01 Bach Cello Suites for PianoBach – Six Suites for Solo Cello, transcribed for piano
Eleonor Bindman
Grand Piano GP847-48 (naxosdirect.com/search/747313984725)

For New York-based pianist Eleonor Bindman, Bach became her beacon at age ten, when she snuck a peek at her teacher’s notebook and saw the words “plays Bach well” under her name. Since then she’s never wavered.

Bindman’s intimate connection to, and study of, the music of J.S. Bach deepened over the decades. This lead to her 2018, one-piano/four-hands, transcription of all six Brandenburg Concertos, followed by several other Bach transcription projects, ultimately resulting in this transcription and recording of the six unaccompanied Cello Suites BWV 1007-1012.

Interestingly, in addition to the piano, the Cello Suites have been transcribed for numerous solo instruments including, among others, the mandolin, marimba, classical guitar, electric bass, flute, saxophone, trombone, tuba and ukulele. I can’t vouch for how successful each of these efforts has been, but I reckon it’s not an easy task, regardless of the instrument. (Even Robert Schumann, who wrote a piano accompaniment for all six Suites, had his arrangements rejected by his publisher.)

I can, however, vouch for the success of Bindman’s piano transcription, which is superb, embodying the true essence of the Suites, something she aspired to. As she states in her excellent liner notes, the “Suites didn’t need any improvement.”

Bindman maintains the majesty of Bach’s music, via both her transcription and her convincing command of the keyboard. Whether you’re a purist or a Bach devotee, this satisfying 2-CD set is worthy of a thoughtful listen.

02 BoccheriniMIR524Luigi Boccherini – Une nuit à Madrid
Les Ombres
Mirare MIR524 (mirare.fr)

If Boccherini had never moved to Spain – ultimately regarding it as his native country – the world might have been denied much of his fine chamber music composed for the brother of King Charles III, the infante Don Luis. His move wasn’t entirely smooth – he referred to local musicians as “inveterate barbarians” – but the Spanish influence on his musical style was not an insignificant one, evident in such pieces as the renowned “Fandango” quintet, one of five quintets presented on this splendid Mirare recording performed by the Basel-trained ensemble, Les Ombres.

Of those featured here, three are for flute and strings – Nos.2, 4 and 5 from the set of six quintets Op.19. These are remarkable not only for their brevity (each comprises only two movements and is less than ten minutes in length) but for their diversity. The second has a dark and impassioned mood, while the fourth begins with a solemn adagio followed by a gentle minuet and the fifth is all rococo grace.

Of greater scope is the four-movement Quintet G451 in E Minor. Despite the inclusion of a guitar, there is no Spanish element to this music, but the instrumental blend is an appealing one and Les Ombres perform with a solid conviction, at all times maintaining a delicate balance among the instruments. 

The highlight of the disc is surely the Quintet No.4 G448 known for its spirited Fandango finale. Performed with great panache – with the help of clacking castanets and Romaric Martin’s fine guitar playing – the movement is infused with Mediterranean exuberance – music that seems made for dancing!

Fine acoustics on this recording further enhance an exemplary performance throughout – bravo a todos!

03 Gretry LAmant JalouxAndré Grétry – L’Amant jaloux
Notturna; Christopher Palameta
ATMA ACD2 2797 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Among the most successful operatic composers in 18th-century France was Belgian-born André-Ernest Modeste Grétry (1741-1813). After studying in Rome, he arrived in France in 1767, and during the next 40 years, he enjoyed a career as a renowned composer and pedagogue.

Given the success of Grétry’s operas, and in keeping with the popular custom of the time, it was only natural that much of his dramatic music would eventually make its way from the opera house to both private salons and public gardens in the form of arrangements for small ensemble. It’s such an arrangement of music from his opera L’Amant jaloux (The Jealous Lover) that comprises the bulk of this fine ATMA recording featuring the six-member Montreal-based ensemble, Notturna, directed by oboist Christopher Palameta. The arranger is unknown, but it’s thought it may have been Grétry himself.

