01 Barton Pine PaganiniAmerican violinist Rachel Barton Pine follows up her outstanding Testament issue of the complete Bach Solo Partitas & Sonatas with another wonderful 2CD set of solo violin works, this time Bel Canto Paganini: 24 Caprices and other Works for Solo Violin (Avie AV2374).

In her excellent booklet essay Pine quite rightly stresses the musicality of these remarkable pieces, and not just the technical aspects. Paganini was greatly admired by his operatic contemporaries, with Rossini, Verdi and Bellini all considering his compositions to be fully in the bel canto Italian vocal style, and Pine’s interpretations always stress the melodic content. There’s never a hint of anything but complete mastery of the technical issues either.

In addition to the 24 Caprices Op.1 three other Paganini solo works are here: the astonishing Introduction and Variations in G Major Op.38 on Paisiello’s “Nel cor più non mi sento; the brief Duo merveille Op.6 “Duet for One; and the Caprice d’adieu Op.68. Pine’s playing leaves you simply breathless.

Finally, in acknowledgement of Paganini’s profound influence on her, Pine adds her own brilliant Introduction, Theme and Variations on “God Defend New Zealand” which she wrote in 2000 for the end of her first tour of New Zealand. If you didn’t know, you would swear it was by Paganini. It’s a dazzling end to a remarkable set.

02 Esther Yoo TchaikovskyThe outstanding American-Korean violinist Esther Yoo follows up her terrific debut Deutsche Grammophon CD of the Sibelius and Glazunov concertos with another outstanding collaboration with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra on the same label, this time featuring works for violin and orchestra by Tchaikovsky (481 5032).

It should come as no surprise, given Ashkenazy’s involvement, that all the performances here display a marked sensitivity and an innate empathy for the music. The Violin Concerto is the main work here, of course, and the measured, unhurried opening signals an approach that continues throughout the work, although there is never a lack of passion when needed.

The high performance standard is maintained throughout the remaining works on the disc. The two pieces from Swan Lake – the Pas de Deux from Act 1 and the Danse Russe from Act 3 – are both original violin solos from the ballet score, and not transcriptions or arrangements. The poignant Sérénade mélancolique in B flat Minor, Op.26 was the composer’s first major work for violin and orchestra. The really lovely Valse-Scherzo Op.34 and the Glazunov orchestration of the Mélodie – the last of the three pieces that comprise Souvenir d’un lieu cher, Op.42 – complete another outstanding CD from these artists.

03 Shostakovich GubaidulinaThe Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma is the soloist on Shostakovich/Gubaidulina, her second CD on the Challenge Classics label and featuring the former’s Violin Concerto No.1 in A Minor, Op.77 and the latter’s In tempus praesens. The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by James Gaffigan in the Shostakovich and by Reinbert de Leeuw in the Gubaidulina (CC72681).

It’s an impressive performance of the Shostakovich, a deeply personal work written a few years after the end of the Second World War but temporarily shelved when the composer was once again vilified by the Communist Party in 1948; it didn’t receive its premiere until 1955. Lamsma is terrific throughout.

Sofia Gubaidulina’s In tempus praesens is her second violin concerto, an extended single-movement work written for Anne-Sophie Mutter in 2007. A work of extreme contrasts that demands great virtuosity from the soloist, it is scored for a large orchestra that does not include first or second violins, giving the soloist unchallenged freedom in the higher string register. Lamsma handles every challenge quite superbly.

The Shostakovich is a studio recording from 2016, while the Gubaidulina was recorded live in concert at the Royal Concertgebouw, Amsterdam in October 2011. The Netherlands orchestra provides excellent support in both instances.

04 Sarah ChristianGegenwelten (Contrasting Worlds) is the debut CD from the German violinist Sarah Christian, accompanied by the Armenian pianist Lilit Grigoryan in a recital of works by Prokofiev and Schubert (Genuin GEN 17472).

If 27 seems to be a rather late age for a debut CD then in this particular case it was certainly worth the wait; there is a clear and undeniable maturity to both Christian’s playing and her interpretations of the Prokofiev Sonata No.1 in F Minor, Op.80 and the Schubert Fantasie in C Major, D934. The Prokofiev sonata has a dark, ominous opening movement, a strikingly strong second movement, an ethereal slow movement and a tense and desolate final Allegrissimo, all making for a memorable performance.

The Schubert Fantasie is ostensibly an extended single-movement work, but in fact consists of four loosely connected sections played without a break. Again, it’s a beautifully balanced performance, with a finely nuanced opening that sets the tone for everything that follows.

