02 Back Before BachBack Before Bach
Piffaro The Renaissance Band
Navona Records NV6106 (navonarecords.com)

Just one look at the photographs of Piffaro’s musicians – and from the sleeve notes the range of instruments played – will confirm this ensemble’s sheer diversity of expertise. Listen to the 38(!) tracks and you will appreciate the exuberance of their playing.

From the outset the shawms and sackbuts take us back to the Renaissance – we are listening to compositions by Michael Praetorius, Heinrich Isaac and many others. What is surprising is the Chorale (with sackbuts and dulcian) by none other than J.S. Bach. Mind you, Bach’s father, godfather and father-in-law were all city trumpeters.

Then two highly popular Renaissance tunes. Joan Kimball is solo bagpipes player in Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen: her intense interpretation is balanced out by Priscilla Herreid’s perky recorder playing and, indeed, by some spirited crumhorn playing in the other variations.

The second variations are of Tandernaken op den Rijn; no bagpipes or crumhorns but the mellow and ethereal tones of the recorder. In particular, enjoy Antone Brumel’s two-part scoring and the deft playing once again of Herreid and Kimball. This set is perhaps the most involved – yet enjoyable – on this CD. Play the set to anyone who still believes recorders are for schoolkids!

And so to A solis ortus, variations commencing with one by Coelius Sedulius for two recorders which would grace any modern church (Sedulius died in 450 – early music composition with a vengeance…). Recorders again hold sway courtesy of, inter alia, a Praetorius Chorale played on eight(!) recorders, and another Chorale by J.S. Bach.

German dances, as may be expected from the late Renaissance, feature heavily. In one suite shawms and sackbuts can be heard separately and in harmony, the former in the Scheidt Allemande with deep rich tone, the latter in the Praetorius Passameze. La Volta lives up to its name, Praetorius placing his stamp on this breathtaking popular dance.

The CD is rounded off with another suite of German dances, dominated by Praetorius. Joan Kimball arranges Ballet des Aveugles for bagpipes and shawm, a skirling effort with many variations, followed by the relatively delicate Padouana by Johann Schein played on sackbuts. This dignified piece well deserves its popularity among early music enthusiasts. And this CD is well worthy of an audience wider than just the latter.

03 Bach MarimbaBach – Solo works for marimba
Linn Records CKD 585 (linnrecords.com)

Playing any classical music on the marimba would have been unthinkable before 1892. After all it was only then that the instrument was equipped with additional notes to include the chromatic scale by adding another row of sound bars, akin to black keys on the piano. However, playing Bach on the marimba – if not unthinkable – would still be enormously thought-provoking, but not challenging enough, it seems, for Kuniko, a profoundly brilliant virtuoso at home on both keyboard and percussion instruments. Still, even the fact that she has performed and recorded the music of Iannis Xenakis and Steve Reich could not have been sufficient for approaching these masterworks on Bach: Solo Works for Marimba.

Approaching the Prelude No.1 in C Major from the Well-Tempered Clavier, a work unequalled in the profligacy of its inventiveness, sets the tone for this exquisitely sculpted music by Kuniko. The result is a fascinating opening, with its sprightly dance-like passages and concise melody creating myriad resonances and perspectives for the cycles of Cello Suites and Violin Sonatas that follow. Here the mallets lead the ear, cherishing motivic snippets, highlighting arresting harmonic progressions with crystalline articulation. Kuniko’s enormous insight into Bach and her own limitless inventiveness make for muscular, exhilaratingly voiced and contrapuntally lucid performances of the solo works for cello and violin, in which harmony and counterpoint are implied through frequent spreading of component notes. A bedazzling set of discs, singing with innate beauty.

04 Bruckner 9Bruckner 9
Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Riccardo Muti
CSO-Resound CSOR 901 1701 (cso.org)

There is no lack of fine recordings of Bruckner’s Symphony No.9, a work left incomplete at the time of his death in 1896. Among American orchestras, the Chicago Symphony has long been renowned for its performances of Bruckner’s music, and it was the CSO who actually gave the North American premiere in 1904. So this latest recording featuring the CSO conducted by Riccardo Muti seems particularly fitting.

This is not Muti’s first foray into Bruckner – he has also recorded Symphonies Four and Seven – but from the forbidding opening measures of Symphony No.9, the orchestra displays a deep engagement with this monumental score. The first movement – 26 minutes in length – is majestic and dignified, with CSO’s outstanding sound displaying rich tonal colours and a full dynamic range. We could only have hoped for a little more prominence of the renowned CSO brass section, which at times seems too muted.

The strident Scherzo has a rightful mood of defiance, Muti approaching it with a suitable amount of intensity.

The third and final Adagio is all serenity, with Muti and the CSO invoking a true sense of nobility. Even without the final movement, Muti instills a satisfying sense of conclusion that doesn’t leave the listener wanting for more.

This is an exemplary recording, one that can rightfully take its place alongside more established performances. An Italian-born conductor leading an American orchestra in music from the late Romantic period – proof indeed that fine music-making does indeed transcend international boundaries – highly recommended.

05 Mahler 5Mahler 5
Minnesota Orchestra; Osmo Vänskä
BIS BIS-2226 SACD (mnorch.org)

The conductor Osmo Vänskä has an enviable reputation as an orchestra builder, having previously transformed the provincial Finnish orchestra of Lahti into a major player with his survey of the complete works of Sibelius in an acclaimed series of recordings on the BIS label. In 2003, Vänskä became the music director of the Minnesota Orchestra and turned his attention to well-regarded box sets of the complete Beethoven and Sibelius symphonies, also on BIS. The present recording is the first in a projected series of the complete Mahler symphonies, with Symphonies Six and Two due to arrive shortly.

