08 Bach chez MendelssohnBach at the Mendelssohns
Mika Putterman; Jory Vinikour
Analekta AN 2 9532 (analekta.com/en)

Historical flute specialist and music-history researcher Mika Putterman has investigated the musical life and culture of late-18th and early-to-mid-19th-century Berlin and the Mendelssohn family. Her research informs this recording, a re-creation so to speak of a musical soirée at the home of Sarah Levy, Felix Mendelssohn’s great-aunt.

According to the liner notes, “when 19th-century musicians performed Baroque music, they paid little attention to what performance practice norms of the Baroque period might have been and instead used the expressive devices of their day.” Her stated intention in this recording is to explore “new territory, envisioning how the Romantics would have played Bach.” 

The result is a kind of hybrid interpretation of three of the flute sonatas traditionally attributed to J.S. Bach, combining much that sounds like contemporary historically informed Baroque interpretation with moments of Sturm und Drang and others of heart-on-sleeve Romanticism. With the very able collaboration of fortepianist Jory Vinikour, she has put together an altogether convincing performance.

The cornerstone of the whole production is Putterman’s transcription of Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Sonata in F Minor, Op.4, in which the performance practices of the early 19th century make total sense. The extension of these practices into the flute sonatas, odd as it sounds on first listening, actually works! So, kudos to Putterman and Vinikour for opening at least my ears, and hopefully many others, to what might have been the sensibility of a long-lost time.

09 Aliya TuretayevaRomantic Fantasies
Aliya Turetayeva
KNS Classical KNS A/090 (aliyaturetayeva.com)

Schumann was the quintessential Romantic composer – a dreamer and idealist who particularly excelled at short forms such as art songs and piano pieces. Yet his symphonies and larger piano works attest to his proficiency with more extended compositions. This disc, with the young Kazakhstan-born pianist Aliya Turetayeva, portrays Schumann as both miniaturist and as a composer of larger canvases, presenting two of the most renowned pieces of the Romantic period repertoire, the Sonata in G Minor Op.22 and Kreisleriana Op.16.

The piano sonata – his last contribution to the form – was composed between 1830 and 1838 and has long been known for its technical demands. From the outset, it’s clear that Turetayeva is in full command of this daunting repertoire, but in no way is this empty bravura. The first movement is marked So Rasch wie möglich (“as fast as possible”) and while her tempo is brisk, it’s never frenetic, her phrasing carefully articulated. The second-movement Andantino is suitably lyrical and the fourth-movement Rondo: Presto demonstrates a bold confidence.

Schumann’s set Kreisleriana was written in 1838 but thoroughly revised a dozen years later. Inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann, it comprises eight highly contrasting movements. Turetayeva approaches the score with the same thoughtful intelligence, convincingly addressing the various moods throughout, from the gentleness of the fourth movement (Sehr langsam) to the agitated energy of No.7 (Sehr rasch). 

The gently rollicking finale, with its slight sense of the macabre, is never easy to bring off – but Turetayeva handles it adroitly, thus bringing the set, and the disc, to a most satisfying conclusion.

This young artist is on the brink of great success and here’s hoping we’ll hear more from her in the near future.

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10 Brahms RosenbaumBrahms – The Last Piano Pieces, Opp. 117, 118, 119
Victor Rosenbaum
Bridge Records 9545 (bridgerecords.com)

Often, there is a fetishization of the young in music. The prodigy, perhaps particularly so on the piano, presents a familiar trope in the literature of musical biographies, record reviews and concert journalism. It is, of course, easy to see why this is the case. Music performed at the high level of excellence and dedication to craft that classical audiences have grown to expect, takes time... often a lifetime of study. And when someone is stationed at the beginning of their career, rather than the end, the results can be all the more astounding. That said, as artists age, there often comes a sheen of introspective reflection (usually described as musical maturity) to their playing and composing that, while perhaps not as attention-grabbing as their earlier and more precocious work, can be soul-enriching for the attenuated listener. 

