01 Paganini IbragimovaWhen the COVID lockdown started in March 2020 the London-based Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova decided to use the forced seclusion to do “some serious work” on the notoriously difficult Paganini 24 Caprices. The result, recorded in an empty Henry Wood Hall, is her new 2-CD set on the Hyperion label (CDA68366 alinaibragimova.com/recordings).

In his excellent booklet essay, which outlines the individual technical issues and challenges in each caprice, Jeremy Nicholas refers to Paganini as a shockingly underrated and “inspired and well-schooled composer whose innovative advances in violin technique couched in music of great drama and poetry remain his most significant contributions to the history of music.” 

Well, technique, drama and poetry is just some of what you get from the brilliant soloist here. It’s a quite stunning performance, with never a hint of any technical problems but also never a hint of mere virtuosity – there’s an astonishing palette of colours and moods that holds your interest from beginning to end. If you’ve ever viewed these pieces as mere technical studies then this set – an absolute must-buy at two CDs for the price of one – will certainly change your mind.

02 Hadelich Bach Sonatas PartitasAnother product of the lockdown is the Bach Sonatas & Partitas set from violinist Augustin Hadelich, who took the opportunity to complete a recording project that had long been a dream of his (Warner Classics 190295047955 warnerclassics.com/release/augustin-hadelich-bach).

His perceptive booklet notes examine the changing approach to Bach’s music through the historically informed revolution to the current variety of styles. He uses a Baroque bow with his 1744 “Leduc, ex-Szeryng” Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù violin, which he found to be liberating and a revelation, allowing for more fluid multiple stops and more buoyant, light articulation.

Hadelich uses vibrato when he feels it appropriate for expression, and adds occasional ornamentation. Tempi are dazzlingly fast at times, but bowing and intonation are always flawless.

These are brilliant performances; strong, bright and assertive but never lacking introspection.

03 Metamorphosis Bach on violaWhen the pandemic forced the suspension of Colorado’s Boulder Bach Festival, its music director also took the opportunity to begin the Bach recording project he’d been planning for years. The result is Metamorphosis: Bach Cello Suites 1, 2 and 3 played on viola by Zachary Carrettín (Sono Luminus DSL-92247 sonoluminus.com).

Carrettín has extensive experience as guest concertmaster with numerous Baroque orchestras, and has lived with these works for over 25 years. The result, not surprisingly, is a superb set of beautifully judged performances. Any loss of low cello resonance is more than compensated for by the lighter warmth of the viola, its octave-higher tuning making these seem a perfectly natural performance choice, and not transcriptions.

The viola is an 18th-century model by an unknown maker, set up with internal and external historical fittings – bridge, tailpiece and bass bar – and wound gut strings, with Carrettín using an ironwood tenor viola da gamba Baroque bow.

Listen to 'Metamorphosis: Bach Cello Suites 1, 2 and 3' Now in the Listening Room

04 Gluzman Beethoven SchnittkeVadim Gluzman is in tremendous form on Beethoven/Schnittke No.3 violin concertos, with the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester under James Gaffigan (BIS-2392 naxosdirect.com/search/+bis-2392+).

Strong opening timpani strokes in the Beethoven announce a performance of real character, but what really sets it apart is the use of the cadenzas written by Alfred Schnittke in the mid-1970s. With their snatches of Bach, Brahms, Bartók, Berg and Shostakovich, they strike Gluzman as “an incredible time bridge, uniting all into one and pointing to the Beethoven concerto as being the root, the source of inspiration and in a way a model for generations to come.” They’re remarkably effective, never deserting Beethoven’s material but viewing it through different eyes, never simply virtuosic and never disrespectful – better, in this respect, than some of the standard cadenzas.

A cadenza starts Schnittke’s own three-movement Violin Concerto No.3, written in 1978 for Oleg Kagan and scored for 13 wind instruments and string quartet, the latter not heard until the transition to the third movement.

Gluzman, playing the 1690 ex-Leopold Auer Strad, is superb throughout, with outstanding support from the Lucerne ensemble on a terrific disc.

05 Phoenix WawrowskiPhoenix, the latest CD from violinist Janusz Wawrowski with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Grzegorz Nowak, features two concertos written in times of personal stress for their composers: the “Phoenix Concerto” for Violin Op.70 by the Polish composer Ludomir Różycki (1883-1953) and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto Op.35 (Warner Classics 0190295191702 wawrowski.com/albums-shop).

