11 Satie VexedErik Satie – Vexations
Noriko Ogawa (1890 Érard Piano)
Bis BIS-2325 (naxosdirect.com)

Erik Satie – a true forerunner of the Impressionist school or an accomplished but eccentric dilettante? Nearly 100 years after his death, the composer from Normandy – bearded and bespectacled – continues to be a source of controversy. His music always demonstrated a particular diversity of styles, all of which reveal a strikingly original musical personality – and this BIS recording of Vexations performed by pianist Noriko Ogawa on an 1890 Érard instrument, is yet another example of his eclecticism.

The set reputedly dates from the early 1890s. Typically, Satie provided no information about it, the only source being a scribbled single-page manuscript discovered after his death. From the outset, it’s clearly evident that this is music like no other. The score begins with a single-line 18-note theme which is then repeated, this time used as a bass line for two voices above it moving in tritone harmony. Following a repeat of the single-line theme, the harmonization is then inverted. According to Satie’s instructions, the sequence is to be repeated 840 times! Nevertheless, Ogawa has opted for a more manageable repetition of a mere 142, bringing the length of the performance to a practical 80 minutes. She successfully varies her interpretation through shifts in dynamics and articulation, and in all, delivers a poised and sensitive performance. The result is music which is haunting, unsettling and after a while, possibly even hypnotic.

So, is the final result mesmerizing or futile? Indeed, that would be up to the listener to decide. If you’re seeking something light and melodic to relax to on a summer’s evening, this isn’t it. On the other hand, the ambience created is perfect for quiet reflection or meditation – all we need are the candles and incense!

12 Caroline LeonardelliSerenata
Caroline Léonardelli
CEN Classics CEN1022 (carolineleonardelli.com)

Canadian JUNO-nominated classical concert harpist Caroline Léonardelli describes her third recording as a “homage to her Italian heritage.” Her detailed, conscientious research culminates in this all-solo, Italian-based harp-repertoire release featuring composers from the 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when the modern version of the concert harp was being introduced. The compositions touch on such influences as fantasies, studies, suites, classical, opera arias and folk/popular music. Léonardelli performs them all with subtlety, virtuosity and incredible dedication.

Title track Serenata Op.51 No.6 (1910) by Alessandro Longo is an uplifting classical harp work with contrasting high notes and lower pitched lines, glissandos and slight rubatos at the ends of phrases. Luigi Tedeschi’s slower Etude Impromptu Op.37 (1906) is stylistically more Romantic with high clear pitches and sensitive melodic movement. Giovanni Caramiello bases his Rimembranza di Napoli Op.6 (1877) on two Neapolitan folk songs. The detached effect going into the infamous song Santa Lucia, with its high-pitched ringing middle song section, will make one want to listen to the harp instead of trying to sing along! Two Gaetano Donizetti opera arias are featured, one arranged by Albert Zabel and the other by John Thomas. Both become harp arias without words while remaining very true to Donizetti’s original works. Virgilio Mortari’s two pieces feature more contemporary colours and chromatic melodies.

Léonardelli is an expressive, smart, devoted harp soloist. Both harp fans and those new to this instrument will enjoy her performances.

Listen to 'Serenata' Now in the Listening Room

01 Kolk coverThe only problem with my reviewing CDs by guitarist Michael Kolk is that I keep running out of superlatives, and his latest disc – 20th Century Guitar Sonatas – presents the same welcome problem (michaelkolkguitar.com).

There are several connecting themes with the works here. Both the Sonata para guitarra from 1933 by the Spanish composer Antonio José (born in 1902 and a victim of the fascist regime in 1936) and the 1927 Sonatina by Cyril Scott (1879-1970) were the only works those composers wrote for guitar. In addition, both works were unknown or lost until their relatively recent publications, the José in 1990 and the Scott in 2002.

This also applies to the 1994 Sonate in A Minor by the Austrian composer Ferdinand Rebay (1880-1953), most of whose solo and chamber guitar music has only recently been discovered. The 1967 Sonata No.1, the first of three by the Argentinian composer Carlos Guastavino (1912-2000) completes an outstanding recital.

