02 Melisande McNabneyFantasias
Mélisande McNabney
ATMA ACD2 2812 (atmaclassique.com/en)

The fantasia is an old and well-traversed musical form that reached its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries, combining improvisational flourishes, compositional skill and virtuosic panache into a single work. Many of music’s greatest minds have written fantasias for a range of keyboard instruments, including J.S. Bach’s works for harpsichord and organ, Mozart’s pianoforte fantasias and Liszt’s immense organ fantasias. This disc focuses on music written by three Baroque and classical-era luminaries: Johann Sebastian Bach; his son, Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach; and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, performed on the fortepiano by Montreal-based keyboardist Mélisande McNabney.

The decision to begin a fortepiano-centred recording with J.S. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, BWV903 is an interesting one, as Bach almost certainly composed this work with the harpsichord in mind. (The fortepiano was invented in 1698, while J.S. Bach died in 1750; it’s not implausible to think that Bach was acquainted with early models of the fortepiano, but there is no evidence that he composed anything specifically for that instrument.) For those familiar with BWV903 performed on rhythmically percussive, reverb-rich harpsichord recordings, McNabney’s choice of instrument provides a drier and less aggressive approach, with more room for flexibility and rubato.

The remainder of the disc is comprised of smaller works by C.P.E. Bach and Mozart, as well as the large-scale Fantasia in C Minor, K475. This is, perhaps, the most successful combination of composition and instrument, as the moody affect combines with the fortepiano’s unique timbre and ability to produce contrasting dynamics with great success. Fantasias leaves little doubt that McNabney is a master keyboardist and skillful interpreter; this, combined with the charming and dramatic music itself, makes for a highly recommended recording, especially for those with a particular interest in early instruments.

Listen to 'Fantasias' Now in the Listening Room

04 Haydn Schubert BermanHaydn; Schubert
Boris Berman
Le Palais des Degustateurs PDD025 (lepalaisdesdegustateurs.com)

Boris Berman has had a long and distinguished career as a concert pianist, teacher and author. Many will remember his impeccable performances with orchestras around the globe, as well as his recordings of numerous solo piano works. He is most certainly a performer who projects a technical prowess within the gentle curves of the heart and, as such, late music by Haydn and Schubert suits him very well. 

Perhaps it is only fitting for a performer of that calibre to revisit, at some point in their career, the music that seems simple in structure and expression yet complex in nature. The pairing of late sonatas by Haydn (E-flat Major No.62 and D Major No.61) and Schubert (the “grand” Sonata in A Major D959) is simply wonderful. These two composers shared a similar structural architecture, rarely wrote flamboyant music and often left plenty of interpretative choices to the performers. Berman takes full advantage of it and is very successful in finding and bringing out commonalities, especially the splendid elegance of the phrases. On the other hand, he is equally brilliant in underlining the emotional restraint of Haydn versus the deep emotions of Schubert, without losing sight of the form and intentions of the composers. 

To me Berman’s playing feels like a narration of the story, and this narrator knows all the secrets behind the scenes.

05 Schubert GaudetSchubert – Relics
Mathieu Gaudet
Analekta AN 2 9186 (analekta.com/en)

When Schubert’s unfinished Sonata in C Major D840 was published in 1861, the publisher gave it the title Reliquie (Relic), a name which shall forever remain a mystery. The title was deemed worthy enough to be given to this Analekta recording featuring this and the Sonata in A Major D664 with pianist Mathieu Gaudet, the sixth volume in an ongoing series presenting Schubert’s complete piano sonatas and major piano works.

Despite its incomplete state, the Sonata D840 is monumental in size and there were opinions that it may even have been intended as a piano version of a large-scale symphony. Indeed, the majestic opening movement – all 16 minutes of it – is truly symphonic in spirit with large block chords and much unison writing which Gaudet handles with a solid assurance. The minuet and trio – which never progressed beyond the recapitulation – is more “scherzo” than “minuet” while the sprightly Rondo Finale is halted at mid-development. (The recording uses an alternate ending by pianist Paul Badura-Skoda.)

The Sonata D664 was composed during the summer of 1819 and is now known as the Little A Major Sonata to differentiate it from the much lengthier work (D959) in the same key from 1828. This is placid and lyrical music, with Gaudet offering up a fine legato, a fluid sense of rhythm and a keen sense of phrasing. The well-known Finale-Allegro is particularly joyful where Gaudet’s hands breathe new life into this familiar repertoire.

An added bonus is the brief Danse Allemande et Ecossaise D643, an appealing interlude between the two sonatas. For lovers of Schubert – or Romantic period piano music – this is another welcome addition to the series and we can look forward to more.

06 Ruth SlenczynskaMy Life In Music
Ruth Slenczynska
Decca B0035175-02 (deccaclassics.com/en)

Like it or not, success in the world of recorded music (classical, pop, jazz or otherwise) no longer, if it ever did, results exclusively from musical excellence. Rather, what is required is the coalescing of good music and a compelling backstory in order to command listener and record label attention. Though not a simple binary, examples abound, of course, of music more heavily weighted in one area, and not the other. There is the classic “style-over-substance” designation. Conversely, examples are many of truly great playing that has no extra musical narrative to help push its reception towards broader recognition. 

