12 CalefaxAn American Rhapsody
Pentatone PTC 5187 046 (calefax.nl/shop)

One of the side perks of this business is how much one can learn from liner notes. The dishy release from the Netherlandic reed quintet Calefax spreads their love for the New World all over the place. New York (New Amsterdam?) is the focus of this collection of arrangements that plays like the most excellent school concert imaginable. No disrespect to the players, they kick it in a way that reminds me of an earlier band, the Netherlands Winds, continuing the low countries’ exceptionally high standard of woodwind playing.

But it’s weird to listen to their Rhapsody in Blue, effectively scored down to the five voices in saxophonist Raaf Hekkema’s arrangement. I won’t make arguments about style, but I hear almost a practiced accent in the impeccably spoken lines of this fun little play. The liner notes remind us that this was Gershwin stepping out onto the concert stage from the show pit, and I think while the playing is excellent, there’s some kind of reserve or modesty in the performance suiting New Amsterdam more than Midtown. 

Samuel Barber’s Excursions, Op.20, originally for piano, are more folk than Broadway. They really sparkle in this excellent performance. Florence Price’s Piano Sonata in E Minor receives a gently Romantic treatment. Harry Burleigh’s Southland Sketches was based in gospel music. One learns, again in the very readable liner notes, that Burleigh was a mature student at the National Conservatory of Music (founded expressly to foster equity in musical training, regardless of sex or race or disability), where he studied with Antonín Dvořák.

The latter half of the disc celebrates jazz, pop and street music. Two Ellington tunes are beautifully rendered by Hekkema and Oliver Boekhoorn (the aptly named Oboe/English hornist), and Hekkema also made a fantastic tribute to both Billy Holiday and Eric Dolphy based on Dolphy’s bass clarinet treatment of God Bless the Child.

13 Solo Alone and MoreSolo, Alone and More
Jonas Frøland
Our Recordings 6.220681 (ourrecordings.com)

Reading the notes to Solo Alone and More, a clarinet collection played by young hotshot Jonas Frøland, one remembers the value of a good editor. I got some smiles reading the overlong and quirky paragraphs accompanying this demonstration of instrumental excellence. 

Three works are excerpts: the first cadenza from Carl Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto (1928) opens the collection, announcing Frøland’s range and musicality; the follow-up suggests to me he hasn’t considered the dramatic range of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo (1919). Stravinsky wrote these as a gift to the patron who backed L’Histoire du Soldat, and I always imagine them staged. He plays the first piece more as a rhythmic aria than a static, atmospheric tableau. The middle section of the second movement is, to my mind, a limping Soldier’s March; instead, Frøland treats the eighth-note pulse differently in the inner and outer sections, fundamentally changing the pulse between them. I’d love a chance to talk it over with him, because I don’t think that’s what Igor had in mind. 

Frøland’s dynamic control and technical fluidity amaze in Messiaen’s Abîme des Oiseaux (1940) (the second excerpt of the collection, from the Quatuor Pour la Fin du Temps) and Bent Sørensen’s beautiful Lontanamente Fragments of a Waltz (2012). Both feature that most desirable clarinet trait: pianississississimo. Mette Nielsen’s Alone for Basset Clarinet (2021) was commissioned by Frøland. It’s an unsettling exploration of microtones that left me chilled. Fully half an hour of this 70-minute program is taken up with Gunnar Berg’s Pour Clarinette Seul (1957) and Simon Steene-Andersen’s De Profundis, (2000/rev2019). Substantial works both. And the third excerpt? Tossed in is a rewrite of the cor anglais solo from Act III of Tristan und Isolde.  

01 Anteil ViolinViolinist Tianwa Yang and pianist Nicholas Rimmer are absolutely superb on the incredibly challenging George Antheil Violin Sonatas Nos.1-4, a recital of remarkable music by the New Jersey-born pianist/composer who left America for Europe as a 21-year-old in 1922 intent on becoming “noted and notorious” – and succeeded (Naxos 8.559937 naxos.com/CatalogueDetail/?id=8.559937).

