04 Schubert FluteFlute Passion: Schubert
Nadia Labrie; Mathieu Gaudet
Analekta AN 2 8787 (analekta.com)

Flutist Nadia Labrie and pianist Mathieu Gaudet’s all-Schubert CD begins with a transcription of the intensely and ominously dramatic Arpeggione Sonata. The quiet simplicity and dignity of Gaudet’s solo opening of the first movement is carried forward by Labrie’s velvet sound, exquisite phrasing and moments of rubato, which convey a brooding feeling of inevitably encroaching doom. She plays the hymn-like second movement with a simplicity and directness which is both heartrending and deeply satisfying.

The second part of the program consists of lieder transcriptions, mostly from Die Schöne Müllerin. There are some wonderful moments in these eight miniature masterpieces, most notably the meshing of the artists’ vision in the counterpoint of Ständchen (from Schwanengesang). However, there is also the unfortunate intrusion at times of that “flutistic” mannerism of changing tone colour in the middle of a note for no good reason and the missed opportunity to use contrasting colours for the two characters in Der Müller und der Bach.

The third and final component is the Introduction and Variations on Trockne Blumen, composed for flute and piano by Schubert himself. While both artists are brilliant here, the poignant darkness of the song (“...the flowers...she gave me...shall be laid with me in the grave.”) could have been more effectively brought to life by greater contrast in tempo and a less dance-like interpretation of the melody. Nevertheless, this CD has a lot going for it. Gaudet and Labrie are both virtuosos who work well together. I’m sure we will hear more from them.

05 Brahms 2Brahms – Symphony No.2
Stavanger Symphony Orchestra; Thomas Zehetmair
SSO Recordings 3816-2 (www.sso.no)

This disc arrived in a simple but elegant package, but without any program notes or promo blurb, save basic info and credits. Listening to it, however, with an open mind and ear, it made me fall in love with the piece all over again and made me wonder how this very familiar work could have been played to death in concerts so much that once a friend said to me at intermission:” Janos, do you really expect me to sit through another Brahms Second?!” and left.

Sometimes dubbed the Pastoral, in sunny D Major, this most congenial of Brahms’ four symphonies is found here in the hands of Thomas Zehetmair. A noted Austrian concert-violinist-turned-conductor, Zehetmair’s background becomes immediately apparent in the delicately handled, caressing string tone right at the beginning of the symphony when the main theme first insinuates itself, and in how lovingly and expressively he handles the strings throughout the symphony. But he is also a gifted conductor with great musical insight, imagination and intuition, plus an ability to get into the composer’s mind, making sure that everything written down is heard. I was discovering passages I haven’t heard before or hearing them differently, like the flute playing merrily over the famous string tune second subject in the first movement. We rediscover Brahms’ masterly skill at counterpoint that came from his years of studying Bach. And experience the thrill of that magisterial fourth movement as it simply explodes from mysterious, whispering strings and is driven joyfully to a triumphant ending.

The Stavenger Symphony of Norway is a dedicated group of superb instrumentalists who have an intuitive chemistry with their conductor. Previously they recorded on the Swedish BIS label famous for its demonstration quality sound, but with this stellar CD they launched their own SSO Recordings and we wish them continued success.

07 Prokofiev Romeo JulietProkofiev – Romeo and Juliet
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop
Naxos 8.573534-35 (naxos.com)

The Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev’s ambitious and beautiful ballet Romeo and Juliet continues to be loved by audiences the world over, not only for its musical beauty and scope of ambition, but for the universality of its original narrative theme, taken from William Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Love – unrequited, tragic, desired, mutual, romantic – is a topic that clearly has not been exhausted by the creative commentators among us, and audiences seem to have an unquenchable thirst for works that tackle this subject.

Naxos Records is a Hong Kong-based company that, while championing digital distribution, continues to release high quality classical music in physical form, somehow managing to stave off the demise of physical product that has so impacted most other record labels. And good for us. This 2018 CD release of an October 2015 performance in the acoustically rich Meyerhoff Hall captures the very fine Baltimore Symphony under the direction and leadership of conductor Marin Alsop. Having led the Symphony since 2007, and recently given a contract extension until 2021, Alsop is a dynamic conductor whose intentional and forceful style once again brings out an exhilarating and striking performance from this ensemble.

