03 Beethoven TriosBeethoven – Piano Trios Vol.1
Sitkovetsky Trio
BIS BIS-2239 SACD (naxosdirect.com)

This year marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth date and as such it has been bringing in an assortment of new releases of the great master’s works. The Sitkovetsky Trio attracts attention with their elegant interpretations of carefully selected Beethoven piano trios and the creation of a particular sound that is very much their own. I was charmed by the lovely blend of the instrumental colours and the finely detailed and thoughtful work that went into directing and following the tides of these notable compositions.

The wisely chosen progression of the trios includes the early Op.1 No.3 in C Minor, middle period Op.70 No.2 in E-flat Major and the late Allegretto in B-flat Major Wo039. C minor could certainly have been Beethoven’s favourite key because it allowed for the storminess of emotions like no other. It is hard to believe that this work belongs to such an early opus as it brings in radical and innovative approaches to the chamber music of that time. The E-flat Major Trio and Allegretto show, in contrast, that Beethoven was just as much attuned to pastoral and peaceful settings and that he was unapologetically paving the way for the further development of the Romantic elements.

Much appreciated is the Sitkovetsky Trio’s ability to stay within the bounds of traditional chamber music-making while adding the intensity and vitality of their own understanding. A noble companion to contemplative times.

05 Gianandrea NosedaDvořák – Symphony No.9; Copland – Billy the Kid
National Symphony Orchestra; Gianandrea Noseda
National Symphony Orchestra NSO 001 (gianandreanoseda.com)

This most enjoyable disc is the debut recording of a new label, NSO Live from the Kennedy Center, with the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington DC. The group is famous for having been directed by Rostropovich at one time, but now Gianandrea Noseda is its music director. Noseda heralds “new beginnings” and judging by this issue, he certainly delivers. The recording simply throbs with life and shows Noseda’s love for America by selecting two works he says “on which American sound has continued to be built over the decades.” The two works come from vastly different backgrounds, yet the American spirit is unmistakable, and this makes this issue so exciting.

The first piece is by the venerable American composer Aaron Copland who was born in Brooklyn to a family of Russian immigrants, yet no other composer has been able to better evoke the frontier spirit of the Wild West. Billy the Kid, a ballet from 1938, is about an outlaw and gunfighter who murdered eight men by the age of 21, when he himself was killed. Copland’s score provides a vivid depiction of prairie life incorporating several cowboy tunes, Mexican dances and even a gunfight with explosions, certainly never heard before from a symphony orchestra. Noseda has a lot of fun with it and it is catching.

And now an absolutely stunning performance of Dvořák ‘s New World Symphony where the musical material is “inspired by American folk songs, African-American spirituals and North American Native songs” all intermixed with tremendous compositional skill. Dvořák introduces new themes in each movement, but these then reoccur in different guises culminating in the magnificent last movement for an astounding conclusion. Demonstration quality sound, highly recommended.

06 Hindemith KammerHindemith – Kammermusik I - II - III
Kronberg Academy Soloists; Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra; Christoph Eschenbach
Ondine ODE 1341-2 (naxosdirect.com)

Over the course of his lifetime (1895-1963) Paul Hindemith, increasingly ossified by his academic obsessions, underwent a peculiar reverse metamorphosis. Born a butterfly, he eventually became a caterpillar. He was a world-famous composer, a consummate musician and an influential Ivy League savant, yet the 50th anniversary of his death in 2013 passed with little fanfare from the classical music establishment. In his early career he was considered an avant-garde miscreant, ultimately branded and banished as an “atonal noisemaker” by the Nazi regime. Noisy? Perhaps, but powerfully so. Atonal? Not in the least, though bracingly dissonant at times. 

Hindemith’s astounding orchestral mastery (he was able to play any instrument he wrote for) is amply demonstrated in the adventurous Kammermusik series composed in the 1920s, from which we have on offer here the first three suites, with future volumes presumably in the works to complete the set of seven. The first suite is composed for 12 instruments in four movements, a provocatively satirical remodelling of the Brandenburg Concertos which receives a rollicking performance under Eschenbach’s direction. The second instalment, scored for piano and ensemble, is equally enjoyable and glitteringly dispatched by soloist Christopher Park. The third, cast in the form of a concerto featuring cellist Bruno Philippe, is less convincing due to sub-optimal tempos (perhaps the soloist’s prerogative) and an over-miked solo part which obscures the inner voices. Claudio Abbado’s lively 1999 EMI recording, some two and a half minutes faster, makes a far better case for this work. An enjoyable nightcap, the beloved Kleine Kammermusik for wind quintet, rounds out the proceedings.

