01_Adams_PortraitBy his own admission American composer John Adams, star of the recent TSO New Creations Festival, is hard to classify. Given his large output, the three works on John Adams - Portrait, the latest CD from Angèle Dubeau and La Pietà (Analekta AN 2 8732), won’t really help you in that regard, despite the CD’s title. This is the group’s third ‘portrait’ CD, following discs dedicated to Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt, but there is little of Adams’ range on display here. Shaker Loops, for string septet, is an early work from 1978 with echoes of Steve Reich, but with more going on and some interesting textures. The other works are only a year apart, and over 15 years old. Road Moves for violin and piano (with Louise Bessette) is from 1995, and closer to the Adams of the Short Ride in a Fast Machine style. John’s Book of Alleged Dances for string quartet, from 1994, is a set of dances that can be played in whole or in part, and in any order. Six of the ten dances – the ones selected for this CD - are accompanied by a recorded track of percussion noises produced on a prepared piano. The booklet notes inform us that “except for a few excerpts, the dances are played here with a double quartet, adding considerably to the challenge of performing the work.” Nobody says why. Recorded at McGill’s Schulich School of Music, the performance and sound quality are top notch.

The Deutsche Grammophon debut CD by the Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili, Echoes of Time (DGG 477 9299) is her selection of works by composers whose artistic lives were impacted by the Soviet regime, and it’s a real winner. At its core is the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No.1, and it’s worth the price of the CD on its own. Whatever the truth of the composer’s apparent compliance with the regime, there is no music from the 20th century that is more painfully personal than that of Shostakovich: listening to this deeply moving performance made me feel almost uncomfortable, as if intruding on someone’s most intimate thoughts. The contribution of the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Esa-Pekka Salonen is outstanding. Nothing else on the disc really measures up after that, but it’s still terrific playing. Giya Kancheli’s V&V, for violin and taped voice with string orchestra, and Shostakovich’s Lyrical Waltz (orchestrated by Batiashvili’s father) are paired with Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel and Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, Batiashvili being joined by the excellent Hélène Grimaud on piano.

03_SchulhoffChances are you may know the name of Erwin Schulhoff but not his music; I was unaware of his violin works before hearing the excellent CD of his Violin Sonatas by Tanja Becker-Bender and Markus Bender (Hyperion CDA67833). Schulhoff, who was in his late 40s when he died of tuberculosis in a Nazi concentration camp in 1942, was a student of Reger and of Brahms’ close friend Fritz Steinbach, and the influence shows in his early Suite Op.1, a finely crafted and strongly tonal work from 1911. Within two years, however, Schulhoff had discovered the music of Debussy, and the harmonic language in his Sonata No.1, Op.7 is far more sophisticated. The other two works on the CD are from 1927. The Sonata for Solo Violin is a stunning work with a dazzling first movement, a lyrical but highly chromatic slow movement, and third and fourth movements strongly reminiscent of Bartok, whose influence is also heard in the Sonata No.2 for violin and piano. The playing and sound quality throughout are of the highest order. A terrific disc.

04_Bach_RegerI’ve never quite understood the lack of interest in the music of Max Reger. Outside his native Germany he is still misunderstood and rarely heard, usually being regarded as some turgid, chromatic hybrid of Brahms and Mahler. A brilliant organist, Reger revered Bach, taking him as a model, and his life-long obsession with the fugue is reflected in the huge amount of music he wrote for organ and for solo violin. The Japanese violinist Sayaka Shoji has produced a fascinating 2-CD set (Mirare MIR 128) which pairs three of Reger’s Preludes & Fugues from his Op.117, written between 1909 and 1912, with three of the Bach Sonatas & Partitas: the Sonata No.1 in G minor; the Partita No.1 in B minor; and the Partita No.2 in D minor. Shoji has a full, warm sound, and is recorded with a good deal of resonance but great clarity. Her technique is superb, and her interpretation quite captivating: with its understated dynamics, the great D minor Chaconne makes an almost introspective ending to a fascinating look at how musical influences can reach across the centuries. In fact, hearing these works side by side makes you realize just how chromatic and stunningly ‘modern’ Bach’s harmonic structures really were.

