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.

Listen to 'Schubert – Vol.7 The Wanderer' Now in the Listening Room

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.

12 ZwilichThe Montreal-based cellist Elinor Frey is back with a second volume of premiere recordings of works by the cellist-composer Giuseppe Clemente Dall’Abaco (1710-1805!) on The Cello According to Dall’Abaco, accompanied by Catherine Jones (cello), Federica Bianchi (harpsichord) and Michele Pasotti (theorbo) (Passacaille PAS 1122 elinorfrey.com).

Frey’s critical edition of the 35 accompanied cello sonatas of Dall’Abaco is published by Walhall Editions; five sonatas were featured on the first CD (PAS 1069) and a further three – in G Major ABV28, E-flat Major ABV37 and D Minor ABV45 – are heard here, together with all three of Dall’Abaco’s cello duets: the Duetto in G Major ABV47, the Duo in F Major ABV48 and the Duo in A Minor ABV49. No composition dates are known, but the music is probably from the 1730-1750 period.

The second cello adds depth to the continuo in the sonatas, while in the quite lovely duos the roles of melody and accompaniment are continually exchanged between the two performers.

02 Brahms Berg ViolinViolinist Christian Tetzlaff cites “reasons of substance” to justify pairing the Brahms & Berg Violin Concertos on his latest CD, with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Robin Ticciati, both works searching the depths of the soul and having a lot to say about pain (Ondine ODE-1410-2 ondine.net).

Tetzlaff has been playing both concertos for 40 years for a combined total of over 300 performances, and it shows. The Brahms is immensely satisfying, but the real joy here is the Berg, long recognized not only as a requiem for the 18-year-old Manon Gropius but also for Berg himself, the composer dying just four months after finishing the work. Moreover, the concerto is a deeply personal autobiography, full of intimate details of Berg’s life – tellingly, Tetzlaff’s detailed booklet essay is almost entirely about the Berg and its inner references. This is a performance by someone who knows this work inside out, and who finds the Bach chorale ending “incredibly beautiful whenever I play it.” And so it is.

03 Batiashvili Secret Love lettersSecret Love Letters, the latest CD from violinist Lisa Batiashvili celebrates the concealment of the message of love in music, noting that so much of the message is secret and intimate (Deutsche Grammophon 00028948604623 lisabatiashvili.com/). 

Pianist Giorgi Gigashvili joins the violinist in an electrifying performance of the Franck Sonata in A Major. Batiashvili’s shimmering tone and strength in the highest register are fully evident in Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No.1 Op.35 with its gorgeous and heart-rending main theme, the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin providing the accompaniment here and in Chausson’s Poème Op.25, originally called Le Chant d’amour triumphant.

Nézet-Séguin is the pianist for the Heifetz arrangement of Debussy’s Beau soir which ends a CD that adds to Batiashvili’s already impressive discography. 

04 Janoska TheBigBsThe Big B’s, the third CD from the fabulous Janoska Ensemble of Bratislava-born Janoska brothers Ondrej and Roman on violin and pianist František, with brother-in-law Julius Darvas on bass, features music by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bartók, Bernstein and Brubeck, all delivered in the inimitable virtuosic and semi-improvisational Janoska style (Deutsche Grammophon 00602445962075 deutschegrammophon.com/en/catalogue/products/the-big-bs-janoska-ensemble-12750).

The Bach Double Violin Concerto in D Minor BWV1043 sees the second violin take an improvised jazz approach. Two violins intertwine beautifully in the slow movement from Beethoven’s Pathétique Piano Sonata, and Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No.1 is a blast, as are Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances. There’s great piano in the Brubeck Blue Rondo à la Turk and superb ensemble in Bernstein’s Candide Overture.

There are four original pieces inspired by the brothers’ children, and the CD ends with František’s riotous Beethoven paraphrase of Nine Symphonies in Nine Minutes. Wonderful violin playing and terrific piano anchor a dazzling CD which is a pure delight from start to finish.

05 Talich DvorakIt’s hard to imagine more appropriate performers for a Dvořák string quartet recital than a top Czech ensemble, feelings more than borne out by listening to the Talich Quartet, originally formed in 1964 on their latest CD Dvořák American Quartet & Waltzes, their first recording with their new lineup (La Dolce Vita LDV101 ladolcevolta.com/?lang=en).

The Eight Waltzes for Piano Op.54 B101 date from 1879-80; two were transcribed for string quartet by the composer himself, with the remaining six being transcribed for the Talich Quartet in 2020 by violist Jiří Kabát. They are an absolute delight.

