06 AntheilGeorge Antheil – Symphonies 3 & 6
BBC Philharmonic; John Storgårds
Chandos CHAN 10982 (naxosdirect.com)

The 1940s was an especially busy decade for the prolific American composer, pianist, author and inventor George Antheil (1900-1959). With the spectre of WWII looming in the USA, in 1941 he and the actress Hedy Lamarr set out to develop a code-based radio guidance system for torpedoes. He also continued to turn out scores for Hollywood features (his catalogue lists 30), while his 1945 autobiography Bad Boy of Music – referring to the international avant-garde reputation he attracted in the 1920s – became a best-seller. As well, Antheil continued to compose for the concert stage, completing several symphonies, a violin concerto and other works in the 1940s.

This second Chandos album of his symphonic output by the BBC Philharmonic and its chief guest conductor, John Storgårds, delights listeners with outstanding performances of two of those symphonies plus three shorter orchestral works. Symphony No.3 “American” (completed 1946) is cinematic in its conservative harmonic language and highly episodic block treatment of themes. In parts, an Aaron Copland-esque American populism is jump-cut with syncopated jazzy sections and a marked stylistic eclecticism: Antheil leans strongly on the musical legacies of Sibelius, Mahler and Prokofiev. The work concludes with a triumphalist finale.

Symphony No.6 (completed 1949-50) is overall a more sombre and artistically ambitious work. The influences of Shostakovich, and in parts Ives, permeate Antheil’s patriotic portrait of American life in music in a manner both touching in its heart-on-sleeve Romantic lyricism, and evocative of the vernacular regionalisms and dynamism of post-war USA.

01 Matthew LipmanAscent is the first solo album by the 26-year-old American violist Matthew Lipman, and also marks his debut on the Cedille Records label (CDR 90000 184 cedillerecords.org). He is accompanied by his regular duo partner, American pianist Henry Kramer. The creative process behind the CD started when Lipman asked American composer Clarice Assad to write a fantasy piece for viola and piano in memory of his mother. Lipman chose the Ascent title to describe the album’s music and “the upward movement that happens throughout life and after.”

The opening track is the Phantasy for Viola and Piano Op.54 from 1914 by the English composer York Bowen. It’s a simply gorgeous work which perfectly showcases the warmth, lightness and agility of Lipman’s playing as well as the top-notch contribution from Kramer. The standard never drops throughout the world premiere recording of Assad’s two-part Metamorfose or Robert Schumann’s four Märchenbilder Op.113.

Fuga libre by the Irish violist and composer Garth Knox is the only solo viola work on the CD. Written in 2008 for the Tokyo International Viola Competition, it uses some really interesting effects, including quite fascinating harmonic glissandi.

Shostakovich’s very brief (at 1:56) Impromptu for Viola and Piano Op.33, written in 1931 but not discovered until 2017, is another world premiere recording, Lipman having managed to obtain a pre-publication transcript of the score from the DSCH Publishing House. A viola arrangement of Franz Waxman’s virtuosic Carmen Fantasie brings an outstanding CD to a close, Lipman’s flawless technique, beautiful tone and consummate musicianship making for viola playing as fine as any you will hear. 

02 Vierne FranckIt’s difficult to think of a more exciting duo than violinist Alina Ibragimova and her long-time pianist partner Cédric Tiberghien. Their 3-CD live recital set of the complete Beethoven violin sonatas contained some electrifying performances, and they bring the same level of playing to their latest CD, Vierne & Franck: Violin Sonatas, a recital of works that pay homage in their own ways to 19th-century musical thinking, their fairly dense textures and serious nature being qualities that would be rejected in post-WWI Paris (Hyperion CDA68204 hyperion-records.co.uk).

The Poème élégiaque Op.12 by Eugène Ysaÿe opens the CD – and what an opening it is! Published in the piano version in 1893 and the first of Ysaÿe’s nine Poèmes for string instruments and orchestra, it was inspired by the death and funeral scenes from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and employs scordatura tuning for darker colour, the low G string being tuned down to F. It’s a rhapsodic, passionate work that perfectly showcases this duo’s strengths: tone, nuance, intelligence, passion, commitment, and flawless technical assurance.

César Franck’s Violin Sonata in A Major was written in 1886 as a wedding present for Ysaÿe; it’s been popular for so long that hearing it again is like revisiting an old and treasured friend, and the visit here is a truly lovely one. The connections between the works on the disc continue with Louis Vierne’s outstanding Violin Sonata in G Minor Op.23. Vierne was a pupil of Franck, and this sonata was written at Ysaÿe’s request and premiered by him in 1908. It’s a sweeping work much in the style of the Franck, and deserves to be much better known.