As music lovers, I am sure that we can all think of examples that reside in either of these two categories. Rarely, do both imperatives come together. But, thankfully such is the case on Ruth Slenczynska’s My Life In Music, new from Decca Records. The music: Samuel Barber, Debussy, Grieg, Bach and, of course, Chopin (Slenczynska had earned a reputation as among the most celebrated of Chopin interpreters while still a child prodigy) is, given the considerable time spent working on this repertoire, predictably amazingly played, recorded, interpreted and executed. But it is the extra musical bits, most notably the fact that this 2022 album was recorded when Slenczynska was 97-years old, representing a return to the Decca label after an absence of nearly 60 years, that makes this recording both a satisfying musical statement and a punctuation note on a fascinating life in music that I knew little about prior to the record’s release, the ensuing press and the considerable interest in this remarkable story.

07 Chopin Peter SchaafChopin Polonaises
Peter Schaaf
Schaaf Records SC 104 (peterschaaf.com)

Let me introduce you to an exceptionally talented artist, Peter Schaaf. Not only he is having a brilliant career as a concert pianist and accompanist but he is also a remarkable portrait photographer with such clients as Seiji Ozawa, André Laplante, Janina Fialkowska and Peter Schickele.

Due to the COVID epidemic his photographic career came to a halt, so for the past two years he has focused on the piano, practising more than ever, learning new pieces and expanding his repertoire. During this time he created and issued four CD recordings: 1) Chopin Polonaises, 2) Chopin Waltzes 3) Albeniz Iberia and 4) a miscellaneous waltz album from a few different composers like Schubert, Brahms, Ravel and Dvořák. And imagine, the four albums are available on his website for free download! I wouldn’t mind having any of them in my collection.

The Polonaise is a genuinely Polish, elegant dance especially suited to festive occasions. The couples line up one behind the other and move forward gracefully in a unique 3/4 time rhythm. It’s beautiful to watch and is sometimes even included in symphonies, concertos and operas. Chopin wrote eight of them (and my fondest wish was to be able to play the “Heroic” A flat Major Op.53, which I fell in love with). Schaaf plays it with joy and panache and the middle ostinato is particularly menacing. The Andante Spianato is flowing gracefully in sustained piano and the following Grand Polonaise erupts in fortissimo as a magnificent contrast. This is highly accomplished, technically brilliant, enthusiastic piano playing and a recording to match.

08 Anna PetrovaSlavic Heart
Anna Petrova
Solo Musica SM383 (anna-petrova.com)

Classical music is rarely political anymore, although extra-musical narratives can be unpacked from much of Western Art Music and be applied both for the purposes of historical contextualizing and in an effort to make sense of today’s world. And while making sense of today’s world may seem like a yeoman’s task as of late, classical music listeners should not avoid listening to and reflecting on the music of the many great Russian composers of yesteryear whose gifts to the world were many indeed. 

It would be a shame to make the legacy of such 20th century Russian composers as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev and Alexander Scriabin yet another casualty in the ongoing and horrific war in Ukraine. Recorded prior to the Russian invasion of February 2022, Hungarian pianist Anna Petrova, a highly feted pianist and Doctor of Musical Arts who is on faculty at the University of Louisville, takes on the challenge of interpreting this fine music with aplomb on her Solo Musica release, Slavic Heart

Capturing the music of the three aforementioned composers, along with the work of Bulgarian Pancho Vladigerov, this excellent new recording mines what must have been a creatively fertile geographic area and 50-year time period (1892 to 1942) to bring these haunting melodies back into focus. I can only imagine that solo pianists love (and perhaps dread?) the inherent challenges that the canon of these four composers presents. But with marvellous technique, a deft touch on the piano and an ability to coax new insights from these canonic pieces, Petrova makes it clear on Slavic Heart that she is up to the task.

Listen to 'Slavic Heart' Now in the Listening Room

09 Philip ChiuFables – Maurice Ravel; Barbara Assiginaak
Philip Chiu
ATMA ACD2 2843 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Indigenous issues are an important topic in Canada today and Canadian pianist Philip Chiu addresses their significance on this ATMA recording by pairing music by Maurice Ravel with that of Anishinaabekwe composer Barbara Assiginaak. Inaugural winner of the Mécénat Musica Prix Goyer, Chiu has made a name for himself as both soloist and chamber musician. His musical partners have included Emmanuel Pahud and Raphael Wallfisch.

The disc opens with the Ravel String Quartet in F, composed in 1903. A truly beautiful work, the quartet is considered by many to be among the finest in the repertoire and this transcription by Lucien Gurban (and further adapted by Chiu) is exemplary. Indeed, the listener could easily be deceived into thinking it was originally scored for solo piano. Throughout, Chiu does it full justice, his approach as poised and elegant as the music itself. The frenetic finale is a true tour de force, with the young artist demonstrating a formidable technique.

Assiginaak’s piece Mnidoonskaa (A Multitude of Insects), composed in 2021, is a perfect companion. Inspired by Indigenous teachings, the work – the first of two collections of short pieces – is in five movements and pays homage to those tiny creatures that are often unseen or simply ignored. Movements such as Water Striders and Mosquito Larvae are highly atmospheric – true examples of 21st-century impressionism – while the brief third movement One Certain Mosquito Sings, is hauntingly lyrical. 

Concluding the disc is Ravel’s familiar Ma mère L’Oye (Mother Goose) as arranged for piano by Jacques Charlot. Here, Chiu evokes a true fantasy world, his playing refined and sensitively articulated, from the mysterious opening Pavane to the majestic Jardin Féerique.

These are fine fables indeed – engaging repertoire beautifully performed – how could we ask for more?

Listen to 'Fables' Now in the Listening Room

Back to top