03 Schubert OctetSchubert – Octet in F Major, D.803
OSM Chamber Soloists
Analekta AN 2 8799 (analekta.com/en/albums/schubert-octet-in-f-major-d-803)

Schubert’s largest chamber work, the Octet, was composed in 1824, during a deeply creative period in his life that also gave birth to two other major chamber works – the string quartets Death and the Maiden and Rosamunde. Although they share similar combinations of splendour and elegance, the Octet seems to be both more ceremonious in form and more optimistic in nature and, as such, a relevant choice for OSM Chamber Soloists’ second album. Having released their recording of Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat major in January 2018, the OSM Chamber Soloists chose the work that was inspired by Beethoven’s Septet as their next project. These two classic gems have many parallels, including instrumentation, the number of movements, key relationships and general character. Structured in six strong movements, the Octet features many of Schubert’s signature marks such as prominent dotted rhythms, dramatic momentum and sumptuous melodies. The fourth movement, Andante – variations, is especially captivating with its sublime transitions between the variations.

The OSM Chamber Soloists (comprising members of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal) is a splendid ensemble. Each instrumentalist has a distinct character of their own but the synergy of the ensemble, the osmosis of the musical ideas, is extraordinary. I have been a fan of the violinist Andrew Wan for quite some time and his playing and leadership on this album is exceptionally strong. The rest of the ensemble is just as impressive. Olivier Thouin (violin), Victor Fournelle-Blain (viola), Brian Manker (cello), Ali Kian Yazdanfar (double bass), Todd Cope (clarinet), Stéphane Lévesque (bassoon) and John Zirbel (horn) have collectively created a colourful aural portrait of a unique work.

05 Clarinet QuintetsClarinet Quintets
Mark Lieb; Phoenix Ensemble
Navona Records nv6193 (navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6193)

Lyricism may not be the first quality one associates with the music of Elliott Carter, yet always amidst his confusion of conflicting rhythms there are long melodically pure lines to be sung. Carter’s Clarinet Quintet (2007), offers plenty of the former, but an especially good amount of the latter as well. The performance on this recent release by members of the Phoenix Ensemble (including founder and clarinetist Mark Lieb) rises to the task of finding the way to sing the lines within the exacting demands of Carter’s rhythms. The more contrapuntal playing is virtuosic and seemingly effortless. Lieb has a ready access to the entire range of his instrument, and his rapid articulation is crisp and sure. The quartet playing is even better, or perhaps it’s safer to say theirs is the more friendly material. Oddly, in this late work, the composer assigned great swatches of sustained notes to the wind player, setting off the more interesting material played by the strings.

The same could not be said of Johannes Brahms’ towering late chamber work, the Quintet Op.115 for Clarinet and Strings. All players share in the glory of this final outpouring of the old man’s soul. This disc’s pairing with the Carter quintet is an odd one, so little do the two works have in common beyond instrumentation. The quartet here is still excellent, all in all; the ensemble is good. Their decision to examine the work with slower than conventional tempi in the outer movements is not a success, but I do love the style of the string playing, which is reminiscent of mid-century movie score melodrama.

An excellent rendering of Carter’s Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux, for flute and clarinet, is included between the larger works.

Listen to 'Clarinet Quintets' Now in the Listening Room

07 Mahler 5Mahler – Symphony No.5
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Daniel Harding
Harmonia Mundi HMM902366 (smarturl.it/n1e7kz)

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony has proved itself to be one of his most often performed works, musically challenging yet accessible enough for even student orchestras to perform with aplomb. Scored for a relatively normal-sized orchestra and relatively Apollonian in comparison to his more Dionysian and ofttimes programmatic earlier symphonies, it marks a progression towards an exclusively instrumental and often elaborately contrapuntal approach characteristic of his middle period symphonies.

Daniel Harding, a protégé of eminent Mahlerians Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado, leads a revelatory performance of this work with the superb Swedish Radio Orchestra, an ensemble he has directed since 2007 and to whom he is contracted through 2023. The esprit-de-corps he has established with the ensemble is palpable in this sumptuous and expertly edited recording, captured in all its glory by a crack audio team from Teldex Studio Berlin. It is sadly rare these days to come across a proper studio recording of this quality. No nuance goes unnoticed in this finely wrought and vigorous production.

