Late Beethoven - Commentary and Performance

Luisa Guembes-Buchanan

Del Aguia DA 55306 (www.beethovenpianoworks.com)

 

Although Beethoven lived to age 56, he wrote his last piano sonata at the age of 52 – a period when his everyday existence was marked by deteriorating health and total deafness. Nevertheless, he was still able to rise above the complexities of his daily existence, creating some of his finest music, where he pushed the boundaries of tonality and form as he never had before. This fine 6-disc set on the Del Aguila label featuring pianist/musicologist Luisa Guembas-Buchanan and cellist Philip Weihrauch is an examination of the products of Beethoven’s final years, taking as its premise that these late works have numerous stylistic qualities in common. And what a wealth of music is included! Not only are there five late piano sonatas (#28 through #32) but also the Diabelli Variations, 11 Bagatelles Op.119 and 6 Bagatelles Op.126, in addition to numerous smaller pieces all from the sketchbook, plus the two Cello Sonatas Op.102 – enough to keep a Beethoven connoisseur happy for weeks!

I admit the name Luisa Guembas-Buchanan was not one familiar to me. Originally from Lima, Peru she studied in her native city at the Conservatorio National de Musica, and later at the Manhattan School of Music before concluding her studies at New York and Boston Universities. Since then, she has held teaching positions at Amherst College and the New England Conservatory, where she has assumed the dual role of musicologist and pianist perhaps not unlike that of Charles Rosen 40 years ago. The scholarly notes she provides in the attractive 60-page booklet are impressive (they are in both English and German and even contain end-notes), but there is certainly more to Ms. Gumbas-Buchanan than scholarship. To anyone who might initially dismiss this recording as an example of a musicologist who “also happens to play the piano”, this is clearly not the case! From the serene and reflective opening measures of the Sonata Op.101 to the bravura of the Diabelli Variations, Guembas-Buchanan demonstrates an effortless command of this demanding repertoire. Her playing is noble and majestic, coupled with a flawless technique - quite clearly an artist who not only performs admirably, but possesses a deep understanding of the music and is keen to share that knowledge with others.

The two Cello Sonatas presented here, Op. 102 #1 and #2 were composed during the summer of 1814, the very beginning of Beethoven’s late period. Just as in the works for solo piano, Beethoven was also “pushing boundaries” through his use of counterpoint and extensive modulations. Together with cellist Philip Weihrauch, Guembas-Buchanan approaches the music with a bold assurance and both demonstrate a deep affinity for the music.

The pleasure in this set is indeed two-fold – apart from the illuminating information provided, it is also great listening - a treat both for Beethoven scholars and those who simply love and admire the music of “the great mogul”.

Richard Haskell

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 Grigory Sokolov – Live in Paris: Beethoven; Komitas; Prokofiev

Directed by Bruno Monsaingeon

Ideale-Audience DR 2109 AV 127 (www.ideale-audience.com)

 

If I mention the name Grigory Sokolov and you give me a blank stare, I wouldn’t be surprised. The reclusive Russian pianist, winner of the 1966 International Tchaikovsky Competition, regarded as a true successor to the giants, Gilels and Richter and who gives about 60 recitals a year to sold out houses in Europe, is almost unknown in North America. He hasn’t recorded much as he distrusts recordings unless they are made live and in one take. So this DVD is likely as close as you will get to seeing him live.

The remarkable program starts off with 2 Beethoven early sonatas (Nos.9 & 10) played with an exquisite lyrical and romantic touch and a fine dynamic and emotional range. A more complex work, the Pastoral Sonata (No.15), is a true adventure especially the 2nd movement with its understated yet poignant ostinato staccato left hand and the beautifully shaded virtuoso Rondo finale.

Sokolov’s phenomenal gift is getting inside the composer’s head and intuitively finding the right style although he never plays anything the same way twice. The 6 Armenian dances by Komitas that follow all sound similar yet different from one another. They are languid, soft, using exotic oriental rhythms to a mesmerizing, hypnotic effect.

The final work is the monumental and fiendishly difficult Sonata No.7 by Prokofiev. The masterful interpretation winds up with ‘Precipitato’, a monstrous physical effort with an incessant toccata in steady ff and yet the pianist still manages to increase the crescendo to an overwhelming culmination.

The ecstatic audience simply refuses to leave and Sokolov tirelessly keeps giving encores one after the other, five in all. Much more can be said, but let the music speak for itself.