Antheil met Stravinsky in Berlin and in 1923 followed him to Paris, where the first three sonatas were written, commissioned by Ezra Pound for his mistress, the American violinist Olga Rudge. Sonata No.1 shows the unmistakable influence of Stravinsky’s Les Noces (premiered the night Antheil arrived in Paris) and the earlier Rite of Spring. The single-movement Sonata No.2 is a dazzling collage of ragtime, popular melodies and folk songs. Stravinsky’s influence is back, albeit with a more melodic feel, in Sonata No.3, also a single movement.

Sonata No.4 is from 1947, long after Antheil had moved back to the United States. Although built on Baroque and classical forms the rhythmic, mechanistic style of his Parisian sonatas is still discernible.

02 SongbirdIn 2021/22 the American violinist Maria Ioudenitch won first prize at the Ysaÿe International Music Competition and both the Tibor Varga and Joseph Joachim International Violin Competitions, the latter also landing her the Warner Classics Prize that led to her debut Songbird CD with pianist Kenny Broberg (Warner Classics 5419737407 mariaioudenitch.com/listen).

Her “journey through song” is a selection of short works by Robert and Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Nadia Boulanger, Amy Beach, Tchaikovsky, Medtner, Rachmaninoff, Glinka and Richard Strauss. The one substantial work is Schubert’s four-movement Fantasie in C Major D934. Theresa Pilsl is the soprano on the Strauss song Morgen.

Technically flawless, Ioudenitch draws a huge tone from the 1691 Pietro Guarneri of Mantua violin, her sweeping phrasing imbued with deep musicality and subtle nuances.

03 All RoadsOn All Roads, the Shea-Kim Duo of violinist Brendan Shea and pianist Yerin Kim explore music by composers connected to the city of Vienna “in increasingly distant ways” (Blue Griffin Recording BGR643 shea-kimduo.com/shop-1).

Beethoven moved there from Bonn; a beautifully expressive performance of his Sonata for Piano and Violin No.3 in E-flat Major Op.12 opens the disc. Robert Schumann is represented by his Sonata for Violin and Piano No.1 in A Minor Op.105.

Alfred Schnittke also lived in Germany but studied in Vienna; included here is his Suite in the Old Style. The final work is the Romance Op.23 by the American Amy Beach, whose tenuous link to Vienna is that she apparently “visited once.”

Warm, stylish playing, fine ensemble and a lovely recording quality make for a highly enjoyable disc.

04 Living AmericanOn The Living American the excellent violinist Timothy Schwarz continues to champion American music with a diverse collection of works by seven of today’s leading American composers, including five recording premieres; the pianist is Charles Abramovic (Albany Records TROY1930 albanyrecords.com).

There are three solo violin works: Fantasia on Lama badaa yatasana by Steven Sametz; Jessie Montgomery’s Rhapsody No.2; and Reena Esmail’s Raag Charukeshi from Drashan, a blend of Indian and Western classical music that explores grief in various forms. 

The third movement of Jennifer Higdon’s String Poetic is here, as is Avner Dorman’s wide-ranging single movement, Sonata No.1. The three entertaining pieces by musical theatre composer/pianist Joseph Goodrich were written for and premiered by Schwarz, as was the Sametz work and the final work on the CD, Denis DiBlasio’s Australian Sketches, in which the duo is joined by bassist Douglas Mapp and drummer Doug Hirlinger.

05 Voice of RachmaninoffCellist John-Henry Crawford and pianist Victor Santiago Asuncion celebrate the composer’s 150th anniversary on Voice of Rachmaninoff, an album that explores the vocal nature of his music through original works and transcriptions (Orchid Classics ORC100241 orchidclassics.com).

The Cello Sonata in G Minor Op.19 anchors a recital that includes transcriptions of the Vocalise Op.34 No.14, two songs, a piano Prelude, the 19th variation from the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Fritz Kreisler’s arrangement of the theme from the slow movement of the Piano Concerto No.2.

Crawford’s warm cello sound is perfectly suited to Rachmaninoff’s expansive, long-breathed melodies, ably supported by Asuncion in the often extremely difficult piano parts. 