Technically Kolk – as always – seems faultless, but it’s the range of tone, colour and dynamics as well as the constant sense of a highly developed musical intelligence and an innate understanding of and feel for form, line and phrase that continually impresses. Beautifully recorded in the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene in Toronto and engineered by Kolk’s duo partner Drew Henderson, it’s another masterclass in guitar performance.

02 Lara St JohnViolinist Lara St. John has always been a bit of a free spirit and not afraid to take risks, so you would be safe in assuming that her latest CD, Key of A, featuring Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No.9 in A Major, “Kreutzer” and the Franck Violin Sonata in A Major with pianist Matt Herskowitz (Ancalagon ANC144 larastjohn.com), would be anything but routine playing. 

St. John says she wanted a pianist “free of traditional ideas” for the Franck, and one who would “be able to keep up with the extremes” she envisioned for the Beethoven, tempo and volume-wise. Well, she certainly got her wish with the brilliant Herskowitz. The Beethoven features breathtaking tempos for the two outer movements with a wide dynamic range, St. John using portamento and an almost violent attack at times, with Herskowitz matching her step for step. It’s hair-raising stuff.

The Franck features almost decadently Romantic playing, with St. John never afraid to pull things around in the tempestuous second movement, sounding almost improvisatory in the third and never resorting to the usual merely smooth and flowing melodic line in the canonic finale. It’s not often that this piece sounds different, but this is risk-taking at its best and most exciting, with tremendous piano work from Herskowitz.

Fritz Kreisler’s Schön Rosmarin completes a quite startling CD.

download 13The Eybler Quartet is back with another superb 2CD set of works by a neglected 18th-century composer, this time Franz Asplmayr Six Quartets, Op.2, early works by the Austrian composer who lived from 1728 to 1786 (Gallery Players of Niagara GPN20001 galleryplayers.ca/shop/music).

Although best known for his theatre works, Asplmayr produced 41 symphonies, 70 trios and 43 string quartets, the six four-movement works here – in G, D, F, E, C and E-flat majors – described in Patrick Jordan’s erudite and insightful notes as being “wonderfully unique and highly underappreciated.” They were published by Huberty in Paris in 1769, although probably written much earlier.

The Eybler players are in top form again, displaying their customary perfect ensemble, faultless intonation and vitality and warmth, with technique to burn. Recorded at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto, sound and balance are both ideal in simply delightful performances.

Listen to 'Franz Asplmayr Six Quartets, Op.2' Now in the Listening Room

04 Duo Concertante SchubertThe superb Duo Concertante husband-and-wife team of pianist Timothy Steeves and violinist Nancy Dahn add another stellar CD to their discography with Franz Schubert Music for Violin and Piano (Marquis Classics MAR611 marquisclassics.com).

The duo’s trademark musical qualities – perfect ensemble, clarity, tone, a fine grasp of phrase and form, and an exquisite sensitivity – are all fully evident in a recital consisting of the Fantasy in C Major Op.159 D934, the Sonata in A Major Op.162 D574 and the Rondo in B Minor Op.70 D895. These works are available digitally as well as on CD, while the three Sonatinas Op.137: No.1 in D Major D384; No.2 in A Minor D385; and No.3 in G Minor D408 are available only from streaming and download services. 

In another Glenn Gould Studio recording the sound and balance are ideal, capturing every nuance of Steeves’ rich piano and Dahn’s expressive and distinctive violin. In the booklet notes the players comment on the vocal quality of Schubert’s melodic writing. It’s a clear insight into their approach to this recording project, for it’s a CD that sings from beginning to end.

05 Boundless The three Schubert Sonatinas are also featured on Boundless – Schubert Sonatinas Performed on historical instruments, a new Sono Luminus CD with another husband and wife team, violinist Zachary Carrettín and pianist Mina Gajić (DSL-92240 sonoluminus.com/store/boundless). Carrettín plays a rare Franz Kinberg violin with gut strings, set up for late classical and early-Romantic performance, and uses a late classical John Dodd pre-Tourte bow c.1800. Gajić’s piano is an Érard concert grand from 1835. 

We’re obviously in another sound world here, with less power and different sonority in the piano and less vibrato from the violin, which sounds a bit drier but not necessarily softer. The playing is top-notch technically, with accuracy and agility, but despite the different tonal colours it tends to lack the warmth of the Duo Concertante sound.

