11 David Jalbert ProkofievProkofiev – Piano Sonatas Vol.1
David Jalbert
ATMA ACD2 2461 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Sergei Prokofiev began his career as a concert pianist, so perhaps it’s not surprising that music for piano would comprise such an important part of his output. Undoubtedly his finest keyboard writing is to be found in the nine piano sonatas composed between 1907 and 1953, four of which are presented on this ATMA recording with pianist David Jalbert.  A graduate of the Conservatoire de musique du Québec, the Glenn Gould School and the Juilliard School, Jalbert is currently head of the piano department at the University of Ottawa.

The brief Sonata Op.1 in F Minor from 1907 went through numerous revisions and is very much steeped in the late-Romantic tradition. From the outset, Jalbert demonstrates keen understanding of this daunting repertoire tempered by a flawless technique.

While the first sonata has roots in the 19th century, the second from 1914 is clearly a product of the 20th, with its biting dissonance and angular melodies. Very much the music of a young composer finding his own voice, the work embodies a spirit of buoyant enthusiasm. The single-movement Sonata No.3 completed in 1917 contains a variety of contrasting moods all within a seven-minute timeframe.

Jalbert admits his partiality towards the Fourth Sonata, Op.29, also finished in 1917. Again, the work is a study in contrasts, from the restrained and darkly introspective first movement to the exuberant finale, which Jalbert performs with great panache.

An added bonus is the inclusion of four miniatures, the Marche, the Gavotte and the Prelude from the set Op.12 and the Suggestion diabolique from Op.4, which further enhance an already satisfying program. This is a stellar performance of engaging repertoire and we look forward to future additions in this series.

01 Fire and GraceAlma is the third album of original arrangements by Fire & Grace, the duo of violinist Edwin Huizinga and guitarist William Coulter (Roaring Girl Records fireandgracemusic.com). Coulter’s plectrum guitar is an acoustic steel-string Custom Meridian made by Mike Baranik.

Piazzolla’s Libertango, Albéniz’ Asturias (with violin shredding!) and Vivaldi’s L’Estate – Summer open a fascinating CD, at the heart of which is Suite Español, a continuation of the duo’s project of arranging the solo music of Bach (in this case the Cello Suite No.1) and blending it with folk music, the six Bach movements in this case interspersed with melodies from Spain.

An arrangement of Tanya’s Tune, composed by the former Väsen guitarist Roger Tallroth, completes a hugely entertaining disc.

Listen to 'Alma' Now in the Listening Room

02 Sheku IsataFor Muse, their first album together, the young brother and sister duo of Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason chose two works that they love playing in concert (Decca Classics 4851630 deccaclassics.com/en).

Barber’s Cello Sonata in C Minor Op.6, written when he was 22 and a student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, opens the disc, while Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata in G Minor Op.19 from 1901 closes it. The duo notes that the two works are from completely different worlds, but “somehow they work together in terms of their emotional intensity.” Certainly there’s no lack of emotional intensity in these outstanding performances.

Songs by the two composers effectively tie the sonatas together on a terrific disc. The three Rachmaninoff songs – It Cannot Be!, How Fair This Spot and The Muse – were already among the duo’s favourites while the four Barber songs – There’s Nae Lark, A Slumber Song of the Madonna, With Rue My Heart Is Laden and Sure on This Shining Night – were new to them.

03 Brahms SonatasTwo outstanding representatives of the younger generation of Russian musicians, pianist Maxim Emelyanychev and violinist Aylen Pritchin, are featured on Brahms Sonatas for Piano & Violin on period instruments (Aparté AP237 apartemusic.com).

The instruments in question are an 1875 Steinway piano and a 1725 Jacques Boquay violin, but there’s plenty of powerful, full-bodied piano playing to accompany Pritchin’s beautifully bright and sensitive touch.

The Scherzo from the 1853 F-A-E Sonata, Brahms’ contribution to the three-movement work written with Schumann and Dietrich as a gift for Joseph Joachim, opens the disc. Fine performances of the three sonatas from the period 1878-88 – No.1 in G Major Op.78, No.2 in A Major Op.100 and No.3 in D Minor Op.108 – complete a lovely CD.

