03 Piccolo ConcertosjpgPiccolo Concertos
Jean-Louis Beaumadier; Prague RSO; Vahan Mardirossian
Skarbo DSK3192 (site.skarbo.fr) 

How extraordinary is this recording of the Prague Radio Symphony and virtuoso piccolo crusader, Jean-Louis Beaumadier! Smashing any expectations of the loud, piercing or vulgar, this first-ever CD comprised entirely of piccolo concerti with full orchestra, casts the solo instrument in a most reflective, sweet and expressive light. From the outset, the neo-Romantic/impressionist music of Florentine Mulsant offers both soloist and orchestra multiple opportunities to soar, which they do marvellously. With whole-tone passages, Ravel-like transparencies and their sensitive rendering, it is compelling listening.

The well-known staple amongst serious piccolo players, Lowell Liebermann’s Concerto follows and then a colourful, newly orchestrated version of Joachim Andersen’s Moto Perpetuo. On both, Beaumadier assures us of his utter command of the instrument through impressive technical displays and his trademark control of hushed pianissimos.

While the redundancy of both of these works being available online (in other versions) might diminish the CD’s value, the sheer magic of this album lies in the remaining three concerti and the Mulsant, all dedicated to Beaumadier and composed since 2012. Véronique Poltz‘s “Kilumac” Concertino is brooding and suspenseful and showcases Beaumadier‘s stellar flutter-tonguing. Various minimalist ostinati spin ethereal tapestries in Régis Campo’s Touch the Sky, over which the soloist weaves evocative threads. In conclusion, the final Concerto composed by the late Jean-Michel Damase is a poetic, three-movement masterpiece, filled with humour, episodic melodic sonority and brilliant orchestration. Simply forget that it’s for a piccolo; this recording is truly a musical delight.

04 Mahler 4Mahler 4
Carolyn Sampson; Minnesota Orchestra; Osmo Vänskä
BIS BIS-2356 (naxosdirect.com) 

Osmo Vänskä continues his ongoing Mahler cycle in this fifth instalment of his well-received survey of the complete symphonies. Composed at the dawn of the 20th century, Mahler’s uncharacteristically carefree and nostalgic Fourth Symphony turns the classical conventions of the symphonic tradition of Haydn, Mozart and Schubert on its head with a dark, ofttimes menacing humour. This wry, affectionate sarcasm is, for me, best captured in the classic 1965 recording by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra at the height of their fame. Though Vänskä does not command the subtle structural micro-shifts of tempo Szell was able to coax from his notoriously intimidated band in the first two movements, the amiable Minnesotans still have much to offer. I particularly enjoyed the hushed serenity of the opening of the adagio movement and the expanded dynamic range the digital process enables. At times I even felt that the musicians are almost too fastidious – the unique melodic unison of four flutes in the first movement is so unnervingly in tune that the evocative, distant fuzziness of this moment is lost.

Carolyn Sampson is the vocal soloist in the finale of the work, to which she lends the stipulated youthful, angelic tone along with excellent diction. Curiously, a photograph in the erudite booklet shows her performing from the rear of the stage on a riser next to three trumpets, though in the digital mix she is very much front and centre. I would have preferred to experience the true ambience of this accommodating stage placement. That aside, this is an excellent rendition that I very much enjoyed.

05 Deeper the blueThe Deeper the Blue…
Janet Sung; Simon Callaghan; Britten Sinfonia; Jae van Steen
Somm Recordings SOMMCD 275 (naxosdirect.com) 

The title of this disc refers to a series of associations in the areas of harmony and instrumental colour. A key figure is prominent British composer Kenneth Hesketh (b.1968), recipient of many significant commissions and awards. A student of Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013), Hesketh orchestrated that composer’s piano suite Au gré des ondes (1946) and the recording here by the Britten Sinfonia led by Netherlands conductor Jac van Steen is delightful. Among these six post-Ravelian miniatures I am particularly enchanted by the oboe solo in Improvisation, accompanied by a complex textural weave with particularly notable harp writing. The harp is also prominent in Mouvement perpétuel, where rapid flutes, piccolos, trumpets, horns and violins compete for attention.

Hesketh’s own composition Inscription-Transformation for violin and orchestra pays homage to his teacher and to his grandmother Muriel McMahon. It is a substantial work where sustained long pedal points provide direction including a suggestion of the octatonic (eight-tone) scale structure. In the foreground is an exciting solo part played cleanly and with brio by US-based virtuoso Janet Sung; it is by turn aggressive and calm, and is supplemented by instrumental scatterings and outer-space-like sonorities from the other instruments. Sung also excels with pianist Simon Callaghan in Ravel’s Tzigane and in Vaughan Williams’ Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra (1924-25), which is well shed of its former name “Concerto Academico” – I especially enjoyed the melodic invention of the slow movement and the irresistible closing Presto.

