07 Prokofiev Symphony No7Prokofiev – Symphony No.7; Orchestral works
Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop
Naxos 8.573620 (naxos.com)

Sergei Prokofiev made a disastrous decision in 1936 to return to his homeland, the Soviet Union. Already a much celebrated composer and pianist in the West, he was hoping the Stalinist repression and terror wouldn’t apply to him like it did to Shostakovich, who kept a packed suitcase by his bedside to be ready when the KGB showed up. It didn’t, but Prokofiev’s creative genius was much curtailed and, plagued with ill health, financial and marriage problems, he was driven to an early death in 1953 (a day I remember), a few hours before Stalin died.

The Seventh Symphony that stems from this period shows no sign of the lessening of his talents, although it was aimed at pleasing the regime. What makes it so beautiful is his melodic gifts par excellence combined with tremendous skill in counterpoint, with countermelodies going in the opposite direction in the lower registers against the main subjects in the upper strings. The effect is remarkably original, and made transparent here by Marin Alsop. She recorded the entire set of Prokofiev’s symphonies with the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, with which she seems to have special affinity. Alsop takes a relaxed approach, somewhat slower than expected, revelling in the lyricism and beauties of the score, but gathers momentum in the last movement with an inimitable, energetic yet graceful style that I had the good fortune to witness when I last saw her with the TSO.

In addition, there are two excerpts from the opera Love for Three Oranges, with the Scherzo delightfully driven in good humour and devil-may-care abandon, and the Lieutenant Kije Suite, where Alsop conjures up a monumental brass fanfare from pianississimo in steady crescendo to a formidable fortississimo, a remarkable feat by the Sao Paulo brass and Naxos engineers.

08 piccolo sweet dreamSweet Dream
Jean-Louis Beaumadier
Skarbo DSK4165 (piccolo-beaumadier.com)

How much repertoire is out there for the piccolo player? Through extensive discoveries, adaptations and commissioning, Jean-Louis Beaumadier continues to amaze us with the breadth of musical possibilities that his oft-maligned little flute possesses. Sweet Dream, the most recent addition to his fine collection of nearly 20 recordings devoted entirely to the piccolo, offers fresh new works rendered with the captivating artistry we have come to expect from this musician whom Jean-Pierre Rampal once dubbed “the Paganini of the Piccolo.”

In Guarnieri’s Estudo, Guiot’s Sweet Project, and Damase’s For Piccolo, Beaumadier’s continuing partnership with pianist Jordi Torrent is the source of outstanding rhythmic precision, impeccable intonation and synchronicity of nuance. In particular, the jazzy, technical wizardry of Mike Mower’s Sonata is executed with effortlessly cool nonchalance. Carla Rees with her Kingma quarter-tone alto flute joins them in Véronique Poltz’s four expressive and inventive miniatures, Midnight with Pan. Although employing flutter-tongue, whole-tone and quarter-tone passages, this music is engagingly accessible; movement three, Sweet Dream, exudes utter serenity.

The controlled beauty of Beaumadier’s pianissimo is featured in Flint Juventino Beppe’s A Piccolo Poem. William Bardwell’s gamelan-inspired gem, Little Serenade, uses the percussive textures of the mandolin and xylophone to contrast and support some very lyrical piccolo playing. Rounding out the disc are Gordon Jacob’s Introduction and Fugue for piccolo, flute and alto flute, Magalif’s infectiously cheerful piccolo duet Tarantella and the improvisatory-like duet, Naomi for piccolo and flute with voice, by Magic Malik (Malik Mezzadri).

This CD is highly recommended for both the piccolo aficionados and its skeptics!

01 Korngold BernsteinThe Dutch violinist Liza Ferschtman is in terrific form on her new Super Audio CD of works by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Leonard Bernstein (Challenge Classics CC72755 challengerecords.com). The Prague Symphony Orchestra under Jiří Malát features in Korngold’s Violin Concerto Op.35, while Het Gelders Orkest under Christian Vásquez accompanies Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s “Symposium.”

Korngold’s cinematic concerto quotes liberally from his Hollywood movie scores, and despite its 1945 date is a late Romantic work redolent of the composer’s early years in pre-war Vienna. Ferschtman’s strong, rich tone is perfect for this lush work, and is particularly effective in the gorgeous slow movement.