Both players are in tremendous form here, and the recorded sound is outstanding. In the publicity blurb Christian says that “When playing, I really feel everything there is to feel.” That doesn’t always come through on a recording, but on this exemplary debut disc it most certainly does.

05 Beethoven Sonatas with fortepianoI didn’t see the first two volumes of the ongoing cycle of the complete Beethoven Sonatas for Fortepiano and Violin on period instruments, featuring violinist Susanna Ogata and Ian Watson on the fortepiano, but Volume 3 (CORO Connections COR16154) of the four-CD series certainly makes me wish that I had.

The works here are the three sonatas published in 1803 as Opus 30: No.6 in A Major; No.7 in C Minor; and No.8 in G Major. The fortepiano obviously lacks the power of a modern grand piano but more than compensates for this with its range of tonal colour and acoustic variation. Ogata uses gut strings and a period bow, with the resulting warmer sound perfectly complementing the keyboard and creating a sound world imbued with what The Strad magazine, in its review of Volume 2, called “a clarity rarely achieved.”

There are some outstanding sets of the complete sonatas available with modern keyboard – the Ibragimova/Tiberghien and Duo Concertante issues, for instance – but if you still harbour any doubts about the effectiveness of performing these sonatas with fortepiano then this CD series should simply blow them away.

06 Boyd meets Girlboyd meets girl sees the American cellist Laura Metcalf paired with her husband, the Australian guitarist Rupert Boyd, in a really terrific selection of pieces for cello and guitar (Sono Luminus DSL-92217).

The three-movement Reflexões No.6 by Bolivian composer Jaime Zenamon is a lovely work, full of rich and sonorous cello lines and some rapid guitar work, all beautifully handled by the duo. The Allegretto Comodo, the first movement of the Sonata for Cello and Guitar by the Brazilian composer Radamés Gnattali, is the only other work written specifically for cello and guitar; it’s another terrific piece.

Apart from Ross Edwards’ beautiful Arafura Arioso, arranged especially for the duo by the Australian composer, all the other tracks on the CD are arrangements by Boyd and Metcalf. Fauré’s Pavane Op.50, four of Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, Astor Piazzolla’s Café 1930 (originally for flute and guitar) and de Falla’s Siete Canciones Populares Españolas are all extremely effective in these arrangements, but none more so than the quite stunning and ethereal Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Pärt, played by Metcalf at the original violin pitch over Boyd’s beautifully controlled guitar work. The final track is the duo’s arrangement of Human Nature, the Steve Porcaro and John Bettis song from Michael Jackson’s 1982 Thriller album.

A warm and resonant recorded sound quality complements a superb CD that is an absolute delight from beginning to end.

07 Emerson Britten DowlandGiven the affinities between Benjamin Britten and his predecessor Henry Purcell it comes as no surprise to see their music paired on Chaconnes and Fantasias – Music of Britten and Purcell, the latest CD from the Emerson String Quartet, celebrating its 40th anniversary (Decca Gold B0026509-02).

Purcell’s Chacony in G Minor appeared in the same manuscript as the Fantazias (Purcell’s spelling) and is played here in Britten’s performing edition. It’s a full-blooded performance, with quite heavy vibrato. The Fantazias Nos.6 in F Major, 8 in D Minor, 10 in E Minor and 11 in G Major are more idiomatic, with very little vibrato and the dissonant clashes clearly defined. In company with Britten’s music they sound decidedly modern.

Sandwiched in the middle of the Fantazias is a terrific performance of Britten’s String Quartet No.2 in C Major, Op.36 from 1945, the first performance of which took place in London on the exact 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death. Moreover, the Chacony final movement is modelled on Purcell’s own Chacony.

Another immensely satisfying performance, this time of Britten’s String Quartet No.3 in G Major, Op.94, a fascinating and highly personal work written in late 1975 just a year before his death, completes an outstanding disc.

08 Harberg WolpertPremiere recordings of two very accessible 21st-century Viola Concertos by Amanda Harberg and Max Wolpert are featured on a new Naxos CD in their American Classics series, with the American violist Brett Deubner accompanied by the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra under Linus Lerner (8.559840).

Both works were written for Deubner, who has had more than 30 concertos dedicated to him. John Corigliano said of Amanda Harberg that she “writes truly beautiful music,” and her Concerto from 2011/12 more than supports that view, with a soaring and strongly rhythmical first movement described as a meditation on flight, a simply beautiful Aria middle movement and an energetic and joyful finale.

