06 Tchaikovsky SixthTchaikovsky – Symphony No.6 “Pathétique”
Berliner Philharmoniker; Kirill Petrenko
Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings BPHR 190261 (berliner-philharmoniker-recordings.com)

Honestly, from the first bar of this performance I really felt aware of hearing the notes of this familiar symphony for the first time. After decades of hearing so many fine enhanced performances interpreted by a parade of esteemed conductors, I know the work well. None ever like this one. The essence of this performance comes from within the score and not from a conductor’s opinion as to what should be added or left out to enhance the composer’s wishes. What we hear here is a performance reflecting and respecting Tchaikovsky’s printed score as it opens out. The interesting aspect of this version with Kirill Petrenko recorded on March 22-23, 2017, one of the first two published recordings from those sessions with his new orchestra, is that, until it is heard, one doesn’t know what such a performance as this evokes. The saying that “you don’t know what you’re missing” is so true here.

No fiddling with the printed page, no shattering fortes nor wrung out tensions imposed by a creative, well-meaning interpreter to improve this perfect score. Petrenko displays a total empathy with the composer, making this debut an excellent choice for both conductor and orchestra.

Credit for this perfect CD/SACD/DSD recording must go to the regular Berlin Philharmonic team, recording producer and editor Christoph Franke and sound engineer René Möller. One could not imagine better sound in whichever mode you are listening. We know exactly who was playing and quite where they sat. Particularly telling are the textures of the just audible opening bassoon and the closing plucked basses. All with no spotlighting or enhancement. Repeated dedicated listening over the last few weeks confirms the first impressions.

07 Rachmaninoff TriosRachmaninoff
Hermitage Piano Trio
Reference Recordings RR-1475ACD (referencerecordings.com)

The Hermitage Piano trio is comprised of three exceptionally talented chamber musicians: violinist Misha Keylin, cellist Sergey Antonov and pianist Ilya Kazantsev. All have enjoyed celebrated solo careers before finding common ground in their shared nationality and uniting to explore and re-present the great Russian musical traditions on the world concert stages of today. Now based out of the United States, the ensemble has just released their debut CD for Reference Recordings, a beautifully performed and recorded capture at Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts of some of the most intricate and dynamic works of the celebrated late Romantic-era Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943).

A conductor, composer and pianist of virtuosic reputation, Rachmaninoff’s music is notoriously difficult to perform, and those musicians who take on his repertoire require a requisite amount of expressive dynamism, musical sophistication and their own instrumental virtuosity. And, like the finest Western art musicians of today, the trio here handles all of this (and more) with ease, expressively and flawlessly traversing the multiple arcs of this timeless and grand music. The iconic Romantic gestures and the endless melodies present within multiple compositional strains and parts (for which Rachmaninoff was celebrated), capture the early 20th-century Russian experience and bring forward an expressive range of both sorrow and joy that demonstrates to listeners what truly great performances of wonderful music are capable of conveying.

Bruckner – Symphony No.6
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin; Robin Ticciati
Linn Records CKD 620 (naxosdirect.com)

Bruckner – Symphonies Nos.6 & 9
Gewandhausorchester; Andris Nelsons
Deutsche Grammophon 483 6859 (deutschegrammophon.com)

08a Bruckner 6Throughout much of the century following his death, Anton Bruckner’s name was routinely paired with that of Gustav Mahler. After all, the external similarities seemed obvious: both were Austrian, both wrote vast symphonies and both needed many years of proselytizing from dedicated interpreters before their music was truly appreciated. Bruckner found his true musical calling when he heard his teacher Otto Kitzler conduct Wagner’s Tannhäuser in Linz. The revelation marked the character of Bruckner’s symphonies, taking a cue from everything Wagner did to break virtually every theoretical rule and create a new music drama.

