08 Strauss AlpenStrauss – Ein Alpensinfonie; Tod und Verklarung
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Mariss Jansons
BR Klassik 900148

Long in gestation with its roots extending down to the composer’s teenage years, Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony is the last and arguably the greatest of his series of orchestral tone poems. After many false starts, he began to work seriously on the score in 1911, prompted in part by circumstances surrounding the death of his esteemed colleague Gustav Mahler. It was completed and premiered in 1915 under the composer’s direction. Strauss proudly proclaimed that with this work, which is scored for a gargantuan ensemble of 130 musicians, he finally understood how to orchestrate. You can take his word for that!

Strauss indicated 22 distinct scenarios, some lasting less than half a minute, in the score of this musical depiction of a hike up and down the Bavarian Alps through forests and meadows in weather both fair and foul. The work is on one level naively descriptive (some might say crassly cinematic) yet there remains a greater dimension to the Alpine Symphony in its vivid celebration of the power of Nature, comparable in an oblique way with Mahler’s Third Symphony. It hardly comes as a surprise that the exemplary Munich orchestra does their level best to honour the reputation of Bavaria’s greatest composer, nor that they are in complete accord with their cherished principal conductor (Jansons’ contract was recently extended to the year 2023, a commitment of 20 years since his arrival). The performance is utterly transcendent and the live recording from October of 2016 is richly detailed. A significant bonus is included in the form of an equally fine 2014 live performance of Strauss’ popular tone poem of 1888, Death and Transfiguration. Of the numerous renderings currently available of this grandiose Alpine work this one rises triumphantly to the summit with the greats. Not to be missed!

01 Giuliani GuitarCanadian guitarists Jeffrey McFadden and Michael Kolk are the performers on Volume 1 of Music for Two Guitars by Mauro Giuliani, a new CD featuring Rossini Overtures, Variations and Polonaises (Naxos 8.572445).

Michael Kolk has been the subject of several glowing reviews in this column and is usually heard in duo performances with fellow guitarist Drew Henderson, but here he is joined by the outstanding McFadden, with whom Kolk studied at the University of Toronto. It’s a terrific pairing, with both performers displaying clean, technically outstanding playing with equally impressive musicality and sensitivity.

Giuliani (1781-1829) was one of the greatest guitar virtuoso performers and composers. When he returned to Italy from Vienna in 1819 he became an associate of Rossini and transcribed four of the opera composer’s overtures for two guitars in the early 1820s. All four – La gazza ladra, Il barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola and L’assedio di Corinto – are included here. As the jewel case blurb notes, they abound in lyrical melodic lines, fast arpeggios, subtle colours and technical virtuosity. The equally demanding Gran variazioni concertanti, Op.35 and the Variazioni concertanti, Op.130 are handled with deceptive ease, and the Tre Polonesi concertanti, Op.137 round off an immensely satisfying program.

The recorded ambience is quite lovely, hardly a surprise given that the recording was made at St. John Chrysostom Church in Newmarket with the always reliable Naxos production team of Norbert Kraft – himself a top guitarist – and Bonnie Silver. It’s a CD that meets every hope and expectation you might have when you open it – and that’s saying something!

02 Spanish Guitar 2The same Newmarket church is the setting for another outstanding Kraft and Silver guitar recording, Volume 2 of what is turning out to be a ground-breaking four-volume series of 21st Century Spanish Guitar music played by the American guitarist Adam Levin (Naxos 8.573409).

In 2008 Levin was able to use several scholarships, including one from the Program for Cultural Cooperation Fellowship from Spain’s Cultural Ministry, to start a three-year residency in Madrid to research and perform contemporary Spanish guitar repertoire. The project resulted in a major collaboration with four generations of Spanish composers who created 30 new works commissioned by and dedicated to Levin. The recording project to document these pieces began in 2012, with Volume 1 of the series released in May 2013 to rave reviews.

Composers included here are Leonardo Balada (b.1933), Jesús Torres (b.1965), Marc López Godoy (b.1967), Antón García Abril (b.1933), Luis De Pablo (b.1930), Eduardo Soutullo (b.1968), Jacobo Durán-Loriga (b.1958), Benet Casablancas (b.1933) and Juan Manuel Ruiz (b.1968); the works cover the period 2010-2014, so clearly the collaboration continues to bear fruit beyond the term of the residency. All but one of the pieces are world premiere recordings.

Despite Levin’s warning that this is “not your father’s guitar music” and that the musical language of Spain has evolved since the days of the master guitar composers these are all clearly works that are intrinsically Spanish, with a wide range of sonorities, techniques and effects that never forget their roots. It’s a fascinating look at a country’s musical culture that knows its heritage and looks to the future with supreme confidence.

