01 CPE Bach
CPE Bach – The Solo Keyboard Music Vol.39

Miklós Spányi
BIS BIS-2370 (naxosdirect.com) 

Verschiedener (varied) is perhaps an understatement for the sheer variety of compositions on this CD. The 22 movements break down into forms as intense and individual as Fantasias lasting less than two minutes and as structured as a 23-minute conventional three-movement Concerto. Miklós Spányi has thus set himself a challenge. In fact, regardless of the type of movement, throughout the whole of this CD he has to draw on the tremendous expertise normally required for compositions by the (i.e. JS) Bach. The aforementioned Concerto in its Allegretto and Allegro movements bear this out.

As if the compositions themselves were not sufficiently testing, Spányi discusses at great length the problems posed by the harpsichords of the day. There was a trend at the court of CPE Bach’s employer (Frederick the Great), to commission harpsichords from one highly fashionable centre, London. These instruments often incorporated specialized attachments not usually found on other harpsichords, something reflected in CPE Bach’s work – and adding to Spányi’s task. 

While it is difficult to single out the most attractive tracks on this highly varied and attractive CD, the measured Allegro ma non troppo from the Sonata in D Minor is highly enjoyable, as are the demandingSinfonia in G Major and Fugue in G Minor.  

Spányi has taken on so much to bring us this particular demonstration of CPE Bach’s skills and ingenuity. His interpretations deserve a wide audience.

Michael Schwartz

02 Jean Muller Mozart
Mozart – Piano Sonatas Vol.2

Jean Muller
Hänssler Classics HC19074 (naxosdirect.com) 

In a 21st-century sonic sea, awash with dozens of recordings of Mozart sonatas released each year, the savvy listener must scrutinize attributes from one such disc over another, divining the hallmarks of Mozartian keyboard perfection simply via one’s own tastes. In the case of Luxembourgian pianist Jean Muller’s newest release on the Hänssler Classic label, the listening experience is immediately amicable: we deeply appreciate Muller’s gifts at delivering this repertoire with expertise and humbled reverence.

Opening with Mozart’s inspired D Major Sonata, K311 – written in Mannheim in December 1777 – this record gently sets two oft-played works against two more heard infrequently; this programming is subtle and perfectly balanced. As bookends to the disc, the two sonatas in D stand as points of departure and return, closing with the earlier work of the two, K284, sometimes nicknamed the “Dürnitz” Sonata. (It was written in 1775 for a Baron von Dürnitz – a bassoonist – who infamously withheld payment for the sonata!). Incidentally, it is the longest of Mozart’s 19 solo piano sonatas.

Muller brings utter neoclassical eloquence to all four sonatas on the album, charming with cajoling melodies and playful ornamentation. The imaginative – even boyish – spirit of Mozart’s keyboard is fully on display here. Every interpretive decision Muller makes is of the highest order, historically informed and beautiful to behold. He has produced an engaging, aesthetically satisfying album, sure to make any savvy Mozart listener smile with delight.

Adam Sherkin

03 Galosi Games

Melissa Galosi
Col legno CL3 1CD 15001 (naxosdirect.com) 

Italian pianist Melissa Galosi makes a strong case for the common wellsprings of both play and music on her debut album Games. She presents an argument for her thesis in piano music by master European composers of the 18th (W. A. Mozart) and 20th (György Kurtág) centuries. Kurtág rediscovered his compositional creativity in the 1970s through his observations of “…children who were spontaneously playing an instrument … who still saw the piano simply as a toy. They try to touch it, to caress it; they attack it and let their fingers run along the keyboard […] pure pleasure in the act of playing, joy of daring…” These experiences inspired his Játékok (“Games” in Hungarian), a substantial collection of piano works imbued with the creativity and wit of youthful games.

On the other hand Mozart never had a true childhood. Driven by his musician father, by the age of three he was hard at work practising the piano. His father kept him constantly practising, performing and touring: the very model of the prototypical child prodigy. Yet W.A. maintained a childlike sense of play for his entire life.

Galosi has chosen 17 aphoristic works from Játékok, interspersed with excerpts from three works by Mozart: variations on the famous Ah vous dirai-je maman (“Twinkle, Twinkle…”) and two other variation suites. I found the “mixed tape” across two centuries that Galosi presents convincing, musically delightful. Her playing is direct, unaffected, yet energetic and incisive when the music calls for it.

Andrew Timar

04 Young Ah Tak
Beethoven Piano Sonatas Nos. 23; 18; 6

Young-Ah Tak
Steinway & Sons 30106 (steinway.com) 

With his 250th birthday approaching, the popularity of Ludwig van Beethoven continues unabated for classical music audiences and performers alike. Captured here in her debut recording for the Steinway label, South Korean-born, now America-residing pianist, educator (on the faculty at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music) and academic, Young-Ah Tak, performs the late composer’s piano sonatas with a deft touch, a stylistically appropriate grand Romantic gesture and a level of familiarity with LvB’s work that is unsurprising, given the fact that her first solo recital, at age nine no less, included some of the very pieces captured here.

