01 Sylvie ProulxLes Tendres Plaintes: Works by Jean-Philippe Rameau (Centaur CRC 3603) is the second solo CD from Canadian guitarist Sylvie Proulx; it’s a collection of transcriptions, mostly of dance movements, from harpsichord suites by the leading French Baroque composer.

Three of the transcriptions, including the title track, are by Proulx, with the remaining 12 being by other guitarists including John Duarte and Andrés Segovia. Given the inherent difficulties in transcribing harpsichord music for guitar – the reduced range, the unavoidability of playing fewer notes, and in particular the handling of ornamentation – everything here works extremely well, helped no doubt by the guitar’s greater capabilities for expressive playing.

Proulx’s performances are clean and clearly defined, with a complete absence of extraneous noise and a lovely range of colour, tone and contrast. It’s terrific playing.

02 Campion GuitarThere’s more excellent – and fascinating – guitar playing on François Campion Music for Baroque Guitar (Brilliant Classics 95276), with Bernhard Hofstötter playing a Baroque guitar attributed to Matteo Sellas of Venice, from about 1640.

The colour booklet photos show an astonishingly beautiful instrument. It’s a five-course guitar, tuned the same as the top five strings of the modern guitar, with the top E a single string and the other four doubled, either in unison (A, G and B strings) or at the lower octave (D string).

In 1705 Campion published one of the last five-course guitar books, and continued to add handwritten pieces to his own personal copy throughout his life. These manuscript pieces often exceeded the published works in size and difficulty, and form the basis of this recital.

In the excellent booklet Hofstötter remarks on the instrument’s “…full-bodied and velvety dark sound which radically differs from comparable modern instruments” and is “round, fully resonating and at the same time subtle and fragile.” It’s exactly that. Hofstötter is a lutenist, and it shows; the sound here seems like a bridge between the lute and the classical guitar. It’s meticulously clean playing of some very intricate and technically demanding music – the Bach-like fugues and dance forms in particular – and a simply fascinating CD.

03 Haimovitz TroikaWhenever you see a 2CD box set from the wonderful cello and piano duo of Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley you know you’re in for something special, and so it proves with Troika, their latest release of Russian music by Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff on the Pentatone Oxingale Series label (PTC 5186 608).

CD1 is devoted to Shostakovich and Prokofiev, with the former’s Waltz No.2 and Cello Sonata in D Minor Op.40 and the latter’s Troika from Lieutenant Kijé and Cello Sonata in C Major Op.119.

CD2 has Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata in G Minor Op.19 and his famous Vocalise before the duo takes a customary left turn into contemporary Russian music with two of their own arrangements: Kukushka, by the singer-songwriter Victor Tsoi; and Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer – Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away, complete with Haimovitz’s use of a glass slide on the strings and a crushed Styrofoam cup behind the bridge to achieve some grunge punk bass distortion!

The duo’s arrangement of Lennon & McCartney’s Back in the U.S.S.R. completes a terrific set.

Review

04 Dubeau RichterAngèle Dubeau and La Pietà are back with another CD in their Portrait series, this time featuring music by Max Richter, who has been particularly active in film, theatre and television (Analekta AN 2 8745).

Previous Portrait CDs featured Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, John Adams and Ludovico Einaudi, and Dubeau says that the more she listens to composers gravitating around the minimalist movement the more she wants to interpret their music: “I enjoy the moments of introspection that these works bring.”

Those moments are possibly the result of the lack of any real development: each of the 16 short pieces here (15 are less than five minutes) essentially sets a mood and keeps it, with little opportunity for anything other than “Here’s an idea…”

Apart from the really lovely Mercy for solo violin and piano, and Winter II, recomposed by Richter from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, all tracks are arrangements by François Vallières and Dubeau of pieces from Richter’s solo albums Memoryhouse, The Blue Notebooks – Disconnect, Songs From Before and From Sleep, the films Waltz with Bashir and Perfect Sense, and the television scores for The Leftovers and Black Mirror-Nosedive.

As always, playing and recording standards are absolutely top-notch. It’s essentially easy, pleasant – and, yes, introspective – listening that will be warmly welcomed by Dubeau’s many regular admirers.

Review

05 Nune MelikViolinist Nuné Melik makes an impressive recording debut with the CD Hidden Treasure: Rediscovered Music from Armenia with pianist Michel-Alexandres Broekaert (DOM Forlane FOR 16886 domdisques.com).

Born in Siberia of Armenian/Georgian/Jewish heritage, Melik moved to Montreal in 2009 and began to explore the music of composers from her upbringing; this recital program grew out of the resulting Hidden Treasure project. Judging by her playing here, it’s clearly been an emotional and rewarding journey.

