01 Mikolaj WarzynskiMikolaj Warszynski is a thinker. His notes read like an inspired thesis defence. He has solid and clear rationale for the program choices on his newest recording: Piano Solo – Haydn; Szymanowski; Liszt; Chopin (Anima ANM/141200001). Warszynski creates a journey that begins with classical structure and logic, and ends in raw emotion.

Haydn’s Sonata in C Major Hob.XVI:50 is unique for its references to pedalling, found in none of Hadyn’s other keyboard works. The effect is arresting, especially since Haydn allows some odd harmonies to run together. Warszynski’s keyboard technique for this piece is very direct and rather more powerful than we generally expect for this repertoire. He justifies this in his notes on the work’s recipient, a leading London pianist in 1794, who possessed both formidable technique and a powerful English Broadwood piano. The execution is crisp and clear with no sacrifices to phrasing or subtlety.

Karol Szymanowksi’s Shéhérazade from Masques Op.34 is, despite its modernity, as dependent on clarity and articulation as the opening Haydn Sonata. It’s built in a logical arch that Warszynski makes great effort to respect. Still, he captures the exotic program material with an improvisational style that begins to move us away from structure and into the world of Liszt and Chopin.

The Mephisto Waltz uses some lightly applied form and programmatic ideas that leave plenty of room for the transformation of themes that Liszt so uniquely championed. Warszynski finds all the latitude he needs to explore this through the contrasting middle section before he dives back into the emotional intensity that completes the waltz.

Warszynski arranges four pieces by Chopin to serve as a final statement about his program, concluding with the Polonaise in B Minor Op.53 “Héroique” played more slowly than most performers would ever dare. Citing Chopin’s own preferences to avoid the virtuosic showmanship this piece often elicits, he plays it with an overriding sense of nobility.

Concert Note: Mikolaj Warszynski performs with piano duo partner Zuzana Simurdova in Toronto on November 11 at Gallery 345 in The Art of the Piano series and as part of the Nocturnes in the City at St. Wenceslaus Church on November 13.

Review

02 Charles Richard HamelinQuebec-born Charles Richard-Hamelin has added a second recording to his discography. Recorded in May this year, Charles Richard-Hamelin Live – Beethoven; Enescu; Chopin (Analekta AN 2 9129) opens with two Rondos by Beethoven. Because the pieces are so very Classical, they tend to be overlooked in favour of his later, more potboiling audience pleasers. Richard-Hamelin raises the emotional bar on these early works and plays them as Romantic flirtations. It’s very effective.

George Enescu’s Suite No.2 for Piano Op.10 dates from the turn of the 19th century and uses some surprisingly contemporary harmonies. Richard-Hamelin plays these short dance pieces with affection for the graceful nature of the suite’s four parts. Each is uniquely coloured. Pavane, especially, has a dark introspection that Richard-Hamelin explores with intimacy.

He uses the same inclination to begin the Chopin Ballade No.3 in A-flat Major Op.47 but rises to all the grandeur required as the Ballade builds to its finish. The following Nocturne in E-flat Major Op.55 No.2 requires getting deep inside Chopin’s intentions as he shifts tonalities and layers ornaments over very simple thematic ideas. Richard-Hamelin demonstrates a genuine understanding of this music and reveals more of its inner secrets in a gratifying way.

The recording concludes with Introduction and Rondo in E-flat Major Op.16 and the Polonaise in A-flat Major Op.53 “Heroique”. Each is a cauldron of technique but “Heroic” stands out for its less than traditionally punctuated phrases in favour of a more fluid approach.

Concert Note: Charles Richard-Hamelin performs in Toronto at Koerner Hall on November 10, in Aurora at the Aurora Cultural Centre on November 11 and in St. Catharines with the Niagara Symphony Orchestra at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre on November 27.

Review

03 Piano CameleonsFusing Classical and Jazz has been done before and its success always depends on the calibre of the musicianship brought to the keyboard. A new recording, Piano Caméléons (Justin Time JUST 257-2) features pianists Matt Herskowitz and John Roney recasting many of the classical repertoire’s best known melodies in a jazz voice. The project boasts Oliver Jones as its guide and mentor, and Jones writes glowingly about what the pianists have achieved. Jones also performs with them in the Minuet in G Major BWV 114 by Bach/Petzold.

The opening track uses the Bach Prelude No.2 in C Minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I. After establishing key and rhythmic pattern, Herskowitz and Roney begin drifting from Bach’s melody into a descant that eventually develops into a catchy swing embellishment, all the while maintaining the original pulse of Bach’s keyboard idea. Very clever.