It’s clearly closer to what Schubert would have heard in his lifetime, though, the performers describing the choices regarding pedalling, chord voicing, balance, articulation and score indications as a fascinating exploration as they sought – successfully, clearly – to pay homage to the original intent as well as to the authentic sounds.

06 Plave BosmansImpressions – The Rediscovery of Henriëtte Bosmans (leahplave.com/media) is the debut album from McGill graduate cellist Leah Plave, accompanied by pianist Dan Sato.

Bosmans (1895-1952) was a distinguished Dutch pianist and composer who was much admired in her time. As a bisexual Jewish woman her music was banned by the Nazis, but she kept performing and composing in secret. For many years following her death her music remained virtually unknown, even in the Netherlands.

Plave’s CD contains Bosmans’ complete works for cello and piano, music that reflects a personal style that mixed German Romanticism with French Impressionism. The 1919 Cello Sonata is a four-movement work with a strong, brooding opening movement. The Trois Impressions from around 1926 – I. Cortège; II. Nuit Calme; and III. En Espagne – feature a quite lovely middle movement and some dazzling piano writing in En Espagne that not only reflects Bosmans’ abilities as a pianist but also draws terrific playing from Sato.

Two short pieces – Chanson and the lovely Arietta – complete the CD. Plave gives effective and committed performances, strongly supported by Sato’s fine accompaniment.

Interestingly, all nine tracks appear to be available on YouTube under Top Tracks – Leah Plave.

07 Alina IbragimovaThere’s another terrific CD of the two Shostakovich Violin Concertos, this time with the brilliant and always exciting Alina Ibragimova with the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia ‘Evgeny Svetlanov’ under Vladimir Jurowski (Hyperion CDA68313 hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA68313).

The Concerto No.1 in A Minor Op.77 was written for David Oistrakh in 1947/48, but withheld due to the infamous Zhdanov decree and not premiered until October 1955. It’s a four-movement work, with an ethereal, uneasy opening Nocturne, a demonic Scherzo and a massive central Passacaglia leading to the famous, towering solo cadenza.  Ibragimova is superb throughout, opting to play the opening theme of the following grim-humoured Burlesque on the violin, as originally scored by Shostakovich before he re-scored it for orchestra alone at Oistrakh’s request to enable the soloist to at least wipe his brow. It’s the first commercial recording thus.

The Concerto No.2 in C-sharp Minor Op.129 was written in 1967 for Oistrakh’s 60th birthday, albeit a year early. There’s simply beautiful playing from Ibragimova in the middle movement, and another tough cadenza handled superbly.

Great sound, great balance, dazzling playing and interpretation all add up to an outstanding disc.

08 Hunka ICO WebCover 1Violinist Katherine Hunka is the soloist as well as the director of the Irish Chamber Orchestra on a new CD of music for strings by Piazzolla, Schubert and Schnittke (Orchid Classics ORC100130 orchidclassics.com/releases/orc100130-irish-chamber-orchestra-katherine-hunka).

Leonard Desyatnikov’s arrangement of Piazzolla’s hauntingly beautiful The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires adds direct quotes from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in what is almost a recomposition. The resulting work is extremely effective, drawing sumptuous playing from Hunka that is stylistic, warm and impassioned. The ensemble matches her in a vividly successful re-imagining of Piazzolla’s highly personal sound.

Schubert’s lovely Rondo in A Major for Violin and String Orchestra D438 shows clear influence of Mozart’s violin concertos. The Schnittke work is Moz-Art à la Haydn from 1977, described in the notes as combining “an unfinished fragment by Mozart – his Pantomime Music K446 – with the theatricality of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony.” The noise of the players changing positions is deliberately audible, complete with heavy footsteps, wailing and crying!

A beautifully idiomatic performance of Oblivion, one of Piazolla’s most celebrated and traditional tangos, provides a lovely close to an excellent CD.

09 Camerata TchaikovskyThe London-based Russian violist Yuri Zhislin is the conductor and arranger as well as the soloist on Russian Colours, a CD of music from the Russian Romantic era arranged for string orchestra and featuring his own ensemble, the Camerata Tchaikovsky (Orchid Classics ORC100136 orchidclassics.com/releases/orc100136-camerata-tchaikovsky-2).

