02 NutcrackerTchaikovsky – The Nutcracker; Symphony No.4
Mariinsky Orchestra; Valery Gergiev
Mariinsky MAR0593

There are those who think The Nutcracker is a children’s ballet. There are others whose only experience of the ballet is the constant and dreadful repetition of its greatest hits in shopping malls at this dark time of year. To both groups: listen to the Mariinsky Orchestra under Valery Gergiev perform the entire score, paying particular attention to the Waltz of the Flowers and the Intrada to the Pas de Deux immediately following. The rating “adult entertainment” could well be applied to these passionate expressions.

Gergiev is known for eccentric technique but also for wringing amazing performances from the players he leads. Mariinsky is his house band, so they have lots of practice following his tiny obscure gestures. They can turn on a dime out of an outrageous Presto, they phrase as a choral unit, the strings are encouraged to emote, and on this recording at least one hears observance of the composer’s more subtle dynamic indications. Although arguably chestnuts, they’re delicious, and so much fresher than the overcooked versions we are often fed while choosing gifts.

The remainder of disc two is Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. The symphony predates the ballet by a good 14 years, from the period before and immediately following his failed marriage. Pit bands love to perform concert music, an assertion audibly demonstrated here. Delicacy and ferocity alternate, melancholy gives way to joy and returns. The relationship between conductor and players is so solid, lending brilliant assurance to the performance that wildly (romantically) swings through the gamut of expression and tempi. They perform, understandably, as artists who love and treasure their heritage. The Canzonetta is breathtaking in its lyricism, and then one can almost imagine a choreography for the Scherzo movement involving two opposing teams of folk dancers, the strings versus the winds.

03 Strauss PittsburgStrauss – Elektra; Der Rosenkavalier (Suites)
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Manfred Honeck
Reference Recordings FR 722 SACD (referencerecordings.com)

Some of us may remember back in the 50s something called “Opera without Words” (Stokowski was good at these) specially created for folks who couldn’t stomach all the singing but were more comfortable with the orchestra. Until now Elektra had escaped such treatment even though Strauss is one of the most symphonic of all opera composers and well suited for orchestral excerpts and suites (e.g. Dance of the Seven Veils etc.). But in Elektra the voices and the action are so closely intermeshed that the total devastating impact has to come from seeing or at least listening to the complete score.

Nevertheless Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck, newly appointed music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, did decide to extract most of the orchestral score into a 35-minute suite. Certainly done with love and expertise and a thorough empathy with the opera, the particularly gruesome story with its moments of dark forebodings, evil lurking in the shadows, bloody murders, piercing shrieks and animals tortured is well brought out, as well as moments of filial and brotherly love, ecstasy and exuberance. Unfortunately, to fully appreciate program music like this, an audience not familiar with the opera will have to read the printed notes and that can be pretty annoying at a concert.

Der Rosenkavalier however is an entirely different story and the Suite created by Arthur Rodzinski is a wonderfully enjoyable concert piece. We are still blessed with the memory of Karajan and even more Carlos Kleiber’s sublime performances, a hard act to follow, but Honeck’s main strength is the beautiful, spacious orchestral sound and sumptuous hidden details he brings out with somewhat slower tempi.

04 RachmaninovRachmaninov – Symphony No.1; Balakirev – Tamara
London Symphony Orchestra; Valery Gergiev
LSO Live LSO0784

Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.1 certainly didn’t have the smoothest entry into the world. At its premiere in March of 1897, the (possibly) inebriated conductor, Alexander Glazunov, had already expressed his doubts about it and gave a less-than-stellar performance. As a result, the scathing reviews were enough to shatter Rachmaninov’s confidence as a composer for four years. Since that time, the piece has come to be better regarded and is presented here as the last in a cycle of the complete symphonies featuring the London Symphony and Valery Gergiev.

From the menacing chords that open the first movement, it’s clear that Gergiev and the LSO have full command of this challenging score – and challenging it is. Rachmaninov rarely ever again demonstrated such raw emotion in his orchestral writing and the sometimes strident tone can be a bit of a challenge. Nevertheless, the LSO delivers a suave and polished performance despite brisker tempos than we might be accustomed to. The warmly romantic strings meld perfectly with the stirring brass, particularly in the second and fourth movements and the bombastic finale is approached with much panache without ever resorting to empty virtuosity.

