01a_liszt_anniversaryThe Liszt Anniversary Collection
Christina Petrowska Quilico
Welspringe Productions WP011 (www.indiepool.com)

01b_liszt_lortieLiszt - The Complete Années de Pèlerinage
Louis Lortie
Chandos CHAN10662(2)

Is it true that women used to vie for a lock of Franz Liszt’s hair? Justin Bieber move over! In any event, it seems particularly appropriate that this being the 200th anniversary of his birth, we have not one, but two new releases devoted to piano music by the Hungarian virtuoso, and both of them performed by Canadians.

Ottawa-born Christina Petrowska Quilico studied at the Royal Conservatory, and later at the Juilliard School. Since then, she has earned a reputation as an exceptional and innovative teacher and performer, with a particular dedication to music by contemporary Canadian composers. Nevertheless, in her newest CD, titled “The Liszt Anniversary Collection” on the Welspringe label, she returns to the 19th century, with selections spanning Liszt’s entire career. True to form, her playing is polished, self-assured, and technically flawless. But what I find most appealing about this recording is the wonderful variety achieved within the carefully chosen programme. Well-known favourites such as La Campanella (as transcribed by Busoni) and the concert étude Un Sospiro are here, but also included are less familiar pieces, such as Wiegenlied, En rêve, and Nuages gris. These smaller works dating from Liszt’s late period are quietly introspective, and stylistically point to the 20th century. Petrowska Quilico treats them with a wonderful delicacy, adeptly proving that Liszt is not all bravura and showmanship!

More gargantuan in scale is a new Chandos double-disc set by Louis Lortie featuring the entire Années de Pelèrinage, including an addendum to the second set, Italie. Lortie has made a considerable name for himself since winning first prize at the Busoni Piano Competition in 1984, and a major prize at the Leeds Competition... Now based in Berlin, he continues to enjoy international fame through concerts and recordings. The three sets of Années – based on Liszt’s voyages to Switzerland and Italy - are gigantic in scope, and I would deem few pianists are able to interpret this music convincingly. Needless to say, Lortie does so brilliantly. As befits this repertoire, his approach is bold and impassioned, demonstrating a herculean technique. The Vallée d’Obermann from the first set presents technical challenges that would make the average pianist wince, but Lortie brings it off with aplomb. On the other hand, his treatment of such pieces as the Sonetto 47 and 123 from the second set, Italie, is elegantly understated. Bringing the disc to a rousing conclusion is the flamboyant Tarantella, music requiring almost superhuman powers. Is it any wonder that Liszt was sometimes regarded as Mephistopheles himself?

In all, two exemplary recordings which together comprise admirable recognition to Liszt’s bicentenary.

02_Schmitt_FranckSchmidtt - La Tragedie de Salomé; Franck - Symphonie in D minor
Orchestre Metropolitain du Grand Montreal; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
ATMA ACD2 2647

A half-submerged treasure in the dark and luxurious orchestral repertoire of the early 20th-century is the ballet/orchestral work The Tragedy of Salomé (1907) by French composer Florent Schmitt. Dance critic Toni Bentley’s intriguing book Sisters of Salomé describes the era’s “Salomania” craze. Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé that became the libretto for the Richard Strauss opera (1905) was not the only manifestation. There were also solo Salomé acts by proto-modern dancers including Canadian Maud Allan, “Mata Hari” (real name Margaretha Zelle) and Ida Rubenstein.

Schmitt’s work was premiered by American dancer Loïe Fuller, also well-known for her own Salomé creations when Schmitt composed his version. After the premiere he shortened and re-scored it for large orchestra, in the form recorded on this fine disc. Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain in an exciting yet carefully-balanced performance. The shifts of mood and pacing essential for this post-Debussy style are handled sensitively, as is the balance of solo winds emerging out of complex symphonic textures. I particularly liked the brilliance of the Dance of Pearls and the aptly-titled final Dance of Terror in 5/4 time.