Wolpert’s Viola Concerto No.1, “Giants” reflects the composer’s fascination with ancient musical traditions and fable and legend as well as his extensive work in musical theatre. The three movements are Father Time, The Golden Harp and the Balkan-flavoured Dance of the Cloud Women.

Also on the disc is Harberg’s short Elegy from 2007, written for violin and piano and played here in Deubner’s excellent arrangement for viola and string orchestra.

Deubner is clearly in his element with these very attractive works.

09 Robert BeaserThe American guitarist Eliot Fisk met the composer Robert Beaser in 1972 when they were both at Yale, and two of the works that resulted from their long friendship are featured on Robert Beaser Guitar Concerto, with José Serebrier conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (LINN CKD528).

The concerto is an immediately attractive eclectic three-movement work; in the dazzling Phrygian Pick third movement Beaser combines the traditional Andalusian flamenco technique with American bluegrass style. Fisk’s performance is simply brilliant. It’s an outstanding concerto, and a significant addition to the guitar repertoire.

The solo guitar work Notes on a Southern Sky was influenced by the folk music of Latin America in general and Venezuela in particular. Again, the clarity, agility and tonal variation of Fisk’s playing are quite stunning.

Two orchestral works complete the disc: the superb tone poem Evening Prayer, aptly described as demonstrating the melodic and harmonic beauty which characterises Beaser’s style; and Ground O, Beaser’s own 2011 orchestration of a movement from an earlier work written within a month of the tragic events in New York in September 2001. The RSNO performance under Serebrier is outstanding, particularly in the Evening Prayer.

10 Well Tempered ClavierJ.S. Bach’s two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier have influenced composers since their creation, with both Mozart and Beethoven scoring some of the pieces for string quartet. In the 2CD set J. S. Bach The Well-Tempered Clavier Book One For String Quartet Nicholas Kitchen, the first violin of the Borromeo String Quartet, has finally fulfilled a long-held desire with his transcription of the music for string quartet (living archive LABSQ 101).

The process clearly produced some surprises and challenges for Kitchen and his fellow quartet members as they developed the project, but the end result is extremely satisfying, both musically and emotionally. Kitchen acknowledges that playing the 48 pieces brought the quartet into “a rarified listening-scape,” where the extreme demands on the players’ need to listen to each other resulted in “a clearer understanding of what is really the essence of musical meaning and spirit.”

Luckily, it has also resulted in an engrossing listening experience for all of us.

11 PermutationsThe English violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen plays two solo pieces written by her younger sister Freya Waley-Cohen on Permutations (Signum Classics SIGCD496).

Permutations is a touring artwork project developed by the sisters and the architectural designers Andrew Skulina and Finbarr O’Dempsey, with Freya writing several different musical characters for both six-part violin consort and for solo violin. The performance setting is “a set of six chambers which spatially distribute the six recorded violin parts… but also give the listener the opportunity to change the acoustic properties and level of isolation for each part. Handing a certain level of artistic and creative power over to the listener was the guiding force in the creation of the artwork.”

For this recording Waley-Cohen decided to take back that power and present Permutations in perfectly balanced ensemble. The individual characters are clearly identifiable in the excellent stereo setup, and one can’t help but wonder what the effect of the original physical setting must be, given how effective and engrossing the recorded version is.

While writing Permutations Waley-Cohen wrote two other works using some of its musical characters; one of them, Unveil for solo violin, is included here.

At less than 28 minutes this is not a substantial CD, but what it lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality. Tamsin Waley-Cohen’s playing is exemplary.

12 Paul ChiharaTake the A Train (Bridge Records 9488) is Volume 3 of the eclectic music of the 79-year-old American composer Paul Chihara, whose wide experience includes extensive work for movies and television.

The Gavin String Trio performs the String Trio from 1985, and Jerome Lowenthal is the soloist in the fascinating Bagatelles – Twice Seven Haiku for Piano from 2010. The Girl from Yerevan is an attractive piece from 2014, played here by guitarist David Starobin, violinist Movses Pogossian and violist Paul Coletti.

The final work is a real knockout: the three-movement Ellington Fantasy performed by the Lark String Quartet. Duke Ellington’s I’m Beginning to See the Light is a great opener; the arrangement of Sophisticated Lady is quite stunning, and the CD’s title track provides a great jazzy ending to an excellent disc.

13 Mozart BeethovenAnd finally, violinist Boris Abramov and cellist Carmine Miranda combine their talents on Mozart/Beethoven Violin and Cello Duets (Navona Records NV6118).