Bruckner’s epiphany resulted in a series of truly original scores, including the Symphony in D Minor (1963-64), which he later designated No.0, three masses between 1864 and 1868 and his acknowledged Symphonies of considerable density from No. 1 (1865-66) to No. 5 (1875-76).

The Symphony No. 6 in A Major performed by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted here by Robin Ticciati proves to be a lighter, more congenial work than its predecessors – especially No. 5, say the equivalent of Beethoven’s Eighth or Brahms’ Second. Still, far from being flippant, the majestic and deeply profound slow movement, for example, has a depth and eloquence that almost demands an attitude of reverence. Ticciati handles the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester with serene confidence, and both orchestra and conductor revel in the symphony’s joyous climaxes. And there are plenty of moments in the slow movement that afford real poetry. 

08b Bruckner 6 9Andris Nelsons posits – and rightly so – that you could not have Bruckner without Wagner. His December 2018, live recording complements the Bruckner Symphonies 6 and 9 with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll – a work of flawless delicacy – and the deeply reflective Parsifal Prelude Act I. The shorter Wagner pieces that preface each of the two discs appear to have been astutely selected for their lyricism and profound beauty and serve to put one in a meditative space in which prepares one for the respective Bruckner symphonies.

Nelsons’ brilliant performance of the Sixth with the Gewandhausorchester ends in the pure splendour of praise and – especially in the sombre Adagio and the mercurial Scherzo – is a benchmark performance of the symphony; the devotional, awestruck intensity of the work is effectively captured by the recording.

Symphony No.9 is the musical summation of Bruckner’s life, with all of its struggles. It is a monumental work despite being incomplete, and is sometimes said to have a mystical quality, like that of Beethoven’s Ninth. Nelsons’ depth of insight makes for a deeply moving and humbling experience in this incomparable live recording. It is a gaunt, craggy, unforgiving affair, doubtless much as Bruckner intended it should be; a magnificent, chastening and ultimately uplifting musical event.

09 FallaManuel de Falla – El amor brujo; El retablo de Maese Pedro
Fernández; Zetlan; Garza; Garcia; Perspectives Ensemble; Sato Moughalian; Angel Gil-Ordóňez

Naxos 8.573890 (naxosdirect.com)

An interesting new issue presents two of de Falla’s stage works as noted above. I have a sentimental attachment to El amor brujo (Love the Magician). It was the very first thing I ever saw in an opera house at age nine, but it was the ballet version. De Falla adapted the score a few times; the ballet from 1929 is the most often played. This performance however is the original 1915 version, the most complete and original conception performed by a small dedicated group of instrumentalists well suited for a work of this nature.

El amor brujo is actually a one-act zarzuela telling the story of a Roma woman who is haunted by the ghost of her former faithless lover, her struggle to exorcise it and finally be able to love again. It’s a journey from darkness to light, from a night of sorcery and terror to the splendour of a new dawn, with de Falla’s atmospheric, colourful score imbued in Andalusian folk idiom with dances that express the mood of each segment. The vocal lines are either spoken or sung authoritatively by the cantaora, a full-throated flamenco singer, Esperenza Fernandez. Most famous of the dances is the Ritual Fire Dance but all the others, especially the gentle, rollicking Dance of True Love are equally impressive; and the final apotheosis with all bells ringing is simply glorious.

The second work, El retablo de Maese Pedro (Master Peter’s Puppet Show) is somewhat less characteristic. It is a mini-opera based on a chapter of Cervantes’ novel, Don Quixote, and inspired by the age of Charlemagne. The music with “incisive Spanish rhythms and acerbic harmonies” is all skillfully fused with the French impressionism of Debussy and Ravel, de Falla’s main influences. The performances are intense and very authentic.