01 ShostViolinIvan Pochekin is the outstanding soloist on Dmitri Shostakovich Violin Concertos 1 & 2, with Valentin Uryupin conducting the Russian National Orchestra (Profil PH19073 naxosdirect.com).

The Concerto No.1 in A Minor Op.77 was written in the years following the end of the Second World War, but was withheld by the composer until 1955. The Concerto No.2 in C-sharp Minor Op.129 from 1967 was Shostakovich’s final concertante work.

Pochekin has exactly the right sound for these works – a dark-hued, rich and velvety tone with a strong vibrato and a fine grasp of linear phrase. There may be more strident and abrasive readings of the ferocious cadenzas available, but none with more passion. The Russian National Orchestra, founded by Mikhail Pletnev in 1990, provides excellent support in two immensely satisfying performances.

02 SkorykUkrainian composer Myroslav Skoryk (b.1938) wrote a cycle of nine violin concertos over a 45-year span, and the first four are presented on Myroslav Skoryk Violin Concertos 1, Nos.1-4. Andrej Bielow is the soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine conducted by Volodymyr Sirenko (Naxos 8.574088 naxosdirect.com).

The four concertos here are from 1969, 1989, 2001 and 2003, and all are essentially single-movement works of similar length – from 13 to 16 minutes. No.1 is perhaps the most modern-sounding; No.2 is “infused with a lyrical mood” (the composer’s own booklet notes) with contrasting episodes that vary “from elegy to intense expressivity.” No.3 is dominated by the opening solo violin fugue, and again varies in tone “from lyrical to intensely dramatic.” No.4 is dominated by driving rhythmic patterns.

Bielow is terrific in top-notch performances of works full of strong, idiomatic writing. Volume 2 should make this set a significant addition to the contemporary violin concerto discography.

03 IncantationOn Incantation, the French violinist Virgil Boutellis-Taft explores the range of connections for the word, from simple enchantment through religious contexts to demonic spells and charms. Jac van Steen conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Aparté AP234 apartemusic.com).

There’s a fair amount of reworking of original sources here, and some tracks consequently fare better than others. Bruch’s Kol Nidrei Op.47 is quite beautiful although “remodelled” by Boutellis-Taft with the middle section omitted. The Chaconne in G Minor, attributed to Vitali, is reworked from the original violin and bass manuscript and comes across as a bit overblown. Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre Op.40 is newly orchestrated based on the composer’s own violin and piano arrangement. Bloch’s Nigun from Baal Shem, Tchaikovsky’s Sérénade mélancolique Op.26 and Chausson’s lovely Poème Op.25 are handled beautifully. Shigeru Umebayashi’s Yumeji’s Theme, with its abrupt ending is an odd choice for the closing track.

Boutellis-Taft plays with his heart firmly on his sleeve on a CD that has some truly lovely moments.

The virtuoso violinist and composer Giuseppe Tartini left over 100 concertos for violin, as well as a large number of sonatas for various string combinations, so any single CD is only going to scratch the surface of his output.

04 TartiniTartini Violin Concertos & Sonatas features two Sonatas a Quattro in D Major together with first recordings of two unpublished Concertos for violin and strings, in A Minor and B-flat Major. Laura Marzadori is the violin soloist in the concertos, with Massimo Belli conducting the Nuova Orchestra da Camera “Ferrucio Busoni” (Brilliant Classics 957690 naxosdirect.com).

In the solo violin sections Tartini reduced the accompaniment to just orchestral first and second violins, which allows Marzadori’s sweet, pure tone to be even more effective. There’s a pleasing lightness of touch in the orchestral performances throughout a pleasant but fairly lightweight (at 47 minutes) CD of finely crafted and genteel 18th-century works.

05 FrenchThree works written relatively late in their composers’ lives are featured on French Violin Sonatas played by the Hungarian duo of violinist Kristóf Baráti and pianist Klára Würtz (Brilliant Classics 95576 naxosdirect.com).

Debussy wrote his Violin Sonata in financial straits following the third winter of the Great War, and in great pain from the cancer that would kill him the following year, all of which makes its warmth and clarity all the more remarkable. There’s a lovely dynamic range and freedom of phrasing from both performers.

Ravel’s Violin Sonata No.2 in G Major dates from 1927, its jazz-influenced Blues middle movement and Perpetuum mobile finale again drawing fine playing from the duo.

Franck’s Sonata in A Major was one of a small handful of works that finally won the composer some public acclaim in the closing years of his life. There’s big playing from both performers here, with terrific piano work from Würtz in the Allegro second movement in particular, and with Baráti drawing a huge tone and sound from his 1703 “Lady Harmsworth” Stradivarius violin.