The central work on the disc is the Violin Sonata in B-flat Minor by Arno Babadjanian, written in Russia in 1959 and criticized as “formalist” by the Soviet authorities. Babadjanian’s close friend Dmitri Shostakovich thought highly of it, and his influence is clearly felt; there are hints of Prokofiev in the slow movement, too.

Lovely short pieces by Komitas Vardapet, Aram Khachaturian and Alexander Spendiarian complete the disc. There’s passionate, rhapsodic playing from Melik and sympathetic support from Broekaert, who also has a short solo.

 

Review

06 Fewer KnoxJ.S. Bach: Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord BWV 1014-1019 with violinist Mark Fewer and Hank Knox (Leaf Music LM 216) is the third set of these works I’ve received in recent years, following the outstanding releases from Catherine Manson and Ton Koopman (harpsichord) and the Duo Concertante pairing of Nancy Dahn and Timothy Steeves (piano).

Although there is accomplished playing here the harpsichord is prominent and rather heavy, and its lack of dynamic range tends to give the performances a somewhat mechanical feel, with the violin sounding more like a separate voice than an integrated partner. Koopman’s sound is much softer and much more attuned to Manson’s playing.

There are occasional significant differences in interpretation too, notably in the Adagio of the F minor sonata, where Fewer – unlike Manson and Dahn – opts to separate and shorten the eighth note double-stops.

As always, it comes down to personal taste. If you prefer these works strong and bright and with harpsichord there is much here you will enjoy, although Manson and Koopman and Duo Concertante both offer more sensitive readings.

 

07 Akiko MeyersFantasia is the 35th studio album from violin superstar Anne Akiko Meyers, this time with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Kristjan Järvi (Avie Records AV2385). The title track is by the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, written in 2015 at the request of Meyers, who worked on it with the composer in Helsinki only months before his death in July 2016. Meyers describes it as “transcendent” and having “the feeling of an elegy with a very personal reflective mood.” It’s a lovely work that clearly has great emotional significance for her.

The Violin Concerto No.1 Op.35 by Karol Szymanowski dates from 1916, and was one of the first works to reflect the life-changing influence of his 1914 trips to North Africa and to Paris, where he met Debussy and Ravel. It’s a simply glorious single-movement work full of sensuous and exotic melody and lush orchestration, and with an extremely demanding solo part that rarely leaves the stratosphere.

Ravel’s dazzling Tzigane, in the orchestral version, completes a simply outstanding CD.

08 Kinga AugustynIn the old LP days the Bruch and Mendelssohn Violin Concertos were frequent companions, and the tradition continues on a new CD from the Polish-born violinist Kinga Augustyn, with the Janáček Philharmonia Orchestra under Jakub Klecker (Centaur CRC 3585).

The Bruch Concerto No.1 in G Minor has a lovely opening, with Augustyn displaying a big, bright tone. Tempos are never rushed, and there is beautiful orchestral support.

The performance of the Mendelssohn Concerto in E Minor follows the same pattern, with unhurried tempos, accuracy in the details and some lovely orchestral moments. There’s sweetness and warmth in the playing, but never a hint of superficiality: these are thoughtful performances that bring delightful playing from all concerned.

Massenet’s Meditation from Thaïs is the final track, and again it’s a performance that leans toward the understated – a sensitive, simple reading with great depth that makes for a very effective ending to an impressive CD.

09 Saint Saens CelloThe outstanding German cellist Gabriel Schwabe is the soloist in the complete Saint-Saëns Works for Cello and Orchestra with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra under Marc Soustrot (Naxos 8.573737).

The two Cello Concertos – No.1 in A Minor, Op.33 and No.2 in D Minor, Op.119 – are the major works here, although the lesser-known five-movement Suite in D Minor, Op.16bis from 1919 has much to recommend it. It was written for cello and piano and later orchestrated by the composer, as were the two other short works here: the Romance in F Major, Op.36 and the Allegro appassionato in B Minor, Op.43. Paul Vidal’s orchestration of The Swan from Carnival of the Animals completes the CD.

With his great tone and terrific technique Schwabe easily negotiates the difficult challenges of the second concerto, with some particularly lovely playing in the simply beautiful central Andante sostenuto. There is fine orchestral support from Soustrot and the Malmö orchestra. All in all, an outstanding disc.

10 Ashley WaltersThere’s cello playing at the complete opposite end of the spectrum on Sweet Anxiety, the first solo CD from the American cellist Ashley Walters featuring new works for cello from 2002-2013 (populist records PR014 populistrecords.com). Walters says that she seeks “to challenge your perception of what the cello… is capable of,” and she certainly succeeds.

Nicholas Deyoe provides two tracks: For Stephanie (on our wedding day) and the title track another anxiety, the latter drawing some astonishing playing from Walters. Luciano Berio’s Sequenza XIV is predominantly percussive; it’s heard here in a performing edition created by Walters.

