01_mozart_piano_concertosMozart - Piano Concertos 12, 13 & 14

robert Blocker; Biava Quartet

Naxos 8.557881

In January 1783 there appeared an advertisement in the Wiener Zeitung from no less a composer than Mozart who was announcing the publication of three new piano concertos that could be performed “either with a large orchestra… or merely a quattro, that is, with 2 violins, 1 viola, and violoncello.” These concertos were the first Mozart wrote after his move to Vienna in 1781, and are presented here performed by the Biava Quartet with pianist Robert Blocker.


The Biava was formed at the Cleveland Institute of Music in 1998, and since then, has gone on to win top prizes including the London International Competition and the Nuremberg Chamber Music Award. The American-born Blocker has enjoyed a multifaceted career as pianist, educator (at Yale University), and music advisor for such prominent institutions as the Avery Fisher Artist Program, and the Curatorium of the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest.


What a joyful sound these musicians create – this is surely “Mozart with a smile on his face!” The Biava plays with a keen precision, providing a solid accompaniment for Blocker’s lucid and sensitive interpretation. This most sympathetic pairing between quartet and piano is clearly evident, for example, in the cheerful opening movement of concerto No.12, the languorous second movement of No.13, and the sprightly finale from the fourteenth, all duly presented in a stylish manner of which Mozart surely would have approved. Indeed, to my mind, the smaller resources found here result in a wonderful sense of intimacy, transporting the listener from the vast space of the concert-hall to a private chamber in 18th century Vienna.


02_beethoven_gryphonBeethoven - Piano Trios Op. 70 Nos.1/2; Op. 11

Gryphon Trio

Analekta AN 2 9860

It will surely come as no surprise to learn that the wonderful Gryphon Trio are in their usual superb form on this latest CD, the third and final volume in their recording of the complete Beethoven Piano Trios.


Included on this disc are the two Op.70 works from 1808 – the D major “Ghost” Trio and the E flat Trio – and the Op.11 B flat Trio from 1798, originally conceived for clarinet, cello and piano but published for clarinet or violin, apparently to increase the sales potential.


The Gryphons have been together for 17 years now, and their mutual understanding and sense of ensemble is unsurpassed. From the cascade of unison notes that opens the “Ghost”, through the lengthy and eerie slow movement that prompted the work’s sub-title, to the ebullient closing bars of the Op.11, there is never a moment when you don’t feel that this must surely be the only way to play this music.


Jamie Parker, as usual, anchors the performances with his immaculately brilliant piano playing, and violinist Annalee Patipatanakoon and cellist Roman Borys are every inch his equal. In every possible respect – tempo, phrasing, dynamics, ensemble, style – this is playing and interpretation of the highest quality, and the result is an outstanding CD that adds to the Trio’s already impressive catalogue of recordings.


Recorded in the Salle Francoys-Bernier at Domaine Forget in St. Irenee, Quebec, the sound is warm and resonant, and the balance ideal.


03_brahms_violinBrahms - Violin Sonatas 1-3

Mark Fewer; Peter Longworth

Azica ACD71259

Long-time collaborators Mark Fewer and Peter Longworth have produced a fascinating and thought-provoking CD of the three Brahms violin sonatas. This is not necessarily the sonatas the way you would expect to hear them: first impressions are that they’re possibly a little too restrained, and perhaps lacking a sense of urgency and tension at times, but this soon proves to be irrelevant.


The opening bars of the Op.78 G Major sonata – the two warm piano chords and the almost hesitant off-beat entry of the violin – always set the tone for the whole work, and Fewer and Longworth set up their stall from the outset. The tempo is perfect, with a gentle, rhythmic lilt that never falters, and a fine sense of melodic line. Fewer’s tone and vibrato are warm but never large or effusive, allowing Longworth to shine and establish a true balance and sense of partnership. No histrionics here – just subtle, reflective playing.


This mood of thoughtful interpretation continues throughout the work, and throughout the Op.100 A Major sonata as well. Finally, when the mood changes in the Op.108 D minor sonata, the duo dispel any possible doubts about their commitment with a passionate ending to a deeply satisfying CD.