06 BiberThe Italian violinist Liliana Bernardi is excellent in music by Johann Joseph Vilsmaÿr and Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber on Austrian Baroque for Solo Violin (Stradivarius STR 37147 naxosdirect.com).

Vilsmaÿr (1663-1722) was a member of the Archbishopric chapel in Salzburg where Biber (1644-1704) was Chapel Master. His Partitas I and VI in A Major and V in G Minor are from the Artificiosus concentus pro camera distributes in sex partes, a set of six partitas in a collection of Vilsmaÿr’s solo violin music in the British Museum. The movements are very short – 24 of the 29 are under two minutes – but their multiple-stopping and arpeggio passages, while perhaps more reminiscent of Telemann’s 12 Fantasias, clearly point towards the Bach Sonatas and Partitas. 

Biber’s influence is clear in the scordatura (retuning of the strings) in the Partita V. His own work here, preceded by an extremely short Preludio in D is the challenging Passacaglia in G Minor (The Guardian Angel), the last of his remarkable Rosary Sonatas

07 DraesekeThe Constanze Quartet makes its label debut with Felix Draeseke String Quartets Vol.1, the first volume in the complete recordings of the quartets by the German Romantic contemporary of Liszt, Wagner and Brahms (cpo 555 281-2 naxosdirect.com).

Early in his career Draeseke (1835-1913), was considered an extremist, but later in life he was repelled by what he felt was the exaggerated unnaturalness of the late 19th century, responding to the 1905 premiere of Strauss’ Salome with a pamphlet on Confusion in Music.

His three string quartets postdate those of Brahms, with no equivalent works by Liszt or Wagner to act as models. The two quartets here – No.1 in C Minor Op.27 from 1880 and No.2 in E Minor Op.35 from 1886 – are described as viewing the classical quartets of the Romantic era through a Wagnerian lens, especially in the way that long, melodic threads serve to hold the music together.

They’re certainly substantial and engrossing works, given fine performances by the Constanze ensemble.

08 Sybarite5The American string quintet Sybarite5 is back with its fourth album, Live from New York, It’s Sybarite5, recorded live at their regular performance space in Chelsea’s The Cell (Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0131 brightshiny.ninja).

Silkroad percussionist Shane Shanahan joins the group for William Brittelle’s Future Shock and John Coltrane’s Alabama. Ehsan Matoori and his santoor (Persian dulcimer) are front and centre in two of his own works: Tehran When Lonely and Naqsh-e Jahan. Mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert sings Michael Dellaira’s Star Globe, based on a poem by Nancy Manocharian.

Other works are Brandon Ridenour’s NuPac Kanon & Jig (Pachelbel meets Tupac Shakur!), Marc Mellits’ driving Groove Machine, Steven Snowden’sTraveler No.65 and Aleksandra Vrebalov’s My Dearest, My Rose. An unlisted bonus track is a lovely arrangement of Pete Seeger’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone.

There’s not a dull moment on an album brimming with the quintet’s trademark energy and drive.

09 BrahmsIn much the same way as his orchestral serenades preceded – and perhaps acted as preparation for – his symphonies and thus avoided direct comparison with Beethoven, Brahms wrote his two String Sextets Nos.1 in B-flat Major Op.18 and 2 in G Major Op.36 before his three string quartets. They’re available on Brahms String Sextets in performances by the WDR Chamber Players, instrumentalists drawn from the WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne (Pentatone PTC 5186 807 naxosdirect.com).

The string sextet was not a firmly established form at the time, but the expanded string ensemble of three pairings of violins, violas and cellos gave Brahms the opportunity to explore the orchestral possibilities of chamber music while still retaining the subtlety and intimacy of the genre.

The playing here is suitably rich and warm in exemplary performances.

10 ParkThere’s another superb recital CD in the outstanding Naxos Laureate Guitar Series, this time featuring the Korean guitarist Ji Hyung Park, winner of the 2018 Changsha International Guitar Competition (Naxos 8.574140 naxosdirect.com).

Transcriptions of three sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti and two excerpts from Iberia by Isaac Albéniz open the disc, followed by the world premiere recording of Leo Brouwer’s Las Ciclades arcaicas from 2018. Mori no naka de (In the Woods), from November 1995, was the last work Toru Takemitsu wrote before his death the following February; the second of its three pieces portrays the trees in Toronto’s Rosedale area. 

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Sonata in D Major Op.77 “Omaggio a Boccherini” was written for Segovia in 1934, and is heard here in its original manuscript form pre-dating Segovia’s editing. A simply gorgeous arrangement of Toots Thielemans’ Bluesette ends a terrific disc.

Park has everything you could want – tone, colour, warmth, technique, dynamics – in a recital that fully lives up to the extremely high standards of this series.