The brief Nocturne from 1911 by the 18-year-old Lili Boulanger, Nadia’s younger sister, acts as a light dessert after the richness that has preceded it, and ends a CD of music-making of the highest order.

03 ShostKab CDWhenever there’s another CD from the always wonderful Steven Isserlis in the new releases, you just know you’re in for something special, and so it proves yet again with Shostakovich & Kabalevsky Cello Sonatas, Isserlis being joined by his recital partner of over 30 years, pianist Olli Mustonen (Hyperion CDA68239 hyperion-records.co.uk).

The Shostakovich Sonata in D Minor Op.40, written in 1934 when the composer was in his late 20s, sets the tone for the whole CD, Isserlis displaying his usual full-blooded and passionate, yet always sensitive and musically intelligent playing, especially in the opening movement and the fiendish and demonic second. Mustonen is his equal in every respect.

Prokofiev’s Ballade in C Major Op.15 is an early work from 1912 when the composer was only 21; it is essentially in two halves, Prokofiev referring to it as “similar in form to a sonata in two movements.”

There’s no doubting the strength and quality of Kabalevsky’s Sonata in B-flat major Op.71, written for Rostropovich in 1962. Isserlis notes that this is a work that should really be heard more often, and his performance here makes an even stronger case.

Three short works round out the CD. Shostakovich’s brief (at 2:31) Moderato was only published in 1986 after being discovered in a Moscow archive alongside the manuscript of the Cello Sonata. It’s believed to be from the same period, but its real provenance remains unknown. Prokofiev’s Adagio – Cinderella and the Prince is a 1944 arrangement of a section from his ballet Cinderella. Kabalevsky’s Rondo in memory of Prokofiev Op.79 was the third of three test-piece Rondos he wrote for the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow – one for piano in 1958, one for violin in 1962 and this one in 1965. It’s quite substantial, with more than a hint of Prokofiev’s music, especially the wispy “wind-in-the-graveyard” effect from the first violin sonata.

In his usual outstanding booklet notes Isserlis includes his customary exact timing references to salient points in the works, adding an extra touch of class to a simply outstanding CD.

04 Gerhardt Bach CDIn his introductory booklet notes to Bach: The Cello Suites (Hyperion CDA68261 hyperion-records.co.uk) the German cellist Alban Gerhardt reveals that, like so many others, he was reluctant to even try recording these challenging works before turning 50 – which he does this coming May. He is also aware that any recording can never be a final word.

For some time Gerhardt studied Baroque performance practice, but felt his attempts to assimilate historically informed techniques didn’t work for him, his playing sounding “neither authentic nor musically very interesting. I came to realize that just turning off the vibrato and using a sound which barely touched the surface of the string actually had very little to do with historical performance and didn’t sit well with me as a musician.”

He consequently uses vibrato “with great care and control” and aims for “a seemingly effortless articulation with as much depth to the sound as possible.” Add Gerhardt’s 1710 Matteo Gofriller cello and the results are simply beautiful. It’s a set that easily holds its own in a very competitive field.

05 Tan DunWith the BIS Super Audio CD Tan Dun: Fire Ritual – Violin Concertos we enter the distinctive sound world of the Chinese composer Tan Dun, now in his early 60s. The Norwegian violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing has been collaborating with the composer since 2010, a relationship which resulted in the creation of both of the works on the CD: the violin concertos Rhapsody and Fantasia and Fire Ritual. Tan Dun conducts the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra (BIS-2406 bis.se).

An early version of the Rhapsody and Fantasia was originally written over a decade ago, but the work is heard here in the 2018 revision for Hemsing. The two movements, each of three parts, have their roots in ancient Peking opera melody, Tan Dun having been a conductor of a travelling Peking Opera troupe in his teens.

Fire Ritual was written for Hemsing and premiered by her in Oslo in September 2018. Subtitled A music ritual for the Victims of War, it unfolds from – and stays centred on – the single note D, using its status as “Re” on the solfège scale as a prefix meaning “again,” as in the Renewal, Resurrection, Return and Rebirth of souls who were lost in wars.

Both concertos have a similar sound, with little Western melodic (or harmonic, for that matter) material, prominent percussion sections (four players with at least 20 mainly Chinese percussion instruments) and a distinctly Chinese flavour to the solo violin writing. Hemsing is outstanding in what must be considered definitive performances.

06 Hungary TaiwanFormed in 2002 for a concert tour of Taiwan, the Formosa Quartet celebrates its members’ Taiwanese heritage on From Hungary to Taiwan, a project that pairs treatments of folk music from the two countries and explores their similarities (Bridge Records 9519 bridgerecords.com).

