04 Brass RootsPassion For Brass: Brassroots at 30
Brassroots; Bram Gregson
Independent CB-B-07 (brassroots.ca)

Although they are little known outside of their home community of London, Ontario, Brassroots is one of the finest brass ensembles in Canada. With this recording they are celebrating their 30th anniversary. In 1986 when the famous Philip Jones Brass Ensemble disbanded, Karl Hermann, a trombone student at the Western University, organized a brass ensemble with the same instrumentation of four trumpets, one horn, four trombones, one tuba and percussion. Over the years there have been changes in personnel, but the only significant change has been an enlargement of the percussion to enable performance of a more expansive repertoire. Under the direction of veteran conductor Bram Gregson, Brassroots can certainly be proud of this 30-year-celebration recording.

The CD opens with the Music for His Majesty’s Sackbuts and Cornetts by Matthew Locke (1621-1677), arranged for modern instruments. This is a stunning performance in its precision. It’s followed by works by Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli and Tylman Susato, a composer from Antwerp in the same period. Then, the recording moves on to Point Pelee by Howard Cable. One minute you are hearing Baroque and Renaissance music. Then you are ushered in to contemporary music from Billy May, Harold Arlen and George Gershwin. For a radical departure, with The Cat by Jimmy Smith, the ensemble is turned into a hard-driving big band complete with a Hammond B-3 organ.

The CD comes with excellent program notes which are not printed on the package but are on a separate brochure. Unfortunately, the listing of the selections does not indicate track numbers. To select and play a specific track it is necessary count down the listings to determine the track.

In all, this recording covers a great spectrum. My personal favourites are the Locke work and a stunning rendition of the famous Czardas of Vittorio Monti. The soloist, Michael Medeiros, proves that a tuba in the right hands can be a fine lyric solo instrument. Over all this is a first-rate CD covering music over three centuries.

05 Scriabin SymphoniesScriabin – Symphonies 1&2
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; Valery Gergiev
LSO LSO0770

Those who love to classify composers into neat categories will certainly have a stumbling block with Scriabin. He is Russian, but doesn’t sound a bit Russian (more like Richard Strauss if anyone, yet the Slavic spirit is unmistakable); his music doesn’t follow any rules and for the casual listener it all sounds more or less the same. He has been bypassed and rarely performed at concerts, as conductors do not like to take chances, but I suspect very few of them are capable of interpreting it, as the music is completely free with no comprehensible structure. But with total engagement and absorption, repeated listening and a great conductor like Gergiev, this music will conquer and you’ll never tire of it.

Gergiev has already recorded the better-known symphonies, the Third and Fourth (Poem of Ecstasy), with the London Symphony, one of the best orchestras in the world, in state-of-the-art sound, and here we have the two earlier symphonies from his formative years. The five movement Symphony No.2 is already a mature work and so makes a deep impact while Symphony No.1 has a vocal ending fashionable in those days à la Liszt, Berlioz or Mahler, with fine soloists and chorus, but so poorly received by the public at its premiere (1900) that it was condemned to oblivion.

Gergiev however quickly convinces us to the contrary. Luckily I have seen him a few times and can just picture him conducting without a baton as he hypnotizes the orchestra by his razor sharp gaze and with his undulating body and they follow his every movement. He and the orchestra become one organic unit with an inner logic that this indeed exalted, passionate music demands. A wonderful new issue I’ve enjoyed tremendously.

06 Florent SchmidtFlorent Schmitt – Antoine et Cléopâtre; Le Palais hanté
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta
Naxos 8.573521

Review

This remarkable disc suggests that Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra concerts under outstanding conductor JoAnn Falletta are well worth the trip for Toronto area music lovers! The two three-movement concert suites of Florent Schmitt’s Antony and Cleopatra (1920) began as music for ballet interludes in a new Paris Opera production of the Shakespeare play. The Alsatian-born composer created an effective fin-de-siècle amalgam from his French and German influences; he was not simply being eclectic. The opening movement of Suite No.1 is an exotic foreshadowing of the tragedy to come, with delicate, intriguing timbres, a sultry oboe solo beautifully played and thick low- and mid-range scoring. As for succeeding numbers, the Buffalo Philharmonic’s brass shine in At Pompey’s Camp and the whole orchestra gives an exciting and heartfelt reading of the Battle of Actium. Suite No. 2 opens with Night in the Palace of the Queen’s evocative solo English horn, followed by the irregularly metred Orgy and Dances and the eerie, reverberant Tomb of Cleopatra, all played atmospherically and with technical assurance.

