07 Martina Filjak LisztLight & Darkness – Works by Franz Liszt
Martina Filjak
Profil Edition Hanssler PH18074 (smarturl.it/light-darkness)

It isn’t often that you come across a recording so good that you not only want to recommend it to everyone but also gift copies to everyone you meet. The Croatian pianist Martina Filjak’s Light & Darkness – Works by Franz Liszt is one of these discs. Not only does her performance rise to the demanding level of Liszt’s pianism, but in the programming of the repertoire you will find a challenging attempt to paint a vivid picture of Liszt’s multifaceted character and personality at the heart of which was an unbridled virtuoso genius. Liszt’s attraction to Palestrina and early polyphony, and the extraordinary opulence of Ottoman Empire culture is well-documented here as is his attraction to spirituality and asceticism later in life.

To remain true to all of the above and interpret the often diabolical intricacies of Liszt’s music requires uncommon virtuosity and wisdom. Filjak has both qualities in spades. The young pianist has the technical prowess to deal with Liszt’s pyrotechnics and yet knows how to enter the introspective core of Miserere d’après Palestrina – one of a set of ten works based on the poems of Alphonse de Lamartine – and the Ballade No.2 in B Minor. Her revelation of the mesmerizing range of tones of Deux Légendes is brilliant. Filjak emerges as a complete Lisztian, turning what in other hands sounds merely exhibitionistic into a discursive stream of consciousness of the highest order.

08 Rimsky KorsakovRimsky-Korsakov – Capriccio Espagnol; Russian Easter Festival Overture; Scheherazade
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra; Vasily Petrenko
LAWO LWC1198 (naxosdirect.com)

Some years ago, the owner of a new record company asked an experienced A&R man, “How do you know what to make?” The answer? “Look for the composition that has the most recordings and make one more.” It seems that advice is still being heeded, not only in repertoire but also with conductors.

Three so often recorded staples are given new life in these performances directed by Vasily Petrenko who is not to be confused with the Petrenko in Berlin, Kirill. Vasily has been conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra since 2009 and conducts and records with other orchestras earning enthusiastic reviews. He now has 52 CDs out there, including 16 devoted to Shostakovich.  

The immediate exuberance of the Alborada opening of Capriccio Espagnol is a real attention-getter and sets the level of enthusiasm expected from the orchestra throughout the program. The Russian Easter Festival moves from Saturday’s religious zeal to Easter Sunday’s celebrations. I certainly did not expect to linger on any passages in Scheherazade and yet listening to this familiar favourite afresh was an unexpected pleasure. This finely detailed performance demonstrates why Rimsky-Korsakov was regarded by his peers as Russia’s supreme orchestrator.

As to be expected, the sound is state of the art.

09 Mahler 2 DudamelMahler – Symphony No.2 “Resurrection”
Chen Reiss; Tamara Mumford; Münchner Philharmoniker; Gustavo Dudamel
Unitel Edition 802808 (naxosdirect.com)

Filmed in Barcelona’s incredibly ornate Palau de la Música Catalana, this DVD commemorates a singular performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony presented on June 27, 2019. Mahler envisioned this massive work as a sequel to his first symphony, though it took an unusually long time by his standards to complete. It opens with an epic funeral march, originally a freestanding tone poem titled Totenfeier (Funeral Rites) from 1888. Following a pause (Mahler stipulated a seldom observed five full minutes), the lighter second and third movements provide a striking contrast to the extreme tension of what has gone before; the second is a genial, folksy Ländler while the third is a darkly ironic Scherzo. Dudamel’s direction here is stylish, supple and very Viennese. Things take a truly cosmic turn in the finale of the work (conceived in 1894) with the appearance of mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford introducing her emotive Ulricht vocal solo, setting the stage for a truly cataclysmic conclusion which storms the gates of heaven itself in a riveting performance featuring the multiple choirs (situated some three stories above the orchestra on either side of a sadly non-functioning organ), thunderous brass passages both on stage and off and the soaring exhortations of soprano Chen Reiss, all united in a thrilling promise of a life beyond death. 

