02_tchaikovskyTchaikovsky - Symphonies 4-6
Mariinsky Orchestra; Valery Gergiev
Mariinsky DVD MAR0513; Blu-ray BD MAR0515

Philips issued CDs of these three symphonies with Gergiev conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in live performances from 2002, 1998, and 2004. Although they were very well received in some quarters, I found them to be quite perfunctory. Here is a wiser Gergiev in 2010 with his own orchestra live from the Salle Pleyel in Paris and the performances are polished, spectacular and substantial.

The first movement of the Fourth Symphony sounds eccentrically slow on first hearing but after listening to all three symphonies it now fits perfectly into Gergiev’s new understanding and appreciation of Tchaikovsky’s music. The Fifth Symphony is unusually stirring from the first notes to a hectic, triumphant finale. The Sixth can be driven too hard as Gergiev did in the Vienna recordings but here it unfolds with unusual respect and sensitivity. That is not to imply that it is not thrilling, which it assuredly is, but there is an atmosphere of inevitability throughout heard in no other performances that I know of. The tragic last movement, Tchaikovsky’s valedictory address, is played with intense passion and is quite final. I “Do not go gentle into that good night,” he seems to say.

There is a bonus in which Gergiev talks about Tchaikovsky’s orchestrations with interesting observations. Not an overly large orchestra, about 50 players, the textures and balances are never obscured. For me, these extraordinary, vital performances set a new standard. Perfect sound and thrilling dynamics throughout make this Blu-ray disc an uncontested first choice. Enthusiastically recommended.

01_beethoven_naganoBeethoven - In the Breath of Time
Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal; Kent Nagano

The Montreal Symphony has much to be happy about these days. Conductor extraordinaire Kent Nagano is now in his sixth season as music director and the orchestra is sounding great. This is in part because of its new hall, which opened in September and is proving to be an acoustical gem. Furthermore, the ensemble has begun to record on its own label – OSM - and this latest offering – a two-disc set titled “In the Breath of Time” is another in the series featuring music by Beethoven, specifically symphonies six and eight, in addition to the Grosse Fuge as arranged by Felix Weingartner.

As fine an ensemble as the MSO is, there are no surprises here, nor is there any ground-breaking. Instead, under Naganos’s competent baton, the orchestra concentrates on solid musicianship, performing with a particular warmth and sensitivity. The “Pastoral” Symphony is a delight – here are the familiar bird-calls, the peasant dances and the joyful mood of life in the country as Beethoven witnessed it. The more traditional Symphony No.8 is approached with a suitable spirit of nobility and the monumental Fuge – all seventeen minutes of it – with the grandeur it deserves.

In keeping with the overall theme of time and change, the second disc concludes with a brief spoken word trilogy titled Declaration of INTERdependence, written and narrated by David Suzuki. While the recitation is moving and poignant, it’s the music itself that makes this such a satisfying recording – a fine interpretation of familiar repertoire by one of Canada’s most renowned orchestras.

01_couperinCouperin - Concerts royaux

Bruce Haynes; Arthur Haas; Susie Napper

ATMA ACD2 2168

Around 1700 Pierre Naust crafted an hautboy in Paris – it may be the earliest hautboy (forerunner of the oboe) now in private hands. In 1703 Barak Norman created a viola da gamba in London. This recording unites these two instruments in some of Couperin’s concerts royaux, precisely the repertoire for which Naust’s hautboy would have been played.

The recording was originally released in 1999 but one very poignant reason explains its redistribution. US/Canadian Bruce Haynes, the hautboy soloist, died this year; reintroducing the hautboy into France (!) and five books and 50 articles on early music are his legacy.

Concert 7’s sarabande is the first opportunity to hear the Naust hautboy. It is both outwardly expressive and yet slightly sensitive; Couperin was well able to bring out the quality of this instrument.

In Concert 11, despite the rather stately quality of all eight movements, the standard of hautboy playing is always maintained. It is Susie Napper’s mastery of the gamba which gains exposure, reinforced in her duet with harpsichordist Arthur Haas in a track from Couperin’s third book of harpsichord pieces. In fact, Bruce Haynes returns with some of his most inspired playing in two musétes. Rural can only begin to describe the combination of hautboy, harpsichord and gamba as they imitate the sounds of the French bagpipe!

And then the even more varied Concert 3 (with another muzette - sic) to conclude this tribute to Bruce Haynes, and to the instrument he revived in the country of its birth.

02_tabarinadesTabarinades - Musiques pour le theatre de Tabarin

Les Boréades; Francis Colpron

ATMA ACD2 2658

Tabarin was the stage name of Jean Salomon. Born in 1584, he and Antoine and Philippe Girard set up an open-air theatre in Place Dauphine, Paris. Lively shows put Parisians of all classes in good humour, promoting the sale of Tabarin’s range of quack medicines.

