02_bruckner_8_nezet-seguinBruckner - Symphony No.8

Orchestre Metropolitain du Grand Montreal; Yannick Nézet-Séguin

ATMA ACD2 2513

Yannick Nézet-Séguin is a young, very talented French Canadian conductor from Montreal, student of the great Giulini, who in a short few years has had a meteoric rise: first as Gergiev’s appointed successor for the Rotterdam Philharmonic and now as Chef d’Orchestre for the prestigious Philadelphia Orchestra. Last fall he was invited to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic and with rousing success.

The Canadian recording company ATMA Classique has been lucky to snap him up and made several recordings with him, all given high esteem and international prizes. One of these is Bruckner’s immense 8th Symphony, a formidable task for even the most experienced conductor, and the result is spectacular.

“Bruckner is all about space” says the artist and the recording makes us feel it with its reverberant church acoustics. Nowhere have I heard the ending, where Bruckner’s gods make their triumphant entry to Walhalla, so full, so uplifting, and all bells ringing, like the whole universe coming together. “No, it’s not an end,” says the conductor, “but heralds a beginning of a new era” perhaps unintentionally paraphrasing Winston Churchill. There are many exquisite moments, like the pp fleeting rush of strings that introduce the scherzo theme, a theme that’s repeated endlessly, never twice the same, in a steady crescendo. Or the prayer-like, hushed Adagio, one of the most intensely beautiful selections of music ever written that builds over 23 minutes to an earth shattering ff climax.

A triumphant recording. Best yet in his Bruckner cycle.

03a_mahler_symphony_203b_mahler_knabenMahler - Symphony No.2

Kate Royal; Magdalena Kožená; Rundfunkchor; Berliner Philharmoniker; Simon Rattle

EMI 6 47363 2

Mahler - Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Sarah Connolly; Dietrich Henschel; Orchestre des Champs-Élysées; Philippe Herreweghe

Harmonia Mundi HMX 2901920

Mahler’s Second Symphony has a preeminent significance to Simon Rattle; it was the work that inspired him to become a conductor. Rattle’s interpretation of the work has always been refreshingly distinctive, with an organic plasticity that never descends into mere taffy-pulling. He takes some interpretive risks here, milking the impressive dissonance that heralds the recapitulation in the first movement at a very deliberate, stentorian pace while elsewhere revealing an obsession with details that are seldom heard in lesser interpretations. The Berlin musicians play like gods throughout. Rattle’s well-regarded 1987 EMI recording with the Birmingham SO is still revered for the presence of Arleen Auger and Dame Janet Baker as the vocal soloists. Alas, they don’t make voices like that these days; here the singers are Kate Royal and Magdalena Kožená (Sir Simon’s second wife), the latter quickly becoming a ubiquitous presence in several recent high-profile Mahler recordings. The symphony is spread over two discs, with the first movement alone occupying the first of these. The live performance (mercifully without applause or other audience intrusions) is exceptionally well recorded.

Harmonia Mundi has re-issued at a budget price Philippe Herreweghe’s 2006 recording of the orchestral songs from Mahler’s settings of folk poetry from the popular 19th century anthology known in English as The Youth’s Magic Horn. The string section of Philippe Herreweghe’s Champs-Élysées orchestra is a reduced ensemble that performs in the imperturbable, “historically informed” manner, lending an exceptional transparency to the orchestral texture – though it must be said that Mahler himself cared little for interpretive historical precedents. The powerful voice of Dieter Henschel brings a swaggering authority in the military songs while Sarah Conolly’s honey-hued tone provides ample rustic charm to the lighter numbers. While Herreweghe’s precise accompaniment falls a bit short dramatically in comparison to the classic Szell, Bernstein or Abbado performances this unique and admirably recorded disc is nonetheless well worth owning.

04_mehtaLive Recordings 1963-2006

Zubin Mehta; Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

Helicon Classics 02-9625

To honour Zubin Mehta’s 40th Anniversary as Music Director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Helicon Classics has assembled this set of thirty-seven live performances selected from Mehta’s expansive repertoire, from Vivaldi to now.

