03 Beethoven LisztBeethoven – Complete Symphonies transcribed for piano by Franz Liszt
Michel Dalberto, Jean-Claude Pennetier, Alain Planès; Paul Badura-Skoda
Harmonia Mundi HMX2931192.98 (harmoniamundi.com/#!/albums/2643)

For over 25 years, Franz Liszt undertook the task of transcribing Beethoven’s symphonies for the piano, not merely transferring the notes from one instrument to another but reworking and recomposing these great works entirely. The material is unchanged – Beethoven’s melodic and harmonic content remain intact – but the approach is different, as necessitated by the reduction of 20-or-so instrumental parts down to two hands.

It is important to consider that when Liszt made these transcriptions the concept of the symphony orchestra was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is today, and there was no recording technology available to capture these incredible works for posterity; a performance was a one-time event, in the truest sense of the idea. If people wanted to listen to Beethoven in their living rooms, they had to do the work themselves, playing the notes live on their own pianos. By making these transcriptions, Liszt was enabling pianists everywhere to hear this great composer’s symphonies as often as they were willing to play them, while hopefully garnering himself a reasonable sum in royalties.

To those of us in the 21st century for whom accessing any one of the 10,000 recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies is as easy as pushing play, can these pianistic oddities have any relevance? Strangely, yes – but not in the straightforward way we might think. Liszt’s transcriptions have the effect of taking the immensity of the orchestra and distilling it into a chamber-sized sound, akin to a piano sonata rather than a symphony. Listening to pianist Paul Badura-Skoda tackle the legendary Fifth Symphony, for example, one is struck by how much his interpretation resembles a long-lost cousin to the Pathétique.

While this recording may be more of a novelty item than a standard must-have collectible, those who are familiar with Beethoven’s symphonic essays will appreciate hearing them in a different way, from the inside out, perhaps, rather than the outside in.

04 Weber ClarinetWeber – Symphonies; Clarinet Concertos
Joan Enric Lluna; Berliner Camerata
IBS Classical IBS222019 (naxosdirect.com/search/8436589069961)

Oh, allow the clarinet player his argument in favour of Carl Maria von Weber. This younger contemporary of Beethoven, precursor to Wagner, has been afforded an unfortunate and unfair place in the pantheon, close to the fire exit, on the way to the restrooms. 

But just listen to the powerful bass-y recording released by the Berlin Camerata, featuring Joan Enric Lluna as soloist and conductor in the Clarinet Concertos, Nos.1 in F Minor and 2 in E-flat Major. It’s as though the vengeful ghost of Weber has come to remind us: he was all that then, and he is still all that. Not for Lluna and the team any polite, apologetic renditions of this stuff: it is, as they say, junk out. It’s great to hear, for once, musicians who agree Weber is kind of wild, and requires that approach in order to be heard as intended. 

The microphone work is an integral part of this approach. You’ll hear everything as if you were sitting not just near, but within the band. The very first sound from the clarinetist is an inhale, and such a hungry, lüstig breath Lluna takes. Weber orchestrated with verve and wit. The Camerata players are given license to kill it, and we hear all the voicings as characters in an opera. Listen to the horns! Listen to the gutty strings! 

The liner notes written by Josep Dolcet are instructive; Lluna’s own brief addition pays respect to Weber the dramatist, and labels the soloist as the diva! There is a companion CD included of the rarely heard symphonies from the younger Weber.

05 Leipzig CircleThe Leipzig Circle Vol.II – Chamber Music by Felix, Clara & Robert
London Bridge Trio
Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0619 (naxosdirect.com/search/748871061927)

Leipzig – like Vienna, a city of music! Not only did Bach reside there as cantor at the Thomaskirche for 27 years, but the city also witnessed the birth of Clara Schumann, the arrival of her husband from Zwickau to study law (but later, piano), and the arrival of Mendelssohn to conduct the renowned Gewandhaus Orchestra. Such is the basis for this splendid recording on the Somm label, the second one to feature the London Bridge Trio, this time performing piano trios by Mendelssohn and Robert and Clara Schumann.

Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio Op.49 – his first of two – was composed in Leipzig in 1839, and has long been regarded as a supreme example of the genre. The impassioned first movement is all freshness and spontaneity, the intricate interplay deftly handled by the three performers. The second movement is a true song without words, while the scherzo and allegro finale contain the graceful brilliance that so typifies Mendelssohn’s chamber style.

