02a_mozart_barenboimMozart - Piano Concertos 22 & 23

Daniel Barenboim; Bavarian RSO; Rafael Kubelik

BR Klassik 900709


Mozart - Piano Concertos 20 & 27

Evgeny Kissin; Kremerata Baltica

EMI Classics 6 26645 2

Was it Anton Rubinstein who once said “Eternal sunshine thy name is Mozart?” Whoever it was would undoubtedly applaud the addition of two new Mozart piano concerto recordings to the already vast number available, performed by two pianists now considered to be among the world’s greatest.


At the age of 67, Daniel Barenboim may be considered one the veterans of the concert-stage, as both pianist and conductor. His newest offering, on the BR Klassik label, features performances from the archives of concertos No.22 and 23 along with the Bavarian Radio Symphony under the direction of Rafael Kubelik. Concerto No.22, written in Vienna in 1785, is a joyful and optimistic work, and here the music is treated in a fresh and engaging manner. The tempo of the first movement, while perhaps a bit brisk, doesn’t detract from the performance, while the second movement Andante and the exuberant Rondo finale constitute a perfect pairing between soloist and orchestra. Concerto No.23 from 1786, was recorded live, and once again, the fine performance is further enhanced by the excellent sound quality – clean and dynamic, it’s as good as you would find today. Recorded in 1970, it’s a mystery as to why it took so long to release these exemplary performances, but they were well worth the wait. This disc is a gem!


No matter what we may think of Evgeny Kissin’s personal eccentricities, there is no denying that he has long been regarded as one of the finest pianists around today. This EMI recording, with concertos No.20 and 27, marks his first in a joint role of pianist/conductor along with the Kremerata Baltica. Here, Kissin, who is more renowned for his interpretations of romantic-period repertoire, proves that Mozart, too, can be treated in a more passionate manner than is usually encountered. From the opening measures of the Concerto No.20 – one of only two Mozart wrote in a minor key - Kissin easily captures the dark and forbidding mood of this tempestuous music. His approach is bold and romantic – which may not be to everyone’s tastes - but Kissin makes it all sound particularly convincing. At the other end of the scale is the serene and ethereal Concerto No.27, Mozart’s last. While his treatment remains romantic, he demonstrates more restraint here, in keeping with the overall mood of the piece. At all times, the Kremerata Baltica provides a sensitive accompaniment, and it would seem that Kissin is as adept at leading an ensemble as he is with performing.


Two fine recordings featuring exemplary repertoire performed by outstanding artists – it doesn’t get much better than this!

03_beethovenBeethoven - The Five Piano Concertos
Paul Lewis; The BBC Symphony Orchestra; Jiří Bělohlávek
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902053.55

The field of Beethoven piano concerto cycles has reached a point of saturation. To stand out, the performers, especially the pianist must be utterly distinctive. Paul Lewis breaks out of the crowd providing a banquet for Beethoven lovers... even those with jaded ears.

I listened to this set in numerical order and I was initially conscious of some idiosyncratic phrasing from the soloist but that changed to total immersion in Beethoven’s genius.

On first hearing, the opening of Lewis’s solo in the first movement of the first concerto impressed me as rather less imaginative than I would have expected. The rest of the movement corrected this impression. The second movement, Largo, is disarmingly tranquil. Delivered as heartfelt poetry, “It floats”. In truth, all the slow movements to follow, whether Adagio or Largo, are played with the same rapt absorption. The third movement is exhilarating where in the joy, the pulse and the humour are clearly conveyed by soloist, conductor, and orchestra alike.

Of these concertos, the first two are “classical”, the third concerto has clearly has romantic buds but even being in a minor key, has an air of optimism throughout. Lewis’s performance reflects these characteristics most convincingly. Number four is a leap into the romantic and Lewis and Bělohlávek are well adjusted to the sombre and serious mood to the extent that their performance is as good as the very best versions I have heard.

The fifth concerto is the most celebrated, a festive work on a large scale that is heard here to be just that. The orchestral texture points to a large orchestra and leaves behind the “period” approach. Again a superlative, thrilling performance.

Bělohlávek and Lewis work hand-in-glove, completely in agreement throughout the cycle, achieving ideal balances between piano and orchestra. I have to mention that I have not heard a piano more faithfully reproduced than on these discs recorded by the BBC.

Without discounting any of the keyboard titans who has gone before, Lewis is much more than competitive. We all have our favourites whose performances, quite often, are imprinted as the touchstone by which to judge others. Let me just say that I enjoy these new performances immensely and, after returning to them often over the past few weeks, find them captivating.

01_mercadti_di_veneziaI Mercanti di Venezia

Bande Montreal Baroque; Eric Milnes

ATMA ACD2 2598


Venice’s ghetto was designed to isolate Jews but unintentionally allowed Jews from all over Europe and the Middle East to live together and share their expertise and pride in their heritage; they created renaissance masterpieces.


