Early, Classical and Beyond
- Written by Terry Robbins
- Category: Early, Classical and Beyond
For Seasons is the new CD from violinist Daniel Hope with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra and 11 individual collaborators (Deutsche Grammophon 479 6922). The album’s title is carefully chosen, as the disc contains not only Hope’s first recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons but also 12 short pieces linked to the months of the year, a concept Hope came up with 20 years ago and which he calls a very personal celebration of the seasons.
It’s fascinating to see how the Vivaldi concertos retain their freshness despite what seems like a neverending series of new recordings. The performances here are simply lovely – crisp, clean and warm, with some brilliant playing from Hope and an excellent continuo sound from the harpsichord, theorbo and baroque guitar. It’s another terrific interpretation to add to the already extensive list.
The rest of the CD is an absolute delight, although the connections with the months of the year – if they exist at all – are somewhat tenuous. Only Aphex Twin’s Avril 14th, Tchaikovsky’s June, Chilly Gonzales’ Les doutes d’août and Kurt Weill’s September Song are specifically linked to the appropriate month, with the remainder of the brief tracks apparently intended to convey the feelings and emotions associated with the changing seasons.
No matter, for they’re all real winners, with the January of Nils Frahm’s beautiful Ambre and the December of Chilly Gonzales’ Wintermezzo framing music by Rameau, Max Richter, Robert Schumann, Bach and his contemporary Johann Molter, and a particularly striking improvisation on Amazing Grace with Dom Bouffard on electric guitar. The Zurich Chamber Orchestra provides the accompaniment on four of the tracks. Hope’s lovely solo violin arrangement of Brahms’ Lullaby, Guten Abend, gut’ Nacht, provides a beautiful close to an outstanding CD.
The CD booklet, incidentally, includes the accompanying artwork produced by 12 visual artists in response “to the music and to the seasons” in Hope’s For Seasons project.
Another terrific Deutsche Grammophon CD, PREGHIERA Rachmaninov: Piano Trios features outstanding playing by violinist Gidon Kremer (celebrating his 70th birthday with this release), cellist Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė and pianist Daniil Trifonov (479 6979).
The CD’s title is taken from the opening track, Fritz Kreisler’s Preghiera, a violin and piano collaboration between Kreisler and Rachmaninoff that reworked the Adagio sostenuto from the composer’s Piano Concerto No.2. It’s a short but beautiful work that serves as an effective curtain-raiser to the two piano trio works.
Dedicated to “the memory of a great artist,” the Trio élégiaque No.2 in D Minor was Rachmaninoff’s response to the death of Tchaikovsky, whom he revered; it was started on the very day of Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893. Rachmaninoff said that all his thoughts, feelings and powers were devoted to it, that he tormented himself the entire time and was “ill in spirit.” Those sentiments are certainly reflected in the music, for this is a large-scale work written in what the booklet notes call “a musical idiom of almost unbridled emotionality.” The performance here is outstanding, perfectly capturing the melancholy and passion of the work and with a particularly ravishing piano sound.
The Trio élégiaque No.1 in G Minor is a short, one-movement student work that again features a prominent role for the piano and that offers more than a hint of Rachmaninoff’s mature elegiac style. Another fine performance rounds out a top-notch CD.
The Kreisler Preghiera turns up again in Rachmaninoff Complete Works & Transcriptions for Violin & Piano, a simply stunning CD from the American violinist Annelle K. Gregory and the Russian pianist Alexander Sinchuk (Bridge 9481).
From the opening bars of the Romance in A Minor, a very early student work when the composer was scarcely into his teens, it’s clear that this is going to be a very special album. Gregory has a quite gorgeous tone, is absolutely secure technically and plays with power, richness and assurance. Sinchuk matches her every step of the way.
And what music this is to display such deeply glowing and emotional playing! Given that 17 of the 20 tracks are arrangements or transcriptions it feels like Rachmaninoff’s Greatest Bits at times, but with performances like these, who cares? Rachmaninoff wrote only three pieces for violin and piano – the opening unpublished track, which remained unknown until 1951, and the Deux Morceaux de Salon Op.6; of the transcriptions here from other sources six are by Jascha Heifetz and five are by Fritz Kreisler.