With Debussy’s Claire de lune, the approach changes. Here they use only the briefest motif from the opening measures and spend more creative effort sustaining the piece’s atmosphere. They never let go of the thematic fragment entirely, although they wander significantly before quoting it again at the close.

Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor Op.3 No.2 introduces some mysterious percussion at the outset, remains dark and ominous throughout and offers an impressive display of technique from both keyboards.

The track that emerges as a truly brilliant conception and performance is the Chopin Étude in C Minor Op.10 No.12 “Revolutionary. Starting with the familiar cascade of the work’s first idea Herskowitz and Roney create the turbulence of the “Revolution” and stay with its minor key almost entirely through their jazz treatment. It’s ingenious and impressively creative.

04 Jean Baptiste MullerAnother welcome recording from Jean-Baptiste Müller, Chopin – Sonata No.3; Schumann – Kreisleriana (JBM 40665 jean-baptiste-mueller.com) begins with Chopin’s third and final Sonata in B Minor Op.58. Formally freer than its two predecessors, it sports a wildly sparkling but brief Scherzo that Müller plays with easy abandon. The third movement that follows is marked Largo, and Müller spends a generous amount of time lingering with each of its beautiful ideas. It’s an effective way to contrast the two inner movements of this piece, especially when it concludes with the nonstop energy of the finale. The final movement demands stamina and clarity through its many relentless cascading runs and towers of chords. Müller delivers with a secure keyboard style and obvious musicality.

Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana Op.16 is a collection of eight short pieces penned in romantic affection for the composer’s wife-to-be. It requires attention to opportunities for contrasting emotional content. While the faster, louder pieces provide short respites from their inherent tensions, the slower pieces are the real challenge to play. Müller approaches these with an unconventional pensiveness that focuses attention on the lingering pauses he uses so effectively at phrase endings. The fourth and sixth pieces in the cycle are examples of just how artfully he applies this device. The closing piece is an impish wee thing performed with a gifted naughtiness that Müller makes no effort hide.

05 Tchaikovsky NebolsinYou need more than just a good grip on the keyboard to play Tchaikovsky No.2. It’s a mental challenge, and Uzbek pianist Eldar Nebolsin has mastered it in his latest recording Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No.2; Concert Fantasia (Naxos 8.573462).

Given the tragedies and criticism with which he dealt during his lifetime, Tchaikovsky made a remarkably victorious statement in this work. The big opening for the orchestra is quickly echoed by the piano and it’s here that Nebolsin establishes his presence. He plays the original score, without the cuts imposed by early critical performers. He has a commanding presence at the keyboard which he uses to keep the orchestra at bay. The first movement is very much a tug of war filled with energy and grandeur that makes the second all the more surprising for its profound melancholy and chamber-like approach. Nebolsin completely surrenders to the trio portions with cello and violin and the three players weave a gorgeous tapestry with the movement’s principal theme. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under Michael Stern holds well back at an unusual distance, heightening the intimacy of this movement and preparing for the eruption of pure joy that begins its finale.

The Allegro con fuoco opens with a quick tempo sustained throughout but the most remarkable feature is the lightness of the piano touch. Nebolsin is simply dancing all over the keyboard in an exhilarating romp to the final chords. It’s a marvellous performance executed with intelligence and a sense of adventure.

The Concert Fantasia in G Major Op.56 is a very different work that gives Nebolsin the opportunity for much more solo playing, showing us yet another side of this accomplished young musician.

06 Steven SpoonerStephen Spooner has recently released the finished results of a huge recording project Dedications – Horowtiz, Richter, Gilels, Cliburn (A Life of Music Records stevenspooner.com). It’s a 16-CD box set that Spooner describes as an homage to the great pianists of the Russian School. The set includes audio liner notes, a live recital and a couple of discs containing hymn transcriptions and other improvisations.

The first three volumes are devoted to Vladimir Horowitz whom Spooner considers to be one of history’s greatest pianists. Without overtly attempting to play as Horowitz played, Spooner does, however, adopt the characteristic thoughtfulness that shaped Horowitz’s keyboard style. While a superb technician, even into his final years, Horowitz always impressed audiences with the feeling that he was somehow considering anew, every note he was playing. There seemed to be a brake on the impulse to rush headlong into virtuosic display for its own sake. This is most evident in Spooner’s performances of Chopin and Rachmaninoff. His Scarlatti Sonatas, some performed on Horowitz’s own piano, recall Horowitz’s crisp, acrobatic fingerings as well as his love of a well-phrased melody.

Sviatoslav Richter gets the lion’s share of the set with eight volumes devoted to his musical legacy. It’s curious that Richter gets so much recorded coverage here. Despite taking recording very seriously, he never enjoyed it as much as live performance. A great many of his recordings are, in fact, live concerts.

