03 Bruckner 1 9Bruckner – Les 9 Symphonies
Orchestre Metropolitain; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
ATMA ACD2 2451 (atmaclassique.com)

This box of ten CDs comprising Les 9 Symphonies sports a gold trim that gives it a rather deluxe look and manages to fit quite a bit of detail in its Spartan-looking 24-page booklet. Significantly, for an Anton Bruckner box, it lists the version and premiere details, which are critical as Bruckner was known to be a sort of serial reviser of his symphonic work. For dyed-in-the-wool fans – and aficionados of classical music – version is, indeed, everything and would explain idiosyncrasies of the opuses performed. Important also is to note that these magnificent versions are an enormous decade-long quest by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal to put down on record the complete symphonic work of a composer as consumed by spirituality as he was by a seemingly obsessive compulsion to refine, time and again, what he had written.

The booklet notes may not explain why certain Bruckner versions of these symphonies were chosen above others and one might question – as Bruckner is said to have – Franz Schalk’s 1894 version of Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major WAB 105, which is reported to have 15 to 20 minutes of music cut from it (the composer certainly disagreed with the cuts). Still, what seems to have motivated Nézet-Séguin is certainly the mission to capture the depth of Bruckner’s mysticism and joyful recreation of the composer’s “cathedrals of sound.” This would also explain why Symphony No.7 in E Minor WAB 107 is a version premiered by the legendary Arthur Nikisch and why Symphony No.1 in C Minor WAB 101 is taken from Hans Richter’s version premiered on December 13, 1891 (which is what Bruckner seems to have approved for performance on May 9, 1868).

If the determination to capture Bruckner at his most intense was the driving force behind Nézet-Séguin’s quest to complete his Bruckner cycle then he has certainly succeeded beyond belief and this box is comprehensive proof. It bears mention that at various points in time completed recordings of the symphonies have been released and reviews of Nos. 2 to 4 and 6 to 9 have also been featured within these pages, which leaves us with Nos.1 and 5. Symphony No. 1 in C Minor establishes many of Bruckner’s most distinctive characteristics, from the sense of scale to the organ-like washes of orchestral sound and the construction of long expanses from short repeated phrases. The electrifying performance with the leonine power of the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal in full throttle is shaped with fantastic conviction by Nézet-Séguin. His speeds are sometimes quite leisurely, but this only increases the symphony’s sense of scale and magnitude. This “Vienna Version” is a terrific achievement.

The Symphony No.5 in B-flat Major is the first of Bruckner’s mature symphonies to survive in a single version and was his most monumental, being both longer and more finely worked out than its predecessors. It has a sense of solemnity not found in earlier symphonies, with a dramatic sense of conflict generated by the suggestion that passion is always being kept in check. What’s especially impressive about Nézet-Séguin’s performance is the way momentum is always maintained, even in the tricky last movement, where he sails through the unmannered eloquence and power that are the hallmarks of this great performance from the beginning. The devotional, awestruck intensity of the final movement is effectively captured in this recording. Indeed this and the other performances in this box almost certainly comprise the defining recordings of Nézet-Séguin’s career.

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04 Kodaly Concerto for OrchestraKodály – Concerto for Orchestra
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta
Naxos 8.573838 (naxos.com)

These days, when symphony orchestras are going bankrupt all over America, the nearby Buffalo Philharmonic is flourishing. This is the second recording that came to my attention by JoAnn Falletta, their music director, recorded at Kleinhans Music Hall, with fabulous acoustics and designed by one of the forefathers of modern architecture, Eliel Saarinen.

Zoltan Kodály’s best and most popular orchestral works are played with such gusto, enthusiasm and flair that one wonders if Falletta has some Hungarian blood in her veins. Folk music of Hungary is unique in Europe as the Magyar tribes came from the east in the ninth century, their music and rhythms more in common with the Mongols. The two dance pieces Dances of Galánta and Dances of Marosszék are skilfully composed, colourful collections of folk tunes, sometimes melancholic or driven to a frenzy, which often demonstrate a rhythmic pulse found in Mongolian dances (said Lang Lang), not to mention Hungary having been invaded by the Mongols in the 13th century.

