01 KuulaAdam Johnson introduces a lesser known Finnish composer in his new recording Kuula – Complete Works for Solo Piano (Grand Piano GP 780; naxosdirect.com/items/kuula-complete-works-for-solo-piano-467079). Toivo Kuula (1883-1918) was a conductor and composer who studied in a number of European centres and spent some time as a composition student of Sibelius. His piano works represent only a modest portion of his oeuvre which includes more than 50 works plus a few posthumous items.

Kuula was a self-taught pianist whose earliest compositions date from 1900. While he never achieved virtuosic stature with the instrument, his eloquent writing suggests that he understood it profoundly. Johnson’s playing immediately captures the stylistic brew of Kuula’s late Romantic and early modern influences. His technique is fluid and confident and suits this music perfectly.

The disc’s program includes Two Song Transcriptions Op.37 which are especially beautiful and whose distinctive character easily sets them apart from the piano pieces. Johnson has done a wonderful job of drawing attention to a worthwhile creative voice not often heard.

02 Musica BrasilieraLuiz Carlos De Moura Castro’s new disc Musica Brasileira II (store.cdbaby.com/cd/luizdemouracastro10) is a collection of three substantial works: one by José Antônio Almeida Prado and the others by Villa-Lobos.

Prado’s Sonata No.5 “Omulu” is part of his cycle of Afro-Brazilian compositions. It’s a wild conception of ideas, dense, colourful and highly energized. The architecture is formal but the spirit of the piece is raw and untamed. De Moura Castro performs it with astonishing force and insight in an impressive combination of wild abandon and discipline. The composer dedicated the work to him and he premiered it in 1986 in Switzerland.

Villa-Lobos dedicated Rudepoema to Arthur Rubinstein. It’s a huge work of nearly half an hour and reflects, in an extended fantasy format, the composer’s deep affection for and artistic admiration of Rubinstein’s playing.

The other Villa-Lobos work is the fantasy for piano and orchestra Momo Precoce. This track was recorded live at a March 1985 performance and carries the acoustic colour of its period’s recording technology. It too is a lengthy piece, with some programmatic content depicting a Brazilian children’s carnival. Despite its vintage, the performance is first rate and completely engaging.

03 LisztomaniaMikolaj Warszynski is an accomplished performer and teacher. His latest recording Liszt-O-Mania (University of Alberta - Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies WIR07/2018; mikolajwarszynski.net/lisztomania) is a well-chosen program of favourites by Liszt, and therefore, an easy program to sell but a tough one to perform. As an academic, Warszynski brings his love of history and research to his liner notes. They are concise, captivating and inspiring. Moreover, they create the right expectation for his performances.

Warszynski sees Liszt as a spiritual explorer rather than solely a wild keyboard demigod. He expresses this by creating greater distances between moments of ferocity and moments of repose. This contrast is powerful, spellbinding and reflects a mature understanding of the composer’s intentions. Ballade No.2 in B Minor is a fine example of this device but the bonus track, Sonetto del Petrarca 123 is the most memorable, because of its artful application.

Lisztomania is less manic than its title might suggest, and it offers far more than a recital of “favourites” can usually manage. There’s some arrestingly beautiful playing on this disc.

04 Peter SchaafPeter Schaaf has released a third recording following his return to the keyboard after a lengthy hiatus pursuing other creative ventures. Chopin: 17 Waltzes (Schaaf Records SR 103; schaafrecords.com) is a collection of waltzes divided between those published during Chopin’s lifetime and those published posthumously.

Schaaf’s approach is relaxed and the tempos reflect this, often being a touch slower than is commonly heard. His playing is wonderfully clear and articulate. The all-important ornaments that give Chopin’s writing its identifying signature are unerringly executed with impressive consistency. Waltzes Op.34, No.3 and Op.69, No.2 are terrific examples of this splendid technique. Schaaf also brings a welcome degree of introspection to this music that is especially poignant in the minor keys. He creates a feeling of heightened mystery that, combined with a slower tempo, make pieces like the Waltz in C Sharp Minor Op.64 No.2 an entirely new experience.