Clara Schumann enjoyed a long career as an outstanding concert pianist, but her own compositions remain unjustifiably neglected. Nevertheless, her Trio Op.17 – considered by many to be her greatest work – demonstrates great originality and not surprisingly, a formidable piano part, adroitly handled by Daniel Tong.

From the buoyant exuberance of the first movement, the heartfelt lyricism of the second and the cheerful optimism of the finale, Robert Schumann’s Trio Op.80 from 1847 truly embodies the Romantic spirit – little wonder the piece has earned such high praise over the years. Throughout, the London Bridge Trio performs with great panache, demonstrating a sensitive but confident approach in this most intimate repertoire. This disc is a delight!

06 Si SonatasSi! Sonatas
Leticia Gómez-Tagle
ARS Produktion ARS38270 (leticiagomeztagle.no-te.com) 

Sonatas by Chopin, Liszt and Domenico Scarlatti are featured on this Ars Produktion recording titled Si! Sonatas with Mexican-born pianist Leticia Gómez-Tagle. While most of us realize the word “Si” is Spanish for “yes” it also refers to B minor, the key in which all three pieces were written. The title was chosen by the artist herself, but even without the play on words and tenuous connection, the program is an attractive one.

Chopin’s Sonata No.3 Op.58 was completed in 1844, a time when the composer was at the height of his creative powers. The piece has long been regarded as one of his most difficult, not only with respect to the technical demands, but also to nuance. To say the least, Gómez-Tagle rises to the challenges in a very big way. She delivers an elegant and polished performance, her formidable technique further enhanced by a beautiful tone and fine use of phrasing.

The Sonata in B Minor by Franz Liszt is acknowledged as one of the powerhouses of 19th-century piano repertoire; fiendishly difficult, the piece presents technical challenges even greater than those of the Chopin sonata. Again – and not surprisingly – Gómez-Tagle meets the demands with apparent ease, creating a mood of thrilling dramatic intensity throughout.

In total contrast to the two Romantic giants is an encore – the Scarlatti Sonata K87, a gentle miniature written a century earlier. Here, Gómez-Tagle’s delicate and precise approach is clear evidence that she is as comfortable with Baroque repertoire as she is with that from later periods. Superb sound quality throughout further enhances an exemplary recording. Highly recommended.

Listen to 'Si! Sonatas' Now in the Listening Room

07 Villa LobosPiano Works by Heitor Villa-Lobos
Flavio Varani
Azur Classical AZC 175 (ciar.e-monsite.com)

Even today, the piano music of Villa-Lobos remains an untapped trove that suggests something of the exotic. Despite the popularity of a handful of his works such as the Bachianas Brasileiras series, Villa-Lobos’ prodigious output for his own instrument boasts much unfamiliar music, thereby requiring a devotional sort of elucidation.

Apparently up to such a task is veteran pianist (and native Brazilian), Flavio Varani. He brings an unusual commingling of old-school romanticism and ardent, fiery command to his new disc where accompaniments leap and melodies spring about the keyboard. Varani’s training as a student at the Juilliard School with the great Rosina Lhevinne – and subsequently Arthur Balsam – reveals an integral approach to his art and a careful conception of pianistic lineage in general. The listener is aware that Varani has lived long and purposefully with the music of his homeland; the relationship of composer and interpreter here recalls the great association John Browning, (also a Lhevinne student), had with Samuel Barber.

Villa-Lobos’ strange and exotic piano calls to us from unexpected pieces throughout this record: Chôros No.1 W161 “Chôro tipico brasileiro” (a transcription from guitar) and the Danças características africanas W085 are examples. Conversely, Varani chooses the oft-loved eighth piece from Cirandas W220, “Vamos atrás da serra, Calunga,” as epilogue.

Regrettably, the recording quality here is not of the highest calibre. Levels are noticeably out of balance and extraneous studio noises disturb the overall flow of an otherwise convincing disc.

09 Dinnerstein QuietA Character of Quiet – Schubert; Glass
Simone Dinnerstein
Orange Mountain Music (orangemountainmusic.com) 

Admittedly feeling “anxious and enervated” during the early days of lockdown in March and April, pianist Simone Dinnerstein has confessed that she felt neither “creative” nor “productive.” In time however, with the help of poets Wordsworth and Melville and walks through her local cemetery – the hallowed Green-Wood of Brooklyn – she found her way back to the piano. In June, she sat down to record the music of two composers she has held a close connection with: Philip Glass and Franz Schubert. (And we are so very glad that she did!)