Such is the case here on Victor Rosenbaum’s wonderful new Bridge Records recording, Brahms: The Last Piano Pieces Opp. 117, 118, 119, where the acclaimed American pianist and educator mines, with aplomb, the expressive depths of the final pieces written for his own instrument by old man Brahms. The music is typical Brahms, filled with wonderful lyricism of course, but offering a career bookending meditative counterpoint to, say, the virtuosity of his Piano Concertos No. 1 and 2 composed some 35 years earlier. Wonderfully recorded and played with tremendous attention to the subtle details of the work, Rosenbaum simply adds here to his fine reputation as a masterful pianist and interpreter. Even his reading of Opus 118: No. 3, Ballade: Allegro energico, which, as the title suggests, opens with an energetic G-minor clarion call, is handled with appropriate care and does not devolve into grandstanding. Instead, Rosenbaum plays up to the detailed richness of the German composer’s original intentions. As Rosenbaum writes in his self-penned and illuminating liner notes, “he [Brahms] is drawing our attention not to speed but to vigor.” An excellent recording to start 2021!

11 Mariss JansonsMariss Jansons – His Last Concert Live at Carnegie Hall
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
BR Klassik BRK900192 (naxosdirect.com/search/brk900192)

A great loss to the music world, one of the top conductors of our time, a great musical mind and a wonderful human being, Mariss Jansons passed away in December 2019. This concert was his last, November 8 of that year, a recording he regretfully will never hear. 

Jansons, as a baby and being Jewish, was smuggled out of Latvia to the Soviet Union to escape the Nazis: he grew up studying under the legendary Mravinsky in Leningrad and was discovered later by Karajan who invited him to Berlin.

I was lucky to have seen him conduct here in Toronto at Roy Thomson Hall. He did Mahler’s Second Symphony, commanding the vast forces of the TSO and the Mendelssohn Choir to a standing ovation. In the last 16 years he was chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony which he honed to perfection, a world-class ensemble as witnessed by this recording.

Music of Richard Strauss, Four Interludes from the opera Intermezzo, pieces of extraordinary bravura, provide a rousing start and show off the virtuosity of the orchestra. The music is full of spirit and beautifully melodic with a waltz sequence that rivals Der Rosenkavalier, but the harmonies and orchestration are far more adventurous.

What follows is a wonderful, idiomatic and highly personal reading of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. I must admit I’ve never heard it played as beautifully, Carlos Kleiber notwithstanding. From the soft, undulating haupttheme of the first movement through the second movement of pure beauty and the rambunctious, boisterous Scherzo (the first and only real scherzo Brahms ever wrote in a symphony) we arrive at the monumental, unorthodox Passacaglia with 30 variations on an eight-note ground bass, and a standing ovation. Then the encore, Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No.5, the famous one, played with great gusto ends the concert. A recording to treasure.

There are two 2CD sets of the complete Mozart violin concertos this month, one of which is simply unique.

01 Mozarts ViolinOn Mozart’s Violin: The Complete Violin Concertos violinist Christoph Koncz and Les Musiciens du Louvre, one of Europe’s leading period-instrument ensembles perform the concertos with Koncz – astonishingly – playing Mozart’s own violin (Sony Classical G010004353645E sonyclassical.lnk.to/Koncz_MozartsViolinPR).

The violin, made in the early 1700s by Klotz of Mittenwald after a Jacob Steiner model, was played by Mozart while he was concertmaster in the Salzburg Hofkapelle from 1769. It was entrusted to his sister Maria Anna (Nannerl) when he moved to Vienna in 1781. The concertos date from 1773-75, so would have been played on this instrument; indeed, Koncz makes a strong case for the violin’s particular sound clearly influencing the compositions. The instrument passed through various owners – all listed in the booklet notes – before being acquired by the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation in 1955. Remarkably, it has retained its original Baroque form, and not suffered any alterations.

Koncz clearly understood and appreciated the remarkable privilege accorded him by this recording project, and he responded with absolutely faultless performances. The violin has a sweet, clear sound, and Koncz plays it beautifully, with a tasteful use of vibrato and with warmth and feeling. Mozart left no cadenzas – these would have been improvised at the time – and Koncz supplies his own, after studying the extant cadenzas for the piano concertos and immersing himself in the style of Mozart’s Salzburg years. Les Musiciens du Louvre, the first ensemble to perform Mozart on period instruments at the Salzburg Festival, provides the perfect accompaniment.

