01 Beethoven Dyachov SaulnierBeethoven Vol.1 is the initial digital release in a new series of the Complete Sonatas and Variations for Cello and Piano featuring cellist Yegor Dyachkov and pianist Jean Saulnier. The series will be launched in both digital and physical format, with the second digital volume available in September and a complete 3CD physical set due for release in October (ATMA Classique ACD2 4046 atmaclassique.com/en).

The central works on this first digital volume are the Cello Sonatas No.1 in F Major Op.5 No.1 and No.2 in G Minor Op.5 No.2. Both were written in late 1796, and mark the beginning of Beethoven’s development of the cello and piano sonata as an equal partnership.

The two sets of variations are both on themes from Mozart’s The Magic Flute: the 12 Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” Op.66 and the 7 Variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” WoO46. The Horn Sonata in F Major Op.17, in the cello version prepared by Beethoven himself, closes the disc.

Dyachkov is a professor at McGill’s Schulich School of Music, and he and Saulnier both teach at the Université de Montréal. Their performances here are intelligent and beautifully nuanced, promising great things for the works still to be released.

Listen to 'Beethoven Cello Sonatas Vol. 1' Now in the Listening Room

02 Joo Yeon Sir SolitudeWhen the COVID lockdown started, the London-based Korean violinist Joo Yeon Sir took the opportunity to explore the solo violin repertoire. Old and new works are equally represented on the resulting CD Solitude (Rubicon Classics RCD1076 rubiconclassics.com).

Biber’s remarkable Passacaglia in G Minor opens the disc, followed by two of the Paganini Caprices Op.1No.10 in G Minor and No.24 in A Minor – and Kreisler’s Recitative and Scherzo-Caprice Op.6. 

Sir is also a composer, and her My Dear Bessie from 2018 leads a group of four contemporary works, the others being Roxanna Panufnik’s Hora Bessarabia, Fazil Say’s Cleopatra Op.34 and Laura Snowdon’s Through the Fog, written for this CD. Ysaÿe’s Sonata No.6, Op.27 ends an excellent recital.

Sir has a big, strong tone and shows full command in a range of technical challenges.

03 Kavakos BachThis is more of a belated notification of availability than a review, unfortunately, but due to a confusing digital link I was only able to listen to three complete works plus assorted movements from the Leonidas Kavakos release of the complete Sonatas & Partitas on Bach Sei Solo (Sony sonyclassical.com/releases/releases-details/bach-sei-solo).

Still, the warm tone, traditional – almost Romantic – approach, rhythmic freedom, judicious ornamentation, leisurely triple and quadruple stops and resonant recording make it clear that this is a notable addition to the discography.

04 Jason VieauxAfter a gap of 13 years the American guitarist Jason Vieaux has finally released Bach Vol.2: Works for Violin, completing his Bach cycle that started with three lute suites on Vol.1: Works for Lute. The works here are the Partita No.3 in E Major BWV1006 (which is also Lute Suite No.4), the Sonata No.3 in C Major BWV1005 and the Sonata No.1 in G Major BWV1001 (Azica ACD71347 jasonvieaux.com/music).

From the opening bars of the Partita it’s clear that this is going to be something very special: faultlessly clean technique and a full, rich, warm tone, all beautifully recorded with a resonant clarity.

“I always try to just play what’s there;” says Vieaux, “the difficult thing with Bach’s music on guitar is that there’s so much ‘there’ there.” He is fully aware of how interpretation can change and deepen as the years go by, and says “I hope you will enjoy this latest snapshot of where I’m at on that particular journey.”

“Enjoy” is an understatement; these are performances that get to the heart of this extraordinary music on an outstanding CD.

05 Meyers Shining NightJason Vieaux is also the sensitive accompanist for all but three of the 14 outstanding tracks on Shining Night, the latest CD from violinist Anne Akiko Meyers; Fabio Bidini is the pianist on the other three tracks (Avie AV2455 avie-records.com/releases).

Described as an album that embraces themes of love, poetry and nature, the disc spans music from the Baroque era through to the contemporary scene. Vieaux is the partner on Corelli’s La Folia, Bach’s Air on G, Paganini’s Cantabile, the achingly lovely Aria from Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No.5, Duke Ellington’s In My Solitude, Piazzolla’s complete four-movement Histoire du Tango, the Elvis Presley song Can’t Help Falling In Love and Leo Brouwer’s ode to the California giant sequoia trees Laude al Árbol Gigante.