01 Shostakovich 13 15The Fitzwilliam String Quartet was formed in October 1968 in Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge and celebrates its 50th anniversary with a quite remarkable 2CD set of Shostakovich Last Three String QuartetsNo.13 in B-flat Minor Op.138, No.14 in F-sharp Major Op.142 and No.15 in E-flat Minor Op.144 (Linn CKD 612
naxosdirect.com)
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After graduating from Cambridge the quartet accepted a residency at the University of York in 1971, and in early 1972 violist Alan George (now the only original member still with the group) wrote to Shostakovich requesting the material and permission to play his 13th quartet, which still hadn’t been performed in the UK. Shostakovich not only supplied both but travelled to York for the November concert, the Fitzwilliams also playing three of his earlier quartets for him in his hotel room.

The visit started a relationship and correspondence which lasted until the composer’s death in August 1975 and also resulted in Shostakovich trusting the ensemble with the Western premieres of his 14th and 15th string quartets. The Fitzwilliam gained international recognition by becoming the first quartet to perform and record the complete cycle of Shostakovich string quartets.

Now, 43 years after those early recordings, the quartet revisits the momentous relationship, Alan George’s extensive, deeply personal and moving booklet essays underlining just what a life-altering experience it was. These are not easy quartets, George noting that they are strongly coloured by an aura of death and personal despair, and by musings on his own mortality by a composer for whom faith held no meaning, and who saw death as absolutely final – “existence passing into the infinity of oblivion.”

Not surprisingly, given the circumstances, the performances here are outstanding, with every phrase, every note, every dynamic and every gesture reflecting the depth of understanding the players have of these remarkable works.

02 Beethoven Miro QuartetThe Miró Quartet – violinists Daniel Ching and William Fedkenheuer, violist John Largess and cellist Joshua Gindele – was formed in 1995, and has become one of the most celebrated American string quartets.

They started recording the Beethoven quartets in 2004, releasing the first volume featuring the six Op.18 quartets (with then second violin Sandy Yamamoto) in 2005 on the Vanguard Classics label. Four subsequent CDs starting in 2012 covered the Opp.59, 74, 95, 130, 131 and 133 works, with the final recordings completed by February 2019.

The complete cycle is now available on eight CDs in a special box set of Beethoven Complete String Quartets (Pentatone PTC 5186 827 naxosdirect.com), marking both the ensemble’s 25th anniversary and the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020. It’s quite superb. The quartets were recorded in numerical sequence over the years, so the listener can travel the same journey as the performers. And what a journey it is, with the astonishing late quartets in particular receiving superb performances. Slow movements are achingly beautiful, and the fast movements taken at breathtaking but perfectly balanced speed.

The insightful booklet notes by violist John Largess add another touch of class to a quite outstanding issue.

03 Schumann Dover QuartetThe Dover Quartet swept the board at the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition, winning every available prize, and if you needed any proof of their continuing rise to the very top of their field then their latest CD The Schumann Quartets (Azica ACD-71331 naxosdirect.com) should more than suffice.

Schumann wrote his three Op.41 string quartets – No.1 in A Minor, No.2 in F Major and No.3 in A Major – in a six-week period in 1842, never to return to the genre. They are quite lovely works, richly inventive and with more than a hint of Mendelssohn, to whom they were dedicated.

The Dover Quartet gives immensely satisfying performances of these brilliant works on a generous CD that runs to almost 80 minutes.

04 Barton PineThe latest CD from the always-interesting Rachel Barton Pine Dvořák Khachaturian Violin Concertos with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Teddy Abrams (Avie AV2411 naxosdirect.com) – is apparently not what it was meant to be, the originally planned “very different” album having to be changed at the last minute when the conductor became unavailable. These two concertos immediately struck the soloist as an attractive alternate project: she learned both works at 15 and had played each of them a few times during the previous concert season.

Tied as they are by each composer’s use of his own ethnic music they do make a good pair, but although there’s much fine playing here it feels somewhat subdued at times and never quite seems to really hit the heights the way you would expect, possibly due to the last-minute nature of the recording session but also possibly because Barton Pine seems to take a more lyrical approach to works that are strongly rhythmic as well as strongly melodic. The Khachaturian fares better in this respect, with a particularly fiery cadenza from the soloist.

04 Perspectives Dawn WohnPerspectives is a fascinating CD by violinist Dawn Wohn and pianist Esther Park that explores the differing cultures and perspectives of women composers, reaching back to the 19th century and into the 21st (Delos DE 3547 naxos.com)

The nine works are: Jhula-Jhule by Reena Esmail (b.1983); Episodes by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b.1939); the particularly lovely Legenda by the Czech composer Vítěslava Kaprálová, who died at only 25 in 1940; Star-Crossed (commissioned for the CD) by Jung Sun Kang (b.1983); the remarkable solo violin piece, ProviantiaSunset of Chihkan Tower,” by Chihchun Chi-sun Lee (b.1970); Deserted Garden and Elfentanz by Florence Price (1887-1953); the lovely Nocturne by Lili Boulanger (1893-1918); Portal by Vivian Fine (1913-2000); and Romance by Amy Beach (1867-1944).

