07 Villa LobosPiano Works by Heitor Villa-Lobos
Flavio Varani
Azur Classical AZC 175 (ciar.e-monsite.com)

Even today, the piano music of Villa-Lobos remains an untapped trove that suggests something of the exotic. Despite the popularity of a handful of his works such as the Bachianas Brasileiras series, Villa-Lobos’ prodigious output for his own instrument boasts much unfamiliar music, thereby requiring a devotional sort of elucidation.

Apparently up to such a task is veteran pianist (and native Brazilian), Flavio Varani. He brings an unusual commingling of old-school romanticism and ardent, fiery command to his new disc where accompaniments leap and melodies spring about the keyboard. Varani’s training as a student at the Juilliard School with the great Rosina Lhevinne – and subsequently Arthur Balsam – reveals an integral approach to his art and a careful conception of pianistic lineage in general. The listener is aware that Varani has lived long and purposefully with the music of his homeland; the relationship of composer and interpreter here recalls the great association John Browning, (also a Lhevinne student), had with Samuel Barber.

Villa-Lobos’ strange and exotic piano calls to us from unexpected pieces throughout this record: Chôros No.1 W161 “Chôro tipico brasileiro” (a transcription from guitar) and the Danças características africanas W085 are examples. Conversely, Varani chooses the oft-loved eighth piece from Cirandas W220, “Vamos atrás da serra, Calunga,” as epilogue.

Regrettably, the recording quality here is not of the highest calibre. Levels are noticeably out of balance and extraneous studio noises disturb the overall flow of an otherwise convincing disc.

09 Dinnerstein QuietA Character of Quiet – Schubert; Glass
Simone Dinnerstein
Orange Mountain Music (orangemountainmusic.com) 

Admittedly feeling “anxious and enervated” during the early days of lockdown in March and April, pianist Simone Dinnerstein has confessed that she felt neither “creative” nor “productive.” In time however, with the help of poets Wordsworth and Melville and walks through her local cemetery – the hallowed Green-Wood of Brooklyn – she found her way back to the piano. In June, she sat down to record the music of two composers she has held a close connection with: Philip Glass and Franz Schubert. (And we are so very glad that she did!)

From the first note of this “quiet” and remarkable album (recorded in her New York home with longtime producer and friend Adam Abeshouse), the listener feels as if ferried to a private audience with Dinnerstein. Therein we are greeted with soloistic utterances on a wholly intimate order, sincere and sublime. With this unassuming recording, Dinnertsein seems to have evolved a new kind of homemade listening: she has managed to capture the immediacy and depth of experience – of character – that a one-on-one house recital can deliver. Here we glimpse the personal, as procured by the pandemic.

Even the three Glass Etudes, (music and a composer that this particular reviewer is often bemused by), speak in an honest and poignant mode, somehow changed by our planet’s new energy, reshaped by a hushed and isolated atmosphere surrounding Glass’ simple patterns and motifs.

Dinnerstein’s Schubert is always formidable and especially unique. Her performance here of the mighty last Sonata in B-flat Major D960 bears no exception, possessing an inescapable message of radiance and poetry, humanity and continuance.

Ultimately, Dinnerstein’s musicianship is one born of integrity. Through forced pause and quietude she has, indubitably, discovered new aspects to her art. Let us hope for more such recordings, as we marvel at her courage and savour the nourishment it brings us in these weary, unwanted times.

Note: The recording’s title was inspired by William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, a poem Dinnerstein became familiar with during lockdown. It refers to “A character of quiet more profound than pathless wastes.” Dinnerstein muses: “Perhaps I had been parted too long from my better self by the hurrying world, as Wordsworth puts it.”

01 Dana Zemtsov Anna Fedorova SilhouettesThe compositions by French and non-French composers on Silhouettes, the new CD from violist Dana Zemstov and pianist Anna Fedorova (Channel Classics CCS 42320 channelclassics.com) purportedly were all inspired by French poetry, a link that seems tenuous at best and in some cases non-existent, but when there’s playing as rapturous and ravishing as this, who cares?

The 1919 Sonata by Rebecca Clarke opens the CD, and what an opening it is – flowing, passionate, intense and finely nuanced playing from both players in a gem of a work that combines Debussy and Ravel influences with an English mood. The “French connection” is a quote from Alfred de Musset that Clarke wrote on the opening page.