11 New York ConcertBruch – Double Concerto for Clarinet, Viola and Orchestra
Giovanni Punzi; Eva Katrine Dalsgaard; Tanja Zapolski; Copenhagen Phil; Vincenzo Milletari
Brilliant Classics 95673 (naxosdirect.com)

Like Brahms, and Mozart before him, Max Bruch reserved some of his finest writing for the clarinet, “discovering” the instrument late in his life, and writing with a particular player in mind. As Stadler for Mozart, and Muhlfeld for Brahms, Bruch’s son Max Felix gave premieres of both the pieces on this release, Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano, Op.83, and the Double Concerto for Clarinet, Viola and Orchestra, Op.88.

Giovanni Punzi on clarinet and Eva Katrine Dalsgaard on viola are joined by pianist Tanja Zapolski in the eight pieces, and are backed by the Copenhagen Philharmonic led by Vincenzo Milletari in the concerto. The chamber work was never intended to be performed as a unified piece. Although the individual pieces are delightful, and the performers bring them off with suitable melancholy Romanticism, it’s best to take them in smaller doses. Though Bruch idolized Brahms, these works owe more to Schumann in scope and mood. Punzi is perhaps the most restrained of the performers, setting an unadorned tone versus the intensity of Dalsgaard and Zapolski. Pitch is never an issue, and phrasing certainly not. There is a certain muddiness to the lower octaves, as if the hall chosen for the recording offered the benefit of reverb in quantities perhaps slightly more than needed.

The more substantial work is Bruch at his blue best. Seldom programmed for the live stage (a pity; so many fine violists and clarinetists would love to be given the opportunity), it follows an unusual movement format: Andante con moto, Allegro moderato, and Allegro molto. Perhaps the overarching melancholy is the deterrent. Shouldn’t be, audiences can handle a little weltschmerz.

01 Innovators scanThe UK’s Benyounes Quartet members celebrate ten years of performing together with Innovators: Bartók-Beethoven-Debussy, a CD featuring three quartets that they feel were both innovative and influential (Champs Hill Records CHRCD147
champshillrecords.co.uk).

Bartók’s String Quartet No.2 was written between 1915 and 1917 and clearly shows the direction in which his folk music studies were leading him. In this case it was not only his research in Hungary but in particular a 1913 visit to North Africa to record Arab and Berber music that was clearly a major influence.

Beethoven’s String Quartet No.11 in F Minor Op.95 “Serioso” is from 1810; the shortest of his quartets, the sense of struggle and drama is enhanced by the unusually condensed and tense nature of the musical argument.

Debussy’s String Quartet in G Minor Op.10 is from 1893 when he was first starting to become known in Paris, and already serves notice on how his harmonic colouring would transform French music and set a new path for the 20th century.

There’s impassioned playing throughout, with electrifying pacing, outstanding dynamics and superb individual and ensemble playing.

02 Bartok ArcadiaAll six Bartók quartets are available on Bartók Complete String Quartets in performances by the Romanian Arcadia Quartet (Chandos CHAN 10992(2)
naxosdirect.com).

The quartet members, who live in Transylvania, a region that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the Great War and proved a fertile ground in Bartók’s folk music research, feel that the folk music influence goes beyond merely providing compositional material here, citing even the most abstract moments in the quartets as ones when the listener is “carried away into a world of mysticism, magic and philosophical reflection.”

Their playing is consequently more contemplative and perhaps less abrasive than that of the Benyounes, but is no less committed for that. It’s clearly music that has a deep significance for this ensemble.

03 WirenThe four extant string quartets of the Swedish composer Dag Wirén (No.1 was withdrawn) are presented on Wirén String Quartets Nos.2-5 in performances by the Wirén Quartet (Naxos 8.573588 naxos.com).

String Quartets No.2, Op.9 from 1935 and No.3, Op.18, completed in 1945, both support the composer’s stated aim to write music “which appealed directly to rather than challenging the listener,” although No.3 reflects Wirén’s extensive revision of his compositional technique.

String Quartet No.4, Op.28 from 1953 is a darker work with shades of Shostakovich and Sibelius, while No.5, Op.41 from 1970 was written only a few years before Wirén’s retirement as a composer, its three short movements ending with an air more of resignation than celebration.