Wohn plays with warmth, a crystal-clear tone and a fine sense of line and phrase in an immensely satisfying recital, with equally fine playing from her musical partner Park.

The outstanding cellist Daniel Müller-Schott is back with #CelloUnlimited, an impressive recital of 20th-century works for solo cello (ORFEO C 984 191 naxosdirect.com).

A passionate reading of the monumental and challenging Sonata Op.8 from 1915 by Zoltán Kodály makes a fine opening to the disc.

Prokofiev’s Sonata in C-sharp Minor Op.134 from 1953, the year of his death, is really only based on a fragment of the first of four projected movements; using a contrasting theme apparently partly sourced from Mstislav Rostropovich it was made into a performing version by the composer and musicologist Vladimir Blok in 1972.

Hindemith’s Sonata Op.25 No.3 from 1922 and Henze’s 1949 Serenade both consist of short but effective movements – nine each less than one minute long in the latter.

Müller-Schott’s own Cadenza from 2018 is followed by the early and surprisingly tonal 1955 Sonata by George Crumb; and Pablo Casals’ brief Song of the Birds, with which he always used to end his concerts, provides a calm and peaceful ending to a solo CD full of depth and fire.

07 Bach Piccolo CelloIt’s not unusual to encounter performances of both the Bach Sonatas & Partitas for solo violin and the solo Cello Suites in transcription: viola players, for instance, have available arrangements of both, and the Cello Suites can be found transcribed for violin. Less common, though, are performances of the violin Sonatas & Partitas on cello, but this is what Mario Brunello provides on Johann Sebastian Bach Sonatas & Partitas for solo violoncello piccolo (ARCAN A469 naxosdirect.com).

Brunello says that he tried playing the works on a four-string (not the usual five-string) smaller violoncello piccolo with no particular intention, and found that with the smaller body and the same tuning as a violin (but an octave lower) in effect the instrument felt like a larger or tenor violin, allowing him to read the Sonatas & Partitas as a cellist without having to resort to near-impossible technical virtuosity.

He also points out that the natural tendency for a cellist to first apply the bow to the lowest string leads to what he calls a “looking-glass” reading and a “seen from the bass line” approach in his playing, the instrument’s resonant body encouraging lingering on the low notes. Brunello certainly does that, even in the dance movements, but although it occasionally threatens to compromise the pulse it never really feels like more than just taking a breath and not rushing.

The instrument he plays is a 2017 model by Filippo Fasser of Brescia, after Antonio and Girolamo Amati of Cremona, 1600-1610. The pitch employed is a’ = 415 Hz, so down a semi-tone from the printed violin score.

It all works really well, although obviously the trade-off is that the brightness of the violin is lost, especially with the octave drop. There’s an interesting effect in the Andante of the A minor Sonata No.2, where Brunello plays the first half of the movement pizzicato and then changes to arco for the repeat, reversing the pattern for the second half.

There’s a fine resonance to the recording, and Brunello’s playing is admirable.

08 Vivaldi Seasons CelloThere’s another cello arrangement of a well-known violin work on Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, an arrangement for cello and string ensemble by cellist Luka Šulić, who is accompanied by the Archi dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia (Sony Classical 19075986552 sonymusicmasterworks.com).

This also seems to work very well, giving the music a slightly darker tinge than usual, although with the lower register the solo line is difficult to distinguish in places. When it’s clearly audible it’s really impressive playing, with Šulić displaying terrific facility and agility and handling the intricate solo line with apparent ease.

Full-blooded and committed ensemble playing, especially in the Allegro and Presto movements, where tempos are never on the slower side, makes for a really enjoyable CD.

09 Sor GuitarWe still tend to think of Andrés Segovia as being the guitarist most responsible for establishing the classical guitar in the concert hall, so Fernando Sor The 19th-Century Guitar, a new CD from the Italian guitarist Gianluigi Giglio (SOMM SOMMCD 0604 somm-recordings.com) is an excellent reminder of similar efforts from 100 years earlier.

As Michael Quinn points out in the booklet notes, the Spanish composer and guitarist was a pioneering advocate for the guitar as an instrument that belonged in the concert hall, building on the successes of Mauro Giuliani and Ferdinando Carulli in the first decade of the 1800s and producing the seminal Méthode pour la Guitare in 1830 along with a stream of compositions that extended both the instrument’s vocabulary and technique.

