03_rufus_choiA Musical Journey
Rufus Choi
Cambria CD-1188

An eclectic program of piano music played by the Korean-American pianist Rufus Choi is featured on this Cambria label CD, music described in the notes by the artist as “in the grand romantic style”. Choi is a graduate of both the Juilliard School and the Musik Hochschule in Hanover, Germany. He was a first prize winner at the inaugural Jose Iturbi International Music Competition in Los Angeles in 2007.

The disc opens with Four Chorale Preludes by Bach as arranged by Ferruccio Busoni. These are tasteful adaptations - indeed, Busoni was a brilliant arranger, and the pieces sound as convincing for solo keyboard as they do for chorus. Yet as successful as Choi is at capturing the mood of noble grandeur, I have the impression that he is more at home with the type of piece that follows - the Rachmaninoff Piano Sonata #2 from 1913. This is music of exceptional difficulty, requiring formidable technique. Happily, Choi rises to the challenge admirably, tossing off the difficulties with apparent ease, while at the same time, approaching the quieter, more introspective passages with great sensitivity.

Admittedly, I’ve never been a big fan of Liszt’s transcriptions of music by other composers – too much tinsel and glitter, and often too many notes! Having said that, there are two such compositions featured here, a piece by Chopin titled Meine Freuden from his Chants Polonais Op.74, and Schumann’s popular Widmung. Once again, Choi seems in his element, both in these and in the concluding work, the famous Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No, 2, a technical tour de force. Here he pulls out all the stops, and delivers an impressive performance, in true command of the music at all times. A most satisfying musical journey indeed, by a young artist on the threshold of a promising career.

05_sa_chenRachmaninov - 6 Etudes;
Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition;
A Night on Bald Mountain
Sa Chen
PentaTone PTC 5186 355
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@Grigorian.Com

The name of pianist Sa Chen is perhaps unfamiliar to most music-lovers today, but will undoubtedly become more famous in years or even months to come, judging from the prodigious talents exhibited on this new SACD of Russian music on the PentaTone label. Born in Chongqing, China, Sa Chen began her musical studies at the Sichuan Conservatory, and she later continued at London’s Guildhall School and the Hochschule für Musik in Hanover. Although she has been the recipient of prizes from age 14 onward, it was at the International Chopin Competition in 2000 and later at the Van Cliburn Competition, that her reputation was secured. A critic once wrote: “Fleet- fingered pianists are a dime a dozen today – where are the musicians?” From the haunting opening measures of the Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableau Op.33 No.2, it’s clear that Sa Chen is a musician of the first-rank, one who combines a flawless technique with an innate musicality. She presents 6 Etudes in all, drawn from Opp.33 and 39, and throughout, her playing is marked by a delicacy of shading with never a moment of bravura for its own sake.

As equally demanding as the Etudes-Tableaux is A Night on Bald Mountain, Modest Mussorgsky’s first major work for orchestra - a tale of spirits, witchcraft, and bells tolling at dawn, a sort of 19th century Thriller, 90 years before Michael Jackson. The piano transcription is as difficult as it sounds, and Sa Chen approaches the music with a splendid panache. Nevertheless, in my opinion, she leaves the best until last, with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition from 1874. Inspired by a group of paintings by Victor Hartmann, the work encompasses a myriad of contrasting moods, and Sa Chen captures them all effortlessly, thereby bringing to a close this most satisfying disc.

06_ames_piano_quartetComplete Dorian Recordings 1989-2009
Ames Piano Quartet
Dorian Sono Luminus DSL-90908
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@Grigorian.Com

Founded in Ames, Iowa, in 1976, and currently the resident chamber music ensemble at Iowa State University, the Ames is that rarity in the chamber music world - a designated and permanent piano quartet. Only pianist William David remains from the original line-up, but with just one personnel change in the past 20 years the group’s unanimity of thought and interpretation is very evident.

Apart from three CDs of 20th-century works on the Albany label, the Ames has recorded almost exclusively for Dorian, with a repertoire of French, German, Czech and Russian piano quartets from the Romantic era through the mid-1900s. All 7 Dorian CDs are included in this box set, together with a bonus CD of the Chausson and Saint-Saëns quartets originally issued by the Musical Heritage Society in 1989.

The Dorian discs cover the three Brahms piano quartets, the two by both Fauré and Dvorak, and the single opuses of Schumann, Richard Strauss, Widor, Taneyev, Paul Juon, Suk, Novak and Martinu. An effective arrangement of Borodin’s Polovetsian Dances by Iowa State alumnus Geoffrey Wilcken completes the Russian CD, although it’s completely ignored in the otherwise comprehensive booklet notes.

Recording dates are not listed, but despite the 20-year span there is a remarkable consistency in the exceptionally high performance level, as indeed there is in the sound of the recordings themselves, which are always warm, resonant and beautifully balanced. At under $50, this is an outstanding set.

04_french_flute_chamberFrench Flute Chamber Music
Mirage Quintet
Naxos 8.570444

I’m not sure how “real” the Mirage Quintet is – a quick Google of the name reveals no references to concerts performed anywhere, and the ensemble’s discography seems to consist entirely of this recording.

But never mind. Even if the group is just a mirage, its players are all fine musicians: Canada’s reigning flutist, Robert Aitken; leading studio musician and Aitken’s long-time recital partner, harpist Erica Goodman; violinist Jacques Israelievitch, recently retired as concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; and violist Teng Li and cellist Winona Zelenka, both current principals of that orchestra.

The music is also quite fine: several works are thoroughly impressionistic in style, others are touched with neo-classicism, but all are very French. CD collectors shouldn’t be discouraged if some of the early 20th-century compositions recorded here are unfamiliar.

