09 Alexander String Quartet DvorakAntonin Dvořák – Locale
Alexander String Quartet; Joyce Yang
Foghorn Classics FCL 2020 (foghornclassics.com)

If I was asked to describe Dvořák’s chamber music, I would say it has the characteristics of an abundant ball of energy, the one that brings joy no matter what and is enriched by the occasional touch of Slavic melancholy. The Alexander Quartet and Joyce Yang seem to be particularly attuned to that joy – here is a recording of exuberant energy and vitality that never crosses the line of being too much.

The “American” quartet is probably one of the most beloved pieces in the chamber music repertoire and it shares a number of similar elements with the Piano Quintet Op.81, thus making it a perfect pairing for this album. Although they were written some years apart and on different continents, both pieces are wonderful creations of a showcase of rhythms, dramatic gestures and, above all, memorable melodies, all of which are tastefully presented by the artists on this album. What I find the most pleasurable is the intricate tapestry of textures created by the Alexander Quartet. Their playing brings forth the elegance and lavishness of 19th-century Europe yet it does have a slight contemporary edge in terms of expression. Joyce Yang is on fire here – she displays a perfect interpretational balance between virtuosic agility and grandiose statements so typical for piano music of the Romantic period. Together they make this recording unapologetically exciting.

10 Mahler 10Mahler – Symphony No.10
Lapland Chamber Orchestra; John Storgårds
BIS BIS-2376 SACD (bis.se)

When Gustav Mahler died in 1911 at the age of 50 he left behind sketches for his tenth and final symphony. Of the five movements, we have Mahler’s full scores of the first and third movements with the remainder in an abbreviated short score format. These preliminary sketches, skeletal though they may be, define the entire melodic structure of the work. In this sense Mahler’s final testament is less unfinished than unrealized. It was not until the mid-1920s that efforts were made to bring the symphony to light with the publication of Ernst Krenek’s edition of the first and third movements and the release of a facsimile edition of the sketches. Numerous subsequent efforts have been made to refine the other three movements; the most successful of these has proved to be the “performing version” by Deryck Cooke first heard in 1960.

Over 30 recordings of the complete work in various versions have been issued since. This new chamber orchestra arrangement, by the Maltese conductor and musicologist Michelle Castelletti, is an exceptional accomplishment, quite brilliantly executed by the phenomenal John Storgårds and his Lapland Chamber Orchestra. I was initially quite skeptical that an orchestra of a mere 24 players (single woodwinds, a lone trumpet and horn, 14 strings, piano, harmonium, harp and percussion) would prove adequate to convey the impact of the 100 musicians Mahler normally employed. I was mistaken; even in these reduced circumstances the pathos of Mahler’s message still shines through in Storgårds sublime interpretation. This ranks as one of the most exciting and accomplished performances I have heard in my lifetime of terminal Mahleria.

11 Buzz BrassInspirations
Buzz Brass
Analekta AN 2 8776 (analekta.com/en)

Canada’s renowned Buzz Brass ensemble presents “brand new transcriptions of major works” from celebrated composers Antonín Dvořák, Maurice Ravel and Erik Satie. Victor Ewald’s Quintet No.3 in D-flat Major (Op.7) is the only work on this disc originally intended for brass.

Inspirations is an attractive recital with each of four gems in this repertoire being polished to a glittering sparkle. This is the work of two Québécois arrangers, François Vallières and Hugo Bégin who – judging by these inspired re-imaginings – certainly ought to be better known than they might be in Québec. The imaginative arrangement of Satie’s Gymnopédies ought to be proof enough. But if there needs to be further evidence of highly original musical transcriptions, there is also proof in the transformations of Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major (Op.35) and Dvořák’s String Quartet No.12 in F Major “American” (B.179). All are highly creative re-arrangements; wholly satisfying both structurally and expressively.

The Buzz Brass parley with the familiarity of old friends, yet their playing always retains the sense of gracious etiquette associated with noble academies for which this music was no doubt originally intended. Nothing is forced, exaggerated or overly mannered; tempi, ensemble and balance all seem effortlessly and intuitively right. The brass sound is lucid. These are, in sum, sincere and poised accounts, a fitting tribute to the faultless character of the original music of the composers.