The earlier Study for “The Haunted Palace” (1904) dates from Schmitt’s time at the Villa Medici, after winning the Prix de Rome. It is inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s poem as translated by Stéphane Mallarmé. Travellers through a valley see Spirits moving and hear Echoes singing in the enchanted building. The language of this work is late romantic; conductor Falletta draws a rich sound and expressive style from the Buffalo Philharmonic strings.

07 Bernstein Larger than LifeLeonard Bernstein – Larger than Life
(A Film by Georg Wübbolt)
Cmajor 735908

The beauty of Wübbolt’s documentary is the decision not to show Leonard Bernstein’s life in chronological order but rather in random, visually pleasing segments which drive the storyline, regardless how much one knows about his life.

Footage of Bernstein conducting illustrates that he put everything – mind, body, listening and soul – into his work. The swaying, jumping and arm swinging are not affectations but the means to achieve a great orchestral performance. It wasn’t always easy for him, as seen in a clip of orchestra members chatting during his verbal direction of his beloved Mahler. Composing was a great love. Bernstein loved to work with the musical teams, as shown by driving footage from the timeless West Side Story and comments by Stephen Sondheim. Bernstein is seen leading conducting classes with enthralled participants while fun clips from his television show Omnibus and Young People’s concerts convey his passion for youth, storytelling, conducting and piano performance.

Interspersed is footage from Bernstein interviews. Illuminating comments feature his children, Jamie, Nina and Alexander, and professionals such as Sondheim, Kent Nagano, Marin Alsop and Gustavo Dudamel, who are positioned in front of eye-catching Bernstein photographic stills from private and professional settings. In dramatic visual contrast, a bonus section has Nagano, Alsop and Dudamel speaking minus the backdrop.

This film’s uncanny strength lies in its ability to create a personal viewing experience; one may feel that Leonard Bernstein is speaking and performing only to you.

Leo Zeitlin – Yiddish Songs, Chamber Music and Declamations
Rachel Calloway; Guenko Guechev; Daniella Rabbani; Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival
Toccata Classics TOCC 0294 (toccataclassics.com)

Joachim Stutschewsky – Chamber Music
Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival
Toccata Classics TOCC 0314 (toccataclassics.com)

08b ZeitlinThe Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival (PJMF), in conjunction with Toccata Classics (an independent British label dedicated to producing recordings of first-rate yet overlooked classical music), has undertaken an ambitious and honourable project: releasing a series of CDs focussing on the largely forgotten and neglected music of members and composers affiliated with the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music. As PJMF founder and director (and the CDs’ producer), cellist Aron Zelkowicz, explains in a delightful radio interview he gave this past July on WQED’s Voice of the Arts – and as noted in the meticulously researched booklet accompanying each volume – the Society, which operated between 1908 and 1918, sought to elevate the music of the shtetl – klezmer, liturgical, cantorial, religious songs in Yiddish and Hebrew – to the highest level of Jewish art music, by creating scores, hosting symposiums, lectures and concerts, and most critically, publishing the works (about 80) of its affiliates.

08a StutschewskyRussian Jewish Classics, Volumes One and Two, are the PJMF’s first two commercial albums, and Zelkowicz promises a total of “at least” five in the series, to be released gradually over the next few years. Each album features the music of a single composer. Volume One offers a rich variety of works by Leo Zeitlin (1884-1930), a violinist, violist, conductor, arranger, impresario and teacher, who studied with Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. Volume Two explores the compelling chamber music of musicologist, arranger, pedagogue and cellist, Joachim Stutschewsky (1891-1982). The exhaustive notes in the aforementioned booklets provide a comprehensive biography of each composer.

With the limited space available, it’s not possible to do justice to the impressive breadth and depth of the music presented on each CD. Clearly, though, Zelkowicz’s assemblage of accomplished musicians (all members of esteemed orchestras and university music departments, who performed the music both live at the PJMF and in the studio recordings), executes this haunting, evocative, melodic, joyous, plaintive, gorgeous and freilach music with tremendous passion and intelligence. From Guenko Guechev and Daniella Rabbani’s dramatic recitations in Zeitlin’s unique “declamations” – affecting piano music underscoring spoken Yiddish and Russian poetry (once a popular genre) – and mezzo Rachel Calloway’s glorious interpretations of several of his Yiddish songs in various arrangements, to the masterful performances, by the musicians of the PJMF, of the rhapsodic and sophisticated chamber works of Stutschewsky, these CDs represent a wealth of material that demands renewed exploration and attention, attention it once commanded, briefly, in a bygone age.

