07 Chopin PhillipsChopin – Ballades and Nocturnes
Jonathan Phillips
Divine Art DDX 21111 (divineartrecords.com)

What more can be said about Chopin – all too frequently referred to as the “poet of the piano?”  More than 170 years after his death, his music continues to enthrall connoisseurs and amateurs alike and this disc presenting the four Ballades and a selection of Nocturnes played by British pianist Jonathan Phillips is bound to be a welcome addition. A graduate of the Royal Northern College of Music, Phillips was winner of the National Youth Orchestra of Wales Soloist award in 1986. He has performed throughout Europe, but in 1998, began studies for a degree in philosophy, after which he was less inclined to pursue a career as a performing artist. 

Seldom is Chopin’s creativity so evident than in the four Ballades, written over a 17-year period between 1836 and 1843. Phillips’ approach is elegant and understated – his tempos are never rushed, nor does he resort to empty virtuosity, instead letting the music speak for itself. This is no more apparent than in the glorious fourth Ballade. From the calm and hesitant opening measures to the turbulent coda, Phillips is clearly in full command of this daunting repertoire, but never seeks to impress.

Of the five Nocturnes Phillps chose for this program, three – Op.9 No.2, Op.15 No.1 and Op.32 No.1 are early works, while two – Op.55 No.1 and Op.62 No.1 – were written considerably later. Phillips treats this lyrical and introspective music with a sensitive poignancy concluding the disc with a mood of true serenity. 

With his fine musicianship and impressive technique, it seems a pity that Phillips has too often forsaken the limelight, choosing instead to lead a more unassuming life with his family in the English Cotswolds. His talents most definitely deserve greater exposure.

08 Bruckner 7Bruckner – Symphony No.7
London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Simon Rattle
LSO Live LSO00887 (lso.co.uk)

It is said that Otto Kitzler, a decade younger than his student Anton Bruckner, helped inspire a momentous change in his illustrious pupil. The defining moment that enabled Bruckner to find his true musical vocation was when he heard Kitzler conduct a performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser in Linz. 

Bruckner had spent 40 years assimilating every rule of composition. However, Kitzler’s performance of Wagner led Bruckner on a voyage of discovery of Wagner that enabled him to break the rulebook he had so assiduously assimilated. Indeed Wagner, the operatic iconoclast, enabled Bruckner to create symphonic music that mirrored Wagner’s achievements as a master of music drama. 

Nowhere is the newly discovered dramaturgy more evident than in this version of Bruckner’s most enraptured Symphony No.7. It features the long radiant phrase by the cellos and the first horn, which unfolds over tremolando strings. The portentous Adagio presages Wagner’s death with the sombre, glowing tone of four Wagner tubas. The near-demonic and extreme tension generated by the violins’ restless accompaniment in the dramatic Scherzo is evocative of Bruckner’s discovery of the devastating fire that killed 386 patrons in the Ringtheater. This is followed by the near-euphoric airy pastoral character in the climax of the finale.

Sir Simon Rattle’s shaping of Bruckner’s arching phrases, the exactness of his control of the London Symphony Orchestra and the sumptuousness of the orchestral tone majestically reinforce the idea of Bruckner as a master builder.

09 Rachmanioff GindesRachmaninoff Piano Works
Ian Gindes
Navona Records NV6582 (iangindes.com)

The twin centrepieces of Rachmaninoff Piano Works by American Ian Gindes are selections from the composer’s celebrated Preludes and Études Tableaux. These are complemented by Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of Fritz Kreisler’s Liebeslied and Zoltan Kocsis’ arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s masterwork, the Vocalise Op.34, No.14. The surprise is the finale: Jerry Goldsmith’s Alone in the World arranged by Jed Distler.

Like Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Rachmaninoff’s comprise a sequence of miniatures in every major and minor key and, as with Chopin, the self-imposed constraints inspired some of the composer’s most original ideas. This selection includes the famous C-sharp Minor Prelude Op.3 No.2 as well as a selection of four from Op.23 and one from Op.32. Melody is the less dominant element, for many of these pieces are built upon rhythmic patterns that lead towards the establishment of a melodic pattern reflecting the rhythmic pulse. 