Franck’s Symphony in D minor (1888) has its defenders, but for me the overworked motifs eventually turn into unwelcome guests. Nézet-Séguin delivers with subtle dynamics and clear delineation of the organ-like instrumentation, enough to attract Franckophiles and those seeking to fill a gap in their late-19th-century orchestral collections.

03_HolstHolst - The Planets; Beni Mora; Japanese Suite
Manchester Chamber Choir; BBC Philharmonic; Sir Andrew Davis
Chandos CHSA 5086

This is Davis’ third recording of The Planets, Holst’s best known work. The first was for EMI in 1986 with the TSO during his tenure here. His second, for Teldec, was in 1993 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra during his tenure there.

There is no paucity of recorded versions interpreted by a who’s who of eminently suitable conductors and some quite unsuitable. I have heard just about all of them and some are outstanding, such as Boult’s 1966 version with the New Philharmonia (EMI) but Davis’s new version, all things considered, is the one some of us have been waiting for.

From the very first bars of Mars, The Bringer of War, it is clear that Davis has re-thought the music with striking results. There is a fresh clarity and transparency achieved primarily by adjusting the balances between instruments and through subtle and not so subtle adjustments to the tempi and phrasing.

Beni Mora is a delicately scored, attractive little ballet with an oriental flavour. The Japanese Suite is another dance piece, alternately stimulating and reposeful. It is new to me but I’ve listened a few times and regard both beautifully scored little works as undeservedly obscure gems that live in the shadow of The Planets.

Davis acknowledges an affinity for Holst and there are more recordings to come from these forces.

The wide range of sonorities together with scrupulous regard for dynamic gradations from juggernaut tuttis to the gossamer pianissimos in The Planets are captured to absolute perfection by CHANDOS. This disc is a must have, particularly for the most demanding audiophile. A hybrid disc, the outstanding sound in stereo is enhanced with astonishing reality in surround sound on SACD players.

04_mahler_dvdMahler: Symphony No. 9
Lucerne Festival Orchestra; Claudio Abbado
Accentus Music; Arte DVD ACC20214

This is the second DVD of Abbado conducting this work at the Lucerne Festival; a previous 2005 EuroArts release had featured a marvellous rendition by the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. As fine as that performance was, I find myself utterly astonished by the excellence of this latest incarnation from August of 2010 with the incomparable Lucerne Festival Orchestra. From start to finish conductor and orchestra are of one mind, setting a new standard of excellence in revealing this purportedly death-obsessed work as a fiery affirmation of life. The very soul of Mahler is stripped bare, tender and defiant, sarcastic and caring, brave and pensive, in a truly revelatory performance of astounding sensitivity and beauty of tone. As the house lights dim theatrically during the final pages of the symphony we are transported into an atmosphere of sublime transcendence: now barely audible, the music is drawn out to infinity and evaporates into two and a half minutes of stunned silence from an audience which clearly has witnessed a truly historic event. The DVD (also available in the Blu-Ray format) is skilfully filmed with vastly improved sound from previous releases and includes the option of a “conductor camera” view focused on Abbado alone.

01_Adams_PortraitBy his own admission American composer John Adams, star of the recent TSO New Creations Festival, is hard to classify. Given his large output, the three works on John Adams - Portrait, the latest CD from Angèle Dubeau and La Pietà (Analekta AN 2 8732), won’t really help you in that regard, despite the CD’s title. This is the group’s third ‘portrait’ CD, following discs dedicated to Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt, but there is little of Adams’ range on display here. Shaker Loops, for string septet, is an early work from 1978 with echoes of Steve Reich, but with more going on and some interesting textures. The other works are only a year apart, and over 15 years old. Road Moves for violin and piano (with Louise Bessette) is from 1995, and closer to the Adams of the Short Ride in a Fast Machine style. John’s Book of Alleged Dances for string quartet, from 1994, is a set of dances that can be played in whole or in part, and in any order. Six of the ten dances – the ones selected for this CD - are accompanied by a recorded track of percussion noises produced on a prepared piano. The booklet notes inform us that “except for a few excerpts, the dances are played here with a double quartet, adding considerably to the challenge of performing the work.” Nobody says why. Recorded at McGill’s Schulich School of Music, the performance and sound quality are top notch.

