04 Beethoven Concertos HoughBeethoven – The Piano Concertos
Stephen Hough; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Hannu Lintu
Hyperion CDA68291/3 (hyperion-records.co.uk)

Performing – and recording – the complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano concertos is a remarkable achievement for any pianist, at any stage in their creative life. But a recent release from Hyperion Records offers a singular synthesis of extraordinary solo playing, exceptional conducting and exquisite orchestral performance. Breathing vibrant, surprising avidity into all of this is Stephen Hough, with his customary elan. Hough is a tireless artist, devoted to his craft and to the betterment of our 21st-century musical world. At this autumnal stage in his career, he is beloved and with good reason: his inheritance is of that rare and reverent keyboard tradition dating back to Beethoven’s time. 

Presumably, the British pianist has been performing these piano concertos since his youth and yet, much of the disc’s material suggests a re-envisioned approach, a wide-eyed zeal for such canonic works, always tempered, deferential and selfless. Hough brings his experience to bear: such thrilling artistry glistens through every last note – and silence – on the record. We the listeners are gladdened beneficiaries.

Highlights include both final movements of the Second Concerto in B-flat Major, Op.19 and the Fifth (“Emperor”) in E-flat Major, Op.73, where Hough’s superb taste and jovial character are on full display; he relishes such jauntiness with embellishments and good-natured glee. (In fact, he composed his own cadenza for the first movement of the second concerto.) Also of remarkable note is the Allegro moderato (first movement) of the Concerto No.4 in G Major, Op.58. Hough’s carefully synchronized reading of this music is a departure from the norm and a welcome one at that! His lyrical lines skip and soar, caper and cajole with earnest delight. After all, isn’t this music at once both so very humane and cosmic?

Admirably, Stephen Hough is donating 100 percent of sales from this new album to the charity Help Musicians. An active and noted writer, he recently released an anthology of essays, Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More (2019). It is published by Faber & Faber in the UK and by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in North America.

05 Marc Andr Hamelin Liszt Thalberg Opera transcriptions fantasiesLiszt; Thalberg – Opera transcriptions and fantasies
Marc-André Hamelin
Hyperion CDA86320 (hyperion-records.co.uk)

This remarkable new issue from Hyperion records could be subtitled “Tribute to Italian Opera” because all four masters, Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini and Verdi are well represented. In the heyday of the Second Empire, Paris was the centre of the universe for presenting grand opera and these composers had success after success, conquering the public with beautiful melodies. There were also some of the greatest pianists around who wrote paraphrases or fantasies inspired by these melodies and thereby spread the wealth, making these operas ever more popular.

Case in point: the rousing tune Suoni la tromba e intrepido from Bellini’s I Puritani was so popular that a certain countess invited some of the best pianists of Paris to compose and perform variations on it, asking Liszt to organize and contribute to the contest. Some of the other invitees were Chopin, Czerny and Sigismund Thalberg (Liszt’s principal rival in virtuoso pianism). The contest featured rapid alternations of figuration, headlong scales in thirds for one hand or two and hair-raising leaps and many other virtuoso technical feats in each participant’s unique style. Liszt cleverly prepares the ground so the theme emerges gradually from an ominous (minor key) mood into the major key glorious fortissimo theme. He also concludes the set with his own Molto Vivace quasi prestissimo and wins the contest easily.

Four more paraphrases follow: from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale (Thalberg), Verdi’s Ernani (Liszt), Rossini’s Moïse in Egitto (Thalberg) and Bellini’s Norma (Liszt) performed with astounding virtuosity and true Romantic abandon by Marc-André Hamelin. The Canadian pianist of world renown performs on a Steinway grand and let me assure you it will sound as if the piano were in your living room.