11 AsencioThere’s more excellent guitar playing on Asencio Complete Guitar Music featuring works by the Spanish composer Vicente Asencio (1908-79) played by the Italian guitarist Alberto Mesirca (Brilliant Classics 95806 naxosdirect.com). 

Asencio’s interest in the guitar grew from his teaching musical interpretation to the young Narciso Yepes in the 1940s, a relationship that resulted in the Suite de Homenajes of 1950, three homages to Domenico Scarlatti, Manuel de Falla and Federico Garcia Lorca.

Collectici Intim is a suite of five songs and dances written in 1965 at the request of the by-then famous Yepes. Suite Valenciana reflects the colour and light of the composer’s native Valencia. The three-movement Suite Mistica started life as a single piece, Dipsô, written for Holy Week in 1971; Segovia was sufficiently impressed to suggest that Asencio add a further two Passion-related items.

Two short pieces – Cançó d’hivern and Danza Valenciana – complete the CD.

Mesirca displays excellent, clean playing with a wide range of technical skills in a very interesting recital.

12 Italian GuitarItalian Guitar Concertos is the somewhat misleading title of a CD by the Italian guitarist Emanuele Segre with the Orchestra I Pomeriggi Musicali under the direction of composer Carlo Boccadoro (Delos DE 3546 naxosdirect.com).

 Aria for Guitar and String Orchestra is Segre’s arrangement of a contralto aria from a Vivaldi cantata, and the work by Mauro Giuliani is a guitar and string orchestra version of his Gran Quintetto Op.65. The Vivaldi Concerto in D Major is at least a true concerto, but the main interest here is the world premiere recordings of two contemporary single-movement works: The Black Owl by Giovanni Sollima (b.1962) and Dulcis Memoria II for Guitar and String Orchestra by Boccadoro (b.1962), the latter originally written for clarinet and strings in 1995. Clocking in at about 18 and 14 minutes, respectively, they’re not substantial works, but both explore a nice range of techniques and textures.

Performances throughout are fine without ever being dazzling.

01 Bach HarpsichordBach – Harpsichord Works
Jory Vinikour
Sono Luminus DSL-92239 (sonoluminus.com)

Comprised of four revered works, this album makes for a fine collection for harpsichord enthusiasts and fans of Johann Sebastian Bach. Jory Vinikour, two-time Grammy-nominated harpsichordist and conductor, has made quite a few recordings of Bach’s music so far and his expertise and passion for this composer is evident here. I enjoyed the clarity of Vinikour’s sound (his harpsichord is modelled after a German instrument of Bach’s time) and his refined and thoughtful interpretation. This recording has elegance and virtuosity, bringing out both the grand and hidden gestures of Bach’s compositions.

The collection features the buoyant Italian Concerto (written for two-manual harpsichord, thus distinguishing tutti from solo passages), Ouverture in French Style (consisting of eight dance movements), the exceptional Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue and an interesting pairing of the Prelude and Fugue in A-Minor BWV894 with Bach’s transcription of the Andante from Sonata for Solo Violin in A-Minor. I liked the progression of the pieces: traditional pairing of more formal works (Italian Concerto and Overture in French Style were even published together in 1835) is followed by expansion of virtuosic and improvisatory elements in Fantasy and Fugues

Vinikour’s impeccable knowledge and sensibility to Bach’s music makes these pieces sound very personal. Listeners are granted a sonic glimpse of the unique world where the nuances are treated with care and the sound is enriched with measured restraint.

Ivana Popovic

02 Rangell BachBach – English Suites
Andrew Rangell
Steinway & Sons 30136 (naxosdirect.com)

If the central tenet of music-making is the desirability of singing or playing in tune, accurately producing sound waves that vibrate at the correct frequency, then no one, it seems, did this better than Johann Sebastian Bach. Much of his keyboard music was written for the harpsichord – a near-ubiquitous instrument in his day – and it began to make a seamless transition to the piano no sooner the instrument was invented and to this day continues to be wonderfully interpreted. 

One of the most recent is the unveiling of the English Suites with these gorgeous, free-spirited performances by Andrew Rangell. The suites are decidedly more grandiose than the French Suites and written entirely for pleasure rather than for instruction. The allemandes are rock steady throughout, the gigues extremely lively; the courante sections rapid while the sarabandes are utterly noble. The six suites are altogether easygoing and exquisitely flowery and are said to have borne a slight resemblance to the style of Couperin, with whom Bach is known to have corresponded.