The crack video team employs a phalanx of six cameras, with many shots resorting to extreme close-ups, as the stage is crammed with over 100 musicians and an audience of some 2,000 rapt souls in attendance. The sound is quite vibrant owing to the many ceramic and glass surfaces of the venue. The Munich Philharmonic plays tremendously well and, most impressively, Dudamel conducts the entire 90-minute performance from memory! It’s quite the occasion, and a celebration that we shall not likely see again for quite some time.

10 SOLERIANASoleriana – Joaquín Rodrigo Chamber Orchestra Works
Orquesta de la Comunidad Valenciana; Joan Enric Lluna
IBS Classical IBS-82020 (ibsclassical.es)

Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999) was without question one of Spain’s most prolific 20th-century composers, and rather ironically, aside from his international hit Concierto de Aranjuez, much of his work, including a dozen other concertos and over 170 additional compositions, remains largely unknown. The title of the CD is Soleriana – not only the title of the first work represented, but also a noun of gravitas profundo, one used frequently by Rodrigo to describe “purity of the Spanish cultural heritage, undiluted by European influence.” Although Rodrigo was closely identified with European neo-classicism of the 1930s, he imbued his works with many indigenous elements of traditional Spanish forms, particularly dances. This recording presents works composed between 1926 and 1953, and is performed by the noted Orquesta de la Comunidad Valenciana, under the skilled baton of Joan Enric Lluna, The exquisite recorded performance took place in front of an enraptured audience at the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia. 

The title work is comprised of Entrada, where tender bassoons and oboes are joined by complex Baroque patterns utilizing all the colours of the ensemble; the regal, stirring Fandango; Tourbillon with its superb use of vigorous, passion-filled and insistent cellos and basses; and Pastoral, which is almost spiritual in its musical purity. Imagery of stunning, natural sites is embedded in the music, and the final movement, Passepied features delicious entanglements of strings and woodwinds.

Two additional pieces are both breathtakingly beautiful celebrations of musical dance motifs and structure: Tres Viejos Aires de Danza and the closing, Zarabanda Lejana y Villancico. This fresh, invigorating and masterfully performed project is both an acknowledgment of an overlooked artist and a marvelous celebration of Spanish culture.

11 Satie VexedErik Satie – Vexations
Noriko Ogawa (1890 Érard Piano)
Bis BIS-2325 (naxosdirect.com)

Erik Satie – a true forerunner of the Impressionist school or an accomplished but eccentric dilettante? Nearly 100 years after his death, the composer from Normandy – bearded and bespectacled – continues to be a source of controversy. His music always demonstrated a particular diversity of styles, all of which reveal a strikingly original musical personality – and this BIS recording of Vexations performed by pianist Noriko Ogawa on an 1890 Érard instrument, is yet another example of his eclecticism.

The set reputedly dates from the early 1890s. Typically, Satie provided no information about it, the only source being a scribbled single-page manuscript discovered after his death. From the outset, it’s clearly evident that this is music like no other. The score begins with a single-line 18-note theme which is then repeated, this time used as a bass line for two voices above it moving in tritone harmony. Following a repeat of the single-line theme, the harmonization is then inverted. According to Satie’s instructions, the sequence is to be repeated 840 times! Nevertheless, Ogawa has opted for a more manageable repetition of a mere 142, bringing the length of the performance to a practical 80 minutes. She successfully varies her interpretation through shifts in dynamics and articulation, and in all, delivers a poised and sensitive performance. The result is music which is haunting, unsettling and after a while, possibly even hypnotic.

So, is the final result mesmerizing or futile? Indeed, that would be up to the listener to decide. If you’re seeking something light and melodic to relax to on a summer’s evening, this isn’t it. On the other hand, the ambience created is perfect for quiet reflection or meditation – all we need are the candles and incense!

12 Caroline LeonardelliSerenata
Caroline Léonardelli
CEN Classics CEN1022 (carolineleonardelli.com)

Canadian JUNO-nominated classical concert harpist Caroline Léonardelli describes her third recording as a “homage to her Italian heritage.” Her detailed, conscientious research culminates in this all-solo, Italian-based harp-repertoire release featuring composers from the 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when the modern version of the concert harp was being introduced. The compositions touch on such influences as fantasies, studies, suites, classical, opera arias and folk/popular music. Léonardelli performs them all with subtlety, virtuosity and incredible dedication.

