04 Melda ChopinChopin
Lara Melda
Champs Hill Records CHRCD153 (laramelda.co.uk)

Chopin – the poet of the piano! What more can be said about this composer – born in Żelazowa Wola to a French father and a Polish mother – who embodied the spirit and soul of Poland, but lived his all-too-brief life in France? 170 years after his passing, his music continues to enthrall connoisseurs and amateurs alike; this disc on the Champs Hill label, presenting a new artist in her debut recording, is bound to be welcome.

Lara Melda was born in England of Turkish parentage. She studied at the Royal Academy, winning the BBC Young Musician competition in 2010 and since then, has continued to appear in recital throughout Europe and in other parts of the world.

The thoughtfully chosen program comprising seven nocturnes and the four ballades is a delight.  Melda approaches the music with an elegant sensitivity, her warm tone coupled with just the right degree of tempo rubato. The technical challenges inherent in these pieces, particularly the ballades, are daunting enough for any pianist, but she conquers them with apparent ease. There are times when her tempos – such as in the Nocturnes Op.9 No.3 or Op.48 No.1 – may seem a little brisk, but this is a minor issue and certainly doesn’t mar her fine performance.

Of the 11 tracks, among the highlights is surely the glorious fourth Ballade Op.52, considered by many to be one of Chopin’s greatest compositions, and also one of his most difficult. Melda does it full justice, from the lyrical and delicate opening measures to the frenetic coda which brings the disc to a satisfying conclusion. If this recording is any evidence of her musical stature, we can surely hope to hear from Lara Melda again in the near future.

05 Babayan RachmaniniffRachmaninoff
Sergei Babayan
Deutsche Grammophon (deutschegrammophon.com/en/artists/sergei-babayan)

“The heat of Rachmaninoff’s music is like the heat of dry ice, it’s so cold that it burns you.” – Leon Fleisher

Like the memory of an enkindled winter’s kiss, Rachmaninoff can clutch you by the throat, not to mention the heart. The music transfixes our soul, engendering lifelong adoration for such immutable layers of melody, harmony and ebullient Slavic passion, penned only as the singular Sergei R could have.

Who of us, though, can truly know Rachmaninoff? From the 21st century’s vantage point – more than 75 years on from the composer-pianist’s death – his music is perpetrated the world over, arguably by far too many interpreters with far too little to say. Performing Rachmaninoff’s music has never been an easy feat but rarely does one encounter a quintessence, a spirit of truth from his espousers. To appropriate a quote from the composer himself, “but do they exalt?” 

With so much performance practice swirling around Sergei (R) and his catalogue, richly gifted and rare, sympathetic interpreters such as Sergei (B), tend to twinkle and gleam atop the pianistic flotsam we hear all too often from – those self-indulgent, over-wrought bloviators Rachmaninoff’s music seems perennially entrapped by. In the hands of Babayan, the listener finally beholds an inheritance: a musical – cultural – inheritance that is fierce yet fragile, at moments comprised only of single, radiating strands. Transmuting this elusive, quintessential expression, Babayan fully fathoms this coveted lineage and his own recent contribution to it.

06 Elmas Piano ConcertosThe Romantic Piano Concerto Vol.82: Stéphan Elmas – Piano Concertos Nos.1 & 2
Howard Shelley; Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra
Hyperion CDA68319
(hyperion-records.co.uk/ dc.asp?dc=D_CDA68319)

Stéphan Elmas? Who? One could be forgiven if the name seems unfamiliar, but during his lifetime, this Armenian pianist-turned-composer was a respected musician and pedagogue. Born into a well-to-do family in Smyrna (now Izmir) in 1862, he showed musical promise at an early age and later studied in Vienna, making his debut in 1885 to great acclaim. Elmas ultimately turned to composition, writing in a conservative style not dissimilar to that of Anton Rubinstein – and with more than a passing nod to Chopin.   His style is perhaps nowhere better represented than in the two piano concertos featured on this Hyperion disc with Howard Shelley performing and also directing the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, the latest in the Romantic Piano Concerto series.