04 Hartmann scanThe German composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann was 28 when Hitler became Chancellor in 1933 but, unlike many artists, stayed in Germany, refusing all cooperation with the Nazis and virtually guaranteeing his exclusion from official German musical life. The two string quartets which bookended his life in this period, String Quartet No.1 “Carillon” from 1933 and String Quartet No.2 from 1945-48 are featured on Hartmann with Poland’s Airis String Quartet (Accord ACD 245-2 naxosdirect.com).

Replete with allusions to a variety of influences (jazz elements, Jewish melodies and Hungarian folk music, especially that of Bartók) the music is essentially tonal but so strongly chromatic that a key centre rarely seems established. They’re quite different and strikingly individual works, redolent of stress and anxiety in time of conflict.

In 1942 Hartmann studied with Anton Webern, and the latter’s quite lovely Langsamer Satz from 1905 completes the CD.

05 ShostakovichIn 1938 Dmitri Shostakovich wrote the first page of what turned into his String Quartet No.1 in C Major Op.49 as an exercise with no intention of finishing it. Captivated by the process, however, he completed the full quartet in less than two months. It’s included on Shostakovich String Quartets Nos.1, 2 & 7, the latest CD from the UK-based Carducci String Quartet (Signum Classics SIGCD559 naxosdirect.com).

The String Quartet No.2 in A Major Op.68 from 1944 is a much larger and more ambitious work, but it’s the terse String Quartet No.7 in F-sharp Minor Op.108 from 1960 that despite its brevity (just over 12 minutes) has the most typical Shostakovich quartet sound.

The Carducci Quartet has performed complete cycles of the Shostakovich quartets and has previously recorded quartets numbers 4, 8 and 11 for Signum Classics. It’s not clear if this new release is part of an ongoing complete recording of the cycle, but such a set would be warmly welcomed.

06 GoreckiIf you only know the music of Henryk Górecki from the astonishingly successful Dawn Upshaw recording of his Symphony No.3: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs then the music on Górecki Complete String Quartets 1 (Naxos 8.573919 naxos.com) may come as something of a shock. 

Górecki wrote three quartets for the Kronos Quartet: No.1 Op.62 “Already it is Dusk” in 1988; No.2 Op.64 “Quasi una fantasia” in 1991 and No.3 Op.67 . . . songs to be sung in the mid-1990s. The first two, along with the early string trio Genesis I: Elementi Op.19, No.1 from 1962 are performed with full-blooded commitment by the UK’s Tippett Quartet. The single-movement first quartet and – in particular – the string trio are a tough listen, the booklet notes referencing extended playing techniques, assaultive gestures, note clusters, chord sequences of real vehemence and writing that exploits the timbral extremes of the ensemble.

The four-movement Quartet No.2 is more accessible, with clear influences of Beethoven and Shostakovich, but the familiar juxtaposition of consonance and dissonance is still present.

07 GudmenssenscanThe Nordic String Quartet is the ensemble in Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen Complete String Quartets Vol.1 (Dacapo 8.226217 naxosdirect.com), world premiere recordings of the first six of the Danish composer’s 14 quartets written between 1959 and 2013.

The works are predominantly quite brief. The first three are all from 1959: String Quartet No.1 is a single-movement Andante of less than nine minutes; the four movements of No.2 “Quartetto Facile” total less than 12 minutes; No.3 “Five Small Studies” doesn’t reach five minutes – small studies indeed!

String Quartets No.4 (1967), No.5 “Step by Step” (1982-86 revised 2003) and No.6 “Parting” (1983) are all single movements ranging from six to 19 minutes in length.

The music is difficult to describe, but touches on a wide range of influences – Bartók, Stravinsky, serialism, minimalism, Ligeti – while always maintaining an individual character. It will be interesting to hear what the later quartets are like.