Marcel Tournier was himself a harpist, as his lush writing for the instrument suggests. But his Op.34 Suite isn’t just a showpiece for the harp; it’s true chamber music, with a sophisticated interplay of instrumental forces. I particularly like the way the Mirage players dig into the final movement’s big, emphatic chords with an expansive sweep.

Similarly, Florent Schmitt’s Suite en rocaille Op. 84 is an elegant work – although there’s an edgy urgency in the second and fourth movements. And Gabriel Pierné’s Variations libres et finale derives an archaic quality from the composer’s use of the Lydian mode. Jean Françaix’s Quintette is a charming piece; and so is Roussel’s Sérénade Op. 30, although its instrumental effects and harmonic leanings also give it a quirky, modernist quality.

This isn’t the deepest music ever written – it’s a little too suave to be profound. But it is enjoyable, and very well performed.

Colin Eatock

03_berlin_recitalThe Berlin Recital
Gidon Kremer; Martha Argerich
EMI Classics 6 93999 2

The first thing that strikes you about this 2CD set, recorded in concert at the Berlin Philharmonie in December 2006, is the obvious disparity between the two featured composers, Schumann and Bartok. The links suggested in the booklet notes - two pianist-composers who wrote for every musical genre and were both interested in musical education - are unconvincing and tenuous at best, but what does make these two an interesting pairing is not their supposed similarities but their clear and contrasting differences.

Each is represented by a sonata for violin and piano - No.2 of Schumann, No.1 of Bartok - and a solo work - Bartok’s solo violin sonata for Kremer and Schumann’s Kinderszenen for Argerich.

The duo works could not be more different in sound or style, with Schumann’s conservative approach treating the somewhat subdued violin as part of the overall texture, while Bartok treats the two instruments independently, making great technical demands of the players. Kremer and Argerich have been performing together for many years (they recorded the Schumann sonatas for DGG in 1986) and it shows - they clearly think and feel as one.

The solo works, too, are simply light years apart. Both receive outstanding performances here, but Kremer’s stunning playing in the fiendishly difficult Bartok really steals the show.

Audience presence is apparent before and after each work, but thankfully never for a moment during the performances.

Two Kreisler encores, Liebeslied and Schon Rosmarin, round out this attractively-priced set.

Terry Robbins

02_grieg_pianoGrieg - Sonata; Lyrical Pieces;

Holberg Suite
Derek Yaple-Schobert
XXI XXI-CD 2 1604

Claude Debussy once referred to the piano music of Edvard Grieg as “pink bon bons filled with snow.” Today this seems an unkind description, for generations of pianists have delighted in these small gems (myself included), and rightly so – Grieg was a supreme miniaturist, easily capturing a wide range of moods on a small canvas.

This new CD featuring pianist Derek Yaple-Schobert on the XXI label, is a delight, and offers a thoughtfully-chosen program of Grieg’s piano music, ranging from the familiar to the less well-known. A native of Montreal, Yaple-Schobert (who bears an eerie physical resemblance to the young Grieg himself) has long had an affinity with music by Nordic composers, having studied in both Denmark and Sweden. Here, he opens not with one of the small pieces, but with Grieg’s Sonata in E minor, an early work from 1865. The playing is confident and boldly self-assured, as befits the impassioned mood of the music. More lyrical – and certainly more familiar – are Shepherd Boy and Notturno from the Six Lyrical Pieces Op.54 (the entire set is included) which Yaple-Schobert treats with great finesse. By contrast, the March of the Trolls, a quick-paced rustic dance with its ostinato rhythms provides him an opportunity to demonstrate an impressive technique.

One of Grieg’s most familiar and popular pieces, the Holberg Suite has been heard so often in its version for string orchestra that we tend to forget that it originally began as a solo piano piece. In Yaple-Schobert’s capable hands, the neo-Baroque spirit comes through admirably, and from the beginning, he has no trouble in convincing us that this music is as well suited to the solo keyboard as it is to a string orchestra. So I would say gratulerer (congratulations) to Mr. Yaple-Schobert on a fine recording. Bon bons filled with snow? I think not!

Richard Haskell

01_Mahler_BeethovenBeethoven - Piano Concerto No.1;

Mahler - Symphony No.1

Margarita Höhenrieder; Staatskapelle Dresden; Fabio Luisi

EuroArts DVD 2057718

Margarita Höhenrieder is one of those artists who have the personality, intellect and intellectual insight to enhance a sparkling performance. Her playing has refreshing spontaneity and contagious enthusiasm to spare. Not to mention her absolute technical command. Listening to and watching her play the concerto on this disc is a great treat to the extent that I have enjoyed playing it several times over the past week and shall do so again next week. After years of hearing this concerto, my favourite of the five, I find this performance to be refreshing and newly enjoyable throughout. Luisi and his orchestra are inspired to be on the same wavelength.

Luisi took over the Dresden opera in 2004 and the orchestra 2007. The Staatskapelle Dresden is now among the handful of greatest orchestras around. The Mahler First, another long-time favourite, is given a powerful performance that is delivered with uncommon simplicity. What initially seems to be a low key approach is in fact a great Mahlerian triumph with a coda that must be seen and heard to be believed. Impeccable timing and phrasing are trademarks of this conductor as witness his recordings with the MDR Orchestra of several Mahler symphonies and recently the major symphonic works of Richard Strauss with the Staatskapelle Dresden on RCA.

These performances were recorded live in the Philharmonie in Gasteig, Munich on April 9, 2008. Enthusiastically recommended.

Bruce Surtees

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