01 Marie BéginThe new CD Debussy-Franck-Szymanowski finds the Canadian duo of violinist Marie Bégin and pianist Samuel Blanchette-Gagnon in quite superb form (ATMA Classique ACD2 2850 atmaclassique.com/en).

Bégin’s Carlo Bergonzi violin from 1710-1715 produces a glorious sound, and there’s a lovely range of tone colour from both players in the Debussy Sonata in G Minor and in the shimmering, atmospheric performance of the three Szymanowski Mythes Op.30. The heart of the disc is a wonderfully expansive and insightful reading of the Franck Sonata in A Major, with a slow build-up through the opening Allegretto, a brooding and passionate Allegro second movement, a heartfelt Recitativo: Fantasia and a final canon of depth and strength.

Two short transcriptions – Fauré’s Après un rêve and Debussy’s Beau soir, the latter in the Heifetz arrangement – complete a superlative CD.

02 Randall Goosby RootsRoots, the debut CD from the young American violinist Randall Goosby has been attracting a lot of interest, and with good reason. Described as “an exploration of the music written by Black composers and inspired by Black American culture” it’s a strong recital that features fine playing from Goosby and pianist Zhu Wang (Decca Classics 4851664 store.deccaclassics.com/*/CD-Classics/Roots/6Z5A16YW000).

Xavier Dubois Foley’s Shelter Island for violin and string bass (with the composer on bass) is a world-premiere recording, as are the three pieces by Florence Price: Adoration and the two Fantasies, No.1 in G Minor and No.2 in F-sharp Minor. Also here are Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s Blue/s Forms for Solo Violin, four songs from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in the Heifetz transcriptions, William Grant Still’s Suite for Violin and Piano (with its gorgeous second movement), Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Deep River (in an arrangement by violinist Maud Powell) and Dvořák’s three-movement Sonatina in G Major.

Goosby draws a full, warm tone from the 1735 “Sennhauser” Guarneri del Gesù violin, and has a lovely feel for line and phrase. Wang provides excellent support on an impressive debut disc.

03 Wernig Viennese ViolaFrom the opening bars of The Viennese Viola: Emma Wernig, the debut CD from the winner of the 2017 Cecil Aronowitz competition with Albert Cano Smit at the piano, it’s clear that we’re in very good hands. Wernig’s warm, assured playing is supported by Cano Smit’s perfectly matched accompaniment in a beautifully balanced recording of Austrian rarities for viola and piano (Champs Hill Records CHRCD163 emmawernig.com).

Hans Gál wrote his Viola Sonata in A Major Op.101 in Edinburgh in late 1942, having fled Austria in 1938. It’s a lovely work, lyrical and passionate but with moments of melancholy and gloomy introspection.

Two fine works by Robert Fuchs are at the centre of the recital: his Sechs Phantasiestücke Op.117 from 1927 and his Viola Sonata in D Minor Op.86 from 1899. Brahms greatly admired Fuchs, and his influence – as well as that of Schubert – is keenly felt.

Four Schubert songs – Am See, Frühlingstraum, An die Musik and Litanei auf das Fest Aller Seelen – chosen and arranged by the two performers, complete an outstanding CD.

04 Elegy Toby HughesA third – and equally accomplished – debut CD is Elegy: Toby Hughes, featuring the young English bassist accompanied by pianist Benjamin Powell in a recital that Hughes feels offers an insight into the instrument’s versatility (Champs Hill Records CHRCD162 tobyhughesdoublebass.com)

Hughes’ bass is built for solo playing, custom made for him, and what a sound it has – the warmth and agility of a cello, but with heft.

The Aria et Rondo from 1952 by the French composer Alfred Desenclos opens the disc, followed by Reinhold Glière’s Four Pieces – the Prelude and Scherzo Op.32 Nos.1 & 2 and the Intermezzo and Tarantella Op.9 Nos.1 & 2 – the Tarantella drawing dazzling virtuosity from Hughes. The brief Ekskize No.1, in a transcription by its composer Richard Dubugnon, was originally for voice and piano. 

The other major work on the CD is the four-movement Sonata No.2 in E Minor Op.6 from 1911 by Czech composer Adolf Mišek; it’s a passionate work with shades of Brahms and Dvořák. Bottesini’s lovely Elegia No.1, which takes Hughes to the instrument’s highest register, brings an impressive debut CD to a close. 