Bernstein’s Serenade, written for Isaac Stern in 1954, is a five-movement work very much with a concerto feel – Bernstein apparently referred to it as such – and also contains quotes from the composer’s earlier works, this time five short pieces written as birthday presents for his friends. It’s a really lovely work that really should be heard more often.

Both were recorded live, the Korngold in Ludwigshafen, Germany and the Bernstein in Arnhem in the Netherlands. The orchestral contribution is excellent throughout, as is the recording quality.

02 Daniel Hope MozartJourney to Mozart is an exploration of the musical world of Mozart and his contemporaries by the English violinist Daniel Hope (danielhope.com) with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon 4798376).

Two pieces from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice – an orchestral Dance of the Furies and a violin adaptation of Dance of the Blessed Spirits – open the disc. Haydn’s Violin Concerto in G Major has a lovely feel to it, as does the Larghetto second movement from Mysliveček’s D Major Violin Concerto.

The central Mozart works are the Violin Concerto No.3 in G Major K216 and the E Major Adagio K261, the latter in a particularly lovely performance.

Johann Peter Salomon, the concert impresario who brought Haydn to London, was also a violinist and composer, and his brief Romance for violin and strings in D Major is a real delight. An arrangement of Mozart’s Rondo alla turca from the A Major Piano Sonata K331 completes a terrific CD.

After numerous appearances as a guest soloist Hope became the musical director of the Zurich ensemble in 2016. Their mutual understanding is evident in performances notable for their sensitivity, clarity, energy and dynamic contrasts.

03 Blake PouliotThe young Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot makes an outstanding recording debut with Ravel-Debussy Sonates with pianist Hsin-I Huang (Analekta AN 2 8798 analekta.com). The Ravel works are the Tzigane and the Violin Sonata No.2 in G Major, while Debussy is represented by the Sonata for Violin and Piano and a transcription of the song Beau Soir, the latter providing a truly beautiful ending to a first-class CD.

Pouliot plays with strength, clarity, warmth, faultless intonation and a fine sense of phrase, and draws a gorgeous tone from the 1729 Guarneri del Gesù violin on loan from the Canada Council for the Arts. Huang provides splendid support for a player who is clearly going to be a major force in the violin world.

04 Bloch ViolaThere is an interesting story behind the recent release of Ernest Bloch Music for Viola and Piano (Delos DE 3498 delosmusic.com). Violist Paul Neubauer and pianist Margo Garrett spent three days in 2001 recording all of Bloch’s music for viola and piano, only for the digital audio tapes to go missing. When they resurfaced a while ago the performers were thrilled to find them not only salvageable but also featuring playing that represents their best efforts to bring these works to life.

And what playing it is! Both performers are superb in the major work on the CD, the four-movement Suite for Viola and Piano from 1919, described in The Musical Quarterly as “…one of the most significant and powerful works of our time.”

The other works on the disc are the short, unfinished Sonata for Viola Solo from 1958, the year of Bloch’s death, and the Suite hébraïque and the Meditation and Processional, originally written as Five Jewish Pieces in 1951 but reconfigured into two independent works and published separately.

Neubauer has a wonderful fullness to his playing, with Garrett’s accompaniment of an equally high standard. There is no hint of any problem with the source tapes. 

05 Viola GalanteThere’s more lovely viola playing on Viola Galante with violist Pauline Sachse and harpsichordist Andreas Hecker playing 18th-century sonatas by C.P.E. Bach, William Flackton, Giorgio Antoniotto, Franz Benda and Christlieb Siegmund Binder (Avi-music 8553312 avi-music.de). Except for the Bach and Flackton, all are world premiere recordings of mostly forgotten repertoire.

The works are from an era when the viola was first being considered as a solo instrument, and when, in reaction to the ornamental Baroque style, a desire for delicacy and sensitivity sparked the emergence of the galant style. Both players exhibit an appropriate lightness and agility with an excellent balance, the harpsichord never too close or heavy. The opening movement of the Binder work in particular features outstanding playing by Hecker.

Sachse’s 1610 Paolo Maggini Madame Butterfly viola is strung with gut strings, and produces an appropriately beautiful sound. Hecker plays a 2000 Bruce Kennedy replica of a Berlin harpsichord by Michael Mietke, ca.1700.

