08 Lyric PiecesLyric Pieces
Sarah M Silverman
Adhyaropa Records (sarahsilvermanmusic.com)

The adaptation of classical music within popular music in the late 20th century, such as the famous Eric Carmen homage to Rachmaninoff in All by Myself, developed into the unique genre of classical crossover made famous by Andrea Bocelli, Sarah Brightman, Josh Groban and many others. While not loved equally by all – what music is? – classical crossover toes the line between tradition and accessibility, giving symphonic sounds big ticket appeal.

Described as a “genre-defying” reimagining of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces for solo piano, a collection of 66 short piano compositions written over the span of 58 years, Sarah M Silverman’s Lyric Pieces uses 11 of these works as the foundation for her own compositions, creating arrangements and adding texts and vocal melodies to create this new collection of songs. A native of Toronto, Silverman studied classical piano at the Glenn Gould School and takes a sensitive approach to her arrangements, skillfully manipulating the components of Grieg’s compositions while adding her own unique voice. Much like the way that flavours are combined in a recipe, these songs are a combination of aural ingredients, and Silverman is clearly gifted at uncovering savoury combinations.  

The songs on Lyric Pieces are not intended to be heard as the conversion of Grieg’s piano music into art song, with the existing piano solo merely reduced to an accompaniment. Rather, this music takes on an entirely different form, exploring the unique and interesting relationship between composer and artist with a result that is well worth listening to, not only for its musical beauty, but also for the way in which it pushes upon the limits of our preconceptions regarding genre and the concept of crossover.

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09 Mahler 5 OSMMahler – Symphony No.5
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal; Rafael Payare
Pentatone PTC 5187 067 (pentatonemusic.com)

I was quite intrigued to receive this album, as Mahler and Montréal are two names not normally associated in my mind, though it’s true that hometown boy Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s enthusiasm for this repertoire has been amply demonstrated in Philadelphia and elsewhere. Nevertheless, Peter Fülop’s comprehensive discography at the Mahler Foundation site currently lists some 1,168 Mahler recordings issued from 1924 to the present day; the OSM’s presence is represented with two lonely recordings, by Mehta (1963) and Nagano (2009). Charles Dutoit ruled the roost from 1977 to 2002 favouring a heavy dose of French repertoire, memorably commemorated in a well-received series of recordings on the Decca label. Sadly, these recording opportunities ceased in the late 1990s. Now however, it seems that Mahler’s time has come at last in Montréal thanks to the recent appointment of the gifted Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payere to head the OSM. 

Payere brings with him a recording contract with the Pentatone label and a mission to launch a complete cycle of Mahler’s symphonies, starting (as is often the case) with the Fifth Symphony in a truly stunning rendition. The orchestra is on fire under his direction, precise and impassioned by turns. The Pentatone recording team have conjured a luxurious, natural ambience to the production in which every instrument is beautifully balanced. 

Payere has an uncanny ability to render the episodic structure of the work into a seamless whole, creating flowing waves of sound that build organically and inexorably to their sublime summits. Special kudos go to Paul Merkelo’s superb trumpet solos in the opening funeral march and to Catherine Turner for her opulent obligato horn part in the Scherzo. An altogether thrilling performance that promises great things to come!

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10 Rachmaninov SymphoniesRachmaninov – Complete Symphonies; Isle of the Dead; Symphonic Dances; Vocalise
Detroit Symphony Orchestra; Leonard Slatkin
Naxos 8.503278 (naxos.com/CatalogueDetail/?id=8.503278)

As I am writing this, the wistful opening motto theme of the Third Symphony is reverberating in my mind and I am marvelling at how beautifully Rachmaninov establishes an atmosphere and the symphony a world of its own, so different from anything he wrote before. I have never heard it in a concert hall either, mainly because apart from the piano concertos, his orchestral works are rarely performed. So this highly acclaimed new issue by Naxos is very welcome.

Leonard Slatkin, who has over the years became a conductor of stature with a worldwide reputation, is thoroughly inside the music with an authoritative grip on the score and this reflects on the musicians of the Detroit Symphony who seem to be in love with the music. And in HD orchestral sound they sound better than ever.