It’s not simply the emotional and personal impact of the instrument that makes this set so special; the performances themselves, recorded in the Salzburg Mozarteum, are technically and musically superb in what is a quite stunning release.

If I could own only one set of the Mozart violin concertos, this would be it.

02 Mozart Baiba SkrideNormally, any release by the outstanding Latvian violinist Baiba Skride would likely be topping my list, but this time her Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos.1-5 with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra under Eivind Aadland (also included are the Adagio in E Major K261 and the two Rondos in B-flat K269 and C Major K373) (Orfeo C997201 naxosdirect.com/search/orf-c997201.) is up against the Koncz set.

Skride draws a beautiful sound from the Yfrah Neaman Stradivarius violin that she plays on extended loan, with a clear tone and an effortless grace and warmth. Like Koncz, Skride performs her own cadenzas to great effect. 

There’s never a hint of an issue with Skride’s playing in beautifully judged and finely nuanced modern-instrument performances, but while there’s elegance and depth in the orchestral playing, their recorded sound seems less than ideal; they seem set fairly far back with a particularly over-heavy bass line that often muddies the texture.

03 Wan Richard Hamelin BeethovenThe ongoing Analekta series of the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas with violinist Andrew Wan and pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin continues with the second volume, this time featuring the three Op.12 Sonatas – No.1 in D Major, No.2 in A Major and No.3 in E-flat Major – and the “Spring” Sonata, No.5 in F Major Op.24 (AN 2 8795 analekta.com). Volume One was reviewed here in December 2018.

The Op.12 sonatas from 1797/98 were the first to be written and show the two instruments on an equal footing despite the customary “piano and violin” designation. They are joyful works – only one movement is in a minor key – and, while formally conventional, are imaginative and bright in texture. A pure delight from start to finish, the performances here are of the same high standard as on the earlier volume of a series that continues to impress.

04 Beethoven Dover QuartetThe Dover Quartet swept the board at the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition, the first prize announcement noting that they “consistently demonstrated an exceptional level of maturity, poise and artistry.” Add five or six years of performance experience to that judgement and you will have a good idea of the exceptionally high standard of their new release (2CDs priced as a single) Beethoven Complete String Quartets Volume 1 The Opus 18 Quartets (Cedille CDR 90000 198 naxosdirect.com/search/cdr+198).

The Dover Quartet has performed the complete Beethoven quartet cycle in recital several times, the Montreal Chamber Music Festival performances being reviewed as a “musically transformative” event. The players have waited until they felt completely comfortable with their interpretations before committing them to disc, the recordings here being made in late 2018 and late 2019.

Although influenced by Haydn and Mozart, the Op.18 quartets show Beethoven clearly moving forward on his own path. The Dover members refer to them as playful and conversational and full of dramatic contrasts of mood and character, qualities which all shine through in performances of conviction and depth. This promises to be an outstanding set.

05 Nathan MeltzerThere’s a fascinating story behind Nathan Meltzer: To Roman Totenberg, the debut CD by the 20-year-old Austrian violinist, who has studied at Juilliard since he was 13, and pianist Rohan De Silva (Champs Hill Records CHRCD161 nathanmeltzer.com/cds). Totenberg’s 1734 Ames Stradivarius violin was stolen after his 1980 recital at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts and was not recovered until 2015, three years after Totenberg’s death at 101. Professionally restored and consequently sold by Totenberg’s daughters, the violin has been on loan to Meltzer since October 2018.

All the music on this CD was performed by Meltzer at a “Homecoming” concert at that same Longy School in November 2019, with Totenberg’s three daughters present. The pieces were all favourites of Totenberg, who recorded two of them – the Franck and the Bartók – on this very violin. It’s certainly a glorious instrument. Meltzer describes it as dark and resonant with a warm tone in every register, but there’s also a real brilliance in the high register.

Ably supported by De Silva, Meltzer is quite superb in a program that includes Bach’s violin and keyboard Sonata No.3 in E Major BWV1016, Franck’s Sonata in A Major, Szymanowski’s La Fontaine d’Arethuse from his Mythes Op.30, Bartók’s Rhapsody No.1 and Wieniawski’s Polonaise de Concert in D Major Op.4.

