04_kuerti_schumannSchumann - Piano Sonata No. 2; Fantasie in C Major

Anton Kuerti

DOREMI DDR-6608 (www.doremi.com)


We are fortunate to have, living in Toronto, an internationally renowned pianist who is also a most respected Schumann interpreter, Anton Kuerti.


On July 20th we had the pleasure of attending the opening recital of the Toronto Summer Music Festival in Koerner Hall in which Kuerti mesmerized a sold-out house playing an all-Schumann program. This was a memorable event by any standards.


As a card-carrying Schumann zealot I have been collecting recordings of his music for half a century. As an admirer of Kuerti’s earlier recordings I was pleased that so many of the audience took advantage of the opportunity to acquire this new CD in a post-concert signing event, especially as the Fantasie, opus 17 had just been heard live. Or should I say experienced, as the influence of an admiring and appreciative audience inspired a more personal reading.


As with all great artists, no two performances can be exactly the same. Notwithstanding such vicissitudes, the recorded version of the Fantasie is outstanding and a fine souvenir of the live performance. The Sonata is presented by Kuerti in a rather sensible and novel way: he includes, as added movement, the original finale that Schumann had replaced because Clara declared that it was unplayable, being just too difficult. The movement was published posthumously simply as Presto für Pianoforte and Kuerti inserts it between the third and fourth movements. Well, Clara was wrong as Kuerti demonstrates in spectacular fashion in this five movement version of Schumann’s opus 22.


Recorded in the Willowdale United Church in August 2009, the sound is clear, appropriately dynamic, and well balanced.



EXTENDED PLAY – AK(A) Antonin Kubálek


Antonin Kubálek and his independent recording label AK were introduced in the July issue with Richard Haskell’s review of his Brahms set (AK 01) so I need not add anything further on Mr. Kubálek’s origins, career, performing history and credentials other than to say that he is a multifaceted virtuoso with the highest degree of technique, expression, subtlety and sensitivity. Although these recordings are all remastered from LP’s of the 1970s we are richly compensated by the quality and insight in these performances. Furthermore, his choice of repertoire is adventurous and full of surprises. Serendipity is the best word to describe them.


01_early_recordingsTo start with, there is the Mozart Rondo in A minor (Early recordings AK 06). This is a fairly late work, almost contemporaneous with the G minor symphony, No. 40. Minor keys are rare in Mozart and this piece is melancholic, played with a wonderfully gentle touch, well differentiated in its parts and in a nowadays sometimes frowned upon romantic manner. Be that as it may this is just right for me. This early disc is particularly rich and rewarding, also featuring works by Beethoven, Janáček and Hindemith. Janáček’s elegiac On an Overgrown Path is a long-time favorite of mine with its influences of nature, folk melodies and Czech language accents. It opens a new avenue in pianism. Each piece is a small masterpiece like “The Madonna of Frydeck” where the ruling minor key changes into major turning infinite pain into gentle sweetness that reminds me of Schubert. “Tears” has a typical Janáček kind of exquisite melody and “The Barn Owl Has Not Flown Away!” is so charming with the flurry of wings grounded by two repeated descending notes. Needless to say this music belongs to Kubálek and very few others can play it as beautifully as he. Hindemith’s Suite “1922” is formidably difficult, dissonant, tongue in cheek, sometimes jazzy, syncopated and inspired, or rather horrified, by early 1920s dance crazes. Hindemith, however, brilliantly intersperses these with dark toned Nachtmusiks perhaps forecasting events to come. “Boston” with its hollow bells and echoes is a particularly strong and despondent uttering.


02_chausson_faureThe original LP of AK 02 was recorded in the 1970s by the CBC in the now defunct Eaton Auditorium with wonderful acoustics, where I heard such legends as Wilhelm Kempff and Annie Fischer (but alas not Rachmaninov, Kreisler and Gould who also performed there!). For the Chausson Concert for violin, piano and strings, Op.21, the Orford Quartet is augmented by Otto Armin so that first violinist Andrew Dawes can join Kubálek in the title role. Here is a performance that truly pushes to the limits; powerful, complex, passionate and rhapsodic. The same can be said for the César Franck Piano Quintet played here with the Vaghy String Quartet. The Quintet caused some uproar upon its debut, and the story goes that Marcel Proust, the notably eccentric French author, hired a group of musicians to play the Quintet for him incessantly day in, day out.