Needless to say, Levin is superb throughout the CD, and is captured with ideal sound quality. We can certainly look forward to Volumes 3 and 4 with great anticipation.

03 Ehnes QuartetJames Ehnes leads his quartet partners Amy Schwartz Moretti, Richard Yongjae O’Neill and Robert deMaine on a beautiful new CD by the Ehnes Quartet of two works that share the theme of death, and the fear of death (Onyx 4163).

Schubert’s String Quartet No.14 in D Minor “Death and the Maiden” D810 was written in 1824, four years before the composer’s death, but at a time when Schubert was already seriously ill and experiencing failure, poverty and great misery in his life. Jean Sibelius’ String Quartet in D Minor “Intimate Voices” Op.56 was completed in 1909 after his life had been threatened by a throat tumour and he had, in the words of his biographer Erik Tawaststjerna, “passed through the shadows of the valley of death.”

Both works receive quite exceptional performances here, with fully committed emotional playing, a fine range of dynamics and a terrific ensemble feel, all enhanced by a warm and richly recorded ambience.

The Schubert is by far the better known of the two works, but the Sibelius may well be the surprise here for many listeners. The composer’s only quartet, it has a nostalgic, deeply personal feel not unlike Smetana’s first quartet From My Life. The booklet essay notes that the work has generally been regarded as uncharacteristic and has never really become a repertoire favourite, and the remark that its neglect “remains unexplained and regrettable” is 100 percent accurate.

Hopefully this beautiful and moving performance will help to rectify that.

04 Death and the MaidenThe Schubert work turns up again, this time in an arrangement for string orchestra, on Death and the Maiden, a collaborative exploration of the theme of death by violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (Alpha Classics 265).

Recorded live in concert in Saint Paul over three dates in March 2015, this multifaceted project intersperses short works that date mostly from the 16th century between the four movements of the Schubert quartet, the latter arranged by Kopatchinskaja. We hear Augustus Nörmiger’s Toten Tanz; an anonymous Byzantine Chant on Psalm 140; John Dowland’s Pavan from Seaven Teares for String Quintet; Carlo Gesualdo’s madrigal about death Moro lasso; and two pieces by the 20th-century Hungarian composer György Kurtág.

The meat of the program, however, is clearly the Schubert, and it proves to be very effective in this string orchestra version. The Romantic nature and the scope and drama of the quartet are certainly enhanced by the greater dynamic forces, especially in the theme and variations movement that gives the work (and this CD) its name. Kopatchinskaja leads the ensemble from the first violin stand, and the orchestral playing is superb, especially in the dazzlingly brilliant final Presto.

05 WeinbergAnother CD that intersperses short movements between the major works is the new Super Audio disc from the German violinist Linus Roth of the Mieczysław Weinberg Solo Sonatas for Violin Nos.1-3 (Challenge CC72688).

The Polish/Soviet Weinberg settled in Moscow in the early 1940s with Shostakovich’s help, and the two composers shared a close friendship and clearly influenced each other. Weinberg’s music has long been unjustly neglected, but that has gradually been changing since his death in 1996, with an ever-increasing number of CDs exploring his extensive and hugely impressive output.

It’s music by Shostakovich that is interspersed with the three Weinberg sonatas, the Three Fantastic Dances from 1922 in the Harry Glickman arrangement for violin and piano intended to – in Roth’s own words – “lighten the texture of the otherwise awfully dense and dark fare” that the Weinberg sonatas present. José Gallardo is the pianist.

Certainly Sonatas Nos.1 and 3, from 1964 and 1978, are unrelenting, somewhat intimidating works of extreme difficulty – the latter is a single movement work of almost 30 minutes’ length. Sonata No.2 from 1967 is shorter, somewhat easier (in relative terms!) and less aggressive – and certainly more immediately accessible.

Roth plays superbly throughout the CD, but particularly in the three works that are a significant part of the solo violin sonata repertoire.

06 Artis QuartettThere’s more excellent string quartet playing on the latest CD from the Artis-Quartett Wien, with seldom-heard works by Kreisler, Zemlinsky and Schulhoff (Nimbus Records NI 5942).

If the Viennese violinist Fritz Kreisler is known as a composer at all it’s usually for his series of “in the style of” pieces that he eventually admitted were original compositions, but his String Quartet in A Minor is a surprisingly strong work. Written in 1919, its tonal language is very much that of the early 20th-century Austro-German composers, and is almost certainly a nostalgic look back at the Vienna of Kreisler’s youth and of the Hapsburg Empire, a Vienna lost forever in the First World War. Kreisler had served in the Austrian army at the outbreak of the war, but was wounded and discharged within three months, spending the rest of the war years in the United States.