Excellent and informative booklet notes regarding style and technical issues, especially contemporary pitch and temperament, add to a fascinating release.

06 Finnish ViolinThere are more world premiere recordings on Finnish Violin Music, with violinist Annemarie Åström leading performances of virtually unknown works written in the 1920s in the shadow of Sibelius (Alba Records ABCD 410 alba.fi). The three composers here share a connection, Helvi Leiviskä and Väinö Raitio having studied with Erkki Melartin at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.

Åström is joined by fellow KAAÅS Trio members pianist Tiina Karakorpi and cellist Ulla Lampela in Leiviskä’s Piano Trio, and by violist Atte Kilpeläinen and cellist Tomas Nuñez-Garcés in Melartin’s terrific Trio Op.133. Raitio is represented by the Four Pieces for Violin and Piano Op.18 and Sinivuokko, a late piece from 1943.

These are fine performances of really strong and appealing works that leave you wondering what other real gems are waiting to be rescued from obscurity.

07 Petrof TrioPiano trios by Rachmaninov/Franck/Suk are featured on a new CD from the Petrof Piano Trio of pianist Martina Schulmeisterová, violinist Jan Schulmeister and cellist Kamil Žvak (ArcoDiva UP 0183-2131 petrofpianotrio.com).

The three major works are Rachmaninov’s Piano Trio in G Minor (a student work from 1892), César Franck’s Piano Trio in F-sharp Minor Op.1 No.1 and Josef Suk’s Elegy Op.23. Trio arrangements of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, Saint-Saëns’ The Swan and Piazzolla’s Invierno Porteño complete the disc.

The Franck is an interesting piece, a juvenile work from a composer known primarily for a few works from his final years. The Petrof Trio is in its element with Suk’s lovely Elegy, but there is outstanding playing throughout the CD, with the warm, passionate and expressive string playing you would expect from Czech players and a superb piano tone and recording quality.

08 Kamus QuartetThere’s another world premiere recording on the new Super Audio CD from the Finnish Kamus Quartet, this time the title track Homunculus, a work by Esa-Pekka Salonen in a program that also includes György Ligeti’s String Quartet No.1 (Metamorphoses Nocturnes) and Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No.3 (Alba Records ABCD 409 alba.fi).

Homunculus – a reference to a medieval alchemists’ theory that all life existed in minute but perfect seeds, the tiny humans being known as homunculi – is described as “a big work in a miniature mould.” Ligeti’s quartet is a strong early work with a decided Bartók influence. The performance of the Britten is an insightful one, clearly helped by the winter months the Kamus Quartet spent in Aldeburgh, the composer’s home on the North Sea coast.

Excellent playing and intelligent and thoughtful interpretations make this a highly satisfying disc.

09 Escher QuartetThe New York-based Escher String Quartet provides rich, full-bodied Romantic playing on a new Super Audio CD of three of the most popular works in the string quartet repertoire: Dvořák’s String Quartet in F Major Op.96 (“American”); Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No.1 in D Major Op.11 (the one with the famous Andante cantabile slow movement); and Borodin’s String Quartet No.2 in D Major, its Scherzo and Notturno middle movements the sources for the hit songs Baubles, Bangles and Beads and And This Is My Beloved from the Broadway musical Kismet (BIS Records BIS-2280 bis.se).

Lovely works, really top-notch performances and over 80 minutes of music make for a thoroughly enjoyable CD.

10 CancionnesIt’s easy to understand why Classical Guitar Magazine described Adam Cicchillitti as a “superb Canadian guitarist” from his new CD Canciones (Analekta AN 2 8781 analekta.com).

As the booklet notes point out, few national music styles are as connected with one instrument as is Spain with the guitar, which seems imbued with the colours and spirit of the country’s various regions. This disc features works by six mostly 20th-century Spanish composers: Albeniz’ Suite española Op.47; Turina’s Sonata Op.61; de Falla’s Canciones populares españolas; Moreno Torroba’s Sonatina in A major; García Lorca’s Canciones españolas antiguas; and Rodrigo’s Tonadilla for two guitars.

Cicchillitti’s regular recital partner baritone Philippe Courchesne-Leboeuf joins him for the brief but lovely de Falla and García Lorca songs, and Steve Cowan is the second guitarist in the Rodrigo. Cicchillitti plays with technical assurance, sensitivity and a full-bodied warm sound across the whole range of the instrument.