The Deutsche Grammophon debut CD by the Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili, Echoes of Time (DGG 477 9299) is her selection of works by composers whose artistic lives were impacted by the Soviet regime, and it’s a real winner. At its core is the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No.1, and it’s worth the price of the CD on its own. Whatever the truth of the composer’s apparent compliance with the regime, there is no music from the 20th century that is more painfully personal than that of Shostakovich: listening to this deeply moving performance made me feel almost uncomfortable, as if intruding on someone’s most intimate thoughts. The contribution of the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Esa-Pekka Salonen is outstanding. Nothing else on the disc really measures up after that, but it’s still terrific playing. Giya Kancheli’s V&V, for violin and taped voice with string orchestra, and Shostakovich’s Lyrical Waltz (orchestrated by Batiashvili’s father) are paired with Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel and Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, Batiashvili being joined by the excellent Hélène Grimaud on piano.

03_SchulhoffChances are you may know the name of Erwin Schulhoff but not his music; I was unaware of his violin works before hearing the excellent CD of his Violin Sonatas by Tanja Becker-Bender and Markus Bender (Hyperion CDA67833). Schulhoff, who was in his late 40s when he died of tuberculosis in a Nazi concentration camp in 1942, was a student of Reger and of Brahms’ close friend Fritz Steinbach, and the influence shows in his early Suite Op.1, a finely crafted and strongly tonal work from 1911. Within two years, however, Schulhoff had discovered the music of Debussy, and the harmonic language in his Sonata No.1, Op.7 is far more sophisticated. The other two works on the CD are from 1927. The Sonata for Solo Violin is a stunning work with a dazzling first movement, a lyrical but highly chromatic slow movement, and third and fourth movements strongly reminiscent of Bartok, whose influence is also heard in the Sonata No.2 for violin and piano. The playing and sound quality throughout are of the highest order. A terrific disc.

04_Bach_RegerI’ve never quite understood the lack of interest in the music of Max Reger. Outside his native Germany he is still misunderstood and rarely heard, usually being regarded as some turgid, chromatic hybrid of Brahms and Mahler. A brilliant organist, Reger revered Bach, taking him as a model, and his life-long obsession with the fugue is reflected in the huge amount of music he wrote for organ and for solo violin. The Japanese violinist Sayaka Shoji has produced a fascinating 2-CD set (Mirare MIR 128) which pairs three of Reger’s Preludes & Fugues from his Op.117, written between 1909 and 1912, with three of the Bach Sonatas & Partitas: the Sonata No.1 in G minor; the Partita No.1 in B minor; and the Partita No.2 in D minor. Shoji has a full, warm sound, and is recorded with a good deal of resonance but great clarity. Her technique is superb, and her interpretation quite captivating: with its understated dynamics, the great D minor Chaconne makes an almost introspective ending to a fascinating look at how musical influences can reach across the centuries. In fact, hearing these works side by side makes you realize just how chromatic and stunningly ‘modern’ Bach’s harmonic structures really were.

