05_shaham_sarasateSarasate - Virtuoso Violin Works

Gil Shaham; Adele Anthony

Canary Classics CC07

By all accounts, Pablo de Sarasate must have been quite spectacular. One of the post-Paganini European virtuosi of the late 1800s, he dazzled audiences, critics and contemporaries alike, and not just with his playing. Like several of his fellow violinists – Vieuxtemps and Wieniawski in particular – Sarasate produced many outstanding compositions, and their warmth and brilliance is testimony to his playing ability.

Gil Shaham took the opportunity afforded by the centenary of Sarasate’s death in 2008 to present several concert performances of his works, culminating in the Sarasateada festival in Valladolid, Spain, last November. This latest CD on Shaham’s own Canary Classics label was recorded at the festival, and also features Shaham’s wife, the Australian violinist Adele Anthony.

Ysaÿe noted that it was Sarasate “who taught us how to play exactly”, and precision is certainly the first requirement if these pieces are going to be performed successfully. No worries here on that score. Shaham is brilliant in the four live orchestral performances with the Orquesta Sinfonica de Castilla y Leon under Alejandro Posada: the Carmen Fantasy; Zigeunerweisen; a somewhat bland Leo Blech orchestration of Zortica; and – with Anthony - the scintillating duet Navarra.

Anthony plays three of the eight outstanding tracks with pianist Akira Eguchi – Song of the Nightingale; Airs Ecossais; and Introduction and Tarantella - and certainly isn’t ‘second fiddle’ here in any respect. Shaham’s solo tracks are Habanera, Zapateado, Romanza Andaluza, Capricho Vasco, and Gavota de Mignon, and his playing standard never waivers.

Both players use a Stradivarius violin – Shaham the 1699 “Countess Polignac” and Anthony a 1728 instrument - and their richness in the lower register and brightness in the upper, while possibly more contrasted in Shaham’s playing, are very similar.

The booklet notes are by the always-reliable Eric Wen and nicely complement this delightful disc.

04_arghamanyan_lisztLiszt; Rachmaninov - Sonatas

Nareh Arghamanyan

Analekta AN 2 8762

Many years back I was fortunate to see young a Martha Argerich in concert and I recall hardly being able to sleep that night. So when I first listened to this debut recording of 20 year old Armenian pianist Nareh Arghamanyan I had only one wish and that was to see her performing in person as I had hopes of a new divine Martha. Fast forward now to the miracle of the Internet.

I‘ve already enjoyed three of her video performances seeing how she becomes symbiotic with the music, swaying her girlish, fragile body. Her seemingly gentle hands produce titanic sounds without any of the mannerisms and showiness of some pianists of great commercial appeal I don’t want to mention.

Her latest achievement is winning the 1st prize (piano) of the prestigious Montreal International Music Competition in 2008, but she has been winning competitions since age 11. In fact Analekta is fortunate in securing this young lady at this time as I predict her fame will skyrocket and the big recording giants will be clamouring to get her.

Both of the sonatas she plays are murderously difficult, “alternately passionate, desperate, energetic and tender with hurricanes of octaves seething with raw energy” (Lucie Renaud). They are prime examples of the Romantic sonata invented by Liszt and furthered by Rachmaninov. The strict sonata form is replaced by an inner subliminal logic, of ebb and flow, but it must be kept in balance. This is something only the greatest pianists like Ms Arghamanyan with her God given gifts are capable of.


03_fischer_schubertSchubert - Complete works for Violin and Piano, Volume 1

Julia Fischer; Martin Helmchen

PentaTone PTC 5186 347

Julia Fischer is outstanding in this Super Audio CD. The three sonatas featured on this disc – D.384 in D, D.385 in A minor, and D.408 in G minor – date from 1816, but despite being early works they exhibit all the characteristics of the mature Schubert. The Rondo Brillant D.895 from 1826 completes the disc.

Despite the constant flow of irrepressible melody there is always a sense of wistfulness and drama lying just beneath the surface of Schubert’s music, and Fischer’s beautifully-judged performance captures this perfectly, with a beautiful clear tone, sensitive vibrato, and a fine range of dynamics. The recording balance is excellent, with clean and intelligent piano support from Martin Helmchen.

The booklet notes unfortunately scream “Translation!” at times – the Pseud’s Corner column in the old Private Eye magazine would have had a field day with lines like “In truth, renewed energy slumbers within the tangled web of the dialogue interwoven in the chamber music” – but the notes that matter are on the CD… and they’re just wonderful.

Volume 2 is slated for release in April 2010; as the remaining Schubert works for violin and piano aren’t sufficient to fill a CD, it will apparently feature Fischer in a Schubert piano duet. Shouldn’t be a problem - she performed the Grieg Piano Concerto in Frankfurt last year!

02_bach_clavierbungBach - Clavierubung II

Alexander Weimann

ATMA ACD2 2603

Seldom can there have been a more sombre cover than on this CD. Dressed in black, soloist Alexander Weimann is photographed against a dark green/black background. One wonders why.

The theme of Clavierubung II is duality, some would say polarity. Bach chooses two works in highly contrasting keynotes but even then neither work can be described as entirely solemn.

