01 Voix HumainesAnguille sous roche (Marais; Couperin; Rameau)
Les Voix Humaines
ATMA ACD2 2858 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Monreal-based viol de gambists Susie Napper and Margaret Little formed a partnership in 1985 naming themselves Les Voix Humaines and since that time, they have earned a formidable reputation for their performances of early music chiefly by English and French composers. Over the years, the duo has been augmented by gambists Mélisande Corriveau and Felix Deak, with violinist Jessy Dubé joining the ensemble in 2021. This newest recording on the ATMA label – humorously titled Anguille sous roche – or Something Fishy – marks a departure in personnel in that Corriveau replaces Little here in duets with Napper in a program of music by Marin Marais, François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau. 

The music is drawn from several sources – Couperin’s collection Les Goûts Réunis from 1724, Rameau’s only collection of chamber music published in 1741, and from various collections of Piėces de Viole by Marais. Most of the pieces are barely four minutes in length and while many of them are dance movements, others are more fanciful in nature such as Rameau’s La Coulicam (referring to the Persian conqueror Thamas Kuli Khan) and the finale, L’Anguille (the Eel).

Throughout, Napper and Corriveau produce a wonderfully resonant sound, the phrasing keenly articulated. The German poet Goethe once described chamber musicians as “having a conversation” and this is certainly the case with the intimate and intuitive approach taken by the two performers. There is nothing at all “fishy” about this recording – attractive repertoire and solid musicianship make it a welcome addition to the Baroque chamber catalogue.

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02 Sonata TramontanaSonata Tramontana
Carrie Krause; John Lenti
Black Bear Records BMM01 (baroquemusicmontana.bandcamp.com)

Sonata Tramontana, full of life and nuance, is such a refreshing take on the centuries-old repertoire it comprises. Conceived by Montana violinist Carrie Krause, it centres around intimate gestures, deep connection with nature and appreciation of life in all forms. It is the kind of music that is meant to be played in small spaces, flowery meadows or on riverbanks. Everything on this album works in synergy – from cover art and beautifully written liner notes, to the heartfelt performances.

The album features 17th-century music for violin and theorbo by Italian, Austrian and German composers Mealli, Schmelzer, Caccini, Biber, Böddecker and Castaldi, an elusive repertoire that remains relatively unknown to the wider audiences and brings vigour and bloom to what might be considered somewhat predictable in the realm of historical performances. Krause and her partner in crime, theorbo virtuoso John Lenti, are just fabulous, their performance is nothing short of beautiful. Krause has a way of bringing the most interesting, almost visceral textures out of her Baroque violin. Her ornamentations are lovely and complemented well by Lenti’s strong presence. 

Although passionate and meaningful, this music is unpretentious. Krause and Lenti tell stories, visit mountain peaks and valleys, drink from the lakes and creeks, dance in town squares, all the while balancing virtuosity and tranquility. The music glows and grows throughout the album, reaching for hidden nooks and corners, filling our ears with delight.

03 Mozart and the OrganMozart and the Organ
Anders Eidsten Dahl; Arvid Engegård; Atle Sponberg; Embrik Snerte
LAWO Classics (lawo.no)

When one thinks of Mozart, the mind can go many places, from opera to overture, sonata to symphony. One area of music with which Mozart is not often associated, however, is organ music. By all accounts, Mozart was a fine player who enjoyed the sounds of the instrument – going so far as to title it “The King of Instruments” – but the organ was not a vehicle for concertizing in Mozart’s time, instead used almost exclusively in church services.

What Mozart did write for organ falls into two categories: the first is the collection of 17 “Epistle” sonatas, chamber music written between 1772 and 1780 for masses in Salzburg, played between the reading of texts; the second is music that Mozart wrote for the “Flotenuhr” – a large grandfather clock containing a self-playing organ. There are two large-scale works from this latter category that are played quite frequently today, the Adagio and Allegro in F Minor K594 and the magnificently monumental Fantasia in F Minor K608.