06 Yaroslav Senyshyn Senyshyn Plays Chopin & Liszt Concertos
Yaroslav Senyshyn; Czech National Symphony Orchestra; Oliver von Dohnányi
Albany Records TROY1777 (albanyrecords.com)

Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt are two of the great pianistic giants of the 19th century. Their contributions to the solo and concerto genres redefined the limits of writing and performing for the piano, resulting in almost 150 years of unbroken popularity and affection from both artists and audiences alike. This disc of Chopin and Liszt concertos features the “Number Twos:” the former’s Concerto No.2 in F Minor, and the latter’s Concerto No.2 in A Major, both interpreted by Canadian pianist and Simon Fraser University professor Yaroslav Senyshyn, with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra.

Chopin and Liszt were masters of harmonic and melodic craftsmanship, embracing and extending the reaches of chromaticism and lyricism to create strikingly beautiful material, such as that contained on this recording. Both concertos are lush and expressive – Romantic in the best possible way – requiring a depth of pathos and flash of dexterity from both Senyshyn and his orchestral colleagues, challenges that are ably and satisfyingly met. 

This expressionistic sentimentality, however triumphant or angst-filled, however loud or soft, is fulfilled within defined limits; these are not the thunderous, string-breaking interpretations that can benefit Prokofiev and Ustvolskaya, but rather finer approaches that suit these more delicate pieces. Even when the Liszt concerto threatens to erupt beyond its natural limits, it is held in place by a desire for beauty that permeates every moment of these marvellous essays in concerto form.

While the material is unlikely to be new to many familiar with the piano repertory, this disc is nonetheless highly recommended for its pure, unfiltered perspective of these much-loved concerti. The pursuit of artistic truth over vapid virtuosity and its soul-stirring sincerity make this recording a fine addition to every piano-lover’s collection.

Listen to 'Senyshyn Plays Chopin & Liszt Concertos' Now in the Listening Room

07 Martina Filjak LisztLight & Darkness – Works by Franz Liszt
Martina Filjak
Profil Edition Hanssler PH18074 (smarturl.it/light-darkness)

It isn’t often that you come across a recording so good that you not only want to recommend it to everyone but also gift copies to everyone you meet. The Croatian pianist Martina Filjak’s Light & Darkness – Works by Franz Liszt is one of these discs. Not only does her performance rise to the demanding level of Liszt’s pianism, but in the programming of the repertoire you will find a challenging attempt to paint a vivid picture of Liszt’s multifaceted character and personality at the heart of which was an unbridled virtuoso genius. Liszt’s attraction to Palestrina and early polyphony, and the extraordinary opulence of Ottoman Empire culture is well-documented here as is his attraction to spirituality and asceticism later in life.

To remain true to all of the above and interpret the often diabolical intricacies of Liszt’s music requires uncommon virtuosity and wisdom. Filjak has both qualities in spades. The young pianist has the technical prowess to deal with Liszt’s pyrotechnics and yet knows how to enter the introspective core of Miserere d’après Palestrina – one of a set of ten works based on the poems of Alphonse de Lamartine – and the Ballade No.2 in B Minor. Her revelation of the mesmerizing range of tones of Deux Légendes is brilliant. Filjak emerges as a complete Lisztian, turning what in other hands sounds merely exhibitionistic into a discursive stream of consciousness of the highest order.

08 Rimsky KorsakovRimsky-Korsakov – Capriccio Espagnol; Russian Easter Festival Overture; Scheherazade
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra; Vasily Petrenko
LAWO LWC1198 (naxosdirect.com)

Some years ago, the owner of a new record company asked an experienced A&R man, “How do you know what to make?” The answer? “Look for the composition that has the most recordings and make one more.” It seems that advice is still being heeded, not only in repertoire but also with conductors.

Three so often recorded staples are given new life in these performances directed by Vasily Petrenko who is not to be confused with the Petrenko in Berlin, Kirill. Vasily has been conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra since 2009 and conducts and records with other orchestras earning enthusiastic reviews. He now has 52 CDs out there, including 16 devoted to Shostakovich.  