The Concerto in G Minor from 1882 is very much a product of its time. Encompassing a large canvas – the first movement is 19 minutes alone – the work allows the soloist plenty of opportunity to display their technical prowess, juxtaposed with sections which are quietly introspective. The formidable technical demands should come as no surprise – after all, the composer was also a virtuoso pianist.  Throughout, Shelley performs with a solid conviction at all times demonstrating carefully nuanced phrasing and a flawless technique, while the TSO proves to be a solid and sensitive partner.

The second concerto, written five years later, contains the same degree of attractive interplay between piano and orchestra. Once again, Elmas’ profound gift for melody shines through brightly – particularly in the second movement Andante – and more than makes up for any shortcomings the piece may have with respect to form and thematic development.

While these concertos aren’t in the same league as those of Brahms or Rachmaninoff, they’re worthy examples worth investigating. Thanks to Shelley and the TSO, they’ll be prevented from languishing in undeserved obscurity.

07 Florent SchmittFlorent Schmitt – The Tragédie de Salomé
Susan Platts; Nikki Chooi; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta
Naxos 8574138 (naxosdirect.com/search/8574138)

JoAnn Falletta’s conducting career goes from strength to strength: music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic; myriad recordings for Naxos; a 2019 Grammy Award. The four works on this disc by Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) demonstrate Falletta’s ability to attain expressive, assured results with complex scores for large orchestra. The composer’s style extends the scope of French Impressionism, with rich and fluid sonorities but also with passages that feature more dissonant writing. 

Musique sur l’eau (1898) is sung by mezzo Susan Platts with a full and seamless tone that goes well with Schmitt’s lush, colourful setting. The symphonic poem La Tragédie de Salomé (1910, revised from the earlier ballet) opens with an evocative prelude out of which a wonderfully played English horn solo takes the lead. In the succeeding dances, menacing strings and violent brass interpolations prefigure a horrific ending. Another ballet-based work is the Suite – Oriane et le Prince d’Amour (1934-37). In this later work, Schmitt’s harmonic language has advanced considerably, with lush and complex chords and figurations that Falletta and the excellent Buffalo players navigate with well-paced clarity. The dance in 5/4 time in this work is a motivic and rhythmic tour de force. Finally, the violin-orchestra version of Légende, Op.66 (1918) receives its recording premiere here. Légende is a staple of the alto saxophone repertoire, but with the well-modulated, expressive tone of Canadian violinist Nikki Chooi it also comes across exceedingly well in this version.

05 Entente MusicaleEntente Musicale – Music for Violin and Piano
Simon Callaghan; Clare Howick
SOMM Recordings SOMMCD 0625 (naxosdirect.com/search/sommcd+0625)

Entente translates as a friendly understanding or informal alliance between two people or states. SOMM has titled a new CD Entente Musicale, which qualifies appropriately the collaboration of violinist Clare Howick and pianist Simon Callaghan and indirectly, the English and French repertoire included. Howick is acknowledged as being in the forefront of a generation of inspired violinists. The Strad is not stinting in their praise, finding her “playing with beguiling warmth and affection.” The American Record Guide qualifies her as “simply spectacular.” Callaghan has been commended in The Strad for his “velvet-gloved pianism of ravishing sensitivity.” Together they give shining performances of these well-chosen works:  Delius – Violin Sonata in B Major; Cyril Scott – Cherry Ripe and Valse Caprice; Debussy – Violin Sonata in G Minor; John Ireland – Violin Sonata No.1 in D Minor; Ravel – Pièce en forme de Habañera; Bax – Mediterranean

Some of the works may be familiar and others will surely find new fans. New to me is the Delius sonata, published after his death. Delius, born in Bradford, Yorkshire in 1862 but preferring to live in France, had three violin sonatas published, but this one, written in 1892-93 in Paris where he had taken up residence in 1888, was turned down by his publisher. Perhaps it was because of the unusual key of B Major, muses the author of the comprehensive booklet. Delius held on to it and here it is. The first movement, Allegro con brio, is dramatically optimistic. The second movement, Andante moto tranquillo, is typical Delius and exquisite beyond words, resolving in the third movement, Allegro con moto. The duo plays the Jascha Heifetz arrangements of the Ravel Pièce and the joyful Bax Mediterranean.

