04 Classical Piano Concerto Cramer webJohann Baptist Cramer – Piano Concertos 1, 3 & 6
Howard Shelley; London Mozart Players
Hyperion CDA68302 (hyperion-records.co.uk)

Apart from his piano Etudes Op.84 – for many years a staple in piano pedagogy – the name Johann Baptist Cramer is not all that well known today. A year after his birth in Mannheim in 1771, his father – himself a renowned violinist and conductor – moved the family to London to take advantage of the thriving musical life there. The move was clearly a fortuitous one, for over the course of his long lifetime, Cramer earned a reputation as a virtuoso soloist, composer and pedagogue. In light of his sizable output, he is definitely a composer worth re-exploring and who better to do it than the London Mozart Players with Howard Shelley both directing and performing three piano concertos on this Hyperion recording, the sixth in the Classical Piano series.

The Concertos No.1 and 3 in in E-flat and D Major respectively, were completed in the 1790s and stylistically straddle the classical and Romantic periods. While both were perhaps written with an eye to demonstrating Cramer’s technical prowess, the musical style is gracious and spirited, further enhanced by Shelley’s technically flawless performance and the LMP’s solid accompaniment.

The Concerto No.6 dates from around 1813. By that time, Beethoven had completed his seventh symphony and Wellington’s Victory. Yet any traces of the new Romantic spirit in this concerto are marginal – clearly Cramer wasn’t about to abandon a means of expression that had successfully served his purpose. Once again, Shelley and the LMP comprise a convivial pairing, particularly in the buoyant Rondo finale which brings the concerto and the disc to a satisfying conclusion.

So a hearty bravo to Howard Shelley and the LMP for once again shedding light on some fine music that might otherwise have been overlooked. As always, we can look forward to further additions to the series.

05 Brahms Widman SchiffJohannes Brahms – Clarinet Sonatas
András Schiff; Jörg Widmann
ECM New Series ECM 2621 (emcrecords.com)

Few people play the clarinet so well, compose so well and exemplify the title “musician” so well as Jörg Widman. Substitute “piano” for “clarinet,” and leaving aside composition, the same applies to András Schiff. What a fantastic collaboration this recording of Brahms’ Sonatas for Piano and Clarinet Op.120 turns out to be. The subtitle is accurate: the piano is an equal partner, and often the more dominant. Schiff’s articulation and phrasing leave me nodding in wonder and delight. Widman’s mastery throughout is unparalleled. The two have collaborated often enough that it’s like listening in on a conversation between brilliant friends. Brahms couldn’t have asked for a more united and insightful reading. 

They open with Sonata No.2 in E-flat Major, which makes sense if, like me, you prefer Sonata No.1 in F Minor. As wonderful as the performance is, there is nothing that can convince me the second sonata carries as much water as the first, which is more in the composer’s Sturm und Drang manner. They focus, in the first movement of the F Minor, not so much on angst as resigned sadness. The same mood runs into the second movement adagio, taken at the bottom of the range of possible tempi at the outset, nudged gently forward in the middle section, and relaxed back in Schiff’s brief cadenza. 

Widman dedicated his Five Intermezzi to Schiff: solo pieces whose title and content hearken back to Brahms’ late piano pieces. Interposed between the sonatas here, they serve as (mostly) brief enigmas to tease the listener. Think of a clouded mirror. Think of the grumpy ghost of Brahms, still pining, revisiting melancholy.

06 Moszkowski webMoritz Moszkowski – Orchestral Music Volume Two
Sinfonia Varsovia; Ian Hobson
Toccata Classics TOCC 0557 (naxosdirect.com/search/5060113445575)

Fate was surely unkind to the once-celebrated composer and conductor, Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925): his marriage ended, his teenaged daughter died, avant-garde movements rendered his compositions “old-fashioned” and his considerable fortune disappeared when World War I obliterated his investments. After years of failing health, he died an impoverished recluse in Paris.

