09 Sibelius 24Sibelius – Symphonies 2 & 4
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Owain Arwel Hughes
Rubicon Classics RCD1072 (rubiconclassics.com/release)

This new issue features a remarkable conductor most of us probably have never heard of – Owain Arwel Hughes. Coming from Wales, he has conducted many of the finest orchestras of the world and is now principal associate conductor of the Royal Philharmonic, accumulating an impressive discography mainly of British, Scandinavian and Russian composers. His current project is to record all seven Sibelius symphonies with the Royal Philharmonic and this is the second issue of that set.

The Second, the most famous of the seven, was an overnight success at its premiere in 1902. It catapulted Sibelius into fame as one of the best composers of the 20th century, a patriot and the pride of his native Finland. It is a glorious work in the sunny key of D major. Although there are dark moments, the finale, with two themes alternating in a long, gradual crescendo in 3/4 time ascending towards a climax when, after a long-held minor motif suddenly turns into major in fortissimo, is absolutely magnificent.

Symphony No.4 in A Minor is completely different. It’s a deeply personal statement and the conductor must feel, indeed inhabit, its emotional climate. In the words of Sibelius, it is completely devoid of the “compositional tricks or circuses” composers use to thrill audiences. Right at the outset a deep, sad cello theme slowly develops until stopped by forceful chords on the brass and then a forlorn, echoed horn call as we are enter a misty, dark, barren, somewhat frightening territory. There is some happiness, like a lovely scherzo second movement, but the sky quickly darkens, diminishing it into oblivion.    

The overall effect is puzzling, but with repeated hearings its many hidden beauties come out and, according to some critics, it is the most beautiful of Sibelius’ symphonies.

10 Bruckner 7Bruckner 7
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln; François-Xavier Roth
Myrios MYR030 (myriosmusic.com) 

There is a cataclysmic moment in the second movement of Bruckner’s Seventh: There are two climaxes following one another, but the second one comes fortissimo with an Earth-shattering cymbal crash, as if the heavens would open up. The whole concert hall was filled with glorious sound. I remember the great Skrowaczewski doing it beautifully many years ago at Massey Hall with its fabulous acoustics. This is how my conversion to Bruckner started.

The Seventh still remains one of my favourite symphonies. This new recording is conducted by a new firebrand, François Xavier Roth who is making big waves in Europe today. He is a scholarly conductor with a no-nonsense, analytical approach, meticulous attention to detail and a natural gift to enter the composer’s mind to follow the compositional process and to choose the right tempo.

Out of a near silent tremolo the symphony begins with a wondrous melody in the strings picked up by the woodwinds, an overarching theme that seems to dominate the first movement. It goes through many variations, but the solo flute crops up often chirping like the little forest bird leading Siegfried to awaken the sleeping Brunnhilde. (Wagner was much admired by Bruckner!)

After a crucial Adagio second movement comes an exciting Scherzo, with a simple theme and an underlying rigorous ostinato having a rhythmic urge that has always reminded me of cavalry galloping through a wide open plain. The Finale sums it all up with a resounding peroration of the majestic brass. This recording has huge dynamic contrasts that will test your stereo equipment.

11 Lola DescoursBassoon Steppes
Lola Descours; Paloma Kouider
Orchid Classics ORC100190 (orchidclassics.com) 

Two questions come up when considering this recording. First: why would I listen to an album of all-Russian chamber music at this time in history and, second, why would I listen to it played on a bassoon? The answer to both is the same: this is a spectacular recording in every way; moving, virtuosic, unpredictable and life-affirming. 

Russian bassoonist Lola Descours and French pianist Paloma Kouider present a gorgeous program ranging from short pieces by Scriabin and Rimsky-Korsakov to longer works by Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff. All the works on the album are transcriptions or arrangements, some by the performers themselves, with the exception of a new work, AirI Walk Unseen, written for Descours by the Russian-born Lera Auerbach. This work is lovely, tragic and compelling. It has some pitch bending and colour trills, both used extremely effectively. But all the music on this album is so brilliantly played that you won’t believe it wasn’t written for the bassoon. 