Harding’s interpretation is eminently idiomatic and the orchestra is quick to respond to his beck and call. As an example among many wonderful moments I was struck by his handling of the exuberant Rondo-Finale, in which the many tempo changes are elegantly transitioned by establishing a long line that drives towards the conclusion, surmounting the sectional stopping and starting that often mars lesser performances. The celebrated Adagietto movement for strings and harp is equally effective; it is languorously timed at 10 minutes and 30 seconds yet never feels overwrought, as the string section’s vibrato is carefully restrained to something resembling a period performance. A truly admirable achievement for all concerned!

01 Hilary Hahn BachHilary Hahn is one of the truly great violinists on the world stage, so it perhaps comes as something of a surprise to see that she has never issued a complete set of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, despite her reputation for outstanding Bach playing. Her 1997 debut CD on Sony, Hilary Hahn plays Bach (Sonata 3, Partitas 2 & 3) when she was only 17 drew rave reviews.

Now, 21 years later and with her first release on the Decca label, she completes the set with Hilary Hahn plays Bach Sonatas 1 & 2, Partita 1 (Decca Classics 4833954).

What immediately strikes you is the smoothness of line, the warmth (with full vibrato), the full measure given to the inner notes in the multiple stopping and the brilliance of the definition in the numerous presto movements. Complete technical assurance is a given, of course, but the depth of her musical intelligence and insight is always equally evident.

Hahn says that since the initial CD she has continually been asked when she would be recording the remaining works, and that she felt that “now was the moment” to do so. “What you hear in this completion of my solo Bach set,” she says, “is therefore the best recording that I feel I can offer at this point in my life.”

It’s hard to imagine how she could ever improve on it.

02 Elicia SilversteinThe Dreams & Fables I Fashion is the stunning debut recording by the American violinist Elicia Silverstein, considered by many to be a rising star on the European early music scene (Rubicon Classics RCD1031 rubiconclassics.com). Noted for playing music from the 17th to 21st centuries on historical and modern instruments, Silverstein demonstrates that extensive range here with music that spans 300 years.

Two Biber works from around 1676 open the disc: the Crucifixion Sonata X from the Rosary or Mystery Sonatas; and the solo Passacaglia. The contemporary Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino’s Capriccio No.2 from his Sei Capricci dates from 1976, its technical challenges handled here with ease.

Little is known about Giovanni Pandolfi Mealli (1630-c.1669/70), but his Sonata No.2 “La Cesta” from 6 Sonatas for Violin and Continuo Op.3 is really something, with some dazzling playing by Silverstein in the opening section. Another work from 1976, Luciano Berio’s Sequenza VIII provides yet another opportunity for the soloist to demonstrate her complete mastery of contemporary technique.

A dazzling period-influenced performance of the Bach Chaconne from the Partita No.2 in D Minor ends an outstanding debut release that seamlessly combines period and contemporary styles. 

03 Akiko MeyersViolinist Anne Akiko Meyers is in fine form on Mirror in Mirror, her 37th album (Avie AV 2386 avie-records.com). With the exception of Ravel, Meyers has collaborated with all of the composers or arrangers on the album, several of the works being either written or arranged for her.

An arrangement of the Philip Glass Metamorphosis II by Glass collaborator Michael Riesman opens the disc, followed by two works by Arvo Pärt: Fratres; and the album’s title track Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in Mirror).

There’s a quite different sound to the Ravel Tzigane. The original violin and piano version contained instructions for a luthéal, an optional piano attachment which could add a cimbalom-sounding effect to the keyboard. It’s essentially a museum piece now, and for this recording Jakub Ciupiński sampled the original instrument in a Brussels museum and produced a digital recreation of the sound for keyboard player Elizabeth Pridgen. The sound is not as strong as a regular piano, but does add a highly appropriate sound to this gypsy-inspired work. You can watch a video of the recording session on YouTube under Anne Akiko Meyers Records Ravel Tzigane with Luthéal.

John Corigliano’s Lullaby for Natalie was written to mark the birth of Meyers’ first child in 2010. The pianist here and in the Glass and Pärt tracks is Akira Eguchi.