The English Suites are not actually English, but rather more influenced by other European compositional elements, that seemingly – and fortuitously – held Bach’s attention. They begin with a prelude which is often, as in the Suite No.3 in G Minor BWV808, a large-scale concerto-like movement. Rangell brings matchless clarity to Bach’s multi-stranded music. This set of discs shows the pianist at his most enjoyable, astonishingly fleet-fingered and full of delightful argumentative intelligence.

Raul da Gama

03 Schiff BAchBach – Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1
Sir András Schiff
Naxos 2.110653 (naxosdirect.com)

Bach’s renown in his own lifetime was less as a composer than as a keyboard player, both at the harpsichord and at the organ. His great ability was summarized in his obituary: “All his fingers were equally skillful; all capable of the most perfect accuracy in performance.” Today of course we know better, naturally giving due respect to the greatness of his compositions. Most notable among these – considering he was one of the greatest inventors of keyboard music – is The Well-Tempered Clavier

The 24 preludes and fugues work through the 12 major and 12 minor keys. Unequalled in the profligacy of their inventiveness, the books were intended partly as a manual of keyboard playing and composition, partly as a systematic exploration of harmony and partly as a celebration of a new development in tuning technique that allowed the instrument to be played in any key without being retuned.

Sir András Schiff’s performance at the BBC Proms (2017) is authoritative and eminently satisfying. The fact that it has been well-crafted as a DVD is cause for additional celebration. Schiff exploits the full range of the piano’s sonorities: a crisp, hard touch is used for the more rhythmically motorized preludes, yet there are no qualms about using the sustain pedal to add colour and warmth. His speeds are slow, in some of the fugues, but the shape and direction of a piece is never in any doubt.

Raul da Gama

04 Mozart ConcerrtosMozart – Piano Concertos Nos.22 & 24
Charles Richard-Hamelin; Les Violons du Roy; Jonathan Cohen
Analekta AN 2 9147 (analekta.com)

Mozart’s spirit is (arguably) most evident in his piano-concerto writing – where vitality is entwined with gaiety, with brilliance and lyricism multilayered across. This first recording collaboration between acclaimed young pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin and Quebec City’s chamber orchestra Les Violons du Roy, led by Jonathan Cohen, captured that essence note by note. Richard-Hamelin’s fiery mastery is matched with the unwavering elegance of the orchestra’s responses while Cohen’s artistic vision underlines the most minute details of expression. Together they created a thrilling gem. 

Mozart composed 11 piano concertos between February 1784 and March 1786, while living in Vienna, his creativity unrivaled by any other composer that came after him when it comes to piano concerto writing. The two concertos on this album stand on different sides of his creative expression. No.22 in E-flat Major, sometimes referred to as the queen of Mozart’s piano concertos, is stately and noble in nature, with a prominent wind section throughout. On the other end, No.24 in C Minor, is uncharacteristically emotional and dark, and is considered to be one of Mozart’s finest efforts. 

I could not get enough of the beauty of Richard-Hamelin’s sound on this recording – it contains a precious combination of shimmering lightness, fluent articulation and an array of colours. Most impressive are the cadenzas he has written for these concertos, a spirited personal salute to Mozart.     

Ivana Popovic

05 cover HMM902411 Kristian Bezuidenhout Pablo Heras Casado Freiburger Barockorchester Beethoven Piano concertos nos. 2 5 Emperor Beethoven – Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 5
Kristian Bezuidenhout,  Freiburger Barockorchester; Pablo Heras-Casados
Harmonia Mundi HMM902411 (harmoniamundi.com)

Kristian Bezuidenhout has recently turned his attention to a trilogy of Beethoven concerto discs. He is known for his inspired, imaginative and revivifying approach to fortepiano repertoire, proving time and time again that communicating brave new things at the neoclassical keyboard can be attained through good taste, apt performance practice and the right dash of courage. This first of three such recordings embodies all of these celebrated attributes and, rather triumphantly, establishes new ones.

From the vibrancy of Heras-Casado’s conducting, to the sparkling lines in winds and brass; from the marvellous sonorities revealed in Beethoven’s writing when played expertly on period instruments to the glimmering, pearl-like textures Bezuidenhout attains with unshakable, inspired finesse, this disc is absolute perfection to behold. Here is the Beethoven the world needs to know. 

Brimming over with jubilant, dazzling sonic palettes, we hear musical craftsmanship on this record being set alight. The quest for innovation and (re)discovery is ever present as these gifted, impassioned artists deliver two of the best-loved piano concertos known to Western music. Bezuidenhout and Heras-Casado delight us; they astonish us, drawing us into a glorious, vivid reality from centuries gone by. In divining treasures from the past, through exceedingly hard work and a sincere love for what they do, they have set an 18th-century stage resounding with every scale, trill, arpeggio and cadence now sung afresh for the contemporary ear. Beethoven, surely, is applauding their achievement from on high.

