04 Liszt PolgarLiszt – Harmonies Patriotiques et Religieuses
Eva Polgar
Hunnia Records HRCD2101 (evapolgar.com)

In contrast to Liszt-the-magician-of-the-keyboard’s turbulent side of his heyday, this interesting new recording shows his quiet and contemplative persona. It came about that the aging Liszt, disappointed that by order of Pope Pius IX he was unable to marry his beloved Princess Carolyne, a divorcee, he took religious vows and withdrew to a monastery near Rome. He actually lived in a cell with minimal furnishings and an old beat-up piano with the middle D key missing.

Eva Polgar, a very talented and celebrated Hungarian pianist praised for her intelligent interpretations and emotional power, here performs pieces that resonate with the deep-seated Catholicism and patriotic aspect of Liszt’s late works. This new style is most noticeable by strange unearthly harmonic progressions bordering on the atonal, like the very first piece, Sursum Corda Erhebet eure Hertzen (Lift up your Hearts) and the Coronation Mass, composed for the coronation of Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. Religion notwithstanding, his love for his homeland is manifest in the Hungarian Rhapsodies, here represented (and gracefully performed) by No.11 a quiet, gentle piece that only turns into a lively Hungarian dance at the very end.

Liszt’s wandering around the Eternal City inspired some works I love most on this album, namely Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este, an impressionistic piece depicting the play of water of the hundreds of beautiful fountains of the unbelievable Baroque gardens of Villa d’Este in Tivoli. Another lovely piece, Legend No.1, is where St. Francis of Assisi preaches to the birds, an exercise of trills and a real test for the flying fingers of our master pianist.

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05 ConsolationsConsolations
Antoine Malette-Chénier
ATMA ACD2 2855 (atmaclassique.com/en)

There are perhaps no more beautiful sounds in European art music then the classical pedal harp, particularly so when the instrument is masterfully played, exquisitely recorded and gorgeously captured within a naturally resonant acoustic environment such as the Église St-Benoît in Mirabel, Quebec. Further, there are few more intimate musical experiences than the solo performance. Here, with the artist alone and exposed, one traverses a performative tightrope as both artist and listener, edging on the precipice of exhilarating beauty and potential pitfall. Thankfully, it is the former, rather than the later, that is the case on this fine 2022 recording from the Quebec-based harpist, Antoine Malette-Chééénier.

Principal harpist for the l’Orchestre Symphonique de Trois-Rivières and a graduate of McGill, the University of Montreal, Yale and the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Lyon, France, Malette-Chénier brings experience, considerable education and training, as well as valuable artistic interpretation to Consolations, his first disc of solo harp pieces for the ATMA Classique label. In addition to achieving his “central desire… to touch souls, to communicate heart to heart” by prefiguring music that resides at the nexus of romance, Christian spirituality and beauty, Malette-Chénier has also used this platform to shine a light on the compositions of fellow harpists Albert Zabel, Charles Schuetze and Henriette Renié, programming their exquisite (and new to me) music alongside such better-known 19th-century composers as Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt. The album’s title, Consolations, comes from the 1830 Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve poetry collection, Les consolations, which provides the needed conceit for Malette-Chénier to delve into the themes of romantic spirituality and divine power that he mines so gracefully here.

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06 Francine KayThings Lived and Dreamt
Francine Kay
Analekta AN 2 9004 (analekta.com/en)

There are relatively few Czech composers regularly featured within the Classical canon, and the majority of these are renowned for their large-scale orchestral and choral works. Antonín Dvořák’s symphonies, Bedřich Smetana’s Má vlast and Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass are all examples of such composers and their expansive, oft-performed music.

In addition to these great works, each of these composers also wrote a variety of piano music, featured here on Canadian Francine Kay’s Things Lived and Dreamt. With repertoire by Dvořák, Smetana and Janáček, as well as Josef Suk and Vítězslava Kaprálová, this recording provides a comprehensive overview of 19th- and 20th-century Czech piano music.

Each selection on this disc is notable for its expressive power and poignancy, from Janáček’s solemn and profound Sonata 1.X.1905 – written after the composer witnessed the killing of an unarmed Czech protester by a German soldier – to the levity of Dvořák’s Humoresques, which are both delightful and ingenious little pieces. Suk’s Things Lived and Dreamt is a Schumann-esque diary portraying people, places and events through lyrical movements that express far more in three or four minutes than some composers can in 30 or 40.

