03 PisendelJohann Georg Pisendel – Neue Sonaten
Snakewood Editions SCD202001 (snakewoodeditions.com)

The name Johann Georg Pisendel is perhaps not all that familiar today, but during his lifetime he was highly acclaimed as a violinist and concertmaster. Born near Nuremberg in 1687, Pisendel studied at the Royal Chapel at Ansbach where among his teachers was Giuseppe Torelli. He continued his studies in Leipzig and ultimately enjoyed a long and successful career in Dresden as leader of the Dresdner Hofkapelle, an ensemble that won the praise of no less a figure than J.S. Bach.

Pisendel’s own output was small, but among his compositions are four chamber sonatas scored for violin, cello and continuo, discovered in the immense assemblage of scores that he amassed during his lifetime and which now comprises the esteemed Schrank II collection in the library of Dresden University. These Neue Sonaten are presented here for the first time ever on this splendid Snakewood label disc performed by the ensemble Scaramuccia.

Under the leadership of director/violinist Javier Lupiáñez (performing on a 1682 instrument), the four-movement miniatures truly come alive – what a joyful sound these musicians produce! Lupiáñez’s skilful playing – his phrasing always carefully articulated and artfully nuanced – is complemented by the solid performances of cellist Inés Salinas and harpsichordist Patricia Vintém. Many of the ornamentations in the form of cadenzas and passagework were added by the musicians themselves, based on a thorough study of Pisendel’s performance practices. Indeed, the melding of Pisendel’s solid compositional style exemplified in these recently discovered works with Scaramuccia’s careful and intelligent approach is a fortuitous one. An added bonus is a charming but anonymous harpsichord sonata in D Major that Vintém performs with much flair.  

The attractive slipcase and artwork further enhance an already appealing disc.

04 CavatineCavatine
DUO Stephanie and Saar
New Focus Recordings FCR274 (stephsaarduo.com)

This piano duo disc by Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia (DUO) has expressive virtuosity written all over it. It’s not simply four-hands piano that has been captured on disc, but repertoire as poignant as it is rare. Its late Beethoven is paired with late Schubert. And its music is evocative of the unrequited love both men lived with. In Schubert’s case, it was also a life lived in the permanent and towering shadow of the master, so much so that he – in an almost Shakespearean kind of twist – was even buried next to Beethoven. 

All of this spills over into the highly charged program on Cavatine. DUO Stephanie and Saar has completely subsumed every emotive aspect of this music. There is even an extraordinarily eerie seamlessness of how Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat Major Op.130 slides into the Cavatine, then into the Grosse Fuge Op.134, before ending up in Schubert’s Fantasie in F Minor D940

This is a made-for-each partnership. The amazing rapport between Ho and Ahuvia and their impeccable style unite to produce winning results. The warmth and tangible empathy on display here bring out all of the music’s emotive aspects – especially in the intensely lyrical movements of the Quartet in B-flat and the Cavatine, which gives way to the chromatic boldness of the Grosse Fuge and finally in the rhapsodic features of Schubert’s Fantasie. All of this makes a disc to absolutely die for.

Listen to 'Cavatine' Now in the Listening Room

05 Schubert GaudetSchubert: Explorations
Mathieu Gaudet
Analekta AN 2 9184 (analekta.com/en)

One year ago, in May 2020, this reviewer wrote of a new release from pianist Mathieu Gaudet. Late Inspirations was the second installment of an ambitious project to record the entirety of Franz Schubert’s sonatas and major works for piano. Since then, Gaudet has added another two discs to the anthology: The Power of Fate in October 2020 and Explorations in March 2021. What a thrill it has been to discover each of these records in an alimentative journey comprised of attentive listening. From its wondrous, heights to its simplest of gifts, Schubert’s art is a way of life for Gaudet.

As a fulltime emergency physician, Gaudet has persevered through a harrowing year for human beings on our planet, combatting a health crisis on a magnitude not seen for a century. The compassion, care and healing that Gaudet surely delivers to his patients is transfused – enviably – to his musical artistry. As listeners around Gaudet’s keyboard, we are in safe hands. His deeply empathic connection with Schubert is genially revealed, phrase by phrase, piece by piece, as we are led through a lifelong tended garden, ever-watered with a sublime Schubertian prowess.

A consistent feature of each disc thus far is a blending of the known with the unknown. Explorations opens with the familiar Moments Musicaux, D780. What comes next is unexpected: three fleeting German Dances, D972 that sway and yodel with a folksy kind of charm.

Of Gaudet’s many attributes, his rhythmic sense of rightness remains high atop the list. With a shrewd savvy for pulse on the highest order, Gaudet sculpts phrases and perfectly arrays accompaniments. Such rhythmic irresistibility – such fantastic finesse – proffers trips of light indeed. His pianism is capable of casting spells of merriment, akin to the province of tunesmiths who magically set their songs ablaze, dancing and frolicking in the hot sun. Daylight ordains such tales of love and loss, of anguish and dubiety. And yet, a celestial certitude hovers over such oases of musical expression. Such is the stuff as Schubert’s art is made on.

06 JurinicCorrespondances
Aljoša Jurinić
KNS Classical KNS A/097 (knsclassical.com)

The professional relationship of Chopin and Schumann was a curious one. Both composers were born in the same year, and while Schumann greatly praised the music of his Polish colleague, Chopin rarely, if ever, responded with similar sentiment. Whatever dissimilarities the two may have had, the Schumann Fantasy Op.17 and Chopin’s set of 12 Etudes Op.25 make a formidable pairing on this KNS live recording featuring Croatian-born pianist Aljoša Jurinić who came to Toronto in 2019.