The immediate exuberance of the Alborada opening of Capriccio Espagnol is a real attention-getter and sets the level of enthusiasm expected from the orchestra throughout the program. The Russian Easter Festival moves from Saturday’s religious zeal to Easter Sunday’s celebrations. I certainly did not expect to linger on any passages in Scheherazade and yet listening to this familiar favourite afresh was an unexpected pleasure. This finely detailed performance demonstrates why Rimsky-Korsakov was regarded by his peers as Russia’s supreme orchestrator.

As to be expected, the sound is state of the art.

09 Mahler 2 DudamelMahler – Symphony No.2 “Resurrection”
Chen Reiss; Tamara Mumford; Münchner Philharmoniker; Gustavo Dudamel
Unitel Edition 802808 (naxosdirect.com)

Filmed in Barcelona’s incredibly ornate Palau de la Música Catalana, this DVD commemorates a singular performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony presented on June 27, 2019. Mahler envisioned this massive work as a sequel to his first symphony, though it took an unusually long time by his standards to complete. It opens with an epic funeral march, originally a freestanding tone poem titled Totenfeier (Funeral Rites) from 1888. Following a pause (Mahler stipulated a seldom observed five full minutes), the lighter second and third movements provide a striking contrast to the extreme tension of what has gone before; the second is a genial, folksy Ländler while the third is a darkly ironic Scherzo. Dudamel’s direction here is stylish, supple and very Viennese. Things take a truly cosmic turn in the finale of the work (conceived in 1894) with the appearance of mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford introducing her emotive Ulricht vocal solo, setting the stage for a truly cataclysmic conclusion which storms the gates of heaven itself in a riveting performance featuring the multiple choirs (situated some three stories above the orchestra on either side of a sadly non-functioning organ), thunderous brass passages both on stage and off and the soaring exhortations of soprano Chen Reiss, all united in a thrilling promise of a life beyond death. 

The crack video team employs a phalanx of six cameras, with many shots resorting to extreme close-ups, as the stage is crammed with over 100 musicians and an audience of some 2,000 rapt souls in attendance. The sound is quite vibrant owing to the many ceramic and glass surfaces of the venue. The Munich Philharmonic plays tremendously well and, most impressively, Dudamel conducts the entire 90-minute performance from memory! It’s quite the occasion, and a celebration that we shall not likely see again for quite some time.

10 SOLERIANASoleriana – Joaquín Rodrigo Chamber Orchestra Works
Orquesta de la Comunidad Valenciana; Joan Enric Lluna
IBS Classical IBS-82020 (ibsclassical.es)

Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999) was without question one of Spain’s most prolific 20th-century composers, and rather ironically, aside from his international hit Concierto de Aranjuez, much of his work, including a dozen other concertos and over 170 additional compositions, remains largely unknown. The title of the CD is Soleriana – not only the title of the first work represented, but also a noun of gravitas profundo, one used frequently by Rodrigo to describe “purity of the Spanish cultural heritage, undiluted by European influence.” Although Rodrigo was closely identified with European neo-classicism of the 1930s, he imbued his works with many indigenous elements of traditional Spanish forms, particularly dances. This recording presents works composed between 1926 and 1953, and is performed by the noted Orquesta de la Comunidad Valenciana, under the skilled baton of Joan Enric Lluna, The exquisite recorded performance took place in front of an enraptured audience at the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia. 

The title work is comprised of Entrada, where tender bassoons and oboes are joined by complex Baroque patterns utilizing all the colours of the ensemble; the regal, stirring Fandango; Tourbillon with its superb use of vigorous, passion-filled and insistent cellos and basses; and Pastoral, which is almost spiritual in its musical purity. Imagery of stunning, natural sites is embedded in the music, and the final movement, Passepied features delicious entanglements of strings and woodwinds.

Two additional pieces are both breathtakingly beautiful celebrations of musical dance motifs and structure: Tres Viejos Aires de Danza and the closing, Zarabanda Lejana y Villancico. This fresh, invigorating and masterfully performed project is both an acknowledgment of an overlooked artist and a marvelous celebration of Spanish culture.

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