05 Shoshana TelnerShoshana Telner’s latest release is a 2CD set titled Johann Sebastian Bach – The Six Partitas BWV825-830 (Centaur CRC 3642/3643; centaurrecords.com). The joy of playing or hearing Bach lies in the search for melody. Regardless of how familiar a work may be, chances are that a hidden fragment of melody will reveal itself, making the already beautiful impossibly better. This is how Telner plays. From her first phrase she declares her intention to mine every treasured nugget in Bach’s motherlode of counterpoint. These French dance suites are replete with ideas great and small lying in every range of the keyboard voice. Telner’s technique unfolds each one carefully. The versatility of the nine-foot Fazioli she plays allows for rich dynamic contrasts and subtle touch variations to highlight each new idea she encounters, as if to coax them out of hiding. It’s a mindful, disciplined and loving way to handle this music and the result is a breadth of beauty difficult to describe.

06 Quattro ManiSteven Beck and Susan Grace are the second incarnation of the piano duo Quattro Mani. Their new recording Re-Structures (Bridge 9496; bridgerecords.com/products/9496) is a wonderfully programmed disc of contemporary works for two pianos plus a variety of other instruments.

Poul Ruders’ Cembal D’Amore for piano and harpsichord places the piano mostly on the left audio channel while the harpsichord occupies the centre and right of the audio spectrum. Not only is the stereo effect immediately engaging but the writing too grabs the attention with very clever keyboard combinations and colouristic effects.

György Kurtág’s Életút Lebenslauf Op.32 uses a normally tuned piano in combination with another tuned a quarter tone lower and also calls for a pair of basset horns.

The title track Re-Structures by Tod Machover is written for two pianos and live electronics. It’s dedicated to Pierre Boulez for his 90th birthday and is inspired by Boulez’s own works for two pianos Structures.

The opening and closing tracks are for the duo alone. The final one is particularly intriguing for its relentless adherence to a Latin beat. Ofer Ben-Amots’ Tango for the Road provides a memorable finish to this excellent production.

07 David McGroryDavid McGrory’s new release Remember the Fallen (store.cdbaby.com/cd/davidmcgrory2) marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War, 1914-1918. He’s chosen three works to represent the responses of composers affected by the conflict.

Le Tombeau de Couperin is Maurice Ravel’s memorial to people he knew who had lost their lives in military service. Each of the work’s movements is dedicated to them. It’s not a directly programmatic piece and doesn’t set out to capture the mood of the period. It’s simply a contemporary expression inspired by Couperin’s 17th-century keyboard suites. McGrory has an impressive facility with the speed Ravel requires to execute the Prelude, Rigaudon and Toccata but he makes his greatest impact with the very tender and heartfelt Minuet. There’s a tremendous feeling of suspended melancholy that hangs over the entire movement. Gorgeous.

Frank Bridge’s Piano Sonata gives McGrory a similar opportunity. Its second movement is an extended calm between the work’s violent outer movements and his performance of it is profoundly moving.

Listen to 'Remember the Fallen' Now in the Listening Room

08 100 Years British MiniaturesDuncan Honeybourne performs an entire disc full of world premieres in his recent recording A Hundred Years of British Piano Miniatures (Grand Piano GP 789; naxosdirect.com/items/a-hundred-years-of-british-piano-miniatures-467080). Eleven composers’ works arranged chronologically give an illuminating view of the piano miniature’s evolution. English composers seem to have a deep and abiding affection for a sense of place, and they allow this to spark their creativity. Whether city streets or countryside, experiences had there are the prime resource for these miniatures.

The disc is full of these very short tracks, beautifully selected for their contribution to the program and historical relevance. Those from the first half of the last century seem to share a common language despite the great upheavals that changed the world in which they were conceived. The more contemporary ones are somewhat less tied to the charm of a place and are more outward-looking in concept. There is a remarkable degree of originality throughout all these works that makes this disc an engaging listen from start to finish.

09 Lorenzo MaterazzoLorenzo Materazzo takes a freely modern approach in his newest recording of Baroque repertoire Lorenzo Materazzo Plays Scarlatti & Bach (Austrian Gramophone AG 0010; naxosdirect.com/search/lorenzo+materazzo). He’s an active performer, composer and musicologist bringing a thorough rationale to his performance decisions. Materazzo extracts the greatest amount of emotional content possible from every phrase and thematic idea. His tempos are unconstrained by conventional practice and his dynamics are unashamedly romantic. He argues that both composers would have spoken this musical language had they lived today and points to the way his interpretation realizes more fully the potential of each work.

