06 JurinicCorrespondances
Aljoša Jurinić
KNS Classical KNS A/097 (knsclassical.com)

The professional relationship of Chopin and Schumann was a curious one. Both composers were born in the same year, and while Schumann greatly praised the music of his Polish colleague, Chopin rarely, if ever, responded with similar sentiment. Whatever dissimilarities the two may have had, the Schumann Fantasy Op.17 and Chopin’s set of 12 Etudes Op.25 make a formidable pairing on this KNS live recording featuring Croatian-born pianist Aljoša Jurinić who came to Toronto in 2019.

To say the least, Jurinić’s credentials are impressive. Not only was he the winner of the Schumann Piano Competition in 2012, a laureate of the Queen Elisabeth and Leeds competitions in 2016, but also a finalist in the International Chopin competition in 2015. He has since appeared at Carnegie Hall, the Wiener Musikverein and the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall. 

The Fantasy is regarded as one of Schumann’s finest compositions and among the greatest in the entire Romantic repertoire. With its contrasting rhythms and tempi, the piece is not easy to bring off, but Jurinić’s performance is nothing less than sublime. He approaches the score with a true sense of grandeur, the broad sweeping lines of the opening, the stirring second movement and the introspective finale tempered with a flawless technique.

In the set of Chopin Etudes Jurinić breathes new life into this familiar repertoire, once again demonstrating full command of the technical challenges; from the graceful first etude in A-flat Major right to the thunderous No.12 which brings the set, and the disc, to a most satisfying conclusion.

How fortunate for Toronto that an artist of Jurinić’s stature has chosen to settle here – we can only hope his residency will be a lengthy one and that we may hear him perform in concert when conditions allow.

07 Lineage Deborah GrimmettLineage – Tracing Influence
Deborah Grimmett
New Classic Records NC01 (deborahgrimmett.com)

The full range of both the beautiful – and beautifully recorded – Glenn Gould Studio piano, and a solo piano repertoire that spans the historical continuum from Brahms and Debussy to such contemporary composers as Iman Habibi and the little-known Rhoda Coghill (this may be the recording premiere of any of Coghill’s compositions) is on full display here with this wonderfully expressive FACTOR and Canada Council for the Arts-supported 2021 release. Exhibiting a deft touch and clear musicality, Toronto pianist Deborah Grimmett presents an intimate view into not only her own considerable musical talent, but her biographical story of overcoming a repetitive strain injury from over-practising as a music student, to stepping away from the piano in order to heal and then, finally, returning to the instrument to make what is clearly a meaningful and deeply personal recording. 

This is one of those presentation formats (solo piano) and recordings (live off the floor, close-miked instrument) that when you take away any other extraneous factors, all that is left is the musicality and interpretive power of the performer and the music itself. As such, Lineage: Tracing Influence does a fine job, offering one of those listening experiences where fans of classical music, solo piano or just those who need some auditory solace from the everyday banality of life (particularly so during yet another lockdown) can immerse themselves in order to derive pleasure, meaning and inspiration.

08 Mahler 10 VanskaMahler – Symphony No.10 in F-sharp Major
Minnesota Orchestra; Osmo Vänskä
Bis BIS-2396 (naxosdirect.com/search/bis-2396)

Mahler’s final work lay hidden for decades as shorthand sketches still awaiting a full orchestration. Alas, the completion of the work was tragically cut short by the composer’s premature death from a broken heart at the age of 50. Fragments of this manuscript were subsequently revealed over the decades by his imperious widow Alma Mahler-Gropius-Werfel, who considered the work to be a private love letter to herself and only relented to allow the work to be published after listening to a BBC broadcast tape of the “performing edition” that Deryck Cooke prepared for the Mahler centenary in 1960. Cooke’s realization underwent subsequent refinements and his third and final 1976 edition, incorporating previously suppressed materials, has become the preferred version among several alternatives. 

Recordings of the work are relatively rare, as a fair number of conductors have questioned the legitimacy of the score. These skeptics will, I hope, be won over by this commanding performance from the Minnesota Orchestra, which ranks among the finest available. The work is in five movements, similar in structure to Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. The slower first and fifth movements are tragic cries of despair while the inner, faster movements are comically sarcastic, echoing the scherzo and rondo movements of his Ninth Symphony. There is a wonderful spontaneity to Osmo Vänskä’s choice of tempos in these central movements, strikingly so in the accelerations of the unusually asymmetrical measures of the second movement, which tumble over themselves in a delightful confusion. The longer outer movements feature the highly refined playing of the string section, hovering at times at a nearly inaudible level, with superlative contributions from the solo wind instruments. Add to this excellent program notes and stellar sonics from the BIS recording team and you have yourself an outstanding addition to the discography of this passionate, autobiographical masterpiece. Not to be missed!

09 Nezet Seguin RachmaninoffRachmaninoff – Symphony No.1; Symphonic Dances
Philadelphia Orchestra; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Deutsche Grammophon 12192 (deutschegrammophon.com/en/catalogue/products/rachmaninoff-symphony-no-1-symphonic-dances-nezet-seguin-12192)

Imagine you have the entire Deutsche Grammophon catalogue, a whole wall covered in shelving designed for CD’s, each spine of every disc displaying the well-known colours. Lucky you! Just now, taking pride of place is this sparkling new release, the Philadelphia Orchestra led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin performing Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony Op.13 and Symphonic Dances Op.45 (his final published work).