The Quartet Movement in F Major B120 from October 1880 was intended as the first movement of a new quartet but abandoned; not premiered until 1945, it was published in 1951.

A beautifully warm performance of the String Quartet in F Major Op.96 B179 “American” that simply bursts with life and spontaneity closes an outstanding CD.

06 Isserlis ShihThe wonderful Steven Isserlis is back with another engrossing CD, this time celebrating a period which saw a huge expansion in the cello and piano repertoire on A Golden Cello Decade 1878-1888 with Canadian pianist Connie Shih (Hyperion CDA68394 hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA68394).

Bruch’s Kol Nidrei Op.47 from 1881 opens the disc, the sumptuous richness of Isserlis’ 1726 “Marquis de Corberon” Strad heard to full effect. Olivia Jageurs adds the harp part.

The 15-year-old Richard Strauss and the 30-year-old German composer Luise Adolpha Le Beau both submitted cello sonatas to an 1881 competition, but neither won. At least Le Beau had her Sonata in D Major Op.17 published, but Strauss withdrew his Sonata in F Major Op.6 and rewrote it in 1883; the original sonata heard here was finally published in 2020. Le Beau’s 1878 sonata is a rarely heard gem, and deserves to be much better known.

Dvořák’s 4 Romantic Pieces Op.75 from 1887 are heard in an arrangement by Isserlis, and two Footnotes close the disc: Ernst David Wagner’s Kol Nidrei and Isaac Nathan’s Oh! weep for these, the melody used in the second part of Bruch’s Kol Nidrei.

07 ShadowsShadows, the new CD from cellist Lorenzo Meseguer and pianist Mario Mora features works by Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann and Gustav Jenner, the connection apparently being “people living in the shadow of other composers” (Eudora EUD-SACD-2204 eudorarecords.com).

 Certainly Fanny and Clara were overshadowed by their brother and husband respectively, and Jenner, Brahms’ only compositional student clearly qualifies, but it’s an extremely tenuous link to Felix, who seems to be regarded here as under-appreciated more than overshadowed.

No matter, for there’s so much to enjoy and admire on this disc, from Fanny’s lovely but infrequently performed Fantasia in G Minor through Felix’s Sonata No.2 in D Major Op.58 – its really tricky passage-work in the Molto Allegro e vivace finale handled superbly – to Clara’s Drei Romanzen Op.22 (originally for violin and piano and transcribed here by the duo) and Jenner’s unsurprisingly quite Brahmsian Sonata in D Major.

Fine, rich playing and a beautifully full, clean and resonant recording make for a quite outstanding CD.

08 Britten BridgeOn Bridge/Britten: Viola Works the violist Hélène Clément plays the 1843 Francesco Giussani viola, on loan from Britten Pears Arts that was owned by Frank Bridge and gifted by him to Benjamin Britten in 1939, calling the CD “a testament to both composers and the instrument that binds them all together.” She is accompanied by pianist Alasdair Beatson (Chandos CHAN 20247 chandos.net/products/catalogue/CHAN%2020247).

Bridge’s Cello Sonata in D Minor from 1913-17 is heard here in Clément’s arrangement for viola. There is a Willow Grows aslant a Brook: Impression for Small Orchestra from 1927 was arranged for viola and piano by Britten in 1932. Mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly is the soloist in the Three Songs for Medium Voice, Viola and Piano from 1906-07, not published until 1982.

The two Britten works are the 1930 Elegy for Solo Viola and the Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of Dowland Op.48 from 1950, revised in 1970.

The knowledge that both composers played this instrument and would have had its sound in mind when writing for viola certainly adds to the impact of an excellent CD.

09 OndulationThe CD Ondulation: Bach & Kurtág features outstanding playing by guitarist Pedro Mateo González (Eudora EUD-SACD-2202 eudorarecords.com).

The three Bach works are the Lute Suite in C Minor BWV997, the Cello Suite in G Major BWV1007 and the Violin Partita No.2 in D Minor BWV1004. The Lute Suite is rhythmically bright, with crystal-clear ornamentation; the Cello Suite is sensitive and quite beautiful. There are some added bass notes and the occasional filling out of chords in the Partita, and brilliant clarity in the rapid runs in the challenging Chaconne.

First recordings of four extremely brief pieces from the Darabok a Gitáriskolának by the Hungarian composer György Kurtág (b.1926) act as interludes between the Bach works. González is technically flawless, with a superb sense of line and phrase. With its beautifully clean playing and recording it’s as fine a guitar CD as I’ve heard lately.

