07_mahler_5Mahler - Symphony No.5

Gürzenich Orchester Köln; Markus Stenz

Oehms Classics OC650

Founded in 1857, Cologne’s Gürzenich Orchestra gave the first performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in 1904 under the composer’s baton. A century after the premiere the orchestra elected Markus Stenz as their music director and committed itself to recording the complete symphonies of Mahler under his direction. The cycle appropriately enough commences with the Fifth Symphony. This is actually Stenz’s second recording of this work following an earlier critically acclaimed though poorly distributed account during his leadership of the Melbourne (Australia) Symphony. Stenz drives the symphony ahead relentlessly, avoiding the self-aggrandizing expressive distortions so often employed by many another conductor. Some may find this no-nonsense approach a bit one-dimensional, and there are indeed moments such as the triumphant brass peroration at the close of the second movement that clearly benefit from just a bit more grandeur. However Stenz’s tempi in the first movement follow quite closely the outlines of Mahler’s own impromptu performance preserved on a Welte piano roll and his straightforward yet supple account of the famous Adagietto is, as it should be, more romance than lament. The skilful playing, sensitive dynamic nuances and total involvement of the excellent Gürzenich ensemble is well represented in a nicely balanced studio recording which includes an SACD layer.

Daniel Foley


Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra; Yannick Nézet-Séguin

EMI Classics 9 66342 2

A conductor’s baton is a lightning rod. It can charge an orchestra’s performance with breathtaking energy or leave it in smoking ruins. Leading one of the world’s great orchestra’s therefore requires an Olympian confidence balanced with respect for the potential scale of both success and failure.

Young Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin has been Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic since September 2008. His appointment caused notable chatter in the small Canadian orchestra world and turned many heads internationally. Early reviews of his work in Rotterdam and London have been strong endorsements of his talent and this recording will be another step in his advancing career.

This disc reflects the French love for dance expressed in the music of Maurice Ravel. His orchestrations are legendary for their colour and dynamism. Both elements are so very French in their sense of abandon yet require a technical precision only available to the finest ensembles under gifted leadership.

In the Daphnis et Chloé Suite No.2 The Rotterdam Phil follow Nézet-Séguin through an impressionistic landscape where this large European orchestra often achieves a chamber ensemble intimacy. They repeat this in the Ma mère l’oye Suite and the Valses nobles et sentimentales. The real dynamism, however, reveals itself in La Valse, especially in the wild finale where 19th century traditions are torn apart and established truths satirically mocked by a cynicism rooted in the morbid trenches of WW1.

These performances are fluid and seamless. Repeated listening reveals new textures in the remarkable playing of the Rotterdam Phil. Nézet-Séguin clearly has this orchestra in hand and speaks their language.

Alex Baran


Alison Balsom; Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra; Edward Gardner

EMI Classics 3 53255 2

In recent years there has been a trend on the part of some instrumentalists to demonstrate their skills by performing transcriptions of works which were not originally written for their instruments. In some cases they have been orchestral works, and in others they were originally choral or solo vocal works. With one exception, a single movement from a Tomasini Trumpet Concerto, all of the tracks on this CD fall into that category.

Although little known in North America, this young British trumpet performer has made quite a name for herself throughout Europe. On the one hand, her performance is as brilliant as you will hear from any trumpet virtuoso when she plays Mozart’s Rondo alla turca or Paganini’s Caprice No. 24. Then, when she turns to Piazzolla’s Libertango or Rachmoninov’s Vocalise, the result is a haunting mellow tone rarely heard in a trumpet performance. Of particular interest to trumpet aficionados is her rendition of Arban’s Variations on Casta Diva from Bellini’s opera Norma. Casta Diva has always been one of my favourite operatic arias and this version shed a whole new light on it.

Anyone who has ever been serious about playing a brass instrument will be familiar with Jean Batiste Arban’s “Tutor and most will be familiar with his ever popular Variations on The Carnival of Venice. However, I had to dig out my copy of that publication to confirm that I have owned it these many years. These variations would be an amazing challenge for any instrumentalist. Alison Balsom meets that challenge with apparent ease.

Jack MacQuarrie

09a_michael_unger_naxosMichael Unger - Organ Recital

Michael Unger

Naxos 8.572246




09b_universe_of_poetryUniverse of Poetry

Michael Unger

Pro Organ CD 7235 (www.proorgano.com)



Devotees of organ music are admittedly few but faithful. Their numbers, however slim, do sustain a modest stream of recordings from both major and private labels. Canadian-born Michael Unger offers two new recordings in this genre – each very different from the other.