An added bonus is Balakirev’s Tamara, a work the composer considered his finest. Based on a sultry love-poem by Mikhail Lermontov, the score is an exercise in oriental exoticism so favoured by Russian composers of the period. Gergiev and the LSO offer up a convincing performance of this sensuous music, from the mysterious beginning to the tumultuous finale before quietly fading away. Are there shades of Scheherazade here? Quite possibly. Under Gergiev’s skilful baton, the result is a wonderful blending of cultures, rounding out this outstanding three-disc cycle. Highly recommended.

05 FirebirdStravinsky – The Firebird; Nikolaev – The Sinewaveland
Seattle Symphony; Ludovic Morlot
Seattle Symphony SSM1014

The Firebird brought the world’s attention to Igor Stravinsky, who at the time of the premiere of the ballet was an unknown composer not yet 30 years old. His first collaboration with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the score is broadly romantic, full of tricks practised by Ravel and Debussy. The ballet itself is rarely performed, perhaps owing too much to novelty and exoticism (pre-war Paris was all agog over things Russian), but the score remains an orchestral staple. Musically less challenging to audiences than its next of kin The Rite of Spring, the score is full of delicious moments for the ear and no more dissonant that Rachmaninoff.

This new release from the Seattle Symphony under music director Ludovic Morlot is delightful, if conservative. Moment follows descriptive moment of a fine rendering. The musicians exhibit polish in portraying the supernatural tale, but there may be a flaw inherent in the product itself: Stravinsky bridled at the job of creating too literal a musical narrative for the folk-inspired story. Perhaps his lack of investment cursed the music. Although perhaps perfect, this performance isn’t thrilling. I still believe there are possible interpretations where the terrors of Kastchei’s infernal garden are made relevant: not just polished but gripping.

Rounding out the disc is an homage to Seattle’s own Jimi Hendrix from Vladimir Nikolaev, another young composer a century later reworking the folk music of his own ethos into music that may well have staying power. Sinewaveland is the more powerful and effective performance.

06 In Search of Great ComposersIn Search of Great Composers
Four films by Phil Grabsky
Seventh Art Productions SEV194

There is so much brilliant music brilliantly performed, historical and musical commentary, excitement and beautiful visuals in this documentary collection of five DVDs about Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Chopin that even the most bored individual with a disdain for music history will find something worth the view!

Each composer receives a respected, informative and surprisingly original recollection of their personal and professional lives. In Search of Mozart (2006) chronologically follows every road the composer travelled throughout his life with his music being centre stage. This 25,000 mile journey (that’s over 40,000 km for us Canadians) is followed by foot – such as in the modern day Salzburg sidewalks packed with cell phone-toting pedestrians – and behind the wipers of a rainy-day windshield. These visuals almost become travelogues were it not for the intersecting clips of commentary. Of course the music performed by soloists, singers and orchestras is world class with the noteworthy clip of trumpet soloist Falk Zimmermann performing from Leopold Mozart’sTrumpet Concerto in D setting the stage for more great music. Initially the jump cuts between landscape, commentary and performances created some confusion, but over the course of the film this technique increased viewing interest.
Next in the series is the two-DVD set In Search of Beethoven (2009). Beethoven aficionados may not learn anything new, but Grabsky’s approach through letters, historical facts, personal Beethoven issues, star-performer commentaries and especially the footage of their performances is superb. A highlight here is Emanuel Ax performing in clips from the Waldstein and Appassionata piano sonatas. The second Beethoven DVD features complete performances, scenes and an interview with the director.
In Search of Haydn (2012) is especially fulfilling, as the composer may not be as famous as Mozart and Beethoven, though respected by both. Grabsky’s film shows us a composer who also wrote substantial, worthy music. In this chronological documentary the focus is on the music with the great illuminating performances that should tweak one’s interest to explore more of Haydn’s output. Of note are Ronald Brautigam’s takes on Keyboard Sonata No.1 and Keyboard Sonata No.9, and Marc-André Hamelin’s performance clip from the Keyboard Sonata No.34.

Finally, In Search of Chopin (2014) takes the same approach. The documentary formula is used, but the presentation of personal facts seems pressed for time; for example, the passing mention of Chopin’s soap opera-like relationship with George Sand. But the piano performances and commentaries by the pianists should be on every piano student’s must-see-and-apply list. Of special note are performances by Daniel Barenboim and Brautigam again.

Filmmaker Phil Grabsky needs to be greatly congratulated for all the time, research, dedication, detail and reaching out to historians, musicians, performers and orchestras to create these four In Search Of documentaries. His love, respect and curiosity of everyone portrayed – composer, historian and performer – is reflected in each film. This is more than music history – these are visual and aural musical stories. All the camera close-ups, from musicians’ hands working their beloved instruments, to tree twigs and rain in scenery, are thought-provoking, especially against the clear audio of the music. Grabsky’s excitement for his material resonates throughout, subsequently broadening the excitement of the viewer. Watch, learn, enjoy, listen and be inspired!