The booklet essay notes the references to Brahms’ own songs in the sonatas, particularly the first two, and there’s certainly a delightfully lyrical approach to the beautiful performances here.

04 Kornauth FuchsKornauth & Fuchs Works for Viola and Piano is another CD product of the Covid lockdown, this time featuring the Litton Duo of Katharina Kang Litton, principal violist of the New York City Ballet and her pianist husband, conductor Andrew Litton (BIS-2574 bis.se).

Through playing the Brahms sonatas together the two discovered the viola and piano music of Brahmns’ contemporary Robert Fuchs (1847-1927), whom Brahms greatly admired, and Fuchs’ student Egon Kornauth (1891-1959). Fuchs’ other students included Mahler, Wolf, Sibelius, Zemlinsky, Korngold, Enescu and Franz Schmidt.

Kornauth is represented by his Viola Sonata in C-sharp Minor Op.3 from 1912, and Fuchs by his Viola Sonata in D Minor Op.86 from 1909 and Six Fantasy Pieces Op.117 from 1926-27.

While not exactly “of their time” from a progressive viewpoint they are nonetheless beautifully crafted and extremely attractive works that require passion, warmth, feeling, effortless technique and perfect ensemble, all here in abundance on a lovely CD.

05 PohadkaCellist Laura van der Heijden and pianist Jâms Coleman make their Chandos label debut with Pohádka: Tales from Prague to Budapest, an album that explores the rich folk melodies of Janáček, Kodály and Dvořák (CHAN 20227 chandos.net).

Janáček’s Pohádka (Fairy Tale) is typical of the composer’s late and highly individual voice. Kodály’s Cello Sonata Op.4 from 1909-10 is here, as are two short songs transcribed by van der Heijden and the Sonatina, also from 1909 and originally intended as part of the Op.4 sonata. The Dvořák is the short song Als die alte Mutter Op.55 No.4 from 1880.

There are two works by lesser-known composers: Mouvement, written for Kodály’s 80th birthday in 1963 by András Mihály (1917-1993); and van der Heijden’s transcription of the brief 1936-37 song Navzdy (Forever) Op.12 No.1 by Vitězslava Kaprálová, who died from tuberculosis in 1940 aged only 25.

Van der Heijden’s remarkably effective adaptation of Janáček’s Violin Sonata closes an excellent disc.

06 Coco TomitaAnother artist making her label debut is the young Japanese violinist Coco Tomita, who was offered a debut album on the Orchid Classics label after winning the Strings Final of the 2020 BBC Young Musician competition; she is accompanied by pianist Simon Callaghan on Origins (ORC100194 orchidclassics.com).

At the heart of the recital are Poulenc’s Violin Sonata – a marvellous piece, despite his doubts and misgivings – and the Ravel Violin Sonata No.2, both works given superb readings. The other major work is Hubay’s Carmen – Fantasie brillante, one of Tomita’s performance pieces from the 2020 competition and indeed played quite brilliantly.

Enescu’s unaccompanied Ménétrier (Country Fiddler) from his Impressions d’enfance Op.28 opens the disc. Lili Boulanger’s brief but beautiful Nocturne from Two Pieces is included, and the Heifetz arrangement of Debussy’s Beau Soir closes an outstanding CD.

There must surely be great things ahead for such a talent as this. [Please Note: the disc is not scheduled for release until March 2022.]

07 Elgar BridgeGabriel Schwabe is the cellist on Elgar & Bridge Cello Concertos, with the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under Christopher Ward (Naxos 8.574320 naxosdirect.com/search/8574320).

The Elgar Cello Concerto in E Minor Op.85 dates from 1919, when the composer was appalled and disillusioned by the suffering caused by the war and by the loss of the Edwardian world he loved. Schwabe’s performance gives you everything you could want from this beloved concerto.

The real revelation here, though, is Frank Bridge’s Oration, Concerto elegiaco. Written in 1929-30, it shares spiritual affinities and shadows of the Great War with the Elgar, and is described as “a funeral address of huge solemnity and narrative power in its outcry against the futility of war.” At times it is much like the Elgar in sound and style, but not in form, having seven connected movements with a particularly martial Allegro giusto and a central cadenza. I don’t recall ever having heard it before, but if ever a work cried out for wider exposure it’s this one. 

