations, essentially because Shostakovich’s markings in both concertos were largely ignored by the Russian cellist.

The Concerto No.1 in E-flat Major Op.107 from 1959 has four movements, the third being a towering solo cello cadenza almost six minutes in length that perfectly frames Gerhardt’s technical and interpretational abilities.

The Concerto No.2 in G Major Op.126 from 1966 began as a memorial piece for the poetess Anna Akhmatova, who had died earlier in the year. An essentially reflective work, Rostropovich considered it the greatest of the numerous concertos written for him.

Terrific performances of two of the great 20th-century cello concertos make for an outstanding CD. 

04 Voice of HopeThere’s a very clear message in the programing of Voice of Hope, the new CD from the Franco-Belgian cellist Camille Thomas with the Brussels Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon 00028948385645 camillethomas.com/VoiceOfHope.php). Building a selection of songs, prayers and laments around the world premiere recording of the Cello Concerto “Never Give Up” Op.73 by the Turkish composer Fazil Say, it pays tribute “to people’s ability to triumph over adversity, create harmony in place of chaos, and overcome hatred with love.”

Say’s three-movement concerto, a vivid, emotional and quite unsettling but extremely effective response to terrorist attacks in Istanbul and Paris, was written for and premiered by Thomas. It is performed here on the 1730 Stradivarius cello once owned by Emanuel Feuermann, with the orchestra’s music director Stéphane Denève as conductor. The remaining tracks are conducted by Mathieu Herzog, who also made several of the numerous arrangements, only Bruch’s Kol Nidrei appearing in its original form.

Also included are Ravel’s Kaddisch, Dvořák’s Songs My Mother Taught Me, John Williams’ Theme from Schindler’s List, Wagner’s Träume from the Wesendonck-Lieder, Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits and well-known arias from the operas Dido and Aeneas, L’elisir d’amore, Norma, Werther, Don Giovanni and Nabucco. 

Thomas says that she “wanted to choose works that represented this idea that beauty will save the world, quite simply.” Quite simply, there’s certainly beauty in her playing.

05 Goldbergs for harpThe American harpist and organist Parker Ramsay has a master’s degree in harp performance from Juilliard, and is equally at home on modern and period instruments. Bach Goldberg Variations is his first solo harp recording, and it’s a remarkable accomplishment (King’s College Recordings parkerramsay.com).

Apparently the Goldberg Variations can only be played on the harp in G major, which luckily happens to be Bach’s key. A keyboard/harp comparison reveals interesting differences: difficult keyboard flourishes are often easier on the harp, while simple keyboard linear melodies are more difficult or even impossible, especially if rapid pedal changes are needed for chromatic passages. The modern pedal harp, though, offered Ramsay what he terms “the best of both worlds: it’s a plucked instrument like the harpsichord, but is sensitive to pressure, like the piano.”

Listening to this CD the first thing that strikes you is the astonishing articulation – the accuracy, fluency and agility, especially in the ornamentation and in the faster, more florid variations. With the harp’s added resonance Ramsay stresses the opportunity to present the harmonic structures as well as the contrapuntal in what is a gentle and atmospheric sound world.

In a recent New York Times article Ramsay says that he realized that “the way to hear this work – and most of Bach, for that matter – as I wanted would be to use my first instrument, the modern pedal harp.” On this remarkable and immensely intriguing and satisfying showing, it’s hard to disagree with him.

06 Bach McFaddenThere’s more Bach music in transcription on Volume One of Johann Sebastian Bach Cello Suites arranged for guitar (Naxos 8.573625 naxosdirect.com/search/747313362578) by Jeffrey McFadden, the outstanding Canadian guitarist who is Chair of Guitar Studies at the University of Toronto, and whose debut recording in the early 1990s was the first CD in the prestigious Naxos Guitar Laureate Series.

It’s not unusual for recorded works to take a year or two to reach CD release, but both the McFadden arrangements (which remain unpublished) and the recording here were made in 2009. Still, there’s no doubting the quality and effectiveness of both the arrangements and the performance of the three Suites No.1 in G Major BWV1007, No.2 in D Minor BWV1008 and No.3 in C Major BWV1009. Recorded at St. John Chrysostom Church in Newmarket by the always-reliable Norbert Kraft (with whom McFadden studied) the sound quality on a charming disc is, as usual, exemplary.

Volume Two is apparently scheduled for release this month.

07 Alex ParkThere certainly seems to be no shortage of outstanding young guitarists these days. Classical Guitar is the debut release from guitarist Alex Park, and offers exemplary performances of a range of short pieces both familiar and unfamiliar (alexparkguitar.com).