Zhislin is the fine soloist in his own transcription of Alexander Glazunov’s Concerto in E-flat Major for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra Op.104 from 1934, a fairly brief four-movement work that doesn’t appear to lose anything in the transcription, the warmth of the viola – especially in the middle register – being very close to the saxophone timbre.

Anton Arensky’s three-movement String Quartet No.2 in A Minor Op.35 from 1894 is the other major work, its second movement Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky proving so popular that Arensky himself arranged it for string orchestra as Op.35a. It’s the only track on the CD not arranged by Zhislin.

Three perennial favourites complete a beautifully played and highly enjoyable CD: the Andante from Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No.1 from 1871; Borodin’s Nocturne from his 1881 String Quartet No.2; and Rachmaninoff’s 1912 Vocalise Op.34.

10 VasksMaxim Rysanov is the viola soloist and also conductor of the Sinfonietta Riga on Viola Concerto/String Symphony ‘Voices’ featuring music by the Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks (BIS 2443-SACD naxosdirect.com/items/peteris-vasks-viola-concerto-symphony-no.-1-voices-533230). 

The Concerto for Viola and String Orchestra from 2014/15 was dedicated to Rysanov and premiered by him in 2016; the performance here is a world premiere recording. It’s a quite beautiful, highly tonal and deeply emotional work, in which Vasks “returns to two essential concepts: chant and monologue.” The opening movement rises to the heights of serenity and despair, with the second movement a joyful – but still minor-key – contrast. Despair seems to be the dominant factor in the final two movements.

The Symphony for Strings was written in 1991 as Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania were breaking free from the crumbling Soviet Union. “The new beginning was difficult,” says Vasks. Certainly the work reflects that feeling, with tenuous openings to both the first and the fairly hostile middle movement, followed by a quite brutal third movement which eventually dies away to nothing.

02 Beausejour coverLe Rappel des Oiseaux
Luc Beauséjour
Analekta AN 2 8797 (analekta.com/en/albums/le-rappel-des-oiseaux-luc-beausejour)

Now here’s a real treat: a full course of tastefully chosen Baroque miniatures of the aviary art from a rich trove of 18th-century French harpsichord works by Rameau, Couperin, D’Agincour, Daquin, Dornel, Duphly, Dandrieu and Février. The love of birds would seem to be a Gallic specialty, whether it be imitative (Messiaen reigns supreme in the 20th century) or allegorical; all are amply stuffed with scrumptious ornaments for your delectation. Hens, cuckoos, nightingales and swallows abound, along with the amorous adventures of the turtle doves. 

Luc Beauséjour is well known for his mastery of the Baroque keyboard repertoire and has released over 35 recordings throughout his career. He performs here on a harpsichord from the Montreal atelier of Yves Beaupré, a sweet two-manual instrument modelled after a 1681 design by Vaudry, expertly recorded by Carl Talbot. 

Speaking of birds, the quills of this harpsichord are fashioned from the feathers of indigenous Canada geese, which Beauséjour carves himself. It’s finger-lickin’ good.

Daniel Foley

03 Vikoingur Olafsson Debussy RameauDebussy; Rameau
Víkingur Ólafsson
Deutsche Grammophon 4837701 (deutschegrammophon.com/en/artists/vikingur-olafsson)

Fresh on the heels of last year’s array of accolades and honours, the young Icelandic pianist, Víkingur Ólafsson, has just released his third record on the Deutsche Grammophon label. He is known for communicative and colouristic prowess, winning the hearts and ears of many listeners with uncommon interpretations of keyboard music by J.S. Bach and Philip Glass.

For this new album, Ólafsson interweaves short pieces by Jean-Philippe Rameau and Claude Debussy – repertoire written nearly 200 years apart – in a winsome, 28-track presentation that reveals intriguing textural kinships. (Ólafsson considers the two composers “soulmates.”)

This insightful pianist perceives relationships amongst the repertoire on various levels from which components of sonority, texture and polyphony are admirably distilled with interpretive command. The resulting (and likely intended) effect is of partial fusion and mutual application: the impressionist, painterly sonic canvases of Debussy begin to sound like Rameau’s elegant, clean-lined character pieces of the High Baroque, and vice versa. 