08 Mozart Alexander scanVolume 2 of Apotheosis: Mozart, the Alexander String Quartet series of the late chamber works and featuring the Piano Quartets, was reviewed here last October, but Volume 1 The Final Quartets has only just been released (Foghorn Classics FCL2016 foghornclassics.com). The four works on the two-CD set are the String Quartet in D Major K499 “Hoffmeister” and the three Prussian Quartets in D Major K575, B-flat Major K589 and F Major K590. 

The quartet’s violist Paul Yarbrough describes the works as having “beauty, clarity, communication of the highest order, and – above all – balance.” It’s also an excellent description of the simply lovely playing here. Volume 3 – the Clarinet Quintet and the String Quintets – promises to be a terrific conclusion to an outstanding series.

09 Mozart QuintetsIn the meantime, Germany’s Klenke Quartett is joined by violist Harald Schoneweg on Mozart The String Quintets, a quite beautiful three-CD issue that sets a very high standard (Accentus Music ACC80467 accentus.com). Having already recorded the complete Mozart string quartets, the Klenke Quartett saw the recording of the six quintets – No.1 in B-flat Major K174, No.2 in C Minor K406, No.3 in C Major K515, No.4 in G Minor K516, No.5 in D Major K593 and No.6 in E-flat Major K614 – as a logical continuation. 

Phrasing, the use of vibrato, and articulation are based on historically informed performance techniques, and contribute to the ensemble’s superb clarity, sensitivity and an innate understanding of the richness and wide-ranging emotional moods of these wonderful works.

10 Brahms scanThe New Zealand String Quartet is joined by violist Maria Lambros in Brahms String Quintets Nos.1 and 2, a recording that completes their three albums of Brahms chamber music for Naxos (8.573455 naxos.com).

The quintets, No.1 in F Major Op.88 from 1882 and No.2 in G major Op.111 from 1890, are relatively late works, with the choice of viola as the additional instrument bringing a warmth and richness to the inner texture that creates a perfect soundscape for Brahms’ characteristic feel of autumnal reflection and nostalgic yearning.

The CD was recorded in the resonant acoustics of St. Anne’s Anglican Church in Toronto by the ever-reliable team of Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver.

11 OnslowThere’s more string quintet playing – this time with a double bass instead of a second viola – on Georges Onslow String Quintets Vol.3, with the Elan Quintet playing String Quintets No.28 in G Minor Op.72 and No.29 in E-flat Major Op.73 (Naxos 8.573887 naxos.com).

Onslow, born in France in 1784 to a French mother and English father, wrote 36 string quartets and 34 string quintets, music that was stylistically more German than French. Published in 1849 towards the end of Onslow’s life, the two quintets here are early Romantic works with clear hints of Schubert and Mendelssohn. The addition of the double bass to the string quartet produces a chamber orchestra feel, adding depth without ever being too prominent.

It’s really lovely music – warm, inventive, humorous and extremely well-written – by a musician who clearly knew his craft. The Elan Quartet’s performances of these charming works are highly enjoyable.

12 Mendelsson Concert and String SymphoniesHenry Raudales is the soloist and conductor of the Münchner Rundfunkorchester on Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy Concerto for Violin & Strings in D Minor and String Symphonies Nos.I-VI (BR Klassik 900324 naxosdirect.com). 

Written when the composer was only 13, the concerto remained virtually unknown until Yehudi Menuhin revived it in 1951. It’s a lovely work, full of the lightness and agility so typical of Mendelssohn’s later works, and performed here with equal lightness, agility and dynamic nuance by all concerned.

The six String Symphonies from 1821 (when the composer was only 12 years old!) are the first half of the 12 that Mendelssohn wrote between 1821 and 1823. Thanks to his studying composition with Carl Friedrich Zelter, the symphonies are modelled on those of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, whose Hamburg Symphonies had created the three-movement form for string orchestra. Again, the works remained in manuscript form until being rediscovered in 1950. 

