09a_michael_unger_naxosMichael Unger - Organ Recital

Michael Unger

Naxos 8.572246

 

 

 

09b_universe_of_poetryUniverse of Poetry

Michael Unger

Pro Organ CD 7235 (www.proorgano.com)

 

 

Devotees of organ music are admittedly few but faithful. Their numbers, however slim, do sustain a modest stream of recordings from both major and private labels. Canadian-born Michael Unger offers two new recordings in this genre – each very different from the other.

His Tokyo recital recording follows his 2008 International Organ competition victory there. Curiously enough, the Japanese have proven to be an enthusiastic and well-financed market for new pipe organs. Numerous concert halls throughout Japan have contracted North American and European pipe organ builders to install instruments costing millions. Nobody is certain why Asian audiences have so passionately embraced a culturally foreign form of music, but it gives dwindling numbers of organ enthusiasts in the West reason to be grateful.

The instrument is by European builder Marcussen & Son. Its tonal design seems a careful balance between the brightly voice ranks needed for the recital program’s Buxtehude and Bach as well as the 19th – 20th century French repertoire. The instrument’s scale reflects the desire to have a large and grand sound in the concert hall although one suspects the designers may have neglected to leave enough acoustic space in the hall to adequately blend the organ’s voices as cavernous churches do so well.

The treat in this recital is definitely Messiaen’s Dieu parmi nous (from La Nativité du Seigneur). Unger exploits the organ’s potential for colouristic effect and presents Messiaen with unreserved energy and brightness. The Gaston Litaize Prélude et danse fugeé is also a track worth hearing for its contemporary flavour.

Universe of Poetry presents Unger in a program of more traditional repertoire at Sacred Heart Cathedral, Rochester, N.Y. The organ is by American builder Paul Fritts and is as stunning visually as it is aurally. The Cathedral’s ambient space provides a marvellous acoustic setting for the instrument. The organ is voiced brightly making it perfect for a wide range of German repertoire and reasonably suitable for some English and American composers as well, especially the more contemporary ones. 19th century French music may not fare so well, but that’s the nature of tonal design in the organ world.

Unger’s program on this disc is mostly German (Bach, Buxtehude, Rheinberger) recognizing the instrument’s strengths. The few English, French and Belgian pieces do however, come across very well.

The performances on this disc convey a sense of fun and love for the music that contrasts with the fiery showmanship of Unger’s Tokyo competition. Production values are good on both CDs but the Cathedral recording in Rochester N.Y. has the definite edge.

Alex Baran

10_angele_dubeauVirtuose

Angèle Dubeau

Analekta AN 2 8729

 

I would venture to say that alongside tantalizing food products, sleek public transportation vehicles and couture fashion, violinist Angèle Dubeau could be regarded as an equally important Quebec commodity. Although she emerged as a soloist at a young age, her career has never been marked by flash and pizzazz. Rather, the approach she chose has been one of solid musicianship coupled with continuous learning and development, as seen in the 25 discs recorded for the Analekta label, either as a soloist, in chamber groups, or with her ensemble, La Pietà.

This newest release, titled simply Virtuose is rather like a tribute album, for instead of presenting newly-recorded material, it draws from recordings she has made over the last twelve years. The result is a most attractive and eclectic collection ranging from solo performances to those involving a full orchestra.

 

The CD opens with two familiar solo Caprices, the first by Locatelli, and the second by Paganini. Dubeau’s warm tone and technical virtuosity are immediately apparent as she treats these miniature gems with apparent ease. Considerably more dramatic are two final movements from 19th century concertos, those by Mendelssohn and Glazunov, and involving, respectively, the Orchestre Metropolitain, and Bulgarian Radio Symphony. Her affinity for chamber-music is discernible in pieces such as the finale from Schubert’s Violin Sonata in D major (with pianist Anton Kuerti), and the cheeky finale from the Martinu Sonata for Flute, Violin and Piano. Concluding with the tempestuous opening movement from the Sibelius Violin Concerto, the CD is a fine homage to an established Canadian virtuoso whom we certainly hope to enjoy for a long time to come.

 

Richard Haskell

 

Concert Note: Toronto audiences can hear Angèle Dubeau and La Pietà perform at the Jane Mallett Theatre on February 10.

 

09_lennyCelebrating Lenny

Leonard Bernstein

Medici Arts 2057068-1/2/3/4/5

One recent release of 20th century performances takes second place to none – the five-DVD video recordings by Medici Arts of Leonard Bernstein at his florid, warm-hearted best in a variety of musical contexts. In seven hours they illuminate his fierce involvement in every note of the works he’s conducting, the authority he radiates without the grim demeanour adopted by so many peers, the ability to draw the right emotional insights from his charges, the serene, closed-eyes reverence and relaxation masking his inner fire and his tireless insistence in keeping listeners attentive.