The Gigue from Ponce’s Suite in A Minor provides a bright and brilliant opening to a recital that ranges from Conde Claros by the 16th-century Spanish composer Luis de Narváez and John Dowland’s Allemande (My Lady Hunsdon’s Puffe) through Handel’s Sarabande & Variations and Debussy’s The Girl with the Flaxen Hair to the traditional Irish tune Spatter the Dew. 

Four standard classical guitar pieces – three of which display Park’s dazzling tremolo technique – complete the disc: Tarrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra; Albéniz’s Leyenda; Villa-Lobos’ Prelude No.2 (given a performance more fluid than many); and Agustín Barrios’ Una Limosna por el Amor de Dios.

The publicity blurb for the CD release noted that Park has “a superb sense of dynamics, tempo and phrasing, performing with deep expression.” Add terrific technical assurance and you have a pretty good description of the playing here.

08 Saisons FrancaisesThe Russian duo of violinist Anna Ovsyanikova and pianist Julia Sinani is in top form on Les Saisons Françaises, a quite delightful recital disc of late 18th- and early 19th-century French music by Debussy, Lili Boulanger, Ravel and Poulenc (Stone Records 50601927780963 stonerecords.co.uk).

There’s warmth and a lustrous violin tone in the 1917 Debussy Violin Sonata in G Minor and a beautifully clear and bright performance of Boulanger’s Deux Morceaux – Nocturne and Cortège. Two works that are less often heard are the real gems here though: Ravel’s single-movement Sonata for Violin and Piano No.1 “Posthume” and Poulenc’s three-movement Sonata for Violin and Piano.

The Ravel work was written in 1897 while the composer was still a student but wasn’t published until 1975, almost 40 years after his death. It’s a really lovely piece that combines Romantic and Impressionistic styles and moods. 

Poulenc apparently destroyed several earlier attempts at a violin sonata, his only surviving work in the genre being the sonata composed in 1942-43 at the request of, and with the help of, Ginette Neveu. Following Neveu’s tragic death at the age of 30 in a 1949 plane crash, Poulenc revised the finale, reducing the length and reworking the violin part. Both versions of the movement are included here.

The composer himself was disparaging about the work – it is ”alas not the best Poulenc,” he said, and “Poulenc is no longer quite Poulenc when he writes for the violin” – but at this remove it seems a gorgeous and quite idiomatic work. Given performances like this it makes you wonder why it isn’t firmly established in the standard repertoire.

09 Joshua Bell At Home With Music Live Joshua BellThe CD Joshua Bell: At Home With Music (LIVE) presents eight performances from the PBS-TV special Joshua Bell: Live At Home With Music broadcast on August 16. Described as “A musical soirée of intimate performances from home, while sharing a behind-the-scenes look at family, Bell’s own musical inspirations, and more,” the CD features the soprano Larisa Martínez (Bell’s wife) and pianists Peter Dugan, Kamal Kahn and Jeremy Denk (Sony Classical 886448695332 joshuabell.com/#recordings).

The first movement of Beethoven’s Spring Sonata provides a lovely opening to a program that includes Kreisler’s arrangement of Dvořák’s Slavonic Fantasy in B Minor, Wieniawski’s Polonaise de Concert in D Major Op.4, Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Major Op.9 No.2 and Heifetz’s arrangement of Summertime from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

Martínez is the vocalist in Ah, ritorna, età dell’oro from Mendelssohn’s Infelice, Quando m’en vo from Puccini’s La Bohème and a Medley from Bernstein and Sondheim’s West Side Story.

Playing the 1713 Huberman Stradivarius with an 18th-century bow by François Tourte, Bell exhibits a full-blooded, all-in approach that doesn’t for a moment imply any lack of subtlety or nuance. It’s simply captivating playing.

02 TelemannTelemann – Concertos & Ouverture
Arion Orchestre Baroque; Alexander Weimann
ATMA ACD2 2789 (naxosdirect.com/search/acd2+2789)

Georg Philipp Telemann was a prolific composer. One commentator made the astonishing claim that the sheer quantity of Telemann’s compositions is more than all the works of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert combined! Yet the self-taught, self-made Telemann was not just an ordinary workaholic. He was also recognized as a master of many of the international and regional musical styles of his era, a kind of Baroque transnational genre fusionist. In his works for the church, opera and the emerging German public concert scene, his skillfully orchestrated scores were seldom pro forma. They typically exhibit clear melodies, buoyant dance rhythms, adventurous harmonies and exploit mood and drama. 