Also, a word of appreciation for Drew Henderson, a fine guitarist in his own right, for his excellent work in the recording, editing, mixing and mastering of the CD. 

11 Homs GuitarSpanish guitar music from the second half of the 20th century can be found on Music for Guitar and Guitar Duo by Joaquim Homs, a new CD in the Naxos Spanish Classics series (8.573855 naxos.com). Spanish guitarist Àlex Garrobé and Chilean José Antonio Escobar are the performers.

Homs (1906-2003) was a leading proponent of 12-tone composition, but the works here, spanning over 50 years, paint a picture of a much more diverse career that moved from early influences of French impressionism, Bartók, Stravinsky and Webern to the definitive introspective style of the last 30 years of his life following the early death of his wife in 1967. The music is idiomatic and always expressive, with only the occasional nod to extended technique – a slide guitar effect that apparently uses a bottleneck.

Recorded in Barcelona to the usual Naxos high standards, it’s a fascinating CD.

12 Olivia De PratoFor her debut solo CD Streya (New Focus Recordings FCR193 newfocusrecordings.com) Austro-Italian violinist Olivia De Prato chose to record works by six composers with whom she has worked closely since her move to New York in 2005.

Victor Lowrie’s title track is one of three works that were written specifically for this project, Ned Rothenberg’s Percorso insolito and Canadian Taylor Brook’s Wane for five multi-tracked violins being the others. Samson Young’s Ageha.Tokyo, written for De Prato in 2008, opens the disc, with Reiko Füting’s Tanz.Tanz and Missy Mazzoli’s Vespers for Violin (amplified with electronics) the final two tracks. All except the Füting are world-premiere recordings.

Fans of contemporary solo violin music will find plenty here of interest, with De Prato’s excellent playing certainly making the best possible case for the works.

Listen to 'Streya' Now in the Listening Room

01 Houghs Dream AlbumPianist Stephen Hough’s Dream Album (Hyperion CDA68176 hyperion-records.co.uk) is an artful program of works by Liszt, Sibelius, Elgar and other familiar composers. The pieces are chosen for what Hough calls their “lyrical” or “hallucinatory” quality. Hough’s playing is utterly captivating and intensely intimate. He’s a magician, a tease, and a brilliant performer who creates an intoxicating dream world of pianistic expression.

The familiar repertoire items are exquisite and completely engaging – each one a gem. But the real impact of this recording is Hough’s own creative gift. Of the 27 tracks, around half are either his transcriptions or compositions. The scale of his ability to write in the language of the piano is astonishing. His fluency and enormous vocabulary give his compositions a rare potency. There are no extra notes, no empty, wasted phrases. Every element Hough creates is carefully and economically placed by his unerring musical judgment. This is the genius of his gift.

Listen to his arrangement of the traditional melody Blow the wind southerly and Strauss’ Radetzky March, and marvel at his musical commentary on the main thematic material. Moscow Nights gets the same treatment and undergoes a remarkable rebirth.

Niccolo’s Waltz is a witty nod to a Paganini Caprice, and Matilda’s Rhumba is a clever allusion to the famous Australian ode to the waltz, in march time! But my favourite is Hough’s Osmanthus Romp. Syncopated, highly energized and brimming with optimism, the composition captures the essence of Hough’s artistic soul.

This fabulous CD is going to get a lot of play.

02 Lewis Haydn SonatasPaul Lewis has added another recording to his growing discography, Joseph Haydn Piano Sonatas Nos. 32, 40, 49, 50 (Harmonia Mundi HMM 902371 harmoniamundi.com). These four sonatas from Hob. XVI span nearly 20 years of Haydn’s career and provide a good example of how his writing evolved over that time. Lewis spends most of his effort in getting to the exploratory nature of Haydn’s style. He recognizes the relatively brief nature of the musical ideas and is mindful not to belabour them, favouring instead the timely pursuit of the next thought. While Lewis is careful never to miss an opportunity for a pause, tempo change or gentle landing, his intention is always focused on how Haydn is assembling his ideas architecturally, and how a disciplined rhythmic approach makes that happen effectively.