The first of three effective transcriptions of short pieces by Debussy – La plus que lente – precedes the 2007 Suite Op.51 by Netherlands composer Arne Werkman, its Allemande, Branle, Pavane and Tarantella movements providing Baroque form for modern musical content. Debussy’s Clair de lune is followed by Darius Milhaud’s four-movement Sonata No.1 Op.240 from 1944, another work that glances back at the Baroque style. Based on unpublished and anonymous themes of the 18th century, it has a really lovely third movement Air, later arranged by the composer for viola and orchestra. The rhapsodic and impassioned 1906 Concert Piece by the Romanian composer George Enescu precedes the final Debussy transcription, Beau Soir, providing a beautiful ending to an outstanding CD. 

Both performers have technique, tone and musicality in abundance, but it’s a long time since I’ve heard such beautiful viola playing in particular, Zemstov displaying a wide range of tonal colour without any hint of the nasal quality that you sometimes encounter in viola recitals.

02 MILLER PORFIRIS DUOThere’s more excellent duo work featuring viola on Threaded Sky, the new CD from the Miller-Porfiris Duo of violinist Anton Miller and violist Rita Porfiris (millerporfirisduo.org/store). Their Divertimenti CD was enthusiastically reviewed here in May 2017, and this latest recital of short works easily lives up to the same standard.

Three works by American composer Augusta Read Thomas – her complete violin-viola duo music – form the first half of the disc. Rumi Settings was written in 2001, its four movements – Dramatic, Resonant arpeggio, Suspended and Graceful and Passionate – inspired by the 13th-century Persian poet. Double Helix from 2011 was originally for two violins; Silent Moon was premiered in 2006.

Krzysztof Penderecki’s Ciaconna in Memoria Giovanni Paolo II from 2005 was the last movement of his Polish Requiem, a work that took 25 years to complete. Originally for string orchestra it was transcribed for violin and viola by the composer in 2009, the Miller-Porfiris Duo returning some of the omitted voices to the transcription here. Angel Fire by the Asian-American composer Bright Sheng has four movements, the third based on a Chinese folk song.

Finally, the very brief The Weight of Shadows from 2019, by the Iranian-American composer Mani Mirzaee, uses santoor mallets and not bows to produce sound, bouncing the light Persian hammers on the strings with a dulcimer-like effect.

03 Violins of HopeNiv Ashkenazi: Violins of Hope is a celebration of the artistic and educational project founded by Israeli luthier Amnon Weinstein and his son Avshalom in which instruments that were owned by Jewish musicians before and during the Holocaust are restored and played in the best concert halls by the world’s best players, the latter including Shlomo Mintz and Daniel Hope (Albany Records TROY1810 albanyrecords.com).

Violinist Ashkenazi and accompanist and fellow Juilliard graduate Matthew Graybil first became involved with Violins of Hope in 2017, and Ashkenazi is the only violinist to hold an instrument from the collection – in this case an early 20th-century Eastern European or German violin – on long-term loan. For this CD he chose Jewish repertoire that covers the instrument’s lifetime.

Robert Dauber’s Serenade (1942) makes a beautiful opening to an excellent recital that comprises Bloch’s Nigun (1923), John Williams’ Theme from Schindler’s List, Julius Chajes’ The Chassid (1939), Sharon Farber’s recent Bestemming: Triumph, Szymon Laks’ Trois pièces de concert (1935), George Perlman’s Dance of the Rebbitzen (1929), Ravel’s Kaddisch (1914) and Ben-Haim’s Berceuse sfaradite (1945) and Three Songs Without Words (1952).

It’s easy to understand why the Weinstein family has such trust and faith in Ashkenazi’s commitment and performance: he clearly has an emotional bond with this instrument, lending all of these short pieces a beautifully distinctive and idiomatic sound.

04 Napoleonian GuitarWorld-premiere recordings of French Romantic guitar sonatas by Antoine de Lhoyer, Louis-Ange Carpentras and Alexandre Alfred Rougeon-Beauclair are featured on Napoleonian Guitar Sonatas, with Montreal guitarist Pascal Valois (Centaur CRC 3733 naxosdirect.com).