Until the recent revival of interest in lesser-known Romantic-era repertoire, all that survived in performance from Moszkowski’s large output were a few short piano pieces that occasionally appeared as recital encores. Nevertheless, it’s hard to believe that his Deuxième Suite d’Orchestre, Op.47 (1890) is only now receiving its first-ever recording – it’s far too good to have been ignored for so long!

The 41-minute, six-movement work begins with the solemnly beautiful Preludio, in which extended chromatic lyricism builds to a near-Wagnerian climax. The urgent, increasingly furious Fuga and syncopated, rocking Scherzo suggest Mendelssohn on steroids. The long lines of the lovely Larghetto are warmly Romantic, gradually blossoming from tranquil to passionate. The cheerful, graceful Intermezzo leads to the Marcia, a surging blend of Wagner and Elgar that ends the Suite in a proverbial blaze of glory.

Moszkowski’s Troisième Suite d’Orchestre, Op.79 (1908), in four movements lasting 27 minutes, is much lighter and brighter, almost semi-classical in its sunny charm. The robust playing of Sinfonia Varsovia under conductor Ian Hobson adds to this CD’s many pleasures. Here’s winning proof that there’s lots of “good-old-fashioned” music still waiting to be rediscovered and enjoyed!

07 Osorio French webThe French Album
Jorge Federico Osorio
Cedille CDR 90000 197 (naxosdirect.com/search/735131919722)

In a promotional video for Cedille Records’ new release, The French Album by Jorge Federico Osorio, the pianist himself suggests that Claude Debussy argued that French music, above all, “must give pleasure.” If these words were taken as marching orders for the great Mexican pianist, then it should be noted that his 2020 album represents a job well done. No doubt, unpacking, and then reassembling, music that spans composers, generations and musical eras (Baroque, Romantic, 20th century) into an expressive and cohesive narrative that moves beyond a simple shared place of origin towards something more profound, is yeoman’s work to be sure, but work which Osorio, a concertizing pianist and faculty member at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts, handles with aplomb, care and musicality. It is difficult to imagine what exactly the aesthetic similarities are within the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau, Emmanuel Chabrier, Gabriel Fauré, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, but Osorio manages to connect the repertoire by way of his expressive touch, superior musicality and interpretive mastery. By performing these well-known and hugely popular pieces, such as Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte, in its originally intended solo piano context – audiences may be more familiar with the composer’s 1910 orchestral version – Osorio affords listeners an intimate look into the subtle and deliberate compositional motion of this war horse that, perhaps despite accusations of being overplayed, is magnificent in both conception and interpretation here. 

Similarly, French (and European more generally) fascination (exoticization?) with Spanish melodies and rhythms (Chabrier’s Habanera; Debussy’s La Puerta del Vino and La soirée dans Grenade; and Ravel’s Alborado del gracioso), moves here beyond a fetishization of otherness. Osorio achieves a coherent musical statement that places the simple, Romantic, and decidedly French, expressionism of Debussy’s Clair de lune, for example, in conversation with the complexity of those fiery Iberian rhythms, providing a welcome release.

08 LSO Debussy Ravel webDebussy Ravel
London Symphony Orchestra; Francois-Xavier Roth
LSO Live LSO0821D (lsolive.lso.co.uk)

A sonic adventure! This impressive new release features three masterworks of French Impressionism by

two of its greatest exponents, Debussy and Ravel, in superb SACD stereo sound using the latest high-density recording technology and conducted by one of today’s most charismatic and enterprising maestros, French conductor Francois-Xavier Roth. He “creates empathetic musicality and flair for colour and such startling touches that the players look stunned” (London Times); “…there’s never anything routine about his approach.” (Gramophone)

Ravel’s Rhapsodie espagnole emerges in pianissimo from total darkness with four descending notes that reoccur in all movements, unifying the work. It then progresses with “cumulative vitality” into sunlight with three dance movements: Malagueña, Habanera and – exploding in fortissimo – the final movement Fiera. To maintain the suspense and gradual crescendo is a real test for the conductor who is showing his lion claws already.

