12 Stravinsky BalletsStravinsky Early Ballets
London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Simon Rattle
LSO Live LSO5096 (lso.co.uk)

Stravinsky told stories; his ballets are like film scores accompanying every moment of the action. Here are his three early masterpieces, musical Art Nouveau, produced with tremendous care and skill by the London Symphony Orchestra, led by Sir Simon Rattle. It’s impossible to overstate the quality of playing here, at the individual and ensemble level. 

I love how confidently they produce the now-familiar Firebird, yet the music still sounds new, and utterly Russian (notwithstanding the debt owed Ravel, in terms of the rich orchestration and harmonic colour). Sharp details emerge from the misterioso bass murmur of the introduction. The orchestra provides lush romantic gestures, but gives nothing away in rhythmic acuity. The Princess’ Game, the Firebird Variation and most of all the Infernal Dance will get you up and dancing. The detail is phenomenal! So much of what Stravinsky created has since been borrowed repeatedly, especially by film composers. It’s a marvel to hear the evergreen source material. 

In Petrouchka, Stravinsky juxtaposes concurrent “unrelated” musical events. Who came first, Ives or Igor? Muscular assurance and finesse feature throughout this performance. Can a difficult score sound too easy? Not to me, it simply sounds daring, and correct. The desolation in Petrouchka’s Cell stands in gloomy contrast to the vivid account of the Shrovetide Fair. The exuberant Rattle’s enthusiasm is infectious; all the players buy in.

Finally, the terror-filled depiction of pagan ritual sacrifice that shocks and awes the listener to this day: Le Sacre du Printemps, possibly Stravinsky’s most celebrated work. Its premiere famously provoked a riot among the audience. According to the composer’s own account, things were also fairly riotous backstage: he described Valery Nijinsky (great dancer, not-so-much choreographer), yelling step counts to the dancers from the wings, resulting in onstage chaos. The performance here is anything but chaotic, except possibly by intention. Menacing, bracing, unsettling, completely as intended. You don’t have to love this music (though I do!) to admire this performance. Nothing, not even the perfect assurance of the LSO and Rattle, diminishes its edginess.

13 Stravinsky F.X. Roth Stravinsky – Ballet Russes
Les Siècles; François-Xavier Roth
Harmonia Mundi HMX2905342.43 (store.harmoniamundi.com)

Perhaps you remember that Le Sacre du Printemps was used in the Disney film Fantasia and Stravinsky was invited to the studio for a private screening. He was offered a score as a courtesy but the maître politely declined, saying “I don’t need it; the score is in my head.” Oh, but it all changed, sir.... was the answer.(!)

Certainly nothing is changed here as the Le Sacre is played in its original form with instruments of the period by Les Siècles, a French orchestra formed by François-Xavier Roth. Do not be concerned about period instruments. Roth thoroughly researched the instruments of the period (around 1900) and his orchestra sounds every bit as good as a much larger modern orchestra.

Along with Le Sacre, the two other ballets were first presented in Paris between 1910 and 1913 as a celebration of Russian arts. A certain Russian impresario, Serge Diaghilev, was the mastermind and organizer, a “terrible, charming man who could make stones dance” as Debussy referred to him.

Paris at this time was a hothouse of invention in the arts and these ballets form a change, indeed a revolution, a turning point in the direction of music of the 20th century, Le Sacre especially. Inspired by rituals of pre-Christian, pagan Russia this is something the world had never heard before. It’s brutal, elementary, forceful, violent and upsetting.

The other two ballets are a bit more conventional but equally exciting and very colourful. The Firebird is based on a Russian fairy tale and Petrouchka conjures up a noisy village marketplace with a puppet theatre with three characters and a very sad story. A brilliant new recording.

15 When there are no wordsWhen There Are No Words – Revolutionary Works for Oboe and Piano
Alex Klein; Phillip Bush
Cedille CDR 90000 208 (cedillerecords.org)

Released in March 2022, When There Are No Words: Revolutionary Works for Oboe and Piano features the talents of world-renowned oboe virtuoso, Alex Klein, and pianist Phillip Bush. The album consists of six works paired into three sections reflecting the circumstances in which they were composed: reality of war, anti-war activism and exile. 

The first section contains pieces written during World War II: the popular Sonata for Oboe and Piano by Paul Hindemith paired with the Pavel Haas Suite for Oboe and Piano which was written at the very beginning of the Nazi occupation. Haas was later sent to Auschwitz and did not survive.

The second section contains works with anti-war sentiments: Benjamin Britten’s frequently played Temporal Variations which was written for a play about coal miners and their strikes in 1936; and William Bolcom’s Aubade – for the Continuation of Life, written during the Cold War. 