Although he lived in Prague during the 1914-1918 war, Alexander Zemlinsky was another Viennese composer who ended up in the United States, in his case as a result of the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment in the Germany of the 1930s. His String Quartet in E Minor is a very early work from 1893 that was suppressed by the composer after its initial rejection and did not appear in print until 1997. Clearly – and not surprisingly – influenced by Brahms, it is a strongly Romantic work with a particularly lovely Andante movement.

The Prague-born Erwin Schulhoff completes the trilogy of composers whose careers were impacted by war, although in his case it would cost him his life. He served in the Austrian army throughout the First World War, but after being arrested by the Nazis in Prague in 1941 was deported to the Wülzburg concentration camp in Bavaria, where he died of tuberculosis a year later.

From the opening bars of his Five Pieces for String Quartet from 1923 we are in a different world, one closer to the world of Schoenberg than the late 19th-century tradition of Kreisler and early Zemlinsky. It’s essentially a suite of short dance movements strongly influenced by Czech speech inflections and rhythms, with terse, animated writing and muted strings creating a sense of social and cultural unease.

The Artis-Quartett was founded in Vienna in 1980, and is in its element with these three intriguing works.

07 Vivaldi SeasonsGiven the constant stream of new recordings of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons we could be forgiven for wondering if there could possibly be anything different left to say with them, but if the stunning new Super Audio CD from Gunar Letzbor and the Ars Antiqua Austria (Challenge Classics CC72700) is anything to go by then the answer is quite definitely yes.

This is Vivaldi with a quite different sound and clearly an equally different approach, made all the more impressive by the small size of the eight-piece ensemble – Ars Antiqua consists of single players for the solo, violin one and two, viola and cello parts, and a continuo of violone, organ/harpsichord and theorbo. The sheer size of the sound and dynamic range that they produce is astonishing.

So many of the movements here sound refreshingly different, and the attention to the wording of the accompanying sonnets (which are printed in full in the booklet) is clear, whether it’s the steady rhythmic stresses, the bird song effects, the heavy stomping of a rustic country dance or the furious outburst of a storm. Major tempo changes throughout the individual movements add to the effect.

The Violin Concerto in D Minor by the Bohemian composer František Jiránek, who studied in Venice (possibly with Vivaldi) between 1724 and 1726, completes the CD. It is much in the style of his contemporary, and is played here in a manner closer to the Vivaldi we usually hear.

Between the recording sessions in April 2016 Ars Antiqua performed this same program in two concerts; the audiences, Letzbor notes, were enthusiastic about the Vivaldi, “but at the same time also surprised. The unanimous opinion: we have never heard it like this before.”

Well, neither have I – and the chances are, neither have you. If you have any interest whatsoever in The Four Seasons then this is a CD you simply must hear.

08 Violin for All SeasonsThe Four Seasons are also featured on A Violin for All Seasons – Music by Antonio Vivaldi & Roxanna Panufnik, another Super Audio CD with Tasmin Little as both soloist and conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Chandos CHSA 5175).

Although on first hearing this seems to be a performance more in the mainstream manner, Little was clearly fully aware of the great variety of performances available and of the need to offer something individual to the listener; she has apparently waited many years before deciding to commit a performance to disc. She admits to having been influenced by Baroque violinists although not being one herself, but as a modern player she feels that a larger orchestral accompaniment can add greater drama and nuance than a smaller group.

Playing this CD right after the Ars Antiqua CD cast more than a little doubt on that belief, but there is much here that lifts this performance out of the ordinary. For starters, Little is superb, with some simply dazzling playing and some fresh ideas, in particular her increased dialogue with continuo harpsichordist David Wright, whom she encouraged to be “as bold and different as he wished.” Both players improvise links between movements on occasion, and there is certainly an air of freshness about the entire proceedings.

The Vivaldi work continues to inspire new compositions as well as new approaches and interpretations, and such is the case with Four World Seasons, the Panufnik work that receives its premiere recording here. The work resulted from Little’s 2008 request for a new set of “Seasons” to be performed alongside the Vivaldi and was completed in 2011; since then Little has programmed both works in numerous concerts.

The composition of each of the movements here is influenced by a country with which the particular season has become culturally associated. Autumn in Albania is in memory of Panufnik’s father, the composer Andrzej Panufnik; Tibetan Winter (complete with Tibetan singing bowl), Spring in Japan and Indian Summer are dedicated to Tasmin Little. It’s a simply outstanding work, much deeper, more emotional, wide-ranging and passionate than the Vivaldi, with which it shares almost the same orchestration. It draws more terrific playing from Little and the BBC Symphony.