The highlights from Prokofiev’s original ballet are many and the world most certainly has enough piecemeal assemblages of these greatest hits. With this recording, however, we have another fine complete capture of this most beautiful work that successfully balances the effervescent and playful bounce of dance with the drama, passion and ultimately Act IV darkness of Shakespeare’s original text. Recommended.

There are two Beethoven string quartet issues this month, featuring works from both ends of the canon.

01 Miro BeethovenThe Miró Quartet, now in its 24th year and with two original members still playing, gives an excellent performance of the remarkable String Quartet No.14 in C-sharp Minor, Op.131, part of its ongoing series of the complete cycle (Miró Quartet Media MQM 2909 2 miroquartet.com). It’s a deeply satisfying recording, but in an extremely competitive field not necessarily one which challenges your perceptions of the music or forces you to re-evaluate them.

02 Eybler BeethovenThat, however, is exactly what Toronto’s Eybler Quartet does with its simply stunning CD of Beethoven’s first efforts in the genre, the String Quartets Op.18 Nos.1-3, on instruments appropriate to the period (Coro Connections COR16164 eyblerquartet.com).

In his perceptive booklet essay violist Patrick Jordan notes that the Eybler’s emphasis on pre-Beethoven repertoire meant that they approached the early Beethoven quartets as “new music,” with the aim of re-learning how to play them to Beethoven’s exact specifications. This entailed not only sorting out issues with the various sources but also – and most importantly – deciding to adhere to Beethoven’s tempo markings, which at times are excessively fast or slow and have long been the subject of animated discussion, though rarely followed.

The results, particularly with the faster movements, are quite astonishing, from the brisk opening of the F Major Op.18 No.1 through to the dazzling Presto finale of the D Major Op.18 No.3. Technical virtuosity doesn’t begin to do justice to the playing here – there’s jaw-dropping agility, clarity and accuracy in the playing, allied with terrific dynamics and nuance, outstanding ensemble work, a lovely warm tone with a judicial use of vibrato and an unerring sense of period style.

I doubt if you’ve heard these works sound like this before – it’s absolutely essential listening. Volume 2 with Op.18 Nos.4-6 is apparently in preparation. I can hardly wait!

Listen to 'Beethoven String Quartets Op.18 Nos.1-3' Now in the Listening Room

03 New Orford QuartetFast forward 210 years or so and there’s Canadian string quartet music from the 21st century on Par quatre chemins, the latest CD from the New Orford String Quartet (ATMA Classique ACD2 2740 atmaclassique.com).

The CD takes its title from the five-movement work by François Dompierre that opens the disc. It’s a really attractive and strongly tonal work with decided dance influences. Commissioned by the Orford Arts Centre, it was premiered by these performers in 2015.

The other two works on the CD were both commissioned by the New Orford quartet. Airat Ichmouratov wrote his String Quartet No.4 Op.35, “Time and Fate” in 2012, following the sudden death of his close friend Eleanor Turovsky, the first violinist of I Musici de Montréal. Again, it’s an extremely attractive four-movement work with a particularly lovely third movement.

Tim Brady’s Journal (String Quartet No.2) was written in 2013, 33 years after Brady’s previous work in the genre. Inspired simply by “the opportunity to write music for such amazing players,” it has seven sections played without pause, the composer likening this to turning pages in a diary or journal. It’s a tougher work than the other two, with a cinematic feel to the music at times, but is another very strong and extremely well-written composition.

The NOSQ’s playing throughout is exemplary in what can be viewed as definitive performances.

04 Danielpour quartetsThere’s also American string quartet music from the current century on Richard Danielpour String Quartets Nos.5-7, performed by the Delray String Quartet in the Naxos American Classics Series (8.559845 naxos.com). The second violinist in the group is Tomás Costik, whose Piazzolla and Mozart solo CDs were recently reviewed here.

