14 Paris la belle epoqueParis, La Belle Époque
Robert Langevin; Margaret Kampmeier
Bridge Records 9555 (bridge-records.com)

Robert Langevin, a native of Sherbrooke, Quebec has served as associate principal flute of the Montreal Symphony and, since 2000, principal flute of the New York Philharmonic. In this CD, he and pianist Margaret Kampmeier scintillate in ten delectable works composed during France’s “Belle Époque” (1871-1914), when Paris, rebounding after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, again became a leader of European arts and culture.

The luxuriantly liquid melodies of Charles-Marie Widor’s Suite, Op.34, offer a musical counterpart to the entrancing beauties of Monet’s celebrated, willow-draped lily pond in Giverny. Jules Mouquet’s three-movement La flûte de Pan, Op.15, depicts the nature-god cavorting with shepherds, birds and nymphs. The second movement, Pan et les oiseaux, is especially ravishing, as “ancient” modal melodies float over harp-like piano plinks and arpeggios.

Gabriel Fauré’s Fantaisie, Op.79 and Morceau de concours, the latter a sightreading test-piece for students at the Paris Conservatoire, are in Fauré’s familiar ambulatory, lyrically captivating style. George Enescu’s Cantabile et presto and Philippe Gaubert’s Nocturne et allegro scherzando were also composed for Conservatoire competitions. Both are very Fauré-like in character, as is Gaubert’s lovely Madrigal. Gaubert’s charming Fantaisie suggests the influence of Debussy, who closes this CD with two treasures of the flute repertoire, Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un faune (arranged for flute and piano) and Syrinx for solo flute.

Throughout, Langevin’s flute seems a living thing, a “magic flute” with a mellifluous voice and amazing acrobatic agility, yet always exquisitely graceful. Bravissimo!

15 Merz Trio InkInk
Merz Trio
Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0148 (brightshiny.ninja)

Subtlety is the overarching quality that violinist Brigid Coleridge, cellist Julia Yang and pianist Lee Dionne – the Merz Trio – convey so luminously in the works of Vincent Scotto, Lili and Nadia Boulanger, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy interspersed between spoken words from Anna de Noailles, Jean Cocteau, Guillaume Apollinaire and other writers. All of this comes together seamlessly in the trio’s extraordinary debut disc, Ink

The recitation often doesn’t raise its voice much above a whisper, and even when it does, the narratives and music are skilfully and intricately interwoven to maintain a certain expressive decorum. The trio alters spoken word, harmonies and structural elements with impressive restraint, heading in directions that surprise and captivate the ear.  

Most of the movements in the pieces presented here have a somewhat programmatic basis, though it isn’t always necessary to know the storyline to appreciate the result. Moreover, both written word and musical notes spring off the page and rise in graceful, elliptical arcs pirouetting in balletic movement. Just when you think that things couldn’t get any better than Lili Boulanger’s D’un vieux jardin, it is Ravel’s Piano Trio in A Minor that unfolds in a series of ethereal gestures, emerging in a panoply of colours and harmonic implications. Throughout, the Merz perform with consummate artistry, blending superior control and tonal lucidity with a breathtaking sense of line and motion.

16 Piano ProtagonistsPiano Protagonists – Music for Piano & Orchestra
Orion Weiss; The Orchestra Now; Leon Botstein
Bridge Records 9547 (bridgerecords.com/collections/catalog-all)

All of the Piano Protagonists works are “firsts.” Erich Korngold’s Piano Concerto in C-sharp Major for One Hand (premiered 1924) was the first Paul Wittgenstein-commissioned left-handed piano concerto. It has one dramatic movement in the style of Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt, more complex than his later Violin Concerto. Its tough-minded, ceremonial character was appropriate for the commisioner/pianist Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I. There are also tender-minded and mysterious moments in the middle section, Reigen (Round Dance – used ironically). Pianist Orion Weiss conveys these subtleties well. His technical mastery of massive octaves and chords, and of the lightning-fast burlesk section, never falters.

Chopin’s Variations on “La ci darem la mano” (from Mozart’s Don Giovanni) for piano and orchestra first brought him to public attention. The variations’ intensity and freedom of piano ornamentation and passagework were striking, prefiguring his piano concertos. I particularly like the runs with double notes in Variation I, and the polonaise variation and finale demonstrating the composer’s celebrated style achieved in his teens.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Piano Concerto in C-sharp Minor (1882-3) was a first for the non-pianist composer. An expert orchestrator, Rimsky-Korsakov plays to his strength in emphasizing piano-orchestra interplay over virtuosity. The wealth of musical invention applied to a simple Russian theme is what sustains this compact concerto. Weiss and The Orchestra Now under Leon Botstein convey the lively work’s spirit and its intricacies well.

