01 Claude BakerMarc-André Hamelin’s new CD partners him with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra for a world premiere recording of the Claude Baker Piano Concerto “From Noon to Starry Night” (Naxos 8.559804).

Based on a poem by Walt Whitman, Baker’s work is highly detailed with many linkages to the structure of Whitman’s poem. Baker several times quotes well-known musical material to emphasize the programmatic content of both his music and Whitman’s poem.

The five-movement concerto is complex and presents considerable technical and interpretive challenges for the pianist. Hamelin’s performance integrates beautifully into this demanding ensemble requirement. He is particularly potent where he dominates the orchestra in pianissimo passages. For all its beauty, the work is one of very high tension. Baker is a brilliant composer and has the perfect pianist to premiere this remarkable work.

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02 PersichettiThe harpsichord has, of all period instruments, made the most successful transition to contemporary music. This is largely due to the extraordinary writing of American composer Vincent Persichetti. Christopher D. Lewis demonstrates why Persichetti’s music is so powerful, in his new release Persichetti Harpsichord Sonatas (Naxos 8.559843).

Five sonatas and the Serenade No.15 Op.161 sample the early period, mid-career and final year of the composer’s life (1915-1987). The growth and development of his language for this instrument is subtle. Always leaning toward melody and strong rhythmic elements, Persichetti became, if anything, more focused and incisive in his expression. The Serenade in particular, offers a splendid example of how Lewis grasps the composer’s idiom and conveys it convincingly. He’s clearly having a great deal of fun playing this music and relishes the extent of the technical challenge as well as the lovely melodic moments that mark all of Persichetti’s harpsichord works.

Well-programmed and wonderfully played, the disc delivers far more than a first glance might suggest. It reincarnates the harpsichord as a credible modern keyboard instrument.

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03 Ralph van RaatRalph van Raat is a pianist with a very catholic taste in music. His affection for rock, jazz, atonal serial music, and everything between them is accurately reflected in his decision to record Erik Lotichius: Anaitalrax – 25 virtuosic studies (Solaire SOL 1005 2-CD). Lotichius (1929-2015) was born in the Netherlands and composed in a style that was a deep fusion of seemingly countless influences. Traditional European classical voices and numerous American ones appear consistently throughout his very tonal and rhythmically driven music. Jazz, ragtime, blues, Broadway, Bach, Bartók, Debussy and Ravel are easy to identify, but it’s the amalgams that emerge as the unique voice of this little-known composer.

Van Raat performs these 25 studies as if they were meditations, sustaining the composer’s mantra-like phrases and hypnotic rhythms to great effect. Lotichius is a master at capturing more than just your ear, he wants your emotional attention and knows how to get it. This 2CD set includes an extensive and enlightening biography of the composer as well as some engaging thoughts from both the performer and the recording’s producer.

04 SzymanowskyBarbara Karaskiewicz has compiled a fascinating program in her recording Karol Szymanowski Piano Music (Divine Art DDA 25151). It forms a survey of the composer’s work covering nearly 40 years, beginning with Nine Preludes Op.1, written in 1900. The presence of Chopin is immediately detectable along with vocabulary reminiscent of some Brahms Intermezzi. There is a familiar fluidity and nostalgic ethos that pervades the music. Karaskiewicz plays these beautifully, bringing forward the composer’s unique voice. The Four Etudes Op.4 reveal the influence of early modernism, with some careful tonal experimentation that Karaskiewicz integrates quite naturally into the character of the pieces.

Szymanowski’s output is generally considered to fall into two periods, of which the second is strongly influenced by Eastern motifs and subject matter. The exotic elements of Scheherazade from Masques Op.34 take advantage of the angular melodies and dissonant harmonies of the period’s emerging contemporary music.

Karaskiewicz’s programming arch covers a considerable distance and concludes with Two Mazurkas Op.62 that reveal the fading but ever-present influence of Chopin in Szymanowski’s music.

05 Cloak with StarsThe Cloak with the Stars – Music for organ by Carson Cooman Vol.6 (Divine Art dda 25159) is a selection of works by this American composer and organist. Erik Simmons recorded several of the earlier volumes in this series and now enjoys an established reputation for a level of expertise with Cooman’s repertoire. Simmons performs using the Hauptwerk system digital sampling technology, and data from the organ of the Abbey of Saint-Etienne, Caen, France. The instrument was built by Cavaille-Coll in 1882-85 and despite its age, is the newest of numerous organs that have been in the Abbey since its founding by William the Conqueror in 1066.