As with the Chopin of the Ballades, Études and Preludes, the Études Tableaux take a motif or a technical challenge as their starting point, and weave poetic musical fabrics from that. Mordant, terse and visionary in their endless chromaticism, luminously simple and spectrally poignant, they are distinguished by their brevity and a new level of virtuoso pianism.

Gindes’ interpretations fall somewhere between Alexis Weissenberg’s punchy sound and Sviatoslav Richter’s tremendous performances. Gindes’ illustrious renditions reveal a visionary glow behind the eloquent, melancholy virtuosic exteriors of these Rachmaninoff masterworks.

Listen to 'Rachmaninoff Piano Works' Now in the Listening Room

10 ReversoShooting Star – Étoile Filante
Alternate Side Records (ryankeberle.bandcamp.com/album/shooting-star-toile-filante)

If you are wondering how, on Étoile Filante, a trombone, a cello and a piano might come to be evocative of the musical voice of Lili Boulanger you might have no need to look further than the intrepid trio Reverso, comprising the trombone of Ryan Keberle, the cello of Vincent Courtois and the piano of Frank Woeste. But how did they succeed in recreating the ephemeral beauty of Boulanger’s music? 

The answer is quite clearly in the use of uncommon instrumental voicing to mirror the poetics of a composer’s work that once combined vocal sensuousness with spectral imagery daubed onto the darkened sonic canvas. The cello’s bow sweeps across the strings of the instrument in an alternating movement of flux and flow. Meanwhile the trombone moans – almost always pianissimo – with a deeply religious intensity pouring out in solemn, elliptical melodic lines. Meanwhile the piano provides the harmonic glue as an overwhelming sense of mystery pervades the ensuing music. 

As sculpted phrases are created from notes that leap off the staved paper dancing and pirouetting in rarefied air around us, we find ourselves in the ephemeral world – literally and figuratively speaking – of Boulanger, the younger of the two legendary French musician-sisters. 

The subtle chromaticism of Boulanger’s songful music comes brilliantly alive. These are songs without words, every bit as compellingly delicate in a Mendelssohnian way, and the music sparkles like stars shooting across a glittering soundscape.

11 American SpiritualAmerican Spiritual
Michael Lee
Independent ML202301 (leaf-music.ca)

Although some more than others (professors, teachers, music critics, authors), we are all canon formers one way or another. While we may think that our musical decisions about what we “like” or “don’t like” is based upon our individual agency and personhood, in truth our tastes have been shaped and formed by friends, teachers, disc jockeys, books, or, increasingly, a Stockholm-based AI chatbot that algorithmically suggests playlists based upon our Spotify listening habits. Next, we in turn pass on said formed tastes to others, reinforcing our personal musical canon with our listening, artistic preferences and the concerts we choose to attend. The point of this review, however, is not to go down a Theodor Adorno-inspired Marxist rabbit hole about the illusion of choice, but rather to say that musical canons, like taste, are both fluid and malleable. And a good thing too. In the last number of years, there has been a concerted effort by symphonies, artistic societies and record labels to feature greater diversity and inclusion in their offerings, broadening the range of the artists whom they have chosen to platform.

Michael Lee, a DMA scholar, current faculty member at his alma mater  the University of Toronto, and a tremendous pianist, has taken on this responsibility of canon expansion with seriousness, aplomb and care. And, supported by an arts grant from ArtsNL (The Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council), Lee has made a beautiful recording capturing a number of major piano works from BIPOC composers. American Spiritual seamlessly bridges European Art Music with important American Spiritual compositions of Florence Price, Margaret Bonds and the Niagara Falls-born Canadian/American composer Robert Nathaniel Dett. The 2023 recording is top shelf, and the canonic expansion to include these important compositional voices most welcome.

Listen to 'American Spiritual' Now in the Listening Room

12 LunaLuna
Anna Lapwood (organ)
Sony Classical 19658831402 (sonyclassical.com/releases/releases-details/luna)

The pipe organ is considered by many to be a fossil: an academic, inflexible instrument that exists in large, inaccessible places and plays long, complex music – or a hymn-churning jukebox – depending on who you ask. “My grandmother played the organ at [insert small local church here]” is a line that organists hear dozens of times a year, and it is this relatively limited window of exposure that makes the organ a public relations challenge.