The DVDs cover the years 1973 through 1990, the final one a mighty take on Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony in D Minor in Vienna just months before his death. It’s no revelation to note the historical significance of the fourth in this series, another D Minor symphony – by Beethoven, his Choral, performed on Christmas Day 1989 with international choirs and musicians just weeks after the Berlin Wall came down. Usually dubbed ‘Ode To Joy’ from Schiller’s poem, Bernstein rechristened it ‘Ode To Freedom’. It still delivers goose-bumps, despite the lagging Adagio, and is the pick of the other examples of Bernsteinian mastery here - conducting Brahms with the Israel Philharmonic, Franck and Milhaud with the French national orchestra, Mozart and the Bruckner with the Vienna Philharmonic.

This contribution from Bernstein, so adept at the serious and the light, if West Side Story and Candide are truly light, is a not-to-be-missed box set gem.

Geoff Chapman

EXTENDED PLAY – VIOLINS GALORE

By Terry Robbins

01_beethoven_capucon_nezet-seguinI’ve been a bit reluctant to jump on the Renaud Capuçon bandwagon, despite his meteoric rise through the violin ranks, but his new recording of the Beethoven and Korngold Violin Concertos (Virgin Classics 9 694589 0) would make a believer of anyone. Capuçon is a ‘big vibrato’ player, but here it’s put to a controlled and telling use in a beautifully-judged performance. What really pushes this CD into the stratosphere, though, is the contribution of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin: perfect tempi, and remarkable balance and clarity that reveal details in the orchestration I’m not sure I’ve ever heard before. The Korngold benefits from exactly the same treatment, and Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation merges with Capuçon’s huge, warm sound to produce a terrific performance. It’s not always easy to appreciate the effect a conductor can have, but the reasons for Nézet-Séguin’s rapidly-growing international reputation are here for all to hear.

02_bruch_brahms_changAlthough I thought her Vivaldi Four Seasons CD was simply outstanding, I must admit I found the new Bruch and Brahms Violin Concertos from Sarah Chang (EMI Classics 9 67004 2) a bit on the ordinary side – if ‘ordinary’ can ever be applied to a player of Chang’s enormous talents. Chang tends to be another ‘big vibrato’ player, and in the Bruch – a work closely associated with her – I found it a bit distracting, despite the Romantic nature of the music. It’s much the same in the Brahms, where her big, wide vibrato makes it sound more like a “reach-the-back-of the-hall” live concert performance than a closed recording. Kurt Masur’s accompaniment with the Dresdner Philharmonie is rhythmically strong, but a bit pedestrian. Quality performances without a doubt, but, given the performers, a little bit nearer the middle of the pack than you would expect.

 

Concert Note: Sarah Chang will perform a concert on February 24 at 8pm at Markham Theatre.

 

03_paganini_vriendWith his CD of Paganini Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 (Challenge Classics Super Audio CC72343), Rudolf Koelman certainly answers the question “How?” when it comes to playing Paganini, but more importantly also answers the question “Why?” It’s easy to dismiss Paganini’s works as empty show pieces, with little to recommend them musically, but this disc not only highlights Paganini’s close personal friendship with Rossini but also stresses their musical association by including the overture to Rossini’s opera Matilde di Shabran. It’s a brilliant stroke, because it shows that Paganini’s works are not simply vehicles for virtuosity, but are firmly rooted in the Italian operatic and vocal style of the time; the violin merely replaces the voice. Koelman has the complete arsenal of technical skills, but plays with smoother lines and fewer sharp edges than many Paganini performers. Jan Willem de Vriend leads the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra in live performances, but audience noise is never an issue.

04_dvorak_szymanowski_steinbacherI’d forgotten just how much I love the two violin concertos by Karol Szymanowski, but Arabella Steinbacher’s stunning new CD of his Concerto No.1, together with the Dvorák Concerto (Pentatone Classics Super Audio PTC 5186 353) is a dazzling reminder. This is, by any standard, a wonderful performance of a gloriously lyrical and rhapsodic work; if the achingly beautiful theme that runs through the work doesn’t get to you, then nothing will. Steinbacher sounds as if she’s been playing this work all her life, and receives passionate and faultless support from Marek Janowski and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin. The Dvorak receives no less perceptive and committed a performance, and his Romance in F minor is made to sound much more than just filler. A simply stunning CD.

