04_english_violaEnglish Music for Viola

Eniko Magyar; Tadashi Imai

Naxos 8.572407

There is something about the viola’s tonal quality that makes it seem quintessentially English; appropriately so, given that it was an Englishman – Lionel Tertis – who almost singlehandedly established the viola as a legitimate solo instrument in the early 20th century. Tertis had connections with most of the music on this outstanding debut CD by the London-based Hungarian violist Eniko Magyar.

The Bliss Sonata is the most challenging of the works, with a turbulent, restless and dissonant start and a passionate third movement. It was written for, and dedicated to, Tertis, who gave the first performance in 1933.

A year earlier, Tertis had transcribed Delius’s Third Violin Sonata and had played it for the ailing composer at the latter’s home in Grez-sur-Loing. Written in 1930, it is Delius at his distinctively lyrical best.

The seven attractive miniatures by Frank Bridge date from 1901 to 1908, when Bridge was in his 20s. Most were originally written for violin or cello; only two – Pensiero and Allegro appassionato – were written specifically for the viola, Bridge’s own instrument, and were published as the first titles in the Lionel Tertis Viola Library in 1908.

Magyar plays her c.1700 Grancino viola (on loan from the Royal Academy) with warmth, sensitivity, and a superb technique, and is ably and sympathetically supported by pianist Tadashi Imai. The recording quality and booklet notes are both excellent.

03_elgarElgar - Violin Concerto

Nikolaj Znaider; Staatskapelle Dresden; Sir Colin Davis

RCA Red Seal 88697 60588 2

Nikolaj Znaider has not yet attained universal fame but, be assured, he is on the way. He is an exclusive RCA recording artist and has several fine concerto discs including the Brahms and Korngold with Valery Gergiev, the Beethoven and Mendelssohn with Zubin Mehta, the Nielsen and Bruch with Lawrence Foster, and the Prokofiev No.2 and Glazunov with Mariss Jansons. This new recording of the Elgar is clearly one of the finest versions this concerto has enjoyed.

Connoisseurs know well the historic recording with the teen-aged Yehudi Menuhin and Elgar conducting the London Symphony Orchestra from 1932. Although Fritz Kreisler premiered the concerto in 1910 it was the Menuhin/Elgar that had the music world talking.

Znaider impresses me with a seemingly effortless command of his instrument and his silky, singing tone. A performance aided by the authoritative collaboration with consummate Elgarian Colin Davis, under whom one could believe that the German orchestra was a traditional English ensemble steeped in the tradition. Not that I have auditioned the others recently but I believe that this performance is not bettered by any version that I have previously heard.

Top marks are also due the production and sound engineering, naturally balanced and detailed. One caveat, the timing for this concerto is less than 50 minutes - RCA should have included an appropriate filler.

02_mendelssohnMendelssohn - Piano Trios

Emanuel Ax; Yo-Yo Ma; Itzhak Perlman

Sony Music 88697 52192 2

Menahem Pressler, the pianist who for more than half a century was the driving force behind the Beaux Arts Trio, is inclined to take a jaundiced view of piano trios cobbled together on a temporary, ad-hoc basis. “Three fine fellows do not make a trio!” he pointedly remarked.

Yet when the “three fine fellows” happen to be Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma and Emmanuel Ax, Pressler’s concerns may be set aside. Although this group hadn’t played in public before last year and has given only handful of concerts, their collective interpretation is decisive and secure, banishing any hint of the wimpy playing that sometimes finds its way into Mendelssohn performances.

The two Mendelssohn trios on this disc are paired on countless recordings – but they’ve probably never been played or recorded better than they have here. From the outset of the D Minor Trio, the group’s playing is taut, nuanced and intricately interwoven. The dramatic first movement is nicely contrasted with the introspective second. The third movement is all coyness and charm; and the last movement is effervescent, with muscular outbursts.

Perhaps the group might have taken the opening movement of the C Minor Trio a little faster – but the tempo they chose provides some breathing room for the expressive range of this movement: the sotto voce string passages, and surprising outbursts from the piano. The second movement is all sweetness; and the third scampers lightly, as a Mendelssohnian scherzo should. The finale does not lack grandness, but there’s a spring to the rhythm that propels the music forward.

I’m reminded of one other thing Pressler has said about piano trios: the heart of the ensemble is the piano. Violinists and cellists may not like this proposal – but it’s well borne out on this recording, which is solidly founded on Ax’s superb playing.

01_aux_armesGossec - Aux Armes, Citoyens: Royal and Revolutionary Music for Winds

Les Jacobins; Mathieu Lussier

ATMA ACD2 2595

Absolute monarchy, revolution, terror, Napoleon, restored monarchy - François-Joseph Gossec lived through all of this over his 95 years. And he orchestrated La Marseillaise.

Despite name and title, this CD features both royalist and revolutionary music. So, with our six period-woodwind instrumentalists, we aristos can ride with the Grande Chasse de Chentilli to the accompaniment of clarinets, horns and bassoons. Then, revolutionaries, we lower our flags as we remember assassinated Deputy Feraud.

Back on course we hear La Marseilaise. Gossec’s arrangement starts at a quick revolutionary pace but ends in a more stately, Royalist, tempo. Gossec hedges his bets...