09 Villa Lobos SymphoniesVilla-Lobos – Complete Symphonies
São Paulo Symphony; Isaac Karabtchevsky
Naxos 8506039 (naxosdirect.com/search/8506039)

Among the amazingly prolific Heitor Villa-Lobos’ 2,000-plus works are 11 audacious, spellbinding yet little-known symphonies, composed at opposite ends of his career. Except for the epic Symphony No.10, they sort themselves into pairs, stylistically and by date of composition. 

As a boy, Villa-Lobos learned to play clarinet and cello from his father. Adding guitar to his skills, he performed Brazilian popular and folkloric music with salon ensembles, and symphonic and operatic repertoire as an orchestral cellist. Slighting institutional composition study, Villa-Lobos absorbed Vincent d’Indy’s pedagogical Cours de Composition Musicale, leading to his trademark mix of European late-Romanticism with Brazilian melodic and rhythmic exoticism. 

Symphonies No.1 “Unforeseen” (1916) and No.2 “Ascension” (1917, revised 1944), with their lush sonorities, gorgeous, broadly flowing string melodies, chattering woodwinds suggestive of an active Brazilian rain forest, brass fanfares and throbbing percussion, find the young Villa-Lobos effectively creating a stereotypical “Hollywood sound” well before sound’s arrival in Hollywood.

After World War I ended, Villa-Lobos was commissioned by Brazil’s National Institute of Music to compose three celebratory symphonies: No.3 “War,” No.4 “Victory” and the now-lost, never-performed No.5 “Peace,” perhaps unfinished. Requiring huge forces, “War” and “Victory” (both 1919) contain martial fanfares, anguished dirges and percussion-heavy, explosive battle music, “Victory” ending in a triumphal fortississimo.

Villa-Lobos wouldn’t produce another symphony for 24 years, while composing many other orchestral, chamber and vocal works, eight of his nine Bachianas Brasileiras, all 17 Chôros and dozens of piano pieces, also serving as director of music education for Brazilian public schools.

The angular themes of Symphony No.6 “On the Outlines of the Mountains” (1944) were derived by tracing the contours of photographed mountaintops. The opening movements conjure foreboding, rugged, desolate vistas; the Allegretto and final Allegro bathe the vast panoramas in bright sunlight. The four movements of Symphony No.7 “Odyssey of Peace” (1945) closely mirror those of No.6, with similar tempo markings, timings and moods. Here, turbulence and slowly drifting tonal centres precede two buoyantly joyous movements, the closing seconds echoing the bombast of the “Victory” finale after World War I. 

The unsubtitled Symphonies No. 8 (1950) and No.9 (1952) are Villa-Lobos’ most concise – No.9, just under 22 minutes, is the shortest of all. Both are infused with confident, upbeat melodies, mechanized urban rhythms and dense metallic textures, reflecting the revitalized post-war sense of optimism and material progress.

After these two succinct symphonies evoking modern technology, Villa-Lobos about-faced with the grandiloquent, hour-long Symphony No.10 “Ameríndia” for large orchestra, tenor, baritone and bass soloists and chorus singing in Portuguese, Latin and indigenous language Tupi. (In this performance, the entire tenor section sings the tenor solo.) Commissioned for São Paulo’s 1954 quadricentennial, “Ameríndia” also bears the designation Oratorio and a second subtitle, “Sumé, Father of Fathers.” Sumé, the mythical bringer of knowledge to pre-Columbian Brazil, is here conflated with the 16th-century Jesuit missionary St. José de Anchiera. The music for this sonic extravaganza creates a blazingly coloured tapestry weaving paganism, Christianity, mystical lamentation, ecstasy and exultation. It’s totally thrilling!

