01 Zhu Xiao Mei GoldbergI can never resist an opportunity to experience the Bach Goldberg Variations. This 2016 recording, Bach: Goldberg Variations – The New Recording (Accentus Music ACC30372) by Zhu Xiao Mei, is a treasure that every Goldberg fan should own. Zhu made her first recording of the Variations 20 years ago and has performed them hundreds of times in public. This is her second recording of the work.

The disc is unique. The liner contains no critique, no history or musicological analysis. Instead there is an interview with Zhu, responding to superb and probing questions whose answers are arrestingly profound. After all, born in the year of the Chinese revolution and serving five years in a work camp of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Zhu has something to say.

While she has an obvious grasp of the structure and pattern of the work, she speaks passionately about her unconventional approach to the variations and where they take the listener. Zhu makes two emphatic points about this journey. First, that the Variations ascend gradually from the opening Aria to their pinnacle in the 25th Variation. Here the languorous meditation in a minor key lasts two, even three times the duration of any of the other variations. Whatever Bach means to say, he says it at this point. Second, that the work is cyclical, beginning and ending with the Aria. On hearing it a second and final time we sense that we have understood something. The cycle is life and death. She quotes Laozi: “The Return is the Movement of Tao.”

02 Anna Shelest ProkofievProkofiev’s first two piano concertos date from his early twenties while he was a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Written just a year apart, they are strikingly dissimilar. On Prokofiev – Piano Concertos 1 & 2 Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra; Niels Muus (Sorel Classics SC CD 006) pianist Anna Shelest is profoundly convincing in her approach to these works. She understands the conventional forms used in the Concerto No.1 and delivers Prokofiev’s memorable themes beautifully, especially the bold opening idea that returns at the close of the work. Concerto No.1 is very brief and is more of a single continuous work. The performance is satisfying and energetic, with the soloist and orchestra flawlessly together throughout.

The real surprise, however, comes with the Piano Concerto No.2 which is far more demanding in every respect. Shelest never shrinks from the challenges the composer sets out. The opening movement’s massive cadenza is almost a work within a work, taking up most of the movement’s time. It’s brilliantly played with skillfully metered intensity. The Scherzo’s wild, relentless unison playing is a brief but definite show stopper. Shelest’s performance, especially in the Finale, reminds us how modern Prokofiev’s language must have sounded to audiences a century ago, and how fresh it remains today.

Based in New York, Shelest continues to perform and add to her diverse discography making herself an artist whose career is very much worth following.

03 Bergmann DuoElizabeth and Marcel Bergmann have performed as duo pianists for more than 20 years. Marcel’s additional role as composer and arranger has given the pair an unusually large performance repertoire. All the material on American Stories for Two Pianos – Bergmann Duo (Ars Produktion ARS 38 188) is a tribute to American composers, both classical and jazz. The arrangements faithfully bring the essence of the works to the combined voices of two pianos. The Bergmanns possess all the skills we expect from a seasoned pair of duo pianists. They’re perfectly together at the deepest musical level.

It’s difficult to refer to any highlights on this disc because each track is superb. The arrangements are brilliant. Chick Corea’s La Fiesta and Spain open the CD with high energy and a Latin pulse that flows naturally into Bernstein’s Selections from West Side Story. America will positively launch you from your seat. One Hand, One Heart is movingly simple. Each selection is a gem.

The Bergmanns include two works by Pat Metheny, Eighteen and Hermitage. Here the challenge is to bring the electroacoustic and percussion components convincingly to the keyboards as well as to pianistically portray Metheny’s music from a solo album.

Following the Latin American thread leads Marcel Bergmann to arrangements of Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion and Libertango, the latter being one of Piazzolla’s best known works. The final track is an irresistibly syncopated romp titled Infancia by Egberto Gismonti.

These performances are exciting and electrifying.