06 Kirill Troussov Julia Fischer LGCoverIt’s a digital-only release and fairly brief at just under 25 minutes, but Shostakovich/Prokofiev – Violin Duos with violinists Julia Fischer and Kirill Troussov and pianist Henri Bonamy is well worth a listen (Orchid Classics ORC100234 orchidclassics.com).

The Shostakovich work is his Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano, short miniatures in a much more light-hearted vein than is often the case with this composer. The Prokofiev is his Sonata for Two Violins, a typically spiky but tuneful work with a high degree of difficulty.

An interesting trivia note: Troussov’s violin is the 1702 “Brodsky” Stradivarius that Adolph Brodsky played at the December 1881 premiere of the Tchaikovsky concerto.

07 Janacek HaasThe booklet essay for the Escher String Quartet CD of quartets by Leoš Janáček and Pavel Haas notes that while programmatic and autobiographical quartets date back to Beethoven nowhere have they been more prominent than in the Czech lands, and the three works here are all of a highly personal nature (BIS 2670 SACD bis.se).

Janáček’s voice in his later compositions is unmistakable, overflowing with raw emotion and passion. His 1923 String Quartet No.1 “Kreutzer Sonata” was inspired by Tolstoy’s novella about marriage and adultery, but it’s in his 1928 String Quartet No.2 “Intimate Letters” that his unrequited love for the much younger Kamila Stosslova finds full expression, perfectly captured by the Escher Quartet.

The 1925 String Quartet No.2 “From the Monkey Mountains” by Pavel Haas recalls a memorable stay in the beautiful Czech Moravian Highlands, with reminiscences of an early love affair. Colin Currie handles the ad lib percussion part in the remarkable A Wild Night final movement.

08 Mozart EbeneTwo glorious chamber works are featured in outstanding performances on Mozart String Quintets K515 & 516, with violist Antoine Tamestit joining the Quatuor Ébène (Erato 5419721332 warnerclassics.com/release/mozart-string-quintets).

The two quintets, No.3 in C Major and No.4 in G Minor were written a month apart in April and May of 1787, with the extra viola – a favourite instrument of the composer’s – adding a warmth and richness to the heart of the music. The release blurb refers to K515 as being “radiant and energetic, exuding elegance and grace,” which is also a perfect description of the playing here, which gets to the emotional heart of this remarkable music.

Beautifully recorded, it makes you wish for a complete set of the five mature quintets.

10 Saint GeorgesThe Japanese violinist Fumika Mohri is the soloist in the Violin Concertos Opp.2 & 7 by Mozart’s exact contemporary the remarkable Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, with the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice under Michael Halás (Naxos 8.574452 naxos.com/CatalogueDetail/?id=8.574452).

The Concerto in G Major Op.2 No.1 and the Concerto in D Major Op.2 No.2 were published in Paris in 1773, and the Concerto in A Major Op.7 No.1 and the Concerto in B-flat Major Op.7 No.2 in 1777, although issues with the sources suggest a much earlier composition date. The editions here are by Allan Badley, who also wrote the excellent booklet notes.

Comparison with Mozart is perhaps inevitable, but these showcases for Saint-Georges’ virtuoso technique are attractive and engaging works, described by Badley as “rich in melodic invention and displaying at times a striking degree of originality.” Performances are beautifully judged throughout a delightful CD.

09 Maria DuenasBeethoven and Beyond is the impressive Deutsche Grammophon debut CD by the young Spanish violinist Mária Dueñas, recorded live in Vienna’s Musikverein with the Wiener Symphoniker under Manfred Honeck (4863512 deutschegrammophon.com/de/katalog/produkte/beethoven-and-beyond-dueas-12950).

Dueñas says that in the Beethoven concerto “you have to reveal yourself. And that can only be done through sound.” And what a sound she produces: a crystal clear, bright and glowing tone full of warmth. All three cadenzas are her own, but she cleverly ends the CD with terrific performances of first movement cadenzas by Spohr, Ysaÿe, Saint-Saëns, Wieniawski and Kreisler for fascinating comparison, filling out the recital with an original work by each composer. Ysaÿe’s Berceuse Op.20 and Kreisler’s Liebeslied are from the live concert; Saint-Saëns’ Havanaise Op.83, Wieniawski’s Légende Op.17 and Spohr’s Adagio from his Symphonie concertante No.1 with harpist Volker Kempf are studio recordings.