String Quartet No.5, “In Search of La vita nuova” (2004) deals with the composer’s longstanding relationship with Italy. String Quartet No.6, “Addio” (2009) deals with the string quartet as a metaphor for family, and how families are eventually broken apart through distance, time and loss. Both works were written in Northern Italy, and are about what Danielpour calls “letting go.”

String Quartet No.7, “Psalms of Solace” (2014) is about a “search for the Divine.” The last movement features a soprano part written specifically for Hila Plitman, the excellent soloist here.

All three works are very much in a late-20th-century style, strongly tonal and very accessible, and with some truly beautiful writing and lovely textures.

05 Sybarite5The American string quintet Sybarite5 was formed in 2006, since when it has commissioned, premiered and promoted over 60 new works. Its new CD Outliers (Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0121 sybarite5.org) debuted at No.1 in the Billboard Traditional Classical Album charts in February.

There was no booklet with the digi-pak we received and no information on any of the composers or the 13 works, virtually all from the period 2012 to 2015 and all quite short; the brief information on the cover says that “each track has been carefully selected to demonstrate a decade of musical growth and the relationships developed between Sybarite5 and these accomplished American composers.”

Those represented here are: Jessica Meyer; Shawn Conley; Eric Byers; Dan Visconti; Andy Akiho; Mohammed Fairouz; Kenji Bunch; Daniel Bernard Roumain; Michi Wiancko; and Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin. It’s a fascinating selection of solid and appealing compositions with nothing too challenging aurally.

06 Francesca DegoThe Italian violinist Francesca Dego signed with Deutsche Grammophon in 2012, and following her debut albums of the Paganini Caprices and the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas the label has released her first orchestral CD, Paganini/Wolf-Ferrari Violin Concertos with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dego’s husband Daniele Rustioni (DG 4816381). It’s quite outstanding.

If you’re going to play Paganini’s Concerto No.1 in D Major Op.6 then you need not only impeccable technique so that the sheer difficulty is never the focus of the performance but also musical sensitivity and intelligence to make any criticisms about empty virtuosity redundant. Dego has all these qualities in abundance and is clearly well aware of the operatic vocal nature of the music; Paganini was a close friend of Rossini, and his concertos make much more sense when heard with the contemporary Italian opera style in mind.

The Violin Concerto in D Major Op.26 of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari is little known and seldom performed. It’s a late work, completed in 1944 a few years before the composer’s death and written for the American violinist Guila Bustabo, who revised a subsequent edition after the original copies were destroyed in an Allied bombing raid. Dego correctly likens it to “an Italian opera for violin” – albeit opera from an earlier period than Wolf-Ferrari’s – in which respect it shares much with the Paganini. A long but very attractive four-movement work, it has much to recommend it.

Dego is absolutely superb in both works, but particularly in the lengthy first movement of the Paganini; Rustioni draws excellent support from the CBSO. The Wolf-Ferrari was recorded live in Birmingham in March 2017 at its UK premiere, the lengthy applause well deserved.

Contemporary American composers are featured on two new CDs.

07 Into the SilenceThe husband-and-wife team of violinist Nicholas DiEugenio and pianist Mimi Solomon are the performers on Into the Silence, a tribute to the late Steven Stucky (who taught at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY from 1980 to 2014) and the three generations of composers associated with Cornell (New Focus Recordings FCR 188 newfocusrecordings.com).

Stucky’s 2013 Sonata for Violin and Piano is surrounded by works by two of his students: 2013’s . . . in dulcet tones, by Jesse Jones; and 2014’s Plush Earth in Four Pieces by Tonia Ko. Stucky himself studied at Cornell with Robert Palmer, who founded the doctoral composition program and taught there from 1943 until 1980. Palmer’s excellent Sonata for Violin and Piano from 1956 closes the CD.

The Ithaca “sound” is described as “a blend of east coast modernism with neo-romantic and neo-classical sensibilities, with a rich sense of colour,” an accurate description of these premiere recordings.

DiEugenio and Solomon were Ithaca neighbours of Stucky, who introduced them to Palmer’s music and supported this project prior to his death in 2016.

08 Peter DaytonNotes to Loved Ones features music for strings and piano by Peter Dayton (Navona Records NV6143 navonarecords.com).