Wolfgang von Schweinitz’s Plainsound-Litany is a hypnotic sequence of precisely tuned double stops; Wadada Leo Smith’s Sweet Bay Magnolia with Berry Clusters includes improvisational sequences. Andrew McIntosh’s Another Secular Calvinist Creed provides a serene, contemplative end to the recital.

Walters is simply brilliant throughout the disc, and the short printed examples of the scores (other than the Berio) give some idea of the challenges she faced.

Review

11 Madeleine MitchellOn Violin Muse the British violinist Madeleine Mitchell presents a program of world premiere recordings of works by British composers (Divine Art dda 25160).

The major work here is the two-movement Violin Concerto “Soft Stillness” by Welsh composer Guto Pryderi Puw, commissioned by Mitchell and heard in a live BBC Radio recording from 2016. It’s an effective piece, with Mitchell accompanied by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Edwin Outwater.

Mitchell is joined by Cerys Jones in Judith Weir’s delightful Atlantic Drift – Three pieces for two violins, based on Gaelic folk tunes.

Pianist Nigel Clayton is the accompanist in the remaining works: Geoffrey Poole’s Rhapsody; David Matthews’ Romanza Op.119a; Sadie Harrison’s lovely Aurea Luce; Michael Berkeley’s Veilleuse; and Michael Nyman’s Taking it as Read.

There’s excellent playing throughout by all concerned.

 

 

Review

01 David JalbertDavid Jalbert already has five recordings in the ATMA catalogue. His newest is Stravinski – Prokofiev Pétrouchka, L’oiseau de feu, Roméo et Juliette – Transcriptions pour piano (ATMA Classique ACD2 2684). It shows why he’s considered one of the younger generation’s finest pianists. His performance of Danse russe from Pétrouchka explodes into being with astonishing speed and alacrity. Jalbert possesses a sweeping technique that exudes ease and persuasive conviction.

The three extracts from L’Oiseau de feu require, and Jalbert obviously has it, complete command of the keyboard for the Danse that begins the set. Equally demanding is the introspection necessary for the following Berceuse. The Finale builds to a colossal orchestral finish that loses nothing in this transcription for piano.

According to the disc’s informative liner notes, the ten pieces from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet Op.75 are from Prokofiev’s original piano score, and owing to the composer’s facility with the instrument, are highly idiomatic. One of the set’s most engaging pieces is The Montagues and the Capulets, driven rhythmically by its relentless bassline. Jalbert has a complete understanding of these three stage works and the contemporary language their composers used to tell their stories.

Review

02 MathieuAlain Lefèvre has recorded an intriguing work with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under Joann Falletta: André Mathieu – Concerto No.3 (Analekta AN 2 9299). Written at age 13 while marooned with his family in North America by the outbreak of WWII, unable to return to France where he had been studying on a scholarship from the Quebec government, the work was intended to launch Mathieu’s career with the influential decision makers of the New York music scene. Unfortunately, not much came of it until 1946, when a newly created Quebec production company approached Mathieu for the rights to use his Concerto No.3 in a film (La Forteresse/Whispering City) to be shot entirely in Quebec. As things turned out, only major portions of the second movement were used in the film score. Until recently, this had been the only record of the work. Mathieu himself recorded it in 1947, and this same version, revised by Marc Bélanger, was recorded by Philippe Entremont in 1977 and made famous by Alain Lefèvre in 2003. Eventually renamed the Concerto de Québec, the recording by Jean-Philippe Sylvestre with the Orchestre Métropolitain and conductor Alain Trudel was reviewed here in October.

In 2008 the original autograph score for two pianos was discovered in Ottawa. Since then, composer and conductor Jacques Marchand has prepared a critical edition that is faithful to the original manuscript. This is its first full recording. It has all the sweeping gestures of its period and a devilishly difficult piano part. Lefèvre’s performance at the keyboard is masterful. He and the BPO perform the work with astonishing authenticity, restoring a fascinating chapter to Canadian music history of that period.

 

03 David Glen HatchAmerican pianist David Glen Hatch exploits his pianistic link to Brahms in Brahms & Rubinstein (Centaur CRC 3565/3566). Brahms’ student Carl Friedberg taught at Juilliard in the late 1940s; Hatch’s own teacher Joanne Baker won an audition to study there with Friedberg. Hatch recalls numerous instructions from Baker, handed down by Friedberg from Brahms, about his intentions for various passages in the Piano Concerto No.1 in D Minor Op.15. It’s fascinating to consider the extent to which Hatch’s performance is connected to the composer in this way. Hatch’s approach overall is quite deliberate in his slightly slower tempi. The second movement in particular reveals numerous opportunities to dwell on phrases and Brahms’ characteristic harmonic shifts.

