05_tchaikovsky_prokofievTchaikovsky - Rococo Variations; Prokofiev - Sinfonia Concertante

Gautier Capuçon; Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre; Valery Gergiev

Virgin Classics 9 694486 0

 

This excellent CD is a live recording of a Christmas Eve 2008 concert at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg.

 

Gautier Capuçon is an outstanding player, although I feel he tends to favour detail over the bigger phrase at times. Such an approach is fine in the Rococo Variations, where the virtuosic demands outnumber the emotional, and Capuçon handles them with ease and style.

 

The Prokofiev is clearly another matter, but Capuçon rises to the challenge. Dating from the early 1950s, when Prokofiev was still under censure for his “antidemocratic tendencies”, the Sinfonia concertante is a reworking of his Op.58 Cello Concerto from the late 1930s, and marked a return to his true style. Even so, Prokofiev was wise enough to supply an alternative – and more orthodox! – version of the finale for the premiere. Gautier has apparently loved this fascinating work since his childhood days, and it shows in his convincing and nuanced performance, full of the “calm power and serene strength” that he rightly says the cellist needs.

 

The orchestral support from superstar conductor Gergiev and the OMT is, not surprisingly, of the highest order. The recording ambience is warm and natural, with no hint of audience noise. The booklet notes are excellent, and are particularly illuminating on the publishing history of the Tchaikovsky.

 

I may still a bit reluctant to fully jump on the Capuçon bandwagon, but this CD certainly has me now hanging on to the tailgate!

04_mahler_7Mahler - Symphony No.7

Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich; David Zinman

RCA Red Seal 88697 50650 2

 

Integral sets of Mahler symphonies have run amok as the double whammy of the composer’s sesqui-and-centennial anniversaries approach (born 1860, died 1911). Among the finest of these is the ongoing series, released in chronological order, by David Zinman and the Swiss Tonhalle Orchestra.

 

The Seventh Symphony has long been regarded as the problem child of the set, a true test of a conductor’s insight due to its multi-faceted interpretive challenges. It is, relatively speaking, an uncharacteristically optimistic work and one which hints at advances in Mahler’s harmonic thinking to which he would return in his uncompleted Tenth Symphony. Critics of the past regarded the composer’s appropriation of a sunny disposition in this work forced and disingenuous. Influential curmudgeon T.W. Adorno declared the work a complete failure, dismissing Mahler as “a poor yea-sayer”, while Mahler’s acolyte Bruno Walter avoided this work throughout his career. Today Mahler’s puzzling ambiguities have captured the imagination of our own era to such an extent that he now rivals Beethoven in his universal appeal. Zinman approaches his task with characteristic thoroughness and a scrupulous adherence to Mahler’s exacting performance directions. His admirable control of orchestral balances is well captured by RCA’s production team. Though Zinman’s performance of the three central movements of this vast, symmetrical five-part structure are beyond reproach, the convulsions of the weighty first movement are less well defined and the rollicking finale, though certainly festive, falls short of the triumphant atmosphere established by Bernstein and Abbado in their multiple recordings of this work. Despite the rather undernourished sound produced by the Zurich string section and Zinman’s micromanagement of events hindering the spontaneity demanded by Mahler’s more operatic moments, this is nonetheless a major recording which I heartily recommend.

03_grieg-mogensenPiano Music of Edward Grieg, Volume 2

Sandra Mogensen

Independent CHM 0901120 (www.sandramogensen.com)

 

Edvard Grieg was not an especially complicated composer – yet, ironically, his style offers something of a challenge for performers. On one hand, a pianist should respect the heart-on-sleeve emotionalism and down-to-earth directness of Grieg’s ideas. On the other hand, this music demands interpretation: a pianist must do something with it.

 

And Sandra Mogensen, a Canadian pianist who lives in Stratford, Ontario, does plenty with it. With all of the 23 selections recorded here, there’s a strong sense of mood and dramatic purpose. In her hands, each piece on this clear-sounding disc captures an image or tells a story.

 

For instance, there’s a Schumannesque flutteriness to Butterfly (Op. 43. No. 1); and a sunny, pleasant disposition to Gade (Op. 57 No. 2) – a musical portrait of Grieg’s teacher Niels Gade. As well At the Cradle (Op. 68 No. 5) is suitably dreamy, and Bell Ringing (Op. 54 No. 6) is dark and mysterious. For Nordic folksiness look to Springdans (Op. 17 No. 1) or Norwegian (Op. 12 No. 6).

 

Some of these pieces go beyond the expression of a single idea, enfolding contrasting material into single movements. Mogensen’s performance of the famous Solveig’s Song (Op. 52 No. 2) is alternately mournful and sweet. And the enigmatic Vanished Days (Op. 57. No. 1) – the longest piece on the disc – runs the gamut from introspective wistfulness to intense high drama, with some playful passages thrown in for good measure.

 

For those with a penchant for sterner stuff, some of the pieces recorded here will no doubt seem overly sentimental. Be that as it may, Mogensen pleads Grieg’s case sincerely and well.

02_faure_violinFauré - Works for Violin and Piano

Olivier Thouin; Francois Zeitouni

XXI XXI-CD2 1702

 

This fine disc’s two “pillars” are the early and late Fauré violin sonatas. Sonata No. 1 in A Major shows Fauré already at the height of his powers. This performance realizes the music’s striving, yearning sensibility. The passionate first movement features Fauré’s distinctive modal and chromatic harmony. Zeitouni controls the florid piano accompaniment well, bringing out motifs and subordinating lines, or underlining the violin’s melodic shaping. In the barcarole-like slow movement, sensitivity to harmony is displayed in violinist Thouin’s classic, subtly-coloured style. Both players meet the demands of the intricate, skittering scherzo, featuring fine staccato from Thouin’s bow.

