07 Mahler 9 EssenGustav Mahler – Symphony No.9
Essener Philharmoniker; Tomáš Netopil
Oehms Classics ODC 1890 (naxosdirect.com/items/mahler-symphony-no.-9-467120)

The city of Essen is located at the heart of the industrial Ruhr area of Germany. Its rise to prominence is intimately tied to the fortunes of the Krupp family dynasty, who settled in this coal-rich region some 400 years ago and began building steel foundries mainly dedicated to the manufacture of heavy artillery. Gustav Mahler conducted the premiere of his sixth symphony there in 1906, prompting the Viennese critic Hans Liebstöckl to acerbically observe, “Krupp makes only cannons, Mahler only symphonies.”

Throughout the 20th century the orchestra maintained a low profile labouring under a series of provincial kappelmeisters. Judging by the present performance under their current director, the Czech conductor Tomáš Netopil, this highly capable orchestra makes a compelling case for greater international renown. Recorded in Essen’s Alfried Krupp Hall in April 2018 (from what I assume are edits of live performances), for the most part this rendition of Mahler’s Symphony No.9 is quite a revelation. Only the interpretation of the droll second movement Ländler shows a few interpretive seams, as Netopil sentimentalizes the structural ritardandos by consistently beginning them far earlier than indicated in the score. By contrast, the vehement pacing of the accelerandos towards the end of the subsequent daemonic Scherzo are electrifying. The cataclysmic first movement receives an immensely powerful performance, while the finale achieves a Zen-like transcendence superbly conveyed through the carefully modulated tone of the dark-hued Essen string section.

Too much is made in the liner notes of the allegedly “fateful” nature of this work, begun in 1909, two years before Mahler’s demise. Death, with few exceptions, was always a leitmotif in his works. It is not death, but life and love that make this work so exceptional.

08 No Time for Chamber MusicNo Time for Chamber Music
collectif9
Independent (collectif9.ca)

The title of this disc by collectif9, one of the most exciting string contemporary ensembles today, comes by way of that musical omnivore, Luciano Berio, whose Sinfonia uses texts from Le cru et le cuit (The Raw and the Cooked) by the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. The sardonic cue from the title is given sharper angularity with the interpretation of Mahler’s profound music, which almost always expressed the composer’s innermost thoughts. These peremptory readings of Mahler’s portentous music are gaunt and shard-like.

Together with the oblique Fantaisie à la manière de Callot by Phillipe Hersant, contrabassist Thibault Bertin-Maghit’s imaginative arrangements create a new excitement around Mahler, a composer who received due recognition after many decades of proselytizing by conductors such as Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Mengelberg and later, Leonard Bernstein.

Although what we have here are vignettes of symphonies from Mahler, collectif9 has masterfully recreated the composer’s sound-world infusing much into the music. These suggest – even conjure – every Mahler-like spectacle from Marche funèbre from Symphony No.5 to the vast images of nature especially in Comme un bruit de la nature from Symphony No.1. There is also the extraordinary lyricism of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen that unfolds in J’ai un couteau à la lame brûlante and the eloquently wistful performance of L’adieu from Das Lied von der Erde. All of this repertoire by collectif9 is highly charged and intensely dynamic, making for a uniquely impactful disc.

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09 Schreker BirthdayFranz Schreker – The Birthday of the Infanta Suite
Berlin RSO; JoAnn Falletta
Naxos 8.573821 (naxosdirect.com/items/schreker-the-birthday-of-the-infanta-suite-prelude-to-a-drama-romantic-suite-466991)

Almost forgotten after the Nazis banned them in the 1930s, Franz Schreker’s feverish, hyper-romantic-expressionist operas have, in recent years, received welcome new stage productions and recordings. For anyone unfamiliar with Schreker’s gripping sound-world, there’s no better introduction than the first work on this CD, Prelude to a Drama, Schreker’s 18-minute elaboration of the Prelude to Die Gezeichneten (1914), incorporating themes from his operatic masterpiece. JoAnn Falletta, known locally as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, leads the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra in a radiant performance of this gorgeous, numinous music.