Adam Sherkin

06 Benjamin GrosvenorChopin – Piano Concertos
Benjamin Grosvenor; Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Elim Chan
Decca Records 4850365 (store.deccaclassics.com)

At 27, Benjamin Grosvenor has dazzled audiences from the very brink of his extraordinary career through to what is now his fifth release on Decca Classics.

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra itself presents formidably, with a pared down ensemble and robust presence, helmed by the intrepid Elim Chan. Her command of the players is classically clean-lined, crisp and no-nonsense in its approach to such familiar music. Both piano concerti by Chopin are often criticized for their lack of fulsome orchestra writing. However, Chan seems to disregard any longstanding notions of inadequacy in the orchestration, declaring every accompaniment episode and march-like interlude with shining surety and emphatic musicianship.

As for the solo part, Grosvenor unassumingly guides his piano to the core of each concerto’s argument, with interpretations that are commanding and forthright yet never self-indulgent. Abounding with beautiful melodies and lyrical highpoints, all of this music is aptly suited to Grosvenor’s zeal for textural clarity and elegant, quicksilver conceptions of Chopin-esque expressivity. (The first movement of No.1 and the second of No.2 are examples.) His tone and balance of phrasing remain exceedingly cultivated with a personal aspect that seems to exude a deep sense of integrity. 

The poise and lucidity of Felix Mendelssohn’s keyboard writing might be a candidate for influencing Grosvenor’s approach here (and the results likely closer to Chopin’s original intentions!). No small feat it is today, to record such well-worn repertoire with fresh ears, hands – and heart.

Adam Sherkin

08 RubinsteinRubinstein – Piano Sonatas Nos.1 and 2
Han Chen
Naxos 8.573989 (naxos.com)

“Van the Second.” That’s what Franz Liszt called Anton Rubinstein, referring to his fellow pianistic titan’s resemblance to Beethoven’s unkempt, leonine looks and pile-driving keyboard aggressiveness. Like Beethoven, Rubinstein also composed in all genres but, unlike “Van the First,” he’s rarely performed today outside his native Russia.

The music on this CD dates from 1850-1855, when Rubinstein, in his early-to-mid-20s, was immersed in early Romanticism. As a teenager studying in Berlin, Rubinstein even met Mendelssohn, who is channelled in the restless, urgent first movement of Piano Sonata No.1. It’s followed by a soulful prayer, a pensive waltz and another chorale melody that ends the fourth movement, and the sonata, in grandiose fashion.

Sandwiched between the two sonatas, both lasting nearly half an hour, are the lovely, gentle Three Serenades, flavoured with subtle echoes of Chopin. Piano Sonata No. 2 is in three movements, the first two recalling Schumann in their inward, almost downcast, reflectiveness. The sonata ends much as the CD began, with a dramatic, Mendelssohnian surge of stormy energy.

Pianist Han Chen, born in Taiwan and now living in New York, was himself in his mid-20s when, in 2018, he recorded these works in King City, Ontario, with expert producers Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver, fine musicians themselves. Chen successfully conveys the music’s varied moods, from tender to agitated to triumphant. I found all these attractive works, though derivative, a pleasure to listen to. I think you may, too.

Michael Schuman

07 Debussy KarisDebussy – Études; Children’s Corner
Aleck Karis
Bridge Records 9529 (bridgerecords.com)

Claude Debussy’s two books of Études from 1915 are less well known than many of his other piano compositions and until recently, had been neither widely performed nor recorded. Written three years before his death, they are regarded by some as his last testament to his works for piano solo, the form itself having been long embraced by such composers as Clementi, Czerny, Liszt and Chopin, to whom they are dedicated and whose music Debussy adored. The two sets are technically challenging – even the composer himself professed to struggling with certain passages – but any difficulties are met with admirable competency by the American-based pianist Aleck Karis on this Bridge recording featuring both sets and the charming Children’s Corner Suite.

Beginning with the first étude in Book 1, Pour les cing doigts, Karis displays a precise and elegant touch, his interpretations at all times thoughtfully nuanced. Indeed, these pieces, ranging in length from two minutes to just under seven, are true “studies” in contrast. The first, a tribute to Czerny, features repeated melodic progressions, while number four is moody and mysterious, and the sixth, Pour les huit doigts, a relentless perpetuum mobile.

The disc concludes with the familiar Children’s Corner Suite from 1908, a heartfelt depiction of childhood from a far simpler time. Opening with Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum, Karis’ playing is refined and sensitively articulated, with just the right amount of tempo rubato. The atmospheric Jimbo’s Lullaby would induce even the most obstinate pachyderm into slumber, while The Snow is Dancing and The Little Shepherd are true musical impressions that surely would have delighted his beloved daughter Chouchou.

