13 Things In PairsThings in Pairs
Audrey Wright; Yundu Wang
Navona Records NV6392 (navonarecords.com) 

Things in Pairs is an album that captures a listener’s heart from the very first note. Not only is it following a clever concept of pairing music from across five centuries in a way that is both exciting and meaningful, but it also features performances by violinist Audrey Wright and pianist Yundy Wang that are beaming with passion and artistry.  

It is easy to hear the musical narrative here and appreciate the connection between the compositions. Coupling Biber’s Passacaglia for Solo Violin with Balancing on the Edge of Shadows by contemporary composer Rain Worthington is simply splendid. Biber and Worthington, separated by centuries of musical legacy, treat the violin as the most precious voice and there is a deep sonority running throughout, a shared melancholy that underlies the subtle tension underneath the beautiful melodies. Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ Sonata for Two Violins in B-flat Major and Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, on the other hand, offer a juxtaposition of lightness and darkness in a way that emphasizes the heart of each composition. Wright, who plays both violin parts in the sonata, is equally good in brilliant passages and lightheartedness of Bologne’s music as she is in conveying the power of Fratres. Capturing the fleeting line between a moment and eternity, and opposing forces within oneself, the violin/piano version of Fratres is further enhanced by the beautiful acoustics on this recording. Beethoven’s Sonata No.10 in G Major ties all the pieces together in an elegant sway of music ideas.

14 Light in a Time of DarknessLight in a Time of Darkness
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta
Beau Fleuve Records 605996-998579 (bpo.org)

When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in early 2020, arts organizations throughout the world demonstrated their extraordinary determination and resilience as they found ways to continue practising their craft and bringing music to their audiences, even if in a different format than before. Light in a Time of Darkness features works recorded live in Buffalo in 2020 and 2021 as part of the BPO OnDemand series, streamed to audiences during the height of the pandemic.

This disc is a journey through countries, eras and styles, as its contents encompass everything from Bach to the premiere of a new work by composer Ulysses Kay. There is a risk, in this time of hyper-specialization, that such a broad approach might result in everything sounding too similar, with not enough period-appropriate precision to pacify everyone. For those who prefer the lean, agile, period-instrument approach, for example, the Bach and Haydn selections will likely come across as rather big and bulky, lacking the finesse afforded by earlier instruments.

Where Light In A Time Of Darkness is most convincing is in the lush, broad textures afforded by Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and the Kay Pietà, a work of richness and depth that features some beautiful moments for the strings and a striking solo for English horn.

A testament to the resiliency and innovativeness found in so many organizations over the past two years, Light in a Time of Darkness is an eclectic and worthwhile release demonstrating the excellence of the Buffalo Philharmonic and conductor JoAnn Falletta.

16 Poulenc Complete Chamber MusicPoulenc – Complete Chamber Music
Various Artists
Naxos 8.505258 (naxosdirect.com/search/8505258)

Having recently received a treasure, in the form of digital sound files, I am compelled to offer the following advice: buy this collection. An epochal recording, The Complete Chamber Works of Francis Poulenc is performed by a cadre of young and insanely able French musicians; nowhere else will you ever need to turn for inspiration or solace, nor for useful historic information about Poulenc, his thoughts and the context of the pieces.  

The performances, grouped onto the discs in no immediately discernible order, remind us of how often Poulenc would reuse similar tropes, thrown into relief against such remarkable harmonic language. The three solo woodwind sonatas sound strangely similar, as sibling pieces perhaps, yet still strike their individual poses and stand distinct. 

Disc one opens with an old friend, the Sextuor for Piano and Woodwind Quintet. Nothing wrong with leading from strength, and this is such a strong performance by all. Absolutely fearless in their tempo choices, as technically clean as French wind players are known to be, these six bring the notes leaping off the page. Poulenc, in his secular heaven, must be pleased to know he still speaks to and through young guns like these. The eloquence of phrasing in this one piece alone is reason enough to acquire the collection. But wait! There’s more.

Of course there’s more! Included are the early works, when Poulenc was 19 or 20 years old, at the end of WWI. Having tried to tackle two of these (Duo for Two Clarinets, and Duo for Clarinet and Bassoon) when I was a similar age, I now forgive the youngster his early austerity. You hear evidence of his admiration for Stravinsky more than his love of the music hall. He seemed to celebrate jagged lines and impossibly long phrases. But at least he published these! He discarded two earlier versions of his violin sonata before allowing the one played here by Graf Mourja.

