03 Max BruchBruch – 8 Pieces Op.83
Philon Trio
Analekta AN 2 8923 (analekta.com)

It is so easy to love Max Bruch’s music, and particularly these works for clarinet, viola and piano. His Acht Stücke Op.83 were composed for his son, Max Felix, a noted clarinetist of the early 20th century. They are the sole material on the recording released this year by the Philon Trio, comprised of David Dias da Silva on clarinet, Adam Newman, viola, and pianist Camilla Köhnken.

The work is quite often performed in excerpts, for the simple reason that the pieces vary so much in character and duration that there is no compelling reason to present them all as if they formed a united suite. As the only material on this disc, one might carp that something might have been added as a bolster to the value; the total playing time is just under 35 minutes. Possibly there were time or financial constraints. Still, including Schumann’s Märchenerzählungen, for context and contrast with another work for the same forces, would have been welcome.

But I won’t carp; I will stick to the positives: these are great performances. Tending more to a dreamy or meditative character for the most part, the collection is leavened by numbers four and especially seven, both of which are presented at a good pace, demonstrating how technically able these fine musicians are. Köhnken hails from Bruch’s home city Köln, and seems to have his spirit guiding her playing. Da Silva’s sound is airy and fluid at once, and while sometimes he fights the demon of sharpness, he most often wins. Newman’s playing is agile and sure. The mix seems to favour the clarinet sound overall, an odd balance anomaly that points to perhaps a hurried production or difficult acoustic.

04 Flute ConcertosNielsen; Ibert; Arnold – Flute Concertos
Clara Andrada; Frankfurt Radio Symphony; Jaime Martin
Ondine ODE 1340-2 (naxosdirect.com)

What a good idea to trace the dramatic transition from Romanticism to Modernism through flute concerti by three composers of three consecutive generations: Carl Nielsen, born in 1865, Jacques Ibert, born in 1890 and Sir Malcolm Arnold, born in 1921. The age differences notwithstanding, all three concerti were written in the 28 years from 1926 to 1954.

The first movement of the Nielsen concerto (1926) seems to me to capture this strange and abrupt transition, opening with a stormy – modernist – flourish by the orchestra, answered by a long, lyrical melody, which could almost have been written by Nielsen’s Romantic predecessor, Carl Reinecke. The angular second subject, however, is without argument the product of a 20th-century sensibility, most effectively played, I might add, with calm rhythmic stability by soloist Clara Andrada.

Similarly the second movement of Ibert’s concerto (1932) begins with a long sustained melodic line, played with great grace and refinement by Andrada, before becoming progressively more disquieted, reflecting perhaps the growing tensions and anxieties of the late 1920s and early 30s.

The third movement of Arnold’s Flute Concerto No.1 (1954), fast, short, exciting – and tonal – is unquestionably a product of the 20th century. Arnold’s skill as a composer is very much in evidence in this movement, as he builds energy and excitement through the alternation of soloist and orchestra.

I must commend conductor, Jaime Martín, a flutist himself, and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, for their exemplary rapport with the soloist – musical teamwork at its best.

05 EscalesEscales – French Orchestral Works
Sinfonia of London; John Wilson
Chandos CHSA 5252 (naxosdirect.com)

While the subtitle of this disc is “French Orchestral Works,” it could just as easily be called “Spanish Music from France,” for that is what comprises the majority of Escales’ contents. The opening and closing tracks are Chabrier’s España and Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, clearly evoking a strong Spanish influence, while Ibert’s Escales outlines a three-part journey from France, through Italy, to Spain. Between these works are more standard essays in 20th century French composition, with such classics as Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Massenet’s Méditation.

The interesting subtext to this disc is that, although the Spanish-infused pieces are clearly and deliberately exotic and meant to sound Spanish, they are immediately recognizable as being French. Perhaps this is because the works themselves are only caricatures of another style, or perhaps because they are surrounded by more characteristically familiar music of the same school; regardless of the reason, this disc makes a strong case for France’s inherent national musical identity through its composers. 