The two-movement Różycki concerto was written in 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising but never performed. When he encountered manuscript fragments of the work several years ago (no complete fully orchestrated version survives), Wawrowski was determined to see the concerto reborn; he located the manuscript piano reduction, discovered further fragments, including some of the original orchestration, rewrote sections of the violin part that were unplayable, and had a full orchestration prepared. The result is an extremely attractive work, premiered in 2018, with a first-movement theme that will melt your heart, especially given Wawrowski’s sweet-toned, strong, rhapsodic playing. His remark that the concerto reminds him of Gershwin or – in particular – Korngold, with a slight glance towards Hollywood, is spot on.

The Tchaikovsky concerto was written following the breakup of the composer’s disastrous marriage. The performance here is top notch – carefully measured and thoughtful, with great control of tempi – but I’d buy the whole disc just for that achingly, hauntingly beautiful Różycki theme.

06 Rachel PodgerViolinist Rachel Podger, with Christopher Glynn at the fortepiano, completes her nine-CD series of Mozart’s violin sonatas with Mozart Jones Violin Sonatas Fragment Completions, world-premiere recordings of six sonata-allegros and a fantasia for violin and piano, completed by Timothy Jones (Channel Classics CCS SA 42721 rachelpodger.com/recordings).

Since 2013, Jones has produced over 80 completions of some 30 Mozart fragments in all genres, a process discussed in detail in his extensive and fascinating booklet essay. Four fragments from Mozart’s last decade in Vienna form the basis of the remarkable reworkings here, with multiple versions showing the various possibilities, all based on Mozart’s evolving style during the 1780s. Three fragments – Fr1782c in B-flat, Fr1784b in A and Fr1789f in G – are each heard in two completions; the remaining fragment is the Fantasia in C Minor Fr1782l.

It’s virtually impossible to tell when the fragments end and the completions begin – the continuity is seamless, and never for a moment do you feel as if you’re not listening to Mozart.

The violin is a 1739 Pesarinius, and the fortepiano a 2019 German model by Christoph Kern, based on an 1825 original by Conrad Graf of Vienna. They are well matched, and there’s a lovely tonal balance on a quite fascinating disc.

07 McDonagh beethoven complete cello sontats album coverThe Irish duo of cellist Ailbhe McDonagh (her first name pronounced AL-vah) and pianist John O’Conor make their contribution to the Beethoven 250 celebrations with a double-album set of Beethoven Complete Cello Sonatas 1-5, released in late May and available on all major music platforms (Steinway & Sons naxosdirect.com/search/034062301812).

O’Conor is an acknowledged Beethoven specialist, having won first prize in the International Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna in 1973, and having recorded the complete piano sonatas as well as the complete piano concertos. McDonagh, who as a child studied piano with O’Conor, is a great partner and clearly on the same level here, the duo being as one with every nuance in dynamics and tempi in outstanding performances.

Recorded in St. Peter’s Church in Drogheda, Ireland in August of last year, the sound is resonant and warm and the balance excellent. I listened on YouTube, where there is also a short documentary on the project.

08 Intimate ImpressionsIntimate Impressions for 2 guitars, featuring Canadian guitarists Adam Cicchillitti and Steve Cowan, is a collection of 20th-century works written in Paris, heard here mostly in arrangements by the performers (Analekta AN 2 8793 analekta.com/en).

The only original piece for two guitars is the four-movement Sérénade by André Jolivet from 1959. Ravel’s Sonatine, Germaine Tailleferre’s Sonate pour harpe, four short pieces by the Catalan composer Federico Mompou and two Debussy Préludes – Bruyères and La fille aux cheveux de lin – are all arrangements, with the Drew Henderson/Michael Kolk arrangement of the Prélude from Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin closing the disc.

Each guitarist has a solo track: Debussy’s Arabesque No.1 for Cicchillitti, and Ravel’s Pavane pour une enfante défunte for Cowan. Fine playing throughout, recorded by the always-reliable Drew Henderson, makes for a delightful CD.

09 Rodrigo Guitar 3The first two volumes of the Naxos series of the guitar music of Joaquín Rodrigo featured guitarist Jérémy Jouve, but on Rodrigo Guitar Music 3, a selection of eight works ranging from 1948 to 1987, the soloist is the brilliant Turkish-American guitarist Celil Refik Kaya (8.574004 naxosdirect.com/search/8574004).