Montreal’s Arion Orchestre Baroque (founded in 1981) makes a strong case for the three Telemann works on this album. Quebec recorder virtuoso Vincent Lauzer tears into the first track of Concerto in C Major with youthful gusto. The spirited fourth movement Tempo di minuet sets the stage for Lauzer’s displays of speed double tonguing, crisp arpeggios and dramatic octave leaps – performed with lyrical grace and aplomb.

Bassoonist and conductor Mathieu Lussier joins Lauzer in the double Concerto in F Major. The playful four-movement work pits the penetrating treble recorder against the characteristically muffled-sounding Baroque bassoon, an example of the composer’s interest in unusual sonic combinations. 

Telemann’s ten-movement Overture in G Major – one of his 200 (sic) Overtures – is influenced by the French Baroque style he admired and includes a pastoral trio of two oboes and a bassoon. It receives its premiere recording here. 

I’m pleased to report that Telemann’s witty and engaging music, composed more than 250 years ago, lifted my clouded pandemic mood. It has the power to uplift other music lovers too.

03 Beethoven LisztBeethoven – Complete Symphonies transcribed for piano by Franz Liszt
Michel Dalberto, Jean-Claude Pennetier, Alain Planès; Paul Badura-Skoda
Harmonia Mundi HMX2931192.98 (harmoniamundi.com/#!/albums/2643)

For over 25 years, Franz Liszt undertook the task of transcribing Beethoven’s symphonies for the piano, not merely transferring the notes from one instrument to another but reworking and recomposing these great works entirely. The material is unchanged – Beethoven’s melodic and harmonic content remain intact – but the approach is different, as necessitated by the reduction of 20-or-so instrumental parts down to two hands.

It is important to consider that when Liszt made these transcriptions the concept of the symphony orchestra was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is today, and there was no recording technology available to capture these incredible works for posterity; a performance was a one-time event, in the truest sense of the idea. If people wanted to listen to Beethoven in their living rooms, they had to do the work themselves, playing the notes live on their own pianos. By making these transcriptions, Liszt was enabling pianists everywhere to hear this great composer’s symphonies as often as they were willing to play them, while hopefully garnering himself a reasonable sum in royalties.

To those of us in the 21st century for whom accessing any one of the 10,000 recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies is as easy as pushing play, can these pianistic oddities have any relevance? Strangely, yes – but not in the straightforward way we might think. Liszt’s transcriptions have the effect of taking the immensity of the orchestra and distilling it into a chamber-sized sound, akin to a piano sonata rather than a symphony. Listening to pianist Paul Badura-Skoda tackle the legendary Fifth Symphony, for example, one is struck by how much his interpretation resembles a long-lost cousin to the Pathétique.

While this recording may be more of a novelty item than a standard must-have collectible, those who are familiar with Beethoven’s symphonic essays will appreciate hearing them in a different way, from the inside out, perhaps, rather than the outside in.

04 Weber ClarinetWeber – Symphonies; Clarinet Concertos
Joan Enric Lluna; Berliner Camerata
IBS Classical IBS222019 (naxosdirect.com/search/8436589069961)

Oh, allow the clarinet player his argument in favour of Carl Maria von Weber. This younger contemporary of Beethoven, precursor to Wagner, has been afforded an unfortunate and unfair place in the pantheon, close to the fire exit, on the way to the restrooms. 

But just listen to the powerful bass-y recording released by the Berlin Camerata, featuring Joan Enric Lluna as soloist and conductor in the Clarinet Concertos, Nos.1 in F Minor and 2 in E-flat Major. It’s as though the vengeful ghost of Weber has come to remind us: he was all that then, and he is still all that. Not for Lluna and the team any polite, apologetic renditions of this stuff: it is, as they say, junk out. It’s great to hear, for once, musicians who agree Weber is kind of wild, and requires that approach in order to be heard as intended. 

The microphone work is an integral part of this approach. You’ll hear everything as if you were sitting not just near, but within the band. The very first sound from the clarinetist is an inhale, and such a hungry, lüstig breath Lluna takes. Weber orchestrated with verve and wit. The Camerata players are given license to kill it, and we hear all the voicings as characters in an opera. Listen to the horns! Listen to the gutty strings! 

The liner notes written by Josep Dolcet are instructive; Lluna’s own brief addition pays respect to Weber the dramatist, and labels the soloist as the diva! There is a companion CD included of the rarely heard symphonies from the younger Weber.

