01_rameau_masquesRameau - Pieces de clavecin en concerts
Ensemble Masques; Olivier Fortin
ATMA ACD2 2624

No, Jean-Philippe Rameau was not a sympathetic man. He was a misanthropic individual who lost no opportunity to start arguments with Jean-Jacques Rousseau during the heated discussions on the merits of French versus Italian opera.

From its very first tracks, La Pantomine and L’indiscrète, this is mercifully not apparent on this CD. Both display the virtuoso techniques of the baroque harpsichordist, in particular that French operatic style which Rameau came above all others to dominate.

There is an element of caricature to most of the sixteen movements in the collection. Speculation about the intended target - if any - for La Laborde remains to this day, but it is still a highly charming if eccentric composition. Possibly composed, one pundit says, to honour the inventor of an electric piano in 1759...

Of course, the Pièces de clavecin are not just about the harpsichord. Spirited violin-playing gives L’Agaçante its name and places La Coulicam in its grand and exotic context. Measured flute-playing imparts a slightly sombre quality to La Livri, a lament on the passing of a musical patron.

To describe this CD as varied is a gross under-statement. Pieces are scored for harpsichord, strings and woodwind, for personal acquaintances of Rameau and for his musical friends - in view of his hostile opinions they could hardly be for his enemies.

05_saint-saensSaint-Saëns – Piano Transcriptions
Lucille Chung
XXI XXI-CD2 1682

The late Arthur Fiedler once said: “there are only two kinds of music: The good and the boring kind.” Well, Saint Saëns may not be the greatest composer or even one of the greatest, but he certainly never wrote boring music. And he couldn’t have picked a better performer of his piano music than the young, immensely talented Montreal-born virtuoso, Lucille Chung. Since 1989, when only 10 years old, she has built an impressive career with the world’s leading orchestras and performed in over 30 countries. Her playing has self assured attack, virtuosity, romantic abandon and a sense of youthful exuberance, but there is still room for more subtlety.

She hasn’t recorded much as yet and this unorthodox disc proves that she is not afraid of taking chances. My first approach was sceptical. What would the 2nd Piano Concerto sound like on solo piano? One of the most impressive openings in the piano concerto literature is the impassioned solo cadenza that develops into a breathtaking crescendo leading up to the ff entry of the orchestra, a big moment indeed, which cannot be duplicated by piano solo, but this problem notwithstanding the 1st movement takes shape almost like the original. As she proceeds, the Mendelssohnian scherzo is fluttering like a butterfly over a field of flowers and the rumba-like middle section seductively swings with no effort at all. She has the time of her life, totally relaxed and happy.

The works that follow, except for the ubiquitous Bacchanale, are mostly piano/orchestra pieces transcribed for piano solo by the composer, who was a tremendous pianist in his own right. An interesting curiosity is Africa with its exotic and oriental atmosphere, ending with the Tunisian national anthem carried off triumphantly by our pianist.


Tchaikovsky – Romeo and Juliet; String Serenade; Francesca da Rimini; Victor Ewald – Brass Quintets
Philadelphia Orchestra; Christoph Eschenbach
Ondine ODE 1150-2D


The Philadelphia Orchestra became famous, both live and, since 1926, through recordings, for the opulence of its sound. One has only to experience Ormandy conducting the Rachmaninov Second Symphony on the EuroArts DVD (EA 2072258) to hear exactly what I mean. Christoph Eschenbach was one of the recipients of this legacy, serving as the orchestra’s Music Director from 2003 to 2008.

Francesca da Rimini has been a favourite of mine since time began. I enjoyed it as a rather lurid piece, with swirling strings and winds, much percussion and tormented passages from the whole orchestra (I was very young). Eschenbach has a broader, romantic view of the work, perhaps prosaic, focusing more on the emotions of the condemned Francesca than on her surroundings in a sensational performance that is more expressive than ever. As he does in his Houston recording for Virgin, Eschenbach broadens out the final ten chords to make them a statement of finality. Romeo and Juliet, too, is unhurried with meticulous attention to detail, conveying the poignant tragedy of this oft told tale. Similarly, the Serenade for Strings may be the best you’ll ever hear.