05 Fullana BachOn the outstanding Bach’s Long Shadow, his first solo album, the Spanish-American violinist Francisco Fullana builds a program of interlinked yet contrasting works around the Bach Partita No.3 in E Major BWV1006 (Orchid Classics ORC100165 orchidclassics.com).

Ysaÿe’s Solo Sonata Op.27 No.2 directly quotes the Bach Partita. Kreisler’s Recitativo & Scherzo Op.6 was dedicated to Ysaÿe, and Fullana is playing Kreisler’s first Guarneri violin, the 1735 “Mary Portman” Guarneri del Gesù which, for the Bach, is set up with gut strings, Fullana using a Baroque bow and historically informed ornamentation for that performance.

Striking transcriptions of Albéniz’ Asturias and Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra, the latter particularly difficult and effective, end a dazzling solo recital, Fullana being joined in an “encore” by Stella Chen, the most recent winner of the Queen Elisabeth Competition, in the first movement of Ysaÿe’s Sonata for Two Violins.

06 Brieuc VourchOn Richard Strauss/César Franck the French duo of violinist Brieuc Vourch and pianist Guillaume Vincent present the Strauss Sonata in E-flat Major Op.18 together with yet another recording of the Franck Sonata in A Major (FARAO Classics B 108112 farao-classics.de).

There’s a strong, bright tone to Vourch’s 1690 Francesco Ruggeri violin in a suitably passionate performance of the Strauss.

Interestingly, the performers’ booklet notes for this and the Bégin/Blanchette-Gagnon disc both mention the tough challenge of trying to find an authentic personal voice in the much-recorded Franck sonata, but the resulting performances could hardly be more different. Vourch and Vincent push the tempo throughout, especially in the Allegro and in a final canon faster than any of the four other Franck CDs I’ve received recently, but at times it simply feels rushed and lacking in subtlety – certainly not as thoughtful or satisfying as the Bégin disc.

07 Diffusion Verona QuartetDiffusion, the outstanding debut CD from the Verona Quartet is described as exploring a mosaic of folk cultures through the lens of three quartets from the early 20th century (Azica Records ACDF-71339 veronaquartet.com).

As musicians hailing from across the world, the quartet wanted their first album to reflect the essence of the cultural migration that is such a big part of their identity. The performances of the three works – Janáček’s String Quartet No.2 “Intimate Letters”, Szymanowski’s String Quartet No.2 Op.56 and Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major – are quite superb in all respects.

The intensely personal intimacy and passion of the Janáček, written near the end of his life and inspired by his unfulfilled love for a much younger married woman, are beautifully captured in a performance that penetrates to the heart of the work. The Szymanowski, similar in style and tone, is equally striking, and a shimmering performance of the Ravel completes an extremely impressive disc full of breathtaking interpretations and playing.

08a Daniel Lippel BachThe two guitarists who form the contemporary FretXDuo, Daniel Lippel and Mak Grgic have both issued solo CDs of music by Johann Sebastian Bach played on the well-tempered guitar. The guitar is by the German luthier Walter Vogt, using his invention The Fine-Tunable Precision Fretboard, in which each fret is split into six individual moveable frets, placed according to the Well-Tempered III tuning designed by Johann Kirnberger, a composer who studied with Bach. This not only enables the music to be heard in its original keys but also retains the specific Baroque character of each key that is lost with today’s equal temperament, where the subtly varying interval sizes are smoothed out.

The Lautenwerk was a Baroque keyboard instrument, essentially a lute-harpsichord with gut strings that could be plucked with different quill materials at different points along their length. On aufs Lautenwerk, Lippel performs two works for the instrument – the Suite in E Minor BWV996 and the Sonata in C Minor BWV997 – along with the Prelude, Fuga & Allegro in E-flat Major BWV998, written for lute or harpsichord (New Focus Recordings FCR920/MicroFest Records MF 18 microfestrecords.com).

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08b MAK BACHOn MAK/Bach Grgic presents a simply beautiful recital of solo masterworks and chorales: the Flute Partita in A Minor BWV1013; the Solo Violin Sonata in G Minor BWV1001; and the Cello Suite in D Major BWV1012. Four brief chorales fill out the disc (MicroFest Records MF19 microfestrecords.com).

To be honest, it will probably take a very good ear to fully distinguish the nuances in the tuning here, but there’s no denying the beauty of the sound or the beauty of the playing, with both performers displaying faultless technique – no easy task given the variations in individual fret placements – and an unerring feel for the period style. The Grgic CD, especially his own transcriptions of the Violin Sonata and the Cello Suite is perhaps the more satisfying program of the two, but with music and playing of this remarkable quality there’s no need to choose between them.

