01 Lovers and MournersLovers and Mourners – Variations and Sonatas from 17th Century Germany
Dorian Komanoff Bandy; Hank Knox; Elinor Frey
Leaf Music LM263 (leaf-music.ca)

The artfulness of virtuoso composer-performers, nurtured and cherished in the 17th century, is at the centre of this lovely new release, cleverly reinforced by violinist Dorian Komanoff Bandy’s choice of repertoire. Presented here are variations and sonatas from 17th-century German composers Schenck, Walther, Biber, Pisendel and Becker. Variations, arguably a favourite compositional technique of that time, allowed both composers and performers to display their respective abilities and imagination by the way of building up rich melodic and harmonic material over a short, repeated theme, usually in the bass. Similar to lovers and mourners, going through spiraling, intense emotions, the music here expresses meandering states via “stylus phanansticus,” a popular compositional style of that time that was free flowing, improvisational and characterized by swirling virtuosic elements.

Bandy’s virtuosity is on full display here – relentless, precise and, above all, dazzling. He draws beautiful colours out of his Baroque violin, even amidst the fast passages or more uniform material. The emotional scope of his interpretation is impressive, especially in Biber’s sonatas. The Baroque-style articulations are brought to life with well thought-out phrasing and back and forth trading of ideas within the ensemble. Harpsichordist Hank Knox and gambist Elinor Frey, although mostly in the supporting roles in this repertoire, are nevertheless essential in building the overall sound and direct a spotlight on the inventiveness of these compositions.

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02 Tendres EchoesTendres échos
Anne Thivierge; Mélisande Corriveau; Eric Milnes
ATMA ACD2 2871 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Flutist Anne Thivierge, viola de gambist Mélisande Corriveau and harpsichordist Eric Milnes, playing period instruments, bring works from François Couperin’s Concert Royal No 2 for Flute and Continuo in D Major and Minor and the Pièces de clavecin, the 14th suite (of 27) from his book Ordres to life – together with works by Marin Marais, Michel Blavet and Jean-Marie Leclair.

Couperin’s work is marked by expressiveness enhanced by rich ornamentation, which – unusual for the time – is never left to the discretion of the performer, but always precisely specified. Here he adopts what came to be called style brisé (broken style) in which the notes of the chord are not all played together, but one after the other (originally in imitation of lutists).

Marais, who studied with Jean-Baptiste Lully, had come under the latter’s development of a style that melded the French and the Italian (of Corelli). Marais’ Pièce for Viola de gamba and Continuo Suite No.1 in D Minor soars in its rhapsodic La follette movement and ends with the soulfully expressive Gigue La favorite.

On Blavet’s Sonata for Flute and Continuo in D Minor Op.2 No.2, the flute is clean and vibrant, the continuo gently sympathetic, as the musicians immerse themselves in the music’s warm beauty. An alert sense of rhetoric is evident in the intricately wrought, magical performance of Leclair’s Trio Sonata for Flute, Viola de gamba and Continuo in D Major.

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03 Boulder BachBoulder Bach Festival
Boulder Bach Festival; Zachary Carrettin
Sono Luminus DSL-02265 (sonoluminus.com)

Recorded immediately after the 2022 Boulder Bach Festival, this disc contains several of the highlights featured in that year’s performances, including Bach’s Concerto for two violins, BWV 1043, and the magnificent Concerto for harpsichord, BWV 1052, as well as two vocal works by Johann Christoph Bach. 

For early music aficionados, what makes this recording most interesting is that these works are performed on modern instruments – apart from the harpsichord, of course – with period-based nuances such as using a Baroque bow for the double bass, or a classical bow on a viola, added at the discretion of the performer. By making these decisions by ear, rather than adherence to convention and 20th-century tradition, the musicians tailored their sound to the overall interpretation, producing a result that is more forthcoming and strident than period instruments, but with the shapes and phrasings that listeners have come to expect. 

These interpretations portray Bach at his most dramatic and invigorating, with performances that are full of energy and joy. The Concerto for two violins is serious yet playful, abounding with communicativeness and ample musical dialogue between the soloists and orchestra. The Concerto for harpsichord, always serious, is imbued with a lightness and grace that keeps it from becoming funereal, but it is also played deliberately enough that it contains all the gravity demanded of it.

The vocal works by J.S. Bach’s older cousin Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703) – not to be confused with J.S. Bach’s uncle, who had the same name and introduced J.S. to the organ, or J.S.’ eldest brother who also had the same name and mentored J.S. after his parents died – are beautiful in their simplicity, and a fine contrast to the density of Johann Sebastian’s musical vernacular. With two excellent performances of two of Bach’s finest concertos, this disc is not one to be overlooked, and is an excellent testament to the talent present at the Boulder Bach Festival.

04 Bach GenerationsBach Generations
Albrecht Mayer; Berliner Barock Solisten
Deutsche Grammophon 486 4183 (store.deutschegrammophon.com/p50-a157976/albrecht-mayer)

Curated by oboist, Albrecht Mayer, Bach Generations is the latest in a series of portrait albums featuring the Bach family. Beginning the incredible legacy, Johann Sebastian’s early musical influences began with his father who played the violin and extended to his father’s first cousin, composer Johann Christoph.  Johann Sebastian went on to become one of the most prolific composers of all time, teaching all ten* of his children music with four of them becoming notable composers. Each of these composer sons had their own style and relationship to their father’s music. This album showcases three generations of the Bach family with music by JS Bach’s uncle, Johann Christoph, Johann Sebastian himself as well as two of his sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach. 

