09 Gimeno StravinskyStravinsky – L’Oiseau de feu; Apollon Musagète
Luxemburg Philharmonic Orchestra; Gustavo Gimeno
Harmonia Mundi HMM905303 (store.harmoniamundi.com/release/318357)

In June of 2019, Gustavo Gimeno conducted the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in a powerful performance of Stravinsky’s 1945 suite from The Firebird. Last May, he led them in an even more memorable Firebird. This time, he took the podium as music director of the orchestra. And the version he chose was the less frequently programmed original that Stravinsky wrote in 1910 for Diaghilev’s legendary Ballets Russes. It’s more than twice the length of any of the three concert suites Stravinsky later made. But this performance left me with no doubt – more was better.

On his standout new recording of The Firebird with the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg (where he is also music director), Gimeno again opts for the original full-length ballet score. Every moment speaks persuasively. Stravinsky’s tapestry of evocative Russian folk melodies, angular textures and infectious rhythms becomes an edge-of-the-seat experience. Colourful solos, like the rhapsodic flute welcoming the 13 captive princesses, and the volcanic timpani driving the frenzied dance of the evil sorcerer Koschei’s subjects, enhance the drama.

The pairing with Stravinsky’s equally groundbreaking ballet Apollon Musagète, written 18 years later, works brilliantly. Like The Firebird, it draws on ancient tales. But these tales are from Greek mythology. In The Firebird, goodness must overcome evil to triumph. Here, goodness prevails unchallenged. Instead of conflict there’s serenity. Instead of mystery, there’s clarity. It’s all conjured up luminously by Gimeno and the exquisite strings of the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg in gorgeous, sweeping brushstrokes.

10 LSO NazarenoNazareno – Bernstein; Stravinsky; Golijov
Chris Richards; Katia and Marielle Labèque; London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Simon Rattle
LSO Live LSO 0836 (lso.co.uk)

Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO have released, concurrent with their Stravinsky: Early Ballets collection, a record offering a brief survey of the Afro-Latin influence on “serious” music of the last century. It includes two curiosities for clarinet: Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (1949) by Leonard Bernstein, and Ebony Concerto (1945) by Stravinsky. Both were commissioned by Woody Herman, and each lasts under ten minutes. They remain somewhat overlooked, perhaps on account of their offhand treatment of the solo instrument, or the fact that they both feature big band, not full orchestra. The two works are given a lively ride by LSO lead clarinetist Chris Richards and the decidedly non-orchestral backup, mainly of brass and saxes. 

Most of the disc is taken up by Nazareno (2009) a beautifully rendered adaptation (by Venezuelan composer Gonzalo Grau) of Osvaldo Golijov’s scintillating La Pasión según San Marcos (2000); this new rendering omits the vocals of the original cantata. Commissioned by Katia and Mireille Labèque, it’s scored for two pianos, Latin percussion section, plus winds and cello. Without text, I still hear how the music conveys the story of the Christian sacrifice. Powerful rhythmic dances abound, but behind the upbeat samba movements lies a much more sombre tone, especially in the slow ballad Sur. I won’t be surprised if a choreographer selects this score for a new dance work. It might serve as an answer to Stravinsky’s pagan vision of the sacrifice, made roughly a century ago.

The LSO, or the sections performing on this disc, give the selections punch and vigour. The soloists and percussionists are stars.

11 MythesMythes
Ariane Brisson; Olivier Hébert-Bouchard
ATMA ACD2 2842 (atmaclassique.com/en)

The flute has had a long and illustrious history as far back as prehistoric times and its appeal is again showcased on this attractive ATMA recording featuring transcriptions of compositions performed by flutist Ariane Brisson and pianist Olivier Hébert-Bouchard. Brisson was selected as “Découverte de l’année” at the Prix Opus 2019-2020 Gala and Grand Prize winner of the Prix d’Europe competition in 2013, while award-winning pianist Hébert-Bouchard is a founding member of Trio Émerillon and Prisma.

As the title implies, the disc partly pays homage to the worlds of fantasy and magic as seen through the eyes of five composers. It opens with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ haunting The Lark Ascending, music inspired by George Meredith’s 1881 poem of the same name. Here, the listener is immediately struck by Brisson’s warm and sonorous tone with Hébert-Bouchard providing a solid and sensitive partnership.

