01 Hilary HahnViolinist Hilary Hahn was planning to record the Dvořák Violin Concerto in A Minor Op.53 with Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, pairing it with Alberto Ginastera’s Violin Concerto Op.30, which she had yet to learn, and Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy, which she loved but had never played, when the COVID outbreak put plans on hold. In the booklet notes to Eclipse, the resulting album, Hahn discusses the emotional journey through lockdowns and personal doubts that finally bore fruit (Deutsche Grammophon 486 2383 deutschegrammophon.com/en/artists/hilaryhahn/hilary-hahn-eclipse-2225).

The Dvořák concerto was live streamed from the orchestra’s hall at the radio station in March 2021, with no audience. It’s a beautifully expansive and committed performance; “Our playing,” says Hahn ”was vivid and palpably redemptive.”

The June concert at the Alte Oper hall’s reopening also marked Orozco-Estrada’s farewell as music director as well as Hahn’s personal premiere of the other two works. The challenging Ginastera concerto, which Hahn calls “nearly unplayable” is a fascinating and unusually structured work that draws an exceptional performance from all involved; the Carmen Fantasy is played with suitable brilliance.

02 Brahms Double MutterA new CD of music by Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann presents a quite outstanding performance of the Brahms Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor Op.102 featuring violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and cellist Pablo Ferrández in a live January 2022 Prague concert recording with the Czech Philharmonic under Manfred Honeck. It’s paired with a studio recording of Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio in G Minor Op.17, where Lambert Orkis is the pianist (Sony Classical 196587411022 sonyclassical.com/news/news-details/anne-sophie-mutter-and-pablo-ferrandez-1).

Mutter’s playing in the Brahms is a revelation, her tone, phrasing and dynamics in the opening movement in particular all contributing to one of the most beautiful renditions I’ve heard. Ferrández, who incidentally plays two Stradivarius cellos on the disc is an equal partner throughout. 

Orkis adds his own special talents to a captivating performance of the Schumann trio to round out a superb CD. Concert note: Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Mutter Virtuosi perform on Tuesday, February 7 at Roy Thomson Hall.

03 Rachmaninov BrahmsPianist Yuja Wang is joined by cellist Gautier Capuçon and clarinettist Andreas Ottensamer on a CD of Works by Sergei Rachmaninoff & Johannes Brahms (Deutsche Grammophon 486 2388 deutschegrammophon.com/en/artists/yujawang).

Wang and Capuçon have been playing together since the 2013 Verbier Festival, and Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata in G Minor Op.19 was part of that debut recital. The quality of their playing and ensemble work here is of the highest order.

There are two works by Brahms. Capuçon brings a warm, deep tone to the Cello Sonata in E Minor Op.38, with Wang’s empathetic accompaniment a real joy. Ottensamer, the principal clarinet with the Berlin Philharmonic joins for the Clarinet Trio in A Minor Op.114 – not as frequently heard as the Clarinet Quintet Op.115, perhaps, but a real gem.

04 Vivaldi Concerti per violino XThe Vivaldi Edition, the ongoing project to record some 450 works by Vivaldi in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin, reaches its 69th volume with Vivaldi Concerti per violino X ‘Intorno a Pisendel’, with Julien Chauvin as soloist and director of Le Concert de la Loge (Naive OP 7546 bfan.link/vivaldi-concerti-per-violino-x-intorno-a-pisendel)

The six works here are all linked to the virtuoso violinist Johann Georg Pisendel (1687-1755), a major figure at the Dresden court who met Vivaldi in Venice on a court visit in 1716-17 and became a friend and pupil. Pisendel copied many of Vivaldi’s works and also received several dedicated manuscripts.

Three of the concertos – RV237 in D Minor, RV314 in G Major and RV340 in A Major – are from the dedicated manuscripts, and three – RV225 in D Major, RV226 in D Major and RV369 in B-flat Major – are from Pisendel’s hand-written copies. All are three-movement works with Allegro outer movements and Largo or Andante middle movements.

Chauvin is outstanding, his bright, clear tone, faultless intonation and virtuosic agility perfectly backed by the resonance and effective dynamics of the orchestra, all beautifully recorded. And yes, a lot sounds like The Four Seasons, but there’s a continual freshness to the music that makes each concerto a real delight.

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05 Black Violin ConcertoesIn 1997 violinist Rachel Barton Pine recorded four Violin Concertos by Black Composers of the 18th and 19th Centuries with conductor Daniel Hege and the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra’s Encore Chamber Orchestra. To mark the 25th anniversary of its release Cedille has reissued three of the original recordings on Violin Concertos by Black Composers Through the Centuries (Cedille CDR 9000 214 cedillerecords.org).