The opening fanfares, lush melodies and exotic colours of Symphony No.11 (1955) recall Villa-Lobos’ cinematic early symphonies, now with even greater rhythmic, harmonic and textural complexity. No.12 (1957), completed on Villa-Lobos’ 70th birthday, features more fanfares, vibrant rhythms and colours, a mystery-shrouded, near-atonal Adagio and a final, multi-thematic, kaleidoscopic display of orchestral fireworks. 

Further enriching this six-CD treasure-trove are two folklore-inspired works depicting mythical jungle spirits: the tone-poem Uirapuru (1917) and the choral cantata Mandu-Çarará (1940), sung in indigenous language Nheengatu. (Texts and translations for this and “Ameríndia” are provided.)

With definitive, super-charged performances by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Brazilian-born Isaac Kabatchevsky, this set is most enthusiastically recommended!

01 Mon Ami Mon amourIn 2017, cellist Matt Haimovitz was working on the Poulenc Sonate with a student when he tripped and fell, dropping his 1710 Venetian Matteo Goffriller cello – his “friend” – and breaking the neck clean off the body. Following 15 months of painstaking repair, MON AMI, Mon amour is the first CD on which Haimovitz and his cello are reunited, accompanied by Mari Kodama in a recital of French music (PENTATONE Oxingale PTC 5186 816 naxosdirect.com/search/ptc5186816). 

That same Poulenc Sonate opens a disc which includes the Debussy Sonate, Fauré’s Papillon and Après un rêve, Milhaud’s Élégie and Nadia Boulanger’s Trois pièces. Completing the program are Haimovitz’s own arrangements of Ravel’s Kaddish and the Deux pièces pour violon et piano by Nadia’s younger sister Lili Boulanger, the latter work featuring terrific agility and technique in the highest register by Haimovitz.

Recorded in June 2019 with “no worry of social distancing and masks,” an outstanding CD is complemented by Haimovitz’s excellent booklet notes, written in Montreal in June 2020 after four months of quarantine and highlighting the stifling restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

02 Wan Bernstein GinasteraOn Ginastera – Bernstein – Moussa violinist and OSM concertmaster Andrew Wan presents three major works with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal under Kent Nagano (Analekta AN 28920 analekta.com/en).

Alberto Ginastera’s Violin Concerto Op.30 from 1963 makes for an interesting opening to the CD. Ostensibly in three movements, it consists of 11 short sections. An opening Cadenza is followed by six extremely brief Studies and a Coda, an Adagio for 22 Soloists acting as a second movement before a Scherzo pianissimo and a Perpetuum mobile provide a two-part third. The soundscape is very much mid-20th century, reminiscent of Berg at times and with more than a hint of the Barber concerto in the Perpetuum mobile.

Bernstein’s Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion (after Plato’s Symposium), from 1954, is an attractive five-part work described by the composer as a series of related statements in praise of love, inspired by his reading of the Plato work. 

Samy Moussa was born in Montreal in 1984. His Violin Concerto “Adrano, written in 2019 on an OSM commission, was inspired by a visit to Mount Etna, Adrano being an ancient fire god said to have lived beneath the volcano. It’s a very effective and accessible work of four relatively brief sections.

Wan is a terrific player, handling the varying stylistic and technical challenges with impressive ease on a fascinating CD.

03 Charlie SiemThe English violinist Charlie Siem is in great form on Between the clouds, ably supported by his regular recital partner Itamar Golan in a recital of light but never insubstantial pieces (Signum Classics SIGCD652 naxosdirect.com/search/sigcd652).

Siem has just the right blend of virtuosity, style and taste to show these charming works at their best, playing with effortless ease throughout a delightful disc. There are three pieces by Wieniawski –Légende Op.17, Polonaise No.1 Op.4 and Polonaise Brillante No.2 Op.21 – and five by Kreisler: Tambourin chinois Op.3; Recitativo und Scherzo-Caprice Op.6 and Three Alt-Wiener Tanzweisen – Schön Rosmarin, Liebesfreud and Liebesleid. Elgar’s Chanson de Matin and Chanson de nuit, Sarasate’s Introduction et Tarantelle, Paganini’s Cantabile, Godowski’s Alt Wien (in the Heifetz arrangement) and the Chaconne attributed to Vitali fill out a dazzling program that ends with Siem’s own arrangement of Britten’s gentle The Sally Gardens.

