02 Aldo CIccoliniAldo Ciccolini, who died in 2015 at age 89, is remembered for his specialization with classical repertoire as well as modern French music, especially Satie. His collaborations with Yannick Nézet-Séguin in 2009 and 2011 have yielded a recording of these live concerts: Mozart Piano Concerto No.20, Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No.2; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Yannick Nézet-Séguin (LPO 0102 lpo.org.uk/recordings).

The recorded performances are wonderful documents, slowed a bit by advanced age, but utterly perfect in every other way. Ciccolini, even in his 80s, had the lightness and clarity of touch to navigate Mozart with supreme elegance. Yet the power needed to battle through the Rachmaninoff Concerto No.2 seems undiminished. Ciccolini plays with a discernible affection for the music, without hasty completion of ideas. Every slightly lingering moment seems so appropriate.

The concerts must have been remarkable events, and judging from the audience response, being there was an unforgettable privilege.

01 Busoni 10Wolf Harden continues his productive career on the Naxos label with his latest CD Busoni - Piano Music - Vol.10, Piano Transcriptions of works by Bach, Brahms, Cramer, Liszt and Mozart (Naxos 8.573806 naxos.com). Busoni’s transcriptions have a distinctive sound. They are big and often dense, but always reflect his abiding respect for the form and structure to which his subject composers adhered. Harden is obviously at home in this genre but equally comfortable with exploiting Busoni’s style for its Italianate swells of emotion.

The most intriguing tracks on this recording are the Brahms Chorale Preludes for Organ Op.122 in which Brahms’ Romanticism is augmented by Busoni’s often heroic keyboard style. Harden plays this with such perfect balance, preserving the sacred nature of the chorales while allowing Busoni to restate them in his own unique terms. Brahms sometimes buried the chorale melody rather deeply in his harmonic mix but Harden never loses his grip of it, keeping the line prominent and easy to follow.

03 Beethoven Lars VogtLars Vogt appears as pianist and conductor on his latest release Beethoven Piano Concertos 2 & 4; Royal Northern Sinfonia (Ondine ODE1311-2 ondine.net). Directing from the keyboard, Vogt leads the orchestra in a highly energized performance of these familiar works. The RNS is a mid-size ensemble well suited to the classical repertoire, and despite the size of their home concert hall, they maintain a satisfying sense of intimacy in their playing.

Both concertos are a delight to hear but the Concerto No.4 really shows the composer as a mature tunesmith. The players sound as if they take some special delight in driving forward the powerful rhythms of this concerto. Vogt is brilliant at the keyboard. His playing is articulate, fluent and sensitive. Rapid ornaments roll from his fingers with astonishing ease. It’s an exciting and bracing recording.

04 Brahms KriegerNorman Kieger’s latest release Brahms Piano Concerto No.2, Piano Sonata No.1; London Symphony Orchestra; Philip Ryan Mann (Decca DD41142/481 4871 decca.com) meets the high expectations raised by its cover. From the opening French horn solo to the concerto’s final chords, orchestra and soloist are perfectly balanced. The fabled third movement cello solos are as beautifully played as you’d ever hear, and the ensemble playing throughout is flawless. The disc also includes the Sonata No.1 in C, Op.1. Even though the two works were recorded in different locations, the relative audio presence of the piano and the space around it are almost identical. This consistency reflects the label’s high production values and contributes to the exceptional quality of this recording.

05 Paganini at the PianoGoran Filipec is a powerhouse pianist, and it’s just as well because no less would do for the repertoire on his latest recording Paganini at the Piano – Arrangements and Variations by Hambourg, Busoni, Zadora, Friedman, Papandopulo (Grand Piano GP 769 grandpianorecords.com). Paganini’s music and virtuosity, especially his Caprices for solo violin, had considerable impact on his piano playing and composing contemporaries. Filipec selects a fine sampling of these inspired keyboard works beginning with a huge set of variations by Hambourg on perhaps the best-known Caprice, No.24. Friedman’s Studies on the same thematic material are equally long, challenging and impressive for their creative originality. Along with the disc’s other tracks you’ll be left breathlessly awestruck by Filipec’s playing.