Kodály’s Concerto for Orchestra (1940) was commissioned by and written for the 50th anniversary of the Chicago Symphony. Although less well-known than its counterpart by Bartók, it is a fascinating mixture of high-stepping folk dance and Baroque passacaglia, echoing the concerto-grosso style. Sparklingly performed by the Philharmonic’s superb instrumentalists, conducted with surgical precision by Falletta and rendered in spectacular sound, I was thoroughly enchanted.

The enchantment continues with “The Peacock” Variations (1939), a “very virtuoso showcase of scintillating effects” based on a folk song that became a rallying tune of the fight for freedom in the 1848 uprising of Hungary against the Habsburg oppression. Superb recording, highly recommended.

01 Leclair Six SonatasViolinists Gwen Hoebig and Karl Stobbe have been sitting together on the front desk of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra for 20 years, and have been playing duets together for almost that long. A staple of their repertoire, the Six Sonatas for Two Violins by Jean-Marie Leclair is featured on a new CD from Analekta (AN 2 8786 analekta.com).

Leclair (1697-1764) was considered the father of French violin playing, merging the Italian influence he picked up while working for the ballet in Turin in his 20s with the French dance forms. These Op.3 Duos are known for their difficulty, but despite the need for technical mastery and virtuosity are never merely brilliant show pieces but works full of elegance and reserve, and of “lilting pastorals, graceful sarabandes and fiery jigs.”

Hoebig and Stobbe have technical mastery to spare, with a bright, clear sound and beautifully clean playing. The first and second violin parts are equally important here, with constant interplay and textural depth, and it’s virtually impossible to tell them apart.

Leclair had what the publicity release calls a tumultuous life, and was stabbed to death in front of the house he owned in a rather seedy area of Paris, possibly at the instigation of his former wife, who had been left penniless upon their divorce and who inherited his house and possessions, or by his nephew, an aspiring violinist angered at Leclair’s refusal to help advance his career. In the booklet notes Stobbe suggests that the nature of the duos – “the intimacy of two violins working together through tribulations and trials, romance, and violence” – may well reflect the circumstances of Leclair’s life, giving the performers a good starting point to explore the music’s character. His hope that these performances go beyond the technical challenges to give a sense of the man who created them is more than fulfilled in an outstanding CD.

02 Faust Bach coverViolinist Isabelle Faust and harpsichordist Kristian Bezuidenhout are in outstanding form in a 2CD set of J.S. Bach: Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord (harmonia mundi 90225657).

These six works BWV 1014-1019 probably date from the Cöthen period of 1717-23, but Bach apparently continued to revisit and revise them throughout his life, suggesting that they were works that meant a great deal to him. From a historical perspective they form a crucial link between the Baroque trio sonata and the violin and piano sonatas of the Classical and Romantic periods, Bach treating the left and right hand keyboard parts as bass line and melodic voice respectively, with the violin interacting primarily with the melodic voice.

The performances here are quite superb, with a lovely balance between the instruments and a striking warmth and clarity. In his perceptive booklet notes Bezuidenhout offers the suggestion that the acquisition of a new double-manual harpsichord by Michael Mietke of Berlin at Cöthen in 1719 may well have provided the inspiration for Bach’s sudden keyboard innovations; there seem to be no other sources for this sudden departure from the standard trio sonata form.

The harpsichord used here, courtesy of Trevor Pinnock, is a modern John Phillips instrument modelled after a 1722 harpsichord by Johann Heinrich Grabner. Bezuidenhout notes that the sound “is both full… and wonderfully articulate,” the clarity between the registers ideal for the three-voice counterpoint so much at the heart of these sonatas. Faust plays a 1658 Jacob Stainer violin, which Bezuidenhout notes has the “necessary brilliance... but also a certain warmth and darkness of tone that is ideally suited to the more melancholy moments.”

All in all, it’s a wonderful set.

03 Kotik MozartI didn’t know the playing of Tomas Cotik before last month’s outstanding Piazzolla Legacy CD, but his latest release, a simply beautiful 4CD set of the Complete Mozart 16 Sonatas for Violin and Piano with his regular partner Tao Lin (Centaur CRC 3619/20/21/22 centaurrecords.com), leaves me in no doubt as to what I must have been missing.