03_paderewski04_souzaSkipping Paderewski (AK 04), who in spite of being a legendary virtuoso and a great statesman – the prime minister of Poland at one time - never was much of a composer no matter how well Kubálek plays his incredibly difficult pieces, I will proceed to Sousa Arrangements (AK 05). This is a most enjoyable disc where Kubálek shows a completely different side of his talent. I can just see him in a bar playing these marches, waltzes and polkas with flying fingers and great delicacy as an entertainer par excellence. The great Arthur Fiedler would be pleased, for this is not “music of the boring kind”.


Editor’s Note: Antonin Kubálek’s recordings are available in Toronto at L’Atelier Grigorian and online at www.grigorian.com and www.cdbaby.com

01a_gesualdo_dvdGesualdo - Death for Five Voices
Werner Herzog
ArtHaus Musik 102 055

01b_gesualdo_cdGesualdo - Madrigals Book 1
Delitiae Musicae; Marco Longhini
Naxos 8.570548

The sordid tale of a murderous prince is alluring; all the more so when the subject is also a supremely innovative composer for his time. While certainly intriguing for music aficionados, Carlo Gesualdo seems to have also left a legacy of fascination bordering on obsession for the current-day inhabitants of the village attached to his castle’s ruins. In 1586, he married his beautiful cousin, Maria d'Avalos. Only a few years later, in a pre-meditated act of jealous rage, he murdered Maria and her lover and displayed their bodies first on the steps of the house, then preserved them for display in a nearby church. Being a prince, he was never prosecuted for this “crime of passion” or for subsequently killing their young son, nonetheless, he did torture himself through unrelenting flagellation for the rest of his days.

Werner Herzog’s movie Death for Five Voices takes his audience on a tour of this house of horrors through the eyes of colourful local inhabitants: the bagpiper who regularly flushes out evil spirits, a mad opera singer who thinks she’s the reincarnation of Maria and local chefs who describe the decadent 120-course wedding feast. A few of his madrigals are performed by the Gesualdo Consort and Il Complesso Barocco led by Alan Curtis who also provides useful musical commentary. Both of these ensembles perform this difficult repertoire with its many harmonic and rhythmic twists and turns most admirably, if a bit too scholarly. The women do manage to evoke some of the sensuality of the “Three Ladies of Ferrara” that Gesulado would have certainly known from the house of his second wife Leonora d’Este (who later fled to a nunnery).

I did prefer the inclusion of female voices when comparing these performances with a recent recording of Gesualdo’s Madrigals Book 1 by Delitiae Musicae, an all-male ensemble led by Marco Longhini. That preference aside, this group does a superb job of conveying the sweet and painful longings inherent in texts by Guarini and Tasso made ever so much more excruciating by Gesualdo’s dissonances, chromaticism and quick tonal discombobulations. The group’s purity of tone and precise intonation ensures that these turns are well articulated and deeply understood.

Both DVD and CD releases provide artfully crafted insights into a virtuosic but deeply disturbed individual. Gesualdo’s history and his music are neither for the faint of heart nor the disingenuous.

02_senza_continuoSenza Continuo
Margaret Little
ATMA ACD2 2612

The formidable gamba player Margaret Little – one half of the legendary Montreal duo Les Voix Humaines – is “a chamber musician at heart” and “this is her first adventure in solo repertoire.” So says the bio of her at the back of the booklet of this outstanding recording. From the opening strains of the first of three preludes by Jean de Sainte-Colombe which open the disc, I was transfixed by Little’s tone and freedom of sound. The varied program of music ranges from the late 16th century to the early 18th and clearly demonstrates why this instrument was so beloved, particularly in France.

Two solo suites, one by Le Sieur de Machy – a 17th century viol player about whom virtually nothing is known – and another by the celebrated virtuoso Marin Marais, make up the meat of the program and are both played with ease, elegance and poetry. Little has complete command of the ornamentation and character of each dance movement, and manages to convey the beautiful emotional arc of both large works. The rest of the CD is made up of four airs by the English composer Tobias Hume and two short “recercatas” by Italians Aurelio Virgiliano and Giovanni Bassano.

This lovely recording is a reminder of how special and expressive the viola da gamba is. In the hands of a confident and tender musician such as Little, a strong case is made for the unique solo repertoire of this oft undervalued instrument.