06 Beethoven UnboundWelsh pianist Llŷr Williams last year completed a Beethoven concert cycle at Wigmore Hall which was recorded and recently released as Beethoven Unbound (Signum Classics SIGCD527P signumrecords.com). The 12-CD box set represents an enormous three-year recording project that documented the complete piano Sonatas, Bagatelles and Beethoven’s several sets of Variations. In all, there are nearly 14 hours of music to satisfy the most demanding Beethovenian consumer.

Williams is supremely capable in this repertoire and possesses a formidable keyboard technique. His artistic vision for this music is to lift it above the struggle we almost naturally assume underlies all the composer’s writing, and set it free in a much larger space. Here is where Williams decides that joviality, tenderness, passion and genius all have a place in Beethoven’s universe. While Beethoven Unbound is a welcome addition to the world of complete sets, it’s a significant re-visioning of music we have perhaps known too well.

07 McDermott HaydnAnne-Marie McDermott’s latest recording is Haydn Sonatas, Vol.2 (Bridge 9497 BridgeRecords.com) and contains four Sonatas, 37, 39, 46 and 48, Hoboken XVI, from the composer’s mid- to late-career years. The immediately arresting thing about McDermott’s playing is her speed and clarity. Her fast tempos are as quick as most performers can manage, yet entirely without loss of articulation. Her phrasings are impeccable and artfully crafted to lift in all the most effective places. She imbues a sense of whimsy and playfulness into Haydn’s music, replacing the too-often heard mechanical approaches that many performers take for the composer. She assumes that the music is already all there and she just needs to find it and reveal it. Even more interesting is the way McDermott brings a kind of retro-romance to Haydn. Imagine Chopin or Debussy playing these, blending the perfection of classicism with the passions of their subsequent eras. It’s a beautiful and fresh approach by a supremely gifted pianist who needs to be more widely heard.

08 Orion WeissOrion Weiss adds a new release to his current handful of recordings with Presentiment (orionwiess.com). Weiss’s program captures the foreboding felt in the years before the First World War. This anxiety is only subtly present in the Granados Goyescas, but Weiss finds it in the music’s shadows and teases it out into the open. He’s a seductive performer; a charmer of sorts. Only in the final two movements does he fully explore what Granados has only been hinting in his earlier pages. Weiss plays Goyescas with an easy lightness that makes many of its phrases pure dance. The best I’ve heard in a long time.

Progressively, more of the early-20th century’s angst reveals itself in Janáček’s In the Mists. Weiss uses the deep melancholy of this work’s plaintive melodies to lead up to the disc’s final piece, Scriabin’s Sonata No.9 Op.68 “Black Mass.” Here there’s no longer any doubt about what the world is about to experience. Weiss portrays it all with a mature and measured confidence.

09 Monica ChewMonica Chew is a gifted player with an affinity for deeply sensitive expression. Her debut recording Tender & Strange – A Piano Recital: Bartok, Janáček, Takemitsu, Messiaen, Scriabin (Chronicalicious CHR 170001 monicachew.com) conveys this in a powerful way and her program title aptly reflects her recital’s intentions. Each of her chosen pieces has some passages where this inner search is evident, but she makes the deepest impression with the Messiaen Le baiser de l’enfant-Jesus. Here she speaks the composer’s language fluently. Similarly, both of Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketches capture a contemplative other-worldliness. No.2 in particular, In Memoriam Olivier Messiaen, holds the listener in suspense through its numerous sustained chordal clusters that fade over extended fermatas, each followed by total silence before the next notes sound. Chew plays these final pages of the piece with impeccable timing and musicality.