The Italian Concerto in F Major starts with a spirited movement - for which no indication is given. It may not have been written to equal the exhilarating speed of the Presto but its demands on the player are still great. The Andante, the middle of the three movements, does demonstrate polarity within a single work. It is slow, almost out of place on this CD.

Bach’s Overture in the French style in B Minor, much the greater part of the CD, starts with an Ouverture; if anyone expects a gentle introduction to the main work, they will find this movement breath-taking.

Next are the movements named after the great French country dances of the Renaissance and Baroque. Here are the Gavotte, Passepied, Sarabande and others. All make their transition from countryside to court, recognisable for their mainly cheerful and lively characteristics.

Enjoy Bach’s interpretation of duality and Alexander Weimann’s skills which have made him one of the most sought-after baroque instrumentalists - and ignore that depressing cover.

01_telemann_gypsyTelemann - The Baroque Gypsies

Ensemble Caprice; Matthias Maute

Analekta AN 2 9919

Telemann’s compositions were so prolific they beg the question whether he turned to other influences to help maintain his output. His own memoirs contain the answer: temporary exile led to his discovering Poland and Moravia (and their “barbaric beauty...”).

Not so barbaric that he could not be captivated by Eastern European gypsy music though. How imaginative, then, of Ensemble Caprice to intersperse works by Telemann with extracts from the 1730 Uhrovska Collection of 350 gypsy melodies.

For those rarefied souls who believe that baroque music is in some way superior to contemporary folk music, this CD will shake them. The Uhrovska Collection melodies initially overshadow their more grandiose counterparts. The rousing opening track, a Romanian traditional melody, leads the way, followed by the Uhrovskaya’s haunting instrumental C91 and Netrap zradna song.

By track 10 (out of 28) we realise how much Telemann was influenced by gypsy music. The Gypsy Sonata in D Minor and Sonata à la gitane brought the vitality of gypsy music to courtly audiences by way of conventional baroque instruments: recorder, violin and continuo. Above all, Telemann’s Gigue for solo violin leaves no-one in doubt as to its inspiration.

Telemann and the gypsies weave their way through in the order assigned by Ensemble Caprice’s artistic director Matthias Maute. The Ensemble helps us share in Telemann’s own gratitude to the gypsies: “In only a week, a composer could be inspired for an entire lifetime.” These sixty-eight minutes are all that are needed to learn why.

01_handels_harpHandel’s Harp

Maxine Eilander; Seattle Baroque

Orchestra; Stephen Stubbs

ATMA ACD2 2541


“Handel’s Harp” celebrates good fortune - Handel not only enjoyed patronage from the Duke of Chandos but the Duke also employed the talented Welsh harpist William Powell. Handel featured the harp throughout his mature career of 30 years, whether in sacred, concerto or operatic contexts. Quite a challenge for soloist Maxine Eilander.

In fact, Miss Eilander both accompanies soprano Cyndia Sieden in spirited fashion and treats us to the full range of the solo harp. She plays the slow, thoughtful Symphony from Saul, a piece which reminds us how fortunate we are when we hear music for the classical harp.

We are again treated to almost celestial music for solo harp in Lascia ch’io pianga from Rinaldo. This is where the orchestra’s conductor Stephen Stubbs makes his presence felt. As his notes make clear, he has arranged his own version of this piece for harp because many of Handel’s opera songs were adapted by harpists and Stubbs feels that this lost art of the harpist deserves commemoration.

One almost feels that Handel was testing both harp and harpist. Handel’s harpists had to play alongside soprano voice, strings (including pizzicato), recorders, oboe, harp, viola da gamba, theorbo, bassoon, cello, flute, and mandolin. All that within the mere eight compositions presented here. Anyway, the impression should not be given that Handel’s music for harp was all austere. His Concerto in F is sprightly, fast and lively. Round off the recording with the last piece, “Hark, hark, he strikes the golden lyre” from Alexander Balus, and appreciate Handel’s good fortune.

02_hagenBernhard Joachim Hagen - Sonatas for Lute and Strings

John Schneiderman;

Elizabeth Blumenstock; William Skeen

Dorian Sono Luminus DSL-90907


Though he spent his professional life as a violinist employed by the Margrave of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, Bernhard Joachim Hagen was also a lutenist of the first order. But as this CD’s notes suggest, he may well have thought himself an anachronism by the time he died in 1787, so moribund was the lute by that time. Hagen left behind a number of works for the lute, all of which are found in a collection of manuscripts now preserved in Augsburg. This disc offers up his six sonatas for lute, violin and cello, performed by three celebrated specialists from the USA.

These are Rococo trio sonatas, with expertly balanced parts for the violin and lute and a continuo-esque line for the cello. From the cheerful and careful opening Allegro of the F major sonata through the remaining three-movement sonatas, the transparent texture and melodic delicacy of Hagen’s writing is sensitively performed. And though some of the slow movements lack musical depth, their refined delicacy is expertly expressed.

Schneiderman, Blumenstock and Skeen play with grace, poise and sensitive attention to even the smallest details, and the intimacy of this repertoire is immediately apparent here. This is a charming glimpse into the very late life of the Baroque lute, a generation after the great Silvius Leopold Weiss, and Hagen could ask for no better champions of his music.

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