The brief but lovely Fantasy for Viola and Piano is followed by Morceaux des Noces for String Quartet, another work with a quite beautiful sound.

The Sonata “Los Dedicatorias” for Violin and Piano reflects Dayton’s relationship with the art and family of Peruvian painter Fernando de Szyszlo. Variations for String Quartet, a tougher and darker work, resulted from an exchange program with the Royal Academy of Music in London, the virtuosic violin cadenza inspired by the program leader, violinist Peter Sheppard-Skærved.

An abrasive and edgy two-movement Sonata for Violoncello and Piano (the second movement marked “Stark, Percussive”) ends an interesting and promising Navona debut CD.

Yang Guo (viola), Sarah Jane Thomas (violin), Lavena Johanson (cello) and Michael Sheppard (piano) are the soloists.

Listen to 'Notes to Loved Ones' Now in the Listening Room

09a Monteiro SchulhoffFor some reason, three CDs received this month are way past their initial release date. Two of them are from the Brilliant Classics label (brilliantclassics.com), both Complete Works for Violin and Piano – one by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (2 CDs 94979) and the other by his contemporary, the Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, who died in a concentration camp in 1942 at the age of 48 (95324). The performers on both are the Portuguese duo of violinist Bruno Monteiro and pianist João Paulo Santos.

Critical opinion of Monteiro’s playing was mixed when the Schulhoff CD was released in 2016, with opinions ranging from praising his golden tone and interpretations to Gramophone magazine’s noting his “effortful and sometimes insecure” playing. Personal taste probably played a large part: Monteiro’s often slow and wide vibrato does tend to make the intonation sound suspect at times, and his tone in the highest register can sometimes sound tight and thin. There are moments in the Sonata for Solo Violin when his playing seems a bit tentative. Still, there is much to enjoy here. In particular, the piano playing in the Suite and the Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 is outstanding, with a rich, resonant sound and an excellent balance with the violin.

09b Monteiro SzymanowskiThe Szymanowski set fares much better, especially CD2 with Mythes Op.30 opening the disc and the Nocturne and Tarantella Op.28 providing a strong finish. The Sonata in D Minor Op.9, the Romance in D Major, the Three Capriccios of Paganini Op.40 and the lullaby La Berceuse Op.52 are the other original works in the set, with the remaining five tracks either transcriptions by the composer’s compatriot, the violinist Pawel Kochanski, or – in two cases – joint compositions by them.

10 ForestareThe third latecomer is Forestare Baroque, a program of works by Bach, Vivaldi and Jean Baptiste Lully arranged for guitar ensemble and performed by the Montreal group Forestare with their 12 guitars, two contrabasses and – in the Lully – percussion (2xHDFO1043 forestare.com).

The works are Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3 and Fantasia on Komm, heiliger Geist, Vivaldi’s Sonata Op.1 No.12, “La Folia” and the Concerto for Two Violins and Cello Op.3 No.2, and Lully’s suite Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. The Vivaldi concerto was arranged by the Swiss guitarist Jürg Kindle, the other works by Forestare’s music director Dave Pilon and guitarist David Ratelle.

Recorded in l’Église St-Augustin in Mirabel, the sound is full and warm throughout a thoroughly enjoyable disc.

01 Stewart GoodyearStewart Goodyear’s new CD For Glenn Gould (Sono Luminus DSL 92220 sonoluminus.com) is an expression of Goodyear’s deep admiration of Gould’s music and his peculiar take on just about everything. The disc includes a generous amount of Bach, some Sweelinck, Gibbons, Brahms and Alban Berg. The pieces represent a selection of works that Gould chose for his debuts in Montreal and Washington. Far from being an imitation of Gould’s keyboard style, Goodyear’s recording seeks to recognize the genius behind the programming, by which Gould included works that bore some relationship to each other.

The striking feature of Goodyear’s playing is the authenticity and stylistic confidence he brings to each piece. From the early Baroque through Bach, Brahms and Berg, Goodyear plays with a keen ear for clarity, whether structural or melodic. The Bach Sinfonia No.8 in F Major, BWV 794 is an excellent example of this. His technique is crisp, incisive yet fluid.