The Preghiera is perhaps a bit more rhapsodic than Kremer’s version, the latter’s feeling more like the prayer suggested by the title, but both are simply beautiful interpretations. There’s a lovely Vocalise in an arrangement by the early-20th-century Russian-American violinist Mikhail Press, whose students included the legendary Dorothy DeLay, and Kreisler’s transcription of the 18th Variation from the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini brings a dazzling CD to an end.
There is more superb string playing on Divertimenti, the new CD from the Miller-Porfiris Duo (millerporfirisduo.org) of violinist Anton Miller and violist Rita Porfiris featuring duos by Robert Fuchs, Ernst Toch and Bohuslav Martinů. The players, who met at Juilliard over 20 years ago, have been playing together since 2005, and you would have to go a long way to hear better duet playing than this.
Fuchs died in 1927, and consequently did not experience the growing Nazi influence in Austria in the 1930s. His students included Erich Korngold and Alexander Zemlinsky (both of whom fled Nazi Europe for the United States) and Gustav Mahler. His 12 Duette Op.60 date from 1898, when Fuchs was on the faculty of the Vienna Conservatory, and are beautifully crafted short pieces redolent of Vienna in the years before the Great War.
Toch was born in Vienna and entered Fuchs’ composition classes at the Conservatory in 1900 at the age of 12. He emigrated to the United States in 1934, settling in Los Angeles and writing numerous film scores. His Divertimento Op.37 No.2 for Violin and Viola is a short (under ten minutes) three-movement work with a brilliant Vivace molto that packs a real punch. Porfiris quite rightly notes the work’s “expressive dissonance and frenetic energy.”
Martinů also emigrated to the United States, in his case in 1941 after being blacklisted by the Nazis in France. He was successful in America, but never really felt happy or settled, finally returning to Europe in 1956. His Duo No.2 for Violin and Viola H.331 was written in 1950, and is a bright, melodic three-movement work with decided Czech rhythms.
Miller and Porfiris are in great form throughout the CD, both playing with a warm, rich tone and with a clarity, spirit and brightness that serves these delightful works perfectly.
The husband and wife team of violist Yuri Gandelsman and pianist Janna Gandelsman are the performers on Russian Giants, a CD of works by Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Mieczysław Weinberg and Igor Stravinsky (Blue Griffin BGR 413).
Prokofiev’s Suite from Romeo and Juliet is a selection of six short pieces from the composer’s Ten Pieces from “Romeo and Juliet” Op.75 for solo piano, which was extracted from the ballet score between its composition in 1935 and its premiere in 1938; the transcriptions for viola and piano were made by Prokofiev’s contemporary Vadim Borisovsky, the founding violist of the famed Beethoven Quartet.
Shostakovich’s Sonata for Viola and Piano Op.147 was the last work the composer completed, mostly written in his hospital bed as he lay dying of lung cancer in the summer of 1975. Replete with references to the composer’s own works as well as to those of other composers, the music belies Shostakovich’s weakened physical condition, its harmonic ambiguity finally resolving with a quiet C-Major ending that the composer called “radiance.”
Weinberg was a close friend of Shostakovich and much influenced by him; indeed, his 1945 Sonata for Clarinet and Piano Op.28, heard here in its official viola version, makes specific references to the latter’s music in the opening movement. Weinberg’s Jewish heritage is clearly felt in the middle movement.
Stravinsky’s brief Elegy for Solo Viola was written in 1944 on a commission from the Pro Arte Quartet violist Germain Prévost in memory of the group’s founding first violinist Alphonse Onnou, who had died earlier that year.
There is fine playing throughout the CD from both players, although the tone of Gandelsman’s1748 Paolo Testore viola doesn’t seem to have quite the dynamic range that it did on his 2012 Hindemith CD. Balance and recorded sound are excellent.
Lagniappe! (the Louisiana Cajun French word for a bonus gift or something extra) is the seventh volume in the series of Offenbach Cello Duets from Human Metronome (humanmetronome.com), this one featuring the Duets Op.19 Nos.1-3 and Op.20 Nos.1-3 in performances by Paul Christopher and his student Milovan Paz (HMP 107-2016).
Offenbach was a virtuoso cellist who earned his living as a performer before establishing himself as a composer. He produced three sets of cello duets, usually of increasing technical difficulty: Op.19-21 and 34 (École de Violoncelle); Op.49-54 (Cours méthodique); and Op.78. The complete Op.49-54 was covered in five of the first six CDs – the final volume was reviewed in this column last September – with Op.21 being included on a separate volume. Christopher notes that they haven’t yet found all of the music for Op.34, so there may well be an eighth CD in the future. I can’t find any mention of a recording of Op.78 anywhere.