Organist Anders Eidsten Dahl gives a tremendous overview of this music in Mozart and the Organ, which includes 14 of the 17 church sonatas and both K594 and K608. Recorded in the Swedish Church in Oslo, Norway featuring violinists Arvid Engegård and Atle Sponberg and bassoonist Embrik Snerte, each of the sonatas is a little gem containing its own delightful character and range of expression, compressed into a miniature form. The larger organ works are wonderfully paced and expertly interpreted, and Dahl makes Mozart’s challenging writing sound effortless and clear, especially in perilous passages where rapid and constant movement make great demands of the performer.

Mozart and the Organ is highly recommended to all who appreciate Mozart and organ music, whether together or separately. These works are masterpieces and well worth hearing, whether for the first time or the hundredth.

04 Mozart Orli ShahamMozart – Complete Piano Sonatas Vol.4
Orli Shaham
Canary Classics CC23 (canaryclassics.com)

Violinist Gil is not the only Shaham who is making waves wherever classical music is adored. His younger sister Orli has been showing the world that her steely, lyrical pianism is eminently suited to the performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. However, rather than put on a show with Mozart’s more celebrated piano music the younger Shaham is focusing her attention on Mozart’s lesser-performed sonatas en route to giving us a complete collection of the elegantly sparse works with their virtually endless supply of sparkling melodies, 

Volume 4 of the ongoing series features three of the earliest sonatas – the F Major, No.2 K280, the C Major No.1 K279 and the D Major, No.6 K284, Dürnitz. Should there be any question as to why these (early) works grace the fourth volume of Shaham’s Mozart Complete Piano Sonatas the answer lies in the simple fact that they are no less technically demanding, being as they are of great harmonic ingenuity and melodic richness, as the later sonatas.

The Allegro and (especially) the Rondeau en Polonaise: Andante movement of the Dürnitz are cases in point. The latter – in Shaham’s skilful hands – reflects a pre-eminently graceful Polish dance of Mozart’s vivid imagination. As with Volumes 1, 2 and 3 Shaham’s delicate phrasing brings out the cornucopia of Mozart’s melodic delights from end to end on this disc, but especially in the filigreed brilliance of the Dürnitz sonata.

Listen to 'Mozart: Complete Piano Sonatas Vol.4' Now in the Listening Room

05 Mozart Condertos LevinMozart – Piano Concerto No.5 & Church Sonata No.17
Robert Levin; Academy of Ancient Music
AAM AAM042 (aam.co.uk)

At first glance, the music contained in this recording is somewhat perplexing: of all the incredible music Mozart composed, why choose one full piano concerto, a few juvenile transcriptions, and a church sonata that’s less than five minutes long? There is a reason, and it’s a good one.

In 1993, Robert Levin and Academy of Ancient Music founder Christopher Hogwood set out to record Mozart’s complete works for keyboard and orchestra, with the first of a planned 13 recordings released in 1994. Despite its noble intentions, the project was cancelled midway through, as the advent of downloadable digital music formats in the early 2000s changed the market quickly and drastically. Now, over 20 years later, AAM and Levin are continuing the cycle, scheduled for completion in June 2024, which will become the first-ever recording of Mozart’s complete works for keyboard and orchestra on either modern or historical instruments.

The most aurally striking aspect of this recording is that the Piano Concerto No.5 in D Major K175 doesn’t feature a piano at all, but rather an organ. This is for several reasons, including the necessity of a pedalboard to reach the lowest notes in the keyboard part, the limited upper range, and Mozart’s use of the term Clavicembalo, generic nomenclature that encompassed a range of keyboard instruments. Rather than being impractically theoretical, however, the use of the organ provides great clarity and prominence to the solo part and blends exceedingly well with the ensemble.

The other noteworthy pieces on this recording are the Three Piano Concertos after J.C. Bach K107, through which the young Mozart learned his craft and honed his skills. Far from the masterpieces of his later years, these works were joint efforts between Wolfgang and his fathe, Leopold, who would revise his son’s transcriptions and add embellishments and other instructional guidance. Juxtaposing these early works with only slightly more mature compositions, the younger Mozart clearly learned quickly.

