05 David RogosinTheme: Variation
David Rogosin
Leaf Music LM251 (leaf-music.ca)

Do you remember in the movie Amadeus when the young boy Mozart sits down at the clavichord and for the delight of the Emperor and embarrassment of Salieri quickly improvises half a dozen variations on a tune by the latter, ending up with something completely different? Well, Mozart is duly represented on this remarkable disc by brilliant pianist  and scholar David Rogosin, a professor of piano from New Brunswick, who endeavours to trace the variation genre for the past 400 years, from early music (Gibbons) through the Baroque (Handel), the classical (Mozart, Beethoven) and the Romantic (Chopin) to the present, ending up with a special composition by Rogosin’s friend Kevin Morse, 12 Variations on a Fantasia by J.S. Bach.

Rogosin calls this anexploration” and this is his third recording of similar explorations of various aspects of musical composition. What amazes me is his ability to capture the essence of each different period and interpret it with flawless technical brilliance. 

The journey begins in the 16th century with Orlando Gibbons and it’s interesting to follow how the form develops from the simple to the complex, delving into the character and emotional aspect of the themes, proving the variation format to be the most difficult way of composition, testing the composer’s inventiveness to come up with something different with each variation.

Traditionalist as I am, I was most impressed with Beethoven’s magisterial 32 Variations which amply illustrates how far it is possible to deviate yet never abandon the theme and firmly hold a composition together. Chopin’s Berceuse (actually a set of variations) is also a very good choice; Rogosin plays with a beautiful soft legato, the mark of a master pianist.

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06 Around BaermannAround Baermann
Gili Loftus; Maryse Legault
Leaf Music LM265 (leaf-music.ca)

Carl Maria von Weber’s success came from knowing his strengths and, I’d argue, his shortcomings as well. He didn’t try to be Ludwig.2, but he killed it writing over-the-top operas (showing Wagner how), and he killed it as a touring pianist alongside such virtuosi as clarinetist Heinrich Baermann. He gave up writing symphonies after two early attempts, and turned his attention to operas, concertos and chamber music, including a ton of great stuff commissioned by Baermann. 

Clarinetist Maryse Legault joins forces with Gili Loftus (pianoforte) on the recent release of pieces written by, for, or during Baermann’s heyday. Legault’s mouthpiece (I suspect) is wood instead of (modern) hard rubber, which could account for her inconsistent tone; it would be tough managing two different fibrous materials as they interact with the local weather. She can really play the ten-keyed period clarinet (a copy of one played by Baermann) with assurance and subtlety, but sometimes her volume distorts colour and pitch. Most convincing is the Andante con Moto from Weber’s Grand Duo Concertante, Op.48, where Legault assumes the proper role as diva, reaching high and low for expression. Bravo also to Loftus for making such tasteful decisions on all the tracks. The Grand Duo is her tour de force.

My main beef is that not all the material warrants attention. Champions of Felix Mendelssohn won’t use his early Sonata to bolster their argument. And a tossed-off filler (per Legault’s informative liner notes) like Weber’s Variations on a Theme from the opera Sylvana, Op.33 takes too long to type, let alone listen to. They’d have done better to include in its place a charming selection accessible only online: Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano, by Caroline Schleicher-Krähmer, a clarinetist/composer of the same period with otherwise no known connection to Baërmann.  

Clever cover photos reference another great Romantic artist, Johannes Vermeer.

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07 Ontario PopsBreaking Barriers
Yanet Campbell Secades; Tanya Charles Iveniuk; Marlene Ngalissamy; Ontario Pops Orchestra; Carlos Bastidas
Independent (ontariopops.com)

Was it Arthur Fiedler who said that there are only two kinds of music: the good kind and the boring kind? Well, there is certainly no boring kind of music here.

