09a Brahms ClarinetBrahms – 3 Sonatas
Michael Collins; Stephen Hough
BIS BIS-2557 (bis.se)

Here with You – The Brahms Sonatas; Weber – Grand Duo; Montgomery – Peace
Anthony McGill; Gloria Chien
Cedille CDR 900000 207 (cedillerecords.org)

No longer, it seems, is it enough for clarinetists to throw down their hottest take on Brahms’ majestic Opus 120 Sonatas for Piano and Clarinet on its own. If recent examples are anything to go by, something more is now called for, a sidecar offering some alternate musical perspective. Last year, for example, the recording released by Jörg Widman and Andras Schiff included Widman’s own Brahmsian Intermezzi for piano. This month, two more collaborations do something similar: Anthony McGill and Gloria Chien perform Opus 120 and then add Weber’s Grand Duo Concertant, Opus 48, and Peace, by Jessie Montgomery; meanwhile Michael Collins and Stephen Hough open with a transcription (at pitch!) of Brahms’ Opus 100 Violin Sonata in A Major and then move on to Opus 120

I’m never fond of poached repertoire, but I admit the violin sonata feels like it could easily have been written for the clarinetist, Richard Muehlfeld, as the Opus 120 were. Only when Collins extends the range to the higher reaches do I think Brahms wouldn’t have offered Muehlfeld that opportunity to suffer. Not that there’s anything wrong with Collins’ technique; he deals quite beautifully with the higher tessitura of the violin piece. It’s just uncharacteristic, un-Brahmsian per his treatment of the clarinet elsewhere.

09b Brahms Clarinet McGillMcGill and Chien, presenting the late Classical/early Romantic Carl Maria von Weber’s tour-de-force, arguably made the more conservative decision, but I prefer it because it proposes an unexpected comparison of the two composers. Brahms can be a tad wordy, like some reviewers I might name. Weber is seriously underappreciated, and deserves a good deal more respect than he’s been afforded in the past century.

McGill sounds fabulous; Chien wrings, and rings, out the mittfuls of Brahms’ piano writing. In the Weber, avoided by some pianists on account of its dastardly technical demands, she bats no eyes and crosses no fingers; in short, she kicks the piece into gear and roars away. We should all be so lucky to play the piece with her! The Grand Duo is a dessert, which leavens out the weighty Brahms, and is so much more Romantic: more fun and, I’ll admit it, entertaining. The slow movement is an arioso without words, beautifully rendered by the tandem. The presto playout of the Rondo movement is a rousing display of music hall bravura; see if you don’t rise at the end to give them a standing ovation.

Collins plays a somewhat brighter set-up than McGill, and sounds great. Then there’s Stephen Hough, who is already in the pantheon. His work on the three sonatas is impeccable, considered and moving. Collins and Hough hew to a steadier, faster pulse than the Americans, whose fluid flexibility appeals to me but might bother some. McGill and Chien are too indulgent during the Sostenuto section of the Second Sonata’s second movement, which plods. Collins and Hough have more the right idea. And in Hough’s hands the Andante un poco adagio from the F-Minor Sonata receives more lingering affection than Chien seems willing to spend. Both clarinetists’ pitch is immaculate throughout. There is so much to appreciate in both offerings, choosing between them is not recommended. 

Last month I proposed a new artistic genre: Responses to the Pandemic. Montgomery’s Peace is exactly such a work. The mood is pensive, opening with augmented, searching harmonies, insistent but not harsh dissonance that hints at kindness or obscured joy. McGill has an incredible range of colour and depth in his low register, which Montgomery exploits with heart and soul.

10 Brahms Piano Sonata 3Brahms – Piano Sonata No.3
Alexandre Kantorow
BIS BIS-2600 (bis.se)

Despite his youth, French pianist Alexandre Kantorow is already heralded as a considerable talent with an ongoing and upcoming concertizing career to be examined with interest. And, with this marvellous 2021 recording of Johannes Brahms’ Piano Sonata No. 3, Kantorow contributes mightily to this well-established blue-chip reputation, initiated by winning the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition at age 22. 

While Brahms is famously listed as a progenitor of so-called Absolute Music, do not think for a moment that there is no program to be unpacked here or extra musical meaning to be ferreted out from these wonderfully Germanic compositions as interpretation, richness and new possibilities are brought to the fore for over 85 minutes during this thoughtful and evocative performance. 