The other works on this disc, from Schreker’s earlier years, present him in more genial moods. His 1908 score for The Birthday of the Infanta, a ballet-pantomime after Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale, was his first major success as a composer for the theatre. It obviously remained close to his heart, as he conducted the Berlin State Opera Orchestra in two recordings – an acoustic (1923) and a better-sounding electrical (1927) – of the Suite he arranged from his first hit. Falletta clearly delights in the scintillating sonorities and touches of sentiment in the ten-movement, 20-minute Suite.

Similarly, the 25-minute Romantic Suite (1903) by the then 25-year-old Schreker bathes in warm lyricism throughout its four movements, a symphony in all but its name.

Adding considerably to this CD’s appeal is the brilliant recorded sound and equally brilliant playing of the orchestra under maestra Falletta. Brava!     

10 Shulman GoomanSerenades & Sonatas for Flute and Harp
Suzanne Shulman; Erica Goodman
Naxos 8.573947 (naxosdirect.com/items/serenades-sonatas-for-flute-and-harp-466995)

Flutist Suzanne Shulman and harpist Erica Goodman are popular, brilliant and esteemed Canadian performers who, when asked to participate in a summer festival concert of music for an English garden, gathered pieces evoking an outdoor setting. Here they perform a selection of these compositions/arrangements with stellar ensemble and musical skills.

A single standing bird on the CD booklet cover sets the visual stage for joyous flute and harp garden sounds. The catchy opening of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves (arranged by Jennifer Grady) leads to the familiar melody on flute with harp accompaniment at a faster tempo than some may expect. A key change leads to a middle section based on the folk tune Lovely, and then back to the closing sensitive, musical lead section. Love the opening Prelude’s florid singing birdlike flute lines, and the lush Mists’ slow-moving flute and harp trills/flourishes in Paul Reade’s five-movement Victorian Kitchen Garden Suite. Alphonse Hasselmans’ technically challenging harp solo La Source, Op.44 features an arpeggiated harp part reminiscent of rushing stream water played with subtle tone choices. William Alwyn’s virtuosic Naiades – Fantasy-Sonata for Flute and Harp encompasses arpeggios, staccato jumps and florid runs, like running water and dancing nymphs, to trills and high-pitched garden-like sounds. Works by Couperin, Woodall, Marson, Chausson, Rota and Elgar complete the collection.

Listening to this luscious musical garden tended by two breathtaking musicians should help make waiting for springtime easier!

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01 Wan Beethoven ViolinViolinist Andrew Wan was named concertmaster of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal in 2008. A Juilliard graduate, he is currently assistant professor of violin at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University. He is paired with Quebec pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin in Beethoven Violin Sonatas Nos. 6, 7 & 8 (Analekta AN 2 8794 analekta.com/en/albums/beethoven-violin-sonatas-6-7-8)

There’s a lovely warmth and sensitivity to the opening of the Sonata in A Major Op.30 No.1, with Wan’s beautifully clear tone immediately making you feel that this is the start of something special – and so it proves to be. Richard-Hamelin is an outstanding partner, especially in the turbulent opening of the tempestuous Sonata in C Minor Op.30 No.2, a work in which Beethoven’s growing use of increasingly intense textures is evident.

A dazzling performance of the Sonata in G Major Op.31 No.3 completes a terrific CD that is the first volume in a projected series of the complete Beethoven violin sonatas. It promises to be a set to treasure and one – if this first volume is anything to go by – that will hold its own against any competition.

02 Hemsing DvorakThe Norwegian violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing is the soloist in three Czech works on Dvořák: Violin Concerto; Suk: Fantasy with the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra under Alan Buribayev (BIS-2246 bis.se naxosdirect.com/items/dvorák-suk-works-for-violin-orchestra-465767).

Hemsing displays brilliance of tone in a performance of the Dvořák Violin Concerto in A Minor Op.53 that is bright, energetic, rhythmic and full of life. It’s a work that still doesn’t have quite the prominence it deserves.

The violinist and composer Josef Suk was Dvořák’s son-in-law. His Fantasy in G Minor Op.24 is the only concert work he wrote for his own instrument, and while quite different than the Dvořák in its episodic form is still clearly Czech through and through. Suk’s Liebeslied Op.7 No.1 is one of his best-known single pieces; the first of a suite of six piano pieces, it is heard here in a very effective transcription for violin and orchestra by Stephan Koncz.