And so to five revolutionary airs under Mathieu Lussier’s artistic direction. Ça ira leads. It inspired the French revolutionaries (and one English officer who actually made it his regimental march). In fact, most of this suite is rather un-revolutionary in its tempo - but still a wonderful opportunity to hear authentic Baroque woodwind solos. We arrive at the battlefield with four short pieces. Clarinets, bassoons, and horns boost our morale as we march, playing spiritedly as we engage our foe at close quarters, and with dignity as victory is ours.

More relaxing are Gossec’s Andante and Chasse d’Hylas et Sylvie. Gossec’s interest in the clarinet, new in France when he was composing in the early 1770s, is ably demonstrated by Jane Booth and Martin Carpentier.

Gossec’s hymns to liberty are more reflective than brash; the same is true of his Simphonie à 6. What Les Jacobins have done here is to publicise the vast store of undiscovered French revolutionary music.

02_saint_ceciliaTo Saint Cecilia

Les Musiciens du Louvre, Grenoble; Marc Minkowski

Naïve V5183

Cecilia, patron saint of music, was martyred: her killers would surely have been more benign if they had listened to the celestial music dedicated to her. Purcell, with his Hail Bright Cecilia of 1692, shows why English music-lovers came to establish festivals dedicated to Cecilia. Listen to the tenor voice of Anders Dahlin in ‘Tis Nature’s Voice and bass Luca Tittoto in Wond’rous Machine! to hear why. There is one irony in Hail, Bright Cecilia. Purcell uses the human voice in all its beauty to sing the praises of musical instruments - which hardly get the chance to express themselves.

Handel’s A Song for St Cecilia’s Day is lively in its Overture; baroque orchestral music at its most serene. Add the cello-playing of Niels Wieboldt in What Passion Cannot Music Raise and Florian Cousin’s flute-playing in The Soft Complaining Flute and you will see how Handel gives freer rein to instruments than Purcell.

And then Haydn, with the more religious approach of the St. Cecilia Mass. The female soloists come into their own: contralto Nathalie Stutzmann and above all, soprano Lucie Crowe. Listen to the latter in Haydn’s Quoniam; if anyone can claim to be called the Cecilia of these two CDs, it is Ms Crowe.

And don’t just set aside 2 hours 33 minutes for the recording: immerse yourself in the 132-page booklet of insightful articles and sumptuous paintings.

Michael Schwartz


Marie-Nicole Lemieux; Ensemble Matheus; Jean-Christophe Spinosi

Naïve V5212

This recording features selections from the three Vivaldi operas which Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux has recorded for the Naïve label with the Ensemble Matheus directed by Jean-Christoph Spinosi - Orlando furioso, Griselda and La fida ninfa - as well as Vivaldi's Stabat Mater. Known for her extremely agile voice, unusual for a contralto, she is well able to manage the roller-coaster agitato passages better suited to a violin that Vivaldi (most unfairly) demands of singers. One is reminded, especially in the exhilarating Sorge l'irato nembo from Orlando furioso, of the fire of Marilyn Horne. It's no wonder this performance of the opera was acclaimed as the best recording of the year 2005 at the French Victoires de la Musique in Paris.

This recording also includes duets and trios with internationally acclaimed voices such as sopranos Sandrine Piau and Veronica Cangemi and countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with whom Lemieux's rich warm tones blend effortlessly. Lemieux is sublimely regal in the arias from one of the most beautiful settings of Stabat Mater. This is a singer well on her way to becoming a national treasure.

Dianne Wells

01_antico-modernoAntico/Moderno - Renaissance Madrigals Embellished 1517-2001

Doron Sheriwn; Julien Martin; Hosh Cheatham; Skip Sempé; Capriccio Stravagante

Paradizo PA008 (www.paradizo.org)

Embellished? Yes, in a phenomenon unknown even to regular early music concert-goers, works by Italian madrigal-writers (e.g. Palestrina and Cipriano de Rore) and Franco-Flemish composers (e.g. Josquin) could sometimes be converted into instrumental versions, often in the composers’ own life-times.

Skip Sempé explains that top and bass vocal parts were frequently embellished; instruments classified as baroque - violin, viol da gamba, recorder, and sackbut - were developed and played to virtuoso standards during the Renaissance - the arrangements on this CD must surely have mesmerised audiences.

The commonly expressed view that the cornetto (a hybrid instrument with a small trumpet-like mouthpiece and finger holes like a recorder, made of wood and covered in leather) was closest to the human voice in its output is borne out by Doron Sherwin’s playing - you would think initially that a female voice was in full flow. And if you have doubts as to how expressive the recorder can be, listen as Julien Martin embellishes Palestrina’s Pulchra es amica mea and Vestiva i colli. As for viols, Ancor che col partire by de Rore was embellished for consort after his death; five violas da gamba interpret the piece’s intricacy and thoughtfulness.

To describe this CD as highly original does it disservice. It is original in rediscovering embellishments, original in recording several scorings for the same piece and above all original for embracing Doron Sherwin’s inspired cornetto playing, sometimes of embellishments which he himself has written!

Michael Schwartz

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