Ravel’s Sonatine was completed around 1905, and although originally scored for solo piano, the combination of flute and piano is an appealing one, particularly in the vivacious finale animé. Both Janáček’s Pohádka (A Tale) from 1912 and Debussy’s renowned Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune clearly prove that skilful arrangements can be as convincing as the originals.

The three-movement Mity (Myths) by Karol Szymanowski was inspired by Greek mythology and was originally scored for violin and piano. Here, Narcissus, Pan and the dryads all make an appearance in this highly impressionistic score. Once again, Brisson and Hébert-Bouchard prove a formidable pairing.

These are challenging times, so Mythes just might be a perfect means of briefly escaping into a better place – a welcome addition to the catalogue.

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12 SouvenirsSouvenirs d’Auguste Descarries
Isabelle David
Leaf Music LM250 (leaf-music.ca)

The name Auguste Descarries is probably not a familiar one to Canadian music lovers outside Quebec, but during his lifetime he enjoyed a considerable reputation as a conductor, composer and pedagogue. Born in Lachine in1896, he studied piano and organ in his youth and began studying law at the Université de Montréal. Yet upon winning the Prix d’Europe from the Académie de musique du Québec in 1921, he set off to study music in Paris where he remained until 1929. Upon his return, he established himself in the local music scene, his endeavours included private teaching, choral conducting at the Église Ste. Viateur and helping to create the music faculty at the Université de Montréal in 1950.

This recording on the Leaf Music label features 14 of his compositions written between 1918 and 1956 performed by Isabelle David whose grandmother had the good fortune of being one of his pupils. And who better to address this unfamiliar repertoire? David has devoted four years to the study of Descarries’ piano works.

These are musical gems, very much in the manner of late-19th-century French piano music. Do I hear echoes of Fauré and a nod to César Franck? What strikes the listener almost immediately is the wide range of contrasting moods among them, from the introspection of Au gré de l’onde and the pathos of Nostalgie to the buoyancy of Étude en sol majeur. Throughout, David displays a natural affinity for this music, her performance poised and elegant. Her formidable technique is evident in such pieces as the virtuosic Rhapsodie canadienne (transcribed by David herself) – clearly, many of these compositions were not intended for amateurs.

Souvenirs is a delight – a grand merci to David, not only for a fine performance, but for bringing to light a composer whose music most certainly deserves greater recognition.

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01 Karl Stobbe jpegCanadian violinist Karl Stobbe recently created a series of online concerts featuring video recordings of solo violin repertoire, including all six of the Bach Sonatas & Partitas. These recordings are now being turned into a series of albums, with Bach & Bartók the opening volume (karlstobbe.com).

Stobbe pairs Bach’s Sonata No.3 in C Major BWV1005 with the Bartók Sonata for Solo Violin for historical as well as musical reasons: Bartók heard Yehudi Menuhin play the Bach in early 1944 when he was working on his own sonata, commissioned by Menuhin after their late-1943 meeting. Stobbe senses a connection, feeling that the Bach C Major is the only one of the Bach works that has a similar musical journey to the Bartók – from darkness to light, through uncertainty and wandering harmonies to an expression of celebration and joy.

Stobbe has a big, rich sound, and the strength to navigate the fiendishly difficult Fuga in the Bach as well as the technical challenges in the Bartók. It promises to be a fascinating series.

Concert Note: Karl Stobbe performs at the Festival of the Bay, Midland Cultural Centre, on July 26 and at the Festival of the Sound on July 28.

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02 Telemann CotikThere’s more Baroque violin music from an exact contemporary of Bach on Telemann 12 Fantasias for Violin Solo in supremely satisfying performances by Tomás Cotik (Centaur CRC 3949 tomascotik.com).

In previous reviews I’ve noted that the Fantasias, written some 15 years after Bach’s Sonatas & Partitas at first appear less challenging than the Bach. They seem so much easier on the page, shorter and with simpler lines and less multiple-stopping, but they’re fraught with technical pitfalls – angular, awkward intervals, tricky string-crossing – and they play much faster than they look.

Still, nothing challenges Cotik, who uses a Baroque bow to lovely effect in the slow sections and to simply dance through the Allegro, Presto and Vivace movements. There are 44 sections in all, some only a few bars long, but all are inventive, varied and charming. The booklet essay says that “every note of these often complex pieces lies perfectly, if not easily, [my italics] under the bow.”

Well, yes – if you’re as superb a player as Tomás Cotik.