Victor Ewald (1860-1935) was a contemporary of Tchaikovsky… at least for a while, and his compositions for brass are highly regarded… at least by the members of the orchestra who perform them here. These Quintets present no problems to the listener and are, in fact, rather pleasant to hear.

The sound throughout is clear, spacious, and well suited to the repertoire.

03_argerichLive from the Lugano Festival 2009
Martha Argerich and Friends
EMI Classics 6 07367 2

For your next trip you travelers, why don’t you try Lugano, capital of the Italian speaking canton Ticino near the sun drenched southern slopes of the Swiss Alps. Preferably in June when Martha Argerich’s annual festival takes place. Since 2002, BSI Bank has sponsored this event, focused on the once raven haired (now completely grey) Argentinean beauty and pianiste extraordinaire, along with a coterie of young musicians to rehearse and perform concerts of the highest caliber and inspiration.

The 3 discs are nicely subdivided into the chamber music of 1) Schumann, Mendelssohn and Chopin, 2) the Hungarians and Russians, and 3) the Spanish and French.

Already on CD 1 there is a stunning piano duet version of the Midsummer Nights Dream Overture where the shimmering pp strings are transcribed into translucent, lightning fast and wonderfully controlled virtuoso piano playing of Argerich and Cristina Marton. Chopin’s early work from his years in Poland, Introduction and Polonaise Brillante, is guaranteed to raise everyone’s blood pressure played with extraordinary flair and abandon by Martha Argerich and Gautier Capuçon (cello).

More unusual pieces follow on CD 2. First the inimitable young violinist Renaud Capuçon plays Bartok’s 2nd Violin Sonata, a “multilayered study in sonority, predominantly discordant harmony and structure yet still traceable to Hungarian folk tradition.” From the Russians we encounter Glinka and Rachmaninov, from the latter a curious rarity, a Waltz for 6 hands at a single piano(!). I would have liked to see this as I’d imagine there could be some logistical problems here.

The third disc features larger scale works and here my favorite was Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole transcribed for two pianos by the composer and played atmospherically and with imagination by Sergio Tiempo and Karin Lechner. A set to treasure. State of the art recordings.

02_beethoven_9Beethoven – Symphony No.9
Christine Oelze; Petra Lang; Klaus Florian Vogt; Matthias Goerne; Deutscher Kammerchor; Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen;
Paavo Järvi
Sony 88697576062

The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Orchestra was founded in 1980 by a group of exceptional young students and went on to become one of the most sought-after chamber orchestras, appearing at the UN in 1983. They were invited to play at Gidon Kremer’s Lockenhaus Festival where their 1986 performance of Gubaidulina’s Seven Words was issued by Philips. Since 1992 they have been based in Bremen and are self governing, owned by the players. Paavo Järvi has been their conductor since 2004 and in August of that year they began recording a new Beethoven cycle using the Barenreiter Urtext Edition, starting with the Eighth.

The reduced strings contribute to the creation of new textures that are in no way less satisfying for the audience. The winds and brass are more present without losing perspective. Listeners will have a new appreciation of the genius and beauty of Beethoven’s scores.

Järvi has a clear stamp on these performances wherein he refreshes the scores with his own phrasing and accents, with tempi that adhere to Beethoven’s metronome markings. Diehard fans of the traditional school are likely to find Järvi too acerbic and will not easily accept his approach. Even though I was very familiar with Järvi’s performances of all the others, this Ninth came as a quite a shock. It is as if Järvi has finally taken the wraps off, stepped aside and let Beethoven speak for himself, unencumbered by generations of well meaning interpreters. It works well for me and I find Järvi’s non-routine, clear headed interpretations throughout the nine fully justify their existence among a plethora of sets, new and re-issued, which are mostly indistinguishable from each other.

The state-of-the-art hybrid SACD/CDs, whether heard in stereo or surround, are of audiophile quality accurately delineating the instruments exactly as the conductor intended. The executive producers of these recordings are the orchestra itself and Maestro Järvi, which just may account for their excellence.