Dana Wilson’s Hungarian Folk Songs was commissioned by the quartet as “a sort of entrée” into Béla Bartók’s quartets. Wilson says that he tried to capture key aspects of the traditional music itself and not just write his own music inspired by it, and he certainly succeeded. The Formosa Quartet perfectly captures his remarkable folk music effects and nuances.

In Song Recollections, another work written for the group, Chinese composer Lei Liang studies Taiwan’s art, songs and people. His settings of five songs from four native tribes are mostly quiet and atmospheric, with a distinctly Chinese feel.

Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No.4 from 1928, constructed as a five-movement symmetrical arch with the Night Music slow movement at its heart, is the major work on the CD.

Another Formosa Quartet commission, Wei-Chieh Lin’s Four Taiwanese Folk Songs from 2017 ends the disc. These clearly popular and much-loved melodies, two of them written in the 1930s, are given lush, Romantic treatment, and draw rich, warm and evocative playing from the quartet.

A bonus track, Spring Breeze, is available only through an online link; it turns out to be the first of Five – not FourTaiwanese Folk Songs, so its omission from the CD is a bit odd. Still, it’s a gorgeous piece, and you can watch the quartet performing the complete set on YouTube. It’s well worth watching, and well worth a listen.

07 Juilliard QuartetThe Juilliard String Quartet has been around since 1946, and although founding first violinist Robert Mann lasted for an astonishing 51 years and two subsequent members for over 40 years each, the ensemble has had a total of 17 members during its existence. The 2017 lineup (first violin Joseph Lin left in 2018) is featured on Juilliard String Quartet: Beethoven, Davidovsky, Bartók, a CD recorded as part of the group’s 70th anniversary celebrations (Sony Classical 19075 88454 2 sonymusicmasterworks.com).

The quartet’s longstanding commitment to both the classic repertoire and new contemporary works is fully evident here. A suitably tense and energetic performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Minor Op.95 “Serioso” opens the disc, and the centrepiece is Mario Davidovsky’s Fragments, String Quartet No.6 from 2016, written on a commission for the Juilliard. Davidovsky explains that the title refers to broken and scattered parts that, “moved and processed by some creative force, can aggregate to become something.” It certainly gives you a good idea of what the quite brief work sounds like as it moves from a fairly abrasive start to a more integrated ending.

A passionate and powerful performance of Bartók’s String Quartet No.1 ends the CD. It’s a work with a distinct post-Romantic feel, and no hint of the Night Music of the later quartets – more an indication of where the composer has come from than where he is going.

The playing throughout is of the exceptionally high standard we have come to expect from this ensemble. 

01 Chopin Piano Concertos COVERCharles Richard-Hamelin’s recent recording Chopin: Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 (Analekta, AN 2 9146, analekta.com/en) is an exhilarating encounter with these two items of standard repertoire. There is a freshness in this performance that owes everything to its collaborators. Kent Nagano and the OSM are deeply aware of how much Chopin has vested in the piano’s role. Their ability to morph into something purely ethereal for the slow movement of Concerto No.2 is magical. The balance and unity across the ensemble, in this and similar passages, support the piano exquisitely. So much of the piano part in this movement is in simple octaves, albeit often very ornamented and fast. Richard-Hamelin performs it with absolute fluidity, as if it were an extended keyboard recitative. The time signature seems to dissolve, leaving only a hint of anything resembling a beat as the soloist and orchestra flow toward some distant ending.

The essence of dance that is inherent in Chopin’s writing saves the pianist from a conflictual role with the orchestra. The two are instead a pair of dancers elevating the solo instrument above the ensemble. While historical criticism of these works has focused on Chopin’s weak orchestral writing, Hamelin and Nagano have delivered such a transcendent experience that the criticism seems somehow lost if not irrelevant in the overwhelming beauty of this performance.

02 Pires VogtMaria João Pires appears in a new collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra under Bernard Haitink, Beethoven Piano Concerto No.2, Triple Concerto (LSO www.lsolive.lso.co.uk). Despite the numbering, the piano concerto is actually Beethoven’s first and much of it recalls Mozart, especially in the opening movement. But the young Beethoven is unmistakably present in the piano writing where his unique keyboard figurations are now recognized as familiar vocabulary. It’s a careful and measured performance that reveals the caution with which Beethoven wrote it. No angry rebel here, just an explorer testing the waters for the journey to come.

All this presents a considerable challenge to the performers because listeners tend to have an expectation of what Beethoven should sound like and aren’t usually prepared to hear something so Mozartean and Haydnesque. Haitink keeps the orchestra firmly in classical territory, helped by reduced instrumentation. Pires follows suit technically and stylistically but exploits every opportunity to remind us of the voice she is interpreting. The slow movement, despite its delicacy, carries an intensity that can only be Beethoven, even if it’s the young version. The final movement, however, leaves nothing to doubt. Pires plays with the lightness, clarity and impeccable phrasing that have made her career.

