01_waltonSir William Walton was still a teenage undergraduate at Oxford when he started his first string quartet in 1919. Completed in 1922, its few performances were unsatisfactory, and despite several cuts and revisions the quartet was withdrawn by the composer. It was revived in its revised version after Walton’s death in 1983, but the Doric String Quartet performs the premiere recording of the full-length original version on Walton String Quartets (Chandos CHAN 10661). Despite the composer’s negative assessment – it was, he said, “full of undigested Bartok and Schoenberg” – it’s a fascinating and extremely challenging three-movement work, with a massive and astonishing fugal finale that isn’t out of place besides Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. Dating from the mid-1940s, Walton’s second quartet is, not surprisingly, from a different world, and more in the language that we associate with the mature composer. There is contrapuntal skill here too, though, together with Walton’s usual lyricism. The Doric Quartet is superb in both works, and beautifully recorded. This is a significant addition to the catalogue of 20th century string quartet recordings.

02_rare_frenchThe wonderful Philippe Graffin is back with another fascinating CD of little-known works. Last month it was English violin concertos, this time it’s Rare French Works for violin and orchestra, with Thierry Fischer conducting the Ulster Orchestra (Helios CDH55396). The works themselves may be little-known, but only Ernest Guiraud lacks stature as a composer. Fauré’s single-movement Violin Concerto in D minor is here – the second movement is lost, the third never written – as are Lalo’s three-movement Fantaisie norvegienne and his Guitarre, and Saint-Saëns’ Morceau de concert. The best surprises, though, are Guiraud’s beautiful two-movement Caprice, and Joseph Canteloube’s gorgeous Poème, the latter giving the lie to the composer’s apparent doubts about his melodic abilities. Graffin is superb throughout, with a rapid vibrato and a crystal-clear lustrous tone, dazzling in the higher registers, and with an obvious empathy for these seldom-heard but utterly delightful pieces. Recorded in 2001, this is apparently a re-issue of a 2002 disc; if you missed it the first time around, don’t make the same mistake this time.

03_sukJoAnn Falletta and Michael Ludwig, conductor and concert-master respectively of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, combined for an outstanding Naxos CD of the Dohnanyi Violin Concertos a few years ago, and now they’re back with the music of Czech composer Josef Suk (1874-1935), this time with their own orchestra (Naxos 8.572323). Suk studied with Dvořák, who later became his father-in-law, and continued the Czech school of Dvořák and Smetana while managing to accommodate the influences of his contemporaries Mahler, Richard Strauss and Debussy. Ludwig is outstanding in the Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra in G minor, and also takes the solo line in the opening movement of the four-movement suite Pohadka (Fairy Tale), compiled from incidental music Suk wrote for a theatrical work in 1898. The orchestral Fantastic Scherzo in G minor rounds out another immensely satisfying CD from this terrific team.

04_fantasyFantasy is also the title of a new CD from the UK-based Japanese violinist Kaoru Yamada and pianist Sholto Kynoch (Stone Records 5060192780017) that features “Fantasy” works by Messiaen, Schoenberg and Schubert. The three Messiaen titles are early works springing from his relationship with the violinist Claire Delbos, with whom he toured in the early 1930s, and whom he married in 1932. La Mort du nombre, a setting of Messiaen’s own text, adds soprano and tenor to the duo; the influence of Fauré and Debussy is quite evident. Theme et variations is much more typical of Messiaen’s later (and instantly recognizable) style, with long, high melodic lines against steady, widely-spread piano chords and a wide dynamic range. Fantasie was believed lost, but recently discovered and published in 2007. Schoenberg’s Phantasy dates from 1949, and is typical late Schoenberg: assured, but technically challenging writing for both players. The two Schubert works seem a bit isolated after the fully committed performances of the 20th century material. The four-movement Fantasie has a set of variations based on Schubert’s own song, Sei mir gegrusst!, a somewhat pedestrian performance of the song itself ending the CD. Soprano Rhona McKail is the soloist for the latter, and is joined by tenor Nicky Spence in the Messiaen.

05_ehnes_bestI certainly wasn’t expecting a Best of James Ehnes CD, but that’s what Analekta has given us with SELECTIONS (AN 2 9768), consisting entirely of material from previous Ehnes CDs. The Saint-Saëns Havanaise and Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso, and the Massenet Meditation are the only sizeable complete works; everything else is basically snippets of Bach, Dvořák and Kreisler. Presumably the hope is that if you like this, you’ll rush out and buy the previous CDs, but if you do really like Ehnes then you’ve probably already got them. Well, at least they didn’t call it James Ehnes’ Greatest Hits.