Bidini accompanies Meyers on the Heifetz arrangement of Ponce’s beautiful Estrellita and on Dirait-On and Sure On This Shining Night, the two Morten Lauridsen pieces that close the CD. Meyers is in her usual superb form throughout a recital that is an absolute delight from start to finish.

06 Stefano MaioranaEntre dos almas Between two souls – features the music of the Spanish guitarist and composer Santiago de Murcia (1673-1739) in performances by Stefano Maiorana on Baroque guitar (Arcana A484 stefanomaiorana.it).

The two souls are Spanish and Italian, the latter especially representing the influence of Arcangelo Corelli in Madrid. The two major works here are both Murcia’s transcriptions of Corelli: the Sonata in E Minor from Op.5 Nos.5 & 8; and the Sonata in C Major Op.5 No.3. Only the first and last movements of the latter survive, so Maiorana has supplied his own transcriptions of the middle three.

The eight individual pieces are an absolute delight, with a lively opening Fandango and a terrific Tarantelas particular highlights. Maiorana plays with an effortless technique and with complete freedom in a beautiful but quite different sound world that is just bursting with life. Some additions and arrangements are apparently by Maiorana, but his experience renders them completely undetectable.

07 John Bullard banjoAnother quite different sound world – this time five-string banjo – is to be found on John Bullard Plays 24 Preludes for Solo Banjo by Adam Larrabee, Volume One Books 1 & 2 Nos. I-XII (Bullard Music johnbullard.com/music).

Dedicated to developing and transcribing classical repertoire for the five-string banjo, Bullard commissioned Larrabee to write 24 preludes, which the composer says “follow the long-standing tradition of writing pieces in all the major and minor keys to showcase an instrument’s versatility.” The major keys here are C, D, E, F-sharp, A-flat and B-flat; the minor keys are A, B, C-sharp, E-flat, F and G. Each Prelude has a title – Dialogue, Jig, Barcarolle, Impromptu, Waltz, etc. – with the A-flat Major Cakewalk a particular standout.

I don’t know what astonishes me more – that someone could write these pieces or that someone can play them. They’re simply terrific – as indeed is Bullard. Volume Two eagerly awaited!

Listen to 'John Bullard Plays 24 Preludes for Solo Banjo by Adam Larrabee, Volume One' Now in the Listening Room

08 Mandolin SeasonsKeeping the “different sound world” theme going, The Mandolin Seasons – Vivaldi, Piazzolla features Jacob Reuven on mandolin and his boyhood friend Omer Meir Wellber playing accordion and harpsichord as well as conducting the Sinfonietta Leipzig, 18 string players drawn from the Gewandhaus Orchestra (Hyperion CDA68357 jacobreuven.com).

Each of the Vivaldi Four Seasons is followed by the appropriate season from Piazzolla’s Las cuatro estaciones porteñas, the four Buenos Aires pieces written between 1965 and 1970 and heard here in arrangements based on Leonid Desyatnikov’s orchestral adaptation. Each of the Piazzolla pieces contains direct quotes from the relevant Vivaldi concerto, so the pairings here feel perfect. The influence goes both ways, too – the Vivaldi concertos feature improvised accordion as well as harpsichord continuo.

Reuven displays dazzling dexterity and technique in beautifully atmospheric and effective performances, Wellber’s accordion adding a new and never intrusive dimension to the Vivaldi. 

“A magical and fascinating sound world,” say my notes. Indeed it is.

09 I MusiciIf you prefer your Vivaldi Four Seasons in more traditional format then it’s hard to imagine better performers than I Musici, who made their debut in Rome in March 1952 and their first landmark recording of the work in 1955, just eight years after the 1947 recording by American violinist Louis Kaufman that launched the Vivaldi revival. Six more versions would follow between 1969 and 2012. The group marks the 70th anniversary of that first concert with the release of a new recording of Vivaldi, Verdi: Le Quattro Stagioni – The Four Seasons (Decca 4852630 deccaclassics.com/en/catalogue/products/the-four-seasons-i-musici-12623).

Marco Fiorini, whose mother was a founding member of I Musici is the soloist in sparkling performances of the Vivaldi, paired here with the world-premiere recording of Verdi’s work of the same name, the ballet music from his 1855 opera I Vespri Siciliani, arranged for piano and strings by composer-pianist Luigi Pecchia.

10 Itamar ZormanViolin Odyssey, the latest CD from violinist Itamar Zorman is the result of his 2020 livestream video series Hidden Gems, another COVID lockdown project which featured lesser-known and rarely played works; ten were chosen for this album. Piano accompaniment is shared by Ieva Jokubaviciute and Kwan Yi (First Hand Records FHR119 firsthandrecords.com).