In his Richter volumes, Spooner includes Schubert’s Winterreise D.911 in recognition of Richter’s collaborations with both Peter Schreier and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Baritone Chris Thompson performs beautifully, finding the intimacy and fluidity that both his German counterparts cultivated so successfully.

Among Richter’s most critically acclaimed recorded performances are the Liszt B Minor Sonata S.178, Debussy’s Préludes and more than a dozen Haydn Sonatas. Spooner devotes an entire volume to each of these three. Noteworthy too, is that he performs the Liszt twice in one volume using one of Liszt’s last pianos, an 1886 Bechstein, in a comparative performance.

Richter’s broad repertoire included every major composer and Spooner reflects this in volumes containing works by Schumann, Schubert, Chopin, Bartók and Prokofiev.

Emil Gilels receives only a single volume. The physical power of his keyboard technique is captured in Spooner’s performance of Liszt’s Fantasy on a Motif from Wagner’s Rienzi S439. He explores the more intimate and introspective side in a selection of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces as well as Alexander Siloti’s beautiful arrangement of Bach’s Prelude in B Minor from BWV 855.

Van Cliburn, too, gets only a single volume. Remembered as the American kid who won the 1958 Tchaikovsky competition with his stunning performance of a repertoire so close to the Russian heart, Spooner pays tribute to this pianist who beat all the odds at the height of the Cold War.

01 NACO BaroqueBaroque Treasury
Pinchas Zukerman; Charles Hamann; Amanda Forsyth; National Arts Centre Orchestra
Analekta AN 2 8783

Review

Was it really 17 years ago that Pinchas Zukerman became music director of Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra? Although he stepped down in 2015, the renowned and affable conductor and violinist hardly seems ready to slip into retirement any time soon. He remains the orchestra’s Conductor Emeritus and among numerous other endeavours also starts his eighth season as principal guest conductor of London’s Royal Philharmonic and his second as artist-in-association with the Adelaide Symphony. We should all be so active at 68!

The NACO’s most recent recording, Baroque Treasury, featuring oboist Charles Hamann, cellist Amanda Forsyth and Zukerman as both conductor and soloist, is a delight, and is proof indeed that Baroque repertoire need not always be performed on period instruments in order to sound convincing. The disc presents a number of compositions, opening with the rousing Arrival of the Queen of Sheba from Handel’s Solomon. Bach’s familiar Concerto for Oboe and Violin BWV 1060 is given a spirited and sensitive performance by Zukerman and Hamann while Zukerman returns for the less-familiar Pastorale for violin and string orchestra by Giuseppe Tartini as arranged by Ottorino Respighi. He and his wife (Forsyth) then join forces in Vivaldi’s Double Concerto RV547, the pairing a rarity amongst Baroque concertos. Equally rare is Telemann’s Concerto for Viola, one of few concertos for the instrument.

Throughout, the NACO’ s solid performance demonstrates a particular affinity for the Baroque style. The final work is Bach’s familiar Orchestral Suite No.3 and here the orchestra approaches the score with much aplomb. There is a clear sense of joy in this music making, from the grandeur of the Ouverture to the final rollicking Gigue which brings the suite and the disc to a most satisfying conclusion.

While our 21st-century ears may by now be more accustomed to hearing Baroque music performed with thinner, more transparent textures, Zukerman and the NACO demonstrate that a modern ensemble and gifted soloists can also do it full justice.

02 Postcard SessionsThe Postcard Sessions
Harrington/Loewen Duo
Ravello Records RR7934 (parmarecordings.com)

Classical saxophone is, of course, a misnomer: there was no saxophone in the Classical period proper. This statement isn’t meant to ruffle any feathers, and in any case it’s hardly news to practitioners of the art. In fact, it’s been something of a boon: with no stuffy tradition to weigh it down, the instrument has been received by modern composers with open arms.

As it happens, though, the saxophone does have a Western art music heritage. Debussy composed for the instrument, albeit reluctantly; Berlioz admired its “majestic character.” In fact, there is a wealth of accessible and finely crafted music originating from the instrument’s adolescent years, before its reputation had been gilded by its association with jazz and the hypermodern.

Postcard Sessions, the new CD by the Winnipeg-based Allen Harrington (saxophone) and Laura Loewen (piano), focuses on this core canon of saxophone works. By presenting them with great clarity and sensitivity, the Duo help to cement these works’ status as the bulwark upon which the modern saxophone tradition rests.

Of particular note is the clock-like precision of master miniaturist Jean Françaix’s Cinque dances exotiques, but even the pieces here which weren’t written for the saxophone originally feel as though they might have been. On Schumann’s Drei Romanzen, Harrington’s saxophone masquerades as an instrument much older than it actually is.