A valuable component of a valuable project, this recording is informative and tremendously appealing, both individually and as part of its larger set.

06 Clara and RobertClara et Robert Schumann – Chamber Music for Horn
Louis-Philippe Marsolais; David Jalbert; Philip Chiu; Cameron Crozman; Stéphane Tétreault
ATMA ACD2 2874 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Somewhere, among the writings of Marcus Aurelias, Seneca or Epictetus, there is a Stoic maxim that argues that the easier something is to do, the less meaningful and fulfilling it is for one’s personhood and soul. The Stoics, it seems, liked doing hard things. And in classical music, there is perhaps no instrument more difficult to master than the French horn (simply “the horn” among the classical intelligentsia), what with its perplexing embouchure placement and quixotic fingering positions. But, just as the inverse of the aforementioned maxim would posit that the more difficult something is to do, the more satisfying and efficacious the result, it is also a truism (or perhaps just my opinion) that a well-played French horn ranks among the most breathtaking sounds in all of music. A single listen to Clara et Robert Schumann – musique pour cor, a 2023 ATMA release featuring the exquisite horn stylings of Montreal-based musician and educator Louis-Philippe Marsolais, should illuminate why this is the case.

Evidencing an enveloping warm, round and inviting timbre on the brass instrument, Marsolais, joined by terrific pianists Philip Chiu and David Jalbert, as well as cellists Stéphane Tétreault and Cameron Crozman, foregrounds a thoughtful selection of chamber music composed by Clara and Robert Schumann, now placed into new and engaging musical contexts. Repertoire originally composed for a variety of instruments takes on an intimate sheen, sonic patina and mellow lustre when stated here on the horn, providing both the opportunity to feature the instrument more robustly as a principal solo voice, and continue the overdue and ongoing efforts taken to appropriately write Clara Schumann more prominently into the canon of classical compositions and composers.

07 Very Best of GriegThe Very Best of Grieg
Various Artists
Naxos 8.552123 (naxos.com/Search/KeywordSearchResults/?q=8.552123)

Some time ago in Berlin, Sir Simon Rattle organized a youth orchestra of teenage students at the Philharmonie to learn and play Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King. It was fun to watch the various instruments come in one by one, adding layer upon layer to the sound, a steady crescendo and accelerando controlled superbly by Rattle culminating in a world of total mayhem and a rousing success. I suddenly realized how extraordinarily clever, intricate and difficult a piece it was. A work of genius and one of The Very Best of Grieg.

Thanks to this brilliant and comprehensive sampling from Naxos on two CDs I am totally immersed in Grieg’s music. I feel there is an unmistakable Norwegian sound world that’s immediately recognizable. Grieg is considered to be part of the struggle for national awareness and independence that swept through Europe in the second half of the 19th century. Each smaller nation had a voice, a leading composer like Liszt for Hungarians, Smetana and Dvořák for the Czechs, Enescu for the Romanians, Sibelius for the Finns etc.

Grieg was a prolific composer, but essentially a pianist, so most of his works are for solo piano, but these were often orchestrated and much colour and harmony were added to the pieces. He was a miniaturist. His strength lies in capturing immediately a simple, but incisive and beautiful melody, developing it quickly, so most of his pieces are very short, four minutes or less. He published ten books of Lyric Pieces. Some of these are very memorable, for example, The Wedding Day at Trolhaugen, Berceuse, Notturno, Butterfly, Brooklet, Cradle Song, I love but thee, To the Spring and more. Also, Songs for soprano that are devilishly difficult to sing. 

The longer works such as the PianoViolin and Cello Sonatas and the String Quartets are represented here by just a movement. But we mustn’t miss his orchestral music: Holberg Suite, Sigurd Jorsalfar, two Peer Gynt Suites and most importantly the Piano Concerto in A Minor, one of most beautiful Romantic concertos ever written.

His contemporary, Tchaikovsky said about Grieg: “What charm, what inimitable and rich musical imagery. What interests, novelty and independence!” So true.

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