10 Kabalevsky SonatasMichael Korstick has several dozen recordings to his credit and his latest is Dmitri Kabalevsky – Complete Piano Sonatas (CPO 555 163-2 naxosdirect.com/labels/cpo). Kabalevsky’s piano music suffers the fate of being overshadowed by that of other Russian contemporaries like Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff, but the artistic commitment of performers like Korstick and labels like CPO make this music both available and worth hearing. Kabalevsky’s three sonatas are his only efforts for solo piano in a large form. The first dates from 1927 and the other two from 1945 and 1946 respectively. Kabalevsky wrote the Sonata No.2 Op.45 for Emil Gilels, who premiered it in the Soviet Union in 1945. Vladimir Horowitz performed the American premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1947. It’s the most engaging of the three sonatas, with some devilishly difficult passages in the final movement. On the whole, it’s a beautifully written piece and offers so much that repeated plays are a necessity. Korstick does a fabulous job performing it.

11 Nagy AngelusOrganist and composer Zvonimir Nagy has a new recording of his recent works. Angelus – Music for Organ (Ravello Records RR7987 ravellorecords.com) begins with the title track Angelus, and establishes the profoundly meditative nature of this disc’s program. The recording was made on the four-division pipe organ in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where Nagy is associate professor of music. It’s a modestly sized instrument and well-balanced for the acoustic space the chapel offers.

There is a marked minimalism in Nagy’s writing. He uses the instrument’s broad dynamic range and colourful stop list to create some very beautiful moments. Even while he concentrates on form, writing movements that are inversions and retrogrades of each other, he is always focused on creating the meditative atmosphere he wants for works like Litanies of the Soul and Preludes for a Prayer.

12 Melnikov Debussy coverAlexander Melnikov is a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory. His new recording Claude Debussy – Préludes du 2e Livre, La Mer (Debussy version for four-hand piano) (Harmonia Mundi HMM 902302 harmoniamundi.com) includes pianist Olga Pashchenko in the transcription of La Mer.

Debussy accepted his publisher’s request to write the transcription, and created a work that blends an astonishing amount of orchestral colour into the capabilities of a single keyboard with two players. Melnikov and Pashchenko are wonderful partners in this recording. They play with a deeply shared artistic sensibility and deliver both the power and rich palette of the orchestral score.

Melnikov plays the Préludes Book II leaving the impression that he understands exactly what Debussy intended to convey. His technique is impressively clean and crisp, and his interpretations are completely convincing. He plays with great attention to colour and emotion, and takes advantage of Debussy’s frequent harmonic densities and other devices to make this a completely captivating disc. Melnikov favours authenticity in performance and has chosen to play an Érard in this recording. 

01 VivaldiVivaldi – Concertos pour flûte à bec
Vincent Lauzer; Arion Baroque Orchestra; Alexander Weimann
ATMA ACD2 2760 (atmaclassique.com)

Vivaldi’s recorder concertos have long been respected – and enjoyed. Enter soloist Vincent Lauzer, who comes with a whole slate of achievement awards. Lauzer tackles his first soprano concerto with relish, meeting the challenge of a demandingly fast Allegro and Allegro molto; in between these two he charms us with a soothing Largo, testing the full gamut of the soprano recorder.

Turn now to the five movements of the treble recorder concerto from the La Notte suite. Once again, a Largo breathes intensity into Vivaldi’s music. Lauzer conducts us through a somewhat sinister composition; as La Notte implies there is indeed something of the night about it.

Of course, this pattern of serious Largos should not be taken as typical, as there is a lightness and pleasure in the Largo movement of Lauzer’s choice of another soprano concerto. This time, too, an Allegro draws on all the soloist’s expertise – it is breathless for both performer and listener.

Lauzer absolutely sails through this repertoire, although we should not forget the strings and basso continuo. Listen indeed to the Largo e cantabile of Lauzer’s final choice for treble recorder. It is as though with anything Vivaldi composed, no matter how complex Vivaldi intended it to be, Lauzer performs it with a passion. He enjoys total mastery of his recorders. And we are the highly fortunate listeners.

