01 SerockiAdam Kośmieja plays a remarkable contemporary program in his recording Serocki – Complete works for solo piano (Dux 1284). The music of Kazimierz Serocki (1922-1981) is regrettably unfamiliar to most North American audiences. Its uniqueness lies in his 12-tone style. Serocki demonstrates a strong affinity for rhythm and texture as the key drivers in his music. Whether he’s drawing out a languorous elegy or spinning a feverish virtuosic passage, he writes for clarity using very little pedal and favouring generous application of staccato. On rare occasions he will seem impressionistic and reveal the French influences he absorbed as a student in Paris. More curious and delightful is the unmistakable, if subtle, flavour of something that is teasingly Broadway and flirts with jazz.

Pianist Adam Kośmieja does an extraordinary job of playing this music. He obviously has a deep understanding of what Serocki is saying and how he means it to be said. Kośmieja’s ability to meet the widely different interpretive demands of the music is impressive. He lists, among his teachers, names like Gary Grafman, Paul Badura-Skoda, Ivan Moravec, Lang Lang and numerous others.

The Sonata for Piano has two wonderfully maniacal movements, veloce and barbaro, that contrast sharply with the other two inquietamente and elegiaco. It’s a substantial work, rich in variety and it’s exceptionally well-played.

The Gnomes: Childrens’ Miniatures is fascinating for its simplicity as repertoire for children yet intriguing for the way it introduces them to the 12-tone system through the strategic placement of gentle dissonances. The disc is a wonderful issue from Polish Radio.

02 VersusUkrainian-born pianist Irena Portenko has conceived a yin-yang study of contrasting concertos that may have more in common with each other than meets the ear. Her new release Versus: Prokofiev Piano Concerto No.2; Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.1; Ukrainian National Symphony Orchestra; Volodymyr Sirenko (Blue Griffin Recording BGR417) opens with an intense performance of the Prokofiev Concerto No.2. Actually, there’s no other way to play it. It’s dramatic, dark and relentless.

Prokofiev’s first few performances met with uneven success. He cites generally better public acceptance with each performance, but it was a rocky start. The work was, for 1913, a challenging audience experience. Dense and replete with rhythmic and melodic complexities, it left first-time listeners dealing mainly with the heavy emotional experience. Stravinsky, however, was impressed. Diaghilev, too, was complimentary and reportedly invited Prokofiev to play it as a stage production while dancers moved around him on the stage. Curiously the third movement has the feel of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet with the strong bass pulse that drives the dance, Montagues and Capulets.

The writing is undeniably brilliant and is matched by the performance. Portenko is satisfyingly at home with this music, meeting its technical and interpretive challenges with confidence and style. She brings the same energy to the Tchaikovsky Concerto No.1 in B-flat Minor Op.23. It too, is grand and relentless. Although she is very clear in her notes that she sees this as the counterbalance of light and positive energy to the Prokofiev. Noteworthy in this performance is the way some of the inner wind voices are brought forward in the second movement, creating the impression of familiar music never heard before.

A very impressive recording.

Review

03 Chopin ChoSeong-Jin Cho won the 17th International Chopin Piano Competition in 2015, the first Korean to do so. His latest recording Chopin – Piano Concerto No.1; Ballades; London Symphony Orchestra; Gianandrea Noseda (Deutsche Grammophon 4795941) shows how his focus on the singing qualities of Chopin’s ideas won him that coveted prize. Cho’s treatment of the principal melodic ideas in the opening movement is fluid and lyrical. Even his ornaments come across more as small eddies in a current than clusters of notes on a page. The second movement Romance is exquisite. Cho manages to retain a fragility about his playing, even through the slightly more assertive middle section. His technical display in the final movement is flawlessly clear.

The Ballades too, reveal Cho’s fascination with the singing qualities of Chopin’s ideas. Much of the Ballade No. 1 in G Minor Op.23 is remarkably understated, making for a starker contrast with the outburst of the middle section as well as the closing measures. The Ballade No.2 follows in a similar vein. The effectiveness of Cho’s playing lies as much in his virtuosity as in his ability to fall into Chopin’s moments of repose with a delicacy that transcends the pianissimo markings. He’s a tall young man whose interviews reveal a shyness, a non-star-like simplicity that seems to suit him perfectly for this music.