As substantial as the Brahms concerto is, the Rubinstein Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.4 in D Minor Op.70 seems an even grander conception. It may have to do with Rubenstein’s orchestrations, but somehow Hatch seems truly in his element with the composer’s great pianistic gestures. The concertos are an excellent pairing for this two-disc recording.

Review

04 Piano a deuxRobert and Linda Ang Stoodley style themselves as Piano à Deux. Their new disc, France Revisited – Music by Onslow, Debussy and Poulenc (Divine Art dda 25132) is an example of piano four hands performance at its very best. One of the disc’s many treats is the appearance of music by George Onslow. Because his oeuvre is largely for chamber strings, his very few piano works tend to be overlooked. The unique voice of this 19th-century composer is deeply intriguing as heard in the Sonata for Piano Four Hands No.1 in E Minor Op.7. It’s surprisingly forward looking despite its early catalogue entry.

Petite Suite delivers all the rich impressionistic orchestrations with which we associate Claude Debussy, and Piano à Deux are consistently excellent in how they portray the composer’s lightly programmatic intent.

The duo has also transcribed the Poulenc Chansons de l’amour et de la guerre, and done so with a gifted ear that preserves the wistful nostalgia that Poulenc infused into each song.

05 Jose MenorJosé Menor is an extraordinary pianist with a fearsome technique and unrivalled fluidity of touch. His new recording Goyescas – Enrique Granados (IBS Classical IBS-82017) demonstrates how he brings these gifts to his exploration of this major composition of Spanish piano music. Menor goes to considerable effort in his liner notes to explain how this music captured his imagination and compelled him to study it from a composer’s perspective rather than just a pianist’s. His study of the original manuscripts recommended by the Granados family helped him profoundly in discerning the composer’s intent in writing the suite, which deals with the course of love and death.

Menor admits being attracted by the work’s many, deep contrasts and its expressive intensity. This is most powerfully evident in El amor y la muerte. It’s astonishing to imagine that this century-old work contains such modern tone clusters and rhythmic freedom. Under the hands of Menor it becomes a revealing expression, ahead of its time, and potently magical. The suite is slightly abridged for lack of recording space but the disc does include a rare performance of a single short manuscript, Crepúsculo, that may have been Granados’ first draft of some of the suite.

Review

06 MathiesonHarpsichordist Gilbert Rowland has completed a substantial project with his recording Johann Mattheson 12 Suites for Harpsichord (Athene ath 23301.1 divineartrecords.com). The three-disc set is a valuable document shedding some light on the music of a hitherto obscure composer. Mattheson was a contemporary of Handel and came to know him well as a friend and colleague. He is said to have written numerous operas, oratorios, sacred works and music for organ. Most of these manuscripts were kept in Hamburg, where Mattheson lived and worked for much of his life. Allied bombing of the city during WWII destroyed most of the Mattheson documents, leaving little for modern scholars to study. Fortunately, the 12 Suites for Harpsichord, dating from 1714, have survived. They are well-conceived mature works written in the French dance suite style. Rowland plays a 2005 copy of a French instrument from 1750 by Goermans.

 

Review

07 Operatic PianistAndrew Wright has recorded a second disc in his series of operatic transcriptions, The Operatic Pianist II (Divine Art dda 25153 divineartrecords.com). Opera transcriptions were, in their day, the equivalent of pop song covers. They also provided travelling pianists with ample popular repertoire for performance. Liszt may be the best-known contributor to the form, although a great many composers dabbled in the genre. Wright clearly has a wonderful working grasp of this repertoire and knows how to bring forward the vocal line as well as how to portray the orchestral colour that any given emotional moment requires. His playing is consistently fabulous, whether he’s pounding out Liszt’s Rienzi Fantasy or Saint-Saëns’ Concert Paraphrase on Thaïs. It’s easy to understand how these transcriptions achieved “hit” status in the time before the gramophone and digital access to opera performances.

Review

08 Janacek BachMisuzu Tanaka has, at first blush, twinned a pair of unlikely composers in her new release, Janáček, Bach - In concert (Concertant Classics CD PR201601 concertantclassics.com). She admits, however, that in the process of the recording she discovered that both were having the same effect on her. Tanaka’s performance of the Bach Partita No.6 in E Minor BWV 830 reveals her strict adherence to the perfection of Bach’s structure. It also uncovers the emotional richness of the minor key. This last consideration is where she makes the link to Janáček. His Moravian heritage and his links to Czech folk music are reflected in the emotional content of On an Overgrown Path, Books 1 and 2. Minor keys are prevalent. Melancholy is pervasive. In its own way, this shared feature is, for Tanaka, the point of connection.

Tanaka approaches Janáček with an intent to uncover the inspired simplicity of his music. She moves through the numerous parts of Books 1 and 2 with thoughtful deliberation, capturing the essence of the composer’s evocative titles: Words Fail, Unutterable Anguish, In Tears, for example. Her playing is as perfect for Janáček as it is for Bach. What a wonderfully unlikely pair.