Recorded live at New York City’s Steinway Hall, this CD has an appropriately intimate quality to it and, as such, the engaged listener can identify, and, perhaps, even relate to the artistic struggle that occurs when an ambitious and deservedly feted pianist takes on a repertoire of well-trodden (and perhaps overly familiar) material – think Sonata No.23 in F Minor, “Appassionata” – yet desires to reify the expectations of an audience who demand that she make this material her own. Not an easy task, to be sure, but in Tak’s capable hands, new and effervescent subtleties of this music are introduced, exposed and played with to the satisfaction of both the performer and audience (and one would hope composer too). Nowhere is this more evident than in Tak’s dramatic interpretation of the clarion call “The Hunt,” (Piano Sonata No.18 in E-flat Major, Op.31, No.3). A recommended addition for piano enthusiasts and LvB collectors alike.

Andrew Scott

05 Beethoven Rosenbaum
Beethoven – Sonatas Opp.26 & 90

Victor Rosenbaum
Bridge Records 9517 (bridgerecords.com)

Victor Rosenbaum’s third recording for Bridge Records underlines his affinity for classical-era composers. Here we have a selection of Beethoven’s piano pieces ranging from early to late works and including two sonatas, variations, rondo and bagatelles. The chronological progression of pieces on this album is a wonderful treatise on the evolution of Beethoven’s compositional style and techniques.

It is especially enjoyable listening to the two sonatas on this album. Sonata in A-flat Major Op.26 is charming and unconventionally structured, opening with a relatively slow movement in the form of a theme with variations. Rosenbaum is delightfully playful in the Scherzo and introspective in his interpretation of the striking Funeral March (third movement). Written some 14 years later, Sonata in E Major Op.90 contains only two movements but they are vastly different in character. The first movement, written in E Minor, is dramatic, depicting the loneliness and anguish that will later become even more prominent in Beethoven’s music. The second movement, written in E Major is, in contrast, gentle and more Romantic in character. Rosenbaum navigates between the two worlds so naturally; his interpretation is powerful in the first movement and exquisitely nuanced in the second.

The naturalness and the candour of Beethoven’s language is very much suited to Rosenbaum, who has no difficulty communicating his musical ideas with conviction. It is as if the acumen acquired in his long performing career has been poured into every phrase, thus making this recording special.

Ivana Popovic

06 Schumann 4 hands
Schumann – Complete Music for Piano 4-Hands

Roberto Plano; Paola Del Negro
Brilliant Classics 95675 (naxosdirect.com) 

There is something deeply satisfying about playing piano duets. Perhaps it is the synergy one might feel with his fellow player or the shared delight in casual music making. The jubilant sense of teamwork is undeniable in this recording. Pianists Roberto Plano and Paola Del Negro are an unyielding force together, beautifully attuned to each other’s ideas and expressions, and clearly ardent about Schumann’s music. Here we hear it all: passion, precision, style, energy and, above all, joy.

Schumann himself loved playing piano duets and wrote an extensive collection of pieces that ranged from his beginning years as a composer to the late Op.130. This 2CD album includes the whole scope of his piano four-hands music: eight early Polonaises (homage to Schubert); 12 Vierhändige Klavierstücke fur Kleine and große Kinder (which became well-known and loved pieces of the piano repertoire); Bilder aus Osten (influenced by Eastern poetry and philosophy); and two late collections of dance pieces, Ballszenen and Kinderball.

Some of these compositions are quite complex and many became quite popular, inspiring various arrangements. Here they are played with a combination of gusto and lyricism and an evident sense of style. With this album Plano and Del Negro pay tribute to all the intricacies and wonders of Schumann’s piano music while bringing forward their own artistic perspectives.

Ivana Popovic

07 Mishka Rushdie Momen

Mishka Rushdie Momen
Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0603 (somm-recordings.com) 

The bright, young pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen has released a new recording that features works in variation form by assorted composers: Clara Wieck and Robert Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Nico Muhly and Vijay Iyer. Rushdie Momen’s thoughtful liner notes offer a rationale for her recording choices, explaining the “variation” thread that connects each piece on the disc. In some cases, there are direct quotes and reorganization of materials from an older piece to a newer one (Vijay Iyer’s Hallucination Party, After R. Schumann’s Op.99 is one such example). In other instances, works are referenced by thematic origin: Robert Schumann wrote variations on a theme by Clara and vice-versa; Brahms wrote variations on a theme by Robert Schumann, and so on.