03 OstinatoThe Bartók sonata also turns up in Ostinata: works for solo violin, the excellent debut recording from the young London-based French violinist Charlotte Saluste-Bridoux (Champs Hill CHRCD158 champshillrecords.co.uk).

Biber’s Passacaglia in G Minor, “The Guardian Angel”, the final piece from his Rosary Sonatas, is followed by Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin and the Prokofiev Sonata in D Major Op.115. Grażyna Bacewicz’s Sonata No.2 from 1958 and Ysaÿe’s Sonata No.4 in E Minor Op.27, dedicated to Kreisler, complete the disc.

There’s smooth, clean playing throughout, with technical assurance, strong melodic lines and no hint of roughness – I’ve certainly heard the Bartók Fuga (which Karl Stobbe interestingly terms “brutal”) played with more attack and spikiness. The Presto final movement in the Bacewicz is quite brilliant, and an idiomatic reading of the Ysaÿe sonata completes a highly satisfying recital.

04 Le Monde Selon AntheilThere should be a warning label on violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja CDs: “Fireworks – handle with care.” You always get something different and incredibly exciting from this player who never hesitates to take risks, and so it is with her latest CD Le Monde selon George Antheil with pianist Joonas Ahonen (Alpha Classics ALPHA797 outhere-music.com/en/albums/le-monde-selon-george-antheil).

Antheil, the American composer and pianist, caused riots in early 1920s Europe as a “Pianist-Futurist” who wrote machine-like and explosive piano works. Presented here is his astonishing Violin Sonata No.1 from 1923, its percussive and machine-like outer movements in particular drawing terrific playing from the duo.

 Antheil’s world, referenced in the CD title, included Morton Feldman and John Cage, the former represented here by the brief Piece (1950) and Extensions 1 (1951) and Cage by his 1947 Nocturne. It’s the Violin Sonata No.7 in C Minor Op.30 No.2 by Antheil’s lifelong hero Beethoven, however, that sees Kopatchinskaja really upping the excitement levels in a quite remarkable performance.

05 Weilerstein BeethovenThere’s an outstanding new set of the complete Beethoven Cello Sonatas, this time with cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan (Pentatone PTC5186884 pentatonemusic.com/product/beethoven-cello-sonatas).

The two have been playing together since 2008 and are close friends, and their mutual understanding shows in every moment of these beautifully judged performances. They were recorded during the pandemic in 2020 for the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, with Weilerstein saying that doing so “at such a fragile, chaotic time” helped make it an immensely rewarding experience. 

It certainly shows in superb performances that will more than hold their own against any competition.

06 Vagn Holmboe 2Denmark’s Nightingale String Quartet follows up its outstanding first volume of fellow-countryman Vagn Holmboe’s complete works in the genre with Vagn Holmboe String Quartets Vol.2 (Dacapo 6.220717 naxos.com/catalogue/item.asp?item_code=6.220717).

The three works this time are the String Quartet No.2 Op.47 from 1949, the String Quartet No.14 Op.125 from 1975 and the two-movement Quartetto sereno Op.197 posth., the shortest of Holmboe’s quartets and unofficially No.21. Started just two months before the composer’s death in 1996, it was completed by his friend and former pupil Per Nørgård.

The exceptionally high standard of the initial volume is continued here, the publicity material accurately describing the performances as “energetic, precise yet lively and poetic interpretations” of works which “stand among the most significant contributions to the genre in the 20th century.”

07 Saint Georges QuartetsSwordsman, horseman, athlete, violinist, composer – what a fascinating individual Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges must have been. SAINT-GEORGES Six Concertante Quartets is the fourth Naxos CD devoted to his works, in performances by the Arabella String Quartet (8.574360 naxos.com/catalogue/item.asp?item_code=8.574360).

Saint-Georges wrote three sets of six quartets, starting with Six Quatuors Op.1 in 1772 and ending with Six Quatuors concertans Op.14 in 1785. The quartets in the current set, written in 1777 and published without opus number in 1779, are all short works of only two movements each. 

The string quartet form in France was in the early stages of development at the time, the four-movement form being developed by Haydn having little influence. Still, as the booklet notes remark, while small in scale these quartets are exceptionally rewarding, amply demonstrating Saint-Georges’ rich lyrical gifts and natural ability to delight performers and audiences alike.

Lovely playing makes for an absolutely delightful CD.