The eight works featured here all date from the period 1822-1836, when Sor had returned to Paris after spending eight years in London. They include the Introduction and Variations on a Theme by Mozart Op.9, the Easy Fantasy in A Minor Op.58, the Elegiac Fantasy in E Major Op.59 and the Capriccio in E Major, Le calme, Op.50. The Introduction and Variations on “Malbrough s’en va-t-en guerre” Op.28 – a tune better known now as “For he’s a jolly good fellow” – opens the disc, followed by Les folies d’Espagne and a Minuet Op.15a. Two movements from Mes Ennuis – Six Bagatelles Op.43 and the E Major No.23 from 24 Progressive Lessons for Beginners Op.31 complete the recital.

Giglio plays with a full, warm and clean sound redolent of a modern classical instrument, but is in fact performing on a narrow-waisted but quite beautiful 1834 guitar by René Lacôte of Paris, illustrated in colour on the booklet front cover. 

01 Scarlatti ClementiDomenico Scarlatti; Muzio Clementi – Keyboard Sonatas
John McCabe
Divine Art dda 21231 (divineartrecords.com)

The erudite composer and pianist John McCabe left his mark on British music-making in the 20th century. His gifts as interpreter at the keyboard were very much equal to his abilities as composer. Discographic focus for the majority of his life centred upon neglected composers of old: Haydn, Clementi and Nielsen, among others. A recent reissue of two LPs that McCabe recorded in the early 1980s is a welcome one, pairing well-loved sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti with somewhat obscure works by the Italian-born English composer, pianist, pedagogue, conductor, music publisher, editor and piano manufacturer(!) Muzio Clementi.

McCabe brings a muscular, cerebral approach to these pieces. One immediately detects a scrupulous composer behind the studio microphones, carefully etching formal structures for the benefit of the listener with accuracy and intellectual rigour. It is evident that McCabe delights in this piano music yet never indulges, electing for efficient lines and tasteful embellishment, reflective of both style and substance.

Among the various highlights of Disc Two (Clementi) is the Sonata in G Minor, Op.50 No.3, subtitled “Didone Abbandonata” and composed in 1821. Expressive and probing, this music is liberated from the confines of continental neoclassicism, at once mournful and forlorn in prophetic anticipation of 19th-century music yet unwrit. From the last of his opuses for piano, Clementi marks the final movement of this sonata Allegro agitato e con disperazione. Such qualifiers were few and far between, even in 1821!

Adam Sherkin

02 OConor Hadyn 2jpgHaydn Piano Sonatas Vol.2
John O’Conor
Steinway & Sons 30110 (steinway.com)

Celebrated for his characterful, refined interpretations of Beethoven, Schubert and – rather notably – John Ireland, Irish pianist John O’Conor has recently ventured into the 52 sonata-strong catalogue of Franz Joseph Haydn. The second in a projected series of such recordings with Steinway & Sons, this most recent release generally features late sonatas, varied in their formal structures yet irresistible in their innovations. O’Conor brings his customary warmth and tasteful approach to these classical essays: quirky, unexpected works at a good distance from the tautly balanced sonatas of Mozart and Schubert.

Haydn’s experiments in the genre offer a wide spectrum of musical personality. They brush boisterously with folk idioms of the 18th century, skewing phrasing and lyrical gesture in a ribald quest of mirth and merriment. Their slightly rough-and-tumble profile is not always captured by O’Conor. He appears to prize refined voicing and sculpted colour over a bit of pianistic fun. (Once in a while however, he does let himself loose amongst this music’s rustic urgings.) Despite the craft and polish, one detects a faint lack of familiarity with these works; figures and flourishes sound half-hearted, almost glossed over.

It is in the slow movements on this record where O’Conor sounds most at home. He brings a sincerity to Haydn’s melodic lines born of an intimate, semplice mode of expression. O’Conor’s ear for colouristic subtlety delivers harmonic poise and vocal nuance, begetting interpretations that would surely have made the old Austrian composer smile.

Adam Sherkin

Listen to 'Haydn Piano Sonatas Vol. 2' Now in the Listening Room

03a Beethoven Concertos Kodama

Beethoven – The Piano Concertos
Ronald Brautigam; Die Kolner Akademie; Michael Alexander Willens
BIS BIS-2274 SACD (bis.se)

Beethoven – Piano Concertos 0-5
Mari Kodama; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin; Kent Nagano
Berlin Classics 0301304BC (naxosdirect.com)

The arrival of 2020 commences a year of celebration for classical music presenters and aficionados across the globe, who will celebrate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth with innumerable concerts featuring the master’s greatest works. In advance of this significant anniversary, two recordings of Beethoven’s complete piano concertos were released late last year: one features the husband and wife duo of pianist Mari Kodama and conductor Kent Nagano; while the other presents fortepianist Ronald Brautigam, who is no stranger to Toronto, having performed with Tafelmusik at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre in 2010.