Throughout the disc, one is struck by Rushdie Momen’s tonal command and wide-ranging technique as she wields the instrument in a quest for beauty of sound. This is a rare phenomenon today, particularly from a performer so young. Warmth and perfection of pianism seem at the forefront of Rushdie Momen’s musicianship; her attention to detail and technical confidence is on par with the artistry of such old master pianists as Clara Haskil, Sviatoslav Richter and Myra Hess.

Rushdie Momen can evidently manage any musical era with aplomb and the premiere recordings of works by Muhy and Iyer offer promise of exciting things yet to come from this gifted young artist. Composers – along with the rest of us – should flock to her keyboard side!

Adam Sherkin

08 Lortie Saint Saens
Saint-Saëns – Piano Concertos 3 & 5

Louis Lortie; BBC Philharmonic; Edward Gardner
Chandos CHAN 20028 (naxosdirect.com) 

Camille Saint-Saëns was an exceptionally gifted pianist, admired by his contemporaries for his dexterity and grand style. Yet despite his significant output of piano music, it’s only the works for piano and orchestra – including five concertos – which seem to have stood the test of time. To be certain, recordings of these compositions are by no means scarce, but this one featuring Louis Lortie and the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Edward Gardner, is a particularly worthy addition to the catalogue.

The majestic Piano Concerto No.3 from 1869 has been often overshadowed by the others – particularly the second – but the pairing of Lortie and the BBC orchestra is a sublime one. From the mysterious opening measures with the arpeggiated piano passages, Lortie demonstrates a flawless technique, his delivery strongly self-assured. The wistful second movement Andante is but a calm interlude before the buoyant and joyous third movement Allegro non troppo.

Piano Concerto No.5 – written in Luxor between 1895 and 1896 and suitably named the “Egyptian” – has always proven more popular. The piece is a true study in contrasts – the opening Allegro alternates between slow and fast segments; the central Andante begins with an introductory blast before settling into its more lyrical section and the piece ends with an energetic Molto allegro, the opening of which simulates the sound of a paddlewheel boat up the Nile.

Interspersed with the concertos are the popular Rhapsodie d’Auvergne and the less familiar Allegro appassionato, both from 1884, and each a satisfying melding of piano with orchestra in under ten minutes. In all, Lortie proves once again he is a pianistic supernova, one who can easily conquer the most demanding repertoire. The clarity of his interpretation and his elegant touch – along with a solid backing from the BBC Philharmonic – combine to make this a stellar recording.

Richard Haskell

10 Rubinstein 4hands
Rubinstein – Music for Piano Four Hands Vol.2

Duo Pianistico di Firenze
Brilliant Classics 95965 (naxosdirect.com) 

Pianists Sara Bartolucci and Rodolfo Alessandrini, collectively known as Duo Pianistico di Firenze (Piano Duo of Florence) have been garnering the accolades of the classical world since 1990, mining the overlooked, rarely performed or forgotten piano repertoire of the Western art music canon on a series of recordings, concerts and artistic residencies. Here, on this sprawling 2019 double CD released on the Brilliant Classics label, the Italian duo mightily dig in to the little-known, four-hand piano work of Russian composer Anton Rubinstein (1829–1894).

A touring piano soloist, composer and educator (he is perhaps best known as the teacher of Tchaikovsky), Rubinstein’s work here, similar to some of the best-known pieces of JS Bach, is didactically pedagogical by design. As founder of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, Rubinstein’s 20-movement long Bal Costumé is not a high-water mark of Russian pianistic virtuosity (for which Rubinstein was known), but rather is intentionally welcoming and accessible to amateur and student pianists, a collection of tuneful miniatures meant for parlour performances for attendees at a costume ball. Although Rubinstein the pianist would become celebrated for his virtuoso performances, he too included Bal costumé in his concerts, performing with Anna Yesipova or Monika Terminskaya, garnering accolades for the popular Toréador et Andalouse, movement seven from this suite. Captured here as the complete suite, this recommended CD set features the beautiful four-hand touch, playing and simpatico interaction of Bartolucci and Alessandrini seamlessly weaving together a unified tapestry of sound that is worth adding to one’s classical CD collection.

Andrew Scott

11 Yu Kosugi Fire
Four Elements Vol.2 Fire

Yu Kosuge
Orchid Classics ORC 100108 (orchidclassics.com)

This disc is Volume 2 of Yu Kosuge’s four-CD series Journey of the Four Elements. Fire begins intimately and after the pianist’s long, well-chosen program of late 19th-/early 20th-century compositions closes with grandeur. In Tchaikovsky’s January: At the Fireside, she conveys a family event’s togetherness well, along with imagined romantic passions. By contrast, five pieces from Max Reger’s Dreams at the Fireside evoke solitude. Here the composer remembers piano works from his youth: for example, piece No.2 references Brahms’ well-known Intermezzo No. 2, Op.118 in A Major. Reger adds complex harmony and voice-leading, but fortunately Kosuge clarifies the tonal structure well. Next, a storm arrives in the guise of Liszt’s symphonic poem Prometheus (arr. Ludwig Stark). Sizzling “lightning flashes,” a difficult fugue and bravura alternating octaves followed by cascading chords, present technical challenges that Kosuge masters ably.