The Sonata in C Major No.50 is a fine example of how an opening movement strongly dependent on very specific rhythmic patterns can yield to a second movement seemingly free from those elements, before launching into a closing movement that restores the pulse of the work, rich with ornaments and arpeggios. Lewis’ complete command of keyboard technique makes the Haydn sonatas a joy to hear. His playing is as beautifully planned and organized as the composer’s ideas. His technique is clean and articulate, and his ability to find delightful moments of emotion would make Haydn blush.

03 Liszt Vol48Franz Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos. 12-17 (Naxos 8.573784 naxos.com) is the latest addition to an enormous recording project of the complete piano works of Liszt. This disc, Volume 48, features Carlo Grante performing the Rhapsodies that Liszt wrote in the 1840s plus another from around 1871. Grante has nearly 50 recordings to his credit, covering all the major historical composers in addition to a number of contemporary ones.

Grante’s approach to the Hungarian Rhapsodies reflects careful thought of what Liszt was trying to express. These are not pianistic lava flows erupting from volcanic fantasies; rather, they are reflections on the phenomenon of “gypsy” influence in Hungarian music. Opinions of what this influence actually was have changed since Liszt’s time, but the elements Liszt’s music considers are easy to identify. Grante picks these out and interprets them convincingly. Folk dance rhythms, imitations of gypsy instruments like the cimbalom, and characteristic ornaments and phrasings all contribute to the atmosphere of Liszt’s 19th-century Hungarian national ethos.

The final track on the disc is Puszta Wehmut (Longing for the Steppes). While some consider it a miniature Hungarian Rhapsody, its real impact is as a work with a strong contemporary feel of the 20th century, still several decades hence.

Grante’s contribution to this Naxos series is very fine indeed. An additional noteworthy feature is that he performs on Bösendorfer’s newly engineered concert grand, the 280 VC. It has a consistently mellow tone throughout its range and an impressive ability to be mysteriously subtle.

04 Misha Dacic ScriabinAt 18, Misha Dacić was the youngest competitor at the 1996 Liszt Competition in Budapest, where he came to the attention of Lazar Berman who made him his student for the next six years. Dacić’s new recording Scriabin (Piano Classics PCL10136 piano-classics.com) is impressive evidence of this young pianist’s talent and creative intellect.

The decision to choose Scriabin for an early career recording is as courageous as it is risky – even more so when the repertoire spans most of the composer’s lifetime. But therein lies Dacić’s plan. Something about Scriabin’s artistic evolution appeals to him deeply enough that he wants to portray it in his program choices. The first six tracks are early works, etudes and mazurkas mostly, and are consistent with the technical challenges and forward-looking language of composers at the turn of the 19th century. The remaining ones cover the rest of Scriabin’s life up to his death in 1915. This is where the turbulence, only hinted at subtly in the early works, emerges more forcefully.

Scriabin uses every compositional technique to portray his growing personal turmoil. The music becomes denser, planned structure gives way more frequently to freer forms, and key relationships become more distant. Dacić embraces this journey of dramatic change with a startling command of the keyboard and a musical maturity beyond his years.

It’s a thoroughly captivating disc that should add Dacić to the list of Scriabin’s finest interpreters.

05 Eric Simmons Cooman 7Organist Erik Simmons’ new release Owl Night – Music for Organ by Carson Cooman (Divine Art dda 25163 divineartrecords.com) is the seventh volume in this series. All the recordings use the digital modelling technology of the Hauptwerk system, enabling the recording to be made off-site. In this case, the Cavaillé-Coll pipe organ of 1882-85 in the Abbey of Saint-Étienne, Caen, France is the instrument featured on the disc.

Cooman is an American composer and organist whose output volume is astonishing. This recording presents recent compositions from 2016 and 2017. As a performer, Simmons has an affinity for contemporary organ music, and his exposure to Cooman’s work is extensive. The music takes full advantage, especially under Simmons’ hands, of the imaginative and emotionally evocative colouring of which the Abbey organ is capable. The title track Owl Night is an excellent example of this. Simmons uses a mellow flute rank to portray the extended hooting theme that recurs throughout the piece. Preludio Staccato is another example of the remarkable orchestral effects available on this instrument. Here, the mutation ranks create a lovely bell-like shimmer to the upper lines.

The repertoire is well chosen and makes for very satisfying listening as a digital concert. The Toccata, Aria and Finale that concludes the program is suitably grand, and even on a mid-range sound system there’s no doubt about the power and grandeur of this magnificent pipe organ.