Buribayev draws really strong support from the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra players on a highly enjoyable CD.

03 Suite ItalienneThe Italian-American violinist Francesca Dego follows her hugely successful CD of violin concertos by Paganini and Wolf-Ferrari with Suite Italienne, a recital with her longtime collaborator the Italian pianist Francesca Leonardi of works by Ottorino Respighi, Igor Stravinsky and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (Deutsche Grammophon DG481 7297 universalmusic.it/musica-classica/news/suite-italienne-il-nuovo-album-di-francesca-dego-e-francesca-leonardi_12077).

Respighi was himself a fine violinist, and his Sonata in B Minor Op.110 from 1917 is a striking work, written when he was struggling to overcome the depression brought on by the loss of his mother the previous year. A strong opening movement is followed by a particularly lovely and melodic Andante espressivo middle movement. And what a tone Dego possesses! It’s lustrous, warm, rich and strong, and is more than balanced here by a lovely piano sound.

Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne from his ballet Pulcinella is the central work on the disc, with the dance elements nicely realized, the Tarantella Vivace in particular.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco is represented by four works. His Ballade Op.107 was written for Tossy Spivakovsky and premiered by him at Carnegie Hall in 1940, after which it seems to have been overlooked and forgotten until Dego recovered it for this recording earlier this year with the help of the composer’s granddaughter Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco. It’s a lovely work that hopefully will stay in the repertoire. Three of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s short operatic transcriptions complete the recital: the rather-Paganini-like Rosina and the playful and virtuosic Figaro from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia; and Violetta from Verdi’s La Traviata. All but the latter of the Castelnuovo-Tedesco works are world premiere recordings.

04 Telemann violinGeorg Philipp Telemann was not only one of the most prolific composers in musical history but also one of the most cosmopolitan. Some idea of the wide range of national styles and idioms he incorporated in his music can be discerned from Telemann Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, a new CD featuring Baroque violinist Dorian Komanoff Bandy and harpsichordist Paul Cienniwa (Whaling City Sound WCS 108 whalingcitysound.com).

The six sonatas from 1715 were written specifically for violin and harpsichord – no cello continuo here, as in some recordings – and although they all have the same slow/fast/slow/fast four-movement format they are wide-ranging in idiom and expression. In addition there is a world premiere recording of the unpublished Sonata in F-sharp Minor, a fascinating piece described by Bandy as “a strange convention-defying work” that “seems more an unfinished experiment than a polished piece of music.” His excellent and insightful booklet notes refer to these sonatas as truly distinct, each one unique, daring and extraordinary in its own way.

Bandy plays with a minimum of vibrato, which allows his excellent definition, clarity and agility to be displayed to best advantage. Cienniwa’s playing provides a stylish accompaniment, the harpsichord never too percussive or prominent.

05 American SouvenirsAmerican Souvenirs is the debut recording by the Chicago-based Blue Violet Duo of American violinist Kate Carter and Canadian pianist Louise Chan. Described as an album of jazz, blues and dance-influenced classical works from the mid-to-late 20th century, it features works by Norman Dello Joio, William Bolcom, John Adams and Paul Schoenfeld (bluevioletduo.com).

Dello Joio’s Variations and Capriccio from 1948 and Bolcom’s four-movement 1978 Second Sonata for Violin and Piano are really attractive works, the Bolcom offering a dreamy and surprisingly atonal violin line over a slow blues piano in the opening movement, a “Brutal, Fast” second movement and a finale In Memory of Joe Venuti.

Adams’ three-movement Road Movies from 1995 is in his minimalist style but highly entertaining, with a Relaxed Groove opening movement and a terrific third movement. Schoenfeld’s 1990 Four Souvenirs for Violin and Piano are titled Samba, Tango, Tin Pan Alley and Square Dance, with Carter supplying some simply gorgeous violin playing in the Tango. Some virtuosic playing from both performers in the final Square Dance makes for a great ending to an immensely enjoyable CD.

The duo says that they love performing lesser-known works that are fun and playful yet virtuosic, and that those here are among their favourites by American composers. It’s abundantly clear that they are in their element here, fully at ease and seamlessly blending classical performing standards with the freer popular styles.

