04 Clara Robert JohannesClara Robert Johannes – Romance and Counterpoint
National Arts Centre Orchestra Canada; Alexander Shelley
Analekta AN 2 8884-5 (analekta.com/en)

This is the fourth and final installment in Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra’s retrospective of the deeply intimate and complicated musical connections between Clara Wieck, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Robert studied with Clara’s father, Clara and Johannes studied with Robert, Robert and Clara were married and had eight children together, Clara and Johannes cared for Robert as he struggled with mental health torments, and they remained close and devoted friends and colleagues for decades after Robert’s death. Through it all, the composing, performing and teaching of music was of utmost importance.

Conductor Alexander Shelley leads the NACO in thrilling performances of the fourth symphonies of Schumann and Brahms. Particularly impressive is the sweeping and warm string sound and uniformly free and elegant playing from the winds and brass. Though the symphonies were written over 40 years apart, they share a kinship in the eloquence of their Romantic musical language, poignancy and grandeur. Shelley coaxes all of this and more out of the orchestra. Kudos to producers and engineers for the gorgeous recorded sound. 

Also included is a generous collection of the solo piano music of Clara Schumann and her magnificent Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Op.22 in a fine performance by NACO concertmaster Yosuke Kawasaki and pianist Angela Hewitt. The solo piano works (a collection of Romances, Preludes and Fugues) are all played with sensitivity and great imagination by Stewart Goodyear. Of special note are Clara’s explorations of themes of J.S. Bach. There are well-known accounts of evenings that the Schumanns spent with Felix Mendelssohn, playing and discussing Bach’s keyboard works, which Clara also used in her teaching into the 1890s. The recording concludes with Goodyear’s own musical offering: an affecting improvisation on themes of Clara’s.

05 Louise FerrencLouise Farrenc – Piano Trios 2 & 4; Variations concertantes; Sonata Op.37
Linos Ensemble
CPO 555 538-2 (chandos.net/products/catalogue/CX%205538)

The name Louise Farrenc may not seem an overly familiar one today, but during her lifetime she was a respected composer, pianist and pedagogue. Born Jeanne-Louise Dumont in Paris in 1804, she was very much an “enfant du siècle” and a slightly older contemporary of Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn. Her first compositions – almost entirely for solo piano – were published in the 1820s, earning praise from the likes of Robert Schumann. By the 1840s, she was turning her attention to chamber works which are now regarded as among the finest in her output, four of which are presented on this attractive CPO recording performed by the German-based Linos Ensemble.

The disc opens with the Trio No.2 Op.34 from 1844. From the outset, the listener is struck by the solidly constructed score, greatly enhanced by the polished and confident performance of pianist Konstanze Eickhorst who, together with violinist Winfried Rademacher and cellist Mario Blaumer, comprise a formidable union. What a joyful sound these musicians produce! Similarly, the Trio for Piano, Flute and Cello No.4 Op.45 from 1856 shows an adept use of counterpoint among the parts, where flutist Kersten McCall shines in a commanding performance. The Variations concertantes sur une mélodie suisse for piano and cello is a charming earlier work written before 1833 while the Violin Sonata No.1 Op.37 from 1848 drew high praise from a Parisien critic. In both cases the two parts are effortlessly integrated resulting in perfect partnerships in this engaging music.

With its attractive melodies and overall fine construction, Farrenc’s music has gone unnoticed for too long and only recently has it been receiving the recognition it deserves. Kudos to the Linos Ensemble for taking steps to further its appreciation.

Listen to 'Louise Farrenc: Piano Trios 2 & 4; Variations concertantes; Sonata Op.37' Now in the Listening Room

06 Mahler 1 BychovMahler – Symphony No.1
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Semyon Bychkov
Pentatone PTC 5187 043 (pentatonemusic.com/product/mahler-symphony-no-1)

Roll over Beethoven – you have been supplanted! And Gustav Mahler saw it coming. He is reputed to have proclaimed that “In 30 or 40 years Beethoven’s symphonies will no longer be played in concerts. My symphonies will take their place.” Well, it took a little longer than that, only really gaining steam in the 1960s, but judging from the number of Mahler cycles issued these days his time has truly come. 