Heard are soloists Arie Vardi, Yefin Bronfman, Radu Lupu, Alicia de Larrocha, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Chaim Taub, Daniel Benyamini, Marjana Lipovšek, Isaac Stern, Mstislav Rostropovich, Yehudi Menuhin, Lyn Harrell, Stella Richmond, Mischa Maisky, and many more. The set includes a disc of music by Israeli composers. Available space precludes listing the works but among the standouts is Bloch’s Schelomo, enjoying a blazing interpretation by cellist Mischa Maisky supported by Mehta and a white-hot orchestra. It’s one for the books. The Verdi Requiem was recorded at an open-air performance in July of 1968 given in Manger Square in front of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity following a call for peace in the Holy Land. The concert started late so as not to disturb the call to prayer from the adjacent Jamma El Omar mosque. The soloists are Martina Arroyo, Shirley Verrett, Richard Tucker, and Bonaldo Giaiotti. This performance generated headlines and is included as a significant event. The recorded sound in this case is merely adequate.

There is an overall characteristic bloom around each of these performances and a distinct impression that the musicians are attentive to each other. Perhaps it is this and their esprit de corps that has resulted in the orchestra’s identifiable patina on every performance heard on these discs.

This is an attractive collection of idiomatic performances of mostly familiar works, well played and well recorded. Complete details of the contents at www.heliconclassics.com.

05_mathieu_chaussonChausson - Concert; Mathieu - Trio & Quintette

Alain Lefèvre; David Lefèvre; Quatuor Alcan

Analekta AN 2 9286

Son of Montreal composer/pedagogue Rodolphe Mathieu, André (1929-1968) realized prodigious achievements as a child pianist and composer. Paris critic Émile Vuillermoz dubbed the ten-year-old Mathieu “The Canadian Mozart” following a piano recital of his original compositions.

The Piano Trio and Piano Quintet were written in his early 20s. The words “passionate” and “luxuriant” have stayed with me throughout my encounter with this music. Mathieu’s emotional range and the delicate interplay of instruments make the Trio absorbing listening. I especially enjoyed the slow sections, including some mystical proto-minimalism, as brought to life by pianist Alain Lefèvre, violinist Laura Andriani, and cellist David Ellis.

For the virtuosic Quintet the Alcan Quartet join Lefèvre in a powerful performance. In this exciting piece I hear Debussy and the Stravinsky of the Firebird. Would Mathieu’s career have progressed more effectively had he studied with Messiaen or Dutilleux? Regardless, we are now privileged to celebrate anew André Mathieu’s youthful musical genius.

Chausson’s similarly virtuosic Concert is described in Lucie Renard’s program notes as being “akin to a concerto for piano and violin” with string quartet; here violinist David Lefèvre joins the Quintet musicians. I love Chausson’s imaginative treatment of the stark three-note opening motif, which could have become clunky and maudlin in lesser hands. The assembled forces capture wonderfully the drama of the opening movement, antique glory of the Sicilienne, profundity of the slow movement, and intensity of the Finale on this outstanding disc.

01_waltonSir William Walton was still a teenage undergraduate at Oxford when he started his first string quartet in 1919. Completed in 1922, its few performances were unsatisfactory, and despite several cuts and revisions the quartet was withdrawn by the composer. It was revived in its revised version after Walton’s death in 1983, but the Doric String Quartet performs the premiere recording of the full-length original version on Walton String Quartets (Chandos CHAN 10661). Despite the composer’s negative assessment – it was, he said, “full of undigested Bartok and Schoenberg” – it’s a fascinating and extremely challenging three-movement work, with a massive and astonishing fugal finale that isn’t out of place besides Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. Dating from the mid-1940s, Walton’s second quartet is, not surprisingly, from a different world, and more in the language that we associate with the mature composer. There is contrapuntal skill here too, though, together with Walton’s usual lyricism. The Doric Quartet is superb in both works, and beautifully recorded. This is a significant addition to the catalogue of 20th century string quartet recordings.

02_rare_frenchThe wonderful Philippe Graffin is back with another fascinating CD of little-known works. Last month it was English violin concertos, this time it’s Rare French Works for violin and orchestra, with Thierry Fischer conducting the Ulster Orchestra (Helios CDH55396). The works themselves may be little-known, but only Ernest Guiraud lacks stature as a composer. Fauré’s single-movement Violin Concerto in D minor is here – the second movement is lost, the third never written – as are Lalo’s three-movement Fantaisie norvegienne and his Guitarre, and Saint-Saëns’ Morceau de concert. The best surprises, though, are Guiraud’s beautiful two-movement Caprice, and Joseph Canteloube’s gorgeous Poème, the latter giving the lie to the composer’s apparent doubts about his melodic abilities. Graffin is superb throughout, with a rapid vibrato and a crystal-clear lustrous tone, dazzling in the higher registers, and with an obvious empathy for these seldom-heard but utterly delightful pieces. Recorded in 2001, this is apparently a re-issue of a 2002 disc; if you missed it the first time around, don’t make the same mistake this time.