Two works by Ciupiński are both for violin and electronics. Edo Lullaby is based on a Japanese folk song that Meyers’ mother used to sing. Wreck of the Cumbria from 2009 was commissioned by Meyers and was inspired by the composer’s exploration of an underwater wreck in Sudan in 2005.

The final track is Morton Lauridsen’s own arrangement of his a cappella choral work O Magnum Mysterium, with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Kristjan Järvi. It brings a thoughtful and thought-provoking CD to a beautiful close.

All but the Ravel and Pärt works are premiere recordings.

04 Mulova PartThe two works by Arvo PärtFratres and Spiegel im Spiegel – are also included on the new Onyx CD from the outstanding violinist Viktoria Mullova, simply titled Arvo Pärt (ONYX4201 onyxclassics.com). Paavo Järvi conducts the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra.

Pärt’s tintinnabuli style, developed in the 1970s, produced one of the most distinctive compositional voices of the past 50 years. “I build with primitive materials – with the triad, with one specific tonality,” said the composer. “The three notes of a triad are like bells, and that is why I call it tintinnabulation.”

Nearly all of the works here were first performed by Gidon Kremer. Tabula rasa and Fratres were both written in 1977, the latter heard here in a 1991 arrangement by Pärt for violin, string orchestra and percussion. Passacaglia, written in 2003 for violin and piano was arranged for violin and strings in 2007 in honor of Kremer’s 60th birthday.

Darf ich . . . for violin, bells and strings was originally dedicated to Yehudi Menuhin in 1995 but revised for Kremer in 1999. Spiegel im Spiegel dates from 1978, its slow stepwise melody over gentle piano arpeggios the epitome of Pärt’s style.

05 Spohr Violin duetsThe English violinists Jameson Cooper and James Dickenson are the performers on Spohr Violin Duets 1, featuring the Three Duets Op.67 and the Duet in E-flat major WoO 21 No.3 by the 19th-century German violin virtuoso and composer Louis Spohr (Naxos 8.573763 naxos.com).

The Op.67 duos were an attempt by Spohr to produce duets that were less demanding than his previous Op.3, Op.9 and Op.39 duos, which had not sold well due to their difficulty. They are really quite charming – fresh, melodic, inventive, and with a good deal of multiple stopping, which makes them sound more like string trios at times. The Duet No.2 in D Major has long been particularly popular.

The WoO 21 duos are Spohr’s earliest surviving compositions, written when he was about 12 years old. Technical ability and musical sensitivity are already there, albeit in a framework lacking mastery of form and structure. The mature composer noted that they “may be childish and incorrect, but they do nevertheless have a form and a flowing melody line.” Indeed they do.

Cooper and Dickenson provide warm and stylish playing throughout an absolutely delightful CD.

06 American String QuartetThe American String Quartet celebrates its 45th anniversary in 2019. Its latest CD, American Romantics, features works by Antonin Dvořák, Robert Sirota and Samuel Barber (americanstringquartet.com/discography).

Dvořák’s immensely popular String Quartet in F Major Op.96, “American” was written at Spillville, Iowa in 1893 during his first summer in the United States. It’s given a solid performance here.

Sirota’s String Quartet No.2, “American Pilgrimage” was commissioned by the performers and was conceived as a companion piece to Sirota’s first quartet “Triptych,” written in response to the 9/11 tragedy. It celebrates American geography and culture, the source material for the four movements being Protestant hymnody, gospel, Native American song and Jazz.

The Barber is the Adagio for Strings, here in its original form as the slow middle movement from the String Quartet Op.11. Recorded in 2011, six years before the rest of the disc, it’s an intensely lovely performance.

Listen to 'American Romantics' Now in the Listening Room

07 DissonanceThe first release on the new Bear Machine Records label is Dissonance, a performance of Mozart’s String Quartet in C Major K465 by the Diderot String Quartet (bearmachinerecords.com). The ensemble, which was formed in 2012 and received training in modern and early music, uses period instruments with gut strings.

