03 Clara Robert JohannesClara Robert Johannes – Atmosphere and Mastery
Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra; Alexander Shelley
Analekta AN 2 8882-3 (analekta.com/en) 

Perhaps, as classical music fans, we like to think of our enjoyment of this music in a priori terms. Music for music’s sake and all that. As an extension of the better-known maxim, “l’art pour l’art,” (Art for Art’s Sake), this 19th-century declaration that art is most “true” when decoupled from extra-musical meaning or purposes (social, utilitarian etc.), provides a sort of tautological framework for our 21st-century tastes: classical music is good, because it is good music. Unlike such artifacts of mainstream culture as so-called “pop” music, whose raison d’être is a kind of didactic utilitarianism (music for dancing, music for escapism etc.), classical music, rightly or wrongly, has come to be seen as more other-worldly and elevated (some might say hifalutin). But, as we learn with Clara-Robert-Johannes, the third of a four-part recording cycle from Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra that mines both the Schumann/Brahms canon and their relationship, what could be more salaciously human than a potential relationship triangle marked by the entanglements of marriage, death and unrequited love? 

Performed skillfully under the direction of Alexander Shelley, this 2023 recording features some lesser-known pieces by the compositional triumvirate of Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms that, none-the-less, represent the high-water mark of Romantic-era beauty and sophistication. With greater compositional representation given here to Clara, not simply as muse to both Robert and Brahms, but rightly acknowledging and platforming her as a compositional force of equal magnitude and import, Clara-Robert-Johannes captures the complexities of both their music and of the human condition in this gorgeously captured and fine recording.

04 Chopin FialkowskaChopin Recital 4
Janina Fialkowska
ATMA ACD2 2803 (atmaclassique.com/en) 

Canada can be proud of having many world class pianists. The confluence of diverse cultures is a happy breeding ground putting forth pianists of different backgrounds like Poland that produced this shining example, the Grande Dame of Canadian pianism, Janina Fialkowska. She is, as said by Arthur Rubinstein, a “born interpreter of Chopin,” whose credits are too numerous to mention – including concerts all over the world, the JUNO Award, the Order of Canada – she is praised for “her musical integrity and refreshing natural approach.”

Fialkowska records exclusively with ATMA Classique and this is her 15th release and fourth Chopin album. It’s a good cross section of various genres of Chopin’s genius: Polonaises, Nocturnes, Preludes, Ballades, Valses etc. Curiously enough a few of the pieces are not of the highest difficulty and within the capabilities of any aspiring piano student of Grade 8 level, (yours truly included) so these come back to me as old friends like the defiant, heroic Military Polonaise in A Major that starts off the program or the sweet, nostalgic Nocturne Op.55 No.1 in F Minor. Both are exquisitely played. These are followed by the Berceuse in D-flat Major, one of the most beautiful things Chopin ever wrote, played with a lovely sustained soft supple legato.

The big guns however are the virtuoso pieces like the Ballade in G Minor that starts off deceptively simple but gradually gets more and more complex and difficult with a prestissimo finish. The Scherzo No.3 in C-sharp Minor is even more demanding. The strong chords at the beginning remind me of Liszt, the incessant, cascading fioratures are so delicately and precisely played and the 110-bar coda finishes the piece with a big flourish.

05 Franck VierneFranck; Vierne – First and Last
Christopher Houlihan (organ)
Azica ACD-71356 (azica.com) 

If Paul Simon’s haunting 1970 song, The Only Living Boy in New York, ever needed a companion, a potential contender might be the only French-built organ in New York. Housed in that city’s Church of the Ascension, Pascal Quoirin’s Manton Memorial Organ is not only both played and captured beautifully on this new Azica recording by the celebrated American organist Christopher Houlihan, but with my aforementioned whimsical Simon reference, perhaps the door is now open for another, this time riffing on the folk composer’s 1968 song Bookends. Wherein that earlier Simon song tells the tale of two old friends who sit together on, one assumes, a New York park bench like old friends watching the tumbleweed of newspapers blow by, Houlihan here uses César Franck and Louis Vierne to musically bookend the French Romantic tradition of organ symphonies. In fact, marble busts of the composers’ halved faces appear on the album cover like literal “first and last” bookends. 

Beginning the recording with Franck’s Grande Pièce Symphonique Op.17 (1860–62) and closing with Vierne’s Symphonie No.6, Op.39 (1930), Houlihan – the current Artist-in-Residence at Toronto’s Trinity College where he also teaches and directs the Chapel Singers – both musically and historically demonstrates the richness of possibility that can occur when a skilled technician and thoughtful artist demarcates their creativity for compelling results. Narrow and focused in scope, but sprawling and grand in ambition, Houlihan, empowered here to mine the depths of a repertoire so “dependent on the particular sonorities,” he writes, of this particular French-built instrument, has found the context, instrument and conceit necessary to make a meaningful contribution to the discographic canon of fine organ recordings. 

Listen to 'Franck; Vierne – First and Last' Now in the Listening Room

06 ScriabinScriabin – Poem of Ecstasy; Symphony No.2
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta
Naxos 8.574039 (bpo.org/recordings) 

Will the compositional dust ever settle on the early 20th century? Let’s hope not. What a fascinating, tempestuous time it was, what madness emerged from the studied rebellion of the Romantic period! Who knew that Liszt, of all people, would be a kind of heroic model to Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), who tore up the book of common practice harmony and looked for colours that some would call garish, and others revelatory.

And the composers themselves, calling one another names or championing themselves and their cadre. (Okay, that sounds contemporary.) According to the liner notes on this beautiful rendering of his Poem of Ecstasy (1905-08) and Second Symphony (1901), Scriabin referred to Igor Stravinsky (ten years his junior) as “a mass of insolence and a minimum of creative power.” Dude, sour grapes? Stravinsky was calculating, but he also wrote The Firebird and The Rite of Spring.

