05 Ozawa BeethovenBeethoven 7; Leonore 3
Saito Kinen Orchestra; Seiji Ozawa
Decca Records (ozawa-festival.com/en/news/2020/07/30/130000)

How wonderful that there is still a Seiji Ozawa! In celebration of the great conductor’s 85th birthday, here is a live recording of two favourites from the Beethoven shelf: the symphonic-sounding Ouverture to Leonore No.3, Op.72, and Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op.92

Wagner described this symphony as “the apotheosis of the dance.” (The question of what Wagner might have known about dance is for another time and place.) Having seen Ozawa rehearse the Vienna Philharmonic, I can think of no more fitting piece for a celebration of his own style of leading. He literally looked like he was dancing the cues, his entire body conducting. That was almost two decades past, but I hope this very senior, venerable citizen can still cut a rug.

This is a keepsake as much as a recording, certainly for thousands of Ozawa partisans. It was taken from a live performance, featuring the Saito Kinen Orchestra, a band who form once yearly in honour of their teacher Hideo Saito, co-founder of the Toho Gakuen School of Music. Naturally, then, one might not look so much for perfect ensemble unity, and more for enthusiasm and excellence on the particular level. While rhythmic and phrasing unity is certainly fine, and enthusiastic dynamics pervade, there’s a heavy feeling to the skipping rhythmic motif that should lift the first movement to terpsichorean apotheosis. I sense the age in the arms of this ageless master. A bit sad, but still a keeper. You can’t hear the marche funèbre second movement without thinking of inevitability. The tread slows slightly with each new iteration; is this mourning in advance? Not yet! The heaviness disperses in the second theme, the clouds part, the tread becomes a heartbeat.

Great playing throughout. Not such great recording values: live performance, whaddayagonnado?

Schubert: The Power of Fate06 Gaudet Schubert 3
Mathieu Gaudet
Analekta AN 2 9183 (analekta.com/en)

What simple, unexpected gifts we receive from the hands of Mathieu Gaudet. In May of 2020, this writer reviewed Gaudet’s disc, Late Inspirations, the second installment in a broad Schubert project from Analekta. Then in June, Gaudet went back into the studio to record two sonatas by his indelible muse, his wonderful counsellor, Franz Schubert. Dubbed “a lifelong vocation for Gaudet,” the music of Schubert yet radiates evergreen melody and benevolent light on this third record in the cycle. Themed The Power of Fate, Gaudet’s newest release features the little-known Sonata No.7 in E-flat Major, D568 and the seminal and nearly balladic Sonata No.25 in A Minor, D845.

Right from the first, open-hearted phrase of the E-flat Major, Gaudet warmly arrays us in a universe rich and rare. Herein, Schubertian laws of musical physics reign supreme and such unlikely sonatas as this are realized, beguilingly, with warty oddities explained and youthful charms celebrated. How marvellous that, even today, corners of the keyboard repertoire remain unfamiliar. Gratefully, Gaudet unearths gem upon gentle gem for our benefit.

The second work on the record opens a portal onto a shrouded musical garden, darkly glistening from a different sphere. The characterization of every last note is vividly, patiently considered by Gaudet as he soars yet loftier heights with the making of each new Schubert disc. I am reminded of Leon Fleisher – an important mentor of Gaudet’s – who once described this sonata’s second movement as “the fluttering of a songbird’s wings in flight.”

07 Karen Kei Nagano SchubertReincarnation – Schubert; Messiaen
Karin Kei Nagano
Analekta AN 2 8778 (analekta.com/en)

Musical programming can often be summarized as either contrasting or complementary, using the similarities and differences between two pieces to serve a specific purpose as outlined by the performer. Nagano’s Reincarnation attempts to do both simultaneously, drawing conceptual connections between Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major, D960 and Messiaen’s Première communion de la Vierge while clearly contrasting these disparate works from different times and places.