Enter Anna Lapwood. With over one million followers on social media, Lapwood is introducing a new international audience to the pipe organ through behind-the-scenes videos, genre-bending collaborations and open access to some of the world’s finest instruments. According to the album’s press release, “The power of social media gives the ability to demystify the outdated baggage the organ once carried along with it, throwing open the doors to new music, new possibilities, and new audiences.” 

Luna, Lapwood’s recently released recording, features 15 tracks including transcriptions of film and piano scores, as well as new music. There is a great range of material here, from the Interstellar and Pride and Prejudice soundtracks to Philip Glass, Chopin and Debussy, as well as two selections performed by Lapwood’s choir at the Chapel of Pembroke College, Cambridge. 

Much like Lapwood’s social media presence, this recording is an ideal vehicle for acquainting new audiences with the organ. The music is light and easy to listen to, expertly prepared and performed, and recorded in a way that captures the rich acoustic palate of the instrument. For experienced organophiles desiring the depth and density of Bach and Widor, it is best to look elsewhere; for those seeking an accessible and enjoyable introduction to the organ, however, there is a wealth of material here that will be utterly delightful.

01 Cotik Bach SuitesViolinist Tomás Cotik adds to his 2020 release of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas and 2022 release of Telemann’s 12 Fantasias for Violin Solo with another outstanding solo disc on Bach The Six Suites, his own transcriptions for violin of the Six Cello Suites BWV1007-1012 (Centaur CRC4030/4031 tomascotik.com).

Cotik transposes the first five suites up a fifth to keep the relations between the violin strings (G-D-A-E) the same as on the cello (C-G-D-A); they are also an octave higher. Suite No.6 was written for a five-string instrument with an added high E string, so it is played here in the original key, with notes from the unavailable C string moved to a higher register. If there’s a downside, it’s the loss of the deep warmth of the cello’s lower register.

A Baroque bow is used, with resonant synthetic strings that are slightly softer than those Cotik regularly uses. Vibrato is employed effectively “as an ornament to the sound but not a continuous addition.” Cotik’s customary detailed and insightful booklet essay adds to a fascinating release.

02 GraupnerThe Akoya duo of violinist Naomi Dumas and harpsichordist Caitlyn Koester makes its label debut with an album of sonatas by Christoph Graupner on Graupner Intégrale des sonates pour violon et clavecin, aided by Amanda Keesmaat on Baroque cello (ATMA Classique ACD2 4038 atmaclassique.com/en).

Dumas and Koester formed the duo when studying in the Historical Performance program at Juilliard and specialize in the interpretation of early repertoire. An exact contemporary of J. S. Bach, Graupner (1683-1760) was virtually forgotten after his death, but recent groundbreaking work on his autograph sources at the University of Darmstadt has led to a revival of interest.

This CD marks the world premiere recording of Graupner’s complete sonatas for violin and harpsichord GWV707-711; two are in G major and three in G minor. They are absolutely charming works, given beautifully articulated performances in a richly resonant recording.

03 Paul Huang KaleidoscopeEvery now and then a CD of such outstanding quality comes along that it leaves you struggling for words. Such is the case with Kaleidoscope, a CD featuring brilliant playing by violinist Paul Huang and pianist (and no relation) Helen Huang in works by Respighi, Saint-Saëns, Paganini and Chopin (naïve V 8088 paulhuangviolin.com/recordings).

Paul Huang draws a sumptuous tone from the 1742 “Ex-Wieniawski” Guarneri del Gesù violin, but it’s the power and expressiveness of his playing that takes your breath away. Helen Huang’s piano work is no less fine. 

The seldom-heard Respighi Sonata in B Minor p.110 is a real gem, with a gorgeous opening movement, and the Saint-Saëns Sonata No.1 in D Minor Op.75 is a dazzling work with a hair-raising Allegro molto fourth movement.