The Sinfonia of London are fine interpreters of this rich and lush material, coaxing out the timbral subtleties of each composer’s material. From the tranquil openings of Debussy’s Prélude to the driving conclusion of Ravel’s Rapsodie, the character of this music is expressed to full effect, aided in large part by the terrific quality of the sound itself. Released as a super audio CD, Escales captures a high degree of sonic detail, such as the robust spectrum of overtones produced by the divided string section, and translates these into a product that is remarkably close to a live performance in a concert hall, ideal for these colourful impressionistic works.

06 Strauss ZarathustraStrauss – Also sprach Zarathustra; Burleske
Daniil Trifonov; Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Mariss Jansons
BR Klassik 900182 (naxosdirect.com)

The most remarkable aspect of this iconic work – apart from the work itself – is that Richard Strauss started out as someone who was brought up to almost despise the work of Wagner and Liszt, who created the very form of one of Strauss’ most famous works. The nine-part symphonic tone poem, Also sprach Zarathustra is a spectacular homage to Nietzsche’s philosophy of the Superman and his celebration of human power and energy.

Strauss’ response to Nietzsche’s book is a work of enormous proportions, a free-flowing fantasia which, apart from its philosophical aspirations, creates some truly awe-inspiring orchestral sounds. Not the least of these is the work’s inspired “sunrise” opening, depiction of a primordial darkness-to-light so elemental that the titanic, sustained contra-octave C played on the organ, contrabassoon, contrabass and bass drum begins barely audible to the human ear.

This is a stupendous live recording. The Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks play with adventure and excitement under Marriss Jansons’ inspired leadership. Few other versions manage to give a convincing sense of the shape to this work. The Burleske, written ten years earlier, may belie a Brahmsian influence, but also foretells the future of a composer seized with the true immensity of symphonic sound. Pianist Daniil Trifonov is particularly dazzling with exemplary lucidity, showing why he is the darling of the cognoscenti today as he employs the sweetest tones to create a great Romantic wash of colour.

07 Karl WeiglKarl Weigl – Symphony No.1; Pictures and Tales
Deutsches Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Jürgen Bruns
Capriccio C5365 (naxosdirect.com)

Karl Weigl (1881-1949) was a succesful Vienna composer and teacher whose Jewish origins forced him to emigrate in 1938. In the United States he remained active but it has taken a long time for his relatively conservative music to receive the acclaim it deserves. The Symphony No.1 (1908) demonstrates his mastery of a personal late-Romantic style, opening with pastoral cheerfulness and a lyrical Viennese touch. The busy scherzo features chattering winds and sophisticated play with cross-rhythms and syncopations. Especially good is the slow movement – a yearning fantasy in the strings. Again in the third movement, woodwinds take a prominent role and there is a tremendous passage of multiple wind trill chains that must be heard – a true chorus of nature! In this work there is little fin-de-siècle brooding. The high-register orchestration is outstanding again in the finale, a somewhat parodistic march ending with a boisterous close.

In a much different vein, Weigl composed Pictures and Tales, Op.2 (1909), a set of short piano pieces which he orchesterated into a suite for small orchestra in 1922. The title alludes to scenes and images from fairy tales, e.g. Stork, Stork Clatter or Elves Dance in the Moonlight, with deft and transparent orchestration and appeal for children and adults alike. Jürgen Bruns is a much-in-demand conductor who has led a much-needed recording that would likely delight the composer even more than us.

08 Iris TrioHomage and Inspiration – Works by Schumann, Kurtág, Mozart and Weiss
Iris Trio
Coviello Classics COV92002 (iristrio.com)

Reviewing a former student’s second chamber music recording in as many years nudges my feelings from pride toward sheer professional envy, especially because this is the better of two fine discs involving clarinetist Christine Carter. Cleverly compiled, the disc of music for clarinet, viola (Molly Carr) and piano (Anna Petrova) explores the way each work was influenced by the previous one.