None of the music here is in its original form. Mozart’s Two Duos for Violin and Cello are arrangements of the Duos for Violin and Viola in G Major, K423 and B flat Major, K424, both written as a favour to Michael Haydn to complete a set of six duos he was writing for the Archbishop of Salzburg. The Beethoven work is an arrangement of the Three Duos for Clarinet and Bassoon, WoO27, a set of duets that were probably early works influenced by the Mozart duos but may possibly be spurious.

With their warm tone and nice phrasing Abramov and Miranda make a good case for these versions of the works, although the music itself doesn’t allow for a great deal of dynamic range.

01 Goodyear RavelStewart Goodyear’s newest recording, Ravel – Stewart Goodyear (Orchid Classics ORC 100061) is the product of a lifelong affection for Ravel’s music that began at age five. Goodyear admits that it has taken a long time to immerse himself in the composer’s works and reach a point where he was ready to begin recording his music. He plans, in fact, to record all of Ravel’s works for piano.

What Goodyear demonstrates at the keyboard is that he is willing to take his time playing this music. It’s not so much a slower pace than a willingness to open the breathing spaces much wider than many pianists do. These suspended moments of time cumulatively lift the music to an ethereal state where Ravel’s impressionistic figures, the arpeggios and chordal clusters, are perceived more as emotion than sound. Oiseaux tristes and La vallée des cloches are powerful examples of this Goodyear effect.

Goodyear also reveals an innate ability to home in on a melody. Ravel makes this fairly straightforward, sometimes just having it played in simple octaves. But Goodyear has a way of drawing the notes out of the swirling harmonies that sets them within easy reach of the ear. It’s a matter of touch – and Ravel’s keyboard language requires absolute mastery of the technique.

Scarbo, from Gaspard de la nuit, is the dark and somewhat maniacal side of Ravel’s work. Here too, Goodyear proves his technical control is never outrun by the demands of the music.

If Goodyear’s intention to record all the Ravel piano works comes to fruition, there will be something wonderful to anticipate.

Review

02 Jean Willy KunzJean-Willy Kunz is the first organist in residence of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. His debut solo recording Jean-Willy Kunz au grand orgue Pierre-Béique (ATMA ACD2 2747) contains the requisite Toccatas along with some skillfully chosen works that make this recording thoroughly entertaining.

Among the standards in the list is the Toccata from Widor’s Organ Symphony No.5. For the sake of acoustic clarity, Kunz takes this at a slightly slower pace than is often heard, so the piece comes across cleanly but still powerfully. Vierne’s Carillon de Westminster Op.54, No.6 builds beautifully to a towering and thrilling finish. Another impressive work is Maxime Goulet’s Citius, altius, fortius! in which Kunz showcases the organ’s solo and chorus reeds, and mixtures.

The CD’s highlight is Kunz’s own arrangement of Saint-Saëns Le Carnival des animaux. The colouristic potential of this symphonically planned concert instrument is exploited in each of the 15 movements. L’Éléphant, appropriately portrayed by the deepest register pedal pipes, will shake your speakers, while Le Coucou au fond des bois uses a small reed stop to sound the familiar two-note call.

It’s an excellent recording with perfect repertoire choices and brilliant playing.

03 ExordiumOrganist Erik Simmons has recorded seven CDs by American composer and organist Carson Cooman. The latest, Exordium – Music for Organ by Carson Cooman (Divine Art dda 25154) is a wide selection of Cooman’s works designed to showcase the main organ of the Cathédral Notre-Dame de Saint-Omer in northern France. The recording uses the Hauptwerk system, which digitally records the instrument note by note, storing the data in a sound library from which a performance and recording can be made anywhere, rather than in the confines of the church. The authenticity of this recording technology is impressive, creating a final product that is indistinguishable from a recording made in the original venue.

The original organ in the cathedral dates from 1717 and underwent a major restoration in the mid-19th century. Its casework is renowned as one of the most beautiful in Europe.

Many of the works on this recording use the highly coloured smaller stops or combinations of them to demonstrate the intimacy of such a large instrument. Small solo reeds and flutes are richly coloured and beautifully carry the solo melodies.

By contrast, the big divisions set close to full organ are magnificent as shown in the opening track Exordium and again in the closing selection, a fantasy on Veni Creator Spiritus. Cooman’s works are skillfully written with a contemporary harmonic sensibility that always yields to the melody. Simmons understands this and faithfully brings this great Baroque instrument into the service of a 21st-century composer.