Review

04 Scriabin OhlssonGarrick Ohlsson won the Chopin International Piano Competition more than 45 years ago and has, since then, been a recognized and respected interpreter of Chopin’s music. The way in which Chopin expanded musical boundaries in his own time, is very much echoed in the evolution of Alexander Scriabin’s piano music. So it seems a natural choice for Ohlsson to make a recording of Scriabin – The Ten Piano Sonatas; Fantasy Op.28 (Bridge 9468A/B).

The ten sonatas chart a dramatic course of evolution in both form and tonality with the Sonata No.5 in F-sharp Major Op.53 being the significant turning point. The 1907 work is the first to break free of individual movements, and Scriabin himself referred to it as a “large poem for piano.” Perhaps more importantly, it moves fearlessly and convincingly in the direction of atonality. Ohlsson captures this new freedom from tonal centre and form with breathtaking virtuosic energy. The Sonata No.6 Op.62 is different again. While still a single movement, it’s a work that Scriabin never played in public, despite his habit of premiering his own compositions. He is said to have feared the darkness inherent in the writing. Ohlsson explores this without reservation and reveals something of what may have perturbed the composer so much about his own creation. The 2-disc set is a welcome and revealing document that sheds valuable light on the development of a composer who saw himself as something of a mystic whose music might change the world.

05 Erik SimmonsOrgan recordings appear infrequently in this column. It’s of special interest therefore, that organist Erik Simmons’ latest release, Hymnus – Music for Organ by Carson Cooman, Divine Art (dda 25147) demonstrates how new technology and contemporary music can be a winning formula for an older genre.

Producers of organ recordings have always wrestled with microphone placement in the quest for the right balance of acoustic space and the instrument’s presence. The problem becomes more complex when organ pipes are located in different places throughout a building. Enter digital technology.

Anyone can now purchase a digitally sampled pipe organ, recorded as individual notes from an optimal acoustic location, and play that library of samples through a midi system from a compatible keyboard. That’s exactly how this 1787 organ in Weissenau, Germany, appears in this recording. Every actual sound from the initial speaking attack of a pipe to its final decay and slight pitch drop is captured faithfully with every note. The authenticity of the performance location sounds so complete, it makes the likelihood of the recording being done in the comfort of his living room, even more astounding.

American composer Carson Cooman, in his mid-30s, has a body of works that numbers well over a thousand. Most are short pieces, three to six minutes, and designed as music for church services where preludes, postludes and interludes on that scale are best suited. His style is fairly traditional, and contemporary in the lightest sense, engaging only occasionally with atonality. The variety of his writing is impressive and he’s capable of evoking greatly contrasting moods. This is especially effective as Erik Simmons uses the Weissenau organ to maximum colouristic effect, whether drawing a single flute rank or the full organ registration.

It’s a terrific recording for three reasons: superb playing, fine composition and technological astonishment.

06 Shostakovich GiltbergPianist Boris Giltburg’s discography expands yet again with Shostakovich – Piano Concertos; String Quartet No.8 (transcribed for piano) Royal Liverpool Philharmonic; Vasily Petrenko (Naxos 8.573666). As he often does, Giltburg writes his own notes for the recording, exploring the circumstances around the creation of these works by a composer admittedly close to his own heart. Giltburg relates the historical events with academic precision and links them to the subtlest aspects of Shostakovich’s music with the knowing intimacy of a soulmate. His exceptional performances of the Piano Concertos No.1 in C Minor and No.2 in F Major reflect this deep understanding. In the case of the Concerto No.2, Giltburg brings ebullience to the music that captures the paternal joy of its dedication to his son Maxim on his birthday in 1957. The earlier concerto predates it by more than two decades and is more formal, but Giltburg finds the positive energy that Shostakovich was soon to have repressed under the attack of the Soviet party establishment.

The transcription for piano of the string quartet material is a fascinating and ambitious undertaking. Wanting to have a larger-scale Shostakovich work for solo piano available to him, Giltburg has transcribed the String Quartet in C Minor Op.110. Being as thorough as he is, he sought and received permission of the Shostakovich family for special access to resource materials for this project. The result is a new iteration of a work from a dark and discouraging period in the composer’s life. In a curious way, Shostakovich never surrendered the skill of his craft to the hopelessness of his present condition. Giltburg has inexplicably and beautifully captured this moment of genius slipping into despair.

07 Andreeva PreludesAnother recording of comparisons is on the shelves this month in Natalia Andreeva plays Preludes and Fugues; Bach, Liszt, Franck and Shostakovich (Divine Art dda 25139). This Russian pianist has given considerable thought to her program and liner notes, and lays out a wonderful rationale for the enjoyment of a series of preludes and fugues that includes some form of shared material.