His Tokyo recital recording follows his 2008 International Organ competition victory there. Curiously enough, the Japanese have proven to be an enthusiastic and well-financed market for new pipe organs. Numerous concert halls throughout Japan have contracted North American and European pipe organ builders to install instruments costing millions. Nobody is certain why Asian audiences have so passionately embraced a culturally foreign form of music, but it gives dwindling numbers of organ enthusiasts in the West reason to be grateful.

The instrument is by European builder Marcussen & Son. Its tonal design seems a careful balance between the brightly voice ranks needed for the recital program’s Buxtehude and Bach as well as the 19th – 20th century French repertoire. The instrument’s scale reflects the desire to have a large and grand sound in the concert hall although one suspects the designers may have neglected to leave enough acoustic space in the hall to adequately blend the organ’s voices as cavernous churches do so well.

The treat in this recital is definitely Messiaen’s Dieu parmi nous (from La Nativité du Seigneur). Unger exploits the organ’s potential for colouristic effect and presents Messiaen with unreserved energy and brightness. The Gaston Litaize Prélude et danse fugeé is also a track worth hearing for its contemporary flavour.

Universe of Poetry presents Unger in a program of more traditional repertoire at Sacred Heart Cathedral, Rochester, N.Y. The organ is by American builder Paul Fritts and is as stunning visually as it is aurally. The Cathedral’s ambient space provides a marvellous acoustic setting for the instrument. The organ is voiced brightly making it perfect for a wide range of German repertoire and reasonably suitable for some English and American composers as well, especially the more contemporary ones. 19th century French music may not fare so well, but that’s the nature of tonal design in the organ world.

Unger’s program on this disc is mostly German (Bach, Buxtehude, Rheinberger) recognizing the instrument’s strengths. The few English, French and Belgian pieces do however, come across very well.

The performances on this disc convey a sense of fun and love for the music that contrasts with the fiery showmanship of Unger’s Tokyo competition. Production values are good on both CDs but the Cathedral recording in Rochester N.Y. has the definite edge.

Alex Baran


Angèle Dubeau

Analekta AN 2 8729


I would venture to say that alongside tantalizing food products, sleek public transportation vehicles and couture fashion, violinist Angèle Dubeau could be regarded as an equally important Quebec commodity. Although she emerged as a soloist at a young age, her career has never been marked by flash and pizzazz. Rather, the approach she chose has been one of solid musicianship coupled with continuous learning and development, as seen in the 25 discs recorded for the Analekta label, either as a soloist, in chamber groups, or with her ensemble, La Pietà.

This newest release, titled simply Virtuose is rather like a tribute album, for instead of presenting newly-recorded material, it draws from recordings she has made over the last twelve years. The result is a most attractive and eclectic collection ranging from solo performances to those involving a full orchestra.


The CD opens with two familiar solo Caprices, the first by Locatelli, and the second by Paganini. Dubeau’s warm tone and technical virtuosity are immediately apparent as she treats these miniature gems with apparent ease. Considerably more dramatic are two final movements from 19th century concertos, those by Mendelssohn and Glazunov, and involving, respectively, the Orchestre Metropolitain, and Bulgarian Radio Symphony. Her affinity for chamber-music is discernible in pieces such as the finale from Schubert’s Violin Sonata in D major (with pianist Anton Kuerti), and the cheeky finale from the Martinu Sonata for Flute, Violin and Piano. Concluding with the tempestuous opening movement from the Sibelius Violin Concerto, the CD is a fine homage to an established Canadian virtuoso whom we certainly hope to enjoy for a long time to come.


Richard Haskell


Concert Note: Toronto audiences can hear Angèle Dubeau and La Pietà perform at the Jane Mallett Theatre on February 10.


09_lennyCelebrating Lenny

Leonard Bernstein

Medici Arts 2057068-1/2/3/4/5

One recent release of 20th century performances takes second place to none – the five-DVD video recordings by Medici Arts of Leonard Bernstein at his florid, warm-hearted best in a variety of musical contexts. In seven hours they illuminate his fierce involvement in every note of the works he’s conducting, the authority he radiates without the grim demeanour adopted by so many peers, the ability to draw the right emotional insights from his charges, the serene, closed-eyes reverence and relaxation masking his inner fire and his tireless insistence in keeping listeners attentive.

The DVDs cover the years 1973 through 1990, the final one a mighty take on Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony in D Minor in Vienna just months before his death. It’s no revelation to note the historical significance of the fourth in this series, another D Minor symphony – by Beethoven, his Choral, performed on Christmas Day 1989 with international choirs and musicians just weeks after the Berlin Wall came down. Usually dubbed ‘Ode To Joy’ from Schiller’s poem, Bernstein rechristened it ‘Ode To Freedom’. It still delivers goose-bumps, despite the lagging Adagio, and is the pick of the other examples of Bernsteinian mastery here - conducting Brahms with the Israel Philharmonic, Franck and Milhaud with the French national orchestra, Mozart and the Bruckner with the Vienna Philharmonic.