Don’t be misled or discouraged by the use of titles like School and Method: these works may have had pedagogical intent behind their composition, but they are full of the melodic invention and beauty that made Offenbach’s operettas such a success, and can – and should – stand alone as concert recital pieces.
Christopher and Paz play as superbly and have as much fun as they did on the previous volume, where Christopher said that he felt the duets “transcend their original purpose and are the high water mark for the cello duets genre.” Everything here continues to support that view.
This whole series adds up to a pure delight for cellists of all ages and abilities.
- Written by Alex Baran
- Category: Early, Classical and Beyond
One of Canada’s brightest young talents is Jan Lisiecki. The Calgary-born pianist has been astonishing audiences since his orchestral debut at age 9. Now 22, his list of international performances with major orchestras and conductors grows yearly. His newest recording Chopin: Works for Piano & Orchestra, NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, Krzysztof Urbanski (DG 479 6824) is his fourth for Deutsche Grammophon.
Lisiecki’s playing is unerringly precise with a lightness of touch that gives him astonishing tonal control, speed and clarity. He approaches Chopin with calm introspective depth unusual for an artist so young. The Nocturne in C-sharp Minor Op.Posth. demonstrates this with its mellow left-hand accompaniment of a brighter line in the right. Lisiecki’s finish is astonishing in its balanced perfection.
Every track on this CD is extraordinary. But what really emerges as the showpiece is the set of Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Op.2. Speed, technique, astonishing rapid octaves and other devilish Chopinesque devices make this performance an example of genius running joyously amok.
Lisiecki plays beautifully with orchestra. A natural ease keeps him in step with the ensemble through the Rondo à la Krakowiak in F Major Op.14 and the Andante Spianato & Grand Polonaise Brillante Op.22.
Almost all of this disc also appears as part of DG’s 20-CD set The Complete Chopin, featuring Lisiecki along with other performers.
Grigory Sokolov is legendary for his rejection of celebrity. He gives no interviews and for some years now has stopped performing with orchestras. He also dislikes and avoids recording studios. It’s something of an achievement therefore, for Deutsche Grammophon to have obtained Sokolov’s agreement to reissue two live performances from 2005 and 1995 in Mozart, Rachmaninov Concertos & “A Conversation That Never Was” A Film by Nadia Zhdanova (DG CD/DVD479 7015). The addition of the film (on DVD) makes this set unusual. Zhdanova interviews Sokolov’s friends and colleagues and adds newly found archival material to create a portrait of this very private and sometimes reclusive artist.
The Mozart Piano Concerto No.23 in A Major K488 is the more recent performance. Recorded in 2005 in Salzburg with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Trevor Pinnock, it’s an intimate reading with Sokolov’s characteristic crisp, clear staccatos punctuating the opening of the final movement.
The other performance is with the BBC Philharmonic at the Royal Albert Hall in 1995. The Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No.3 in D Minor Op.30 is loved by audiences and equally feared by pianists for its technical challenges. The speed at which Sokolov takes the opening of the final movement is scarcely believable. The same rapid repeats of chordal passages appear in the first movement, where Sokolov gives the piano such a pounding that some notes in the upper register begin slipping out of tune and make for a few interesting effects as the performance proceeds without a pause to correct the matter. Still, the scale of Sokolov’s interpretive conception is awesome and often startling.
Thomas Hell has tackled a work with a stormy critical past, in his new recording Ives Concord Sonata (Piano Classics PCL 0112). Subtitled Concord, Mass. 1840-1860, Ives wanted to reflect the changing tide of American literary and philosophical thought in the mid-19th century. Each of the four movements carries the name of a significant figure of the period: Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts, Thoreau. The work is quite large requiring nearly 50 minutes to perform.
Hell provides some useful thoughts on his approach to this piece. Given Elliott Carter’s early criticism of its lack of form, Hell describes the sonata’s components and how its disparate elements actually hold it together. This intellectual commitment to the work is what sustains Hell’s performance through the daunting challenge of the first two movements. The technical demands are considerable. Hell even claims a few of the pages could be the most difficult in all the piano literature.