The 3CD set contains the Three Symphonies and the Symphonic Dances plus the symphonic poem Isle of the Dead and Vocalise, a short orchestral piece. It should be noted that the First Symphony failed disastrously at its premiere and its score was lost until miraculously the orchestral parts were found many years later. It is a youthful work with intense passion but it bears no comparison to what he would produce later. Isle of the Dead is interesting; inspired by a Romantic Russian painting, it describes Charon on the River Styx rowing the dead across to the other shore. We can hear the sinister undulating motion of the oars in very dark hued music. Its 5/8 rhythm must be a challenge for the conductor, but it comes off very well under Slatkin.

The Second Symphony is arguably the best and the most popular and has always been my favourite. It’s a glorious work with lavish orchestration and it “has a sustained vitality, rich in lyrical invention and a glowing eloquence capable of rising to extraordinary power” as described very aptly by British musicologist Robin Hill. It had a tremendous success and this recording, being a live performance, has a spontaneous enthusiastic outburst of applause. I wholly concur and it’s worth buying the set for this alone.

Another wonderful highlight is Vocalise which to me is the best thing Rachmaninov ever wrote. It’s a short (less than ten-minute) work for small orchestra with such an underlying sustained melancholy I’ve seen conductors literally in a hypnotic trance conducting with closed eyes.

Rachmaninov could be regarded as a connecting tissue between Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich (or Prokofiev) but he preferred to look forward rather than backward, so he moved away from lush Romantic orchestration towards lighter and cleaner textures, a tighter, more economical orchestration. This is manifest in his Symphony No.3 in A Minor. It is in three movements but don’t let this fool you. The composer cleverly encloses a Scherzo inside the second movement, so we are not shortchanged. I find that the wealth of diverse musical ideas and their adventurous handling puts this symphony ahead of the second and it’s a shame it’s hardly ever played. In a similar vein, Symphonic Dances (1940) is a most enjoyable lighthearted piece with emphasis on dance rhythms (e.g., the second movement is a decadent waltz the Russians are quite good at) that concludes this remarkable set.

11 Hamelin FaureFauré: Nocturnes & Barcarolles
Marc André Hamelin
Hyperion CDA68331/2 (hyperion-records.co.uk/a.asp?a=A49)

Solo piano music comprises a significant part of Gabriel Fauré’s output spanning a 60-year period from his very earliest Romances sans Paroles Op,17 written while still in his teens, to the final 13th Nocturne Op.119 from 1921. Among the most highly regarded of his piano works are the Nocturnes and Barcarolles, and these are presented in their entirety on this Hyperion release by the Montreal-born and Boston-based pianist Marc-André Hamelin. While Hamelin is no stranger to French repertoire, it has never been a big part of his extensive discography, so this recording is a welcome addition.

Fauré’s Nocturnes are very much in the Romantic tradition, the earliest ones showing some influence of John Field and Chopin. Yet they were never languorous, nocturnal essays; instead, they were conceived as lyrical pieces evoking a myriad of emotions. Hamelin’s playing is elegant and refined, with the inherent technical challenges handled with ease.    

Like the Nocturnes, the Barcarolles were written over the entire span of Fauré’s career and similarly show a progressive development in style. While most are written in the standard 6/8, 9/8 or 6/4 time signatures, many don’t adhere to the familiar notion of a lilting Italian boat song. Again, Hamelin demonstrates an appealing fluidity of execution where his impressive technique is never an end unto itself, but simply a means towards a fine interpretation.

An added bonus is the charming piano duet Dolly Suite, written for the young daughter of the singer Emma Bardac. It is performed here with Hamelin’s wife Kathy Fuller, bringing the program to a most satisfying conclusion.

12 CalefaxAn American Rhapsody
Pentatone PTC 5187 046 (calefax.nl/shop)

One of the side perks of this business is how much one can learn from liner notes. The dishy release from the Netherlandic reed quintet Calefax spreads their love for the New World all over the place. New York (New Amsterdam?) is the focus of this collection of arrangements that plays like the most excellent school concert imaginable. No disrespect to the players, they kick it in a way that reminds me of an earlier band, the Netherlands Winds, continuing the low countries’ exceptionally high standard of woodwind playing.

But it’s weird to listen to their Rhapsody in Blue, effectively scored down to the five voices in saxophonist Raaf Hekkema’s arrangement. I won’t make arguments about style, but I hear almost a practiced accent in the impeccably spoken lines of this fun little play. The liner notes remind us that this was Gershwin stepping out onto the concert stage from the show pit, and I think while the playing is excellent, there’s some kind of reserve or modesty in the performance suiting New Amsterdam more than Midtown. 