The third and final section features Three Etudes for Oboe with Piano Accompaniment by Brazilian composer José Siqueira and Suite for Oboe and Piano by Czech composer Klement Slavický, which were both written to protest their political exile.

Klein’s thoughtful linking of these compositions sheds light on some lesser known but beautifully written works for oboe and piano. These works explore dissonant intervals, lyrical lines and a variety of tonal colours, allowing the listener to become immersed in the emotional expression of the composer’s experiences. Klein is a complete master of the oboe, playing with his beautifully rounded, pure, yet complex tone which is mixed with the brilliant, warm and clear playing of Bush. The balance and tonal colours created between them are exquisite.

01 Beethoven Dyachov SaulnierBeethoven Vol.1 is the initial digital release in a new series of the Complete Sonatas and Variations for Cello and Piano featuring cellist Yegor Dyachkov and pianist Jean Saulnier. The series will be launched in both digital and physical format, with the second digital volume available in September and a complete 3CD physical set due for release in October (ATMA Classique ACD2 4046 atmaclassique.com/en).

The central works on this first digital volume are the Cello Sonatas No.1 in F Major Op.5 No.1 and No.2 in G Minor Op.5 No.2. Both were written in late 1796, and mark the beginning of Beethoven’s development of the cello and piano sonata as an equal partnership.

The two sets of variations are both on themes from Mozart’s The Magic Flute: the 12 Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” Op.66 and the 7 Variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” WoO46. The Horn Sonata in F Major Op.17, in the cello version prepared by Beethoven himself, closes the disc.

Dyachkov is a professor at McGill’s Schulich School of Music, and he and Saulnier both teach at the Université de Montréal. Their performances here are intelligent and beautifully nuanced, promising great things for the works still to be released.

Listen to 'Beethoven Cello Sonatas Vol. 1' Now in the Listening Room

02 Joo Yeon Sir SolitudeWhen the COVID lockdown started, the London-based Korean violinist Joo Yeon Sir took the opportunity to explore the solo violin repertoire. Old and new works are equally represented on the resulting CD Solitude (Rubicon Classics RCD1076 rubiconclassics.com).

Biber’s remarkable Passacaglia in G Minor opens the disc, followed by two of the Paganini Caprices Op.1No.10 in G Minor and No.24 in A Minor – and Kreisler’s Recitative and Scherzo-Caprice Op.6. 

Sir is also a composer, and her My Dear Bessie from 2018 leads a group of four contemporary works, the others being Roxanna Panufnik’s Hora Bessarabia, Fazil Say’s Cleopatra Op.34 and Laura Snowdon’s Through the Fog, written for this CD. Ysaÿe’s Sonata No.6, Op.27 ends an excellent recital.

Sir has a big, strong tone and shows full command in a range of technical challenges.

03 Kavakos BachThis is more of a belated notification of availability than a review, unfortunately, but due to a confusing digital link I was only able to listen to three complete works plus assorted movements from the Leonidas Kavakos release of the complete Sonatas & Partitas on Bach Sei Solo (Sony sonyclassical.com/releases/releases-details/bach-sei-solo).

Still, the warm tone, traditional – almost Romantic – approach, rhythmic freedom, judicious ornamentation, leisurely triple and quadruple stops and resonant recording make it clear that this is a notable addition to the discography.

04 Jason VieauxAfter a gap of 13 years the American guitarist Jason Vieaux has finally released Bach Vol.2: Works for Violin, completing his Bach cycle that started with three lute suites on Vol.1: Works for Lute. The works here are the Partita No.3 in E Major BWV1006 (which is also Lute Suite No.4), the Sonata No.3 in C Major BWV1005 and the Sonata No.1 in G Major BWV1001 (Azica ACD71347 jasonvieaux.com/music).

From the opening bars of the Partita it’s clear that this is going to be something very special: faultlessly clean technique and a full, rich, warm tone, all beautifully recorded with a resonant clarity.

“I always try to just play what’s there;” says Vieaux, “the difficult thing with Bach’s music on guitar is that there’s so much ‘there’ there.” He is fully aware of how interpretation can change and deepen as the years go by, and says “I hope you will enjoy this latest snapshot of where I’m at on that particular journey.”

“Enjoy” is an understatement; these are performances that get to the heart of this extraordinary music on an outstanding CD.

05 Meyers Shining NightJason Vieaux is also the sensitive accompanist for all but three of the 14 outstanding tracks on Shining Night, the latest CD from violinist Anne Akiko Meyers; Fabio Bidini is the pianist on the other three tracks (Avie AV2455 avie-records.com/releases).