Scarlatti’s familiar Sonata in E Major K.380 proves an instructive comparison with almost any other version. Like all the other tracks, it’s an intimate recording with the mics very near the strings. Materazzo’s effort is persuasive, credible and very much worth hearing.

10 FiserZuzana Šimurdová introduces the music of a hitherto unrecorded composer in her new world premiere recording release Fišer – Complete Piano Sonatas (Grand Piano GP 770; naxosdirect.com/items/fišer-complete-piano-sonatas-417996). Luboš Fišer was a 20th-century Czech composer whose works are becoming better known through their publication by Barenreiter. His eight piano sonatas span the period from 1955 to 1995. He discarded the second sonata of which he was highly critical and the work was never recovered. Sonatas No.1 and No.3 are in three and two movements respectively while all the rest are single movements only.

Šimurdová is a powerful performer completely capable of the turmoil that is central to Fišer’s writing. Her ability to retreat into more tender moments of his music is what makes it truly human. Kudos to her for championing this voice.

11 Rubinstein Concerto 4Anna Shelest delivers a powerhouse performance in the new release Anton Rubinstein Piano Concerto No.4 (Sorel Classics SC CD 013 sorelmusic.org/Sorel/Recordings.html). She shares the stage at the Lincoln Center with The Orchestra Now (TON as they like to be called). This ensemble comprises specially chosen musicians from leading conservatories around the world. Their youthful approach breaks the mould of traditional orchestral players with their avid participation in pre-concert talks, onstage introductions and other forms of audience engagement.

The Rubinstein Concerto No.4 is gargantuan and Shelest is simply brilliant in her navigation of this iconic 19th-century Russian’s work. She captures the rich beauty of all Rubinstein’s melodies, both broad orchestral statements and intimate piano utterances. Conductor Neeme Järvi brings his extraordinary skill to the podium to direct the energies released by the music.

The CD also includes Rubenstein’s Caprice Russe Op.102 whose strong national folk content stands in contrast to the more European flavour of the concerto. It’s a thrilling live recording. 

01 17171717 – Memories of a Journey to Italy
Scaramuccia
Snakewood Editions SCD201801 (snakewoodeditions.com)

Imagine a journey to Florence, Rome and Venice. In 1717. Imagine, too, that you could take home with you your choice of manuscripts by composers based in those cities. This was the opportunity granted to Johann Georg Pisendel, in his own journey to Italy that same year. As if being allowed to take home manuscripts of contemporary Italian composers was not enough, Pisendel joined with some of them in composing. These joint efforts make up two tracks on this highly imaginative CD – there are even two CD world premieres.

Scaramuccia itself comprises just violinist, cellist and harpsichordist. From the start, a vigorous performance of the first Allegro from Tomaso Albinoni’s Sonata for violin and continuo proves this is no handicap. Scaramuccia’s detailed notes are more than helpful in finding out how Pisendel fared.

In the case of the Sonata for violin and continuo in D Major by Giuseppe Maria Fanfani, which here receives its world premiere, one wonders why this is so. Javier Lupiáñez’s enthusiastic violin playing in the Largo, Allegro and Tempo Giusto is first class. Giuseppe Valentini’s Sonata for violin and continuo in A Major starts imposingly before a really fervent Allegro, Minuet and Giga – at last, someone has discovered that a giga does not have to last less than two minutes! And then two pieces by Antonio Maria Montanari, the second in cooperation with Pisendel. Both opening Largos give us the chance to appreciate sensitive harpsichord playing and, once again, the passionate playing of Lupiáñez (Scaramuccia’s musicologist founder) in both Allegro movements.

This imaginatively created CD ends with its best-known composer working with Pisendel: the result a Sonata for violin and continuo which reminds us of everything that Vivaldi could create.

Listen to '1717 – Memories of a Journey to Italy' Now in the Listening Room

02 Forgotten OboeForgotten chamber works with oboe from the Court of Prussia
Christopher Palameta; Notturna
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 19075821552 (naxosdirect.com) 

The Montreal-born, Paris-based musician Christopher Palameta is widely fêted for oboe performances that are suffused with equal amounts of aesthetic beauty and historical rigour. Working since 2007 to broaden world understanding and appreciation for the music of German Baroque composer Johann Gottlieb Janitsch, Palameta has mined Janitsch’s repertoire, finding rarely heard chamber pieces that are now welcome additions to the canon of Baroque works. Collaborating on record here with the chamber music collective Notturna – which Palameta directs – Janitsch’s music, along with selections by Johann Gottlieb Graun and the little-known Christian Gottfried Krause, are captured beautifully on this 2018 release. The recording is certain to expand Palameta’s reputation as a singular musician dedicated to 18th- and 19th-century period piece work that showcases the oboe, and should be greeted enthusiastically by fans of early music.

