06_if_a_birdIf I Were a Bird - A Piano Aviary
Michael Lewin
Dorian Sono Luminus DSL-92103

Olivier Messiaen once opined that birds were probably the greatest musicians to inhabit our planet, and they have indeed been inspiring many a composer and musician for centuries. With this disc, Michael Lewin pays homage to our feathered muses with a fascinating and entertaining mixture of works for solo piano.

Music by a rich array of composers is found here, and the diversity works brilliantly. There are whimsical offerings by Hoffman, MacDowell and Jensen; touches of delicate melancholy by Grieg, Granados and Schumann; and Rameau and Daquin are tastefully played on a Steinway concert grand. Transcriptions of Glinka, Saint-Saëns, Alabieff and Stravinsky are included, of which the Danse infernale from Firebird is most grand; and Messiaen himself is exquisitely represented by The Dove, written when he was twenty. Lewin also knocks off an enthusiastic rendition of the Joplinesque Turkey in the Straw and it fits the program to perfection.

The pacing of this ‘piano aviary’ is delightful and Lewin plays to dazzling and touchingly expressive effect. Highlights for me are the Messiaen and Schumann, and his renditions of Ravel’s Sad Birds and Cyril Scott’s Water Wagtail, but I will listen to this entire disc repeatedly with great pleasure. Kudos also to the designer of the booklet in which this CD is housed – the design with its rich colours and elegant illustrations is as impressive as the music within.

05_palmer_chopin_dvdThe Strange Case of Delfina Potocka –
The Mystery of Chopin
Directed by Tony Palmer

This is a thought-provoking, intriguing film about an extremely controversial subject. The argument of this DVD is set down in the enclosed notes: “It was a matter of national and socialist pride when, in November 1945, the new Communist Government of Poland asked for, and received, the heart of Chopin previously buried in Paris. Against this background, a woman called Paulina Czernika approached the Polish Minister of Culture, claiming to have some love letters from the composer to her great-grandmother, the Countess Delfina Potocka. At first curious, but eventually alarmed, the Ministry began a witch-hunt against Madame Czernika. For while it was true that there was an historic figure called Delfina Potocka – she was the only lover to whom Chopin dedicated any music – these letters were said to be pornographic, anti-Semitic and thoroughly damaging to the image of the composer as a Polish hero which the Communist government wished to promote. Czernika ‘committed suicide’ on October 17, 1949 one hundred years to the day after the death of Chopin. Or was she murdered, and if so, why? Were the letters in fact forgeries? And what was the truth about Delfina Potocka?

As Czernika encounters publishers and persons in authority, we are privy to selected personal, confidential and intimate details from the composer’s letters. The events revealed in the letters are enacted, in chronological order, by a thoroughly believable cast.

In his book Chopin the Unknown, Polish music scholar, conductor and composer, Matteo Glinski delves deeply into the Delfina Potocka affair (Assumption University of Windsor Press, 1963). Glinski’s credentials are impeccable and of this book, Roman V. Ceglowski, President of the International Chopin Foundation, wrote “I think it is the most provocative study on Chopin in our times” and commended it to Chopin scholars. Glinski quotes convincing evidence of Chopin’s character and his “elusive secret” all lending authenticity to the Delfina letters.

Is Palmer tipping his hand by entrusting the roles of Paulina Czernika and Delfina Potocka to the same actress in this unusual production?     

04a_yundi_dvdThe Young Romantic - A Portrait of Yundi
Barbara Willis Sweete
EuroArts 3079058

Pianist Yundi (he has dropped the use of his last name Li!) is an almost mythical celebrity in China. Since winning the Chopin piano competition at the young age of 18, he has captured the hearts of the people of China, and has a busy international performing schedule, much to the credit of his highly emotional and theatrical performance style. So how then to portray him on film, without the finished product becoming an advertorial to the young pianist?