08 Beethoven PouletThe French violinist Gérard Poulet, who turns 84 later this year, is no stranger to the Beethoven violin sonatas, having released a 4CD box set in 2001 in addition to a few single releases, all with different pianists. His latest recording is Beethoven Sonates pour violon et piano nos. 3, 5 et 7, with pianist Jean-Claude Vanden Eynden (Le Palais des Dégustateurs PDD026 lepalaisdesdegustateurs.com).

The sonata keys and opus numbers aren’t identified, but they are No.3 in E-flat Major Op.12, No.5 in F Major Op.24 “Spring” and No.7 in C Minor Op.30 No.2. Poulet has a lovely sound – warm, sweet and never forced or over-stressed. These are simply lovely readings, with the “Spring” sonata (which also features in all the above-mentioned recordings) at the heart of a delightful recital. 

09 ChinoiserieChinoiserie – Building New Musical Bridges is the fascinating debut CD from the Duo Chinoiserie of classical guitarist Bin Hu and Jing Xia on guzheng, the Chinese plucked string instrument similar to a zither. Described as a true melding of Eastern and Western cultures, it features arrangements of works by Granados, de Falla and Debussy as well as contemporary compositions (Navona NV6417 navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6417).

Newly commissioned works by Sérgio Assad and Mathias Duplessy, along with Yusuke Nakanishi’s Inari open and close the disc. All other titles are transcriptions by the Duo Chinoiserie, including Stephen Goss’ Cantigas de Santiago, three excerpts from El amor brujo, the Granados Oriental and Debussy’s Girl with the Flaxen Hair and Golliwog’s Cakewalk.

The guzheng’s clear, distinctive sound obviously tends to dominate, especially if it’s taking the melodic line, but it combines perfectly with the guitar to produce a quite unique musical experience.

10 ConsolationsConsolations – Liszt Six Consolations and other reflective pieces for violin and piano, featuring violinist Maya Magub and pianist Hsin-I Huang is another lockdown project, started when Nathan Milstein’s transcription of the third of Six Consolations for Solo Piano inspired Magub to transcribe the remaining five for violin and piano herself (CRD Records CRD3540 crdrecords.com).

The big difference here was the decision to record the tracks independently and then combine them in the studio, although having to decide which to record first possibly contributed to a sense of treading carefully and a general absence of risk-taking.

Accompanying the Liszt are 12 short pieces, with evergreen favourites by Schumann, Massenet, Rachmaninoff, Kreisler, Bach/Gounod, Dushkin/Paradis, Handel, Chopin and Mendelssohn.

Magub’s violin sound is clear and warm and quite distinctive – a slow vibrato (if any at all) and occasional portamento. Both instruments are clearly recorded.

11 AznavoorianThe Armenian-American Aznavoorian sisters Ani, cello, and Marta, piano, make their duo recording debut with Aznavoorian Duo: Gems from Armenia, a CD that explores their musical heritage (Cedille Records CDR 90000 209 cedillerecords.org).

The disc opens with five ancient folk songs arranged by the Western-trained orthodox priest, composer and musicologist Komitas Vartabed (1869-1935), a seminal figure in Armenian classical music. Four Soviet-era composers are represented: Aram Khachaturian with two brief pieces; Arno Babajanian (1921-83) with the lovely Elegy for solo piano and the Aria & Dance; Alexander Arutiunian (1920-2012) with the lively Impromptu; and Avet Terterian (1929-94) with the really impressive three-movement Sonata for cello and piano from 1956.

Contemporary Armenian composers are represented by single short pieces by Serouj Kradjian (b.1973), well known in Toronto as the pianist in Amici, and Vache Sharafyan (b.1966), plus the world-premiere recording of Mount Ararat, commissioned from Peter Boyer (b.1970) for this recording project.

There’s some really lovely music here, all beautifully played and recorded.

12 Three Generations TcherepninThe Tcherepnin family of composers is celebrated on Three Generations: Chamber Music by Ivan, Alexander and Nikolai Tcherepnin. Violinist Quan Yuan and pianist David Witten are the duo for almost the entire CD (Toccata Next TOCN 0012 toccataclassics.com).

Works by Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977) open the disc, his Romance WoO from 1922, his Élégie Op.43 from 1927 and Arabesque Op.11 No.5 from 1921 all being first recordings. The major work here is his three-movement Sonata in F Major Op.14.