She begins, logically, with Bach, giving the Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp Minor BWV 849 a disciplined and sensitive reading. Proceeding through Liszt’s transcription of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A Minor S462 No.1 she arrives at Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue in B Minor Op 21. By now it’s clear that Andreeva is making serious connections. She concludes with Shostakovich’s Prelude and Fugue in C Minor Op.87 No.20 leaving the impression that 350 years have not diminished the appeal of fugal form, especially when paired with the Prelude. Altogether a very worthwhile artistic and intellectual exercise.

01 Ensemble la CigaleUp in the Morning Early – Baroque Music from Celtic Countries
Ensemble La Cigale
Leaf Music LM 211 (leaf-music.ca)

Review

Quebec-based early music ensemble La Cigale has a hit on its hands with this collection of Baroque instrumental music from Celtic countries. The tight ensemble playing, sensitivity to style and musical moods, and clear production values, showcase a range of performances from the witty to the danceable to thoughtful to florid.

The large number of works featured is mind-boggling and educational for any Celtic music fan. The opening track is the ensemble’s arrangement of the Scottish song John Come Kiss Me Now. Complete with the lilt and bounce of the faster sections, and lyrical recorder in the slower sections, it is a successful combination of classical with Celtic folk traditions, and foreshadows the flavourful music to follow. Scottish music is the big feature, with works by James Oswald, William McGibbon and General John Reid. Five short Scottish lute works from the Rowallan and Straloch Lute Books circa early 1600s are given a breathless rendition by artistic director Madeleine Owen, especially in the waltzing songbird tune The Canaries. Irish composer Turlough O’Carolan’s Carolan’s Concerto is a curious mix of Irish folk and serious Italian art music.

The touching closing track is the group’s very loyal, respectful arrangement of the Canadian fiddler Oliver Schroer’s (1956-2008) modern day lyrical Celtic work A Thousand Thank-yous.

And more than a thousand thank yous to director Madeline Owen (lute, theorbo, Baroque guitar), Sara Lackie (harp), Vincent Lauzer (recorders), Marie-Laurence Primeau (viola da gamba) and Sari Tsuji (violin) for this joyous music!

 

02 Galliano MozartRichard Galliano Mozart
Richard Galliano; Bertrand Cervera; Stephane Henoch; J-P Minale-Bella; Raphael Perraud; Syvain Le Provost
Deutsche Grammophon 4812662

French accordionist Richard Galliano is world renowned for his jazz stylings. He goes back again to his classical music roots with this all-Mozart release, the third in a series of performing select classical masters on accordion. Supported by a superb string quintet, Galliano explores new sounds in some familiar works.

The strongest performance by far is Mozart’s Rondo alla Turka (Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major K.331). The Turkish Rondo lends itself well to an accordion arrangement – a Palmer Hughes Accordion Course version of it is on the RCM Grade 6 accordion exam repertoire list. Galliano’s version showcases his effortless florid technique and musical nuances. There is nice dialogue between him and the strings, with a solid, never-rushed, low-end support from the double bass. Another appealing dialogue can be heard on the Adagio from Flute Quartet in D Major K.285 where the long tones created by steady bellows pressure are in stark contrast to the strings’ pizzicato parts. More exploration of breaths between phrases would elevate the musicality dramatically. Not too keen on the unison playing of accordion and strings in Eine kleine Nachmusik as the work’s inherent colours are lost by too many instruments playing the same thing. Nice decision to use bandoneon in Laudate Dominum as Mozart is thrust into the 20th century with Galliano’s nod to Astor Piazzolla.

Galliano’s Mozart CD is an interesting and satisfying listen to some of Mozart’s compositions from unique instrumentation and arrangement standpoints.

03 Freedom of the City Royal RegimentFreedom of the City
The Band of the Royal Regiment of Canada
RRC009 (band.rregtc.ca)

In 1962 the City of Toronto granted the Freedom of the City to the Royal Regiment of Canada to honour the regiment for their 100 years of service. On May 15, 2016, the city reaffirmed this Freedom. As part of that ceremony the band and regiment marched through the streets of Toronto. Production of this recording, with the Pipes and Drums of the 48th Highlanders and vocalist Danielle Bourré, is part of their thanks to the city for a century and a half of support.