Harrington’s tone, always dark and warm, casts upon these seminal works a rich patina commensurate with their age and stature in the canon of saxophone music.

03 From Sea to Shining SeaFrom Sea to Shining Sea
7th Toronto Regiment Band Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery
7RCA-003 (goo.gl/Hi9o92)

As the title indicate, this CD takes the listener on a musical journey to many parts of the world, if not actually from coast to coast in Canada. It begins with a modernized version of the traditional Post Horn Galop. With the new title of Gunner Galop, arranger Bobby Herriot has mixed the traditional sound of this work to challenge trumpeter George McCormick with sections of modern swing on the valveless post horn. From that the band moves to two prize-winning marches from the 1990 competition to celebrate the centenary of the Royal Canadian Military Institute. From such more serious works as Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and Johan De Meij’s Loch Ness, the band shifts to the lively upbeat Bobby’s Blues, written for former band director Bobby Herriot by Paul Yoder.

The majority of the selections are compositions by Canadian composers or special band arrangements by Canadians. These include Herriot, David Allen Jacob, Jack McGuire, Ron McAnespie and above all Howard Cable. Cable gets special recognition here with no fewer than six compositions portraying musically different parts of Canada. The band takes the listener from McIntyre Ranch Country to Scene in Iqaluit, Cape Breton Moments and Point Pelee to mention some.

Very, very rarely does a review copy CD have such an effect on me that I simply want to keep playing it instead of listening to the rest of the month’s selections, but that’s exactly what happened with the absolutely stunning CD Janoska Style, featuring the Janoska Ensemble in a dazzling selection of their own distinctive arrangements (Deutsche Grammophon 481 2524).

01 JanoskaThe ensemble features the three Czech brothers Ondrej and Roman Janoska on violin and František Janoska at the piano, with their Hungarian brother-in-law Julius Darvas on double bass. All four musicians had significant independent careers in Vienna before deciding to concentrate on their own music with the Janoska Ensemble in 2013. They combine salon style, gypsy music, jazz and improvisation and bravura cadenzas in virtuosic arrangements that leave you short of breath and scrambling for words to describe them.

From the opening Die Fledermaus Overture à la Janoska, which morphs into a frenetic gypsy version of Those Were the Days, through reworkings of Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie, Massenet’s Thaïs Meditation, Paganini’s Caprice No.24 to Piazzolla’s Adiós Nonino, this is musical imagination, vision and virtuosity of the highest order.

We’re never asked to choose a CD of the Year, but if we were then this would undoubtedly be mine.

Review

02 Haimowitz BachOvertures to Bach is the latest CD from the cellist Matt Haimovitz on the Pentatone Oxingale Series label (PTC 5186 561). It’s yet another tour-de-force solo recital of Bach and Bach-inspired contemporary works from this outstanding performer.

Haimovitz’s continuing relationship with the Bach Cello Suites stretches back over a period of more than 30 years, and in this latest venture – which he calls a culminating moment in the relationship – he has commissioned six new overtures that reflect on and anticipate the six individual suites and, by expanding on the cross-cultural and vernacular references in Bach’s music, reach both forward and backward in time. Each new piece is followed by the Prelude to the relevant Suite. The new works, in Suite order, are: Overture by Philip Glass; The Veronica, by Du Yun; Run, by Vijay Iyer; La memoria, by Roberto Sierra; Es War, by David Sanford; and Lili’uokalani for solo cello piccolo by Luna Pearl Woolf.

Haimovitz is superb in the wide range of technical challenges presented by the new works, and is as thoughtful and inquisitive as ever in the Bach Preludes. It’s a simply outstanding CD.

03 Bartok ChiaraWhen I saw the title of the new 2-CD set from the Chiara String Quartet – Bartók by Heart (Azica ACD-71310) I couldn’t believe my eyes. Surely it didn’t mean that they were performing all six of the Bartók quartets from memory? Well, yes it did, and yes they were.

I don’t think you necessarily have to be a string player to be able to appreciate the simply staggering nature of such a challenge, but anyone who has ever played in a string quartet will know exactly what is involved here – you don’t simply have to remember your own part, but also everybody else’s part to a large extent so that the complete picture is always present in your mind. And these are six works of huge complexity and technical difficulty.

It’s important, though, to move beyond the astonishing magnitude of the feat itself to the musical and emotional result, and the level of the performances here more than repays the effort involved. Interestingly, the quartet members feel that memorizing the music made the more difficult passages easier to play, and that the process took the music back to the aural tradition from which Bartók drew his initial influences.

One thing is certain: in a fiercely competitive field there isn’t another Bartók set quite like this one.