Kaprálová’s April Preludes is a highlight of this recording, a stunning suite of pieces by a quite unknown composer. Kaprálová studied in Prague and Paris, passing away at the age of 25 while fleeing the Nazi occupation. Despite her young age, the April Preludes are strikingly mature and complete, demonstrating a mastery of late-Romantic technique that stretches the limits of tonality through dissonance and bitonality.

A testament to the greatness of Czech music, Kay’s recording is fertile ground for those who are interested in the Czech symphonic tradition – from Dvořák’s Humoresques to Kaprálová’s April Preludes, this disc goes from strength to strength.

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07 Kenny BrobergSonatas by Medtner; Rachmaninov; Scriabin
Kenny Broberg
Steinway & Sons 30198 (kennybroberg.com)

The music of three Russian composers – Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Medtner – all of whom worked against the backdrop of a particularly turbulent political scene, and each with dissimilar ideals, are presented here on this Steinway & Sons recording featuring American pianist Kenny Broberg. Born in Minneapolis, he was the silver medalist at the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and won bronze at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2019.

Rachmaninov completed his Piano Sonata No.2 in 1913 and although the piece was well received, he revised it in 1931, shortening the length and simplifying many of the difficult passages. The original must have been daunting indeed, as technical challenges still abound from the very beginning. Nevertheless, Broberg demonstrates a formidable technique, delivering a polished and exuberant performance. 

No less daunting is the Scriabin Sonata No.5 Op.53 from 1907. Scriabin, a piano virtuoso, infused his music with mysticism resulting in a thoroughly modern style which closely paralleled Symbolist literature of the period. The one-movement piece – barely 12 minutes in length – has long been regarded as among his most difficult.

A younger contemporary of Rachmaninov and Scriabin, Medtner was born in Moscow in 1880. His Sonata Op.25 No.2 “Night Wind” written in 1912 is his most extended of the genre. The score is archly Romantic with a second movement Allegro molto sfrenatamente which is no less demanding than the first – the night wind never ceases. The third movement Danza Festiva proves a rousing conclusion that Broberg performs with great bravado.

In all, a fine recording by a young artist from whom we can hope to hear again.

08 Orion WeissArc II: Ravel; Brahms; Shostakovich
Orion Weiss
First Hand Records FHR1128 (firsthandrecords.com)

This FHR CD titled Arc II featuring American pianist Orion Weiss, is the second in a projected three-disc set, all of which aim to address the ways composers come to grips with the emotion of grief. A native of Cleveland, Weiss studied at the Cleveland Institute and the Juilliard School and has an impressive list of awards including winner of the Classical Recording Foundation’s Young Artist of the Year.

The disc opens with Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin, an homage not only to the French Baroque tradition, but to fallen friends in the First World War. Weiss’ playing is elegant and thoughtfully nuanced where he artfully captures the spirit of the early clavecinists.

Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Schumann from 1854 was written when the composer was all of 20, shortly after his introduction to the Schumann family and just four months prior to Schumann’s attempted suicide. The piece is very much a study in contrasts which ultimately lead to a gentle finale.

In complete contrast is the Piano Sonata No.2 by Dmitri Shostakovich, composed in 1943 and dedicated to the composer’s teacher and friend Leonid Nikolaev who perished that year in the mass evacuation from Leningrad. The opening movement is raw and emotional with Weiss easily handling the formidable technical demands, while the second movement largo is clearly a haunting epitaph for his late friend. The finale opens with a sombre theme followed by nine variations and a quiet conclusion.

The final two choral preludes from Brahms Preludes Op.122 written shortly after the funeral of Clara Schumann round out a well-chosen program, masterfully performed – we can look forward to the third disc in the series.

01 Vagues et ombresVagues et ombres (Waves and shadows), the latest release from the Montreal string ensemble Collectif9 features music by Debussy and Canadian-American composer Luna Pearl Woolf (Alpha Classics 858 collectif9.ca/en).

The central work on the disc is Woolf’s Contact, an extremely effective and fascinating piece described as “a sonic view into the underwater world of beluga whales in the St. Lawrence Estuary,” including the impact of human actions.

It’s the Debussy selections that steal the show, however, in quite brilliant arrangements by Thibault Bertin-Maghit, the group’s bass player. Four piano pieces – Étude No.4, Des pas sur la neige, and Passepied and Clair de lune from the Suite Bergamasque open the CD, the increase in players and the resulting expansion of textures being balanced by the challenge faced in reducing Debussy’s orchestral masterpiece La Mer to nine players. The latter is an astonishing reinterpretation that draws quite remarkable playing from the ensemble in music in which – as they note – timbre and colour are paramount. It’s breathtakingly brilliant in all respects.