06(web)_kreutzerIn these days of specialized instrumental soloists we tend to forget that for hundreds of years virtually all of the major violin virtuosi were also quite competent – and sometimes outstanding – composers: Vivaldi, Corelli, Tartini, Viotti, Paganini, Joachim, Hubay, Vieuxtemps, Sarasate, Spohr, Wieniawski, Ysaÿe, Kreisler, Enescu… and that’s only a partial list. Most violinists know the music of Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1831) only as students grappling with his Etudes, although his name is more famously attached to the Beethoven Op.47 Sonata, which Beethoven dedicated to him. Kreutzer, along with Viotti and Rode, was in at the start of the French violin concerto in the early 1780s, and Naxos has issued a CD of his last three Violin Concertos, Nos. 17-19, with the US-based German violinist Axel Strauss and the San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra under Andrew Mogrelia (8.570380). No.17, in G major, is quite brief and sounds a lot like Paganini without the fireworks. No.18, in E minor, is more substantial, but in much the same vein, and No.19, in D minor, is somewhat reminiscent of Schumann and Mendelssohn. Axel Strauss does as well as you can possibly expect with material that, truth be told, does not immediately strike you as being anything other than wholly competent. The booklet notes tell us that “Kreutzer’s final three violin concertos are among his greatest achievements as a composer;” one is tempted to wonder what the other 16 are like. Apparently, we’ll be able to find out: Naxos plans to record all of them. Gulp.

07(web)_russian_celloArmenian cellist Alexander Chaushian is teamed with Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin on a hybrid SACD of Russian Cello Sonatas (BIS-SACD-1858), featuring works by Rachmaninov, Shostakovich and Borodin. Their playing has the strength, warmth and conviction that these pieces need, and they are beautifully recorded. The balance felt a bit “pro-piano” at first, but it only served to underline that these are piano/cello duos, and not solo cello pieces with piano accompaniment. Rachmaninov’s G minor sonata opens the disc, and his Vocalise closes it. In between we have two works that couldn’t be more different. The Borodin Sonata in B minor is a real oddity: the manuscript, apparently, has survived only in “fragmentary form” and this performance is of the version completed by Russian composer and musicologist Mikhail Goldstein in 1982, “with a slightly abbreviated finale” whatever that means. How much is Borodin, and how much Goldstein, who knows? An earlier Goldstein “discovery” turned out to be his own work. What’s more, the material itself is quite strange. While doing post-doctoral scientific research in Heidelberg around 1860, Borodin lived next door to a violinist who kept playing the Bach G minor unaccompanied violin sonata; the fugue subject fascinated Borodin, and it forms the basis for the cello sonata, appearing in each of the three movements – in fact, it starts the first and third movements. The second movement, however, opens as pure Norwegian Grieg! Quite a stylistic feat. The Shostakovich D minor sonata, his first major chamber work, points the way to the composer’s future in more ways than one: written in 1934, it hints at the distinctive style that was to come, but it was also the work Shostakovich was touring with the cellist Viktor Kubatsky in 1936 when Pravda printed the attack on his music that would forever change his life.


Duo Gaulin-Riverin

Analekta AN 2 9953

This aptly titled first release by Duo Gaulin-Riverin showcases the “brilliance” of saxophonist Mathieu Gaulin and pianist Jacynthe Riverin. Both musicians possess a love of their instruments and of the music they are playing. Their innate sense each other’s artistic strengths makes for passionate performances.

The repertoire featured could be described as “Saxophone and Piano Music 101,” a survey course of works written for the combination during the 20th century. The diverse compositional styles range from the parlour music sound of Rudy Wiedoeft's Valse Vanite to the romantic qualities of Fernande Breilh-Decruck's Sonata in C sharp to the more new music sounds of Piet Swerts’ Klonos. The strongest work is William Albright's Sonata which opens with a complicated Two-Part Invention that weaves its way through a number of moods to climax with the final movement Mad Dance, a short robust stomp that ends with a wail and a shout. Works by Jean Matitia, Paul Creston and Ida Gotkovsky are also featured.