Although these collections contain nearly identical musical contents (in addition to the standard five concertos, the Kodama/Nagano release includes the Rondo in B-flat, Eroica Variations, Triple Concerto, and the reconstructed Piano Concerto “0”), the end results are strikingly similar yet could also not be more different. Both recordings are of the highest musical quality, starting with the sound of the orchestras. Each ensemble is sleek and streamlined, with an overall transparency of sound that is now expected from both modern and period orchestras alike; no longer is the Beethoven standard one of deep, heavy, vibrato-filled tone, but it is rather characterized by its agility and precision, as players and conductors attempt to apply historical principles to their modern instruments and ensembles.

Both discs feature thoughtful and precise interpretations that are themselves similar in many ways. Beethoven intended to be quite clear about his expected tempi and dynamics and years of scholarly investigation and research have resulted in scores that are more faithful to the composer’s wishes and intentions than at any other time in post-Beethoven history. We should, therefore, expect overall consistency between slightly differing interpretations, as we discover with these two discs.

What is far more worthwhile to uncover are the differences between these two Beethovenian essays, the most apparent of which is the choice of keyboard instrument. Kodama, as one might expect, plays a grand piano and has the backing of a full symphony orchestra, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, to provide balance. This is a standard modern approach in which “loud” is loud and “soft” is soft, and we hear this on disc as we would in a concert hall.

03b Beethoven Concertos Brautigam

Brautigam, however, plays a fortepiano, which began a period of steady evolution in Beethoven’s time, culminating in the late 19th century with the modern grand. It is perhaps easiest to think of the fortepiano as a harpsichord-piano hybrid, for it bridged the gap between these two instruments. The sound is closer to that of a modern piano due to the strings being struck rather than plucked, but its lack of size and power results in a timbre that is far more subdued and subtle than any modern piano. Brautigam’s fortepiano is, therefore, a perfect match for the Köln Academy Orchestra, a period instrument ensemble, whose own instruments are significantly less strident than their modern counterparts.

If Nagano and Kodama’s concertos are built for the concert hall, Brautigam’s are conceived for the chamber hall or theatre. While this decrease in overall volume is not perceptible over a mastered audio disc, it is noticeable that the “loud” is not as loud and the “soft” not as soft, simply due to the fortepiano’s reduced size and inherent limitations; it increases one’s desire to focus as it cuts out the dynamic extremities of the modern piano and shifts one’s attention to subtle changes in volume and articulation.

Choosing or recommending one of these recordings over the other is an impossible task. When viewed through the widest lens, both are superb studies featuring exquisite playing and impeccable musicianship, and the differences become almost secondary. Perhaps the best approach is to acquire both and absorb the slight stylistic differences produced by the instrumental choices, especially if one is familiar primarily with either modern or historical performances. In the end, these discs demonstrate one irrefutable truth: after 250 years, Beethoven’s music is still vibrant and thrilling, even to those who have heard these works many times before.

Matthew Whitfield

05 HohenriederPiano Works by Clara and Robert Schumann
Margarita Hohenrieter
Solo Musica SM312 (naxosdirect.com)

I am quite a fan of pianist Margarita Höhenrieder, particularly playing the Schumanns. However, my immediate and continued focus of attention on first hearing this disc was not on the repertoire, not on the pianist, but on the piano. Attending to its authenticity, Höhenrieder tells the story of how this recording came to be. “After just a few notes on the exceptionally fine Pleyel grand piano in Kellinghausen, north of Hamburg, in a collection of Eric Feller’s, I found myself plunged into a different century. The pianoforte was built in Paris in about 1855 and professionally restored using historical materials and methods. It is absolutely uniform with the instrument that Chopin possessed and of typically French elegance – in sound as well as in appearance. It reflects the soul of the Romantic era. Apart from that, it offers an authentic testimony to the sound of the instruments that Fryderyk Chopin and Robert and Clara Schumann played.”

The technique then required to play this piano differs from today’s. The sound from this old instrument is finely articulate and does not produce the same overtones and resonance, nor the volume. Such instruments were expected to be heard in a room or salon having only a fraction of the volume of today’s concert halls. Moreover, a suitable room for a perfect recording is certainly essential. In this case a private salon in Zug, Switzerland from January 16 to 18, 2019 was just that.

Our pianist was right; what we hear here takes to us back to a different century. I hope that Solo Musica plans to record Chopin with Höhenrieder playing the same instrument. That would be something to hear.

Bruce Surtees

06 Chopin RussoChopin – Late Masterpieces
Sandro Russo
Steinway & Sons 30125 (naxosdirect.com)

Italian pianist Sandro Russo revives the elegance and grandeur of the 19th-century piano tradition in this recording of late Chopin works. Having previously recorded several major piano works from the Romantic repertoire (as well as those of lesser-known composers), on this album Russo highlights every aspect of Chopin’s inner world. A selection of pieces that includes both intimate forms such as the mazurka and berceuse and the monumental Third Piano Sonata, this album feels like a personal memento. Noble forces are at work here, generating the sound aesthetics of beauty and adroit virtuosity, a combination that is well suited to Chopin’s music and is the essence of Russo’s artistic expression.