04 French FantasyThere’s a good deal of serious stuff in the body of works for piano four hands. There’s also a more light-hearted tradition that is written with children in mind. It’s here that we find the popular works by Ravel, Saint-Saëns and Fauré that appear on French Fantasy – Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Ravel (Sheridan Music Studio 16129 9). Pianists Steven Greene and Susan Merdinger clearly enjoy playing this material. While set against a background of childlike simplicity, there are plenty of moments where the composers speak profoundly.

Carnival of the Animals is replete with colourful imagery. Merdinger and Greene have a great deal of fun with this, romping through Saint-Saëns’ pages with energy and style. Their performance of Aquarium is noteworthy for its mystical fluidity while the Finale delivers the entertaining pulse of a high-stepping chorus line. Tortoises, Kangaroos and The Elephant also offer a generous dose of good keyboard humour – a reminder of why this set is so enduringly popular.

Fauré’s Dolly Suite is a more introspective and tender work and the pianists explore this change of character effectively in Berceuse and Tendresse. Pas Espagnol and Kitty-Valse balance the suite with optimism and sparkle.

The disc concludes with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. Ravel’s harmonic language sets the suite apart from the other two works. It gives Merdinger and Greene the opportunity to approach the music with more attention to its subtleties. They are more seriously engaged in this music but never at the expense of its youthful focus.

05 Susan MerdingerSusan Merdinger presents a broad and well-rounded solo program on Soirée – Schubert, Brahms, Debussy, Liszt (Sheridan Music Studio 13434 7). Beginning with the Schubert Sonata in B Major D.575 K.147, she quickly confirms the composer’s predilection for song. She phrases the two principal ideas of the opening movement beautifully as if they had lyrics ready to be sung. The second movement offers a beautiful opening that first appears in vertical hymn-like form but subsequently melts into a series of fluid variations that Merdinger plays with great affection. The final two movements are very dance-like, each offering a brief middle section where Merdinger finds lied-like material that she emphasizes before reverting to the rhythmic drive that concludes them both.

Having both Brahms Rhapsodies on the same disc makes for interesting comparisons. Here too, Merdinger finds the two principal ideas in each work and carefully follows their course through Brahms’ dense harmonies. The Rhapsody in B Minor Op.79 No.1’s middle section is significantly shorter than the G Minor Op.79 No.2’s and offers less time to linger with the material. But Merdinger counters this brevity with heightened intensity and sense of mystery.

Merdinger’s performance of the Debussy Estampes is a credit to her stylistic versatility, moving convincingly from Schubert and Brahms into the impressionistic tonalities of Pagodes and Jardins sous la pluie. The closing tracks with Concert Paraphrase on Verdi’s Rigoletto and the Hungarian Rhapsody No.12 reveal a pianist unbound, exercising the virtuosity and disciplined abandon required by Liszt.

06 Andras Schiff Beethoven SchubertA wonderful compilation of performances from a Mozartwoche (Mozart Week) in Salzburg is what you’ll find on this DVD from Unitel Classica. Beethoven; Schubert; Mozart – Sir Andreas Schiff; Cappella Andrea Barca (Cmajor 736508) contains the Beethoven Piano Concerto No.1 in C Major Op.15, Schubert Symphony No.5 in B-Flat Major D485 and Mozart Piano Concerto in E-flat Major K482.

Recorded at the Mozarteum, these performances are extraordinary and produced to the highest standards. Camera shots of performers including Schiff himself are creative yet unobtrusive. Audio is perfect. The hall is glorious and the playing, well, it’s just divine.

Schiff’s ensemble is rather small, numbering only 40. But these forces are historically appropriate for the music. The orchestra never sounds less than perfectly balanced and capable of musical gestures from the most intimate to the majestic. Schiff conducts, sometimes from the keyboard. His instrument is a Bechstein concert grand that responds in the most subtle ways to his pianissimo touch, yet naturally has the power to fill the hall.