Among succeeding short pieces, Debussy’s brief Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (1917) is a welcome, evocative novelty discovered only in 2001; while the Feux d’artifice (Preludes, Book II) ranks with the best recordings I have heard. Kosuge’s touch is even and crisp, her grasp of the fitful harmonic base secure. The disc’s pièce de résistance is five numbers from Stravinsky’s piano version of his great Firebird Suite (1919). Brilliant handling of the Infernal Dance’s syncopations and cross-rhythms, a mysterious mood with magical tremolos in the Lullaby and astonishing bell-like sonorities at the finale’s tremendous climax cap this marvellous CD.

Roger Knox

12Prokofiev Kempf
Sergei Prokofiev – Piano Sonatas 3; 8; 9

Freddy Kempf
BIS BIS-2390 SACD (bis.se)

Sergei Prokofiev’s music is a study in dramatic contrasts, not the least because the composer always seemed to look forward while harking back to the past. He was a brilliant piano virtuoso whose work was redolent of melodicism wedded to a tonality that was characterized by cascading warmth often spiked by the force of dramatic rhythms and broad dissonances. All of this is heard in these Piano Sonatas especially the last two – No. 8 and No. 9.

Prokofiev’s work always demanded fingers of flexible steel and those on Freddy Kempf’s hands seem to embody this to perfection. From the first dramatic rendering of the Piano Sonata No. 3 in A Minor Kempf plays like a man possessed, and his breathtaking variety of touch means that the less hard-driven passages of No.8 and No.9 have an unparalleled degree of subtlety and nuance. His muscular style is eminently suited to such tempestuous music.

The Piano Sonata No.3 in A Minor is the shortest and from Prokofiev’s earlier attempts at the form, while No.8 in B-flat Major and No.9 in C Major are much longer and infinitely more intricate. Yet all three live and breathe in sharply characterized music that demands a sense of structure and momentum. Kempf embraces their wide tonal range, sharply drawn contrasts and intricate detail with sublime energy and a wonderful sense of occasion.

Raul da Gama

13 Rachel Mahon
Canadian Organ Music on the Organ of Coventry Cathedral

Rachel Mahon
Delphian Records Ltd. DCD34234 (delphianrecords.co.uk) 

On the surface, this disc appears to be an interesting international essay: Canadian organ music played on an English cathedral organ, performed by a Canadian organist working in the UK. It seems straightforward enough but, if one looks into the historical relationship between Canada and Coventry, a much deeper and meaningful relationship is quickly uncovered. In 1940 the Coventry organ was destroyed by German air bombers, reducing the entire medieval building to a pile of rubble. At the same time, the (Royal) Canadian College of Organists was collecting donations from its members to assist with the rebuilding of damaged English instruments. In the end, the decision was made to dedicate the entire amount of raised funds to Coventry, paying for a major part of their new instrument. It is therefore no surprise that there is a large brass maple leaf on the west-end floor of the Cathedral, commemorating Canada’s generosity.

It is with this historical backdrop in mind that organist Rachel Mahon selected her program. The first work, Healey Willan’s monumental Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue bridges both countries; born in England, Willan later moved to Canada and eventually became known as the “Dean of Canadian composers.” Mahon treats this tripartite tome with the focus it requires, blending rhapsodic virtuosity with careful attention towards the structure of the composition. Gerald Bales’ Petite Suite and Ruth Watson Henderson’s Chromatic Partita are smaller pieces, but no less satisfying to hear on this magnificent organ, while Rachel Laurin’s Symphony No.1 is simply breathtaking in its immensity and dramatic content.

This disc merits repeated listening for numerous reasons, both historical and immediately practical. Mahon, recently appointed the next director of music at Coventry, is a superb performer with a keen ability to craft a satisfying program, and her debut recording is highly recommended.

Matthew Whitfield

14 Lindsay Garritson
Aphorisms – Piano Music of Carl Vine

Lindsay Garritson
Independent (lindsaygarritson.com) 

The music of composer, pianist and conductor Carl Vine so often evokes the lucidity and sun of this artist’s home country: Australia. The world premiere recording of his Fourth Piano Sonata (2019) is included on a new disc by American pianist, Lindsay Garritson, a disc entirely devoted to Vine’s varied piano catalogue. Pianists tend to revel in performing Vine’s music; it is idiomatic and expressive – Romantic at heart yet fresh and buoyant, unmistakably of our time. (American composer Lowell Liebermann’s aesthetic seems a close relative to Vine’s.)