It’s pointless to select a favourite piece or performer; there is beyond enough to please every ear. The flute playing of Philippe Bernold is bright and crisp, and I forgive his tendency to reach just above the piano pitch. He also performs on recorder in the charming Villanelle. Hervé Joulain makes short work of the devilishly tough French horn writing in the Sextuor. All of the wind playing is exceptionally good. 

The project owes much to consistently excellent piano playing by Alexandre Tharaud, who performs on no fewer than 15 of the selections, if my count is correct. That’s just beyond imagining. In fact there are only six pieces scattered across the five discs that do not feature Tharaud. These are the song cycles and theatre pieces that use voice accompanied by small instrumental ensembles. Among these is the charming Story of Babar, offered in both the original French and the translated English text. Both narrators are children, (12-year-old François Mouzaya, and 13-year-old Natasha Emerson), who seem equally professional.

For choral fans, there is disc four. Poulenc’s poetry settings themselves are every bit as divergent as the switches in mood I find so beguiling. La Balle Masqué, Cantate Profane sur les poèmes de Max Jacob, makes merry Dadaist hay. Baritone Franck Leguérinel clearly propels the absurdist texts with a powerful controlled voice. He shares the disc with tenor Jean Delescluse. 

Oh, one needn’t carp, but the recording values are uneven. One wonders with the size of the project how many different venues were used, and how many different engineers and producers worked on it.

01 Quatuor SaguenayQuatuor Saguenay (formerly Quatuor Alcan) celebrates its 33rd anniversary this year, and while three of the members have been together for almost 30 years, the new CD Mendelssohn – Ravel – Sollima is the first recording with first violinist Marie Bégin (ATMA ACD2 2846 atmaclassique.com/en).

The ensemble says that Bégin brings freshness and a colour to the project that particularly suits the two major works on the CD, Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E Minor, Op.44 No.2 and the Ravel String Quartet in F Major. Certainly the former is bursting with life and the latter full of shimmering warmth in lovely performances.

Federico II, the first movement from Italian composer Giovanni Sollima’s Viaggio in Italia closes the disc. Written in 2000, its percussive rhythms and bursting energy provide a perfect finale.

02 MeteoresThe Montreal classical guitarist Jasmin Lacasse Roy recorded, mixed and produced his self-issued CD Météores (fanlink.to/meteores), an album he describes as “an eclectic homage to a neighbourhood that deeply inspires me with its laid-back atmosphere imbued with artistic energy – Montreal’s Mile End district.” The title comes from his desire to have each piece “shine like a meteor.”

The ten short pieces are not literal depictions of scenes or events, but impressions (Roy wanted an album that “sounds like an impressionist painting”), and they’re terrific, displaying great imagination, technical skill and virtuosity. The whimsical titles include Cast iron rhapsody, Impétuositeration, The nostalgic chronicles of count Rachmanula, Mile End Winter and Midnight disco lounge.

Roy can write great melodies and hooks as well as challenging tours de force, all of it beautifully recorded in a delightful CD. 

03 Alan Rinehart Sylvius Leopold WeissOn Sylvius Leopold Weiss Baroque Lute Works the Canadian guitarist Alan Rinehart plays selections from the Moscow and London manuscripts, transcribed by him from original tablature for 11 or 13 course lute (Ravello Records RR8056 ravellorecords.com/catalog/rr8056).

Rinehart feels that Weiss’ lute music was overshadowed by keyboard music, especially that of his direct contemporary J.S. Bach, and consequently under appreciated, and the recital here certainly supports that view. The three major works, all with five to seven dance movements, are the Partita in A Minor, the Partita in G Major and the Suite in D Major. An Allegro in E Minor, a Fantasia, the Tombeau sur la mort de M’Comte de Logy, a Gallanterie and a Minuet & Trio complete the disc.

“Travelling bass lines, intricate melodies, and pleasant harmony,” say the booklet notes. Add clean, stylish playing and you have a top-level CD.

Listen to 'Sylvius Leopold Weiss Baroque Lute Works' Now in the Listening Room

04 Pascal Valois 1840Montreal guitarist Pascal Valois continues his exploration of the guitar during the Romantic era with his new CD Vienna 1840 – Romantic Viennese Music (Analekta AN 2 9197 analekta.com/en).

Valois employs period-appropriate ornamentation, stylistic practices and improvisation in his playing, and for this recording aimed to rediscover the expressive mannerisms widely used in the German Romantic period.