The two major works are the 1917 Violin Sonata No.2 in B-flat Minor Op.43 by Dora Pejačevič and the 1927 Sonata No.2 by Erwin Schulhoff, both terrific works. The eight short pieces of the Heifetz arrangement of Joseph Achron’s Children’s Suite Op.57 are here, and there are short pieces by Grażyna Bacewicz, Moshe Zorman, Silvestre Revueltas, Ali Osman, Gao Ping and William Grant Still. Gareth Farr’s 2009 Wakatipu for solo violin is a brilliant highlight.

Zorman displays his customary strong, impassioned playing throughout an excellent disc. 

11 Rebecca ClarkeRebecca Clarke Works for Viola, featuring the French violist Vinciane Béranger with pianist Dana Ciocarlie is another addition to the growing body of recordings acknowledging the significance of the English viola virtuoso’s contribution to the viola repertoire (Aparté AP289 apartemusic.com).

The major work here is clearly the outstanding Viola Sonata from 1919, a passionate reading of which opens the disc. It’s followed by another early work, Morpheus from 1917-18 and the Passacaglia on an Old English Tune, from 1941.

Cellist David Louwerse joins Béranger for the Two Pieces for Viola and Cello from 1918 and the Irish Melody (Emer’s Farewell to Cucullain “Londonderry Air”) from c.1918, the latter only rumoured to exist until being discovered in the Royal Academy of Music in 2015 and published in 2020; this is its world-premiere recording.

Hélène Collerette is the violinist for the Dumka for Violin, Viola and Piano from 1941; the mostly pizzicato Chinese Puzzle for viola and piano from 1922 completes a fine CD.

12 Amaro DuboisTwo of the Clarke pieces, plus two tracks from the Shining Night CD turn up on Adoration – Music of the Americas, a CD by the Brazilian violist Amaro Dubois with pianist Tingting Yao (Spice Classics amarodubois.com).

Two works by Florence Price, the lovely title track and Fantasy in Purple, open the disc. The six Rebecca Clarke pieces include Chinese Puzzle and the Passacaglia, the latter drawing particularly strong playing from both performers. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s beautiful Five Songs of Sun and Shade show Dubois’ rich, warm tone at its best, and are real gems.

Some of the works in the second half of the CD are perhaps not quite as impressive, Piazzolla’s Libertango and the haunting Café 1930 from Histoire du Tango being followed by a not particularly successful transcription of Villa-Lobos’ Aria from Bachianas Brasileiras No.5, the very short Suite Nordestina by the Brazilian César Guerra-Peixe and Fanny Mendelssohn’s Six Lieder Op.7. 

Dubois has a lovely tone across the full range of his instrument. Yao’s playing is fine, although the piano sound should really have a lot more depth and body. Dubois says that a second release of works for viola and piano by Latin American composers is scheduled for release in July.

06 Johannsson Drone MassJóhann Jóhannsson – Drone Mass
ACME; Theatre of Voices; Paul Hillier
Deutsche Grammophon (johannjohannsson.com)

Jóhann Gunnar Jóhannsson (1969-2018) was an Icelandic composer who wrote music for a wide array of media including theatre, dance, television and films. His music blends traditional instruments and orchestrations with contemporary and electronic components, resulting in a unique and characteristic soundscape. 

At once meditative, mystifying and minimalistic, there are clear similarities between the Drone Mass and the music of 20th-century Eastern European spiritualists such as Pärt and Gorecki, but with notable deviations such as the integration of electronic techniques and the use of texts taken from the “Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians,” part of the Nag Hammadi library discovered in 1945. 

For those expecting a Catholic-based Mass in the style of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, the incorporation of a hymn described by Jóhannsson himself as “a seemingly meaningless series of vowels” will mark a radical deviation from the norm, and yet the characterization of this work as a “Mass” is nonetheless fitting, as there is an interconnectedness and weaving of meaning between movements which provide structure and form to Jóhannsson’s large-scale work.

This world-premiere recording of the Drone Mass by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, Theatre of Voices and conductor Paul Hillier is a revelatory look into the musical mind of Jóhannsson as represented in his art music, rather than his film scores, and is an extraordinary musical achievement. The demanding score is executed flawlessly and both singers and instrumentalists deserve commendation for their impeccable intonation. 