08 Shumsky BrahmsThe American violinist Oscar Shumsky, who died in 2000 at the age of 83, recorded extracts from the Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major Op. 77 for the Music Appreciation Recordings LP label, but a complete performance of the work has never been available. He did, however, make a digital recording with the Philharmonia Hungarica under Uri Segal in 1984, although apparently it was forgotten for almost four decades. It has now been released by Biddulph Recordings, with the Shumsky family’s permission, as Brahms Violin Concerto (85007-2 naxosdirect.com/search/bdf-ed-85007-2).

Shumsky was generally considered to be one of the great violinists of the 20th century, the New Grove Dictionary calling him “a player of virtuoso technique, pure style and refined taste,” qualities that are fully evident in this really fine performance. The orchestral sound is quite resonant, with the violin’s brilliant tone very much up front. It’s a gem of a CD.

09 Weinberg booklet 1Following his 2021 recording of Weinberg’s Violin Concerto in G Minor Op.67 and the Sonata for Two Violins Op.69 Gidon Kremer continues his passionate promotion of the previously neglected music of Shostakovich’s close friend and compatriot with Mieczysław Weinberg: Sonatas for Solo Violin (ECM New Series ECM 2705 ecmrecords.com/shop).

Sonatas No.1 Op.82 and No.2 Op.85 were both written in 1964, and are comprised of several short movements: Adagio, Andante, Allegretto, Lento and Presto for the Op.82; and Monody, Rests, Intervals, Replies, Accompaniment, Invocation and Syncopes for Op.85. Sonata No.3 Op.126 from 1979 is a single-movement work with a decided Shostakovich feel about it.

Kremer really throws himself into this music, which has a great range of emotional and technical challenges, but is capable of playing with much tenderness and sensitivity when required. This may not be the first recording of these fascinating works, but it’s difficult to imagine a set with a greater commitment. 

10 Shostakovich quartetsThere’s music by Weinberg’s compatriot himself this month as well, with a new recording of Shostakovich String Quartets No.3 & No.8 in excellent performances by the Korean ensemble Novus Quartet (Aparté AP271 apartemusic.com).

The String Quartet No.3 in F Major Op.73 from 1946 was triumphantly received by the public and critics alike, and seems to chart the path from the losses of the war to a return to daily life, albeit with a “forced cheerfulness” typical of the composer.

The String Quartet No.8 in C Minor Op.110 is the most autobiographical of the Shostakovich quartets, with his musical monogram D, E-flat, C and B natural (DSCH in German notation) forming the basis for much of the work. Moreover, the quartet is full of direct quotes from earlier Shostakovich works, most touchingly the melody from the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the work which resulted in his initial persecution by the Soviet authorities. Written in 1960 in response to the wartime destruction of human life and artistic treasures in Dresden, it was portrayed by Soviet propaganda as denouncing fascism, while it was almost certainly a reaction to Soviet atrocities under the Stalin regime.

11 Shea Kim duoThe Sound and the Fury is the first studio recording by the Shea-Kim Duo, the husband and wife team of violinist Brendan Shea and pianist Yerin Kim (Blue Griffin Recording BGR593 bluegriffin.com). Dvořák’s Mazurek Op.49, with its abundant and virtuosic double stops, was inspired by and dedicated to the great Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate. Grieg’s Violin Sonata No.3 in C Minor Op.45 is the biggest of his three violin sonatas and, possibly because of the simply beautiful slow middle movement, one of the composer’s favourite works. 

Janáček’s Violin Sonata, his only work in the genre, was written in early 1914, just prior to the outbreak of the Great War. The composer later referred to “the sound of steel clashing” in his head.

Shea plays with a warm tone on a violin which can tend to sound somewhat muted at times. Kim’s piano contribution is first-class throughout.