While the Triple Concerto offers more substance, here in a reissue featuring Gordan Nikolitch (violin), Tim Hugh (cello) and Lars Vogt (piano), the piano part was written for Beethoven’s patron and pupil, the Archduke Rudolph, and so doesn’t have quite the virtuosity of its string partners. Still, Vogt shapes every keyboard utterance into a masterful line. The recording is, in every way, a classic.

03 Ed Martin JourneysJeri-Mae G. Astolfi is a Canadian pianist working principally in the US as a performer and teacher. Her new CD, Ed Martin – Journeys (Ravello Records, RR7995, www.ravellorecords.com) demonstrates her interest and commitment to contemporary piano music. She plays three works by one of her contemporaries, American composer Ed Martin who wrote two of them specifically for her.

The major piece on the recording is the title work Journey. Laid out in 11 sections, it charts the progress of life through a range of experiences that Martin uses as his program. Astolfi’s performance of Journey makes its impact through the startling contrasts between agitated movements with titles like Vexed, Obsession and Manic and the more serene sections with names like Soul, Lament and Transcend. One of the intriguing characteristics of Martin’s music is that he doesn’t shy away from long fermatas or extended rests. Silence and decay are an effective part of his vocabulary. Astolfi surrenders completely to this language producing a performance so intense that it seems more like channelling than playing. Her entanglement with the essence of this music is absolute.

Two other works, Swirling Sky and Three Pieces for Piano, while shorter, are equally effective programmatic expressions. Martin is a composer who sees and feels things tangibly in his music and Astolfi is a ready interpreter with an undeniable affinity for his writing.

04 GlinkaInga Fiolia’s new disc Glinka – Complete Piano Works Vol.2, Dances (Grand Piano, GP 782 www.grandpianorecords.com) follows her first volume that focused on Glinka’s variations compositions. The 23 tracks are predictably brief though some are arranged in longer sets of quadrilles and contredanses.

Glinka’s place in Russian music history acknowledges his contribution to a national style that began to set Russian composers free from their cultural debt to the French, German and Italian influences of the 18th and 19th centuries. This contribution is not particularly obvious in this music, designed as it was to accompany light-hearted times in the parlours and salons of Russian society.

Fiolia is a natural performer for this genre. Something about the dance form, regardless of its origin or style, seems to draw from her a fluid response that sways with the music. Her keyboard technique makes an instant impression. She has a touch that in rapid repeats throws the hammer against the strings in a way that must challenge the double escapement action that makes it possible. She relies less on pedalling than many pianists and the result is a highly articulated clarity that respects the inner harmonies of Glinka’s writing.

05 Garlands for Steven StuckyPianist Gloria Cheng played a major role in the creation of Garlands for Steven Stucky, (Bridge, Bridge 9509, www.bridgerecords.com). She led the call for invitations to write short works of tribute in memory of the American composer who died in 2016. Over his lifetime, he wrote well over a hundred works in nearly every form and won dozens of awards. Cheng included some of Stucky’s piano music on a Grammy Award-winning 2008 recording.

The 32 compositions Cheng compiled for this tribute are very personal musical statements from Stucky’s colleagues, friends and composition students. They’re each accompanied by brief anecdotes and dedications to Stucky’s memory. What emerges from these tributes is the picture of a person who was not only a gifted and skilled composer but even more, someone remembered for his kindness and humanity. Stucky’s ability to build close rapport with anyone he met opened countless opportunities for creative collaboration, instruction and deep personal friendships. In his work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and other orchestras, Stucky made a point of getting to know each musician personally. This direct openness accounts for much of the affection the LA Philharmonic and Essa-Pekka Salonen had for Stucky and his music. It seems fitting that Salonen’s tribute Iscrizione is the disc’s opening track.

This recording is a remarkable collection of utterances by composers old and young; ultimately, it will bring Stucky’s work to a wider audience.

06 Katarzina MusialKatarzyna Musiał’s new recording My Spanish Heart (Dux, Dux 1448, www.dux.pl) is beautifully planned with repertoire that leaves no doubt about where her cultural affections lie. “A Canadian pianist with Polish roots,” as her agent describes her, Musiał is undeniably at home with this repertoire. Whether playing Albéniz, Granados, Turina, Mompou or de Falla, she takes to the idiomatic rhythms like a flamenco dancer, delivering characteristic Spanish melodic snaps as if her keyboard had castanets.

