03_telemannTelemann - The Recorder Collection

Clas Pehrsson; Dan Laurin

BIS BIS-CD-1488/90

This six-disc boxed set offers a thorough collection of Telemann’s “solo” recorder music: the fantasias, sonatas and miscellaneous pieces with basso continuo, duets, and solo and double concertos. The players are Dan Laurin, an active member in the current recorder soloist circuit; and Clas Pehrsson, who taught at Stockholm’s Royal College of Music from 1965 until 2009 and was one of several players who helped put the recorder on the map in the ‘70s. While some of the material has been newly recorded, most of the contents are reissues of earlier recordings, and herein lies one of this compilation’s unusual virtues – a chance to hear two different players, at different phases of their musical lives, and to compare two somewhat different approaches to this fundamental and rich repertoire for the instrument. The solo fantasias were recorded by Laurin in 1994, and his other solo contributions are the two lovely Neue Sonatinen recorded in 2008 – it’s very interesting to hear what has changed in his playing over 14 years. Pehrsson’s contributions, which include some bravura takes on the solo sonatas, range in recording date from 1974 to 1987.

It’s thought provoking to hear the different takes on ornamentation in slow movements, use of vibrato, articulation styles, and the liberties taken (or not) with what Telemann actually indicated in his own publications. And does one keep a tempo reasonably steady, or move it around? What’s the difference between vivace, allegro, and presto, and even between various allegros? Though this is possibly more recorder music than some would ever want to hear, it’s some of the best Baroque repertoire available for the instrument, performed by fine players. And these CDs make clear the fact that instrumental taste changes over time… Postmodernism and the recorder? Go figure.

04_scarlattiAlexandre Tharaud plays Scarlatti

Alexandre Tharaud

Virgin Classics 50999 6420162 7

Squirreled away in the relative solitude of the royal courts of Portugal and Spain, Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) turned from the public world of opera championed by his father Alessandro and turned inward. He developed into a true maverick, absorbing the rich, lively sonic world of Iberia and creating a stream of musical miniatures of unprecedented originality. It is a delicate matter to chose from the hundreds (at least 555) of harpsichord sonatas that have come down to us. Alexandre Tharaud succeeds admirably with a judicious mix of the many sides of Scarlatti’s character, presenting 18 sonatas with a particular emphasis on the composer’s melodic gifts, so often overshadowed by his fascinating harmonic and motivic innovations.

Performances of these works on the modern piano present a challenge to the performer as articulations and dynamic levels unavailable on the harpsichord have to be re-invented. Undaunted, Tharaud shamelessly exploits the full resources of the piano, utilizing a wide dynamic range from the raucous to the introspective with a soupçon of tasteful ornamental spices and well-controlled pedaling. He brings an infectious enthusiasm to the more extroverted sonatas and conjures up wonderfully subtle tonal palettes for the more tranquil ones. I look forward to further instalments from the treasure trove of Scarlatti.

Recorded in Switzerland, Tharaud performs on a closely recorded, somewhat brittle sounding Yamaha piano which displays touches of distortion in the louder passages in my review copy.

01_cpe_celloCPE Bach - Cello Concertos

Truls Mørk; Les Violons du Roy; Bernard Labadie

Virgin Classics 50999 6944920 8

Soloist, orchestra and conductor are in perfect synch on this beautiful and stylish recording of the rarely-heard cello concertos of CPE Bach. Written between 1750 and 1752, the three concertos are fascinating and challenging works and very different from one another. The fascination lies in the emerging galant style of composition. The nine movements display a wide variety of colours, tempi – sometimes fluctuating wildly in the same movement – and harmonic language. Though written in the mid-eighteenth century, the Baroque era is clearly behind us now, stylistically.

The solo playing of the Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk is full of depth, bursting with virtuosity and gloriously free and imaginative. He handles the technical challenges of the quick movements with panache, and displays a sweet, transparent and vulnerable sense of line in the slow movements. There are many moments of sublime beauty in these pieces and Mørk doesn’t shy away from them.

Bernard Labadie and Les Violons du Roy infuse these pieces with tremendous energy and are a great support and foil to Mørk’s playing. There’s a detailed dialogue going on throughout in the tradition of great chamber playing. Special mention must be made of orchestra cellist Benoit Loiselle who partners from time to time with Mørk in two cello passage work.

One further interesting aspect of this recording is the varied cadenzas – one by Mørk, one by CPE Bach and one by the great Dutch baroque cellist Anner Bylsma.

02_beethoven_naganoBeethoven - Gods, Heroes and Men (Symphony 3; Creatures of Prometheus)

Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal; Kent Nagano

Analekta AN 2 9838

My love affair with the Eroica symphony started at the age of 10 when I first heard it at a concert conducted by the legendary Otto Klemperer at the Music Academy in Budapest. It didn’t dawn on me as anything special until much later when I found out that Herbert von Karajan travelled all the way to London just to hear Klemperer do the Eroica. Speaking of Karajan, Kent Nagano was a student and associate of Seiji Ozawa who in turn was a student and associate of Karajan. The “bloodline” having been established, now we can rest assured that my beloved Eroica is in good hands here. And indeed it is…

Nagano takes a refreshing look at the symphony. At a brisk tempo it pulsates with life and excitement. The wonderful secondary theme (1st movement) really sings and the complex architectonics of the 1st movement are made crystal clear. The great fugue of the 2nd movement, always a challenge for the conductor, has a shattering, extraordinary power. The Montreal horns delight us with their joie de vivre and uncanny precision in the 3rd movement Trio. The Finale crowns the Symphony with its ubiquitous Prometheus theme and variations and stampedes along with breathtaking virtuoso bravura. Here Beethoven is caught in his lighter side with the unexpected, devil may care Hungarian gypsy episode.