06 Sara Feigin Benjamin GoodmanBenjamin Goodman is an Israeli pianist whose latest recording Piano Works by Sara Feigin (Navona NV6147 navonarecords.com) introduces a relatively unknown composer. Sara Feigin (1928-2011) was born in Latvia but fled with her family during WWII. Her musical gift was already obvious as a child. She developed this further while away from Latvia and continued it at the Riga Conservatory upon her return after the war. In the 1970s she settled in Israel, where she continued to compose and teach.

Goodman is technically superb and meets the challenges Feigin poses in her music. Written with the evident influence of French and Russian composers, Feigin’s language is predominantly harmonic but not without occasional challenges to traditional tonality. Goodman captures the poignant emotion in Feigin’s writing whether expressed dynamically or harmonically. It’s all music of great contrast with the points of tension and release set very far apart.

The Sonata is the work with the most formidable content. Four movements build gradually to an extremely intense and powerful conclusion. More than any of her other works, it reflects her experience of the tragedies visited on so many people in the middle of the last century. Goodman understands Feigin at a level deep enough to portray her experience in a convincing and appropriately troubling way.

07 Alexander GadjievWhen Alexander Gadjiev won the Ninth Hamamatsu International Piano Competition in 2015, one of his admirers credited him with the “ability to hypnotize the public.” His new recording Literary Fantasies – Piano Works, Liszt & Schumann (Acousence Classics 13117 acousence.de) is ample proof that this young pianist (b. 1994) is indeed enchanting. Gadjiev has assembled a program of works inspired by literature. Liszt’s Three Petrarch Sonatas begin the disc and immediately convey the impression that Gadjiev plays from some meditative place deep within. The feeling of introspection is unmistakable, particularly in the final sonata. The other Liszt literary-based fantasy is Après une lecture du Dante. Here Gadjiev is at full force, as Liszt needs him to be, for much of the work. But a brief tranquil section near the end offers a contrast that he exploits superbly, giving the finish the final impact it properly requires.

Two items by Robert Schumann also appear on the disc. The Op.16 Kreisleriana, full of opportunities for great expressive contrast, is highly effective, largely due to the extent that Gadjiev is able to withdraw into remarkably controlled pianissimos. Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces, Op.111, No.2 concludes the CD. The closing restatement of the opening musical material is so tenderly played that, if experienced as a live performance, an audience might never applaud for fear of disturbing the beauty of the final, lingering moment.

08 Jablonski ChopinKrzysztof Jabłoński has a long list of achievements that reach back to his laureate designation at the 1985 Chopin Competition in Warsaw. His new recording Chopin Etiudy Op.10, 25 (The Fryderyk Chopin Institute NIFCCD 215 nifc.pl) is a rare example of astonishing keyboard technique, still fully capable of all that Chopin could ever demand.

While blinding speed is an impressive feature of any performance, Jabłoński demonstrates something else that leaves an indelible impression. There’s an unarguable correctness about all his tempos. Whether the dreamy Etude No.3 in E-Flat Op.10 or the meteoric descent of the arpeggios in Etude No.12 in E Minor Op.10, the tempo is always perfect for the piece. The secret, as Jabłoński has discovered, lies in simply knowing – feeling – what is right for the piece. In every instance he chooses a speed that causes no lost notes and no sense of rushing through tender moments, but that always connects to the deeper current of the music, conveying the notion that it’s going somewhere, that there’s a destination.

The Op.25 dozen etudes are as consistently perfect as the Op.10. Two that stand out are No.9 in G-Flat Major for its playfully light staccato touch, and No.24 in C Minor for the way Jabłoński brings out the inner melody while a torrent of arpeggios swirls around it.

02 Tribute to TelemannA Tribute to Telemann
La Spagna; Alejandro Marias
Lukos Records 5451CRE80843 (laspagna.es)

Describing Georg Philipp Telemann’s achievements as prolific is a gross understatement: his compositions numbered over 3,000. La Spagna selects five from this enormous output, aiming to restore Telemann to the highest ranks of composers.

The first Ouverture-Suite for viola da gamba, strings and continuo is quintessentially French, comprising several traditional French Baroque movements. Telemann had access to pieces by the French composer Lully, as well as a great love for the viola da gamba (for which he composed frequently). The enthusiasm of the solo violinists who play on period, if anonymous, violins is key to this opening piece, especially the Gigue.