The Danzas gitanas Op.55 by Turina are especially impressive for the atmosphere of seductive mystery in which Musiał wraps them. But the tracks of Manuel de Falla’s own piano transcriptions of his ballet music, The Three-Cornered Hat and Love the Magician are the most impressively played. In these, Musiał combines the piano’s best percussive and legato qualities to deliver a full range of orchestral effects. The entire CD is an energized performance of music for which she has a fiery passion.

07 Cliff EidelmanMichael McHale and Tom Poster appear as the two pianists in Cliff Eidelman – Symphony for Orchestra & Two Pianos and A Night in the Gallery, (EN001, www.cliffeidelman.com). Eidelman is an American composer and conductor with a lengthy and impressive career, most of it writing for film. His relatively few ventures into the world of large-scale orchestral forms include a symphonic tone poem, ballet music and similar works.

McHale and Poster perform neither as soloists nor as players fully integrated into the ensemble. Eidelman has, unusually, created a flexible role for the two pianists that lies somewhere between the concerto form and a fantasia featuring the keyboards, perhaps akin to Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals. The two pianists do appear convincingly as full-scale soloists in the second movement’s cadenza. For the balance of the work, however, they emerge from and retreat back into, the ensemble at the composer’s will.

As a highly skilled orchestrator, Eidelman’s mastery of colour and subtle shading is superb. He describes finding the inspiration for the Symphony in the reflection of water and writes in a way that uses the pianos to enhance the emotional image of its various characters, whether still, flowing or turbulent. It’s easy to hear why his film scores like Star Trek VI and Christopher Columbus have been so successful.

The disc’s second work is Eidelman’s Night in the Gallery for orchestra and piano. Here pianist Michael McHale becomes part of the composer’s palette for recreating the impressions he experienced on viewing specific paintings by acknowledged masters.

08 ShpachenkoNadia Shpachenko’s latest release The Poetry of Places (Reference Recordings, FR 730, www.referencerecordings.com) is a collection of original and highly imaginative works for piano, assorted instruments and effects. The concept for the recording project is an exploration of the relationship between music and its space. Shpachenko writes briefly about her experiences of space on performance, including the performers and the audience. Her curiosity has led to commissions from eight composers to write specifically about their impressions of spaces and places as represented by architecture.

The variety of this repertoire is remarkable. Shpachenko performs a veritable tour of structures ancient and modern, producing extraordinary colours and textures from her Steinway D. Her composers sometimes add a second piano, voice, a toy piano, percussion and electronics to build their works. The subjects include Ireland’s 5,000-year-old Newgrange, Aaron Copland’s home in upstate New York, Bangladesh’s National Assembly, a small cottage on an island in rural New York state, the American Visionary Art Museum and a couple of architectural projects by Frank Gehry.

Each composer provides a few notes on the subject of the commission and it’s immediately striking how much common ground they share with Shpachenko on this abstract challenge. The strong affinity between the principal performer and the composers has produced a thoroughly engaging disc. 

01 NepomucenoAlberto Nepomuceno – Symphony in G Minor
Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra; Fabio Mechetti
Naxos 8.574067 (naxosdirect.com)

As the music of the entire recording including, of course, Symphony in G Minor suggests, Alberto Nepomuceno’s map of Brazil was his glorious harmony book. The 1893 symphony predates (but only by a few years) what came to be a movement for creating an authentically Brazilian music, with less influence of European culture. In this sense, the folklore of the colourful northeastern Brazil from where Nepomuceno came was the major font of inspiration for his music.

This is not always obvious in the program at hand as we can hear in the music a struggle for Nepomuceno to pull away from his European training before drawing deeply from his northeastern Brazilian roots. His mind, newly opened to the sounds of his childhood in Recife, triggered perhaps by the influence of the French impressionists, becomes evident first in Série Brasileira (1891). It is a colourful, mysterious work and by the time we get to the fourth movement Batuque the full effect of northeastern Brazil is heard in the lyrically rhythmic infusion produced by the strings of the Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra.

The mysterious splendour of O Garatuja – Prelude (1904) reverberates with the mesmeric swirling of African slave dances that Nepomuceno incorporated into his music. The full grandeur of the composer’s work is uncovered in the celebrated Symphony in G Minor where maestro Fabio Mechetti draws from the Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra its fullest, winning combination of expressive power and voluptuousness yet.

02 Florence PriceFlorence Beatrice Price – Symphonies
Fort Smith Symphony Orchestra; John Jeter
Naxos 8.559827 (naxosdirect.com)

Florence Beatrice Price (née Smith) was an African-American composer born in Little Rock Arkansas in 1887. Her father was a dentist and her mother a music teacher. She received her solid musical education from her mother because the city’s best-known tutors, uniformly and unapologetically white, refused to teach a person of colour. Her mother taught her well. So well that she gave her first piano performance when she was eight and aged 11 had her first published work.