Garritson throws herself headlong into the fulsome soundscape of Vine’s newest piano sonata, in a whorl of an opener to the record, demanding the listener’s attention. Her heart is clearly devoted to every single note of this album, with a seemingly special affection for The Anne Landa Preludes (2006). These programmatic, deeply expressive pieces are aptly suited to Garritson’s musical sensibility as she relishes their expansive resonating lines and tolling chords, born of a personal mode of expression. After these (12) preludes, the record returns to sonata form, in a rhapsodic performance of one of Vine’s most popular works from his early period, the Piano Sonata No.1 of 1990.

After five Bagatelles, including the haunting Threnody (for all of the innocent victims), Garritson treats the listener to Vine’s Toccatissimo (2011), a robust and thrilling finale to this attractive new album by a self-assured young pianist, with a career on the rise.

Adam Sherkin

01 Grauns1Del Signor Graun
Ludovice Ensemble
Veterum Musica VM021 (veterummusica.com)

Music at the court of Frederick the Great usually conjures up images of JJ Quantz and CPE Bach – or even Frederick himself. That image is now under challenge due to this recording of music by the brothers Graun, who occupied key positions during Frederick’s rule.

This CD features three sonatas by each composer. Some movements are highly spirited. Listen to the Poco Allegro from the opening to the Sonata in D by Carl Heinrich and then contrast it with the Largo from the same sonata; there is an almost hesitant entry of the flute. And some movements are genteel. The Adagio from the Sonata in G is thoughtful and measured.    

Then there is the other Graun, Johann Gottlieb. The Adagio from his Sonata in D demonstrates how much freedom this composer allowed his flutist, what with this movement’s forthright and almost chirpy playing, something enhanced in the following Allegro ma non molto. Joana Amorim obviously appreciates this tuneful opportunity, although it should not be allowed to overshadow Fernando Miguel Jalôto’s harpsichord playing.

Contrasted as they are in their approaches, these two composers’ works are rarely performed these days. It is time for them to be restored to a more popular status.

02 Schumann Symphonies Nos. 2 4 Schumann – Overture Genoveva; Symphonies 2 & 4
London Symphony Orchestra; Sir John Eliot Gardiner
LSO Live LSO0818 (naxosdirect.com)

Sir John Eliot Gardiner represents a new breed of conductors, like Norrington, Jacobs and others who began their careers in Baroque repertoire with period instrument orchestras and then through the back door, came to the classics and Romantics and modern symphony orchestras. Gardiner with the LSO and modern instruments interestingly now turns to the very Romantic music of Robert Schumann.

Schumann’s symphonies have been much maligned in the past by critics saying that he couldn’t orchestrate, but actually this was caused, in Gardiner’s words, by “the late 19th century, opulent concept of Schumann” with muddied textures resulting from the over-Romantic approach of conductors of the time. Gardiner intends to rectify this by bringing “freshness, vivaciousness and clarity” and clean and transparent textures, using his previous experiences with period orchestras.

The Fourth is a particular favourite of mine and also it seems a favourite of conductors. It’s compact, optimistic, forward-looking and full of surprises. Note how Schumann links the movements together with no stops between them, the “trombone sigh” in the first movement development or the mysterious transition between the end of the third and beginning of the fourth movement. I remember Solti practically dancing the lovely melody in the last movement.

The Second is a turbulent affair, a work of genius; the first movement especially, a tremendous tour de force of a single strong rhythmic theme relentlessly driven with neverending variants towards a strong conclusion on the brass. Gardiner opts for fast speeds throughout (except for the heavenly Adagio espressivo) that can be very exciting, but can be detrimental to the beauty of the details. Bernstein’s magisterial reading with the VPO is still my benchmark.

03 Piccolo ConcertosjpgPiccolo Concertos
Jean-Louis Beaumadier; Prague RSO; Vahan Mardirossian
Skarbo DSK3192 (site.skarbo.fr) 

How extraordinary is this recording of the Prague Radio Symphony and virtuoso piccolo crusader, Jean-Louis Beaumadier! Smashing any expectations of the loud, piercing or vulgar, this first-ever CD comprised entirely of piccolo concerti with full orchestra, casts the solo instrument in a most reflective, sweet and expressive light. From the outset, the neo-Romantic/impressionist music of Florentine Mulsant offers both soloist and orchestra multiple opportunities to soar, which they do marvellously. With whole-tone passages, Ravel-like transparencies and their sensitive rendering, it is compelling listening.

The well-known staple amongst serious piccolo players, Lowell Liebermann’s Concerto follows and then a colourful, newly orchestrated version of Joachim Andersen’s Moto Perpetuo. On both, Beaumadier assures us of his utter command of the instrument through impressive technical displays and his trademark control of hushed pianissimos.