Listen to 'The Sound and the Fury' Now in the Listening Room

12 Sondheim A Little NightFinally, space restrictions usually preclude our covering short streaming-only releases, but in view of the recent passing of the legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, as well as the superb quality of the arrangement and performance, I just have to mention Stephen Sondheim A Little Night Music: Suite for Violin and Piano, arranged by Broadway veteran Eric Stern for the Opus Two duo of violinist William Terwilliger and pianist Andrew Cooperstock (Bridge 4010 bridgerecords.com).

The third in a series of Stern Broadway arrangements commissioned by Opus Two and made with the composer’s approval, it’s just under 15 minutes in length, but the four-movement suite of Night Waltz, You Must Meet My Wife, A Weekend in the Country and Send in the Clowns is an absolute delight.

I was lucky enough to receive a promo hard copy, but it can be streamed on Amazon, Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube Music, and purchased via Amazon, iTunes and Google Play, among others.

01 QuicksilverEarly Moderns, The (very) First Viennese School
Quicksilver
Independent (gemsny.org/online-store/quicksilver-early-moderns)

Viennese music means Mozart and Haydn. Well, not according to Quicksilver. They have compiled a CD of music from the very familiar venue that is Vienna, but by mainly unfamiliar composers. 

Perhaps the strangest factor is Quicksilver’s frequent use of the dulcian, ultimately familiar to Mozart as its descendant the bassoon, here helping to reinforce this school of music’s claims to be recognized in its own right. Dominic Teresi’s vigorous dulcian playing in Giovanni Battista Buonamente’s Sonata prima à 3 is a real highlight. 

Throughout the CD, the trombone and dulcian are prominent. This is noteworthy in the Sonata à 3 attributed to Heinrich I. F. von Biber, where Greg Ingles’ dignified trombone-playing proves that Viennese Baroque does not consist exclusively of violin and cello chamber music.

This is not to dismiss the stringed element. Johann Caspar Kerll’s Canzona à 3 in G Minor combines violins and viola da gamba with harpsichord/theorbo continuo. The result is a very lively and highly entertaining composition. One wonders how these pieces came to be so neglected.

And yet, there is still room for solo compositions for more established instruments. Avi Stein’s harpsichord skills are tested more and more intensively as Kerll’s Passacaglia variata unfolds, making demands worthy of Bach or Couperin on the player. Kerll is perhaps the most overlooked composer on a CD of a certainly overlooked school of music.

02 Ashkenazy Bach English Suites jpegBach – English Suites 1-3
Vladimir Ashkenazy
Decca (deccaclassics.com/en)

Musicians, most especially those who perform or record within a tradition that has a crowded and storied line of artistic interpreters of seminal performances, often stand on the shoulders of those who came before them. This can be in order to raise themselves to a heightened vantage point from which to spot new insights and perspectives. Or it can be in order to tramp down those who went before, in an attempt to assert their own dominance and singularity of artistic approach. And most certainly, when performing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach on solo piano it would be virtually impossible to avoid the supreme influence and shadow cast by Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. 

For the Russian-born highly fêted pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, who has been performing and recording the music of Bach since 1965 (arguably living and working through the entire period of Gould’s dominance), his approach to Bach evidences, in his own words, a “different concept” than that of Gould. How lucky then are we to now have a newly released double CD on Decca Records that combines Ashkenazy’s latest recording of Bach’s English Suites 1-3 with his first recording from 1965 of Bach’s Concerto in D Minor. Not only does the music sparkle with a straightforward, didactic approach to the Baroque master that brings forth all of the beauty and detail of the original compositions without the idiosyncratic flourishes for which Gould was both reviled and revered, but there is bravery in this release as it shows just how much Ashkenazy’s own development as a Bach interpreter and world-class performer has matured, developed and even changed over the years.

03 Goldberg HagenBach – Goldberg Variations
Sarah Hagen
Independent SH004CD (sarahhagen.com)

Great expectation always precedes a new recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Glenn Gould’s benchmark recordings (1955 and 1981) may have thrown down the gauntlet to anyone recording this epic composition after him, but it was Bach who left the door of interpretation slyly ajar. Yet, playing these wonderfully varied and emotionally differentiated Goldberg Variations is one of the most daunting experiences a pianist could face. 