Title track Serenata Op.51 No.6 (1910) by Alessandro Longo is an uplifting classical harp work with contrasting high notes and lower pitched lines, glissandos and slight rubatos at the ends of phrases. Luigi Tedeschi’s slower Etude Impromptu Op.37 (1906) is stylistically more Romantic with high clear pitches and sensitive melodic movement. Giovanni Caramiello bases his Rimembranza di Napoli Op.6 (1877) on two Neapolitan folk songs. The detached effect going into the infamous song Santa Lucia, with its high-pitched ringing middle song section, will make one want to listen to the harp instead of trying to sing along! Two Gaetano Donizetti opera arias are featured, one arranged by Albert Zabel and the other by John Thomas. Both become harp arias without words while remaining very true to Donizetti’s original works. Virgilio Mortari’s two pieces feature more contemporary colours and chromatic melodies.

Léonardelli is an expressive, smart, devoted harp soloist. Both harp fans and those new to this instrument will enjoy her performances.

Listen to 'Serenata' Now in the Listening Room

01 Kolk coverThe only problem with my reviewing CDs by guitarist Michael Kolk is that I keep running out of superlatives, and his latest disc – 20th Century Guitar Sonatas – presents the same welcome problem (michaelkolkguitar.com).

There are several connecting themes with the works here. Both the Sonata para guitarra from 1933 by the Spanish composer Antonio José (born in 1902 and a victim of the fascist regime in 1936) and the 1927 Sonatina by Cyril Scott (1879-1970) were the only works those composers wrote for guitar. In addition, both works were unknown or lost until their relatively recent publications, the José in 1990 and the Scott in 2002.

This also applies to the 1994 Sonate in A Minor by the Austrian composer Ferdinand Rebay (1880-1953), most of whose solo and chamber guitar music has only recently been discovered. The 1967 Sonata No.1, the first of three by the Argentinian composer Carlos Guastavino (1912-2000) completes an outstanding recital.

Technically Kolk – as always – seems faultless, but it’s the range of tone, colour and dynamics as well as the constant sense of a highly developed musical intelligence and an innate understanding of and feel for form, line and phrase that continually impresses. Beautifully recorded in the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene in Toronto and engineered by Kolk’s duo partner Drew Henderson, it’s another masterclass in guitar performance.

02 Lara St JohnViolinist Lara St. John has always been a bit of a free spirit and not afraid to take risks, so you would be safe in assuming that her latest CD, Key of A, featuring Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No.9 in A Major, “Kreutzer” and the Franck Violin Sonata in A Major with pianist Matt Herskowitz (Ancalagon ANC144 larastjohn.com), would be anything but routine playing. 

St. John says she wanted a pianist “free of traditional ideas” for the Franck, and one who would “be able to keep up with the extremes” she envisioned for the Beethoven, tempo and volume-wise. Well, she certainly got her wish with the brilliant Herskowitz. The Beethoven features breathtaking tempos for the two outer movements with a wide dynamic range, St. John using portamento and an almost violent attack at times, with Herskowitz matching her step for step. It’s hair-raising stuff.

The Franck features almost decadently Romantic playing, with St. John never afraid to pull things around in the tempestuous second movement, sounding almost improvisatory in the third and never resorting to the usual merely smooth and flowing melodic line in the canonic finale. It’s not often that this piece sounds different, but this is risk-taking at its best and most exciting, with tremendous piano work from Herskowitz.

Fritz Kreisler’s Schön Rosmarin completes a quite startling CD.

download 13The Eybler Quartet is back with another superb 2CD set of works by a neglected 18th-century composer, this time Franz Asplmayr Six Quartets, Op.2, early works by the Austrian composer who lived from 1728 to 1786 (Gallery Players of Niagara GPN20001 galleryplayers.ca/shop/music).

Although best known for his theatre works, Asplmayr produced 41 symphonies, 70 trios and 43 string quartets, the six four-movement works here – in G, D, F, E, C and E-flat majors – described in Patrick Jordan’s erudite and insightful notes as being “wonderfully unique and highly underappreciated.” They were published by Huberty in Paris in 1769, although probably written much earlier.