09 Roncalli HofstotterThe guitar works of Ludovico Roncalli have long been popular in modern transcriptions, but on Roncalli Complete Guitar Music they are performed by Bernhard Hofstötter on a Baroque guitar attributed to Matteo Sellas of Venice, c.1640 (Brilliant Classics 2CD 95856 brilliantclassics.com).

The five-course Baroque guitar had five pairs of gut strings (the first course often single-strung, as here) with the fourth and fifth sometimes octave-strung (here with a low octave on the fourth course only).

Roncalli’s 1692 Capricci armonici sopra la chitarra spagnola consists of nine sonate (suites), with eight paired in major and relative minor keys, an opening Preludio and Alemanda being followed by various dance forms. Movements are really short – mostly under two minutes. There’s no indication of pitch or tuning, but the actual pitch heard is down a minor third from the listed keys.

Monica Hall’s excellent booklet essay notes that Roncalli’s “exquisite melodic lines and elegant counterpoint are seamlessly combined with the strummed five-part chords which were still a defining feature of guitar music at the time.”

Hofstötter’s masterful playing is an absolute delight throughout.

10 David JacquesThe addition of a sixth string (the low E) in the 1790s established the guitar form that would flourish throughout the 19th century. In his second volume of Histoires de guitares Quebec guitarist David Jacques features 15 historical guitars from his astonishing private collection, all but one from the period 1800-1880, and each one illustrated in colour in the excellent booklet (ATMA Classique ACD2 2821 atmaclassique.com/en).

The 28 short, charming pieces by Giuliani, Sor, Carulli, Paganini and 13 lesser-known composers were chosen specifically to showcase each instrument’s individual qualities and character, and they include some real gems – the three pieces by the English composer Ernest Shand, for instance.

They’re all beautifully played too, with clean technique, sensitivity and a nice range of tonal colour.

11 Lullaby 3 DriftingDrifting, Volume 3 of the New Lullaby Project is the latest CD from guitarist Aaron Larget-Caplan in his excellent series of specially commissioned guitar solos which began in 2007 (Six String Sound 888-03 stonerecords.co.uk).

The 15 short pieces here were written between 2010 and 2020 by 15 different composers, and while they’re not intended to help children get to sleep there’s nothing strident or challenging to the ears. “The compositional language leans tonal and the tuning remains mostly standard,” says Larget-Caplan, “but don’t worry, harmonics still abound.” Indeed they do, in another captivating addition to a significant series that continues to add miniature gems to the contemporary guitar repertoire.

You can find my review of Nights Transfigured – Volume 2 of the New Lullaby Project in the May/June 2021 edition of Strings Attached.

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01 J G GraunG. Graun – Chamber Music from the Court of Frederick the Great
Augusta McKay Lodge; Georgina McKay Lodge; Eva Lymenstull; David Schulenberg
Brilliant Classics BRI96289 (naxosdirect.com/search/bri96289)

Frederick the Great’s patronage of classical musicians is well known; Frederick was himself an accomplished player and composer. Surprisingly, several of these composers did not perform before the King and are therefore less well known than they should be. This CD seeks reversal of the situation.

A comment is made in the CD notes that the pieces bridge a gap between Baroque and mainstream classical music. This is borne out in Janitsch’s Allegretto which possesses a liveliness worthy of Mozart or Haydn. When it comes to Johann Gottlieb, the slightly older Graun brother, we are treated to a highly spirited Allegro scherzando from violinist Augusta McKay Lodge, echoed literally by David Schulenberg’s harpsichord playing before all instruments proceed to a real virtuoso performance of which J. S. Bach would have been proud.

It is Bach’s oldest son Wilhelm Friedemann who tutored one of the stars of this CD, Franz Benda. Benda’s Sonata for viola brings out the best of Georgina McKay Lodge’s playing. Listen, for example, to her stately and measured approach to the Adagio. Benda, in fact, moved in exalted circles, being a pupil of Wilhelm Friedemann but also having as patron one Sarah Levy, great-aunt of Felix Mendelssohn. And yet it is the Grauns who dominate the CD. Johann Gottlieb’s Trio sonata in A showcases the string playing of both McKay Lodges. All in all, this well-chosen collection demonstrates the tremendous array of talented composers Frederick the Great attracted – which paved the way for Haydn and Mozart.