Jóhannsson’s Drone Mass is highly recommended, not only to those fond of Pärt, Gorecki and Tavener, but to all who enjoy contemporary music performed at the highest levels of excellence.

07 Holliger LuneaHeinz Holliger – Lunea
Christian Gerhaher; Juliane Banse; Ivan Ludlow; Sarah Maria Sun; Annette Schönmüller; Philharmonic Zürich; Basler Madrigalisten; Heinz Holliger
ECM New Series ECM 2622/23 (ecmrecords.com/shop)

Swiss virtuoso oboist, composer and conductor Heinz Holliger is among the most prominent oboists of his generation. Also a prominent modernist composer, his work includes the 1998 opera Schneewittchen. Fascinated by artists living on the edge, his music often interrogates their lives and the texts they left. His opera Lunea (2017) is no exception.

Unfolding in 23 scenes Lunea is built on as many aphoristic visions, based on the biography and work of the celebrated Biedermeier poet Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850). Suffering a suspected midlife stroke and exhibiting unmistakable signs of mental illness, Lenau was confined to a mental institution for the rest of his life. Art imitating life, Lunea protagonists distort and rearrange words just as Lenau did after his stroke. The score employs a compositional procedure in which material is stated in reverse order, paralleling the narrative’s shuttle back and forth in time.

Händl Klaus’ spare libretto reflects the outlines of the poet’s biography, retaining the flavour of Lenau’s near-Dadaist statements such as, “Man is a sandpiper by the sea of eternity.” Holliger’s music reflects the poet’s turmoil, despair and insights with surprising, effective sounds. For example, his skillful, prominent use of the cimbalom is perhaps a sly reference to Lenau’s birthplace in the Kingdom of Hungary and early career in Budapest. 

Reflecting the concentrated emotion characteristic of the Romantic period, Holliger’s brilliant orchestration underscores the disjointed libretto with impressively expressive instrumental and vocal writing. Juliane Banse’s achingly soaring soprano aria in Scene 12, and the violin solos sprinkled throughout, are memorable for their atonal yet emotional lyricism.

08 Henze Das VerrateneHans Werner Henze – Das Verratene Meer
Vera Lotte Boecker; Bo Skovhus; Josh Lovell; Van Heyningen; Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper; Simone Young
Capriccio C5460 (naxosdirect.com/search/845221054605) 

The work of prolific and influential German composer Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) is extremely varied in style, showing influences of atonality, serialism, Arabic music, neoclassicism, jazz and more. He wrote over 30 operas and theatre scores throughout his long creative life, and they received numerous international performances. Henze was also well known for his Marxist politics; he produced compositions honouring Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara. The latter’s Hamburg premiere in 1968 sparked a riot and arrests.

Henze’s 1990 Das verratene Meer (The Betrayed Sea), an opera in two parts and 14 scenes, is based on Yukio Mishima’s 1963 novel The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. The choice of Mishima, a Japanese fascist, by the committed leftist revolutionary Henze seems unexpected on the surface, yet there are parallels in their biographies: both were traumatized by World War II, both were openly gay and abhorred bourgeois life. Unlike Henze’s overtly political theatre works however, Das verratene Meer is rather a menacing meditation on the sea, seasons, sex and jealousy. The straightforward plot follows a widow who falls in love with a sailor. Her jealous teenage son traps the sailor with the help of his gang, and they sadistically murder him. 

This two-CD Capriccio set is based on Vienna State Opera’s latest production of the work featuring brilliant dramatic coloratura soprano Vera-Lotte Boecker as the young widow Fusako. The strong Danish baritone Bo Skovhus portrays the sailor she falls for, while the convincingly young Canadian lyric tenor, Josh Lovell, is the widow’s son.

Henze’s musical evocation of Mishima’s narrative is couched in an expressionistic Second Viennese School aesthetic. I distinctly felt the ghost of Alban Berg at several moments. Considerable angst is generated by ostinato instrumental textures and drama from the inclusion of unusual percussion instruments, including Japanese drums and clapper that hint at the world of the Japan characters.

The opera opens in the summer, the second section is set in the winter; a series of lush, sophisticated orchestral interludes evokes the seasons and the three primary characters’ inner feelings. Simone Young masterfully conducts the complex score; the Vienna Staatsoper orchestra, augmented for the occasion to vast late-Romantic proportions, is undoubtedly yet another star in this satisfying production.