Her mother wanted her to further her studies after graduating as valedictorian from high school, and as this was next to impossible in the South, she was enrolled in the New England Conservatory. There she was tutored in all the musical disciplines under the care of a faculty that included George Whitefield Chadwick. During that time her compositions included a string trio and a symphony. In 1906 she graduated with a diploma in organ and a teaching certificate.

She returned to Little Rock and began teaching in segregated academies in Arkansas and Georgia. She married attorney Thomas Jewell Price and moved back to Little Rock. Following a lynching in 1927 and amid general unease, the family moved to Chicago where Florence was to flourish and become a recognized member of the musical community. In 1932, her Symphony in E Minor won the first prize of $500 in the Rodman Wanamaker Competition sponsored by the National Federation of Music Clubs. The work attracted the interest of conductor Frederick Stock who led his Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the premiere public performance, the first time a major American orchestra had ever performed any piece written by an African-American woman.

Her symphonies are in the usual four movements. Symphony No.1 dates from 1932 and calls to mind the symphonic music of the era, most evoked being Dvořák, Edward MacDowell, Horatio Parker and George Whitefield Chadwick whose music I continue to enjoy. The first movement is a mighty statement running over 16 minutes. The grand second is an attractive largo of 12 minutes duration. In the third movement where one might normally expect to hear a scherzo, we are treated to a Juba Dance, based on the antebellum slave style, complex body percussion (foot stomping and chest patting) and syncopated melodies. The boisterous fourth movement is an appropriate closing.

The Fourth Symphony is similarly constructed with an Andante cantabile second movement à la Dvořák. The third movement is again a Juba Dance and the final movement, a mighty Scherzo. I am very interested in hearing more of Florence Price.

03 RespeghiRespighi – Roman Trilogy
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta
Naxos 8.574013 (naxos.com)

I have never forgotten as a child first hearing The Fountains of Rome at a concert conducted by a short, wiry and agile Italian, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, who made me fall in love with the piece instantly. Over the years I found that the Fountains is by far the best of the trilogy, Pines a close second and Festivals a distant third, but generally recordings tended to establish a certain routine interpretation and sound that became an expected norm.

However, this brilliant new recording by JoAnn Falletta, who now emerges as a star conductor and favourite of Naxos, will surprise you. She is American, original and unorthodox, and picks Festivals to play first (!), turning it into a monumental sound spectacle and making the most of Respighi’s adventurous harmonies and orchestration. Just listen to Circenses where the music is so graphic as it describes vividly ferocious lions devouring Christian martyrs and Ottobrata with its sweet mandolin solo and far away horn calls evoking my beloved countryside around Rome.

The disc gives us surprise after delightful surprise as Falletta, revelling in the rich score, brings out voices I have never heard before. Like a gorgeous sound painting of night on the Gianicolo Hill with the noble silhouettes of pines and a nightingale singing. She is so totally engrossed that the music simply doesn’t want to end. But where she really strikes home is Pines of the Via Appia, a tremendous tour de force depicting an ancient Roman army emerging from distant haze marching towards us, and the music just builds and builds. A gradual crescendo exploding in glorious fortississimo without ever becoming bombastic or overpowering. Brava!

01 PEMIPAULL CDOn Musicum Umbrarum, his debut solo album, the Canadian violist Pemi Paull presents five solo works that he feels show the interplay between past and present – “how the past speaks to the present and how the present responds.” (Metis Islands Records MI-008; metis-islands.com).

George Enescu’s Menetrier is actually the opening movement of his Impressions d’enfance for violin and piano; adapted here by Paull, it provides a great start to the CD. The Two Wölfli SketchesHorror Vacui and Musicum Umbrarum, from 2011 by the Canadian composer Scott Godin (b.1970), take their inspiration from works by the early 20th-century Swiss painter Adolf Wölfli, who spent much of his later years in psychiatric care and therapy. The brief Obrecht Motetten III, from 1980 by the English composer Michael Finnissy (b.1946), looks anew at the polyphony of the Flemish Renaissance composer Jacob Obrecht.

The central work on the CD is the towering Sonata for Viola Solo by György Ligeti. A relatively late work from 1991-94 it has a fascinating and original construction: a first movement played entirely on the low C string; a second of frantic double stops; a third movement of torment and struggle; a muted perpetual motion fourth; a fifth mostly in parallel seconds and sevenths; and a Chaconne chromatique to finish. Paull meets every challenge with ease and authority.