Described as an album that embraces themes of love, poetry and nature, the disc spans music from the Baroque era through to the contemporary scene. Vieaux is the partner on Corelli’s La Folia, Bach’s Air on G, Paganini’s Cantabile, the achingly lovely Aria from Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No.5, Duke Ellington’s In My Solitude, Piazzolla’s complete four-movement Histoire du Tango, the Elvis Presley song Can’t Help Falling In Love and Leo Brouwer’s ode to the California giant sequoia trees Laude al Árbol Gigante.

Bidini accompanies Meyers on the Heifetz arrangement of Ponce’s beautiful Estrellita and on Dirait-On and Sure On This Shining Night, the two Morten Lauridsen pieces that close the CD. Meyers is in her usual superb form throughout a recital that is an absolute delight from start to finish.

06 Stefano MaioranaEntre dos almas Between two souls – features the music of the Spanish guitarist and composer Santiago de Murcia (1673-1739) in performances by Stefano Maiorana on Baroque guitar (Arcana A484 stefanomaiorana.it).

The two souls are Spanish and Italian, the latter especially representing the influence of Arcangelo Corelli in Madrid. The two major works here are both Murcia’s transcriptions of Corelli: the Sonata in E Minor from Op.5 Nos.5 & 8; and the Sonata in C Major Op.5 No.3. Only the first and last movements of the latter survive, so Maiorana has supplied his own transcriptions of the middle three.

The eight individual pieces are an absolute delight, with a lively opening Fandango and a terrific Tarantelas particular highlights. Maiorana plays with an effortless technique and with complete freedom in a beautiful but quite different sound world that is just bursting with life. Some additions and arrangements are apparently by Maiorana, but his experience renders them completely undetectable.

07 John Bullard banjoAnother quite different sound world – this time five-string banjo – is to be found on John Bullard Plays 24 Preludes for Solo Banjo by Adam Larrabee, Volume One Books 1 & 2 Nos. I-XII (Bullard Music johnbullard.com/music).

Dedicated to developing and transcribing classical repertoire for the five-string banjo, Bullard commissioned Larrabee to write 24 preludes, which the composer says “follow the long-standing tradition of writing pieces in all the major and minor keys to showcase an instrument’s versatility.” The major keys here are C, D, E, F-sharp, A-flat and B-flat; the minor keys are A, B, C-sharp, E-flat, F and G. Each Prelude has a title – Dialogue, Jig, Barcarolle, Impromptu, Waltz, etc. – with the A-flat Major Cakewalk a particular standout.

I don’t know what astonishes me more – that someone could write these pieces or that someone can play them. They’re simply terrific – as indeed is Bullard. Volume Two eagerly awaited!

Listen to 'John Bullard Plays 24 Preludes for Solo Banjo by Adam Larrabee, Volume One' Now in the Listening Room

08 Mandolin SeasonsKeeping the “different sound world” theme going, The Mandolin Seasons – Vivaldi, Piazzolla features Jacob Reuven on mandolin and his boyhood friend Omer Meir Wellber playing accordion and harpsichord as well as conducting the Sinfonietta Leipzig, 18 string players drawn from the Gewandhaus Orchestra (Hyperion CDA68357 jacobreuven.com).

Each of the Vivaldi Four Seasons is followed by the appropriate season from Piazzolla’s Las cuatro estaciones porteñas, the four Buenos Aires pieces written between 1965 and 1970 and heard here in arrangements based on Leonid Desyatnikov’s orchestral adaptation. Each of the Piazzolla pieces contains direct quotes from the relevant Vivaldi concerto, so the pairings here feel perfect. The influence goes both ways, too – the Vivaldi concertos feature improvised accordion as well as harpsichord continuo.

Reuven displays dazzling dexterity and technique in beautifully atmospheric and effective performances, Wellber’s accordion adding a new and never intrusive dimension to the Vivaldi. 

“A magical and fascinating sound world,” say my notes. Indeed it is.

09 I MusiciIf you prefer your Vivaldi Four Seasons in more traditional format then it’s hard to imagine better performers than I Musici, who made their debut in Rome in March 1952 and their first landmark recording of the work in 1955, just eight years after the 1947 recording by American violinist Louis Kaufman that launched the Vivaldi revival. Six more versions would follow between 1969 and 2012. The group marks the 70th anniversary of that first concert with the release of a new recording of Vivaldi, Verdi: Le Quattro Stagioni – The Four Seasons (Decca 4852630 deccaclassics.com/en/catalogue/products/the-four-seasons-i-musici-12623).