The liner notes describe the duo’s goal of remaining accessible while presenting “an eclectic and varied repertoire.” Here’s hoping they now commission and record works written especially for them. That’s when their musical stars should really begin to shine brilliantly. In the meantime, Gualin’s impeccable breath control and Riverin’s singing florid phrases will keep the listener engaged.

01_biberBiber - Mystery Sonatas
Julia Wedman
Sono Luminus DSL-92127 (www.sonoluminus.com)

Biber was by all accounts at least as proficient a violinist as his late 17th century contemporary Corelli. He was renowned for his abilities to play in the upper positions and for his complex compositions for the instrument. The sonatas on this disc are perhaps his most well-known, though they are rarely performed for a number of reasons. The Mystery Sonatas were written most likely sometime in the 1670s “to honour the fifteen Sacred Mysteries” of the Catholic Rosary. They are contemplative, deeply spiritual, almost private, intimate pieces. One of their most interesting aspects is that each sonata calls for a different tuning of the open strings of the violin, a technique known as “scordatura” or “de-tuning”. Each sonata has a different structure, some featuring dance movements, others theme and variations, with #4 and #6 featuring extended chaconne and lament movements.

This is a remarkably detailed and well-executed recording, at the centre of which is the stellar and imaginative playing of Julia Wedman, who is a mainstay of Tafelmusik, I Furiosi and the Eybler Quartet. The variety of continuo playing – performed exquisitely by top-notch local players Felix Deak, Charlotte Nediger, Lucas Harris and Julia Seager Scott – contributes to the brilliance of this CD, as does the excellent technical production and program booklet.

It’s clear that this project is a labour of love for Wedman and it represents a high achievement, produced relatively early in what we hope is a long and productive career. Highly recommended.

01a_liszt_anniversaryThe Liszt Anniversary Collection
Christina Petrowska Quilico
Welspringe Productions WP011 (www.indiepool.com)

01b_liszt_lortieLiszt - The Complete Années de Pèlerinage
Louis Lortie
Chandos CHAN10662(2)

Is it true that women used to vie for a lock of Franz Liszt’s hair? Justin Bieber move over! In any event, it seems particularly appropriate that this being the 200th anniversary of his birth, we have not one, but two new releases devoted to piano music by the Hungarian virtuoso, and both of them performed by Canadians.

Ottawa-born Christina Petrowska Quilico studied at the Royal Conservatory, and later at the Juilliard School. Since then, she has earned a reputation as an exceptional and innovative teacher and performer, with a particular dedication to music by contemporary Canadian composers. Nevertheless, in her newest CD, titled “The Liszt Anniversary Collection” on the Welspringe label, she returns to the 19th century, with selections spanning Liszt’s entire career. True to form, her playing is polished, self-assured, and technically flawless. But what I find most appealing about this recording is the wonderful variety achieved within the carefully chosen programme. Well-known favourites such as La Campanella (as transcribed by Busoni) and the concert étude Un Sospiro are here, but also included are less familiar pieces, such as Wiegenlied, En rêve, and Nuages gris. These smaller works dating from Liszt’s late period are quietly introspective, and stylistically point to the 20th century. Petrowska Quilico treats them with a wonderful delicacy, adeptly proving that Liszt is not all bravura and showmanship!

More gargantuan in scale is a new Chandos double-disc set by Louis Lortie featuring the entire Années de Pelèrinage, including an addendum to the second set, Italie. Lortie has made a considerable name for himself since winning first prize at the Busoni Piano Competition in 1984, and a major prize at the Leeds Competition... Now based in Berlin, he continues to enjoy international fame through concerts and recordings. The three sets of Années – based on Liszt’s voyages to Switzerland and Italy - are gigantic in scope, and I would deem few pianists are able to interpret this music convincingly. Needless to say, Lortie does so brilliantly. As befits this repertoire, his approach is bold and impassioned, demonstrating a herculean technique. The Vallée d’Obermann from the first set presents technical challenges that would make the average pianist wince, but Lortie brings it off with aplomb. On the other hand, his treatment of such pieces as the Sonetto 47 and 123 from the second set, Italie, is elegantly understated. Bringing the disc to a rousing conclusion is the flamboyant Tarantella, music requiring almost superhuman powers. Is it any wonder that Liszt was sometimes regarded as Mephistopheles himself?

In all, two exemplary recordings which together comprise admirable recognition to Liszt’s bicentenary.