11 Lieberman ConcertosKazakh violinist Aiman Mussakhajayeva is the superb soloist in world-premiere recordings of works for violin and orchestra on Lowell Liebermann Violin Concerto Op.74, with Tigran Shiganyan leading the debut recording of the Kazakh State Symphony Orchestra (Blue Griffin Records BGR645 bluegriffin.com).

The 2001 concerto is an expansive, emotionally engaging and immediately accessible work that should really become a mainstay in the repertoire. Liebermann made violin and string orchestra arrangements of his two chamber concertos from 1989 and 2006 especially for this recording, and is the pianist in the Chamber Concerto No.1 Op.28a. 

The gorgeous 2011 Air for Violin and Orchestra Op.18 ends a CD of finely crafted and attractive contemporary works for violin and orchestra, all brilliantly presented by Mussakhajayeva on her 1732 Stradivarius violin.

12 The Blue AlbumDescribing his new CD The Blue Album guitarist Pablo Sainz-Villegas says that blue stands for a particularly intimate mood, an atmosphere of reverie and relaxation (Sony Classical19658779092 pablosainzvillegas.com).

There’s certainly nothing challenging in a recital of brief pieces by Weiss, Couperin, Domenico Scarlatti, Sor, Debussy, Satie and Brouwer, together with Tárrega’s arrangement of Iradier’s La Paloma, Stanley Myers’ Cavatina and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.

Bland snippets of Philip Glass and Max Richter seem completely out of place on an album supposedly featuring “some of the most beautiful and most heartfelt melodies ever written” – an enormous stretch – but no matter. There’s clean, efficient playing – perhaps somewhat lacking in character – all resonantly recorded.

01 Basta ParlareBasta parlane!
Les Barocudas
ATMA ACD2 2824 (atmaclassique.com/en)

The names and compositions of 17th-century Italian composers Dario Castello, Giovanni Legrenzi, Giovanni Battista Grillo, Tarquinio Merula, Biagio Marini and Francesco Rognini Taeggio may be unfamiliar, yet their music, spiritedly performed by the Montreal-based Les Barocudas, provides the most purely entertaining CD of Baroque works I’ve heard in years.

These composers didn’t always specify the exact instrumentation to be employed in their pieces, and all may not have had the recorder in mind, but the indisputable star of this CD is recorder virtuoso Vincent Lauzer, whose brightly coloured, near-non-stop cheerful chirpings invigorate most of the action. He’s joined by Marie Nadeau-Tremblay (Baroque violin), Tristan Best (viola da gamba), Antoine Malette-Chénier (Baroque harp), Hank Knox (harpsichord), Nathan Mondry (organ) and Matthias Soly-Letarte (percussion).

The CD begins and ends with Sonatas by Castello (a third is included in the disc), each about seven minutes long, featuring alternating brief passages of rapid sprightliness and measured solemnity. At just over ten minutes, the CD’s longest selection is Marini’s plaintive Sonata Quarta, in which Nadeau-Tremblay is accompanied by Malette-Chénier and Mordry. (It’s the only piece where Lauzer’s recorder is absent.)

Among the other seven pieces, each lasting three or four minutes, three especially stand out: Marini’s Trio Sonata (variations on the French folk tune La Monica) and Merula’s Canzon No.19 “La Pasterla,” both stately dances; Rognini-Taeggio’s Diminutions after Palestrina’s “Vestiva i colli” is a churchly processional, rendered somewhat irreverent by Lauzer’s flamboyantly festive recorder!

Listen to 'Basta parlane!' Now in the Listening Room

02 James OswaldJames Oswald – Airs for the Seasons
Rezonance Baroque Ensemble
Leaf Music LM266 (leaf-music.ca)

As with many 18th-century Scottish composers, much of James Oswald’s music can be heard as art music or as traditional. On this recording of selections from his Airs for the Seasons, a set of 48 chamber suites named for seasonal flowers, Rezonance Baroque Ensemble plays within the stylistic expectations of Baroque music but brings a sparkling playfulness suggesting Oswald’s connection to the traditional music and dance of his day.