History of the Russian Piano Trio Vol.1 (Alyabiev; Glinka; Rubinstein); Vol. 2 (Tchaikovsky; Pabst); Vol. 3 (Rimsky-Korsakov; Cui; Borodin); Vol. 4 (Arensky; Taneyev); Vol. 5 (Dyck; Sternberg; Youferov)
The Brahms Trio
Naxos 8.574112-6 (naxosdirect.com/search/8574112-6)

17a Russian Trios 1This History of the Russian Piano Trio is remarkable for several reasons. Firstly it brings together piano trios, some of which were rarely performed (if at all). Secondly it features works by composers such as Alexander Alyabiev who is all but forgotten, and Vladimir Dyck, who was murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz; and by others – Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Borodin – better known for large-scale works. Moreover, the trios by Dyck, Sternberg and Youferov are world premieres. Most significantly these five discs (the first releases in a proposed series of 15 CDs) are a magnificent attempt to resurrect the nobility of classicism that is uniquely Russian and that came into being as the country itself was in the throes of defining its own nationalism. All of these reasons make the undertaking of such a musical task uniquely challenging, but judging by the sublime performances throughout it is an uncommonly successful one.

17b Russian Trios 2Most histories of Russian music are either written from a European perspective or with a Eurocentric bias in documenting events and achievements; something that you could hardly fault as the overarching influence – political and cultural – on Russian music came from outside its Western borders. But if the emancipation of the serfs was a political tipping point in Russian history and culture, it was the power of the so-called Big Five (Balakirev, Glinka, Cui, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov) that initiated the painting and sculpting of the significant landscape of a unique Russian musical character, quite apart from Western Europe; one which was later altered by the Russian Revolution, the horrors of Nazism, as well as the dénouement of Communism.

17c Russian Trios 3The character of Russian music may be influenced by, but is unlike anything in, Western Europe. It is music significantly “younger” than that of Europe, phenomenally Eurasian in its cultural construct, and echoes with elegant and sometimes rustic flavours that are special to Slavic and Russian literary and other (folk) cultural traditions. All of this, though ancient in many respects, came into being just over 200 or so years ago. And so, just as Russia adopted its unique script late in history, so did the music reflect these momentous changes, as if to bring to life its singular cultural topography. This is not only captured by the composers represented here by their work, but in large measure by this stellar ensemble: The Brahms Trio of Moscow. 

17d Russian Trios 4Violinist Nikolai Sachenko, cellist Kirill Rodin and pianist Natalia Rubinstein bring Alyabiev’s lost work magically alive before turning to Glinka’s Trio pathétique in D Minor and Anton Rubinstein’s Piano Trio in G Minor with orchestral intensity, playing white-hot in ensemble and soli. Tchaikovsky’s piano trio in A minor and Paul Pabst’s in A major, are delivered with power and uncommon élan. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Piano Trio in C Minor, Cui’s À Argenteau, Op.40, No.2 and Borodin’s Piano Trio in D Major are all superbly textured and delivered with delicate instrumental colouring and balance.

17e Russian Trios 5Arensky’s beautiful Piano Trio No.1 in D Minor and Taneyev’s masterful Trio in D Major are played with shimmering delicacy. The Brahms Trio imparts a power and tragic stature to the monumental architecture of Dyck’s turbulent Piano Trio in C Minor. Sternberg’s Trio No.3 in C Major is played with effortless distinction and Youferov’s Piano Trio in C Minor, with debonair virtuosity and aristocratic grace. It is not only thrilling to listen to these five discs one after the other, but also seems poetic justice that such characterful music should be literally brought to life by this spectacular contemporary Russian trio.

01 Paganini IbragimovaWhen the COVID lockdown started in March 2020 the London-based Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova decided to use the forced seclusion to do “some serious work” on the notoriously difficult Paganini 24 Caprices. The result, recorded in an empty Henry Wood Hall, is her new 2-CD set on the Hyperion label (CDA68366 alinaibragimova.com/recordings).

In his excellent booklet essay, which outlines the individual technical issues and challenges in each caprice, Jeremy Nicholas refers to Paganini as a shockingly underrated and “inspired and well-schooled composer whose innovative advances in violin technique couched in music of great drama and poetry remain his most significant contributions to the history of music.” 

Well, technique, drama and poetry is just some of what you get from the brilliant soloist here. It’s a quite stunning performance, with never a hint of any technical problems but also never a hint of mere virtuosity – there’s an astonishing palette of colours and moods that holds your interest from beginning to end. If you’ve ever viewed these pieces as mere technical studies then this set – an absolute must-buy at two CDs for the price of one – will certainly change your mind.