Review

04 Bach Art of FugueDuo Stephanie & Saar have taken a novel approach to their latest recording project Bach – The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080 (New Focus Recordings FCR181). Taking advantage of their duo nature, they perform some selections as four hands, some as two pianos and the simpler two-voice canons as solos.

The sheer weight of the genius behind the music makes focusing on any other aspect of the performance nearly impossible. As one of Bach’s final utterances, unfinished at that, it reveals the ability of this composer to think about musical development forwards, backwards, inverted, expanded and contracted, and most often in some combination of these.
In this respect the work is very much like the Goldberg Variations, where a good performance quickly yields to the content of the music while the performer is lost to the larger presence of the art form.
The Duo Stephanie & Saar (their first names) are highly disciplined and always turn their skills to the contrapuntal possibilities Bach has laid out in the score, regardless of whether it’s for two voices or four. They keep expression to a polite minimum, revealing the beauty of the growing complexity in the larger fugues.

The two-disc set is one you know you’ll play many times, waiting to find newly revealed truths.

05 Kit Armstrong GoldbergA new video release, Kit Armstrong performs Bach’s Goldberg Variations and its predecessors (Unitel 741608), is a must-watch for Goldberg fans. Armstrong performs live at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam and plays a lengthy program that includes some stylistically related works by Byrd, Sweelinck and John Bull’s Thirty Variations on the theme “Walsingham. It’s clear at this point that Armstrong is brilliant at his period ornamentation. His trills are fast and tirelessly perfect.

Once into the Bach Goldberg Variations, after the opening aria, there’s no doubt that Armstrong is going to play this his way – unhurriedly. The first variation comes as a surprise in its deliberate, more relaxed speed. But what emerges at the same time is Armstrong’s knack for boldly pulling out melodies from the left hand, especially where the hands cross over. It’s intriguing to hear lines more familiar in the background come to the fore this way.

Armstrong is also fairly free with his rubato and sometimes applies it only in one hand, while the other moves ahead hoping its partner will catch up. It’s a thoroughly pianistic approach that impresses the audience, whose attention never wavers for a moment.

The final aria is quiet and powerfully intense as Armstrong completes it pianissimo, with a lengthy ritard holding the crowd breathless until he rises from the keyboard.

06 Scarlatti SusiNicholas Susi has just released his first recording Scarlatti Now (nicholas-susi.com), with a clever program that mixes eight Scarlatti Sonatas with Rossini, Ravel, Berio and Liszt. Susi claims that Italy is the country that gave birth to the piano then promptly turned its back on it, leaving us with a solid Germanic tradition to our keyboard thinking. His intention is to underscore the connections between Scarlatti’s keyboard style and later works, arguing that Scarlatti’s sonatas had invited future composers to think about the keyboard in ways he had already begun to explore. He describes the elements of Scarlatti’s keyboard style as “the wiry, the spastic, the risky” but he also admires them for their “variety, quirkiness and downright catchiness.”

Scarlatti’s runs, ubiquitous ornaments and often rapid-fire note repetitions are familiar elements of his writing. Susi finds these in the chatter of Figaro’s Cavatina from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, the fluid writing of Ravel’s Une barque sur l’océan and Liszt’s transcription of Rossini’s La danza.

Susi is a gifted technician who executes the myriad ornaments in the sonatas with crispness and ease. The clarity of his playing is a delight to hear. His transitions to contemporary works by Berio and Sciarrino are not as difficult as they might promise in the track listing. He is an innovative musician and aggressive thinker with a gift for keyboard brilliance. With a freshly minted doctorate of music under his belt, he now needs to appear on a major label.

07 Haydn 6 BavouzetWith Haydn – Piano Sonatas, Vol.6 (Chandos 10942), Jean Efflam-Bavouzet has now neared the halfway point in his project to record all the Haydn piano sonatas. Clearly not intent on doing this in chronological order, Bavouzet is programming his discs for artistic interest and balance.

This disc contains five sonatas, all in major keys. The earliest is the Sonata No.11 (Hob.XVI:2) from sometime around 1760. At this point, the keyboard sonata is still in its early evolutionary form and has far more in common with its Baroque harpsichord antecedents than anything that followed. The changes in Haydn’s works are subtle and occur slowly over many years. Bavouzet follows this early work with the latest one, Sonata No.43 (Hob.XVI:28) where the final movement provides the best contrast for showing how Haydn’s thinking became more complex.

