03vivaldi_angelsVivaldi - Return of Angels
Ensemble Caprice; Matthias Maute
Analekta AN 2 9995

This CD builds on Ensemble Caprice’s first recording of Vivaldi’s sacred music, Gloria! Vivaldi and his Angels. Once again, we are transported into the confines of the Ospedale della Pietà, the orphanage where Vivaldi taught orphaned girls violin and singing, and composed concertos and sacred music.

Vivaldi’s charges enjoyed great fame throughout Europe, a fact made even more amazing by the thoroughly demanding quality of the compositions. Listeners even included the English traveler Edward Wright, who states that the girls “have a eunuch for a master, and he composes their music!” It is a unique description of Vivaldi!

Ten lady singers are assembled by Matthias Maute; not a male voice is to be heard even though the opening “Coro” from Juditha Triumphans is inspired by a military theme. Less warlike are the “Coro O quam vaga” and the ariaArmatae, face” (both sung with distinction by Shannon Mercer).

Other soloists make their mark: Laura Pudwell, contralto, in Si Fulgida, and Gabriele Hierdeis in the motet O qui coeli terraeque serenitas. Also on the CD, perhaps strangely, are two pieces by Zelenka (the soloists Mercer and Pudwell once again) and even two concertos by Vivaldi; perhaps it was Vivaldi’s custom to spare the voices of his charges from over-exposure and Maute is following suit.

In fact, the Ensemble’s interpretations, solo or otherwise, present a spiritual and intense selection of Vivaldi’s compositions for his orphaned girls. This reviewer looks forward to a third CD.

04_bach_tharaudA French Soirée
Trio Settecento
Cedille CDR 90000 129

Name any truly great French baroque composer and you will find him on this CD. Trio Settecento has recorded a selection of the finest music of its type, the antidote to those jaded souls who believe baroque music all sounds the same.

The program starts with Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Ballet Royal de Flore; those distinctive names that typify Lully’s ballet movements are conspicuous by their presence: “Entrée pour les Jardiniers et quatre gallants” is one such. The trio may use a 1983 replica of a harpsichord, but a 1770 violin and a 1743 seven-string bass viol provide authenticity throughout the CD, not to mention the inspiration for passionate playing.

Solo music for baroque viol is personified by Marin Marais: John Mark Rozendaal imparts a playful quality to La Guitare, which is after all a joyful imitation of a joyful baroque instrument. More restrained is the Chaconne for all three players.

François Couperin is bound to feature on a compilation of this kind. Seven movements from his Troisième Concert are played. Enjoy the Courante and Muzette for their rural evocations but be moved by the Sarabande and Chaconne.

Far less well-known is Jean-Féry Rebel and a mere seven minutes can only hint at Rebel’s demanding violin scores. A full CD to bring Rebel to a wider audience, Trio Settecento?

Finally, Rameau, as may be expected. Rameau’s pieces here are portraits of the Commedia dell’Arte, a gossip, and even the Rameau household with its musical rehearsals and barking dog!

And if you want to hear baroque music from either Italy or Germany, the Trio has already recorded it – Italian Soujourn (sic) and German Bouquet.

Evan Shinners
New Cull Records (www.evanshinners.com)

Evan Shinners’ début recording – he graduated from Juilliard in 2010 – comprises an unedited recording of two live concerts of Bach’s music. We even hear the orchestra tuning and sounds from the intermission – and there is no post-production to divert us from this interpretation.

Shinners’ first piece is Bach’s own first piece – the Partita in B-flat BWV825. Shinners is his own man as he plays the Allemande and Courante with an equally joyful quality and the second Minuet with the vigour of which Bach must have dreamt when he composed the work. The audience’s applause affirms everything.

Improvisation is Shinners’ driving force behind two Toccatas – and as he explains to his audience, he is keeping that tradition of the toccata alive. A thoughtful interpretation of the E Minor BWV914 is followed by the C Minor BWV911 with its own swift changes and heavy demands on the player. The audience was impressed.

