07 Very Best of GriegThe Very Best of Grieg
Various Artists
Naxos 8.552123 (naxos.com/Search/KeywordSearchResults/?q=8.552123)

Some time ago in Berlin, Sir Simon Rattle organized a youth orchestra of teenage students at the Philharmonie to learn and play Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King. It was fun to watch the various instruments come in one by one, adding layer upon layer to the sound, a steady crescendo and accelerando controlled superbly by Rattle culminating in a world of total mayhem and a rousing success. I suddenly realized how extraordinarily clever, intricate and difficult a piece it was. A work of genius and one of The Very Best of Grieg.

Thanks to this brilliant and comprehensive sampling from Naxos on two CDs I am totally immersed in Grieg’s music. I feel there is an unmistakable Norwegian sound world that’s immediately recognizable. Grieg is considered to be part of the struggle for national awareness and independence that swept through Europe in the second half of the 19th century. Each smaller nation had a voice, a leading composer like Liszt for Hungarians, Smetana and Dvořák for the Czechs, Enescu for the Romanians, Sibelius for the Finns etc.

Grieg was a prolific composer, but essentially a pianist, so most of his works are for solo piano, but these were often orchestrated and much colour and harmony were added to the pieces. He was a miniaturist. His strength lies in capturing immediately a simple, but incisive and beautiful melody, developing it quickly, so most of his pieces are very short, four minutes or less. He published ten books of Lyric Pieces. Some of these are very memorable, for example, The Wedding Day at Trolhaugen, Berceuse, Notturno, Butterfly, Brooklet, Cradle Song, I love but thee, To the Spring and more. Also, Songs for soprano that are devilishly difficult to sing. 

The longer works such as the PianoViolin and Cello Sonatas and the String Quartets are represented here by just a movement. But we mustn’t miss his orchestral music: Holberg Suite, Sigurd Jorsalfar, two Peer Gynt Suites and most importantly the Piano Concerto in A Minor, one of most beautiful Romantic concertos ever written.

His contemporary, Tchaikovsky said about Grieg: “What charm, what inimitable and rich musical imagery. What interests, novelty and independence!” So true.

08 Lyric PiecesLyric Pieces
Sarah M Silverman
Adhyaropa Records (sarahsilvermanmusic.com)

The adaptation of classical music within popular music in the late 20th century, such as the famous Eric Carmen homage to Rachmaninoff in All by Myself, developed into the unique genre of classical crossover made famous by Andrea Bocelli, Sarah Brightman, Josh Groban and many others. While not loved equally by all – what music is? – classical crossover toes the line between tradition and accessibility, giving symphonic sounds big ticket appeal.

Described as a “genre-defying” reimagining of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces for solo piano, a collection of 66 short piano compositions written over the span of 58 years, Sarah M Silverman’s Lyric Pieces uses 11 of these works as the foundation for her own compositions, creating arrangements and adding texts and vocal melodies to create this new collection of songs. A native of Toronto, Silverman studied classical piano at the Glenn Gould School and takes a sensitive approach to her arrangements, skillfully manipulating the components of Grieg’s compositions while adding her own unique voice. Much like the way that flavours are combined in a recipe, these songs are a combination of aural ingredients, and Silverman is clearly gifted at uncovering savoury combinations.  

The songs on Lyric Pieces are not intended to be heard as the conversion of Grieg’s piano music into art song, with the existing piano solo merely reduced to an accompaniment. Rather, this music takes on an entirely different form, exploring the unique and interesting relationship between composer and artist with a result that is well worth listening to, not only for its musical beauty, but also for the way in which it pushes upon the limits of our preconceptions regarding genre and the concept of crossover.

Listen to 'Lyric Pieces' Now in the Listening Room

09 Mahler 5 OSMMahler – Symphony No.5
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal; Rafael Payare
Pentatone PTC 5187 067 (pentatonemusic.com)

I was quite intrigued to receive this album, as Mahler and Montréal are two names not normally associated in my mind, though it’s true that hometown boy Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s enthusiasm for this repertoire has been amply demonstrated in Philadelphia and elsewhere. Nevertheless, Peter Fülop’s comprehensive discography at the Mahler Foundation site currently lists some 1,168 Mahler recordings issued from 1924 to the present day; the OSM’s presence is represented with two lonely recordings, by Mehta (1963) and Nagano (2009). Charles Dutoit ruled the roost from 1977 to 2002 favouring a heavy dose of French repertoire, memorably commemorated in a well-received series of recordings on the Decca label. Sadly, these recording opportunities ceased in the late 1990s. Now however, it seems that Mahler’s time has come at last in Montréal thanks to the recent appointment of the gifted Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payere to head the OSM. 