While this curatorial vision is appealing, the disc tends to resemble a recital program rather than a long-playing album. The live concert experience of such repertoire might be more compelling, even revelatory. At the recording’s midpoint, the multidimensionality that Ólafsson seeks to convey devolves into two-dimensional space, bereft of varied access points. As we journey from Rameau to Debussy and back again, the programmatic permutations lose their lustre, a case in point for urging the differentiation of genre, i.e. The LP Album ≠ The Recital Program.

Adam Sherkin

04 Zoltan Fejervari SchumannSchumann – Waldszenen; Nachtstücke; Humoreske
Zoltán Fejérvári
ATMA ACD2 2816 (atmaclassique.com/En/Albums/AlbumInfo.aspx?AlbumID=1648) 

A perfectly considered new album from Hungarian pianist, Zoltán Fejérvári, presents three works by Robert Schumann in reverse chronological order: the Humoreske, Op.20, the Nachtstücke Op.23 (both written in 1839) and the later Waldszenen, Op.82 of 1849. 

Recorded at Domain Forget’s Salle de concert, this all-Schumann record features slightly offbeat choices from the composer’s catalogue. But taking the road less travelled has paid off for Fejérvári, as he brings a unique sensibility to Schumann’s music and dwells happily in the curious – at times unnerving(!) – realms of these three cycles.

One can, rather fancifully, divide the nine pieces of the Waldszenen into two groups: those that depict the natural world (i.e. the life of the forest and its nonhuman inhabitants) and those that do not (i.e. a hunter, an inn and a farewell). Fejérvári delivers a slight heft-of-hand in this playing, rather effective for those human narratives that require warmth and tonal weight; the more ephemeral music, (inspired by the woodland itself), urges a defter touch. 

The latter two-thirds of the record are filled, quite simply, with beautiful music making. Fejérvári embraces Opp.23 and 20 with spirited imagination and stylistic aplomb. A personalized probing of material is balanced with refinement of sonic design and the mercurial nature of Schumann’s art is coalesced for the listener with a favourably fresh approach that connects hallmark performance practice from the early Romantic piano with that of our present day.

Adam Sherkin

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06 Janacek AdesJanáček – Solo Piano Works
Thomas Adès
Signum Classics SIGCD600 (naxosdirect.com/items/janácek-solo-piano-works-531008)

The mighty Thomas Adès has long commanded almost any stage he graces with tireless innovation and a lion’s share of good musical sense. Audiences have marvelled at his performative abilities (alongside his compositional skill) since the brink of his career and a recent disc from Signum Classics, featuring Adès in readings of piano music by Leoš Janáček, is no exception. 

Janáček is, arguably, the archetypal composer’s composer, celebrated for his singular musical voice as both a Slav and cosmopolitan craftsman of the 20th century. The strides made by this innovative Czech composer are inevitably admired today by those musicians and audiences in the know.

How fitting, then, for Adès to investigate the cornerstones of such a composer’s piano repertoire and present his findings. In many respects, the two men have much in common: they have both sought out an individuality of expression through the musical tools of their own time. As such, their art greets the contemporary listener with an immediacy – recognizable in a way – but with a unique perspective possessing blindingly ingenious modes of construction.

From the first note of this record, comprising the 14 parts of On an Overgrown Path, the two-movement sonata From the Street and the four-part In the Mists, Adès lays bare his discoveries and convictions regarding Janáček’s art. Despite the lone harsh-sounding fortissimo chord or the odd fuzzy trill, this is recommended listening for any music lover worth their salt. (The cover art too should be noted, certainly inspired by “The Barn Owl Has Not Flown Away!” from Series I of On an Overgrown Path.)

Adam Sherkin

07 French RaritiesFrench Piano Rarities
Ralph van Raat
Naxos 8.573894 (naxosdirect.com/items/rare-french-piano-music-535795)

This fascinating disc opens with Debussy’s shimmering first version (1915) of his Étude, Pour les arpèges composés, discovered in 1977 and published as Étude retrouvée. His last-known piano piece, Les Soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (1917, discovered in 2001), was an appreciative gift to his dependable wartime coal-supplier. In both substance and mood, it closely resembles his crepuscular Prélude No.4.