01 Tchaikovsky SibeliusThe outstanding Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili is back with simply ravishing performances of the Tchaikovsky and Sibelius Concertos with Daniel Barenboim leading the Staatskapelle Berlin (Deutsche Grammophon 479 6038).

The recordings are the direct result of the artists’ collaboration in the final open-air free concert of the annual State Opera for All concert series in Berlin, initiated by Barenboim in 2006. For the past four years Batiashvili has been the guest artist, playing the Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius concertos – indeed, it was her televised performance of the latter with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra that prompted Barenboim to make the initial contact.

The Berlin studio recordings here were made within days of the 2015 and 2016 Tchaikovsky and Sibelius concert performances, and they are simply stunning. Batiashvili has a rich, clear tone with wonderful depth and a brilliant top, and Barenboim supplies a perfectly judged accompaniment with an unerring instinct for when to hold back and linger awhile and when to forge ahead. It all makes for sensitive, thrilling and passionate interpretations that grab you from the opening bars and never let go.

Add a simply outstanding orchestral and recording quality and these are performances that can hold their own with any on record.

02 Harris Adams TasminThe English violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen is the soloist in the Violin Concertos by American composers Roy Harris and John Adams on a new Signum Classics CD with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Litton (SIGCD468).

The Harris concerto was written in 1949 on a commission from the Cleveland Orchestra for its concertmaster Joseph Gingold, but the premiere was cancelled when numerous discrepancies between the score and the orchestral parts couldn’t be corrected in time for the concert. It was 35 years before Gregory Fulkerson and the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra gave the first performance in 1984, with Fulkerson’s recording the following year making the concerto available to a wider audience.

It’s a work that is very much of its time, optimistic with a strong nostalgic feel and an American Western country folk feel throughout. Waley-Cohen consulted the manuscript source in the Library of Congress in Washington and was apparently enchanted by the rhapsodic solo writing. It certainly shows in her terrific performance here.

The Adams concerto was completed in 1993, and while in the traditional three-movement form is described by the composer as having no sense of traditional competition between orchestra and soloist, the violin instead making its way unimpeded through the body of the orchestra, which remains below or behind it. There’s a tranquil Chaconne middle movement, and a Toccare finale that is right out of the same drawer as Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine.

Outstanding performances make this a significant addition to the 20th-century violin concerto discography.

Review

03 Bach Nemanja RadulovicIf you like your Bach bright, clean and with an abundance of energy, then you will really enjoy BACH, the new CD from the Serbian violinist Nemanja Radulović (Deutsche Grammophon 479 5933). It’s described as being in a way the continuation of his exploration of the Baroque repertory following his Vivaldi project, The Five Seasons, but it’s just as clearly a return to his roots and his earliest musical studies.

His former fellow student Tijana Milošević joins him in a performance of the Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor BWV1043 in which the outer Vivace and Allegro movements are just about as fast as you’re likely to hear them. There is lovely clean playing throughout, though. The string ensemble Double Sens provides a crystal clear accompaniment.

The Concerto in A Minor BWV1041 receives similar treatment, with a particularly lovely slow movement; Radulović really does have a beautiful tone.

The other J. S. Bach works on the CD are a mixture. The short Gavotte from the Partita No.3 BWV1006, the only solo piece on the disc, is clean and bright. The remaining three works are all presented in arrangements for violin and strings by Aleksander Sedlar: the Toccata & Fugue in D Minor BWV565 (where Les Trilles du Diable provide the accompaniment); the Air in D Major from the Orchestral Suite No.3 BWV1068; and the Chaconne in D Minor from the Partita No.2 BWV1004. There is more than a hint of the old Leopold Stokowski transcriptions here.

Radulović also learned the viola in his native Belgrade and studied the Viola Concerto in C Minor that was long thought to be by Johann Christian Bach but is now described as being “reconstructed” by Henri Casadesus. It is included here as a nod to his student days.

04 Tio ChorinhoChora Brazil is the debut CD from the Toronto ensemble Tio Chorinho (tiochorinho.com), the only ensemble in Canada dedicated to performing Brazilian choro music, the primarily instrumental musical form which originated in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro in the late 19th century and provided the foundation for several modern Brazilian musical styles. The group members are Eric Stein (mandolin), Avital Zemer (seven-string guitar), Maninho Costa (percussion), Carlos Cardozo (cavaquinho) and Andre Valerio (guitar and cavaquinho).