The Eybler players are in top form again, displaying their customary perfect ensemble, faultless intonation and vitality and warmth, with technique to burn. Recorded at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto, sound and balance are both ideal in simply delightful performances.

Listen to 'Franz Asplmayr Six Quartets, Op.2' Now in the Listening Room

04 Duo Concertante SchubertThe superb Duo Concertante husband-and-wife team of pianist Timothy Steeves and violinist Nancy Dahn add another stellar CD to their discography with Franz Schubert Music for Violin and Piano (Marquis Classics MAR611 marquisclassics.com).

The duo’s trademark musical qualities – perfect ensemble, clarity, tone, a fine grasp of phrase and form, and an exquisite sensitivity – are all fully evident in a recital consisting of the Fantasy in C Major Op.159 D934, the Sonata in A Major Op.162 D574 and the Rondo in B Minor Op.70 D895. These works are available digitally as well as on CD, while the three Sonatinas Op.137: No.1 in D Major D384; No.2 in A Minor D385; and No.3 in G Minor D408 are available only from streaming and download services. 

In another Glenn Gould Studio recording the sound and balance are ideal, capturing every nuance of Steeves’ rich piano and Dahn’s expressive and distinctive violin. In the booklet notes the players comment on the vocal quality of Schubert’s melodic writing. It’s a clear insight into their approach to this recording project, for it’s a CD that sings from beginning to end.

05 Boundless The three Schubert Sonatinas are also featured on Boundless – Schubert Sonatinas Performed on historical instruments, a new Sono Luminus CD with another husband and wife team, violinist Zachary Carrettín and pianist Mina Gajić (DSL-92240 sonoluminus.com/store/boundless). Carrettín plays a rare Franz Kinberg violin with gut strings, set up for late classical and early-Romantic performance, and uses a late classical John Dodd pre-Tourte bow c.1800. Gajić’s piano is an Érard concert grand from 1835. 

We’re obviously in another sound world here, with less power and different sonority in the piano and less vibrato from the violin, which sounds a bit drier but not necessarily softer. The playing is top-notch technically, with accuracy and agility, but despite the different tonal colours it tends to lack the warmth of the Duo Concertante sound.

It’s clearly closer to what Schubert would have heard in his lifetime, though, the performers describing the choices regarding pedalling, chord voicing, balance, articulation and score indications as a fascinating exploration as they sought – successfully, clearly – to pay homage to the original intent as well as to the authentic sounds.

06 Plave BosmansImpressions – The Rediscovery of Henriëtte Bosmans (leahplave.com/media) is the debut album from McGill graduate cellist Leah Plave, accompanied by pianist Dan Sato.

Bosmans (1895-1952) was a distinguished Dutch pianist and composer who was much admired in her time. As a bisexual Jewish woman her music was banned by the Nazis, but she kept performing and composing in secret. For many years following her death her music remained virtually unknown, even in the Netherlands.

Plave’s CD contains Bosmans’ complete works for cello and piano, music that reflects a personal style that mixed German Romanticism with French Impressionism. The 1919 Cello Sonata is a four-movement work with a strong, brooding opening movement. The Trois Impressions from around 1926 – I. Cortège; II. Nuit Calme; and III. En Espagne – feature a quite lovely middle movement and some dazzling piano writing in En Espagne that not only reflects Bosmans’ abilities as a pianist but also draws terrific playing from Sato.

Two short pieces – Chanson and the lovely Arietta – complete the CD. Plave gives effective and committed performances, strongly supported by Sato’s fine accompaniment.

Interestingly, all nine tracks appear to be available on YouTube under Top Tracks – Leah Plave.

07 Alina IbragimovaThere’s another terrific CD of the two Shostakovich Violin Concertos, this time with the brilliant and always exciting Alina Ibragimova with the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia ‘Evgeny Svetlanov’ under Vladimir Jurowski (Hyperion CDA68313 hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA68313).