Finally, Kantorow brings the recording to a close with Bach’s playful Chaconne, arranged from the original violin to the left-hand piano. With a forceful pianistic dynamism that enables Kantorow to both thunder loudly and sparkle with fragile insight, this is a recording that will go a good distance to solidifying Kantorow as a Brahms and Bach interpreter of the highest order, while encouraging us all to stop, even momentarily, genuflecting towards the catastrophizing media and lean in to the beauty of these melodies as performed with deft touch and aplomb.

11 Angeta HewittLove Songs
Angela Hewitt
Hyperion Records CDA68431 (hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA68341)

We can certainly declare Angela Hewitt by now a national treasure. Graduating from the Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto and winning the 1985 Toronto International Bach Competition, she has had a stellar career with concerts all over the world and a wide-ranging discography. She has even been inducted into the Gramophone magazine Hall of Fame (!) and has received many other honours and accolades.

Unfortunately this beautiful career came to an abrupt and brutal halt with COVID-19 and all her concert engagements disappeared overnight. For a two-year period she was forced into idleness, retiring to her home in Italy with her Fazioli piano. To fill her time she had the idea of making this recording, a collection of love songs spanning the entire piano literature.

Since these are love songs written for the human voice they had to be transposed to piano solo, mostly done by other composers or pianists, like Liszt, a master of love songs himself. The vocal line of the original song must be emphasized and the pianist has to express the ebb and flow of emotion of the beautiful poetry with bravura embellishments, modulations and variations.

Hewitt gives us a nice collection and a musical journey from the Baroque (Gluck and Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel) to the Romantics (Schumann, Schubert, Grieg) then the post-Romantics (Fauré, Richard Strauss, Mahler) through the Spanish flamenco of de Falla and even popular music of Gershwin and Percy Grainger.

There are many beauties close to my heart such as the wonderful Schubert Ständchen and An die Musik, Strauss’ opulent Cäcilie, the lovely Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, arranged by Hewitt herself, and Gershwin’s Love walked in so lovingly played. A recording to treasure.

12 Fraser JacksonHome Suite Home
Fraser Jackson; Monique de Margerie
Galley Records GRCD02 (galleyrecords.com)

Co-created in the spring of 2020 by bassoonist Fraser Jackson and pianist Monique de Margerie, Home Suite Home was directly inspired by the weekly concerts held on the front porch of their Toronto home during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.

These concerts, intended to brighten the mood of their neighbours and community, resulted in an album of short and varied pieces for bassoon and piano as well as a few special musical guests, Winona Zelenka on cello, Marie Bérard on violin and Dominic Desautels on clarinet. Not all originally written for bassoon, this collection highlights Jackson’s gift of masterful arrangement and features several rare and delightful pieces for contrabassoon, his specialty.

Moving and uplifting, the smooth expressive playing of Jackson’s performance coupled with de Margerie’s elegant interpretation must have been a delightful and unique experience for their neighbours; and now for the rest of us too.

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13 Maiburg Metamorphosen CoverMetamorphosen
Maiburg Ensemble
Ars Produktion Ars 38 328 (proclassics.de/aktuelle-cd-news)

Annette Maiburg, artistic director of the Maiburg Ensemble, aspired in this CD to engage in a “dialogue” in which the music of disparate cultural traditions fuse, so to speak, to produce a music which is new and which did not exist before. Maiburg, a highly accomplished classically trained flutist, is joined in the project by pianist Pascal Schweren and double bass player Matthias Hacker, both also classically trained but with strong educational backgrounds in jazz, and percussionist, Fethi Ak, a renowned German-Turkish darbuka player.

Each musician makes great and unique contributions to the project. For example, Schweren’s solo, which brings Bartók’s Pê Loc to a surprise ending, is a delight; Ak has several wonderful solos in compositions as diverse as Bartók’s Mâruntel and Buciumeana and Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Hacker, to my ears anyway, brings the most convincingly idiomatic jazz contribution throughout, connects beautifully with Ak’s solo in Mâruntel and plays a very effective bowed passage in Mahler’s Adagietto. Maiburg not only plays the challenging flute part from Mendelssohn’s Scherzo flawlessly but also brings wonderful lyricism to her solos in Ravel’s Kaddisch and Bartók’s Buciumeana

The cultural fusion, however, just doesn’t seem to happen, despite the good intentions, until the last track on the CD, Hov Arek, an Armenian folk melody notated by the great Armenian composer and ethnomusicologist, Komitas. Here magic happens, musicians and music become one, and the dream becomes reality.