Schubert’s Sonata is a late masterwork, one of three large-scale sonatas written in the final year of his life. These sonatas were composed simultaneously, beginning with initial drafts in the spring of 1828 and concluding with final revisions in September, just two months before Schubert’s death; they share a number of musical similarities in both style and substance that continue to inspire and engage performers and listeners alike. Nagano successfully captures the spirit of this work that, far from being a self-obsessed elegy dwelling on the composer’s imminent demise, is primarily a calm, graceful and optimistic survey of early Romantic pianistic skill.

Over a century after Schubert’s death, Olivier Messiaen was finding new ways of expressing his deep Catholic devotion through stylistic syntheses, using modes and rhythms that could be transposed, used in retrograde, and combined in a unique and immediately identifiable musical language. Written in 1944, Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus is one of Messiaen’s most intense and spiritual scores, expressing and conveying the various contemplations of the child Jesus in the crib from the Father, the Church and the Spirit, among others. Première communion de la Vierge (The Virgin’s first communion) is, much like the Schubert Sonata, a calm reflection interspersed with moments of joy and exaltation, including an ecstatic middle section with pulsing rhythms and fleeting gestures.

Nagano’s Reincarnation is an exploration of deep profundity disguised in highly appealing, refined compositions. This is music with many layers, and the opportunity for listeners to continue to revisit and explore these works, drawing new discoveries and experiences each time, is one that should not be missed.

08 Bach chez MendelssohnBach at the Mendelssohns
Mika Putterman; Jory Vinikour
Analekta AN 2 9532 (analekta.com/en)

Historical flute specialist and music-history researcher Mika Putterman has investigated the musical life and culture of late-18th and early-to-mid-19th-century Berlin and the Mendelssohn family. Her research informs this recording, a re-creation so to speak of a musical soirée at the home of Sarah Levy, Felix Mendelssohn’s great-aunt.

According to the liner notes, “when 19th-century musicians performed Baroque music, they paid little attention to what performance practice norms of the Baroque period might have been and instead used the expressive devices of their day.” Her stated intention in this recording is to explore “new territory, envisioning how the Romantics would have played Bach.” 

The result is a kind of hybrid interpretation of three of the flute sonatas traditionally attributed to J.S. Bach, combining much that sounds like contemporary historically informed Baroque interpretation with moments of Sturm und Drang and others of heart-on-sleeve Romanticism. With the very able collaboration of fortepianist Jory Vinikour, she has put together an altogether convincing performance.

The cornerstone of the whole production is Putterman’s transcription of Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Sonata in F Minor, Op.4, in which the performance practices of the early 19th century make total sense. The extension of these practices into the flute sonatas, odd as it sounds on first listening, actually works! So, kudos to Putterman and Vinikour for opening at least my ears, and hopefully many others, to what might have been the sensibility of a long-lost time.

09 Aliya TuretayevaRomantic Fantasies
Aliya Turetayeva
KNS Classical KNS A/090 (aliyaturetayeva.com)

Schumann was the quintessential Romantic composer – a dreamer and idealist who particularly excelled at short forms such as art songs and piano pieces. Yet his symphonies and larger piano works attest to his proficiency with more extended compositions. This disc, with the young Kazakhstan-born pianist Aliya Turetayeva, portrays Schumann as both miniaturist and as a composer of larger canvases, presenting two of the most renowned pieces of the Romantic period repertoire, the Sonata in G Minor Op.22 and Kreisleriana Op.16.

The piano sonata – his last contribution to the form – was composed between 1830 and 1838 and has long been known for its technical demands. From the outset, it’s clear that Turetayeva is in full command of this daunting repertoire, but in no way is this empty bravura. The first movement is marked So Rasch wie möglich (“as fast as possible”) and while her tempo is brisk, it’s never frenetic, her phrasing carefully articulated. The second-movement Andantino is suitably lyrical and the fourth-movement Rondo: Presto demonstrates a bold confidence.

Schumann’s set Kreisleriana was written in 1838 but thoroughly revised a dozen years later. Inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann, it comprises eight highly contrasting movements. Turetayeva approaches the score with the same thoughtful intelligence, convincingly addressing the various moods throughout, from the gentleness of the fourth movement (Sehr langsam) to the agitated energy of No.7 (Sehr rasch). 