The final track is one that makes you look twice at the track listings to make sure you read it correctly – the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, written as a love song to his then-new wife Alma. It’s an intriguing possibility, but the reality is even more intriguing, the piece being played entirely pizzicato as performed (and notated for Paull) by Ljova, the Russian violist Lev Zhurbin. It’s really quite beautiful, and a lovely ending to an outstanding debut CD.

Listen to 'Musicum Umbrarum' Now in the Listening Room

02 Pogossian coverLinks between past and present are central to another solo recital, as violinist Movses Pogossian follows up his 2017 release of the Bach Solo Sonatas and Partitas with Inspired by Bach (New Focus Recordings FCR206 newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue/movses-pogossian-inspired-by-bach), a CD that features three new works that he feels “follow in the inescapable shadow of Bach’s music for unaccompanied violin… connecting the listener with Bach and extending the legacy of the unaccompanied string works.” The connection with Bach may be a bit tenuous at times, but they certainly do fulfill the latter aim.

Kaija Saariaho’s four-movement Frises starts with the final D of the Bach D-Minor Chaconne, and each of the movements is focused on one historical ostinato-variation form – passacaglia or chaconne, for instance. In a concert setting, prepared sound materials are triggered by the soloist during the performance, together with real-time processing of the violin sound. Not here, though: Pogossian recorded the violin part alone, with Jean-Baptiste Barrière adding the electronics afterwards. It’s a tough listen at times, but always engrossing.

The American composer and pianist Gabriela Lena Frank’s Suite Mestiza was inspired by South American Andean culture, in particular sights and sounds remembered from trips to Peru with her mother. Described as programmatic and colourful, the seven movements depict scenes and characters from the Andes region. It’s imaginative and wide-ranging writing that draws quite remarkable playing from Pogossian. You can watch his performance on YouTube.

The American composer and violinist Andrew McIntosh says that his seven-movement work was partly inspired by the idea of juxtaposing different, clearly defined but unconnected shapes and colours. Certainly his Shasta starts that way, a fast and bustling opening that recalls the bariolage passages in the Bach works, followed by a still, long-held single note. An unexpected addition is the scoring for eight wine glasses bowed by four performers; they make their most noticeable contribution in the final movement, giving the work a peaceful ending that sounds like gentle breathing

Whatever the technical or musical challenges, nothing seems to create problems for Pogossian, who is quite superb throughout a terrific CD.

Listen to 'Inspired by Bach' Now in the Listening Room

03 Crozman CavatineCavatine is the really impressive debut CD from Canadian cellist Cameron Crozman, ably accompanied by pianist Philip Chiu (ATMA Classique ACD2 2787; atmaclassique.com/En/Albums/AlbumInfo.aspx?AlbumID=1619). Having studied at the Paris Conservatoire for six years Crozman says it was inevitable that his first album would be filled with French music, and the multi-faceted program here includes Debussy’s Cello Sonata from 1915 and works that the soloist feels emerged from the new wave that Debussy created.

The delightful Cello Sonata by Francis Poulenc really deserves to be heard more often; completed in 1948, its four movements are full of the lyrical charm so typical of the composer.

In the early 1930s Charles Koechlin set 20 Breton folksongs for cello and piano, the first two of the three sets being published in 1934 as Chansons bretonnes sur des thèmes de l’ancien Folklore Op.115; four short pieces from the first collection and two from the second are heard here.

Jean Françaix’s Variations de concert date from 1950, the ten brief variations displaying a wide range of mood, style and tempo, and ending with a dazzling final variation.

The Louange à l’éternité de jésus, the fifth movement from Olivier Messiaen’s astonishing Quatuor pour le fin du Temps completes the disc. A calm, soaring and meditative cello melodic line over quiet piano chords, it perhaps loses some of its effectiveness outside of the context of the complete work, but nevertheless is a beautiful ending to a highly commendable CD.

Listen to 'Cavatine' Now in the Listening Room

04 Haydn CelloThere’s more outstanding cello playing on Haydn Cello Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 with the American cellist Robert deMaine and the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Joel Eric Suben on Nova Scotia’s Leaf Music label (LM 222; leaf-music.ca/product/lm222).

The soloist, an original member of the Ehnes Quartet, is principal cello of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, having held the same position with the Detroit Symphony for over a decade, as well as a stint as guest principal cellist for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. His playing in both concertos – No.1 in C Major and No.2 in D Major – is strong and vibrant, with great agility and touch, especially in the long and often virtuosic first movement of the D-Major work.

Both works were written for cellists in the Esterhazy court orchestra, the C Major in the early 1760s (although not known to us until the discovery of a copy of the score in 1961) and the D Major some 20 years later for the cellist Antonín Kraft, a player noted for his beautiful singing tone, expressive phrasing and an explosive technique, especially in the cello’s upper register. Qualities, indeed, displayed here by deMaine. The excellent and idiomatic cadenzas are by the soloist.