While the redundancy of both of these works being available online (in other versions) might diminish the CD’s value, the sheer magic of this album lies in the remaining three concerti and the Mulsant, all dedicated to Beaumadier and composed since 2012. Véronique Poltz‘s “Kilumac” Concertino is brooding and suspenseful and showcases Beaumadier‘s stellar flutter-tonguing. Various minimalist ostinati spin ethereal tapestries in Régis Campo’s Touch the Sky, over which the soloist weaves evocative threads. In conclusion, the final Concerto composed by the late Jean-Michel Damase is a poetic, three-movement masterpiece, filled with humour, episodic melodic sonority and brilliant orchestration. Simply forget that it’s for a piccolo; this recording is truly a musical delight.

04 Mahler 4Mahler 4
Carolyn Sampson; Minnesota Orchestra; Osmo Vänskä
BIS BIS-2356 (naxosdirect.com) 

Osmo Vänskä continues his ongoing Mahler cycle in this fifth instalment of his well-received survey of the complete symphonies. Composed at the dawn of the 20th century, Mahler’s uncharacteristically carefree and nostalgic Fourth Symphony turns the classical conventions of the symphonic tradition of Haydn, Mozart and Schubert on its head with a dark, ofttimes menacing humour. This wry, affectionate sarcasm is, for me, best captured in the classic 1965 recording by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra at the height of their fame. Though Vänskä does not command the subtle structural micro-shifts of tempo Szell was able to coax from his notoriously intimidated band in the first two movements, the amiable Minnesotans still have much to offer. I particularly enjoyed the hushed serenity of the opening of the adagio movement and the expanded dynamic range the digital process enables. At times I even felt that the musicians are almost too fastidious – the unique melodic unison of four flutes in the first movement is so unnervingly in tune that the evocative, distant fuzziness of this moment is lost.

Carolyn Sampson is the vocal soloist in the finale of the work, to which she lends the stipulated youthful, angelic tone along with excellent diction. Curiously, a photograph in the erudite booklet shows her performing from the rear of the stage on a riser next to three trumpets, though in the digital mix she is very much front and centre. I would have preferred to experience the true ambience of this accommodating stage placement. That aside, this is an excellent rendition that I very much enjoyed.

05 Deeper the blueThe Deeper the Blue…
Janet Sung; Simon Callaghan; Britten Sinfonia; Jae van Steen
Somm Recordings SOMMCD 275 (naxosdirect.com) 

The title of this disc refers to a series of associations in the areas of harmony and instrumental colour. A key figure is prominent British composer Kenneth Hesketh (b.1968), recipient of many significant commissions and awards. A student of Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013), Hesketh orchestrated that composer’s piano suite Au gré des ondes (1946) and the recording here by the Britten Sinfonia led by Netherlands conductor Jac van Steen is delightful. Among these six post-Ravelian miniatures I am particularly enchanted by the oboe solo in Improvisation, accompanied by a complex textural weave with particularly notable harp writing. The harp is also prominent in Mouvement perpétuel, where rapid flutes, piccolos, trumpets, horns and violins compete for attention.

Hesketh’s own composition Inscription-Transformation for violin and orchestra pays homage to his teacher and to his grandmother Muriel McMahon. It is a substantial work where sustained long pedal points provide direction including a suggestion of the octatonic (eight-tone) scale structure. In the foreground is an exciting solo part played cleanly and with brio by US-based virtuoso Janet Sung; it is by turn aggressive and calm, and is supplemented by instrumental scatterings and outer-space-like sonorities from the other instruments. Sung also excels with pianist Simon Callaghan in Ravel’s Tzigane and in Vaughan Williams’ Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra (1924-25), which is well shed of its former name “Concerto Academico” – I especially enjoyed the melodic invention of the slow movement and the irresistible closing Presto.

01 Shostakovich 13 15The Fitzwilliam String Quartet was formed in October 1968 in Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge and celebrates its 50th anniversary with a quite remarkable 2CD set of Shostakovich Last Three String QuartetsNo.13 in B-flat Minor Op.138, No.14 in F-sharp Major Op.142 and No.15 in E-flat Minor Op.144 (Linn CKD 612

After graduating from Cambridge the quartet accepted a residency at the University of York in 1971, and in early 1972 violist Alan George (now the only original member still with the group) wrote to Shostakovich requesting the material and permission to play his 13th quartet, which still hadn’t been performed in the UK. Shostakovich not only supplied both but travelled to York for the November concert, the Fitzwilliams also playing three of his earlier quartets for him in his hotel room.