05_sarasate_yangTianwa Yang’s third CD in a projected seven-volume set of the complete works of Sarasate is the first volume of his Music for Violin and Orchestra (Naxos 8.572191). A wonderful Zigeunerweisen starts things off, and the standard never flags. Certainly it would be difficult to imagine more suitable support: Ernest Martinez Izquierdo draws passionate and nuanced playing from the Orquesta Sinfonica de Navarra, the orchestra founded by Sarasate in 1879, and the recording venue was their concert hall in Pamplona, the composer’s birthplace. Tianwa Yang toured China with this same orchestra in a series of Sarasate concerts, and clearly understands the music, going beyond a dazzling technique to get at the Spanish soul within.

Terry Robbins

03_la_cenerentolaRossini - La Cenerentola

Joyce DiDonato; Juan Diego Florez; Gran Teatre del Liceu; Patrick Summers

Decca 074 3305

It is such a pleasure to enjoy this completely original, very imaginative and colourful DVD performance of the 24 year old Rossini’s comic Cinderella masterpiece completed under great pressure in a few weeks for the carnival season of 1817. Original indeed. What an inspired idea to bring in the ‘Comediants’, a group of itinerant players who give outdoor impromptu performances all over Catalonia much like in the Middle Ages. The overall effect is the work of Joan Fonts (director) and it’s like a comic book fairy tale with strong primary colours that are ever changing with mirrors and the magic of backlighting. One hilarious feature is a group of anthropomorphic rats constantly moving around in the background following and silently commenting on the action.

And it’s a musical triumph as well. The two principals, Joyce diDonato and Juan Diego Florez are top of the line today in terms of bel canto singing. American mezzo DiDonato easily conquers the fierce technical demands of Rossini fioraturas but is also capable of pathos and introspection to move audiences with the warmth of her voice. Juan Diego Florez’s voice is spectacular in the high flying tessitura and he throws out the high C’s with the greatest of ease. After his aria in the second act Si, ritrovarla, io giuro the audience goes simply hysterical.

There is no disappointment in the three supporting baritone/basso roles either. Perhaps veteran Italian basso Bruno de Simone (Don Magnifico) stands out in his characterization, irresistible comedy and bravura Rossinian pattering, a feature that Arthur Sullivan adopted later into his English operettas.

Indiana born conductor Patrick Sommers is fast becoming a force to reckon with, especially in bel canto repertoire. His unerring beat of metronomic precision and graceful and stylish tempos, sometimes at lightning speed, contribute to an outstandingly memorable evening.

Janos Gardonyi

01_gurreliederA new performance of Gurrelieder, Schoenberg’s Tristanesque narrative, is not so rare these days, but still of interest. Earlier this year Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted it with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall. Among the soloists is soprano Soile Isokoski singing Tove. Salonen appears to be less Romantic than, say Stokowski or Ferencsik, but achieves some exquisite balances between soloists and orchestra in the third part. The speaker in Herr Gänsefuss...” is Barbara Sukowa who is also in Abbado’s version (DG) in the role usually spoken by a male voice. The recording, issued by Signum (SIGCD173, 2 CD/SACDs) is lucid and dynamic.

 

02_beethoven_jansenPaavo Järvi has just finished a complete Beethoven Symphony cycle with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, Bremen, for RCA. These are electrifying performances, bringing new life to these perennial warhorses. Violinist Janine Jansen joins this same cast in the Violin Concerto with stunning results in a new Decca release (4781530). Her performance belongs to the perfect group emerging from young performers but, unlike most of them, she maintains the listener’s undivided attention. Jansen combines ease and elegance with authority, conveying Beethoven’s genius directly. The Britten Violin Concerto follows with Järvi at the helm of the London Symphony. They make a perfect pairing and complement Jansen’s previous Decca recordings of core repertoire.

 

03_stravinskyThe Mariinsky Ballet’s performance of the meticulous re-construction of Nijinsky’s choreography and Roesch’s sets and costumes of the first performance of Le Sacre du Printemps, so enthusiastically reviewed here a few months ago, is now available on Blu-ray (BelAir BAC441). The high definition video makes an enormous difference, affecting a 3-D illusion, brilliantly drawing the viewer onto the stage mighty impressive, indeed. Fokine’s original Firebird of 1911 is included, as is the documentary on the extensive research to realise the originals.

 

04_richterCollectors know that there are many live performances of Pictures at an Exhibition played by Sviatoslav Richter, each being individual and different from the others, no two the same. Richter was known to abhor the studio and therefore most of his recordings are drawn from live performances. In 1958 however, Melodiya managed to record him in the studio under ideal conditions. That recording has recently re-appeared (Melodiya MEL CD 1000515) and I had the opportunity to re-visit this exuberant reading. Here one can appreciate the finger work that is sometimes blurred in the live recording. Comparing it to the 1958 Sofia live performance for instance reaffirms what we already know about Richter, namely that never plays the same piece the same way twice.