Two of the Six Preludes Op.46 from 1840 by Emilia Giuliani-Guglielmi – the daughter of Mauro Giuliani – open the disc. The Hungarian guitar virtuoso Johann Kaspar Mertz is represented by five selections from his Barden-Klänge Op.13, his Hungarian Fantasy No.1 Op.65 and his arrangement of Schubert’s song Ständchen. Giulio Regondi’s Nocturne “Rêverie” Op.19, with its demanding tremolo work completes the CD.

Valois plays a 1987 Gary Southwell replica of an 1830 Viennese guitar by Johann Georg Stauffer.

05 Zimmerman BachViolinist Frank Peter Zimmermann has been recording for four decades, but has never included the Bach solo works. With “great respect for the task at hand” his new CD J.S. Bach Sonatas & Partitas Vol.1 begins to rectify that, and boy, was it ever worth the wait (BIS-2577 bis.se).

The three works here are the Sonata No.2 in A Minor BWV1003, the Partita No.2 in D Minor BWV1004 and the Partita No.3 in E Major BWV1006, and the performances are simply outstanding. Zimmermann is faultless technically, with never a hint of anything less than supreme control and artistry. There’s great clarity of line through the multiple-stopping, added ornamentation in the slow movement repeats and an intelligent approach to tempos.

A spacious, resonant recording ambience adds to a superb release.

06 From Brighton to BrooklynThe outstanding American violinist Elena Urioste and her English pianist husband Tom Poster follow their superb Jukebox Album release with From Brighton to Brooklyn, another CD overflowing with absolute gems and sumptuous playing that explores composer connections (sometimes somewhat tenuous) with the two cities from their respective countries (Chandos CHAN 20248 naxosdirect.com/items/from-brighton-to-brooklyn-572573).

Paul Schoenfeld’s terrific Four Souvenirs opens the disc with a bang. Three lovely short pieces – Cradle Song, Romanze and Heart’s Ease – by Frank Bridge, who was born in Brighton and conducted in New York – are here, as are the Three Pieces from Suite Op.6 by his student Benjamin Britten, who was president of the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra.

Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn; his Two Pieces date from 1926. Also included are Amy Beach’s Three Compositions Op.40, Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade in C Minor Op.73 and the absolutely charming – and very Kreisler-ish – Elfentanz by Florence Price.

Once again, this superb duo enchants the listener from start to finish of another gorgeous CD.

07 Heritage AyishaHeritage is the debut CD by the young Dominican violinist Aisha Syed Castro, with pianist Martin Labazevitch (Divine Arts DDA25229 divineartrecords.com/recording/heritage). 

Recorded in England in April 2019, it’s an album of works with primarily American and Latino roots, including Una Primavera para el Mundo by the Dominican composer Rafael Solano in his own arrangement made specifically for this recording. There are three numbers from Bernstein’s West Side Story, tangos by Piazzolla (Oblivion), Carlos Gardel (Por Una Cabeza) and Albéniz (España Op.165 No.2), the latter arranged by Kreisler, who also arranged the Granados Spanish Dance No.5 and the Danse Orientale from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade.

William Grant Still’s Suite for Violin and Piano, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Deep River and Aisha’s Dance from Khachaturian’s Gayaneh ballet fill out a captivating program that ends with Aisha’s Prayer, Labazevitch’s arrangement of traditional hymns built around Amazing Grace.

The signing of Castro and the launch of this CD were announced with great fanfare, and it’s easy to hear just why Divine Arts is so excited. She’s clearly a talent to watch.

There are two sets of complete works this month:

08 Shaham MozartViolinist Gil Shaham is joined by reduced forces of the SWR Symphonieorchester under Nicholas McGegan on the 2CD set of Mozart Violonkonzerte Nr.1-5, along with the Adagio In E Major K261 and the Rondo in C Major K373 (SWR Classic SWR19113 naxosdirect.com/search/swr19113cd).

The concertos were written when Mozart was a full-time violinist at the Salzburg court, the final four in an astonishing six-month period in late 1775. 

Shaham, who always has a radiant clarity to his playing, accurately described here as “flawless technique combined with his inimitable warmth and generosity of spirit,” is in superb form. McGegan is an expert in 18th-century style, and together they make wonderful music on a simply outstanding and beautifully recorded set.

09 Jennifer Kloetzel Beethoven jpegJennifer Kloetzel is the cellist and Robert Koenig the pianist on the 3CD set of Beethoven: The Conquering Hero, Complete Works for Cello and Piano (Avie AV2450 avie-records.com/releases).