 

The duo makes the most of the disc’s three lighter works. Berceuse in D Major is like a charming French mélodie. I find the Romance in B-flat Major too conventionally sentimental, but the forward-looking Andante in the B-flat Major’s melody in ascending fourths receives particularly interesting harmonizations.

 

The performers capture well the much different character of Sonata No. 2 in E minor: the first movement’s soaring lines seeming to ascend out of tumult towards light; the second movement’s tossing and turning; and the finale’s conflict and ambiguity resolving only at the final measure.

 

This disc may attract new listeners to Fauré, while aficionados will find it faithful to the composer’s style and spirit. The recording quality is excellent, capturing a full dynamic range in all registers, and Zeitouni's accompanying notes only reinforce the case being made for this great composer.

01_raymond_spasovskiPhoenix 

Raymond Spasovski

Independent (www.raymondspasovski.com)

 

I don’t imagine Walter Hall has changed all that much since I gave my one and only noon-hour recital there many years ago as a fourth-year composition student. But what I do know is that pianist Raymond Spasovski plays much better than I did on this live recording of a concert held there last October. Born in Macedonia, Spasovski made his debut at the age of 10 with the Macedonian Symphony, and since then, has appeared with major orchestras throughout Europe and North America to great acclaim.

 

This CD, his first, presents an attractive program drawing heavily from the late Romantic period, but opening with a short sonata by the 18th century composer Mateo Albeniz. Although this piece and the Bach Prelude in A minor BWV 807 clearly demonstrate his technical dexterity, it’s the repertoire from the late 19th century in which he particularly excels, especially that by Spanish and South American composers. Indeed, de Falla, Granados, Isaac Albeniz, Lecuona, and Ginastera are well represented, and he approaches them all with great panache. The playing is confident and bold, particularly demonstrated in the Tres Danzas Argentinas by Ginastera, and Granados’ Allegro de Concierto. Yet his interpretation of the Chopin Berçeuse shows a decidedly more sensitive side to his playing.

 

While I’m always a little leery about live recordings with respect to audio quality, the sound here is well-balanced and warmly resonant - and even the frequent applause doesn’t detract in any way. So a big bravo, Mr. Spasovski – the Walter Hall Steinway sounds much better under your capable hands than it ever did with mine!

05_migotMigot - Suite à trois; Le livre des danceries

Robert Cram; Trio Hochelaga

ATMA ACD2 2543

Intense in his spirituality, drawing on the rich diversity of French music, and inspired by the Touraine landscape, Georges Migot (1891-1976) could not fail to achieve fame as president of La Spirale, the Parisian society dedicated to offering performances of new French works.

Migot’s Trio of 1935 commences with the Modéré, an intense - and clashing and disjointed - movement. It is almost a duel between piano and violin. It is followed by an Allègre. Both movements make great demands on the skills of cellist Paul Marleyn and violinist Anne Robert; their skills ensure that this recording matches up to the description of the Trio as one of the most arresting pieces of French chamber music.

Third movement is the Danse, where Stéphane Lemelin’s piano-playing comes into its own, as intense as the string parts, but more disciplined as the piano is denied the liberty that the latter enjoy as they invoke France’s varied heritage. Last is the Final: no instrument dominates and Migot allows each to test its player’s skill. This is an intense suite of chamber music, a challenge to preconceived ideas of classical ensembles.


In very different spirit is the Livre des Danceries where flautist Robert Cram introduces a sprightly quality which is eventually taken up by the piano part in the second - Gai - movement. At last, the CD’s pianist can relax! Next is Réligieux, longest of the four movements, drawing on melodic religious sources. And then Conclusion, from the earliest bars a celebration of the other movements and an exciting way to round off Trio Hochelaga’s vigorous interpretations.

04_english_violaEnglish Music for Viola

Eniko Magyar; Tadashi Imai

Naxos 8.572407

There is something about the viola’s tonal quality that makes it seem quintessentially English; appropriately so, given that it was an Englishman – Lionel Tertis – who almost singlehandedly established the viola as a legitimate solo instrument in the early 20th century. Tertis had connections with most of the music on this outstanding debut CD by the London-based Hungarian violist Eniko Magyar.

The Bliss Sonata is the most challenging of the works, with a turbulent, restless and dissonant start and a passionate third movement. It was written for, and dedicated to, Tertis, who gave the first performance in 1933.

A year earlier, Tertis had transcribed Delius’s Third Violin Sonata and had played it for the ailing composer at the latter’s home in Grez-sur-Loing. Written in 1930, it is Delius at his distinctively lyrical best.

The seven attractive miniatures by Frank Bridge date from 1901 to 1908, when Bridge was in his 20s. Most were originally written for violin or cello; only two – Pensiero and Allegro appassionato – were written specifically for the viola, Bridge’s own instrument, and were published as the first titles in the Lionel Tertis Viola Library in 1908.

Magyar plays her c.1700 Grancino viola (on loan from the Royal Academy) with warmth, sensitivity, and a superb technique, and is ably and sympathetically supported by pianist Tadashi Imai. The recording quality and booklet notes are both excellent.

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