The gently rollicking finale, with its slight sense of the macabre, is never easy to bring off – but Turetayeva handles it adroitly, thus bringing the set, and the disc, to a most satisfying conclusion.

This young artist is on the brink of great success and here’s hoping we’ll hear more from her in the near future.

Listen to 'Romantic Fantasies' Now in the Listening Room

10 Brahms RosenbaumBrahms – The Last Piano Pieces, Opp. 117, 118, 119
Victor Rosenbaum
Bridge Records 9545 (bridgerecords.com)

Often, there is a fetishization of the young in music. The prodigy, perhaps particularly so on the piano, presents a familiar trope in the literature of musical biographies, record reviews and concert journalism. It is, of course, easy to see why this is the case. Music performed at the high level of excellence and dedication to craft that classical audiences have grown to expect, takes time... often a lifetime of study. And when someone is stationed at the beginning of their career, rather than the end, the results can be all the more astounding. That said, as artists age, there often comes a sheen of introspective reflection (usually described as musical maturity) to their playing and composing that, while perhaps not as attention-grabbing as their earlier and more precocious work, can be soul-enriching for the attenuated listener. 

Such is the case here on Victor Rosenbaum’s wonderful new Bridge Records recording, Brahms: The Last Piano Pieces Opp. 117, 118, 119, where the acclaimed American pianist and educator mines, with aplomb, the expressive depths of the final pieces written for his own instrument by old man Brahms. The music is typical Brahms, filled with wonderful lyricism of course, but offering a career bookending meditative counterpoint to, say, the virtuosity of his Piano Concertos No. 1 and 2 composed some 35 years earlier. Wonderfully recorded and played with tremendous attention to the subtle details of the work, Rosenbaum simply adds here to his fine reputation as a masterful pianist and interpreter. Even his reading of Opus 118: No. 3, Ballade: Allegro energico, which, as the title suggests, opens with an energetic G-minor clarion call, is handled with appropriate care and does not devolve into grandstanding. Instead, Rosenbaum plays up to the detailed richness of the German composer’s original intentions. As Rosenbaum writes in his self-penned and illuminating liner notes, “he [Brahms] is drawing our attention not to speed but to vigor.” An excellent recording to start 2021!

11 Mariss JansonsMariss Jansons – His Last Concert Live at Carnegie Hall
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
BR Klassik BRK900192 (naxosdirect.com/search/brk900192)

A great loss to the music world, one of the top conductors of our time, a great musical mind and a wonderful human being, Mariss Jansons passed away in December 2019. This concert was his last, November 8 of that year, a recording he regretfully will never hear. 

Jansons, as a baby and being Jewish, was smuggled out of Latvia to the Soviet Union to escape the Nazis: he grew up studying under the legendary Mravinsky in Leningrad and was discovered later by Karajan who invited him to Berlin.

I was lucky to have seen him conduct here in Toronto at Roy Thomson Hall. He did Mahler’s Second Symphony, commanding the vast forces of the TSO and the Mendelssohn Choir to a standing ovation. In the last 16 years he was chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony which he honed to perfection, a world-class ensemble as witnessed by this recording.

Music of Richard Strauss, Four Interludes from the opera Intermezzo, pieces of extraordinary bravura, provide a rousing start and show off the virtuosity of the orchestra. The music is full of spirit and beautifully melodic with a waltz sequence that rivals Der Rosenkavalier, but the harmonies and orchestration are far more adventurous.

What follows is a wonderful, idiomatic and highly personal reading of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. I must admit I’ve never heard it played as beautifully, Carlos Kleiber notwithstanding. From the soft, undulating haupttheme of the first movement through the second movement of pure beauty and the rambunctious, boisterous Scherzo (the first and only real scherzo Brahms ever wrote in a symphony) we arrive at the monumental, unorthodox Passacaglia with 30 variations on an eight-note ground bass, and a standing ovation. Then the encore, Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No.5, the famous one, played with great gusto ends the concert. A recording to treasure.

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