The five cello sonatas are here, together with the three sets of variations and the Sonata in F Major for Piano with Horn or Cello, Op.17. The piano is a 19th-century Blüthner 9-foot grand and the cello a 1901 Camillo Mandelli. There’s a lovely balance in the recording, a clear piano sound that never overwhelms and a warm, rich cello tone.

Kloetzel has been playing the cello sonatas since she was eight years old, so it’s no surprise that we’re in very good hands here. Koenig is an outstanding partner.

10 Armida MozartThe Armida Quartett continues its ongoing series of the composer’s complete string quartets with Mozart String Quartets Vol.4 (Avi Music 8553205 armidaquartett.com).

The three-movement String Quartets No.4 in C Major K157, No.6 in B-flat Major K519 and No.7 in E-flat Major K160, written in 1773 during a journey to Italy are paired with the String Quartet No.19 in C Major K465 “Dissonance” from 1785, a work foreshadowed by the traces of dissonance in the three earlier quartets by the 17-year-old Mozart.

The Armida Quartett has been collaborating with G. Henle Verlag on their Urtext edition of Mozart’s string quartets, and their study of the manuscript and early edition sources has resulted in stylistically authoritative interpretations and finely detailed performances.

The final volume in the series is scheduled for release in April.

11 Solomiya IvakhivThe American-based Ukrainian violinist Solomiya Ivakhiv is the soloist on Poems & Rhapsodies, with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine under Volodymyr Sirenko (Centaur CRC3799 amazon.com/Poems-Rhapsodies-Solomiya-Ivakhiv/dp/B09NSYKL93).

They are joined by cellist Sophie Shao in the little-heard but quite charming Saint-Saëns work La Muse et le poète Op.132 (the publisher’s title, not the composer’s) which began life as a piano trio.

Ivakhiv displays a clear, bright tone and technical assurance in competent readings of Chausson’s Poème Op.25 and Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, but really excels in the remaining three works on the disc. The simply lovely American Rhapsody (Romance for Violin and Orchestra) from 2008 by the American composer Kenneth Fuchs is heard between two works by Ukrainian composers: the 1962 Poem in D Minor for Violin and Orchestra by Anatol Kos-Anatolsky (1909-83); and the Carpathian Rhapsody from 2004 by Myroslav Skoryk (1938-2020).

12 Lennox in ParisThe young English violinist Emmanuel Bach is paired with pianist Jenny Stern on Lennox in Paris – Music for violin and piano by Lennox Berkeley, Lili Boulanger & Francis Poulenc (Willowhayne Records WHR070 willowhaynerecords.com).

Berkeley lived in Paris from 1926 to 1932, studying with Nadia Boulanger and Ravel and counting Poulenc among his musical friends. Only one of his works here – the Violin Sonata No.1 – was written during that time, the Sonatina dating from 1942 and the Elegy and Toccata Op.33 Nos. 2 & 3 from 1950.

Bach’s playing seems quite tentative, not being helped by an over-prominent piano balance, and one can’t help feeling that these are works deserving of far more colourful and insightful performances.

The French pieces fare much better. There’s a lovely touch in the Boulanger pieces – Nocturne, Cortège and D’un matin du printemps – a sweet tone and nice feel to the middle movement of the Poulenc Sonata, and some assured playing in the Heifetz transcriptions of Poulenc’s Mouvements perpétuels and Presto in B-flat Major.

Listen to 'Lennox in Paris' Now in the Listening Room

13 Andy TeirsteinRestless Nation – The Music of Andy Teirstein features works that were inspired by world music traditions (Navona NV6397 navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6397). 

The Cassatt String Quartet performs the title work, its impressions of a year-long family expedition evoking “the fierce energy” of American fiddling. 

On Secrets of the North the Mivos String Quartet is joined by Marco Ambrosini on the nyckelharpa, the traditional Swedish keyed fiddle, in a work that incorporates elements inherent in Swedish folk music.

Azazme Songs, Suite for String Quartet, Oud and Dulcimer was composed after a four-day trek with Azazme Bedouins across the Aravah desert. They are not direct transcriptions but rather impressions gleaned, the dulcimer representing the sound of the Bedouin sumsumia, a strummed psaltery-type instrument. The Mivos String Quartet performs again, with the composer playing dulcimer and Yair Dala on the oud.

Teirstein plays a brief harmonica solo to open Letter From Woody with the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra under Jirí Petrdlík. Inspired by one of the letters that Woody Guthrie wrote to his future wife, it “draws on traditional American folk string bowings and energies.”