 

09 WeisgallMartin Perry’s third recording Martin Perry Piano – Hugo Weisgall, Piano Sonata & Paul Hindemith, Ludus Tonalis (Bridge 9467) continues his artistic focus on contemporary piano music, and specifically on substantial forms. The disc opens with a three-movement Sonata for Piano by Hugo Weisgall, a Moravian immigrant to the US in 1920 whose serious pursuit of music study at Peabody and Curtis, and privately with composers like Roger Sessions, helped form the rigorous approach he developed in his own writing. His language tends towards a 12-tone, relaxed serialism where the musical ideas are rather long. There’s a good deal of highly contrasted emotional content that Perry handles beautifully, giving the sonata what the liner notes call an “operatic” quality.

In the same vein, the Hindemith Ludus Tonalis has an illuminating subtitle: Studies in Counterpoint, Tonal Organization and Piano Playing. Hindemith writes a fugue in each of the 12 major keys, joined by interludes that help establish the new key. The opening Praeludium is played inverted and in reverse as the Postludium. It’s all rather cerebral, but Perry uses the distinct character of each fugue and interlude to colour the work in the most creative way. It’s a very engaging performance.

10 Villa LobosAndree-Ann Deschenes describes herself as a “French-Canadian pianist specializing in the passionate music of Latin and South America.” Currently doing doctoral work at California State University in LA, her latest recording Villa-Lobos / Castro (191061746096 aadpiano.com) is a rich program revealing the skill and artistic mastery of this very gifted pianist. Opening with the Villa-Lobos four-part Ciclo Brasileiro W374, Deschenes establishes her credentials as a serious student of these Latin composers. With an unerring sense of rhythm for every turn of phrase and ornament, she navigates through the Villa-Lobos and the five Tangos para Piano by Juan José Castro, finishing with a brilliant performance of Festiva by José Maria Vitler. It’s a terrific recording with a tremendous amount of energy, humour and astonishing talent.

11 Norman KriegerNorman Krieger puts two wonderful standard repertoire items on his newest CD: Beethoven Piano Concertos No.3 Op.37 & No.5 Op.73 (Decca DD41154 / 4815583). The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under Joann Falletta performs beautifully with Krieger. They appear to have an agreement that the Concerto No.3 will not be overly furious and that the “Emperor” will similarly not be too imperiously grand. The outer movements of the concertos are sufficiently strong and emphatic where they need be, and the middle, slow movements are given ample space to breathe. The Concerto No.5 is especially effective in this way. The playing throughout is excellent. To top things off, the recordings are live concert performances that bring their own unique energy to the music. It’s a successful collaboration that shows promise.

01 Lestro dOrfeoAltri canti d’amor - 17th Century Instrumental Works
L’Estro d’Orfeo; Leonor de Lera
Challenge Classics CC72760 (lestrodorfeo.com)

This is a CD with two pleasant surprises. One is a track from undervalued Renaissance composer, Barbara Strozzi. The other is a contemporary set of divisions on a Renaissance theme composed by the present-day artistic director of the CD, Leonor de Lera. Instrumental this collection may be, but the traditional description of the cornetto as being the closest instrument to the human voice is borne out by Josué Meléndez’s playing of Monteverdi’s Sinfonia; it is as if an ethereal choir is in attendance. Meléndez’s cornetto returns in L’Eraclito Amoroso by Strozzi, here as an example of diminuzioni, or extemporixed ornamentations.

The contribution from de Lera is her own diminuzioni on Apollo’s Lament, originally by Francesco Cavalli. De Lera’s playing probes the qualities of her Taningard violin built in Rome in 1739. She is admirably complemented by the plucked instrument playing of Josep Maria Martí.

The selection on this CD is enhanced by the inclusion of variations on popular tunes from the Renaissance. Fuggi dolente core is one such set, again played on Baroque violin; while this piece is often scored for voice, listeners to this particular variation will not miss that human aspect.

L’Estro d’Orfeo’s choices are centred on Venice’s prolific output and yet there is still room for pieces by Marco Uccellini of Modena. Listen once again to the brilliance in every sense of the word of the Baroque violin and basso continuo in Uccellini’s Ninth Sonata. And in his Aria Quarta sopra la “Ciaccona.”

02 Tafelmusik Two CitiesTales of Two Cities
Trio Arabica; Alon Nashman; Jeanne Lamon; Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra
Tafelmusik Media TMK 1035 DVDCD (tafelmusik.org)

Tales of Two Cities is an enchanting musical journey through the palatial worlds of two prominent 18th-century cities – Leipzig and Damascus. Although separated by 3,000 kilometres, these cities shared a surprising number of common threads; both were located at the intersections of major trade and travelling routes, both were known as cultural and learning centres, and both nurtured a tradition of coffee houses in which music performances were flowing. Cleverly conceived, programmed and scripted by the creative mind of Tafelmusik’s own Alison Mackay, and narrated by the charming Alon Nashman, Tales of Two Cities comes as a DVD/CD combo, featuring the music portion of the concert on CD. The DVD includes a filmed live performance at the Aga Khan Museum, a video on restoration of the Dresden Damascus Room, behind-the-scenes footage from rehearsals and a split-screen video of the orchestra performing Bach’s Sinfonia.