This is a testament to Descours’ virtuosity: she’s a product of the best European training available and she’s the first bassoonist ever to win the Tchaikovsky Competition. Her sound is effortlessly fluid and expressive in all registers, her vibrato and phrasing always tasteful and heartfelt. And Kouider’s playing moves from crystalline thrills in the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata to exquisite delicacy in Glinka and Rimsky-Korsakov. The world is a troubled place right now; do something nice for yourself and listen to this album. It will make your day.

12 Laporte PierneGabriel Pierné – Feuillet d’album
Antoine Laporte
Independent (antoinelaporte.ca/home-1?lang=en) 

The music of Gabriel Pierné is not all that well known today compared with that of his more famous contemporaries Claude Debussy and Paul Dukas. Born in Metz in 1863, he studied at the Paris Conservatoire, winning the Prix de Rome in 1882 and ultimately enjoying a successful career as a conductor, organist and composer. Included amongst his large output is a significant number of piano compositions presented here on this two-disc recording by Quebec pianist Antoine Laporte, a prize winner at the Bradshaw & Buono International Piano Competition in New York and the Jinji Lake International Piano Competition in Suzhou, China. 

The Quinze pièces pour le piano Op.3 from 1885 is a delightful set of character pieces, each one evoking a particular mood from the light-hearted Coquetterie to the rousing Tarantelle finale. Laporte’s approach is refined and elegant, displaying fine tonal colours while aptly demonstrating Pierné’s eclecticism. The Premier Nocturne Op.31 is a languid and lyrical essay while the Étude Op.13 concluding the first disc is a true tour de force that Laporte handles with great panache.      

Disc two takes the listener into other facets of Pierné’s compositional style – the Trois Pièces Op.40, the Variations Op.42 and the posthumous set of Six Pieces which are tributes to other composers. Most striking is the degree of technical prowess demanded of the performer, found in the virtuosic first and third movements of Op.40 and the finale of the Variations. Throughout, Laporte delivers a brilliant performance of this often daunting repertoire.

French-only and English-only booklets and notes are available. This is a fine recording of music deserving greater recognition.

Listen to 'Gabriel Pierné – Feuillet d’album' Now in the Listening Room

13 Things In PairsThings in Pairs
Audrey Wright; Yundu Wang
Navona Records NV6392 (navonarecords.com) 

Things in Pairs is an album that captures a listener’s heart from the very first note. Not only is it following a clever concept of pairing music from across five centuries in a way that is both exciting and meaningful, but it also features performances by violinist Audrey Wright and pianist Yundy Wang that are beaming with passion and artistry.  

It is easy to hear the musical narrative here and appreciate the connection between the compositions. Coupling Biber’s Passacaglia for Solo Violin with Balancing on the Edge of Shadows by contemporary composer Rain Worthington is simply splendid. Biber and Worthington, separated by centuries of musical legacy, treat the violin as the most precious voice and there is a deep sonority running throughout, a shared melancholy that underlies the subtle tension underneath the beautiful melodies. Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ Sonata for Two Violins in B-flat Major and Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, on the other hand, offer a juxtaposition of lightness and darkness in a way that emphasizes the heart of each composition. Wright, who plays both violin parts in the sonata, is equally good in brilliant passages and lightheartedness of Bologne’s music as she is in conveying the power of Fratres. Capturing the fleeting line between a moment and eternity, and opposing forces within oneself, the violin/piano version of Fratres is further enhanced by the beautiful acoustics on this recording. Beethoven’s Sonata No.10 in G Major ties all the pieces together in an elegant sway of music ideas.

14 Light in a Time of DarknessLight in a Time of Darkness
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta
Beau Fleuve Records 605996-998579 (bpo.org)

When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in early 2020, arts organizations throughout the world demonstrated their extraordinary determination and resilience as they found ways to continue practising their craft and bringing music to their audiences, even if in a different format than before. Light in a Time of Darkness features works recorded live in Buffalo in 2020 and 2021 as part of the BPO OnDemand series, streamed to audiences during the height of the pandemic.