Three mazurkas on this album are a perfect example of Chopin’s mastery of expressing the grand gestures in small-scale works. Mazurka in C Minor Op.56 in particular is a microcosm of understated emotions of melancholy and surrender, yet it contains innovative musical language that at times seems different than anything Chopin had written previously. As a contrast, the Sonata in B Minor Op.58 is as big as it can get. This complex piece is a macrocosm of amplified emotions, an unrestricted cascade of brilliant phrases that command attention and challenge the performer both musically and technically. Sandro Russo is immaculate in both, bringing a fresh approach while keeping with the tradition of the grandiose Romantic era.

Ivana Popovic

07 AlkanAlkan – Symphony for Solo Piano; Concerto for Solo Piano
Paul Wee
BIS BIS-2465 SACD (naxosdirect.com)

Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-88) was a true maverick amongst the great French musicians of the mid-19th century. A child prodigy from a family of exceptionally talented Jewish musicians (the Morhanges), Valentin, using his father’s given name of Alkan as his surname, performed brilliantly in fashionable Parisian salons beginning in 1826, a practice that soon attracted an invasion of foreign pianists including Liszt and Chopin. In 1838, having unwittingly fathered an illegitimate son, he withdrew from the concert circuit for some time, raising his child and devoting himself to composition. He briefly returned to the stage before becoming a total recluse for some 20 years, involving himself with creating a now lost French translation of the Bible from Hebrew sources and publishing numerous compositions.

Alkan’s legacy was largely neglected until a revival of interest in the 1960s brought forth a flood of recordings. Among the five Alkan discs issued in 2019 we have this release by the admirable pianist and barrister Paul Wee, who delivers insightful and riveting accounts of the gargantuan Symphony and Concerto for Solo Piano that form the bulk of Alkan’s Douze études dans tous les tons mineurs Op.39. This is music of extraordinary energy whose obsessive rhythmic profile sweeps all before it with a Beethovenian grandeur. Alkan’s daunting technical demands are never merely gaudy examples of pianistic prestidigitation; they are rather an integral architectural component of his unique and strangely compelling voice.

Daniel Foley

09 Ravel Jeux de MiroirsRavel – Jeux de miroirs
Javier Perianes; Orchestre de Paris; Josep Pons
Harmonia mundi HMM902326 (harmoniamundi.com)

As the clever title indicates this most enjoyable, adventurous undertaking by harmonia mundi sets the piano works of Ravel side by side with their orchestral versions as if they were mirrored. Coincidentally one set of Ravel’s piano works is entitled Miroirs from which we hear the fourth piece Alborada del grazioso, inspired by Spain, one of his main influences.

Ravel was a tremendous orchestrator and he orchestrated many of his own works plus the works of others. Here we can see why and the pianist chosen is Javier Perianes, a young Spanish pianist who has already conquered many of the world’s concert stages and worked with some of the greatest conductors. An artist with unbounded imagination and a special affinity towards French impressionisme, he has beautiful touch and unlimited technical skill.

The main work is Le Tombeau de Couperin, Ravel’s highly personal tribute to 18th-century French Baroque composers, Couperin, Rameau and Lully. The set of six pieces first appears in the piano version and my favourites are Forlane with an infectious, incessant and very catchy melody that’s almost hypnotic, Rigaudon an explosive, high-spirited French courtly dance and the final Toccata where the pianist literally plays up a storm. Later on come the orchestral versions of these and we will be surprised how much additional richness a brilliant orchestration can produce.

The disc opens with the orchestral version of Alborada del grazioso followed by the original solo piano Tombeau. Cleverly set in between the mirrored versions of these pieces is an absolutely astounding reading of the very popular, forward-looking and jazzy Concerto in G characterized by “subtle playing of Javier Perianes and the refined sonorities of the Orchestre de Paris, conducted by Josep Pons.”

I’ve listened to this disc over and over again and hopefully so will you.

Janos Gardonyi

11 Jenny Lind IcebergThe Etudes Project Volume One – ICEBERG
Jenny Lin
Sono Luminus DSL-92236 (sonoluminus.com)

Another marvel of a record hits our ears from the enviable, masterful pianist – a paragon of the 21st-century keyboard – Jenny Lin. Lin has long been fascinated with the “intricate history of piano études,” examining the current state of the genre and charting its near 300-year lineage. She has themed this journey and its transpiring narratives, The Etudes Project.

Aligning with composers of ICEBERG New Music, Lin gave its ten members absolute freedom of style and pianistic approach when crafting new etudes for her. The exceptional results were not only premiered by Lin this past October in New York but also published by NewMusicShelf in complete score, released on the same day.