Siem draws a rich, warm tone from his 1735 Guarneri del Gesù “D’Egvill” violin on an absolute gem of a CD.

04 Lucy Russell BeethovenLucy Russell, the leader of the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, is the violinist on Beethoven Violin Sonatas, accompanied on fortepiano by Sezi Seskir in performances of the Sonatas No.4 in A Minor Op.23, No.5 in F Major Op.24 “Spring” and No.6 in A Major Op.30/1 (Acis APL29582 acisproductions.com).

Despite the CD’s title these works were originally designated (as were similar compositions at the time) as being for keyboard with accompanying violin, and the excellent balance here never lets the violin dominate.

Both players are equally at home on modern or period instruments, which seems to add an extra dimension to the playing in the period set-up here: the fortepiano is a Thomas and Barbara Wolf copy of a Johann Schanz instrument; the violin a Ferdinando Gagliano from the late 1700s with an open gut D string in addition to the A and E, and a John Dodd bow.

The performances are absolutely top-drawer, simply bursting with life and with excellent ensemble work, great dynamics and virtuosity galore.

05 Koh Bach 3Violinist Jennifer Koh completes her outstanding solo series Bach & Beyond with Part 3 Bach – Harbison – Berio, a 2CD set priced as a single disc and featuring Bach’s Sonatas No.2 in A Minor BWV1003 and No.3 in C Major BWV1005, Luciano Berio’s Sequenza VIII for solo violin from 1976 and John Harbison’s For Violin Alone, written for Koh in 2019 (Cedille Records CDR 90000 199 cedillerecords.org).

CD1 has the A-minor sonata and the Berio work, the latter a tribute to the Ciaccona from Bach’s D-minor partita. CD2 has the C-major sonata with its monumental Fuga, and the world-premiere recording of the Harbison, a seven-movement dance suite that is closer in spirit to the Bach partitas than the four-movement sonatas. Koh, as always, is faultless in her technique and sensitive and intelligent in her interpretations.

Based on her recital series of the same name, Koh’s three-volume Bach & Beyond set has brilliantly realized her desire to “strengthen the connection between our past and present worlds through a historical journey.” It’s an outstanding addition to the solo violin discography.

06 Bach Yuri LibezonThe two Bach works turn up again on 3 Violin Sonatas, a simply superb CD with classical guitarist Yuri Liberzon playing the Bach Unaccompanied Violin Sonatas in G Minor BWV1001, A Minor BWV1003 and C Major BWV1005 in transcriptions by Liberzon’s former teacher Manuel Barrueco (Laudable Records yuriguitar.com).

The transcriptions faithfully follow the Bach Gesellschaft Edition with very few additions or digressions; there’s the occasional filling-out of a chord or of an implied harmony, a pedal note allowed to sound through the bar or an octave change in the bass, but essentially the music runs as written, particularly in the fast linear movements.

In fact, at times it sounds even better than with violin. The multiple stops – particularly the triple and quadruple stops – present huge technical challenges for the violinist, especially when the melodic line runs through the middle, but on the guitar the issue presents less of a problem, the three Fuga movements in particular sounding smoother, cleaner and more clearly defined.

With beautifully clean playing, outstanding definition and line, a lovely variation of tonal colour and a perfect recorded sound, Liberzon gives a performance that fulfills all the technical and interpretative requirements that this challenging music demands. It’s an immensely satisfying musical experience on every level.

07 Leo BrouwerOn Leo Brouwer – The Book of Imaginary Beings: The Music of Leo Brouwer for Two Guitars, the Newman & Oltman Guitar Duo of American guitarists Laura Oltman and Michael Newman celebrate not only their 40th anniversary season but also the world-premiere recording of Brouwer’s new guitar duet El Libro de los Seres Imaginarios, the centrepiece of a CD dedicated to his works for two guitars (Musicmasters Classics CD 1001 musicmastersclassics.com).