Rounding out the set is the popular Golliwog’s Cakewalk, all bounce and joviality, which brings the disc to a most satisfying conclusion.

Richard Haskell

09 Rachmaninov LisztRachmaninov; Liszt
Luiz Carlos de Moura Castro
Independent n/a (luizdemouracastro.com)

The Brazilian pianist Luiz Carlos de Moura Castro, who plays with extraordinary virtuosity and passion, is so self-effacing that his only presence apart from the occasional entry in a digital classical music encyclopedia is on recordings, happily as brilliant as this one he produced himself. The works by Rachmaninov and Liszt – two of the greatest piano virtuosos of all time – with which he is represented here on a breathtaking-sounding Fazioli F308, are a testament to Castro’s pianistic genius.

The Liszt Piano Concerto No.2 in A Major, like everything Liszt, demands the highest level of virtuosity with its astounding octave leaps and high pianistic drama. Castro gives an overwhelmingly powerful and authoritative reading of it. His fingerwork has a steely energy to it which is remarkable. He is well supported by the Société d’Orchestre, Bienne under Jost Meier, who conducts the concerto with extraordinary and empathetic understanding of its difficult score.

Rachmaninov’s concertos are all very difficult to play and also reflect the composer’s complete technical command of the piano. Concerto No.3 in D Minor is uncommonly taxing and No.2 in C Minor is filled with bravura. Castro brings to life both of these – as well as Liszt’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, a work almost as capricious as anything Paganini himself wrote – with the Slovenia Radio and TV Symphony Orchestra, the fiery Ligia Amadio conducting brilliantly. 

Raul da Gama

10 Percy FriendsPercy & Friends
Richard Masters
Heritage HTGCD 179 (richard-masters.com)

“Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky…” Let us listen then, of summer evenings, nightingales and shepherd’s hey; of rainbow trout, bridal lullabies and colonial songs. Pianist Richard Masters offers an attractive new disc, celebrating varied solo piano pieces from an unexpected cohort: Roger Quilter, Henry Balfour Gardiner, Cyrill Scott, Norman O’Neill, Frederick Delius and Percy Grainger.  

Such English-speaking expatriates who were, at one time, all in school together at the Hoch Conservatory, Frankfurt, became known as the Frankfurt Group, not including Frederick Delius. The other five revered Delius and often subsumed him in various articles written about the composers during their time: the New English School was profiled as an adventurous collective of young musical artists, Anglo-centric and German-despising.

The 17-track record from Masters, in combination with his fine liner notes, transports the listener to a gentle world of breezy morning strolls and wholesome sips of afternoon tea. This aesthetic never seeks to poke or to prod, nor to unseat the status quo; here is a unique strain of harmonic connectedness, always sumptuous in its tonal narrative. From such discarded chests of keyboard music emanates a sincerity of lyricism, generously set against tableaux of perfumed sonic spaces. With comely confidence and a slightly perceptible dash of American Southern charm, Masters cajoles you and me, as he brings this New English School of the early 20th century back to life.

Adam Sherkin

11 cover Steven Osborne Prokofiev Piano Sonatas No 6 No 7 No.8 Prokofiev – Piano Sonatas Nos. 6, 7 & 8
Steven Osborne
Hyperion CDA688298 (hyperion-records.co.uk)

With three gritty, strenuous piano sonatas that run the gamut of expression in movements now dreamy and languid, now pungent and divisive, Scottish pianist Steven Osborne proves yet again that he can tackle any corner of the piano repertory with technical prowess and innate stylistic aplomb.

In this new disc, Osborne rips into some of the most challenging keyboard music ever written by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. The challenges here extend far beyond the thorniness of the sonatas’ character and their assembled identity as three war sonatas, (Opp.82, 83 and 84), written during the years 1939 through 1944. These broad and complex works demand an acute understanding of modernist expression and its concept of human experience when stretched to the very edge. This edge can be extreme in some cases, compelling both listener and pianist alike to embrace the ridiculous as well as the sublime. A successful performance of such music depends on the wits (and technique!) of a multi-versed artist up to the challenge. Osborne leaves us with no doubt as to our emotional survival: we immediately jump onboard for the ride, putting ourselves in his safekeeping until the end of this disc. Therein, Osborne’s hands cast spells of colour and light that echo the deft craft of impressionist composers, betraying a kinship (rarely revealed) between the inspired music of turn-of-the-century France and that generation of Russian modernists who emerged in the 1920s, with Prokofiev at the vanguard. 