04 Koh TchaikovskyThe outstanding American violinist Jennifer Koh, who has produced a string of terrific CDs for the Cedille label featuring contemporary compositions, returns to the standard repertoire for her latest release, Tchaikovsky Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra, with Alexander Vedernikov conducting the Odense Symphony Orchestra (CDR 90000 166). The trademark Koh intelligence and sensitivity in programming is still there, however: Vedernikov was the conductor when the 15-year-old Koh played the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major Op.35 in the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians in 1992, the same year in which she first played with the Odense Symphony, and in 2011 all three performed together for the first time.

Koh admits to possibly being more patient in the concerto after all these years, and there is certainly never any sense of rushing in what is a carefully measured and highly lyrical performance. There aren’t quite the fireworks that you’ll find in some recordings, perhaps, but that doesn’t in any way diminish the interpretation here – it’s a thoughtful, personal statement from a player with impeccable technique.

Tchaikovsky’s works for violin and orchestra all date from the years 1875-78. The Sérénade melancolique in B Minor Op.26 from 1875 and the Valse-Scherzo in C Major Op.34 from 1877 open the disc, with the 1878 concerto as the central work; the Glazunov orchestration of the three-piece Souvenir d’un lieu cher Op.42, also from 1878, completes a highly satisfying CD.

Another outstanding American musician, cellist Zuill Bailey, features on two new CDs.

05 ArpeggioneOn Arpeggione (Azica ACD-71306) he teams with guitarist and composer David Leisner in a recital that includes Schubert’s Sonata in A Minor (Arpeggione) D821, de Falla’s Siete Canciones Populares Españolas and the world premiere recording of Leisner’s own Twilight Streams. Short pieces by Gluck, Saint-Saëns and Villa-Lobos fill out a CD that ends with an astonishing transcription of a virtuosic violin piece by Paganini – the Variations on One String on a Theme from Rossini’s Moses.

Terrific technique and warm tone from both players make this a charming disc. All of the arrangements other than the Villa-Lobos are by Leisner.

06 Re Imagined Ying QuartetOn Reimagined: Schumann & Beethoven for Cello Quintet (Sono Luminus DSL-92204) Zuill Bailey joins the Ying Quartet in arrangements of the Schumann Cello Concerto in A Minor Op.129 and Beethoven’s Sonata No.9 for Violin and Piano Op.47Kreutzer.” The Schumann arrangement is by the performers; the Beethoven is an anonymous arrangement from 1832.

The Schumann works well, but the revelation here is the “Kreutzer” Sonata. The absence of a piano makes for a completely different opening, for starters, but the entire work comes across not just as a transcription or arrangement but as a new Beethoven string quintet – and a stunning one at that. It makes you realize and appreciate the sheer depth and strength of the original sonata.

The playing is outstanding throughout a quite fascinating and thought-provoking CD.

07 Brahms TetzlaffHaving first recorded the Brahms Violin Sonatas in a 2002 live performance, violinist Christian Tetzlaff and his regular collaborator pianist Lars Vogt have revisited them after 14 years as they feel that their growth as a duo has resulted in their having more to say (Ondine ODE 1284-2). I’ve never heard the 2002 CD, but this latest issue provides ample proof that the duo does indeed have a great deal to say in these immensely popular works.

The opening of the Sonata No.1 in G Major Op.78 is simply lovely, and the beautiful playing that follows evokes all the usual Brahms descriptive terms – it’s warm, gentle, expansive and autumnal in feel. The Sonata No.2 in A Major Op.100 is equally lovely, and there is plenty of fire in the Sonata No.3 in D Minor Op.108.

Brahms’ contribution to the F.A.E. Sonata, the Scherzo WoO 2 completes the disc. The playing from both performers throughout is rhapsodic, passionate and nuanced, with an excellent dynamic range and a simply lovely recorded sound. This is one revisit that is quite clearly well worth the trip.

08 Prokofiev CooperThere’s more lovely duo playing on Prokofiev Music for Violin and Piano, the debut duo CD by violinist Jameson Cooper and pianist Ketevan Badridze issued on the Afinat Records label (AR1601) in celebration of the 125th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The English-born Cooper has long been active in the United States, and is the first violinist with the Euclid Quartet in residence at Indiana University South Bend, where Badridze is also on the faculty as a senior lecturer.

It’s a CD that certainly makes a lovely birthday present, with outstanding playing of the three works on the program: the Five Melodies Op.35bis; the Violin Sonata No.1 in F Minor Op.80; and the Violin Sonata No.2 in D Major Op.94bis. Both performers are in great form, with their outstanding techniques allowing them to explore the emotional depths of the dark and intensely personal F Minor sonata in particular.