01 HK Guitar DuoThere was never any doubt about what would be the lead review once I received HK Guitar Duo Plays Mozart, the latest CD from two of Canada’s most outstanding instrumentalists, guitarists Drew Henderson and Michael Kolk (Independent, hkguitarduo.com).

What I wasn’t expecting, though, even from them, was the first of the three transcriptions on the disc – the complete Symphony No.40 in G Minor K550, the idea for the arrangement growing from some impromptu improvising on the opening theme during a break in a 2008 recording session.

Transcribing the Duo No.1 in G Major for Violin and Viola K423 was, as Kolk readily admits, a much simpler process, and finding an arrangement for two violins of the Piano Sonata No.8 in A Minor K310 clearly assisted with their excellent transcription for two guitars. Henderson plays a custom-built eight-string guitar in the Symphony No.40 as well as in the middle Adagio movement of the Duo, the two extra bass strings enabling an extended bass range that was particularly essential for the symphony.

The playing throughout the CD is immaculate, the technical artistry always matched by the musical sensitivity and intelligence. The Duo and the Piano Sonata are not exactly insubstantial works, but the real gem here is the Symphony No.40: “It’s incredible,” says the accompanying promo blurb, “that four hands and 14 strings can cover so much music that was written for an orchestra, but the HK Duo makes it sound effortless.”

Indeed they do, but more significantly – and crucially – they also make it sound both musically and artistically meaningful and an immensely satisfying listening experience in all respects. It’s a quite astonishing technical and musical accomplishment, completely convincing through all four movements.

Engineered and edited by Drew Henderson to his usual impeccable standards at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto, this is a simply outstanding guitar CD. 

02 Sharon Isbin PacificaBy sheer coincidence, for the second month in a row I received a guitar quintet CD that opened with the Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco Quintet for Guitar and String Quartet Op.143 and closed with Luigi Boccherini’s Quintet for Guitar and String Quartet in D Major – the one with the famous Fandango final movement. Last month it was Jason Vieaux and the Escher Quartet, and this month it’s guitarist Sharon Isbin and the Pacifica Quartet on Souvenirs of Spain & Italy, a CD that features music by Italian-born composers influenced by Spanish idioms (Çedille CDR 90000 190 cedillerecords.org).

The other works on the CD are Vivaldi’s popular Lute Concerto in D Major RV93, heard here in Emilio Pujol’s arrangement for guitar and string trio, and Joaquín Turina’s La oración del torero Op.34 in the composer’s own string quartet edition of the original for lute quartet.

Perhaps the words “seldom-heard gem” are finally becoming inappropriate for the gorgeous Castelnuovo-Tedesco quintet, which would be welcome news. There may possibly be a bit more warmth and tonal colour in Vieaux’s playing and a slightly less-forward guitar balance, but both performances feature excellent work by the soloists backed by beautiful quartet playing, and can be recommended without reservation.

The two performances of the Boccherini quintet are also very similar and equally impressive, the main difference being the addition of castanets and tambourine for almost the entire Fandango on this current disc, whereas on the Vieaux, the castanets (no tambourine) only appear for a brief single spell in the middle of the movement.

Isbin adds her own Baroque ornamentation in a measured and thoroughly enjoyable performance of the Vivaldi concerto; indeed, the two middle works on this CD give it a decided edge over the Vieaux disc.

03 New Guitar 12David Starobin is the classical guitar soloist on New Music with Guitar Vol.12, the latest CD in the excellent ongoing series on the Bridge label (9520 bridgerecords.com).

All five composers represented – Fred Lerdahl, John Musto, William Bland, Edward Green and David Leisner – were born between 1943 and 1954, and the works are predominantly mature pieces, only Green’s Genesis: Variations for Solo Guitar, written for Starobin in 1974 and recorded in 1975, predating 2010.

Starobin is joined by violinist Movses Pogossian in Lerdahl’s Three Bagatelles (2017) and by pianist Yun Hao in Bland’s Sonata No.4 (2016), the latter’s Blues final movement ending effectively with Starobin unwinding the lower guitar strings.

The outstanding baritone Patrick Mason joins the guitarist in two brief but quite superb song cycles: Musto’s The Brief Light (2010) on poems of James Laughlin and Leisner’s Three James Tate Songs (2007). Leisner’s abilities as a virtuoso guitarist make for some dazzling and imaginative settings in the latter.