05_dErlangerHyperion’s latest addition to their series The Romantic Violin Concerto – Volume 10 (Hyperion CDA67838) – features works by two composers who are completely new to me, and three works that will be new to almost everyone. Frederic d’Erlanger (1868-1943) was born in France to a German father and American mother, and moved to London in his teens, eventually becoming a naturalized British citizen and a prominent figure in the London musical scene. He composed regularly, though not profusely, throughout his life, and his compositions were performed by the leading artists of the day. His Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.17, dates from 1902, and over the next 20 years was played by Kreisler and by the great English violinist Albert Sammons. It is very much in the Brahms/Bruch mould, beautifully scored, and with a very lovely slow movement. His Poème started life in 1918 as a work for violin and piano, and was orchestrated by d’Erlanger in 1926. The soloist for the premiere of the orchestral version in 1928 was the famous viola player William Primrose. Again, it’s lovely stuff: fresh, warm, melodic, and beautifully orchestrated. The Yorkshire-born Frederic Cliffe (1857-1931) is a classic example of the late Victorian minor English composers who were swept away and rendered irrelevant by the 20th century. He burst on to the scene at the age of 31 – apparently with no previous compositional accomplishments to his name - with a highly successful symphony, produced a handful of major works, and disappeared again within 20 years. His Violin Concerto was written in 1896 for the Norwich Festival, but after only a handful of performances it remained un-played for 90 years. It’s an attractive and competent work, but nowhere near as convincing as the d’Erlanger, feeling more episodic and somewhat disjointed, especially in the slow movement. The violinist who revived it, Philippe Graffin, is the soloist on this excellent CD, and it’s difficult to imagine a more appropriate and sympathetic interpreter. His playing is effortlessly beautiful, and stylistically perfect. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales under David Lloyd-Jones is his equal in all respects. It’s easy to see why this music disappeared – after all, it’s only a dozen years or so before Schoenberg’s atonality and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring changed the playing field for ever – but it’s also easy to appreciate its appeal. It’s an absolutely fascinating sample of English music in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.

06_Romantic_violinistOn The Romantic Violinist – A Celebration of Joseph Joachim (DGG 477 9301), Daniel Hope presents a programme of works created for and by the man whose influence dominated the violin world in the second half of the 19th century. The major work is a beautifully considered, warm and intelligent reading of the Bruch G minor concerto, with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under Sakari Oramo. The nine shorter pieces have varied accompaniment: Dvorak’s Serenade and Joachim’s own Notturno are with orchestra; Brahms’ Hungarian Dances Nos.1 and 5 are for violin and strings; Clara Schumann’s Romanze, Joachim’s piece with the same title, Brahms’ Scherzo from the F-A-E Sonata and Schubert’s Auf dem Wasser zu singen feature piano accompaniment by Sebastian Knauer. Hope switches to viola for the Brahms Geistliches Wiegenlied, where he is joined by mezzo-soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter and pianist Bengt Forsberg. For this CD, he tells us in the booklet notes, “I borrowed a viola and taught myself to play it.” Must be nice!

07_romantic_violinGENUIN has released a CD of Romantic Works for Violin (GEN 10535) featuring the German violinist Christine Raphael, who died 3 years ago in her mid-60s. The Dvorak concerto and two pieces for violin and string orchestra by Ysaÿe are coupled with two selections with piano accompaniment: Suk’s Four Pieces Op.17 and Schumann’s Three Romances Op.94. Recorded between 1977 and 1985, apparently for German radio broadcasts, this is a good testament to a solid, if unspectacular, player.

01_geminianiGeminiani - Pièces de clavecin
Hank Knox
early-music.com EMCCD-7772

Francesco Geminiani arrived in London in 1714; by 1739 he had published the harpsichord music from which Hank Knox makes his selection for this CD. Geminiani probably developed his individual style in Paris, learning from Rameau and others. Hank Knox introduces us to a prelude bearing the hallmarks of this individuality. From his commentary it is clear that Geminiani never rested until he had added all the complex scoring he considered necessary. His gayment and vivement movements are demanding but reward the listener and player with lively and entertaining motifs. This is Hank Knox at his most inspired.

Geminiani’s tendrement movements are appropriately named with their pleading quality, although the movement marked gracieusement et tendrement is both more taxing on the player and far livelier than its two near-namesakes. And then for the more traditional lover of the harpsichord there are two minuets, the second lasting almost ten minutes – an early music eternity! This is baroque harpsichord at its most conventional and most complex.  Finally, an amoureusement shows just why Geminiani’s student Charles Avison so admired his master: he placed him alongside Handel (often semi-seriously styled England’s greatest composer between Purcell and Elgar) and Corelli who enjoyed cult-like status in London.