Cooper and Badridze have some top competition in this field – I’ve reviewed similar CDs by Viktoria Mullova, Alina Ibragimova, Jonathan Crow and James Ehnes in the last few years – but this is a disc that can more than hold its own. Cooper’s insightful and perceptive booklet notes complete a terrific package.

09 Caroline GouldingThe 23-year-old American violinist Caroline Goulding teams with pianist Danae Dörken on her debut CD of music by Georges Enescu, Antonín Dvořák and Robert Schumann (Ars Produktion ARS 8536).

The choice for the opening work on the disc, Enescu’s Impressions d’enfance Op.28, is a surprising but strikingly successful one. This simply astonishing suite that traces the course of a child’s day is not what you would expect on a debut disc, but it provides a wonderful palette for violinists to display their range of tone colour as well as their technique, and Goulding takes full advantage of it.

There is something pleasingly old-fashioned about Goulding’s playing in some respects, with its big warm tone and vibrato and her judicial use of portamento. The Dvořák Romantische Stücke Op.75 benefits greatly from this in a lovely performance, and there is more nice playing from both performers in Schumann’s Violin Sonata No.2 in D Minor Op.121.

All in all, an excellent debut CD from a definite talent.

10 Adler Cello ConcertoMaximilian Hornung is the soloist in the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra by the American composer Samuel Adler (b.1928) on the CD José Serebrier conducts Samuel Adler (Linn CKD545); Serebrier also conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in Adler’s Symphony No.6.

The concerto is a strong four-movement work written for the Cleveland Orchestra and its principal cellist Stephen Geber almost 30 years ago, when Adler was a professor at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. The movements strike a lovely balance between slow, lyrical writing for the cello and rhythmically strong up-tempo passages that show a fair bit of jazz influence.

The symphony is perhaps the more significant recording here. It was written in 1984-85 for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and their conductor David Zinman, but Zinman left the orchestra before the work could be scheduled. This recording is the premiere performance of the symphony as well as the first recording.

It’s a powerful three-movement work with a simply explosive start and a slow, expressive middle movement between two fast outer movements. The orchestration has a distinctively American feel, with more than the occasional hint of Leonard Bernstein, especially in the handling of the percussion and the rhythmic writing.

The short orchestral tone poem Drifting On Winds And Currents concludes an impressive CD.

01 Silver GarburgUsing the piano as an orchestral percussion section, often brutally, is a requisite for performing Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg are unrestrained in conveying the savagery of the ballet’s storyline in their recording Igor Stravinsky – Petrouchka, Le Sacre du printemps (Berlin Classics 0300588BC). Stravinsky wrote this duet version of The Rite of Spring at the same time as the orchestral score. Curiously, the piano version was published a week before the stormy Paris premiere in May 1913, while the orchestral score remained unpublished for another eight years.

The Silver-Garburg duo performs wonderfully throughout this work always using the well-placed quieter moments of repose as contrast against the wilder passages. They understand it completely and play with a commitment to making an emotional impact no less powerful than the larger orchestral score.

Petrouchka also exists as a piano duet by Stravinsky. He finished it just as he began The Rite of Spring in 1911. The duo performs it beautifully. They play with exceptional unity and control especially through the long mystical pauses and speed changes of Petrouchka’s Room. Their crisp, energetic staccatos make Russian Dance a track worth hearing more than once. The disc’s closing track, The Mummers is a brilliant display of speed and technique, and a terrific ending to this recording of two of Stravinsky’s most admired compositions.

02 Prjevalskaya RachmaninoffShortly after winning the 2013 Cincinnati World Piano Competition, Marianna Prjevalskaya recorded Marianna Prjevalskaya plays Rachmaninoff, Variations on Themes by Chopin and Corelli (Fanfare Cincinnati FC-008). The works are big and sit 30 years apart in Rachmaninoff’s oeuvre. The earlier set of variations on the theme of Chopin’s Prelude in C Minor Op.28 dates from 1902. Prjevalskaya plays these 22 pieces capturing all the references to Chopin’s language as well as the early hints of Rachmaninoff’s growing penchant for large-scale orchestral statements, even if only from a keyboard. There’s a lot of emotional variety in this set, with retrospective glances at the Baroque and Classical. But Prjevalskaya ensures that we never lose sight of the essential Russian-ness of the composition. The concluding variation, Maestoso, embodies this in its larger-than-life declaration of Chopin’s idea as towering chords of Russian pianism.

Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op.42 shows us a different composer. Prjevalskaya knows this, and plays with a focus on Rachmaninoff’s more modern vocabulary. She uses his rhythmically irregular figures and unexpected harmonic shifts to present the mature composer writing his last solo piano work. Her approach is less academic than the earlier set and far more a full concert piece that asks to be considered as a whole. It’s for this reason that we hear more clearly the Rachmaninoff of the piano concertos, his melodic voice and rich harmonic palette. Imagine hearing the premiere performed by the composer in Montreal in 1931.