Although music from this era could certainly be opulent and regal – the decorative ornamentations of the melodic line mirroring the exaggerated royal lifestyle, dress and mannerisms –Janitsch plumbs a galant style that fetishizes authenticity and aims for a return to more simple music-making practices. In fact, blurring the lines between the professional and amateur, Janitsch led community-wide sessions for musicians at a variety of levels to perform together called “Freitagsakademien” (Friday academies).

Like many composers of the Baroque era, Janitsch was indentured to royalty (in this case Frederick the Great, King of Prussia) and while his compositional style reflected the changing aesthetics of this time period, his considerable output was well supported by Frederick’s strong patronage of the arts and music. Thanks to Palameta, Jan Van den Borre, Catherine Martin, Emily Robinson and Brice Sailly, this important and underrepresented music lives on for future audiences.

03 KruesserKreüsser – 6 Quintettos Opus 10
Infusion Baroque
Leaf Music LM223 (leaf-music.ca/product/lm223/))

Thanks to the Montreal-based ensemble Infusion Baroque, Georg Anton Kreüsser (1746-1810) joins the list of composers whose works were lost to us until diligent research brought them to light. Kreüsser himself did not deserve to be lost – his music flourished in Mainz while he was konzertmeister of its Kapelle. His musical education took in Bologna and Amsterdam and it was there that he met Wolfgang, Leopold and Marianne Mozart – and the admiration was mutual as Leopold noted, which makes Kreüsser’s disappearance even more surprising.

The Quintettos feature flute and the four instruments of a traditional string quartet, a rare combination as most similar works follow the flute, violin, viola, cello model of Mozart’s flute quartets. It is Alexa Raine-Wright’s flute-playing that dominates this CD: listen in particular to the Tempo di menuetto of the Quintetto in C Major and the lively Allegro moderato of the G Major. Strings do, for all that, enjoy considerable prominence. For example, the violin and viola playing of the Allegro moderato and Allegretto in D major are highly enjoyable.

Overall, the Quintetto in G Major is the most spirited of the six on the CD, whichever instrument is being played. For intensity and gravitas, however, the Adagietto of the E-flat Major is highly worthy of the music of this period. All in all, a spirited and successful attempt to restore Kreüsser to the ranks of 18th-century composers of note.

Péchés – Rossini Salons & Horn Virtuosi
Alessandro Denabian; Lucia Cirillo; Francesca Bacchetta
Passacaille 1039 (naxosdirect.com)

Luigi Legnani – Rossini Variations
Marcello Fantoni (guitar)
Naxos 8.573721 (naxos.com)

04a Rossini PechesIf you were an educated music-loving dilettante living in Italy during the early 19th century, musical evenings might well have been a primary source of entertainment. And if you happened to know a horn player, a soprano and someone adept at the keyboard, the pieces on the delightful new disc titled Péchés d’Opéra on the Passacaille label might well have been the type you would have chosen for an evening’s program. It features natural horn player Alessandro Denabian, pianist Francesca Bacchetta (performing on an 1823 fortepiano) and mezzo-soprano Lucia Cirillo in an engaging program of duets and trios. Sins of Old Age was the name Rossini gave to numerous compositions for small ensembles he created long after he ceased writing operas. The charming and lyrical Prelude, Theme and Variations for horn and piano is one of them, which not surprisingly, has a very vocal quality about it. Denabian handles the virtuosic melodies with apparent ease, no mean feat on a natural (i.e. valveless) instrument. Less well-known composers include Antoine Clapisson and Frederic Duvernoy whose duets are performed with a particular bravado with Bacchetta providing a stylish and solid accompaniment. The group expands to include a soprano soloist in pieces such as Fuis, laisse-moi by Donizetti and the most familiar piece on the disc, Una furtiva lagrima from his opera L’elisir d’amore. Cirillo delivers a solid performance with well-balanced phrasing, subtly nuanced. My only quibble is that at times her voice tends to overshadow the other musicians, but in no way does this mar an otherwise fine performance.