Starobin and partners are all in top form in a highly entertaining program.

04 Schumann Quartet ChiaroscuroChiaroscuro, the latest CD from the Schumann Quartet completes the trilogy of concept albums that began with the two CDs, Landscapes (2017) and Intermezzo (2018) (Berlin Classics 0301213BC berlin-classics-music.com).

Described as “a picture-gallery of music” the album uses Mozart’s settings of Five Fugues from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier K405 as the promenade music and connecting path between the various works: Mendelssohn’s Fugue in E-Flat Major Op.81 No.4; Philip Glass’ brief String Quartet No.2 “company”; Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for string quartet from 1931; Webern’s Six Bagatelles Op.9; and Janáček’s String Quartet No.2 “Intimate Letters.” Gershwin’s Lullaby adds a dream-like epilogue to the series.

The Schumann Quartet is performing the complete Chiaroscuro program in their live recitals, and recommends that the CD be listened to from start to finish without a break. It certainly works very well, despite – or perhaps because of – the disparity between the musical selections. Performances throughout are excellent, particularly the heartfelt reading of the astonishingly raw and emotional Janáček quartet.

05 Argus QuartetThe string music of the American composer Juri Seo (born 1981) is featured on the impressive CD Respiri, with the Argus Quartet and cellist Joann Whang (Innova 022 innova.mu).

The quite lovely title track for string quartet is subtitled in memoriam Jonathan Harvey, and pays tribute to the British composer – a practising Buddhist – who died in 2012, and whose signature musical gesture was an evocation of breathing.

Whang is the soloist for the Suite for Cello, a suite of five dance movements very much in the J.S. Bach solo cello mode but with an increasing use of harmonics, adding what the composer terms a lingering sense of displacement.

The String Quartet – Infinite Season aims to depict the story of a year unfolding, the four movements tracing the sounds of nature as the seasons change. There’s a lovely use of harmonics again, together with field recordings of birdsong and insect noises.

06 PUBLIQuartetFreedom & Faith is the second album from the American string quartet PUBLIQuartet on the Bright Shiny Things label (BSTC-0126 brightshiny.ninja). The quartet is dedicated to presenting new works, and the music here is from two of PUBLIQuartet’s signature initiatives: MIND I THE I GAP, collaborative compositions and improvisations by the four group members; and PUBLIQ Access, a program that commissions new string quartet works by composers living in the United States. The latter is represented by the opening and closing works – Jessica Meyer’s three-movement Get into the Now from 2017 and Shelley Washington’s Middleground from 2016 – while three collaborative creations from the former project are at the centre of the disc: Sancta Femina, reflections on Hildegard von Bingen, Francesca Caccini and Chiara Margarita Cozzolani; Ella!, based on Ella Fitzgerald’s performance of A-Tisket, A-Tasket; and Nina!, a celebration of Nina Simone.

Anything goes in the performances at times, with normal string playing being replaced by a whistle, unison singing and chanting, rhythmic clapping and percussive effects on the instrument bodies in some vibrant and decidedly upbeat music. 

07 Rihm scanThe outstanding violinist Tianwa Yang is the soloist on Wolfgang Rihm Music for Violin and Orchestra Vol.2 with the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz under Darrell Ang (Naxos 8.573667 naxosdirect.com). Yang has a strong association with Rihm’s music, having already recorded his Complete Works for Violin and Piano (8.572730) and the first volume of the Violin and Orchestra Music (8.573812) for the Naxos label.

The three substantial works here are Gesungene Zeit (Musik für Violine und Orchester Nr.2) (1991-92), Lichtes Spiel (Ein Sommerstück für Violine und kleines Orchester) (2009) and COLL’ARCO (Musik für Violine und Orchester Nr.4) (2008).

Rihm’s music is not always immediately accessible, but these works are engrossing from start to finish with some truly beautiful moments, especially in the lengthy COLL’ARCO, which with its hints of Alban Berg often sounds like a violin concerto from the Second Viennese School.

Yang is, as usual, simply brilliant in music that makes great technical and interpretative demands.