This CD features the Ontario Pops Orchestra (OPO), a band founded by Carlos Bastidas, born in Colombia, who is also its conductor and music director. Apparently as a child Bastidas was so impressed by Fiedler and the Boston Pops that this gave him the inspiration of forming something of the sort in Canada as well. The orchestra declares itself one of the most diverse professional orchestras in Canada, organized on principles of inclusiveness and multiculturalism. Recorded at Toronto’s prestigious Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Breaking Barriers is their debut recording of orchestral and concerto pieces featuring three soloists and the music is by no means boring. 

The ambitious program begins with Mozart’s notoriously difficult (Great) G-Minor Symphony No.40, a challenge for conductor and ensemble alike, performed with flawless grace. Later the hackneyed Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is played with such freshness, joy and enthusiasm that it feels like we’ve never heard it before.

I was absolutely enchanted by the selection from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, the second violin concerto “Summer” inspired by the languor and laziness of heat interrupted by violent gusts of wind. The soloist is Tanya Charles Ivaniuk who plays with terrific intensity and virtuosity, totally immersed like a truly great artist. The last movement, the famous Storm, involves the whole orchestra in frantic virtuoso violin playing. Later we hear soloist Yanet Campbell Secades with Bach’s A Minor Violin Concerto and Marlene Ngalissamy with Vivaldi’s Bassoon Concerto in E Minor, also in very fine performances.

We foresee a great future for this orchestra; they are already becoming popular in Toronto, giving open air concerts with Latin American music that includes singing and dancing with enthusiastic and participating audiences. Bravo OPO!

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08 Schubert GaudetSchubert – Architect
Mathieu Gaudet
Analekta An 2 9188 (analekta.com/en)

Schubert’s Piano Sonata in C Minor D858 was one of three he composed in 1828 during the last months of his life. For whatever reason, it wasn’t published for another ten years, and it lay neglected for most of the 19th century. Today, the piece is recognized as a prime example of his mature style – closely aligned in spirit to Beethoven who Schubert revered – and it’s one of two sonatas presented on Mathieu Gaudet’s Architect, the eighth in the series of Schubert’s complete sonatas.

The piece is formidable in length – roughly 36 minutes in total – and like the majority of Schubert’s sonatas, is a skillful essay in attractive melodies and carefully constructed details right from the dramatic opening movement. As seen in the previous recordings of the series, Gaudet approaches the score with an understated virtuosity, very much letting the music speak for itself. The frenetic and spirited finale is a true tour de force – not dissimilar in mood to the lied Erlkönig – and Gaudet easily handles the technical challenges, effectively tying all four movements of this lengthy work into a cohesive whole.

Coupled with this work is the Sonata No.9 D575 in the curious key of B Major completed in 1817. In contrast to the dramatic intensity of D858, this piece is all joviality. Gaudet’s highly expressive performance is solidly assured, perfectly conveying a joyous spirit throughout. An added bonus is the inclusion of the Two Scherzos D593 which are a light diversion between the two larger works, helping round out a most satisfying program.

09 Sheng Cai RachmaninoffSheng Cai plays Rachmaninoff
Sheng Cai
ATMA ACD2 2861 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Representing a third disc with ATMA Classique, pianist Sheng Cai offers an all-Rachmaninoff essay of might and undeniable virtuosity. Cai’s natural affinity for the Romantic piano repertory brings a distinct brand of competent verve to this music.

The album includes oft-recorded “hits” from the Russian composer, such as the ever-celebrated Sonata No.2 in B-flat Minor, Op.36, and the crowd-pleaser, Moments Musicaux, Op.16 (a cycle that Rachmaninoff revised in 1940 along with a handful of other works). Cai approaches these well-worn pieces with expertise and appreciation for Rachmaninoff’s own performance practice. Such sensitivity is refreshing; it aids Cai as he carves his pathway through familiar musical woods. These interpretations tend towards a personalized, even intimate concept, considered and sincere. Pianistically speaking, the damper pedal should be used judiciously but Cai employs it all too sparingly here. While some might welcome such an absence of sound, this listener yearned for more resonance: yet more red-hot reverb to tug at the Russian heartstrings.