Stylish performances complete a delightful CD.

13 Rubert BoydThe Guitar is the third solo album from the Australian guitarist Rupert Boyd, and pays homage to the instrument’s ability to embrace a truly wide range of repertoire (Sono Luminus DSL-92231
sonoluminus.com).

Only two works on the CD – Fernando Sor’s Introduction and Variations on a Theme by Mozart and Leo Brouwer’s ten brief Estudios Sencillos I-X – were originally written for the guitar, although the Suite in E Major BWV1006a was Bach’s own reworking of his Partita No.3 for Solo Violin, and A Closed World of Fine Feelings is Australian composer Graeme Koehne’s reworking of his own solo piano piece.

Arrangements of two pieces by Antônio Carlos Jobim – Felicidade and Estrada Branca – open the disc, and arrangements of Astor Piazzolla’s Milonga del Angel and La Muerte del Angel followed by Boyd’s own lovely arrangement of John Lennon’s Julia close it.

It’s a nicely balanced program that always holds your interest and has much to offer, with clean, resonant and idiomatic playing throughout. 

01 GoodyearStewart Goodyear’s performance on his new recording Gershwin/Goodyear (Orchid Classics, ORC100100, orchidclassics.com) sizzles with high energy from start to finish. The disc presents two compositions by Goodyear in addition to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Half of Goodyear’s family has roots in Trinidad where he describes experiencing his first Carnival and being spellbound by its diverse rhythms and music. The five-movement suite for piano and orchestra, titled Callaloo, is a brilliant and impressive example of Goodyear’s composing and orchestration skills. 

The Piano Sonata is an early work from Goodyear’s late teens. And although he admits it reflects some teenage hubris, the Sonata nevertheless carries Goodyear’s virtuosic stamp on both its writing and performance. He’s an inspired artist with a great deal to say.

The Chineke! Orchestra, led by Wayne Marshall, collaborates beautifully with Goodyear. Extraordinary playing, superb recording and engineering make this one of the most exciting discs released this year. Definitely a must-have!

02 BernsteinMichele Tozzetti’s new disc Bernstein – Complete Solo Piano Music (Piano Classics, PCL10174, naxosdirect.com) joins the few others who have taken on the challenge of this repertoire. There’s just enough solo piano material by Bernstein to fill a CD, so the project has tempted a handful of brave artists. All have discovered, however, that the composer, pianist, conductor was a complex individual and access to his music has been challenging. 

Tozzetti understands that Bernstein’s language marked him as a staunch modernist and populist. He was edgy and evolutionary but not revolutionary. His writing is never entirely without reference to some core principle of music as a contemporary individual would understand it. And Tozzetti consistently seeks out the melodic and rhythmic element to confirm this. Many of these short pieces bear the names of those to whom the works are dedicated or at least those whose impressions they reflect. Occasional ones like Aaron Copland seem to have content that makes reference to their work, but much of that remains for Tozzetti to decide.

This is quite possibly the most thoughtful and well played conception of this music to date.

03 Luke WelchLuke Welch’s third recording The Return (lukewelch.ca) presents the Beethoven Sonata in A-flat Major Op.26 and Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op.26. Welch is no stranger to the Schumann repertoire having recorded Kinderszenen on one of his earlier discs. There’s a strong and natural fit for him with this composer’s language whose harmonies he seems to understand profoundly. He’s especially persuasive in the Romanze where he moves carefully with the gentleness of Schumann’s melodic line before leaping into the Scherzino with a perfectly balletic lightness. 

The Beethoven tracks, that include a couple of Rondos Op.51 in addition to the sonata, demonstrate Welch’s affinity for the core of the classical repertoire, the discipline and balanced expression that these composers need to be convincingly played.