Janos Gardonyi

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 Tchaikovsky - Violin Concerto;

Souvenir d’un lieu cher

Janine Jansen; Mahler Chamber

Orchestra; Daniel Harding

Decca 4780651

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The Dutch violinist Janine Jansen is rapidly rising to the very forefront of the international ranks, and this outstanding CD, her second full concerto recording, clearly demonstrates why.

Recorded live in July 2008 at the Festival Via Stellae in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, it is Jansen at her best: intelligent, articulate phrasing; stunning technique; a full, warm tone; and a rich sweetness with that characteristic underlying steely strength.

I had high praise for the Vadim Gluzman recording of this concerto last year, and if you ever needed proof of the need for contrasting interpretations, then this is it. There may perhaps be less sheer excitement here at times, but Jansen presents a beautifully thoughtful, introspective and fully committed performance that I actually find more satisfying. Nothing is rushed or glossed over, and the somewhat slower tempos are well-balanced in the overall structure. Clearly Jansen and Daniel Harding are of one mind here, a sentiment borne out by even a cursory glance at the DVD footage of their rehearsals and performance for this recording that is currently viewable on YouTube.

The three pieces that comprise Souvenir d’un Lieu Cher make an obvious coupling choice, as the first piece, Meditation, is the concerto’s original slow movement which Tchaikovsky rewrote for violin and piano. The version heard here is not the usual Glazunov orchestration but a smaller and extremely effective arrangement for violin and strings by the Romanian-Dutch conductor Alexandru Lascae.

Terry Robbins

 

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 Gergiev conducts Mahler Symphonies 1, 2, 3, 6 & 7

London Symphony Orchestra;

Valery Gergiev

LSO LIVE

 

LSO LIVE, the London Symphony Orchestra’s own label, is well into its Mahler cycle recorded ‘live’ in The Barbican, their home venue. The label has been remarkably successful since its introduction in 2000 with selected concert performances conducted by Colin Davis, Bernard Haitink, Mstislav Rostropovich, and now Valery Gergiev. The discs are usually hybrid-SACD discs and are, as this Mahler cycle, state of the art technically with extraordinary dynamic range and true to life timbres. Tuttis never become congested. Acoustically, the Barbican is not an ideal venue but producer James Mallinson’s recordings are articulate with a sparkling clarity.

Valery Gergiev is one of the busiest conductors around today, in demand everywhere it seems. He has brought his Kirov Orchestra to Thomson Hall, treating us to stunning performances of Russian music, each work given definitive performances. His Le Sacre du Printemps was both illuminating and shattering ... an unforgettable performance; his Scheherazade electrifying. However his performances certainly did not reveal the essence of some non-Russian repertoire which brings us to this ongoing Mahler cycle.

It has become standard practice for conductors who ‘understand’ Mahler and ‘feel his pain’ to wear their hearts on their sleeve and subtly, or not so subtly, convey this empathy to the listener, whether live or from recordings. Leonard Bernstein comes immediately to mind. But can a conductor simply play what is written when every reading is a new decoding of the composer’s notation?

Gergiev’s Mahler may well be the most articulate on disc! There can be no doubt that the LSO is one of the very finest on the planet and under the proven eye of their current principle conductor they have turned in inspired, immaculate performances.

However, Mr. Gergiev does not, as yet, have the special insight that leads to Mahler’s anima which would have elevated these acclaimed performances from outstanding into Mahler’s inspired visions. Still, acknowledging this shortcoming, these five initial releases are so well performed and recorded that I look forward to the balance of the cycle.

Bruce Surtees

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 Extended Play – CANADIAN STRINGS

By Terry Robbins

 

 Three Sonatas for Violin and Piano - a mature work by Elgar, and early works by Richard Strauss and Ravel - are presented on an excellent disc by the Canadian duo Jonathan Crow and Paul Stewart on ATMA Classique (ACD2 2534). Elgar’s sonata, completed in September 1918, is a somewhat conservative piece that reflects the sombre effect on the composer of four years of the Great War. It has never really established a secure place in the repertoire, but is a work that really deserves to be heard more often. The Strauss sonata, written in 1887, is a passionate Romantic work clearly influenced by the chamber music of Brahms. The Ravel is an early single-movement work from 1897 that remained unknown until its discovery in manuscript many years after the composer’s death; its first public performance was in 1975. Crow, a Professor of Violin at McGill University and former concertmaster of the Montreal Symphony, plays with faultless intonation and a sweet, clear tone throughout. He has a sympathetic partner in Stewart, who is particularly outstanding in the Strauss. Recorded in Saint-Irenée, Quebec, the sound is excellent.