I absolutely loved Tales of Two Cities. The inventive combination of music and literary selections coupled with stunning images and historically informed narration was only transcended by the excellence of all the musicians involved. Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra presents a fresh, vibrant, theatrical interpretation of music by Telemann, Handel and Bach (all onetime residents of the city of Leipzig). The virtuosity of Dominic Teresi (bassoon), Patrick Jordan (viola) and Aisslinn Nosky (violin) is just as entertaining as it is admirable. Trio Arabica, featuring Maryem Tollar (voice, quanun), Naghmeh Farahmand (percussion) and Demetri Petsalakis (oud), evokes the longing, beauty and delicacy of Damascus of the past with gorgeous performances of the traditional melodies. The final number, an intriguing combination of Telemann and traditional Arabic music, unites all the performers and brings the narrative to a conclusion by telling the story of young, present-day Syrian scholars working alongside German mentors on restoring the Damascus Room in Dresden. Highly recommended.

03 Brahms TriosBrahms - The Piano Trios
Emanuel Ax; Leonidas Kavakos; Yo-Yo Ma
Sony Classical 88985 40729 2

The Piano Trios form a critical, if less well-known feature of Brahms’ creativity within the world of chamber music. To an extent, Brahms picked up the torch at the point at which Beethoven had laid it down, but although he used Beethoven’s music, along with that of Schubert, as a point of departure, these trios are highly singular creations, with a sound world that is altogether unique. Each of the three instruments is stretched to its limits as if Brahms wanted to create orchestral depth and colour using just three players.

Another fascinating aspect of The Piano Trios – particularly in Piano Trio No. 3 in C Minor Op.101 – is Brahms’ treatment of the string players as soloists, giving both the violin and cello some sonorous passages that are ideally suited to their respective characteristics. Also noteworthy is the fact that Brahms’ wealth of powerfully sculpted ideas amply rewards attentive listening.

These performances of The Piano Trios by Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos and Yo-Yo Ma are without question the most authoritative and distinguished accounts of the works. Ax, Kavakos and Ma play with unique breadth of insight and a feeling of spontaneous inspiration, a quality that comes all too infrequently to studio recordings like these. The Sony recorded sound is at once brilliant and truthful, but it also has exceptional spaciousness.

04 Vaughan WilliamsVaughan Williams – Fantasia on Sussex Folk Tunes and other works
Martin Rummel; Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Karl-Heinz Steffens
Capriccio CD C5314

This collection of shorter delights, lollipops so to say, opens with the jaunty overture to the comic opera, The Poisoned Kiss, a “romantic extravaganza.” The most interesting work is the Fantasia on Sussex Folk Tunes for cello and orchestra. Vaughan Williams was a collector of folk music and as Bartók did with Hungarian tunes, he incorporated them into his compositions. Vaughan Williams was quite familiar with Sussex County and had been collecting material there since his school days in the village of Rottingdean in East Sussex. His Fantasia, a work new to me, was premiered in 1930 with Pablo Casals as soloist. Instantly recognizable as Vaughan Williams, there are five folk tunes incorporated in a conversation between soloist and orchestra, making this a compelling and interesting workout for cellist and orchestra. It deserves to be popular.

The earliest work, the Bucolic Suite of 1900, also known as the Pastoral Suite, is just that, euphoric thoughts of countryside life. In the Fen Country is no stranger to the catalogues and paints a picture of the lonely and desolate Fen country in the east of England. There are three movements – Explorer, Poet and Queen – arranged from the 1957 inspiring film, The England of Elizabeth. The five works add up to a novel and interesting collection, brilliantly played and recorded. The Elizabeth of Three Portraits from “The England of Elizabeth” refers to the Elizabeth of the 16th century. The Armada and all that.

Review

01 Verdis GuitarThere seem to have been several CDs lately featuring outstanding Canadian classical guitarists, and you can add another one to the list with Verdi’s Guitar – Fantasies for Solo Guitar by J. K. Mertz based on operas by Giuseppe Verdi, performed by British Columbia guitarist Alan Rinehart (Ravello RR7975).

Operatic transcriptions were very popular throughout the 19th century in the days before recordings and radio, and were usually made with home performance in mind. These Mertz transcriptions, though, were clearly not aimed at amateurs, gifted or otherwise. The technical challenges of reproducing operatic scores within the limitations of the guitar must have been daunting, but Mertz – an important figure in the development of the Romantic guitar style – produced an Op.8 Opern-Revue that consisted of 34(!!) transcriptions of operas by composers from Adam to Wagner.