08 Ben HaimEvocation – Violin Works by Paul Ben-Haim traces the gradual assimilation of Middle Eastern influences in the music of the composer (born Paul Frankenburger in Munich, Germany) after his emigration to the British Mandate of Palestine (the future Israel) in the 1930s. Itamar Zorman is the violin soloist with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Philippe Bach (BIS-2398 bis.se).

The major works are the 1942 title track and the Violin Concerto from 1960, a solidly professional work with a simply lovely Andante affettuoso slow movement. Pianist Amy Yang joins Zorman for the Berceuse sfaradite from 1945 and Three Songs without Words from 1951.

The Three Studies for Solo Violin, written for Yehudi Menuhin in 1981 are among Ben-Haim’s last works. An arrangement for violin and orchestra of the Toccata piano solo from 1943 by the soloist’s father, Moshe Zorman, completes an entertaining CD.

09 Vaughan Williams Viola FantasyVaughan Williams enjoyed playing the viola for most of his long life, its sound a seemingly perfect projection of the pastoral and nostalgic nature (on the surface, at least) of his music. On Viola Fantasia, on Albion Records, the official label of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, violist Martin Outram and pianist Julian Rolton perform the composer’s works for viola and piano, together with the Four Hymns for Tenor, Viola and Pianoforte with tenor Mark Padmore (ALBCD 036 albionrecords.org).

The Suite and Romance both sprang from Vaughan Williams’ relationship with the viola virtuoso Lionel Tertis. Six Studies in English Folk Song and the Fantasia on Sussex Folk Tunes both originally featured solo cello, the former heard here in the composer’s alternate viola version and the latter in an arrangement by Outram. The Fantasia on Greensleeves was arranged for viola and piano by another British viola virtuoso, Watson Forbes.

There’s perhaps a tendency for the viola tone to sound a bit tight at times, but there’s much to enjoy on what is clearly an authoritative CD.

10 Yevgeny KutikFor his recording project Meditations on Family the Russian-American violinist Yevgeny Kutik commissioned eight composers to translate a family photo into a short musical miniature of about two to three minutes in length for violin and various ensemble. The resulting tracks were released digitally on a weekly basis, and were gathered together on a 23-minute Extended Play CD earlier this year (Marquis 774718149329 marquisclassics.com).

Composers Christopher Cerrone, Gregory Vajda, Joseph Schwantner, Kinan Azmeh, Paola Prestini, Timo Andres, Andreia Pinto Correia and Gity Razaz produced brief but intriguing works for solo violin, violin and piano, violin and double bass, violin and clarinet and violin with vocal quartet and glass harmonica. Kutik plays them with warmth and commitment.

The original photos, along with additional background information and audio tracks can be found at meditationsonfamily.com

01 FialkowskaLes sons et les parfums
Janina Fialkowska
ATMA ACD2 2766 (naxosdirect.com)

Janina Fialkowska’s latest offering is absolutely enchanting, a CD of “pure nostalgia” for the acclaimed Canadian pianist, as she states in her eloquent liner notes for Les sons et les parfums (the sounds and the fragrances).

Fialkowska transports us to the Paris of the 1950s and 1960s, when, as a youth, she visited the French capital; a time when Les Six members Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre were dominant forces on the French music scene. And, as Fialkowska tells us, a time when most of the older musicians with whom she came in contact during those visits, knew not only those noted composers, but also Ravel, Debussy and Fauré. One further fun fact: her piano teacher in Paris in the mid-60s, Yvonne Lefébure, actually worked on the two Ravel pieces featured on the CD with Ravel himself! Can anyone imagine a headier environment for one’s musical studies?

Fialkowska’s “love letter to Paris” includes works by all of the above-mentioned composers, as well as Emmanuel Chabrier. From Tailleferre’s charming and shimmery Impromptu, Fauré’s sensuously evocative Nocturne in E-flat Major Op.36, and Poulenc’s sparkling Intermezzo in A-flat Major FP118 with its sense of yearning, to Debussy’s beloved and beyond-beautiful Clair de Lune and the stunning, virtuosic and impressionistic pleasures of Ravel’s Jeux d’eau and Sonatine, Fialkowska indeed captures les sons et les parfums of a bygone Paris. It is there in the characteristic nuance, warmth, commanding musicianship, delight and dignity of her performance, which is nothing short of ravishing.