This new release of Mahler’s first and arguably most popular symphony performed by the distinguished Czech Philharmonic represents the fourth instalment of Semyon Bychkov’s traversal of these mighty works. Though he eventually abandoned any programmatic descriptions of his compositions, as late as 1893 Mahler still felt compelled to describe his first symphony as “a tone poem in the form of a symphony.” More importantly, he defined the work as consisting of two over-arching sections. The first included the first three movements (the third movement was eventually dropped) while the second encompassed the final two movements. The first part most closely resembles the traditional symphonic genre, and it is here that Bychkov adopts a fairly conventional approach, straightforward, pellucid and artfully nuanced. The second section, subtitled Commedia Humana, completely baffled the audience at the Budapest premiere and was not well received. It seems that the promoters neglected to supply the audience with the guidance of program notes… (As an aside, I’ve often wondered how any audience could be expected to follow the convoluted plots of such works as Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony. No wonder Mahler abandoned them.) 

No matter though; the excellent liner notes by Gavin Plumley will tell you all you need to know, and more. From the opening funeral march of part two onwards, Bychkov and the orchestra gradually pull out all the stops in a masterful crescendo of emotion. The finale in particular has the uncanny effect of the whole of one’s life passing before one’s eyes through a near-death experience that resolves itself in a shatteringly triumphant affirmation of life. I for one found it deeply moving. 

The wide-ranging sound of this elegant orchestra is superbly rendered by the expert team at Pentatone Records. A must-have recording indeed.

07 Summer NightsSommer Nachts Konzert 2023
Elena Garanča; Wiener Philharmoniker; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Sony Classical 19658818942 (wienerphilharmoniker.at/en/shop)

Midsummer night in Vienna, classical music capital of the world, with the Vienna Philharmonic at the wonderful Baroque Gardens of Schönbrunn, summer palace of the Hapsburgs, who could ask for anything more? By now a Viennese tradition, there is a giant outdoor concert with a glittering glass-covered sound stage, huge TV screens and loudspeakers set up either side, multicoloured searchlights radiating from the palace with seating for thousands and free for everyone. It was televised here on PBS, but unfortunately I missed it. No matter. It’s out on Blu-ray video and here is a CD from Sony Classical.

This year the invited artists are the world-famous conductor from Montreal Yannick Nézet-Séguin and equally famous, the spectacular mezzo from Latvia, Elina Garanča. The program is a bit unusual for Vienna, all French masterworks from the 19th and 20th centuries. First comes Bizet with fond memories of Carmen at the Met: Nézet-Séguin conducted and Garanča mesmerized New York audiences with her revolutionary portrayal of Carmen. Here she sings Habanera and then Nézet-Séguin conducts the Carmen Suite No.1.  Garanča later sings one of my favourites, the gorgeous, seductive aria Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Delilah, her pièce de resistance just perfect for her voice.

Berlioz was a genius who as a kid came to Paris not knowing what a symphony orchestra was and a year later amazed the world with his Symphonie Fantastique. Here we are treated to Le Corsair Overture stretching the orchestra to its utmost limits, giving a real workout to the VPO.

More highlights: Ravel’s opulent Daphnis et Chloe Suite No.2 with its tremendous sunrise, Lever du jour, and later his Bolero described at its premiere as a “huge musical joke.” The conductor unleashes the total forces of the orchestra controlling the gradual crescendo brilliantly.

The encore is a mandatory Strauss Waltz, Wiener Blut saluting Vienna and providing a suitable ending to a memorable evening.

08 Rachmaninoff Yuja WangRachmaninoff – Piano Concertos & Paganini Rhapsody
Yuja Wang; Los Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel
Deutsche Grammophon 486 4759 (deutschegrammophon.com/en/artists/yujawang)

Not long after Yuja Wang exploded on the music stage as if from the nuclear corona of the sun, one of her earliest albums (2011) with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado (DG 477 9308) featured what many critics then considered to be one of the great performances of Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini.

Wang makes her masterful presence felt once again, this time with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel, whose masterful conducting and direction is superbly attentive. Rachmaninoff: The Piano Concertos & Paganini Rhapsody takes the music into a rarefied realm. 