Samuel Barber’s Excursions, Op.20, originally for piano, are more folk than Broadway. They really sparkle in this excellent performance. Florence Price’s Piano Sonata in E Minor receives a gently Romantic treatment. Harry Burleigh’s Southland Sketches was based in gospel music. One learns, again in the very readable liner notes, that Burleigh was a mature student at the National Conservatory of Music (founded expressly to foster equity in musical training, regardless of sex or race or disability), where he studied with Antonín Dvořák.

The latter half of the disc celebrates jazz, pop and street music. Two Ellington tunes are beautifully rendered by Hekkema and Oliver Boekhoorn (the aptly named Oboe/English hornist), and Hekkema also made a fantastic tribute to both Billy Holiday and Eric Dolphy based on Dolphy’s bass clarinet treatment of God Bless the Child.

13 Solo Alone and MoreSolo, Alone and More
Jonas Frøland
Our Recordings 6.220681 (ourrecordings.com)

Reading the notes to Solo Alone and More, a clarinet collection played by young hotshot Jonas Frøland, one remembers the value of a good editor. I got some smiles reading the overlong and quirky paragraphs accompanying this demonstration of instrumental excellence. 

Three works are excerpts: the first cadenza from Carl Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto (1928) opens the collection, announcing Frøland’s range and musicality; the follow-up suggests to me he hasn’t considered the dramatic range of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo (1919). Stravinsky wrote these as a gift to the patron who backed L’Histoire du Soldat, and I always imagine them staged. He plays the first piece more as a rhythmic aria than a static, atmospheric tableau. The middle section of the second movement is, to my mind, a limping Soldier’s March; instead, Frøland treats the eighth-note pulse differently in the inner and outer sections, fundamentally changing the pulse between them. I’d love a chance to talk it over with him, because I don’t think that’s what Igor had in mind. 

Frøland’s dynamic control and technical fluidity amaze in Messiaen’s Abîme des Oiseaux (1940) (the second excerpt of the collection, from the Quatuor Pour la Fin du Temps) and Bent Sørensen’s beautiful Lontanamente Fragments of a Waltz (2012). Both feature that most desirable clarinet trait: pianississississimo. Mette Nielsen’s Alone for Basset Clarinet (2021) was commissioned by Frøland. It’s an unsettling exploration of microtones that left me chilled. Fully half an hour of this 70-minute program is taken up with Gunnar Berg’s Pour Clarinette Seul (1957) and Simon Steene-Andersen’s De Profundis, (2000/rev2019). Substantial works both. And the third excerpt? Tossed in is a rewrite of the cor anglais solo from Act III of Tristan und Isolde.  

01 Anteil ViolinViolinist Tianwa Yang and pianist Nicholas Rimmer are absolutely superb on the incredibly challenging George Antheil Violin Sonatas Nos.1-4, a recital of remarkable music by the New Jersey-born pianist/composer who left America for Europe as a 21-year-old in 1922 intent on becoming “noted and notorious” – and succeeded (Naxos 8.559937 naxos.com/CatalogueDetail/?id=8.559937).

Antheil met Stravinsky in Berlin and in 1923 followed him to Paris, where the first three sonatas were written, commissioned by Ezra Pound for his mistress, the American violinist Olga Rudge. Sonata No.1 shows the unmistakable influence of Stravinsky’s Les Noces (premiered the night Antheil arrived in Paris) and the earlier Rite of Spring. The single-movement Sonata No.2 is a dazzling collage of ragtime, popular melodies and folk songs. Stravinsky’s influence is back, albeit with a more melodic feel, in Sonata No.3, also a single movement.

Sonata No.4 is from 1947, long after Antheil had moved back to the United States. Although built on Baroque and classical forms the rhythmic, mechanistic style of his Parisian sonatas is still discernible.

02 SongbirdIn 2021/22 the American violinist Maria Ioudenitch won first prize at the Ysaÿe International Music Competition and both the Tibor Varga and Joseph Joachim International Violin Competitions, the latter also landing her the Warner Classics Prize that led to her debut Songbird CD with pianist Kenny Broberg (Warner Classics 5419737407 mariaioudenitch.com/listen).

Her “journey through song” is a selection of short works by Robert and Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Nadia Boulanger, Amy Beach, Tchaikovsky, Medtner, Rachmaninoff, Glinka and Richard Strauss. The one substantial work is Schubert’s four-movement Fantasie in C Major D934. Theresa Pilsl is the soprano on the Strauss song Morgen.