Music accompanied the sketches; violins and bass viol are depicted in illustrations. The comparison with commedia dell’arte is too tempting for Director Colpron, who adds the latter’s recorders, lute and guitar.

From the start, this anthology (27 tracks in one hour!) features the liveliness of the French renaissance dance tune and many tracks are very familiar to early music lovers; track 2 Les Bouffons is a case in point, although one of the “outdoor” instruments of the period (crumhorn, rauschpfeife) would perhaps have made for an even livelier performance.

Several pieces are taken from more courtly circles, ballets being an obvious example. In these cases, woodwinds liven up what might have been rather subdued string pieces.

The selection is varied, as a motet and a stately pavan find their way onto a CD of essentially French secular and theatrical music. None of this should distract the listener from an hour of highly enjoyable playing, none more so than the recorder-playing of Francis Colpron (listen to the stately quality of Da bei rami scendea). His direction brings as many as 14 early musicians together, sometimes 11 on one track - a veritable crowd for early music enthusiasts!

And one man did come to be deeply influenced by Tabarin: real name Jean-Baptise Poquelin, stage-name Molière.

01a_beethoven_takacsBeethoven - The Complete Piano Sonatas

Peter Takács

Cambria CD1175-1185 11 (www.cambriamusic.com)


Peter Takács is a professor of piano at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. He was born in Bucharest, Romania and by four was taking music lessons and made his debut there at seven. When the family emigrated to France he was admitted to the Conservatoire National de Paris. In the United States he was awarded full scholarships to both Northwestern and the University of Illinois. It was with Leon Fleisher, with whom he maintains a close personal friendship, that he completed his artistic training at Peabody Conservatory. In addition to the usual one-on-one instruction, he gives master classes, adjudicates on music competitions, and concertizes in the United States and abroad, performing in solo recitals, chamber music and works with orchestra.

It is evident that Takács has become very close to Beethoven’s spirit, for these interpretations seem to come from within and not imposed on the score. These are not simply scholarly performances but fresh, compelling renditions by a scholar who has resolutely looked beyond the printed page. In addition to the 32 published sonatas, six extras are included: WoO 50 & 51 (1797/8); The Elector Sonatas WoO 47 nos. 1,2,3; and the sonata for piano four hands op.6 (1896/7) with Janice Weber, secondo. Plus, for good measure, the Andante Favori WoO 57. Thus, the collection is uniquely complete.

For me, Takács reveals qualities in these works that elevate them from piano pieces into musical narratives that engage the listener’s undivided attention and hold it beyond the very last note. I hated to stop any one of them or have my attention diverted in case I missed something. Even the shortest note or phrase has meaning. A poor simile but it may be like habitually viewing a sculpture from the same perspective and then seeing it from a new aspect... same piece but differently illuminated... an added dimension and a fresh appreciation of a familiar piece. Listening to these recordings aroused nostalgic remembrances of the wonderment and excitement of hearing these works for the first time. I do hope that Professor Takács will favour us with some Schumann, played with equal dedication.

Audiophiles will be very excited with these hybrid discs which are recorded in five channels that are available on the SACD track but are spot-on heard on the two channel track of the discs. The instrument is a Model 290, 9’6” Bösendorfer Imperial Grand and the recordings were engineered by Soundmirror, Inc. of Boston.

01b_beethoven_takacs_paciageFinally, I must comment on the sumptuous packaging which, itself, is a work of art: a sturdy box houses a 144-page, full colour, hard-bound book of informative essays and meticulous notes on each work written by Professor Takács. A pocket on the inside back cover contains a BEETHOVEN TIMELINE, an 18”x19” folded 2-sided almanac of significant events in Beethoven’s life with contemporary milestones in the worlds of music, literature, science, philosophy and history. The CDs are individually sleeved in a matching hard cover book.

Professor Takács visited Toronto recently and he was kind enough to sit and chat with me in the WholeNote offices. Parts of that conversation/interview with this very interesting and articulate man were recorded and I urge the reader to view this below.

02_lang_lang_lisztLizst - My Piano Hero

Lang Lang; Vienna Philharmonic; Valery Gergiev

Sony 88697891412

For the Liszt bi-centennial most of the major record companies have issued new releases and re-releases of his work. One of these is “Liszt - My Piano Hero” by Sony Classical featuring Lang Lang. The celebrated young Chinese pianist, a former child prodigy, is now 29 years old. Over the last 10 years he has developed enormously from a dazzling showman somebody referred to as “the J.Lo of the piano,” to a maturing artist whose playing never ceases to touch your heart. Lang Lang’s main attributes, I think, are his communication skills and exuberant love of playing the piano. Recently I saw him with 100 kids playing Schubert’s March Militaire at the Philharmonie Berlin under his inspiring direction to a result of overwhelming success.