What to praise first? Recording quality, which whisks you around the sections of this fabulous orchestra as, one by one, they show off their mastery of dynamics, technical agility, musical insight; and most of all, the unheard presence channelling the composer through the players before him, the young (still young!) maestro from Quebec. Possibly no composer offers better witness to Nézet-Séguin’s mastery. With seamless logic, he links the furioso character of the Allegro ma non troppo first movement to its episodes of pathos. Every detail is considered and brought forth. This recording is an encounter with deep Russian melancholia, and Philadelphia’s legendary warm sound is the perfect medium for the maestro’s skill.

Interesting to pair this youthful early symphony, from 1895, with the Symphonic Dances, composed in 1940, when Rachmaninoff was living in California. Poorly received as it was at the premiere, the symphony is incredibly ambitious, and if tonally conservative, it offers glimpses of the strange wonderful paths the 22-year-old would soon follow. Make yourself wait before letting this recording of the Dances deliver you into another world of wonder. If the engineers have filed off any “edge” in the sound, there’s punch and beauty in spades, and a luxurious gong fade at the end!

10 Rattle RachmaninoffRachmaninoff – Symphony No.2
London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Simon Rattle
LSO Live LSO0851D (lsolive.lso.co.uk/products/rachmaninoff-symphony-no-2)

It’s just about time that we realize Sir Simon Rattle is one of the greatest conductors of our time. His bio is the ultimate success story. As a kid from Liverpool with minor conducting assignments in England, in 2002 at age 42, he was elected music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, the most prestigious and probably the best orchestra in the world. The youngest ever for this honour. He kept this post amazingly until 2018 when he “retired“ with the highest accolades, beloved by the orchestra and the City of Berlin, but his career was far from over. Soon thereafter, he went to Vienna and conducted a wonderful Ring Cycle at the Staatsoper, televised, so I was lucky to watch it. He had numerous recordings on the EMI label, but in 2017 he took over the London Symphony and began recording on the orchestra’s own label, LSO Live.

Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony is the best of the three he wrote and has always been a favourite of mine. After the failure of his First it shows full maturity of his creative powers. It has a “sustained vitality, richness of lyrical invention and a glowing eloquence capable of rising to extraordinary power” (Robin Hull). Rattle conducts the entire uncut version from memory and it’s such a relaxed and spontaneous reading aided by the highest quality HD sound that so reverberated throughout the house that I was wholly enchanted.

11 Strauss Tone PoemsRichard Strauss – Complete Tone Poems
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden and Freiburg; François-Xavier Roth
SWR Music SWR19426CD (naxosdirect.com/search/swr19426cd)

When searching for the performance of Also Sprach Zarathustra that would mightily reinforce the opening of 2001, A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick finally selected, presumably on its impact, the Decca version with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan. After much negotiating, it was agreed that Kubrick may use that performance under the condition that it is never identified (perhaps I should have prefaced with “spoiler alert”). I am quite sure that if that were today, the power of the vehement timpanist in the opening of the SWR version in this outstanding new set could very well be the choice.

At the helm is François-Xavier Roth, the French conductor who is best known as the director of Les Siècles, an original instrument orchestra that he founded in 2013, and which has recorded many stunning versions of Baroque and early-20th-century favourites, including Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. Among his myriad appointments and awards are general music director of the City of Cologne and principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. Undoubtedly his activities in the field of historically informed performance have attuned his ear to ensure every instrument in the orchestra is audible as these performances of familiar and perhaps less familiar tone poems demonstrate. They are Ein Heldenleben, Sinfonia Domestica, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Tod und Verklärung, Metamorphosen, Don Juan, Don Quixote, Eine Alpensinfonie, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streich, Aus Italien and Macbeth. Strauss is well served by performances of commitment and intensity, passages where winds, brass and percussion appear… not spot-lit but there. The perfectly recorded performances dating from 2012 to 2015, as in earlier recordings from this source, are convincingly live.

Roth’s same meticulous attention to detail and perfect balances may be viewed and heard conducting different orchestras in diverse repertoire on the optional music channels available on cable TV and YouTube.

12 Coleridge Taylor 1Uncovered, Vol. 1: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
Catalyst Quartet; Stewart Goodyear; Anthony McGill
Azica ACD-71336 (catalystquartet.com/uncovered)

The late-19th-century British composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, conquered the United States with his musical ingenuity. But could his being billed – somewhat patronizingly – as the “African Mahler” have blunted his singular musical achievements? We will never really know, and it may even be unimportant now as, with Uncovered, Vol. 1: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the Catalyst Quartet turns the marquee lights on to illuminate his elegant music, and not the colour of his skin.

But poetic justice must also come by way of inviting pianist Stewart Goodyear and clarinettist Anthony McGill – two prodigiously gifted Black musicians – to participate in this significant musical project. The association with Mahler does have some significance however, because it took decades of proselytizing by conductors such as Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Mengelberg and Leonard Bernstein before Mahler’s symphonies became audience-pullers. If it’s fallen upon the Catalyst to do likewise for Coleridge-Taylor they’ve certainly delivered. 

These are über-articulate readings of the Quintet in G Minor for Piano and Strings Op.1 featuring Goodyear, Quintet in F-sharp Minor for Clarinet and Strings Op.10 featuring McGill and Fantasiestücke for String Quartet Op.5. The Quartet’s musicians shape phrases with attention paid to every nuance of the scores, while the music’s grand sweep remains paramount throughout; Goodyear’s pianism sings in the piano quintet and McGill’s clarinet does likewise in Op.10. The Catalyst’s performance is marked by a wide range of touch and timbre, with extraordinary emphasis on the inner voices of Coleridge-Taylor’s eloquent music.

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