One of Cooman’s strengths as a composer is his ability to use programmatic material. He remains free enough to create highly atmospheric works that deliver more of a feel about the subject matter than a linear storyline. Three St. Francis Legends is an excellent example. The disc’s finest track, however, is Diptych for a New Life, a tribute to the life-giving imagery of the sun. Cooman’s writing is colourful and highly effective.

06 Andreas WillscherAs an organist, Carson Cooman continues to add new recordings to his growing catalogue of “virtual” pipe organ performances. Andreas Willscher Organ Symphonies 19 & 20 (Divine Art dda 25162) is the latest and once again uses the increasingly ubiquitous Hauptwerk digital sampling system. The instrument captured on this recording is the 1868 Edmund Schulze in the Church of St. Bartholomew, Armley, Leeds, England. It’s a substantial instrument of 55 stops over five divisions. Judging from the acoustic space heard in the recording, the church is large and suits the instrument perfectly. A curious piece of history recounts how the organ was originally placed in a building too small for its size and volume, lasting only a decade there before being sold and installed in its present location.

Cooman’s program for this disc focuses on the work of German composer and organist Andreas Willscher (b.1955). His compositional language for the instrument is deeply traditional yet freely incorporates catchy contemporary rhythms along with carefully applied contemporary tonalities. The 1974 work Beatitudes is a remarkable piece for a then 19-year-old composer. The major works on the recording, the Symphonies 19 and 20, are both far bolder expressions. They also reflect Willscher’s lifetime experience writing for the organ, learning to exploit its vast range of colours and dynamics.

07 Lise de la SalleLise De La Salle has recorded her ninth disc, Bach Unlimited (Naïve V5444). Two of her previous CDs have included some Bach, as does this new one. Despite its title, the only Bach work is the Italian Concerto in F Major BWV971 that opens the disc. It’s a stunning performance; driven, flawlessly controlled, and fast. Really fast. The last movement just leaves you shaking your head.

To underscore the impact Bach’s music has had on her piano career, De La Salle performs several well-known works that use a B-A-C-H motif (B-flat, A, C, B) by Liszt, Poulenc and contemporary composer Thomas Enhco. She also includes Busoni’s transcription of the Chaconne in D Minor BWV1004 and Albert Roussel’s Prélude and Fugue Op.46. Enhco has, however, written several works based on Bach’s Chaconne, the Italian Concerto and Goldberg Variations, and De La Salle includes all of these in her performance program.

It’s an eclectic approach that works well under De La Salle’s hands. She’s a powerful player, versatile and completely in command of whatever repertoire she performs.

08 Late BeethovenIshay Shaer has recorded his second CD in what should be the beginning of a very promising career. Late Beethoven (Orchid Classics ORC 10076) includes the Sonatas No.28 in A Major Op.101 and No.30 in E Major Op.109 along with the Bagatelles of Opp.126 and 119. Beethoven was never overly impressed with what he felt the Bagatelles had to offer, but we see them more charitably today and Shaer has a way of rendering them that advances our own desire to know Beethoven better.

The real impact of this disc is in the exceptional and sensitive performance that Shaer brings to the two sonatas. He plays from inside the works with profound affection. Both sonatas have a great deal of introspective opportunity and Shaer never misses the chance to explore a little deeper. He seems to have a vision of a vulnerable Beethoven we seldom see.

Shaer’s command of the powerful, explosive passages is entirely convincing. But perhaps his choice of these two sonatas, very much alike in their emotional content, says more about where this young pianist has the capability to go.

09 Belle EpochLeslie Howard and Mattia Ometto collaborate as duo pianists in Belle Epoque Reynaldo Hahn – Complete Works for two pianos and piano duet (Melba MR 301148-49). Howard steps away from his lifetime role a solo pianist to play Hahn’s repertoire for two pianos and piano four hands. His performance partner Mattia Ometto carries impeccable credentials and the pair have created a splendid two-disc set that opens with Douze Valses à deux pianos. These are pure period works just fizzing with ballroom champagne. The duo next move into more serious repertoire, some of which Hahn wrote before the turn of the century. The loveliness of Hahn’s writing makes an immediate impact, especially in Scherzo lent pour deux pianos. Disc 2 continues with ever more thoughtful writing and performance. The set includes three world premiere recordings of Hahn’s work.

As piano duos go, great value is placed on the merger of two artists into a larger entity that becomes the duo. While this is obviously true in the case of Howard and Ometto, there is, nevertheless, a wonderful element of individualism at work in this pair. It’s most evident when they’re each at their own keyboard and it breathes a fresh creative spark into their playing.

10 David CheskyDavid Chesky is a prolific composer with nearly a hundred works to his credit. He has written for every conceivable classical form and has made his reputation by doing it in studio with the aid of the latest technology, especially in his large-scale compositions. This recording, David Chesky Piano Concertos 2 & 3 - Orchestra of the 21st Century (Chesky Records JD404), is his remarkable foray into the piano concerto form. Inspired by the chaos of New York City, the concertos are extremely high-energy works written and played at an impressive level of excellence.