In 1786, Mozart composed his Trio in E-flat Major, K498, known familiarly as the “Kegelstatt,” for his friend and clarinetist Anton Stadler (for whom he also wrote the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings and the Concerto K.622). Robert Schumann responded with his peculiar Märchenerzählungen, Op.132 in 1853. Hungarian composer György Kurtág wrote a reflection on the odd personae populating much of Schumann’s music, including this trio, in his Hommage à R. Sch. Op.15d. Finally on the disc is a recent commission for the same grouping by Christof Weiß (whose liner notes provide much helpful information), his Drittes Klaviertrio für Klarinette, Viola und Klavier “Gespräch unter Freunden. The works are ordered to highlight the links from past to present, rather than chronologically.

It’s lovely to hear the Mozart presented with such fresh freedom. Pulse is allowed to ease and press forward, such that the music comes close to representing what one so often hears it is meant to depict: a conversation among friends over a game of bowling. A special nod to Petrova; this is a small piano concerto in fact, and she knocks it over with grace and flair.

Working on Kurtág’s Hommage was one of many experiences for which I can thank Robert Aitken and New Music Concerts. These mysterious works are uncannily beautiful, and this rendition is absolutely breathtaking.  

Listen to 'Homage and Inspiration: Works by Schumann, Kurtág, Mozart and Weiss' Now in the Listening Room

Not many months go by without a new set of the Bach solo works for violin or cello appearing, and this month sees two new additions.

01 Mike BlockThe American cellist Mike Block is a member of the Silkroad Ensemble and inventor of the Block Strap, an attachment that allows the cellist to stand and walk around while playing. His latest release, Step into the Void (Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0132 brightshiny.ninja), is a 3CD set featuring the Complete Bach Cello Suites with a live companion album featuring phonograph performance artist Barry Rothman.

Normally with these releases the booklet notes mention a lifelong study of the works and an attempt to define a personal approach to the music before committing a performance to disc, but while Block admits to doing “the obligatory study” of various editions and recordings with the goal of creating his own consistent and historically informed interpretation, he now opts instead for spontaneity preferring to find different ways of playing them every time and not making too many performance decisions in advance, instead letting the feel of the audience and the acoustic space be his guide.

Certainly there’s a refreshing freedom and a sense of exploration in his beautiful playing here, a feeling of “let’s see where this goes” with delightful results. For this album he limited himself to two takes for each movement in order to “stay in the moment” and “play from the gut.” He also chose not to observe repeats in the dance movements (i.e. 30 of the 36 movements – all but the opening Preludes) so the two Cello Suite CDs are relatively short at about 37 and 50 minutes respectively.

The third CD, recorded live at a sold-out show a few days after the recording of the Bach Suites, grew from an earlier free-improvisation performance with Rothman. Block asked if they could play a completely improvised live duo concert with him using only material from the Bach Cello Suites. The results are quite fascinating – with less LP interaction than you might expect – although probably not to everyone’s taste.

A bonus track of Block’s own pizzicato Prelude to a Dream completes a quite special set.

02 Bach CotikViolinist Tomás Cotik’s brilliant recording of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin (Centaur CRC 3755/3756 tomascotik.com) is released this month to mark the 300th anniversary of their composition.

The promo copy came with an extremely detailed 32-page booklet which appears to be a collection of the ten brief articles Cotik wrote for The Strad magazine last year, and which can be accessed through his website at tomascotik.com. Just about every approach to performance issues is addressed – everything from the physical instrument and bow through early treatises and editions, to the implementation of slurs, dynamics, chords, vibrato, pitch, ornaments, trills and much more.