Listen to 'Restless Nation' Now in the Listening Room

01 Tristano On Early MusicOn Early Music
Francesco Tristano
Sony Classical G0100045975984 (sonyclassical.com/releases/releases-details/on-early-music)

Francisco Tristano studied at four conservatories before graduating from the Juilliard School. Here he turns every last facet of his immense talent as a pianist and composer to interpreting eight pieces of early music juxtaposed with as many of his own creations. 

Breathtaking does not begin to describe Tristano’s talents. After his own highly spirited Toccata we are treated to his version of a John Bull Galliard which combines the pianist’s exceptional skills with the taxing sequences one associates with Bull. Other tracks are as complex; what is more, it is difficult to remember that we are listening to a pianist when so much of this CD sounds as if it is being played on a harpsichord.  

Then there are the slower pieces, notably the surprisingly restrained Aria la folia and Pavan. Tristano also has a keen interest in the works of Orlando Gibbons, selecting four pieces, each with its own stately Elizabethan character. Above all, there is the longest track on the CD, Girolamo Frescobaldi’s Cento partite sopra passacaglie, with an intensity highly appropriate for Tristano’s vigorous technique. 

Which leaves us with Tristano’s surely unique pieces. Ritornello offers no respite to its composer/player, what with its inspiring opening and ever more intense later rhythms. Neither does the breathless Ciacona seconda. It is a brave pianist who would seek to emulate him.

Standing ovations have graced many of Tristano’s performances. This reviewer adds one virtually.

02 Sonora Slocum MozartMozart – Flute Quartets
Sonora Slocum; Joel Link; Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt; Brook Speltz
Acis APL98573 (acisproductions.com)

“Recording these quartets was a dream we had as students at Curtis over 12 years ago....” writes flutist Sonora Slocum in her program notes. So it is no surprise that her warmth and depth of feeling also come out in her playing, not as an imposed emotionality but rather as a kind of transparency, through which the message of the music assigned to the flutist can be felt. This is true not only of the slow movements, the sublime Adagio of the D-Major Quartet or the Andante of the G Major, but also, for example, of the brilliant Allegro first movement of the D Major, where Slocum’s effortless virtuosity serves to convey an intensity of feeling no less than that of the slow movements.

This recording, however, also raises the question: are these quartets flute solos with string trio accompaniment or string quartets with the first violin part given to the flutist? Unfortunately whoever mastered the recording chose the former, consistently putting the flute in the foreground and the strings in the background. As an example, in measures 26 and 27 of the G-Major Andante movement the flute and the cello have a brief duo in contrary motion, in which the flute dominates and the cello is in the background, when the sound from both instruments should be equal. 

So while Slocum’s playing is exemplary, the production values of the album do not, in my opinion, do justice to these wonderful works.

03 Paris 1847Paris 1847 – La Musique d’Eugène Jancourt
Mathieu Lussier; Camille Roy-Paquette; Sylvain Bergeron; Valérie Milot
ATMA ACD2 2834 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Most classical music enthusiasts know that Johann Sebastian Bach was, during his lifetime, better known as a church organist and music educator than as the composer of some of the finest and most canonic pieces of Western Art Music. While the classical world has Felix Mendelssohn to thank for not only contributing his own fine work to the aforementioned canon, but for his rediscovery of Bach’s music. The circuitous path that at least some of Bach’s pieces took from dashed-off manuscript sketchings for the pedagogical purposes of instructing his many students, to sacrosanct artifacts of musical genius, says as much about what society values, collects and ordains as symbols of high culture, as it does of Bach’s considerable genius.

Simply put, beauty and musical inspiration abound in exercise and method books, as well as in etudes composed for didactic and instructive purposes. And that is certainly the case here on this fine ATMA recording by Mathieu Lussier, Camille Roy-Paquette, Sylvain Bergeron and Valérie Milot. Collectively, they mine the beautiful repertoire of Eugène Jancourt, a 19th-century French bassoonist and educator, much of which originated in his 1847 method book. While Lussier, who remains a central figure in promulgating the solo bassoon as a concertizing instrument, acknowledges that this recording “may be of interest to anyone wishing to learn more about historically informed wind playing in the 19th century,” Paris 1847 is no archival recording or historical exercise. Rather the pieces, presented here as the first recording entirely devoted to Jancourt’s music, leaps from the speakers with energy, effervescence and a joie de vivre, capturing this unique and beautiful music from such an intriguing place and time in music history.

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