The two Brahms Intermezzi, Op.118, No.2 and Op.119, No.3 come from what Goodyear believes was Gould’s best recording. In it, Gould reveals himself as the salon artist looking for the most intimate expression of his music. The recording studio became the ultimate refuge for Gould’s flight from the public stage. Accordingly, Goodyear admits that his studio time with this disc was largely intended to recreate that intimacy. Like Gould, Goodyear is careful with his tempi and always lets the forward movement of a phrase govern the amount of hesitation and drama he applies.

For Glenn Gould is a unique, creative project, and played brilliantly.

02 Sudbin RachmaninovYevgeny Sudbin has an impressive performance CV that includes nearly every major European orchestra. His newest recording Rachmaninov – Piano Concertos 2&3; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Sakari Oramo (BIS 2338 SACD bis.se) offers a truly exciting performance of these two repertoire stalwarts. The orchestra is, as expected, reliably superb. Sudbin, for his part, brings some new ideas to these two familiar works. With the Concerto No.2 Sudbin introduces several brief tempo pullbacks in unusual places, very subtle but arresting nevertheless to all who know these pieces well. He plays a few passages in the second movement with a speed more daring than is usually heard, but his unerring musicianship makes these small unconventional moments entirely convincing.

Sudbin makes an immediate impression of technical brilliance in the Concerto No.3. He skillfully navigates the opening movement, replete with high emotional contrasts. The second builds on this energy and Sudbin rides it right into the Finale where he and the orchestra build to a spectacular conclusion that is hard to describe. Anyone who loves these Rachmaninov concertos must have this disc.

03 Herten BrahmsDirk Herten is a pianist who marches to the beat of a different metronome. His latest recording Johannes Brahms – Opp. 76, 79, 116-119 (White Records white-records.com) introduces an approach to Brahms not often heard. Herten puts his music into a freely modern context. His principal tool is to slow down works that are usually played at considerably faster tempi. And while he does this with several pieces, the most dramatic effect is on the Rhapsodie Op.119. The reduction in speed takes much of the traditional turmoil out of the music. The boiling Romantic cauldron is reduced to a simmer. This suddenly puts the music into a stricter rhythm, forcing the ear to listen for new things, and this is how Herten makes his point with Brahms. The usual dramatic changes in speed are curtailed and Brahms’ bold key changes and harmonic wanderings suddenly become more noticeable.

The Steinway D that Herten plays is very closely miked and possibly specially voiced for this session. In any case, he plays the instrument with a heightened intimacy that will make this Brahms repertoire a new experience for many. His touch can be mechanistically perfect as in the Intermezzo Op.117 No.1 or lusciously fluid as in the Intermezzo Op.118 No.2. Herten pedals very lightly if at all, and uses the instrument’s natural resonance to fill the newly created microseconds of time. It’s a courageous and provocative disc.

04 Lika BibileishviliLika Bibileishvili has been playing piano since age four. Her debut recording Prokofjew, Ravel, Sibelius, Bartók (Farao Classics B108099 farao-classics.de) introduces a powerful and versatile pianist who takes her vocation very seriously. Now 30, she is a fireball of energy that approaches Prokofiev and Bartók piano sonatas fearlessly. Prokofiev’s Sonata No.6 Op.82 is a work of considerable variety in which the outer movements, especially the finale, are extremely demanding. The two inner movements are much more wistful and humourous. Throughout this piece, Bibileishvili never falters or surrenders control of the material. She combines an inherent sense of the composer’s melodic purpose with the raw power that he demands be used at the keyboard.

This same energy fuels Bibileishvili’s playing of Bartók’s Sonata for Piano Sz80. Somewhat less bombastic than the Prokofiev and more elemental, it demands a different contemporary sensibility that she demonstrates convincingly. Here, Bibileishvili focuses intensely on Bartók’s smaller-scale ideas, as if to turn the work in on itself. Her playing is astonishingly good and conveys impressive concentration.
This pianist-as-spectre appears in Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, where Scarbo lives up to its devilish reputation for difficulty. Ondine, by contrast, flows and shimmers beautifully and shows Bibileishvili’s lighter touch to perfection.