It’s an outstanding debut recording from a prodigiously talented player with an admirable sense of history.

06 Schumann SchubertFragment, the new Schumann Quartet CD of music by Franz Schubert, is part of their return to regular activity after the coronavirus hiatus, the ensemble having already played several concerts in July and August (Berlin Classics 030141OBC schumannquartett.de/eng/discography).

The three quartets here were chosen to show how Schubert evolved over the years, with failure a part of that development. The String Quartet No.6 D74 from 1813, when Schubert was just 16, shows a composer trying to find his own style. What was intended to become the String Quartet No.2 in C Minor in 1820 was apparently abandoned and is now known as the Quartettsatz D703, an Allegro assai first movement followed by an Andante fragment in which the first violin simply fades away after 40 bars. It is included here, giving the CD its title, and the final notes and ensuing silence seem to lead perfectly into the start of the String Quartet No.13 D804, the “Rosamunde,” a large-scale work that reflected Schubert’s approach to the symphony by way of chamber music.

Performances throughout are quite superb, with a lovely balance that allows all voices to be clearly heard, outstanding ensemble work, terrific dynamics and an obvious emotional connection with the music.

In 1938 the Austrian composer Eric Zeisl (1905-59) fled Vienna for Paris, where he was befriended by Darius Milhaud. Milhaud helped Zeisl’s family move to Paris and subsequently to Los Angeles in 1939, Milhaud himself following to Oakland, California in 1940. The two remained close friends.

07 Paris Los AngelesThe French violinist Ambroise Aubrun discovered Zeisl’s music during his doctoral research at the University of California in Los Angeles, and his new album Paris <> Los Angeles with pianist Steven Vanhauwaert depicts the composers’ friendship as well as revisiting a Mozart sonata that apparently fascinated Zeisl (Editions Hortus 189 ambroiseaubrun.com).

Two short pieces by Zeisl open and close the disc: Menuchim’s Song (1939) from the incomplete opera Job and the world-premiere recording of the lyrical Zigeunerweise, the first movement from the unpublished 1919 Suite for Violin and Piano Op.2 that Aubrun discovered in the Zeisl Collection at the university. The other Zeisl work is his substantial three-movement Brandeis Sonata from 1949, named for the California Institute where Zeisl was composer-in-residence.

Milhaud is represented by his four-movement Violin Sonata No.2 from 1917, a quite lovely work. The Mozart is the Violin Sonata No.21 in E Minor K304. Written in 1778 during the Paris visit that saw the death of his mother, it is his only minor key violin sonata as well as his only instrumental work in that key.

There’s excellent playing throughout a terrific CD, with the Mozart in particular a beautifully judged reading – clean and nuanced, with a finely balanced emotional sensitivity.

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08 Rivka Romance webViola Romance is the new 2CD set from violist Rivka Golani, accompanied by pianist Zsuzsa Kollár. It’s a collection of 35 transcriptions of works originally for violin and piano, mostly arranged and revised for viola and piano by Golani (Hungaroton 32811-12 hungarotonmusic.com).

Fritz Kreisler and Edward Elgar dominate CD1, with nine Kreisler originals and four Kreisler arrangements of single pieces by Chaminade, Granados, Tchaikovsky and Gluck. Eight Elgar tracks complete the disc.

Kreisler’s presence is also felt on CD2 with six arrangements: five pieces by Dvořák to open and Eduard Gärtner’s Aus Wien as the final track. In between are three pieces by František Drdla, two Brahms/Joachim Hungarian Dances, Jenö Hubay’s Bolero and two Leopold Auer transcriptions of works by Robert Schumann.

The Kreisler influence is no accident, the interpretations here having been inspired by Golani’s collaboration with Kreisler’s longtime accompanist Franz Rupp, who died in 1992; his final performance was with Golani in 1985.

Most of these short pieces (27 are under four minutes) are well-suited to the darker tone of the viola, although Golani’s generally wide and fairly slow vibrato tends to reduce the warmth at times. Still, as you would expect, there’s much fine playing here.