Ives enjoyed making musical references in this sonata, alluding to material from Beethoven to Stephen Foster along with a little ragtime. It’s a rich work and a challenge to deliver. Hell has a very solid understanding of what Ives is doing, and the benefit of having spent a good deal of time considering it. His real task, however, is to make much of it accessible to the listener at first hearing. On that count he exceeds expectations. Hell plays with dexterity, intention and focus. His grasp of the material is obvious and his ability to convey it is compelling.
Andrew Tyson takes on an enormous task in his latest disc, Ravel, Scriabin – Miroirs, (Alpha Classics Alpha 277). His objective is to give voice to composers wandering through the universe of free-flowing impressionism in search of transcendence over their instrument and its musical forms.
Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No.3 is the first challenge with its daunting stream of keyboard consciousness. The writing is replete with countless inner voices and Tyson masterfully brings them each to the surface for their brief appearance. It’s an amazing technique and quite magical in its effect. Tyson is never completely bound by any rhythmic strictures. He’s clearly at ease with the ebb and flow of Scriabin’s language, even in the second and fourth movements, where stronger tempos dominate.
Ravel’s Miroirs calls for more containment and Tyson senses this innately. His restraint is subtle yet his playing as seductive as ever. His command of colour is remarkable. The Bechstein used in the recording surrenders harp-like glissandos throughout his playing of Noctuelles. La vallée des cloches, similarly, is exquisite for its distant, mellow echoes and brighter tolls.
Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No.10 Op.70 concludes the disc’s program. It’s Scriabin’s final published work in the form. Tyson recaptures the mysticism of the earlier work on the recording and takes it even further. His execution is fluid and unbroken. His playing is passionate and ethereal. He’s a truly gifted artist with an extraordinary bond to this repertoire.
Beth Levin has a distinctive and unmistakable presence at the keyboard. Her newest recording, Bright Circle – Schubert, Brahms, Del Tredici (Navona Records NV 6074) demonstrates how her nearly pedal-less playing can open new perspectives on standard repertoire. Her performance of Schubert’s Piano Sonata No.20 D959 is a good example of how a drier sound benefits the musical material by reducing sustained background harmonies. The resulting clarity emphasizes the core elements of Schubert’s ideas as well as allowing other nuances to emerge unimpeded. The third movement Scherzo is a terrific example of how Levin is able to reset our expectations of familiar material using a relaxed tempo and crisp articulation. This may well have been how early pianos sounded, with their lower string tension and shorter resonance times.
Levin is, nevertheless, a deeply expressive player who never misses an opportunity for dynamic contrast and tonal shading. In the Brahms Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel Op.24, Levin uses her light pedalling to great effect in keeping the inner voices of the closing fugue wonderfully accessible. Other variations, No.2 and No.4 in particular, are perfectly supported by an economical and tasteful application of sustained legato playing.
The CD concludes with David Del Tredici’s Ode to Music. Schubert’s often sung An die Musik is the thematic kernel of this work. Del Tredici apparently offered to transcribe a favourite piece for the Dorian Wind Quintet, who responded with the choice of the Schubert Lied. Once completed, the transcription was further transcribed for keyboard by one of Del Tredici’s friends who was so impressed that he wanted his own version for piano performance. While it begins conventionally, the work evolves quickly into its contemporary iteration but does so without ever letting go of its strong Romantic impulse.
With a handful of recordings already in her discography, 30-year-old Italian pianist Vanessa Benelli Mosell has now added her orchestral debut with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2, Corelli Variations (Decca 481 393). The concerto is a staple in the repertoire. The sheer beauty of Rachmaninoff’s writing makes it a good choice for a young performer breaking into the market. The real test of this work is, however, the second movement and it’s here that Mosell truly proves herself as a musician. This movement is much less dense than the outer ones and leaves the performer quite exposed with sparse lines and slow tempos. What holds this movement together for Mosell is the honesty of her playing. Nothing’s contrived. Her phrasings are straightforward but clearly the product of much thought. She and Rachmaninoff are the perfect match.
The disc also includes Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op.42. The 20 variations are an extremely demanding set to perform. Mosell plays through them with impressive ease, meeting every demand for big powerful sound as well as the deepest introspection. It’s obvious she has invested a great deal in her interpretation and the impact is even more profound than her performance of the Concerto No.2. It’s quite surprising that the small filler piece on the recording’s program steals the show so convincingly.