The visit started a relationship and correspondence which lasted until the composer’s death in August 1975 and also resulted in Shostakovich trusting the ensemble with the Western premieres of his 14th and 15th string quartets. The Fitzwilliam gained international recognition by becoming the first quartet to perform and record the complete cycle of Shostakovich string quartets.

Now, 43 years after those early recordings, the quartet revisits the momentous relationship, Alan George’s extensive, deeply personal and moving booklet essays underlining just what a life-altering experience it was. These are not easy quartets, George noting that they are strongly coloured by an aura of death and personal despair, and by musings on his own mortality by a composer for whom faith held no meaning, and who saw death as absolutely final – “existence passing into the infinity of oblivion.”

Not surprisingly, given the circumstances, the performances here are outstanding, with every phrase, every note, every dynamic and every gesture reflecting the depth of understanding the players have of these remarkable works.

02 Beethoven Miro QuartetThe Miró Quartet – violinists Daniel Ching and William Fedkenheuer, violist John Largess and cellist Joshua Gindele – was formed in 1995, and has become one of the most celebrated American string quartets.

They started recording the Beethoven quartets in 2004, releasing the first volume featuring the six Op.18 quartets (with then second violin Sandy Yamamoto) in 2005 on the Vanguard Classics label. Four subsequent CDs starting in 2012 covered the Opp.59, 74, 95, 130, 131 and 133 works, with the final recordings completed by February 2019.

The complete cycle is now available on eight CDs in a special box set of Beethoven Complete String Quartets (Pentatone PTC 5186 827 naxosdirect.com), marking both the ensemble’s 25th anniversary and the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020. It’s quite superb. The quartets were recorded in numerical sequence over the years, so the listener can travel the same journey as the performers. And what a journey it is, with the astonishing late quartets in particular receiving superb performances. Slow movements are achingly beautiful, and the fast movements taken at breathtaking but perfectly balanced speed.

The insightful booklet notes by violist John Largess add another touch of class to a quite outstanding issue.

03 Schumann Dover QuartetThe Dover Quartet swept the board at the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition, winning every available prize, and if you needed any proof of their continuing rise to the very top of their field then their latest CD The Schumann Quartets (Azica ACD-71331 naxosdirect.com) should more than suffice.

Schumann wrote his three Op.41 string quartets – No.1 in A Minor, No.2 in F Major and No.3 in A Major – in a six-week period in 1842, never to return to the genre. They are quite lovely works, richly inventive and with more than a hint of Mendelssohn, to whom they were dedicated.

The Dover Quartet gives immensely satisfying performances of these brilliant works on a generous CD that runs to almost 80 minutes.

04 Barton PineThe latest CD from the always-interesting Rachel Barton Pine Dvořák Khachaturian Violin Concertos with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Teddy Abrams (Avie AV2411 naxosdirect.com) – is apparently not what it was meant to be, the originally planned “very different” album having to be changed at the last minute when the conductor became unavailable. These two concertos immediately struck the soloist as an attractive alternate project: she learned both works at 15 and had played each of them a few times during the previous concert season.

Tied as they are by each composer’s use of his own ethnic music they do make a good pair, but although there’s much fine playing here it feels somewhat subdued at times and never quite seems to really hit the heights the way you would expect, possibly due to the last-minute nature of the recording session but also possibly because Barton Pine seems to take a more lyrical approach to works that are strongly rhythmic as well as strongly melodic. The Khachaturian fares better in this respect, with a particularly fiery cadenza from the soloist.

04 Perspectives Dawn WohnPerspectives is a fascinating CD by violinist Dawn Wohn and pianist Esther Park that explores the differing cultures and perspectives of women composers, reaching back to the 19th century and into the 21st (Delos DE 3547 naxos.com)

The nine works are: Jhula-Jhule by Reena Esmail (b.1983); Episodes by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b.1939); the particularly lovely Legenda by the Czech composer Vítěslava Kaprálová, who died at only 25 in 1940; Star-Crossed (commissioned for the CD) by Jung Sun Kang (b.1983); the remarkable solo violin piece, ProviantiaSunset of Chihkan Tower,” by Chihchun Chi-sun Lee (b.1970); Deserted Garden and Elfentanz by Florence Price (1887-1953); the lovely Nocturne by Lili Boulanger (1893-1918); Portal by Vivian Fine (1913-2000); and Romance by Amy Beach (1867-1944).

Wohn plays with warmth, a crystal-clear tone and a fine sense of line and phrase in an immensely satisfying recital, with equally fine playing from her musical partner Park.

The outstanding cellist Daniel Müller-Schott is back with #CelloUnlimited, an impressive recital of 20th-century works for solo cello (ORFEO C 984 191 naxosdirect.com).

A passionate reading of the monumental and challenging Sonata Op.8 from 1915 by Zoltán Kodály makes a fine opening to the disc.