This is an enjoyable CD; Hank Knox may take a real pride in bringing Geminiani’s harpsichord music to a larger audience.

pandolfiPandolfi - The Violin Sonatas of 1660
Mark Fewer; Myron Lutzke; Kenneth Slowik
Friends of Music FoM 36-802 (www.markfewer.com)

Though little is known about the 17th century Italian violinist and composer Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli, his two marvellous collections of sonatas for solo violin and continuo place him squarely in the good company of Dario Castello, Biagio Marini, Tarquinio Merula and others of what we might call the first generation of sonata-writers. Unlike the Classical multi-movement form, instrumental sonatas of the early to mid-17th century are usually in one extended movement, full of changes of mood, tempo, articulation and musical ideas. As such, they are dramatic and full of possibility for an imaginative performer. In his excellent liner notes accompanying this recording, harpsichordist Kenneth Slowik comments on how operatic these pieces are; that they could in essence be seen as instrumental “scenas” full of passion and pathos.

We should be tremendously grateful to the Friends of Music at the Smithsonian for supporting this recording and making it possible. Mark Fewer is one of Canada’s finest violinists and is possessed with a profound and open musical mind. It’s rare to find a player as comfortable in such a wide variety of musical styles as Fewer is. He tucks into these sonatas with wild abandon, though never loses sight of the good taste and stylistic know-how needed to approach this “early” music. His range of virtuosic and tender playing makes this disc of twelve sonatas an absolute pleasure to listen to from beginning to end. He’s ably supported by Slowik and cellist Myron Lutzke, though I did feel at times that the continuo colour could have been enhanced by the presence of a theorbo.

01_liszt_howardLiszt - New Discoveries Vol.3
Leslie Howard
Hyperion CDA67810

It’s hard to imagine that there could be any music by Liszt that remains unpublished and possibly even undiscovered. Somehow our modern age quietly assumes we’ve got it all, printed, bound, recorded and filed away. So it falls to the passionate scholars to continue searching for new works whose suspected existence is owed to fragmentary sketches in notebooks, allusions in letters, etc. Performers too can be such champions as is Leslie Howard, currently making a series of recordings of the entire Liszt repertoire including unpublished and newly discovered works.

Howard has recorded many of these pieces from Liszt’s original manuscripts and in a few cases has had to complete endings or otherwise fill in missing sections. The forty-eight works contained in this 2 CD set are quite short but intriguing nonetheless. Some will be familiar but many will be new to Liszt-philes. Listeners may recognize the Magnificat S182a as an early version of the more elaborate Alleluia S183/1. While Liszt seems to have discounted the early Magnificat it is an effective piece in its chorale-like simplicity with echoes of J.S. Bach throughout.

The set also includes two versions of a Romance from 1842-3, an arrangement of Schlummerlied for one of Liszt’s students, Carl Lachmund and numerous other pieces that exist only in single copy manuscripts in libraries throughout Europe.

Recorded on a Steinway in an acoustically lovely Catholic church in North East London (UK), these performances make a substantial artistic and historical contribution to the body of Liszt works.

02_berlioz_seguinBerlioz - Symphonie Fantastique; Cléopâtre
Anna Caterina Antonacci; Rottendam Philharmonic Orchestra; Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Can you think of a large-scale work that embodies the spirit of French early Romanticism better than Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique? Completed in 1830, the symphony marked the 27-year-old composer’s first major success, hailed as truly revolutionary both in size and in concept. And who better to undertake such a monument than supernova conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin with the Rotterdam Philharmonic on this BIS label SACD? Nézet-Séguin’s career has catapulted to stratospheric heights in a very short time. After studying in his native Montréal, he made his European debut in 2004, and within four years had succeeded Valery Gergiev as Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic. He was recently named Music Director Designate of the Philadelphia Orchestra commencing in the 2012-13 season.

From the opening notes – a series of repeated Gs - the listener senses something magical about this performance. Nézet-Séguin approaches the music with a deep-rooted sensitivity, carefully shaping it at all times, and easily capturing the multi-faceted moods contained within. The orchestra – particularly the winds and strings – respond with a warm and resonant sound.

The second movement Valse is light and elegant, while the fourth movement, the March to the Scaffold is given the dramatic intensity it deserves. The finale - the Dream of a Witch’s Sabbath, in which the hero finds himself surrounded by ghostly figures, is all at once bombastic, grotesque, and terrifying. Not surprisingly, the music is adeptly handled by a perfect pairing of conductor and orchestra, who bring the mad frenzy to a rousing conclusion.