L’Amant jaloux was Grétry’s 23rd opera comique and met with resounding success when premiered in Versailles in 1778. While no doubt the score is unfamiliar to modern-day listeners, the music of this well-crafted arrangement is gracious and melodic, while maintaining the spirit of the vocal originals. Throughout, Notturna delivers a polished performance with a fine balance among the instruments.

Following the suite is a quartet for oboe, violins and bass by François-André Phlidor and a brief ballet movement from Grétry’s 1783 opera La Caravane du Caire. Palameta’s sonorous and well-rounded tone further enhances this brief chamber-piece from 1755, while the closing ballet is a fine example of French courtly dance music before the fall of the Ancien Régime.

Kudos to Palameta and Notturna not only for some fine playing, but for helping bring to light some music that otherwise may have been overlooked.

04 Beethoven Violin JorgensenBeethoven – Complete Sonatas for Piano & Violin on Historic Instruments
Jerilyn Jorgensen; Cullan Bryant
Abany Records TROY 1825-28 (albanyrecords.com)

This handsome and beautiful 4-CD set features Cullan Bryant playing five different keyboard instruments from the Frederick Collection of Historic Pianos in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, including an instrument built around 1805 by Casper Katholnig that had been part of the estate of the Esterházys in Eisenstadt and others by Joseph Brodmann, Johann Tröndlin and Ignaz Bösendorfer from Leipzig and Vienna. Jorgensen plays a violin built in 1797 by Andrea Carolus Leeb and employs a number of different historical bows. A great deal of care has been given to creating a specific sound world for the performance of each sonata and in all cases this produces an added element of a wide palette of aural colours that is missing from most modern instrument recordings of these brilliant works.  

Unlike Beethoven’s string quartet output, which stretches across all the periods of his remarkable career, his ten sonatas for piano and violin were written in a shorter span of time – between 1797 and 1812. There are two sets of three sonatas each – Op.12 and Op.30 – and single sonatas Opp. 23, 24, 47 and 96. As the excellent liner notes to this CD collection point out, what make these sonatas so interesting is that they feature the two instruments that Beethoven played exceptionally well. He was an active violinist in his early life in Bonn and, of course, played piano throughout his life. 

Each of these ten works is a strong, inventive, captivating piece that charts a growing independent compositional style, culminating with Op.47 – the most famous sonata, dedicated to the French violinist and composer Rodolphe Kreutzer – and the powerful and unique Op.96 in G Major. Like the quartets, the early sonatas owe a great deal, formally and stylistically, to Mozart, Haydn and Antonio Salieri. As we move to the later works, Beethoven’s unique and original style – and all of those strong and contrasting voices that we appreciate so deeply – emerges. 

The performances of Bryant and Jorgensen are of a uniformly high standard; risks are taken and, as mentioned above, the musical colours are vibrant. The early pianos also remind us of the percussive nature of the instrument and give a picture of what Beethoven was seeking with his articulation and dynamic markings. Many thanks to these two fine musicians for a thoughtful and musically satisfying recording.

Listen to 'Beethoven – Complete Sonatas for Piano & Violin on Historic Instruments' Now in the Listening Room

05 Ozawa BeethovenBeethoven 7; Leonore 3
Saito Kinen Orchestra; Seiji Ozawa
Decca Records (ozawa-festival.com/en/news/2020/07/30/130000)

How wonderful that there is still a Seiji Ozawa! In celebration of the great conductor’s 85th birthday, here is a live recording of two favourites from the Beethoven shelf: the symphonic-sounding Ouverture to Leonore No.3, Op.72, and Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op.92

Wagner described this symphony as “the apotheosis of the dance.” (The question of what Wagner might have known about dance is for another time and place.) Having seen Ozawa rehearse the Vienna Philharmonic, I can think of no more fitting piece for a celebration of his own style of leading. He literally looked like he was dancing the cues, his entire body conducting. That was almost two decades past, but I hope this very senior, venerable citizen can still cut a rug.

