01 Beethoven Nezet SeguinBeethoven: The Symphonies
Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Deutsche Grammophon (deutschegrammophon.com/en/catalogue/products/beethoven-the-symphonies-nezet-seguin-12724)

The summer of 2021 was not an easy one so it isn’t hard to imagine the excitement the Chamber Orchestra of Europe must have felt when it came together to record a new version of the nine Beethoven Symphonies with none other than Yannick Nézet-Séguin, one of the most expressive and thoughtful conductors on the scene today, someone capable of truly joyous music-making. Add to this the backing of Deutsche Grammophon and you have the makings of a wonderful project: the first recording of the New Complete Edition of the Symphonies, painstakingly prepared for the Beethoven celebrations in 2020.

What is new in this edition? As a contrabassoonist myself, I’m delighted to say that the program notes make quite a lot of the fact that the most noticeable change is a much-expanded role for the contrabassoon in the Ninth Symphony. Designated contrabassoon parts in Beethoven’s hand exist for the finales of the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies but the liner notes point out that Beethoven created tailor-made versions of the Ninth for various specific performances and that the new contra part is an amalgam of six different contra parts from Beethoven’s day. I was curious to find out if these changes are audible: bad contrabassoon playing quickly makes itself obvious but a well-rendered contra part can make a performance seem rich or deep without the listener knowing exactly why. Such is the case in this set. I deliberately listened to the Ninth without any clue as to where the contra has been added, just to see if I could hear anything new and I’m happy to say that I did. Behind the baritone‘s first solo after the recitative, there is definitely more of a “spine” in the bassline, and at the Turkish March, one can hear that the contra has been moved up an octave as it used to appear in older editions. 

Are there other audible changes in this edition? In the second movement of the Ninth, the repeats have been sorted out (559 bars total vs. 954) and there is a diminuendo in the tympani part which I don’t recognize. As far as the rest of the set goes, there is an unusual ornament in the third movement of the Seventh Symphony but otherwise most listeners won’t notice anything strikingly unusual. There are many lovely turns of articulation but it’s hard to say whether this is because of changes to the edition or just good musicianship. Tempos are not always what Beethoven called for but they are always appropriate with the exception of a rather slow third movement in the Fifth. Interestingly, this tempo gives a great sense of relief when it returns in the last movement so perhaps that was YN-S’s intent. Another surprise comes at the start of the second movement of the Eroica where the grace notes in the basses seem to arrive after the downbeat: an interpretation that is, well, puzzling.

The playing of the orchestra is wonderful: tight ensemble in the strings, characterful woodwind solos, discreet brass and incisive tympani playing. My main concern is with the way the orchestra has been recorded. Producer Andrew Mellor seems to prefer a mix that locates the listener very close to the first violin section often making the firsts too present and the rest of the orchestra too vague. This is particularly true of the lower woodwinds and the horns, making many of the chorale passages sound unblended and rendering more than one duet as more of a solo with only a hint of the second line. And before you dismiss me as being partisan, I can assure you that many other recordings sound, to my ears, much more homogenous and portray the winds and strings as more equal teams. Ultimately, the buck stops with YN-S, but I’m more inclined to question the engineering.

If you can listen past the balance issues, or if it sounds just fine to you on your system, you will be rewarded with much grace and humour and some thrilling moments: the whole First Symphony is a delight and the first movement of the Seventh is pure joy. The funeral march of the Eroica seems to have a special depth to it, as you might expect, and the singing in the Ninth is first-rate, possibly because of details added in this edition. I particularly love the qualities of Florian Boesch’s baritone voice which give an almost tenor-ish spring to his solo and I have never heard a more nuanced and articulate version of the Ninth’s celli/bassi recitative.

02 Matei VargasThe Year That Never Was
Matei Varga
Sono Luminus DSL-93358 (sonoluminus.com)

An eclectic, highly personal recording from Romanian pianist Matei Varga is intended “to bring joy when we really need it… to take [the] mind away from current realities.” As such, Varga offers an attractively curated disc of miniature delights, from Gershwin to Chopin to Scarlatti. The contemporary content on this disc is sourced from the salon-styled pen of Cuban master, Ernesto Lecuona and Romanian composer, Andrei Tudor, whose Ronda alla Crazy is featured as a quirky micro-highlight. This three-minute swinging track encapsulates a veritable brand of crazy, born of pandemic freneticism. (It was even delivered to Matei by the composer via Facebook Messenger!) 