He formed this group in 1999. They play and breathe with remarkable unity. The experience of this recording can only be surpassed by seeing them live – and what a privilege that would be. Until then keep the DVD player close at hand.

07 Boris Giltburg RachmaninovBoris Giltburg is a pianist who thinks pictorially. His recent disc Rachmaninov – Études-tableaux Op.39; Moments musicaux (Naxos 8.573469) contains his own liner notes in which he describes the images and scenes evoked by each of Rachmaninov’s Études-tableaux. Giltburg creates the tableaux before us, the mists, the forests, everything he imagines. And he does it masterfully. He whimsically describes No.6 in A Minor Op.39 as Rachmaninov’s dark retelling of Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. Despite being études, the technical challenges pose no difficulty and Giltburg seems eager to get beyond them in order to mine the emotional core of each piece.

The beauty of the Moments musicaux, Op.16 give Giltburg much more expressive latitude with tempi and he uses this to great advantage in the slower pieces No.1, No.3 and No.5 where a Barcarolle provides some respite before the Maestoso iteration of No.6 in C Major.

Giltburg is a superb technician and an emotional player who indulges in no excesses and so, remains credible. He’s perfectly at home with the complexity of Rachmaninov’s short form works.

Rachmaninov LeeWe often think of Rachmaninov as a big scale composer, recalling his piano concertos and their vast sweep of musical ideas. Rachmaninov – Piano Sonata No.1, Variations on a theme of Corelli (Blue Griffin Recording BGR327) reminds us that this is also true of his piano sonatas. Pianist Jin Hwa Lee begins the Piano Sonata No.1 with control and clarity while bracing for the enormous physical demands of the opening movement’s second half. Her command of the music is impressive and her musicality eloquent. It shows in the slow second movement where her touch changes the opening colours most effectively.

Lee masters the extreme contrasts of the final movement, lingering in the reposes before moving out into the larger, wilder passages we associate with Rachmaninov’s style. She understands this work as a whole, a complete unit, and holds it together as such.

The Variations on a Theme of Corelli again demonstrate how well Lee understands Rachmaninov.

Gone here is the deep Romanticism we associate with the concertos, and in its place a studied intellect moving creatively from one variation idea to the next. At Variation 15 Lee uses the nocturne-like interlude to regroup before launching into the last five and concluding with the Coda, ending on a few soft simple chords. She’s a powerful and thoughtful player with an excellent debut recording.

08 Philip EvansPianist, scholar and critic Phillip Evans is an acknowledged authority on the piano music of Bartók. His series of Bartók CDs received high praise from the New York Times. On Phillip Evans plays Bartók (ARTEK 00642) he revisits the Sonata (1926), a work of Bartók’s middle period. He describes it as a “new kind of piano virtuosity: huge chords, often rapidly repeated, large leaps and intricate embellishments.” Evans, even in the slower second movement, uses Bartók’s strong rhythms to propel the music. There’s a relentlessness about this music and Evans never wavers in applying it.

The Six Romanian Folk Dances are smaller scale works. Evans plays them with sensitivity and imagination. The Stamping Dance is especially beautiful for the haunting way he manages to suspend the melody above the accompaniment. Improvisation on Hungarian Peasant Songs Op.20 is more adventurous in its treatment of the material. Evans plays the now familiar rhythmic chord clusters with requisite consistency but is always ready to yield to a melody, even if only a fragment.

Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm is, according to Evans, more than just a set of dances. Using various combinations of four, two and three, Bartók builds a series of increasingly intricate and engaging “dances” that offer unique rhythms to start but add intriguing melodic fragments and even some Gershwinesque harmonies as well.

09 Muller Piano RenaissanceIn Piano Renaissance (jean-baptiste-mueller.com) Swiss pianist Jean-Baptiste Müller presents a program of his own compositions written in Baroque, Classical and Romantic styles. Müller is undeniably an excellent performer who has, nevertheless, chosen a less travelled path to advance his work. His record of festival and competition awards and public performances all point to his comprehensive grasp of the standard piano repertoire. His ability to present original ideas in such accurate historical modes is curiously impressive.