Director Barbara Willis Sweete’s approach is brilliant – her premise seems to be to present him in a series of contrasting milieus: Yundi on tour in China versus Yundi in Berlin preparing for a recording/concert with the Berlin Philharmonic; The youthful serious soloist Yundi working with the senior witty Maestro Seiji Ozawa; Yundi as a child accordionist versus Yundi the young classical star; Yundi the classical pianist performing with Jay Chou, the pop star keyboardist; His family lovingly reminiscing about his childhood while also lamenting with justifiable sadness that he just doesn’t visit them enough now. Only the segment with Yundi playing ping pong with TSO conductor Peter Oundjian seems idiosyncratic and out of place. Be prepared to be shocked as well – Yundi practiced up to eight hours a day as a child and some of the teaching methods employed are questionable too!

04b_yundi_cdThis is a beautiful flowing film that gives a well rounded portrait of the globetrotting pianist as a young man. The high Rhombus production standards are maintained – the visuals, storyline and editing are seamless. Bonus tracks of Chopin performances are an added treat. Fans and critics alike will enjoy, and also at times be disconcerted, by this superb Canadian made documentary.

Editor’s Note: Yundi’s latest CD release is the complete Chopin Nocturnes on EMI Classics (6 08391 2).

03_fantasy_pahudFantasy - A Night at the Opera
Emmanuel Pahud; Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
EMI Classics 4 57814 2

During my period in music retail many years ago, I was once asked by a customer, “I need a disc of operatic arias, but I don’t want the singing, only the music”(!). I’ve undoubtedly told this story before, and I repeat it now only because it ties in so well with this new EMI recording titled “Fantasy – A Night at the Opera” featuring flutist Emmanuel Pahud with the Rotterdam Philharmonic under the direction of Canadian conductor par excellence Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

As the name suggests, this disc comprises an attractive collection of opera arias as arranged for flute and orchestra. While the operas from which they are derived are familiar, such as Verdi’s La Traviata, and Bizet’s Carmen - the arrangers are decidedly less so, and contrary to what one might think, not all date from the 19th century. For example, the Fantasy on Mozart’s Magic Flute, was composed by Robert Forbes (born in 1939), and the paraphrase from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was written by Guy Braunstein, born as recently as 1971. Also included on the disc is a sensitive (and unarranged) performance of the lyrical Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck’s 1762 opera Orphée et Eurydice.

Not surprisingly, Pahud has no difficulty in meeting the technical demands of the virtuosic and high-spirited writing inherent here, while the Rotterdam Philharmonic, under Nézet-Séguin’s competent baton provides a tasteful and strongly supportive accompaniment.

While most of these arrangements wouldn’t really be classified as Great Music, the disc is nevertheless entertaining and diverting, a true showcase for Emmanuel Pahud’s talents, and proof indeed that Nézet-Séguin is just as at home with this lighter more flamboyant repertoire as he is with music of a more serious nature. Recommended.

02_liszt_laplanteLiszt - Années de Pelerinage Suisse
André Laplante
Analekta AN 2 9980

André Laplante by now can be referred to as Canada’s ‘national treasure’. He is a well established artist especially in the Romantic repertoire and has a worldwide reputation with critics comparing him sometimes to Richter and Horowitz. This new recording for the Analekta label tackles Liszt in an ambitious, rarely recorded program of the first book of the 21 year old Liszt’s romantic wanderings with Countess Marie d’Agoult.

Liszt met the Countess in 1832 in Paris, a married woman 6 years older, but this did not prevent one of the century’s most famous and productive love affairs from developing. Three years later Marie left her family and ran off with Franz to Switzerland, later to Italy. There were 3 children born out of this union, among them Cosima who eventually married Richard Wagner.

As we listen, the pieces vary in character from invocations of natural beauty (Lac de Wallenstadt), literary associations with Byron, Schiller, Goethe, Senacour (Vallée d’Obermann), to force of nature (L’Orage), pastoral melodies (Pastorale, Eglogue) and homage to Swiss history (Chapelle de Guillaume Tell).
Many of the pieces even appear improvised. We can just see after a day of admiring the majestic Swiss countryside, Liszt composing on the piano and playing to his object of affection. Often the quiet, self searching beginnings develop into passion with great intensity.