In 1944, the 19-year-old Pierre Boulez began studies with Olivier Messiaen. His 27-minute Prélude, Toccata et Scherzo from that year, here receiving its first recording, reflects Messiaen’s influence with its gamelan-like percussiveness. The following year, his 12 Notations, most lasting under a minute, reveal Boulez newly embracing Webern’s succinct serialism, introduced to him by another mentor, René Leibowitz. Boulez’s last completed piano work, the four-minute Une Page d’éphéméride (2005), filled with abrupt outbursts, was composed as a piece for piano students.

Messiaen himself is represented by four selections. Morceau de lecture à vue (1934), written as a sight-reading exercise for his students, would later provide the Thème d’amour for his piano-masterpiece, Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus. Birdsongs of several different species saturate La fauvette passerinette (1961, discovered in 2012) and two movements for solo piano from Messiaen’s monumental orchestral work Des canyons aux étoiles… (1974).

The CD ends with Ravel’s exquisite, antique-sounding, one-minute-long Menuet in C-sharp Minor (1904). Each of these “rarities” merits greater exposure; Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat’s richly-coloured performances enhance this disc’s eminent recommendabilty. 

Michael Schulman

01 Marin MaraisMarin Marais – Badinages
Mélisande Corriveau; Eric Milnes
ATMA ACD2 2785 (atmaclassique.com/Fr/Albums/AlbumInfo.aspx?AlbumID=1643) 

French musician and composer Marin Marais (1656-1728) served at the Sun King’s Versailles court, composing as many as six operas – and fathering 19 children. Another point of interest, he was one of the earliest composers of program music; his The Bladder-Stone Operation includes detailed descriptions of the surgery. Marais was, however, best known for his supreme skill in capturing the rich, deep, silky and nuanced voice of the viola da gamba. He poured all his skill and passion into his vast five-volume lifework Pièces de viole (1686–1725).

Together with harpsichordist and conductor Eric Milnes, Marin Marais: Badinages features Québecoise viola da gamba virtuosa Mélisande Corriveau. Gramophone magazine hailed her as leading “a new generation of players bringing formidable performing skills and knowledge of period practices.”

Badinages is devoted to 20 excerpts from Marais’ remarkable bass viol repertoire of some 500 works. He toyed with convention in some, presenting a series of character pieces rather than the dance forms then favoured.

These suites demand a high degree of virtuoso technique, application of appropriate period performance practice, and taste. Corriveau is fully up to the challenge. She renders the numerous period ornaments with finesse, the sound-swelling enflés and one- and two-finger vibratos among them, conveying a stylish, sensuously delicate musical affect. 

Adventurous both melodically and harmonically, Marais’ music marks a high water mark of the French Baroque. And to our contemporary ears, Corriveau and Milnes’ evocative performance on this album firmly sites this music in that very particular time and place.

Listen to 'Marin Marais – Badinages' Now in the Listening Room

02 Beethoven SymphoniesBeethoven – Nine Symphonies
MSO Festival Chorus; Tuomas Katajala; Derek Welton; Kate Royal; Christine Rice; Malmö Symphony Orchestra; Robert Trevino
Ondine ODE 1348-5Q (naxosdirect.com/items/beethoven-the-9-symphonies-537137) 

Young conductors must look forward to recording their first Beethoven cycle the way adolescents wait for their chance to get the keys to the car. Not every car is as finely tuned as the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, and not every kid knows how to drive as well as Robert Trevino. Still, the task must cut any ego down to size, so overdone is this amazing artifact of orchestral repertoire. What hasn’t been done with it? From the turbulence of Toscannini’s NBC recordings, at breakneck pace, to the several versions from Berlin with von Karajan, Chicago with Solti, and on and on…

And how to summarize what Trevino has achieved? First and foremost, his reading is lyrical. Beethoven can seem all elbows and knees, his angles and bangings claiming too much attention of those who only see the storm clouds gathering on the brow of his famous portrait. Trevino claims a different outlook on the famously tortured genius’ musical expression. After the jarring sequence of dominant seventh chords that opens Symphony No.1, the violins are encouraged to fill their instruments with romantic lush sound, and they manage the effect without excessive vibrato. In the iconic Fifth, whenever it stops knocking fatefully at the door, the same quality enters, especially in the first movement’s second subject. 