Fuge in d is a four-voice fugue in the style of Bach as is the Chorale “Trockne meine Tränen mir in Deinem Lichte,” whose harmonic and voice part embellishments advance with each iteration of the chorale.

Müller’s concert history shows numerous performances of works by Antonio Soler. This explains his familiarity with the style of the period and the remarkable kinship with his three Hommages à Soler that he performs on this disc.

Valse de la Confrérie du Sabre d’Or is Chopin throughout and his ability to write so convincingly in that voice is amazing.

Vika Variationen is, however, a fusion of the baroque and romantic and less tidy in its identification of style. But then, that’s perhaps where we face our contemporary dilemma. We are predisposed to keep our historical musical styles separate, wince a bit at mixing them and wonder profoundly why anyone would want to write something original using them. It seems somehow inauthentic.

There’s no denying the quality of these compositions or the beauty of their performance. This disc is sure to get your attention and evoke a lingering curiosity.

10 Guebes Buchanan SchubertPianist, musicologist and educator, Luisa Guembes-Buchanan has added a new recording to her discography that currently includes Beethoven sonatas and works by Schumann and E.T.A. Hoffmann. On Schubert (Del Aguila DA 55312) Guembes-Buchanan performs the Sonata in C Minor D.958 and the Impromptu in A-Flat Major Op.90 No.4.

The Sonata is Schubert’s third last, written in his final year. It’s a substantial work that takes a half hour to perform. Guembes-Buchanan launches into the opening C minor chord then commits to a steady and aggressive pace until the second theme emerges in a more tender and relaxed mood. She opens the second movement with a profoundly respectful statement of the opening idea, then navigates Schubert’s numerous key changes through to the final, somewhat hesitant reference to the opening bars.

The fourth movement is busy and demands clear articulation for which Guembes-Buchanan pedals sparingly.

The Impromptu in A-Flat Major Op.90 No.4 is a favourite and gratifying to hear played this well. The tempo is fast, making the many descending arpeggios very impressive. Guembes-Buchanan is an inspired Schubert interpreter.

01 Beethoven Symphonies RattleBeethoven – Symphonies 1-9
Berliner Philharmoniker; Sir Simon Rattle
Berlin Philharmoniker Recordings BPHR 160091

When setting out to listen to these new performances from Berlin one would reasonably expect to hear, yet again, the familiar, well-known sonorities of the Philharmonic in this basic repertoire. After all, with five complete cycles available with this orchestra directed by Herbert von Karajan and versions by Claudio Abbado and André Cluytens, we may be pretty sure what, with some interpretive differences, the timbre will be. EMI had recorded the complete cycle with Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic in concert in the Musikverein in April and May of 2002, the year he assumed his new post in Berlin. Those performances broke no new ground. This one most certainly does.

Starting with, as usual for me, the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies, the ensemble sounded distinctly textured, noticeably different from the suave sonorities of so many admired performances one hears both in concert and on recordings. Listening to all nine confirmed that here are performances that bloom from inside Beethoven’s scores versus the subjective smoothing-out-the-details fashionable today. In these performances every symphony sounds newly minted. There are felicities in each and every one that capture and hold even the most jaded listener. No, particularly the most jaded listener!

For instance, the Pastoral is quite special. After the opening pages there comes a palpable feeling of serenity, a moment I don’t recall hearing before. More so than in other versions, this delicate-where-appropriate performance allows us to experience the surroundings that inspired the composer. Throughout the entire work we are with Beethoven and not looking out from a Mercedes, with the windows closed.