02_Schmitt_FranckSchmidtt - La Tragedie de Salomé; Franck - Symphonie in D minor
Orchestre Metropolitain du Grand Montreal; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
ATMA ACD2 2647

A half-submerged treasure in the dark and luxurious orchestral repertoire of the early 20th-century is the ballet/orchestral work The Tragedy of Salomé (1907) by French composer Florent Schmitt. Dance critic Toni Bentley’s intriguing book Sisters of Salomé describes the era’s “Salomania” craze. Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé that became the libretto for the Richard Strauss opera (1905) was not the only manifestation. There were also solo Salomé acts by proto-modern dancers including Canadian Maud Allan, “Mata Hari” (real name Margaretha Zelle) and Ida Rubenstein.

Schmitt’s work was premiered by American dancer Loïe Fuller, also well-known for her own Salomé creations when Schmitt composed his version. After the premiere he shortened and re-scored it for large orchestra, in the form recorded on this fine disc. Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain in an exciting yet carefully-balanced performance. The shifts of mood and pacing essential for this post-Debussy style are handled sensitively, as is the balance of solo winds emerging out of complex symphonic textures. I particularly liked the brilliance of the Dance of Pearls and the aptly-titled final Dance of Terror in 5/4 time.

Franck’s Symphony in D minor (1888) has its defenders, but for me the overworked motifs eventually turn into unwelcome guests. Nézet-Séguin delivers with subtle dynamics and clear delineation of the organ-like instrumentation, enough to attract Franckophiles and those seeking to fill a gap in their late-19th-century orchestral collections.

03_HolstHolst - The Planets; Beni Mora; Japanese Suite
Manchester Chamber Choir; BBC Philharmonic; Sir Andrew Davis
Chandos CHSA 5086

This is Davis’ third recording of The Planets, Holst’s best known work. The first was for EMI in 1986 with the TSO during his tenure here. His second, for Teldec, was in 1993 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra during his tenure there.

There is no paucity of recorded versions interpreted by a who’s who of eminently suitable conductors and some quite unsuitable. I have heard just about all of them and some are outstanding, such as Boult’s 1966 version with the New Philharmonia (EMI) but Davis’s new version, all things considered, is the one some of us have been waiting for.

From the very first bars of Mars, The Bringer of War, it is clear that Davis has re-thought the music with striking results. There is a fresh clarity and transparency achieved primarily by adjusting the balances between instruments and through subtle and not so subtle adjustments to the tempi and phrasing.

Beni Mora is a delicately scored, attractive little ballet with an oriental flavour. The Japanese Suite is another dance piece, alternately stimulating and reposeful. It is new to me but I’ve listened a few times and regard both beautifully scored little works as undeservedly obscure gems that live in the shadow of The Planets.

Davis acknowledges an affinity for Holst and there are more recordings to come from these forces.

The wide range of sonorities together with scrupulous regard for dynamic gradations from juggernaut tuttis to the gossamer pianissimos in The Planets are captured to absolute perfection by CHANDOS. This disc is a must have, particularly for the most demanding audiophile. A hybrid disc, the outstanding sound in stereo is enhanced with astonishing reality in surround sound on SACD players.

04_mahler_dvdMahler: Symphony No. 9
Lucerne Festival Orchestra; Claudio Abbado
Accentus Music; Arte DVD ACC20214

This is the second DVD of Abbado conducting this work at the Lucerne Festival; a previous 2005 EuroArts release had featured a marvellous rendition by the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. As fine as that performance was, I find myself utterly astonished by the excellence of this latest incarnation from August of 2010 with the incomparable Lucerne Festival Orchestra. From start to finish conductor and orchestra are of one mind, setting a new standard of excellence in revealing this purportedly death-obsessed work as a fiery affirmation of life. The very soul of Mahler is stripped bare, tender and defiant, sarcastic and caring, brave and pensive, in a truly revelatory performance of astounding sensitivity and beauty of tone. As the house lights dim theatrically during the final pages of the symphony we are transported into an atmosphere of sublime transcendence: now barely audible, the music is drawn out to infinity and evaporates into two and a half minutes of stunned silence from an audience which clearly has witnessed a truly historic event. The DVD (also available in the Blu-Ray format) is skilfully filmed with vastly improved sound from previous releases and includes the option of a “conductor camera” view focused on Abbado alone.

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