Although unable to play the guitar, Rodrigo produced about 25 solo works for the instrument, an output that, as Graham Wade notes in his excellent booklet essay, is now appreciated as one of the central pillars of the concert repertoire.

The first thing that strikes you is the wealth of variety and imagination and the sheer technical demands of the music. The second thing is how superbly Kaya meets every challenge, with faultless technique, a wide range of tone colour and dynamics and impeccable musicianship. He is joined by flutist Marianne Gedigian in two short works for flute and guitar, but the brilliance here is in the solo pieces.

Norbert Kraft’s name as producer guarantees a superb recorded sound on an outstanding disc.

10 DIALOGOG John Henry CrawfordDIALOGO is the excellent debut album from the American cellist John-Henry Crawford, accompanied by the Filipino-American pianist Victor Santiago Asuncion (Orchid Classics ORC100166 orchidclassics.com). 

“Dialogue” is Crawford’s description of the recital’s concept: Dialogo is the first of the two movements of the brief but striking Sonata for Solo Cello by György Ligeti, but the cellist also sees conversation between the partners in Brahms’ Cello Sonata No.2 in F Major Op.99 and the desire for dialogue in the Cello Sonata in D Minor Op.40 by Shostakovich, who at the time of the work’s composition was temporarily separated from his wife.

Crawford draws a warm, rich tone from the 200-year-old cello that was smuggled out of Austria by his grandfather following Kristallnacht in 1938, and is ably supported by fine playing from Asuncion in performances of strength, sensitivity and passion.

Listen to 'DIALOGO' Now in the Listening Room

11 Warren NicholsonSonidos del Sur, the latest CD from Canadian guitarist Warren Nicholson, features works by composers from Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Paraguay and Cuba (Composers Concordance Records COMCON0063 warrennicholsonguitarist.com).

The most well-known pieces are Agustín Barrios’ La Catedral, Antonio Lauro’s four Valses Venezolano and João Pernambuco’s Sons de Carrilhões (Sounds of Bells). Also included are Maximo Diego Pujol’s five-movement Suite Del Plata No.1, José Ardevol’s three-movement Sonata Para Guitarra, Julio Sagreras’ El Colibri and Dilermando Reis’ Xôdô da Baiana.

As always with this player, there’s solid technique and clean playing with some lovely moments, but there’s also an occasional sense of earnestness and over-deliberation which tends to prevent the music from really expanding and flowing.

12 Xander SimmonsMontreal-based composer Xander Simmons has released a digital EP of his String Quartet No.2, a five-movement work lasting just over 20 minutes (xandersimmons.com).

Simmons describes it as post-minimalist in style, with lyrical, mostly tonal melodies layered on minimalist compositional structures, which is exactly how it sounds. It’s a confident, highly competent piece given a terrific performance by Montreal’s Quatuor Cobalt, with whom Simmons workshopped and revised the work. It’s well worth a listen. You can check it out on YouTube.

01 Beausejour New BaroqueNew Baroque Sessions
Luc Beauséjour
Analekta AN 2 8919 (analekta.com/en)

Solitary ways of existence brought on by the current pandemic have resulted in spurs of interesting solo projects around the world. Many performing artists have been contemplating the question of their artistic identity in the circumstances that extinguish the very nature of their art. A solo statement of a kind, New Baroque Sessions is an album that captures one artist’s way of retaining the essence of their creative expression while playing the music they love. 

This second volume of Baroque music played on piano (the first one was published in 2016) is a collection of Luc Beauséjour’s favourite pieces from the Baroque repertoire. The compositions, by Bach, Couperin (Armand-Louis and François), Scarlatti, Fischer, Sweelinck, Froberger and Balbastre, touch upon different corners of vast Baroque treasures. Some are well known, others explored less often. All are predominantly written for harpsichord but translate exceptionally well to piano, which was one of Beauséjour’s intentions with this album. 

A versatile performer, equally at home on harpsichord, organ and piano, Beauséjour has an elegance to his playing that is truly rare. Here is the performer that plays with colours and articulations; a performer of subtle gestures that amount to grand statements. The pieces themselves contain creative elements one does not necessarily expect – musical portraits, clever compositional techniques, tributes to Greek muses, or simple utterances of the resilience of their times. While honouring Baroque traditions, there is a touch of contemporaneity to Beauséjour’s interpretations, adding an incredible freshness to this album.