The remarkable opening Adagio of the quartet consequently sounds quite different from the rich, full approach you frequently hear, with the softer sound and minimal vibrato helping to reveal just how shocking this passage – which gives the work its name – must have sounded to contemporary audiences; you really do hear this astonishing progression with new ears. It pointed the way for the future; as the sparse accompanying notes perceptively point out: “discomfort and pain became new ways to accent the beautiful and transcendent.” This is Mozart with a difference indeed, with excellent dynamic range and flexibility with tempos and phrasing.

The rest of the CD is puzzling. It’s a 14-minute podcast discussion between Ben Cooper, who mixed and mastered the disc, and Josh Lee, who produced it, that can most charitably be described as Mozart for Idiots. It seems to want to be both semi-humorous – Cooper first pretending that he’s never heard of Mozart and then saying that his understanding of him “comes 100 percent from the movie Amadeus” – and semi-serious, but even if it does slowly progress through very basic Mozart biography to minimal discussion of the quartet, it ends up being neither particularly amusing nor particularly informative. 

08 Quadrants 2Quadrants Vol.2 features works for string quartet by six contemporary American composers in excellent performances by the Boston-based Pedroia String Quartet (Navona Records NV6184 navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6184). There is unfortunately zero information on the works or composers included with the cardboard digipak, but additional album content – basically just composer bios – is available on the website. There is also a 12-minute Quadrant Vol.2 trailer on YouTube.

Paul Osterfield’s Khamsin is wider ranging in sound and technique than the other works here, but is still essentially approachable and attractive. David T. Bridges’ This Fragmented Old Man is a brief take on the children’s counting song, with an acknowledged nod to Carter, Bartók and Stravinsky. Ferdinando (Fred) De Sena is represented by his three-movement String Quartet No.1, and L. Peter Deutsch by the really effective Departure, the four movements representing Anticipation (“anxiety”), Preparation (“diligent activity”), Leave-taking (“sadness”) and Setting Sail (“excitement”). The third movement of one of the most enjoyable works on the CD is particularly effective.

Katherine Price is a young composer with strong roots in the choral tradition. Her lovely and meditative Hymnody has shades of Samuel Barber’s Adagio. Another really strong work, Marvin Lamb’s Lamentations, ends an excellent disc.

09 A Far CryVisions and Variations is an excellent new CD by the American string ensemble A Far Cry (they are also known as The Criers) on their own label (Crier Records CR1801 afarcry.org).

There’s a fine performance of the early Benjamin Britten work Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge, followed by a newer Theme and 12 Variations work by violinist Ethan Wood called Ah! vous dirais-je, Maman: a folktale for 18 players based on characters created by W. A. Mozart. There’s some lovely string writing here.

The 20 short pieces of Sergei Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives Op.22 were written individually between 1915 and 1917, many for specific friends. The Russian violist and conductor Rudolph Barshai arranged 15 of them for string ensemble, the remaining five having been arranged here by A Far Cry members Alex Fortes, Jesse Irons and Erik Higgins.

01 Clipper Erickson TableauClipper Erikson explores a dual theme in his new CD release Tableau – Tempest & Tango (Navona NV6170 navonarecords.com). Beginning with the dark overtones of Russian history, he explores works by Russian-born composer David Finko. He combines Fantasia on a Medieval Russian Theme with three piano sonatas that cover a 15-year period in the composer’s life. Finko’s music is substantial and occupies the entire first disc. The Russian theme continues on the second CD with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Erikson reads a great deal of personal content into this familiar work and draws philosophical connections from its program to Finko’s compositions.

The tango element appears courtesy of composer Richard Brodhead who wrote both Sonata Notturno and Una Carta de Buenos Aires for Erikson. While the Latin flavouring and dance form are unmistakable, they blend with a contemporary language to form a unique expression that sustains interest throughout the works.

02 In Your HeadDana Muller and Gary Steigerwalt have been performing as a piano duo for more than 30 years. Their latest recording In Your Head – New Music for Piano Four Hands (Navona NV6190 navonarecords.com) is a reminder of how much wonderful four-hands repertoire there actually is beyond the familiar material of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The works on this disc are by six American composers and present an astonishingly wide array of compositional styles. The opening tracks are a five-part suite by Donald Wheelock titled Mind Games, to which the CD links its own title. The final movement comes as a complete surprise with an energetic and humorous touch.