Prior to this recording project, Bavouzet finished the complete cycle of the Beethoven sonatas. He describes his renewed appreciation of Haydn’s considerably shorter thematic ideas than those of Beethoven and points out the impact this had on his approach to the music. His touch is light and articulation is impeccable. Lightly pedaled, if at all, the voice parts are clear and the sparse harmonies are completely transparent.

Because Haydn gave almost no performance indications in his scores, Bavouzet takes great freedom in applying tempi and dynamics. His choices are carefully considered and a mark of both his artistry and scholarship. Like its predecessors, Volume 6 is consistently excellent throughout.

08 Pal EidePål Eide has chosen a perfect title for his recording Grey Clouds (CDKlassisk cdk 1143). He contrasts the melancholy of twilight in works by Liszt and Debussy against even darker forebodings in the music of Stravinsky and Ravel. His playing is deeply personal and anything but grey.
Beginning with Liszt’s two similarly titled works La lugubre gondola, Eide sets a stage where the ambiguity of twilight becomes a surprisingly peaceful experience. He expands this through Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau, La cathédrale engloutie and Claire de lune.

The contrast of threatening darkness comes from Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. Le gibet is especially haunting, with its repeating note emerging from Ravel’s clustered harmonies.

Eide moves his program back toward the twilight with Stravinsky’s Three Pieces from Petrouchka. His measured approach, if slower than most performances, gives both Danse russe and La semaine grasse an ominous weight. As if to place an “amen” at the end of his recording, Eide gives an exquisite performance of Liszt’s Consolation No.3.

It’s a thoughtful and effective program, beautifully played. Eide has made just two recordings but his abilities suggest he should do more.

09 a la russeAlexandre Kantorow looks knowingly from the cover of his new recording À la russe (BIS 2150) as if to invite listeners into the world of the Russian soul. Here, things are dimly lit, especially where Rachmaninoff is concerned. His Piano Sonata No.1 in D Minor Op.28 is a study in high dynamic contrast in the outer movements and deep introspection in the middle movement. Kantorow is obviously at home with this music and what he projects from the keyboard is powerfully seductive.

The tenderness of Kantorow’s performance of two excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s 18 Morceaux Op.72 would be difficult to match. It’s heartbreakingly hesitant and vulnerable. The composer’s Scherzo à la Russe is equally remarkable, though for different reasons. Here, Kantorow is virtuosic master of the great and the small. The power of his playing in the final measures echoes the dynamism and strength of his execution in the three excerpts of Stravinsky’s L’Oiseaux de Feu. This 1928 piano transcription is relentless in its technical demands. Undaunted, Kantorow delivers a blazing performance of the Danse infernale and the Finale.

Balakirev’s Islamey Op.18 concludes the disc with another virtuosic display of impossibly quick repetitions separated by stretches of languorous repose. Kantorow is a superb colourist who possesses a technique capable of anything these Russian composers have required. This super audio CD is pure pleasure from start to finish.

10 Bernstein soloIn anticipation of the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth in 1918, Andrew Cooperstock has released Leonard Bernstein – Complete Solo Works for Piano (Bridge 948 SA/B). The two-disc set is a comprehensive collection of keyboard compositions and arrangements spanning Bernstein’s career. It contains the first recording of the complete Bridal Suite for piano four hands. Disc one presents all 29 of the Anniversaries he composed for his friends and family. The dedicatees include his daughter Nina, Serge and Nathalie Koussevitsky, Lukas Foss, Stephen Sondheim and many others. Cooperstock does a splendid job in capturing the deeply personal and affectionate tribute that each of these portrays.

Disc two contains the balance of the Bernstein piano repertoire. Four Sabras, rarely heard, are particularly entertaining for the colourful characters with which he imbues each one. Cooperstock excels in the piano arrangement of Aaron Copland’s El Salón México. Fully in control of the piece’s technical demands, he captures the work’s fiery spirit, bringing it to a powerful and frenzied conclusion.

Cooperstock takes advantage of studio technology to play both piano parts of the Bridal Suite. It’s a collection of short, witty pieces that he performs with obvious relish and good humour.

The Leonard Bernstein at 100 project is a timely and instructive look at a musical giant through his work at the keyboard.

11 Satie 1Nicolas Horvath has released the first volume in his latest project, Satie – Complete Piano Works 1 (Grand Piano GP 761). His project takes advantage of the newest and most extensively corrected edition of Satie’s piano music by Salabert (Milan). Horvath has also chosen to record the repertoire up to 1897 on Cosima Wagner’s 1881 Erard, in an effort to create the kind of piano sound that Satie would have known and expected. The CD program includes two world premiere recordings of short works and nine others from the newly revised edition.

