08 Mahler Les SieclesMahler – Symphony No.4
Sabine Devieilhe; Les Siecles; Francois-Xavier Roth
Harmonia Mundi HMM905357 (store.harmoniamundi.com)

The French conductor François-Xavier Roth is in great demand these days, and for good reason. Recently appointed music director of the peerless Gürzenich-Orchester in Cologne and principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, among his notable accomplishments was his founding of the Les Siècles orchestra in 2003, featuring instruments appropriate to the period of composition of a given era. Their 2013 rendition of the original version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring garnered immense praise. 

They now turn their attention for the second time to the music of Mahler. The excellent program notes include an interview with Roth, an overview of the work, and a scrupulous listing of the exact models of the wind instruments employed. The piercing sound of the wind instruments and the beefy sound of the period Viennese horns are particularly impressive, much more assertive and biting than our homogenized contemporary models. The string section employs gut strings and plays without vibrato, bringing an unaccustomed serenity to the slow third movement. Combined with Roth’s Apollonian interpretation, the complex counterpoint of the work benefits greatly. The mixing of the album is superb and Sabine Devieilhe’s interpretation of the vocal finale is admirable. 

My only reservation about this performance concerns an occasional lack of nuance, noticeably so in the uncanny second movement scherzo, which struck me as more of a generic waltz as opposed to the idiomatic micro-adjustments of the authentic Ländler tempo George Szell imparts in his classic 1967 recording. This symphony is the most compact and classical in Mahler’s oeuvre and remains the most accessible entry point for Mahler neophytes. Not to be missed!

10 LSO Bruckner 4Bruckner – Symphony No.4
London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Simon Rattle
LSO Live LSO0875 (lso.co.uk)

I’ve seen Sir Simon Rattle conduct many times thanks to my subscription to the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall and always admired his energy jumping to the podium full of excitement, eager anticipation and love for the music to come. In 2018 Rattle retired from his post in Berlin and now is back in England as the head of the London Symphony, arguably the finest of the five London orchestras.

The “Romantic” Symphony No.4 is obviously his favorite Bruckner and as I listen to this new super audio recording I must confess that I’d love to have been present at the concert at the Barbican Hall resounding with the genuine bloom of his Bruckner. “The entire evening was a Brucknerian labour of love” says The Guardian.  

Rattle has a no-nonsense approach as if he would say: let’s get on with it! He is totally relaxed, lets the music flow naturally at a brisk tempo, entirely logical with the architectonic structure always kept in mind. There are sections when the music becomes nearly inaudible from which the melody slowly emerges. The following crescendo is masterfully handled. It builds in stages with minor climaxes along the way, deliberately holding back at key moments so the ending becomes truly majestic. There is an overarching epic sweep this symphony needs. 

I must give a big credit to the first (solo) horn. At the beginning, its beautifully sustained pianissimo over an underlying tremolo in the strings produces a magical effect. The horns also feature heavily in the third movement, the Hunt Scherzo, as they start out barely audible from a primeval mist with a gradual crescendo; and when the trumpets join in the sound becomes crystal clear fortissimo and simply gorgeous. In Rattle’s hand the symphony becomes truly Romantic!

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11 BarokbandidTwo Sides
Barokkbandið Brák
Sono Luminus SLE-70026/2 (sonoluminus.com)

It is not uncommon to find obvious and straightforward album titles within the classical music genre, leaving no doubt as to what a listener can and should expect. If one tallied up all the releases titled Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies, these recordings would make up an entire collection of their own. While it is only an entry point to the contents contained therein, a creatively titled recording can engage and entice a prospective listener, drawing them in with the promise of a unique artistic experience.

Such is the case with Icelandic period-instrument ensemble Barokkbandið Brák and their debut album Two Sides, a title which, at first glance, most clearly refers to its two discs of music. Upon reviewing its contents however, it becomes clear that Two Sides reflects the diverse nature of this extraordinary group, which has achieved renown in the interpretation of Renaissance and Baroque music but also as a commissioner of new music for period instruments.

This sense of discovery in music old and new permeates every selection on this recording, notably through the world premiere recording of the Violin Concerto in G by Swedish Baroque composer Johan Joachim Agrell and new commissions from Icelandic composers Þráinn Hjálmarsson, Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir, and Kristinn Kristinsson.

What is most remarkable about this entire double album is the way in which every piece of music is treated individually, performed at the highest level with convincing interpretations. Whether the Agrell Concerto premiere, Vivaldi’s enthralling Concerto for 2 Violins & Cello in D Minor, or any one of the commissioned works, nothing seems unfamiliar or out of place.

Two Sides is a magnificent debut from Barokkbandið Brák that will be a valuable addition to any collection, especially for those who appreciate broad and diverse repertoire within the realm of period performance.

12 AmericanistThe Americanist
Elizabeth Newkirk
Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0166 (brightshiny.ninja)

This new release of orchestral scores reduced for solo piano by Elizabeth Newkirk stakes out grounds for how American music must maintain its connection to the vernacular. Per Newkirk’s lengthy treatise in the liner notes, the mythos of America demands inclusion and recognition of popular musical idioms in the making of “serious” music. She especially points to the styles and forms developed in the African-American culture that energizes so much of today’s music. To that end, Newkirk provides three intra-bellum works that illustrate her point, all reductions of orchestral scores made by the composers themselves, and all infused with jazz and blues. 