I look forward to the rest of the series, and say “Bravo” and “Mazel Tov” to Zelkowicz, the PJMF and Toccata Classics.

When violinist Jacques Israelievitch joined the Faculty of Music at York University in 2008 he became a colleague of pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico, and it wasn’t long before they started performing as a duo. They also sight-read all of the Mozart sonatas for their own pleasure, and soon added some of the late works to their concert recitals.

This led to their performing all of the sonatas in a marathon concert of more than seven hours (with three short breaks), an experience which convinced them to try to recreate the excitement by recording the complete series. They were part of the way through the project when Israelievitch was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Despite a break for hospital treatment he managed to find the strength to complete the project, recording the final six sonatas in less than four hours. He passed away on September 5, 2015.

01 IsraelievitchMozart: Sonatas and Variations for Piano and Violin Vol.1 is the initial release in the series, issued “with a heavy heart” by Fleur de Son Classics (FDS 58034). This first volume features the Sonata No.28 in E Flat K380, the Sonata No.32 in B-Flat Major K454, the Sonata No.35 in A Major K526 and the Six Variations on a French Song K360.

These works are perfectly suited to Israelievitch’s distinctive style and sound, which was always warm, gentle and sensitive. More so than in the early juvenile sonatas written before Mozart turned 11, where the violin is little more than an accompaniment to the piano, the instruments are on equal terms here, and it’s obvious that Israelievitch and Petrowska Quilico are of one mind in their performances.

I’m not sure how many volumes there will be in this series – there are 19 mature sonatas as well as the 17 juvenile works – but if this first volume is anything to go by then it will be a series to treasure, and one that will be a wonderful memorial tribute to a great and much-loved violinist.

02 Bis Leong ChiuThere seems to be a never-ending stream of emerging top-notch violinists these days, but every now and then a talent emerges that simply stops you in your tracks. One such talent is the 19-year-old Canadian violinist Kerson Leong, who makes his CD debut with Bis on the Analekta label with Canadian pianist Philip Chiu (AN 2 9160).

Leong is by no means an unknown, having won the Junior First Prize at the 2010 Menuhin Competition in Oslo, as well as numerous awards here in Canada, but from the very first bars of the opening track it’s clear that this is a very special violinist with qualities that lift him from the general crowd and place him in the stratosphere.

In a blog from the 2012 Menuhin Competition, Nancy Pellegrini called Leong “a 15-year-old with a 45-year-old’s stage presence.” The level of musical maturity on display here is simply staggering. Leong chose to make his first album a series of encore-style pieces, saying that he thought it would be the ideal way to introduce himself, and it was a wise decision: the wide range of composers and styles allows him to display his dazzling talents to the fullest.

From the rich, deep, passionate tone of the Brahms Hungarian Dances Nos.1 and 17, through Kreisler’s Liebesfreud and Liebesleid, a Gluck Melodie, the Bartók Romanian Dances, Medtner’s Fairy Tale, the three Gershwin Preludes, Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, a simply ravishing Debussy Clair de lune and Valse, to Wagner’s Albumblatt and the final Hebrew Melody Op.33 by Joseph Achron, this is magnificent playing by a young violinist who must surely be on the cusp of a stellar international career. Chiu’s finely judged accompaniments add greatly to an outstanding CD.

03 Francesca de PasqualeThe Juilliard graduate and Itzhak Perlman protégée, Francesca dePasquale (francescadepasquale.instantencore.com), has also released a self-titled debut album, with pianist Meng-Chieh Liu. Like Leong, dePasquale has been around for quite a while – she made her debut at the age of nine touring Spain – and for her first album chose works that she feels are not only dear to her heart but that also show her wide range as an artist; also like the Leong CD, it’s a choice that works extremely well.

DePasquale has a beautiful tone and impressive technique. There’s a lovely reading of the Bach Partita No.2 in D Minor for Solo Violin, and a really strong extended melodic line in Messiaen’s Thème et Variations. Paola Prestini’s very effective Oceanic Fantasy for Solo Violin and Electronics, a 2015 commission from dePasquale, incorporates field recordings of southern Italian songs, although the work is almost entirely for violin alone, with Bach-like arpeggios and double-stopping and strong melody lines. The remaining works are the brief Schumann Intermezzo from the F.A.E. Sonata, Bartók’s Rhapsody No.1 and a simply gorgeous performance of Marietta’s Lied from Korngold’s opera Die Tote Stadt; there is a video of the recording session of the latter, along with audio samples of all the tracks on the CD, on dePasquale’s website. It’s well worth a visit.