Sharna Searle

Listen to 'Les sons et les parfums' Now in the Listening Room

02 Richard Hamelin ChopinChopin – Ballades & Impromptus
Charles Richard-Hamelin
Analekta AN 2 9145 (analekta.com)

The quietly heroic Canadian pianist, Charles Richard-Hamelin, has just released a record – his fifth on the Analekta label – of Frédéric Chopin’s most expressive and inspired music: the four Ballades, (presented in chronological order) and the three Impromptus, followed by the Fantaisie-Impromptu.

Audiences the world over have heartened to Richard-Hamelin’s extraordinary talent, a talent without self-indulgence, wholly in service of musical candour on the highest order. It is this very quality, (amongst flawless technique, lyrical sensitivity, inspired voicing and impeccable stylistic command), that makes Richard-Hamelin so unique in today’s individualistic, ego-crazed culture. The pianist brings a poetic integrity to his music-making, born of a sincerity that is both reassuring and human. His craft calls on the objective – not the subjective – to aid him in his quest for beauty, awakening virtue and aesthetic perfection at every musical turn.

In these hands, not one of Chopin’s phrases, chords or moments of pause are left unconsidered or unloved. Richard-Hamelin intimately knows every last fibre of the musical canvas, from first note to last; a marvel of integral conception. It is like watching a skilled and seasoned painter in action, as he places every brush stroke – every swirl and point – with absolute care and expertise. Richard-Hamelin is redesigning this loved (and oft-performed) music, entirely afresh. Each cherished musical moment is revealed to be uniformly exquisite, and the listener is spellbound. Charles Richard-Hamelin is an artist of this rare Earth, singing of its myriad wonders.

Adam Sherkin

07 Tchaikovsky HaochenTchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No.1; Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No.2
Haochen Zhang; Lahti Symphony Orchestra; Dima Slobodeniouk
BIS BIS-2381 SACD (bis.se)

At just 29 years old, Chinese pianist Haochen Zhang ably demonstrates his coupling of a virtuoso approach with a mature and nuanced sensitivity of musical interpretation on this 2019 BIS recording, featuring the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under the measured direction of Dima Slobodeniouk. Traversing two alpine works – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 and Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.2 – Zhang evidences considerable musical acumen in his handling of this well-known (and widely recorded and performed) music of these Russian masters, highlighting the embedded Romantic gestures, as well as rising to the stentorian musical challenges put forward by these mighty and canonical composers. 

Dynamics are clearly on display as the pianist takes the listener on a wild ride. This 19th- and 20th-century music is both rigorous and demanding on pianists (Prokofiev was himself a touring and creative pianist), and Zhang, a former child prodigy who won the 2009 Cliburn Competition, demonstrates that he still has the breathtaking and wide-ranging technique that initially captured audience attention when he was still a boy. But now he evidences a coalescing musical maturity that is bound to excite today’s classical musical listeners not only for what is captured here, but also for what is in store for Zhang on future recordings and concertizing opportunities. Overall, a recommended addition to one’s CD collection.

Andrew Scott

03 Beethoven ChoBeethoven – Piano Sonatas Nos.8, 21, 23
Jae-Hyuck Cho
Sony S803556 (jaehyuckcho.com/recording)

Pianist Jae-Hyuck Cho is a well-established international recitalist and a classical music radio presenter in Korea. This CD of three much-recorded Beethoven sonatas – the C minor “Pathétique,” C Major “Waldstein” and F minor “Appassionata” – is justified by its excellent playing and sound engineering. In the Pathétique Cho’s tonal control is exceptional, from the introduction’s sonorities onwards, featuring finely graded crescendos. In the Adagio, expression is fine and intimate, while the Rondo builds and does not overwhelm. No banging in this Beethoven, or in the following Waldstein Sonata. Here, with melody mostly reduced to brief motifs in the first movement, a wealth of harmonic interest, plus the raw energy of pulses and tremolando chords, carry the movement forward. Cho achieves this task, and then shows an atmospheric side to his playing in the heartfelt introduction to the Rondo. Adhering mostly to Beethoven’s blurring pedal markings and extended trills, raising the contrast level through effective accentuation in the episodes, and managing the coda’s octave glissandos well, the end result is stellar.