The Sibelius 13 Pieces for Piano Op.76 (of which Bibileishvili selected ten) adds another dimension to her debut recording. Sounding deceptively simple, some very challenging keyboard work combines with Sibelius’ gift for melody to give this extraordinary pianist a chance to prove that she’s as adept with beauty and frivolity as she is with fire and brimstone.

05 Van Raat StravinskyRalph van Raat has an extraordinary keyboard technique. He is powerful, articulate and capable of extended physical demands bordering on the impossible. His latest recording Stravinsky – Rite of Spring; Debussy – La Mer (arr. for solo piano) (Naxos 8.573576 naxos.com) is demonstrable proof of this.

It’s sufficiently awe-inspiring to hear a performance of Stravinsky’s official piano duet version without imagining the work further condensed into a score for solo piano. Still, such a score exists and van Raat has now recorded it. Pianist Vladimir Leyetchkiss transcribed the duet into a solo version in 1985. It’s every bit as dense and rhythmically maniacal as the orchestral score. The familiar passages of the sacrificial dances aptly capture what Stravinsky first conceived at the keyboard before he orchestrated the ballet. In addition to the work’s elements of savagery, van Raat portrays beautifully those fewer moments of calmer, mystical darkness that occur in both Introductions as well as the Mystic Circles of the Young Girls.

The solo transcription of La Mer is a wonderful example of how such a work can be more than a mere reduction of the orchestral parts. Debussy originally set out to avoid imitative seascapes and instead chose to write music capturing the essential emotions of the sea experience. This 1938 solo version is by Lucien Garban, a director with Debussy’s publishing firm Durand. Garban uses the composer’s choices for orchestral colouration as a guide for his rewrite of the score. Van Raat instinctively draws out the heavily arpeggiated effects of massive oceanic movement and masterfully depicts what Debussy achieved so brilliantly in his orchestral score.

06 Horvath Satie 2Nicolas Horvath plays Cosima Liszt’s 1881 Érard in his latest recording: Erik Satie – Complete Piano Works 2 (Grand Piano GP762 grandpianorecords.com). In doing so, Horvath provides an example of how Satie would have heard his music in the late 19th century. This particular instrument is in surprisingly good playing condition and delivers tremendous power in the lower range.

The main work on the disc is Le Fils des étoiles, incidental music to a drama in three acts. The three preludes are brief and each is followed by a more substantial Autre musique in which Satie explores, invents and generally does the kind of thing that earned him a reputation for being unconventional. Horvath is quite comfortable with this music. He himself is a strong promoter of contemporary music and has commissioned more than a hundred works. His familiarity with modern keyboard language makes him adept at working with Satie’s material, since the composer was among the earliest to toy with minimalism, atonality and other new approaches.

The recording is a serious, weighty examination of Satie’s work by a highly capable and credible pianist. There’s nothing casual about this – it’s an all-or-nothing performance.

08 William BolcomWhen Naxos proposed to William Bolcom that they record the entire body of his piano works, he countered with the suggestion to record only those pieces not already available on disc. After agreeing on the project, they approached four pianists – Constantine Finehouse, Estela Olevsky, Ursula Oppens and Christopher Taylor – to collaborate in recording this three-disc set: William Bolcom – Piano Music (Naxos 8.559832-34 naxos.com).

The repertoire includes unrecorded material from Bolcom’s teen years right up to 2012. There’s tremendous variety in this program, reflecting the broad creative expression that has marked Bolcom’s career. The works are neither arranged chronologically nor given in any large block to a single pianist. Instead they’re laid out as an intellectual progress that’s as entertaining as it is stimulating.
It’s a credit to the four performers that their interpretive approaches are so similar, allowing Bolcom to appear consistently as a composer whose language is bold and clear. Equally comfortable with swinging rags as with contemporary forms, Bolcom emerges from this recording project as a rich creative spirit capable of both profound iteration and light-hearted humour.