Valois is dedicated to reviving enthusiasm for the guitar’s role during the Romantic era, performing 19th-century repertoire on period instruments and employing contemporary stylistic practices, including improvised ornaments and cadenzas. One such practice here is that of not using right-hand fingernails, the bare fingertips resulting in a much softer and smoother sound. The guitar used is a French model built in the late 1820s by the Mirecourt luthier Cabasse-Bernard.

While the Carpentras Sonate brillante Op.1 (1816) and the Rougeon-Beauclair Sonate Op.4 No.1 are both for guitar solo, in the two de Lhoyer Sonates pour la guitare avec un violon obligé Op.17 (c.1801) Valois is joined by Montreal violinist Jacques-André Houle. The violin, though, tends to distract from, rather than enhance the guitar writing, especially being set so far back in the balance – presumably not to overwhelm the softer instrument. 

Valois’ playing is accomplished, clean and sensitive throughout music that offers a fascinating insight into the early 19th-century classical guitar world. 

05 Max RegerThe Diogenes Quartett is the central ensemble on the new CD Max Reger Clarinet Quintet & String Sextet, being joined by clarinettist Thorsten Johanns in the Clarinet Quintet in A Major Op.146 and by violist Roland Glassl and cellist Wen-Sinn Yang in the String Sextet in F Major Op.118 (cpo 555 340-2 naxosdirect.com).

Despite the advanced tonal nature of his music, Reger had a strong affinity with earlier musical eras in addition to his deep Romantic roots, and the equivalent works by Mozart and Brahms were clearly the inspiration for his own Clarinet Quintet. Despite being completed in 1915 the work shows no influence of the Great War, a contemporary review of the October 1916 premiere referencing “the deep, holy peace of a mild autumn evening, which the last rays of the setting sun dress in gold.” Shades of Brahms indeed.

The large, complex String Sextet from 1910 is full of the features that have tended to make Reger’s music misunderstood and under-appreciated over the years, but is a deeply satisfying work with a really beautiful slow movement.

Playing throughout is of the highest quality on a terrific CD.

06 Schubert SkaervedThere’s another CD of the Franz Schubert 3 Sonatas (1816), this time with violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved and Julian Perkins on square piano (Athene ath 23208 naxosdirect.com).

Skærved always excels not only in his playing but also in his exploration of and critical approach to the original musical sources, and this CD is no different, with 12 pages of fascinatingly detailed and informative notes illuminating every aspect of the performances. The German violin is by Leopold Widhalm I (1722-1776) with a very early Tourte bow probably from around 1770-80. The square piano is by Clementi & Co., London, 1812.

Skærved’s playing here is warmer than in some of his period performances; he’s not afraid to use vibrato, but a clear sense of period style is always present. The keyboard obviously lacks the fuller sound we might be accustomed to, but the tonal subtlety and nuance more than compensate. The performers admit to viewing the score as “a map that offers options rather than answers,” resulting in some interesting choices on repeats and frequent moments of surprise, particularly at the end of the Sonata No.2 in A Minor where, following the short, sharp final violin chords, the piano resonance is left to die away for fully 13 seconds.

07 Edward CowiePeter Sheppard Skærved is also the first violinist in the Kreutzer Quartet, the performers on Edward Cowie: Three Quartets & A Solo, a new CD of music by the multi-disciplined English composer born in 1943 (Métier Records msv 28603 naxosdirect.com).

An author, lecturer, academic, visual artist, natural scientist, conductor and composer with two doctorates including studies in physics and mathematics, Cowie produces music which is a fusion of science, the natural world and visual arts. “I am more inspired,” he says, “by natural history than by musical history.”

Certainly the natural world is central to the quartets here: the two single-movement works, No.1 “Dungeness Nocturnes” from 1969 and No.2 “Crystal Dances” from 1977, and the four-movement No.6 “The Four Winds” from 2012, with the North, East, South and West winds representing the four seasons. It’s difficult music to describe, with an obviously contemporary sound but not completely dissonant despite a general lack of melodies and overtly tonal writing, and with a scurrying, restless feel that invokes insects and birds and is quite nocturnal at times.

The solo work GAD was written in 2017 for Skærved at his request, and addresses the composer’s almost lifelong suffering from generalized anxiety disorder.

All you need to know about the performances is that Cowie says that “no composer could ever be served, illuminated and translated by better or more brilliantly insightful players than the Kreutzer Quartet.”