02 Hadelich Bach Sonatas PartitasAnother product of the lockdown is the Bach Sonatas & Partitas set from violinist Augustin Hadelich, who took the opportunity to complete a recording project that had long been a dream of his (Warner Classics 190295047955 warnerclassics.com/release/augustin-hadelich-bach).

His perceptive booklet notes examine the changing approach to Bach’s music through the historically informed revolution to the current variety of styles. He uses a Baroque bow with his 1744 “Leduc, ex-Szeryng” Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù violin, which he found to be liberating and a revelation, allowing for more fluid multiple stops and more buoyant, light articulation.

Hadelich uses vibrato when he feels it appropriate for expression, and adds occasional ornamentation. Tempi are dazzlingly fast at times, but bowing and intonation are always flawless.

These are brilliant performances; strong, bright and assertive but never lacking introspection.

03 Metamorphosis Bach on violaWhen the pandemic forced the suspension of Colorado’s Boulder Bach Festival, its music director also took the opportunity to begin the Bach recording project he’d been planning for years. The result is Metamorphosis: Bach Cello Suites 1, 2 and 3 played on viola by Zachary Carrettín (Sono Luminus DSL-92247 sonoluminus.com).

Carrettín has extensive experience as guest concertmaster with numerous Baroque orchestras, and has lived with these works for over 25 years. The result, not surprisingly, is a superb set of beautifully judged performances. Any loss of low cello resonance is more than compensated for by the lighter warmth of the viola, its octave-higher tuning making these seem a perfectly natural performance choice, and not transcriptions.

The viola is an 18th-century model by an unknown maker, set up with internal and external historical fittings – bridge, tailpiece and bass bar – and wound gut strings, with Carrettín using an ironwood tenor viola da gamba Baroque bow.

Listen to 'Metamorphosis: Bach Cello Suites 1, 2 and 3' Now in the Listening Room

04 Gluzman Beethoven SchnittkeVadim Gluzman is in tremendous form on Beethoven/Schnittke No.3 violin concertos, with the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester under James Gaffigan (BIS-2392 naxosdirect.com/search/+bis-2392+).

Strong opening timpani strokes in the Beethoven announce a performance of real character, but what really sets it apart is the use of the cadenzas written by Alfred Schnittke in the mid-1970s. With their snatches of Bach, Brahms, Bartók, Berg and Shostakovich, they strike Gluzman as “an incredible time bridge, uniting all into one and pointing to the Beethoven concerto as being the root, the source of inspiration and in a way a model for generations to come.” They’re remarkably effective, never deserting Beethoven’s material but viewing it through different eyes, never simply virtuosic and never disrespectful – better, in this respect, than some of the standard cadenzas.

A cadenza starts Schnittke’s own three-movement Violin Concerto No.3, written in 1978 for Oleg Kagan and scored for 13 wind instruments and string quartet, the latter not heard until the transition to the third movement.

Gluzman, playing the 1690 ex-Leopold Auer Strad, is superb throughout, with outstanding support from the Lucerne ensemble on a terrific disc.

05 Phoenix WawrowskiPhoenix, the latest CD from violinist Janusz Wawrowski with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Grzegorz Nowak, features two concertos written in times of personal stress for their composers: the “Phoenix Concerto” for Violin Op.70 by the Polish composer Ludomir Różycki (1883-1953) and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto Op.35 (Warner Classics 0190295191702 wawrowski.com/albums-shop).

The two-movement Różycki concerto was written in 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising but never performed. When he encountered manuscript fragments of the work several years ago (no complete fully orchestrated version survives), Wawrowski was determined to see the concerto reborn; he located the manuscript piano reduction, discovered further fragments, including some of the original orchestration, rewrote sections of the violin part that were unplayable, and had a full orchestration prepared. The result is an extremely attractive work, premiered in 2018, with a first-movement theme that will melt your heart, especially given Wawrowski’s sweet-toned, strong, rhapsodic playing. His remark that the concerto reminds him of Gershwin or – in particular – Korngold, with a slight glance towards Hollywood, is spot on.

The Tchaikovsky concerto was written following the breakup of the composer’s disastrous marriage. The performance here is top notch – carefully measured and thoughtful, with great control of tempi – but I’d buy the whole disc just for that achingly, hauntingly beautiful Różycki theme.