I must admit I was initially a bit dubious about the project; a Mahler cycle is a pro forma bid for the big leagues and a potentially ruinous gamble from entities whose Mahler tradition is often negligible. I need not have worried. As Mahler was fond of saying, “Tradition is laziness.” This is a fresh-faced, supremely confident performance that cleans away many a cobweb from the customary overheated interpretations of this popular work. Vänskä lets the music flow naturally without resorting to dramatic excess at structural transitions, and his orchestra responds with admirable assurance and precision to his subtle tempo modifications. The refinement of the string section in particular is exemplary, allowing the delicate arc of the Adagietto movement to be stretched to a near-record duration of 13 minutes. Special praise is due to the experienced team from BIS for producing an exemplary, richly detailed studio recording in an age in which cheaply sutured “live” performances predominate.

06 Strasuss OboeRichard Strauss – Oboe Concerto; Wind Serenade; Wind Sonatina No.2
Alexei Ogrintchouk; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Andris Nelsons
BIS BIX-2163 SACD bis.se

Alexi Ogrintchouk, principal oboist of the venerable Concertgebouw Orchestra since 2005, headlines this new recording of two late works by Richard Strauss. Chief among them is the Oboe Concerto of 1945, which the composer was encouraged to write by the occupying American soldier and, by chance, professional oboist John de Lancie. Strauss, then in his 80s, was cool to the idea at first, but he liked to keep busy even as his cozy world collapsed about him. The resulting 25-minute, single-movement Concerto, while not technically difficult, is exceedingly prolix and taxes the endurance of the soloist to the utmost. Ogrintchouk, blessed with a tone both sweet and secure, is more than up to the task and receives outstandingly sensitive support from the orchestra and conductor Andris Nelsons in this recording nicely cobbled together from three live performances.

The disc also includes a performance of the composer’s skilful Serenade in E-flat Major, composed at the age of 18. While it is a minor work, its inclusion here does presage in a curious way the retrogressive, four-square melodic profile of his late style. Personally I was drawn to this recording by the presence of the Wind Sonatina of 1944-45. Subtitled “The Happy Workshop,” it is a companion work to the even stranger Sonatina of 1943, “From an Invalid’s Workshop.” Both are scored for an ensemble of 16 wind instruments, including rare assignments for the clarinet in C and basset horn. The moniker of “Sonatina” is truly droll, as the Second Sonatina is a symphonically conceived, multi-movement 40-minute work. Here the senescent Strauss revels in his expertise in the slippery art of sidestepping chromaticism. The performance, presumably captured under studio conditions, is simply glorious and is captured in pristine sound across a wide and detailed sonic spectrum. Ho boy is it good!

07 Schmidt StraussSchmidt – Symphony No.2; Strauss – Breathing by the Fireside
Wiener Philharmoniker; Semyon Bychkov
Sony Classical 88985355522

After Mahler and Strauss, my favourite late Romantic among German and Austrian composers is Franz Schmidt (1874-1939). Virtuoso pianist, Vienna Court Opera Orchestra cellist, and distinguished teacher of several subjects at the Vienna Conservatory, Schmidt composed in every major genre. Of his four symphonies the Second (1913) is charming, grand and dark in turn. The Vienna Philharmonic under the masterful Semyon Bychkov shines in this Sony release, especially the strings from the first movement’s opening “bubbly stream” onwards. The brass section predominates later with horns that amaze; contrapuntal ingenuities and vivid contrasts of tone colour abound in woodwinds from the piccolo on down. Bychkov, the orchestra and the recording team achieve admirable pacing and balance, for example where everything gears down darkly till only soft tam-tam strokes are heard before the opening passage’s return.

I believe there are subtle allusions to composers with Vienna associations. In the second movement, an ingenious theme and variations, the first chord references that of Brahms’ Haydn Variations in key, chord, and melody; the finale fugato begins with the E-flat major two-note horn call of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony (Bruckner was Schmidt’s counterpoint teacher). Though ingrained in Viennese musical life, Schmidt became his own joyous and tragic compositional personality, and comments like “sounds like Richard Strauss” are tiresomely shallow. In any case the disc includes the interlude known as Dreaming by the Fireside from Strauss’s opera Intermezzo (1924), allowing comparison.

08 Ives Three PlacesIves – Three Places in New England; Orchestral Set No.2; New England Holidays
Seattle Symphony; Ludovic Morlot
Seattle Symphony SSM1015 (seattlesymphony.org)

This Naxos recording is the third in a series paying homage to the music of Charles Ives, recorded live by the Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot. The disc opens with the St. Gaudens in Boston Common from Three Places in New England. Here, the ensemble invokes a moving and wistful mood as befits music honouring fallen Black soldiers in the Civil War. The raucous Putnam’s Camp is a true Fourth of July celebration while the mysterious Housatonic at Stockbridge is a personal and sensitive musical depiction of the mystical river flowing through New England.

More patriotism follows in the Orchestral Set No.2 and New England Holidays, where the orchestra’s exemplary winds and brass are heard to great advantage, particularly in the middle movement of the set, The Rockstrewn Hills Join in the People’s Outdoor Meeting. New England Holidays is a study in contrasts, from the icy New England landscape of Washington’s Birthday in February, to the reverential Thanksgiving where the orchestra is joined by the Seattle Symphony Chorale.

In all, this CD is a wonderful representation of Ives’ music, the well-selected program further enhanced by the SSO’s polished performance. As to whether or not a French-born conductor has an affinity towards American music, the answer is most decidedly “Oui!” Morlot may hail from Lyon, but this performance has “America” written all over it – highly recommended.

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