The 12 tracks are mostly compositions by the masters of the genre, including six by the mandolin virtuoso Jacob do Bandolim, two by Waldir Azevedo and two by Pixinguinha. It’s just an absolute delight from start to finish, with some outstanding playing by the core members and occasional guest performers. Stein’s mandolin work is particularly impressive, often having the same sort of sound as the Portuguese guitar in fado music. Check out the videos of their performances on their website.

It’s a terrific debut CD; play it on a grey day and your room will be filled with sunshine!

Review

05 DompierreConcertango Grosso is a new CD from the ATMA Classique label featuring the music of the Quebec composer François Dompierre (ACD22739).

The 2015 title track was commissioned by and is dedicated to the pianist Louise Bessette and also features Denis Plante on bandoneon, Kerson Leong on violin, Richard Capolla on bass and the Orchestre de chambre Appassionata under Daniel Myssyk. It’s a highly enjoyable four-movement piece, clearly – and inevitably – influenced by Astor Piazzola, but always more than just simple imitation or pastiche. The bandoneon certainly imparts an air of complete authenticity.

Bessette is also the soloist in the Concerto de Saint-Irénée for piano and string orchestra, a classically structured work that takes its inspiration from popular music of North and South America, including jazz in the opening movement and Latin music in the third.

The terrific Kerson Leong was in fine form in the Concertango Grosso, so it’s no surprise to hear him join Bessette and do some great fiddling in Les Diableries. The five short movements were originally written (for violin and orchestra) as the required violin work in the 1979 Montreal International Music Competition, and the piece is heard here in a new arrangement for violin, piano and string orchestra.

La Morte de Céleste, the final track on the disc, is a rich, romantic and simply lovely short piece for string orchestra.

06 Witches and DevilsThere’s more fine fiddling on Of Witches and Devils – works by Paganini, Tartini and Locatelli played by violinist Luca Fanfoni and pianist Luca Ballerini on a new Dynamic CD (CDS 7749).

Some strong playing in Fritz Kreisler’s version of Tartini’s Sonata in G Minor, known as the “Devil’s Trill,” opens the program, but things really get interesting with the first of three Paganini works – Introduction and variations in G Major MS44 on Nel cor più non mi sento (by Paisello). This was one of Paganini’s dazzling show pieces and features all the usual tricks: left-hand pizzicato; arpeggios and runs; multiple stops; runs in thirds, sixths, octaves and tenths. It no longer has us believing that the composer was in league with the devil, but it still has challenges that Fanfoni certainly does more than just surmount.

The lyrical Adagio from the Concerto No.3 in E Major MS50 is next, followed by the Sonata a preghiera MS23, the work more commonly known as Variations on the G String on Moses’ Prayer from Rossini’s opera Mosé in Egitto. It’s noted here as the traditional version, by which they mean the one we’re used to hearing. More on that later.

Locatelli’s Capriccio for solo violin (“Il Labirinto Armonico”) from L’Arte del violino Op.3 is a short but quite astonishing piece with a constant flurry of bowing interrupted by single notes ticking away. Then it’s back to Paganini for Le streghe, Variations on a theme by Franz Süssmayr MS19 followed by the fascinating final track. The Moses’ Prayer Variations, it turns out, are only the final part of the complete Sonata a preghiera. Not only is this the first recording of the unabridged original version, it is played on Paganini’s own violin and with the string tuned up a minor third, a trick that Paganini himself used to obtain an even higher sound.

Fanfoni tends to favour speed over clarity, and the intonation seems a little less sure than in the traditional version, but it makes for a unique ending to a very interesting CD.

07 Imagined Memories Hugo Wolf QuartettImagined Memories is a 2-CD issue featuring string quartets by Franz Schubert and Ralf Yusuf Gawlick in performances by Austrian ensemble the Hugo Wolf Quartett (musica omnia mo0704).

Schubert’s String Quartet No.13 D804 (Rosamunde) has a lovely brooding and delicate start, and a sensitive performance throughout, recorded with a fair amount of resonance. It’s included here because the start of the quartet is quoted at the beginning and the end of the Gawlick quartet, which the composer describes as “an autobiographical work that probes into the realms of a relationship that never was, a bond with my biological mother, whom I never met.” The opening also quotes quartets by Smetana, Borodin and Shostakovich.

