07 Brahms 3Brahms – Symphony No.3; Serenade No.2
Budapest Festival Orchestra; Ivan Fischer
Channel Classics CCS SA 43821 (channelclassics.com/catalogue/43821)

“There is no more magnificent opening of a symphony than the first 38 bars of Brahms Third” says Ivan Fischer, and obviously he is very partial to the work. Fischer is known to pursue unjustly neglected works and restore them to mainstream repertoire. Brahms Third Symphony is certainly the dark horse, the least performed of his four. Granted, it is different from the others: it’s the shortest, terse, vivid, passionate and intensely alive. It begins with a great heroic theme in an optimistic F Major fortissimo that dominates the work, but it’s also capable of becoming soft and tender as at the end of the first movement and the very end of the symphony. 

The nickname heroic fits only the outer movements. The second is quiet and peaceful and simply glows with one beautiful melody after another. It comes to a gorgeous climax and then a hushed magical moment of dialogue between various woodwinds and the lower strings echoing one another. The third movement should be a scherzo, but it isn’t. It has a “beautiful, caressing theme, loving and slightly melancholic, but all in a mildly rocking rhythm” (Clemens Romijn). It is in 3/4 time and so catchy that it became a pop song. The last movement is intense, dramatic like a battle, heroic, but the main theme returns in a quiet, peaceful manner that ends the symphony gently.

Brahms wrote the two Serenades before he composed symphonies and I first heard them by the late, great Brahmsian István Kertséz and fell in love with them instantly. The graceful Serenade No.2 provides a nice contrast to the heroic Third Symphony, performed here in a thoroughly delightful manner by the wonderful musicians of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the pride of Hungary and one of the top ten of the world.

08 Brahms Concertos SchiffJohannes Brahms – Piano Concertos
Andras Schiff; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
ECM New Series 2690/91 (ecmrecords.com/shop)

Perhaps like many classical music listeners and lovers, I mainly (and perhaps limitingly) associate the Hungarian-born pianist Sir András Schiff with J.S. Bach, whose music Schiff plays beautifully, frequently and with an insight and mastery that few have equalled. Accordingly, it was a pleasure for me to dig into Schiff’s recent double-disc recording of the reimagined piano concertos of Johannes Brahms, accompanied capably by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. 

Captured following a string of highly acclaimed European concerts in the spring of 2019, the resulting recording is magical. Doing double duty as pianist and conductor, Schiff leads this unique United Kingdom-based period-piece orchestra through some of the most musical and challenging pieces in the Western art music canon (Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.1 in D Minor, Op.15 and No.2 in B-flat Major, Op.83), mining the depths of Romantic-era dynamics and expressivity for which Brahms is revered. Further, the recording, captured at London’s Abbey Road studios, contains all of the fidelity hallmarks for which ECM Recordings has earned its blue-chip reputation over the last near half-century, exhibiting the telltale expansive sonic thumbprint of executive producer Manfred Eicher, who helps realize here a recording that captures Schiff, and the 1859 Blüthner piano on which he performs, beautifully.

09 Brahms DoubleBrahms – Double Concerto; Tchaikovsky – Romeo and Juliet; Liszt – Les Preludes
Lisa Batiashvili; Gautier Capuçon; Staatskapelle Dresden; Christian Thielemann
C Major 757108 (naxosdirect.com/search/757108)

Christian Thielemann had already established himself as a card-carrying, man-about-Brahms when he recorded the complete symphonies, the piano concertos with Pollini and the violin concerto with Batiashvili; DG was still attempting to develop a successor to the late Herbert von Karajan. 

Of course this concert with the Dresden Staatskapelle could be nothing less than a memorable event given the incomparable technique and sonorities of the soloists, violinist Lisa Batiashvili and cellist Gautier Capuçon, with Thielemann in command. This Blu-ray has had lots of play in the past weeks as I just had to hear, just one more time, my very favourite Brahms concerto. The encore, Il Zingaresca: Allegro giocoso, is a pleasing interplay between violin and cello by Schulhoff. The Tchaikovsky and Liszt war horses each enjoy a well-controlled, commanding performance,

10 Nicoara BusoniBusoni – The Six Sonatinas
Victor Nicoara
Hanssler Classic HC20086 (naxosdirect.com/search/hc20086)

Victor Nicoara, a bona fide exponent of the piano music of Ferruccio Busoni, joins an increasing number of musicians determined to familiarize audiences with the Italian composer’s catalogue, bringing them “closer to an emotional understanding of… neglected masterpieces.” As such, Nicoara has fashioned an aesthetically pleasing album featuring Busoni’s Six Sonatinas – out of chronological order – set amongst smaller pieces. It is immediately apparent that Nicoara has long been devoted to Busoni’s art and brings a depth of interpretation and impressive conviction to his performance. The pianist displays attributes of expression not perennially associated with Busoni: a tenderness of line and sense of satirical gesture (with playfulness); a dreamy, almost absent-minded notion of soundscape, a rational lingua franca of harmony. (Busoni’s harmonic language can sometimes seem out of reach for many listeners.)

This is a disc to be thoroughly enjoyed, varied in scope with intimations of dusted-off treasure. The musical gemstones Nicoara brings to our ears from vaults below are not unknown, they’re just rarely heard and must therefore be reclaimed and re-appreciated in the natural light of day. Here is the conceit of Nicoara’s newest recording and he succeeds in its conveyance, admirably.