Payere brings with him a recording contract with the Pentatone label and a mission to launch a complete cycle of Mahler’s symphonies, starting (as is often the case) with the Fifth Symphony in a truly stunning rendition. The orchestra is on fire under his direction, precise and impassioned by turns. The Pentatone recording team have conjured a luxurious, natural ambience to the production in which every instrument is beautifully balanced. 

Payere has an uncanny ability to render the episodic structure of the work into a seamless whole, creating flowing waves of sound that build organically and inexorably to their sublime summits. Special kudos go to Paul Merkelo’s superb trumpet solos in the opening funeral march and to Catherine Turner for her opulent obligato horn part in the Scherzo. An altogether thrilling performance that promises great things to come!

Listen to 'Mahler: Symphony No.5' Now in the Listening Room

10 Rachmaninov SymphoniesRachmaninov – Complete Symphonies; Isle of the Dead; Symphonic Dances; Vocalise
Detroit Symphony Orchestra; Leonard Slatkin
Naxos 8.503278 (naxos.com/CatalogueDetail/?id=8.503278)

As I am writing this, the wistful opening motto theme of the Third Symphony is reverberating in my mind and I am marvelling at how beautifully Rachmaninov establishes an atmosphere and the symphony a world of its own, so different from anything he wrote before. I have never heard it in a concert hall either, mainly because apart from the piano concertos, his orchestral works are rarely performed. So this highly acclaimed new issue by Naxos is very welcome.

Leonard Slatkin, who has over the years became a conductor of stature with a worldwide reputation, is thoroughly inside the music with an authoritative grip on the score and this reflects on the musicians of the Detroit Symphony who seem to be in love with the music. And in HD orchestral sound they sound better than ever.

The 3CD set contains the Three Symphonies and the Symphonic Dances plus the symphonic poem Isle of the Dead and Vocalise, a short orchestral piece. It should be noted that the First Symphony failed disastrously at its premiere and its score was lost until miraculously the orchestral parts were found many years later. It is a youthful work with intense passion but it bears no comparison to what he would produce later. Isle of the Dead is interesting; inspired by a Romantic Russian painting, it describes Charon on the River Styx rowing the dead across to the other shore. We can hear the sinister undulating motion of the oars in very dark hued music. Its 5/8 rhythm must be a challenge for the conductor, but it comes off very well under Slatkin.

The Second Symphony is arguably the best and the most popular and has always been my favourite. It’s a glorious work with lavish orchestration and it “has a sustained vitality, rich in lyrical invention and a glowing eloquence capable of rising to extraordinary power” as described very aptly by British musicologist Robin Hill. It had a tremendous success and this recording, being a live performance, has a spontaneous enthusiastic outburst of applause. I wholly concur and it’s worth buying the set for this alone.

Another wonderful highlight is Vocalise which to me is the best thing Rachmaninov ever wrote. It’s a short (less than ten-minute) work for small orchestra with such an underlying sustained melancholy I’ve seen conductors literally in a hypnotic trance conducting with closed eyes.

Rachmaninov could be regarded as a connecting tissue between Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich (or Prokofiev) but he preferred to look forward rather than backward, so he moved away from lush Romantic orchestration towards lighter and cleaner textures, a tighter, more economical orchestration. This is manifest in his Symphony No.3 in A Minor. It is in three movements but don’t let this fool you. The composer cleverly encloses a Scherzo inside the second movement, so we are not shortchanged. I find that the wealth of diverse musical ideas and their adventurous handling puts this symphony ahead of the second and it’s a shame it’s hardly ever played. In a similar vein, Symphonic Dances (1940) is a most enjoyable lighthearted piece with emphasis on dance rhythms (e.g., the second movement is a decadent waltz the Russians are quite good at) that concludes this remarkable set.

11 Hamelin FaureFauré: Nocturnes & Barcarolles
Marc André Hamelin
Hyperion CDA68331/2 (hyperion-records.co.uk/a.asp?a=A49)

Solo piano music comprises a significant part of Gabriel Fauré’s output spanning a 60-year period from his very earliest Romances sans Paroles Op,17 written while still in his teens, to the final 13th Nocturne Op.119 from 1921. Among the most highly regarded of his piano works are the Nocturnes and Barcarolles, and these are presented in their entirety on this Hyperion release by the Montreal-born and Boston-based pianist Marc-André Hamelin. While Hamelin is no stranger to French repertoire, it has never been a big part of his extensive discography, so this recording is a welcome addition.