Organist Carson Cooman brings another hi-tech pipe organ recording to the market with his new release Andreas Willscher, Organ Symphony No.5 (Divine Art dda 25150). This CD is another performance using the Hauptwerk system whereby digital samples of entire pipe organs and their acoustics are played back from stored memory in live performance at a location other than the original site. In other words, not in the church where the organ resides.
The authenticity of the sound produced through this method is indistinguishable from a recording made in the church, in this case, the Laurenskerk, Rotterdam, Netherlands. The instrument recorded is a Danish build of 1973 by Marcussen & Son.
Cooman has chosen to record the 12-movement Organ Symphony No.5 by German organist and composer Andreas Willscher. It’s a substantial work of 73 minutes and rich with colourful registrations and dynamic effect. Its mildly programmatic subject is “Of Francis’ Preaching about Holy Poverty.” The four movements marked Allegro are each brilliant and thrilling, with bold pedal lines that need durable speakers to deliver them without distortion. The quietest movements are equally impressive for the reverberant space around their sounds. The symphony’s longest movement is half silence, set between long held chords. A meditative injunction comes with this movement and listeners should be prepared.
These Hauptwerk projects are important for the access they offer to instruments whose onsite recording costs would otherwise leave them unheard. Cooman has made an excellent choice of combining instrument and repertoire.
- Written by Max Christie
- Category: Early, Classical and Beyond
Admiration for excellence of execution blends poorly with even mild disappointment in the material presented. Still, one must applaud the playing on this new release on the Navona label. In it, the Phoenix Ensemble presents chamber works of Henri Marteau, a little-known French composer, and Alexander Zemlinsky, a well-known Viennese one. The playing is clean and true, articulations are matched scrupulously, intonation is carefully maintained, all in service of pleasant if somewhat banal material.
Zemlinsky’s Trio in D Minor Op.3, for clarinet, cello and piano, is almost a retelling of his mentor Brahms’ late chamber work (Op.114) for the same grouping. Zemlinsky became, with Arnold Schoenberg, a major influence on European modern music, but in this piece we hear the emergent student demonstrating his ease with an idiom already becoming dated when it was published (with help from J.B., who recommended it to Simrock, the elder’s publisher). Full of wild passionate gestures and chromatically lush harmonies, the trio is high art conceived by a relative tyro, celebrating the grandness of fin-de-siècle Vienna. Mark Lieb on clarinet, Alice Yoo on cello and pianist Wayne Weng match one another flawlessly in service of this charming work.
Henri Marteau’s Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet Op.13 opens with a kind of call and response between solo clarinet and ensemble, leading through a saccharine Andante into an aimless Moderato. And on and on. Marteau seemed to possess the means to say a great deal, yet have only platitudes to speak. I wondered if I was missing a cryptically concealed form, but my attention kept reverting to the question: what is going on here? The remainder of the disc is a woodwind Serenade by Marteau. Listen for anything beyond diverting and deft bits of fun if you will. I stand in admiration of any chamber group that puts flutes beside clarinets and makes it work.
- Written by Richard Haskell
- Category: Early, Classical and Beyond
Music from the golden age of Hollywood is the premise behind Kayla Wong’s suitably named second disc Starlight. Was it really more than two years ago that she released her exemplary debut recording Allure? Since completing her studies at UCLA, this Saskatchewan-born artist continues to enjoy a notable career as a soloist and chamber musician, including recitals at Carnegie Hall and Hong Kong’s Cultural Centre.
The disc opens with a set of six pieces by Ernesto Lecuona. Clearly, Wong has an unmistakable affinity for Spanish-inspired repertoire, in this case, by the “Cuban Gershwin.” Her performance of these contrasting musical miniatures is polished and elegant – from the rhythmic Cordoba to the sensuous and lyrical Preludio en la Noche. While these pieces may have been recorded not far from the rumbling of TTC streetcars, they are firmly stamped “España.”
Earl Wild’s three Virtuoso Études (from a set of seven) based on popular songs by George Gershwin are virtuosic show-stoppers. The lyricism and charm of the originals are ever present, yet these pieces also require a formidable technique and Wong approaches the challenges with great panache.
In keeping with the Hollywood theme are six pieces by the New York songwriter Dana Suesse. With their syncopated rhythms, and bluesy harmonies, tracks such as Jazz Nocturne and Serenade to a Skyscraper are indeed worthy tributes to Hollywood’s golden age.