09 Schumanns EnigmanSchumann’s Enigma: An Exploration of Robert Schumann’s Sonatas for Violin and Piano is the excellent debut CD from violinist Svetlana Tsivinskaya and pianist Natalia Tokar (Blue Griffin BGR 391).

The Sonata in A Minor Op.105 and the Grand Sonata in D Minor Op.121 are both given accomplished readings, with some lovely playing from both partners – fairly restrained at times and not too dramatic, but always warm and with no lack of depth or commitment.

What gives these performances added interest, though, is the research and thought that has gone into them. Tsivinskaya provides an excellent essay on Schumann’s contrasting and imaginary alter egos Eusebius and Florestan, and the way he used them to explore his own contrasting ideas and his mental processes – and indeed the way he used cryptography and coded signatures of his wife Clara and his own various names to determine thematic material and choice of key in his works.

There seems to be a growing awareness of the significance of this approach among performers, with the cellist Carmen Miranda’s extremely detailed article along the same lines on Schumann’s Cello Concerto featured in a CD review in this column just last September.

Tsivinskaya’s penetrating essay here is a riveting and convincing analysis, and adds a great deal to our understanding of the two works.

01 Debussy EffectA century ago we removed the boundaries that defined the general order of things in our world. Notions of social class, religious belief and art all flowed into a sea of mixing currents as we challenged ourselves to be comfortable with things much less clear than once had been. Composers, like painters, developed a powerful, post-Romantic language that guided the human experience of art beyond intellect and emotion and into something of an altered state. Less concerned with linear argument than impression, composers like Debussy mastered the vocabulary of other worlds and left us a creative legacy that has scarcely aged a day. So it seems natural that a contemporary musician like Kathleen Supové should commission a project from a group of seven 21st-century composers asking how the music of Claude Debussy has shaped their art, The Debussy Effect (New Focus Recordings FCR170).

Listening to these works in this context, they are all clearly tributes to the French impressionist, although some more tenuously than others. Still, there’s plenty of originality in this repertoire and Supové plays wonderfully, whether with or without electronic effects. Jacob Cooper’s La plus que plus que lent slows down Debussy’s waltz significantly as it plays with fragments of the original. Cakewalking (Sorry Claude) by Daniel Felsenfeld is especially creative in its unmistakable rhythms and occasional quotes from Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk.

The most effective work may well be Randall Woolf’s What Remains of a Rembrandt. Here the composer argues that the essence of Debussy is the element of mystery. Supové’s playing demonstrates a complete understanding of how Woolf sets out to render this element and achieves exactly what both he and Debussy would have intended.

The Debussy Effect is a bold and creative project that is as admirably clever as it is superbly performed.

02 Bruce AdolpheAmerican composer Bruce Adolphe is often inspired by very contemporary social and political issues, and so it is that his latest recording, Bruce Adolphe – Chopin Dreams (Naxos 8.559805) is a little unusual.

The recording’s title work is an impression of how Chopin might compose today were he a jazz musician playing in a New York club. Adolphe does an artful job of borrowing Chopin’s distinctive keyboard language. He replicates the melancholy harmonies, the cascading right-hand arpeggios, the ornaments and filigree that we uniquely associate with the composer. He also writes in the forms that make up much of Chopin’s repertoire, the prelude, nocturne, mazurka and other dances.

While the premise of Chopin as a New York Jazz club pianist offers a comic element to be sure, it’s quickly dispelled by the highly informed and engaging nature of Chopin Dreams. Jazzurka, New York Nocturne, Quaalude and the other items in the set unmistakably use Chopin’s vocabulary. Even so, the frequent presence of the blue note seems entirely appropriate for Chopin, given his affection for the richness of minor keys.

Considerably more serious is Adolphe’s recent work Seven Thoughts Considered as Music (2016). Using short quotes from seven thinkers including Emerson, Chief Seattle and Kafka, Adolphe explores the transfer of deeper meaning to the voice of the piano. There’s great substance to these pieces and they merit more than one hearing.

Italian pianist Carlo Grante plays the newly redesigned Bösendorfer 280VC concert grand on this CD and has a great deal of fun with the nine Piano Puzzlers, short pieces that Adolphe regularly composes and performs on the American Public Radio program Performance Today. Familiar tunes like Deck The Hall, The Streets of Laredo and many others are set in the unmistakable style of Chopin’s best-known pieces, leaving listeners grinning at the composer’s imitative wizardry.