The Salle Francoys-Bernier in Domaine Forget was the venue for the warm, resonant and intimate recorded sound.


These are intelligent and richly rewarding readings that offer more each time you hear them. I’ll be playing them again and again.


04b_nutcracker_experience1Tchaikovsky - The Nutcracker

Berlin Philharmoniker; Simon Rattle

EMI: two editions: 509996 4638522 2CD set;

509996 3162127 Experience Edition

Surely there is no more beloved score in all music than Tchaikovsky’s enchanting Nutcracker, traditionally enjoyed by young and old alike at this time of year... at least in North America. Many countries regard Humperdinck’s “children’s opera,” Hansel and Gretel as the must-see event of the season.


For those who know the music only from the Nutcracker Suite, there is another hour of equally enchanting, instantly captivating music. The electrifying Pas de deux from Act II is sometimes played as an encore by visiting Russian Orchestras, to thunderous applause. Without fail, many of the audience are at a loss to identify it or else confirm that it is from Swan Lake. Collectors will remember the Philips CD of selected excerpts (not the suite) from The Nutcracker played with astonishing intensity by Mravinsky and The Leningrad Philharmonic. After hearing the Rattle, the Mravinsky excerpts, while still very impressive, sound inflexible and the Russian orchestra does not exude the flavour and the joy of the subject matter as the Berliners do. The complete ballet is rarely, if ever, heard at a symphony concert and, according to Rattle, the 1st Act music presents a challenge to even a great orchestra.


Checking a few other complete versions for comparison the Rattle has the edge with its infectious exuberance and good feelings. The recorded sound is stunning in its delineation of details, width, depth and dynamics.


04a_nutcracker_experience204b_nutcracker_experience1The regular set includes access to live concert footage and a one day free pass to the online Berlin Philharmonic Concert Hall. The Experience Edition is a beautiful little hard-bound 60 page art book with the two CDs included; adding exclusive interviews, and downloads to the regular edition. A handsome package for only a few dollars more.

05a_mahler_celebrationThe Gustav Mahler Celebration

Thomas Hampson; Anne Sophie von Otter; Marita Solberg; Mahler Chamber Orchestra; Manfred Honeck

EuroArts 2058148

05b_introducing_mahlerIntroducing Mahler - Symphony No.2

Lucerne Festival Orchestra; Claudio Abbado

EuroArts 2056178

There’s not a lot to see in Kaliště, the tiny enclave of some 330 souls in the present-day Czech Republic, but on July 1 this past summer the town was inundated to celebrate the 150th birthday of their most famous son, Gustav Mahler. Set in a temporary outdoor structure, the greatly augmented Gustav Mahler Chamber Orchestra (originally founded by Claudio Abbado) appeared under the direction of Manfred Honeck for a festival performance of excerpts from Mahler’s towering Second Symphony and a handful of his more intimate songs with orchestra featuring baritone Thomas Hampson and soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. Despite the compromised acoustics of the band shell the sound of the performance is actually quite good; while von Otter is content with the conventional park-and-bark position to deliver her considerable vocal gifts, hammy Hampson relishes the opportunity afforded by his wireless headset microphone to roam the stage both back and front in a riveting performance of the great anti-war song Revelge. Though little of the town that Mahler knew remains, the camera glimpses a ghostly military band in the distance and briefly roams through the local Jewish cemetery. The Czech Boy’s Choir and Prague Philharmonic Choir chime in remotely from the local church in Es sungen drei Engel and appear on the bandstand to great effect for the concluding paean of the Symphony.