To say that Gawlick’s compositional process was complicated is an understatement: seven pages of booklet notes outlining thoughts, choices, graphic charts, Memory Triangles and spaces, Memory Footprints and numerical integers taken from various combinations of the initial letters of the composer’s and his birth mother’s names are almost impenetrable at times. Still, all that matters is the music – and there’s a great deal of tender, sensitive, beautifully effective writing here. Of the 17 short sections in the main body of the work, played without a break, most fall between one and two minutes in length and none reaches four minutes. It’s mostly quiet and soft, not difficult to listen to, although not traditionally tonal, and clearly quite personal and intimate.

The work was commissioned by the performers and was recorded shortly after its Carnegie Hall premiere in April of this year. Their outstanding performance here can be considered definitive.

08 Gudmundsen HolmgreenContemporary string quartets are also featured on Green Ground (Dacapo 8.226153), five works from 2011 by the Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, who died just this past June at the age of 83. The works were written for and dedicated to the composer’s longtime collaborators the Kronos Quartet and also the vocal quartet Theatre of Voices under their director Paul Hillier. These world premiere recordings are of live concert performances in Copenhagen on December 4, 2012.

The titles of the CD and the works are, at first sight, quite confusing: No Ground; Green; No Ground Green; New Ground and New Ground Green, but there is a clear logical progression here. Last Ground, the composer’s ninth string quartet from 2006, was supposed to be his last, but a tenth quartet, New Ground, and an eleventh, No Ground, were written in 2011 (three more were to follow in 2013).

When PGH felt that the two new quartets needed to be connected, he wrote Green for four voices and wooden percussion, taking lines (“To the greenwood we must go”) from Desire, by the Renaissance English composer William Cornysh as his starting point. Green is then superimposed (a technique PGH had used before) on both New Ground and No Ground to produce, in effect, two new works.

It’s certainly a fascinating soundscape, and quite difficult to describe. There are some extreme techniques employed and a basic lack of tonality, although there are beautiful moments in Green. Also, the New Ground quartet uses the ground from Pachelbel’s famous Canon, albeit with an extra bar and a chromatic twist thrown in for good measure. Don’t be fooled by the apparent easier access, though – things soon become more complicated.

Again, a set of what must be definitive performances of some quite fascinating works.

09 Hartmann soloThe German composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann wrote his Sonatas 1 and 2 and Suites 1 and 2 for solo violin in 1927 when he was only 22, but despite destroying a great deal of his early works chose to preserve these, going as far as burying them in a metal box in a friend’s garden during the years of the Third Reich. Never performed during his lifetime, the two suites were first performed in Spokane, Washington in 1984 and 1986, and the two sonatas were premiered by Thomas Zehetmair in Munich in 1987. At the time, Zehetmair called them “among the best things written for unaccompanied violin during the 20th century.”

They are featured on a new CD by the German violinist Renate Eggebrecht on the Troubadisc label that she founded in 1991 (TRO-CD 01447). They are uncompromisingly tough pieces, and the 72-year-old Eggebrecht’s somewhat dry tone and slow vibrato tend to make her playing sound a bit unsure at times.

As the booklet essay points out, these works place enormous demands on both the technique and especially the musicality of the performer. At times, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the sheer effort to get through them limits the interpretation here, and a check of the audio samples of Ingolf Turban’s excellent and smoother recordings on the Claves label would seem to confirm this. If that wasn’t enough, the brilliant Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova included these unaccompanied works on her debut recital CD in 2007, and you can hear audio samples of her recordings on the Hyperion Records website.

What’s really interesting, though, is that this CD is actually Volume 8 in a Violin Solo series that Eggebrecht has compiled, and the range of composers – Reger, Skalkottas, Honegger, Bacewicz, Milhaud, Bartók, Hindemith, Bloch, Stravinsky, Schnittke, Rodrigo among others – is quite astonishing. It sounds like a highly significant series that should be much more widely known.

10 SaidaminovaThe music of the Uzbekistan composer Dilorom Saidaminova is performed by her son, the violinist Tigran Shiganyan and friends on a new Blue Griffin Recording CD (BGR414). It’s the first commercial recording of her works.

The music here is essentially tonal and very pleasant. Saraton for solo violin, soprano and traditional instruments is a lovely, meditative piece; the two Sonatas for violin and piano are strong works; Umid for violin and piano and the two trios Where there is no time…for violin, clarinet and piano and Sabo for violin, cello and piano are all well-written and effective.

The CD comes with a short DVD featuring Saidaminova talking about the works on the CD and a rather strange and pointless outdoor “performance” of Saraton which is poorly filmed and quite obviously mimed to a pre-recorded track.