Cotik uses a modern violin – albeit with softer and more resonant strings than usual – with a Baroque bow, which he feels offers more expressive potential, subtle nuances and transparent textures and allows for “a lighter sound, quicker, more flowing tempi, and lively articulations.” That’s exactly what we get here, with Cotik producing a smooth but bright sound with a lightness and agility that is quite breathtaking and never in any danger of becoming heavy-handed or over-stressed. Slower tempos are relaxed but never allowed to drag; faster tempos are dazzlingly brilliant, with faultless intonation.

The result is a very personal and distinctive sound and style, with even the massive D-minor Chaconne never approaching the heavy and ponderous tones of some recordings.

Interestingly, Cotik repeatedly returns in his writings to the need not to be hide-bound by rules of interpretation; studying the music is just the starting point of a journey where interpretation changes along the way. He admits that many of those challenges “can ultimately be solved only by each of you in performance – not to mention differently every time” (my italics).

And perhaps, as with Mike Block, that’s the secret here; never settle for one consistent interpretation and always let curiosity be a constant inspiration. If Tomás Cotik ever revisits these works on record it will be fascinating to hear the results, but it’s hard to see how they could be better than this.

03 FewerManchester isn’t exactly a city you associate with Baroque violin sonatas, but it’s front and centre in Vivaldi – Manchester Sonatas, an excellent new 2CD set from violinist Mark Fewer and harpsichordist Hank Knox (Leaf Music LM229 leaf-music.ca).

The manuscripts for this collection of 12 works by Antonio Vivaldi originated in the private collection of Vivaldi’s contemporary Cardinal Ottoboni, passing through several owners (including Handel’s Messiah librettist Charles Jennens) before being purchased by the Manchester Public Library in 1964. Even so, they were only discovered in Manchester’s Henry Watson Music Library in 1973 by musicologist Michael Talbot.

Apparently dating from the 1716-1717 period the collection contains only four sonatas that were completely new – Nos. 5, 10, 11 and 12 – the remaining eight known to exist in earlier sources although reworked in numerous ways here to fit the duo genre. The violin part, while quite detailed for the period, still leaves room for embellishment by the performer; the harpsichord part, meanwhile, does not even feature a figured bass line most of the time, so Knox has full rein when it comes to realizing the accompaniment.

Fewer’s playing is bright, assured and technically brilliant, with Knox supplying a rich accompaniment that focuses more on harmonic support than contrapuntal interplay of melodic voices. The sonatas themselves are highly entertaining and inventive, featuring less of the usual Vivaldi arpeggios, scales and sequences than you might expect. The fast movements in particular are quite exhilarating.

There are no track timings, but the two CDs run to 68 and 63 minutes respectively.

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04 Lena NeudauerThere are quite lovely performances of the Beethoven Violin Concerto & Romances on a new CD featuring Lena Neudauer and the Cappella Aquileia under Marcus Bosch (cpo 777 559-2 naxosdirect.com).

The ensemble, founded by Bosch in 2011 as the orchestra for the Heidenheim Opera Festival, draws top-level musicians from across Germany and beyond, with its size based on the original chamber-symphony proportions of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. There’s a resulting clarity and transparency to the playing that makes the concerto in particular less heavy than in many performances, the quite dry and short opening timpani strokes setting the stage for an idiomatic performance that never lacks emotional depth. The timpani also features in the first movement cadenza, Neudauer drawing on Beethoven’s own cadenza for his piano transcription of the concerto. The Romances in G Major Op.40 and F Major Op.50 have the same delightful feeling of light and clarity without ever sounding lightweight.

Neudauer’s playing throughout is exemplary and stylistically beautifully judged – hardly surprising given her admission that it was Thomas Zehetmair’s recording with Franz Bruggen’s Orchestra of the 18th Century that was the key to her understanding the concerto. Bosch provides sympathetic support on an outstanding CD.

05 Liebeck LGCover 1I can’t remember when I last heard the Schoenberg Violin Concerto, which made Schoenberg Brahms Violin Concertos, the latest CD from the outstanding violinist Jack Liebeck, even more welcome. Andrew Gourlay conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Orchid Classics ORC100129 orchidclassics.com).