From the first note of this “quiet” and remarkable album (recorded in her New York home with longtime producer and friend Adam Abeshouse), the listener feels as if ferried to a private audience with Dinnerstein. Therein we are greeted with soloistic utterances on a wholly intimate order, sincere and sublime. With this unassuming recording, Dinnertsein seems to have evolved a new kind of homemade listening: she has managed to capture the immediacy and depth of experience – of character – that a one-on-one house recital can deliver. Here we glimpse the personal, as procured by the pandemic.

Even the three Glass Etudes, (music and a composer that this particular reviewer is often bemused by), speak in an honest and poignant mode, somehow changed by our planet’s new energy, reshaped by a hushed and isolated atmosphere surrounding Glass’ simple patterns and motifs.

Dinnerstein’s Schubert is always formidable and especially unique. Her performance here of the mighty last Sonata in B-flat Major D960 bears no exception, possessing an inescapable message of radiance and poetry, humanity and continuance.

Ultimately, Dinnerstein’s musicianship is one born of integrity. Through forced pause and quietude she has, indubitably, discovered new aspects to her art. Let us hope for more such recordings, as we marvel at her courage and savour the nourishment it brings us in these weary, unwanted times.

Note: The recording’s title was inspired by William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, a poem Dinnerstein became familiar with during lockdown. It refers to “A character of quiet more profound than pathless wastes.” Dinnerstein muses: “Perhaps I had been parted too long from my better self by the hurrying world, as Wordsworth puts it.”

01 Dana Zemtsov Anna Fedorova SilhouettesThe compositions by French and non-French composers on Silhouettes, the new CD from violist Dana Zemstov and pianist Anna Fedorova (Channel Classics CCS 42320 channelclassics.com) purportedly were all inspired by French poetry, a link that seems tenuous at best and in some cases non-existent, but when there’s playing as rapturous and ravishing as this, who cares?

The 1919 Sonata by Rebecca Clarke opens the CD, and what an opening it is – flowing, passionate, intense and finely nuanced playing from both players in a gem of a work that combines Debussy and Ravel influences with an English mood. The “French connection” is a quote from Alfred de Musset that Clarke wrote on the opening page.

The first of three effective transcriptions of short pieces by Debussy – La plus que lente – precedes the 2007 Suite Op.51 by Netherlands composer Arne Werkman, its Allemande, Branle, Pavane and Tarantella movements providing Baroque form for modern musical content. Debussy’s Clair de lune is followed by Darius Milhaud’s four-movement Sonata No.1 Op.240 from 1944, another work that glances back at the Baroque style. Based on unpublished and anonymous themes of the 18th century, it has a really lovely third movement Air, later arranged by the composer for viola and orchestra. The rhapsodic and impassioned 1906 Concert Piece by the Romanian composer George Enescu precedes the final Debussy transcription, Beau Soir, providing a beautiful ending to an outstanding CD. 

Both performers have technique, tone and musicality in abundance, but it’s a long time since I’ve heard such beautiful viola playing in particular, Zemstov displaying a wide range of tonal colour without any hint of the nasal quality that you sometimes encounter in viola recitals.

02 MILLER PORFIRIS DUOThere’s more excellent duo work featuring viola on Threaded Sky, the new CD from the Miller-Porfiris Duo of violinist Anton Miller and violist Rita Porfiris (millerporfirisduo.org/store). Their Divertimenti CD was enthusiastically reviewed here in May 2017, and this latest recital of short works easily lives up to the same standard.

Three works by American composer Augusta Read Thomas – her complete violin-viola duo music – form the first half of the disc. Rumi Settings was written in 2001, its four movements – Dramatic, Resonant arpeggio, Suspended and Graceful and Passionate – inspired by the 13th-century Persian poet. Double Helix from 2011 was originally for two violins; Silent Moon was premiered in 2006.

Krzysztof Penderecki’s Ciaconna in Memoria Giovanni Paolo II from 2005 was the last movement of his Polish Requiem, a work that took 25 years to complete. Originally for string orchestra it was transcribed for violin and viola by the composer in 2009, the Miller-Porfiris Duo returning some of the omitted voices to the transcription here. Angel Fire by the Asian-American composer Bright Sheng has four movements, the third based on a Chinese folk song.