01 Lortie FaureLouis Lortie has added another recording to his list of more than 30 on the Chandos label. In Après un rêve: A Fauré Recital, Volume 1 (Chandos CHAN 10919) Lortie programs works from different periods in Fauré’s life. In the first volume of what will be a series, Lortie offers some of the early works that have easy and familiar appeal. He plays his own transcription of Pavane Op.50, originally for chorus and orchestra. It’s a clever treatment with the piano doing remarkably well at being a pizzicato string section at the same time as being a choir.

He also includes a couple of nocturnes, barcarolles and the nostalgic Après un rêve Op.7 No.1 using Percy Grainger’s 1939 arrangement. Fauré’s Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande Op.80 brings the recital to the threshold of the 20th century. Its opening Prélude is exquisite as is Sicilienne. In both these sections as well as the closing La mort de Mélisande, Lortie astonishes with a frequent bell-like touch.

Similarly he captures the modern flavour of the Nine Préludes Op.103 (1910) by emphasizing the angular rhythms and chordal patterns of the three very fast Préludes. The balance of the set is true to Fauré’s slightly wistful and lifelong melancholic nature. Lortie knows his composer’s voice and uses it as beautifully as ever.

Review

02 Russian Piano 12 BortkiewitzDivine Art’s growing Russian Piano Music Series has a new addition in Russian Piano Music Vol.12 – Sergei Bortkiewicz (dda 25142). It features Italian pianist Alfonso Soldano playing the music of Bortkiewicz (1877-1952), who produced a substantial body of works, both large and small scale. The majority was for piano but he also wrote for violin, cello and piano trio. He opposed modernism and evolved his musical language using the vocabulary of the late 19th century. He demonstrated unwavering adherence to melody, harmony and structure. His piano writing reveals an affinity for Chopin and Liszt, yet there are occasional, if brief, references to 20th-century harmonies and resolutions of popular nature.

Pianist Alfonso Soldano takes on this music for what it plainly is, a form that refused to budge with the changing currents of its time. What emerges is not an apology for the music but an argument for its credibility. Soldano argues from the keyboard, that Bortkiewicz had a voice of his own, that subtly reshaped the familiar late Romantic sound. Bortkiewicz placed great importance on how his inner voices moved to create a richness of colour too often lost to virtuosic imperatives.

While this is evident in the short pieces on this disc, the Sonata No.2 in C-sharp Minor Op.60 is where the composer truly shows his respect for structure, applying his unique subtleties to show us that the late Romantics may have given up too soon.

03 ImpressionsNicholas Phillips is an energetic promoter of new music, specifically piano works of the last decade by American composers. He finds new works that have already been recorded and contributes to their longevity by giving them a second recording, hence, Impressions (Blue Griffin Records BGR409). The one exception, Keyboard of the Winds (2015) is by composer Stacey Garrop. She builds an impressive sonic picture of a Colorado mountain range using massive chordal patterns and angular melodies to evoke the jagged rock formations. Equally angular is Jonathan Pieslak’s Shards (2008). Phillips embraces the duality of this work shifting adeptly between its spikey opening and the quieter, extended moments of repose.

Carter Pann’s White Moon Over Water (2011) draws inspiration from nocturnal kayaking on a wide river in Maine. Its central section depicting the expanse of starry sky is breathtaking with Phillips deeply in his element.

Hommage à Trois (2005) by Mark Olivieri is a brilliant collection of three stylistic tributes to composers particularly meaningful to him. The tributes to Aaron Copland and James Brown, especially, are beautifully crafted and immediately evoke their dedicatee’s memories.

This recording’s most effective work is Pann’s She Steals Me, a short Appalachian style waltz that lingers harmonically on many passing notes and unresolved progressions. The effect is profoundly touching and Phillips does a masterful job in leveraging its emotional potential.

04 Grieg McCabeOriginally recorded in 1978 and released in 1980, Edvard Grieg – Slåtter Op.72, Stimmungen Op.73 (Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0154) is a reissue that offers a glimpse of a remarkably gifted English musician in his early 40s. John McCabe (1939-2015) was a prolific composer and performer. His wife recounts McCabe’s abiding affection for the piano works of Grieg, Slåtter (Norwegian Peasant Dances) Op.72 in particular. Numerous searches in the late 1970s for the published score proved fruitless until he one day came upon a worn copy in an obscure secondhand book shop. It proved sufficient for the recording project with RCA.