The Concerto No.1 in A Minor Op.77 was written for David Oistrakh in 1947/48, but withheld due to the infamous Zhdanov decree and not premiered until October 1955. It’s a four-movement work, with an ethereal, uneasy opening Nocturne, a demonic Scherzo and a massive central Passacaglia leading to the famous, towering solo cadenza.  Ibragimova is superb throughout, opting to play the opening theme of the following grim-humoured Burlesque on the violin, as originally scored by Shostakovich before he re-scored it for orchestra alone at Oistrakh’s request to enable the soloist to at least wipe his brow. It’s the first commercial recording thus.

The Concerto No.2 in C-sharp Minor Op.129 was written in 1967 for Oistrakh’s 60th birthday, albeit a year early. There’s simply beautiful playing from Ibragimova in the middle movement, and another tough cadenza handled superbly.

Great sound, great balance, dazzling playing and interpretation all add up to an outstanding disc.

08 Hunka ICO WebCover 1Violinist Katherine Hunka is the soloist as well as the director of the Irish Chamber Orchestra on a new CD of music for strings by Piazzolla, Schubert and Schnittke (Orchid Classics ORC100130 orchidclassics.com/releases/orc100130-irish-chamber-orchestra-katherine-hunka).

Leonard Desyatnikov’s arrangement of Piazzolla’s hauntingly beautiful The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires adds direct quotes from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in what is almost a recomposition. The resulting work is extremely effective, drawing sumptuous playing from Hunka that is stylistic, warm and impassioned. The ensemble matches her in a vividly successful re-imagining of Piazzolla’s highly personal sound.

Schubert’s lovely Rondo in A Major for Violin and String Orchestra D438 shows clear influence of Mozart’s violin concertos. The Schnittke work is Moz-Art à la Haydn from 1977, described in the notes as combining “an unfinished fragment by Mozart – his Pantomime Music K446 – with the theatricality of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony.” The noise of the players changing positions is deliberately audible, complete with heavy footsteps, wailing and crying!

A beautifully idiomatic performance of Oblivion, one of Piazolla’s most celebrated and traditional tangos, provides a lovely close to an excellent CD.

09 Camerata TchaikovskyThe London-based Russian violist Yuri Zhislin is the conductor and arranger as well as the soloist on Russian Colours, a CD of music from the Russian Romantic era arranged for string orchestra and featuring his own ensemble, the Camerata Tchaikovsky (Orchid Classics ORC100136 orchidclassics.com/releases/orc100136-camerata-tchaikovsky-2).

Zhislin is the fine soloist in his own transcription of Alexander Glazunov’s Concerto in E-flat Major for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra Op.104 from 1934, a fairly brief four-movement work that doesn’t appear to lose anything in the transcription, the warmth of the viola – especially in the middle register – being very close to the saxophone timbre.

Anton Arensky’s three-movement String Quartet No.2 in A Minor Op.35 from 1894 is the other major work, its second movement Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky proving so popular that Arensky himself arranged it for string orchestra as Op.35a. It’s the only track on the CD not arranged by Zhislin.

Three perennial favourites complete a beautifully played and highly enjoyable CD: the Andante from Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No.1 from 1871; Borodin’s Nocturne from his 1881 String Quartet No.2; and Rachmaninoff’s 1912 Vocalise Op.34.

10 VasksMaxim Rysanov is the viola soloist and also conductor of the Sinfonietta Riga on Viola Concerto/String Symphony ‘Voices’ featuring music by the Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks (BIS 2443-SACD naxosdirect.com/items/peteris-vasks-viola-concerto-symphony-no.-1-voices-533230). 

The Concerto for Viola and String Orchestra from 2014/15 was dedicated to Rysanov and premiered by him in 2016; the performance here is a world premiere recording. It’s a quite beautiful, highly tonal and deeply emotional work, in which Vasks “returns to two essential concepts: chant and monologue.” The opening movement rises to the heights of serenity and despair, with the second movement a joyful – but still minor-key – contrast. Despair seems to be the dominant factor in the final two movements.

The Symphony for Strings was written in 1991 as Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania were breaking free from the crumbling Soviet Union. “The new beginning was difficult,” says Vasks. Certainly the work reflects that feeling, with tenuous openings to both the first and the fairly hostile middle movement, followed by a quite brutal third movement which eventually dies away to nothing.

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