05_mahler_sarasteMahler - Symphony No.6
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra; Jukka-Pekka Saraste
Simax PSC 1316

Jukka-Pekka Saraste, valiant conductor of the Toronto Symphony during a very difficult time in its history (1994-2001), was appointed music director of the Oslo Philharmonic in 2006, a position he continues to maintain. This new release of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony brings us up to date on his considerable accomplishments with this relatively unfamiliar but very fine Norwegian ensemble. Saraste’s characteristic steady, forward-thrusting tempi cast a refreshing new light onto the broad architecture of Mahler’s so-called Tragic Symphony, and though he is sensitive to the expressive nuances called for in the score, he is careful to avoid wallowing in maudlin excess. Though inexorable march tempos are very much the mainstay of this symphony, Saraste’s relative inflexibility flattens the hectic mood-swings of the Scherzo movement and underplays its demonic aspects. Otherwise however the dividends are impressive, none more so than in the magnificently played Finale, where the relentless tread of fate leads to a shattering conclusion, marked by literal hammer-blows of fate, the third of which, suppressed in most editions, is restored here in all its grim glory. Saraste’s impulse to ever-higher levels of tension results in a spine-tingling conclusion with the orchestra in glorious full throttle.

The sonic impact of this disc is quite spectacular considering that this is a recording of a live concert (without a trace of audience restlessness) from March 2010. Kudos to the engineers of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation for providing such a spacious and well-balanced sound stage for this accomplished orchestra. It’s well worth a listen!

06_off_the_beaten_pathOff the Beaten Path
Ian Hominick
MSR Classics MS 1341 (www.ianhominick.com)

Even the most musically illiterate man on the street would undoubtedly be familiar with the names of Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven. But how about those other composers who perhaps lacked that creative spark of these geniuses, and who have been regarded as “lesser lights” ever since? Don’t they deserve at least some recognition as well? Pianist Ian Hominick certainly thinks so, and the result is this intriguing recording on the MSR Classics label, appropriately titled “Off the Beaten Track.” Featured here are 10 composers, most of whose music isn’t heard all that often. For an even balance, there is also music by Liszt, Sibelius, and Gershwin, resulting in a well thought-out program of piano music in different styles spanning a period of roughly 150 years. Canadian-born Hominick studied at Mt. Allison, and later, at Ohio State University where he was Assistant to Earl Wild and André Laplante. He is currently on faculty at the University of Mississippi.

The disc opens with a rousing little sonata by Muzio Clementi, containing a theme very close to one in found in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Today, Clementi is remembered as a piano-maker and teacher, but this piece demonstrates not only his ability as a composer, but also Hominick’s level of technical prowess. More languorous is the Second Valse by Benjamin Godard, and the Nocturne by the 19th century piano titan Sigismund Thalberg. Fritz Kreisler? Wasn’t he a virtuoso violinist? Indeed, but included here is a charming Rondino on a Theme by Beethoven as transcribed by Godowsky. Most impressive is Die Lorelei by Franz Liszt, music that began as a vocal piece.

Hominick’s playing is bold and confident, displaying the dazzling technique required of this demanding repertoire. In complete contrast are the two closing selections, Gershwin’s Novelette in Fourths and Melody No.40. These have the Jazz Age written all over them, and bring this most enjoyable disc to a close.

01_st_lawrence_quartetTo celebrate their 20th anniversary, the St. Lawrence String Quartet solicited proposals from across Canada for short works without electronics. The five pieces that were consequently created for 2009 formed an integral part of the group’s repertoire that anniversary year, and are presented on their latest outstanding CD from the Canadian Music Centre, Sea to Sea (Centrediscs CMCCD 16310). The works obviously differ in sound and form, but all are strong, interesting and very accessible. They are: Derek Charke’s Sepia Fragments, which made an immediate impact despite a rather baffling concept; Brian Current’s Rounds, the title referring to the frequent use of overlapping individual melodies; Suzanne Hébert-Tremblay’s A tire-d’aile (in a flurry of wings), inspired by the songs of Quebec birds; Marcus Goddard’s Allaqi, the Inuit term for a clearing in the sky, which has a strong rhythmical opening mimicking Inuit throat singing, and a lyrical second half based on Inuit folk song melodies; and Elizabeth Raum’s A Table at the Bushwakker, portraying a table-hopping evening at Regina’s noted Brewpub. Decidedly tonal in feel despite the use of a tone row, this last has one quite beautiful section of tender, rhapsodic music depicting an amorous couple oblivious to the noise around them. Recorded at the U of T’s Walter Hall in November 2009, all five works display strong, idiomatic writing throughout, with the SLSQ sounding as if they have been performing these pieces for years.