This set – Cotik’s 14th issue – does not include the “juvenile” sonatas for keyboard and violin from 1763-66, where the violin rarely does little more than conform to the keyboard right hand, but presents the 16 sonatas written in the period 1778-88: the six sonatas K301-306 published in Paris in late 1778 and known as the Kurfürstin or Palatine Sonatas; the six sonatas K296 and K376-380 published by Artaria in Vienna in late 1781 and dedicated to Mozart’s pupil Josepha Aurnhammer; and the later Viennese sonatas K454 (1784), K481 (1785), K526 (1787) and K547 (1788).

In the accompanying publicity material, Cotik describes the lengths to which he and Lin had to go to reduce and eliminate the extraneous noises from the Fort Lauderdale church they had chosen as the recording venue. The resulting full-movement takes more than justify their efforts: the sound quality and balance are excellent, with the violin never too far forward but never overshadowed by the piano either. Both performers play with a resonant, clear and warm tone, and dynamics, phrasing and tempi are all perfectly judged.

Cotik readily admits to having always loved Mozart’s music, and calls his recordings of these sonatas a milestone in his musical life. It’s a sentiment that is clearly evident in every single track of this exemplary set.

04 Rachel Barton PineThis really has been a tremendous month for violin CDs. The American violinist Rachel Barton Pine marks her 36th recording and her fourth album for the Avie label with the Elgar and Bruch Violin Concertos, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton (AV2375 avie-records.com).

Pine calls the project an “indulgence in Romanticism,” being the first time that the shortest of the regular repertoire Romantic concertos – the Bruch Violin Concerto No.1 in G Minor Op.26 – has been recorded together with the longest – Elgar’s Violin Concerto in B Minor Op.61. Although they have little in common from a historical perspective, Pine has long thought of them together because each work reminds her of the warm, rich and soulful sound she looks for in the other.

The Bruch was the first Romantic concerto that Pine learned (at the age of eight!) and the Elgar was one of the last, its highly technical challenges, numerous tempo changes and sheer length making it particularly difficult to learn (James Ehnes expressed the same concerns prior to his recording with Andrew Davis in 2007). The original conductor for this project was Sir Neville Marriner, who conducted the Academy of St Martin in the Fields on Pine’s critically acclaimed Avie album of the complete Mozart violin concertos, but he passed away shortly after Pine visited London to play and discuss the Elgar with him. It was a sad loss, for Marriner’s teacher was Billy Reed who, as the young concertmaster of the London Symphony Orchestra, had helped Elgar with the solo violin part. What would Sir Neville have brought to his first recording of the work, one wonders.

Still, Litton does an excellent job with a concerto that can be difficult to hold together, his accompaniment having a quite different sound at times – not exactly lighter or smaller, but perhaps not as serious as some, with a great deal of sensitivity and attention to detail. There is certainly no tendency toward Elgarian pomp or Edwardian stuffiness that can sometimes make the concerto sound a bit laboured or meandering in less experienced hands.

Pine’s playing in the Elgar is thoughtful and unerringly accurate with no hint of mere virtuosity, although there is perhaps less of a feel of sweeping grandeur than in some other performances. Much the same can be said of the Bruch, where again the foremost impression is one of intelligence and sensitivity in the playing rather than unabashed Romantic passion. It supports Marriner’s observation of Pine’s playing in the Mozart set, when he said “...there is no utter embellishment, everything is there for a purpose, and musically speaking, it makes such good sense.”

Dedicated “to the memory of a musical hero and generous friend, Sir Neville Marriner,” the CD is an excellent addition to Pine’s impressive discography.

05 Dvorak coverThere’s playing of the utmost warmth and sensitivity on Antonín Dvořák: String Quintet Op.97 & String Sextet Op.48, featuring the Jerusalem Quartet with violist Veronika Hagen and, in the sextet, cellist Gary Hoffman (harmonia mundi 902320).