08 Robin StevensAnother British composer whose name and music seem new to me is represented on Robin Stevens String Quartets & String Quintet, with the Behn Quartet and cellist Timothée Botbol (Divine Art dda 25203 naxosdirect.com).

For Stevens (b.1958), the String Quintet in C Minor from 1980-81 was his first major composition, revised in 2018 for this recording. It features lush melodic writing with a truly lovely slow movement. As the composer notes, “unconscious references to, and near-quotes from, 20th-century music abound.”

In his early 30s Stevens was stricken with post-viral fatigue, a debilitating illness that kept him out of work for 17 years and limited his compositional activity to experimental miniatures. On regaining full health in 2007 he began a PhD in Composition, producing a major work in each of his six post-graduate years. The single-movement String Quartet No.1 uses “a handful of ideas, which are subjected to contrapuntal development of considerable complexity” in a work of “unremittingly dissonant harmonic language.” The String Quartet No.2, “Three Portraits” has three continuous sections – Impulsive One, God-Seeker and Arguer – followed by a brief Epilogue.

A bequest has enabled Stevens to begin recording his considerable catalogue of works; if future performances are of the same high quality as these then his music will certainly be well served.

09 Lawrence Power BBC Philharmonic Orchestra Martyn Brabbins MacMillan Symphony No.4 Viola ConcertoFinally, if you’re interested in contemporary concertos for viola then you should know that the latest CD of music by the Scottish composer James MacMillan, Symphony No.4 & Viola Concerto, features soloist Lawrence Power with the BBC Philharmonic under Martyn Brabbins in a terrific performance of the concerto written for Power in 2013 (Hyperion CDA 68317 hyperion-records.co.uk).

It’s a three-movement work with an ominous, uneasy first movement, a central movement of a devotional character with a lovely main theme and occasional “primal sreeam” outbursts and a sparkling finale with decided hints of Barber’s Violin Concerto at the end.

It’s a significant addition to the contemporary repertoire and discography. 

01 LUniqueL’Unique – Harpsichord Music of François Couperin
Jory Vinikour
Cedille CDR 90000 194 (cedillerecords.org)

The harpsichord is one of those instruments that simultaneously fascinates and confounds, its plucked-string effect and resulting sound so unlike any other keyboard instrument that it is without parallel in the realm of modern instruments. Its players, too, can be considered atypical, collecting birds’ feathers to harvest and refine the quills, thereby crafting the plectra that pick at each individual string, and exploring repertoire that has often been cast aside by the more conventional pianoforte crowd.

Such is the case with the harpsichord music of François Couperin, a master of Baroque keyboard music whose works have long remained in a niche category – the Ordres performed by harpsichordists and the Masses by organists – frequently recorded but less often celebrated in wider musical circles. Vinikour’s recording demonstrates once again why this is so: Couperin’s harpsichord music is inherently and essentially crafted for that specific instrument, its unique percussiveness and relative lack of resonance.

It is this exclusive reliance on the harpsichord that makes these works so fascinating; in addition to being expressive, articulate and strikingly beautiful, Couperin’s conception of these pieces is so specific, both in the written score and resulting sound, that they simply do not work as well on any other keyboard instrument, a point reinforced by Vinikour’s measured approach to the Sixième, Septiême and Huitiême Ordres.

Couperin, as with much of the French Baroque, can sound frenetic and indecipherable if tempi are taken too briskly and ornamentation loses its melodic intentions. Fortunately for us, Vinikour never loses sight of the melodiousness of Couperin’s music, resulting in nearly 80 minutes of utterly delightful early music.

03b FrobergerFroberger: Complete Fantasias and Canzonas
Terence R. Charlston
Divine Art DDA25204 (naxosdirect.com)

So rarely does it happen that performer, composer, instrument and instrument maker(!) equitably join in artistic synthesis. This new record, featuring period instrument specialist Terence Charlston, is a fine specimen of expertise and craftsmanship, with each of the above components keenly harmonized. 

Today, there remain aspects of Johann Jacob Froberger’s art that are unknown to the public at large. The Middle Baroque composer’s contrapuntal works, in particular, are relegated to small circles of listeners and scholars – neglected, despite their ingenuity. Charlston understands this all too well. He looks not only to the impressive compendium, the Libro Secondo (an autograph manuscript dating from 1649), but to a fitting choice of instrument: a copy of a South German clavichord, the MIM 2160, as reconstructed by contemporary keyboard maker, Andreas Hermert.