The six Verdi transcriptions – all included here – are from Ernani, Rigoletto, Nabucco, Il Trovatore, La Traviata and I Vespri Siciliani. They are delightful fantasia-style works, with familiar arias popping out from time to time: Ernani, involami; Caro nome; Questa o quella; and La donna e mobile.

Rinehart’s playing is clean and stylish throughout, especially in the tremolo passages in Ernani and I Vespri Siciliani, a technique later used to great effect by Francisco Tárrega.

Now, if we could only hear Wagner’s Flying Dutchman

Review

02 Holly BlazinaAnother very interesting Canadian guitar CD is Transcendencia, the debut disc from Alberta flamenco guitarist, Holly Blazina (iTunes; Spotify; hollyblazina.com).

Originally trained as a classical guitarist Blazina has a solid grounding in the traditional flamenco technique and has been composing her own pieces in the genre for more than a decade, workshopping them with noted flamenco masters Paco Fernandez in Seville and Ricardo Diaz in San Francisco. They are in traditional flamenco forms – Alegría, Bulería, Abandolao and Farruca, for instance – and mostly with the traditional accompaniment of male and female voices, palmas and percussion, but often introduce instruments from other musical worlds, such as violin (on three tracks), and saxophone, piano and Persian santur dulcimer (on different single tracks). The result is not so much a mixing of genres as an extension of the flamenco musical style with an added dimension, and it’s very effective.

Blazina’s playing is clean, crisp and idiomatic – especially in Invocación, the solo final track with its excellent tremolo – and the contributions from the nine other musicians fit in seamlessly. A lovely recorded sound adds to a highly entertaining disc.

03 Joel QuarringtonTranscriptions form the entire program of another Canadian CD this month, as bassist Joel Quarrington is back with another recital disc of transcriptions for double bass and piano (his Brothers in Brahms was reviewed here in September 2013), this time in Schubert “AN DIE MUSIK” with pianist David Jalbert (joelquarrington.com).

Although transcriptions served a specific purpose in the pre-gramophone days, making otherwise unavailable music available for home performance, in many instances since then they have served primarily to enlarge the repertoire for certain instrumentations, not always with complete success. Any misgivings you may have in that respect are simply blown away by Quarrington’s playing, however, with his astonishing agility, his sensitivity and delicacy and the warmth and richness of his tonal colour dispelling any lingering doubts. Granted, part of the attraction is listening to him doing the impossible on what is usually considered a large and unwieldy instrument, but his performances go way beyond the novelty attraction – this is pure music-making of the highest order.

The title track is one of seven short pieces here, but the two major works are the “Arpeggione” Sonata in A Minor D821 and the Violin Sonatina in D Major D384. Both are completely satisfying in all respects, with the final Allegro vivace movement of the latter providing a simply dazzling end to the disc.

With the sensitive accompaniment of David Jalbert the CD is an absolute delight, as well as an absolute wonder, from beginning to end.

04 Euclid QuartetThe American Euclid Quartet presents two works separated by almost exactly 100 years on American Quartets, featuring works by Antonín Dvořák and Wynton Marsalis (Afinat Records AR1701).

The Dvořák is the String Quartet No.12 in F Major Op.96, “American,” written during the composer’s three years as director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York and first performed in 1894. The performance here is warm, effusive, vibrant and dynamic.

It seems a long journey from such a completely familiar and frequently heard work to the Marsalis String Quartet No.1 “At the Octoroon Balls,” written at the request of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in 1995, but what a fascinating contrast it presents.

The quartet is named for the legendary 18th- and 19th-century balls in the composer’s native New Orleans, described in the booklet notes as being “…given as a way to facilitate long-term relationships between wealthy White men and usually fair-skinned women of colour.” The work has been called Marsalis’ conscious exploration of the American Creole contradictions and compromises – cultural, social and political – exemplified by life in New Orleans.

It’s a long (almost 45 minutes) but utterly engrossing work of seven sections, the longest of which – at ten minutes – is the astonishing opening Come Long Fiddler for solo violin, recalling, in dazzling fashion, the old Black country dance fiddle tradition. Blues, jazz, African, folk, spiritual and ragtime influences abound in the remaining sections, with simply terrific writing and playing: Mating Calls and Delta Rhythms; Creole Contradanzas; Many Gone; Hellbound Highball; Blue Lights on the Bayou.

Finally, with Rampart St. Row House Rag, here we are at what Dvořák envisioned and encouraged – the use of New World musical material as the basis for classical composition. It makes perfect sense of an apparently diverse program on an outstanding CD.