Starlight is a delightful respite from our less-than-perfect world of 2017 – highly recommended.
- Written by Pamela Margles
- Category: Early, Classical and Beyond
In her own time, Nadia Boulanger was truly a legend. A pianist, organist and conductor, as well as composer, she was a renowned educator who taught well over a thousand students during her long career. From Canada alone over 70 young musicians sought her out, including Jean Papineau-Couture, John Beckwith (who managed to get to Paris on a hockey scholarship to study with her) and Peter Paul Koprowski.
Today, almost 40 years after her death, her legendary stature remains undiminished. But her compositions are largely overlooked – unjustifiably, as this fascinating 2-disc set shows. Of the 37 pieces here, almost half are being recorded for the first time.
By all accounts – including memoirs from former students like Beckwith, Elliott Carter, Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass and the producer of this set, Carol Rosenberger (who includes a touching booklet note) – Boulanger insisted her students build a solid technical foundation. She had little interest in experimentation. Simple textures and clear voicings were what she encouraged, though she valued a personal style. And these qualities are what you hear in her own music. It’s polished – overly, at times – warm, witty, disarmingly tender and unexpectedly charismatic.
The 26 songs prove worthy of being in every recitalist’s repertoire, especially as performed by these fine singers – the thrillingly expressive soprano Nicole Cabell, the robust yet nuanced baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer and the versatile, characterful tenor Alek Shrader.
The Trois pièces for cello and piano are Boulanger’s most frequently performed works. Amit Peled’s impassioned cello and Lucy Mauro’s elegant, sensitive piano provide the most engaging interpretation I’ve heard.
But it’s organist François-Henri Houbart’s dramatic yet delicate performances of the Trois improvisations which I found most thrilling. Fittingly, he recorded on the Cavaillé-Coll organ in the Madeleine Church in Paris, which is the very one Boulanger used to play (a photo of this magnificent instrument is included in the booklet).
After her beloved younger sister and fellow composer, Lili Boulanger, died in 1922, Boulanger stopped composing. This set contains most of the music she wrote. By offering the fine performances these pieces deserve, it provides a convincing argument for making her music heard more often.
- Written by Tiina Kiik
- Category: Early, Classical and Beyond
There is so much toe-tapping enthusiastically performed music in this DVD of Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic live at the Hollywood Bowl on August 2, 2016. From the opening dramatic distance shot of the stage, orchestra and audience, to the final closing stage close-ups of rhythmic boisterous playing and swirling tango dancing, every visual complements the composers, conductor, musicians, soloists and dancers.
Three great Argentinian composers are performed. Lalo Schifrin is best known for his film scores (especially Mission: Impossible). His Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra No.2 “Concierto de la Amistad” is a salute to his friend, guitar virtuoso Angel Romera, who performs his lyrical lines, faster strumming sections and closing guitar taps masterfully with the orchestra. Alberto Ginastera’s Four Dances from Estancia tells the story of life on the farm. The lyrical second movement aurally represents wheat swaying in the wind while the closing fourth movement is a fast alternating 3/4 and 6/8 time work.
And what is tango music without Astor Piazzolla? His Tangazo opens with low strings leading to more rhythmic sections and flute, oboe and strings counterpoint. To close the show, a “Best of Astor Piazzolla,” four Tango Nuevo pieces are given rousing orchestral performances with master bandoneonist Seth Asarnow and the energetic spicy dancers from Tango Buenos Aires.
Dudamel conducts with passion and precision. Sound quality is superb. Three bonus interviews are included. Listen, watch, dance and enjoy!
- Written by Terry Robbins
- Category: Early, Classical and Beyond
It’s been quite a while since the terrific 2012 debut CD of Toronto’s Windermere String Quartet, but their second CD release turns out to have been well worth the wait. The ensemble’s name is usually followed by “on period instruments,” but their repertoire has never been restricted to works from the Classical period and their regular concert series frequently features world premieres of new works by Canadian composers.
Their sophmore CD, Inner Landscapes (Pipistrelle PIP 1216) follows this same pattern, with Beethoven’s Quartet in F Minor Op.95 and Mendelssohn’s Quartet in A Minor Op.13 acting as bookends to Traces of a Silent Landscape, a 2011 work by Canadian composer Robert Rival that was commissioned by the quartet.
