05 Notebook Chopin JanacekNotebook – Chopin & Janáček
Domenico Codispoti
Eudora Records EUD-SACD-2203 (eudorarecords.com)

As a teenager, when I was doing my best to convince myself that I liked to smoke clove cigarettes, wear vintage secondhand clothing and watch the “artsiest” of art films at the Revue, Fox or Carlton Cinemas, I remember liking Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being with Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche. Upon initial viewing, I subsequently rushed out to get my hands on Czech beer and a well-thumbed copy of the original Milan Kundera novel, released a few years before the film. And while much was memorable about that movie, I remember being particularly struck by how effectively the film used music (almost exclusively Leoš Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path). Accordingly, it is nice to rediscover Janáček’s haunting cycle of piano pieces, paired here with the 24 Preludes of Frederic Chopin, for a satisfying new release on Eudora records. 

Although their lives almost overlapped briefly – Chopin died in 1849 while Janáček was born in 1854 – they did not. That said, the extraordinary compositions and musical talents of the more famous Polish composer and those of the Czech composer and theorist are united here in the capable hands of Italian pianist Dominico Codispoti. If, as the liner notes to this terrific new recording suggest, Codispoti views himself as a kind of earthly vessel through which the music and composer intentions flow while guided by Chopin’s ghosts and demons, as well as, one supposes, Janáček’s spirit leading him down a silent street in Moravia, 2022 auditors are encouraged to listen in on these two master composers presented in this most excellent translated form.

06 Liszt AgranovichFranz Liszt – Rhapsodies, Etudes and Transcriptions
Sophia Agranovich
Centaur Records CRC 3955 (centaurrecords.com)

Now here is a disc I would listen to over and over again, never wanting it to end. An award-winning very talented Ukrainian-American pianist, Sophia Agranovich plays Liszt as it should be played, totally imbued in Romantic spirit and with “interpretation daring to be different” and “superior musicianship” (American Record Guide). Funny, I remember British critics around the 50s who poo-pooed Liszt, held him second rate and overtly emotional. They should eat their words when they hear this performance.

This is her tenth release and entirely devoted to Liszt showing the many sides of the composer’s genius and all devilishly difficult pieces. Imagine a Budapest cafe with an ever present gypsy (Roma) band and the lead violinist coming to your table and playing his heart out for your wife or girlfriend. This is what we hear when Agranovich plays the slow middle section of Hungarian Rhapsody No.6. The style is unmistakeably Hungarian with the rubatos, hesitations, sudden eruptive accelerandos and syncopations and we even hear the tremolo of the cimbalom in the background. It’s interesting that then she chooses the slow, quiet, melodic No.13, seldom performed but in her hands probably the most beautiful of all the Hungarian Rhapsodies

This is followed by three Schubert Transcriptions, (Ständchen, Erlkönig and Die Forelle); when I was listening to the famous Ständchen (Serenade) I was so transported that I felt like exclaiming “wow, this is soo beautiful!”

Agranovich’s astounding technique is further evident in the dramatic and exciting Mazeppa of the Transcendental Etudes based on the story of a Ukrainian nobleman punished by being dragged by a wild horse across the steppes. We hear the lightning flashes of the whip and the syncopated galloping rhythm in this immensely difficult piece, which provides a fitting end to this unique, opulent and rewarding new issue.

Listen to 'Franz Liszt – Rhapsodies, Etudes and Transcriptions' Now in the Listening Room

07 Ravel ConcertosMaurice Ravel – Concertos pour piano; Mélodies
Cédric Tiberghien, Stéphane Degout, Les Siècles, François-Xavier Roth
Harmonia Mundi HMM902612 (store.harmoniamundi.com/release/305358)

This interesting new recording of Ravel’s piano music has already earned Gramophone magazine’s Recording of the Month. It includes Ravel’s two piano concertos as well as that composer’s rarely heard songs showing his all-encompassing genius. Not only a composer for orchestra, opera, ballets and the piano, he was also a brilliant orchestrator, pianist and even a songwriter par excellence.

