02_liszt_laplanteLiszt - Années de Pelerinage Suisse
André Laplante
Analekta AN 2 9980

André Laplante by now can be referred to as Canada’s ‘national treasure’. He is a well established artist especially in the Romantic repertoire and has a worldwide reputation with critics comparing him sometimes to Richter and Horowitz. This new recording for the Analekta label tackles Liszt in an ambitious, rarely recorded program of the first book of the 21 year old Liszt’s romantic wanderings with Countess Marie d’Agoult.

Liszt met the Countess in 1832 in Paris, a married woman 6 years older, but this did not prevent one of the century’s most famous and productive love affairs from developing. Three years later Marie left her family and ran off with Franz to Switzerland, later to Italy. There were 3 children born out of this union, among them Cosima who eventually married Richard Wagner.

As we listen, the pieces vary in character from invocations of natural beauty (Lac de Wallenstadt), literary associations with Byron, Schiller, Goethe, Senacour (Vallée d’Obermann), to force of nature (L’Orage), pastoral melodies (Pastorale, Eglogue) and homage to Swiss history (Chapelle de Guillaume Tell).
Many of the pieces even appear improvised. We can just see after a day of admiring the majestic Swiss countryside, Liszt composing on the piano and playing to his object of affection. Often the quiet, self searching beginnings develop into passion with great intensity.

To capture the many layered complexities of this set, Laplante is the ideal choice and this recording shows it. Being an unassuming, introspective personality, his performances have insightful sensitivity, but never overt emotionalism, dazzling power and virtuosity that never is meant to show off and rich imagination characteristic of a great artist.

01_afiara_mendelssohnMendelssohn - Schubert
Afiara String Quartet;
Alexander String Quartet
Foghorn Records CD 1995
(www.afiara.com)

A debut CD is something like a “rookie year” hockey card. It makes you wonder where the talent behind it will ultimately end up – in stardom or in obscurity? Based on this disc, I’m prepared to go out on a sturdy limb and predict a bright future for the Afiara String Quartet.
In case you don’t know, the Afiara Quartet is a young group of Canadians: Valerie Li and Yuri Cho, violins; David Samuel, viola; and Adrian Fung, cello. From 2006 to 2009 the quartet had a residency at San Francisco State University (where they studied with the Alexander Quartet), and they were recently named the graduate quartet-in-residence at the Juilliard School.

For their debut disc, this young group has chosen to perform works by two composers in their teens and early 20s (indeed, neither composer ever got to be very old): Mendelssohn’s Quartet in A Minor Op. 13, Schubert’s Quartettensatz in C Minor D. 703, and Mendelssohn’s Octet Op. 20, written when the composer was just 16.
In this clearly recorded CD, the Afiaras have tapped into the youthful vitality displayed in these scores. Tone is bright and tempos are perky; intonation and balance are excellent. As well, in the more introspective passages (such as the second movement of the Quartet in A minor) playing is delicate yet warm.
In the Octet, the Afiaras are joined by their mentors, the Alexander Quartet, and the two groups merge seamlessly into one glorious ensemble. This is exciting playing – a rich performance that does full justice to Mendelssohn’s youthful masterpiece.

Editor’s Note: At a recent Mooredale Concert where they performed with renowned flutist Robert Aitken, the Afiara Quartet was presented with the $25,000 2010 Young Canadian Musicians Award. The quartet will return to Mooredale Concerts on October 31 to perform with co-winner of the award, pianist Wonny Song.

02_handel_darmstadtHandel in Darmstadt
Geneviève Soly
Analekta AN 2 9121

Researching the music of Christoph Graupner led Geneviève Soly to the Darmstadt Harpsichord Book, which features works by four German composers: Graupner, Handel, Telemann and Kuhnau. Twenty-nine works by Handel are found in the collection and Ms Soly performs twenty-one on this CD - plus a parody on Graupner.

Handel’s Chaconne in G major receives the lively interpretation from Soly that this varied and florid piece deserves. The CD-notes - by Soly - are right to stress Handel’s lyricism.

Some cynically note that Handel was England’s best composer between Purcell and Elgar. The Sonata del Signor Hendel (sic), published in London in 1720, can justify this view. The second allegro and adagio are both testing pieces for any harpsichordist, the former with its two-voice structure of soprano over bass, and the latter sounding as if it were directly transcribed from organ to harpsichord.

Ms Soly adores Handel’s music. As well as meeting the challenge of the adagio already mentioned, she tackles the traditional stylised Baroque dance movements (the sarabande, gigue, allemande and courante). For this reviewer, however, the really inspired playing comes in the Sonata in G major. A test on account of its complexity, its speed, and even its pure stamina, this is Geneviève Soly at her most driven.

Soly’s choice of compositions by Handel is varied to say the least. A traditional German air and variations make up eight of the tracks - Handel at his jolliest. There is even what appears to be a parody of Graupner by Handel, a marche en rondeau.

At the age of eight, Ms Soly knew she would become a performer of classical music. How grateful we are for her ambition.            

01_rameau_masquesRameau - Pieces de clavecin en concerts
Ensemble Masques; Olivier Fortin
ATMA ACD2 2624

No, Jean-Philippe Rameau was not a sympathetic man. He was a misanthropic individual who lost no opportunity to start arguments with Jean-Jacques Rousseau during the heated discussions on the merits of French versus Italian opera.

From its very first tracks, La Pantomine and L’indiscrète, this is mercifully not apparent on this CD. Both display the virtuoso techniques of the baroque harpsichordist, in particular that French operatic style which Rameau came above all others to dominate.