To capture the many layered complexities of this set, Laplante is the ideal choice and this recording shows it. Being an unassuming, introspective personality, his performances have insightful sensitivity, but never overt emotionalism, dazzling power and virtuosity that never is meant to show off and rich imagination characteristic of a great artist.

01_afiara_mendelssohnMendelssohn - Schubert
Afiara String Quartet;
Alexander String Quartet
Foghorn Records CD 1995

A debut CD is something like a “rookie year” hockey card. It makes you wonder where the talent behind it will ultimately end up – in stardom or in obscurity? Based on this disc, I’m prepared to go out on a sturdy limb and predict a bright future for the Afiara String Quartet.
In case you don’t know, the Afiara Quartet is a young group of Canadians: Valerie Li and Yuri Cho, violins; David Samuel, viola; and Adrian Fung, cello. From 2006 to 2009 the quartet had a residency at San Francisco State University (where they studied with the Alexander Quartet), and they were recently named the graduate quartet-in-residence at the Juilliard School.

For their debut disc, this young group has chosen to perform works by two composers in their teens and early 20s (indeed, neither composer ever got to be very old): Mendelssohn’s Quartet in A Minor Op. 13, Schubert’s Quartettensatz in C Minor D. 703, and Mendelssohn’s Octet Op. 20, written when the composer was just 16.
In this clearly recorded CD, the Afiaras have tapped into the youthful vitality displayed in these scores. Tone is bright and tempos are perky; intonation and balance are excellent. As well, in the more introspective passages (such as the second movement of the Quartet in A minor) playing is delicate yet warm.
In the Octet, the Afiaras are joined by their mentors, the Alexander Quartet, and the two groups merge seamlessly into one glorious ensemble. This is exciting playing – a rich performance that does full justice to Mendelssohn’s youthful masterpiece.

Editor’s Note: At a recent Mooredale Concert where they performed with renowned flutist Robert Aitken, the Afiara Quartet was presented with the $25,000 2010 Young Canadian Musicians Award. The quartet will return to Mooredale Concerts on October 31 to perform with co-winner of the award, pianist Wonny Song.

02_handel_darmstadtHandel in Darmstadt
Geneviève Soly
Analekta AN 2 9121

Researching the music of Christoph Graupner led Geneviève Soly to the Darmstadt Harpsichord Book, which features works by four German composers: Graupner, Handel, Telemann and Kuhnau. Twenty-nine works by Handel are found in the collection and Ms Soly performs twenty-one on this CD - plus a parody on Graupner.

Handel’s Chaconne in G major receives the lively interpretation from Soly that this varied and florid piece deserves. The CD-notes - by Soly - are right to stress Handel’s lyricism.

Some cynically note that Handel was England’s best composer between Purcell and Elgar. The Sonata del Signor Hendel (sic), published in London in 1720, can justify this view. The second allegro and adagio are both testing pieces for any harpsichordist, the former with its two-voice structure of soprano over bass, and the latter sounding as if it were directly transcribed from organ to harpsichord.

Ms Soly adores Handel’s music. As well as meeting the challenge of the adagio already mentioned, she tackles the traditional stylised Baroque dance movements (the sarabande, gigue, allemande and courante). For this reviewer, however, the really inspired playing comes in the Sonata in G major. A test on account of its complexity, its speed, and even its pure stamina, this is Geneviève Soly at her most driven.

Soly’s choice of compositions by Handel is varied to say the least. A traditional German air and variations make up eight of the tracks - Handel at his jolliest. There is even what appears to be a parody of Graupner by Handel, a marche en rondeau.

At the age of eight, Ms Soly knew she would become a performer of classical music. How grateful we are for her ambition.            

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