The Sextet in A Major was written in 1878 and was clearly modelled on the two string sextets of Brahms, who commented many years later on the “wonderful invention, freshness and beauty of sound” in the work. It was Brahms who had recommended Dvořák to his own publisher Simrock in 1877, and there is certainly more than a hint of the German Romantic tradition here as well as the inevitable Slavonic folk influence. The performance has effusiveness and passion, with a lovely Dumka movement and a terrific Finale.

There’s no less passionate and committed playing in the Quintet in E-flat Major, which simply abounds in lyrical warmth and beauty. It was written, along with the “American” string quartet, in the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa in the summer of 1893 during Dvořák’s stay in the United States.

These are simply ravishing performances, with Alexander Pavlovsky’s gorgeous first violin playing leading the way and setting a standard that the other performers have no problem matching.

06 Jupiter DuoThe Russian pianist, composer and teacher Alla Elana Cohen came to the United States in 1989 and is currently a professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Jupiter Duo is the title of a new CD of her music, as well as the name of the performing duo of cellist Sebastian Bäverstam and Cohen herself on piano (Ravello Records RR7978 ravellorecords.com).

Cohen discovered Bäverstam, now 29, when he was barely 12 years old, and the first work of hers that they performed then, the Book of Prayers Volume 1, Series 7, opens the CD. All subsequent Cohen cello works were written for Bäverstam, and there are three other cello and piano works here: Third Vigil, an arrangement (which Cohen prefers) of her Concerto for Cello and Orchestra; Querying the Silence Volume 1, Series 2; and Book of Prayers Volume 2, Series 4, which closes the CD.

Sephardic Romancero Series 2 is a challenging solo work ably handled by Bäverstam, although Cohen’s statement that “for anybody else it will be almost impossible to play this piece” says little for her awareness of contemporary world-class cellists. Cohen also contributes two works for solo piano: Three Film Noir Pieces and Spiral Staircases.

It’s tough music to get a handle on, with little melodic content, a lot of thick, dense texture in the predominantly discordant piano writing and a good deal of large, heavy chords spread across the entire keyboard range. From the cello perspective Bäverstam handles all the technical challenges with ease; his lower tone in particular is beautifully rich.

Of the final work on the CD, Cohen says that it is one of the rare-for-her compositions “in which lighter colours prevail. It is also the most ‘consonant’ by sonority, at times even quasi-tonal.” That should give you some idea of the music on the rest of the disc, which generally seems to be tough, abrasive and frequently decidedly dark.

01 Radiant ClassicsIn this debut release (recorded at Glenn Gould Studio), Radiant Classics (Really Records RR 2017002, really-records.com), Nina Soyfer demonstrates her innate ability to meet the stylistic demands of a remarkably varied program. This admirable skill rests on the foundation of an impressive keyboard technique and artistic insight. She performs the Bach Toccata in D Major BWV912 with freedom and sensitivity. The Fugue in particular dances beautifully under the lightness of her touch.

The disc opens with Beethoven’s 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C Minor WoO 80 and closes with his Appasionata Sonata. The Variations demand many changes in mood and the sonata depends greatly on the convincing delivery of the first movement’s heroic theme. Soyfer comes to these works with an unerring sense of who Beethoven is in all his emotional complexity, and creates an experience that is both authentic and profound.

The recording’s most interesting pieces are the two Preludes by Ukrainian composer Vasyl Barvinsky. Not many of his works survive. His late-Romantic, impressionistic style is highly crafted and somewhat reminiscent of Chopin. Soyfer brings considerable emotion and power to his music, leaving the clear impression that more of it needs to be heard.

Listen to 'Radiant Classics' Now in the Listening Room

02 Lindsay GarritsonLindsay Garritson is no stranger to competitions, touring and live performance. Her impressive list of achievements makes this first disc, Lindsay Garritson, piano (lindsaygarritson.com), a welcome recording. It shows the intensity of her style and the eloquent expression of which she is so remarkably capable.

She begins the disc with the Liszt Rhapsodie Espagnole S.254. It’s a full-on engagement with all the power and nuance that the composer’s work requires. The major item on the CD is the Schumann Sonata No.3 in F Minor Op.14. Its four movements demand a great deal of scope from the performer, from the often deep introspection of the second and third movements to the blazing technique of the Finale. Garritson’s technical and interpretive abilities are inspiring. She has clearly lived with this piece for a long time and justifiably owns it.