The major work is John La Montaine’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands Op. 25. This is a substantial work with a clear intent to exploit everything two players can bring to the keyboard collectively. Density, volume and colour are the effects the composer requires the pianists to create. These are particularly critical in the closing Fugue, where the subject relies heavily on these devices.

While there’s so much in this program that’s commendable, Dreamworlds by Lewis Spratlan deserves special mention for its unique shadings and the distinctive voice of its composer. Its three movements are artfully and entertainingly written character portrayals.

03 Destination RachmaninovDaniil Trifonov lives in the shadow, cast by mountains of gob-smacked reviews all struggling for fresh superlatives to describe his impact on the world of piano music, of his own success. His newest release Destination Rachmaninov – Departure, Piano Concertos 2 & 4, The Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Deutsche Grammophon 0289 483 5335 4
deutschegrammophon.com/en/artist/trifonov)
demonstrates why he has such an effect. Plenty has been written about his technique and the perfect ease with which he manages the most demanding passages. There is, moreover, a sense of confident repose in his musical presence that creates a sense of originality and newness to everything he plays. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin describes it as seeming to compose the music as he is playing it.
Both concertos on this disc are truly breathtaking. The lesser known No.4 is especially satisfying to hear for its rarity and the occasional flavours of jazz-band harmonies that recall the contemporary sounds of 1926 New York. The most memorable moments are those when Rachmaninov swells the music to a veritable orchestral and pianistic tsunami that wreaks an exhilarating devastation on anyone listening.

Trifonov also includes three sections from Rachmaninov’s solo piano transcription of Bach’s Violin Partita No.3 in E Major, BWV1006. His performance shows how much fun Rachmaninov had stripping away the Baroque strictures in favour of a more playful contemporary iteration.

04 Heyeyon Park Klavier 1853Hyeyeon Park is an accomplished performer and a respected academic. Her new release Klavier 1853 Liszt, Schumann, Brahms (Blue Griffin records BGR351 bluegriffin.com) uses 1853 as the starting point for a selection of piano works that have their genesis in that year. It seems to have been a time of historical significance on numerous fronts. Both piano manufacturers Steinway and Bechstein founded their respective firms in 1853. More importantly, the paths of several key musical personalities crossed in that year, beginning a series of influential relationships that shaped the evolution of European music.

The young Brahms met Liszt in Weimar in June 1853 shortly after Liszt had completed his Ballade No.2 in B Minor S.171. By September he’d presented himself at the Düsseldorf home of Robert and Clara Schumann. Clara had written her Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann Op.20 in early 1853 as a birthday gift for her husband. After Robert Schumann’s decline in health, Brahms used the same theme in a set of variations he composed as a gift for Clara. Brahms had arrived with some samples of his work including the Piano Sonata No.3 in F Minor Op.5. Robert was so impressed by this young talent that he experienced a resurgence of creative inspiration and composed several pieces, including the Gesänge der Frühe Op.133.

This group of historically-linked pieces forms the intriguing program Park performs on this disc. She is a complete artist who brings everything to this music that it needs. She plays with a Romantic sensitivity to the language of each composer, perfectly capturing the spirit of the age.

05 Saint Saens ConcertosRomain Descharmes’ new CD Saint-Saëns Piano Concertos Nos.4 & 5 “Egyptian” (Naxos 8.573478 naxos.com) completes his project begun in 2017 with the release of the first three concertos. Marc Soustrot conducts the Malmö Symphony Orchestra for all the performances in the set.

The two-movement Concerto No.4 is not often heard. The easy flow of the music from both the piano and orchestra comes as a reminder of Saint-Saëns’ remarkable gift for composition. Descharmes’ playing perfectly matches the attractive elegance of the music. While his sensitive playing suggests a vulnerability that suits the composer’s voice exquisitely, power and forceful statement are always available when needed.

The artistic partnership between pianist and orchestra is superb. It makes its greatest impact in the Concerto No.5 “Egyptian” where Saint-Saëns uses exotic orchestrations and musical ideas to create his Egyptian mystique. Descharmes describes the work as the composer’s best – a showpiece designed to impress and dazzle the audience. Everything builds toward the final movement where high energy, brilliant scoring and performance leave an impression as lasting as the pyramids at Giza.