04 Laura MetcalfThis seems to be a good month for debut albums. First Day is the solo debut CD of the American cellist Laura Metcalf, accompanied by pianist Matei Varga in another varied program of works to which both performers feel deeply connected (Sono Luminus DSL-92201).

Metcalf has extensive experience as both a chamber musician and soloist, and has a lovely tone and a fine legato. She has been friends and musical partner with Varga since 2004, and one wonders why a solo CD has been so long in coming. Still, it was certainly worth the wait.

Two works on the disc by young American composers are world premiere recordings: Caleb Buhrans’ Phantasie and Dan Visconti’s very brief but joyful Hard-Knock Stomp. There are also works by José Bragato, Bohuslav Martinů, Alberto Ginastera and Marin Marais. A student work by a young George Enescu, the single movement Sonata in F Minor, was only recently discovered and is still unpublished.

The CD’s title comes from the phrase “paths of the first day” from the Francis Poulenc song Les Chemins de l’amour, the final track on the album. Metcalf adds a vocal performance to bring an excellent CD to a simply lovely close.

05 Sarita KwokThis also seems to be a great month for violin and piano CDs. Interchange is a new release from the Australian violinist Sarita Kwok (a longtime resident in the United States) and pianist Wei-Yi Yang featuring Violin & Piano Duos of the 20th Century (Genuin GEN 16548).

Janáček’s Sonata is a late work that shows the influence of the First World War as well as the composer’s fascination with the speech patterns of his native Moravia that gave his late music such a distinctive sound. It’s a difficult, intense, passionate and constantly changing work, and Kwok captures every element perfectly.

Stravinsky’s Duo Concertante and Prokofiev’s Five Melodies are given equally sympathetic performances, and there is a stunning sense of style in Ravel’s Sonata No.2 in G Major, particularly in the Blues middle movement and the final Perpetuum mobile.

Kwok displays a gorgeous tone, a dazzling technique and a beautiful focus throughout a terrific CD, and is matched in all respects by Yang’s outstanding piano playing.

06 Rachel Barton PineThe latest issue from the outstanding American violinist Rachel Barton Pine is Testament, a 2CD set of the complete Bach Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin (Avie 2CD AV2360).

As I’ve noted before, comparative reviews of these sets are not only extremely difficult, given the huge number of performer choices available, but also irrelevant. Probably more than with any other works in the solo repertoire, recorded performances of the Sonatas & Partitas are about making an intimate personal statement. The sheer size and scope of the work means that there will always be countless variations – small and large – between various interpretations; all that matters is that each performer’s personal views and feelings come through, for nothing lays a violinist’s soul bare more than these astonishing pieces.

Barton Pine makes no attempt to hide the work’s spiritual significance for her, choosing to record the CD in her church, St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Chicago, the place she calls her “emotional home” for Bach’s music and where she first encountered the violin and first played Bach in a worship setting at the age of four. There’s certainly a spirituality to her playing, which is quite superb.

The recording is, she says, a testament to her lifelong relationship with one of the cornerstones of the violin repertoire and to all who have inspired and supported her. And what a testament it is.

07 Ysaye TyniecCanadian violinist Andréa Tyniec has released a simply stunning recording of the Six Sonatas for Solo Violin Op.27 by Eugène Ysaÿe (Really Records REA-CD-5898D). Tyniec raised the money to fund the recording through the online fundraising site Indiegogo and boy, was it worth it!

These astonishing sonatas, apparently mapped out within the space of 24 hours in July 1923 and published in 1924, manage to look back to Bach as well as forward to the 20th century, and are arguably the greatest solo works in the violin literature after the Bach Sonatas & Partitas. This is the sixth complete set I’ve received in the past five years and, as with the Bach works, comparative reviews are almost impossible in the space available.

Suffice it so say that Tyniec’s faultless technique, outstanding musicianship and a crystal-clear recorded sound make this marvellous set one to revisit and to treasure.

08 Ann MillerOne of the Ysaÿe sonatas – the No.4 in E Minor – is featured on Perspectives on Light & Shadow, the new CD from violinist Ann Miller (annmillerviolin.com) with pianist Sonia Long. Although a more-than-capable reading, it doesn’t quite match Tyniec’s; a rather muddy recorded sound doesn’t help. The same could be said for the Bartók Sonata No.1 for Violin and Piano, which doesn’t really come up to the Tanja Becker-Bender recording reviewed last month.