The chords of the “Fundamental Bass” are the first hurdle because the inspiration for the entire piece originates in the accumulation and release of tension by the harmonies of these chords. In composing the Goldberg Variations Bach was also probably thumbing his nose at Johann Adolph Scheibe who once criticized his compositions as being fraught with “a turgid and confused style.” Bach’s playful rebuttal came by way of the complexity of many voices collaborating to form the lofty harmonic beauty of the Goldbergs

Canadian pianist Sarah Hagen’s Goldberg Variations are dramatically different. Naysayers and refusniks beware: her approach combines unfettered joy, wide awake with wonder, requisite pedagogy and the ability to make the instrument bend to her will. The epic scope of the work is stated right out of the gate, with an extensive exploration of the Aria that opens the way to the variable tempi, harmonic adventure with unlimited changes in registration and emotion. Hagen’s performance combines vivid precision of touch with perfect articulation of line, making her Goldberg Variations something to absolutely die for.

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04 Cameron Carpenter Bach and Hanson jpegBach – Goldberg Variations; Hanson – Romantic Symphony
Cameron Carpenter
Decca Gold (deccarecordsus.com/labels/decca-gold)

J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations have become ubiquitous in the classical music world, brought to popularity primarily through Glenn Gould’s debut recording in 1955. Originally written for harpsichord and published in 1741, this virtuosic masterwork has since been adapted for a wide range of instruments and ensembles, from piano to full orchestra. This recording features renowned American organist Cameron Carpenter performing his own transcription on the International Touring Organ, the American digital concert organ designed by Carpenter that travels from country to country with him on his tours.

What makes the organ such a unique instrument for the performance of the Goldberg Variations is the number of sounds that can be contrasted and combined by a single player, resulting in clear contrasts that amplify the linear complexities of Bach’s counterpoint. Where other instruments are limited by timbral similarities, the organ is capable of producing strikingly different sounds simultaneously, with one set of pipes sounding like a flute and another like an oboe, for example, creating a textural clarity that is almost impossible on any other single-player instrument. 

But while the tonal variety of the organ is an indispensable asset, its lack of acoustic attack can be a challenging factor. The harpsichord is, perhaps, the most attack-heavy keyboard instrument in history, its sound almost entirely characterized by the plucking of a string and the sound’s subsequent, rapid decay. Conversely, the organ produces relatively little attack but can sustain pitches indefinitely, requiring deft use of articulation to produce the clarity required in Bach’s music.

As one of the world’s best orchestral organists, Carpenter manages both the pros and cons of the organ with an expert hand, applying his mastery of timbral variety and thoughtful articulation to bring the Goldberg Variations to life in a new and exciting way.

Carpenter reinforces his status as a master of orchestral performance with his own transcription of Howard Hanson’s Symphony No.2, the “Romantic,” demonstrating both his own stunning virtuosity and the capabilities of the International Touring Organ. This powerhouse performance is both unique and remarkable, and sheds light on a work that, while less well known than its recorded counterpart, is equally satisfying and impressive.

05 PentaedreAutour de Bach
Pentaèdre
ATMA ACD2 2841 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Pentaèdre is a compelling and refreshingly unique Quebec-based chamber ensemble that, since its founding in 1985, has been boldly working to expand the canon of classical music through the creation and dissemination of new work. One of the group’s missions is to introduce chamber music fans and classical listeners alike to new work that both draws inspiration from and moves beyond the body of established repertoire. Their latest release, Autour de Bach, couples transcriptions for wind quintet of J.S. Bach works with the Bach-inspired Quintet No.3 by the late American composer David Maslanka and succeeds on all fronts.  

Bach’s music, with its weaving and intersecting lines that have the strength of purpose to stand alone but coalesce with a beautiful and logical precision, is the perfect foil for this egalitarian and cooperative ensemble that knows exactly when to put forward individual lines with a clarity of purpose and when to abdicate one’s individual agency for the overarching blend and good of the ensemble. While some of the pieces contained on this fine album will, no doubt, be familiar to listeners (Fugue in G Minor BWV565), the three-part developmental Maslanka contribution – which offers the group an opportunity to explore tempo, dynamic range and expressivity – slots neatly alongside Bach’s music, producing a congruent and compelling artistic presentation by this fine ensemble deserving of wider recognition. 

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