pandolfiPandolfi - The Violin Sonatas of 1660
Mark Fewer; Myron Lutzke; Kenneth Slowik
Friends of Music FoM 36-802 (

Though little is known about the 17th century Italian violinist and composer Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli, his two marvellous collections of sonatas for solo violin and continuo place him squarely in the good company of Dario Castello, Biagio Marini, Tarquinio Merula and others of what we might call the first generation of sonata-writers. Unlike the Classical multi-movement form, instrumental sonatas of the early to mid-17th century are usually in one extended movement, full of changes of mood, tempo, articulation and musical ideas. As such, they are dramatic and full of possibility for an imaginative performer. In his excellent liner notes accompanying this recording, harpsichordist Kenneth Slowik comments on how operatic these pieces are; that they could in essence be seen as instrumental “scenas” full of passion and pathos.

We should be tremendously grateful to the Friends of Music at the Smithsonian for supporting this recording and making it possible. Mark Fewer is one of Canada’s finest violinists and is possessed with a profound and open musical mind. It’s rare to find a player as comfortable in such a wide variety of musical styles as Fewer is. He tucks into these sonatas with wild abandon, though never loses sight of the good taste and stylistic know-how needed to approach this “early” music. His range of virtuosic and tender playing makes this disc of twelve sonatas an absolute pleasure to listen to from beginning to end. He’s ably supported by Slowik and cellist Myron Lutzke, though I did feel at times that the continuo colour could have been enhanced by the presence of a theorbo.

01_liszt_howardLiszt - New Discoveries Vol.3
Leslie Howard
Hyperion CDA67810

It’s hard to imagine that there could be any music by Liszt that remains unpublished and possibly even undiscovered. Somehow our modern age quietly assumes we’ve got it all, printed, bound, recorded and filed away. So it falls to the passionate scholars to continue searching for new works whose suspected existence is owed to fragmentary sketches in notebooks, allusions in letters, etc. Performers too can be such champions as is Leslie Howard, currently making a series of recordings of the entire Liszt repertoire including unpublished and newly discovered works.

Howard has recorded many of these pieces from Liszt’s original manuscripts and in a few cases has had to complete endings or otherwise fill in missing sections. The forty-eight works contained in this 2 CD set are quite short but intriguing nonetheless. Some will be familiar but many will be new to Liszt-philes. Listeners may recognize the Magnificat S182a as an early version of the more elaborate Alleluia S183/1. While Liszt seems to have discounted the early Magnificat it is an effective piece in its chorale-like simplicity with echoes of J.S. Bach throughout.

The set also includes two versions of a Romance from 1842-3, an arrangement of Schlummerlied for one of Liszt’s students, Carl Lachmund and numerous other pieces that exist only in single copy manuscripts in libraries throughout Europe.

Recorded on a Steinway in an acoustically lovely Catholic church in North East London (UK), these performances make a substantial artistic and historical contribution to the body of Liszt works.

02_berlioz_seguinBerlioz - Symphonie Fantastique; Cléopâtre
Anna Caterina Antonacci; Rottendam Philharmonic Orchestra; Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Can you think of a large-scale work that embodies the spirit of French early Romanticism better than Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique? Completed in 1830, the symphony marked the 27-year-old composer’s first major success, hailed as truly revolutionary both in size and in concept. And who better to undertake such a monument than supernova conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin with the Rotterdam Philharmonic on this BIS label SACD? Nézet-Séguin’s career has catapulted to stratospheric heights in a very short time. After studying in his native Montréal, he made his European debut in 2004, and within four years had succeeded Valery Gergiev as Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic. He was recently named Music Director Designate of the Philadelphia Orchestra commencing in the 2012-13 season.

From the opening notes – a series of repeated Gs - the listener senses something magical about this performance. Nézet-Séguin approaches the music with a deep-rooted sensitivity, carefully shaping it at all times, and easily capturing the multi-faceted moods contained within. The orchestra – particularly the winds and strings – respond with a warm and resonant sound.