The real gem here, though, and what makes this CD so interesting, is the Sonata for Violin and Piano by the American composer Robert Beaser (b.1954). Consisting of a theme and 15 variations divided into three contrasting movements of five variations each, it was reworked for violin in 2002, having been originally written in 1981 for flute and piano, although you would never guess: it’s strong, idiomatic writing for the violin, and a striking and quite brilliant work that brings the best playing on the disc from Miller.

09 Fantasy and Romance SchumannFantasy & Romance – Schumann: Music for Cello and Piano is the latest CD from Emanuel Gruber, who has previously recorded the complete music for cello and piano by Beethoven and Mendelssohn; Keiko Sekino is the pianist this time (Delos DE 3481).

Although Schumann loved and played the cello he left only two works written specifically for the instrument: his Cello Concerto in A Minor and the Five Pieces in Folk Style Op.102, the latter included on this album. The other works here are all transcriptions or arrangements, although Schumann did suggest that two works – the Fantasiestücke Op.73 for clarinet and piano and the Adagio and Allegro Op.70 for horn and piano – could also be played on the cello.

The Drei Romanzen Op.94, arranged here by Valter Dešpalj, were originally for oboe and piano; the Märchenbilder Op.113, in a transcription by Alfred Piatti and Christian Bellisario, were originally for viola and piano. Two piano pieces – Abendlied Op.85 and the famous Träumerei Op.15, in lovely arrangements by Lothar Lechner – complete a very attractive CD.

Gruber notes that the lyrical quality of Schumann’s music makes the cello an ideal medium of expression, and regardless of the original scoring of the works here, these lovely performances certainly support that opinion.

Review

Victor Herbert was another composer who played cello, but in his case at full professional level. He was born in Ireland in 1859, but grew up in Germany, emigrating to the United States in 1886. By the late 1890s he was one of the most famous musicians in America, celebrated for his playing and conducting and for his operettas.

10 Herbert Cello CtiHis Cello Concertos Nos.1 and 2 are featured on a new Naxos CD in performances by Mark Kosower and the Ulster Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta (8.573517). Not surprisingly, both works are typical of the late German Romantic school. The Concerto No.1 in D Major Op.8 was performed by the composer in Stuttgart in 1885, and again in New York in 1887, but remained unpublished and apparently unperformed for many years; it was first recorded in 1986.

The Concerto No.2 in E Minor Op.30 is the stronger of the two works. Dvořák attended its premiere in New York in March 1894, and was so impressed with Herbert’s balancing of the large orchestra and the solo cello that it led directly to the composition of his own B-Minor Concerto within the year.

Kosower is in great form in two really lovely performances, and Falletta draws spirited playing from the orchestra for which she was principal conductor from 2011 to 2014.

Herbert’s Irish Rhapsody for Grand Orchestra completes the disc; it’s the expected mix of Irish tunes, much like the Bruch Scottish Fantasy in mood and orchestration, and with some brilliant counterpoint to round it off.

11 Dancing in Daylight Irish Piano TriosThere’s more Irish music on Dancing in Daylight – Contemporary Piano Trios from Ireland, a new CD featuring works by Seóirse Bodley (b.1933), John Buckley (b.1951), Rhona Clarke (b.1958) and Fergus Johnston (b.1959) in performances by the Fidelio Trio (métier msv 28556).

Last year the trio completed a residency in the music department of St. Patrick’s College in Drumcondra, Dublin, during which time they commissioned the works by Bodley, Buckley and Johnston. Johnston’s Piano Trio dates from 2011; Buckley’s Piano Trio from 2013; and Bodley’s Piano Trio ‘Dancing in the Daylight’ from 2014. Clarke’s Piano Trio No.2 was originally written in 2001, but revised in 2007 and 2015, when it was played during the Trio’s residency.

All four works are extremely strong, well-written, accessible and effective, with performances and recording quality of the highest level throughout a really interesting CD.

12 Matt SellickNocturne is the second CD by the Thunder Bay flamenco guitarist and composer Matt Sellick (matt.sellick@gmail.com), whose first album After Rain was very favourably reviewed in the February 2015 edition of The WholeNote.

Sellick has spent four summers studying in Spain with some of the leading flamenco guitarists, and it show. He admits that this new CD is “more clearly flamenco” than his first, but also acknowledges that there are other influences at work here as well. All 11 pieces – some solo and some accompanied by bass and percussion – are original compositions, and there is a lovely mix of different moods and tempos.

He obviously has a great feel for flamenco, an outstanding technique – clean, accurate and clearly defined – and plays with a warm rich sound and a lovely range of tone colour and shading. The recording quality and ambience are perfect.