Review

03 Lisitsa Love StoryFilm music is a reliable audience pleaser for orchestras, and people never seem to tire of the great themes that slumber in the soundtracks of so many half-forgotten films. Since its early role as accompaniment to films, the piano has receded into more of a concerto relationship with orchestral film music. Still, many a good theme falls to the keyboard, and Love Story, Piano Themes from Cinema’s Golden Age (Decca 4789454) collects some of film’s most beautiful music for this instrumental combination.

The screen seems to require composers to write in a way that gives immediate access to emotion and drama. Valentina Lisitsa, whose controversial public stance on the turmoil in Ukraine compelled the Toronto Symphony to cancel her 2015 concerts, appears on this disc as the pianist. Her performance of these screen works with the BBC Concert Orchestra is superb. She brings all the requisite concert technique and expression to the service of the score. It’s all intensely Romantic and very lush, graphic music. You can almost smell the popcorn.

There’s a surprisingly conservative Classic/Romantic tradition to these scores. Richard Adinsell’s Warsaw Concerto is the best example of this. Hubert Bath’s Cornish Rhapsody from Love Story (1944) sounds remarkably like Rachmaninoff, while Nino Rota reveals his own voice in The Legend of Glass Mountain (1949). A delightfully unusual track is Dave Grusin’s New Hampshire Hornpipe from On Golden Pond (1981). Here Lisitsa, without orchestra, creates the convincing atmosphere of an early New England folk dance.

The title music from the 1985 TV series Pride and Prejudice, with its period feel, is an artful work by composer Carl Davis. Lisitsa takes her solo moments in this as though they were short solos in Mozart piano concertos. Pure delight.

04 Keys to the CityThis unusual recording Keys to the City – The Great New York Pianists Perform the Great New York Songs (Roven Records RR99999) is a celebration of the Big Apple’s music by its own musicians. As an added treat, the liner notes have the pianists writing about each other. Glen Roven writes about Dick Hyman, Hyman about Frank Owens, Billy Stritch about Paul Shaffer and so on. It’s a wonderful gathering of performers who admire each other’s contribution to the New York keyboard scene.

A few highlights from the playlist include Axel Tosca playing Take the “A” Train with a strong Latin feel that works surprisingly well, Dick Hyman playing 42nd Street, and Frank Owens performing Lullaby of Broadway with a distinctly Gershwinesque feel. There’s also Glen Roven playing 55th Street Bop in a trio for piano, violin and cello.

The bonus track on this disc has pianist, conductor and teacher Leon Fleisher performing Earl Wild’s arrangement of Gershwin’s The Man I Love. He plays it entirely with the left hand, a reminder of the rare condition he suffered, causing him the loss of his right hand for performance.

05 American VisionsPianist Ian Gindes is a commissioned officer in the US National Guard. His pride in the distinctive language of American music is evident throughout the tracks of American Visions (Centaur CRC 3476). More than half the disc is music by Aaron Copland whose Four Piano Blues No.3 opens the program with a tender and haunting tribute to pianist William Kapell. Gindes establishes his credible interpretive abilities in this quiet and muted piece.

He next explodes into Copland’s Rodeo where Buckaroo Holiday and Hoe-down are crisp, powerful and highly energized. Saturday Night Waltz is often played more pensively but Gindes’ approach is entirely consistent with the rest of the suite and works well.

Our Town is Copland’s music to Wilder’s play. It’s less idiomatic than Rodeo and Gindes’ approach reflects the composer’s focus on the atmospheric, emotional narrative. Gone here is the big Copland piano sound of Rodeo. In its place is a deeply quiet introspection delivered by sparse writing and measured playing. Gindes proves to be a superb Copland interpreter.

A couple of fun tracks follow. Études by Earl Wild on Gershwin’s Fascinatin’ Rhythm and Embraceable You are demonstrably virtuosic. Stephen Hough’s equally brilliant arrangements of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s My Favourite Things and Carousel Waltz give Gindes another chance to show his mastery of the keyboard.

The final track is a live recording of Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever for two pianos, eight hands in which Gindes is joined by Tatiana Shustova, Jiafang Yan and Jing Hao. Rousing from start to finish!