02 Von OeyenBach; Beethoven
Andrew Von Oeyen
Warner Classics 0190295020514 (vonoeyen.com)

After the silence descended over concert halls in 2020, many performing artists focused on exploring the possibilities of new sonic places through repertoire, musical approaches or unusual physical spaces. Intimate solo sessions offered these artists the opportunity for introspection and extended a salute to their audiences. According to Andrew Von Oeyen’s liner notes, his desire to turn to the repertoire that expressed the essence of current times and fortified noble feelings of resilience and perseverance resulted in this album. And what an album it is! Every piece carries a deeper meaning of our collective experiences in the times of the pandemic and Von Oeyen conveys it on both the intellectual and emotional level. The performance goes beyond his dazzling technique and splendid phrasing. It is as if he simply knows where the heart of each composition lies and he is unveiling it for the listener.

Bach’s Overture in the French Style, a quest for order and clarity, is particularly well played. Not being a Bach specialist allows Von Oeyen to hear the interweaving voices in a slightly more juxtaposed – rather than contrasting – way. Beethoven’s piano sonatas (Nos.13 and 23), embodying vitality and determination, bring in the currents of energy. The choice to end the album with Kempff’s piano arrangements of the movements from Bach’s Flute Sonata No.2 and Harpsichord Concerto No.5 are surprising but welcomed. These solitary musings of one artist are well noted and well appreciated.

03 Vitkauskaite Mozart BeethovenMozart – Piano Concerto No.20; Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.3
Rasa Vitkauskaite; Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra; Anima Musicae Chamber Orchestra; Jonathan Cohler
Ongaku Records 024-129 (ongaku-records.com)

Released in honour of Beethoven’s 250th birthday anniversary, this album also honours the long and beloved tradition of the classical piano concerto. The concept is cleverly simple: choosing to record the first concertos written in a minor key by both Mozart and Beethoven allows Lithuanian pianist Rasa Vitkauskaite to explore the multitude of interrelations in the ways both composers approached piano playing and piano writing. Furthermore, her extensive and thoughtful liner notes not only offer a wealth of historical information but also aid the listener’s aural comprehension of these two masterpieces. 

Vitkauskaite’s performance is buoyant and certainly does not lack fully fledged ideas. Whether it is the poetic opening of Mozart’s concerto or the relentless dancing bounce in the concluding movement of the Beethoven, Vitkauskaite has a strong presence and willful execution. Each composer chose specific minor keys (D minor for Mozart and C minor for Beethoven) as ideal canvases for expressing tempestuous feelings and darkness, and they continued to do so in their later works. Vitkauskaite understands that darkness perfectly. She is capable of bringing forth the intensity and tension while still retaining the lyricism of the melodies. She favours her own improvisations and embellishments in the cadenzas, which makes this performance exciting as we are able to hear something new and surprising. Jonathan Cohler is a perfect collaborator to Vitkauskaite, directing both orchestras with clarity and conviction.

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04 Mozart 3 McDermottMozart – Piano Concertos Vol.3 K449 & K595
Anne-Marie McDermott; Odense Symphoniorkester; Sebastian Lang-Lessing
Bridge Records 9538 (bridge-records.com)

This Bridge recording is the third in a series of Mozart piano concertos featuring American pianist Anne-Marie McDermott with the Odense Symphony conducted by Sebastian Lang-Lessing, this time presenting Concertos No.14, K449 and No.27, K595.

A graduate of the Manhattan School of Music,  McDermott has earned a reputation as a consummate artist during the last 25 years, one who continues to appear in concert internationally both as a soloist and a chamber musician. Her first two recordings in this series were met with considerable critical acclaim and this one is equally impressive.

Written in 1784, K449 is regarded as the first of Mozart’s mature works in the genre and was the first composition to be entered into a notebook of his music he retained for the next seven years.  McDermott approaches the score with a thoughtful intelligence, her phrasing at all times carefully nuanced, while the Odense Symphony is a sensitive and formidable partner. The second movement andantino is all heartfelt lyricism while the optimistic and sprightly finale is carried out with great gusto.

Concerto No.27, Mozart’s last contribution to the concerto form, his “swan song” so to speak, was probably written between 1788 and 1789, but the manuscript is dated January 5, 1791.Once again, McDermott’s performance is wonderfully expressive, the brisker passages marked by an adept precision. Throughout, the warm strings and woodwinds under Lang-Lessing’s skilfull baton further contribute to a most satisfying performance.