Charlston has chosen this instrument for its timbral possibilities and expressive range, even citing a lute-like tonal profile. Infamous for pianissimo playing, the clavichord in general has long been commended for its intimate, (even private) character, lyrical and sensitive in its response to the player’s touch. Bemusingly, it even boasts vibrato, of a kind.

But not a single note of this disc ever sounds too private or too furtive. In the hands of Charlston, his clavichord soars and expands before our very ears. Through this incantation of counterpoint, in turns both exotic and familiar, Charlston reveals a depth of humanity on par with the great polyphonic achievements of J.S. Bach.

04 Beethoven Concertos HoughBeethoven – The Piano Concertos
Stephen Hough; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Hannu Lintu
Hyperion CDA68291/3 (hyperion-records.co.uk)

Performing – and recording – the complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano concertos is a remarkable achievement for any pianist, at any stage in their creative life. But a recent release from Hyperion Records offers a singular synthesis of extraordinary solo playing, exceptional conducting and exquisite orchestral performance. Breathing vibrant, surprising avidity into all of this is Stephen Hough, with his customary elan. Hough is a tireless artist, devoted to his craft and to the betterment of our 21st-century musical world. At this autumnal stage in his career, he is beloved and with good reason: his inheritance is of that rare and reverent keyboard tradition dating back to Beethoven’s time. 

Presumably, the British pianist has been performing these piano concertos since his youth and yet, much of the disc’s material suggests a re-envisioned approach, a wide-eyed zeal for such canonic works, always tempered, deferential and selfless. Hough brings his experience to bear: such thrilling artistry glistens through every last note – and silence – on the record. We the listeners are gladdened beneficiaries.

Highlights include both final movements of the Second Concerto in B-flat Major, Op.19 and the Fifth (“Emperor”) in E-flat Major, Op.73, where Hough’s superb taste and jovial character are on full display; he relishes such jauntiness with embellishments and good-natured glee. (In fact, he composed his own cadenza for the first movement of the second concerto.) Also of remarkable note is the Allegro moderato (first movement) of the Concerto No.4 in G Major, Op.58. Hough’s carefully synchronized reading of this music is a departure from the norm and a welcome one at that! His lyrical lines skip and soar, caper and cajole with earnest delight. After all, isn’t this music at once both so very humane and cosmic?

Admirably, Stephen Hough is donating 100 percent of sales from this new album to the charity Help Musicians. An active and noted writer, he recently released an anthology of essays, Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More (2019). It is published by Faber & Faber in the UK and by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in North America.

05 Marc Andr Hamelin Liszt Thalberg Opera transcriptions fantasiesLiszt; Thalberg – Opera transcriptions and fantasies
Marc-André Hamelin
Hyperion CDA86320 (hyperion-records.co.uk)

This remarkable new issue from Hyperion records could be subtitled “Tribute to Italian Opera” because all four masters, Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini and Verdi are well represented. In the heyday of the Second Empire, Paris was the centre of the universe for presenting grand opera and these composers had success after success, conquering the public with beautiful melodies. There were also some of the greatest pianists around who wrote paraphrases or fantasies inspired by these melodies and thereby spread the wealth, making these operas ever more popular.

Case in point: the rousing tune Suoni la tromba e intrepido from Bellini’s I Puritani was so popular that a certain countess invited some of the best pianists of Paris to compose and perform variations on it, asking Liszt to organize and contribute to the contest. Some of the other invitees were Chopin, Czerny and Sigismund Thalberg (Liszt’s principal rival in virtuoso pianism). The contest featured rapid alternations of figuration, headlong scales in thirds for one hand or two and hair-raising leaps and many other virtuoso technical feats in each participant’s unique style. Liszt cleverly prepares the ground so the theme emerges gradually from an ominous (minor key) mood into the major key glorious fortissimo theme. He also concludes the set with his own Molto Vivace quasi prestissimo and wins the contest easily.

Four more paraphrases follow: from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale (Thalberg), Verdi’s Ernani (Liszt), Rossini’s Moïse in Egitto (Thalberg) and Bellini’s Norma (Liszt) performed with astounding virtuosity and true Romantic abandon by Marc-André Hamelin. The Canadian pianist of world renown performs on a Steinway grand and let me assure you it will sound as if the piano were in your living room.

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