03 Horatio GutierrezHoracio Gutiérrez is a respected pedagogue and performer. His newest recording, Chopin 24 Preludes, Op.28; Schumann Fantasie Op.17 (Bridge 9479), is an impressive example of his playing. Never short of powerful expression and blazing speed at the keyboard, he is also capable of the tenderest phrasings required in Chopin’s 24 Preludes Op. 28. Each of these short pieces (some merely a half minute) is a complete idea that Gutiérrez treats as though it were entirely independent. Still, the progression of keys is logical and patterned, and so he holds the collection together for performance as a larger utterance. Many argue this was, in fact, Chopin’s intent.

Unlike Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues, these are not studies or practice pieces. Nor are they preludes to anything as one writer once famously queried. Instead they are best received as a kind of pianistic haiku. Short, self-contained and entirely complete.

Gutiérrez plays with a great deal of disciplined freedom that remains in control of the emotional content through a very precise keyboard technique. This is especially important for the Schumann Fantasie Op.17 where the great contrasts in mood are vital to the work’s impact. The middle sections of the second and third movements demonstrate this wonderfully as does the final, tranquil ending. Every note and phrase is perfectly placed. There is no excess. All is in perfect balance.

Gutiérrez’s students at the Manhattan School, where he currently teaches, are fortunate to have such a mentor.

04 Chopin Richard HamelinSecond-place winner of the 17th International Chopin Piano Competition in 2015, Charles Richard-Hamelin’s live performances on Chopin Sonata B Minor Op.58; Nocturnes (The Fryderyk Chopin Institute, Polish Radio NIFCCD 617-618) demonstrate why he impressed the panel of judges so profoundly. Perhaps more than anything, Richard-Hamelin plays as if no one else were present, firmly connected to the core of the music and completely given over to it. His technique is impeccable and his interpretive decisions mature and credible. Moreover, he manages to inject subtleties into his performances that would catch the judges’ attention. Micro hesitations, refinements of standard dynamics, tempo relaxations, all give his playing of well-worn works originality and freshness.

Despite the fact that the pieces were recorded at various sessions, the three auditions and the final concert, it would have been evident early on that Richard-Hamelin was a serious contender for one of the top spots in this race. Disc one of this 2-CD set closes with the Rondo in E Flat Major Op.16. It’s a piece that uses almost every one of Chopin’s devices and Richard-Hamelin sails through them effortlessly, never showing fatigue or anything less than total focus on the artistic demands of the work.

Disc two features a few more smaller pieces but offers the B Minor Sonata Op.58 as its major work. Richard-Hamelin’s capable grasp of its wide-ranging demands earned him his winning spot plus the Krystian Zimerman prize for the best performance of a sonata.

The 2015 17th International Chopin Piano Competition was the first time Canada had appeared in the rankings in the competition’s history.

05 Schubert VogtLars Vogt’s new recording, Schubert – Impromptus, D899, Moments Musicaux D780, Six German Dances D820 (Ondine ODE 1285-2) offers familiar repertoire although with a detectable inward focus.

The liner notes include a wonderful interview with Vogt in which he reveals his personal thoughts on Schubert and the repertoire in this recording. It’s worthwhile and instructive to read about the intellectual process behind the creative one.

Vogt has a unique style at the keyboard. It’s one that has all the warmth and romanticism to express Schubert’s most heartfelt passages, yet also includes a sharp, bright exclamatory touch that can be as brief as a single note or sometimes carry an entire phrase. This plays nicely against the otherwise mellow nature of Schubert’s rich harmonies.

The Six German Dances, in particular, are surprisingly tender in Vogt’s hands. Here he argues for an approach that is truer to the original style of the pieces, more down to earth and tender, perhaps even pointing to the convivial bliss of simple country folk.

The familiarity of the Impromptus D899 makes them a special challenge. Vogt does a terrific job with them all, but really makes No.4 stand out with his remarkably light staccato on all the descending runs in the treble.

The Moments Musicaux D780, too, are favourites and require something to make them distinctive. No.6 is often played with far more contrast than Vogt brings to this performance. Instead, he opts for a more wistful approach throughout and it works well. Overall, Vogt seems to raise the bar on everything without ever going too far. It’s an impressive process of balance and taste that has produced a very satisfying recording for Schubert collectors.