This recording is excellent on all counts. It reflects the highest production values and a shared artistic genius consistently present from start to finish. If you’re going to get this recording, get the earlier two discs as well. It’s a set worth having.

06 Beethoven Karsten SchulzKarsten Scholz is now well into his project to record Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. His latest release is, like its two predecessors, a two-disc set, Beethoven Klaviersonaten III (Elmstudio 300970-4 karstenscholz.de). Apparently recording them in reverse chronological sequence, this third set presents the early half of the middle sonatas, Nos.12-18. The first two sets cover everything after this period and clearly, the early sonatas are yet to come.

Scholz is in his late 40s and has an impressive bio with a credible collection of awards, postings, performances and other career achievements. In a world filling quickly with self-recorded and self-promoted artists, Scholz stands out as an obvious talent. Scholz is the kind of artist that sets the standard for trusted, intellectually informed performance. Maturity guides his artistic decisions. His expression has a wide dynamic supported by wonderful keyboard technique all of which is spent in aid of the perfect balance.

Sonata No.14 in C-sharp Minor, Op.27 “Moonlight, is for its wide familiarity and inner variety, a potent litmus test of interpretive skill. Scholz takes the opening movement with an unhurried intention that frequently hesitates at critical phrase endings to heighten the appearance of the next idea. The second movement is slower than often heard but effectively echoes the tenderness and also sets up the high-speed turbulence of the final movement.

All seven sonatas in this set benefit from the same unerring performance quality that Scholz has made his hallmark in this project.

07 Eliane Rodrigues DebussyEliane Rodrigues has recorded nearly 30 CDs and shows no sign of easing up her pace. Her latest recording is Claude Debussy – Reflets (Navona NV6164 navonarecords.com). Rodrigues has chosen a program that supports her view of Debussy as a composer of more than just languid, dreamy, impressionistic music. Indeed, it’s as much her approach as it is the program that clinches her argument. The opening tracks, Suite Bergamasque, contain the famous Claire de lune, which is usually taken as a prime opportunity for creating the impressionistic atmosphere of Debussy’s fluid arpeggios and richly blended harmonies. Rodrigues, however, moves through the piece at a more determined pace, lingering less indulgently on the familiar emotional hotspots. Surprisingly, the work loses nothing in this approach and comes across with a new and rather different meaning – something perhaps more actively philosophical rather than deeply contemplative.

Other tracks like Pour le piano, especially its Toccata movement, are highly energized and percussive, words not often used to describe this repertoire. Intriguingly, this performance does more to connect the composer to some of his contemporaries than a traditional interpretation would do. Ravel and Satie suddenly share a kinship with Debussy that has hitherto seemed more tenuous.
Still, Rodrigues doesn’t entirely reject Debussy as the arch-impressionist of piano composition. Arabesques is as powerfully mystical as you’ll hear it played by anyone. So too are the slower movements of Images Books 1 & 2. Rodrigues knows exactly what she’s doing and her ideas are worth hearing.

08 Mahan EsfahaniMahan Esfahani has resumed his recording relationship with Hyperion Records with an early November release The Passinge Mesures – Music of the English Virginalists (Hyperion CDA68249 hyperion-records.co.uk). Having recorded a couple of discs in 2014 then moved to DG for a couple more in 2015 and 2016, Esfahani is back at Hyperion with his articulately unapologetic approach to harpsichord performance. Current plans include some pre-Baroque repertoire, plenty of J.S.Bach as well as contemporary works written for Esfahani himself.

The current recording samples music from well-known composers of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods: Byrd, Farnaby, Bull, Gibbons and others. Esfahani’s liner notes offer a passionate argument about the limited usefulness of authentic performance approaches to early forms of music. Freed from the tightest interpretive and stylistic constraints, Esfahani explores emotional expression through tempo changes, rich ornamentation and an intensity of performance whose absence has made the instrument a tough sell to a wider audience. He plays with an enormous amount of energy. And in some inexplicable way, he brings out inner voices and countermelodies on an instrument where this is not supposed to be possible.