Scriabin’s art has factions pro and con, and he probably had as much influence as Ravel did on insolent Igor. For my part, hearing the colours and wandering sensuality of phrase and gesture of the Poem, I’m back in the ballet pit, back in the 1900’s, grumpily wishing I were playing Afternoon of a Faun instead, because who is this upstart with the idea that sexual release and musical climax should be enjoyed simultaneously? At least Claude merely sought to depict it, not to have his listeners engage in it. (There is nobody more conservative than a ballet pit musician…)  

Scriabin’s tonal voice was amazing, his artistic trajectory heading into the ever-weirder, his fame unquestioned; and then he died in his 40s. Just a terribly sad fate. 

The playing is more than equal to the demands of the score, the direction sure and provocative, as the score also demands. JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic have every right to be proud. If the second symphony makes you think of César Franck, well, yes. But EVER so much better.

07 Strauss Debussy LSOStrauss – Also Sprach Zarathustra | Debussy – Jeux
London Symphony Orchestra; François-Xavier Roth
LSO Live LSO0833 (lsolive.lso.co.uk) 

The tone poem reached its pinnacle with the works of Richard Strauss. In fact, he once said braggingly that he could set absolutely anything to music and certainly this text that probes mankind’s place in the universe proves that point. The opening brass fanfare with the solo trumpet striking a triad C G C, (the tonic, the fifth and an octave leap) sets a tone, a motive that keeps returning and represents the big question mark, the question of existence for which there is no answer. The music then carries through all that constitutes life on earth but according to Nietzsche these are “false consolations,” distractions from the ultimate question, a “rope over the abyss” so to speak. Strauss’ melodic gifts and complex, modern orchestration shine throughout, each section different. There are some lovely highlights, like the solo violin representing Joy, but it all ends with the fatal bells ringing and everything quiets down. At the end two dissonant chords, ambiguity, tells us that there is no answer.   

The tremendous opening theme was made famous in 1968 by Stanley Kubrick in the film 2001 – A Space Odyssey, and since then it has become a favourite of conductors (notably Karajan). This latest issue is conducted by François-Xavier Roth, a very busy man all over Europe conducting several orchestras including the prestigious London Symphony, here most assuredly in top form. 

Roth is also a champion of French music, and he includes Debussy’s Jeux, a playful work which features, for example, a tennis game with the ball hit back and forth. Incidentally, the piece was a favourite of Pierre Boulez “who found in the quicksilver play of sonority, harmony and arabesque Debussy’s most sophisticated and far-reaching contribution to the artistic revolutions of the 20th century.”

08 Rachmaninoff 2Rachmaninoff – Symphony No.2
Sinfonia of London; John Wilson
Chandos CHSA5309 (chandos.net/products/catalogue/CHAN%205309)

Many music lovers are most familiar with Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, but there was a time that the most often heard and performed pieces were his Prelude in C-sharp Minor for piano and the Symphony No.2 in E Minor. This newly released CD, with John Wilson conducting the Sinfonia of London, features outstanding recordings of these two old favourites. The first ever performance of the second symphony was conducted by the composer in Saint Petersburg on February 9, 1908 and it won the Glinka Award that year, one of five Rachmaninoff received in his lifetime. 

We all know how the symphony opens, usually with a full orchestra, but Wilson has chosen to interpret the score a little differently. Instead of the dynamic sounds we’re used to, he conducts it as a more Romantic piece; perhaps it’s the balance of the strings that gives it this quality. Regardless, it didn’t take many listening sessions before I thought it sounded natural and was very comfortable with this “new-to-me” version. In truth, it sounds perfectly correct, (no shade to any other version). A sumptuous performance of the Prelude Op.3 No.2 for solo piano orchestrated by Leopold Stokowski opens the disc.  

Wilson came to prominence conducting Hollywood film scores, most notably at the Proms in London and on recordings for Chandos with the John Wilson Orchestra. More recently he has revived the Sinfonia of London, an all-star orchestra of top London musicians and has branched further afield. He is in great demand as a guest conductor in the UK and Europe, but surprisingly has appeared scarcely at all in the United States or Canada. Hopefully that will change!

09 Sibelius 34Sibelius 3 & 4
Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
ATMA ACD2 2454 (atmaclassique.com/en) 

Whatever was eating Jean Sibelius, he managed to churn out a decent number of fascinating and varied symphonic works, some, more well known than others. The latter set includes the brief Third Symphony in C Major, Op.52, and the not quite as brief Fourth Symphony in (something like) A Minor Op.63. Fluid and diverse in character, they rush through a month’s worth of angst and elation in just over an hour TOTAL. None of his symphonies stretch beyond 50 minutes, and most are less than 40; it almost seems he was either too modest or too smart to restate all the moments in order, as might Bruckner or Mahler, or others adhering to classical structure without its restraint. Motif rules, but so does organic development.

There are the usual Sibelian tropes: jollity and delight in folk idioms, a sense of awe possibly induced by the Finnish landscape, grand builds to grander climaxes, and especially in opus 63, tonal freedom (not to mention dark explorations of the wandering soul). I never forget that the composer battled the bottle for most of his life.

Congratulations to the spirited and excellent Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal, led by the supernova legend Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Were I prone to envy (yes) it would irk me to know that not only does Montreal have the Habs, but they also have two excellent symphony orchestras playing all the big repertoire, this one led by YN-S, and that other one with a similar name. The strings are particularly strong, as are the woodwind soloists, who are afforded many juicy moments. YN-S and his crew sweep us along the turbulent and gorgeous soundscapes. Bravi tutti.

Listen to 'Sibelius 3 & 4' Now in the Listening Room

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