Ernesto Lecuona’s music was a new (pandemic) discovery for Varga, and one that centres the vision for the record. Varga is at home in this off-beat repertoire, imputing characteristic charm and improvisatorial ease to Lecuona’s 19th Century Cuban Dances. Here, interwoven with Chopin’s “salon” music, the pairing of both composers brings credibility to Lecuona. It is a clever juxtaposition, framing Chopin less seriously and Lecuona more so. Varga reminds us that much of Chopin’s art originated from smaller stages and gentil spaces, sporadically populated by aristocrats who desired to be amused, not feverously stirred.

Varga’s signature pianism is apt in arguing for seemingly disparate musical threads. More of a recital program than a thematically directed album, The Year That Never Was nonetheless achieves satisfaction, executed with much joy and a tasteful, rollicking fondness for this personalized set list.

03 Neave TrioMusical Remembrances
Neave Trio
Chandos CHAN 20167 (chandos.net/products/catalogue/CHAN%2020167)

Recorded in 2021 at Potton Hall, England and released on Chandos Records, their fourth for the label, Musical Remembrances by the Neave Trio (Anna Williams, violin; Mikhail Veselov, cello; and Eri Nakamura, piano) captures the trio in a reflective mood. The album is inspired by remembrance, both in terms of repertoire selection (Ravel’s Piano Trio in A Minor, Op.67 captures the French composer “remembering” his native Basque musical tradition) and in terms of remembering what a pre-pandemic world of touring and concertizing was like for musicians of the calibre and renown of the Neave Trio. And while speculative as this recording may be, it is anything but maudlin or melancholic – the dynamic chosen repertoire pops from the stereo speakers with the same clarity, purpose and confidence of delivery that earned their previous recording, Her Voice, a best recording of the year designation by both The New York Times and BBC Radio 3

Although the entire recording is excellent, it is the Brahms Piano Trio No.1 in B Major, Op.8 where the chamber group, to my ears, shines brightest, bringing out a range of musical emotions and drawing listener ears towards new musical ideas over four movements that always centre around excellence, but leave room for new discoveries. On the faculty now at the Longy School of Music of Bard College, let us hope that this terrific trio continues to find the time to mine the depths of the great chamber music repertoire of Western Art Music and make recordings such as this that both delight and surprise.

05 VirtuosaVirtuosa Project
Infusion Baroque
Leaf Music LM246 (leaf-music.ca)

The piquant new release by Virtuosa, a period ensemble form Quebec, is part of their notable Virtuosa Project, a series of concerts, lectures and web videos dedicated to women musicians prior to the 20th century. In itself, this is an impressive undertaking featuring 14 compositions, stylish interpretations and tons of heartfelt energy. Almost all of the female composers on this album remained in the shadows of their male counterparts but brought just as much knowledge, skill and talent to the European courts and concert stages. Many were courageous and imaginative performers and composers who led financially independent lives and acquired noble reputations. This album features an all-star list of powerful and talented women composers, some of whom remain relatively unknown to audiences today: Anna Bon, Anna Amalia of Prussia, Wilhelmine von Bayreuth, Maddalena Lombardini Sirmen, Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, Leopoldine Blahetka, Teresa Milanollo, Hélène Liebmann and the better-known Clara Schumann. 

Ensemble Virtuosa is daring in both their programming and performance. The beauty of structure and phrasing is emphasized through a fantastic array of colours; the ensemble and their guest artists perform with a great sensitivity to each of the individual compositional languages. The inclusion of the contemporary piece Versailles written for Baroque instruments by Canadian Linda Catlin Smith is perhaps a surprising inclusion, but it works well as it binds together meditative and enigmatic feminine qualities, resulting in uniquely beautiful textural layers. 

Intuitive and reflective, Infusion Baroque celebrates the vibrant creativity and lives of these women.

Listen to 'Virtuosa Project' Now in the Listening Room

06 LisztomaniaLisztomania Vol.2
Hando Nahkur
HN Productions (handonahkur.com)

Hando Nahkur is a remarkable American pianist of Estonian origin. Actually, he has been enthusiastically reviewed on these pages in 2018 – his Lisztomania Vol.1 – and with this Vol.2 I can only reiterate and add to those accolades.

Nahkur’s credentials are too numerous to mention. As soloist and accompanist he has enchanted audiences, won competitions and received international awards. Franz Liszt is his favourite composer, and listening to this recording he certainly does more than justice to the repertoire. In fact since Estonians and Hungarians (and the Finns) are related, coming from the same roots, he must have some Magyar blood in him as he has such tremendous affinity and love for the great Hungarian composer.