Rachmaninov’s setting of the Kreisler Liebesleid completes her program in a show of capricious keyboard genius. It’s the kind of playing that brings audiences to their feet after encores. You can do it in the privacy of your living room – your secret will be safe with us.

03 Bruce LevingstonThis beautiful CD Windows (Sono Luminus DSL 92218 sonoluminus.com) is the seventh in Bruce Levingston’s discography. The main work is Schumann’s Kinderszenen Op.15. Levingston proves himself an artist whose first impulse is to find and reveal a composer’s most fragile moments. His ability to do this is quite disarming. The best example of this is Träumerei. Not since Horowitz played this as the encore in his 1986 Moscow concert near the end of his life, have I heard such playing. Words completely fail. Levingston brings this approach to the whole piece and thereby creates something quite unlike anything recorded of late.

The other works on the CD are commissions from two contemporary composers. The Shadow of the Blackbird by David Bruce is the program’s opening piece and is very much in the character of the Schumann that follows it. It’s deceptively simple yet searching and contemplative. A perfect beginning to Levingston’s program.

The CD’s title tracks Windows are James Matheson’s five-movement composition inspired by the stained glass windows of Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse. Matheson uses the piano’s colours very effectively in his writing. Levingston plays this in a way that draws an interpretive thread convincingly through the works of all three composers.

04 Liza StepanovaLiza Stepanova takes an unusual and creative approach to her new CD Tones & Colors (Concert Artists Guild CAG 120 concertartists.org). Using paintings as the inspiration for her four-part program, she blends music from Bach to Ligeti into themes depicting A Spanish Room, Nature and Impressionism, Conversations Across Time, and Wagner, Infinity and an Encore.

It’s a skillfully assembled repertoire list and beautifully played throughout. A number of tracks stand out. El pelele by Granados makes a brilliant opening, with its rich harmonies and sparkling writing. Stepanova has equal success with the three impressionist pieces in the second set. Fanny Hensel’s September: At the River is especially effective.

The third set uses four pieces in the key of E-flat minor. A Bach Prelude and Fugue BWV853, George Crumb’s Adoration of the Magi and a second fugue by Lyonel Feininger based on the subject used by Bach in his fugue. It’s quite striking to hear how the shared key draws these disparate works so tightly together.

Stepanova begins her final set with Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser. It’s magnificent playing that captures the grand scale of Wagner’s work, from the solemn chorale-like opening to its towering climax. Ligeti’s Etude No.14 Infinite Column is a devilish piece to perform and reveals Stepanova’s true power at the keyboard. A graduate of Juilliard and a seasoned performer, Stepanova is one to follow in the piano world.

05 Robert PresterRobert Prester may be better known today as an accomplished jazz pianist, but his new CD Robert Prester – Rapsodya (robertprester.com) is a reminder of his many years as a young pianist absorbing the classical repertoire. The learning of this period has shaped his playing with a light and precise touch, a keen interpretive impulse focused clearly on emotion, and a remarkable grasp of musical architecture.

This new recording contains the Beethoven Sonata No.12 in A-flat Major Op.26 performed with a fresh and energized enthusiasm – as if it were a world premiere. Debussy’s Jardins Sous la Pluie is an impressive example of Prester’s keyboard agility. The Bach Prelude and Fugue No.6 in D Minor WTC Book II is an excellent example of the musical discipline and intuition that Prester brings to all his playing.

The real gem on this disc, however, is Prester’s own composition. The Sonata in F Minor is a fusion of classical and jazz harmonies. It adheres closely to the structure of sonata form but is deeply imbued with the harmonic clusters, intervals and rhythms we associate intimately with jazz. This mix is seamless and well balanced. If anything, it’s a reminder of our enduring tendency to keep these two genres isolated in their own worlds without believing their co-mingling can produce something unique and truly beautiful.

It’s a terrific recording. Visionary, successful and altogether brilliant.

06 Nancy Zipay DesalvoNancy Zipay DeSalvo presents the work of two contemporary composers in her new recording Small Stones – Modern Piano Music (Navona Records NV 6139 navonarecords.com).