06 Rachel PodgerViolinist Rachel Podger, with Christopher Glynn at the fortepiano, completes her nine-CD series of Mozart’s violin sonatas with Mozart Jones Violin Sonatas Fragment Completions, world-premiere recordings of six sonata-allegros and a fantasia for violin and piano, completed by Timothy Jones (Channel Classics CCS SA 42721 rachelpodger.com/recordings).

Since 2013, Jones has produced over 80 completions of some 30 Mozart fragments in all genres, a process discussed in detail in his extensive and fascinating booklet essay. Four fragments from Mozart’s last decade in Vienna form the basis of the remarkable reworkings here, with multiple versions showing the various possibilities, all based on Mozart’s evolving style during the 1780s. Three fragments – Fr1782c in B-flat, Fr1784b in A and Fr1789f in G – are each heard in two completions; the remaining fragment is the Fantasia in C Minor Fr1782l.

It’s virtually impossible to tell when the fragments end and the completions begin – the continuity is seamless, and never for a moment do you feel as if you’re not listening to Mozart.

The violin is a 1739 Pesarinius, and the fortepiano a 2019 German model by Christoph Kern, based on an 1825 original by Conrad Graf of Vienna. They are well matched, and there’s a lovely tonal balance on a quite fascinating disc.

07 McDonagh beethoven complete cello sontats album coverThe Irish duo of cellist Ailbhe McDonagh (her first name pronounced AL-vah) and pianist John O’Conor make their contribution to the Beethoven 250 celebrations with a double-album set of Beethoven Complete Cello Sonatas 1-5, released in late May and available on all major music platforms (Steinway & Sons naxosdirect.com/search/034062301812).

O’Conor is an acknowledged Beethoven specialist, having won first prize in the International Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna in 1973, and having recorded the complete piano sonatas as well as the complete piano concertos. McDonagh, who as a child studied piano with O’Conor, is a great partner and clearly on the same level here, the duo being as one with every nuance in dynamics and tempi in outstanding performances.

Recorded in St. Peter’s Church in Drogheda, Ireland in August of last year, the sound is resonant and warm and the balance excellent. I listened on YouTube, where there is also a short documentary on the project.

08 Intimate ImpressionsIntimate Impressions for 2 guitars, featuring Canadian guitarists Adam Cicchillitti and Steve Cowan, is a collection of 20th-century works written in Paris, heard here mostly in arrangements by the performers (Analekta AN 2 8793 analekta.com/en).

The only original piece for two guitars is the four-movement Sérénade by André Jolivet from 1959. Ravel’s Sonatine, Germaine Tailleferre’s Sonate pour harpe, four short pieces by the Catalan composer Federico Mompou and two Debussy Préludes – Bruyères and La fille aux cheveux de lin – are all arrangements, with the Drew Henderson/Michael Kolk arrangement of the Prélude from Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin closing the disc.

Each guitarist has a solo track: Debussy’s Arabesque No.1 for Cicchillitti, and Ravel’s Pavane pour une enfante défunte for Cowan. Fine playing throughout, recorded by the always-reliable Drew Henderson, makes for a delightful CD.

09 Rodrigo Guitar 3The first two volumes of the Naxos series of the guitar music of Joaquín Rodrigo featured guitarist Jérémy Jouve, but on Rodrigo Guitar Music 3, a selection of eight works ranging from 1948 to 1987, the soloist is the brilliant Turkish-American guitarist Celil Refik Kaya (8.574004 naxosdirect.com/search/8574004).

Although unable to play the guitar, Rodrigo produced about 25 solo works for the instrument, an output that, as Graham Wade notes in his excellent booklet essay, is now appreciated as one of the central pillars of the concert repertoire.

The first thing that strikes you is the wealth of variety and imagination and the sheer technical demands of the music. The second thing is how superbly Kaya meets every challenge, with faultless technique, a wide range of tone colour and dynamics and impeccable musicianship. He is joined by flutist Marianne Gedigian in two short works for flute and guitar, but the brilliance here is in the solo pieces.

Norbert Kraft’s name as producer guarantees a superb recorded sound on an outstanding disc.

10 DIALOGOG John Henry CrawfordDIALOGO is the excellent debut album from the American cellist John-Henry Crawford, accompanied by the Filipino-American pianist Victor Santiago Asuncion (Orchid Classics ORC100166 orchidclassics.com). 

“Dialogue” is Crawford’s description of the recital’s concept: Dialogo is the first of the two movements of the brief but striking Sonata for Solo Cello by György Ligeti, but the cellist also sees conversation between the partners in Brahms’ Cello Sonata No.2 in F Major Op.99 and the desire for dialogue in the Cello Sonata in D Minor Op.40 by Shostakovich, who at the time of the work’s composition was temporarily separated from his wife.