The less familiar half of this record is comprised of novel Rachmaninoff: an attractive transcription from the opera Aleko, (penned by Sheng Cai himself), and a curious polka by German composer Franz Behr. This piece was beloved by Rachmaninoff’s father, Vassili (“Wassily,” in German transliteration). In homage, Rachmaninoff made this arrangement in 1911, “to W.R.” 

Cai’s knack for transcribing is notable here, demonstrating how compelled Rachmaninoff devotees truly are to synthesize such non-piano works for the public at large.

10 Femmes de legendeFemmes de Légende
Élisabeth Pion
ATMA ACD2 2890 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Québécoise Élisabeth Pion’s debut CD offers an unusual but rewarding program of mostly-French, mostly miniature piano pieces.

Over a 15-year span, French composer Mélanie Bonis (1858-1937) depicted seven women from myth and literature. Though not conceived as a set, they were grouped as Femmes de légende by a clever publisher. Clever, too, are Bonis’ musical portraits: Mélisande (sensuous), Desdémona (wistful), Ophélie (perturbed, despairing), Viviane (charming), Phoebé (delicate, elusive), Salomé (wildly unstable) and Omphale (mysteriously dramatic).

The six pieces of Henri Dutilleux’s Au gré des ondes are early works, still influenced by impressionism and neoclassicism. The three up-tempo pieces – Claquettes, Mouvement perpétuel and Étude – are rollicking, rambunctiously jocular – sheer fun!

Presented here are all the solo piano works completed by Lili Boulanger before her tragically early death, Debussy’s imprint evident throughout. The austere Prelude in D-flat Major is redolent of church bells and incense. Trois morceaux includes two garden strolls – the overcast, nostalgic D’un vieux jardin and the sunny D’un jardin clair; the cheerful Cortège ends the set. At nine minutes, by far the CD’s longest work, Boulanger’s Theme and Variations in C Minor recalls Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie, with weighty, powerfully tolling chords.

Debussy himself is represented by a scintillating performance of L’isle joyeuse. Rounding things out are the grotesque, un-lullaby-like Berceuse by Thomas Adès (one of Pion’s teachers), arranged by Adès from his opera The Exterminating Angel, and Pion’s own Balcony on a Wednesday Night – slow, sentimental and almost jazzy.

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11 Saint Saens Vol 4Saint-Saëns Volume Four – Duos for Harmonium & Piano
Milos Milivojevic; Simon Callaghan
Nimbus Records NI 8111 (chandos.net/products/catalogue/N%208111)  

The harmonium, for which the works here were originally written and/or arranged, was developed and refined in France in the second half of the 19th century. Its subsequent popularity resulted in many compositions for solo harmonium, duets with piano and larger ensembles, as well as arrangements of other works. The modern classical accordion easily replaces the harmonium as it creates a similar sound in almost the same way, by pressing the buttons/keys and moving the bellows to push air over vibrating metal reeds. Both instruments’ singing reed sounds perfectly match the vibrating, at times more percussive, sound of the piano strings.

Playing the harmonium part on classical accordion is the renowned Miloš Milivojević, and playing piano is Simon Callaghan. Both also arrange here. Camille Saint-Saens’ Six Duos Op. 8 for Harmonium and Piano (1858) is beautiful. The Scherzo fast piano part features Callaghan’s amazing playing of the repeated notes within its melodic lines, accompanied by lush accordion chordal transitions. Chorale opens with a very Romantic piano part showing off Callaghan’s amazing ability to create dramatic balance between hands. The alternating accordion lines are breathtaking, especially when both instruments play together, leading to a softer closing extended cadence. A calming Cavatina has slow piano chords under Milivojević’s superb bellows-controlled lush held note “singing” accordion melody, from high held notes to lower contrasting ones. Three other Duos, and works by Guilmant and Franck are also included.

The Milivojević and Callaghan duo performances are tight, balanced and expressive.

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