Stimmungen (Moods) Op.73 and Slåtter were Grieg’s final two works for solo piano. The latter is a collection of folk tunes and dances originally heard as regional fiddle melodies passed down through generations. Grieg first published these compositions along with their original fiddle scoring. McCabe’s playing captures Grieg’s rhythmically raw elements and gives the dances a characteristic fiddle drone while bringing forward the very brief melodic ideas of the folk material. There’s a very wide range of expression in McCabe’s playing. Stimmungen, especially, demonstrates his ability to probe the moody and introspective side of the composer’s writing. Folk Tune from Valders is an exquisite example of just how much mysticism McCabe can evoke at the keyboard. Studie (Hommage à Chopin) is also remarkable for its stylistic references so unerringly discerned and conveyed.

Review

05 Alice Sara OttGrieg’s mystical introspection is also pursued in a new recording by Alice Sara Ott, Wonderland – Grieg Piano Concerto; Lyric Pieces (Deutsche Grammophon 479 4631). By the time Ott made this recording, she’d had the Grieg Concerto in A Minor Op.16 in her repertoire for ten years. That’s enough time to come to own the music and weave its threads into the fabric of her own artistic being.

Her personal stamp on this work shapes it in unique ways. Phrasings are often quite unusual and the pace of the work is slower than often heard. She very deliberately lets us know that she is exploring something of natural mysticism. She calls it Grieg’s “wonderland.”

The orchestra too, under Essa-Pekka Salonen, is in full agreement with this approach. Nothing, absolutely nothing is hurried in this performance. Only the final movement is near the traditional tempo. The effect of this on the concerto is to take an already monumental piece to an even grander scale.

Ott’s quest for Grieg the mystic continues through her playing of selections from the Lyric Pieces and Peer Gynt where Notturno and Solveig’s Song, respectively, reflect this most poignantly. There’s plenty of raw folk energy as well though; March of the Trolls (Lyric Pieces Book V, Op.54) and In the Hall of the Mountain King (Peer Gynt Suite No.1) leave no doubt about the dark side of Nordic myths.

Review

06 Benjamin GrosvenorThis new recording Homages: Bach-Busoni; Mendelssohn; Franck; Chopin; Liszt (Decca 483 0255) by Benjamin Grosvenor is youthful, powerful and profoundly exciting. At age 24 Grosvenor seems already to have conquered everything. Completely unhindered by technical challenges, he probes the alternating quiet and explosive episodes of Romantic works that look to the past for inspiration. Busoni’s arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne from BWV1004 is titanic yet floats soul searchingly through its many still moments. He plays Mendelssohn’s Fugue: Allegro con fuoco from Op.35 No.5 at an impossible speed with unbelievable clarity. Chopin’s Barcarolle in F-sharp Major Op.60 is voiced so superbly that it often sounds like two separate pianos. With selections from Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, Grosvenor reaches the pinnacle of his Homages to conclude an astonishing program that sets the heart racing.

07 Kirill GersteinPianist Kirill Gerstein is as eloquent in interview as he is at the keyboard. The notes in Liszt – Transcendental Études (Myrios Classics MYR01) are insightful answers to questions about the transcendental nature of these études. Gerstein argues that their extreme difficulty leads to a heightened technique that transcends the traditional requirements of playing the instrument. He then describes Liszt’s intention that this transcendence go beyond the physical and technical.

Likening the performance of the cycle to the disciplined movement of Tai Chi, Gerstein describes his own experience in overcoming the technical challenges of these pieces. For him, it was as if he combined the discipline and exertion of a martial art with meditation to find that the transcending experience lay not just in the music but in the actual execution.

This becomes very clear as the performance reveals his virtuosic ease with the most difficult passages of Feux follets, Ricordanza and Wilde Jagd. And when Liszt’s moments of resolution or repose occur, Gerstein is so obviously playing from someplace deeply and internally transcendent that his assertions about the experience become remarkably credible. It’s a beautifully performed set of the Études and equally well recorded.

Review

08 Perahia BachDeeper quests for meaning are becoming less rare among performers of all ages. In Johann Sebastian Bach – French Suites (Deutsche Grammophon 479 6565) Murray Perahia titles his notes “A Personal Devotion” and describes his lifelong love of Bach ignited by a performance of the St. Matthew Passion under Pablo Casals in the early 1960s. What moved the young Perahia was the humanity of Casal’s approach. It rejected the strict mechanical conventions of the time and channelled the composer’s voice through more modern sensibilities.

Perahia himself was greatly discouraged by the preference for the harpsichord and rejection of the piano as a legitimate instrument for Bach’s keyboard music. After two years of harpsichord study, he decided to return to his first keyboard love and bring to it some of the harpsichord technique he’d acquired. This hybridization has produced a style of Baroque piano playing that has all the lightness of the period instruments but brings to it the emotional palette of our present day.

