01 scarlatii knox xjk78Scarlatti – Essercizi Per Gravicembalo
Hank Knox
Leaf Music LM248 (leaf-music.ca)

Hank Knox has used the lockdown period very fruitfully. He spent ten months immersed in this, the only authorized publication by Domenico Scarlatti and, to its credit, one that has remained in print since it was published in 1739. Essercizi per gravicembalo is accurately translated as Exercises for harpsichord, underpinned by Hank Knox’s choice of a harpsichord after the Dulcken family of Flemish harpsichord makers. 

From the start, the combination of Scarlatti’s very lively composing, its consequently demanding playing techniques and the brilliance of Knox, create a solo harpsichord masterpiece. For example, in its complexity the Sonata in A Minor (track 3) is reminiscent of everything J S Bach could create. Perhaps Scarlatti and Bach learned by listening to each other’s works.

Even the longest sonatas, such as that in G Major (track 13) do not let up in their demands on the harpsichordist. This is especially true of the significantly longer second CD. Here, the Sonata in D Major (track 29) continues to bring out the best in Knox.   

It is rare to find a collection of pieces so consistent throughout. Consequently, the sheer consistent joyfulness and exhilaration of these 30 Sonatas mean it is difficult to isolate any particular one as being superior to the others; we are spoiled for choice.

Born in 1685, along with Handel and Bach, Scarlatti is by far the least recognized composer of these three greats. The virtuosic exuberance of his Essercizi in this rendering makes a strong case for diminishing the recognition gap.

Listen to 'Scarlatti: Essercizi Per Gravicembalo' Now in the Listening Room

02 melisande corriveau dg7w5Bach – Au Pardessus de Viole (transcriptions of diverse sonatas with clavecin)
Mélisande Corriveau; Eric Milnes
ATMA ACD2 2826 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Although relatively obscure today, it is not hard to imagine pardessus de viole being the queen of the instruments in mid-18th century France, albeit for a short period of time. The smallest member of the viola da gamba family was invented in France to counter the newcomer of that time – the violin. Its uniquely delicate sound and slender shape were particularly popular with women, inspiring a slew of new compositions and arrangements before falling off the musical radar. 

Multi-instrumentalist Mélisande Corriveau shines spectacularly on this recent release of selected Bach compositions adapted for pardessus de viole. An imaginative and elegant player, Corriveau ventures on a fine exploration of the contemplative aspects of Bach’s music, further enhanced by the sonic qualities of her instrument, which, interestingly, was made during the reign of King Louis XV. On the other end of this musical equation is harpsichordist Eric Milnes, an intrinsic performer with a splendid feel for balance and flourish. Here the voices are so finely attuned to the nuances of Bach’s music that we never question the fact that Bach did not write a single piece for this instrument and, in fact, may not have been aware of its existence. 

The album is comprised of sonatas and trios originally for violin, viola da gamba and organ, rich with counterpoint and dialogue between instruments. There is a stillness and beauty to the ensemble playing that engages the listener on a deep level.

Listen to 'Bach: Au Pardessus de Viole' Now in the Listening Room

03 fabio biondi bach lqr83Bach – Sonatas & Partitas
Fabio Biondi
naïve (highresaudio.com/en/album/view/xhdnab/fabio-biondi-bach-sonatas-partitas)

These timeless works receive a superb and fanciful recorded performance from one of the most interesting and adventurous violinists alive today. 

The Six Sonatas and Partitas were written sometime between 1717 and 1723, while Bach was employed by Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. The sonatas are each made up of four substantial movements, including brilliant and virtuosic fugues. The partitas are jammed with a variety of dance movements and “doubles,” the D Minor Partita concluding with the justly renowned extended Chaconne.

The brilliant Fabio Biondi is a celebrated violinist, conductor and the founder of Europa Galante who has made a specialty of Baroque works large and small, including recital tours with pianists, harpsichordists and fortepianists. That said, he plays on a fortified modern violin with technical prowess, confidence and a big personality that would not be mistaken for being historically informed. He made this recording a special project as he turned 60, saying in the notes that he has long felt intimidated by these towering works “so intimate, yet so universal, so close to the essence of things and so technically demanding as well.”  

These performances are fresh, assured, lyrical, exciting and full of vitality. Highlights include the Presto of Sonata I, the Giga and Chaconne of Partita II, the three enormous fugues, the heartbreakingly nostalgic F Major Largo of Sonata III and the Gavotte en Rondeau of Partita III. Some of the tempi are a little too breakneck, some of the ornamentation is outrageous and at times the overall sound gets a little too heavy and intense. But this is playing with a self-assured point of view, a big heart, a rock-solid technique and a humble wisdom, full of respect for how these pieces connect to the human soul. Highly recommended.