Adam Sherkin

12 cover Marc Andr Hamelin Feinberg Piano Sonatas Nos.1 6. Samuil Feinberg – Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-6
Marc-André Hamelin
Hyperion CDA 68233 (hyperion-records.co.uk)

Wondrous and fair, is the music of Russian composer-pianist, Samuil Feinberg. Today, 58 years after his death, he remains little known outside of Russia. Nevertheless, veteran virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin has long championed the ravishing piano catalogue of Feinberg, peppering his own recital programs with his music. Now, for the first time in a truly voluminous discography, Hamelin has recorded six sonatas by Feinberg, Opp.1, 2, 3, 6, 10 and 13. Each one is a marvel of pianistic craft, gazing down from the pinnacle of early 20th-century Russian lineage.

Both the first and second sonatas owe a great deal to the spectrums of resonance and open-hearted romanticism found in Rachmaninoff’s piano writing, (in particular the Sonata No.2 in B-flat Minor Op.36). These works gleam with whimsical, searching melodies, buoyed up by formidable textures. Hamelin aptly leads the adventure, taking the utmost care and cultivation. In fact, Hamelin navigates every page of these fascinating, singular pieces with splendid ease and confidence. He finds ways to personalize the expressive potential Feinberg embeds in his scores.

Another highlight of the disc, Feinberg’s Sonata No.5, invites us into an eerie, unsettled world. The opening rollicks with overwrought chords that grope and sniff their way through the dark. What – or whom – might they be seeking? This disc bears repeated listening, as is so often the case with Hamelin’s artistry. Verily, today’s musical world would be a dimmer place without him.

Adam Sherkin

01 Telemann RecorderTelemann – Recorder Sonatas
Caroline Eidsten Dahl; Kate Hearne; Christian Kjos
LAWO LWC1181 (naxosdirect.com)

If virtuoso recorder playing is your thing, then Caroline Eidsten Dahl really delivers on this CD. Of the 34 movements, 18 are fast and she plays them at tempos that leave even the listener breathless! Her virtuosity is particularly extraordinary in the second movement of the Sonata in C Major, TWV41C2 and the first movement of the Sonata in C Major, TWV41C5. (BTW, C major is the perfect key for alto recorder virtuosity because of fingerings and because it lies in the middle of the instrument’s two-octave range.)

To focus one’s attention solely on the recorder soloist, however, is to miss much that makes this recording outstanding and Telemann’s composing remarkable. The fact is that this is a collaboration by three equal musicians, and that these “solo” sonatas are in reality trios. If you focus your listening on the cello part, played by Irish cellist Kate Hearne, you can hear it, sometimes just as virtuosic as the recorder, as the lower part of a duo. And the harpsichord, played by Christian Kjos, not only fills in the harmonies implied by the other two parts, but also supplies harmonic momentum and adds sparkling melodic solos when opportunities arise. 

In the short movements of these nine sonatas – the shortest is 47 seconds, the longest three and a half minutes – one can gain insight into the composer’s mind, crafting each movement into a unique miniature masterpiece. 

This disc offers so much, not only to recorder aficionados but also to music lovers, musicians and composers.

02 Schumann TriosSchumann – Piano Trios Vol. 1
Kungsbacka Piano Trio
Bis BIS-2437 SACD (naxosdirect.com)

The piano trio – namely, a combination of piano, violin and cello – has a curious history with composers of historical note, many of whom either wrote very few or none at all. One may attribute such a lack of attention to the apparent balancing issues when writing for this combination of instruments. Others will mention the string quartet taking hold of composers’ attention as the most favourable chamber music combination. An exception to this trend would be Haydn who wrote no less than 45 piano trios in his impressive output. Haydn aside, it remains true that the most celebrated composers in history paid little attention to this genre: Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and Dvořák all writing less than ten. Robert Schumann belongs to this group, having written three piano trios and a Fantasiestücke (Fantasy Pieces, also with the piano trio instrumentation) in his lifetime. 

In this latest release, the Swedish Kungsbacka Piano Trio has included Schumann’s Piano Trios 1 and 2, and the Fantasiestücke in an impressive volume that contains masterful interpretations of these works. The Kungsbackas have earned a well-deserved international reputation since their formation in 1997. Their latest recording is an excellent example of how the ensemble continues to deliver world-class musicianship and expressiveness to listeners around the world. This recording does great justice not only to the works recorded, but to the genre itself – reminding us that this instrumental combination is indeed worthy of any composer’s attention if performed by the right musicians. 

The members of the Kungsbacka Trio have an impressive ability to merge their sound into a single instrument, a quality that brings a sonorous lyrical element to the music not present in other recordings of this kind. This high quality recording leaves the listener wanting more – a pleasing thought since there will be a second volume coming soon.

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