Any symphony cycle will chart LvB’s progress from his early punk-Haydn phase, through the tormented Heiligenstadt period of encroaching silence to his late mystically elevated, even serene mastery. His greatest two symphonies mark the divisions between those three periods: the Seventh, which precedes his late period; and the greatest of them all, his Third Symphony, subtitled Eroica, the one famously dedicated and then undedicated to Napoleon. Consider the slow movements of each. In the earlier one, the mood is extreme tragedy, which Trevino milks by taking a tempo more than ten points below the indicated 80 bpm. The only way it can work is by complete dedication to the line. He allows the pace to move forward in the fuguetto, where the composer seems to cry for mercy or justice or just relief, and then lets it positively take off in the codetta that precedes the return of the opening material, yet he never returns to that opening dirge-like pace. This is pretty radical, to my ear, and I love it. In the more recognizable marche funèbre from the Seventh, as much as Trevino allowed flexibility in the example above, here he maintains an assiduous observance of a uniform but never mechanical pace. This earns him a standing ovation from this quarter. I cannot abide this piece given the inadvertent gradual accelerando one sometimes hears; it makes me want to drive off a cliff. Both movements perch on the precipice of despair, but the later one seems less angry, more resigned, and Trevino observes this difference, it seems to me.

A story Trevino tells in the notes about having attempted a strange move in a Schumann symphony with Leipzig’s Gewandhaus orchestra (the organization that premiered Schumann’s works) has him finally agreeing to try it their way, and thanking them subsequently for “making [him] a better conductor.” Malmö has perhaps significantly younger and, it might be, more flexible personnel. The ignition at the heart of this high-performance vehicle is undoubtedly a spectacularly well-regulated wind section: pitch-perfect solos and ensemble work enhance the lyrical element. Trevino loves the middle voices, and makes sure we hear them. He gives the strings license when supplying repeated rhythmic fill to celebrate the meeting of gut and horsehair. And he helps the players achieve the most startling crescendi. It’s lovely to hear Beethoven that isn’t all bumps and bruises, although the brass and (classical) timpani provide just enough of those. The low strings in the recitativo of the finale of the towering Ninth Symphony serve notice, if any were needed, that the entire band, from trunk to transmission, are an ensemble worthy of the ace driver on the podium.

03 NACOClara – Robert – Johannes: Darlings of the Muses
Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra; Alexander Shelley; Gabriela Montero
Analekta AN 2 8877-8 (analekta.com/en/albums/clara-robert-johannes-nac-orchestra)

British-born conductor Alexander Shelley assumed the role of music director of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra in 2015 and this Analekta recording is the fourth to be released under his leadership. Titled Clara-Robert-Johannes: Darlings of the Muses, it features Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero and is the first in a series of four to be released exploring the personal and professional connections among Robert Schumann, his wife Clara and Johannes Brahms.

Completed in just over a month in 1841, Schumann’s Symphony No.1 in B-flat Major “Spring” was the composer’s first attempt at orchestral writing, and its buoyant, optimistic mood was reflective of a particularly happy time in his life. From the opening fanfare, the NACO approaches the score with much panache – the playing is full and robust with a satisfying balance among the strings and brass. 

In contrast, the opening mood of Brahms’ Symphony No.1 in C Minor is dark and foreboding, aided by the steady beat of the timpani – is that really fate knocking at the door? Shelley and the orchestra successfully convey a true sense of majesty throughout the work, and today, it’s difficult to believe that this work was the source of such controversy at the time of its premiere in 1876.

For years, Clara Schumann was too often known as “an accomplished pianist who composed” – surely an unfair assessment. Her Piano Concerto Op.7 was an early work written in 1835 when she was all of 14. Gabriela Montero delivers a polished performance with the demanding solo passages allowing her ample opportunity to display a flawless technique. Clearly this music was not intended for amateurs!

Interspersed with the three major works are short improvisations by Montero based on music by Schumann, aptly demonstrating her talents as both pianist and composer.

In all, this is a promising start to an engaging series we can look forward to. Recommended.

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