The Beethoven and Mendelssohn works both receive exemplary performances, with intimate and sensitive playing that never lacks strength and power when needed. The Mendelssohn in particular has an achingly beautiful slow movement and a simply dazzling Presto. All the hallmarks of this ensemble’s playing are here: a judicial use of vibrato; delicate nuances; excellent dynamics; finely judged tempos; and an overall balance that always allows the identity of the individual instruments to be clearly felt.
The Rival quartet, which was inspired by a snowshoe trek in Algonquin Park in the dead of winter, is a striking and very effective work, quite modern in style but with clear traditional roots. One gets the immediate impression that the quiet, wispy nature of the music is not only perfectly suited to the particular sounds that these period instruments produce but was also inspired by them, a feeling confirmed by the composer, who says that while composing the work he had in mind “…the subdued, airy quality of gut strings and the sparing use of vibrato, in particular.” The delicate ending of the final Forest’s lullaby is quite stunning.
Rival also paid tribute to the two works with which his new work would be premiered – and which accompany it on this CD in a re-creation of that recital – by starting with a slow fugue; both the Beethoven and Mendelssohn quartets incorporate fugues in their slow movements.
What continually impresses me about this ensemble is the way they can convey depth, conviction and an emotional range and intensity without ever overwhelming you with either volume or gesture. It’s very easy to imagine that the Beethoven and Mendelssohn works sounded like this at their premieres, but very difficult to imagine that they sounded better.
Recorded at the wonderful St. Anne’s Anglican Church in Toronto’s west end with the always-reliable Norbert Kraft as engineer, the sound is exemplary, catching every delicate nuance in another outstanding CD from the Windermere players. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another five years for their next one.
Concert note: The Windermere Quartet presents “Mozart by Any Other Name” including works by Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Rossini, Joseph Kraus and Mozart at St. Olave’s Anglican Church on April 2.
Given his wonderful playing on the Mozart concerto DVD reviewed here last month, I was delighted to see that this month’s offerings included a new CD of Henning Kraggerud playing Nordic Violin Concertos with Bjarte Engeset conducting the Malmö Symphony Orchestra (Naxos 8.573738). The Violin Concerto Op.28 by Johan Halvorsen is paired with the Violin Concerto Op.33 of Carl Nielsen, with the well-known Romance of Johan Svendsen completing the disc.
The concerto by the Norwegian Halvorsen (1864-1935) has an interesting story. He was an outstanding violinist and a self-taught composer, and his violin concerto was introduced by the 18-year-old Canadian violinist Kathleen Parlow in the Netherlands in 1909. After only a handful of performances by Parlow the work was not played again during Halvorsen’s lifetime. When he retired in 1929 he destroyed several of his manuscripts, his wife stating after his death that she believed the concerto to be among them. But in 2015 the score and parts were discovered in Parlow’s papers in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music Library, where they had resided since 1963. Kraggerud gave the first modern performances in Norway last July, making this world premiere commercial recording in Sweden a short while later. It’s a lovely work, full of lyrical themes and redolent of Norwegian folk music, with more than a hint of Hardanger fiddle music. The solo part is technically demanding, but Kraggerud is clearly in his element with a work which will hopefully find a place in the regular repertoire.
The Nielsen concerto, written just a few years after the Halvorsen in 1911, continues to be a work which should be much better known, but hopefully this is changing, Haggerud’s terrific performance here coming not long after Baiba Skride’s equally excellent 2015 recording.
A lovely performance of the Svendsen Romance rounds out an outstanding CD.
If you love the Elgar Cello Concerto then you should really try to hear the new Super Audio CD Elgar & Tchaikovsky from the outstanding cellist Johannes Moser with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under Andrew Manze (PentaTone PTC 5186 570). Moser is simply superb in the emotional work that essentially marked the end of the 62-year-old Elgar’s compositional activity. Written in 1919, it is essentially a lament for the composer’s Edwardian world that was destroyed by the First World War, and Moser beautifully captures the very soul of the music.
Moser notes that both Elgar and Tchaikovsky were looking back to a brighter past – Elgar to the pre-1914 world and Tchaikovsky to the music of Mozart, using an original theme written in Mozartian style as the basis for his Variations on a Rococo Theme Op.33. It’s the original version that is performed here, and not the modified and altered version by the cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen that constituted the original 1877 publication and is still frequently heard in the concert hall. Moser’s performance makes you wonder why anyone would ever want to hear the Fitzenhagen version again.