The second movement Valse is light and elegant, while the fourth movement, the March to the Scaffold is given the dramatic intensity it deserves. The finale - the Dream of a Witch’s Sabbath, in which the hero finds himself surrounded by ghostly figures, is all at once bombastic, grotesque, and terrifying. Not surprisingly, the music is adeptly handled by a perfect pairing of conductor and orchestra, who bring the mad frenzy to a rousing conclusion.

An added bonus on this CD is the short cantata La Mort de Cléopâtre written two years earlier for the Prix de Rome. Soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci gives a dramatic and sensitive performance, thus rounding out this most satisfying disc, easily among the best currently available.

Saint-Saëns - Music for Wind Instruments
National Arts Centre Wind Quintet; Stéphane Lemelin
Naxos 8.570964

For some the name Saint-Saëns may evoke the musty ectoplasm of the Danse macabre or, likewise ghastly, the Carnival of the Animals embellished with Ogden Nash verses intoned by a tanned and taut celebrity. Actually, Saint-Saëns was a serious composer of high calibre, an extraordinary piano prodigy who wrote successfully in every genre. This disc of works for winds and piano brilliantly performed by National Arts Centre Orchestra principals reveals the wealth of expression and imagination within the composer’s classical French orientation.

In the clarinet, oboe and bassoon sonatas of 1921, the 85-year-old composer is still at his peak. Of these “swan songs” the clarinet sonata is the most extended and varied of the three, while the oboe sonata conveys a sense of antique classicism. The pure, pensive repose of the bassoon sonata is rendered effectively by Christopher Millard. Its opening movement pays homage to Saint-Saëns’ close lifelong associate Gabriel Fauré in its chromatic twists of harmony. The final movement with its slow tempi and absence of virtuosity is particularly affecting.

The early Tarantella and the Caprice on Danish and Russian Airs are unique, attractive works for upper winds with piano. Some pianists come to grief with the virtuosity of Saint-Saëns’ chamber music, but not Canadian pianist Stéphane Lemelin who is a specialist in nineteenth-century French repertoire. Immaculate ensemble work between winds and piano is notable throughout. Rounded off by the Romance arranged for horn and piano, the disc is a must-buy for woodwind and chamber music enthusiasts.

04_bruckner_10symphoniesBruckner - 10 Symphonies
Bayerischen RSO; Lorin Maazel
BR Klassik 900703

Anton Bruckner is an unfortunate example of what can happen if an artist has not enough confidence and listens to too many interfering people. Poor fellow. He was not only castigated by the critics (e.g. Hanslick) in his lifetime, influencing him to make changes in his scores, but even after his death his fame was belittled by English critics who ridiculed his work as “symphonic boa constrictors” or “symphonies that turn back on themselves.” Even in the 1960s this prevented him reaching North America although he was already famous in Europe thanks to the German-Austrian school of conductors. It all turned around in the 70s and at present his fame is at its highest. There are several symphony cycles available: Karajan, Jochum, Barenboim, Wand, Chailly, Skrowaczewski and more and now this fine set from the Bayerischen Rundfunkorchester, led by its music director at the time, Maestro Lorin Maazel. It was recorded in 1999 in one continuous set of live sessions; each symphony occupies one disc except the magisterial 8th which takes up two. As a curiosity, the so called Symphony 0 (Die Nullte) is added as an 11th disc. This piece was undeservedly withdrawn, but it’s by no means poor, with much of Bruckner’s latent talents emerging as the audience’s cheers attest.

As you perhaps remember from my earlier reviews, Bruckner’s symphonies progress step by step, each is better, deeper, more original than the previous. Then there are two quantum leaps of divine inspiration: between the 4th and the 5th and the 8th and the 9th. By the time we reach the 9th, we have reached Olympus.