05a Bach Cello NarrowayThere are another two excellent sets of the cello suites by Johann Sebastian Bach to add to the already extensive list: Six Cello Suites BWV 1007-1012 by the Australian cellist Richard Narroway (Sono Luminus SLE-70010); and Suiten für Violoncello by the Swiss cellist Thomas Demenga (ECM New Series 2530/31).

There are several immediate differences: at the time of the recordings (2015 and 2014 respectively) Narroway was 24, Demenga 59; it’s the first recording of the suites for Narroway, the second for Demenga; Narroway uses a modern cello and bow, Demenga a Baroque bow and gut strings on 18th-century instruments; Narroway plays at modern pitch, Demenga down a full tone.

There are also similarities though: both players are fully aware of early performance issues and have made extensive study of contemporary sources; and both see these works as essentially dance suites, with lively – but not necessarily fast – tempos.

Narroway has a lovely rich sound that never overwhelms, with beautiful phrasing and a fine rhythmic sense that is given room to breathe and expand. It’s all bursting with life and sounds quite effortless.

05b Demenga Bach Six Cello Suites CD bklt Page 01Demenga’s tone can sound a bit tight at times, but again there is freedom in the phrasing and rhythms. On the down side, there is a fair amount of noise from the left-hand fingers hitting the fingerboard. You may or may not find that to be distracting, but it does mean that with Demenga you are frequently aware of the presence of the performer; with Narroway, however, rarely if ever are you aware of anything but the music, and it’s his recordings that I will keep returning to.

06 Danish String QuartetThere’s more immensely satisfying quartet playing on Last Leaf, a recital of Nordic folk tunes all arranged by the Danish String Quartet (ECM New Series 2550). There’s a wide range of sources for the 16 short pieces here, from ancient hymn tunes and medieval ballads to boat songs and traditional dance music. In addition, there are original compositions by two members of the quartet – three by cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin and one by violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen – as well as a polska by Swedish fiddler Eva Sæhter. Sjölin and Sørensen also add the occasional harmonium, piano and glockenspiel and double bass contributions to enrich the sound.

It’s a really lovely collection, beautifully arranged and played. The quartet members say that they “gathered a bunch of amazing tunes and hope you will enjoy what we have done to them.”

Well, consider it job done.

Review

07 Altius ShostakovichDmitri Shostakovich wrote four string quartets in the period 1946-56, years in which his standing with the Soviet regime was still uncertain, so I’m not sure I agree with the statement by the Altius Quartet, on their new CD of Shostakovich String Quartets 7, 8 & 9 (Navona Records NV6125) that these three works, from 1960-64, were written “directly after World War II when art was often oppressed.” By 1960 Stalin had been dead for seven years and the composer’s rehabilitation was well under way.

There is, however, no doubting the quartet’s assertion that these three highly personal works form a triptych, dedicated as they are to the composer’s first (No.7) and third (No.9) wives and ostensibly to the victims of fascism (No.8) including Shostakovich – indeed, his daughter Galina claimed that he originally dedicated it to himself, with the published dedication imposed by Soviet authorities.

There’s a lovely feel to the playing from the outset, from the String Quartet No.7 in F-sharp Minor Op.108 through to the highly positive ending of the String Quartet No.9 in E-flat Major Op.117, but it’s the String Quartet No.8 in C Minor Op.110 that is at the heart of this group, not merely physically but also emotionally. The opening four notes D, E-flat, C and B (or D, S, C, H in German notation) that form the composer’s musical signature reappear in every movement, and the autobiographical nature of the music is constantly underlined by numerous quotations from earlier works.

It’s a committed and moving performance by the Altius, albeit perhaps with not quite the air of utter desolation and despair that some performances wring from the final pages.

08 Martin BoykanThe American composer Martin Boykan, who turned 86 in April, may be a new name to a lot of people, but there is no doubting his pedigree: he studied with Copland, Piston and Hindemith. His output is predominantly in the chamber music realm, which probably makes the new CD Rites of Passage – Chamber Music 1993-2012 (Bridge Records BRIDGE 9483) a fairly representative introduction to his works.

A good deal of American classical music over the past 25 years or so has been unabashedly tonal, but Boykan is clearly not of this persuasion. There’s not a great deal of emotional warmth or purely melodic material, and the absence or ambiguity of tonality together with the often extreme dynamics means that it’s not always easy listening. Still, there’s no doubting that this is a strongly individual and skilled composer fully in control of his structures and material.

The works, recorded between 2011 and 2015 by combinations of ten different players, are: Impromptu for Violin Solo (1993); Sonata #2 for Violin and Piano (2009); Piano Trio #3 “Rites of Passage” (2006); Sonata for Viola and Piano (2012); and Psalm 121 (1997) for mezzo-soprano and string quartet. The violin and viola sonatas were written for the soloists here, Curtis Macomber and Mark Berger respectively.

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