06 Beethoven BavouzetJean-Efflam Bavouzet has completed his recording of the Beethoven piano sonatas with the release of Beethoven Piano Sonatas Vol. 3 (Chandos CHAN 10925(3)). Do we need another Beethoven Sonata cycle? Bavouzet occupied himself with this very question before committing to the project for Chandos. Those who know and cherish these works will each have favourite interpreters who have revealed new meaning in them. Bavouzet argues that projects like this are evolutionary and therefore benefit from all those that preceded them.

As a mature artist in his mid-50s, Bavouzet indeed has something to say and he says it convincingly. His performance of the Sonata Op.57 “Appassionata” is surprisingly understated through most of the second movement. This heightens the impact of the final movement which follows very aggressively without a break. His speed and precision seem effortless. He shapes Beethoven’s phrases intelligently and manages to keep the composer’s impetuous nature teeming without boiling over.

The Sonata Op.106 “Hammerklavier” is the towering, complex work after whose final measures, a sonata cycle like this either succeeds or crumbles. Bavouzet emerges in this performance as an artist fully capable of embracing the essence of what Beethoven had to say, and how to say it. Bavouzet’s revelation in this repertoire is that Beethoven was not a mad composer pouring magnificent anger from his pen. Rather, he was an impassioned genius crafting everything with an exacting science rooted in his soul. Bavouzet obviously “gets” Beethoven – in the profoundest way.

07 Glassworlds 5In addition to his stature as a Liszt interpreter, Nicolas Horvath devotes a considerable amount of his career energy to contemporary music. The new release Glassworlds • 5: Enlightenment (Grand Piano GP745) continues his recordings of the piano music of Philip Glass.

Two large, major works nearly fill this disc. Mad Rush, written in 1979 as a commissioned organ piece under a different title, has since been renamed and performed as dance accompaniment as well as a piano solo. Glass performed it himself several times and perhaps most interestingly as music for the entry of the 14th Dalai Lama into the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

600 Lines is a 40-minute piece built on just five pitches played in varying rhythmic patterns constantly shifting emphasis on principal notes in those patterns. If you’re acquainted with the English bell ringing tradition of “ringing changes,” this piece will surprisingly make a lot of sense.

Considerably shorter but no less engaging is Metamorphoses (5): No. 2. The work had never been published, so Horvath naturally takes some pride in performing its world premiere as a solo piano work. Horvath clearly has a deep affection for Glass’ music that goes far beyond the intellectual. His grasp of it is both passionate and revealing.

In writing his own, excellent liner notes for this recording, Horvath closes by quoting the composer, “Music is a social activity…Music is a transaction; it passes between us.”

08 Komitas VardapetThe most exotic item in this month’s collection is Keiko Shichijo’s new release Komitas Vardapet – Six Dances (Makkum Records MR.17/Pb006). It’s as unusual for its repertoire, as it is for its brevity, a mere eighteen minutes. The dances are based on Armenian folk melodies which the composer transcribed from original settings for folk instruments. Komitas is said to have notated some 3,000 Armenian folk tunes; only 1,200 survive.

Although an ordained priest, his work as an ethnomusicologist has made him an icon in the history of Armenian culture. His exposure to Western European music came from his studies in Berlin at the end of the 19th century. Shichijo chose to record his solo piano work Six Dances after performing some of his other compositions with a chamber ensemble. She is remarkably persuasive in the way she portrays the percussive, and otherwise non-Western, stylings of this music. It’s nearly all monodic, just a single melody line, sometimes in octaves, against the barest of accompaniments. There’s a definite feel of Debussy’s exoticism about Komitas’ music.

While it’s a modest recording effort, it’s a beautiful fusion of worlds that creates the temptation to hear more of this composer’s repertoire.


09 Jack GallagherAmerican composer Jack Gallagher claims the piano is not his principal instrument, but his apology evaporates as soon as you hear his music. In Jack Gallagher Piano Music (Centaur CRC 3522) pianist Frank Huang captures the colour and imagination of Gallagher’s writing whether in works lighthearted or those more cerebral.

Gallagher writes with a great care for structure. Form and planning are important to him. This makes his works easy to navigate for both listener and performer while he evolves his more complex musical material.

Huang plays this repertoire with ease and familiarity. Works like the Sonata for Piano are very technically demanding as is Malambo Nouveau. Others like Six Bagatelles and Sonatina for Piano, less so. Still, works like Six Pieces for Kelly, written specifically for young performers, never lack for a mature and profoundly musical touch. Every so often a Gershwin-like harmony slips by, leaving an echo of Broadway and a reminder of how American this music is.

Huang’s performance is confident, bold and celebratory; Gallagher’s writing seems to induce those qualities. This recording is a perfect match between composer and performer.