Finally, the very brief The Weight of Shadows from 2019, by the Iranian-American composer Mani Mirzaee, uses santoor mallets and not bows to produce sound, bouncing the light Persian hammers on the strings with a dulcimer-like effect.

03 Violins of HopeNiv Ashkenazi: Violins of Hope is a celebration of the artistic and educational project founded by Israeli luthier Amnon Weinstein and his son Avshalom in which instruments that were owned by Jewish musicians before and during the Holocaust are restored and played in the best concert halls by the world’s best players, the latter including Shlomo Mintz and Daniel Hope (Albany Records TROY1810 albanyrecords.com).

Violinist Ashkenazi and accompanist and fellow Juilliard graduate Matthew Graybil first became involved with Violins of Hope in 2017, and Ashkenazi is the only violinist to hold an instrument from the collection – in this case an early 20th-century Eastern European or German violin – on long-term loan. For this CD he chose Jewish repertoire that covers the instrument’s lifetime.

Robert Dauber’s Serenade (1942) makes a beautiful opening to an excellent recital that comprises Bloch’s Nigun (1923), John Williams’ Theme from Schindler’s List, Julius Chajes’ The Chassid (1939), Sharon Farber’s recent Bestemming: Triumph, Szymon Laks’ Trois pièces de concert (1935), George Perlman’s Dance of the Rebbitzen (1929), Ravel’s Kaddisch (1914) and Ben-Haim’s Berceuse sfaradite (1945) and Three Songs Without Words (1952).

It’s easy to understand why the Weinstein family has such trust and faith in Ashkenazi’s commitment and performance: he clearly has an emotional bond with this instrument, lending all of these short pieces a beautifully distinctive and idiomatic sound.

04 Napoleonian GuitarWorld-premiere recordings of French Romantic guitar sonatas by Antoine de Lhoyer, Louis-Ange Carpentras and Alexandre Alfred Rougeon-Beauclair are featured on Napoleonian Guitar Sonatas, with Montreal guitarist Pascal Valois (Centaur CRC 3733 naxosdirect.com).

Valois is dedicated to reviving enthusiasm for the guitar’s role during the Romantic era, performing 19th-century repertoire on period instruments and employing contemporary stylistic practices, including improvised ornaments and cadenzas. One such practice here is that of not using right-hand fingernails, the bare fingertips resulting in a much softer and smoother sound. The guitar used is a French model built in the late 1820s by the Mirecourt luthier Cabasse-Bernard.

While the Carpentras Sonate brillante Op.1 (1816) and the Rougeon-Beauclair Sonate Op.4 No.1 are both for guitar solo, in the two de Lhoyer Sonates pour la guitare avec un violon obligé Op.17 (c.1801) Valois is joined by Montreal violinist Jacques-André Houle. The violin, though, tends to distract from, rather than enhance the guitar writing, especially being set so far back in the balance – presumably not to overwhelm the softer instrument. 

Valois’ playing is accomplished, clean and sensitive throughout music that offers a fascinating insight into the early 19th-century classical guitar world. 

05 Max RegerThe Diogenes Quartett is the central ensemble on the new CD Max Reger Clarinet Quintet & String Sextet, being joined by clarinettist Thorsten Johanns in the Clarinet Quintet in A Major Op.146 and by violist Roland Glassl and cellist Wen-Sinn Yang in the String Sextet in F Major Op.118 (cpo 555 340-2 naxosdirect.com).

Despite the advanced tonal nature of his music, Reger had a strong affinity with earlier musical eras in addition to his deep Romantic roots, and the equivalent works by Mozart and Brahms were clearly the inspiration for his own Clarinet Quintet. Despite being completed in 1915 the work shows no influence of the Great War, a contemporary review of the October 1916 premiere referencing “the deep, holy peace of a mild autumn evening, which the last rays of the setting sun dress in gold.” Shades of Brahms indeed.

The large, complex String Sextet from 1910 is full of the features that have tended to make Reger’s music misunderstood and under-appreciated over the years, but is a deeply satisfying work with a really beautiful slow movement.

Playing throughout is of the highest quality on a terrific CD.