While recordings of Mozart piano concertos continue to be plentiful, this one – by an exemplary soloist and orchestra, both of whom deserve greater recognition – is a welcome addition and we can look forward to further editions in the series.

 

05 Mozart Momentum AndsnesMM 1785 – Mozart Momentum
Leif Ove Andsnes; Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Sony 19439742462 (naxosdirect.com/search/194397424621)

1785 was a landmark year in Mozart’s all-too-brief existence. He had finally achieved a degree of financial security, he commenced a period of tremendous creative energy and he was beginning to “push the boundaries” with respect to his musical style. This Sony two-disc set titled Mozart Momentum, is an intriguing presentation of seven works all composed that year – three piano concertos, the Piano Quartet K478, the Fantasia K475 and the Masonic Funeral Music K477 performed by Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. 

The Piano Concerto No.20 – the first of two Mozart wrote in a minor key – took some time to be fully accepted by Viennese audiences, but they ultimately embraced it wholeheartedly. The overall theme of “light triumphing over darkness” clearly foreshadows the 19th century, and Andsnes with the MCO are a formidable pairing, delivering a polished performance.

Similarly, the Concertos No.21 and 22 (the latter the first to make use of clarinets) demonstrate a buoyant confidence – tempos in the outer movements are brisk but never rushed, the cadenzas are creative and there’s a solid connection between soloist and orchestra.

For the G-Minor Quartet, Andsnes drew upon the principals from the ensemble and what a wonderfully intimate sound they produce! Here the listener is struck by the enthralling interplay of the musicians, particularly in the third movement scherzo where they engage in a true game of “cat and mouse” including a false ending before the jocular conclusion performed with great panache.

Andsnes sits on the sidelines for the brief Masonic Funeral Music but returns for the Fantasia in C Minor, a score that clearly anticipates Beethoven. 

Kudos to all concerned – this set is a treasure, bound to be enjoyed for many years to come.

 

06a Schumann ProjectThe Schumann Project: Robert – Symphonic Etudes; Clara – Sonata in G Minor
Inna Faliks
MSR Classics MS 1763 (msrcd.com)

Reimagine: Beethoven & Ravel
Inna Faliks
Navona Records nv6352 (navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6352)

The name Inna Faliks may not seem familiar to music lovers today, but the credentials of this Ukrainian-born American pianist are impressive indeed. Currently head of the piano department at UCLA, Faliks has made a name for herself both as a performer and pedagogue, and has appeared in concert throughout the world including a tour of China in 2016.The recording, titled The Schuman Project, is the first in a series designed to juxtapose the music of Robert Schumann with that of his wife Clara, who for too long has had the unfortunate reputation as “a pianist who also composed.”

The 19th century wasn’t kind to women composers (or any women involved in the creative arts) and Clara was no exception. Her Piano Sonata in G Minor, which opens the disc, was an early work dating from 1841 when she was all of 22. It was composed specifically for Robert and despite her youth, there is much to admire here including solid construction and fine thematic development among the four movements. Faliks approaches the unfamiliar score with a clear understanding of the music, delivering a compelling and heartfelt performance.

Schumann’s renowned Symphonic Etudes were begun in 1834 and have long been regarded as one of the most challenging of his large-scale piano works. Faliks easily proves her grasp of the material, rising to all the technical demands. But she is no mere technician – at all times her phrasing is carefully articulated and, beginning with the mysterious opening theme, her performance is a captivating musical journey right through to the jubilant finale. 

06b Reimagine Beethoven RavelFaliks turns her attention to very different material in the disc Reimagine: Beethoven and Ravel. Here she focuses on putting a new “spin” on standard repertoire, in this case, the Beethoven set of Bagatelles Op.126 and Ravel’s suite Gaspard de la Nuit. These were used as a basis for new compositions by modern composers such as Peter Golub, Tamir Hendelman and Richard Danielpour. Just as the Beethoven set is a study in contrasts, so are the reinterpretations. For example, the mood of the Bagatelle by Golub based on the first in the Beethoven set is pensive and contemplative, closely following that of the original, while Ian Krouse’s Etude 2a based on the second is a true perpetuum mobile. For whatever reason, Faliks didn’t include any original movements from the Ravel suite, but pieces such as Variations on a Spell by Paola Prestini are an evocative reimagining of Ondine.

These are fine recordings demonstrating two sides of a gifted artist – and recorded during a pandemic no less. We can hope to hear more from Inna Faliks in the future.

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