In addition to her Herculean playing, the fearless pianist brings curatorial prowess to bear in pairing each new etude with an existing work from the canon. Seminal music by Ligeti, Chin, Glass, Crawford Seeger, Debussy, Scriabin and – of course – Chopin is featured. Accordingly, the record frames ten diptychs, (old meeting new), as it delivers a novel focus and perspective. The staggering array of textures and colouristic effects – not to mention the technical demands – here demonstrate Lin’s utter virtuosity at the piano, founded upon tireless application of intellect, study, two ultra-keen ears and a generous musical heart worthy of any audience’s patronage and awe.

Have a listen to this disc and then have another; purchase a copy of the score. The Etudes Project will repay you manifestly.

Adam Sherkin

12 Janelle Fung AubadeAubade – Music by Auguste Descarries
Janelle Fung
Centrediscs CMCCD 27519 (cmccanada.org)

The rarely performed and underrepresented Quebec composer, Auguste Descarries (1896-1958) is the focal point of a new solo disc by ambitious young pianist Janelle Fung. The composer’s piano sonata was only just given its premiere in 2017, 64 years after its composition! Fung has retrieved six of Descarries’ keyboard works from the proverbial dustbin of musical history, offering forthright and impressive attention to every last note on this recording.

Descarries was an industrious pianist/composer, penning the Rhapsodie Canadienne for piano and orchestra in 1936. His style seems indebted to the Russian and French schools, further enhanced by an apparent meeting with Sergei Rachmaninoff and close relationship with Nicolai Medtner, (carried out during the 1920s). In the end, Descarries lived his latter days in Montreal, the city of his birth.

Opening with the poetic, fantastical Serenitas, this album lures us into a seemingly familiar yet recondite soundworld. Romantic gesture and pastoral vignette meld in such offbeat North American pieces from a bygone age. Fung manoeuvres every turn and lyrical leap with virtuosic aplomb. Her eager, communicative style reveals a pianistic maturity. Such assuredness is most remarkable and one can only muse about Fung’s next projects and newfound devotions to unduly neglected keyboard works by Canadian composers.

The sound quality itself is bright and vivid, the record expertly produced. The team behind the project runs an impressive list, complementing the fine liner notes and poignant artist statement from Fung.

Adam Sherkin

13 Poul Ruders 15jpgPoul Ruders Edition Vol.15 – Piano Concerto No.3; Cembal d’Amore, Second Book; Kafkapriccio
Various Artists
Bridge Records 9531 (bridgerecords.com)

Illustrious Danish composer Poul Ruders seems to have been blessed with abiding compositional fluency. He pens work after work in a consistent outpouring of top-notch pieces, adding to a lifelong musical catalogue that is both communicative and compelling. A most recent album featuring his music for keyboard is no exception.

With a rather eclectic mix of concerto, harpsichord/piano duo and operatic paraphrase, this record begins with Ruders’ newest piano concerto – the third – written in 2014. Pianist Anne-Marie McDermott tackles this demanding, mesmerizing single movement with her habitual panache. The dizzying acrobatics sound only a sheer delight under her steadfast command. Subtitled “Paganini Variations,” Ruders here takes a timeworn tune – long pillaged and mined by others – turning music afresh. Variation after variation offer up surprises, highlighting the mark of a true craftsman still at the height of his powers.

Cembal d’Amore, Second Book (a duo for piano and harpsichord) from 2007 is perhaps more novel in its conception, at once celebrating the disparity and similarity between two keyboard instruments. Quattro Mani masters the blend and kinship of the diverse sound pallets throughout the eight movements. With the help of Ruders’ quicksilver, pugnacious score, this performance reaches an impressive benchmark, refined and exacting in its artistry. The work was commissioned by New York’s Speculum Musicae; it is feasible that not since Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto for piano and harpsichord (1961), has this unique instrumental combination been employed so successfully.

Adam Sherkin

15 Hostman HarbourAnna Höstman – Harbour
Cheryl Duvall
Redshift Records TK473 (redshiftrecords.org)

Composer Anna Höstman and Toronto-based pianist Cheryl Duvall collaborate effectively on Harbour. Born in Bella Coola, British Columbia, now teaching at the University of Victoria, Höstman has earned significant residencies and performances. Her sense of the Pacific coastal environment is congenial, at least to my Vancouver-raised sensibilities. Also, I applaud her composing of the short, slow piano-left-hand piece, late winter (2019), for a musician whose right hand was temporarily disabled, having this condition myself and having done musical work with people with disabilities. In this composition, two recurring but long-separated high tones sound over a texture of arpeggiated chords. The note A becomes important, while one high E now recurs. Gradual change, peaceful though somewhat uneasy moods, and expertise with piano writing and sonority seem characteristic for this composer.