02 SacabucheHidden Treasures – 17th-Century Music of Habsburg and Bohemia
ATMA ACD2 2798 (atmaclassique.com/en)

This is something new. We are aware of the talented and sometimes prodigious output of Austrian composers such as Haydn or Mozart but their predecessors are all but unknown. Enter ¡Sacabuche! For 15 years under the direction of Baroque trombonist Linda Pearse, this Canadian ensemble has rediscovered works from Habsburg and Bohemian sources. What is more, the range of instruments such as cornettos and theorbos is particularly diverse. 

Indeed, it is strident trombone playing that makes its presence immediately felt in O dulce nomen Jesu by the Viennese composer Giovanni Felice Sances. Massimiliano Neri’s Sonata quarta Op.2 is even more complex, demanding an intricate playing which makes the disappearance of these pieces from mainstream music all the more puzzling. 

On occasion the CD includes anonymous pieces; the eight-part Sinfonia is a vibrant full-blooded composition which any modern brass band would be proud to perform. Of course, this does not rule out vocal input as another anonymous composition Salve regina à 4 brings out the contralto contribution of Vicki St Pierre – holding her own even while outnumbered by ten instrumentalists! In fact, while most of the compositions on this CD are scored for several of these instrumentalists, St Pierre’s performance of O quam suavis (again anonymous) brings a virtuoso voice to the selection.

When we consider our familiarity with the contemporary composers from say Venice, the absence of this CD’s composers is very surprising. We owe much to Linda Pearse and her fellow musicians in bringing us this anthology.

03 Spira SperaSpira, Spera
Emmanuel Despax
Signum Classics SIGCD 665 (signumrecords.com/?s=Spira)

In the liner notes to the terrific 2021 release Spira, Spera, the name taken from Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, French pianist Emmanuel Despax writes that studying and performing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is metaphysical in that “there is no chaos, just beauty.” Most certainly, during these trying times, humanity’s quest for beauty is, if nothing, unabated. As such, I would suggest (expanding on this point) that Bach’s music – particularly when played as beautifully as is captured on this wonderful recording – is an equivalently metaphysical journey for engaged listeners. Perhaps this sounds trite, but beauty is the antidote to ugliness. And sadly, there is tremendous ugliness in society and in the world at present. Beauty, and beautiful artifacts, such as the music of Bach as performed boldly and with nuance by Despax, hold out the possibility of something (a beauty ideal?) towards which we aspire. 

Although much of the music contained on this disc may be familiar, the arrangements and album concept (paying tribute to the legacy of pianists and composers – Liszt and Busoni among others – who both revered Bach’s music and transcribed it for the contemporary piano) is both unique and musically satisfying. The whole recording is sublime. Even on such workhorses as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, Despax finds freshness in Dame Myra Hess’s transcription and brings to life beautiful musical subtleties that, of course, were always contained within, but needed the deftness of touch and recording sensitivity that Despax and this album offer, to reveal themselves anew.

04 Madame BrillonIn the Salon of Madame Brillon – Music and Friendship in Benjamin Franklin’s Paris
The Raritan Players; Rebecca Cypess
Acis APL40158 (acisproductions.com)

This inspired new recording from the noted Raritan Players was conceived and directed by pianist and scholar Dr. Rebecca Cypess, and is the result of arduous research and performances. The project is focused on the pre-Revolutionary War Parisian hostess, patroness and composer, Anne-Louise Boyvan d’Hardancourt Brillon de Jouy (1744-1824), and on both her musical canon and the sparkling workings of her fabulous, fashionable and elite Parisian salon. Her luminous guests were drawn from the rarified worlds of music, art, philosophy and diplomacy – including her flirty pen pal Benjamin Franklin (then U.S. Ambassador to Paris). 

There are seven world-premiere recordings here, which include Brillon’s duet for harpsichord and square piano (performed on a rare 1780 English instrument by Johannes Zumpe). All selections have been performed on period instruments and feature not only Brillon’s work, but music preserved in her personal collection, including compositions dedicated to her by the iconic cellist Luigi Boccherini. 