Prokofiev’s Sonata in C-sharp Minor Op.134 from 1953, the year of his death, is really only based on a fragment of the first of four projected movements; using a contrasting theme apparently partly sourced from Mstislav Rostropovich it was made into a performing version by the composer and musicologist Vladimir Blok in 1972.

Hindemith’s Sonata Op.25 No.3 from 1922 and Henze’s 1949 Serenade both consist of short but effective movements – nine each less than one minute long in the latter.

Müller-Schott’s own Cadenza from 2018 is followed by the early and surprisingly tonal 1955 Sonata by George Crumb; and Pablo Casals’ brief Song of the Birds, with which he always used to end his concerts, provides a calm and peaceful ending to a solo CD full of depth and fire.

07 Bach Piccolo CelloIt’s not unusual to encounter performances of both the Bach Sonatas & Partitas for solo violin and the solo Cello Suites in transcription: viola players, for instance, have available arrangements of both, and the Cello Suites can be found transcribed for violin. Less common, though, are performances of the violin Sonatas & Partitas on cello, but this is what Mario Brunello provides on Johann Sebastian Bach Sonatas & Partitas for solo violoncello piccolo (ARCAN A469 naxosdirect.com).

Brunello says that he tried playing the works on a four-string (not the usual five-string) smaller violoncello piccolo with no particular intention, and found that with the smaller body and the same tuning as a violin (but an octave lower) in effect the instrument felt like a larger or tenor violin, allowing him to read the Sonatas & Partitas as a cellist without having to resort to near-impossible technical virtuosity.

He also points out that the natural tendency for a cellist to first apply the bow to the lowest string leads to what he calls a “looking-glass” reading and a “seen from the bass line” approach in his playing, the instrument’s resonant body encouraging lingering on the low notes. Brunello certainly does that, even in the dance movements, but although it occasionally threatens to compromise the pulse it never really feels like more than just taking a breath and not rushing.

The instrument he plays is a 2017 model by Filippo Fasser of Brescia, after Antonio and Girolamo Amati of Cremona, 1600-1610. The pitch employed is a’ = 415 Hz, so down a semi-tone from the printed violin score.

It all works really well, although obviously the trade-off is that the brightness of the violin is lost, especially with the octave drop. There’s an interesting effect in the Andante of the A minor Sonata No.2, where Brunello plays the first half of the movement pizzicato and then changes to arco for the repeat, reversing the pattern for the second half.

There’s a fine resonance to the recording, and Brunello’s playing is admirable.

08 Vivaldi Seasons CelloThere’s another cello arrangement of a well-known violin work on Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, an arrangement for cello and string ensemble by cellist Luka Šulić, who is accompanied by the Archi dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia (Sony Classical 19075986552 sonymusicmasterworks.com).

This also seems to work very well, giving the music a slightly darker tinge than usual, although with the lower register the solo line is difficult to distinguish in places. When it’s clearly audible it’s really impressive playing, with Šulić displaying terrific facility and agility and handling the intricate solo line with apparent ease.

Full-blooded and committed ensemble playing, especially in the Allegro and Presto movements, where tempos are never on the slower side, makes for a really enjoyable CD.

09 Sor GuitarWe still tend to think of Andrés Segovia as being the guitarist most responsible for establishing the classical guitar in the concert hall, so Fernando Sor The 19th-Century Guitar, a new CD from the Italian guitarist Gianluigi Giglio (SOMM SOMMCD 0604 somm-recordings.com) is an excellent reminder of similar efforts from 100 years earlier.

As Michael Quinn points out in the booklet notes, the Spanish composer and guitarist was a pioneering advocate for the guitar as an instrument that belonged in the concert hall, building on the successes of Mauro Giuliani and Ferdinando Carulli in the first decade of the 1800s and producing the seminal Méthode pour la Guitare in 1830 along with a stream of compositions that extended both the instrument’s vocabulary and technique.

The eight works featured here all date from the period 1822-1836, when Sor had returned to Paris after spending eight years in London. They include the Introduction and Variations on a Theme by Mozart Op.9, the Easy Fantasy in A Minor Op.58, the Elegiac Fantasy in E Major Op.59 and the Capriccio in E Major, Le calme, Op.50. The Introduction and Variations on “Malbrough s’en va-t-en guerre” Op.28 – a tune better known now as “For he’s a jolly good fellow” – opens the disc, followed by Les folies d’Espagne and a Minuet Op.15a. Two movements from Mes Ennuis – Six Bagatelles Op.43 and the E Major No.23 from 24 Progressive Lessons for Beginners Op.31 complete the recital.

Giglio plays with a full, warm and clean sound redolent of a modern classical instrument, but is in fact performing on a narrow-waisted but quite beautiful 1834 guitar by René Lacôte of Paris, illustrated in colour on the booklet front cover. 

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