03_sukJoAnn Falletta and Michael Ludwig, conductor and concert-master respectively of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, combined for an outstanding Naxos CD of the Dohnanyi Violin Concertos a few years ago, and now they’re back with the music of Czech composer Josef Suk (1874-1935), this time with their own orchestra (Naxos 8.572323). Suk studied with Dvořák, who later became his father-in-law, and continued the Czech school of Dvořák and Smetana while managing to accommodate the influences of his contemporaries Mahler, Richard Strauss and Debussy. Ludwig is outstanding in the Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra in G minor, and also takes the solo line in the opening movement of the four-movement suite Pohadka (Fairy Tale), compiled from incidental music Suk wrote for a theatrical work in 1898. The orchestral Fantastic Scherzo in G minor rounds out another immensely satisfying CD from this terrific team.

04_fantasyFantasy is also the title of a new CD from the UK-based Japanese violinist Kaoru Yamada and pianist Sholto Kynoch (Stone Records 5060192780017) that features “Fantasy” works by Messiaen, Schoenberg and Schubert. The three Messiaen titles are early works springing from his relationship with the violinist Claire Delbos, with whom he toured in the early 1930s, and whom he married in 1932. La Mort du nombre, a setting of Messiaen’s own text, adds soprano and tenor to the duo; the influence of Fauré and Debussy is quite evident. Theme et variations is much more typical of Messiaen’s later (and instantly recognizable) style, with long, high melodic lines against steady, widely-spread piano chords and a wide dynamic range. Fantasie was believed lost, but recently discovered and published in 2007. Schoenberg’s Phantasy dates from 1949, and is typical late Schoenberg: assured, but technically challenging writing for both players. The two Schubert works seem a bit isolated after the fully committed performances of the 20th century material. The four-movement Fantasie has a set of variations based on Schubert’s own song, Sei mir gegrusst!, a somewhat pedestrian performance of the song itself ending the CD. Soprano Rhona McKail is the soloist for the latter, and is joined by tenor Nicky Spence in the Messiaen.

05_ehnes_bestI certainly wasn’t expecting a Best of James Ehnes CD, but that’s what Analekta has given us with SELECTIONS (AN 2 9768), consisting entirely of material from previous Ehnes CDs. The Saint-Saëns Havanaise and Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso, and the Massenet Meditation are the only sizeable complete works; everything else is basically snippets of Bach, Dvořák and Kreisler. Presumably the hope is that if you like this, you’ll rush out and buy the previous CDs, but if you do really like Ehnes then you’ve probably already got them. Well, at least they didn’t call it James Ehnes’ Greatest Hits.

06(web)_kreutzerIn these days of specialized instrumental soloists we tend to forget that for hundreds of years virtually all of the major violin virtuosi were also quite competent – and sometimes outstanding – composers: Vivaldi, Corelli, Tartini, Viotti, Paganini, Joachim, Hubay, Vieuxtemps, Sarasate, Spohr, Wieniawski, Ysaÿe, Kreisler, Enescu… and that’s only a partial list. Most violinists know the music of Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1831) only as students grappling with his Etudes, although his name is more famously attached to the Beethoven Op.47 Sonata, which Beethoven dedicated to him. Kreutzer, along with Viotti and Rode, was in at the start of the French violin concerto in the early 1780s, and Naxos has issued a CD of his last three Violin Concertos, Nos. 17-19, with the US-based German violinist Axel Strauss and the San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra under Andrew Mogrelia (8.570380). No.17, in G major, is quite brief and sounds a lot like Paganini without the fireworks. No.18, in E minor, is more substantial, but in much the same vein, and No.19, in D minor, is somewhat reminiscent of Schumann and Mendelssohn. Axel Strauss does as well as you can possibly expect with material that, truth be told, does not immediately strike you as being anything other than wholly competent. The booklet notes tell us that “Kreutzer’s final three violin concertos are among his greatest achievements as a composer;” one is tempted to wonder what the other 16 are like. Apparently, we’ll be able to find out: Naxos plans to record all of them. Gulp.