The most attractive music on the disc is by the composer most active in the Russian late-Romantic era, Nikolai Tcherepnin (1873-1945). His Poème Lyrique Op.9 from 1900 is a simply lovely work that draws particularly fine playing from Quan, and his Andante and Finale Op. posth. from 1943 (another first recording) is also a gem, the dazzling folk-influenced Finale having more than a hint of Stravinsky’s Petrushka.

Two flute works by Ivan Tcherepnin (1943-98), Pensamiento and Cadenzas in Transition are played here by his wife, Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin. She is joined by pianist Donald Berman and clarinetist Ian Greitzer for the premiere recording of the latter.

13 Brahms with viloaAlthough it was apparently released in 2020 I only recently received the CD of Brahms Trio Op.114 and Sonatas Op.120 in the composer’s own viola arrangements of three of the four late chamber works inspired by his friendship with clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, but I’m including it because it features some of the loveliest viola playing I’ve heard in a long time (Le Palais des Dégustateurs PDD023 lepalaisdesdegustateurs.com).

Ettore Causa is the outstanding violist, ably supported by pianist Boris Berman throughout and by cellist Clive Greensmith in the Trio. The Steinway D piano adds depth and body to beautifully judged performances of Brahms at his most autumnal.

01 Fabio BiondiOpera in Music – Carlo Monza Quartets
Europa Galante; Fabio Biondi
Naïve v 7541 (bfan.link/opera-in-musica-carlo-monza-quartets)

This is a world-premiere recording for these six quartets, an amazing fact because the sheer dramatic quality of these works means they deserved much earlier appreciation. In addition, recognition of Carlo Monza should surely have been forthcoming as a certain Mozart had been a 14-year-old in Monza’s native Milan looking out for local composers in order to make his own technique more locally acceptable. 

From the initial Quartetto in C Major “Gli amanti rivali” there is a spirited, operatic character to Monza’s compositions, as if the instruments are singing their own private ariassometimes almost arguing with each other. The same quartet brings us the haunting, slow, subdued strings of the largo L’amante favorito muore.

The more one explores this collection, the more one wonders why Monza’s music was lost for so long. There is a stateliness to the adagio from Il giuocatore reminiscent of Pachelbel’s famous canon; the following allegro is worthy of Mozart or any of his contemporaries, while the same suite’s ravveduto appears to draw on the pastoral movements of the early Baroque.

Finally, there is the La caccia suite, unmistakable for the boisterousness of its opening movement, conjuring up the sounds of the hunt from which it is inspired. Monza saves perhaps his most intricate movement for last; Rondò de’ pastori frattanto che i cacciatori cenano creates the images of a hunt concluding in a quiet, satisfied atmosphere.  

Fabio Bondi devoted much time to finding Monza’s manuscript. A private library refused to lend it; kudos then to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France for lending its copy. And to Bondi for his perseverance in finding it.

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02 Melisande McNabneyFantasias
Mélisande McNabney
ATMA ACD2 2812 (atmaclassique.com/en)

The fantasia is an old and well-traversed musical form that reached its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries, combining improvisational flourishes, compositional skill and virtuosic panache into a single work. Many of music’s greatest minds have written fantasias for a range of keyboard instruments, including J.S. Bach’s works for harpsichord and organ, Mozart’s pianoforte fantasias and Liszt’s immense organ fantasias. This disc focuses on music written by three Baroque and classical-era luminaries: Johann Sebastian Bach; his son, Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach; and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, performed on the fortepiano by Montreal-based keyboardist Mélisande McNabney.

The decision to begin a fortepiano-centred recording with J.S. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, BWV903 is an interesting one, as Bach almost certainly composed this work with the harpsichord in mind. (The fortepiano was invented in 1698, while J.S. Bach died in 1750; it’s not implausible to think that Bach was acquainted with early models of the fortepiano, but there is no evidence that he composed anything specifically for that instrument.) For those familiar with BWV903 performed on rhythmically percussive, reverb-rich harpsichord recordings, McNabney’s choice of instrument provides a drier and less aggressive approach, with more room for flexibility and rubato.

The remainder of the disc is comprised of smaller works by C.P.E. Bach and Mozart, as well as the large-scale Fantasia in C Minor, K475. This is, perhaps, the most successful combination of composition and instrument, as the moody affect combines with the fortepiano’s unique timbre and ability to produce contrasting dynamics with great success. Fantasias leaves little doubt that McNabney is a master keyboardist and skillful interpreter; this, combined with the charming and dramatic music itself, makes for a highly recommended recording, especially for those with a particular interest in early instruments.

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