04b Legnani RossiniRemaining in the land of olive trees, a Naxos recording titled Rossini Variations presents music by Luigi Legnani, whose name is undoubtedly forgotten today. Nevertheless, during his lifetime, Legnani – an almost exact contemporary of Rossini – was famous as a virtuoso guitarist, composer and instrument maker. The disc features guitar transcriptions and variations on music from Rossini operas performed by guitarist Marcello Fantoni. To reduce full-scale orchestral works for a solo guitar would take considerable skill. Nevertheless, the enjoyment of this disc is twofold – not only are the compositions finely crafted, but they are also well performed. In Fantoni’s competent hands, the guitar becomes a complex and expressive instrument, whether in the familiar overture to William Tell or the more obscure Variations on O quanto lagrime from La Donna del lago. While he possesses a formidable technique, his performance is never mere virtuosity; rather, he lets the music speak for itself.

Two fine discs with music from sunny Italy to cast away the winter darkness – both recommended.

05 Dvorak TriosDvořák – Piano Trios 3 & 4
Christian Tetzlaff; Tanja Tetzlaff; Lars Vogt
Ondine ODE 1316-2 (naxosdirect.com/items/dvorák-piano-trios-nos.-3-4-467122)

Violinist Christian Tetzlaff, cellist Tanja Tetzlaff (his sister) and pianist Lars Vogt are three of the most eminent and sought-after performers in classical music, gracing the world’s most prestigious stages, both as soloists and chamber musicians. They are the crème de la crème.

With their 2015 release of the Brahms piano trios having garnered a Grammy nomination, the Tetzlaff-Tetzlaff-Vogt (T-T-V) Trio once again dazzles in their new recording of two Dvořák piano trios: No. 3 in F Minor and No. 4 in E Minor. The latter, also known as the “Dumky Trio,” consists of six movements, each one a “dumka,” a musical term taken from the Slavic folk tradition. Under Dvořák’s treatment, each movement comprises alternating, strongly contrasting passages, from moody and melancholic to rhythmically exuberant.

These two Dvořák masterpieces are brought to extraordinary life by the consummate musicianship of Tetzlaff, Tetzlaff and Vogt. Their virtuosic playing is muscular, raw, dramatic, intensely expressive – ideal for the sweeping, rhapsodic and near-symphonic – Brahmsian – F Minor trio. Written a few months after the death of Dvořák’s mother, the heart-achingly beautiful third movement is exquisitely executed by the T-T-V Trio.

As for the “Dumky,” with so many recordings of this beloved trio available, one might think that nothing new could possibly be brought into the recording studio. But one would be seriously mistaken. In the impeccable hands of the T-T-V Trio the “Dumky” is revelatory: fresh and exhilarating, reflective, tender and radiant. This CD is a must!

06 Bruckner QuintetBruckner – Quintet in F Major; Ouverture in G Minor (Large Orchestra versions)
Prague RSO; Gerd Schaller
Profil Edition Hanssler PH16036 (haensslerprofil.de)

Featuring conductor Gerd Schaller’s new arrangement – the first for large orchestra – of Anton Bruckner’s String Quintet in F Major (1878), this disc counts as a major success. Already Schaller has recorded the Bruckner symphony cycle; here he adds the composer’s major chamber work, in orchestral garb. The Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra’s immaculate performance is well-paced, the musicians rising to the technical and interpretive challenges of this premiere; they produce excellent tone quality at all dynamic levels. The string quintet was composed following Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony revision. Schaller’s well-informed arrangement really sounds like a Bruckner orchestral work of that era.

The pastoral first movement sets out the orchestral palette, with comforting strings followed by more varied winds, leading to brass climaxes at pivotal points. Then the Scherzo-Trio adds witty contrasts – pauses and harmonic surprises. The acclaimed Adagio makes a profound centrepiece, the organ-like orchestration reminding me that Bruckner’s genius in improvisation was legendary. Next comes Schaller’s interpolation of a shortened version of the Intermezzo that Bruckner originally composed as a simple alternative to the Scherzo-Trio. Although I don’t see the interpolation as necessary, it does serve as a transition in emotional terms from the Adagio to the Finale, whose charming opening alternates with knotty wide-ranging passages. In closing, the Quintet’s material is wonderful in both the chamber work and this orchestral arrangement; Bruckner’s early Ouverture in G Minor (1863) merely adds to the disc’s attractions.

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