Fauré’s Nocturnes are very much in the Romantic tradition, the earliest ones showing some influence of John Field and Chopin. Yet they were never languorous, nocturnal essays; instead, they were conceived as lyrical pieces evoking a myriad of emotions. Hamelin’s playing is elegant and refined, with the inherent technical challenges handled with ease.    

Like the Nocturnes, the Barcarolles were written over the entire span of Fauré’s career and similarly show a progressive development in style. While most are written in the standard 6/8, 9/8 or 6/4 time signatures, many don’t adhere to the familiar notion of a lilting Italian boat song. Again, Hamelin demonstrates an appealing fluidity of execution where his impressive technique is never an end unto itself, but simply a means towards a fine interpretation.

An added bonus is the charming piano duet Dolly Suite, written for the young daughter of the singer Emma Bardac. It is performed here with Hamelin’s wife Kathy Fuller, bringing the program to a most satisfying conclusion.

12 CalefaxAn American Rhapsody
Pentatone PTC 5187 046 (calefax.nl/shop)

One of the side perks of this business is how much one can learn from liner notes. The dishy release from the Netherlandic reed quintet Calefax spreads their love for the New World all over the place. New York (New Amsterdam?) is the focus of this collection of arrangements that plays like the most excellent school concert imaginable. No disrespect to the players, they kick it in a way that reminds me of an earlier band, the Netherlands Winds, continuing the low countries’ exceptionally high standard of woodwind playing.

But it’s weird to listen to their Rhapsody in Blue, effectively scored down to the five voices in saxophonist Raaf Hekkema’s arrangement. I won’t make arguments about style, but I hear almost a practiced accent in the impeccably spoken lines of this fun little play. The liner notes remind us that this was Gershwin stepping out onto the concert stage from the show pit, and I think while the playing is excellent, there’s some kind of reserve or modesty in the performance suiting New Amsterdam more than Midtown. 

Samuel Barber’s Excursions, Op.20, originally for piano, are more folk than Broadway. They really sparkle in this excellent performance. Florence Price’s Piano Sonata in E Minor receives a gently Romantic treatment. Harry Burleigh’s Southland Sketches was based in gospel music. One learns, again in the very readable liner notes, that Burleigh was a mature student at the National Conservatory of Music (founded expressly to foster equity in musical training, regardless of sex or race or disability), where he studied with Antonín Dvořák.

The latter half of the disc celebrates jazz, pop and street music. Two Ellington tunes are beautifully rendered by Hekkema and Oliver Boekhoorn (the aptly named Oboe/English hornist), and Hekkema also made a fantastic tribute to both Billy Holiday and Eric Dolphy based on Dolphy’s bass clarinet treatment of God Bless the Child.

13 Solo Alone and MoreSolo, Alone and More
Jonas Frøland
Our Recordings 6.220681 (ourrecordings.com)

Reading the notes to Solo Alone and More, a clarinet collection played by young hotshot Jonas Frøland, one remembers the value of a good editor. I got some smiles reading the overlong and quirky paragraphs accompanying this demonstration of instrumental excellence. 

Three works are excerpts: the first cadenza from Carl Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto (1928) opens the collection, announcing Frøland’s range and musicality; the follow-up suggests to me he hasn’t considered the dramatic range of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo (1919). Stravinsky wrote these as a gift to the patron who backed L’Histoire du Soldat, and I always imagine them staged. He plays the first piece more as a rhythmic aria than a static, atmospheric tableau. The middle section of the second movement is, to my mind, a limping Soldier’s March; instead, Frøland treats the eighth-note pulse differently in the inner and outer sections, fundamentally changing the pulse between them. I’d love a chance to talk it over with him, because I don’t think that’s what Igor had in mind. 

Frøland’s dynamic control and technical fluidity amaze in Messiaen’s Abîme des Oiseaux (1940) (the second excerpt of the collection, from the Quatuor Pour la Fin du Temps) and Bent Sørensen’s beautiful Lontanamente Fragments of a Waltz (2012). Both feature that most desirable clarinet trait: pianississississimo. Mette Nielsen’s Alone for Basset Clarinet (2021) was commissioned by Frøland. It’s an unsettling exploration of microtones that left me chilled. Fully half an hour of this 70-minute program is taken up with Gunnar Berg’s Pour Clarinette Seul (1957) and Simon Steene-Andersen’s De Profundis, (2000/rev2019). Substantial works both. And the third excerpt? Tossed in is a rewrite of the cor anglais solo from Act III of Tristan und Isolde.  

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