01 Shining ShoreShining Shore
Three Notch’d Road – The Virginia Baroque Ensemble
Independent (tnrbaroque.org)

Early music in North America, and not in Italy, England or France? Surely not? And yet the Virginia Baroque Ensemble Three-Notch’d Road has recorded 17 pieces ranging from a broadside ballad through hymn arrangements to the dizzy heights of Handel and Purcell arrangements.

There is a haunting quality to many tracks: listen to bass Peter Walker as he solemnly declaims the anonymous but highly emotive Liberty tree, a setting of Thomas Paine’s support for the American revolutionaries. After the rigours of the War of Independence, it is little wonder that Oliver Shaw composed the invigorating Jefferson’s March. Here, Dominic Giardino breathes his enthusiasm for military music and early instruments into one of the very first forms of the clarinet. 

Then there are pieces with a deep spiritual content. The singers on the CD lend a very human quality to Jeremiah Ingalls’ Farewell Hymn with its subject of death. It is followed by a slow, stately and traditional Appalachian interpretation of I Wonder as I Wander sung by Peter Walker.

The instrumental pieces are also worthy of note. To Drive the Cold Winter Away was a great favourite in English collections; its simplicity may well have led to an aural transmission across the Atlantic – ready for Giardino’s clarinet skills. 

We hear far too little early music from the New World. This CD must surely be the start of the fightback.

03 David Hyun su KimDavid Hyun-su Kim plays Schumann
David Hyun-su Kim
Centaur Records CRC 3877 (challengerecords.com)

While early 19th-century pianos may lack the rich and sonorous tone of a modern concert grand, they can offer a greater sense of intimacy and as such, have an appeal all their own. Korean-American pianist David Hyun-su Kim has made a specialty of historically accurate performance practice, and in this recording he presents music by Robert Schumann performed on a replica of a pianoforte from the 1830s. A true Renaissance man, Kim graduated from Cornell as a Presidential Research and National Merit Scholar in chemistry. Yet a chance encounter with Beethoven piano sonatas convinced him to change direction, and following studies in the U.S. and Germany – with an acclaimed debut in Vienna – he’s now regarded as among the finest young American pianists of his generation.

Papillons, from 1831 is a charming set of 12 kaleidoscopic miniatures. Based on a novel by Jean Paul Richter and intended to represent a masked ball, the movements flow by in quick succession. Kim delivers an elegant and polished performance, adroitly capturing the ever-contrasting moods.

The bulk of the recording comprises one of Schumann’s most renowned compositions Carnaval from 1835. Again, Kim demonstrates a true affinity for this much-loved repertoire. Movements such as Pierrot and Florestan are suitably whimsical, Chopin and Aveu, posed and introspective, while the rousing Marche des Davidsbündler is performed with great bravado.

The disc concludes with the gracious Arabesque Op.18, a fitting ending to a most satisfying recording. Kim proves without a doubt that Romantic period repertoire can sound as compelling on a pianoforte (or a replica) as it does on a modern instrument. Here’s hoping we’ll hear from this gifted young artist again in the near future.

04 Chopin Piano Concertos chamberChopin – Piano Concertos, Chamber Versions
Emmanuel Despax; Chineke! Chamber Ensemble
Signum SIGCD700 (emmanueldespax.com/recordings-1)

Even a hundred years ago there were no radios and TVs. The phonograph had just been invented and orchestral works and concertos could only be heard at a concert hall. In order to make it accessible to the common man these had to be arranged in chamber versions or piano transcriptions to be performed at private salons or soirees where Chopin himself was often invited to play the piano part.

Following this train of thought, a brilliant young French pianist, Emmanuel Despax, already well known in Europe and according to Gramophone magazine, “A formidable talent, fleet of finger, elegant of phrase and a true keyboard colourist,” decided to do just that: he collected five string players (the Cheneke! Chamber Ensemble) to perform Chopin’s two piano concertos with the orchestra reduced to a string quintet, so what we have here is effectively a piano sextet. 

Chopin’s orchestration has been much criticized over the last centuries. Berlioz thought it rigid and superfluous, but since the piano plays almost continuously, this version with smaller forces is quite enjoyable. One nevertheless misses the power and instrumental colour of the orchestra, especially at one thrilling moment in the second movement of the Second Concerto when suddenly the mood changes. There is hushed intensity, everything quiets down into a pianissimo string tremolo with a heartbeat-like timpani and the piano enters with a dramatic melody that hasn’t been heard before. I also miss the clarion call on the horn near the end, when the prevailing F Minor key suddenly changes to major as if the radiant sun suddenly comes out and turns everything bright and beautiful.

05 PogorelichPogorelich Chopin
Ivo Pogorelich
Sony Classical 19439912052 (naxosdirect.com/search/19439912052)

The performance on this disc is altogether exceptional. Pianist Ivo Pogorelich takes nothing for granted in music. Nor should we in listening to him. If you know how Chopin “goes” then this almost certainly isn’t for you. Not that Pogorelich does anything wildly idiosyncratic, let alone provocatively iconoclastic, à la Glenn Gould. Rather, Pogorelich plainly understands that every interpretation is but one possibility, and he offers us a very enticing opportunity to open our minds, especially in these familiar works most burdened by tradition. 

Everywhere revelations abound, beginning with the spacious opening of  the Nocturne in C Minor Op 48/1. Pogorelich’s Nocturnes are altogether dreamy and lyrical. And in the Fantasy in F Minor Op.49 he takes us unexpectedly into another world. It’s full of glinting lights, mysterious depths, expectations, doubts and hopes like the shattered shadows of a rapturous quasi-Mendelssohn scherzo, glimpsed by moonlight in a forest. 