06 Field Piano ConcertoIrish-born John Field (1782-1837) was a composer of a modest body of works. Despite their relative neglect, they are exquisitely crafted for any pianist who makes the effort to understand their composer. Benjamin Frith in John Field – Piano Concerto No.7; Irish Concerto with the Northern Sinfonia; David Haslam (Naxos 8.573262), shows Field’s language to have many elements that are antecedents of phrasings and figures we hear in the music of Chopin and Liszt, who both attended the 1832 Paris premiere of the Concerto No.7. It makes for curious listening as Beethoven- and Schubert-like elements also occur. Still, there’s no doubt Field evolved his own voice. He rejected the current trend for virtuosic exhibition, instead favouring nuance and subtlety in his writing and playing. Frith captures these hallmarks of Field’s music. He is generous with his pauses and capably exploits every opportunity to create contrast and interest in Field’s ideas.

Frith is especially engaging in the Irish Concerto, where his gentle touch matches the beauty of Field’s numerous and ornate melodies. This is lovely material and Frith lets not a single note escape his affectionate attention.

The Piano Sonata No.4 in B Major has a frequent early Classical feel and Frith plays it with balanced Mozartian sensibility. Here too there is an ever present lightness to Field’s music that uses none of the turmoil or bombast of some of his contemporaries.

This Naxos disc brings together recordings from 1996, 2013 and 2014. Production values have remained wonderfully consistent over the years and the spread in performance dates is not evident without reading the notes.

07 ArgerichHere’s a terrific video production of a concert featuring familiar and impressive names: Chung, Argerich, Angelich: Live at the Theatre Antique d’Orange, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, BelAir Classics (BAC132). The first-century Roman amphitheatre is packed with an eager audience. Myung-Whun Chung conducts one of Europe’s finest orchestras. And a statue of Caesar looks down on them all as they open the concert with Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture.

The pianistic treat on the program is Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in D Minor. Martha Argerich and Nicholas Angelich are at their respective Steinways. The whole thing is impeccably played and presented. Clever production offers occasional split screen views of both keyboards in action. Chung conducts the entire evening without a score. He joins the two pianists at a single keyboard to play Rachmaninoff’s Romance for Six Hands in A Major. It’s a bit harmonically thick at times but it’s Rachmaninoff and everyone’s having so much fun. Also on the DVD is Saint-Saëns’ Organ Concerto and a blowout encore that brings the audience to its feet.

08 Schubert UnauthorizedSchubert’s string quartet Death and the Maiden has seen a couple of larger reworkings. Mahler set it for string orchestra and John Foulds for full symphony orchestra. In Franz Schubert, The Unauthorized Piano Duos, vol. 3 (Divine Art dda 25125) duo pianists Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow give us the recording premiere of this 1878 arrangement by Robert Franz.

Franz has arranged the quartet beautifully with part distribution balanced across the keyboard. He uses the added advantage of adding inner harmonies not available to the original four string instruments. Goldstone and Clemmow play fully pianistically using everything the piano can offer. It gives the feeling of the quartet being a rather large duo piano sonata and is completely believable.

The second movement theme and variations on the title Lied is wonderfully played. The third movement theme gets added punch from the piano’s powerful bass register. Goldstone and Clemmow play an impressive final movement never showing the strain that Schubert’s relentless tempo imposes.

This disc also offers the Unfinished Symphony in an arrangement by Hüttenbrenner, to which Goldstone has added his completed version of the Scherzo and Trio, using Schubert’s sketches. Goldstone also adapts a fourth movement finale using the Entr’acte from Rosamunde D.797.

 

01 Beethoven TafelmusikBeethoven – Symphony No.9
Plundrich; Nesi; Balzer; Tischler; Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra & Chamber Choir; Bruno Weil
Tafelmusik Media TMK1030CD
(tafelmusik.org)

With his Symphony No.9, Beethoven introduced a whole new compositional territory into the musical world of Vienna. From its 1824 premiere, this work not only influenced several generations of symphonic composers but also became the symbol of victory for humanity. The struggle and rise of man (on both personal and universal levels), so powerful in this symphony and unlike anything heard before it, has produced a wide array of interpretations and recordings. Many argue passionately which one is the best. A few of the notable ones definitely include Karajan’s version from 1962, Bernstein’s from 1989 and the recording by Gardiner in 1994 on period instruments.

So it is in this good company that Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra offers its own dynamic interpretation under the direction of Bruno Weil. Recorded at live concerts at Koerner Hall in Toronto in February 2016, the album holds the animated energy of a live performance. I enjoyed the precise and light articulation of the period instruments in the second movement and slightly subdued colours and the beautiful swelling of the third movement phrases. But make no mistake – Tafelmusik sounds just as powerful as any contemporary symphony orchestra. It builds the momentum of the emotional narrative with conviction, starting from the solemn D Minor theme of the first movement all the way to the jubilant ending of the fourth in D  Major. Tafelmusik Chamber Choir and soloists – Sigrid Plundrich, Mary-Ellen Nesi, Colin Balzer and Simon Tischler – are all superb in bringing out the purity and drama of Beethoven’s music. 

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