Paganini’s Cantabile in D Major Op.17 – which really does sing here – comes between the two sonatas, and Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Major Op.9 No.2, in the transcription by Sarasate ends one of the most captivating albums I’ve heard in a long time.

Listen to 'Kaleidoscope' Now in the Listening Room

04 Closing StatementsClosing Statements, the new CD from violinist Sophie Rosa and pianist Ian Buckle, is described as exploring the ways in which composers end their creative lives (Rubicon Classics RCD1119 rubiconclassics.com/artist/sophie-rosa-ian-buckle).

Schumann’s Violin Sonata No.3 WoO2 was created when he added two new movements to the Intermezzo and Finale that he had contributed to the F-A-E sonata with Brahms and Dietrich. Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim played through it in February 1854, just days after Schumann’s attempted drowning in the Rhine, and decided to suppress it, the sonata not being published until the 1956 centenary of the composer’s death.

Two Phantasies, while differing greatly in sound, both look back to classical models: Schoenberg’s Phantasy Op.47 and Schumann’s Fantasie in C Op.131, written for Joachim in 1853.

Both draw particularly fine playing from the duo. The hauntingly beautiful 1991 “Post scriptum” Sonata by Ukrainian composer Valentyn Silvestrov (b.1937) rounds out an excellent disc.

05 Joseph BologneJoseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Three Sonatas for Violin & Fortepiano, Op.1b, featuring violinist Andrew McIntosh and fortepianist Steven Vanhauwaert is another COVID lockdown product (Olde Focus Recordings FCR923 newfocusrecordings.com).

In 2020 McIntosh and Vanhauwaert read through the violin sonatas of Bologne to pick one to film and became so enamoured of them that they decided to record all three for an album. Published in 1781 at the height of Bologne’s career they are charming and not insubstantial works, full of late 18th-century elegance. 

Each of the sonatas – No.1 in B-flat Major, No.2 in A Major and No.3 in G Minor – has two movements, with an opening Allegro and a gentler second movement. Dynamics and articulations in the printed edition are minimal and often inconsistent, with the duo here consequently employing ornamentation consistent with the style of the period in excellent performances.

Listen to 'Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Three Sonatas for Violin & Fortepiano, Op.1b' Now in the Listening Room

06 1883Cellist Christoph Croisé and pianist Oxana Shevchenko have been playing together since 2014, and on 1883 they celebrate a year marked by two major cello sonatas plus the publication of a significant single movement (Avie AV2632 avie-records.com). 

The first version of Richard Strauss’ Cello Sonata in F Major Op.6, TrV 115 dates from 1881, but Strauss – still only 19 years old – revised it in 1883 by replacing the original third movement with a completely new finale. It’s a work of youthful exuberance with a profound middle Andante.   

A profound middle movement Andante is also a feature of Grieg’s Cello Sonata in A Minor Op.36, a mature work, the slow movement of which recycles material from an earlier funeral march. Fauré’s Élégie Op.24, possibly intended as the slow movement for a projected sonata, was written in 1880 and published in 1883; it mirrors the previous slow movements in mood.

Croisé plays with a full, warm tone, and Shevchenko’s playing is sensitive and unfailingly musical. The two say that they thought the three pieces would make a wonderful program. They were right.

07 LigetiThe Verona Quartet is in superb form on György Ligeti Complete String Quartets, an album celebrating the centenary of the Hungarian avant-garde composer (Dynamic CDS8010 veronaquartet.com/discography).

Ligeti’s String Quartet No.1 Métamorphoses nocturnes, a continuous single movement of 12 sections was written in 1953-54 during the era of Soviet censorship; it was not premiered until May 1958, after the composer had fled Hungary for Vienna. It’s a fascinating work in its range of sound and style, with Bartók’s influence clearly audible.

String Quartet No.2 was written in 1968 for the LaSalle Quartet, and unlike its predecessor, immediately became part of the string quartet repertoire. The five movements differ widely in pacing, with the fifth unexpectedly fully tonal and melodic.