Jason Tad Howard’s Piano Sonata No.2 is not really a sonata in the formal sense. Rather, it explores eight short musical ideas that the composer calls Short Shorts, before bringing them together in a final expression amusingly described as a Not Quite So Short Short Short. Despite the light humour, the work is quite substantial and at times very technically demanding. The eight pieces are varied in style and mood, and kept to less than two minutes’ playing time. They tend slightly toward a minimalist form and finally emerge in the complexity of the last movement.

Daniel Perttu’s Sonata for Piano is inspired by a visit to Stonehenge. Perttu uses many compositional devices to evoke the ancient mystery associated with this landmark: minor modes, atmospheric writing and plenty of technical exploitation of the piano’s potential in evoking the moods he requires. This sonata is more challenging for the performer than the earlier work. DeSalvo handles it all with a confidence that speaks to her lifetime as a performer and teacher.

The two sonatas are a good selection and represent a fine example of contrasting approaches to contemporary piano writing.

07 Lynell JamesLynelle James has recorded her first solo piano CD, Lynelle James Piano (Blue Griffin Recording BGR435 bluegriffin.com). She includes the Beethoven Piano Sonata No.28 in A Major Op.101, in which the third movement emerges as a masterpiece of deeply touching melancholy. It’s a very satisfying performance that is even more thrilling for the energy that erupts in the final movement. Her command of the keyboard is inspiring, especially in the frequent restatements of the fugal subject in the bass line.

Some of James’ academic work has focused on the life and music of Russian avant-garde composer Nikolay Roslavets. It’s natural that she would use her first recording to bring this lesser-known repertoire to public attention. Roslavets’ Five Preludes reveals an ethereal and somewhat mystical language that James captures with conviction and authenticity. The music is replete with dynamic and emotional changes and moves strongly in the direction of atonality while never quite losing a tonal centre, however distant.

Her performance of the Scriabin Sonata No.4 in F Sharp Major Op.30 is extraordinary. The two movements are of such contrasting character, it’s difficult to believe they’re by the same composer. James understands the core of Scriabin’s expression and holds the work together wonderfully.

The Schumann Symphonic Etudes Op.13 concludes the CD. Structured as a theme and variations, the bulk of the piece is a series of etudes on the opening idea. As such, it quickly becomes a beautiful display of keyboard technique and varied musical devices that Schumann conceived in his own brilliant way. James plays these with flair and an expansive grasp of their symphonic scale.

08 Panayiotis DemopolisPanayiotis Demopoulos’ latest recording Brahms, Demopoulos, Mussorgsky (Diversions ddv 24166 divineartrecords.com) is his third and includes one of his own compositions, Farewells for Piano. The work is a tribute to his two principal teachers in the UK. It’s structured in four parts, each representing a farewell offered in one of the four seasons. Demopoulos writes that the work has no explicit program beyond its title. The four short pieces are very modern in their language and surprisingly abrupt in mood change.

The main work on the CD is the Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition. Demopoulos uses the 1931 edition edited by Pavel Lamm that corrected the numerous and questionable portions of the 1886 version edited by Rimsky-Korsakov. The 16 short pieces that comprise the Pictures encompass the entire expressive spectrum and call upon the pianist to be everything from sprite to superhero. It is Mussorgsky’s demand for contrast on such an enormous scale that presents performers with the daunting task of playing the piece complete in live performance. At least the recording studio offers the respite of breaks between takes.

However Demopoulos did it, it’s breathtaking. By the time he’s portrayed little chicks, the busy market place, the realm of the dead and arrives at the Great Gate of Kiev, awe is all that remains.