06 Schubert SkaervedThere’s another CD of the Franz Schubert 3 Sonatas (1816), this time with violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved and Julian Perkins on square piano (Athene ath 23208 naxosdirect.com).

Skærved always excels not only in his playing but also in his exploration of and critical approach to the original musical sources, and this CD is no different, with 12 pages of fascinatingly detailed and informative notes illuminating every aspect of the performances. The German violin is by Leopold Widhalm I (1722-1776) with a very early Tourte bow probably from around 1770-80. The square piano is by Clementi & Co., London, 1812.

Skærved’s playing here is warmer than in some of his period performances; he’s not afraid to use vibrato, but a clear sense of period style is always present. The keyboard obviously lacks the fuller sound we might be accustomed to, but the tonal subtlety and nuance more than compensate. The performers admit to viewing the score as “a map that offers options rather than answers,” resulting in some interesting choices on repeats and frequent moments of surprise, particularly at the end of the Sonata No.2 in A Minor where, following the short, sharp final violin chords, the piano resonance is left to die away for fully 13 seconds.

07 Edward CowiePeter Sheppard Skærved is also the first violinist in the Kreutzer Quartet, the performers on Edward Cowie: Three Quartets & A Solo, a new CD of music by the multi-disciplined English composer born in 1943 (Métier Records msv 28603 naxosdirect.com).

An author, lecturer, academic, visual artist, natural scientist, conductor and composer with two doctorates including studies in physics and mathematics, Cowie produces music which is a fusion of science, the natural world and visual arts. “I am more inspired,” he says, “by natural history than by musical history.”

Certainly the natural world is central to the quartets here: the two single-movement works, No.1 “Dungeness Nocturnes” from 1969 and No.2 “Crystal Dances” from 1977, and the four-movement No.6 “The Four Winds” from 2012, with the North, East, South and West winds representing the four seasons. It’s difficult music to describe, with an obviously contemporary sound but not completely dissonant despite a general lack of melodies and overtly tonal writing, and with a scurrying, restless feel that invokes insects and birds and is quite nocturnal at times.

The solo work GAD was written in 2017 for Skærved at his request, and addresses the composer’s almost lifelong suffering from generalized anxiety disorder.

All you need to know about the performances is that Cowie says that “no composer could ever be served, illuminated and translated by better or more brilliantly insightful players than the Kreutzer Quartet.”

08 Robin StevensAnother British composer whose name and music seem new to me is represented on Robin Stevens String Quartets & String Quintet, with the Behn Quartet and cellist Timothée Botbol (Divine Art dda 25203 naxosdirect.com).

For Stevens (b.1958), the String Quintet in C Minor from 1980-81 was his first major composition, revised in 2018 for this recording. It features lush melodic writing with a truly lovely slow movement. As the composer notes, “unconscious references to, and near-quotes from, 20th-century music abound.”

In his early 30s Stevens was stricken with post-viral fatigue, a debilitating illness that kept him out of work for 17 years and limited his compositional activity to experimental miniatures. On regaining full health in 2007 he began a PhD in Composition, producing a major work in each of his six post-graduate years. The single-movement String Quartet No.1 uses “a handful of ideas, which are subjected to contrapuntal development of considerable complexity” in a work of “unremittingly dissonant harmonic language.” The String Quartet No.2, “Three Portraits” has three continuous sections – Impulsive One, God-Seeker and Arguer – followed by a brief Epilogue.

A bequest has enabled Stevens to begin recording his considerable catalogue of works; if future performances are of the same high quality as these then his music will certainly be well served.

09 Lawrence Power BBC Philharmonic Orchestra Martyn Brabbins MacMillan Symphony No.4 Viola ConcertoFinally, if you’re interested in contemporary concertos for viola then you should know that the latest CD of music by the Scottish composer James MacMillan, Symphony No.4 & Viola Concerto, features soloist Lawrence Power with the BBC Philharmonic under Martyn Brabbins in a terrific performance of the concerto written for Power in 2013 (Hyperion CDA 68317 hyperion-records.co.uk).

It’s a three-movement work with an ominous, uneasy first movement, a central movement of a devotional character with a lovely main theme and occasional “primal sreeam” outbursts and a sparkling finale with decided hints of Barber’s Violin Concerto at the end.

It’s a significant addition to the contemporary repertoire and discography. 

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