10 Bach Partitas harpsichordHarpsichordist Jory Vinikour has released Partitas BWV 825-830 J.S. Bach (Sono Luminus DSL-92209), a wonderful example of how varied and engaging Bach can be at the harpsichord. If you need an introduction to Bach, then his 1731 self-published Opus 1 is a good place to start.

Using a two-manual instrument built in 1995 on the scheme of a 1738 German harpsichord, Vinikour takes very deliberate time to play through the six Partitas in this three-disc set. While most items in the Partitas are labelled as dance movements, some offer a very different character and Vinikour is careful to find and exploit the essence of each piece.

The Toccata of Partita No.6 in E Minor BWV830 opens and closes with waves of fantasia-like arpeggios that are a sharp contrast to the highly ordered material between them. The Overture of Partita No.4 in D Major BWV 828 begins with an extended statement that offers all the drama of an opera before moving into the discipline of a fugue. The following Allemande is a beautiful and languorous melodic wander through Bach’s harmonic world. Vinikour knows this territory well, using every technical and interpretive device to maximum effect. He knows how far to push the limits of free Baroque forms as well as complying with the rigours of Bach’s fugal treatments.

On a technical note, the recording uses terrific stereo separation that’s very effective.

01 Goldberg Beyond Variations

Johann Gottlieb Goldberg – Beyond the Variations
Rebel; Jörg-Michael Schwartz
Bridge Records 9478 (bridgerecords.com)


Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, namesake of Bach’s famous Variations, was a highly talented musician. His life (1727-1756) was tragically short, but this CD, with five of Goldberg’s sonatas, shows us just what we were deprived of. Jörg-Michael Schwarz, playing a 1668 Jacobus Stainer violin, sets the scene with some beautiful playing in the Adagio of the B-flat Major Sonata. In the Allegro he is joined by Karen Marie Marmer playing a 1660 Stainer in a highly spirited Allegro. A Ciacona, at times stately and at others very lively, ends the sonata.

Goldberg’s Sonata in G Minor is thoughtful and involves the basso continuo much more than in the preceding sonata. There is a richness to John Moran’s cello playing in the Adagio before the violinists interpret the Allegro with a real passion and zest. The final movement of this sonata is the somewhat conventional Tempo di Menuetto.

Enter the viola of Risa Browder. The Largo in the Sonata in C Minor is indeed dignified, as the viola adds an element of complexity to the sonata. This is sustained in the cheerful Allegro and Giga.

The Sonata in A Minor features an Alla Siciliana movement, a dreamy composition which brings out both the violin playing and Goldberg’s own skills as a composer. It is movements like this and the following Allegro assai which bring home what was lost to us when Goldberg died so young.

Finally, there is the Sonata in C Major with its majestic Adagio worthy of any great Baroque composer. The Gigue which concludes the sonata also concludes this CD – again, an inspired introduction to the music of someone who could have generated a lifetime of wonderful music.

02 Mi PapitaMi PalPita il Cor: Baroque Passions
Dominique Labelle; Musica Pacifica
Navona Records NV6056

This is a CD devoted to love – and not necessarily happy love. The sleeve notes list the manifestation of love to be discovered on this recording as “sighs, laughter, angry outbursts and lassitude.”

Venetian-born Agostino Steffani’s Guardati o core opens the CD – a frolicking aria with words warning not to be won over by Cupid because you end up with trouble, sorrow and difficulty. Oh, and continue with the recitativo (you’ll get immeasurable bitter pain) and the aria (“flee, then, the realm of the archer-boy”) and not even Dominique Labelle’s rendition can help you.

Giuseppe Sammartini was well respected for his woodwind expertise, well apparent from the dignified flourishes of his opening and more than confirmed by the first Allegro. Sammartini composed with vigour and panache. The slightly strangely specified Andante e staccato reflects a depressed lover, depressed until he or she is revived by the second Allegro.

In Handel’s Arioso e recitativo, Labelle is made to sing that she “feels her heart beating for reasons she does not know.” Worse, she sings in a slightly hushed, conspiratorial tone that although her heart has been pierced by one of Cupid’s arrows, if Cupid could possibly do the same (fatally) to one of her competitors in love then she will complain no more. Again, very depressing, but how lucky that Labelle can fill the whole range of demanding emotions.

Georg Philipp Telemann’s Quatuor No.3 (G Major, 1738) restores our spirits. Judith Linsenberg’s recorder-playing contributes greatly to the rather dreamy quality of the Légèrement second movement, the Gracieusement of the third merely adding to it. For those who love rural tableaux, there is the Vite with the spirited violin playing of Elizabeth Blumenstock, and the following Gai. Finally, there is another unusually specified movement – Lentement-Vite-Lentement-Vite. Once again, violin and recorder are allowed to entertain us.

