01 Souper du RoyLes Soupers du Roy
Arion Orchestre Baroque; Mathieu Lussier
ATMA ACD2 2828 (atmaclassique.com/en)

It was in 1683 that the French composer Michel-Richard Delalande was appointed superintendent of music of the Chapel Royal at the court of Louis XIV. As a result, most of his output was devoted to sacred music, but he also produced secular cantatas and a significant number of instrumental suites intended to accompany the royal dinners. Suites were a product of several French composers of the period and in light of their length (as were the gastronomic repasts themselves) excerpts from works by five composers are presented on this fine ATMA recording appropriately title Les Soupers du Roy, performed by the Arion Orchestre Baroque under the direction of Mathieu Lussier.

The disc opens with five movements from Delalande’s Cinquieme Suite with the ensemble delivering a stylish performance, clearly demonstrating an innate feeling for the repertoire. More fanciful is Destouches’ Le Carnaval et la Folie, the movements taken from the first comédie-ballet in France premiering at Fontainebleau in 1703. François Colin de Blamont was a pupil of Delalande and the three thoughtfully chosen excerpts from his ballet héroïque Fêtes grecques et romaines are performed here with a particular refinement and precision, the phrasing always carefully nuanced. 

Jean-Philippe Rameau and François Francoeur are the most recent composers on the disc. The suite by Rameau was taken from his ballet héroïque Les fêtes de Polymnie from 1745, while Francoeur’s Fourth Suite “with trumpet, timpani and horns” is particularly jubilant, in keeping with the occasion of a royal marriage, thus rounding out a most compelling program.

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02 Bach Clavier UbungBach – Clavier Übung III | The Pedal Settings
Renée Anne Louprette
Acis APL41745 (acisproductions.com)

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Clavier Übung III is a masterwork of the organ repertoire, consisting of diverse and complex chorale preludes bookended by a grandiose prelude and fugue, commonly known as the “St. Anne,” BWV 552. Divided into several theological categories, the chorale preludes explore a range of musical styles and textures, from dense five-and six-part counterpoint with pedal to two-part textures which resemble Bach’s earlier keyboard inventions. 

This recording omits the two-part preludes, including only the chorale settings that incorporate the pedals. While the smaller-scale preludes are delightful works, this decision condenses the Clavier Übung into a non-stop journey through some of Bach’s most difficult and demanding organ music. Performed on the Craighead-Saunders Organ at Christ Church Episcopal in Rochester, New York which is modeled after a 1776 Lithuanian instrument by Adam Gottlieb Casparini, this organ is a wonderful vehicle for Bach’s music, containing a superb mix of brightness, boldness and blend.

A renowned international performer, American organist Renée Anne Louprette provides a splendid rendition of these challenging, inspiring works. It is no small feat to make such complex music sound apparent and simple, but Louprette rises to the task with technical facility, straightforward interpretations and a choice of registrations that emphasize form and clarity. Bach’s genius is such that his music rarely benefits from over-interpretation, and Louprette’s great success lies in the dedication shown to the music itself, without introducing unnecessary complexities. The Clavier Übung III is some of the purest and most profound instrumental music Bach wrote, and this recording provides a glimpse into the mind of the master through his music.

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03 Mozart Concertos Richard HamelinMozart – Piano Concertos Nos.20 & 23
Charles Richard-Hamelin; Les Violons du Roy; Jonathan Cohen
Analekta AN 2 9026 (outhere-music.com/en/labels/analekta)

In February 1785, Mozart’s father wrote to his daughter from Vienna referring to “an excellent new piano concerto by Wolfgang, on which the copyist was still at work when we got here, and your brother didn’t even have time to play through the rondo because he had to revise the copy.” The work in question was the renowned Concerto No.20 in D Minor K466, the first of only two concertos Mozart wrote in a minor key. Its premiere proved to be a great success and is presented together with the Concerto in A Major K488 on this fine Analekta recording with pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin and Les Violons du Roi conducted by Jonathan Cohen.