Three shorter Tchaikovsky works for cello and orchestra complete the CD. The Nocturne from Six Pieces for Piano and the famous Andante cantabile from the String Quartet No.1 were both transcribed by the composer, and the Pezzo capriccioso Op.62 is a lovely original work.
Manze and the orchestra supply great support throughout a simply lovely CD.
There’s more excellent quartet playing on Landscapes, the latest CD from Germany’s Schumann Quartett in a program of works by Haydn, Takemitsu, Bartók and Pärt (Berlin Classics 0300836BC). It’s clear that these are works that the quartet – brothers Erik, Ken and Mark Schumann and Estonian violist Liisa Randalu – has played and cared about for some time.
Haydn’s String Quartet in B-flat Major Op.76 No.4, the “Sunrise” makes for a lovely opening to the CD, the emerging radiance of the opening particularly well captured. Landscape I by the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu acknowledges the Schumanns’ family roots – their mother is Japanese – and is a somewhat bleak piece with a decidedly meditative stillness about it.
Bartók’s String Quartet No.2 Op.17 is an expressive post-Romantic piece written during the First World War when the composer was forced to take a break from his Hungarian folk-song collecting. The folk-music element is clearly present in a work dominated by an air of melancholy.
The final piece, Fratres, by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, was prepared with the composer and recorded in July 2016 in a church near the Estonian capital of Tallinn. It’s one of several instrumental versions of this very effective work.
The enigmatic Nigel Kennedy is back with another non-classical CD in My World, a program of his own compositions on the German label Neue Meister (0300878NM). Launched just over a year ago, the Berlin label features “…music by artists and composers who recognize no boundaries between the classical orchestra world, experimental art, electronica and pop music,” which should give you some idea of what this new release sounds like.
There are two distinct sections to the CD: Dedications, five pieces dedicated to the Polish musician Jarek Śmietana, Isaac Stern, Stéphane Grappelli, Yehudi Menuhin and Mark O’Connor; and Three Sisters, a suite of incidental music that Kennedy wrote for a run of the Chekhov play that his wife was producing. The Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra is listed on the CD cover, but it’s a bit misleading both from a participation and expectation viewpoint: the main musicians listed in the booklet are a six-piece guitar, bass and percussion combo, an oboist and an accordionist and anonymous Friends from the named orchestra.
It’s certainly the combo that seems to be front and centre most of the time, and even when there are strings present the sound seems to be more synthesized than live. There’s a clear jazz influence in the Dedications, along with the occasional melismatic Eastern feel, some pleasant melodic writing, and a rhythmic rock-fiddle drive in the number dedicated to O’Connor.
There’s a thicker orchestral sound with much the same feel throughout Three Sisters, but with added electronic effects and more of an improvisatory feel – one wonders just how much of the music was actually notated.
All in all, it’s typical Kennedy – spiky performances of varying effectiveness from a huge talent who simply refuses to follow what could be called standard career paths. When he gets away from the normal classical fare it tends to be hit or miss with him a lot of the time, and which category this particular CD falls under will probably depend on your own musical tastes.
Finally, there’s another recording of the complete Tchaikovsky Works for Violin & Orchestra, this time by the Korean violinist Moonkyung Lee on her debut Navona Records CD (NV6079) with the London Symphony Orchestra under Miran Vaupotić.
Her performance of the Violin Concerto in D Major Op.35 is a competent one which never quite reaches the heights, although the rather lacklustre contribution of the LSO under Vaupotić may well be a contributory factor; certainly the tempos tend to drag in places, and the orchestral balance tends to be a bit muddy and the sound quite dry. It’s a performance that just doesn’t take flight.
The other two works here – the Méditation in D Minor (the original slow movement for the Violin Concerto) and the Sérénade Mélancolique in B-flat Minor Op.26 – fare better, as the soloist’s rather dark tone is more suited to the slower tempos and the minor keys. Certainly the performances seem to get closer to the heart of the music.
The problem, though, is that given the fierce competition in recordings of these works – especially the concerto – a competent performance, while nothing to be sneezed at, will inevitably struggle to compete with the absolutely top-level recordings available.
The soloist’s instrument, incidentally, is the 1845 Vuillaume violin once owned by Jack Benny.