Of particular beauty in this heady bouquet are Boccherini’s Sonata No.4 in D Major from Sei Sonate di Cembalo e Violino – particularly the Andante, which explores the gorgeous and unexpected, natural sonic symmetry of the violin and harpsichord. Brillon’s own Sonata No.4 in G Minor is a fresh-sounding and compelling work, and in the Andante con espressione, the square piano resonates with passion and urgency – engulfing the length of the keyboard. Henri-Joseph Rigel’s three-movement piece for piano and harpsichord, Duo No.2 in C Minor is a spine-tingling celebration of musical possibilities. 

Constrained by the societal restrictions of her day, Brillon, who nearly disappeared from history, manifested an international life of artistic and historical significance that still resonates today.

05 Boccherini FluteBoccherini – Complete Flute Quintets
Rafael Ruibérriz de Torres; Francisco de Goya String Quartet
Brilliant Classics 96074 (naxosdirect.com/search/5028421960746)

Virtuoso cellist and composer, Luigi Boccherini, born in 1743 in the city of Lucca in Tuscany, Italy, only 92 kilometres west of Florence, received his musical education in Lucca and subsequently in Rome. He spent some time in his mid-20s in Paris, which led to his moving to Madrid and his appointment as a musician in the household of the Infante Don Luis, brother of King Charles III.

It was there in 1773 and 1774 that Boccherini composed the two sets of Six Flute Quintets Opp.17 and 19, recorded on the first two CDs of this three-CD set. The third CD is of the Flute Quintets Op.55, composed in 1797, either in Spain or in Berlin, where he was employed by King Frederick William II of Prussia.

These 18 quintets, while far from Boccherini’s total output, reveal a very skilful and original composer, different from but not inferior to his much better-known colleagues, Haydn and Mozart. First and foremost is his gift for melodic invention, evident in everything on the CD, even in the third set, composed when he was in his mid-50s. 

The flute would, you might think, be a bit of a fifth wheel when added to a string quartet, but not for Boccherini. He sometimes uses the flute as a soloist, as in Op.19, No.3, which is almost a concerto, the flute even having a cadenza; sometimes as an orchestral colour to bring out a series of modulations, as in Op.17, No.1; and sometimes as a source of contrast, as in Op.19, No.4, where the flute and the cello alternate as soloists.

The performers are the Spanish Francisco de Goya String Quartet and flutist, Rafael Ruibérriz de Torres. The quartet’s playing is technically flawless, and their sensitivity to each other and to the flute is exemplary. Ruibérriz de Torres always sounds as if he belongs, and his facility on the period instrument is astounding during the virtuoso passages. Bravissimi to the five for giving us this first complete recording of these hitherto neglected works.

06 Flute Passion MozartFlute Passion: Mozart
Nadia Labrie; Antoine Bareil; Isaac Chalk; Benoit Loiselle
Analekta AN 2 8925 (analekta.com/en)

Mozart’s dislike of the flute has long been a topic of controversy, and whatever truth there may be behind the theory, some of his most charming works were written for the instrument, albeit the result of commissions received between 1778 and 1787. Five of these compositions – the Quartets K285, 285a and 285b in addition to the Quartet K298 and the renowned Andante K315 (as arranged and adapted by François Vallières) are presented here on this delightful Analekta recording performed by flutist Nadia Labrie and her accomplished colleagues Antoine Bareil, violin, Isaac Chalk, viola and Benoit Loiselle, cello. First-prize winner from the Conservatoire de musique du Québec, Labrie holds a master’s degree from the Université de Montréal and has appeared as soloist with such ensembles as the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec and the Vienna Chamber Orchestra. This is her third in the Flute Passion series.

These one-, two-,  or three-movement works – never more than 17 minutes in length – may have only been written for the purpose of financial gain, but after 250 years they remain miniature gems – amiable chamber music where all parts are deemed equal. 

As a cohesive ensemble, this group of four succeeds admirably!  From the beginning, the listener is struck with the wonderfully intimate sound these musicians produce. Labrie’s pure and sonorous tone is perfectly complemented by the underlying strings that provide a sensitive partnership. This is nowhere more evident than in the second movement of K285b, a theme and six variations. Here, the artists approach the graceful intertwined melodies with great finesse, achieving a delicate balance throughout.

Félicitations à tous! This is a wonderful performance of engaging music played by four gifted musicians. Whatever feelings Mozart may have had for the flute, he would surely have approved!

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