Shinners does not shy away from including pieces which some might dismiss as being typically baroque. In fact, there is nothing stilted or restricted or confined about his interpretation of the French Suite BWV816. Shinners plays all seven movements according to the original qualities of the French dances that became stylized in the Baroque.

And so to the final work, the Concerto in D Minor BWV1052. Here we find the sheer power of the first Allegro, the pleading and almost sombre quality of the Adagio, the further vigour of the second Allegro, and Evan Shinners shining supreme.

01_czernyCarl Czerny - A Rediscovered Genius
Anton Kuerti, St. Lawrence String Quartet, Edmonton Symphony
Doremi DHR-6011-3

After many years of listening to and reviewing classical music on record, there was little chance that I would be unexpectedly and so pleasantly surprised by a collection of Carl Czerny (1791-1857). Czerny is well known to piano students as the composer of routine practice studies and technique development exercises. And nothing beyond that. It has taken a century and a half since his death to find out that Czerny was, in reality, a composer of the first rank who created nearly one thousand significant compositions.

The discovery of the real Czerny started some ten years ago here in Canada, led by the internationally celebrated pianist Anton Kuerti. Like many great discoveries, it was quite by chance that Kuerti came upon the score of a Czerny piano sonata in a music store in Edmonton that was going out of business. He was so impressed that he had to find out if there were other such masterpieces by Czerny. Kuerti’s research revealed that there was “an overwhelming body of extraordinary work in a multitude of genres by Czerny that was totally ignored and forgotten and huge quantities that had never been published or heard.” Included are symphonic compositions, concertos, vocal, chamber and instrumental works. Czerny’s style lies between Schubert and Mendelssohn and while there are overtones of Beethoven (his teacher) his style is original and his own.

The outcome of Kuerti’s discoveries was The World’s First Czerny Music Festival in Edmonton in 2002, during which symphonies, masses, string quartets and quintets, works for piano and strings, songs and miscellaneous chamber works were featured. Some works are astonishing in their complexity such as two Fugatos for string quintet. What a surprise to hear among the songs a setting of Goethe’s Der Erlkönig predating Schubert’s famous version, in which Czerny depicts the terrifying excitement in quite a different manner.

The festival was recorded by the CBC and many of the performances are featured on this Doremi release. The performers include Kuerti, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and many other distinguished pianists and vocalists, all sounding fresh and into the engaging music, much of it receiving a first or second performance ever.

The set of three CDs plays for almost four hours and every second was a joy to hear. The sound is excellent and the 16 page booklet includes informative notes by Kuerti. One can only hope that more Czerny will be unearthed, performed and recorded.

02_beethoven_ninthBeethoven - Symphony No.9
Erin Wall; Mihoko Fujimura; Simon O’Neill; Mikhail Petrenko; Choeur et Orchestre symphonique de Montréal; Kent Nagano
Analekta AN 2 9885

Unashamedly and unapologetically modern. Intended deliberately for the 21st century soul. There is nothing “authentic” about this performance by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal under Kent Nagano, not as we understand the established practice of historically informed performances. Authentic, however, is the breath-taking emotional intensity channelled through this symphonic colossus. This performance leaves no doubt that Nagano has understood every nuance of Beethoven’s convictions about the world, indeed the universe around him. Every lost hope, every anger, every dream and inspiration the composer ever had seems embedded in the writing for Nagano to reveal with exquisite precision.

Perhaps the joy of familiar works is discovering new inner voices brought forward by fresh interpreters who uncover secret countermelodies that have eluded others. Nagano does this repeatedly with oboes and lower string phrases, especially against the solo vocal parts. The effect is astonishing and delightful.

Numbering some 92 players, the orchestra is massive but always lithe, agile and fully capable of every dynamic required by the score. The 60-voice combined chorus of the OSM and Tafelmusik Chamber Choir under Ivars Taurins sings beautifully with flawless diction. Every German word is there with clarity and intent.

It would be hard to find higher production values than those demonstrably evident on this recording. I haven’t heard a Ninth so moving, so exciting, in very many years. Recorded during the inaugural concerts at the OSM’s new home, the Maison symphonique de Montréal, this testament certainly bodes well for the orchestra’s future.