01 Beethoven StraussBeethoven – Septet; Strauss – Till Eulenspiegel einmal anders!
OSM Chamber Players
Analekta AN 2 8788 (analekta.com)

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Septet, Op.20 (1799) was a pivotal work. Such learned musicians as the composer’s former teacher Joseph Haydn applauded its expert deployment of four stringed and three wind instruments: violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, bassoon and horn. Energy, wit and sunny moods gained it public popularity, and listeners will likely find this recording by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal Chamber Soloists attractive. Variety in sound brings the work its distinctiveness. While artistic director Andrew Wan’s agile violin and Todd Cope’s impeccable clarinet take the lead, other instruments also have solo turns, and wonderful instrumental groupings sustained this listener’s interest. In the Adagio, instrumentalists make the most of expressive opportunities; Neal Gripp’s viola solo is particularly attractive. All players bring fine articulation to the minuet, while in the trio Cope, Stéphane Lévesque, bassoon, and John Zirbel, horn add beautiful decorative arpeggios. Cellist Brian Manker and double bassist Ali Yasdanfar contribute greatly to overall balance and tight ensemble; the finale is a tour de force.

Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel (einmal anders!), abridged and arranged by Franz Hasenöhrl (1885-1970) for the above forces minus viola and cello, is a tour de force of a different kind. Premiered in 1954, it squeezes the familiar tone poem’s thematic material into less than nine minutes, including exciting virtuosity and humorous touches that in the Chamber Soloists’ capable hands remain within the bounds of taste!

02 French Flute musicNouvelle Vie – A Rediscovery of French Flute Music
Michelle Batty Stanley; Margaret McDonald
Navona Records NV5135 (navonarecords.com)

Nouvelle Vie, by flutist Michelle Batty Stanley and pianist Margaret McDonald introduces us to some lesser-known compositions and composers working during the years of the Belle Époque in Paris. It also includes three better-known works by Philippe Gaubert, who might be considered a child of the Belle Époque, since the year of his birth was 1879.

René de Boisdeffre’s Canzonetta, Op.39 No.8, provides the recording with a strong opening and is played with vivacity, precision and grace. Stanley’s articulation, something much more difficult on the flute than on most other instruments, is terrific, pretty well as good as Aurèle Nicolet – and her use of rubato at the ends of phrases and the subsequent a tempi are an inspiration!

Émile Bernard’s Romance, Op.33, which, with its long, languorously lyrical phrases, could only have been written by a French composer, was also new to me, as were Émile Pessard’s Troisième and Quatrième Pièces, every bit as interesting as his delightful and better known Andalouse.

Alphonse Catherine’s Barcarolle, with its nautical undulating 6/8 piano part (played exquisitely on this recording by McDonald), and his Sérénade Mélancolique, which begins evocatively, a bit like Taffanel’s Andante Pastoral et Scherzettino, are both charming and suggest that the golden age of the flute continued beyond the 1880s and 90s, since Catherine lived until 1927.

Victor-Alphonse Duvernoy’s Deux Morceaux and Joseph-Henri Altès’ Romanza, Op.33 No.1, also new to me, are also wonderful.

03 Saint SaensSaint-Saëns – Symphonic Poems
Lille National Orchestra; Jun Märkl
Naxos 8.573745 

There is a wonderful part in middle of the tone poem Phaéton: as the audacious but foolish young man dares to take Apollo’s chariot for a forbidden ride, with urgent, syncopated rhythms the horses swing into action, the chariot begins to rise upwards and suddenly vistas open up in heavenly radiance – all this depicted in glorious music. Phaéton gleefully revels in it, but his joy is short-lived. There is a brutal ending to his offending the god.

This and many more delights are in store for us, like Hercules’ punishment of having to spin wool dressed as a woman, in probably the finest of Saint-Saëns’ tone poems and a favourite of Sir Thomas Beecham, Le Rouet d’Omphale: here, a delightful rondo imitates the spinning of the spool, but in the midst of all this a powerful roaring melody emerges towards a shattering fortissimo climax. This is no joke anymore. This is Hercules!

Invented by Liszt and a product of Romanticism, the symphonic poem was happily brought to France by Saint-Saëns, who applied to it his considerable gifts of “melody and form” and “impeccable craftsmanship,” not to mention his vivid imagination and love of Greek mythology. All of this is coupled by Naxos’ choice of a lesser-known but excellent, dedicated orchestra and the young, imaginative and talented conductor Jun Märkl, breathing new life into these pieces.

With state-of-the-art spacious sound, the brilliant and colourful orchestral palette shines through and the disc has already become Presto’s Editor’s Choice for December 2017.

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