This selection contains some of Liszt’s most popular pieces like La Campanella, Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos. 6 and 15, Grand Galop chromatique and many others of similar vein, plus the Piano Concerto in E flat major with Valery Gergiev conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. A good cross section of Liszt’s works from the dazzling virtuoso pieces to the more introspective romantic, dreamy compositions (Liebestraum No. 3, Consolation No. 3, Un Sospiro) which are played with exquisite touch and delicacy. There is idiomatic playing in the Rhapsody No. 6 especially in the slow mid section (Lassu) where he captures the Hungarian spirit with the characteristic rubatos and accelerandos. La Campanella sounds like a little bell the piece was named after.

This fine recording will convert many sceptics to accept Liszt to be Chopin’s equal as a keyboard giant.

Concert note: Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall on October 21. Lang Lang performs all five Beethoven Concertos (one per night) with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra November 9, 10, 12, 17 & 19.

franz_liszt_articleTwo hundred years ago, on Oct 22, 1811 in the Hungarian village of Doborjan, later renamed Raiding in today’s Burgenland (Austria), one of the most influential figures in the history of Western music, Franz Liszt, was born. Although from Hungarian ancestry he never learned to speak the language as he spent most of his life in France, Germany and Italy. His father was a talented musician who worked for the Eszterhazy family and was well acquainted with Haydn. The little Liszt at age of seven already knew how to write music and played Bach fugues and transposed them while “his parents ate their dessert.” At the age of nine he gave his first concert and at the age of 10 he studied under Czerny and Salieri. His fame grew quickly and as a child prodigy his father took him on European tours.

In the French capital he met Chopin and many other prominent figures of the music world. He quickly developed into a phenomenal pianist and was idolized throughout the salons. As a glamorous society beau he fell in love and ran away with a married woman, the beautiful Countess Marie d’Agoult, and had three children with her. (One of them, Cosima later married Richard Wagner.) But the love affair didn’t last. Later he met Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, a divorcee whom he wanted to marry but the ceremony was cancelled in the last minute by order of Pope, Pius IX. Instead he lived with her in Weimar where as Kapellmeister for the Saxon princes he reshaped musical life and attracted all the upcoming composers to his “court.”

He became a “conqueror of Europe” and his fame and fortune knew no bounds. He was also a most generous man: he returned regularly to Pest-Buda (now Budapest) and gave many concerts for charity. He was also instrumental in the creation of Wagner’s Bayreuth Festspielhaus with a large contribution of funds.

This age bred many Romantic heroes like Lord Byron, Robbie Burns, Benvenuto Cellini, Niccolo Paganini, and Hector Berlioz whose colourful lives imitated their art. Liszt was one of these but he did not die young like the others and lived to a relatively healthy 75.

Being a pianiste extraordinaire he composed mainly for the piano. His output was prolific and many pieces such as the Hungarian Rhapsodies, the Paganini Etudes, Années de pèlerinage and the b-minor Sonata have become immortal masterpieces, staples of the repertoire and difficult hurdles for any aspiring pianist. He revolutionized the piano concerto by compressing the traditional three movement structure into a single, free flowing, long movement, but still maintaining, in the form of episodes, the usual introduction, allegro, andante, scherzo and presto finale sequences.

Later in life he concentrated on orchestral writing and invented a new form, the symphonic poem. He wrote 12 of these of which Les Preludes became the most often played but according to critics, some of the others like Héroïade Funèbre, Orpheus, Mazeppa and Hamlet are superior. Following the footsteps of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique Liszt further developed the romantic symphony with his Faust and Dante symphonies, which rival Berlioz.

Disappointed in being unable to marry his Princess, Liszt took on monastic orders and retired in a monastery near Rome. He became an Abbé and lived in a cell with minimal furnishings and an old out of tune piano with the middle D missing. Monastic life, however did not suit him. He continued to travel, visiting the Princess who lived in Rome. His journeys were mainly to Bayreuth, Budapest and of course, Rome. In his seventies his health began to fail and after catching a bad cold on one of his train journeys he died in Bayreuth in the midst of his daughter’s family in 1886 at the age of 75. Ironically, his much younger son-in-law Richard Wagner had died three years earlier in 1883.

All life must come to an end, but Liszt certainly made the most of it. A dashing romantic hero idolized by women everywhere he went, he was a magician of the piano who took pianism to a level never before imagined. As a composer he revolutionized and extended, along with Berlioz, the symphony orchestra with instrumentation and orchestral effects never heard before. His influence as a composer on his contemporaries and the next generation cannot be overestimated. Franz Liszt enriched the history of music and it is unlikely there will be another like him ever again.

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