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02 Mozart Concertos 3 5Baroque violinist Gottfried von der Goltz is the soloist on Mozart Violin Concertos Nos.3-5 with the Freiburger Barockorchester under Kristian Bezuidenhout (Aparté AP299 prestomusic.com/classical/products/9364986--mozart-violin-concertos-nos-3-5).

The three concertos – the G Major K216, the D Major K218 and the A Major K219 – are “presented in a new version: in accordance with practices of the time, Bezuidenhout improvises a pianoforte part, while conducting the orchestra… A totally new and exciting approach to these works!” Well, don’t get too excited about the resulting impact – the pianoforte is almost totally inaudible, although it may well be subtly adding to the texture; if I hadn’t known I would never have noticed it, except possibly in a few moments in the D Major concerto.

No matter, for these are superb performances any way you look at them, beautifully judged and balanced, with faultless solo work and orchestral playing that is full of life on one of the finest Mozart discs you will hear.

03 Beethoven Stravinsky Vilde FrangThe brilliant Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang is in top form on Beethoven Stravinsky Violin Concertos, with The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen under Pekka Kuusisto (Warner Classics 0190296676437 vildefrang.com/beethoven-stravinsky).

Kuusisto, himself a violinist makes his debut recording as a conductor, and what a debut it is, forming a perfect partnership with Frang. There’s a decided chamber orchestra feel to the performance with the timpani prominent, the lengthy first movement cadenza being a transcription of the one (with timpani) that Beethoven wrote for his own piano transcription of the concerto.

Stravinsky’s spiky and neoclassical Violin Concerto in D Major Op.8 isn’t heard as often as it should be, the performance here underlining what we’re missing. It’s full of life and never merely academic, with an emotionally deep Aria II third movement.

Frang started studying both concertos at the same time in her teens, always feeling some sort of relation between the two. Certainly they make an ideal pairing on an outstanding CD.

04 Andrew Wan Charles Richard Hamelin Schumann The Three Violin SonatasWith Schumann: The Three Violin Sonatas violinist Andrew Wan and pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin continue the partnership that gave us the recent outstanding 3CD set of the complete Beethoven sonatas (Analekta AN 2 9003 analekta.com/en).

The Violin Sonatas No.1 in A Minor Op.105 and No.2 in D Minor Op.121 are from 1851, written at the suggestion of violinist Ferdinand David. The Violin Sonata No.3 in A Minor WoO27 incorporates the two movements Schumann contributed to the F-A-E sonata, the 1853 collaboration with Brahms and Albert Dietrich that was a gift for Joseph Joachim, Schumann adding a first movement and a scherzo to complete an original third sonata.

Effortlessly beautiful playing from both performers coupled with exemplary recording quality makes for another outstanding release.

05 Shostakovich RachmaninoffFrom one outstanding duo release to another: Shostakovich Rachmaninoff Sonatas for Cello & Piano finds cellist Carmine Miranda and pianist Robert Marler in superb form in two of the great cello sonatas (Navona NV6475 navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6475).

Miranda’s deep, rich cello and Marler’s clear, warm piano, perfectly balanced and beautifully recorded, immediately promise great things – and boy, do they deliver! Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata in D Minor Op.40 from 1934 is described as a lyrical, classical work, but it still has the pain-ridden slow movement and frantic fast movements so typical of his later works.

The Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata in G Minor Op.19 from 1901 is a big Romantic work that requires a big technique from both players, its third movement Andante surely one of the most glorious movements ever written. It’s hard to imagine a more gorgeous performance than this one.

06 Patricia KopatchinskajaViolinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and pianist Fazil Say have been playing together as a duo since 2004, and the close nature of their musical relationship is clearly evident in the three sonatas on Janáček Brahms Bartók (Alpha Classics ALPHA885 outhere-music.com/en/classical-music-shop/latest-releases).

The Janáček and Bartók sonatas were both completed in 1921, and both show the influence of folk music on the two composers. The Brahms work is the last of his three, the Sonata No.3 in D Minor, Op.108, completed in 1888. 

Kopatchinskaja has a clear, bright tone that can sound quite light at times without ever losing strength, and the ease with which she handles the technical demands never lacks depth and conviction. Say is an equal partner in all respects on an excellent disc.

07 Guitar FavouritesXuefei Yang was the first Chinese guitarist to study at London’s Royal Academy of Music, and the first to launch a worldwide professional career. Guitar Favourites, her latest CD, reviews her 35 years with the guitar, returning to the quintessential guitar music that first drew her under its spell (Decca 485 8195 xuefeiyang.com). 