Sentimentality has no place here. The powerful authority of Wang dominates, above all, in the sheer daring of interpretations that hang fire as if possessed by the legendary Rachmaninoff despair and then explode as if suddenly bursting into flame, especially on Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor

Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp Minor, composed when Rachmaninoff was a mere 18-years-old comes alive in the emotional ebb and flow of the music. There’s a vibrant and unpredictable edge to Wang’s playing that imparts a sense of discovery in both Concertos No.3 in D Minor and No.4 in G Minor. Throughout the 24 Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Wang is responsive to the music’s exuberance as well as its nostalgia, ending the sequence with a barely audible flutter of notes, as capricious as Niccolò Paganini’s original.

09 Kodaly Hary JanosKodály – Háry János Suite; Summer Evening; Symphony in C Major
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta
Naxos 8.574556 (naxos.com/CatalogueDetail/?id=8.574556)

Imagine a typical village scene in 18th-century Hungary. Recruiting army officers come to the village to enlist some strong peasant lads into the army. Free food and drinks, fun and dancing galore and the lads promptly go to sleep. But when they wake up, surprise! They find themselves soldiers in the army. The dance was the Verbunkos, a strong, rhythmic, syncopated dance that forms one of the movements of Kodaly’s Háry János Suite. Háry János is a folk hero who likes telling tall tales like defeating Napoleon’s army singlehandedly and even getting decorated by the Emperor. Kodály wrote a whole singspiel (music drama) and a suite around it beginning with a giant sneeze meaning that the whole thing is a big joke, but the music is a lot of fun.

Some highlights are the lovely glockenspiel of the Viennese Musical Clock, an amusing mock march when Napoleon gets defeated, a peaceful pastoral interlude of a lovely folk song with some simple variations where the cimbalom is featured and of course the famous Verbunkos Intermezzo, probably the best piece in the suite. The singspiel I saw performed in Budapest in the 1950s with Kodály himself present.

Kodály was composer emeritus of Hungary in the latter half of the 20th century, but he was also a tremendous educator who invented the solfege method of teaching with hand signals and to introduce music early to young children with the emphasis on singing together.

This new recording follows an earlier very successful issue of Kodály with JoAnn Falletta conducting (which I reviewed in The WholeNote April 2018). She is now much favoured by Klaus Heymann, the owner of Naxos is with a host of new recordings spreading her and her brilliant orchestra’s name all over the world.

10 Aaron TanDe la lumiere aux étoiles
Aaron Tan
ATMA ACD2 2872 (atmaclassique.com/en)

There are different kinds of organ music recordings, ranging from the silly to the serious and everything in between, but it is rare to find one that is both serious and fun at the same time. Canadian organist Aaron Tan’s De la lumiere aux étoiles is just that, however, presenting serious music that is also great fun to listen to, performed at the highest level. Winner of the 2021 Canadian International Organ Competition, Tan is a multi-faceted individual, holding a PhD. in Materials Science from the University of Michigan and currently pursuing a doctorate in organ performance at the Eastman School of Music. 

Consisting of French (and French-inspired) works, this disc is a wonderful exploration of the organ and its capabilities, with music by Karg-Elert, Demessieux, Canadian composer Rachel Laurin and Louis Vierne, among others. This disc begins with Fernando Germani’s Toccata, Op.12, a joyfully busy piece that erupts into a final ecstatic outburst, and ends with Vierne’s glorious Final from his fifth Organ Symphony, one of the composer’s most joyous and thrilling final movements.

Other highlights include the endlessly quirky Sigfrid Karg-Elert’s Phantasie und Fuge, Op.39b and Laurin’s Poème symphonique pour le temps de l’Avent, each of which displays the organ of the Basilica of Our Lady Immaculate, located in Guelph, at its absolute best. Manufactured by the Casavant Frères firm of St. Hyacinthe, Quebec in 1919, this organ features a French Romantic design, including a French terrace console, as seen at the great organs of France.

The organ is a temperamental instrument; some need a performer to tame them, while others need a kind and nurturing hand. Either way, when the right performer and instrument are matched together, extraordinary music can be made, such as that found on this brilliant recording.

Back to top