The journey begins with the “marvellous” Piano Concerto in G Major (so described by Francis Poulenc, who actually played the orchestral part when the concerto was first performed on two pianos at a private salon), one of the first truly modern 20th-century concertos. Sparkling and buoyant with jazzy elements, it is superbly performed by pianist Cédric Tiberghien who is already having a brilliant career here and in Europe. The conductor is the very busy Francois-Xavier Roth, by now a very important musical figure in charge of two orchestras and guest conductor of several others. Noteworthy is the fact that the piano is an authentic Pleyel from 1892!

In the dark-hued Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major, it’s amazing how much bravura and complexity a single hand can accomplish. Its single movement begins in a mysterious atmosphere, moving from darkness into light (à la Liszt), with one incisive and versatile theme that develops with a strong rhythmic drive, literally exploding triumphantly at the end.

The two concertos serve as bookends for three song cycles, including one which I find as a curiosity, Deux mélodies hébraīques. The Kaddisch with its emotionally charged Hebrew text, but music entirely by Ravel, is a prayer of mourning usually heard in the synagogue; the other, in Yiddish, L’énigme éternelle, posits the question of existence (!), an enigma for which there is no answer, that finds beautiful expression in baritone Stéphane Degout’s moving interpretation.

08 Mahler Les SieclesMahler – Symphony No.4
Sabine Devieilhe; Les Siecles; Francois-Xavier Roth
Harmonia Mundi HMM905357 (store.harmoniamundi.com)

The French conductor François-Xavier Roth is in great demand these days, and for good reason. Recently appointed music director of the peerless Gürzenich-Orchester in Cologne and principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, among his notable accomplishments was his founding of the Les Siècles orchestra in 2003, featuring instruments appropriate to the period of composition of a given era. Their 2013 rendition of the original version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring garnered immense praise. 

They now turn their attention for the second time to the music of Mahler. The excellent program notes include an interview with Roth, an overview of the work, and a scrupulous listing of the exact models of the wind instruments employed. The piercing sound of the wind instruments and the beefy sound of the period Viennese horns are particularly impressive, much more assertive and biting than our homogenized contemporary models. The string section employs gut strings and plays without vibrato, bringing an unaccustomed serenity to the slow third movement. Combined with Roth’s Apollonian interpretation, the complex counterpoint of the work benefits greatly. The mixing of the album is superb and Sabine Devieilhe’s interpretation of the vocal finale is admirable. 

My only reservation about this performance concerns an occasional lack of nuance, noticeably so in the uncanny second movement scherzo, which struck me as more of a generic waltz as opposed to the idiomatic micro-adjustments of the authentic Ländler tempo George Szell imparts in his classic 1967 recording. This symphony is the most compact and classical in Mahler’s oeuvre and remains the most accessible entry point for Mahler neophytes. Not to be missed!

10 LSO Bruckner 4Bruckner – Symphony No.4
London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Simon Rattle
LSO Live LSO0875 (lso.co.uk)

I’ve seen Sir Simon Rattle conduct many times thanks to my subscription to the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall and always admired his energy jumping to the podium full of excitement, eager anticipation and love for the music to come. In 2018 Rattle retired from his post in Berlin and now is back in England as the head of the London Symphony, arguably the finest of the five London orchestras.

The “Romantic” Symphony No.4 is obviously his favorite Bruckner and as I listen to this new super audio recording I must confess that I’d love to have been present at the concert at the Barbican Hall resounding with the genuine bloom of his Bruckner. “The entire evening was a Brucknerian labour of love” says The Guardian.  

Rattle has a no-nonsense approach as if he would say: let’s get on with it! He is totally relaxed, lets the music flow naturally at a brisk tempo, entirely logical with the architectonic structure always kept in mind. There are sections when the music becomes nearly inaudible from which the melody slowly emerges. The following crescendo is masterfully handled. It builds in stages with minor climaxes along the way, deliberately holding back at key moments so the ending becomes truly majestic. There is an overarching epic sweep this symphony needs. 