06a Beethoven CelloThere are two excellent cello and piano recital CDs this month: Beethoven Sonatas Op.102 with cellist Natasha Brofsky and pianist Seth Knopp (independent store.cdbaby.com/cd/natashabrofskyandsethknopp); and Brahms Cello Sonatas with the husband-and-wife Fischer Duo of cellist Norman Fischer and pianist Jeanne Kierman (Centaur CRC 3648 arkivmusic.com).

Brofsky and Knopp were both members of the Peabody Trio for nearly two decades and clearly have an innate understanding of these sonatas, having played and taught them for many years. Brofsky, currently on the cello faculty at Juilliard, plays with assured technique and a warm, even tone in the two works, the Sonatas Op.102 No.1 in C Major and Op.102 No.2 in D Major. These sonatas, the duo says, have challenged them to use their utmost imagination in colour and expression. At 36 minutes it’s a fairly brief CD, but none the less satisfying for that.

06b Fischer BrahmsThe Fischer Duo CD features the two cello sonatas by Brahms – the E-Minor Sonata Op.38 and the F-Major Sonata Op.99, works the performers have been playing for nearly five decades. Again, the understanding and familiarity with both the works and each other make for truly satisfying performances. Fischer says that the exemplary recorded sound made the performances sound “exactly the way I imagine the music.” Two Songs for Alto, Cello and Piano Op.91 complete the disc, the duo being joined by their daughter, the mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer in sensitive performances.

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07 Lipinsky string triosThe Polish composer and violin virtuoso Karol Józef Lipiński was a direct contemporary of Paganini, and good enough to not only play with the great Italian but also to be bequeathed one of his eight violins – an Amati – when Paganini died. In his compositions, however, while incorporating the technical innovations of Paganini and the other 19th-century virtuosi, his musical philosophy showed a preference for the less purely virtuosic approach of Spohr and the French school exemplified by Viotti.

Lipiński String Trios Op.8 and Op.12 (Naxos 8.573776 naxosdirect.com/items/lipinski-trios-for-2-violins-cello-opp.-8-12-457581) features Voytek Proniewicz (primo violin), Adam Roszkowski (violin) and Jan Roszkowski (cello) in first-class performances of two works that, according to Lipiński’s biographer, were possibly written for home performance and consequently lack the virtuosic element. Not that you would know it. The G-Minor Trio Op.8 features fast runs, octaves and chromatic runs, including one in octaves. Don’t try this at home. The A-Major Trio Op.12 doesn’t sound that much easier, either.

There’s great playing here – lively, passionate, skillful, committed and always entertaining in charming works that are light but never facile or frivolous.

08 Doric MendelssohnMendelssohn String Quartets Vol.1, presumably the start of a projected complete series, features Britain’s Doric String Quartet in superb performances of the quartets No.1 in E-flat Major Op.12, No.5 in E-flat Major Op.44 No.3 and No.6 in F Minor Op.80 (Chandos CHAN 20122(2) chandos.net). The playing is always clear and balanced, with dazzling agility in the numerous typically Mendelssohnian scherzo-like passages, and with terrific dynamics. The bustling dramatic start to the grief- and despair-ridden Op.80 quartet sets the tone for the whole work.

It’s an outstanding start to the series, and the remaining quartets should be well worth waiting for.

09 Minguet MendelssohnThe Op.12 quartet is also included on Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy String Quartets Vol.2, the latest release in the ongoing complete series by Germany’s Minguet Quartett (cpo 777 931-2 arkivmusic.com). Also included are the early String Quartet in E-flat Major, the 14-year-old composer’s first attempt in the genre, and the Four Pieces for String Quartet Op.81, published posthumously as String Quartet No.7 but actually four movements ranging from 1827 to 1847 that are not connected, although two of them may possibly have been intended for an eighth quartet.

There’s fine playing here too, with tempos in the String Quartet No.1, Op.12 very close to those on the Doric CD, but the recording seems to have been made in a livelier acoustic space. Some listeners may well prefer this, but I found the Doric discs to have a cleaner and clearer sound, with the dynamic range more clearly nuanced and effective.

10 Brian Buch quartetsOn From the River Flow the Stars the Daedalus Quartet plays string quartets by the American composer Brian Buch (MSR Classics MS 1681 msrcd.com/catalog/cd/MS1681). Buch says that he often composes music in collections or books comprised of individual pieces, and extracts from five such books are included here. From the River Flow the Stars No.6, Acanthus Leaves No.6 and Landscapes No.1 are all three-movement works; Maze of Infinite Forms No.1 is in two movements, and Life and Opinions No.7, the central work on the CD, in five.