The notes to this CD contain some very fine historical autobiographical material that reminds the reader of how extraordinary Satie was. His music is never really contrapuntal or even impressionistic. He establishes an atmosphere of mysticism with pulsating chords against melodies that feel modal and something akin to Asian or Middle Eastern.

Horvath does a splendid job in presenting this unusual repertoire. The four Ogives are almost entirely vertical and hymn-like in their replication of plainchant. Said to have been inspired by the Gothic arches of a neighbouring church, these are perhaps unlike most of Satie’s other music. There’s also a fascinating, if short, monodic piece titled Leit-Motiv du “Panthée”. Chanson hongroise is barely more than half a minute but contains curious and tantalizing touches of Bartók.

With volumes two and three already designed and ready for release soon, Satie collectors will be eager to snap them from the shelves when they appear.

01 Elinor FreyAngelo Maria Fioré – Complete Cello Sonatas
Elinor Frey; Suzie LeBlanc; Lorenzo Ghielmi; Esteban La Rotta
Passacaille 1026 (elinorfrey.com)

Oh my, this is an elegant recording! From the simple opening bars of Fioré’s G Major Cello Sonata, the highest calibre of music-making is established and doesn’t waver for the duration of the disc. There are three strands to the program: the complete sonatas for cello by the little-known cellist of the late 17th and early 18th century, Angelo Maria Fioré; a half-dozen arias by contemporaries of Fioré which feature cello obbligato lines; and two pieces from the same period for solo harpsichord.

The handsome CD booklet features a well-written, substantial essay by Elinor Frey on the early history of the cello, the life – such as we know it – of Fioré, and a detailed contextualization of the works on the program. The cello sonatas themselves are pleasant, have a great deal of variety and are clearly idiomatically suited to the instrument. Fioré was a few years younger than his celebrated contemporary Arcangelo Corelli, and his sonatas – at their best – share a drive and musical interest with Corelli’s early trio sonatas.

The arias are by Paolo Magni, Francesco Ballarotti and other rather obscure Italians of the mid-Baroque and have themes of – what else? – the raptures and torments of love. The highlight is Magni’s É caro il tormento soave il dolor featuring sophisticated and truly moving interplay between Suzie Leblanc’s voice and Frey’s cello.

The performances throughout are well-conceived, leaving ample room for spontaneity and fancy. Kudos to Lorenzo Ghielmi and Esteban La Rotta for their warm and classy support.

02 Back Before BachBack Before Bach
Piffaro The Renaissance Band
Navona Records NV6106 (navonarecords.com)

Just one look at the photographs of Piffaro’s musicians – and from the sleeve notes the range of instruments played – will confirm this ensemble’s sheer diversity of expertise. Listen to the 38(!) tracks and you will appreciate the exuberance of their playing.

From the outset the shawms and sackbuts take us back to the Renaissance – we are listening to compositions by Michael Praetorius, Heinrich Isaac and many others. What is surprising is the Chorale (with sackbuts and dulcian) by none other than J.S. Bach. Mind you, Bach’s father, godfather and father-in-law were all city trumpeters.

Then two highly popular Renaissance tunes. Joan Kimball is solo bagpipes player in Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen: her intense interpretation is balanced out by Priscilla Herreid’s perky recorder playing and, indeed, by some spirited crumhorn playing in the other variations.

The second variations are of Tandernaken op den Rijn; no bagpipes or crumhorns but the mellow and ethereal tones of the recorder. In particular, enjoy Antone Brumel’s two-part scoring and the deft playing once again of Herreid and Kimball. This set is perhaps the most involved – yet enjoyable – on this CD. Play the set to anyone who still believes recorders are for schoolkids!

And so to A solis ortus, variations commencing with one by Coelius Sedulius for two recorders which would grace any modern church (Sedulius died in 450 – early music composition with a vengeance…). Recorders again hold sway courtesy of, inter alia, a Praetorius Chorale played on eight(!) recorders, and another Chorale by J.S. Bach.

German dances, as may be expected from the late Renaissance, feature heavily. In one suite shawms and sackbuts can be heard separately and in harmony, the former in the Scheidt Allemande with deep rich tone, the latter in the Praetorius Passameze. La Volta lives up to its name, Praetorius placing his stamp on this breathtaking popular dance.

The CD is rounded off with another suite of German dances, dominated by Praetorius. Joan Kimball arranges Ballet des Aveugles for bagpipes and shawm, a skirling effort with many variations, followed by the relatively delicate Padouana by Johann Schein played on sackbuts. This dignified piece well deserves its popularity among early music enthusiasts. And this CD is well worthy of an audience wider than just the latter.

