05 GiordaniTommaso Giordani – Sonatas Op.30; Antonin Kammell – Sonata in D Major
Luchkow-Stadlen-Jarvis Trio
Marquis Classics MAR 81495 (marquisclassics.com)

The viola da gamba’s persistence in late-18th-century England owed something to the aristocracy. It appears that Lady Lavinia Spencer (1762-1831) was the gamba-playing dedicatee of this CD’s Giordani sonatas, and yes, she is a direct ancestor of the late Princess Diana Spencer and sons William and Harry! From a musical standpoint gamba players could by then hold an equal role in sonatas for violin, viola da gamba and fortepiano, such as the Three Sonatas, Op. 30 (published c.1782) by Naples-born, later Ireland-based, Tommasso Giordani (c.1738-1806). The textures Giordani achieves through familiarity with the gamba’s high register liberated the instrument from bass-playing, allowing imitation and echoing between instruments and octave doubling of melody in the violin and gamba, for example in the opening movement of Sonata No.2 in D Major. I find this to be the best of the sonatas, with a particularly fine slow movement; Giordani was a natural melodist whose use of contrasting minor keys and quiet fortepiano solos is notable. His active gamba part in the finale illustrates the instrument’s development towards virtuosity.

The Canadian Luchkow-Stadlen-Jarvis Trio is convincing, with clean solo and ensemble playing free of affectation, with attractive tone and balance, and expressive inflections in the slow movements. And although the Sonata in C Major, Op.1, No.1 by Czech composer Antonin Kammell (1730-1785) that ends this disc has other requirements – ornamentation, accentuation and hairpin crescendos – they meet those demands equally well.

07 Paul MerkeloThe Enlightened Trumpet
Paul Merkelo (principal trumpet OSM); Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra; Marios Papadopoulos
Sony Classical S80463C (paulmerkelotrumpet.com)

With repertoire spanning the Baroque through the classical eras; Telemann through Haydn, Leopold Mozart and Hummel, The Enlightened Trumpet showcases the bona fide genius of Paul Merkelo, principal trumpet of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. After his epic confrontations with Baroque Transcriptions and French Trumpet Concertos, Merkelo deftly combines trumpet and strings in the incisiveness of Haydn’s Concerto in E-flat Major (Hob.Vlle.1) with its famously breathtaking Allegro finale, the not inconsiderable demands of which he takes in his stride.

Merkelo then nimbly navigates his way between the rhetoric and energy of Telemann’s Concerto in D Major (TWV 51:D7) and Leopold Mozart’s Concerto in D Major for trumpet, two horns and strings with appealing melodiousness and – in the second instance – robust interplay with the other horns. The performance of the Hummel Concerto in E Major (S.49) sees its melodic ingenuity projected with due vitality, as well as a stunning degree of spontaneity and expressive poise redolent of Maurice André, Merkelo’s legendary predecessor to whom he has been likened. Not without good reason, as this disc attests.

The crowning moments come during the Rondo finale of the Hummel, the cadenza of which has been credited to Timofei Dokshizer. By then, of course, Merkelo has already made his mark, through a bracing workout across three other famous trumpet concertos, with heartfelt eloquence worthy of the reputation he has gained among his trumpet-playing orchestral peers across the globe.

08 Old SoulsOld Souls
Gili Schwarzman; Guy Braunstein; Susanna Yoko Henkel; Amihai Grosz; Alisa Weilerstein
Pentatone PTC 5186 815 (naxosdirect.com)

This recording of four works, transcriptions of two solo violin pieces and of two string quartets, in which flutist Gili Schwarzman plays the solo part in the solo pieces and the first violin part in the quartets, presents the reviewer with the double challenge of considering both the arrangements and the performances.

The arranger is Guy Braunstein, a former concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and now a soloist, conductor and arranger. He is also Schwarzman’s husband. His skill as an arranger, deeply informed by his knowledge of the violin, is formidable. The first composition on the disc, Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No.4, is a masterful orchestration for flute and string quartet. Braunstein did not merely assign the notes of the piano part, according to their pitch, to the corresponding instruments, but rewrote it for string quartet. One could be forgiven for assuming that it was an original composition by Beethoven himself.

The performances are energetic and nuanced, models of musical artistry. My favourite moment in the entire CD is the second movement of Dvořák’s String Quartet Op.96, which sounds absolutely natural played on the flute. The long, languorous melodic line, as played by Schwarzman, is never rushed and at the same time, never loses energy.

So it is great having this recorded new take on some well-known chamber music. Now let us hope that Braunstein’s arrangements will be published.

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

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