Included are the Violin Concerto in A Major Op.5 No.2 (c.1775) by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the Violin Concerto in F-sharp Minor (1864) by George Enescu’s teacher José White Lafitte (1836-1918) and the 1899 Romance in G Major by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, whose violin concerto wouldn’t fit on the original album. The original fourth work has been replaced by a new recording of Florence Price’s 1952 Violin Concerto No.2, with Jonathon Heyward conducting the Royal National Scottish Orchestra.

The Saint-Georges is an absolute gem with a glorious slow movement, the Lafitte a standard mid-19th century virtuosic Romantic concerto very much in the Max Bruch Germanic mould, but none-the-less effective for that. The Coleridge-Taylor is a lush melodic piece, again very much of its time.

Price’s music has been getting a great deal of attention recently. The concerto here is a rather uneven single-movement work with a truly lovely recurring hymn-tune melody but contrasting material that occasionally approaches the banal. Her orchestration can seem somewhat amateurish at times, probably more reflective of a personal sound and style than any lack of craft.

Performances throughout are top notch.

06 Schubert JubileeThe UK-based Jubilee Quartet is in superb form on Schubert String Quartets, with outstanding performances of quartets from each end of the composer’s career (Rubicon Classics RCD1082 rubiconclassics.com).

The String Quartet in E-flat Major D87 was written when Schubert was only 16, but was already his tenth quartet. It’s light and joyful, with an all-to-be-expected song-like quality, beautifully captured here.

The String Quartet in G Major D887 from 1826, Schubert’s 15th and final quartet is a large-scale, groundbreaking masterpiece, the equal of the late Beethoven quartets. Words used in the booklet notes to describe its extreme emotions include dramatic, violent, painful, menacing, introverted and innocent. There’s a terrific range of dynamics and of touch and sensitivity in a quite remarkable performance of a quite remarkable work.

A warm, crystal-clear recorded sound captures every nuance.

07 Dudok QuartetAnother really impressive quartet disc is Reflections, on which the Dudok Quartet Amsterdam presents works by Dmitri Shostakovich and Grażyna Bacewicz, two composers who often masked their true feelings in their music (Rubicon Classics RCD1099 rubiconclassics.com).

Shostakovich’s String Quartet No.5 in B-flat Major, Op.92 was written in 1952, four years after the composer’s second denunciation in the infamous 1948 Zhdanov decree; it’s given a deeply perceptive and emotional reading here. Five of his 24 Preludes Op.34 for piano from 1933 are heard in really effective arrangements for string quartet.

The String Quartet No.4 by Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz was written in 1951, with the booklet notes suggesting the influence of the oppression of the Polish people by the Soviet regime in the late 1940s; its frequent folk music references, however, made it acceptable to the authorities. It’s another deeply felt reading of a very strong work.

08 TelemannThere’s another CD of the Telemann: Fantasias for Solo Violin, this time by the outstanding Alina Ibragimova (Hyperion CDA68384 hyperion-records.co.uk/a.asp?a=A1677).

The 12 short works, described here as amply justifying the high repute in which Telemann was held, are deceptively easy-looking on the printed page, but don’t be fooled. The 1968 Bärenreiter edition stated that they were intended “for the amateur or the instrumental student” but also noted that “the double-stopping and chordal work can naturally only be tackled by a competent player.” Well, there’s an Understatement of the Year winner for you. 

The 12 Fantasias, in 11 different keys, display a variety of different moods, never deeply emotional but never facile or shallow either; even the shortest sections – some only a few bars in length – display taste and craft.

Always in complete technical control, Ibragimova simply dances through them, seemingly enjoying every minute to the fullest.

09 LAuroreL’Aurore is the first solo album by German violinist Carolin Widmann for the ECM New Series label ECM 2709 ecmrecords.com/catalogue/1647418055).

Hildegard von Bingen’s Spiritus sanctus vivificans opens the CD and also reappears later in a slightly different take. George Enescu’s brilliant Fantaisie concertante from 1932, which should surely be better known, is followed by the Three Miniatures from 2002 by George Benjamin (b.1960) and a really striking performance of Ysaÿe’s Sonata No.5 in G Major Op.27.

A contemplative performance of Bach’s Partita No.2 in D Minor BWV1004 ends an excellent disc. Nothing is rushed, and Widmann is never too strict rhythmically, the intelligent use of slight stresses and stretched phrasing injecting life into every movement.