This is a keepsake as much as a recording, certainly for thousands of Ozawa partisans. It was taken from a live performance, featuring the Saito Kinen Orchestra, a band who form once yearly in honour of their teacher Hideo Saito, co-founder of the Toho Gakuen School of Music. Naturally, then, one might not look so much for perfect ensemble unity, and more for enthusiasm and excellence on the particular level. While rhythmic and phrasing unity is certainly fine, and enthusiastic dynamics pervade, there’s a heavy feeling to the skipping rhythmic motif that should lift the first movement to terpsichorean apotheosis. I sense the age in the arms of this ageless master. A bit sad, but still a keeper. You can’t hear the marche funèbre second movement without thinking of inevitability. The tread slows slightly with each new iteration; is this mourning in advance? Not yet! The heaviness disperses in the second theme, the clouds part, the tread becomes a heartbeat.

Great playing throughout. Not such great recording values: live performance, whaddayagonnado?

Schubert: The Power of Fate06 Gaudet Schubert 3
Mathieu Gaudet
Analekta AN 2 9183 (analekta.com/en)

What simple, unexpected gifts we receive from the hands of Mathieu Gaudet. In May of 2020, this writer reviewed Gaudet’s disc, Late Inspirations, the second installment in a broad Schubert project from Analekta. Then in June, Gaudet went back into the studio to record two sonatas by his indelible muse, his wonderful counsellor, Franz Schubert. Dubbed “a lifelong vocation for Gaudet,” the music of Schubert yet radiates evergreen melody and benevolent light on this third record in the cycle. Themed The Power of Fate, Gaudet’s newest release features the little-known Sonata No.7 in E-flat Major, D568 and the seminal and nearly balladic Sonata No.25 in A Minor, D845.

Right from the first, open-hearted phrase of the E-flat Major, Gaudet warmly arrays us in a universe rich and rare. Herein, Schubertian laws of musical physics reign supreme and such unlikely sonatas as this are realized, beguilingly, with warty oddities explained and youthful charms celebrated. How marvellous that, even today, corners of the keyboard repertoire remain unfamiliar. Gratefully, Gaudet unearths gem upon gentle gem for our benefit.

The second work on the record opens a portal onto a shrouded musical garden, darkly glistening from a different sphere. The characterization of every last note is vividly, patiently considered by Gaudet as he soars yet loftier heights with the making of each new Schubert disc. I am reminded of Leon Fleisher – an important mentor of Gaudet’s – who once described this sonata’s second movement as “the fluttering of a songbird’s wings in flight.”

07 Karen Kei Nagano SchubertReincarnation – Schubert; Messiaen
Karin Kei Nagano
Analekta AN 2 8778 (analekta.com/en)

Musical programming can often be summarized as either contrasting or complementary, using the similarities and differences between two pieces to serve a specific purpose as outlined by the performer. Nagano’s Reincarnation attempts to do both simultaneously, drawing conceptual connections between Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major, D960 and Messiaen’s Première communion de la Vierge while clearly contrasting these disparate works from different times and places.

Schubert’s Sonata is a late masterwork, one of three large-scale sonatas written in the final year of his life. These sonatas were composed simultaneously, beginning with initial drafts in the spring of 1828 and concluding with final revisions in September, just two months before Schubert’s death; they share a number of musical similarities in both style and substance that continue to inspire and engage performers and listeners alike. Nagano successfully captures the spirit of this work that, far from being a self-obsessed elegy dwelling on the composer’s imminent demise, is primarily a calm, graceful and optimistic survey of early Romantic pianistic skill.

Over a century after Schubert’s death, Olivier Messiaen was finding new ways of expressing his deep Catholic devotion through stylistic syntheses, using modes and rhythms that could be transposed, used in retrograde, and combined in a unique and immediately identifiable musical language. Written in 1944, Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus is one of Messiaen’s most intense and spiritual scores, expressing and conveying the various contemplations of the child Jesus in the crib from the Father, the Church and the Spirit, among others. Première communion de la Vierge (The Virgin’s first communion) is, much like the Schubert Sonata, a calm reflection interspersed with moments of joy and exaltation, including an ecstatic middle section with pulsing rhythms and fleeting gestures.

Nagano’s Reincarnation is an exploration of deep profundity disguised in highly appealing, refined compositions. This is music with many layers, and the opportunity for listeners to continue to revisit and explore these works, drawing new discoveries and experiences each time, is one that should not be missed.

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