Outside of the sonatinas, a more novel highlight is the Nuit de Noël, BV 251. Without knowing, one might guess this music to be written by Debussy, Grieg or even a proponent of the Romantic English school. Finally, Nicoara’s own, Quasi Sonatina, illuminates the nooks and crannies of our aforementioned museum finds in “an attempt… to distill the spirit and compositional procedures of the works recorded…”  As listeners, we revel in his sensitivity for the material: material he plays with an earnest, even humble, brand of pianistic expertise.

11 Mahler 7 PetrenkoMahler – Symphony No.7
Bayerisches Staatsorchester; Kirill Petrenko
Bayerische Stattoper BSOrec0001 (naxosdirect.com/search/bsorec0001)

The Bayerisches Staatsorchester, the resident orchestra of the renowned Bavarian State Opera, launches a new label featuring their purely orchestral performances with this 2018 live performance under their former music director Kirill Petrenko, recently appointed to succeed Simon Rattle at the Berlin Philharmonic. The reclusive and modest Petrenko has very few recordings to his credit to date; that he would choose to heighten his profile with this most neglected though utterly fascinating example of Mahler’s symphonies is certainly a provocative move. 

In general we have here a quite satisfying result, revealing an excellent orchestra at the top of its game. The opening bars of this five-moment symphony seemed a bit underwhelming to me at first, though it eventually became evident that Petrenko is playing the long game as the interpretation grew increasingly incandescent throughout the remainder of the movement. A certain Apollonian reticence is also evident in the flanking pair of Nachtmusik movements; the echoing horn calls that open the second movement for example are, unusually, strictly in tempo, while the expressive tempo modifications in the archly sentimental fourth movement are almost non-committal in their fleetness, though both movements are otherwise sonically luxurious and expertly balanced. He does however display a commanding hand throughout the psychedelic central Scherzo and truly comes into his own in the dense polyphony of the grandiloquent Finale which zips along jubilantly. 

Though it’s certainly not the finest recording of this work available (I would recommend Bernstein/NY or Abbado/Lucerne) it nevertheless shows great promise that Petrenko interprets this demanding work with such alacrity. Stay tuned!

12 QuestQuest
Elisabeth Remy Johnson
Albany Records TROY1863 (albanyrecords.com)

This compelling new recording from world-renowned principal harpist (Atlanta Symphony) Elisabeth Remy Johnson, is a magnificent celebration of not only the harp itself, but of 12 radiant female composers. Both historic and contemporary artists are represented here by way of Johnson’s transcriptions of venerable piano works by Cécile Chaminade (Aubade – 1911), Amy Beach (A Hermit Thrush at Morn – 1921), Mel Bonis (Cinq Morceaux – 1894 to 1927), Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (Mélodie – 1846), Clara Wieck Schumann (Romanze – 1853) and Lili Boulanger (D’un vieux jardin – 1914). Contemporary contributers to this superb collection include Australian flutist/composer Johanna Selleck, British composer Freya Waley-Cohen, British violist/composer Sally Beamish and Canadian composer Kati Agócs.

The title track is by contemporary Iranian-American pianist/composer Niloufar Nourbakhsh. Written in 1992, the composition reflects Nourbakhsh’s thoughts and feelings as she embarked on her “quest” of becoming a composer. Delicate, gossamer and provocative, this world-premiere recording and transcription for solo harp is nothing short of breathtaking. Aubade has a whimsical aspect, made even more magical when performed on harp and A Hermit Thrush at Morn embodies contemporary motifs in classical music that were just beginning to come into focus in the 1920s. Of special beauty and elegance is the five-movement Cinq Morceaux, as is D’un vieux jardin where the listener experiences a stunning, Parisian garden gently emerging out of the mist.

The contemporary pieces presented here are no less notable, particularly Agócs’ Every Lover is a Warrior and Waley-Cohen’s Skye. This is a recording to be savoured, just like all of the works of the brilliant female artists who have contributed to Johnson’s laudible recording, infused with her incredible skill and taste.

Listen to 'Quest' Now in the Listening Room

13 Matthew LarkinMatthew Larkin Organist – Casavant Opus 550
Matthew Larkin
ATMA ACD2 2857 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Not only is the pipe organ one of the world’s oldest musical instruments, it is also one of the most complicated. Comprised of thousands of pipes ranging in size from that of a small pencil to 32 feet in length, as well as innumerable internal mechanisms and electronic controls all managed by one musician at an equally complex (and appropriately named) “console” containing up to five separate keyboards. It takes a significant amount of training and dexterity to successfully maneuver these marvels of musical engineering.

When executed properly, the organist’s job is to make the technical operation of the instrument a behind-the-scenes process, secondary in nature to the music itself. The audience need not (and should not) be aware of every button that is pushed, every pipe that is activated, but rather these small adaptations should be incorporated into the whole in a subtle and organic way, a challenging objective that grows increasingly complex as the size of the instrument increases.

The Casavant organ at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Bloor Street is one of largest such instruments in Canada, with over 7,500 pipes at the organist’s disposal; it is also one of the finest. Matthew Larkin Plays Casavant Opus 550 at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Toronto illustrates just how magnificent and convincing a superb instrument can be in the hands of an equally gifted performer.

A fascinating collection of international works, including those by a number of notable Canadian composers, ensures that this double-disc offering has something for every listener. Whether it is Healey Willan’s Passacaglia and Fugue No. 2, Keith Jarrett’s Hymn of Remembrance, or César Franck’s legendary Chorale No.3, Larkin and the organ of St. Paul’s provide interpretations that rise above the technical challenges (both musical and material) presented by the pipe organ and enter the realm of the sublime.

With expertly crafted material spanning continents and centuries, this recording is highly recommended to all who have an interest in the organ, its history, and its music.

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