10 MozartPleyeViolinist Emmanuele Baldini and violist Claudio Cruz are the performers on Mozart and Pleyel Duos for Violin and Viola (Azul Music AMDA1781 azulmusic.com.br).

The two Mozart pieces, both of three movements, are the Duos for Violin & Viola in G Major K423 and in B-flat Major K424. The work by Pleyel, a student of Haydn and a direct contemporary of Mozart (he was born a year later but outlived Mozart by 40 years) is his Three Grand Duets for Violin and Viola Op.69 Nos.1-3. The first two duets have two movements and the third three.

There’s nothing earth-shattering here, just some beautifully competent music given stylish and sympathetic performances by two excellent players.

11 Ben LahringDriftwood is the second album released by the Calgary-based guitarist Ben Lahring, with six of the 11 tracks his own compositions (Alliance Entertainment 198004147064 benlahring.com).

Liona Boyd’s really nice Lullaby for My Love opens the disc, with short pieces by William Beauvais, Seymour Bernstein, Graeme Koehne and a Miguel Llobet arrangement of a traditional Catalan melody balancing the original Lahring compositions – the three-movement Firstborn of the Dead, Over the Pacific, Fair Winds and Following Seas and the title track.

There’s clean playing with lovely tone and colour in an attractive and fairly low-key program that doesn’t vary much in style, sound or mood. 

Finally, two updates on previously-reviewed Beethoven series:

12 Beethoven DyachkovMy May review of the digital release of the first volume of the complete music for cello and piano by the Montreal-based duo of cellist Yegor Dyachkov and pianist Jean Saulnier noted that a 3CD physical set was to be released in October, and it’s here: Beethoven Intégrale des Sonates et variations pour violoncelle et piano (ATMA Classique ACD2 2431 atmaclassique.com/en).

I previously described the playing as “intelligent and beautifully nuanced, promising great things for the works still to be released,” and the complete set more than fulfills that promise. Outstanding playing and a superb recorded sound quality make this set hard to equal, let alone surpass.

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13 Beethoven DoverThe Dover Quartet completes its set of Beethoven Complete String Quartets with Volume 3 The Late Quartets (Cedille CDR 90000 215 cedillerecords.org).

This final 3CD issue features the String Quartets No.12 in E-flat Major Op.127, No.13 in B-flat Major Op.130, No.14 in C-sharp Minor Op.131, No.15 in A Minor Op.132, No.16 in F Major Op.135 and the Grosse Fugue in B-flat Major Op.133. My previous reviews noted performances of conviction and depth, and the standard has clearly been upheld to the end of an outstanding addition to the quartet’s discography.

01 Bach ViolinBach – Violin & Harpsichord Sonatas
Andoni Mercero; Alfonso Sebastian
Eudora Records EUD-SACD-2025 (eudorarecords.com)

Recorded in the later part of 2020 at St. Miguel Church in Zaragoza, Spain, this splendid and affecting recording captures the remarkable variety, innovation and intimacy of these great sonatas. Written in the early 1720s, they feature both instruments as equals and, as with many of Bach’s “sets of six” (Brandenburg concerti, cello suites, English and French suites for keyboard, violin sonatas and partitas), each stands alone in mood, spirit and thematic development. From the wistful and distant B Minor, the tragic C Minor (with its echoes of Erbarme dich in its first movement), the nostalgic and poignant F Minor to the majestic A Major, the towering E Major and the final exuberant G Major, this recording offers generous and beautiful performances, full of intelligence and heart.

Both players are leading performers and educators in Spain, with Mercero equally at home as a soloist, leading orchestras from the violin (both Baroque and modern) and playing more intimate chamber music (he coaches string quartets at Musikene in San Sebastián in Spain) and Sebastián collaborating with many Spanish early music ensembles, as well as teaching harpsichord at the Salamanca Conservatory.
The handsome 2CD set is accompanied by an informative booklet, featuring a lengthy and well-written essay on the provenance of these fascinating pieces and personal reflections on the 30-year musical partnership of these two brilliant musicians.

02 Beethoven Pianos CtiBeethoven – The Five Piano Concertos
Haochen Zhang; Philadelphia Orchestra; Nathalie Stutzmann
BIS BIS-2581 SACD (bis.se/performers/zhang-haochen)

Having taken the classical piano world by storm when he first burst upon the scene in 2009 as the youngest pianist to ever receive a gold medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Haochen Zhang, now 32 with three releases under his belt, offers a fine follow-up recording here to his earlier Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev piano concertos. Once again recording for Naxos, Zhang performs Beethoven alongside the well-regarded Philadelphia Orchestra, the city in which the Chinese-born Zhang is currently based, under the direction of guest conductor Nathalie Stutzmann.