Her technique is flawless and apparently effortless, but it’s what she does with it that makes this such a remarkable disc; the clarity, definition, dynamics and flowing, flexible phrasing making even the most familiar pieces sound fresh. Works include Albéniz’s Asturias, Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra (with rubato!) and Capricho Árabe, Sor’s Variations on a Theme by Mozart Op.9, four pieces by Augustín Barrios Mangoré including the three-part La Catedral, Yang’s own Xinjiang Fantasy, the first recording of When the Birds Return by guitarist John Williams and single pieces by Rodrigo, Lauro and Villa-Lobos. 

A gorgeous arrangement of Danny Boy completes a stunning recital.

08 Takacs Quartet Hough Dutilleux Ravel String QuartetsA composition by the British pianist Stephen Hough opens Hough, Dutilleux & Ravel String Quartets, the latest CD from the Takács Quartet (Hyperion CDA68400 hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA68400).

Hough’s six-part String Quartet No.1, “Les Six rencontres” was written in 2021 specifically as a companion piece to the Dutilleux and Ravel works. It’s extremely attractive, finely crafted and idiomatic writing, dedicated to the Takács Quartet and given what must be a definitive performance here.

Henri Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit from 1973-76 began as a group of short studies in sonority, the seven linked sections creating fascinating effects and tonal colours. Again, there’s superbly controlled and nuanced playing from the quartet.

A dazzling reading of Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major from 1902-03 completes a terrific CD. 

09 RVW Quartets2022 saw the Tippett Quartet mark their 25th anniversary year and the 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’ birth with Ralph Vaughan Williams & Gustav Holst String Quartets (SOMM Recordings SOMMCD 0656 somm-recordings.com/recording/vaughan-williams-holst-string-quartets).

Vaughan Williams spent the year 1907-08 studying with Ravel in Paris; his String Quartet No.1 in G Minor from 1909 showed a resulting greater textual clarity, although it remained unpublished until a revised version appeared in 1922. The viola, Vaughan Williams’ own instrument, is prominent in the String Quartet No.2 in A Minor from 1942-43; the work is dedicated to Jean Stewart, violist in the Menges Quartet that gave the first performance in 1944. The beautiful Romance second movement, in particular, is Vaughan Williams at his most characteristic.

 Holst wrote his Phantasy Quartet on British Folksongs Op.36 in 1916, but eventually withdrew it, feeling it to be “insufficient.” His daughter Imogen published a string orchestra version some years after his death. The viola is again prominent in this charming quartet edition by Roderick Swanston.

10 Piatti QuartetThere’s more Vaughan Williams on Boyle, Moeran, Ireland, Vaughan Williams, his Household Music – Three Preludes on Welsh Hymn Tunes from 1940-41 opening the new CD from the Piatti Quartet (Rubicon RCD1098 rubiconclassics.com/release/piatti-quartet-boyle-vaughan-williams-moeran-ireland). 

The main work here though is the premiere recording of the lovely String Quartet in E Minor from 1934 by the unjustly neglected Irish composer Ina Boyle (1889-1967), who, apart from travelling to London for lessons with Vaughan Williams, from 1923 spent virtually her entire life in the family home in County Wicklow. This attractive work remained in manuscript until a new performing edition was made in 2011.

John Ireland’s brief The Holy Boy is his 1941 arrangement of a 1913 piano solo. The disc ends with E.J. Moeran’s undated two-movement String Quartet No.2 in E-flat Major, discovered in his papers after his death in 1950. The Novello edition felt it to be “clearly an early work,” but while the first movement may support this view the Irish folksong nature of the second movement suggests a strong post-war influence of the songs he collected in County Kerry, some of which he published in 1948.

11 David Oistrakh QuartetOn Beethoven Shostakovich Schubert String Quartets the four Russian musicians of the David Oistrakh Quartet, all soloists in their own right, “embrace the fury of these three works” with full-blooded playing (Praga Digitals PRD250426 prestomusic.com/classical/products/9408438--beethoven-schubert-shostakovich-string-quartets).

Beethoven’s String Quartet No.4 in C Minor, Op.18, if a little rushed at times, certainly shows passion, which works particularly well in the Allegro prestissimo fourth movement. 

Shostakovich’s String Quartet No.3 in F Major, Op.73 from 1946, is the heart of the disc, both physically and emotionally. It became known as his “war quartet” after the composer renamed the movements in the manner of a war story to avoid being accused of “formalism” or “elitism.” Blythe ignorance of the future cataclysm, Rumblings of unrest and anticipation, Forces of war unleashed, In memory of the dead and The eternal question: why? and wherefore? give a clear indication of the music‘s soundscape.