The Appassionata Sonata is a little overwhelming in Cho`s reading. Admittedly this sometimes aggressive work is not my favourite Beethoven – one is likely to bang and I don`t begrudge Cho`s becoming emphatic at times. With mostly controlled and clean playing here, there is much for devotees to admire. The CD adds an unlisted bonus encore: a finely-realized Liszt transcription of Schumann’s Widmung S566.

Roger Knox

04 Changyong ShinBeethoven; Liszt; Chopin
ChangYong Shin
Steinway & Sons 30115 (steinway.com/music-and-artists/label)

Young Korean Pianist ChangYong Shin has won several important awards including the 2018 Gina Bachauer International Artist Piano Competition. I found this pianist reticent at first. His Beethoven Sonata in E Major, Op.109 is technically secure throughout, but more colour and expression would have been welcome for Beethoven’s quasi-improvisational mode. There are great heights and depths in this work that may require risk-taking. Nevertheless, Shin handles the finale’s fugal section and the theme’s return with extended trills particularly well.

For me Franz Liszt’s Bénédiction du Dieu dans la solitude from the cycle Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, (1847) conveys a genuinely religious sense in the way the piece unfolds. Shin is flawless with the opening’s rustling background and the rich ventures into the bass register, and also in the subsequent dramatic harmony and varied figuration. He confidently paces the balance of the work well, including in the closing section where it is mainly rolled chords that support the pensive upper line. By the end, peace and calm have stilled the emotions of earlier sections.

Of the disc’s three Chopin waltzes I particularly enjoyed Op.42, informally known as the 2/4 “waltz” because of the melody’s cross rhythm against the triple-time bass. Shin is high-spirited here, pedalling lightly, creating a whirl with accents and rubato, and achieving a bravura ending. The brilliant Waltz in E-flat Major, Op.18 and Waltz in A-flat Major, Op.34, No.1 add to the lustre of a splendid CD.

Roger Knox

05 Schumann PonthusSchumann – Fantasie Op.17; Kreisleriana; Kinderszenen
Marc Ponthus
Bridge Records 9514 (bridgerecords.com)

This disc of three contemporaneous Schumann works played by Marc Ponthus is revelatory. Known for major recitals of monumental works, Ponthus here offers technical brilliance with exquisite control of dynamics, voicing, and pedalling. Of the Fantasie (1836-8) his insightful program notes observe “a realm larger than reason”; in the first movement “a constantly fluctuating and forward energy” with vitalizing changes of texture. The finale becomes “an unfinished extension of the magnificent formal ruins of the first movement.” A large-scale, visionary Romantic masterpiece grounded in non-classical principles, then played with seamless continuity and fascinating detail. Using a modern piano, Ponthus adds tasteful speeding up as is now practised (controversially for some) in Romantic-era tempo modification.

With Kreisleriana (1838) Ponthus’ tempo modification becomes more prominent, in keeping with the eccentric fictional persona of Kreisler and perhaps the personalities of both writer E.T.A. Hoffmann and Schumann. But I find the lyricism of the middle section of Kreisleriana’s first piece spoiled by excessive speed; better for the player to be guided by the section’s phrase extensions and key changes. The slow pieces come off best and the fourth one for me is introspection defined. As for Kinderszenen (1838), scenes of childhood for adults, Ponthus’s idiomatic readings themselves justify purchasing the CD. These reflective miniatures are a wonderful introduction to Schumann’s piano music for anyone; no wonder Horowitz played No. 7 (Träumerei) as an encore so frequently.

Roger Knox

06 Fazil SayFerhan & Ferzan Önder Play Fazil Say
Ferhan & Ferzan Önder; RSO Berlin; Markus Paschner
Winter and Winter 910 255-2 (winterandwinter.com)

The duo piano approach of the Turkish-born Austrian twins Ferhan and Ferzan Önder comes together on this 2019 Winter & Winter recording to mine the many musical gems found in the music of contemporary Turkish composer Fazil Say. Although, unfortunately, Say has been plagued by political persecution in recent years – sentenced to jail time in 2013 for tweets that were considered “blasphemous” by the Turkish government – the now 49-year-old composer and pianist himself, has remained prolific and artistically relevant, writing challenging new pianistic and symphonic work, which is taken on here with class and aplomb by the Önder sisters with sweeping accompaniment from the Berlin Radio Symphony. Difficult to categorize stylistically – Say combines a historically rigorous mastery of Western art-music traditions, with influence taken from Turkish folk music, jazz and chance or improvisatory elements – the composer has assembled a hauntingly beautiful and unusual musical world that the talented Önder sisters tackle with virtuosity, expertise and their own recognizable musical agency.