Sellick is clearly a huge talent; this is a terrific CD, and it will be very interesting to see what he does next.

 

01 Xiayin WangXiayin Wang has recorded nearly a dozen CDs. Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No.2; Khachaturian – Piano Concerto; Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Peter Oundjian (Chandos CHSA 5167) is her fifth for this label.

The Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.2 is a big play at almost 45 minutes. This recording is of the original version, not the shorter one with significant cuts by Taneyev to the second movement. Wang proves to be a very precise player with a lot of stamina for whom Tchaikovsky’s wilder passages pose no difficulty. She is also comfortable with long interpretive pauses that give better definition to the deluge of musical ideas the composer releases in the opening movement.

Very much in command of her music when pitted against the orchestra, she also plays beautifully when more exposed with only solo violin and cello, as she is in the second movement. Similarly, in the Khachaturian Piano Concerto, Wang sustains long passages of simple octaves with great discipline, always sensitive to the mystery of the work’s Asiatic atmosphere.

Toronto-born conductor Peter Oundjian leads the Royal Scottish National Orchestra of which he has been music director since 2012. The RSNO is superb and deservedly claims its reputation as one of Europe’s leading orchestras. Both concertos require a broad range of stylistic and dynamic expression which the orchestra handles beautifully. They do especially well with the often angular nature of the Khachaturian. This recording brings together a wonderful team of musicians in a pair of truly demanding works. The result is a highly energized and superb performance.

02 Christian LeottaWith all 32 Beethoven sonatas in his discography, Christian Leotta has now added Beethoven – Diabelli Variations (ATMA ACD2 2485) to his growing list of recordings.

The Diabelli Variations have a history of divided critical opinion. At worst, Anton Diabelli’s original theme is considered a trite offering containing very little that any composer can use for a credible variation. That Beethoven used the material to write an entire set of 33 variations, is then something of a miracle that speaks directly to the composer’s inventive gift. Regardless of the theme’s actual merits, or lack of them, a performer needs to understand what Beethoven is actually doing in each variation in order to perform them intelligently.

This is where Leotta proves his standing as a highly respected Beethoven interpreter. He understands that Beethoven uses as little as a single interval and often barely more than that, a pick-up note, an ornament or a rhythmic pattern, to construct his variations. He remains highly focused on this, and in doing so holds the set of variations together despite its diverse moments of comedy, tumult, melancholy and contemplation.

Leotta has discerned Beethoven’s deepest imprint and conveys it in each of these utterances. What he makes clear by the end of it all is that Beethoven’s creative genius is for him, supreme.

03 Steeves haydnTimothy Steeves, known for his six recordings with violinist Nancy Dahl as Duo Concertante, has now released his first solo disc, Haydn Sonatas (Marquis MAR 469). Steeves admits to having a lifelong admiration for Haydn’s music and his choice of the three sonatas on this disc is meant to show Haydn’s creativity and originality. While the modern ear may have difficulty in hearing this music as original, because of its similarities to baroque and Mozartian works, a quick self-reminder as to where Haydn sits historically helps place him as the significant bridge from the baroque to the classical period.

Steeves plays with great clarity, required especially in the upper voices where Haydn tends to nest his melodies. He has a touch that demonstrates impressive control of tonal colouring, so important in the slow movements of the sonatas. The Adagio of the Sonata in A-Flat Major Hob.XVI:46 is an example of how Steeves gives the middle register a lovely dark sound while it supports a brighter upper voice. And while Haydn rarely creates the complex counterpoint we associate with Bach, Steeves pulls out inner voices whenever Haydn sends them lower down the keyboard.

The Sonata in C Minor Hob.XVI:20 opening movement is a telling example of how ornamentation remained a staple of keyboard writing style from the Renaissance, through the baroque and into the classical period. Steeves is meticulous throughout the first movement where Haydn has inserted trills and grace notes liberally. The Andante is noteworthy for the freedom Steeves takes with its phrasings, slowing a select few to a near stop to heighten the impact of their final cadence.

Steeves’ affection for Haydn is obvious and makes this a recording worth having.

Review

04 Beausejour PianoIn Baroque Session on Piano (Analekta AN 2 9128) harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour takes to the piano with pieces that he argues work well on that instrument for specific reasons. Beauséjour points out that much of the harpsichord repertoire does not play well on our modern keyboard because of the piano’s inability to deliver the clarity of complex ornamentation so often required by 15th- and 16th-century repertoire. He also points out that the darker colours of the piano’s middle registers can often obscure inner contrapuntal voices. Greater resonance is yet another factor that requires pianists to change phrasing techniques when playing harpsichord repertoire.