Composer/pianist Chesky’s style is a fusion of the many influences in his creative life. It’s all there: classical music, rock, jazz, Latin strains, traffic chaos, etc. The elements are beautifully conceived and drawn into a contemporary tapestry that incorporates many familiar threads. The result is a music that is at once recognizable yet exhilaratingly modern.

Chesky’s ability as composer, orchestrator, performer and producer are remarkable. It’s an incredible disc that makes a lasting impression.

01 Paris 1804Paris 1804 – Music for Horn & Strings
Alessandro Denabian; Quartetto Delfico
Passacaille 1032 (denabian.com)

Despite the political, economic and social turmoil that plagued France during the years following the revolution, musical activities carried on as best they could. Paris remained the centre of European culture and while concert societies were now a thing of the past, the period saw the establishment of the Conservatoire in 1795. Such is the background for this attractively packaged disc of music for natural horn and string quartet by Cherubini, Dauprat and Reicha titled Paris 1804 and featuring Alessandro Denabian with the Quartetto Delfico.

Cherubini arrived in the French capital in 1786 and ultimately enjoyed a long association with the Conservatoire. His two short sonatas for horn are lyrical pieces closer in style to études. The first has a slow introduction followed by a jovial second movement while the second sonata is a single-movement Larghetto.

More ambitious are the Quintet Op.6 No.3 by Louis François Dauprat and the Grand Quintet Op.106 by Anton Reicha. Although hardly a household name today, Dauprat was renowned as a horn player, composer and music professor at the Conservatoire. The quintet is one of innumerable works he wrote for horn, the three contrasting movements providing the soloist ample opportunity to demonstrate the instrument’s capabilities. What strikes the listener here and throughout the disc is the wonderful sense of intimacy achieved, the transparency of the strings blending perfectly with the solo horn. Denabian proves himself to be a true virtuoso, handling the technical demands of a natural horn with apparent ease.

Reicha’s more familiar Grand Quintet is a true tour de force, a model of classical symphonic writing with a rollicking finale that brings the piece – and the CD – to a fitting conclusion.

02 Bach SevastianJ.S.Bach – Famous Works
Alexander Sevastian
Analekta AN 2 9136 (analekta.com)

Well known and loved by his Quartetto Gelato audiences and fans, accordionist Alexander Sevastian performs a number of solo transcriptions of J.S. Bach’s most loved repertoire with clarity, virtuosity, spirit and respect for Baroque style. Today most serious accordionists will have played Bach since his music, regardless of original instrumentation, translates extremely well to the instrument. Unlike the Stradella left-hand chord system, Sevastian plays a free bass bayan accordion where the left-hand buttons are arranged in single-tone patterns thus allowing a wide range of melodic and chordal possibilities in both hands. Registers (much like organ stops) increase the pitch range and colour possibilities.

Bach lovers are guaranteed to respect and admire Sevastian’s performances. The Prelude and Fugue in A Minor features solid but not overpowering left-hand held notes against rapid right-hand lines in the Prelude. There is a clear differentiation of voices in the Fugue, especially in the low-voice entry thanks to Sevastian’s understanding of reed response. In contrast, the emotionally sensitive melodic performance of Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ showcases touching musicality grounded by solid rhythmic direction and cadence resolutions, attributes of a great accordion master. Sevastian’s detailed understanding of bellow-sound production drives with precision the fast lines and full harmonies in the Toccata from Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

There are two musical wonders sounding simultaneously here – Bach’s compositions and Sevastian’s accordion musicianship. Both are remarkable.

03 Vincent LauzerSonates pour Flûte à Bec et Basson
Vincent Lauzer; Mathieu Lussier
ATMA ACD2 2753 (atmaclassique.com)

The alto recorder gained its greatest popularity with professional players, as well as with amateurs, round about 1730. The most popular form was the sonata for solo recorder and basso continuo, but sonatas for two recorders and continuo also became popular. This CD examines another variant: the trio sonata for treble recorder and bassoon with basso continuo. A CD devoted to these instruments could easily become repetitive but some variations are built in; while many of the works recorded show the interplay between the treble and the bass instruments, the first work on the CD (Vivaldi’s Sonata in A Minor) contains a slow movement which is really a recorder solo with the bassoon being part of the accompaniment. Moreover, further variety is provided by two works (by Chédeville and Telemann) being for recorder alone and two others (by Telemann and Fasch) for solo bassoon.