Dominique Labelle returns for a final flourish with the cantata from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Orphée. Enjoy the complex voice and violin combination in Que du bruit and several very short but poignant pieces. The last movement, En amour il est un moment, is a worthy representative of Baroque romance from instruments to lyrics to Labelle’s interpretation.

01 Schumann BP RattleSchumann – Symphonies 1-4
Berliner Philharmoniker; Sir Simon Rattle
Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings 140011 (2 CDs + Blu-ray)

Schumann was the consummate Romantic composer, whose compositions from consequential piano works, chamber music, song cycles, concertos, staged works and symphonies, etc. remain in the active repertoire. Except for the staged works that enjoy rare outings. Schumann was also a busy author, publisher and critic.

I have attended many performances of one or another of the four Schumann symphonies and acquired or listened to recordings by the great and not so great conductors and orchestras. Many have been mighty achievements but very few found the composer behind the printed notes. The most popular misreadings are those that emulate Brahms.

Over the years conductors had almost universally decided that Schumann lacked the skills to orchestrate and so many dutiful performances perpetuated just this. Mahler re-orchestrated all four symphonies which were recorded by Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra for Decca. In the early 1990s, conductor Florian Merz and the Klassische Philharmonie Düsseldorf recorded the four symphonies and other orchestral works for ebs. Employed were the critical editions of the scores commissioned by the Robert Schumann-Gesellschaft in Düsseldorf, which chose Schumann’s own 1851 re-orchestration of the 1841 Fourth (ebs 6088, 3CDs).The visceral Düsseldorf performances, while enthusiastic, are entirely objective. However, a genuine curiosity on a separate disc (ebs 6091) is a bold re-orchestration of the Fourth Symphony based on the original version of 1841 revised in 1891, 35 years after Schumann’s death, by Brahms and Franz Wullner.

Just as orchestras and other ensembles have learned to play Mozart with reduced forces and appropriate instruments, in order to produce the overall soundscape that Schumann envisioned it is essential to know and understand what the composer had in mind. Schumann should not be performed with the entire body of the modern symphony orchestra. Mendelssohn was Schumann’s teacher and both scored their works for the classical-size orchestra of, say, 50 players tops, to achieve the transparency and voicing intended. Rattle explains so much on this subject, making the enclosed Blu-ray disc so valuable in the understanding and background of so many facets of these works. Also by believing Schumann’s marked tempos and natural orchestral balances, the music can be incredibly profound without being heavy or slow. A fascinating and most informative part of Rattle talking about Schumann is the story of the Fourth Symphony and the reason for his decision to use Schumann’s original 1841 version…the one considered unplayable by many orchestras.

No doubt about it, this is an absolutely essential package for all Schumann appreciators and others. The set contains CDs but the exemplary sight and sound of the live performances on the Blu-ray disc moves the viewer right into the Philharmonie.

02 NutcrackerTchaikovsky – The Nutcracker; Symphony No.4
Mariinsky Orchestra; Valery Gergiev
Mariinsky MAR0593

There are those who think The Nutcracker is a children’s ballet. There are others whose only experience of the ballet is the constant and dreadful repetition of its greatest hits in shopping malls at this dark time of year. To both groups: listen to the Mariinsky Orchestra under Valery Gergiev perform the entire score, paying particular attention to the Waltz of the Flowers and the Intrada to the Pas de Deux immediately following. The rating “adult entertainment” could well be applied to these passionate expressions.

Gergiev is known for eccentric technique but also for wringing amazing performances from the players he leads. Mariinsky is his house band, so they have lots of practice following his tiny obscure gestures. They can turn on a dime out of an outrageous Presto, they phrase as a choral unit, the strings are encouraged to emote, and on this recording at least one hears observance of the composer’s more subtle dynamic indications. Although arguably chestnuts, they’re delicious, and so much fresher than the overcooked versions we are often fed while choosing gifts.

The remainder of disc two is Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. The symphony predates the ballet by a good 14 years, from the period before and immediately following his failed marriage. Pit bands love to perform concert music, an assertion audibly demonstrated here. Delicacy and ferocity alternate, melancholy gives way to joy and returns. The relationship between conductor and players is so solid, lending brilliant assurance to the performance that wildly (romantically) swings through the gamut of expression and tempi. They perform, understandably, as artists who love and treasure their heritage. The Canzonetta is breathtaking in its lyricism, and then one can almost imagine a choreography for the Scherzo movement involving two opposing teams of folk dancers, the strings versus the winds.

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