Selecting a program that avoids the worst of these problems, Beauséjour presents an attractive mix of frequently recorded works and others less well known. A couple of familiar Scarlatti sonatas and Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes deliver wonderfully clear and fluid runs. Bach’s Concerto in D Minor BWV974 after Marcello is an example of how the piano’s touch-based colours can make the second movement even more intensely expressive.

Other works by Louis Couperin and Georg Böhm, keep much of their harpsichord character with graceful arpeggios that Beauséjour retains more for a sense of period style than necessary technique. He includes a set of four Correnti by Frescobaldi and imbues them with a strongly rhythmic bounce and keyboard touch that suggests the crisp attack of the harpsichord’s plectra.

Baroque Session on Piano is a very fine recording commendable for its intelligence and musicality.

Review

05 Sudbin ScarlattiUnapologetic about the highly pianistic approach he takes, Yevgeny Sudbin admits that playing Scarlatti on the piano is in reality a transcription for a new instrument. Consequently, Scarlatti – 18 Sonatas (BIS-2138 SACD) is fully piano, with sustain pedal wherever needed, generous dynamic expression and every other technique the modern instrument can offer. Sudbin makes no effort at historical performance practice and instead claims the freedom to do whatever the music leads him to do – on the piano.

The result of all this might be a little shocking but is, ultimately, very believable because of the quality of the musical decisions underlying these controversial choices. Scarlatti remains identifiably Scarlatti, albeit with a new voice. Sudbin’s playing is undeniably gorgeous, rich in colour and texture, and everything the piano wants it to be.

As a litmus test for open mindedness on this issue compare the familiar Sonata in C Major K159 to any other performance, especially the Beauséjour described above.

06 Vadim KholodenkoWinner of the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Vadym Kholodenko has released a new recording with a varied program showing his remarkable versatility. In Tchaikovsky/Balakirev/Chaplygin/Kurbatov (Melodiya MEL CD 10 02365), Kholodenko opens with Balakirev’s Sonata No.2 in B-Flat Minor Op.102, a beautiful if curious work. The first movement begins with a contrapuntal idea that could have been written by Bach, and this is exactly how Kholodenko plays it. The second and third movements become increasingly Chopinesque until the Finale leaves no doubt where Balakirev’s French stylistic influences originate.

Despite this kaleidoscope of voices, Kholodenko provides a consistent and expressive approach. His playing style feels very choreographic. His keyboard presence is graceful yet powerful but not overbearing. Videos of his performances show him to be a physically restrained pianist but highly focused on expressiveness and this is, in fact, the first and most lasting impression he makes.

Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard Six Pieces on a Single Theme, Op. 21 is the only such short cycle he wrote. It uses a 15-note series embedded in the opening bars of each piece, varied only in rhythm. Kholodenko treats each section as a distinct character piece and closes the work with an impressive and energetic Scherzo.

Little Cyprian Music (2003) by Evgeny Chaplygin is a contemporary piece that compiles a series of musical impressions of a holiday on that island. It’s richly textured and technically very demanding in some passages. Kholodenko focuses on the composer’s intent in conveying the dance-like nature and Eastern flavour of Cypriot music.

07 Jonas VitaudFrench pianist Jonas Vitaud has only a few recordings to his credit, and while he’s already in his mid-30s, his remarkable playing would suggest we should really be hearing more from him. His newest recording Tchaikovsky – Les Saisons (Mirare MIR 308) offers two starkly contrasting works.

The Seasons Op.37a is an introspective work constructed on a calendar scheme with 12 sections. The music has some programmatic content based on activities or events associated with each month of the year. It is, more significantly, marked by a constant presence of fragility that is perhaps best known in the often quoted Barcarolle representing June. Even December – Noël concludes the cycle lightly and quietly. Maintaining this emotional posture with only a few energetic releases in sections like La Chasse is a challenge that Vitaud handles beautifully. His tenderness and fragility never convey weakness but seem perfectly poised. His playing is assured, even in the most tentative of Tchaikovsky’s moments.

By contrast, the Grand Sonata in G Major Op.37 begins with huge chordal gestures of confidence. These are echoed with even greater energy in the closing movement and played at furious speed. Still, the Grand Sonata contains a remarkable moment in the second movement Andante (about a third of the way through) where Vitaud strikes a dense chord and lets it sustain with all the dampers up off the strings. The resulting resonances grow by the moment into a rich texture not achievable by any other means. It’s a stunning device that he repeats near the end of the movement with the same result. It’s brilliant and creative.