Salamone Rossi, from that very ghetto, makes his mark here with a setting of the eternally-popular Eyn Keloheinu - if ever one wanted this hymn scored for renaissance woodwind and organ this would be the definitive item. Several of Rossi’s sonatas grace this recording and yet perhaps most impressive of all is his Sonata in dialogo detta la Viena. The cornetto makes its clear mellow presence felt via Matthew Jennejohn’s sensual interpretations of Rossi’s demanding writing.


Next, a composer and virtuoso cornetto player who also lived in the Venice ghetto: Giovanni Bassano, Rossi’s contemporary and neighbour, pioneered baroque improvisation as early as 1585. Margaret Little (Recercata Ottava, treble viol), Francis Colpron (Recercare Terza, recorder) and Jennejohn (Dimunitions sur Ung Gay Bergier, cornetto) more than meet the challenges set by this virtuoso improviser. Enjoy, too, the last two selections on the CD from Bassano’s 1591 Variations which bring together the full plethora of instruments listed above.


Rossi and Bassano were highly respected by Venetians in or out of the ghetto. This recording opens the door to their music - ajar but open enough for us to want more.


Lastly, music composed by Jews in a country where they were not supposed to exist but did so by concealing their identity. From 1550 to 1604, Augustine Bassano, very probably Jewish, served as a Musician in Ordinary for Recorders at four very different English courts. His Pavan & Galliard, enhanced by some fine recorder playing, stand with anything native English composers could offer.


02_stjohns_mozartMozart - Sinfonia Concertante; Violin Concertos 1 & 3

Scott & Lara St. John

Ancalagon ANC 136 (www.larastjohn.com)


Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola has long been a favourite concerto of mine, and right from the opening bars of this wonderful recording it was clear that here was something very special. The St. Johns (with Scott on viola) have been performing this work in public since they were 12 and 10, and it shows in their sensitive interpretation; they understand every nuance and clearly think and feel as one, both when playing together and in the dialogue passages. Just as critical is the superb contribution of the New York ensemble The Knights under conductor Eric Jacobsen. The accompaniment is beautifully balanced, warm, articulate and refined, and Jacobsen’s choice of tempo is perfect. From the majestic opening Allegro, through the achingly beautiful Andante, to the joyous Presto, this is a breathtakingly fine performance. The ‘romantic’ element in this concerto is often over-played, but the performers here never fall into that trap, keeping things moving and striking exactly the right mood with warm, expansive, but never overstated playing. I simply can’t imagine a more satisfying recording of this glorious work.


Scott and Lara share the two solo violin concertos included here, Scott playing No.1, and Lara playing the more popular No.3, The latter features a long and interesting cadenza in the slow movement that almost seems to look back to the solo works of Bach. Again, top-notch playing from both soloists, with excellent accompaniment. The sound quality is superb throughout. An absolutely outstanding disc.


03_goodyear_beethovenBeethoven - The Late Sonatas

Stewart Goodyear

Marquis 81507 (www.marquisclassics.com)


Just as there’s more than one way to eat an Oreo cookie, there’s more than one way to listen to a recording of late Beethoven piano sonatas.

If I were you, and I’d just acquired Stewart Goodyear’s new 2-CD release of Sonatas 28-32, I’d start at the end, with the second movement of Sonata No. 32 (track 8 on disc 2). Here, you’ll hear Goodyear at his best: there’s a simple piety to the theme; a nice rocking lilt to the dotted passages, delightfully delicate pianissimos, trills to die for, and a sweeping arc that gives the movement a secure and convincing climax.


Next, I recommend listening to the final movement of Sonata No. 30, to enjoy Goodyear’s tender, almost dreamy, touch. Finally, I suggest the final movement of Sonata No. 29 – a tour-de-force of dexterity and contrapuntal clarity. After that, you’re on your own, with many more treasures to discover on these discs.


I wouldn’t say, however, that I agree with all of Goodyear’s interpretative ideas. Occasionally, when Beethoven calls for sudden forcefulness, Goodyear resorts to pounding on the keys. These moments – for instance, in the first movement of Sonata No. 29, or the third movement of Sonata No. 31 – sound heavy-handed and detract from the music’s architecture.


And speaking of the last movement of Sonata 31, there’s one flaw I can’t ignore: about one minute in, there’s a repeated A-natural that’s slightly out of tune. It’s a small point – but why wasn’t it caught and corrected?


Concert Note: Stewart Goodyear’s international touring schedule includes concerts at Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool and Barbican Theatre in London in January and a number of dates in the U.S. in the following months. Toronto audiences can hear this native son in an all-Beethoven program at Koerner Hall on November 28.

04_kuerti_schumannSchumann - Piano Sonata No. 2; Fantasie in C Major

Anton Kuerti

DOREMI DDR-6608 (www.doremi.com)


We are fortunate to have, living in Toronto, an internationally renowned pianist who is also a most respected Schumann interpreter, Anton Kuerti.