I must give a big credit to the first (solo) horn. At the beginning, its beautifully sustained pianissimo over an underlying tremolo in the strings produces a magical effect. The horns also feature heavily in the third movement, the Hunt Scherzo, as they start out barely audible from a primeval mist with a gradual crescendo; and when the trumpets join in the sound becomes crystal clear fortissimo and simply gorgeous. In Rattle’s hand the symphony becomes truly Romantic!

Listen to 'Bruckner – Symphony No.4' Now in the Listening Room

11 BarokbandidTwo Sides
Barokkbandið Brák
Sono Luminus SLE-70026/2 (sonoluminus.com)

It is not uncommon to find obvious and straightforward album titles within the classical music genre, leaving no doubt as to what a listener can and should expect. If one tallied up all the releases titled Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies, these recordings would make up an entire collection of their own. While it is only an entry point to the contents contained therein, a creatively titled recording can engage and entice a prospective listener, drawing them in with the promise of a unique artistic experience.

Such is the case with Icelandic period-instrument ensemble Barokkbandið Brák and their debut album Two Sides, a title which, at first glance, most clearly refers to its two discs of music. Upon reviewing its contents however, it becomes clear that Two Sides reflects the diverse nature of this extraordinary group, which has achieved renown in the interpretation of Renaissance and Baroque music but also as a commissioner of new music for period instruments.

This sense of discovery in music old and new permeates every selection on this recording, notably through the world premiere recording of the Violin Concerto in G by Swedish Baroque composer Johan Joachim Agrell and new commissions from Icelandic composers Þráinn Hjálmarsson, Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir, and Kristinn Kristinsson.

What is most remarkable about this entire double album is the way in which every piece of music is treated individually, performed at the highest level with convincing interpretations. Whether the Agrell Concerto premiere, Vivaldi’s enthralling Concerto for 2 Violins & Cello in D Minor, or any one of the commissioned works, nothing seems unfamiliar or out of place.

Two Sides is a magnificent debut from Barokkbandið Brák that will be a valuable addition to any collection, especially for those who appreciate broad and diverse repertoire within the realm of period performance.

12 AmericanistThe Americanist
Elizabeth Newkirk
Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0166 (brightshiny.ninja)

This new release of orchestral scores reduced for solo piano by Elizabeth Newkirk stakes out grounds for how American music must maintain its connection to the vernacular. Per Newkirk’s lengthy treatise in the liner notes, the mythos of America demands inclusion and recognition of popular musical idioms in the making of “serious” music. She especially points to the styles and forms developed in the African-American culture that energizes so much of today’s music. To that end, Newkirk provides three intra-bellum works that illustrate her point, all reductions of orchestral scores made by the composers themselves, and all infused with jazz and blues. 

Maurice Ravel’s reduction in some ways satisfies the way the full version can’t. In La Valse Newkirk proves herself a fine stylist, giving a more flexible version in terms of rhythm and dynamics than a conductor might ask of a full orchestra. These waltzes swoop into dips and pirouettes. (I leave it to pianists to tell me if I’m wrong about the heavy use of the sustain pedal). Gershwin’s An American in Paris is also entirely about movement. Newkirk notes that three distinct metres are assigned respectively to the American, French and British gait. (It’s so hard to believe the piece wasn’t written with Gene Kelly in mind). More than in the Ravel, I miss orchestral colours; maybe it’s just that Gershwin’s lightness needs the weight of the band, but to my mind, there’s no replacing the trumpet, the violins, the rhythm section. Their language is integral to the musical ideas.

William Grant Still’s Africa provides the substantial finale to the disc. Still’s music follows a similar aesthetic to Gershwin’s, blending Romantic tropes with blues influences. Materially, and in terms of length, it’s more substantial than the Gershwin, and more listenable, in fact. As has been noted elsewhere, there are not nearly enough recordings of his music, which makes this release so attractive. 

Newkirk’s treatise is most interesting when she leaves the rarified discussion of myth and philosophy in order to discuss how these three works fit so neatly into her thesis.

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