Crawford draws a warm, rich tone from the 200-year-old cello that was smuggled out of Austria by his grandfather following Kristallnacht in 1938, and is ably supported by fine playing from Asuncion in performances of strength, sensitivity and passion.

Listen to 'DIALOGO' Now in the Listening Room

11 Warren NicholsonSonidos del Sur, the latest CD from Canadian guitarist Warren Nicholson, features works by composers from Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Paraguay and Cuba (Composers Concordance Records COMCON0063 warrennicholsonguitarist.com).

The most well-known pieces are Agustín Barrios’ La Catedral, Antonio Lauro’s four Valses Venezolano and João Pernambuco’s Sons de Carrilhões (Sounds of Bells). Also included are Maximo Diego Pujol’s five-movement Suite Del Plata No.1, José Ardevol’s three-movement Sonata Para Guitarra, Julio Sagreras’ El Colibri and Dilermando Reis’ Xôdô da Baiana.

As always with this player, there’s solid technique and clean playing with some lovely moments, but there’s also an occasional sense of earnestness and over-deliberation which tends to prevent the music from really expanding and flowing.

12 Xander SimmonsMontreal-based composer Xander Simmons has released a digital EP of his String Quartet No.2, a five-movement work lasting just over 20 minutes (xandersimmons.com).

Simmons describes it as post-minimalist in style, with lyrical, mostly tonal melodies layered on minimalist compositional structures, which is exactly how it sounds. It’s a confident, highly competent piece given a terrific performance by Montreal’s Quatuor Cobalt, with whom Simmons workshopped and revised the work. It’s well worth a listen. You can check it out on YouTube.

01 Beausejour New BaroqueNew Baroque Sessions
Luc Beauséjour
Analekta AN 2 8919 (analekta.com/en)

Solitary ways of existence brought on by the current pandemic have resulted in spurs of interesting solo projects around the world. Many performing artists have been contemplating the question of their artistic identity in the circumstances that extinguish the very nature of their art. A solo statement of a kind, New Baroque Sessions is an album that captures one artist’s way of retaining the essence of their creative expression while playing the music they love. 

This second volume of Baroque music played on piano (the first one was published in 2016) is a collection of Luc Beauséjour’s favourite pieces from the Baroque repertoire. The compositions, by Bach, Couperin (Armand-Louis and François), Scarlatti, Fischer, Sweelinck, Froberger and Balbastre, touch upon different corners of vast Baroque treasures. Some are well known, others explored less often. All are predominantly written for harpsichord but translate exceptionally well to piano, which was one of Beauséjour’s intentions with this album. 

A versatile performer, equally at home on harpsichord, organ and piano, Beauséjour has an elegance to his playing that is truly rare. Here is the performer that plays with colours and articulations; a performer of subtle gestures that amount to grand statements. The pieces themselves contain creative elements one does not necessarily expect – musical portraits, clever compositional techniques, tributes to Greek muses, or simple utterances of the resilience of their times. While honouring Baroque traditions, there is a touch of contemporaneity to Beauséjour’s interpretations, adding an incredible freshness to this album.

02 SacabucheHidden Treasures – 17th-Century Music of Habsburg and Bohemia
¡Sacabuche!
ATMA ACD2 2798 (atmaclassique.com/en)

This is something new. We are aware of the talented and sometimes prodigious output of Austrian composers such as Haydn or Mozart but their predecessors are all but unknown. Enter ¡Sacabuche! For 15 years under the direction of Baroque trombonist Linda Pearse, this Canadian ensemble has rediscovered works from Habsburg and Bohemian sources. What is more, the range of instruments such as cornettos and theorbos is particularly diverse. 

Indeed, it is strident trombone playing that makes its presence immediately felt in O dulce nomen Jesu by the Viennese composer Giovanni Felice Sances. Massimiliano Neri’s Sonata quarta Op.2 is even more complex, demanding an intricate playing which makes the disappearance of these pieces from mainstream music all the more puzzling. 

On occasion the CD includes anonymous pieces; the eight-part Sinfonia is a vibrant full-blooded composition which any modern brass band would be proud to perform. Of course, this does not rule out vocal input as another anonymous composition Salve regina à 4 brings out the contralto contribution of Vicki St Pierre – holding her own even while outnumbered by ten instrumentalists! In fact, while most of the compositions on this CD are scored for several of these instrumentalists, St Pierre’s performance of O quam suavis (again anonymous) brings a virtuoso voice to the selection.

When we consider our familiarity with the contemporary composers from say Venice, the absence of this CD’s composers is very surprising. We owe much to Linda Pearse and her fellow musicians in bringing us this anthology.

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