04 schumann organ tjmhsSchumann – The Roots & The Flower: Counterpoint in Bloom
Jens E. Christensen
Our Recordings 6.220675 (naxosdirect.com/search/6220675)

A prolific and highly respected composer of the Romantic era, Robert Schumann wrote in a variety of styles for a range of instruments, from solo piano to large orchestra. Tucked within Schumann’s 148 opus numbers are a few works written for the pedal piano which, rather than having the standard three foot pedals, contained an entirely separate keyboard, similar to that found on pipe organs, which was manipulated by the feet. Once a relatively common household instrument, the pedal piano has since become extinct, though separate foot pedal attachments and even complete replicas can still be found.

The presence of a pedalboard is a unique similarity between the pedal piano and the modern organ which has led to a number of works for the former instrument being adapted to the latter. Schumann’s pedal piano works are of particular note in this regard – their contrapuntal dexterity and complexity are conveyed particularly well on the organ, as demonstrated by renowned Danish organist Jens E. Christensen. 

Performing Schumann’s Six Fugues on B-A-C-H, Op.60 and the Six Canonic Studies, Op.56, Christensen shows Schumann at his most cerebral, writing that is rigid in its structure yet fluid in its harmonic style. Indeed, the choice of the famous B-flat - A - C - B natural motif (B-A-C-H in German note names) is a not-too-subtle homage to Schumann’s idol. His choice to use this theme as the source of six independent fugues is a demonstration of Schumann’s devotion to his craft, a flexing of musical muscles that demonstrate his ability to exist within a defined structure while simultaneously expanding and manipulating these structures to their limits.

One of the great challenges with performing this music on the organ is the registration, or stops and pipes, that the organist must choose to best convey the composer’s intentions. Christensen is heard here on the organ in Copenhagen’s Von Frelser Church, an instrument that is historical both in age and temperament, best suited to the works of Bach and earlier composers. Despite the apparent temporal discrepancy, this sound is exceedingly effective: while Christensen may occasionally incorporate one too many Baroque phrasings into his interpretations, the combination gives Schumann’s chromatic material the backwards-looking realization it requires, reinforcing the direct references to Bach and his own contrapuntal genius.

05 yn s sibelius 3 9cuyfSibelius – Symphony No.3
Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
ATMA ACD2 4033 (atmaclassique.com/en)

After gaining world fame and plaudits too numerous to mention, Yannick Nézet Séguin is back in Canada with his first orchestra, the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal and, with ATMA Classique, is in the process of recording the seven symphonies of Jean Sibelius. This new release is part of this ambitious series.

The seven symphonies of Sibelius are certainly music the world had never heard before; music of the North, inspired by Finnish myths and sagas and a landscape with elemental forces of nature. Interestingly, there is a stylistic evolution from the first to the seventh symphony. Despite their wildly different characteristics, all progress towards the same purpose, a condensation, a telescoping of elements that comes into full fruition in the Seventh Symphony where all four movements fuse into a single one.

Nearly the shortest of the seven and in the key of C Major, the Third has almost a Mozartian clarity with transparent textures and straightforward momentum. Mysteriously however, somewhere in the first movement suddenly everything quiets down with a perpetual, nearly inaudible rustle of strings as if we would disappear into a misty thicket with only an occasional shriek of a bird (on the clarinet) breaking the silence.

A combination of the third and fourth movements, the Finale is magnificent: as the rhythmically pulsating, suspenseful Scherzo gradually dies down, a new march-like theme emerges almost imperceptibly; pianissimo on the cellos and gaining momentum, and before we know it we are in the midst of the Finale. Soon, all the strings and the woodwinds join in louder and louder. Finally the clarinets, flutes and horns raise their instruments high and the trumpets and trombones bring everything to a final glory. Nézet-Séguin manages this giant crescendo masterfully.

06 schulman goodman a net of gems cover wijqoA Net of Gems
Suzanne Shulman; Erica Goodman
Wolftone WM21061 (shulmangoodman.bandcamp.com)

The CD opens with flutist Franz Doppler’s and harpist Antonio Zamara’s co-composed Casilda Fantaisie, based on the opera, Casilda, by Ernst II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (and Queen Victoria’s brother-in-law). Erica Goodman and Suzanne Shulman navigate this mix of lyricism and virtuosity admirably, offering virtuosic lyricism and lyric virtuosity!