03 Bach MarimbaBach – Solo works for marimba
Kuniko
Linn Records CKD 585 (linnrecords.com)

Playing any classical music on the marimba would have been unthinkable before 1892. After all it was only then that the instrument was equipped with additional notes to include the chromatic scale by adding another row of sound bars, akin to black keys on the piano. However, playing Bach on the marimba – if not unthinkable – would still be enormously thought-provoking, but not challenging enough, it seems, for Kuniko, a profoundly brilliant virtuoso at home on both keyboard and percussion instruments. Still, even the fact that she has performed and recorded the music of Iannis Xenakis and Steve Reich could not have been sufficient for approaching these masterworks on Bach: Solo Works for Marimba.

Approaching the Prelude No.1 in C Major from the Well-Tempered Clavier, a work unequalled in the profligacy of its inventiveness, sets the tone for this exquisitely sculpted music by Kuniko. The result is a fascinating opening, with its sprightly dance-like passages and concise melody creating myriad resonances and perspectives for the cycles of Cello Suites and Violin Sonatas that follow. Here the mallets lead the ear, cherishing motivic snippets, highlighting arresting harmonic progressions with crystalline articulation. Kuniko’s enormous insight into Bach and her own limitless inventiveness make for muscular, exhilaratingly voiced and contrapuntally lucid performances of the solo works for cello and violin, in which harmony and counterpoint are implied through frequent spreading of component notes. A bedazzling set of discs, singing with innate beauty.

04 Bruckner 9Bruckner 9
Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Riccardo Muti
CSO-Resound CSOR 901 1701 (cso.org)

There is no lack of fine recordings of Bruckner’s Symphony No.9, a work left incomplete at the time of his death in 1896. Among American orchestras, the Chicago Symphony has long been renowned for its performances of Bruckner’s music, and it was the CSO who actually gave the North American premiere in 1904. So this latest recording featuring the CSO conducted by Riccardo Muti seems particularly fitting.

This is not Muti’s first foray into Bruckner – he has also recorded Symphonies Four and Seven – but from the forbidding opening measures of Symphony No.9, the orchestra displays a deep engagement with this monumental score. The first movement – 26 minutes in length – is majestic and dignified, with CSO’s outstanding sound displaying rich tonal colours and a full dynamic range. We could only have hoped for a little more prominence of the renowned CSO brass section, which at times seems too muted.

The strident Scherzo has a rightful mood of defiance, Muti approaching it with a suitable amount of intensity.

The third and final Adagio is all serenity, with Muti and the CSO invoking a true sense of nobility. Even without the final movement, Muti instills a satisfying sense of conclusion that doesn’t leave the listener wanting for more.

This is an exemplary recording, one that can rightfully take its place alongside more established performances. An Italian-born conductor leading an American orchestra in music from the late Romantic period – proof indeed that fine music-making does indeed transcend international boundaries – highly recommended.

05 Mahler 5Mahler 5
Minnesota Orchestra; Osmo Vänskä
BIS BIS-2226 SACD (mnorch.org)

The conductor Osmo Vänskä has an enviable reputation as an orchestra builder, having previously transformed the provincial Finnish orchestra of Lahti into a major player with his survey of the complete works of Sibelius in an acclaimed series of recordings on the BIS label. In 2003, Vänskä became the music director of the Minnesota Orchestra and turned his attention to well-regarded box sets of the complete Beethoven and Sibelius symphonies, also on BIS. The present recording is the first in a projected series of the complete Mahler symphonies, with Symphonies Six and Two due to arrive shortly.

I must admit I was initially a bit dubious about the project; a Mahler cycle is a pro forma bid for the big leagues and a potentially ruinous gamble from entities whose Mahler tradition is often negligible. I need not have worried. As Mahler was fond of saying, “Tradition is laziness.” This is a fresh-faced, supremely confident performance that cleans away many a cobweb from the customary overheated interpretations of this popular work. Vänskä lets the music flow naturally without resorting to dramatic excess at structural transitions, and his orchestra responds with admirable assurance and precision to his subtle tempo modifications. The refinement of the string section in particular is exemplary, allowing the delicate arc of the Adagietto movement to be stretched to a near-record duration of 13 minutes. Special praise is due to the experienced team from BIS for producing an exemplary, richly detailed studio recording in an age in which cheaply sutured “live” performances predominate.

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