In sheer colour and variety, in the depth of characterization and in the exceptional range and refinement of pianism, Pogorelich imparts a power and majestic stature to Chopin’s Piano Sonata No.3 in B Minor Op.58. In its component parts the pianist displays urbanity and lyricism that is truly seductive and persuasive, which in itself is an object lesson in the very essence of style. The Scherzo is played with buoyant, aristocratic grace, psychological ambiguity and insolent virtuosity; Chopin as few pianists could even hope to try.

06 Chopin Alan HobbinsThe Art of Chopin
Alan Hobbins
Maestro Music Company MMCD05 (alanhobbins.com)

Canada seems to produce many first-rate pianists one after another: Hewitt, Lisiecki and Fialkowska, not to mention the immortal Glenn Gould! Into this august circle now endeavors to step Alan Hobbins. A pianist of Jamaican descent, Hobbins graduated from The Royal Conservatory and later studied at Juilliard. His teachers included the late great Leon Fleisher and Chopin specialist Marek Jablonski. Since then he has given many concerts in Toronto and New York to great critical acclaim. I met him several times in the 80s (he being my daughters’ piano teacher) and was invited to his debut concert. I was particularly impressed with his special affinity to the music of his homeland and American jazz.

Chopin is definitely his favourite composer and this is Hobbins’ third recording devoted entirely to his work. It’s a wonderful collection skilfully selected to give a good cross section of Chopin’s most beloved and immensely difficult pieces. He masters all the challenges with superb technical skill. Above all he brings “a subtlety of expression to every phrase, single chord or a note” raves one newspaper.

From the program of Scherzos, Nocturnes and Impromptus, some of my favorites are the majestic Nocturne in D-flat Major with its grand melody. This is followed later by a masterly performance of the Scherzo No.2 in B-flat Minor that opens with those powerful chords from which a beautiful, emotionally charged melody emerges followed by that peaceful meditative mid-section and the magnificent super bravura coda. 

And dare I mention the explosive, tremendously passionate, heroic Nocturne in C Minor that makes me shiver every time I hear it?  This is truly grand-scale pianism with the ebb and flow of emotion superbly controlled.

Listen to 'The Art of Chopin' Now in the Listening Room

07 Tchaikovsky JarviTchaikovsky Symphonies
Tonhalle-Orchester Zurich; Paavo Järvi
ALPHA 778 (naxosdirect.com/search/alpha778) 

I have been a longtime admirer of the conductor Paavo Järvi since the release of his live Beethoven cycle with the Kammerphilharmonie, Bremen of September 2009. At that time, I was very impressed by his ability to beautifully balance the orchestra.

Now we have a box set of Tchaikovsky symphonies together with various orchestral works and here it is again, the orchestra balanced so well that every instrument is clearly audible, still in its natural balance without being spot lit. This five-CD set from Alpha Classics has been so well recorded that you can map out the entire orchestra, the Tonhalle-Orchester Zurich, of which Järvi is music director. His presentation of these works is more thoughtful and sensitive than some other recorded versions from the likes of Karajan, Mravinsky et al, but no less powerful

Symphony No.1 “Winter Daydreams” is eloquently gentle and Symphony No.2 “The Little Russian, positively optimistic, patriotic and joyful. We move through the power and cumulative intensity of the Third “Polish” to the power of the Fourth and unbounded exuberance and positive optimism of the Fifth to the overwhelming sadness and ultimate resignation of the final movement of the Sixth Symphony, “Pathétique”.

The six orchestral works accompanying the symphonies include Francesca Da Rimini, Capriccio Italien, two pieces from Eugene Onegin, the Waltz and the Polonaise, as well as Romeo and Juliet and the Festival Coronation March. All enjoy the same meticulous attention to detail that we now expect from Järvi.

After a lifetime of listening to these works conducted by so many others, this recording may very well be my preferred version. Here the music unfolds as a narrative. It flows. These are well-considered new readings that may have you rethinking certain passages and perhaps reappreciating others. The five discs are also available separately.

08 Mahler 4Mahler – Symphony No.4
Chen Reiss; Czech Philharmonic; Semyon Bychkov
PentaTone PTC5186972 (naxosdirect.com/search/ptc5186972)

Four decades have passed since the Czech Philharmonic completed their first edition of the complete Mahler symphonies under Václav Neumann in 1982. Mahler was born in Bohemia and raised in Moravia (born in 1860 during the Hapsburg era, he considered himself an Austrian and spoke mainly German) so this first instalment of a new cycle can be considered a festive homecoming for a favourite son. Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is relatively compact in comparison to its gargantuan predecessors in the so-called “Wunderhorn” cycle of symphonies inspired by the 19th-century collection of folk-song texts known as The Youth’s Magic Horn, portions of which Mahler had previously set to music. Despite this economy of means, the symphony’s mischievous antics, ironic stance and complex structure confounded the critics of his time. Today it is regarded as one of his most accessible works.
Mahler himself once observed, “The real art of conducting consists in transitions.” Mahler’s own constantly shape-shifting music teems with kaleidoscopic tempo fluctuations which not every conductor can interpret convincingly. Bychkov’s mastery in this regard marks him as a genuine Mahlerian. The finale of the symphony features Israeli soprano Chen Reiss in an ingenuous rendition of the song Das himmlische Leben from which this work was spawned. 

The distinctive sound of the Czech Philharmonic is gorgeously captured in this Pentatone production; the strings are lustrous, the winds and brass incisive and the dynamic range is vast. Recorded in August 2020 from the confines of a shuttered Dvořák Hall in Prague, this is a very auspicious start to what promises to be an exceptional Mahler cycle.

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