According to our pianist the key to understanding Liszt is “from darkness to light” and nowhere is this more apparent than in his iconic Hungarian Rhapsodies inspired by folk tunes he picked up during his many visits to his homeland. Actually Rhapsody as a musical genre was invented by Liszt and later used by many composers. Generally these start out slowly (Lassu’) in the lower registers and gradually work toward sunlight when the pace quickens and turns into some frenetic Hungarian dance like the Csárdás and becomes an extremely difficult virtuoso piece with a spectacular ending. Hando does two of these, No.10 and my favourite No.12, played with gusto, total Romantic abandon and astoundingly perfect technique. Typical Liszt, those grace notes, rapid decorative passages that are cascading up and down the keyboard, paced perfectly evenly and light as a feather. The Liebestraum No.3 is played with loving tenderness and ardent passion and the big guns come out at the end in the Spanish Rhapsody that will lift you out of your seat.

Listen to 'Lisztomania Vol.2' Now in the Listening Room

09 Gimeno StravinskyStravinsky – L’Oiseau de feu; Apollon Musagète
Luxemburg Philharmonic Orchestra; Gustavo Gimeno
Harmonia Mundi HMM905303 (store.harmoniamundi.com/release/318357)

In June of 2019, Gustavo Gimeno conducted the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in a powerful performance of Stravinsky’s 1945 suite from The Firebird. Last May, he led them in an even more memorable Firebird. This time, he took the podium as music director of the orchestra. And the version he chose was the less frequently programmed original that Stravinsky wrote in 1910 for Diaghilev’s legendary Ballets Russes. It’s more than twice the length of any of the three concert suites Stravinsky later made. But this performance left me with no doubt – more was better.

On his standout new recording of The Firebird with the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg (where he is also music director), Gimeno again opts for the original full-length ballet score. Every moment speaks persuasively. Stravinsky’s tapestry of evocative Russian folk melodies, angular textures and infectious rhythms becomes an edge-of-the-seat experience. Colourful solos, like the rhapsodic flute welcoming the 13 captive princesses, and the volcanic timpani driving the frenzied dance of the evil sorcerer Koschei’s subjects, enhance the drama.

The pairing with Stravinsky’s equally groundbreaking ballet Apollon Musagète, written 18 years later, works brilliantly. Like The Firebird, it draws on ancient tales. But these tales are from Greek mythology. In The Firebird, goodness must overcome evil to triumph. Here, goodness prevails unchallenged. Instead of conflict there’s serenity. Instead of mystery, there’s clarity. It’s all conjured up luminously by Gimeno and the exquisite strings of the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg in gorgeous, sweeping brushstrokes.

10 LSO NazarenoNazareno – Bernstein; Stravinsky; Golijov
Chris Richards; Katia and Marielle Labèque; London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Simon Rattle
LSO Live LSO 0836 (lso.co.uk)

Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO have released, concurrent with their Stravinsky: Early Ballets collection, a record offering a brief survey of the Afro-Latin influence on “serious” music of the last century. It includes two curiosities for clarinet: Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (1949) by Leonard Bernstein, and Ebony Concerto (1945) by Stravinsky. Both were commissioned by Woody Herman, and each lasts under ten minutes. They remain somewhat overlooked, perhaps on account of their offhand treatment of the solo instrument, or the fact that they both feature big band, not full orchestra. The two works are given a lively ride by LSO lead clarinetist Chris Richards and the decidedly non-orchestral backup, mainly of brass and saxes. 

Most of the disc is taken up by Nazareno (2009) a beautifully rendered adaptation (by Venezuelan composer Gonzalo Grau) of Osvaldo Golijov’s scintillating La Pasión según San Marcos (2000); this new rendering omits the vocals of the original cantata. Commissioned by Katia and Mireille Labèque, it’s scored for two pianos, Latin percussion section, plus winds and cello. Without text, I still hear how the music conveys the story of the Christian sacrifice. Powerful rhythmic dances abound, but behind the upbeat samba movements lies a much more sombre tone, especially in the slow ballad Sur. I won’t be surprised if a choreographer selects this score for a new dance work. It might serve as an answer to Stravinsky’s pagan vision of the sacrifice, made roughly a century ago.

The LSO, or the sections performing on this disc, give the selections punch and vigour. The soloists and percussionists are stars.

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