Bound into the sumptuous edition are five audio CDs, two Blu-ray videos of the concerts with additional material including rehearsals and observations on each symphony from conductor and players, and an engrossing impromptu talk by Rattle on Beethoven, problems of tempo, what size orchestra to employ, etc. Also a high definition Blu-ray audio disc of the nine; and included in the bound-in book is a piece by Jonathan Del Mar on his edition used in these performances.

This package is pricey … but priceless.

02 Mahler 10Mahler – Symphony No.10
Seattle Symphony; Thomas Dausgaard
Seattle Symphony SSM1011 (seattlesymphony.org)

Mahler’s final work, composed in the summer of 1910, survived in a complete though sometimes skeletal short score form before his death at the age of 50. A facsimile of the sketches was eventually published in 1924. Several efforts have been made to reconstruct the work, the most well-regarded being the three editions issued by Deryck Cooke from 1960 to 1976 (this last in use here). Questions of authenticity aside, the symphony remains a deeply moving, intensely personal and profound last testament.

Thomas Dausgaard, principal guest conductor of the re-invigorated Seattle Symphony, has a special affinity for this work, which he has performed frequently around the world. His interpretation is among the finest I have ever heard and the gorgeous sound he draws from the Seattle forces is outstanding. Their expanded string section in particular has never sounded better. The engineering of the live performance from November 2015 is peerless, surpassing that of the acclaimed 1999 Rattle/Berlin DG pressing. Wildly recommended.

03 Ravel OzawaRavel – L’enfant et les sortilèges; Shéhérazade
Isabel Leonard; Susan Graham; Saito Kinen Orchestra; Seiji Ozawa
Decca 478 6760

This new Decca release marks Seiji Ozawa’s 80th birthday and gives a nod to the particularly fruitful career of a conductor with a lifelong rapport with Ravel’s music. The pairing of a lyric fantasy, a triptych for mezzo-soprano and orchestra and an orchestrated movement from a solo piano suite creates an impressionistic jewel of tonal patterns and colours, oriental elements and imaginative stories.

Colette’s libretto for L’enfant et les sortilèges is whimsically charming and particularly suited to Ravel’s music. It tells the story of a young boy whose misbehaviour brings objects and talking animals to life. The opera is full of interesting characters – the armchair, the clock, the teapot, the Chinese cup and a whole array of animals (cats, frogs, squirrels and dragonflies). Ravel underscores the fantastic elements with indisputably beautiful orchestration. Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard’s portrayal of the mischievous child is light and playful and, even more notably, the whole cast is outstanding.

Ravel’s affinity for the oriental world is evident in Shéhérazade, a trio of vocal works set to expressively romantic poems by his friend and fellow member of the avant-garde artist group Les Apaches, Tristan Klingsor. The music is dreamy, sensuous, in full rapport with the text. Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham is powerful yet full of emotional nuances.

Alborada del gracioso, showcasing Saito Kinen Orchestra’s engaging interpretation of Ravel’s world, completes this highly recommended recording.

04 Brass RootsPassion For Brass: Brassroots at 30
Brassroots; Bram Gregson
Independent CB-B-07 (brassroots.ca)

Although they are little known outside of their home community of London, Ontario, Brassroots is one of the finest brass ensembles in Canada. With this recording they are celebrating their 30th anniversary. In 1986 when the famous Philip Jones Brass Ensemble disbanded, Karl Hermann, a trombone student at the Western University, organized a brass ensemble with the same instrumentation of four trumpets, one horn, four trombones, one tuba and percussion. Over the years there have been changes in personnel, but the only significant change has been an enlargement of the percussion to enable performance of a more expansive repertoire. Under the direction of veteran conductor Bram Gregson, Brassroots can certainly be proud of this 30-year-celebration recording.