 Perahia’s playing is consequently a product of considerable forethought. His application of the whole range of the piano’s expressive capability is carefully measured. He pedals very lightly, articulates immaculately and communicates superbly.

Review

09 Alain LefevreAlain Lefèvre is one of Quebec’s best-selling recording artists. A recent stay in Greece was the inspiration behind his newest CD Sas Agapo (Analekta AN 2 9297). Lefèvre is widely known for his creative and improvisational gift as well as his formidable keyboard technique. Combined, they ensure that his performances are highly engaging and entertaining. Sas Agapo is a collection of programmatic expressions for the piano – a musical album of Aegean experiences.

Lefèvre’s inspirations are both visual and emotional. Something as simple as watching an elderly couple enjoying a seaside picnic becomes the creative kernel for Promenade à Kavouri. The piece is melancholic yet light and drifts between numerous short episodes punctuated by beautifully placed dissonances.

The opening track Sas Agapo is highly stylized to reflect the modal nature of traditional Greek music. Its charged rhythms are instantly captivating and Lefèvre’s repeated keyboard runs are part of the electrifying experience of listening to this piece.

Romance, personal loss and the general future of humanity are some of the other musings that take shape in this recording. Its conclusion is the wonderfully colourful and impish character piece Grand Carnival in which Lefèvre shows off some of his most impressive skills as composer and performer.

Concert note: On January 21 Alain Lefèvre is featured in André Mathieu’s Rhapsody romantique as part of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s “Canadian Legacy” concert at Roy Thomson Hall.

Review

10 Bach EsfahaniThe Goldberg Variations are most often heard performed on piano, and we’ve come to assume that new recordings of the work will, naturally, be played that way. So, while harpsichord performances have narrower appeal, it’s a delight to encounter one so completely engaging and satisfying as in Bach – Goldberg Variations, Mahan Esfahani (Deutsche Grammophon 479 5929). Here’s a performance with enough zest and colour to rival your favourite piano version.

Esfahani achieves this several ways. He plays with a clean and agile technique. He is tastefully impressive with his elaborate ornamentations. His phrasings benefit from tempo relaxation at critical points in the melodic line. And perhaps most of all, he’s just not in a rush to get to the end. Esfahani loves to explore the inner voices of these variations, challenging enough on a harpsichord, but skillfully managed with clever use of changing registrations between the instrument’s two keyboards.

The recording appears to be made with large parts of the work (possibly all of it) played direct to recording without stopping for more than a second or two between variations to change keyboard stops (sounds). Performers who do this argue for the impact of the interpretive continuity this creates. Efahani’s performance bears this out once again.

A fascinating feature of this recording lies in a brief note from the harpsichord technician who describes his tuning approach and explains his choices for sweeter major thirds in the keys of G and D, the home for most of the variations.

11 Nada BrahmsBefore playing Nada in Hamburg – Johannes Brahms (MEII Enterprises 261 43930) one has to accept Nada Loutfi’s stylistic premise that the young Brahms played very much lighter pianos while in Hamburg. This would require a distinct departure from conventional approaches. Accents would be shorter, there would be more staccato and a great deal less use of the sustain pedal. Loutfi argues that modern interpretations overload and misrepresent the sound Brahms imagined at the time of these compositions.

As if to underscore her point, she programs two pieces for the left hand, where performers generally tend to pedal more generously in order to bridge the gaps the single hand is to required leap. The Bach Chaconne for the Violin, (Étude No.5) and the Étude for piano for the left hand after Franz Schubert (Étude No.6) both require a moment for the ear to adjust but quickly establish a credibility based on Loutfi’s sensitive and intelligent phrasings. The Schubert, especially, becomes an extraordinarily beautiful technical display.

From Brahms’ Eleven Chorales for Organ Op.122, Loutfi plays No.s2, 4 and 8. The organ score is for manuals alone and the parts so intricately woven that it’s often impossible to solo the chorale over the surrounding accompaniment. Nevertheless Loutfi does a wonderful job using the piano’s dynamic advantage to achieve this very feat.

The Sonata Op.1 No.1 in C Major takes on a very different feel from most other performances. Loutfi’s light detached style quickly becomes the norm and draws more attention to other aspects of her interpretation. Most noteworthy is her very introspective and raptured playing of the second movement, Andante.

This is quite an unusual disc that intelligently challenges some of our conventional ideas about how Brahms should be played.

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