02_weinberg_celloEvery now and then a CD comes along that blows your socks off. Enter cellist Josef Feigelson with his stunning CD of the Complete Music for Solo Cello Volume 2 by the Polish/Soviet composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a colleague and friend of Shostakovich who died in 1996 (Naxos 8.572281). Previously available on the Olympia label, these World Premiere Recordings of the Sonatas for Solo Cello Nos. 2, 3 & 4 (plus the original - and tougher - first movement for the latter) were recorded in New York in November 1997. Feigelson played them from the manuscripts, which he acquired from the composer’s widow in Moscow, having recorded Sonata No.1 along with the 24 Cello Preludes in 1996. (Those recordings are now available on Naxos 8.572280.) If you are even remotely interested in music for unaccompanied cello then this CD is an absolute “must” and at the low Naxos price it’s a no-brainer. Buy it. Play it. And hang on to your socks.


Despite his English name, George Onslow (1784-1853) was a French composer. Although highly regarded in his time – he was known as the French Beethoven! – his music was until recently neglected and difficult to obtain. A recent CD from the French ensemble Quatuor Diotima (Naïve V5200) features three string quartets from 1828 – Nos. 28, 29 and 30 – that Onslow wrote while still trying to come to terms with the impact of Beethoven’s late quartets, which he found both fascinating and disconcerting. They marked a change from a pre-Romantic style to one of intense expressiveness, a quality captured perfectly in these dazzling and clearly empathetic performances. The booklet notes describe this music as “exciting, personal, and amazingly neglected” - a perfect description.


Naxos has issued another two excellent CDs featuring seldom-played violin concertos. Sergei Mikhailovich Lyapunov (1859-1924) was a Russian nationalist composer who studied with Balakirev and remained strongly influenced by him. His Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.61 is a one-movement work that sounds exactly as you would expect: big, Tchaikovsky-like melodies, a Romantic flow and a dazzling solo part. Maxim Fedotov is in superb form, with excellent support from the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra under Dmitry Yablonsky. The latter are also terrific in Lyapunov’s Symphony No. 1 in B minor, Op.12 (Naxos 8.570462).

05_karlowiczYou can add Polish composer Mieczyslaw Karlowicz to your list of “strange composer deaths” - he was killed by an avalanche while skiing in the Tatra Mountains in 1909, aged only 32. His Violin Concerto in A Major, Op.8, a three-movement work that features an unusual opening cadenza, receives an outstanding performance from Ilya Kaler and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra under Antoni Wit (Naxos 8.572274). Karlowicz’s first orchestral work, the Serenade Op.2, is somewhat reminiscent of Dvořák and Grieg, and has a particularly lovely slow movement. It’s obvious that a hugely promising talent was lost here.

06_fischer_mozartFinally, PentaTone has re-issued the three individual Julia Fischer SA-CDs of the complete Mozart music for violin and orchestra in a digipak set together with a 25-minute DVD of footage from the recording sessions (PTC 5186 453). It’s a wonderful set: Fischer’s playing is warm, stylish and beautifully judged throughout; Yakov Kreizberg sets perfect tempi and draws superb playing from the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra; the sound quality is excellent. Concertmaster Gordan Nikolic is a perfect viola partner in the sublime Sinfonia concertante K364. This is one set that’s never going to be very far from my CD player.

01_salsa_baroqueSalsa Baroque

Ensemble Caprice; Matthias Maute

Analekta AN 2 9957

Matthias Maute’s notes explain salsa baroque as being 17th and 18th century Latin American and Spanish music with a diffusion of harmonies and rhythms of Europe and Africa blended with Amerindian nuances and styles. Hybrid must be an under-statement.

The choice of pieces is itself varied as Zipoli’s pastorales vie with his battaglias and in turn mingle with Gaspar Fernandes’ compositions with their unsullied pre-conquistador titles. The opening (anonymous) chaconne combines easily recognizable baroque music with spirited Latin American embellishments; Variations on la Gayta and the lively singing of further settings bring home the passionate nature of this fusion of music from Spain and her new colonies. Listen to Lanchas para baylar for further confirmation. Those looking for something more indigenous need only listen to the second piece, the definitely non-Hispanic Hanacpachap cussicuinin. It is incomparably Latin American, mainly because it is dated to 1631 in Cuzco!

Looking at the cover design of this CD with its electronically-drawn drizzlings of Latin American dressings and then translating its title (baroque sauce), you might get the impression this is one for the tapas-bar yuppies. It is, in truth, a valuable introduction to music created by Spanish and Portuguese composers who were assigned to Latin America and influenced by the music they found there.