In the liner notes, Nagano shows scholarly insight in drawing parallels between the budding Romanticism, the cult of the Hero, the Greek myth of Prometheus and Napoleon, a single man who could bring empires to their knees. There is more to it than that in view of the bloodbath that followed which left the French male population decimated for decades to come. But even without his personal views and literary interpretations, Nagano establishes himself as a great conductor for our time and this recording with full bodied sound is a treasure.

03_songs_without_wordsSongs Without Words

Julius Drake

ATMA ACD2 2616

Julius Drake is a sought-after English pianist who devotes most of his career to accompanying singers, typically intelligent art song recitalists of the calibre of tenor Ian Bostridge and Canadian baritone Gerald Finley. Here he has returned to his solo piano roots while still saluting the song idea, by crafting a tender program of short lyrical character pieces, many of them familiar to the piano student or the adult amateur player.

The title of the CD pays homage to Felix Mendelssohn, two of whose Songs Without Words are included, a Venetian gondola song and the Duetto. Schumann is represented by two Album for the Young selections, and one from Scenes from Childhood. There is a Brahms Intermezzo, a Schubert Moment Musical, a Grieg Lyric Piece, and Debussy’s Clair de Lune. You get the concept: Romantic-era brevity and intimacy.

More recent selections are a lullaby by Poulenc, four of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos pieces, and the haunting, spare “Night” from Benjamin Britten’s Holiday Diary (1934), a suite I’ve never encountered on any piano recital.

Recorded in London, England by Canadian sound engineer and ATMA label founder Johanne Goyette, Drake’s songful renderings are restrained and polished. The Steinway employed sounds both present and resonant.

A lovely, “small” release. This would make a nice gift to any music lover who shuns thunder.

04_hamelin_lisztLiszt - Piano Sonata

Marc-André Hamelin

Hyperion CDA67760

In April, I had the pleasure of reviewing the double disc set of Marc-André Hamelin performing the complete Liszt Années de Pélerinage. Now he is back with more music by the “Mephistopheles disguised as an abbé” on this Hyperion recording comprising four works including the great Piano Sonata in B minor.

Opening the CD is the Fantasy and Fugue on the letters B-A-C-H, Liszt’s homage to Johann Sebastian Bach. The piece was originally written for organ in 1854, but a revised version for piano appeared 14 years later. Hamelin demonstrates a solid command of the pianistic pyrotechnics inherent here, and we can only imagine today how 19th century audiences must have adored this type of showstopper, broken piano strings and all!

A welcome contrast is the piece that follows, the serene Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude, from the collection Harmonies poétiques et religieuses completed in 1853. I have always likened this composition to a serene lake (maybe Lac Maggiore?) with the opening measures a lyrical melody heard in the bass, and a rippling accompaniment provided by the right hand. Any evidence of bombast and virtuosity are noticeably absent in this marvellously expansive composition, and Hamelin’s performance shimmers with a wonderful luminosity.

The Sonata in B minor - preceded by a set of three short pieces, Gondoliera, Canzone, and Tarantella - has had both admirers and detractors since its publication in 1854. Yet there is no denying the meticulous craftsmanship and wealth of ideas contained within. Hamelin approaches it with a bold assurance, making ease of the abundant technical demands and the ever-contrasting moods. What a sense of mystery he achieves in those cryptic opening measures before the appearance of the strident octaves in the secondary theme! This is a superb performance, easily among the best currently available, and rounds out another fitting tribute to Liszt’s bicentenary.

05_hamelin_romanticThe Romantic Piano Concerto Vol. 53

Marc-André Hamelin; RSO Berlin; Ilan Volkov

Hyperion CDA67635

Like a big meal, the Max Reger piano concerto in F minor, Op. 114 is a challenge both to serve up and to digest. Admired by Berg and Schoenberg for his commitment to modernism, Reger nevertheless admitted that his concerto would be misunderstood for years. Its critical rejection in 1910 caused him personal distress, loss of health and an early death at age 43.

Pianist Marc-André Hamelin’s performance in this recording is a jaw-dropper. He meets Reger’s relentless demand for highly articulate virtuosity with apparent ease. He also finds rare melodic ideas in an otherwise dense storm of rhythmically driven motives.

Reger’s music is contrapuntally thick and Hamelin works wonderfully with conductor Ilan Volkov to ensure that the orchestral score remains balanced, especially in the concerto’s often frenetic outer movements. The second movement, however, allows only a partial respite from this tumult. The tender moments here are a compliment to both pianist and conductor and provide a stark contrast to the rest of the work.

The Steinway used in the recording stands up remarkably well. Despite the heavy playing its tuning holds rock steady throughout the entire first movement – nearly eighteen minutes!

The other item on this CD is a clever choice. Its late 19th century vintage creates a sense of relief following the Reger. Richard Strauss’ Burleske is also a demanding work, but it comes across as light, airy and slightly impish – as perhaps a “burleske” should.

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