Tempi are extremely important in music and nowhere more important than for Bruckner, where a misjudged tempo can easily sink the performance. There are two schools of thought. One is the slow, measured and broad tempo that allows the music to expand, enrich details and the immortal Celibidache was a great representative of this. Of course there is the pitfall of being too slow and if the conductor’s concentration is flagging, the music becomes boring. The other school goes with faster tempo which is more exciting and the shape of the music is easier to follow (e.g. Barenboim). Maazel belongs to the first category. His performances are on the slow side, but we are rewarded with tremendous insight and sensitivity in developing the themes. There is great control of dynamics from the almost inaudible pp to the thunderous ff - just listen to the feather light string tremolos at the opening of the 4th symphony. Another example is the beautiful Adagio of the 8th, one of the best performances on the disc, where it takes 22 minutes to reach a climax which is truly earth shattering.

This beautifully recorded set is highly recommended.

05_mahler_sarasteMahler - Symphony No.6
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra; Jukka-Pekka Saraste
Simax PSC 1316

Jukka-Pekka Saraste, valiant conductor of the Toronto Symphony during a very difficult time in its history (1994-2001), was appointed music director of the Oslo Philharmonic in 2006, a position he continues to maintain. This new release of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony brings us up to date on his considerable accomplishments with this relatively unfamiliar but very fine Norwegian ensemble. Saraste’s characteristic steady, forward-thrusting tempi cast a refreshing new light onto the broad architecture of Mahler’s so-called Tragic Symphony, and though he is sensitive to the expressive nuances called for in the score, he is careful to avoid wallowing in maudlin excess. Though inexorable march tempos are very much the mainstay of this symphony, Saraste’s relative inflexibility flattens the hectic mood-swings of the Scherzo movement and underplays its demonic aspects. Otherwise however the dividends are impressive, none more so than in the magnificently played Finale, where the relentless tread of fate leads to a shattering conclusion, marked by literal hammer-blows of fate, the third of which, suppressed in most editions, is restored here in all its grim glory. Saraste’s impulse to ever-higher levels of tension results in a spine-tingling conclusion with the orchestra in glorious full throttle.

The sonic impact of this disc is quite spectacular considering that this is a recording of a live concert (without a trace of audience restlessness) from March 2010. Kudos to the engineers of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation for providing such a spacious and well-balanced sound stage for this accomplished orchestra. It’s well worth a listen!

06_off_the_beaten_pathOff the Beaten Path
Ian Hominick
MSR Classics MS 1341 (

Even the most musically illiterate man on the street would undoubtedly be familiar with the names of Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven. But how about those other composers who perhaps lacked that creative spark of these geniuses, and who have been regarded as “lesser lights” ever since? Don’t they deserve at least some recognition as well? Pianist Ian Hominick certainly thinks so, and the result is this intriguing recording on the MSR Classics label, appropriately titled “Off the Beaten Track.” Featured here are 10 composers, most of whose music isn’t heard all that often. For an even balance, there is also music by Liszt, Sibelius, and Gershwin, resulting in a well thought-out program of piano music in different styles spanning a period of roughly 150 years. Canadian-born Hominick studied at Mt. Allison, and later, at Ohio State University where he was Assistant to Earl Wild and André Laplante. He is currently on faculty at the University of Mississippi.

The disc opens with a rousing little sonata by Muzio Clementi, containing a theme very close to one in found in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Today, Clementi is remembered as a piano-maker and teacher, but this piece demonstrates not only his ability as a composer, but also Hominick’s level of technical prowess. More languorous is the Second Valse by Benjamin Godard, and the Nocturne by the 19th century piano titan Sigismund Thalberg. Fritz Kreisler? Wasn’t he a virtuoso violinist? Indeed, but included here is a charming Rondino on a Theme by Beethoven as transcribed by Godowsky. Most impressive is Die Lorelei by Franz Liszt, music that began as a vocal piece.

Hominick’s playing is bold and confident, displaying the dazzling technique required of this demanding repertoire. In complete contrast are the two closing selections, Gershwin’s Novelette in Fourths and Melody No.40. These have the Jazz Age written all over them, and bring this most enjoyable disc to a close.

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