Bach Generations opens with the JS’s Concerto for Oboe d’amore which is best known today as the Harpsichord Concerto No.4 in A Major. Following this beautiful work are transcriptions of concertos by Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christoph Friedrich, a Badinerie and Air from Johann Sebastian’s Orchestral Suites Nos.2 and 3, as well as a Bach family favourite, Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel’s Bist du bei mir. Concluding with Ach, dass ich Wassers g’nug hätte by Johann Christoph Bach, Mayer ties in the third generation of the Bach family legacy with this lovely transcription for English horn, solo violin, strings, and continuo.

Played with Berliner Barock Solisten in traditional Baroque style, Mayer elegantly performs these works on modern instruments. With his rounded tone, expressive playing and virtuosity on the oboe, oboe d’amore and English horn, he showcases the beauty of expression throughout the Bach generations.

05 Beethoven Concertos OhlssonThe Complete Beethoven Piano Concertos
Garrick Ohlsson; Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra; Sir Donald Runnicles
Reference Recordings FR-751SACD (gtmf.org/beethoven-piano-concertos-recording)

Ludwig van Beethoven’s five piano concertos are monumental contributions to the Western Art Music canon, providing an overview of musical evolution through masterful compositions that have remained in the core repertory for over two centuries. Always an innovator and disruptor of established trends, these works trace Beethoven’s progression from traditional forms to increasingly original ones. For example, Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto, the “Emperor” begins with a piano-centric cadenza at a time when it was customary for the orchestra to play a lengthy introduction. Although this seems like a mildly interesting break from convention in the 21st century, such re-inventions were edge-of-your-seat moments for Beethoven’s audience. 

Recorded during live performances at the 2022 Grand Teton Music Festival, located near Wyoming’s Rocky Mountain range, this complete set of Beethoven concertos features the festival’s orchestra conducted by the renowned Sir Donald Runnicles and pianist Garrick Ohlsson, a student of the late Claudio Arrau. This collection is decidedly level-headed, providing consistently reliable results, but also limiting the impact of climactic moments. These interpretations are charming, but perhaps lack the precipitousness and risk-taking that is required to turn them into something beautiful and breathtaking.

Despite its overall conservatism, there are some striking moments on this disc, including the glorious Adagio from the fifth concerto, in which the balance between winds and strings is notable, particularly for a live recording. Performing the complete set of Beethoven’s piano concertos is an expansive and impressive task, and this collection is well-suited for those seeking an all-encompassing survey of these magnificent works.

06 Helene GrimaudFor Clara
Hélène Grimaud; Konstantin Krimmel
Deutsche Grammophon (deutschegrammophon.com/en/artists/helenegrimaud)

“Imagine, since my last letter I have again an entire volume of new things ready. I shall call it Kreisleriana. My music seems to me to be wonderfully entwined, for all its simplicity.” So wrote Robert Schumann to his wife Clara in April 1838 regarding the set of eight pieces which he named after a fictious character created by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Dedicating the collection to Chopin, it became one his most renowned compositions and is featured on this splendid DG recording titled For Clara together with the three Intermezzi Op.117 and the set of Lieder und Gesange Op.32 by Brahms performed by pianist Hélène Grimaud with baritone Konstantin Krimmel. 

The French-born pianist refers to Schumann as “the most literary of composers” and she returns to his music having previously recorded Kreisleriana in 2009 and the Piano Concerto in 2022. Not surprisingly, her performance is subline. The first, third and seventh in the set display a flawless technique while the neverending changes in mood throughout are treated with a stylish sensitivity.

The three Intermezzi by Brahms from 1892 are quietly introspective, each one of a deeply personal character. These autumnal works were among the last the composer wrote and Grimaud approaches the score with a delicate poignancy.

With their themes of loss and disillusionment, the set of nine Lieder und Gesange written in 1864 with texts by Georg Friedrich Daumer and August von Platen may seem a dark choice for these challenging times. Nevertheless, Grimaud and Krimmel are a formidable pairing, with Krimmel’s warm tone and fine diction together with Grimaud’s sympathetic partnership resulting in a most satisfying performance. Bravo to both artists – Robert, Clara and Johannes would all have been pleased!

07 Haochen Zhang LisztFranz Liszt – Transcendental Etudes
Haochen Zhang
BIS BIS-2681 (bis.se)

Liszt’s 12 Études d’exécution trancendante (or Transcendental Etudes) comprise perhaps the greatest documents of musical Romanticism, a high watermark in the history of the piano, amounting to nothing less than the creation of modern keyboard technique. That Haochen Zhang has even attempted these studies is a testament as much to his audacity as it is to the unbridled virtuosity that he displays in his performance of them. 

These studies teem with such outrageous difficulties that, in their day (1831) they were the most difficult works for the piano; even now there’s but a handful of pianists who can play them authoritatively. Lazar Berman’s (Melodiya, 1963), Boris Berezovsky’s (TELDEC, 1996) and Leslie Howard’s (Hyperion, 2016) have always been considered benchmark recordings. 

We must add Zhang’s exquisite recording to this short list. To play these works at all requires a formidable technique; to play them so as to convey their poetry rather than the effort required to play them is a gift afforded to very few. Clearly Zheng is one of those. 

Throughout the performance of the 12 studies Zheng displays technical prowess to deal with the pyrotechnics required of a stellar performance of the works. He rises above mere gratuitous display of pianism to reach a plateau of intense emotional conviction – especially in the first four etudes. Moreover, he also knows how to enter the introspective core of such pieces as the beautiful Ricordanza and Harmonies du soir.

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