Esfahani points to the humanity, beauty and complexity of Shakespeare’s work and asks why music of that period shouldn’t be considered in the same light. He may have single handedly begun the expansion of our thinking on issues of early music performance. He has, at least, shown us a credible alternative to what has been doctrine for several decades. 

01 Mahler 6 VanskaMahler – Symphony No.6
Minnesota Orchestra; Osmo Vänskä
Bis BIS-2266 (bis.se)

The enigmatic Sixth of Mahler is one of the “Wunderhorn Symphonies” (Nos.5-7) because each draws its main inspiration from Das Knaben Wunderhorn, Mahler’s most atmospheric and melodic song cycle. But the Sixth stands out because it ends in a minor key; with no triumphant fortissimo ending, it fades out into nothingness.

Hailed as “exacting and exuberant” (New York Times), Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä at the head of the prestigious Minnesota Orchestra is putting his mark on the US’ and the entire world’s music scene with his highly original and compelling interpretations. He has a visceral sense and immediate grasp of the essence of the music and a near hypnotic grip on the orchestra. His revolutionary Beethoven cycle already caused a world sensation and now he is ready to tackle Mahler.

In this superb, spacious BIS recording Vänskä avoids all overt emotional excesses and concentrates on the musical textures and beauties of the score. In fact, in his hands the symphony is not tragic at all, but a strong affirmation of life. He leads us through a remarkable journey: the relentless, terrifying military march that dominates the first movement is relieved by a magnificent love theme (inspired by Mahler’s beloved wife Alma) into an idyllic realm of an alpine meadow, cows grazing and village church bells ringing in the distance. The Andante is one of Mahler’s heavenly creations, but military madness returns as a demonic 3/4 time Scherzo punctuated with piercing and agonizing shrieks. The 32-minute Finale is an incredible piece of music that culminates in those three giant hammer blows, the power of fate that ultimately destroys man, sure, but after what a journey and what a struggle!

02 Hanging GardensHanging Gardens – Debussy; Berg; Webern; Schoenberg
Jacob Greenberg; Tony Arnold
New Focus Recordings FCR 192 (newfocusrecordings.com)

If one went by the names on the cover of pianist Jacob Greenberg’s two-disc set Hanging Gardens, one might wonder if Debussy were the odd man out. After all, of the four composers featured Debussy was the impressionist, while Schoenberg, Berg and Webern were pioneers of the Second Viennese School, not only tending towards expressionist painting but also favouring an atonal approach to harmonic conception. However, the connection between the four men is deep and born of the desire to look beyond mainstream Western traditions as a way of expanding the vocabulary of music, the vividness of Symbolist poetry and above all an overwhelming sense of the elemental beauty of indeterminate harmonies.

The centerpiece of this repertoire is Schoenberg’s Das Buch der hängenden Gärten, a song cycle based on the poetry of German Symbolist poet Stefan George. The work is a telling illustration of Schoenberg’s search for new modes of expression, which though unified poetically, tend to complete a musical statement within the frame of a miniature, with miniatures succeeding one another without developing a broad narrative pattern. But Greenberg shapes this work, as Schoenberg himself declared writing it: seeking beauty and sacrificing everything to it with the ripples of atonality and dissonance that come with it. Tony Arnold’s agile, luminous soprano voice is ideal and sings with power and subtlety. The Berg Sonata Opus 1 with traces of Liszt and – unsurprisingly – Schoenberg, manipulates tiny fragments of melody and rhythm into a statement dense with dramatic gesture and emotional power. And Webern’s Variations Op.27 are packed with incident and crafted like an overture, which enhances its dramatic potential.

Greenberg appears to be ever the outstanding interpreter of fin de siècle French piano music and his wonderfully lucid and fluent pianism seems perfectly suited to Debussy’s quicksilver imagination. His accounts of both the Études and Préludes are astonishing. The Préludes indicate an affinity with the allusive world of the composer’s Images from several years earlier. The Études are more technically demanding and Greenberg, with marvellous gradations of dynamics and timbre, seems perfectly suited to this, Debussy’s most macroscopic piano music.

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