For any pianist, even one as accomplished as Zhang, to take on a complete program (spanning three discs) of Beethoven’s five piano concertos is yeoman’s work indeed. First there is the work of performing the pieces themselves (the study, nuance, technical challenge, among literally thousands of additional artistic decisions), plus the “work” of situating oneself into the canon of Beethoven interpreters (of which there are many and they are great), adding one’s name and vision onto the ever-growing corpus of versions and canonic contributions.

Nicholas Cook, writing in Music: A Very Short Introduction coins the phrase: “The Beethoven Effect” referring principally to the fact that Beethoven, freed from the obligation of compositional servitude to a church, a noble patron, or a feudal landlord was perhaps the first true musical “artist,” (differing here from trades or crafts person) who enjoyed a kind of self-awareness of his own greatness that not only traversed geography but the “boundaries of time and space.” Beethoven’s music was, as Cook suggests, “for the ages,” and, although difficult to know for certain, Beethoven knew it. Unlike Bach, who would use his own handwritten etudes as parchment paper to wrap lunches while taking a break from his teaching obligations at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Beethoven did not view his music so ephemerally. As a result, offers Cook, composing after Beethoven was an exercise in hearing his historical and giant footsteps from behind.

With such grandiosity of intent and purpose came the grand compositional gestures that we now associate as hallmarks of Beethoven specifically, and the Romantic era more generally. And it is in these expansive signifiers, hugely encompassing of human emotion and offering a kind of bordered frame that tests the limits of any performer brave enough to tackle his repertoire, that Zhang excels. Where, for example, a less competent interpreter would use virtuosity as a proxy for expressiveness, Zhang’s performance here sounds as if there is another dimension in play where we do not just hear, as Hans Von Bulow established, the pianist abdicating one’s agency so audiences hear only the composer and not the performer, but rather a satisfying fusion that is equal parts Beethoven and Zhang.

Lastly, when we look at classical music history through the eyes of today, we often see an artificial bifurcation between composers and performers/improvisers. But Beethoven, in addition to being a composer, was apparently an extremely fine pianist, and, like the aforementioned Bach, improviser. And it is here as well where we hear Zhang contributing to the continuum of the pianist Beethoven, wrestling with, accepting and ultimately transcending this music with this fine recording that is sure to add much lustre to his impressive but still developing legacy. 

03 Schubert GaudetSchubert – Vol.7 The Wanderer
Mathieu Gaudet
Analekta AN28929 (analekta.com/en)

Has it really been more than three years since Quebec-born pianist and emergency room physician Mathieu Gaudet completed his ambitious series of 12 recitals presenting the complete piano sonatas of Franz Schubert which launched the equally ambitious project by Analekta to tailor them into a 12CD collection? Since then, Gaudet has proven without a doubt that he is among the foremost interpreters of Schubert’s piano repertoire, and this seventh addition to the collection is indeed further evidence. Titled The Wanderer, it features the sonatas D157 and D784, and, appropriately, the renowned Wanderer Fantasy D760.

Dating from 1815, the Sonata in E Major D157 was Schubert’s first essay in the form, while the Sonata D784 was completed five years later. As expected, Gaudet’s performance in both is a delight, demonstrating a particularly beautiful tone combined with an impeccable technique.

The famed Wanderer Fantasy from 1823 is reputed to be one of Schubert’s most difficult compositions, not only technically but also in nuance. While it comprises four movements, each one transitions into the next instead of ending with a definitive cadence, and each starts with a variation of the opening phrase of his lied Der Wanderer D489. The piece conveys a vast array of moods, but Gaudet draws them all together into a cohesive whole and the piece – like the disc itself – flows with incredible spontaneity.

Altogether this is an exemplary addition to this ongoing project and we can look forward to the remaining five in the series.

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04 Brahms BermanBrahms – Variations and other works
Boris Berman
Le Palais des Degustateurs PDD027 (lepalaisdesdegustateurs.com)

Within jazz music’s history, perhaps particularly so during the bebop era of the mid-1940s, fly-by-night record companies would pop up to record the progenitors of this musical form (Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke, Dodo Marmarosa) as their sounds, largely heard in after-hours New York-based jam sessions, escaped notice or attention by the so-called “majors” of the time. Tall on ambition and moxie, but short on finances, these companies (Dial, Savoy, Riverside) wanted to record original music that had a patina of familiarity (harmony, chord changes) without paying the royalties necessitated by copyright laws in order to release music not in the public domain. Enter the contrafact; new melodies written over the chord changes and form of pre-existing compositions.