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 Odd Couple, the title of a new CD of American works from cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Geoffrey Burleson (Oxingale OX2015) is not a comment on the players; rather, it is taken from Matt Haimovitz’s description of the relationship between these two seemingly disparate instruments. Unsuitable partners they may be in some respects, but the music on this outstanding disc shows none of the weaknesses and all of the strengths that the cello and piano duo can display. The two central works are the sonatas by Samuel Barber and Elliott Carter, the former having its roots firmly in the Romantic tradition of the two Brahms sonatas, although firmly stamped with Barber’s own unmistakeable voice, and the latter, from 1948, harking back to the Beethoven sonatas in some respects while still looking ahead to Carter’s mature style. The opening and closing works are both world-premiere recordings: David Sanford’s 22 Part I from 1998 and Augusta Read Thomas’ Cantos for Slava, which was commissioned as part of an ASCAP award Haimovitz received in 2006, shortly after the death of Mstislav (“Slava”) Rostropovich. Thomas had worked closely with the great Russian cellist over the previous 15 years. The disc was recorded this past June at McGill’s Schulich School of Music, where Haimovitz is Professor of Cello. The sound quality is excellent, and both players are outstanding in difficult and challenging, but highly rewarding, repertoire.

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 There are two recent CDs of the Bach Goldberg Variations in the string trio arrangement by the violinist Dmitri Sitkovetsky. On the firstthe abovementioned Jonathan Crow and Matt Haimovitz team up with violist Douglas McNabney (Oxingale OX2014); the other features Vancouver’s Trio Accord - Mary Sokol Brown (violin), Andrew Brown (viola) and Ariel Barnes (cello) (Skylark Music SKY0802). As McNabney points out, Bach’s music is strong enough to transcend the many transcriptions that have been made of this work; certainly this version, which Sitkovetsky dedicated to Glenn Gould, serves the predominantly three-part keyboard writing extremely well. There are many differences in tempo and track timings here, the latter probably due to the observance - or lack thereof - of repeats as much as anything, but both recordings are extremely satisfying performances. The playing is excellent on both CDs, both from an individual and ensemble viewpoint, and the recording ambience - both were recorded in a church - is warm and resonant. On first hearing I preferred the brightness and contrast in the Trio Accord CD, whereas the Quebec-based ensemble plays with a touch more legato throughout, but on further comparison I’m not so sure; in two outstanding recordings I have a feeling that it’s Jonathan Crow and friends who come closest to the spiritual heart of this astonishing work.

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Terry Robbins

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 Schumann - Kreisleriana; Fantasie

Henri-Paul Sicsic

(www.henripaulsicsic.com)

For those who believe, the bible tells us that the Lord created the world in six days – it took Robert Schumann only four to write his famous piano set Kreisleriana in 1838, not bad for a mere mortal! The equally famous Fantasie Op.17 - arguably his most famous piano work - took considerably longer, almost two years from conception to completion. Both pieces require extraordinary technique, a deeply rooted sensitivity, and most importantly, a keen understanding of Schumann’s own complex personality. Fortunately, all these qualities are in abundance in this recording featuring French-born pianist Henri-Paul Sicsic, released on a private label. Originally from Nice, Sicsic studied in his native city where he was awarded a first prize with highest honours in piano, a first prize in chamber–music, and a diploma in orchestral conducting. Between 1986 and 1992, he taught at Rice University, Houston, and then at the University of British Columbia before accepting a position with the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music in 2007.

Schumann wrote of his Kreisleriana: “My music seems so wonderfully complicated, for all its simplicity.” Indeed, the set is truly a study in contrasts, as emotionally complex as Schumann himself. Not surprisingly, Sicsic rises to the challenges admirably – how effectively he conveys the contrasting moods within, playing with a solid self-assurance, while treating the more languid movements with a quiet introspection. Similarly, his treatment of the Fantasie is always boldly coloured, from the noble and grand opening measures to the tender finale, music clearly written with his beloved Clara in mind. In all, this is a fine performance by an artist the Music Faculty should be rightly proud to have on staff!

Richard Haskell

Concert Note: Henri-Paul Sicsic joins Jacques Israelievitch, Teng Li and Shauna Rolston for piano quartets by Chausson and Fauré in a Faculty Recital at Walter Hall on February 6. The quartet can be heard live in a preview showcase at noon on February 3rd on Classical 96.3 FM.

 

 

 

 Debussy - Preludes for Piano Books 1 & 2

Ivan Ilic

PARATY 108.105

We are fortunate to have this recording come out this particular time. Although Debussy’s Preludes have been recorded a number of times previously, I find this issue far more successful. Many earlier releases have been discontinued or suffer from outdated recording quality or somewhat unengaged playing. This new high quality disc on the French Paraty label played on a magnificent Steinway by young American artist of Serbian origin, Ivan Ilic, is now an outstanding recommendation.