We need more recordings by this fine musician who’s definitely worth hearing.

08 Americans in ParisPiano four-hands offers a texture not quite achieved in any other keyboard configuration. The possibilities for density and polyphony have enticed composers since keyboards became commonplace. Pianists Jerome Lowenthal and Michael Brown have just released Americans in Paris (Concert Artists Guild Records VEC 116 concertartists.org) and recorded some favourites including the Ravel Ma mère l’Oye that includes short bits of introductory narration to setup the fairy-tale background of each segment.

Samuel Barber’s Souvenirs Op.28 is a compilation of dances set in New York’s Plaza Hotel about 1914 and evokes the music Barber would have heard as a boy when taken there by his mother for tea. Lowenthal and Brown make an outstanding piano duo and deliver these dances, many of which have ample humour injected into them, with impeccable precision.

Plenty of piano students have played the four-hands Dolly Suite Op.56 by Gabriel Fauré. This performance is well-paced. Messieu Aoul and Le pas espagnol are especially admirable for the coordinated energy and execution they require.

The highlight of the CD is a four-hands arrangement of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris. It’s an autobiographical work recounting Gershwin’s own time there in the mid-1920s. It features some obvious references early in the work to the set of authentic Parisian taxi horns Gershwin had purchased during his trip. Lowenthal and Brown seem most at home in this piece, really feeling the deep melancholy of the blues section, as well as the jazzy syncopations that drive so much of the music.

09 Stanislav KhristenkoErnst Krenek was one of the 20th century’s most stylistically complete composers whose vocabulary gave him creative access to both historical and contemporary expression. On Ernst Krenek – Piano Music, Volume One (Toccata Classics TOCC 0298), Ukrainian-born Stanislav Khristenko performs a well-balanced program of Krenek’s compositions.

The Piano Sonata No.4 Op.114 (1948) is a work in which Khristenko demonstrates Krenek’s ability to move seamlessly between ideas that are tonally centred and others that aren’t. Khristenko not only captures the neo-romantic essence of Krenek’s language, but also the unsettling elements of the composer’s early life that express themselves in the edgy phrasing he uses to evoke the changed world emerging from the two world wars.

Khristenko’s choice of the George Washington Variations, Op.120 (1950) is especially entertaining for its use of all of Krenek’s favourite devices. Deployed as they are, they move an opening 19th-century military march through a metamorphosis of clever changes in which Khristenko never lets go of the initial musical idea.

Krenek held a lifelong devotion to the music of Franz Schubert. He spent years coming to understand the genius of Schubert’s music, its design and balance, especially as present in his lieder. Krenek’s decision to complete Schubert’s Piano Sonata in C Major D840 is based solely on the existence of sufficient thematic material in the final two movements to make credible development possible. Naturally, it’s difficult to listen to this Schubert without also listening for some Krenek.

Khristenko is also currently working on recording the complete works of Krenek as well as a recording of Soler sonatas.

10 Szilasi ChopinIt can be understandably difficult to get terribly excited about a recording of an upright piano, especially if it’s old, really old, say 1834. So why would Alex Szilasi record Chopin Berceuse, Barcarolle & Impromptus (Hungaroton HCD32473) on an old Pleyel upright? Evidently this one is special – Chopin played it. Pleyel Company archives show that Chopin played it at the factory in Paris and selected it for the Russian ambassador. He liked this particular model so much that he ordered one for himself. Both instruments were delivered to adjacent apartments at the ambassador’s residence where Chopin was a frequent guest. While Chopin’s piano was eventually lost, the other instrument has survived fully authenticated. This is its recording debut.

Chopin favoured the Pleyel piano for its soft tone. It was double-strung in its middle and upper registers and therefore softer than later triple-strung instruments. It responds to the gentlest touch to produce nearly inaudible pianissimos. Aggressive or heavy touch tends to cause distortion on these instruments, so Chopin would have favoured them for very specific repertoire, and certainly nothing terribly bombastic, hence this CD’s program of more tender compositions.

Szilasi creates some amazing effects with the instrument. The rapid chromatic runs in the right hand through the upper octaves of the keyboard sound extremely fragile like a web of silk threads, yet they remain clear although very soft. This is best heard in the Impromptu in F-Sharp Major Op.36. The familiar Fantasie-Impromptu in C-Sharp Minor Op.72 is also a dramatic contrast to the more muscular performances commonly heard on modern pianos.

Alex Szilasi has created a thought-provoking recording that gives us a glimpse of how Chopin would have heard and played his own music 180 years ago.

 

 

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