07(web)_russian_celloArmenian cellist Alexander Chaushian is teamed with Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin on a hybrid SACD of Russian Cello Sonatas (BIS-SACD-1858), featuring works by Rachmaninov, Shostakovich and Borodin. Their playing has the strength, warmth and conviction that these pieces need, and they are beautifully recorded. The balance felt a bit “pro-piano” at first, but it only served to underline that these are piano/cello duos, and not solo cello pieces with piano accompaniment. Rachmaninov’s G minor sonata opens the disc, and his Vocalise closes it. In between we have two works that couldn’t be more different. The Borodin Sonata in B minor is a real oddity: the manuscript, apparently, has survived only in “fragmentary form” and this performance is of the version completed by Russian composer and musicologist Mikhail Goldstein in 1982, “with a slightly abbreviated finale” whatever that means. How much is Borodin, and how much Goldstein, who knows? An earlier Goldstein “discovery” turned out to be his own work. What’s more, the material itself is quite strange. While doing post-doctoral scientific research in Heidelberg around 1860, Borodin lived next door to a violinist who kept playing the Bach G minor unaccompanied violin sonata; the fugue subject fascinated Borodin, and it forms the basis for the cello sonata, appearing in each of the three movements – in fact, it starts the first and third movements. The second movement, however, opens as pure Norwegian Grieg! Quite a stylistic feat. The Shostakovich D minor sonata, his first major chamber work, points the way to the composer’s future in more ways than one: written in 1934, it hints at the distinctive style that was to come, but it was also the work Shostakovich was touring with the cellist Viktor Kubatsky in 1936 when Pravda printed the attack on his music that would forever change his life.


Duo Gaulin-Riverin

Analekta AN 2 9953

This aptly titled first release by Duo Gaulin-Riverin showcases the “brilliance” of saxophonist Mathieu Gaulin and pianist Jacynthe Riverin. Both musicians possess a love of their instruments and of the music they are playing. Their innate sense each other’s artistic strengths makes for passionate performances.

The repertoire featured could be described as “Saxophone and Piano Music 101,” a survey course of works written for the combination during the 20th century. The diverse compositional styles range from the parlour music sound of Rudy Wiedoeft's Valse Vanite to the romantic qualities of Fernande Breilh-Decruck's Sonata in C sharp to the more new music sounds of Piet Swerts’ Klonos. The strongest work is William Albright's Sonata which opens with a complicated Two-Part Invention that weaves its way through a number of moods to climax with the final movement Mad Dance, a short robust stomp that ends with a wail and a shout. Works by Jean Matitia, Paul Creston and Ida Gotkovsky are also featured.

The liner notes describe the duo’s goal of remaining accessible while presenting “an eclectic and varied repertoire.” Here’s hoping they now commission and record works written especially for them. That’s when their musical stars should really begin to shine brilliantly. In the meantime, Gualin’s impeccable breath control and Riverin’s singing florid phrases will keep the listener engaged.

01_biberBiber - Mystery Sonatas
Julia Wedman
Sono Luminus DSL-92127 (www.sonoluminus.com)

Biber was by all accounts at least as proficient a violinist as his late 17th century contemporary Corelli. He was renowned for his abilities to play in the upper positions and for his complex compositions for the instrument. The sonatas on this disc are perhaps his most well-known, though they are rarely performed for a number of reasons. The Mystery Sonatas were written most likely sometime in the 1670s “to honour the fifteen Sacred Mysteries” of the Catholic Rosary. They are contemplative, deeply spiritual, almost private, intimate pieces. One of their most interesting aspects is that each sonata calls for a different tuning of the open strings of the violin, a technique known as “scordatura” or “de-tuning”. Each sonata has a different structure, some featuring dance movements, others theme and variations, with #4 and #6 featuring extended chaconne and lament movements.

This is a remarkably detailed and well-executed recording, at the centre of which is the stellar and imaginative playing of Julia Wedman, who is a mainstay of Tafelmusik, I Furiosi and the Eybler Quartet. The variety of continuo playing – performed exquisitely by top-notch local players Felix Deak, Charlotte Nediger, Lucas Harris and Julia Seager Scott – contributes to the brilliance of this CD, as does the excellent technical production and program booklet.

It’s clear that this project is a labour of love for Wedman and it represents a high achievement, produced relatively early in what we hope is a long and productive career. Highly recommended.

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