Marco Fiorini, whose mother was a founding member of I Musici is the soloist in sparkling performances of the Vivaldi, paired here with the world-premiere recording of Verdi’s work of the same name, the ballet music from his 1855 opera I Vespri Siciliani, arranged for piano and strings by composer-pianist Luigi Pecchia.

10 Itamar ZormanViolin Odyssey, the latest CD from violinist Itamar Zorman is the result of his 2020 livestream video series Hidden Gems, another COVID lockdown project which featured lesser-known and rarely played works; ten were chosen for this album. Piano accompaniment is shared by Ieva Jokubaviciute and Kwan Yi (First Hand Records FHR119 firsthandrecords.com).

The two major works are the 1917 Violin Sonata No.2 in B-flat Minor Op.43 by Dora Pejačevič and the 1927 Sonata No.2 by Erwin Schulhoff, both terrific works. The eight short pieces of the Heifetz arrangement of Joseph Achron’s Children’s Suite Op.57 are here, and there are short pieces by Grażyna Bacewicz, Moshe Zorman, Silvestre Revueltas, Ali Osman, Gao Ping and William Grant Still. Gareth Farr’s 2009 Wakatipu for solo violin is a brilliant highlight.

Zorman displays his customary strong, impassioned playing throughout an excellent disc. 

11 Rebecca ClarkeRebecca Clarke Works for Viola, featuring the French violist Vinciane Béranger with pianist Dana Ciocarlie is another addition to the growing body of recordings acknowledging the significance of the English viola virtuoso’s contribution to the viola repertoire (Aparté AP289 apartemusic.com).

The major work here is clearly the outstanding Viola Sonata from 1919, a passionate reading of which opens the disc. It’s followed by another early work, Morpheus from 1917-18 and the Passacaglia on an Old English Tune, from 1941.

Cellist David Louwerse joins Béranger for the Two Pieces for Viola and Cello from 1918 and the Irish Melody (Emer’s Farewell to Cucullain “Londonderry Air”) from c.1918, the latter only rumoured to exist until being discovered in the Royal Academy of Music in 2015 and published in 2020; this is its world-premiere recording.

Hélène Collerette is the violinist for the Dumka for Violin, Viola and Piano from 1941; the mostly pizzicato Chinese Puzzle for viola and piano from 1922 completes a fine CD.

12 Amaro DuboisTwo of the Clarke pieces, plus two tracks from the Shining Night CD turn up on Adoration – Music of the Americas, a CD by the Brazilian violist Amaro Dubois with pianist Tingting Yao (Spice Classics amarodubois.com).

Two works by Florence Price, the lovely title track and Fantasy in Purple, open the disc. The six Rebecca Clarke pieces include Chinese Puzzle and the Passacaglia, the latter drawing particularly strong playing from both performers. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s beautiful Five Songs of Sun and Shade show Dubois’ rich, warm tone at its best, and are real gems.

Some of the works in the second half of the CD are perhaps not quite as impressive, Piazzolla’s Libertango and the haunting Café 1930 from Histoire du Tango being followed by a not particularly successful transcription of Villa-Lobos’ Aria from Bachianas Brasileiras No.5, the very short Suite Nordestina by the Brazilian César Guerra-Peixe and Fanny Mendelssohn’s Six Lieder Op.7. 

Dubois has a lovely tone across the full range of his instrument. Yao’s playing is fine, although the piano sound should really have a lot more depth and body. Dubois says that a second release of works for viola and piano by Latin American composers is scheduled for release in July.

06 Johannsson Drone MassJóhann Jóhannsson – Drone Mass
ACME; Theatre of Voices; Paul Hillier
Deutsche Grammophon (johannjohannsson.com)

Jóhann Gunnar Jóhannsson (1969-2018) was an Icelandic composer who wrote music for a wide array of media including theatre, dance, television and films. His music blends traditional instruments and orchestrations with contemporary and electronic components, resulting in a unique and characteristic soundscape. 

At once meditative, mystifying and minimalistic, there are clear similarities between the Drone Mass and the music of 20th-century Eastern European spiritualists such as Pärt and Gorecki, but with notable deviations such as the integration of electronic techniques and the use of texts taken from the “Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians,” part of the Nag Hammadi library discovered in 1945. 

For those expecting a Catholic-based Mass in the style of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, the incorporation of a hymn described by Jóhannsson himself as “a seemingly meaningless series of vowels” will mark a radical deviation from the norm, and yet the characterization of this work as a “Mass” is nonetheless fitting, as there is an interconnectedness and weaving of meaning between movements which provide structure and form to Jóhannsson’s large-scale work.