04 SustainSustain (Navona Records, NV6207, navonarecords.com) is a multi-composer and multi-performer recording project featuring piano, marimbas, vibraphone and some percussion. Five composers, two pianists and numerous other musicians present a rich and intriguing exploration of music bound together by the shared ability to initiate, shape and sustain sound from a keyboard, or keyboard-like instrument.

Sixteen Lines Circling a Square by Robert E. Thomas is a sonically fascinating piece in its performance by Matt Sharrock who plays both marimba and vibraphone. Solstice Introspect by Daniel Adams is written for three vibraphones and percussion, and portrays some of the mystique surrounding the annual winter event. John A. Carollo’s Piano Suite No.9 – Memories of Liszt is equally clever for its emotional and occasional musical references to Liszt.

It’s an ambitious project with a very rich program and well worth the listen.

05 Goldstone and ClemmovOh to have been a fly on the wall in that New York room in 1928 when George Gershwin played his Rhapsody in Blue for Maurice Ravel. The evening encounter is rich with anecdotes but Ravel’s brush with American music and Harlem jazz made a lasting impression that emerged repeatedly in his writing of that period. Gershwin, Ravel (Divine Art, DDA25055, divineartrecords.com) is a tribute to the works of these two composers for piano duet and two pianos. Piano duo Goldstone and Clemmow recorded these tracks over the decade 1997-2007 and their re-release in this repertoire compilation is a reminder of how their performances will be missed since the death of Anthony Goldstone two years ago.

There is such full engagement and energy in all this playing. The Rhapsody in Blue is the original version for two pianos and seems in no way diminished from its orchestral scoring. The same is true of I Got Rhythm, also in its original two-piano version. As in all their recordings, Goldstone and Clemmow never falter. They breathe and play as a single mind, whether at one keyboard or two. The disc’s closing track is perhaps both the most novel and amazing. Ravel’s version of Bolero for piano duet (that’s four hands at one very crowded keyboard) is simply impossible to imagine as it unfolds. 

06 ScarlattiIt’s always great fun to hear how Scarlatti is going to emerge from under the fingers of a newly recorded pianist. Soyeon Kate Lee’s recording Scarlatti – Complete Keyboard Sonatas Vol.21 (Naxos 8.573795, naxos.com) makes the unhurried point that there may be more to consider in these sonatas than traditionally meets the ear. Scarlatti wrote 555 sonatas in single movements, of which Lee has chosen 17 for this recording.

Taking time to explore ideas and never saying anything twice in the same way are key elements of Lee’s fresh voice in these works. She also takes a comfortably light Romantic touch to potential dance-like rhythms, giving the bass line a chance to lead rhythmically. Lee is especially adept at using the colour and dynamic potential of the piano to make more of these than Scarlatti might have imagined at the harpsichord. She plays with great care and consideration for the disciplined way in which Scarlatti crafted these pieces but applies her playful imagination to each one, polishing it into a unique gem.

07 Federico ColliFederico Colli’s latest recording J.S. Bach Italian Concerto, Partita IV, Bach/Busoni Chaconne (Chandos CHAN 20079, naxosdirect.com) explores new depths of introspection in Bach’s keyboard writing. Colli plays with all the requisite technical articulation and dynamic sensitivity that modern tastes expect in this repertoire. But he adds something strikingly unique: Colli has mastered the craft of small-voice playing. This is a keyboard utterance far below conventional pianissimo, using the gentlest of key touch, barely bringing the hammers against the strings and thereby creating a remarkable tone. Moreover, Colli seems to have the quantum ability to slow the passage of time when he does this. It’s altogether remarkable. Used strategically throughout the Partita No.4 and the slow movement of the Italian Concerto, it enhances his midrange voice and gives his fortissimos overwhelming presence. 

The combined effect of this playing style is most concentrated in the Busoni transcription of the Chaconne from Partita No.2 BWV1004 where Colli forms Bach’s most beautiful ideas slowly and minutely in time and space before letting them supernova into the immensity of Busoni’s towering chords. An unforgettable experience.