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14 Hindemith Marin AlsopHindemith – Mathis der Maler; Nusch-Nuschi-Tänze; Sancta Susanna
Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien; Wiener Singakademie; Marin Alsop
Naxos 8574283 (naxosdirect.com/search/8574283)

The title work on this terrific all-Hindemith release, Symphony ‘Mathis der Maler’, gets a probing, gutsy performance from Marin Alsop and the superb ORF Vienna Radio Symphony. For 27 dramatic minutes, we’re swept into the harsh, visionary world depicted by the German Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald in his magnificent Isenheim altarpiece. This symphony is rightly one of Hindemith’s best-known works. Yet the related opera, Mathis der Maler – for me, his greatest work – is rarely done. 

Hindemith arranged Nusch-Nuschi-Tänze from an earlier opera, Das Nusch-Nuschi. But unlike Mathis der Maler, it’s no masterpiece. And the dance suite remains forgettable, despite Hindemith’s imaginative orchestrations and Alsop’s lively performance. 

Hindemith’s daring Sancta Susanna is the standout here. Alsop’s recording of this youthful one-act opera is so gripping, it belongs among the outstanding recordings of his works, along with Roxolana Roslak and Glenn Gould’s sublime Das Marienleben and Sviatoslav Richter’s wonder-filled Ludus Tonalis.    

The tension builds relentlessly – an organ pipe whistles, heavily scented lilac blossoms rustle, nightingales sing joyfully, a couple makes love right outside the church window, a giant spider leaps into Susanna’s hair. August Stramm’s expressionist libretto is truly shocking, especially when Susanna, finally unhinged, strips off her nun’s habit and embraces a sculpted image of Christ naked on the cross.

Ausrine Stundyte conveys the devastating impact of Susanna’s defiance with ravishing expressiveness, while Renée Morloc’s Klementia sets the stage for the horrific ending with harrowing dramatic power. This is opera at its most explosive – and delectable.

01 marie nadeau tremblayh ef7k3On Préludes et solitudes the Quebec violinist Marie Nadeau-Tremblay provides one of the best CDs of Baroque solo violin works that I’ve encountered (ATMA Classique ACD2 2823 atmaclassique.com/en).

There’s a lightness of touch in the idiomatic playing, with a rhythmic freedom which adds character to the music and which, far from weakening the sense of line or structure actually enhances it. It’s perfectly illustrated in the Telemann Fantasies Nos.7 in E-flat Major and 9 in B Minor but is never absent in short works by Pedro Lopes Nogueira, J.H. Roman, Nicola Matteis Jr., Torelli, Thomas Baltzar and Purcell, and a terrific performance of the Passacaglia in G Minor from Biber’s Mystery Rosary Sonatas. 

Nadeau-Tremblay adds her own brief Prélude improvisé to complete an outstanding disc.

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02 jansen cover 89tu1On 12 Stradivari, violinist Janine Jansen – who herself plays the 1715 Shumsky-Rode Stradivari – experiences a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a ground-breaking project devised by Steven Smith of J & A Beare that brought together in London 12 of the best violins of Antonio Stradivari, some not played for many years, others having belonged to the likes of Fritz Kreisler, Nathan Milstein and Ida Haendel. This resulting album, with pianist Antonio Pappano, music director of the Royal Opera House, captures the individual characters of each instrument (Decca 4851605 deccaclassics.com/en).

Unfortunately, there’s no information identifying the individual violins. Still, no matter; Jansen’s inspired and ravishing playing of well-known short pieces by Falla, Suk, Clara and Robert Schumann, Vieuxtemps, Tchaikovsky, Szymanowski, Ravel, Elgar, Rachmaninoff, Kreisler, Heuberger and Jerome Kern takes your breath away.

The entire project has been captured in the documentary film Janine Jansen: Falling for Stradivari

There have been three recent CDs of the Beethoven Violin Sonatas, two of which complete a three-CD set of the entire canon:

03 wan beethoven muk7lBeethoven Violin Sonatas Nos. 4, 9 & 10 with Andrew Wan and Charles Richard-Hamelin is the third issue in their Analekta series (AN 2 8796 analekta.com/en).

Wan’s warm, smooth and expressive playing is well-matched by Richard-Hamelin in lovely performances of the Sonatas No.4 in A Minor Op.23, No.9 in A Major Op.47 “Kreutzer” and No.10 in G Major Op.96. There’s excellent balance in a crystal-clear recording that completes a highly satisfying set.

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04 zimmermann cover cfhtkThe last two sonatas are also featured on Beethoven: The Violin Sonatas Nos. 8-10, with which Frank Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen complete their series for BIS (BIS-2537 bis.se).

 A lively and dazzling reading of the Sonata No.8 in G Major Op.30 No.3 opens the disc, with the Op.47 “Kreutzer” and the G Major Op.96 receiving equally animated and high-octane performances, although sensitivity and nuance are never lacking when needed. 