Next comes Bernard Andrès’ Narthex followed by David Occhipinti’s Net of Gems, which gives the disc its name. Though composed 49 years apart, they have much in common, both inspired by religious themes, the first by Romanesque church architecture, the second by Hinduism’s net of Indra. Melodic, through composed and episodic, both have the surreal quality of a metaphorical journey through a variety of distinctive and contrasting neighbourhoods. The performers’ sensitivity to the contrast between episodes is what really helped me to navigate this difficult musical structure.

Next on the program was Camille Saint-Saëns’ Fantaisie, Op. 124, originally composed for violin and harp but so well adapted for the flute by Hidio Kamioka and Shulman that you would never guess that Saint-Saëns ever had any other instrument in mind. To me this was the highlight of the CD: both players seemed so comfortably at home both with the music and with each other. In Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No.5, which might be translated as “the unknowable part of the known,” Shulman and Goodman play without expression, perfectly conveying this miniature’s implicit irony. John Keats’ words come to mind: “Heard melodies are sweet … therefore, ye soft pipes, play on….”

An afterthought:  A case could be made that wars, floods, fires, famines and pandemics, laying waste to the complacency that seems to come with peace, and destroying trust in formerly trusted institutions – governments, medicine, the judiciary, the media, universities and more – give rise to creation and the search for beauty. A friend quoted this recently: “When fishermen cannot go to sea, they stay home and mend their nets”; one might add, “When coming together to listen to music is prohibited, musicians compose, learn new repertoire and record!”

07a florence price nezet seguin uys5oFlorence Price – Symphonies 1 & 3
The Philadelphia Orchestra; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Deutsche Grammophon (deutschegrammophon.com/en/catalogue/products/price-symphonies-nos-1-3-nezet-seguin-12476)

Florence Price – Symphony No.3; Mississippi River; Ethiopia’s Shadow in America
Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien; John Jeter
Naxos 8.559897 (naxosdirect.com/search/8559897)

Who Is Florence Price?
Students of the Special Music School at Kaufman Music Center, NYC
Schirmer Trade Books ISBN-13: 978-1-7365334-0-6 (chapters. indigo.ca)

07b florence price sym3 tm2ewThe so-called classical canon, capturing a list of composers and compositions deemed worthy of study, multiple performances and recordings, has been expanding. It now represents a more fulsome group of individuals from a wider swath of identities – mainly seeing growth in the areas of nationality, gender, race and sexual orientation – than has traditionally been characterized. Said broadening is but one important step taken to cultivate a culture of inclusion within classical music and present a more representative snapshot of what constitutes historical significance. Further, it has been shown to be important that burgeoning performers and composers both hear and see themselves represented in the canon so that, for example, female African-American composers can locate others who perhaps have an intersectional identity not totally unlike their own.

Florence Price (1887-1953), a native of Little Rock, Arkansas and a graduate of Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, was a pianist and composer who, despite enjoying a modicum of recognition during her lifetime (including having her Symphony No. 1 in E Minor premiered in 1933 by Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a first for an African-American woman) was a composer whose work was almost lost to history. As the charming illustrated children’s book Who is Florence Price?, written by students of the Special Music School at New York’s Kaufman Music Center recounts, a box of Price’s dogeared and yellowed manuscripts of original compositions and symphonic works was found (and thankfully not discarded) in 2009 in a dilapidated attic of the Chicago-area summer home in St. Anne, Illinois in which Price wrote. This discovery has led to what could be described as a Price renaissance, with multiple recordings, premieres, the dissemination power of the Schirmer publishing house (that acquired worldwide rights to Price’s catalogue in 2018), and, most recently, two excellent discs that capture the American composer’s elegant music in its full glory. 

07c florence price book m938kRooted in the European Romantic compositional tradition that was her training, but blended with the sounds of American urbanization, the African-American church, as well as being imbued with elements of a folkloric vernacular blues style, Price’s Symphonies 1 & 3 (on Deutsche Grammophon) and the never before recorded Ethiopia’s Shadow in America (Naxos American Classics) come to life with tremendous splendor and historical gravitas in the capable hands of Yannick Nézet-Séguin and The Philadelphia Orchestra and the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra respectively. 

Of note is Price’s under-recorded The Mississippi River, that ORF conductor John Jeter suggests captures “the depth of the American experience… like no other composer.” Articulating in sound the experience of the Great Migration, the large-scale movement and relocation of African-Americans from the Southern United States to such Northern locales of employment, urbanization and distance from “Jim Crow” laws as Chicago, Detroit and New York, that was both compositional fodder for Price and her own lived experience. 

The book and two discs represent tremendous strides towards greater inclusion and representation within the canon and, at least for this reviewer, facilitated the discovery of a creative and exceptional new musical voice.

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