An added bonus on this CD is the short cantata La Mort de Cléopâtre written two years earlier for the Prix de Rome. Soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci gives a dramatic and sensitive performance, thus rounding out this most satisfying disc, easily among the best currently available.

Saint-Saëns - Music for Wind Instruments
National Arts Centre Wind Quintet; Stéphane Lemelin
Naxos 8.570964

For some the name Saint-Saëns may evoke the musty ectoplasm of the Danse macabre or, likewise ghastly, the Carnival of the Animals embellished with Ogden Nash verses intoned by a tanned and taut celebrity. Actually, Saint-Saëns was a serious composer of high calibre, an extraordinary piano prodigy who wrote successfully in every genre. This disc of works for winds and piano brilliantly performed by National Arts Centre Orchestra principals reveals the wealth of expression and imagination within the composer’s classical French orientation.

In the clarinet, oboe and bassoon sonatas of 1921, the 85-year-old composer is still at his peak. Of these “swan songs” the clarinet sonata is the most extended and varied of the three, while the oboe sonata conveys a sense of antique classicism. The pure, pensive repose of the bassoon sonata is rendered effectively by Christopher Millard. Its opening movement pays homage to Saint-Saëns’ close lifelong associate Gabriel Fauré in its chromatic twists of harmony. The final movement with its slow tempi and absence of virtuosity is particularly affecting.

The early Tarantella and the Caprice on Danish and Russian Airs are unique, attractive works for upper winds with piano. Some pianists come to grief with the virtuosity of Saint-Saëns’ chamber music, but not Canadian pianist Stéphane Lemelin who is a specialist in nineteenth-century French repertoire. Immaculate ensemble work between winds and piano is notable throughout. Rounded off by the Romance arranged for horn and piano, the disc is a must-buy for woodwind and chamber music enthusiasts.

04_bruckner_10symphoniesBruckner - 10 Symphonies
Bayerischen RSO; Lorin Maazel
BR Klassik 900703

Anton Bruckner is an unfortunate example of what can happen if an artist has not enough confidence and listens to too many interfering people. Poor fellow. He was not only castigated by the critics (e.g. Hanslick) in his lifetime, influencing him to make changes in his scores, but even after his death his fame was belittled by English critics who ridiculed his work as “symphonic boa constrictors” or “symphonies that turn back on themselves.” Even in the 1960s this prevented him reaching North America although he was already famous in Europe thanks to the German-Austrian school of conductors. It all turned around in the 70s and at present his fame is at its highest. There are several symphony cycles available: Karajan, Jochum, Barenboim, Wand, Chailly, Skrowaczewski and more and now this fine set from the Bayerischen Rundfunkorchester, led by its music director at the time, Maestro Lorin Maazel. It was recorded in 1999 in one continuous set of live sessions; each symphony occupies one disc except the magisterial 8th which takes up two. As a curiosity, the so called Symphony 0 (Die Nullte) is added as an 11th disc. This piece was undeservedly withdrawn, but it’s by no means poor, with much of Bruckner’s latent talents emerging as the audience’s cheers attest.

As you perhaps remember from my earlier reviews, Bruckner’s symphonies progress step by step, each is better, deeper, more original than the previous. Then there are two quantum leaps of divine inspiration: between the 4th and the 5th and the 8th and the 9th. By the time we reach the 9th, we have reached Olympus.

Tempi are extremely important in music and nowhere more important than for Bruckner, where a misjudged tempo can easily sink the performance. There are two schools of thought. One is the slow, measured and broad tempo that allows the music to expand, enrich details and the immortal Celibidache was a great representative of this. Of course there is the pitfall of being too slow and if the conductor’s concentration is flagging, the music becomes boring. The other school goes with faster tempo which is more exciting and the shape of the music is easier to follow (e.g. Barenboim). Maazel belongs to the first category. His performances are on the slow side, but we are rewarded with tremendous insight and sensitivity in developing the themes. There is great control of dynamics from the almost inaudible pp to the thunderous ff - just listen to the feather light string tremolos at the opening of the 4th symphony. Another example is the beautiful Adagio of the 8th, one of the best performances on the disc, where it takes 22 minutes to reach a climax which is truly earth shattering.

This beautifully recorded set is highly recommended.

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