02 KuhlauKuhlau – Grandes Sonates Opus 71 & 83
Mika Putterman; Erin Helyard
Analekta AN 2 9530 (analekta.com)

Born in Hamburg and later based in Copenhagen, Friedrich Kuhlau (1786-1832) was encountered by my generation mainly as a piano sonatina composer. In his time, however, he succeeded best with music for the flute. Montreal-based specialist Mika Putterman here provides an exemplary demonstration of the Romantic flute’s beauties, in collaboration with Australian fortepianist, conductor and musicologist Erin Helyard. In Kuhlau’s Grand Sonata for Fortepiano and Flute Obbligato, Op. 71 in E Minor (1825) and the similarly named Op. 83, No. 1 in G Major (1827) the duo also practises tempo modification, i.e. speeding up or slowing down beyond what is specified in the score. It takes time to get used to this, as is usual with unfamiliar historically informed performance practices.

I particularly enjoyed the E-minor sonata for its instrumental interplay, florid display and melodic attractiveness. Putterman plays with pure, non-vibrato tone that can be sweet or sad, and is very affecting in the slow movement’s melody. Helyard is a confident fortepianist, though sometimes his solid chords are over-prominent. Both are excellent technically and their ensemble is tight. The G-major sonata’s middle movement is a set of variations, where each player impresses with the ability to play fast passages with convincing expressive touches. Of the outer movements I preferred the first, and must mention Helyard’s fluent double-thirds here and elsewhere. Along with specialists, I think this disc would appeal to those open to new challenges for performers and listeners alike.

03 Beethoven FluteBeethoven – Works For Flute 1
Kazunori Seo; Patrick Gallois; Mitsuo Kodama; Asuka Sezaki; Koichi Komine
Naxos 8.573569 (naxos.com)

Japanese flutist Kazunori Seo takes centre stage in this recording of Beethoven’s wind-focused chamber music. First up on the program are three duos for flute and bassoon, transcribed by Seo to substitute a flute for the clarinet originally called for on the upper part. It’s not certain that these duos are really Beethoven’s, and they don’t display the complexity of the other two pieces which follow them here – but their transparent simplicity is charming. Seo and bassoonist Mitsuo Kodama play with grace and attentiveness here, but are perhaps a little too cautious in their interpretation. That said, Seo’s sound on his wooden modern flute is lovely, his use of vibrato as a decorative choice is exemplary, and the instrumental blend is top-notch.

Much less reserve can be heard in the Duo in G Major for two flutes, played by Seo and Patrick Gallois with strongly shaped phrasing, dramatic shifts of dynamic range, and expressive use of articulation and ornament. The conversation’s saltier and the results are definitely fun!

The interpretive thoughtfulness continues with Serenade in D Major for flute, violin and viola, Op.25, which receives a nuanced and intrepid performance in its original scoring. This is a wonderful piece of chamber music and it’s good to hear it played with such polish and spirited engagement.

04 Schubert TriosSchubert – Piano Trios
Trio Vitruvi
Bridge Records 9510 (bridgerecords.com)

Hailing from Denmark, Trio Vitruvi had both their Carnegie Hall debut performance and the official release of their debut album with Bridge Records in April this year. After winning two chamber music competitions and several awards in 2014, the ensemble began touring and found its unique voice in the process – their playing is polished and noble, sophisticated, astute and spirited, open to improvising in the moment yet respectful of musical traditions. The trio’s name comes from Roman architect and philosopher Vitruvius, whose concepts regarding beauty, structure and proportions the trio adopted and applied to their understanding of music and interpretations. Niklas Walentin (violin), Jacob la Cour (cello) and Alexander McKenzie (piano) are not only talented but also highly attuned to Schubert’s music.

Schubert’s final piano trio (D.929) is rich, monumental, ingenious, surprisingly intimate at times, a masterpiece of structural and harmonic genius, and one of my favourite pieces of music. I cannot help but note the parallel between the Vitruvian Triad (as written in De Architectura) and the trio’s interpretation of Schubert’s music: it seems that both Vitruvius and Vitruvi aspired to make their creations solid, useful and beautiful. Vitruvi takes it one step further – they infuse Schubert’s music with a sense of adventure and limitless colours. Here we are treated to the original, longer version of the fourth movement, which makes this recording even more precious. Notturno, written in the same year, makes for the lush, lyrical conclusion of this album.