Technically flawless, Ioudenitch draws a huge tone from the 1691 Pietro Guarneri of Mantua violin, her sweeping phrasing imbued with deep musicality and subtle nuances.

03 All RoadsOn All Roads, the Shea-Kim Duo of violinist Brendan Shea and pianist Yerin Kim explore music by composers connected to the city of Vienna “in increasingly distant ways” (Blue Griffin Recording BGR643 shea-kimduo.com/shop-1).

Beethoven moved there from Bonn; a beautifully expressive performance of his Sonata for Piano and Violin No.3 in E-flat Major Op.12 opens the disc. Robert Schumann is represented by his Sonata for Violin and Piano No.1 in A Minor Op.105.

Alfred Schnittke also lived in Germany but studied in Vienna; included here is his Suite in the Old Style. The final work is the Romance Op.23 by the American Amy Beach, whose tenuous link to Vienna is that she apparently “visited once.”

Warm, stylish playing, fine ensemble and a lovely recording quality make for a highly enjoyable disc.

04 Living AmericanOn The Living American the excellent violinist Timothy Schwarz continues to champion American music with a diverse collection of works by seven of today’s leading American composers, including five recording premieres; the pianist is Charles Abramovic (Albany Records TROY1930 albanyrecords.com).

There are three solo violin works: Fantasia on Lama badaa yatasana by Steven Sametz; Jessie Montgomery’s Rhapsody No.2; and Reena Esmail’s Raag Charukeshi from Drashan, a blend of Indian and Western classical music that explores grief in various forms. 

The third movement of Jennifer Higdon’s String Poetic is here, as is Avner Dorman’s wide-ranging single movement, Sonata No.1. The three entertaining pieces by musical theatre composer/pianist Joseph Goodrich were written for and premiered by Schwarz, as was the Sametz work and the final work on the CD, Denis DiBlasio’s Australian Sketches, in which the duo is joined by bassist Douglas Mapp and drummer Doug Hirlinger.

05 Voice of RachmaninoffCellist John-Henry Crawford and pianist Victor Santiago Asuncion celebrate the composer’s 150th anniversary on Voice of Rachmaninoff, an album that explores the vocal nature of his music through original works and transcriptions (Orchid Classics ORC100241 orchidclassics.com).

The Cello Sonata in G Minor Op.19 anchors a recital that includes transcriptions of the Vocalise Op.34 No.14, two songs, a piano Prelude, the 19th variation from the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Fritz Kreisler’s arrangement of the theme from the slow movement of the Piano Concerto No.2.

Crawford’s warm cello sound is perfectly suited to Rachmaninoff’s expansive, long-breathed melodies, ably supported by Asuncion in the often extremely difficult piano parts. 

06 Kirill Troussov Julia Fischer LGCoverIt’s a digital-only release and fairly brief at just under 25 minutes, but Shostakovich/Prokofiev – Violin Duos with violinists Julia Fischer and Kirill Troussov and pianist Henri Bonamy is well worth a listen (Orchid Classics ORC100234 orchidclassics.com).

The Shostakovich work is his Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano, short miniatures in a much more light-hearted vein than is often the case with this composer. The Prokofiev is his Sonata for Two Violins, a typically spiky but tuneful work with a high degree of difficulty.

An interesting trivia note: Troussov’s violin is the 1702 “Brodsky” Stradivarius that Adolph Brodsky played at the December 1881 premiere of the Tchaikovsky concerto.

07 Janacek HaasThe booklet essay for the Escher String Quartet CD of quartets by Leoš Janáček and Pavel Haas notes that while programmatic and autobiographical quartets date back to Beethoven nowhere have they been more prominent than in the Czech lands, and the three works here are all of a highly personal nature (BIS 2670 SACD bis.se).

Janáček’s voice in his later compositions is unmistakable, overflowing with raw emotion and passion. His 1923 String Quartet No.1 “Kreutzer Sonata” was inspired by Tolstoy’s novella about marriage and adultery, but it’s in his 1928 String Quartet No.2 “Intimate Letters” that his unrequited love for the much younger Kamila Stosslova finds full expression, perfectly captured by the Escher Quartet.

The 1925 String Quartet No.2 “From the Monkey Mountains” by Pavel Haas recalls a memorable stay in the beautiful Czech Moravian Highlands, with reminiscences of an early love affair. Colin Currie handles the ad lib percussion part in the remarkable A Wild Night final movement.