03_schubert_quintet2Schubert - String Quintet; Quartettsatz
Tokyo String Quartet; David Watkin
Harmonia Mundi HUM8074227

At the age of 16, Schubert was drawn to the string quartet and in that period he composed several works in this genre. He abandoned the form three years later, perhaps feeling that his own writing did not match the drama and intensity of the giant figure of Beethoven (“Who can do anything after Beethoven?” Schubert once complained to a friend). With Quartettsatz (Quartet Movement) D703, Schubert chose to revisit the form and to do so in the key of c minor, a key Beethoven loved and often used. Schubert abandoned the score after having composed about 40 bars of a slow movement and the opening Allegro was not published until 40 years after his death. This movement is somewhat unorthodox in form – opening measures are not heard again until the end of the piece – and it contains many elements that Schubert will further develop in Death and the Maiden and his other masterpiece, the String Quintet in C Major. The Tokyo String Quartet, whose members play on “The Paganini Quartet,” a group of Stradivarius instruments named after Niccolo Paganini, had no trouble crossing between the tension and agitation of the first theme to a much warmer and more serene second subject. Their performance is full of sparkles yet it contains an astonishingly wide range of string textures.

Schubert died shortly after completing his String Quintet in C Major and the quintet remained unnoticed until 1850, when the famous Hellmesberger Quartet started to promote it three years before it was published for the first time. This piece is full of very powerful contrasts – light is followed by darkness, serenity is interrupted by drama, and the whole work seems to be a wonderful yet unsettling interaction between two very different worlds. Schubert emphasized the contrasting sonorities by his use of the instruments - the first violin and first cello are often paired and playing in octaves, inner voices tend to be restricted to their lower registers and the second cello often brings in the darker textures.

Cellist David Watkin (of the Eroica Quartet) has a wonderful rapport with the members of the Tokyo on this recording. There is a sense of effortless playing, a unity of ideas and the near perfect crispness in bow attacks. Two cellos bring up a very expressive sound in the second theme of the first movement and in the third theme in the fourth movement. Throughout the second movement, possibly the most beautiful and complex slow movement of all Schubert’s works, there are points of stillness and feelings of being suspended in time that are so rewarding for the listener. Martin Beaver‘s violin at times comes very close to the human voice. The third movement, with an almost overwhelming difference of character between the Scherzo and Trio, allows the Tokyo Quartet and David Watkin to display a virtuosity and depth of emotion at the same time. The fourth movement is played very stylishly; the dance-like quality is uplifting and the tempo, along with a feeling of exuberance, accelerates at the end before it brings the turbulence back in the last bar. A fluid and extremely satisfying performance!

05_grieg_lisztGrieg; Liszt - Piano Concertos
Stephen Hough; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra; Andrew Litton
Hyperion CDA67824

Do we need another Grieg or Liszt CD? Yes we do, if it is Stephen Hough at the piano. Although the Grieg is usually paired with the Schumann Concerto in A Minor I prefer this combination of the Liszt concertos with the Grieg.

These works are perennial warhorses that can sound dated and mannered but not with Stephen Hough as soloist. Hough is a remarkable pianist with flawless technique and innate musicality and these performances live up to expectation. I love his intelligent and well-paced interpretations. He never descends to the affectation and overly mannered playing that some pianists use in this repertoire. Hough is always about the music and beautiful sound. He does not sacrifice the musicality for virtuoso tricks. The florid Lisztian passage-work is always an extension of the melodic line. The trills and roulades enhance the cantabile expression. The tonal quality of Hough’s touch on the piano has a clear ring to it which impresses in both the bravura octaves, trills and the slow lines. His sound is never harsh and the sensitive phrasing is never replaced by empty technical gestures. There is also a wonderful rapport between piano and orchestra. The ensemble is seamless and the music breathes naturally. Andrew Litton’s conducting is a soloist’s dream. The performances are stunning and I highly recommend this CD. The Grieg is an absolute gem.

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