There is an element of caricature to most of the sixteen movements in the collection. Speculation about the intended target - if any - for La Laborde remains to this day, but it is still a highly charming if eccentric composition. Possibly composed, one pundit says, to honour the inventor of an electric piano in 1759...

Of course, the Pièces de clavecin are not just about the harpsichord. Spirited violin-playing gives L’Agaçante its name and places La Coulicam in its grand and exotic context. Measured flute-playing imparts a slightly sombre quality to La Livri, a lament on the passing of a musical patron.

To describe this CD as varied is a gross under-statement. Pieces are scored for harpsichord, strings and woodwind, for personal acquaintances of Rameau and for his musical friends - in view of his hostile opinions they could hardly be for his enemies.

05_saint-saensSaint-Saëns – Piano Transcriptions
Lucille Chung
XXI XXI-CD2 1682

The late Arthur Fiedler once said: “there are only two kinds of music: The good and the boring kind.” Well, Saint Saëns may not be the greatest composer or even one of the greatest, but he certainly never wrote boring music. And he couldn’t have picked a better performer of his piano music than the young, immensely talented Montreal-born virtuoso, Lucille Chung. Since 1989, when only 10 years old, she has built an impressive career with the world’s leading orchestras and performed in over 30 countries. Her playing has self assured attack, virtuosity, romantic abandon and a sense of youthful exuberance, but there is still room for more subtlety.

She hasn’t recorded much as yet and this unorthodox disc proves that she is not afraid of taking chances. My first approach was sceptical. What would the 2nd Piano Concerto sound like on solo piano? One of the most impressive openings in the piano concerto literature is the impassioned solo cadenza that develops into a breathtaking crescendo leading up to the ff entry of the orchestra, a big moment indeed, which cannot be duplicated by piano solo, but this problem notwithstanding the 1st movement takes shape almost like the original. As she proceeds, the Mendelssohnian scherzo is fluttering like a butterfly over a field of flowers and the rumba-like middle section seductively swings with no effort at all. She has the time of her life, totally relaxed and happy.

The works that follow, except for the ubiquitous Bacchanale, are mostly piano/orchestra pieces transcribed for piano solo by the composer, who was a tremendous pianist in his own right. An interesting curiosity is Africa with its exotic and oriental atmosphere, ending with the Tunisian national anthem carried off triumphantly by our pianist.

04_tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky – Romeo and Juliet; String Serenade; Francesca da Rimini; Victor Ewald – Brass Quintets
Philadelphia Orchestra; Christoph Eschenbach
Ondine ODE 1150-2D

 

The Philadelphia Orchestra became famous, both live and, since 1926, through recordings, for the opulence of its sound. One has only to experience Ormandy conducting the Rachmaninov Second Symphony on the EuroArts DVD (EA 2072258) to hear exactly what I mean. Christoph Eschenbach was one of the recipients of this legacy, serving as the orchestra’s Music Director from 2003 to 2008.

Francesca da Rimini has been a favourite of mine since time began. I enjoyed it as a rather lurid piece, with swirling strings and winds, much percussion and tormented passages from the whole orchestra (I was very young). Eschenbach has a broader, romantic view of the work, perhaps prosaic, focusing more on the emotions of the condemned Francesca than on her surroundings in a sensational performance that is more expressive than ever. As he does in his Houston recording for Virgin, Eschenbach broadens out the final ten chords to make them a statement of finality. Romeo and Juliet, too, is unhurried with meticulous attention to detail, conveying the poignant tragedy of this oft told tale. Similarly, the Serenade for Strings may be the best you’ll ever hear.

Victor Ewald (1860-1935) was a contemporary of Tchaikovsky… at least for a while, and his compositions for brass are highly regarded… at least by the members of the orchestra who perform them here. These Quintets present no problems to the listener and are, in fact, rather pleasant to hear.

The sound throughout is clear, spacious, and well suited to the repertoire.

03_argerichLive from the Lugano Festival 2009
Martha Argerich and Friends
EMI Classics 6 07367 2

For your next trip you travelers, why don’t you try Lugano, capital of the Italian speaking canton Ticino near the sun drenched southern slopes of the Swiss Alps. Preferably in June when Martha Argerich’s annual festival takes place. Since 2002, BSI Bank has sponsored this event, focused on the once raven haired (now completely grey) Argentinean beauty and pianiste extraordinaire, along with a coterie of young musicians to rehearse and perform concerts of the highest caliber and inspiration.

The 3 discs are nicely subdivided into the chamber music of 1) Schumann, Mendelssohn and Chopin, 2) the Hungarians and Russians, and 3) the Spanish and French.

Already on CD 1 there is a stunning piano duet version of the Midsummer Nights Dream Overture where the shimmering pp strings are transcribed into translucent, lightning fast and wonderfully controlled virtuoso piano playing of Argerich and Cristina Marton. Chopin’s early work from his years in Poland, Introduction and Polonaise Brillante, is guaranteed to raise everyone’s blood pressure played with extraordinary flair and abandon by Martha Argerich and Gautier Capuçon (cello).

More unusual pieces follow on CD 2. First the inimitable young violinist Renaud Capuçon plays Bartok’s 2nd Violin Sonata, a “multilayered study in sonority, predominantly discordant harmony and structure yet still traceable to Hungarian folk tradition.” From the Russians we encounter Glinka and Rachmaninov, from the latter a curious rarity, a Waltz for 6 hands at a single piano(!). I would have liked to see this as I’d imagine there could be some logistical problems here.

The third disc features larger scale works and here my favorite was Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole transcribed for two pianos by the composer and played atmospherically and with imagination by Sergio Tiempo and Karin Lechner. A set to treasure. State of the art recordings.

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