This world-premiere recording of the Drone Mass by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, Theatre of Voices and conductor Paul Hillier is a revelatory look into the musical mind of Jóhannsson as represented in his art music, rather than his film scores, and is an extraordinary musical achievement. The demanding score is executed flawlessly and both singers and instrumentalists deserve commendation for their impeccable intonation. 

Jóhannsson’s Drone Mass is highly recommended, not only to those fond of Pärt, Gorecki and Tavener, but to all who enjoy contemporary music performed at the highest levels of excellence.

07 Holliger LuneaHeinz Holliger – Lunea
Christian Gerhaher; Juliane Banse; Ivan Ludlow; Sarah Maria Sun; Annette Schönmüller; Philharmonic Zürich; Basler Madrigalisten; Heinz Holliger
ECM New Series ECM 2622/23 (ecmrecords.com/shop)

Swiss virtuoso oboist, composer and conductor Heinz Holliger is among the most prominent oboists of his generation. Also a prominent modernist composer, his work includes the 1998 opera Schneewittchen. Fascinated by artists living on the edge, his music often interrogates their lives and the texts they left. His opera Lunea (2017) is no exception.

Unfolding in 23 scenes Lunea is built on as many aphoristic visions, based on the biography and work of the celebrated Biedermeier poet Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850). Suffering a suspected midlife stroke and exhibiting unmistakable signs of mental illness, Lenau was confined to a mental institution for the rest of his life. Art imitating life, Lunea protagonists distort and rearrange words just as Lenau did after his stroke. The score employs a compositional procedure in which material is stated in reverse order, paralleling the narrative’s shuttle back and forth in time.

Händl Klaus’ spare libretto reflects the outlines of the poet’s biography, retaining the flavour of Lenau’s near-Dadaist statements such as, “Man is a sandpiper by the sea of eternity.” Holliger’s music reflects the poet’s turmoil, despair and insights with surprising, effective sounds. For example, his skillful, prominent use of the cimbalom is perhaps a sly reference to Lenau’s birthplace in the Kingdom of Hungary and early career in Budapest. 

Reflecting the concentrated emotion characteristic of the Romantic period, Holliger’s brilliant orchestration underscores the disjointed libretto with impressively expressive instrumental and vocal writing. Juliane Banse’s achingly soaring soprano aria in Scene 12, and the violin solos sprinkled throughout, are memorable for their atonal yet emotional lyricism.

08 Henze Das VerrateneHans Werner Henze – Das Verratene Meer
Vera Lotte Boecker; Bo Skovhus; Josh Lovell; Van Heyningen; Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper; Simone Young
Capriccio C5460 (naxosdirect.com/search/845221054605) 

The work of prolific and influential German composer Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) is extremely varied in style, showing influences of atonality, serialism, Arabic music, neoclassicism, jazz and more. He wrote over 30 operas and theatre scores throughout his long creative life, and they received numerous international performances. Henze was also well known for his Marxist politics; he produced compositions honouring Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara. The latter’s Hamburg premiere in 1968 sparked a riot and arrests.

Henze’s 1990 Das verratene Meer (The Betrayed Sea), an opera in two parts and 14 scenes, is based on Yukio Mishima’s 1963 novel The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. The choice of Mishima, a Japanese fascist, by the committed leftist revolutionary Henze seems unexpected on the surface, yet there are parallels in their biographies: both were traumatized by World War II, both were openly gay and abhorred bourgeois life. Unlike Henze’s overtly political theatre works however, Das verratene Meer is rather a menacing meditation on the sea, seasons, sex and jealousy. The straightforward plot follows a widow who falls in love with a sailor. Her jealous teenage son traps the sailor with the help of his gang, and they sadistically murder him. 

This two-CD Capriccio set is based on Vienna State Opera’s latest production of the work featuring brilliant dramatic coloratura soprano Vera-Lotte Boecker as the young widow Fusako. The strong Danish baritone Bo Skovhus portrays the sailor she falls for, while the convincingly young Canadian lyric tenor, Josh Lovell, is the widow’s son.

Henze’s musical evocation of Mishima’s narrative is couched in an expressionistic Second Viennese School aesthetic. I distinctly felt the ghost of Alban Berg at several moments. Considerable angst is generated by ostinato instrumental textures and drama from the inclusion of unusual percussion instruments, including Japanese drums and clapper that hint at the world of the Japan characters.

The opera opens in the summer, the second section is set in the winter; a series of lush, sophisticated orchestral interludes evokes the seasons and the three primary characters’ inner feelings. Simone Young masterfully conducts the complex score; the Vienna Staatsoper orchestra, augmented for the occasion to vast late-Romantic proportions, is undoubtedly yet another star in this satisfying production.

Back to top