01 Shining ShoreShining Shore
Three Notch’d Road – The Virginia Baroque Ensemble
Independent (tnrbaroque.org)

Early music in North America, and not in Italy, England or France? Surely not? And yet the Virginia Baroque Ensemble Three-Notch’d Road has recorded 17 pieces ranging from a broadside ballad through hymn arrangements to the dizzy heights of Handel and Purcell arrangements.

There is a haunting quality to many tracks: listen to bass Peter Walker as he solemnly declaims the anonymous but highly emotive Liberty tree, a setting of Thomas Paine’s support for the American revolutionaries. After the rigours of the War of Independence, it is little wonder that Oliver Shaw composed the invigorating Jefferson’s March. Here, Dominic Giardino breathes his enthusiasm for military music and early instruments into one of the very first forms of the clarinet. 

Then there are pieces with a deep spiritual content. The singers on the CD lend a very human quality to Jeremiah Ingalls’ Farewell Hymn with its subject of death. It is followed by a slow, stately and traditional Appalachian interpretation of I Wonder as I Wander sung by Peter Walker.

The instrumental pieces are also worthy of note. To Drive the Cold Winter Away was a great favourite in English collections; its simplicity may well have led to an aural transmission across the Atlantic – ready for Giardino’s clarinet skills. 

We hear far too little early music from the New World. This CD must surely be the start of the fightback.

03 David Hyun su KimDavid Hyun-su Kim plays Schumann
David Hyun-su Kim
Centaur Records CRC 3877 (challengerecords.com)

While early 19th-century pianos may lack the rich and sonorous tone of a modern concert grand, they can offer a greater sense of intimacy and as such, have an appeal all their own. Korean-American pianist David Hyun-su Kim has made a specialty of historically accurate performance practice, and in this recording he presents music by Robert Schumann performed on a replica of a pianoforte from the 1830s. A true Renaissance man, Kim graduated from Cornell as a Presidential Research and National Merit Scholar in chemistry. Yet a chance encounter with Beethoven piano sonatas convinced him to change direction, and following studies in the U.S. and Germany – with an acclaimed debut in Vienna – he’s now regarded as among the finest young American pianists of his generation.

Papillons, from 1831 is a charming set of 12 kaleidoscopic miniatures. Based on a novel by Jean Paul Richter and intended to represent a masked ball, the movements flow by in quick succession. Kim delivers an elegant and polished performance, adroitly capturing the ever-contrasting moods.

The bulk of the recording comprises one of Schumann’s most renowned compositions Carnaval from 1835. Again, Kim demonstrates a true affinity for this much-loved repertoire. Movements such as Pierrot and Florestan are suitably whimsical, Chopin and Aveu, posed and introspective, while the rousing Marche des Davidsbündler is performed with great bravado.

The disc concludes with the gracious Arabesque Op.18, a fitting ending to a most satisfying recording. Kim proves without a doubt that Romantic period repertoire can sound as compelling on a pianoforte (or a replica) as it does on a modern instrument. Here’s hoping we’ll hear from this gifted young artist again in the near future.

04 Chopin Piano Concertos chamberChopin – Piano Concertos, Chamber Versions
Emmanuel Despax; Chineke! Chamber Ensemble
Signum SIGCD700 (emmanueldespax.com/recordings-1)

Even a hundred years ago there were no radios and TVs. The phonograph had just been invented and orchestral works and concertos could only be heard at a concert hall. In order to make it accessible to the common man these had to be arranged in chamber versions or piano transcriptions to be performed at private salons or soirees where Chopin himself was often invited to play the piano part.

Following this train of thought, a brilliant young French pianist, Emmanuel Despax, already well known in Europe and according to Gramophone magazine, “A formidable talent, fleet of finger, elegant of phrase and a true keyboard colourist,” decided to do just that: he collected five string players (the Cheneke! Chamber Ensemble) to perform Chopin’s two piano concertos with the orchestra reduced to a string quintet, so what we have here is effectively a piano sextet. 

Chopin’s orchestration has been much criticized over the last centuries. Berlioz thought it rigid and superfluous, but since the piano plays almost continuously, this version with smaller forces is quite enjoyable. One nevertheless misses the power and instrumental colour of the orchestra, especially at one thrilling moment in the second movement of the Second Concerto when suddenly the mood changes. There is hushed intensity, everything quiets down into a pianissimo string tremolo with a heartbeat-like timpani and the piano enters with a dramatic melody that hasn’t been heard before. I also miss the clarion call on the horn near the end, when the prevailing F Minor key suddenly changes to major as if the radiant sun suddenly comes out and turns everything bright and beautiful.

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