05_dErlangerHyperion’s latest addition to their series The Romantic Violin Concerto – Volume 10 (Hyperion CDA67838) – features works by two composers who are completely new to me, and three works that will be new to almost everyone. Frederic d’Erlanger (1868-1943) was born in France to a German father and American mother, and moved to London in his teens, eventually becoming a naturalized British citizen and a prominent figure in the London musical scene. He composed regularly, though not profusely, throughout his life, and his compositions were performed by the leading artists of the day. His Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.17, dates from 1902, and over the next 20 years was played by Kreisler and by the great English violinist Albert Sammons. It is very much in the Brahms/Bruch mould, beautifully scored, and with a very lovely slow movement. His Poème started life in 1918 as a work for violin and piano, and was orchestrated by d’Erlanger in 1926. The soloist for the premiere of the orchestral version in 1928 was the famous viola player William Primrose. Again, it’s lovely stuff: fresh, warm, melodic, and beautifully orchestrated. The Yorkshire-born Frederic Cliffe (1857-1931) is a classic example of the late Victorian minor English composers who were swept away and rendered irrelevant by the 20th century. He burst on to the scene at the age of 31 – apparently with no previous compositional accomplishments to his name - with a highly successful symphony, produced a handful of major works, and disappeared again within 20 years. His Violin Concerto was written in 1896 for the Norwich Festival, but after only a handful of performances it remained un-played for 90 years. It’s an attractive and competent work, but nowhere near as convincing as the d’Erlanger, feeling more episodic and somewhat disjointed, especially in the slow movement. The violinist who revived it, Philippe Graffin, is the soloist on this excellent CD, and it’s difficult to imagine a more appropriate and sympathetic interpreter. His playing is effortlessly beautiful, and stylistically perfect. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales under David Lloyd-Jones is his equal in all respects. It’s easy to see why this music disappeared – after all, it’s only a dozen years or so before Schoenberg’s atonality and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring changed the playing field for ever – but it’s also easy to appreciate its appeal. It’s an absolutely fascinating sample of English music in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.

06_Romantic_violinistOn The Romantic Violinist – A Celebration of Joseph Joachim (DGG 477 9301), Daniel Hope presents a programme of works created for and by the man whose influence dominated the violin world in the second half of the 19th century. The major work is a beautifully considered, warm and intelligent reading of the Bruch G minor concerto, with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under Sakari Oramo. The nine shorter pieces have varied accompaniment: Dvorak’s Serenade and Joachim’s own Notturno are with orchestra; Brahms’ Hungarian Dances Nos.1 and 5 are for violin and strings; Clara Schumann’s Romanze, Joachim’s piece with the same title, Brahms’ Scherzo from the F-A-E Sonata and Schubert’s Auf dem Wasser zu singen feature piano accompaniment by Sebastian Knauer. Hope switches to viola for the Brahms Geistliches Wiegenlied, where he is joined by mezzo-soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter and pianist Bengt Forsberg. For this CD, he tells us in the booklet notes, “I borrowed a viola and taught myself to play it.” Must be nice!

07_romantic_violinGENUIN has released a CD of Romantic Works for Violin (GEN 10535) featuring the German violinist Christine Raphael, who died 3 years ago in her mid-60s. The Dvorak concerto and two pieces for violin and string orchestra by Ysaÿe are coupled with two selections with piano accompaniment: Suk’s Four Pieces Op.17 and Schumann’s Three Romances Op.94. Recorded between 1977 and 1985, apparently for German radio broadcasts, this is a good testament to a solid, if unspectacular, player.

01_geminianiGeminiani - Pièces de clavecin
Hank Knox
early-music.com EMCCD-7772

Francesco Geminiani arrived in London in 1714; by 1739 he had published the harpsichord music from which Hank Knox makes his selection for this CD. Geminiani probably developed his individual style in Paris, learning from Rameau and others. Hank Knox introduces us to a prelude bearing the hallmarks of this individuality. From his commentary it is clear that Geminiani never rested until he had added all the complex scoring he considered necessary. His gayment and vivement movements are demanding but reward the listener and player with lively and entertaining motifs. This is Hank Knox at his most inspired.

Geminiani’s tendrement movements are appropriately named with their pleading quality, although the movement marked gracieusement et tendrement is both more taxing on the player and far livelier than its two near-namesakes. And then for the more traditional lover of the harpsichord there are two minuets, the second lasting almost ten minutes – an early music eternity! This is baroque harpsichord at its most conventional and most complex.  Finally, an amoureusement shows just why Geminiani’s student Charles Avison so admired his master: he placed him alongside Handel (often semi-seriously styled England’s greatest composer between Purcell and Elgar) and Corelli who enjoyed cult-like status in London.

This is an enjoyable CD; Hank Knox may take a real pride in bringing Geminiani’s harpsichord music to a larger audience.

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

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.

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