05 Leipzig CircleThe Leipzig Circle Vol.II – Chamber Music by Felix, Clara & Robert
London Bridge Trio
Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0619 (naxosdirect.com/search/748871061927)

Leipzig – like Vienna, a city of music! Not only did Bach reside there as cantor at the Thomaskirche for 27 years, but the city also witnessed the birth of Clara Schumann, the arrival of her husband from Zwickau to study law (but later, piano), and the arrival of Mendelssohn to conduct the renowned Gewandhaus Orchestra. Such is the basis for this splendid recording on the Somm label, the second one to feature the London Bridge Trio, this time performing piano trios by Mendelssohn and Robert and Clara Schumann.

Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio Op.49 – his first of two – was composed in Leipzig in 1839, and has long been regarded as a supreme example of the genre. The impassioned first movement is all freshness and spontaneity, the intricate interplay deftly handled by the three performers. The second movement is a true song without words, while the scherzo and allegro finale contain the graceful brilliance that so typifies Mendelssohn’s chamber style.

Clara Schumann enjoyed a long career as an outstanding concert pianist, but her own compositions remain unjustifiably neglected. Nevertheless, her Trio Op.17 – considered by many to be her greatest work – demonstrates great originality and not surprisingly, a formidable piano part, adroitly handled by Daniel Tong.

From the buoyant exuberance of the first movement, the heartfelt lyricism of the second and the cheerful optimism of the finale, Robert Schumann’s Trio Op.80 from 1847 truly embodies the Romantic spirit – little wonder the piece has earned such high praise over the years. Throughout, the London Bridge Trio performs with great panache, demonstrating a sensitive but confident approach in this most intimate repertoire. This disc is a delight!

06 Si SonatasSi! Sonatas
Leticia Gómez-Tagle
ARS Produktion ARS38270 (leticiagomeztagle.no-te.com) 

Sonatas by Chopin, Liszt and Domenico Scarlatti are featured on this Ars Produktion recording titled Si! Sonatas with Mexican-born pianist Leticia Gómez-Tagle. While most of us realize the word “Si” is Spanish for “yes” it also refers to B minor, the key in which all three pieces were written. The title was chosen by the artist herself, but even without the play on words and tenuous connection, the program is an attractive one.

Chopin’s Sonata No.3 Op.58 was completed in 1844, a time when the composer was at the height of his creative powers. The piece has long been regarded as one of his most difficult, not only with respect to the technical demands, but also to nuance. To say the least, Gómez-Tagle rises to the challenges in a very big way. She delivers an elegant and polished performance, her formidable technique further enhanced by a beautiful tone and fine use of phrasing.

The Sonata in B Minor by Franz Liszt is acknowledged as one of the powerhouses of 19th-century piano repertoire; fiendishly difficult, the piece presents technical challenges even greater than those of the Chopin sonata. Again – and not surprisingly – Gómez-Tagle meets the demands with apparent ease, creating a mood of thrilling dramatic intensity throughout.

In total contrast to the two Romantic giants is an encore – the Scarlatti Sonata K87, a gentle miniature written a century earlier. Here, Gómez-Tagle’s delicate and precise approach is clear evidence that she is as comfortable with Baroque repertoire as she is with that from later periods. Superb sound quality throughout further enhances an exemplary recording. Highly recommended.

Listen to 'Si! Sonatas' Now in the Listening Room

07 Villa LobosPiano Works by Heitor Villa-Lobos
Flavio Varani
Azur Classical AZC 175 (ciar.e-monsite.com)

Even today, the piano music of Villa-Lobos remains an untapped trove that suggests something of the exotic. Despite the popularity of a handful of his works such as the Bachianas Brasileiras series, Villa-Lobos’ prodigious output for his own instrument boasts much unfamiliar music, thereby requiring a devotional sort of elucidation.

Apparently up to such a task is veteran pianist (and native Brazilian), Flavio Varani. He brings an unusual commingling of old-school romanticism and ardent, fiery command to his new disc where accompaniments leap and melodies spring about the keyboard. Varani’s training as a student at the Juilliard School with the great Rosina Lhevinne – and subsequently Arthur Balsam – reveals an integral approach to his art and a careful conception of pianistic lineage in general. The listener is aware that Varani has lived long and purposefully with the music of his homeland; the relationship of composer and interpreter here recalls the great association John Browning, (also a Lhevinne student), had with Samuel Barber.

Villa-Lobos’ strange and exotic piano calls to us from unexpected pieces throughout this record: Chôros No.1 W161 “Chôro tipico brasileiro” (a transcription from guitar) and the Danças características africanas W085 are examples. Conversely, Varani chooses the oft-loved eighth piece from Cirandas W220, “Vamos atrás da serra, Calunga,” as epilogue.

Regrettably, the recording quality here is not of the highest calibre. Levels are noticeably out of balance and extraneous studio noises disturb the overall flow of an otherwise convincing disc.

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