Debussy, like his predecessor Chopin whom he admired tremendously, also wrote 24 preludes in two books. While Chopin’s Preludes are short pieces of emotional states and based on varying techniques, Debussy’s Preludes invoke impressions of an imaginary universe and are generally longer and more complex than Chopin’s. Nature, in form of water, fog, winds and landscapes figure heavily, but some capricious humour and dances also occur.

Due to the many images of varying moods, impressions and atmospheres, it requires a pianist of phenomenal technique, utmost sensitivity and playing with élan, colour, restrained but pronounced emotional engagement and an extraordinary imagination. All these are presented here in abundance, with the natural resonances of the Steinway just as Debussy intended it. Each piece has its own atmosphere and structure that the pianist never fails to bring out. As random examples, Ce qu’a vu le Vent d’Ouest is a very dynamic piece simulating the powerful, menacing wind, perhaps the loudest in the series, but even here the pianist never pounds the piano. It comes as a breathtaking climax. Or La Cathedrale engloutie with its archaic harmonies and long sustained pedal notes suggesting the texture of deep water. I could go on…

Janos Gardonyi

Concert Note: Ivan Ilic performs music of Debussy and Canadian premières of works by Brian Current, Keeril Makan and John Metcalf at Glenn Gould Studio on February 19.

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 Homage

James Ehnes

ONYX 4038

David Fulton has spent years assembling an astonishing collection of instruments by the great Cremonese makers, and Canadian violinist James Ehnes has selected nine violins - 6 Stradivari, 2 Guarneri ‘del Gesu’ and a Pietro Guarneri - and three violas for a dazzling recital programme designed to showcase the specific qualities of each instrument. Several, like the 1709 Stradivari ‘La Pucelle’, have never been recorded before, and one - the 1715 Stradivari ‘Marsick’ - has been Ehnes’ concert instrument since 1999. Seven different bows from Fulton’s equally superb collection of bows by Tourte and Peccatte were used in the recording, each hand-picked to complement the strengths of the particular instrument.

In addition to a CD, the ONYX release includes a 100-minute DVD which features the entire 21-piece CD recital, with Ehnes describing the instrument and its qualities before each track, plus selection options and a 30-minute Extras chapter that includes the audio comparison tracks from the CD and extended commentary clips by Ehnes and Fulton.

Ehnes hardly moves when he plays, but the close-up camerawork still manages to make it difficult to see exactly what he’s doing at times, especially his deceptively effortless bowing. The filming of the instruments is beautiful, though, and Ehnes is in spectacular form, with the opening track, Bazzini’s La Ronde des Lutins, worth the price of the set on its own.

The violinist remarks in his outstanding booklet notes that “the difference in tone between instruments is often very subtle indeed”, especially when it’s the same player, of course, and it will take a professional ear to identify significant differences between the instruments. Still, a wonderful record of a remarkable project.

Terry Robbins

 

 

 

 Sibelius - Compositions for Piano

Heidi Saario

Independent

(www.CDBaby.com/heidisaario)

As a young boy, I used to delight in leafing though my grandmother’s old sheet-music from the 1920s, and one piece I recall in particular was the Sibelius Romance Op.24 #9. I can still envision it – the heavy yellowed score with the bright orange cover, and the title in a bold black script across the front. Admittedly, I had forgotten all about the piece until I came across it on this disc of piano music by Sibelius played by Heidi Saario on the Aspasia label. A native of Finland, Saario moved to Canada six years ago in order to undertake graduate-work at the Glenn Gould School. Since completing her studies, she has made a determined effort to promote the piano music of Sibelius, a genre too often overlooked. After all, the composer is much better known for his vibrant and nationalist tone-poems and symphonies than for his small output for the piano.

In the past, certain critics have dismissed Sibelius’ piano works as nothing more than salon-music. Unfair! While perhaps not great, these miniatures nevertheless seem well-crafted, containing a charm all their own, and as such, have much to offer the listener. What is particularly striking is the wide variety of moods achieved on a relatively small scale. These range from the gentle introspection of the Berceuse Op.104 #1 to the robust virtuosity of the finale from the Piano Sonata in F major. Saarios’s playing is polished and self-assured, at all times displaying a real affinity for the music. Is it the Nordic blood? Quite possibly - for although these pieces cannot honestly take their place beside those by a Beethoven or a Chopin, her elegant and heartfelt interpretation makes them particularly endearing, and well worth investigating. Recommended.

Richard Haskell

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