The dynamic Oswald was composer to King George III, but previously a cellist and dancing master and then publisher of the 12-volume Caledonian Pocket Companion. It’s from this collection of “Scotch” airs that many traditional musicians know him.

Oswald is mistakenly given credit for some of the tunes in his Caledonian, but when you hear his own music you can understand why. Having played and sung with violinist and fiddler David Greenberg in his 1990s project Puirt a Baroque, which pushed the genre boundaries of this repertoire, I recognize the movements in his Seasons which might be based on or inspired by traditional tunes. For example, Cowslip: III would make a fine reel if you added a bit more swing and stress on the backbeats; and with some swagger, Daisy: II could be a square dance jig.

This repertoire is rich with possibilities for colour and mood changes, and Rezonance explores these deftly with a lovely sense of ensemble and some beautiful expressiveness. The recording has a lot of reverb but it complements the timbres of their historical instruments.

03 Calcutta 1789Calcutta 1789 – À la croisée de l’Europe et de l’Inde
Notturna; Christopher Palameta
ATMA ACD2 2831 (atmaclassique.com/en)

If colonialism is the conquest and control of other people’s land and goods, music articulates the disparities it creates between races, classes and individuals. As current scholars, curators and musicians are working to decolonize Western art music’s academies and organizations, this revisiting of 18th-century works inspired by music from India, or performed there, is most timely and welcome. 

“Hindustani airs” were popular with British residents of Calcutta in the late 18th century, resulting in transcriptions for harpsichord. At the same time, Indian nobles such as King Serfoji II of Thanjavur appreciated European classical music. For this reason, both repertoires are represented here, beautifully recorded in a reverberant space that might evoke an English hall or the Indian king’s palace.  

Transcriptions could not take into account the tuning, modes, timbres and style of Indian musical practices, and the airs were adjusted for Western tastes and instruments. Given this, Christopher Palameta and Notturna show sensitivity and great musicality in their performance of the pieces that at the time, celebrated the “exoticism” of borrowed melodies: Sakia, a Rekhta (Mera peara ab ia re), and a Terana (Dandera vakee). But by beginning the album with a captivating cut featuring sitar and tabla, Palameta and Notturna place the non-European music in the foreground and thus effect what Palameta calls an “interplay and aesthetic appreciation of two equally sophisticated musical traditions.”

04 Jean BaurJean Baur Chamber Music
Elinor Frey; Accademia de’ Dissonanti
Passacaille 2023 (elinorfrey.com)

The name Jean-Pierre Baur is undoubtedly an unfamiliar one today, and more than 200 years after his lifetime this French musician remains somewhat of a mystery. Born in Bouzonville in 1719, he ultimately settled in Paris, where he became known as a composer and harpist, the first in a family of harpists. Baur’s output was almost entirely devoted to small pieces for harp and a certain amount of chamber music, including sonatas for violin, harp, harpsichord and flute, many of which are featured on this attractive Passacaille label recording performed by members of the Baroque ensemble Accademia de’ Dissonanti (ADD) under the direction of cellist Elinor Frey. 

The cello sonatas featured here are taken from Baur’s first two collections Op.1 and Op.2 published in 1751 and 1756. These are amiable works comprising alternating slow/fast movements with the fine tone produced by cellist Octavie Dostaler-Lalonde complementing the thoughtful partnership provided by keyboardist Mélisande McNabney.   

Baur’s move to Paris around 1745 preceded a significant rise in popularity of the harp in France, one which lasted into the 19th century. The two harp sonatas here, Op.7 Nos. 3 and 6, are all grace and delicacy with harpist Antoine Mallette-Chénier delivering a sensitive performance, always finely nuanced.

As is the case of much Baroque chamber music, many of Baur’s compositions were conceived to be performed by various combinations of instruments and this is the case with the Sonata for Two Violins No.1, played here on two small cellos by Dostaler-Lalonde and Frey.

Kudos to Frey and the ADD for uncovering this hitherto unfamiliar repertoire – attractive packaging and excellent notes further enhance this recording of music deserving greater recognition.

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