This CD has a wealth of variety from such works as Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance Military March No.2 and Sibelius’ Finlandia to film classics such as The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. The Pipes and Drums of the 48th Highlanders blend in with the band on The Magnificent Seven so well that one could well think that this was the original arrangement. Similarly, Bourré’s rendition of the English folk song O’er the Hills and Far Away is enhanced with blending of the pipes. Among the lesser-known works, I have two personal favourites on this CD. They are The Two Imps, a novelty xylophone duet by Kenneth Alford of Colonel Bogey fame, and Serenade for Wind Band by British composer Derek Bourgeois. This number, written for guests at his own wedding to walk out of the church by, has a very tricky rhythm. In the composer’s words he was “[n]ot wishing to allow them the luxury of proceeding in an orderly 2/4.”

All in all this is a fine combination of familiar classics and entertaining music which we rarely have an opportunity to hear. It is well-performed, well-recorded and comes with clearly written program notes for all numbers.

04 Vegh SchubertVégh conducts Schubert
Camerata Salzberg; Sándor Végh
BMC Records CD 201 (bmcrecords.hu)

Best known as violinist leader of string quartets, Sándor Végh (1912-1997) in later life conducted the chamber orchestra now known as Camerata Salzburg; it attained a high standard as is evidenced by these discs. The opening introduction of Symphony No.1 in D Major (1813) leads into the Allegro through an attractive chain of suspended notes, a feature that recurs as the Allegro theme returns. Végh shapes the lyrical second theme beautifully. The lilting Andante and the Trio of the Menuetto movement are also fine examples of the lyrical style, with strings and winds equally integrated. Symphony No. 2 in B-flat Major (1814-15) opens more promisingly with woodwinds in dialogue, followed by an Allegro energetic and melodic in turn. Clarity in the strings is matched even by the cellos and bass; the winds are flawless.

In Symphony No. 3 (1815) Schubert returned to the key of D Major with more formal assurance and ability to develop first-movement themes. The charming Allegretto that follows is the highlight of the work for me. Symphony No. 4 in C MinorTragic” (1816) reinforces our astonishment at Schubert’s rapid progress before he reached the age of 20! The Introduction of this minor-key work is moving indeed and Végh communicates the changed mood convincingly throughout. Good intonation, excellent ensemble and orchestral balance prevail. Idiomatic and elegant performances have raised my estimation of all these works and of Végh as conductor; they will receive many hearings.

05 Pictures at an ExhibitionMussorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition
Wiener Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel
Deutsche Grammophon 479 6297

Review

Of all the composers in the Russian nationalist school “The Mighty Handful,” Mussorgsky is arguably the greatest. True, Rimsky-Korsakov’s highly colourful style left its mark on Glazunov and Stravinsky, but it was Mussorgsky’s works that were ground-breaking. And though Rimski-Korsakov disparaged Mussorgsky’s work as having “absurd, disconnected harmony, ugly part-writing, sometimes strikingly illogical modulation…” these characteristics were grist to the mill for Mussorgsky’s power, earthiness and sheer musical invention that inform, for instance, the mighty work: Pictures at an Exhibition (1874). This tribute to the architect and painter Victor Hartmann was written as a suite of piano pieces and, like other versions, not performed until after Mussorgsky’s death.

This Wiener Philharmoniker version conducted by Gustavo Dudamel comes from Maurice Ravel’s 1922 orchestration. Unlike every previous recording of Pictures at an Exhibition – including Berliner Philharmoniker and Claudio Abbado’s – in this interpretation (of Ravel’s Mussorgsky) Dudamel restores Mussorgsky’s Pictures to its architectural grandeur. The ten pictures – each one an atmospheric miniature – are connected by a recurring theme (the Promenade) and suggest Liszt’s influence, but with a greater psychological insight. The sinister melancholy of Gnomus, playfulness of Tuileries and grand triumphalism of The Great Gate of Kiev are dazzling. The intense beauty of the performance is completed by Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and the Waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Now all we need is a documentary of the 900 Superar children aged 5 to 16, from Vienna’s tenth district that contributed to this project.

Editor’s Note: Superar is a high quality musical program for young people. The program is free for participants and offers courses in choirs and orchestras. Superar is an offer to young people who for various reasons have little or no access to cultural education. Superar was founded in 2009 by Vienna’s renowned institutions the Wiener Sängerknaben, the Caritas of the Archdiocese of Vienna and the Wiener Konzerthaus.