01_beethoven_9symphonies_liveBeethoven – Live Symphonies
Orchestra de la Francophonie; Jean-Philippe Tremblay
Analekta AN 2 9975-9

If I’m not mistaken, a particular musicologist once said, “French orchestras are incapable of playing German music.” Whoever it was who made this claim would surely have second thoughts upon hearing this fine five-disc Analekta recording of the complete Beethoven symphonies featuring l’Orchestre de la Francophonie under the direction of Jean-Philippe Tremblay. Founded in 2001 for the fourth Jeux de la Francophonie in Ottawa-Hull, this ensemble has earned a reputation as one of the country’s finest youth orchestras, having given more than 200 concerts across Canada, and undertaking a successful tour of China in 2007.

There is certainly no dearth of Beethoven complete symphonies sets, so do we really need one more? Having said that, I can assure you that this one, recorded live at Québec City’s Palais Montcalm in July of 2009, can easily hold its own against the older more established recordings. From the opening hesitant measures of the Symphony No. 1, the listener is immediately struck by the youthful freshness of OF’s approach. The playing is noble and elegant, and when dramatic intensity is called for, it is achieved without the heavy-handed bombast that has sometimes characterized Beethoven recordings from the past.

Admittedly, one of my favourite symphonies of all time is Beethoven’s No.7. I’m pleased to report that the interpretation here is splendid, particularly in the first and final movements, where the strings seemingly shimmer in joyful exuberance. The second movement, mysterious and somewhat cryptic, is treated in a deservingly subtle manner, while the boisterous finale, at one time compared to the merry-making of peasants, brings the symphony to a rousing conclusion. Wagner, who also happened to love this work, (once referring to it as “the very apotheosis of the dance”), would be pleased indeed!

The climax of the set comes with the powerful Symphony No. 9, a true world unto itself. Soloists Marie-Josée Lord, Geneviève Couillard Després, Guy Bélanger, and Ētienne Dupuis together with the Choeur de la Francophonie maintain a wonderful vocal cohesion, admirably blending with the orchestra to form a unified whole.

Despite this being a live recording, extraneous noises are minimal, and the burst of enthusiastic applause at the end of each symphony seems particularly fitting in light of the superb performances. My only quibble concerns the flimsy packaging – it may have been a cost-cutting measure, but a fine recording such as this deserves better. Kudos to l’Orchestre de la Francophonie, to the soloists, the chorus, and to Jean-Philippe Tremblay for breathing some overdue fresh air into this well-trodden repertoire.

03_berliozBerlioz: Symphonie Fantastique op.14;
Le Carnaval Romain
Anima Eterna Brugge; Jos van Immerseel

• I am always leery about ‘period instrument groups’ tackling post 1800 repertoire. Although I am not about to change my prejudice, right from the first bars this recording impressed me as something very special. The uniqueness of this performance is not so just because of the period instruments; conductor van Immerseel brings a fresh approach in colour, tempo, balance, articulation, phrasing and dynamics.

For rabid fans of this symphony (myself included) the experience of first hearing this performance is startling. The presentation is so transparent that details of the scoring, invariably obscured in modern performances, are revealed, particularly from the winds, affirming that Berlioz was a peerless innovative genius.

And what about the ‘period instrument’ component? The Anima Eterna Orchestra, particularly the winds, are superb, playing with joie de vivre, gorgeous sound and beautiful tone colours. As a group they create an irresistible, luminous texture throughout the work. Listeners will be surprised to hear, not the usual bell sounds in the Witches Sabbath but the sustained piano chords as specified in the Berlioz manuscript. The piano strings blend with the orchestra to solemn effect adding a new sense of gravitas with a sobering subterranean effect, quite different from the mood of the tolling bells.

Without any doubt, Van Immerseel and his group daringly demonstrate the originality and genius of the composer. The recording, captured in faultless sound, was made in the sonically impressive Concertgebouw in Bruges to which this group is very well attuned. For me, this has been an unexpected and rewarding discovery.

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