10 Yuri Liberzon Guitar Works Vol. 1Yuri Liberzon is the guitarist on Konstantin Vassiliev Guitar Works 1, a recital of works by the Russian-born German composer that merge jazz, Russian folk music and contemporary Western trends in beautifully-crafted and entertaining short pieces (Naxos 8.574315 naxos.com/Search/KeywordSearchResults/?q=8.574315).

One piece here – Fatum – is from 1996, with the remaining 11 composed between 2005 and 2019; three were written specifically for Liberzon. There are some fascinating and innovative percussive effects in the bossa nova-inspired Hommage à Tom Jobim, and some lovely melodic writing in numbers like Cavatina and Rose in the Snow. Patrick O’Connell, Liberzon’s partner in the Duo Equilibrium is the second guitarist on Obrío and on the Two Russian Pieces that close the disc.

Recording quality, produced and edited by Norbert Kraft at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Newmarket, Ontario is of the usual top-notch Naxos level.

11 Trio Arriaga ElegieTwo elegiac piano trios honouring the memory of a close friend are featured on Elegie, the new CD from Trio Arriaga (Eudora EUD-SACD-2201 eudorarecords.com).

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A Minor Op.50 was composed in late 1881, the March 1882 premiere marking the first anniversary of the death of pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, founder of the Moscow Conservatory. It’s a large work with an interesting structure – a lengthy and rhapsodic opening Pezzo Elegiaco followed by an even longer Tema con variazioni, with virtuosic piano writing throughout.

Shostakovich’s 1944 Piano Trio No.2 in E Minor Op.67 was in memory of the death of Ivan Sollertinsky, artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic. More than a lament for a lost friend, the work also reflects the growing awareness of the Nazi wartime atrocities.

There’s outstanding playing and ensemble work throughout an excellent CD.

12 ZwilichDuring the pandemic lockdown the Santa Rosa Symphony under Francesco Lecce-Chong presented a series of live concerts recorded for a virtual audience, with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich the featured composer. The new CD Ellen Taaffe Zwilich Cello Concerto & Other Works is devoted to works that were performed during those concerts (Delos DE 3596 delosmusic.com).

The Cello Concerto from 2019-20 is performed by Zuill Bailey, for whom it was commissioned. The third of its three fairly short movements in particular exploits the singing, lyrical nature of the instrument.

Elizabeth Dorman is the soloist in Peanuts® Gallery for Piano and Orchestra, six short pieces written in 1996 on commission for a Carnegie Hall children’s concert and featuring characters from the Charles Schulz cartoon strip.

Violinist Joseph Edelberg brings a warm, rich tone to the quite lovely 1993 Romance for Violin and Chamber Orchestra, and the Prologue and Variations for String Orchestra closes an entertaining disc.

01 Being GoldenBeing Golden
Suzanne Shulman; Erica Goodman
Wolftone (shulmangoodman.bandcamp.com/album/being-golden)

Leading Canadian musicians on their respective instruments, flutist Suzanne Shulman and harpist Erica Goodman first played together in 1972. They’ve since enjoyed illustrious careers, performing with several generations of musicians. To commemorate their abiding musical friendship they commissioned Canadian-Scottish composer Eric N. Robertson to write The Rings to serve as an eight-movement centrepiece of Being Golden, their latest joint flute and harp album.

Robertson’s The Rings not only celebrates Shulman and Goodman’s 50th anniversary, but also the golden wedding anniversary of Shulman and her husband Peter. Robertson’s music features colourful arrangements of Scottish rhythms and dances such as reels and strathspeys arranged in a straightforward manner. Geometry of Love (Bells), the title of the final movement, takes an entirely different tack. The strikingly effective interpretation of change ringing (the practice of ringing a set of tuned bells in a sequence) is an outstanding track.  

The balance of the record is devoted to French repertoire for the two instruments. Eloquently composed short works by “impressionist” composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel follow the retro-sounding and peppy 20th-century works by neoclassicists Jacques Bondon and Jean Françaix.
Four pensive works by Ravel defiantly alter the album’s mood, particularly the concluding Deux mélodies hébraïques. Shulman shines in a melismatic near-vocalise in Kaddisch, while the all-too-brief L’énigme éternelle questions the puzzle of existence with bi-tonal passages and a repetitive accompaniment. Is Ravel suggesting that pursuing the topic is futile? Whatever the answer, there’s much to listen to, think about and enjoy here.

Back to top