03_bach_brandenburgBach - Brandenburg Concertos
English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner
Soli Deo Gloria SDG 707

Rare is the list of essential classical recordings which does not include the Brandenburgs. What makes this interpretation stand out is not just the actual playing but also some thoughtful commentaries by the conductor and soloists on the challenges Brandenburg players face.

From the start, this interpretation respects the instruments of Bach’s times. The horns of Anneke Scott and David Bentley are literally hunting horns, although never the “disruptive influence” she claims they are. All instruments blend into an enjoyable performance of Concerto No 1.   

The reviewer is a life-long lover of No 2, Bach’s allegro movements bringing out the best of baroque ensembles in general and the baroque recorder in particular. Rachel Beckett demolishes the idea that the recorder is a teaching instrument for children.

So to No 3, best-known of the six. This recording is upbeat in the initial allegro, enhanced by a silvery quality to the strings which continues through the much-over-looked adagio to the second even more inspired allegro.

Catherine Latham joins Rachel Beckett on recorder in No 4, reinforcing the virtuoso skills demanded of the instrument. The recorder conveys the plaintive tones of the andante, perhaps more poignantly than would the flute, which only makes its (belated) appearance in a subdued No 5.   

There is even an unsung heroine - viola-player Jane Rogers alone performs in all six concertos, saving her best for No 6. Her comments are worthy of the reflections published in this invigorating CD.

dragonettiDragonetti's New Academy - Chamber Music of Domenico Dragonetti
John Feeney; Loma Mar Quartet
Independent DNA2009

In these days of specialized musical disciplines, we tend to forget how often instrumental virtuosity and excellent compositional skills went hand-in-hand in the 18th and 19th centuries. No surprise, then, to discover that the Italian double-bass virtuoso Domenico Dragonetti wrote a large number of chamber works, although hardly any were published during his lifetime.

Dragonetti spent most of his adult life in London, and all the works on this disc were prepared by John Feeney from manuscripts in the Dragonetti collection in the British Museum. They may not seem particularly memorable on first hearing, but the composer was not only a regular at salons and musical evenings in London but also travelled in Europe, particularly to Vienna, where the development of the Viennese Style in the late 1700s had been of huge significance in the emergence of the double bass as a solo instrument. His compositions intelligently reflect the musical language of the day and the various styles he encountered.

The String Quartet No.1 employs the regular line-up, but the three string quintets are quite different. No.31 is for 2 Violins, 2 Violas and Bass, so the violin still handles most of the solo work, but Nos. 13 and 18 are for Violin, 2 Violas, Cello and Bass, giving the works a somewhat bottom-heavy feel as the bass assumes a solo role.

Top-class performances and excellent recording ambience make this disc – possibly the first of a series – an absolute delight.

01_Brahms-IIIBrahms - Piano Music Vol.3
Antonin Kubalek
Independent ak01 (www.cdbaby.com)

The Czech Republic’s loss was surely Canada’s gain the day Anton Kubálek decided to flee political unrest in his homeland in 1968 to settle in Toronto. Since that time, he has quietly carved out his niche, earning a reputation as an outstanding pianist, pedagogue, and recording artist, his talents exemplified in the nearly 20 CDs produced for the Dorian label.

This latest offering is one originally intended to be Volume 3 in a series of music by Brahms, but Kubálek managed to obtain the rights, and has released it personally. Recorded in 1995, it features four early works: the Sonata Op.1, the Ballades Op.10, the Variations on a Hungarian Song Op.21 #2, and the Scherzo Op.4. The sonata is a large-scale work - Brahms first attempt at the form - and from the opening chords, Kubálek treats this confident music with a bold assurance. Considerably more mysterious and dramatic are the four Ballades Op.10, music from 1854 inspired by the Scottish poem Eduard. The Variations and the Scherzo (Brahms earliest extant composition) abound in technical challenges, while possibly proving that the composer’s piano music is sometimes less than “pianistic.” But Kubálek meets the difficulties with apparent ease, demonstrating both virtuosity and intense lyricism, and without the flashiness that often characterizes the playing of many of his younger contemporaries. As always, he remains the consummate musician.

Since the fall of communism in 1989, Kubálek has travelled back to the Czech Republic several times in order to give recitals and hold master classes, but luckily for us, he has no intentions of returning permanently. May he continue to share his talents - both in concert and on fine CDs such as this one - for a long time to come.

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