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.


03a_ursula_bagdasarjanz_1Ursula Bagdasarjanz Vol. 1: Bach; Nardini; Mozart; Bartok

Ursula Bagdasarjanz; Luciano Sgrizzi; Fernande Kaeser

Gallo CD-1248

03b_ursula_bagdasarjanz_2Ursula Bagdasarjanz Vol. 2 - Othmar Schoeck

Ursula Bagdasarjanz; Gisela Schoeck

Gallo CD-1249 (www.bagdasarjanz.com)

When the Swiss violinist Ursula Bagdasarjanz retired from the concert stage in the late 1990s, she compiled a CD collection of radio and live recordings of her performances. These were, in turn, re-mastered two years ago for a commercially available series that currently stands at four volumes.

I must admit Bagdasarjanz, now 76 years old, is a new name to me, but given the standard of her playing on these two fascinating discs it’s difficult to understand why.

Volume One features works by Bach, Nardini, Mozart and Bartok, recorded between 1960 and 1969, and demonstrates not only Bagdasarjanz’s performance range but also the consistent elements in her playing: a big, warm tone; faultless intonation; a fairly heavy (but not wide) vibrato which is always used intelligently and sensitively; and a sophisticated sense of phrasing. The Bach A minor solo sonata is technically flawless, with a great sense of line and some remarkably tight triple-stopping in the Fuga. The big tone is evident in the Nardini D major sonata, the Mozart Bb major sonata K378, and Bartok’s First Rhapsody. The piano sound is slightly fuzzy in the Nardini, but otherwise the transfers are excellent.

By far the most significant of the two CDs, however, is Volume Two, which features the complete works for violin and piano by the Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck. Recorded for Swiss Radio in 1961, only 4 years after the composer’s death, the three sonatas feature Schoeck’s daughter Gisela as the accompanist in performances that The Strad magazine rightly called “so authoritative… that it is impossible to imagine them ever being superseded.” All three sonatas – Op.16, Op.22 and Op.46 - are not part of the standard repertoire and are rarely performed these days, which is a real shame; the first two in particular, dating from the early 1900s, are strongly personal works reminiscent of Brahms and Franck. Again, the re-mastered sound is excellent.

If you know Bagdasarjanz’s playing – and recordings of her have always been pretty scarce – then you won’t need to be told to get these CDs; if you don’t know her playing, get them anyway – you won’t be disappointed!

01_scarlatti_organAlessandro Scarlatti - Complete Keyboard Works, Vol.2

Alexander Weimann

ATMA ACD2 2528

Alexander Weimann, currently director of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra and an impressively versatile musician, has undertaken to record the complete keyboard works of Alessandro Scarlatti. So far, this survey has focused largely on toccatas omitting what Weimann deems as pedagogical works or what one musicologist has simply called “pupil fodder”.

These early 18th century pieces rarely specified the keyboard instrument for which they were intended and over the years performers have produced recordings for harpsichord, organ, piano and even arrangements for electronic keyboard with digitally sampled sounds!

The choice of pipe organ, however, does offer several strong artistic merits. This instrument in particular, with its Baroque voicing and tonal plan, gives Scarlatti’s music a degree of colour difficult to achieve on any other keyboard instrument. Its tracker action (direct mechanical linkage to the keyboard) also provides for remarkably fast single-note repetitions that are impossible on harpsichords and most lesser pianos.

All the tracks on these two CDs reflect Weimann’s fine musical decisions regarding tempo, phrasing and registration (tonal colour). Despite some very high speed passage work, Weimann maintains a clarity and crispness that delivers each note when it might otherwise be easier to drop a few. His playing uses the instrument to its greatest advantage.

ATMA cites the instrument as a 1993 Wilhelm at Église Trés-Saint-Rédempteur in Montreal but neglects to offer a complete “stop” list which most other organ recordings would do. Organ fans can be obsessively curious about these things and will hope for more information in Volume Three.

Overall Weimann offers a very listenable and fresh take on Italian keyboard music from the Baroque that is often overshadowed by the German school of the same era.

02a_mozart_barenboimMozart - Piano Concertos 22 & 23

Daniel Barenboim; Bavarian RSO; Rafael Kubelik

BR Klassik 900709


Mozart - Piano Concertos 20 & 27

Evgeny Kissin; Kremerata Baltica

EMI Classics 6 26645 2

Was it Anton Rubinstein who once said “Eternal sunshine thy name is Mozart?” Whoever it was would undoubtedly applaud the addition of two new Mozart piano concerto recordings to the already vast number available, performed by two pianists now considered to be among the world’s greatest.


At the age of 67, Daniel Barenboim may be considered one the veterans of the concert-stage, as both pianist and conductor. His newest offering, on the BR Klassik label, features performances from the archives of concertos No.22 and 23 along with the Bavarian Radio Symphony under the direction of Rafael Kubelik. Concerto No.22, written in Vienna in 1785, is a joyful and optimistic work, and here the music is treated in a fresh and engaging manner. The tempo of the first movement, while perhaps a bit brisk, doesn’t detract from the performance, while the second movement Andante and the exuberant Rondo finale constitute a perfect pairing between soloist and orchestra. Concerto No.23 from 1786, was recorded live, and once again, the fine performance is further enhanced by the excellent sound quality – clean and dynamic, it’s as good as you would find today. Recorded in 1970, it’s a mystery as to why it took so long to release these exemplary performances, but they were well worth the wait. This disc is a gem!


No matter what we may think of Evgeny Kissin’s personal eccentricities, there is no denying that he has long been regarded as one of the finest pianists around today. This EMI recording, with concertos No.20 and 27, marks his first in a joint role of pianist/conductor along with the Kremerata Baltica. Here, Kissin, who is more renowned for his interpretations of romantic-period repertoire, proves that Mozart, too, can be treated in a more passionate manner than is usually encountered. From the opening measures of the Concerto No.20 – one of only two Mozart wrote in a minor key - Kissin easily captures the dark and forbidding mood of this tempestuous music. His approach is bold and romantic – which may not be to everyone’s tastes - but Kissin makes it all sound particularly convincing. At the other end of the scale is the serene and ethereal Concerto No.27, Mozart’s last. While his treatment remains romantic, he demonstrates more restraint here, in keeping with the overall mood of the piece. At all times, the Kremerata Baltica provides a sensitive accompaniment, and it would seem that Kissin is as adept at leading an ensemble as he is with performing.


Two fine recordings featuring exemplary repertoire performed by outstanding artists – it doesn’t get much better than this!

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