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09 Glass HouriThe New York-based Irish violinist Gregory Harrington founded the Estile Records label in 2006 (gregoryharrington.com), and has built a reputation for successfully transforming movie scores, jazz, rock and pop music into brand new violin concert pieces. His new CD Glass Hour with the Janáček Philharmonic under Mark Shapiro features music by Philip Glass, including the world-premiere recording of Harrington’s The Hours Suite, his own attractive arrangement of music from the 2002 Oscar-nominated Glass score for the movie The Hours. The three movements – Morning Passages, The Poet Acts and The Hours – were respectively tracks 2, 1 and 14 on the soundtrack album, and as the timings are almost identical they would appear to be straight transcriptions.

Glass’ Violin Concerto No.2 “American Four Seasons, scored for strings and synthesizer, is the other work on the CD. Glass left the four movements untitled, with a solo Prologue and three numbered Songs between the movements acting as violin cadenzas. There’s a lovely feel to the slower sections in particular, although there are one or two moments in the fast perpetual motion passages where the intonation feels a bit insecure.

Listen to 'Glass Hour' Now in the Listening Room

01 Corellis BandCorelli’s Band – Violin Sonatas
Augusta McKay Lodge; Various Artists
Naxos 8.574239 (naxosdirect.com/search/747313423972)

The accomplished young Baroque violinist Augusta McKay Lodge brings her considerable musical elegance and strong personality to bear in this fascinating program of early 18th-century sonatas for violin and continuo. We hear three sonatas by Giovanni Mossi and two by Giovanni Stefano Carbonelli. Both Mossi and Carbonelli were students and/or followers of Arcangelo Corelli and indeed their works owe much to the great master, both in content and structure. The lone Corelli work on the disc is one of his greatest, the Sonata Op.5, No.3 in C Major, and the performance is sensational, a great combination of fire, precision and risk-taking. This is playing of great clarity that brings out the harmonic tension, melodic beauty and rhythmic interest in Corelli’s music.

Of the three Mossi sonatas, the two from his early Op.1 collection from 1716 are a real revelation. They’re technically challenging with a refreshing originality. The later 1733 sonata of his which opens the disc is somewhat more square and uninteresting. While obviously talented, Carbonelli seemed to have dabbled in music, possibly studying with Corelli and having known Vivaldi, who named one of his sonatas – Il Carbonelli – after him. His only published music – before he took up work as a supplier of wine to the English court – was a set of sonatas published in 1729. The two represented here are full of interest and great poignancy. 

 The continuo band is a powerhouse and provides strong support to Lodge, who is clearly emerging as one of the most eloquent and interesting Baroque violinists around.

04 Classical Piano Concerto Cramer webJohann Baptist Cramer – Piano Concertos 1, 3 & 6
Howard Shelley; London Mozart Players
Hyperion CDA68302 (hyperion-records.co.uk)

Apart from his piano Etudes Op.84 – for many years a staple in piano pedagogy – the name Johann Baptist Cramer is not all that well known today. A year after his birth in Mannheim in 1771, his father – himself a renowned violinist and conductor – moved the family to London to take advantage of the thriving musical life there. The move was clearly a fortuitous one, for over the course of his long lifetime, Cramer earned a reputation as a virtuoso soloist, composer and pedagogue. In light of his sizable output, he is definitely a composer worth re-exploring and who better to do it than the London Mozart Players with Howard Shelley both directing and performing three piano concertos on this Hyperion recording, the sixth in the Classical Piano series.

The Concertos No.1 and 3 in in E-flat and D Major respectively, were completed in the 1790s and stylistically straddle the classical and Romantic periods. While both were perhaps written with an eye to demonstrating Cramer’s technical prowess, the musical style is gracious and spirited, further enhanced by Shelley’s technically flawless performance and the LMP’s solid accompaniment.

The Concerto No.6 dates from around 1813. By that time, Beethoven had completed his seventh symphony and Wellington’s Victory. Yet any traces of the new Romantic spirit in this concerto are marginal – clearly Cramer wasn’t about to abandon a means of expression that had successfully served his purpose. Once again, Shelley and the LMP comprise a convivial pairing, particularly in the buoyant Rondo finale which brings the concerto and the disc to a satisfying conclusion.

So a hearty bravo to Howard Shelley and the LMP for once again shedding light on some fine music that might otherwise have been overlooked. As always, we can look forward to further additions to the series.

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