05 Wagner OrchestralWagner – Orchestral music from Der Ring des Nibelungen
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta
Naxos 8.573839 (naxos.com)

Apart from having a great sense of theatre, Wagner was also a tremendous orchestrator, much of it self-taught. He increased the size of the orchestra, invented new instruments (e.g. Wagner tuba), and like Debussy later, created a new sound, new orchestral colours, and had definite ideas as to the placement of the orchestra in relation to the stage. He was also the first one who thought of turning off the lights in the auditorium during performance. Naturally the orchestra became an integral part of his music dramas and much of his orchestral music can be independently played at concerts.

The Ring has ample scope for this, collected now on a single CD by Naxos with the Buffalo Philharmonic and their current music director, JoAnn Falletta. It’s primary purpose most likely is to show off the virtuosity of this fine ensemble and its conductor and perhaps give an introduction to the uninitiated at a low price. The excerpts evoke some of the great scenes, like the Entry of the Gods into Valhalla over a rainbow bridge or the Ride of the Valkyries where you can hear the shrieks of laughter of the warrior maidens and the neighing of the horses, or the wondrous Magic Fire Music with its shimmering curtain of sound. We can even hear the waves of the mighty Rhine carrying Siegfried to his eventual doom.

Given the enormous popularity of the Ring today and dozens of new video versions, this modest CD is a good reminder of the timeless musical beauties that might escape the hurried wayfarers of our digital, plug-in world.

06 Mahler 1 FischerMahler – Symphony No.1
Düsseldorfer Symphoniker; Ádám Fischer
Avi-Music 8553390 (avi-music.de)

It started innocently enough. Our stalwart editor kindly brought me this Mahler disc conducted by a fellow named Fischer. I presumed his first name was Iván, well known for the excellence of his Mahler recordings with his Budapest Festival Orchestra; but what was he doing in Düsseldorf? Well, I was (not so) sadly mistaken; Iván has an elder brother, named Ádám, who has been the music director of the venerable Düsseldorf orchestra since 2015. And what of the Düsseldorf ensemble? Established 200 years ago, it was led in its early days by the likes of Mendelssohn and Schumann. Though their symphonic profile is unfortunately overshadowed these days by their onerous commitments to the local opera house, they are an aristocratic ensemble of outstanding sensitivity that deserves a far greater international reputation.

In fact, I was so impressed by the excellence of this recording of Mahler’s fledgling symphony I eagerly sought out and strongly recommend their earlier volumes of this ongoing cycle as well, which Fischer boldly launched in 2015 with the most under-appreciated of Mahler’s symphonies, the sphinx-like Seventh. I was floored by that 2015 performance, which is amongst the finest I have ever heard. From start to finish Fischer never loses sight of the connecting threads of this highly sectional work, expertly driving it to a triumphal conclusion. I was reminded of an incident in 1976 when I was astonished to witness a high school band sauntering down Bloor Street during the annual Christmas parade, blasting away the principal theme of the finale of this work. Mahler himself would have been delighted to have witnessed that event; his time had indeed come! That’s exactly how joyously the conclusion of this work reaches its spirited apotheosis.

The subsequent volume featuring the Fourth Symphony is equally fine, a beautifully sculpted sonic landscape imbued with the effervescent spirit of Haydn, over which passing clouds of mock menace occasionally appear. No detail is overlooked and the performance is full of personality with a chamber-music-like delicacy. It rivals my sentimental favourite performance by George Szell.

The recordings in this ongoing cycle are edits of live performances captured by German Radio. The sound is excellent and the audience is undetectable, though at times the lower frequencies seem slightly indistinct (notably in the First Symphony), likely due to the unusual spherical design of the Düsseldorf Tonhalle, a repurposed, massive planetarium constructed in 1926. Fischer himself contributes his own provocative thoughts in the program notes.

A fourth volume devoted to the Fifth Symphony was released in March. Digital downloads are available at avi-music.de. This series promises to rank among the most compelling of Mahler cycles in a very crowded field.

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