Well, like almost everything else in life, there is a historically earlier iteration of this idea, this time coming from Western Art Music, the variation. As the informative liner notes to this fine recording by the talented and articulate pianist Boris Berman expound, variation “provided a predictable template, an unobtrusive campus, upon which musicians could demonstrate their craft.”

Contained on this interesting and imminently listenable recording by Berman are variations or arrangements by Johannes Brahms that delight and bring new perspective to the works of this master. Recorded on a gorgeous Steinway piano with fine sonic capture from the Couvent des Jacobin in Beaune, France this compelling 2022 recording by a leading Brahms interpreter, pedagogue and prolific pianist is a welcome addition to the discographies of both Berman and Brahms.

05 Bruckner 9Bruckner – Symphony No.9
Budapest Festival Orchestra; Ivan Fischer
Channel Classics CCSSA42822 (outhere-music.com/en/labels/channel-classics)

There is a wonderful, dramatic moment in Verdi’s opera Attila. In the sixth century Attila’s hordes were devastating Italy but just before reaching Rome Attila has a dream warning him to “Stop! Go no further, you are entering God’s territory.” Indeed, Attila was never able to conquer Rome. This is how I felt listening to the heavenly last movement of Bruckner’s Symphony No.9 in D Minor. The music is so beautiful, so otherworldly, that it is approaching heaven and Bruckner had to stop, no further to go. As we know Bruckner was never able to complete this work.

Ivan Fischer, by now a world-famous Hungarian conductor, has a tremendous respect for this work but wanted to reach age 70 before attempting to conduct it. And it was worth the wait. The Budapest Festival Orchestra, that he created with the late great pianist Zoltán Kocsis and is now rated one of the top ten of the world, is in top form and so is the recording.

At the beginning there is a mysterious, even frightening, hushed intensity, daring harmonies and gorgeous sonorities as we reach the climaxes in the first movement. This is followed by Bruckner’s trademark Scherzo of relentless foot stomping as if giants were dancing (reminding us of Wagner’s Das Rheingold) but the joviality ends with a deadly grimace in D minor. The final Adagio begins with a surprisingly poignant leap of a minor ninth and the Wagner tubas play a prominent role, but the ending is a farewell, a quiet renunciation, and tranquillity now pervades in a major key that ends the symphony.

06 Walton FacadesWilliam Walton – The Complete Facades
Narrators Hila Plitmann and Kevin Deas; Virginia Arts Festival Chamber Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta
Naxos 8.574278 (naxos.com/Search/KeywordSearchResults/?q=8.574378)

It’s difficult to forget a first love, whether another person, or in this case a recording of a modern curiosity. Façade, an Entertainment, is composed of poems by Edith Sitwell recited to (over? against?) popular song and dance stylings by an extremely young (18!) William Walton. Those originally entertained were doubtless the bloom of British intelligentsia, as white and privileged a crowd as ever was. Façade’s texts are sometimes problematic; they could never be written today, or hopefully, never published. There’s bushels of racism and sexism, which might have been palatable to an Edwardian audience. There’s also stark satire of the British upper crust, and some good old sexiness as well. 

These are virtuosic mouthfuls of dance rhythms along with rapid patter through surprising and sometimes awkward syllables. On my old (sadly stolen) recording, Peter Pears shared recitation duties alongside Dame Edith herself; here Hila Plitmann outdoes Sitwell. I appreciate her various affected accents. She carries off the humour and snark of the poems while maintaining verbal balance. Kevin Deas brings a rich, deep baritone to his assignments, and a certain dignity to The Man from a Far Country (“Though I am black and not comely…”). 

The most poignant and personal poem of the first suite is By the Lake. Sitwell’s own melancholic version sets a standard for heartfelt sorrow describing a past love affair; it sits apart from the more satiric aspects of the work. Although only responsible for the introductory and final stanzas, Fred Child’s sing-song mannerisms jar, as does his half-hearted wave at a brogue in the Scotch Rhapsody. A bland American accent and aimless melodification just don’t (pun alert) sit well with me. Score two for trained vocalists, zero for radio hosts. 

Led by JoAnn Falletta. the performances among the band are admirable. Walton had a great sense of the dance hall, and the small ensemble evokes many other such groupings of the era. Balances are handled well, and the pacing is pretty good too. Included are two addenda to the original suite, which was written in 1922, but not published until 1951.

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