Schubert’s String Quartet No.12 in C Minor, D703 “Quartettsatz” from 1820 is the brief first movement from an unfinished quartet. The final track, not mentioned in the booklet notes, is the quartet’s violist Fedor Belugin’s dazzling arrangement of Paganini’s Caprice Op.1 No.24 in A Minor.

12 Beautiful PassingOn Beautiful Passing the title track is the single-movement violin concerto written by the American composer Steven Mackey in 2008 and inspired by the death of his mother. Anthony Marwood is the soloist, with David Robertson conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (Canary Classics CC-22 canaryclassics.com).

Consisting of two halves separated by a cadenza, it’s a tough, uncompromising work that has passages of real beauty above and amid the sometimes-brutal orchestral texture, with a demanding and finely woven violin line brilliantly played by Marwood. It’s a work that invites and will surely reward further listening.

The remainder of the CD consists of Mackey’s Mnemosyne’s Pool from 2014, a five-movement symphonic saga dealing with aspects of remembering, Mnemosyne being the Greek goddess of memory. Described by Musical America as “the first great American symphony of the 21st century” it’s a hugely impressive orchestral canvas that receives an outstanding performance.

13 WeinbergMieczysław Weinberg Complete Works for Violin and Piano, Volume Four completes the series of music by the Polish-born Soviet composer and close friend of Shostakovich that began in September 2010. Yuri Kalnits is the excellent violinist and Michael Csányi-Wills the equally fine pianist (Toccata TOCC 0188 toccataclassics.com). 

This final release covers music from Weinberg’s teenage years – the Three Pieces from 1934-35 – to the 1959 Sonata for Two Violins Op.69, in which Kalnits is joined by Igor Yuzefovich. The Largo in F Major from 1944, only rediscovered in 2012, was originally part of the Sonata No.2 Op.15. The Two Songs without Words from 1947 and the Concertino in A Minor Op.42 from 1948, originally for violin and string orchestra, complete an excellent disc and series. 

14 Angele DubeauComposer Alex Baranowski is the latest subject in the Portrait series that has been so successful for violinist Angèle Dubeau and her La Pietà string ensemble (Analekta AN 2 8750 analekta.com/en).

The CD follows the usual format of short pieces and extracts arranged – in this case by the composer himself – for Dubeau’s group. This collaboration was clearly a joy for composer and artist alike, Dubeau calling Wiosna, the piece she commissioned, the heart of the album, while Baranowski calls it one of the most personal pieces he’s ever written.

Most of the tracks reflect Baranowski’s work for screen and stage, with several extracts from the movies The Windermere Children and Nureyev, and the ballets Nineteen Eighty-Four and Kes. There’s not a great deal of variety, but the beautiful writing and top-notch performances will make this a sure-fire winner with Dubeau’s many fans. 

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01 PachelbelPachelbel – Magnificat Fugues
Space Time Continuo
Analekta AN 2 8911 (analekta.com/en)

This recording is fascinating, both in conception and execution. Comprised entirely of Baroque continuo instruments (i.e. cello, lute and organ), typically heard as the bass-line foundation of early music ensembles, Montreal-based Space Time Continuo presents a variety of Johann Pachelbel’s pipe organ works arranged and performed for their unique makeup.

As indicated by the album title, this recording features a number of Pachelbel’s fugues based on the Magnificat, a canticle often known as the Song of Mary. Perhaps best known for its multi-movement setting by J.S. Bach and the many smaller-scale versions written by English Cathedral tradition- composers for use in the Evensong liturgy, Pachelbel’s Magnificat arrangements are purely instrumental, with no expression of the text itself. 

Pachelbel wrote a great number of these little fugues: 95 in all and, while there is some debate on whether these organ works were composed for intonation or alternation, there is no doubt that they were used in the context of the sung text, either before, during or after. For this performance, director and cellist Amanda Keesmaat arranged 13 of these fugues, along with the well-known Chaconne in F Minor – one of Pachelbel’s largest-scale organ works – resulting in music that, although contrapuntally identical to its original, is strikingly different both in timbre and texture.

Known largely for his Canon in D and little else, this recording demonstrates that there is much music by Pachelbel that deserves to be rediscovered. From the serious and solemn to buoyant and joyful, there is much here for everyone to enjoy and the uniqueness of having this terrific music performed by an equally magnificent bass-instrument ensemble makes this sophomore release from Space Time Continuo worthwhile listening for all.

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