On July 20th we had the pleasure of attending the opening recital of the Toronto Summer Music Festival in Koerner Hall in which Kuerti mesmerized a sold-out house playing an all-Schumann program. This was a memorable event by any standards.


As a card-carrying Schumann zealot I have been collecting recordings of his music for half a century. As an admirer of Kuerti’s earlier recordings I was pleased that so many of the audience took advantage of the opportunity to acquire this new CD in a post-concert signing event, especially as the Fantasie, opus 17 had just been heard live. Or should I say experienced, as the influence of an admiring and appreciative audience inspired a more personal reading.


As with all great artists, no two performances can be exactly the same. Notwithstanding such vicissitudes, the recorded version of the Fantasie is outstanding and a fine souvenir of the live performance. The Sonata is presented by Kuerti in a rather sensible and novel way: he includes, as added movement, the original finale that Schumann had replaced because Clara declared that it was unplayable, being just too difficult. The movement was published posthumously simply as Presto für Pianoforte and Kuerti inserts it between the third and fourth movements. Well, Clara was wrong as Kuerti demonstrates in spectacular fashion in this five movement version of Schumann’s opus 22.


Recorded in the Willowdale United Church in August 2009, the sound is clear, appropriately dynamic, and well balanced.



EXTENDED PLAY – AK(A) Antonin Kubálek


Antonin Kubálek and his independent recording label AK were introduced in the July issue with Richard Haskell’s review of his Brahms set (AK 01) so I need not add anything further on Mr. Kubálek’s origins, career, performing history and credentials other than to say that he is a multifaceted virtuoso with the highest degree of technique, expression, subtlety and sensitivity. Although these recordings are all remastered from LP’s of the 1970s we are richly compensated by the quality and insight in these performances. Furthermore, his choice of repertoire is adventurous and full of surprises. Serendipity is the best word to describe them.


01_early_recordingsTo start with, there is the Mozart Rondo in A minor (Early recordings AK 06). This is a fairly late work, almost contemporaneous with the G minor symphony, No. 40. Minor keys are rare in Mozart and this piece is melancholic, played with a wonderfully gentle touch, well differentiated in its parts and in a nowadays sometimes frowned upon romantic manner. Be that as it may this is just right for me. This early disc is particularly rich and rewarding, also featuring works by Beethoven, Janáček and Hindemith. Janáček’s elegiac On an Overgrown Path is a long-time favorite of mine with its influences of nature, folk melodies and Czech language accents. It opens a new avenue in pianism. Each piece is a small masterpiece like “The Madonna of Frydeck” where the ruling minor key changes into major turning infinite pain into gentle sweetness that reminds me of Schubert. “Tears” has a typical Janáček kind of exquisite melody and “The Barn Owl Has Not Flown Away!” is so charming with the flurry of wings grounded by two repeated descending notes. Needless to say this music belongs to Kubálek and very few others can play it as beautifully as he. Hindemith’s Suite “1922” is formidably difficult, dissonant, tongue in cheek, sometimes jazzy, syncopated and inspired, or rather horrified, by early 1920s dance crazes. Hindemith, however, brilliantly intersperses these with dark toned Nachtmusiks perhaps forecasting events to come. “Boston” with its hollow bells and echoes is a particularly strong and despondent uttering.


02_chausson_faureThe original LP of AK 02 was recorded in the 1970s by the CBC in the now defunct Eaton Auditorium with wonderful acoustics, where I heard such legends as Wilhelm Kempff and Annie Fischer (but alas not Rachmaninov, Kreisler and Gould who also performed there!). For the Chausson Concert for violin, piano and strings, Op.21, the Orford Quartet is augmented by Otto Armin so that first violinist Andrew Dawes can join Kubálek in the title role. Here is a performance that truly pushes to the limits; powerful, complex, passionate and rhapsodic. The same can be said for the César Franck Piano Quintet played here with the Vaghy String Quartet. The Quintet caused some uproar upon its debut, and the story goes that Marcel Proust, the notably eccentric French author, hired a group of musicians to play the Quintet for him incessantly day in, day out.


03_paderewski04_souzaSkipping Paderewski (AK 04), who in spite of being a legendary virtuoso and a great statesman – the prime minister of Poland at one time - never was much of a composer no matter how well Kubálek plays his incredibly difficult pieces, I will proceed to Sousa Arrangements (AK 05). This is a most enjoyable disc where Kubálek shows a completely different side of his talent. I can just see him in a bar playing these marches, waltzes and polkas with flying fingers and great delicacy as an entertainer par excellence. The great Arthur Fiedler would be pleased, for this is not “music of the boring kind”.


Editor’s Note: Antonin Kubálek’s recordings are available in Toronto at L’Atelier Grigorian and online at www.grigorian.com and www.cdbaby.com

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