They are all interesting and inventive pieces that create contrasting atmospheres, although their relative brevity – 12 of the 16 movements are under four minutes in length – may perhaps contribute to their not always leaving a strong impression.

The Daedalus Quartet is known for its work with and support of contemporary American composers, and it’s difficult to imagine these works receiving more sympathetic performances.

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01 Saint Saens LortieLouis Lortie brings another stellar recording to his lengthy discography with this new CD Saint-Saëns – Piano Concertos 1, 2 & 4; BBC Philharmonic; Edward Gardner (Chandos CHAN 20031 chandos.net). The three concertos are separated by roughly a decade each. Despite the accumulation of experience and artistic growth, the inherent genius in Saint-Saëns’ writing is undeniable in all of them. But in the Concerto No.4, premiered in 1875 with the composer at the keyboard, the music is replete with richly complex ideas spread over an orchestral canvas barely capable of containing them. Lortie revels in conquering every technical challenge the composer sets, and soars with the orchestra in each moment of climax. This recording is powerfully inspired and Lortie’s performance is the kind that makes you run out into the street, grab the first person you see and drag them back in to experience it.

02 BozhanovTo his current handful of recordings Evgeni Bozhanov adds his latest CD, Shostakovich; Mozart – Piano Concertos, Kammerorchester des Bayerischen RSO; Radoslaw Szulc (Profil Edition Hänssler haensslerprofil.de). The two concertos are completely unlike each other, and hearing the young Bulgarian pianist confirms the impression that he has a remarkable gift for complete and authentic engagement in his repertoire. Bozhanov’s performance of Mozart’s Concerto No.17 in G Major KV453 is in every way a perfection of achievement. His sense of balance, clarity and partnership with the orchestral ensemble are all flawless. He never claims more than the moderate role that Mozart gave the piano part in the work.

The Shostakovich Concerto No.1 in C Minor Op.35 is, by contrast, a riot of brilliant ideas from the fertile mind of a 26-year-old composer. The 1933 composition has humour, pathos, melancholy, satire and all the energetic hope of youth. Bozhanov performs it as if it were written specifically for him, and every member of the audience at the live performance seems to believe that as well. Noteworthy is the depth of his playing in the second movement (Lento). There is no doubt about the depth of the sadness that underlies the simple ideas in this movement. It provides a stunning contrast to the outer ones that open and close the work.

03 Goldberg HarpsichordWolfgang Rübsam has made his reputation chiefly as an organist but is also widely recognized as a fine pianist and harpsichordist. In his new recording Bach – Goldberg Variations (Naxos 8.573921 naxosdirect.com/items/bach-goldberg-variations-bwv-988-457587) he plays a lute-harpsichord. It’s a Baroque keyboard instrument built like a harpsichord, using its mechanical action principles, but strung with gut rather than metal strings. This modern copy, however, uses a set of unplucked brass strings to sound sympathetic vibrations somewhat like a viola d’amore. The resonating body of the instrument looks like a giant lute or lady bug on its back. The overall effect of all this is a soft and very mellow sound.

Rübsam excels at ornamentation in this work and takes every tasteful opportunity to inject turns and grace notes. But the most distinguishing feature of this performance is its extraordinarily slow speed. Hearing the variations at a fraction of the tempo most other interpreters take is an exercise in patience that is rewarded with new insights into this very familiar material. The nature of the instrument may have a great deal to do with Rübsam’s tempo choice but whatever the reason, this unique Goldberg deserves attention. 

04 ClementiStefan Chaplikov’s new CD Clementi – Keyboard Sonatas (Naxos 8.573712 naxosdirect.com/items/clementi-keyboard-sonatas-opp.-25-33-46-457580) samples the work of this 18th/19th-century composer with five sonatas from Op.25 to Op.46 that span a period of 30 years. Clementi’s writing is a good example of a composer reluctant to emerge from the structured discipline of the late Baroque and early Classical into a style where the invitation for emotional display was open to all but held suspect by some. Ever careful, Clementi used his left-hand keyboard-writing to provide both harmonic foundation and rhythmic drive to his works. It’s a part of his vocabulary that changed very little over his lifetime. In the right hand, however, there is a subtle evolution that’s heard in the length and shape of melodic phrases. Chaplikov exploits these and guides the ear to suggestions of bolder passing notes and freer rubato.