I’m not sure whether or not this is a re-issue: the recordings were made in the Czech Republic in September 2009, but are listed on deMaine’s website as a projected release on the Sono Luminus label with a release date that is earlier than the recording dates. There’s no mention of this current Leaf Music issue.

Listen to 'Haydn Cello Concertos Nos. 1 & 2' Now in the Listening Room

05 duportThis is certainly a good month for cellists. The French cellist Raphaël Pidoux is the stellar soloist on Jean-Louis Duport Concertos pour Violoncelle, with the Stradivaria – Ensemble Baroque de Nantes under Daniel Cuiller (Mirare MIR394; mirare.fr).

The Duport brothers – Jean-Louis (1749-1819) and Jean-Pierre (1741-1818) – were both brilliant cello virtuosi in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Jean-Pierre eventually pursued a career in the Prussian court, leaving Jean-Louis to take over his position in Paris where he eventually became more celebrated than his older brother. Sensing the dangers of the coming French Revolution in 1789, Jean-Louis followed his brother to Prussia, returning to Paris in 1806 where, despite being well-received and teaching at the Conservatoire, he never fully re-established himself. He remains little-known as a composer, although his Essay on the fingering of the violoncello and on the conduct of the bow, completed in 1806, was a seminal treatise on cello technique.

Duport’s were the first French cello concertos; six are extant, of which three are presented here: No.1 in A Major; No.4 in E Minor; and No.5 in D Major. The first concerto predates 1789; the other two were apparently written while he was in Prussia. They are played here “according to the composer’s wishes” with a string orchestra, horns and oboes being added for Nos. 4 and 5. All follow the same pattern, with a substantial and well-developed opening movement, a short slow movement and a virtuosic rondo finale.

These are really attractive works that bridge the gap between the late classical and early Romantic periods, their fast scales and arpeggios in thirds, sixths and octaves from the lowest to highest registers offering proof that the cello was already in a highly developed state as a solo instrument.

Pidoux plays a 1680 Gioffredo Cappa cello with a William Dodd bow from 1790/95, handling the technical challenges with grace and ease and always displaying a warm, bright tone. The idiomatic support from the Stradivaria ensemble is of the highest quality on an extremely satisfying CD.

06 Mind and MatterThe American composer Paul Lombardi describes the five duets for strings on the CD Pieces of Mind & Matter – String Duets as chronicling a 13-year-long refinement of his compositional voice (Ravello RR8804; ravellorecords.com/catalog/rr8804). Presented in chronological order, they are: Holocene (2004) for violin and viola; Acquiesce (2006) for violin and cello; Persiguiéndose (2007) for two cellos; Phosphorescent (2008) for cello and double bass; and Fracture (2017) for two violins.

The performers – who vary from track to track – are Megan Holland, Roberta Arruda and David Felberg (violins); Kimberley Fredenburgh (viola); Joel Becktell, Lisa Collins and David Schepps (cellos); and Mark Tatum (bass).

The works are difficult to describe, although not difficult to listen to; Lombardi says that he likes to explore self-similar and recursive patterns. They’re modernistic with some strong melodic lines, taut rhythms, dissonance, motivic structure and some interesting textures and harmonies. Overall they’re strongly individual pieces, well-written and extremely well-played. 

07 Spanish MiniaturesIt’s been five years since we saw a CD from the Canadian guitarist Warren Nicholson (his Latin American Guitar Favourites issued in September 2013) but he’s back with Spanish Miniatures, a selection mostly of works by Fernando Sor, Francisco Tárrega and Isaac Albéniz (Independent WAN Records WANCD60918; warrennicholsonguitarist.com).

Federico Moreno Torroba’s Madroňos opens the disc, followed by four Studies and two Lessons selected from Fernando Sor’s Opp.6, 35, 44 and 60 works. Tárrega is represented by six works: his Preludes Nos.1 and 2; Lagrima; Maria; Adelita; and the famous Recuerdos de la Alhambra with its constant right hand tremolo.

Mallorca, Asturias and the Tango from Espaňa are the Albéniz selections, and the CD ends with two items from more recent but lesser-known composers: Waltz No.1 by Bartolomé Calatayud (1882-1973); and Cancion y Danza No.1 by Antonio Ruiz-Pipó (1934-1997).

The playing is again technically accomplished, clean and thoughtful. The only reservation I have – and one I had about his previous release as well – is that there is a tendency for the playing to come across as a bit too measured and carefully considered at times, with the result (in the Recuerdos in particular) that it can sound a bit pedestrian and fail to fully engage the listener.

Still, there’s fine playing overall and much to admire here in a well-produced and nicely-presented CD. 

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