Notable is the Sonata for Two Pianos, commissioned by the Louis Vuitton Foundation, which premiered earlier this year. Here, the sisters explore the range and expressive depth of the four-hand-piano tradition in order to bring to life this beautiful and challenging work that prods listeners to confront their own expectations of what constitutes contemporary classical performance in 2019 and to rethink what remains possible within the codified three-part sonata form employed here. Both the music of Say, and the nuanced playing of the Önder sisters, was new to me prior to receiving this recording. I am pleased to musically get to know these important and, very much of this moment, global artists.

Andrew Scott

01 Tafelmusik VivaldiVivaldi con amore
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra; Elisa Citterio
Tafelmusik Media TMK 1039CD (tafelmusik.org)

Vivaldi con amore, Tafelmusik’s first recording under new music director Elisa Citterio, is a vivid and engaging reflection of both Vivaldi’s ebullient musical style and Citterio’s approach to working with her orchestra. Rather than releasing a disc that shines a spotlight squarely on her artistic leadership through conspicuously demanding orchestral virtuosity or by recording unexpected material, Vivaldi con amore maintains the integrity of the Tafelmusik ensemble, while putting the music first.

One of the most striking features of this recording is how, although there is a new leader at the orchestra’s helm, the “Tafelmusik sound” is maintained, such that these recordings are immediately identifiable as Tafelmusik’s own. Citterio’s respect for the ensemble is apparent in the content of the disc, which features seven separate concerti in which the orchestra’s musicians are given centre stage.

Containing over 75 minutes of the Italian master’s works, the title says it all: Vivaldi con amore; but, as the saying goes, “The devil is in the details.” No detail is overlooked in the interpretation of these works, with beautifully tapered phrasing throughout and thoughtful attention given to the contrasts present in Vivaldi’s pieces, making each come alive in its own way.

The appointment of a new music director is a tumultuous experience for any group, especially for one as established as Tafelmusik. Vivaldi con amore shows us that we need not look to the future to expect great results from this orchestra’s newest chapter; they are already here, and present on this disc.

02 Ofra HarnoyBack to Bach
Ofra Harnoy; Mike Herriott
Analekta ACD 2 8907 (analekta.com)

With the release of her much anticipated new recording, luminous, gifted and transplendant Israeli/Canadian cellist, Ofra Harnoy, and her brilliant collaborator and husband, Mike Herriott, have not only brought forth a project of breathtaking beauty, but they have done the near impossible – through the use of contemporary technology, Herriott’s multi-instrumental/arranging/producing skills, Harnoy’s exquisite cello work (including large cello ensembles performed entirely by her), as well as a united, inspired vision – Harnoy and Herriett have manifested a fresh, innovative and genuine way of presenting this Baroque music in a way that is both exciting and accessible.

Not since the late Jacqueline du Pré (with whom Harnoy studied) has the world heard a cellist of Harnoy’s technical calibre and almost telepathic communicative skills. The well-chosen selections here include some material previously recorded by Harnoy from her 40-plus albums, as well as favourites such as Bach’s Air from Orchestral Suite No. 3 and Bist du bei mir, with the addition of more obscure, but stirring repertoire from Corelli and Allegri… and the sound of Harnoy’s breathtaking musicianship, multiplied by nine on Allegri’s Miserere is almost too beautiful to bear.

In bringing her vision to life, Harnoy also wanted to experiment with using brass instruments instead of the traditional string (or pipe organ, etc.) accompaniments, so Herriott created complex brass arrangements, and performed all of the parts himself: piccolo trumpet, trumpet, flugelhorn, French horn and trombone. There are literally only a handful of individuals in the world who could have accomplished what Herriott has so deftly done on this remarkable project. This recording is a triumph, and a must-have for any serious collector.

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