Thanks to medici.tv I actually watched him conducting the Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune with the London Symphony and was impressed by his emphasis on the individual players’ spontaneity, the wonderful interplay of woodwinds supported by the harps and the horns. The overall arch-shape is very clear: from the meandering, voluptuous solo flute through ever-changing textures into the passionate fortissimo middle part and sinking back into pianissimo as the faun, after being aroused by the elusive nymphs, goes back to slumber.

The real clincher is Debussy’s iconic La mer. Debussy’s immense achievement captures “the majesty and delicacy, fury and stillness, effervescence and power of the sea” and inspires Roth to give an extraordinary performance, careful attention to detail, stunning orchestral effects and an overall epic sweep with a very exciting ending.

09 Hindemith Kammer 4 7Hindemith – Kammermusik IV - VII
Kronberg Academy Soloists; Christoph Eschenbach
Ondine ODE 1357-2 (naxosdirect.com/search/0761195135723)

Christoph Eschenbach and the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra bring us a second volume of pieces that Paul Hindemith chose to lump into one category: Kammermusik. They are all works for smaller ensembles. Most or all require conductor, which is unusual for chamber music; they are complexly orchestrated for bands of varying instrumentation. Here are the latter four in the series. Hindemith was perhaps most easily described as a neo-classical composer, but this reduction definitely omits more than it describes. As an unabashed fan of his music, I’m in a reductive category as well, it sometimes seems. I love the clarity of his ideas and forms, the cleverness of his counterpoint, the freshness of his harmonic language. 

Kammermusik IV is a violin concerto. Don’t look for many clues in his movement titles other than an indication of the type of pace for each, but the second movement is titled “Nachtstuck” (literally Night Piece); not exactly a nocturne, but still yes, a nocturne. There is expression here, and quirkiness, as in the interlude that seems to depict the chirpings of nocturnal creatures in the forest. The final two movements run together, and the violinist is devilishly good, as are the players in the micro-orchestra. Kammermusik V is a Viola Concerto, one that Hindemith frequently performed himself. The finale is a Marche Militaire, where one might expect a certain ironic humour to play out. It does not disappoint. VI features the viola d’amore, and VII, the organ. 

Hindemith was not neo anything except possibly neo-Hindemith. Fresh, prolific and always inspired, it will be a century before he is accorded the kind of stature given Mozart. Says me.

10 Cello in my lifeThe Cello in My Life
Steuart Pincombe
7 Mountain Records 7MNTN-019 (steuartpincombe.com)

Cellist Steuart Pincombe’s choice of repertoire on this album is both diverse and connected. With exquisite musicianship, and skillful dedication to the delivery, he takes a deeper delve into the material of each composer and finds a way to link them together, in spite of the nearly 200 years separating them. He has highlighted the “gesture” – the energy and physical motive which begins a sound – and he does it with an attention to detail and authenticity which I found totally absorbing. The nuances of grit, breath and space spanned the entire album, beginning with the Bach Suite V in C Minor which flowed with a high volume of intent. The recording is edgy and perfectly flawed with a realness that included delightful burbles from the scordiatura.   

Pincombe’s interpretations of both the early music and the modern instructions stay clear of both exaggeration and nerdiness. Rather, his energy is felt from a bodily sense deep within and is executed perfectly while still enunciating his passion for the freely gestural energy he programmed. Perhaps during this time of lost public performances I was especially appreciative of the rawness, the energy and the unprocessed feel of the recordings.

Helmut Lachenmann’s piece Pression, written in 1969, is a long exploration of playing parts of the cello not generally found on an album containing an entire Bach suite, and is simultaneously deeply serious and lighthearted, both darkly gritty and otherworldly shimmering. Pincombe dives deep and invests his whole being in this piece, exploring the depths of the complex instructional score and arriving with a presence also to be credited to the masterful miking of the performance, no doubt a complicated process. Here, he pushes his cello to the wall, and we are the grateful recipients of his dedication. The whole album is sensuous from start to finish but this performance stole my heart.

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