Beatlerianas consists of quite beautiful arrangements of The Fool on the Hill and She’s Leaving Home, credited to Lennon & McCartney but essentially two of Paul McCartney’s loveliest songs. Música Incidental Campesina from 1978 is a series of extremely short vignettes – about one minute each – inspired by Cuban folk music.

The four-movement title work from 2018 portrays figures from the book of the same name by the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges. It is dedicated to the duo, who describe it as “an entirely Latin American creation, wildly intense and softly intimate.”

Superb playing, perfectly recorded, makes for a captivating, albeit at 28 minutes a disappointingly short, CD.

08 Avi AvitalOn Art of the Mandolin the brilliant Avi Avital presents original compositions for the instrument that span almost 300 years (Deutsche Grammophon 00289 483 8534 deutschegrammophon.com/en/catalogue).

Vivaldi is represented by his Concerto in G Major for 2 Mandolins, Strings and Basso continuo, Avital being joined by Alon Sariel on second mandolin and the Venice Baroque Orchestra. Beethoven’s Adagio ma non troppo in E-flat Major WoO43/2 for Mandolin and Harpsichord or Harp features Anneleen Lenaerts on harp, with the other early work being Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata In D Minor K89 for Mandolin and Basso continuo

In the latter work Avital is joined by several players who feature in the remaining contemporary works: Death is a Friend of Ours for Mandolin, Guitar, Harp, Theorbo and Harpsichord by David Bruce (b.1970), Sonata a tre for Mandolin, Guitar and Harpsichord by Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984) and Carillon, Récitatif, Masque for Mandolin, Guitar and Harp by Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012).

The terrific Prelude for Solo Mandolin by Giovanni Sollima (b.1962) with its southern Italian folk dance styles completes the disc.

09 Touch HarmoniousTouch Harmonious (In a Circle Records ICR018 inacircle-records.com) is the second solo album from Brooklyn Rider and Silk Road Ensemble violist Nicholas Cords, following his 2012 CD Recursions.

Much of the work on the CD was done when the COVID-19 situation was developing, and the album’s title is taken from a 1740 Samuel Johnson epitaph for a musician that, says Cords, reminds us that music’s power to sooth and heal is essential.

Cords’ arrangement of the Prelude by viola da gamba virtuoso Carl Friedrich Abel opens the CD, with Bach’s Cello Suite No.1 in G Major BWV1007 and Handel’s Rinaldo aria Lascia ch’io panga in Toshio Hosokawa’s arrangement closing the recital. Inspired by Rostropovich’s Bach playing, Britten’s Cello Suite No.3 Op.87, in a transcription by Nobuko Imai, is at the heart of the CD, surrounded by Anna Clyne’s Rest These Hands and world-premiere recordings of two works written specifically for this album: Dana Lyn’s endlessly i would have walked; and Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky’s Short Epitaph, based on the La Folia progression.

Cords is in great form throughout this fascinating program, technically superb and with a clear, warm tone across the whole range of his instrument.

10 Calidore BabelOn Babel, the new CD from the Calidore String Quartet, the focus is the desire “to explore the innate human drive for communication” and also to explore what happens when music substitutes for language (Signum Classics SIGCD650 naxosdirect.com/search/sigcd650).

Schumann’s String Quartet No.3 Op.41, written just months after he was finally able to marry his beloved Clara, and Shostakovich’s String Quartet No.9 in E-flat Major Op.117, in which Shostakovich showed music’s power to substitute for language as an act of defiance by using Jewish idioms in a work otherwise clearly acceptable to the Soviet regime, surround Caroline Shaw’s Three Essays, written for and premiered by the Calidore ensemble at the 2018 BBC Proms but inspired by Shaw’s concern at the national unrest leading to and resulting from the 2016 presidential election, and the language being used increasingly to spread confusion and misinformation.

The serious intentions threaten to overwhelm the actual music, but there’s fine playing on a CD that again reflects the COVID-19 situation, the quartet saying that they hope this album “will connect us with our audiences at a time when we are prevented from performing in-person concerts.”

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