06 Bruckner completeBruckner – Samliche Sinfonien (Symphonies 1–9; Student Symphony; Symphony “0” – Original versions)
Philharmoniker Hamburg; Simone Young
Oehms Classics OC 026

The legendary Sergiu Celibidache, perhaps the greatest Bruckner conductor ever, once said: “Time for the average person begins at the beginning, but for Bruckner time begins after the last note has been heard.” This distinguishes his music from, say, Beethoven or Brahms which moves logically from beginning to end. A Bruckner symphony must be heard in its entirety to begin percolating through one’s senses with the full effect emerging from the subconscious, sometimes as a jolt like the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus. Bruckner is in no hurry. He ambles along at a leisurely pace, often stopping for breath or a backward glance. His music is “elemental rather than intellectual, it is hypnotic and incantatory” (Richard Capell). A great live performance could be breathtaking and cataclysmic.

This new set of complete Bruckner symphonies has been released one by one over the past few years and reviewed extensively by the most respectable music journals to rave reviews. After listening to every single one of them I most emphatically concur; in fact it’s been hard to contain my enthusiasm. And the conductor? Simone Young, a young lady from Sidney, Australia, who arrived in Germany in her 20s and quickly became assistant to Daniel Barenboim at the Berlin Staatsoper and soon thereafter took over the entire musical life of Hamburg (i.e. the Symphony and the Opera that dates back to the 17th century under such directors as Telemann, Gluck, Handel, Bulow, Mahler and a list of venerable conductors like Klemperer, Wand and Nagano). Now, this already indicates an extraordinary and enormously gifted musician, but a first foray into the recording world with a statement on one of the most complex and difficult composers, Bruckner (who conductors have spent a lifetime studying and struggling to interpret) is a feat no less than miraculous. Notable also that she opts for the original versions (Urfassung) unlike most other conductors who use one of the many revised versions. Minor point, but Symphony No.4 is completely unrecognizable in its original form; the 1880 version is the way it’s always performed and as such is sadly missing from this set.

Bruckner’s oeuvre divides itself into three categories, the early symphonies (1 - 4), the middle period (5 and 6) and the final masterworks (7, 8 and 9). Symphony No.1 is youthful, tempestuous, strongly rhythmic and then there is a curiosity, Symphony 0, a piece Bruckner rejected as “not good enough” so it became known as the Die Nullte (annulled) but luckily survived. Both of these are driven joyfully with exuberance, very un-Bruckner as it were, but in the Third Symphony (1873, D Minor) Young passes the first real hurdle with great aplomb showing youthful lightheartedness in the lovely Scherzo that really dances; it’s an absolute delight. The second movement with its Tristan quotations is majestically developed with beautiful lyricism and an almost Schubertian joy in melodies. The fourth movement is fast and turbulent, exciting and suspenseful with a nice Brucknerian finale.

As we now enter the middle period there is a quantum leap in Bruckner’s output and although he keeps to his original format the music is entirely different like the giant Fifth Symphony of churchlike solemnity and unheard-of complexity. A real stumbling block for conductors, it is rarely performed but – and here comes the miracle – she is simply magnificent. “Probably the finest [new performance] I’ve heard for a long time…Young manages the rare feat of honouring all Bruckner’s changes of gear and tempo while keeping a powerful forward flow…no doubt I shall listen to other accounts which are as fine, but for the moment I find that hard to believe” (BBC Music Magazine, December 2015). I would love to watch her do the giant fugue of the last movement at the helm of the thundering orchestra like a Napoleon commanding his armies. And what made Napoleon able to conquer most of Europe was not the size of his armies, but his uncanny ability to manipulate his troops and outwit the enemy, much the same as what Young does. With a tremendous insight and overview of the score she always has the ending in sight and by shifting the emphasis of the thematic material the progress is kept interesting, never boring.

The last three symphonies are the pinnacle of Bruckner’s art and this is where Young brings out the big guns. The unfinished, enigmatic and otherworldly Ninth with its valedictory Adagio is simply musical heaven and the greatest thing he ever wrote, but the monumental 90-minute long Eighth Symphony, being 100 percent complete, is also an incredibly satisfying, glorious work to which she brings grace and lightness in the Scherzo, and a hushed intensity to the Largo like a long, long prayer with a single earth-shattering fortissimo climax achieved after a long sustained crescendo of some 22 minutes. Big guns, indeed. Unhesitating recommendation.

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