02_vivaldi_oboe_concertosVivaldi Oboe Concertos

Alex Klein; New Brandenburg Collegium; Anthony Newman

Cedille FOUNDation CDR 7003 (www.cedillerecords.org)

One of the most prolific composers of his time, Antonio Vivaldi (1675-1741) wrote a total of 14 concerti for oboe, plus an additional three for two oboes. This sampling of eight of them, from one of the world's finest oboists, is a recent re-release of material originally recorded in 1993. Alex Klein is probably best known as a former principal oboist of the Chicago Symphony, a position he held from 1995 to 2004, when he left the job due to focal dystonia, a neurological condition affecting the muscles in some of his fingers. (He has since recovered, and I had the pleasure of hearing him perform live in Kitchener a couple of years ago).

In addition to composing, Vivaldi also taught music at the Ospedale della Pietá, an orphanage for girls in Venice. In the insightful liner notes with this recording, Klein suggests that these works were perhaps written for these girls, with their particular talents and personalities in mind. Given the technical challenges of these concerti and the limitations of the oboe of the time, if this is true, these girls must have been true prodigies! Speculation aside, this recording presents these works in their best light, played here by a true virtuoso. Klein's technical mastery of the instrument is staggering – even the most virtuosic passages are executed with flawless precision, giving an impression of total ease; and embedded within the most technically demanding sections, Klein manages a sensitivity and subtlety of expression that only a true master can convey. This recording deserves undivided listening attention to fully appreciate the complexity and nuance of both the composer's work and this first class performance.

03_bach_organJ.S. Bach - Organ Works

Nicolas-Alexandre Marcotte

XXI-21 Productions; XXI-CD 2 1713

Organist Nicolas-Alexandre Marcotte plays a magnificent organ built in 1973 by Karl Wilhelm for Église Saint-Matthias (Montréal). It is entirely mechanical (tracker action) and voiced in the very best Baroque style. Marcotte’s repertoire choice (some duets, a Fantaisie, a Trio Sonata, etc.) is far from standard Bach but carefully chosen to demonstrate the Baroque keyboard technique of note detachment, the very antithesis of the Romantic tendency for legato in nearly everything. The playing is brilliant and the acoustics perfect – an altogether outstanding recording achievement.

01_mozart_piano_sonatasMozart - Piano Sonatas

Robert Silverman

IsoMike 5602 (www.isomike.com)

If we accept Hans von Bulow’s decree to pianists that “Bach is the Old Testament and Beethoven is the New Testament of music,” where does that leave Mozart? As a kind of musical John the Baptist?

But if Mozart has been relegated to the role of a pianistic voice crying in the wilderness, it’s not the composer’s doing, but the fault of the musical world. Some pianists, such as Glenn Gould, have disdained his piano music as lightweight. Others, such as Alicia De Laroccha, have unwittingly given credence to this view by performing Mozart with a mannered superficiality. And then there are folks who feel that Mozart’s piano music needs to be performed on a period fortepiano – as if he can’t quite compete with “important” piano composers when played on a modern instrument.

Enter Robert Silverman, the Vancouver-based pianist who has earned a reputation as a Beethoven interpreter with a penchant for complete sonata cycles. Now, in this seven-disc boxed set on the audiophile IsoMike label, Silverman has recorded all 18 Mozart sonatas, and also the Chromatic Fantasy in C Minor.

What makes these performances so consistently engaging is the breadth he brings to his interpretations. He’s not out to directly overthrow traditional ideas about Mozart, but rather to enfold them within a broader vision: while there’s sometimes a “Mozartkugel” sweetness to his playing, there’s much more than that. In Silverman’s hands, this music is dramatic, humourous, effervescent, calm, blissful, tragic, and many other things as well.

For instance, there’s Sonata No. 15, which Silverman, in his notes, describes as “the most curious work in Mozart’s entire keyboard oeuvre.” In this recording, the first movement begins as a lively romp, but with the underlying strength of supple and flexible steel. The second movement is less complex, perhaps, but inward-looking and carefully shaped. And the last movement is pure innocence and charm – until the change from major to minor brings just a touch of wistfulness.

The only non-sonata on these discs, the C Minor Fantasy, is no less impressive. Contrasts are sharply drawn, intensity builds and recedes, colours range from light to dark, and the music is always going somewhere.

Sonically, these discs are as clear as a bell and as pure as the driven snow. And speaking of Glenn Gould (whom I mentioned four paragraphs back), can Silverman be heard very quietly humming in some lyrical passages? It sounds like he might be.

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