 

05_preyA MUST HAVE: The late Herman Prey, one of the last century’s greatest baritones, singing the three Schubert song cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin, Schwanengesang, and Winterreise (C MAJOR 700208, 2 DVDs). Prey was known for his perfect delivery of German art songs including, of course, Schubert. Not only did he have the voice, he was a consummate musician. The living room settings here are ideal and the sound appropriately intimate. How much nicer this is than a concert hall.

 

06_tchaikovsky_2_filmsTwo Films, Christopher Nupen’s celebrated 1989 video on Tchaikovsky’s life and music, is, at last, available on DVD (Allegro Films A10CND). Presented in two segments; Tchaikovsky’s Women deals with his relationships with women who passed through his life and their effect on his mental well-being, segueing nicely into Fate, his states of mind and the ensuing compositions. This is not presented as an entertainment but as a journal of his life and some major works. As is usual, Nupen provides the narrative, deftly drawing the viewer (me) into watching the entire 156 minutes without interruption. This is an important document and I liked it a lot.

 

07_mariinsky_1812The Mariinsky Orchestra’s third CD on their own label is devoted to the music of Tchaikovsky (MAR 0503, CD/SACD). The 1812 Overture which opens the program is mighty impressive with the added cannons and bells heard as if from afar and not vying with the entire orchestra for sonic dominance. The Moscow Cantata, scored for soloists, chorus and orchestra, follows then the Marche Slave (sic), opus 31, the Festival Coronation March, and the Festival Overture on the Danish National Anthem, opus 15. Recorded in their own hall earlier this year this album is outstanding in the excellence of the recorded sound, presenting a wide and deep sound stage, with every instrument and voice in natural perspective. The dynamic range, too, is impressive. Credit must go to the producer, James Mallinson, who is also responsible for the recordings of both the London Symphony and the Chicago Symphony orchestras on their own labels.

 

08_mahler_2Mahler’s Second Symphony with Chicago Symphony under Bernard Haitink continues their ongoing Mahler cycle with an outstanding performance recorded live earlier this year (CSO-RESOUND CSOR 901916, 2 CD/SACD discs). This is not an angst-ridden performance but a well considered interpretation from a Mahler conductor who has performed this work countless times and has already two performances in the catalogue. This is one of the very greatest orchestras and their playing is outstanding by any standards. Again, the recording itself is state-of-the-art, dynamic with breathtaking three dimensional perspectives that transports listeners to the best seats in Symphony Hall.

 

09_nutcrackerThe San Francisco Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker is but one of the countless different ways Tchaikovsky’s perennial favourite is offered to delight young and old alike. The 2008 staging was seen on PBS last year but Blu-ray enthusiasts will be delighted with the release on OpusArte, looking and sounding better than witnessed on TV (OA BD7044 D). In addition to an illustrated synopsis, there are interviews with the choreographer, the scenic designer and the costume designer. Also a documentary on the 1915 World’s Fair in San Francisco. A good package.

06_i_musici_tchaikovskyTchaikovsky - Souvenir de Florence

I Musici de Montreal; Yuli Turovsky

Analekta AN 2 9954

It was during his second visit to Italy’s sunny skies in 1890 that Tchaikovsky composed his string sextet in d minor, Op.70, appropriately titled Souvenir de Florence. Initially dissatisfied with it, he ultimately revised the piece and we have it here as arranged for string orchestra, along with the much earlier String Quartet Op.11 with I Musici de Montréal under the leadership of Yuli Turovsky.

What a fresh and vigorous sound IMM achieves on this recording! While always displaying a formidable precision, the group also demonstrates a keen sensitivity to the counterpoint. Melodic lines are carefully delineated, and there is none of the muddiness that can characterize string playing from time to time. This element of clarity is nowhere more evident than in the lively finale, which to me, always sounds more Slavic than Italian.

The String Quartet in D major is a considerably earlier work, written in 1871. Today, the piece is most famous for the well-known slow movement, the “Andante Cantabile”. Here, the augmented size of the ensemble, resulting in a lusher sound, seems particularly suited to this lyrical music which apparently brought Leo Tolstoy to tears upon first hearing it!

Kudos should also go to the engineering team for its fine technical work, and also for their decision (if indeed it was theirs) to record the disc at the Église Saint-Mathieu de Beloeil. The acoustics in this venerable 113-year old building are sublime and give a wonderfully resonant sound throughout, an element that further enhances an already great performance.

 

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