Ligeti wrote nothing further for string quartet, although there were advanced plans for two additional quartets commissioned by the Arditti and Kronos ensembles. However, he did release Andante and Allegro from 1950, an attempt at accessible music within the Socialist Realism constraints; it ends a terrific CD.

08 Philip Glass MolinariThe ongoing Quatuor Molinari set of Philip Glass Complete String Quartets continues with Volume 2 String Quartets Nos. 5-7, a digital-only release. Volume 3 is planned for 2024, at which point a box set will be issued (ATMA Classique ACD2 4072 atmaclassique.com/en).

The works mark a move away from Glass’searly repetitive patterns to a broader post-minimalist approach, although minimalist influences are never far away. String Quartet No.5 exhibits a more sophisticated musical development, and String Quartet No.6 reflects the composer’s pursuit of a more classical approach. String Quartet No.7, an extensive single movement, was initially presented as a choreographed dance piece. All three quartets were premiered by the Kronos Quartet, in 1992, 2013 and 2014 respectively.

Performances and recording quality are top-notch throughout.

Listen to 'Philip Glass Volume 2 String Quartets Nos. 5-7' Now in the Listening Room

09 Sacconi QuartetThe Sacconi Quartet, Britain’s longest-established string quartet celebrates 21 years with the original membership on an outstanding CD of quartets by Schubert and Beethoven (Orchid Classics ORC100265 sacconi.com/recordings).

Schubert’s String Quartet No.14 in D Minor D810, “Death and the Maiden

 from 1824, when the composer was facing his own mortality, is paired with Beethoven’s String Quartet No.14 in C-sharp Minor Op.131 from 1826, the year before his death. The Op.131 was the last music Schubert heard, days before he died – in 1828.

The quartet members say that they “wanted to make an album of some of the music that means the very most to us, and these two quartets were obvious choices. We have literally lived with them for most of our career.” The Beethoven in particular has been performed from memory in various artistic and theatrical settings, including their “Beethoven in the Dark” immersive performance.

Their familiarity with the works is obvious in quite striking performances, the resonant recording capturing the emotional depth and sensitivity of the playing.

10 Ulysses QuartetThe premise behind Shades of Romani Folklore – works connected by a Romani influence – seems a bit tenuous at first glance, but spirited performances by the Ulysses Quartet certainly justify it (Navona NV6567 navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6567).

The finale of Beethoven’s String Quartet No.4 in C Minor, Op.18 No.4 is described as “rip-roaring,” with a distinct Romani flavour to its rondo theme. The link continues with the world-premiere recording of Paul Frucht’s Rhapsody, a work inspired by the Tzigane Ravel wrote for the Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi that evoked the Romani style.

The most powerful work here is Janáček’s String Quartet No.2, “Intimate Letters”, reflecting his passionate but unrequited feelings for the much younger Kamila Stösslová. In one of his over 700 letters to her, revealed that in his song cycle Diary of One Who Disappeared he had cast her as Zefka, the Roma girl whose forbidden love affair with a young Czech man is the basis of the work. The obsessive passion and raw emotion are beautifully captured by the performers.

Listen to 'Shades of Romani Folklore' Now in the Listening Room

11 Brahms Double Concerto Viotti Violin Concerto No. 22 Dvorák Silent Woods frontcoverWhen violinist Christian Tetzlaff and his sister, cellist Tanja Tetzlaff, decided to record an album in memory of their long-time artistic partner pianist Lars Vogt, who died in September 2022 one particular work was “immediately the right piece” for all concerned: the Double Concerto in A Minor Op.102 by Brahms, one of Vogt’s favourite composers. A superb performance is at the heart of the resulting CD Brahms | Viotti with the Deutsche-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Paavo Järvi (Ondine ODE 1423-2 naxos.com/CatalogueDetail/?id=ODE1423-2).

All concerned found the experience incredibly moving, with Vogt foremost in their minds throughout the recording, and the emotional intensity together with the superb playing makes this a performance for the ages. Brahms wrote the concerto to mend his broken friendship with Joseph Joachim, and the Tetzlaffs’ profound understanding of how the individual movements may relate to what Brahms was trying to say and achieve clearly adds depth to their interpretation. 