This disc is a journey through countries, eras and styles, as its contents encompass everything from Bach to the premiere of a new work by composer Ulysses Kay. There is a risk, in this time of hyper-specialization, that such a broad approach might result in everything sounding too similar, with not enough period-appropriate precision to pacify everyone. For those who prefer the lean, agile, period-instrument approach, for example, the Bach and Haydn selections will likely come across as rather big and bulky, lacking the finesse afforded by earlier instruments.

Where Light In A Time Of Darkness is most convincing is in the lush, broad textures afforded by Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and the Kay Pietà, a work of richness and depth that features some beautiful moments for the strings and a striking solo for English horn.

A testament to the resiliency and innovativeness found in so many organizations over the past two years, Light in a Time of Darkness is an eclectic and worthwhile release demonstrating the excellence of the Buffalo Philharmonic and conductor JoAnn Falletta.

16 Poulenc Complete Chamber MusicPoulenc – Complete Chamber Music
Various Artists
Naxos 8.505258 (naxosdirect.com/search/8505258)

Having recently received a treasure, in the form of digital sound files, I am compelled to offer the following advice: buy this collection. An epochal recording, The Complete Chamber Works of Francis Poulenc is performed by a cadre of young and insanely able French musicians; nowhere else will you ever need to turn for inspiration or solace, nor for useful historic information about Poulenc, his thoughts and the context of the pieces.  

The performances, grouped onto the discs in no immediately discernible order, remind us of how often Poulenc would reuse similar tropes, thrown into relief against such remarkable harmonic language. The three solo woodwind sonatas sound strangely similar, as sibling pieces perhaps, yet still strike their individual poses and stand distinct. 

Disc one opens with an old friend, the Sextuor for Piano and Woodwind Quintet. Nothing wrong with leading from strength, and this is such a strong performance by all. Absolutely fearless in their tempo choices, as technically clean as French wind players are known to be, these six bring the notes leaping off the page. Poulenc, in his secular heaven, must be pleased to know he still speaks to and through young guns like these. The eloquence of phrasing in this one piece alone is reason enough to acquire the collection. But wait! There’s more.

Of course there’s more! Included are the early works, when Poulenc was 19 or 20 years old, at the end of WWI. Having tried to tackle two of these (Duo for Two Clarinets, and Duo for Clarinet and Bassoon) when I was a similar age, I now forgive the youngster his early austerity. You hear evidence of his admiration for Stravinsky more than his love of the music hall. He seemed to celebrate jagged lines and impossibly long phrases. But at least he published these! He discarded two earlier versions of his violin sonata before allowing the one played here by Graf Mourja.

It’s pointless to select a favourite piece or performer; there is beyond enough to please every ear. The flute playing of Philippe Bernold is bright and crisp, and I forgive his tendency to reach just above the piano pitch. He also performs on recorder in the charming Villanelle. Hervé Joulain makes short work of the devilishly tough French horn writing in the Sextuor. All of the wind playing is exceptionally good. 

The project owes much to consistently excellent piano playing by Alexandre Tharaud, who performs on no fewer than 15 of the selections, if my count is correct. That’s just beyond imagining. In fact there are only six pieces scattered across the five discs that do not feature Tharaud. These are the song cycles and theatre pieces that use voice accompanied by small instrumental ensembles. Among these is the charming Story of Babar, offered in both the original French and the translated English text. Both narrators are children, (12-year-old François Mouzaya, and 13-year-old Natasha Emerson), who seem equally professional.

For choral fans, there is disc four. Poulenc’s poetry settings themselves are every bit as divergent as the switches in mood I find so beguiling. La Balle Masqué, Cantate Profane sur les poèmes de Max Jacob, makes merry Dadaist hay. Baritone Franck Leguérinel clearly propels the absurdist texts with a powerful controlled voice. He shares the disc with tenor Jean Delescluse. 

Oh, one needn’t carp, but the recording values are uneven. One wonders with the size of the project how many different venues were used, and how many different engineers and producers worked on it.

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