08 ChaminadeMark Viner’s recording Cécile Chaminade – Piano Music (Piano Classics PCL10164, naxosdirect.com) is a beautiful and exquisitely performed addition to his discography. Chaminade’s music is now more widely performed and admired than it was in her day. The late 19th and early 20th centuries afforded little opportunity for women to pursue careers as composers and concert performers. Still, Chaminade persevered and achieved some recognition throughout her native France. Her music is rich with textures and ideas and Viner embraces these with a remarkable fluency as if her language were his own. The opening Pierrette air de ballet Op.41 is instantly captivating and Viner brings the same impish energy to successive works in the program. The highlight of the disc may, however, be the unassuming Méditation from the 6 Romances sans paroles, Op.76. Here Viner lingers on critical phrases and gently emphasizes lush harmonies that offer a glimpse into Chaminade’s world.

09 Chun WangInternational piano competitions often award winners recording opportunities to help advance their careers. A new release, Chun Wang – 2017 Winner Jaén Prize International Piano Competition, Laureate Series (Naxos 8.573945 naxos.com) presents the winning piano recital of this Spanish competition. The concert recording quickly demonstrates why Wang won the 20,000 euro prize. His performance is spectacular. It reveals an inherent artistic intelligence that comes across as a natural affinity for whatever repertoire he plays. 

The recital program opens with Ravel’s Jeux d’eau in which Wang’s legato playing ideally captures the fluid character of the work. Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major closes the recital and provides astonishing musical and technical contrast to the earlier work. Between these two, Wang plays two of Bolcom’s 12 New Etudes, Bartók’s Out of Doors, and Fantasia, a required contemporary piece by a Spanish composer, Josué Bonnín de Góngora. 

There’s an edge-of-the-seat excitement that builds throughout this recital. Stakes are high, as are the audience expectations, and the pressure is palpable. Chun Wang delivers with confidence and flawless playing. A winner.

10 Roberto Loreggian BachRoberto Loreggian has released a three-disc set of Bach Violin Sonatas & Partitas, Cello Suites – Transcribed for harpsichord by Gustav Leonhardt (Brilliant Classics 95757, naxosdirect.com). Among the items are many that are as familiar for Bach’s own keyboard transcriptions of them as they are for their original solo forms. Bach himself realized keyboard versions of his numerous solo instrumental compositions and freely cross-pollinated his works with borrowed ideas. The documented instances of this practice led Leonhardt to devote a decade to writing his transcriptions for harpsichord based on considerable research and study. His obvious grasp of Bach’s keyboard language, harmony and counterpoint informed his approach to transcribing this repertoire.

The project may, at first hearing, seem tidy and academic, but encountering the familiar in a new voice has a subtle, arresting effect and compels fresh thinking about new discoveries. Harpsichordist Roberto Loreggian plays a modern Italian copy of an early 17th-century Flemish instrument.

11 French Suite KitCraig Swanson presents a persuasive argument for an imaginative experiment in his new recording The French Suite Kit (thefrenchsuitekit.com). Citing others like Glenn Gould, who have mused about the role of the listener and the how technology affects the way listeners participate in music, Swanson has recorded a “Kit” from which listeners can build their own performance through a mix-and-match process.

Most of the movements in the Bach French Suite No.4 in E-flat Major BWV815 appear in three or four different versions. Speed is the most obvious variable, but Swanson also alters the amount of ornamentation, shifts between two major published editions, and observes some repeats while omitting others. The objective is to offer a collection of component parts for a listener to custom build a performance that suits the preference of the moment. Moreover, Swanson’s experiment posits that there cannot ever be a definitive performance of anything. Too many things can change in the performer’s mind and the listener’s perception to make any music universally right forever.

Swanson’s intriguing ideas offer a lot to play with both musically and intellectually. 

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