The album, celebrating Liebeck’s upcoming 40th birthday, is a deeply personal one for him, described in the booklet notes as a “visceral and passionate portrait of two major violin concertos, emotionally drawing from the experience of his grandfather and honouring the many members of his family who perished during the Holocaust.” More than three dozen of Liebeck’s mother’s Dutch relatives died. Liebeck’s grandfather, Walter Liebeck, was a decent amateur violinist; a student in Germany when Hitler came to power in 1933, he left for South Africa the following year. The Brahms was his favourite concerto.

Schoenberg himself left Germany in 1933 for the United States. His 1936 concerto marked a return to atonality after a relatively tonal period, but despite its 12-tone basis and the composer’s own description of it – “extremely difficult, just as much for the head as for the hands” – it’s a quite stunning work that is emotionally clearly from the heart, and that really deserves to be much more prominent in the mainstream violin concerto repertoire.

Liebeck displays all of his usual qualities – clarity and strength, brilliance of tone, impeccable technique, faultless phrasing and interpretation – in immensely satisfying performances of two quite different but perfectly-paired works. Gourlay and the BBCSO are quite outstanding partners.

06 Philip GlassViolinist Piotr Plawner is the soloist on Philip Glass American Four Seasons, a new CD in the Naxos American Classics series that features the composer’s Violin Concerto No.2, with Philippe Bach conducting the Berner Kammerorchester, and the Sonata for Violin and Piano with Gerardo Vila (Naxos 8.559865 naxos.com).

It was violinist Robert McDuffie who, enamoured with Glass’ Violin Concerto No.1, suggested the idea of an American Four Seasons as a sequel that could be programmed with the Vivaldi classic. Jointly commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the new work was premiered by McDuffie and the TSO under Peter Oundjian in Toronto in December 2009.

Scored for strings and synthesizer (set for harpsichord sound but not used as a continuo) the four movements were deliberately left untitled by Glass, inviting listeners to decide for themselves which movement best depicts each season. A solo violin Prologue and three numbered Songs between the movements – which Glass felt could be extracted as a separate work for solo violin – act as cadenzas. Several Glass characteristics – arpeggios and sequences, for instance – provide a link with the Vivaldi era, but in a strongly tonal work the sound is unmistakably Glass.

Much the same can be said of the Violin Sonata, apparently written with youthful memories of the violin sonatas of Brahms, Fauré and Franck in mind, but again unmistakably Glass, with a show-stopping third movement.

Top-notch performances all round make for a highly enjoyable disc.

07 FitzwilliamThe Fitzwilliam String Quartet continues the celebration of its 50th anniversary with another outstanding CD following the Shostakovich Three Last Quartets reviewed here last month. This time it’s Franz Schubert String Quartets – those in A Minor D804 (often called the “Rosamunde”) and the monumental D Minor D810 “Death and the Maiden” – performed on period instruments with Viennese gut strings (Divine Art dda 25197 naxosdirect.com).

Violist Alan George’s outstanding booklet notes once again add immensely to our understanding of these almost symphonic works and the performance questions they raise – questions superbly answered by the FSQ. Vibrato – if used at all – functions as an expressive device, emphasising accents, increasing intensity and employed as decoration or ornamentation. Similarly, historically informed use of the bow, the treatment of the abundant dynamic markings and the approach to choice of tempo were all subjects with which the ensemble took great pains.

The resulting performances consequently have a feeling of authenticity that is quite remarkable and perfectly exploits the emotional range of these visionary works. In spite of knowing and coaching the Death and the Maiden quartet for many years, the Fitzwilliam only added it to their own repertoire eight years ago, although it sounds as if they’ve been performing it all their lives; the wild finale, says Alan George, “still leaves us all physically and emotionally shaking.”

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