Richard-Hamelin was silver medalist at the International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition and winner of the Krystian Zimerman Prize for best performance of a sonata, so it should come as no surprise that this recording is a joy. Richard-Hamelin delivers a polished and elegant performance, the phrasing clearly articulated, while under Cohen’s skilful baton, Les Violons de Roy prove a formidable and sensitive partner. The second movement Romance is perhaps a little brisker than we’re used to, but the exuberant third movement – with the cheeky D Major ending – is undertaken with great panache.

Compared to the dramatic mood of K466, K488 is all serenity. Completed almost a year later it was premiered at a subscription concert with Mozart as soloist. Again, the ensemble offers a spirited and well-controlled sound with the melding of soloist and orchestra truly a fortuitous one. An added bonus is the Adagio and Fugue in C Minor K546 which brings the program to a most satisfying conclusion.

04 Clara Robert JohannesClara Robert Johannes – Romance and Counterpoint
National Arts Centre Orchestra Canada; Alexander Shelley
Analekta AN 2 8884-5 (analekta.com/en)

This is the fourth and final installment in Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra’s retrospective of the deeply intimate and complicated musical connections between Clara Wieck, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Robert studied with Clara’s father, Clara and Johannes studied with Robert, Robert and Clara were married and had eight children together, Clara and Johannes cared for Robert as he struggled with mental health torments, and they remained close and devoted friends and colleagues for decades after Robert’s death. Through it all, the composing, performing and teaching of music was of utmost importance.

Conductor Alexander Shelley leads the NACO in thrilling performances of the fourth symphonies of Schumann and Brahms. Particularly impressive is the sweeping and warm string sound and uniformly free and elegant playing from the winds and brass. Though the symphonies were written over 40 years apart, they share a kinship in the eloquence of their Romantic musical language, poignancy and grandeur. Shelley coaxes all of this and more out of the orchestra. Kudos to producers and engineers for the gorgeous recorded sound. 

Also included is a generous collection of the solo piano music of Clara Schumann and her magnificent Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Op.22 in a fine performance by NACO concertmaster Yosuke Kawasaki and pianist Angela Hewitt. The solo piano works (a collection of Romances, Preludes and Fugues) are all played with sensitivity and great imagination by Stewart Goodyear. Of special note are Clara’s explorations of themes of J.S. Bach. There are well-known accounts of evenings that the Schumanns spent with Felix Mendelssohn, playing and discussing Bach’s keyboard works, which Clara also used in her teaching into the 1890s. The recording concludes with Goodyear’s own musical offering: an affecting improvisation on themes of Clara’s.

05 Louise FerrencLouise Farrenc – Piano Trios 2 & 4; Variations concertantes; Sonata Op.37
Linos Ensemble
CPO 555 538-2 (chandos.net/products/catalogue/CX%205538)

The name Louise Farrenc may not seem an overly familiar one today, but during her lifetime she was a respected composer, pianist and pedagogue. Born Jeanne-Louise Dumont in Paris in 1804, she was very much an “enfant du siècle” and a slightly older contemporary of Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn. Her first compositions – almost entirely for solo piano – were published in the 1820s, earning praise from the likes of Robert Schumann. By the 1840s, she was turning her attention to chamber works which are now regarded as among the finest in her output, four of which are presented on this attractive CPO recording performed by the German-based Linos Ensemble.

The disc opens with the Trio No.2 Op.34 from 1844. From the outset, the listener is struck by the solidly constructed score, greatly enhanced by the polished and confident performance of pianist Konstanze Eickhorst who, together with violinist Winfried Rademacher and cellist Mario Blaumer, comprise a formidable union. What a joyful sound these musicians produce! Similarly, the Trio for Piano, Flute and Cello No.4 Op.45 from 1856 shows an adept use of counterpoint among the parts, where flutist Kersten McCall shines in a commanding performance. The Variations concertantes sur une mélodie suisse for piano and cello is a charming earlier work written before 1833 while the Violin Sonata No.1 Op.37 from 1848 drew high praise from a Parisien critic. In both cases the two parts are effortlessly integrated resulting in perfect partnerships in this engaging music.

With its attractive melodies and overall fine construction, Farrenc’s music has gone unnoticed for too long and only recently has it been receiving the recognition it deserves. Kudos to the Linos Ensemble for taking steps to further its appreciation.