05 tetzlaff cover je58vThe Sonata No.8 in G Major, along with Sonatas No.6 in A Major and No.7 in C Minor, is also featured on a CD of the three Beethoven Sonatas Op.30, the latest release by Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt on the Ondine label (ODE-1392-2 ondine.net).

The publicity blurb says that these relatively early but completely original sonatas belong to the artists’ favourite works by Beethoven, and it shows in every bar of beautifully judged and nuanced performances, with the Adagio middle movement of the A Major Sonata in particular drawing breathtakingly beautiful playing from Tetzlaff.

06 remembering russia 2xqzzOn Remembering Russia the Spanish violist Jesús Rodolfo, accompanied by pianist Min Young Kang makes his Pentatone label debut in a recital showcasing three 20th-century Russian composers all of whom left their homeland (PTC 5186 287 naxosdirect.com/search/ptc5186287).

Six selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, arranged by the Russian violist Vadim Borisovsky make a strong opening to the disc. Borisovsky also made the wonderfully effective 1950 transcription of Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata in G Minor Op.19, a work perfectly suited to the viola’s tonal quality and range. Rodolfo’s own transcription of Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne “Pulcinella” completes the CD.

Rodolfo is a terrific player with a gorgeous tone. He is fully matched here by Kang, with the Rachmaninoff in particular drawing quite superb playing from both performers.

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07 heritage cover 3kmqvHeritage, another CD celebrating mid-20th-century Russian composers, sees the French-Russian violinist Fedor Rudin accompanied by pianist Boris Kusnezow in a recital of works by Prokofiev, Shostakovich and, in particular, his own grandfather Edison Denisov (Orchid Classics ORC100183 orchidclassics.com).

Denisov’s rarely heard Three Concert Pieces Op.15 from 1958 opens a CD which also includes his short 12-tone Sonata from 1963 and the unpublished 1972 Sonatina that marked a return to more melodic tonality. In between are Prokofiev’s Sonata No.1 in F Minor Op.80, the incomplete Moderato con moto movement rom Shostakovich’s unfinished 1945 Sonata in G Minor and Rudin’s own transcription of Denisov’s orchestration of the Prelude and Duo from Debussy’s unfinished opera Rodrigue et Chimène.

Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Hopak completes a terrific CD.

08 schubert late quartets vhpnuIt’s difficult to imagine better interpretations of Schubert’s last two string quartets – No.14 in D Minor “Death and the Maiden” D810 and the quasi-symphonic No.15 in G Major D887 – than those by the Aviv Quartet on Schubert: The Last Quartets (Aparté AP266 apartemusic.com/?lang=en).

The two works were composed during the final years of the composer’s life as he struggled to come to terms with his own mortality. I can’t do any better than quote the publicity release, which says that the Aviv Quartet “brilliantly illuminates the elegiac and tragic melodies in which Schubert wrapped his torments.” That they certainly do, in stunning performances that grab you from the opening bars of No.15 and hold you enthralled until the last note of the great D minor. 

09 brahms asq 8i1ukThe Alexander String Quartet marks its 40th anniversary as well as the departure of founding violist Paul Yarbrough with Brahms: String Quartets, the final volume in the ensemble’s series of the complete string chamber works of Brahms (Foghorn Classics FCL2022 foghornclassics.com).

Yarbrough notes that the ASQ took decades to feel ready to record these quartets, and they certainly get to the heart of the music in powerful performances of strength and depth in the String Quartets in C Minor Op.51 No.1 and in A Minor Op.51 No.2. The String Quartet No.3 in B-flat Major Op.67 – Brahms’ favourite of the three – is bright and playful.

A transcription of Brahms’ Intermezzo in A Major Op.118 No.2 by the ASQ’s first violinist Zakarias Grafilo completes a fine disc.

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10 mendelssohn takacs ltuy0Works by the brother and sister Mendelssohns are given committed performances by the Takács Quartet on Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn String Quartets (HyperionCDA68330 hyperion-records.co.uk/a.asp?a=A1355).

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel`s String Quartet in E-flat Major from 1834 was her only work in the genre and may never have been performed in her lifetime, the score and parts not being published by Breitkopf & Härtel until 1988. It`s now favourably compared with quartets by her younger brother, Schubert and Schumann.

The central work on the disc is the String Quartet in F Minor Op.80 from 1847, written by Felix in the closing months of his life and into which he pours his grief over the death of his sister in May of that year. His String Quartet in A Minor Op.13 from 1827 completes a lovely disc.