Maurice Ravel’s reduction in some ways satisfies the way the full version can’t. In La Valse Newkirk proves herself a fine stylist, giving a more flexible version in terms of rhythm and dynamics than a conductor might ask of a full orchestra. These waltzes swoop into dips and pirouettes. (I leave it to pianists to tell me if I’m wrong about the heavy use of the sustain pedal). Gershwin’s An American in Paris is also entirely about movement. Newkirk notes that three distinct metres are assigned respectively to the American, French and British gait. (It’s so hard to believe the piece wasn’t written with Gene Kelly in mind). More than in the Ravel, I miss orchestral colours; maybe it’s just that Gershwin’s lightness needs the weight of the band, but to my mind, there’s no replacing the trumpet, the violins, the rhythm section. Their language is integral to the musical ideas.

William Grant Still’s Africa provides the substantial finale to the disc. Still’s music follows a similar aesthetic to Gershwin’s, blending Romantic tropes with blues influences. Materially, and in terms of length, it’s more substantial than the Gershwin, and more listenable, in fact. As has been noted elsewhere, there are not nearly enough recordings of his music, which makes this release so attractive. 

Newkirk’s treatise is most interesting when she leaves the rarified discussion of myth and philosophy in order to discuss how these three works fit so neatly into her thesis.

13 Polish OrganCantius
Gail Archer
Swan Studios MM22051 (meyer-media.com)

The pipe organ has been a vital part of musical history for centuries, and there are a small number of countries that have made tremendously impactful contributions to its physical construction and musical lineage, including the German Baroque composers (culminating in the works of J.S. Bach) and the 19th- and 20th-century French school, which led to the development of the organ symphony. With a heritage dominated by musical monoliths, it is easy to forget that there is worthwhile organ music written by composers in other countries not immediately considered synonymous with the pipe organ, including the Baltic States, Russia and Poland. 

It is this latter country that receives organist Gail Archer’s full focus on Cantius, a recording which presents highlights from two centuries of Polish composers and their works, ranging from Romantic symphonies to avant-garde masterpieces. Highlights include Felix Nowowiejski’s Symphony No.8 which, although written in one movement, is in three distinct sections, including a solemn funeral march, and Henryk Górecki’s Kantata. Górecki is perhaps Poland’s most famous 20th-century composer, whose Third Symphony – “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” achieved international recognition and established his place as one of the most important contemporary composers of the time.

Although many consider the pipe organ to be an old instrument that plays old music, there is still new material being written today, and it is wonderful to encounter a variety of 20th- and 21st-century composers and their works on Cantius, expertly interpreted by Archer. It is not an easy feat to achieve convincing performances of high-density modern scores, but she does so with apparent ease and undeniable success.

14 Florence Price PianoScenes in Tin Can Alley – Piano Music of Florence Price
Josh Tatsuo Cullen
Blue Griffin BGR615 (bluegriffin.com)

American pianist Josh Tatsuo Cullen performs a respectful tribute to African-American composer Florence Price (1887-1953) in seven of her solo piano works. Price, educated at the New England Conservatory, combined European classical music with American traditions including ragtime and boogie woogie in her over 300 compositions for various instrumentations from symphonies to vocal music. Her music is currently enjoying a renaissance.

The three-movement Scenes in Tin Can Alley (1928) opens with the energetic ragtime-influenced The Huckster. Price wrote program notes for the following movement, Children at Play. Kids play to energetic sounds until a slower melodic classical/pop sound has them stop to stare at an old woman looking for food. After a short silence, she leaves and the kids play again, to fun and fast piano. Price’s notes for Night include “the scene is sordid” with slow low-pitched, faster lines and swells featuring Cullen’s beautifully articulated calming phrase endings. Cullen’s amazing performance of the most virtuosic work here, Cotton Dance (Presto) (ca.1940s), is fast fast fast with boogie woogie sounds, chromatic lines/harmonies, high pitches and classical undertones making for fun dancing and listening. In the recently discovered five short Preludes (1926-1932) Price uniquely did not use descriptive titles. Many compositional techniques here, like No.3’s Allegro molto’s faster almost songlike quality to No.4’s Wistful. Allegretto con tenerezzaI’s slower classical sound featuring Cullen’s conversational solo playing between hands.

Price’s stylistically varied compositions are accessible listening, made all the more fantastic by Cullen’s inspired and detailed piano interpretations.

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15 Andrew ZhouPrésences Lointaines Vol. 2
Andrew Zhou
Solstice FY SOCD 394 (andrew-zhou.com)

Vladimir Jankélévitch, who lived from 1903 to 1985, was a French philosopher and musician who enjoyed a long academic career both in Prague and in Paris. He had definite ideas concerning music, among them that the art form was the only path to eternal life. Présences Lointaines – Distant Presences pays him a worthy tribute with a program of French piano music spanning a 300-year period performed by American Andrew Zhou. Zhou was a second-prize winner at the Concours International de Piano d’ Orleans and is currently a visiting lecturer at Cornell University.

Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre was a cousin of François Couperin and also an accomplished musician in her own right. Her seven-movement Suite in D Minor from the Pièces de Clavecin of 1707 is strong evidence of her skill as a composer and Zhou delivers an elegant and precise performance, at all times carefully nuanced.

Ravel is the only familiar composer on the disc, and his Prelude from 1913 – his shortest piece, lasting a mere minute and 13 seconds – is a languorous essay, while the Étude en blanc No.2 Élégie (Hommage à Ravel) by Didier Rotella (born in 1982) for prepared piano is hauntingly atmospheric.

Born in 1875, Antoine Mariotte spent the early part of his life as both sailor and musician. He later earned a reputation as both an operatic composer and administrator. His Piano Sonata from 1905 is very much in the French late Romantic tradition requiring formidable dexterity on the part of the performer, but Zhou handles the challenges with an uncompromising technique, bringing the disc to a rousing conclusion.

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