There is much variety among other works: allemande (2013) begins sparely, reminding us of the voice. Subtle textural changes begin with two- or three-note sonorities, followed by register shifts and larger clusters. Harbour (2015) is full and more turbulent yet clearly layered – Duvall’s refined but powerful pianism brings sonorous appeal throughout this longer work. If we lose our way isn’t it enough to become attentive to sounds, allowing the piece to grow on us? darkness … pines (2010) begins with complex chords; later a few triads glint through. Yellow Bird (2019) moves fitfully, topped with high chirping; Adagio (2019) pulsates slowly. A disc to be experienced – gradually.

Roger Knox

16 Hope LeeAcross the veiled distances – Music by Hope Lee
Yumiko Meguri; Stefan Hussong
Centrediscs CMCCD 27219 (cmccanada.org)

Canadian composer Hope Lee’s unique music with its self-described ancient Chinese influences is heard in four piano compositions and one piano/accordion duet from four decades (1979-2017).

Brilliant Japanese pianist Yumiko Meguri performs Lee’s technically challenging, dramatic works perfectly. The four-section Across the veiled distances (1996) is part of a larger multimedia project inspired by a Marguerite Yourcenar short story based on Chinese legend. Played as one movement, the loud chordal opening leads to mystical musical conversations between the hands, with ringing string resonances, trills and contrasting driving and reflective repeated notes. The more atonal new-music-sounding Dindle (1979) opens with very soft percussive banging, followed by contrasting dynamic chords, pitches and single lines separated by silent spaces. These same ideas resurface in Lee’s later piano work in o som do desassossego (2015).

In Entends le passé qui march (1992), recorded sound files add unique sound and exact time dimensions to the intense live piano part. In 2017’s Imaginary Garden V. (renewed at every glance) – part of a seven-section chamber piece for unusual instruments – superstar German free bass accordionist Stefan Hussong joins Meguri. Effective use of each instrument’s inherent qualities can be heard in such soundscapes as a piano percussive marching riff against long-held accordion tones, accordion held-note swells and vibratos against piano high note lines, accordion air button-created whispers and simultaneous two-instrument high pitches.

Across the veiled distances provides a great, in-depth cross-section of Lee’s piano works.

Tiina Kiik

Listen to 'Across the veiled distances - Music by Hope Lee' Now in the Listening Room

01 Weber FluteCarl Maria von Weber – Chamber Music for Flute
Kazunori Seo; Shohei Uwamori; Makoto Ueno
Naxos 8.573766 (naxos.com)

Carl Maria von Weber, best known for his operas, Der Freischütz and Oberon, also composed chamber music, some of which is to be found on this disc. I will pay the performers, fronted by flutist Kazunori Seo, the ultimate compliment: that I felt listening to this recording that I could hear Weber’s voice throughout. Yes, you can at times hear the influence of Beethoven and of his contemporary, Friedrich Kuhlau; but the music presented here is not mere imitation but an original take on, and within the stylistic parameters of, the time.

There is much to admire in the A-flat Major Sonata, the first work on this recording: the elegant phrasing in the opening movement, the dramatic dynamics and judicious use of vibrato in the slow second movement. In the second work, the Grand Duo Concertant, in which I hear the influence of Kuhlau, there is boundless but carefully managed excitement, drama and virtuosic flute playing matched at every moment by the effortless fluidity of pianist, Makoto Ueno.

To me, however, the high point in the disc is the third and last composition, the Trio in G Minor, in which flutist and pianist are joined by cellist Shohei Uwamori. Weber’s artistry reveals itself like an early morning sunrise: the first movement begins with the melancholic opening theme played first on the flute and then on the piano, which adds a new and unexpected layer of understanding of the music. But when the cello follows with a second theme, the effect is breathtaking!

02 Four London MyriadFour
London Myriad
Métier msv 28587 (divineartrecords.com)

This is a crisp and capable ensemble, a woodwind quintet minus French horn. The material is supplied by the French and English moderns. For tuneful fun, turn to Eugène Bozza, Jean Françaix and Richard Rodney Bennett. Jacques Ibert, Claude Arrieu and Frank Bridge supply some more weight, but never too heavy. Largely the playing is elegant and the ensemble finds admirable unity of pitch and articulation, no small task among such diverse voices, and they play the spirited small works with great verve, as if they were having a heck of a time doing so. 

I really like this group, their relative youth, the way the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and I particularly like Bridge’s Divertimenti, H.189. Easily the longest selection on the disc, the composer allows an idea to develop and subside into a new one in each of the four movements. One is led to suppose each movement stands on its own, but he follows a format for a multi-movement work meant to be performed as a whole, like a miniature symphony. The second movement, Nocturne, is a dialogue for flute and oboe. Rather daringly, given the sparse character, this stands as the longest movement. Naturally, the scherzo which follows is a duet for clarinet and bassoon. Mr. Bridge is a staunch egalitarian.

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