This contribution from Bernstein, so adept at the serious and the light, if West Side Story and Candide are truly light, is a not-to-be-missed box set gem.

Geoff Chapman


By Terry Robbins

01_beethoven_capucon_nezet-seguinI’ve been a bit reluctant to jump on the Renaud Capuçon bandwagon, despite his meteoric rise through the violin ranks, but his new recording of the Beethoven and Korngold Violin Concertos (Virgin Classics 9 694589 0) would make a believer of anyone. Capuçon is a ‘big vibrato’ player, but here it’s put to a controlled and telling use in a beautifully-judged performance. What really pushes this CD into the stratosphere, though, is the contribution of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin: perfect tempi, and remarkable balance and clarity that reveal details in the orchestration I’m not sure I’ve ever heard before. The Korngold benefits from exactly the same treatment, and Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation merges with Capuçon’s huge, warm sound to produce a terrific performance. It’s not always easy to appreciate the effect a conductor can have, but the reasons for Nézet-Séguin’s rapidly-growing international reputation are here for all to hear.

02_bruch_brahms_changAlthough I thought her Vivaldi Four Seasons CD was simply outstanding, I must admit I found the new Bruch and Brahms Violin Concertos from Sarah Chang (EMI Classics 9 67004 2) a bit on the ordinary side – if ‘ordinary’ can ever be applied to a player of Chang’s enormous talents. Chang tends to be another ‘big vibrato’ player, and in the Bruch – a work closely associated with her – I found it a bit distracting, despite the Romantic nature of the music. It’s much the same in the Brahms, where her big, wide vibrato makes it sound more like a “reach-the-back-of the-hall” live concert performance than a closed recording. Kurt Masur’s accompaniment with the Dresdner Philharmonie is rhythmically strong, but a bit pedestrian. Quality performances without a doubt, but, given the performers, a little bit nearer the middle of the pack than you would expect.


Concert Note: Sarah Chang will perform a concert on February 24 at 8pm at Markham Theatre.


03_paganini_vriendWith his CD of Paganini Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 (Challenge Classics Super Audio CC72343), Rudolf Koelman certainly answers the question “How?” when it comes to playing Paganini, but more importantly also answers the question “Why?” It’s easy to dismiss Paganini’s works as empty show pieces, with little to recommend them musically, but this disc not only highlights Paganini’s close personal friendship with Rossini but also stresses their musical association by including the overture to Rossini’s opera Matilde di Shabran. It’s a brilliant stroke, because it shows that Paganini’s works are not simply vehicles for virtuosity, but are firmly rooted in the Italian operatic and vocal style of the time; the violin merely replaces the voice. Koelman has the complete arsenal of technical skills, but plays with smoother lines and fewer sharp edges than many Paganini performers. Jan Willem de Vriend leads the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra in live performances, but audience noise is never an issue.

04_dvorak_szymanowski_steinbacherI’d forgotten just how much I love the two violin concertos by Karol Szymanowski, but Arabella Steinbacher’s stunning new CD of his Concerto No.1, together with the Dvorák Concerto (Pentatone Classics Super Audio PTC 5186 353) is a dazzling reminder. This is, by any standard, a wonderful performance of a gloriously lyrical and rhapsodic work; if the achingly beautiful theme that runs through the work doesn’t get to you, then nothing will. Steinbacher sounds as if she’s been playing this work all her life, and receives passionate and faultless support from Marek Janowski and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin. The Dvorak receives no less perceptive and committed a performance, and his Romance in F minor is made to sound much more than just filler. A simply stunning CD.

05_sarasate_yangTianwa Yang’s third CD in a projected seven-volume set of the complete works of Sarasate is the first volume of his Music for Violin and Orchestra (Naxos 8.572191). A wonderful Zigeunerweisen starts things off, and the standard never flags. Certainly it would be difficult to imagine more suitable support: Ernest Martinez Izquierdo draws passionate and nuanced playing from the Orquesta Sinfonica de Navarra, the orchestra founded by Sarasate in 1879, and the recording venue was their concert hall in Pamplona, the composer’s birthplace. Tianwa Yang toured China with this same orchestra in a series of Sarasate concerts, and clearly understands the music, going beyond a dazzling technique to get at the Spanish soul within.

Terry Robbins

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