There are a number of first-rate recorder players in Montreal and Vincent Lauzer is among the very best. He excels both in sweetness of tone as well as the virtuosity which these sonatas require. He is ably partnered by the bassoon player, Mathieu Lussier. Anyone who thinks of the bassoon as just a useful bass accompaniment will be struck by the singing tone Lussier achieves.

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04 Bach Family ViolaViola Music of the Bach Family
Roger Myers; Céline Frisch
Notos NOTOS001 (rogmyers@austin.utexas.edu)

Music on this album brings up fragments of Baroque and Rococo worlds in the form of elegant phrases and courtly dances, lovely nuances and surprising virtuosity. As I was listening to this recording on a quiet, snowy day, I realized there was quite a resemblance between colours and textures of the Baroque viola sound and the feel of the winter day – both dark, somewhat restrained, but so rich in understated expression and depth.

In this fine selection of 18th-century viola repertoire there are sonatas by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Wilhelm Friedmann Bach and Johann Joachim Quantz, a movement from a concerto by Johann Cristoph Friedrich Bach and an aria from a cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach. Other than the obvious family connection between J.S.Bach and his sons, there is another one – the Court of Frederick the Great in Prussia. A big supporter of art and music, Frederick had assembled one of the finest orchestras of that time and employed many exceptional musicians, C.P.E. Bach and J.J. Quantz among them.

Roger Myers executes delightful and sensitive performances of these pieces and offers greatly detailed liner notes. His masterful tonal aesthetics and his virtuosity are most evident in the sonata by W.F.Bach; this composition showcases the viola’s darker sonorities while bringing forward the speed and brilliance of the virtuosic capabilities of the instrument, something that had not been heard before in the viola repertoire of the time. The chemistry between the performers is refreshing – Céline Frisch is every bit as poetic in her interpretation as she is virtuosic in her technique.

05 Pallade MusicaSchieferlein; Telemann and C.P.E. Bach – Sonates en trio
Pallade Musica
ATMA ACD2 2744 (atmaclassique.com)

The importance of this disc by Pallade Musica cannot be overstated, for without the compelling performance of three sonatas Otto Schieferlein might have remained the historically curious academic that he has been for almost 300 years. Although each of his three sonatas does not deviate far from the dictates of the Baroque era, with its contrapuntally driven form fashionable after J. S. Bach, there is a unique, languid elegance in the manner in which each of the sonatas flows.

Moreover, Sonata No. 2 in F Major is extended by a slender, statuesque French Menuet, a gorgeous five-minute depiction of the vivid spectacle that often filled 17th-century ballrooms. The sonatas demonstrate Schieferlein’s skill at plumbing the depths of feeling. In sweeping movements Sonata No.1 in E Minor evokes dark and light, the solemn and the sparkling through interweaving lines of unflinching passion. The writing here as well as in Sonata No.3 in A Major is at once fierce, haunting and mystical.

Georg Telemann’s Trio Sonata, and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Fantasia in D Major and Sonata in G Major for flute, violin and continuo, are not mere musical appendages. Each has individual character. The willowy sinews of Telemann’s sonata break through the balletic Siciliana movement to the spikey energy of the final Allegro assai. And the Fantasia and Sonata by C.P.E. Bach are quiet personal evidence of an inspired artistic genius.

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06 Ai GoldsmithLes exquises Allégories
Ai Goldsmith; Miles Graber
Titanic Ti-281 (flutistai.com)

California-based flutist Ai Goldsmith and pianist Miles Graber’s CD, Les exquises Allégories, gives us the opportunity to get to know four major works, each 15 to 20 minutes long, by little-known 20th-century composers, plus a lovely transcription of an early Schubert lied.

First on the program is Carl Frühling’s Fantasie, Op.55, a bravura, late-Romantic one-movement emotional rollercoaster ride. Goldsmith’s direct approach to playing the flute is perfect for the big, expansive opening, reminiscent of the opening moments of Chaminade’s Concertino and Eldin Burton’s Sonatina. This directness, which I might characterize as letting the music speak for itself, also works particularly well in the opening movement of the Sonatine by Walter Gieseking, whose work as a composer is as worthy of recognition as his career as a concert pianist. (He also composed Variations on a Theme by Grieg, also on this CD.)

Where it is perhaps most effective is in Schubert’s Litany for All Souls’ Day, which Goldsmith dedicated to her mother, who died in 2012, and which she plays with respectful simplicity, allowing the beauty and the sadness of the music to resonate and touch us.

There are also many moments of stunning virtuosity, which Goldsmith and Graber play with control and authority. Graber’s reading of the dauntingly difficult piano part in Grigory Smirnov’s Fantasia is quite breathtaking; but he is equally convincing in the tender solo piano interlude toward the end of the same piece.

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