08 Mozart EbeneTwo glorious chamber works are featured in outstanding performances on Mozart String Quintets K515 & 516, with violist Antoine Tamestit joining the Quatuor Ébène (Erato 5419721332 warnerclassics.com/release/mozart-string-quintets).

The two quintets, No.3 in C Major and No.4 in G Minor were written a month apart in April and May of 1787, with the extra viola – a favourite instrument of the composer’s – adding a warmth and richness to the heart of the music. The release blurb refers to K515 as being “radiant and energetic, exuding elegance and grace,” which is also a perfect description of the playing here, which gets to the emotional heart of this remarkable music.

Beautifully recorded, it makes you wish for a complete set of the five mature quintets.

10 Saint GeorgesThe Japanese violinist Fumika Mohri is the soloist in the Violin Concertos Opp.2 & 7 by Mozart’s exact contemporary the remarkable Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, with the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice under Michael Halás (Naxos 8.574452 naxos.com/CatalogueDetail/?id=8.574452).

The Concerto in G Major Op.2 No.1 and the Concerto in D Major Op.2 No.2 were published in Paris in 1773, and the Concerto in A Major Op.7 No.1 and the Concerto in B-flat Major Op.7 No.2 in 1777, although issues with the sources suggest a much earlier composition date. The editions here are by Allan Badley, who also wrote the excellent booklet notes.

Comparison with Mozart is perhaps inevitable, but these showcases for Saint-Georges’ virtuoso technique are attractive and engaging works, described by Badley as “rich in melodic invention and displaying at times a striking degree of originality.” Performances are beautifully judged throughout a delightful CD.

09 Maria DuenasBeethoven and Beyond is the impressive Deutsche Grammophon debut CD by the young Spanish violinist Mária Dueñas, recorded live in Vienna’s Musikverein with the Wiener Symphoniker under Manfred Honeck (4863512 deutschegrammophon.com/de/katalog/produkte/beethoven-and-beyond-dueas-12950).

Dueñas says that in the Beethoven concerto “you have to reveal yourself. And that can only be done through sound.” And what a sound she produces: a crystal clear, bright and glowing tone full of warmth. All three cadenzas are her own, but she cleverly ends the CD with terrific performances of first movement cadenzas by Spohr, Ysaÿe, Saint-Saëns, Wieniawski and Kreisler for fascinating comparison, filling out the recital with an original work by each composer. Ysaÿe’s Berceuse Op.20 and Kreisler’s Liebeslied are from the live concert; Saint-Saëns’ Havanaise Op.83, Wieniawski’s Légende Op.17 and Spohr’s Adagio from his Symphonie concertante No.1 with harpist Volker Kempf are studio recordings.

11 Lieberman ConcertosKazakh violinist Aiman Mussakhajayeva is the superb soloist in world-premiere recordings of works for violin and orchestra on Lowell Liebermann Violin Concerto Op.74, with Tigran Shiganyan leading the debut recording of the Kazakh State Symphony Orchestra (Blue Griffin Records BGR645 bluegriffin.com).

The 2001 concerto is an expansive, emotionally engaging and immediately accessible work that should really become a mainstay in the repertoire. Liebermann made violin and string orchestra arrangements of his two chamber concertos from 1989 and 2006 especially for this recording, and is the pianist in the Chamber Concerto No.1 Op.28a. 

The gorgeous 2011 Air for Violin and Orchestra Op.18 ends a CD of finely crafted and attractive contemporary works for violin and orchestra, all brilliantly presented by Mussakhajayeva on her 1732 Stradivarius violin.

12 The Blue AlbumDescribing his new CD The Blue Album guitarist Pablo Sainz-Villegas says that blue stands for a particularly intimate mood, an atmosphere of reverie and relaxation (Sony Classical19658779092 pablosainzvillegas.com).

There’s certainly nothing challenging in a recital of brief pieces by Weiss, Couperin, Domenico Scarlatti, Sor, Debussy, Satie and Brouwer, together with Tárrega’s arrangement of Iradier’s La Paloma, Stanley Myers’ Cavatina and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.

Bland snippets of Philip Glass and Max Richter seem completely out of place on an album supposedly featuring “some of the most beautiful and most heartfelt melodies ever written” – an enormous stretch – but no matter. There’s clean, efficient playing – perhaps somewhat lacking in character – all resonantly recorded.

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