07 McEnroe Musical Images Yoko HaginoMusical Images for Piano (Navona NV6144 navonarecords.com) is a two-disc set of works by Australian composer Mark John McEnroe, performed by pianist Yoko Hagino. The set is subtitled “Reflections & Recollections Vol. 1 & 2” and is written in an introspective mood. McEnroe’s style shows, at least in these works, the strong influence of Debussy and Satie. In his liner notes, McEnroe describes a desire to capture the increasingly reflective moments that occur in later life. He draws further similarities between Monet’s inspiring gardens and his own as a stimulus for this collection.

The French impressionist style is a perfect vehicle for what McEnroe sets out to achieve. Serenity is the immediate feeling conveyed in this music, although the composer also ventures very effectively into dark corners for variety and balance. This well-planned tension and release is occasionally punctuated by touches of humour with pieces like A Fish with the Blues. Jazzy harmonies recur through the set, giving an eclectic sound to McEnroe’s voice.

He writes with a strong affinity for melodic line and this feature has attracted a number of orchestrations of his piano works, resulting in subsequent recordings by several European orchestras.

Listen to 'Musical Images for Piano' Now in the Listening Room

01 Haydn and MozartHaydn – Symphonies 26 & 86; Mozart – Violin Concerto No.3
Aisslinn Nosky; Handel and Haydn Society; Harry Christophers
Coro COR16158 (naxos.com)

The Handel and Haydn Society, the Boston-based chorus and period orchestra and one of the oldest art organizations in North America, continues to unravel new complexions and nuances of well-loved and well-known works with gusto. This new live recording, under the artistic leadership of Harry Christophers, presents Haydn and Mozart’s works with candour and exuberance.

Pairing the early “Lamentatione” Symphony with a more extensive one from Haydn’s later period works quite well. The juxtaposition of Sturm und Drang style with plainsong chant in Symphony No.26 reveals Haydn’s creative spirit, but it is the more mature No.86 (arguably the best of the six “Paris” symphonies) that shows what an original thinker he was. The orchestra’s playing is dynamic and uniform, underlying every single nuance, blending ardour with measured restraint.

Canadian violinist Aisslinn Nosky, the orchestra’s concertmaster and soloist in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.3, is a marvel. The chemistry between her and the orchestra is obvious. If you are not already enthralled by Nosky’s spiritedness and playful abandon in the first movement, then she will have you in the palm of her musical hand (so to speak) with the otherworldly opening phrase of the second. Her cadenzas are a bravura of virtuosity and humour and at one point on the recording we can even hear the audience chuckling with delight.

Very enjoyable, suitable for any season or time of the day.

02 Tchaikovsky PathetiqueTchaikovsky – Pathétique
Park Avenue Chamber Symphony; David Bernard
Recursive Classics RC2059912 (chambersymphony.com)

Tchaikovsky’s great Symphony No.6 being performed by a chamber ensemble? I admit I had my doubts as to whether this New York-based group numbering roughly 50 members could do full justice to the composer’s symphonic swan song. Admittedly, the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony under the direction of conductor David Bernard has earned an enviable reputation since its formation in 1999, and its three First Prizes in the American Prize Competition in Orchestra or Performance (2011, 2012, 2013) and an extensive tour to the People’s Republic of China should be ample evidence of its musical heft.

Rest assured – the PACS may not have the numbers usually associated with orchestras who perform this daunting repertoire, but it delivers a thoroughly convincing performance. Following the lugubrious opening measures, the Allegro non troppo of the first movement is spirited and elegant, the well-balanced phrasing clearly articulated, featuring a deft interplay between woodwinds and strings.

The second movement “waltz” (in 5/4 time) is all grace and charm, while the brisk third movement march provides a perfect showcase for the ensemble’s stirring brass section before the anguished and despairing finale.

My only quibble is the occasional lack of the luxuriant sound found in other recordings, due to the PACS’ smaller string section. And at times, the brass section – as ebullient as it is – tends to overshadow the strings. Yet neither of these minor faults detracts from an otherwise fine performance. While this may not be a touchstone recording of the Sixth Symphony, it has a certain energy and style all its own and is a worthy companion to existing performances by much larger orchestras. Recommended.

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