Despite his conservatism, Clementi’s writing is masterful for its precision and technical requirements. Chaplikov’s keyboard technique is utter perfection and delivers clear articulation of Clementi’s rapid-fire melodies as they tear across the keyboard.

05 Sylvestre MathieuJean-Philippe Sylvestre appears as soloist on a new recording with Orchestre Métropolitain under Alain Trudel: André Mathieu – Piano Concerto 4; Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (ATMA ADC2 2768 atmaclassique.com/Fr/Albums/AlbumInfo.aspx?AlbumID=1614). The Mathieu concerto has a fascinating history that rivals the story behind his Concerto No.3 (Concerto de Québec) also recently recorded by Sylvestre. The Concerto No.4 was virtually unknown and deemed lost owing to the composer’s rather relaxed approach to keeping his own scores. While the original score used in a 1950 Montreal performance has never been found, a recording of that concert made on 78 rpm discs found its way into Sylvestre’s hands in 2005. He and composer/conductor Gilles Bellemare have reconstructed it based on the 1950 recorded performance. In its reconstructed form it stands as a large-scale work built along formal lines and expresses Mathieu’s strong modern Romantic language. The purely aural process of transcription from the old recording is hard to imagine but the result has been breathtaking.

Sylvestre also performs the Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Op.43, delivering a performance with the orchestra that is as highly charged as the maniacal violinist himself.

06 Minju ChoiMinju Choi, born in South Korea and raised in America, has lived for many years in Europe and admits to a strong cosmopolitan outlook that shapes her life and music. Her new CD Boundless – American Works for Solo Piano (Navona Records NV6192 navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6192) features the work of three American composers. Among them, Gabriela Lena Frank most closely reflects this cosmopolitan view with her piece Sonata Andina No.1. It incorporates Andean folk music and is dedicated to the idea that different cultures can coexist without one subjugating the other.

Philip Lasser’s sonata for piano Les hiboux blancs (The White Owls) is only as programmatic as its title. Lasser has strong convictions about the absolutism of music and allowing it to speak for itself. While he writes about his structure and technical approach, he remains silent on meaning.

Ching-Chu Hu presents a vivid contrast with his piece Pulse that deals with issues of the heart and a range of human emotions.

The three composers share a language that is largely tonal and combines a wonderfully creative inclination for rhythmic interest with clever tune-smithing.

07 Lisztomania 1Hando Nahkur’s fifth solo album is his first completely devoted to the piano music of Franz Liszt Lisztomania Vol.1 (HN Productions handonahkur.com/discography/). This recording promises further volumes of Liszt but begins by offering a couple of transcriptions of Schubert lieder, Erlkönig and Auf dem Waser zu singen, in addition to larger works. Nahkur is consistently amazing in his ability to blend both the technical and interpretive demands of this repertoire. Après une lecture du Dante is perhaps the most difficult piece in the program but it comes across with an unencumbered directness and a conceptual maturity required by the subject matter. The contrasting thematic ideas of heaven/hell are as demanding as the work’s closing passages of rapid chromatic octaves. The way he embraces all this shows how secure Nahkur is with Liszt – one of his favourite composers – and it bodes well for future volumes.

It’s unusual to find a brilliantly gifted performer of Nahkur’s calibre still producing on his own independent label. How long before a major label signs him?

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08 Vitaud DebussyJonas Vitaud’s third major recording is an impressive double disc set Debussy – Jeunes années (Mirare MIR 392 mirare.fr/album/debussy-jeunes-annees). It’s mostly piano solo but includes some songs for soprano and tenor, as well as a gorgeous performance of Debussy’s Fantaisie pour piano et orchestra.