To say the least, Jurinić’s credentials are impressive. Not only was he the winner of the Schumann Piano Competition in 2012, a laureate of the Queen Elisabeth and Leeds competitions in 2016, but also a finalist in the International Chopin competition in 2015. He has since appeared at Carnegie Hall, the Wiener Musikverein and the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall. 

The Fantasy is regarded as one of Schumann’s finest compositions and among the greatest in the entire Romantic repertoire. With its contrasting rhythms and tempi, the piece is not easy to bring off, but Jurinić’s performance is nothing less than sublime. He approaches the score with a true sense of grandeur, the broad sweeping lines of the opening, the stirring second movement and the introspective finale tempered with a flawless technique.

In the set of Chopin Etudes Jurinić breathes new life into this familiar repertoire, once again demonstrating full command of the technical challenges; from the graceful first etude in A-flat Major right to the thunderous No.12 which brings the set, and the disc, to a most satisfying conclusion.

How fortunate for Toronto that an artist of Jurinić’s stature has chosen to settle here – we can only hope his residency will be a lengthy one and that we may hear him perform in concert when conditions allow.

07 Lineage Deborah GrimmettLineage – Tracing Influence
Deborah Grimmett
New Classic Records NC01 (deborahgrimmett.com)

The full range of both the beautiful – and beautifully recorded – Glenn Gould Studio piano, and a solo piano repertoire that spans the historical continuum from Brahms and Debussy to such contemporary composers as Iman Habibi and the little-known Rhoda Coghill (this may be the recording premiere of any of Coghill’s compositions) is on full display here with this wonderfully expressive FACTOR and Canada Council for the Arts-supported 2021 release. Exhibiting a deft touch and clear musicality, Toronto pianist Deborah Grimmett presents an intimate view into not only her own considerable musical talent, but her biographical story of overcoming a repetitive strain injury from over-practising as a music student, to stepping away from the piano in order to heal and then, finally, returning to the instrument to make what is clearly a meaningful and deeply personal recording. 

This is one of those presentation formats (solo piano) and recordings (live off the floor, close-miked instrument) that when you take away any other extraneous factors, all that is left is the musicality and interpretive power of the performer and the music itself. As such, Lineage: Tracing Influence does a fine job, offering one of those listening experiences where fans of classical music, solo piano or just those who need some auditory solace from the everyday banality of life (particularly so during yet another lockdown) can immerse themselves in order to derive pleasure, meaning and inspiration.

08 Mahler 10 VanskaMahler – Symphony No.10 in F-sharp Major
Minnesota Orchestra; Osmo Vänskä
Bis BIS-2396 (naxosdirect.com/search/bis-2396)

Mahler’s final work lay hidden for decades as shorthand sketches still awaiting a full orchestration. Alas, the completion of the work was tragically cut short by the composer’s premature death from a broken heart at the age of 50. Fragments of this manuscript were subsequently revealed over the decades by his imperious widow Alma Mahler-Gropius-Werfel, who considered the work to be a private love letter to herself and only relented to allow the work to be published after listening to a BBC broadcast tape of the “performing edition” that Deryck Cooke prepared for the Mahler centenary in 1960. Cooke’s realization underwent subsequent refinements and his third and final 1976 edition, incorporating previously suppressed materials, has become the preferred version among several alternatives. 

Recordings of the work are relatively rare, as a fair number of conductors have questioned the legitimacy of the score. These skeptics will, I hope, be won over by this commanding performance from the Minnesota Orchestra, which ranks among the finest available. The work is in five movements, similar in structure to Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. The slower first and fifth movements are tragic cries of despair while the inner, faster movements are comically sarcastic, echoing the scherzo and rondo movements of his Ninth Symphony. There is a wonderful spontaneity to Osmo Vänskä’s choice of tempos in these central movements, strikingly so in the accelerations of the unusually asymmetrical measures of the second movement, which tumble over themselves in a delightful confusion. The longer outer movements feature the highly refined playing of the string section, hovering at times at a nearly inaudible level, with superlative contributions from the solo wind instruments. Add to this excellent program notes and stellar sonics from the BIS recording team and you have yourself an outstanding addition to the discography of this passionate, autobiographical masterpiece. Not to be missed!

09 Nezet Seguin RachmaninoffRachmaninoff – Symphony No.1; Symphonic Dances
Philadelphia Orchestra; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Deutsche Grammophon 12192 (deutschegrammophon.com/en/catalogue/products/rachmaninoff-symphony-no-1-symphonic-dances-nezet-seguin-12192)

Imagine you have the entire Deutsche Grammophon catalogue, a whole wall covered in shelving designed for CD’s, each spine of every disc displaying the well-known colours. Lucky you! Just now, taking pride of place is this sparkling new release, the Philadelphia Orchestra led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin performing Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony Op.13 and Symphonic Dances Op.45 (his final published work).

What to praise first? Recording quality, which whisks you around the sections of this fabulous orchestra as, one by one, they show off their mastery of dynamics, technical agility, musical insight; and most of all, the unheard presence channelling the composer through the players before him, the young (still young!) maestro from Quebec. Possibly no composer offers better witness to Nézet-Séguin’s mastery. With seamless logic, he links the furioso character of the Allegro ma non troppo first movement to its episodes of pathos. Every detail is considered and brought forth. This recording is an encounter with deep Russian melancholia, and Philadelphia’s legendary warm sound is the perfect medium for the maestro’s skill.

Interesting to pair this youthful early symphony, from 1895, with the Symphonic Dances, composed in 1940, when Rachmaninoff was living in California. Poorly received as it was at the premiere, the symphony is incredibly ambitious, and if tonally conservative, it offers glimpses of the strange wonderful paths the 22-year-old would soon follow. Make yourself wait before letting this recording of the Dances deliver you into another world of wonder. If the engineers have filed off any “edge” in the sound, there’s punch and beauty in spades, and a luxurious gong fade at the end!

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