In the concerto Brahms quotes from Viotti’s Violin Concerto No.22 in A Minor, a work with early significance in Brahms’ and Joachim’s friendship, and it’s the other major work on the disc. A lovely performance of Dvořák’s Silent Woods Op.68 No.5 for cello and orchestra completes an outstanding CD. 

12 Vivaldi Anna MariaThe Vivaldi Edition, the ambitious project to record all of the music in Vivaldi’s personal collection of autograph manuscripts now in the Italian National Library in Turin reaches volume 71 and volume 11 of the violin series with Vivaldi Concerti per violino XI ‘Per Anna Maria’ with soloist Fabio Bondi leading Europa Galante (naïve OP 7368 vivaldiedition.net).

Anna Maria (1696-1782) was the most famous instrumentalist at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice during Vivaldi’s time there; her own personal repertory manuscript volume contains the solo violin line for 24 Vivaldi concertos, including five otherwise unknown, with alternative reliable sources needed for the complete parts. Of the six concertos here three – in D Major RV207, D Major R229 and E-flat Major RV261 – are preserved in Turin, and two – in E-flat Major RV260 and B-flat Major RV363 “Il corneto da posta” – in Dresden. The Concerto in C Major RV179a is reconstructed from Anna Maria’s volume.

Performances are beautifully judged throughout the disc.

Listen to 'Vivaldi Concerti per violino XI ‘Per Anna Maria’' Now in the Listening Room

13 MorriconiThe idea for the CD Ennio Morricone: Cinema Rarities for violin and string orchestra with Marco Serino as soloist and leader of the Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto came about during the recording of its predecessor Cinema Suites, when the Morricone family sent Serino, the composer’s chosen violinist several rarities they hoped could also be recorded. These works, along with others that Serino rediscovered in his own archives make up the program here (Arcana A554 outhere-music.com/en).

Space restrictions preclude my listing full details of the directors, film titles and years and individual track titles, but the music ranges from Sergio Leone’s 1968 Once Upon a Time in the West to Silvano Agosti’s 2001 The Sleeping Wife. There are three suites named for directors – Agosti, Mauro Bolognini and the Taviani Brothers – plus Four Adagios, chosen by the composer and dedicated to Serino. Arrangements are by Morricone (the majority) or Serino.

The overall mood changes little, but it’s enchanting music, quite beautifully played.

14 Destins TragiquesElvira Misbakhova is the principal viola with the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal and a member of I Musici de Montréal. It’s this latter group under Jean-François Rivest that accompanies her on Destins Tragiques, a CD featuring new versions of music from the 1930s by Prokofiev and Shostakovich (ATMA Classique ACD2 2862 atmaclassique.com/en).

With the composer’s permission, the violist Vadim Borisovsky made 13 arrangements for viola and piano from scenes in Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet Op.64. The Montreal violist and arranger François Vallières has taken seven of these arrangements and composed a new orchestration for strings from the piano part. It’s nicely done but lacks the bite of the original Prokofiev. The viola is not always prominent – by design – and even in the several virtuosic passages tends to be absorbed into the string sound.

Much more effective is the 2006 Fantasy for Viola and Orchestra on Themes from the Opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” by Shostakovich, Op.12 by the Montreal composer Airat Ichmouratov, heard here in Ichmouratov’s own reduction for string orchestra.

15 NocturneLes 9 de Montréal is an ensemble of eight cellos and a double bass founded by cellist and artistic director Vincent Bélanger; their third album, Nocturne is a new digital release (GFN Productions www.les9.ca).

The program is mostly arrangements of classical favourites, with Saint-Saëns’ The Swan, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata theme, Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte, Debussy’s Clair de lune (particularly effective), Fauré’s Après un rêve, Rameau’s Hymne à la nuit and a Chopin Nocturne. Soprano Lyne Fortin joins the group for Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise and La veuve et la lune, a work by Montréal composer Christian Thomas.

As the title suggests, there’s not a great deal of mood change, just a constant flow of mellow cello ensemble playing, nicely arranged, sensitively played and beautifully recorded. All in all, an excellent and appropriate choice for late-night listening. 

Back to top