11 dover beethoven 2 x9y7eThe high standard set by the Dover Quartet with its first volume of Beethoven Complete String Quartets continues with the 3CD set Volume 2 The Middle Quartets (Cedille CDR 90000 206 cedillerecords.org).

This release covers String Quartets No.7 in F Major Op.59 No.1, No.8 in E Minor Op.59 No.2, No.9 in C Major Op.59 No.3 (all commonly referred to as the Razumovsky quartets), No.10 in E-flat Major Op.74 “Harp” and No.11 in F Major Op.95 “Serioso.”

My December 2020 review of the previous volume described the performances as being full of conviction and depth, and noted that this promised to be an outstanding set. There’s certainly no reason to change those opinions.

12 rhythm cover 8cmxtRhythm & the Borrowed Past features violinist Daniel Kurganov and pianist Constantine Finehouse performing world premiere recordings of works by Lera Auerbach and Richard Beaudoin, along with works by John Cage and Olivier Messiaen (Orchid Classics ORC100182 orchidclassics.com).

Auerbach`s Sonata No.3 for violin and piano and Beaudoin`s In höchster Not (in deepest need) were both written in 2005, the former a powerful and striking work that makes an immediate impact and the latter described by the composer as being marked by a constant evasion of stabilities, the contrapuntal lines in all three movements not necessarily coinciding.

Cage`s very effective Nocturne from 1947 is written in fluid notation, resulting in some performances being twice as long as others. An outstanding performance of Messiaen`s Thème et variations from 1932 completes a top-notch CD.

13 crossroads cover ruyvvOn Crossroads, the Duo Dramatique – violinist Dominika Dancewicz and pianist Donald Doucet – presents a recital of modern American works for violin and piano (Navona Records NV6380 navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6380).

Arthur Gottschalk’s Sonata pays homage to the jazz violinists Stephane Grappelli, Johnny Frigo and Joe Venuti in a delightful work with echoes of “Bluesette” and “When Sunny Gets Blue,” and a Bebop last movement.

Karl Blench’s Sonata “In D” (a reference to the performers’ names) uses extreme contrasts in music meant to depict sarcasm, humour and quiet serenity, with a virtuosic moto perpetuo Finality last movement. Erberk Eryilmaz’s terrific Insistent Music draws on Eastern European folk music, with percussive patterns and explosive melodic lines.

Both players are quite outstanding in a CD simply bursting with life and energy.

14 reger s1u2uThe recent pandemic has provided the impetus for numerous solo recording projects, the latest of which to reach me is Reger Three Suites for Solo Viola Op.131d played by violist Tonya Burton (Tōnsehen TSN-009 tonsehen.com).

Reger wrote the suites in 1915. They are short four-movement works (total CD time is only 30 minutes) which look back to Bach, whom Reger idolized, but also forward with early-20th-century traits. Each movement is written in Baroque or Classical form, with Reger’s usual chromaticism balanced by lyrical melodies.

Burton calls the suites “enticing, expressive and dramatic, all the while full of humour and charm,” qualities amply displayed in her excellent performance.

15 adam levin 98gc5With the 2CD set 21st Century Spanish Guitar Vol.4 the outstanding guitarist Adam Levin completes his 13-year commissioning project that produced more than 30 new works (Frameworks 793888175143

CD1 is the brilliant and striking Concierto de La Herradura by the Cuban composer Eduardo Morales-Caso, with the Orquesta de Extremadura conducted by Álvaro Albiach.

CD2 features world-premiere recordings of four solo works: Leonardo Balada’s Caprichos No.14; the bluegrass-influenced Portraits from the Heartland by Jorge Muñiz, written in 2015 for the bicentennial of Indiana and built on the state anthem On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away; José Luis Turina’s Arboretum; and Salvador Brotons’ Sonata Sefardita Op.143, a gathering of songs in the Sephardic tradition.

16 david tanenbaum ho7gdMusic written specifically for the guitarist, in this case David Tanenbaum, also features on As She Sings, a CD showcasing works created for him during the past five decades (ReEntrant REN01 newfocusrecordings.com).

Sérgio Assad’s Shadows and Light is followed by Ronald Bruce Smith’s fascinating Five Pieces for guitar with live electronics, in which different playing styles combine with a range of electronic processing.

Music for Guitar is an early piece by Tanenbaum’s father Elias Tanenbaum. Tanenbaum is joined by mezzo-soprano Wendy Hillhouse, flute, bass and ceramic gongs for Dušan Bogdanović’s Games, seven short settings of poetry by the Yugoslavian poet Vasko Popa.

John Anthony Lennon’s elegiac title track completes an intriguing and sometimes challenging disc.

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