Introducing Mahler is an episode from a music documentary series on EuroArt, Introducing Masterpieces of Classical Music. It features a succinct explication of the Fifth Symphony by British musicologist Jeremy Barham, with piano excerpts leading into the corresponding orchestral segments augmented by appropriate visual footage, scrolling music examples, and additional commentary by anonymous voices reading from period documents. Unfortunately these secondary narrative sub-tracks are at times near-inaudible in the stereo mix. The real draw of this DVD is the magnificent performance of the symphony by Claudio Abbado and his hand-picked Lucerne Festival Orchestra, repackaged from an earlier incarnation of this 2004 once-in-a-lifetime concert. The expertly directed camera work brings an extra dimension to the intense concentration and amazing ensemble work of this distinguished ensemble responding as one with the greatest Mahler conductor of our time.


01_english_tubaThe English Tuba

Eugene Dowling; London Symphony Orchestra; Paul Freeman; Edward Norman

Tromba Bassa Records TBCDD595 (www.cdbaby.com/cd/EugeneDowling)

While one of my personal all time favourite recordings is a collection of duets for tuba and guitar, the tuba isn’t usually thought of as a solo instrument. Therefore when a complete recording of tuba solos appears, it warrants more than passing mention. This is doubly so when all of the works on the record are by English composers. In that regard we give Mr. Handel the benefit of doubt and call him English.

More than any other composer of note, Ralph Vaughan Williams liberated the tuba from the back of the orchestra to centre stage when his Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra was premiered in 1954. Since its introduction, this work has become the benchmark for aspiring tubists. In this performance with the London Symphony Orchestra Canadian Eugene Dowling, a long time member of the Victoria Symphony and faculty member of the University of Victoria, proves beyond any doubt that the tuba deserves to be recognized as a solo instrument capable of many moods and styles.

On the balance of the recording, Dowling is accompanied by pianist Edward Norman. These works include Elgar’s Romance for bassoon, Malcom Arnold’s Fantasy for Tuba and Six Studies in English Folk Song arranged by Paul Droste. Gordon Jacob, a student of Vaughan Williams and teacher of Malcom Arnold, is represented by his eight movement Tuba Suite. The most familiar work for aficionados of band music, will be Handel’s ubiquitous Harmonious Blacksmith, long a part of the repertoire of euphonium soloists. Dowling’s skill is such that in places it is hard to realize that we are hearing a tuba and not its more agile cousin, the euphonium.

02_ian_parkerRavel; Stravinsky; Gershwin - Piano Concertos & Capriccio

Ian Parker; London Symphony Orchestra; Michael Francis

ATMA ACD2 2656


This is Vancouver born, New York City based, Ian Parker’s debut CD, and what an auspicious debut it is! For starters, the CD was recorded at Abbey Road Studios, “the most famous recording studio in the world,” Parker notes with delight in a YouTube clip taken during the recording session. Secondly, Parker records the Ravel and Gershwin concerti, in G major and F respectively, and the Stravinsky Capriccio, with the acclaimed London Symphony Orchestra, under Michael Francis.

No stranger to accolades and awards himself, Parker, who hails from piano-playing Parker pedigree – he is a younger cousin to concert pianists (and brothers) Jon Kimura and Jamie Parker – made his Lincoln Center recital debut in 2004 and his debut as a conductor with the Windsor Symphony in its 2008/2009 season. During his studies at Juilliard (where he completed both Bachelor and Master of Music degrees), he was awarded the Canada Council for the Arts’ Sylva Gelber Career Grant, given annually to the “most talented Canadian artist.”

Parker tackles this 20th century repertoire with gusto, sensitivity and intelligence. The featured works were written between 1925 and 1931; all three composers knew and admired each other, their works being influenced by one another’s compositional styles to varying degrees. In Parker’s masterful hands, the Ravel, with its hints of jazz, sparkles and shimmers in all the right places, the Stravinsky is playful, charming and spirited, and the Gershwin, sophisticated in its use of French melodic and harmonic idiom, is a complex, jazz-infused joy.

Clearly, Parker is in his element here, and judging by the smile on his face and the enthusiasm in his voice in that YouTube clip, he enjoyed every minute of the experience. It comes through in his playing. In all three pieces, Parker demonstrates controlled, restrained phrasing, a refined sensibility and a precise, uncluttered technique.


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