The Concerto for recorder, viola da gamba, strings and continuo which follows is inspired by Telemann’s scoring for recorder, in this case copying an instrument by the renowned Thomas Stanesby. Listen in particular to the Dolce and Allegro as interpreted by Alvaro Marías. Though the recorder was under pressure as an instrument from the transverse flute at the time, Telemann continued to believe in its rich, sonorous sound.

In the essentially Italian Concerto grosso, La Spagna takes the liberty of writing an additional part for the second tutti (non-solo) violins. Here once again the demands of two literally lively (Vivace) movements are met cheerfully – the two solo violins absolutely sparkle.

And so to the Ouverture-Suite Burlesque de Quixotte. Telemann composes a day of events inspired by Cervantes’ masterpiece, from Quixote’s waking, his assault on the windmills, his advances on Princess Dulcinea and retiring for the night. The assault comprises a vigorous twirling of violins personifying Quixote’s bravado; the advance’s somewhat languid string-playing indicates another failure for Quixote. You begin to feel sorry for him – but invigorated by La Spagna’s tribute to Telemann.

03 Beethoven 5 7 NYPhilBeethoven – Symphonies 5 & 7
New York Philharmonic; Jaap van Zweden
Decca Gold B0027956-02 (deccagold.com)

What better way of celebrating a new partnership between a record label and a renowned American orchestra than music by Beethoven? The label in question – Decca Gold, Universal’s new classical music label – recently joined forces with the esteemed New York Philharmonic to present a series of live recordings under the direction of Jaap van Zweden, who assumes the official role of music director in September 2018. This recording is the first in the projected series and features Beethoven’s Symphonies Five and Seven, recorded in 2014 and 2015.

The two symphonies were indeed excellent choices for this premiere recording. As clichéd as the opening measure of the Fifth Symphony has become (“fate knocking at the door”), the work’s theme of tragedy to triumph still has the power to move the most impartial listener, and the NYP delivers a polished and compelling performance. Tempos – particularly in the first movement and the finale – are brisk (perhaps brisker than we’re accustomed to), but the third movement is all lyricism before the exuberant finale.

Wagner once described the Symphony No.7 as “the apotheosis of the dance” and under van Zweden’s baton, this performance is a joyful dance indeed. The warmth of the NYP strings is particularly evident in the second-movement Allegretto while the finale – a true tour de force – is treated with great bravado.

While both these symphonies have long been considered standard repertoire, van Zweden and the NYP breathe new life into them, approaching each with a particular freshness and vitality. These performances easily hold their place alongside more established recordings and if they are any indication, the soon-to-be pairing of van Zweden and the NYP will be a formidable one indeed. Highly recommended.

04 Schubert FluteFlute Passion: Schubert
Nadia Labrie; Mathieu Gaudet
Analekta AN 2 8787 (analekta.com)

Flutist Nadia Labrie and pianist Mathieu Gaudet’s all-Schubert CD begins with a transcription of the intensely and ominously dramatic Arpeggione Sonata. The quiet simplicity and dignity of Gaudet’s solo opening of the first movement is carried forward by Labrie’s velvet sound, exquisite phrasing and moments of rubato, which convey a brooding feeling of inevitably encroaching doom. She plays the hymn-like second movement with a simplicity and directness which is both heartrending and deeply satisfying.

The second part of the program consists of lieder transcriptions, mostly from Die Schöne Müllerin. There are some wonderful moments in these eight miniature masterpieces, most notably the meshing of the artists’ vision in the counterpoint of Ständchen (from Schwanengesang). However, there is also the unfortunate intrusion at times of that “flutistic” mannerism of changing tone colour in the middle of a note for no good reason and the missed opportunity to use contrasting colours for the two characters in Der Müller und der Bach.

The third and final component is the Introduction and Variations on Trockne Blumen, composed for flute and piano by Schubert himself. While both artists are brilliant here, the poignant darkness of the song (“...the flowers...she gave me...shall be laid with me in the grave.”) could have been more effectively brought to life by greater contrast in tempo and a less dance-like interpretation of the melody. Nevertheless, this CD has a lot going for it. Gaudet and Labrie are both virtuosos who work well together. I’m sure we will hear more from them.

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