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06 Mahler 1 BychovMahler – Symphony No.1
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Semyon Bychkov
Pentatone PTC 5187 043 (pentatonemusic.com/product/mahler-symphony-no-1)

Roll over Beethoven – you have been supplanted! And Gustav Mahler saw it coming. He is reputed to have proclaimed that “In 30 or 40 years Beethoven’s symphonies will no longer be played in concerts. My symphonies will take their place.” Well, it took a little longer than that, only really gaining steam in the 1960s, but judging from the number of Mahler cycles issued these days his time has truly come. 

This new release of Mahler’s first and arguably most popular symphony performed by the distinguished Czech Philharmonic represents the fourth instalment of Semyon Bychkov’s traversal of these mighty works. Though he eventually abandoned any programmatic descriptions of his compositions, as late as 1893 Mahler still felt compelled to describe his first symphony as “a tone poem in the form of a symphony.” More importantly, he defined the work as consisting of two over-arching sections. The first included the first three movements (the third movement was eventually dropped) while the second encompassed the final two movements. The first part most closely resembles the traditional symphonic genre, and it is here that Bychkov adopts a fairly conventional approach, straightforward, pellucid and artfully nuanced. The second section, subtitled Commedia Humana, completely baffled the audience at the Budapest premiere and was not well received. It seems that the promoters neglected to supply the audience with the guidance of program notes… (As an aside, I’ve often wondered how any audience could be expected to follow the convoluted plots of such works as Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony. No wonder Mahler abandoned them.) 

No matter though; the excellent liner notes by Gavin Plumley will tell you all you need to know, and more. From the opening funeral march of part two onwards, Bychkov and the orchestra gradually pull out all the stops in a masterful crescendo of emotion. The finale in particular has the uncanny effect of the whole of one’s life passing before one’s eyes through a near-death experience that resolves itself in a shatteringly triumphant affirmation of life. I for one found it deeply moving. 

The wide-ranging sound of this elegant orchestra is superbly rendered by the expert team at Pentatone Records. A must-have recording indeed.

07 Summer NightsSommer Nachts Konzert 2023
Elena Garanča; Wiener Philharmoniker; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Sony Classical 19658818942 (wienerphilharmoniker.at/en/shop)

Midsummer night in Vienna, classical music capital of the world, with the Vienna Philharmonic at the wonderful Baroque Gardens of Schönbrunn, summer palace of the Hapsburgs, who could ask for anything more? By now a Viennese tradition, there is a giant outdoor concert with a glittering glass-covered sound stage, huge TV screens and loudspeakers set up either side, multicoloured searchlights radiating from the palace with seating for thousands and free for everyone. It was televised here on PBS, but unfortunately I missed it. No matter. It’s out on Blu-ray video and here is a CD from Sony Classical.

This year the invited artists are the world-famous conductor from Montreal Yannick Nézet-Séguin and equally famous, the spectacular mezzo from Latvia, Elina Garanča. The program is a bit unusual for Vienna, all French masterworks from the 19th and 20th centuries. First comes Bizet with fond memories of Carmen at the Met: Nézet-Séguin conducted and Garanča mesmerized New York audiences with her revolutionary portrayal of Carmen. Here she sings Habanera and then Nézet-Séguin conducts the Carmen Suite No.1.  Garanča later sings one of my favourites, the gorgeous, seductive aria Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Delilah, her pièce de resistance just perfect for her voice.

Berlioz was a genius who as a kid came to Paris not knowing what a symphony orchestra was and a year later amazed the world with his Symphonie Fantastique. Here we are treated to Le Corsair Overture stretching the orchestra to its utmost limits, giving a real workout to the VPO.

More highlights: Ravel’s opulent Daphnis et Chloe Suite No.2 with its tremendous sunrise, Lever du jour, and later his Bolero described at its premiere as a “huge musical joke.” The conductor unleashes the total forces of the orchestra controlling the gradual crescendo brilliantly.

The encore is a mandatory Strauss Waltz, Wiener Blut saluting Vienna and providing a suitable ending to a memorable evening.

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