The CD opens with the Music for His Majesty’s Sackbuts and Cornetts by Matthew Locke (1621-1677), arranged for modern instruments. This is a stunning performance in its precision. It’s followed by works by Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli and Tylman Susato, a composer from Antwerp in the same period. Then, the recording moves on to Point Pelee by Howard Cable. One minute you are hearing Baroque and Renaissance music. Then you are ushered in to contemporary music from Billy May, Harold Arlen and George Gershwin. For a radical departure, with The Cat by Jimmy Smith, the ensemble is turned into a hard-driving big band complete with a Hammond B-3 organ.

The CD comes with excellent program notes which are not printed on the package but are on a separate brochure. Unfortunately, the listing of the selections does not indicate track numbers. To select and play a specific track it is necessary count down the listings to determine the track.

In all, this recording covers a great spectrum. My personal favourites are the Locke work and a stunning rendition of the famous Czardas of Vittorio Monti. The soloist, Michael Medeiros, proves that a tuba in the right hands can be a fine lyric solo instrument. Over all this is a first-rate CD covering music over three centuries.

05 Scriabin SymphoniesScriabin – Symphonies 1&2
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; Valery Gergiev

Those who love to classify composers into neat categories will certainly have a stumbling block with Scriabin. He is Russian, but doesn’t sound a bit Russian (more like Richard Strauss if anyone, yet the Slavic spirit is unmistakable); his music doesn’t follow any rules and for the casual listener it all sounds more or less the same. He has been bypassed and rarely performed at concerts, as conductors do not like to take chances, but I suspect very few of them are capable of interpreting it, as the music is completely free with no comprehensible structure. But with total engagement and absorption, repeated listening and a great conductor like Gergiev, this music will conquer and you’ll never tire of it.

Gergiev has already recorded the better-known symphonies, the Third and Fourth (Poem of Ecstasy), with the London Symphony, one of the best orchestras in the world, in state-of-the-art sound, and here we have the two earlier symphonies from his formative years. The five movement Symphony No.2 is already a mature work and so makes a deep impact while Symphony No.1 has a vocal ending fashionable in those days à la Liszt, Berlioz or Mahler, with fine soloists and chorus, but so poorly received by the public at its premiere (1900) that it was condemned to oblivion.

Gergiev however quickly convinces us to the contrary. Luckily I have seen him a few times and can just picture him conducting without a baton as he hypnotizes the orchestra by his razor sharp gaze and with his undulating body and they follow his every movement. He and the orchestra become one organic unit with an inner logic that this indeed exalted, passionate music demands. A wonderful new issue I’ve enjoyed tremendously.

06 Florent SchmidtFlorent Schmitt – Antoine et Cléopâtre; Le Palais hanté
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta
Naxos 8.573521


This remarkable disc suggests that Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra concerts under outstanding conductor JoAnn Falletta are well worth the trip for Toronto area music lovers! The two three-movement concert suites of Florent Schmitt’s Antony and Cleopatra (1920) began as music for ballet interludes in a new Paris Opera production of the Shakespeare play. The Alsatian-born composer created an effective fin-de-siècle amalgam from his French and German influences; he was not simply being eclectic. The opening movement of Suite No.1 is an exotic foreshadowing of the tragedy to come, with delicate, intriguing timbres, a sultry oboe solo beautifully played and thick low- and mid-range scoring. As for succeeding numbers, the Buffalo Philharmonic’s brass shine in At Pompey’s Camp and the whole orchestra gives an exciting and heartfelt reading of the Battle of Actium. Suite No. 2 opens with Night in the Palace of the Queen’s evocative solo English horn, followed by the irregularly metred Orgy and Dances and the eerie, reverberant Tomb of Cleopatra, all played atmospherically and with technical assurance.

The earlier Study for “The Haunted Palace” (1904) dates from Schmitt’s time at the Villa Medici, after winning the Prix de Rome. It is inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s poem as translated by Stéphane Mallarmé. Travellers through a valley see Spirits moving and hear Echoes singing in the enchanted building. The language of this work is late romantic; conductor Falletta draws a rich sound and expressive style from the Buffalo Philharmonic strings.

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