Vitaud, in his late 30s, has impressive credentials and artistic pedigree. His playing is flawless and obviously informed by a deep intellectual inquiry that searches for meaningful content in every note he plays. He’s a thinker and a very effective communicator. He lifts Debussy out of the purely impressionist mould and interprets him in broader terms. While there’s lots of requisite legato playing of beautiful long lines, there’s also an unmistakable new sharpness to staccatos, lifts and phrase separations. Vitaud somehow manages to harness a rhythmic energy in Debusy’s music that is often missed in other performances. Listen for this throughout the Suite Bergamasque, Mazurka and Images oubliées. The 2-CD set is an impressive early addition to a very promising discography.

09 Adcock transcriptionsMichael Adcock has released a new disc Keyboard Transcriptions (Centaur CRC3534 arkivmusic.com) presenting works by Prokofiev, Gershwin/Wild, Bizet/Horowitz, Schumann/Liszt and Saint-Saëns/Godowsky. It’s a rich program with plenty of drama and brilliance.

Prokofiev’s own piano version of his Romeo and Juliet Op.75 ballet is one of the two major pieces on the recording. It’s big, bold and unapologetic. The piano Adcock uses for the performance is a Steingraeber concert grand with a powerful bright sound ideally suited for Prokofiev’s angular music. Adcock performs the suite splendidly with all the energy you’d expect from a full orchestra. The beautifully sinister Montagues and Capulets is especially effective with its evil bass line and foreboding melody.

The other major work on the CD is Earl Wild’s Seven Virtuoso Etudes on tunes by George Gershwin. These are the real highlight of this recording. Wild was an extraordinary performer and gifted composer/arranger, and the Etudes demonstrate his genius for invention and virtuosity. Adcock plays these with an easy conviction that makes them seem like a natural fit for his impressive ability and fluid style. While each one is memorable, I Got Rhythm stands out for its intelligence and complexity.

10 Hubert Rutkowski PleyelHubert Rutkowski is a Chopin specialist and his latest disc Chopin on Pleyel 1847 (Piano Classics PCL 10129 piano-classics.com/articles/c/chopin-hubert-rutkowski-on-pleyel) adds to the growing number of performances using period instruments to capture the sound and feel that composers associated with their work. Chopin owned a Pleyel and regularly performed on one in public. The Pleyel that Rutkowski uses in this recording dates from 1847 and while it was built just a couple of years before Chopin died, there’s no suggestion that he ever played this particular instrument.

Modern pianos have evolved dramatically from their early forms, based on the development of technology and materials, as well as an artistic imperative for richness of sound and simple raw power. Rutkowksi’s playing is wonderfully light and song-like. He takes advantage of the Pleyel’s slightly delayed dampening system and the more direct feel of keyboard contact with the strings. The piano’s voice is a softer one owing to the lower tension of the strings that are supported by a composite frame using iron cross bars.

Rutkowski quickly captures the sound of Chopin’s era but more importantly, revives the music with an authentic voice that is intriguingly fresh.

02 Czerny TriosCzerny – Piano Trios
Sun-Young Shin; Benjamin Hayek; Samuel Gingher
Naxos 8.573848 (naxosdirect.com/items/czerny-piano-trios-457583)

This disc provides additional recognition for the chamber music of Carl Czerny (1791-1857). The Deux Trios brillants, Op.211 (1830) illustrate my sense that the Beethoven-taught Czerny has a more Romantic side that I prefer, and a more classical side that I do not. My first exposure to the Czerny chamber revival was an energetic, Beethoven-ish recording by Anton Kuerti and St. Lawrence String Quartet members of the composer’s Piano Quartet. In that spirit, on this disc I love the second trio of Op. 211 in A Major, where virtuosity serves expressive ends, harmony demonstrates the advances of the early-Romantic era, and there is the sense of power and growth. The third movement surprises in its Bolero rhythm, adding vitality and contrast. The first trio in C major shows Czerny’s classically precise writing for piano in a high register. But the material I find prim, exhibiting a music-box effect sometimes.

The Trois Sonatines faciles et brillantes, Op.104 (1827) for advanced students, illustrate the older tradition of piano as leader, violin and cello as accompanists, with opportunities for improvisation. Again, my inner Romantic leads me to prefer the final A-Minor Sonatina to those in G and C Major. I respect the articulate pianism throughout of Samuel Gingher, supported by colleagues Sun-Young Shin, violin, and Benjamin Hayek, cello. Playing on modern instruments their style leans Classical or Romantic as appropriate, but is never mechanical.

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