07_vaughan_williamsVaughan Williams - Symphony Nos. 4 & 5
Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Peter Oundjian
TSO Live (www.tso.ca)

If you think of Vaughan Williams only in terms of English folk song and church music, listen to this recording! Compelling live performances of the fourth and fifth symphonies by Peter Oundjian and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra reveal the composer’s wide range and continuing relevance. The Fourth is the darker of the pair, its semitonal theme generating dissonance and tension throughout. At numerous points the interlacing motifs and the accumulating contrapuntal weave create tremendous energy, which Oundjian captures without sacrificing clarity or losing the long view. He maintains the lyricism of the first movement’s second theme, and consistently brings out expressive moments within the overall turbulence. Contrasts are handled effectively, for example in the uneasy peace of that movement’s coda or in the quiet section before the finale’s climax. I like especially the slow movement, with its walking bass line and sense of a bleak journey towards a lonely close, which Oundjian paces perfectly.

Symphony No.5 shows a brighter side of Vaughan Williams. In the first movement rich textures and tone colours evoke a natural setting, but overall the personal exceeds the pastoral. Incorporating material from a planned opera based on Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, the work to me is suffused with integrity and spirituality. Handling transitions and their changes of dynamics, tempo and mood especially well, Oundjian indeed conveys the striving, committed voice of Vaughan Williams.

08_faure_chamberFauré - Complete Chamber Music for Strings and Piano
Renaud Capuçon; Gautier Capuçon; Gerard Caussé; Michel Dalberto; Quatuor Ebène
Virgin Classics 5099907087523

The composer Aaron Copland once remarked that the music of Gabriel Fauré possessed all the earmarks of the French temperament: harmonic sensitivity, impeccable taste, classic restraint and a love of clear lines and well-made proportions. These qualities are no more evident than in Fauré’s chamber music for piano and strings, now presented in its entirety in this attractive five-disc box set on the Virgin Classics label. Is French music best interpreted by French musicians? That question is certainly open to debate, but in this case, it doesn’t hurt that most of those taking part in this recording are top-rated French artists, including violinist Renaud Capuçon, violist Gerard Caussé, cellist Gautier Capuçon, pianist Michel Dalberto joined by the Ebène Quartet and the American pianist Nicholas Angelich. Everything is included here: the pairs of violin and cello sonatas, the two piano quartets and quintets, the piano trio, as well as the sole string quartet.

The extensive notes rightly point out that Fauré’s chamber music was composed over the course of his lifetime, from the first of the two violin sonatas and the first piano quartet written when he was 30, to the second piano quintet and the Piano Trio in D Minor completed over 40 years later, when deafness and advancing age obviously weren’t hindering his creativity. The result is a wonderful sense of progression and development spanning a 45 year period. The Violin Sonata No.1, for example, contains all the optimism and freshness of a youthful composer, the quirky rhythms and modulations adeptly handled by Renaud Capuçon and Michel Dalberto. On the other hand, the Piano Quintet No.2 Op.115, completed in 1921, is dark and impassioned, surely the music of a composer resigned to the frailties of old age; one refusing to abandon his own musical idiom in favour of more modern trends. The performance here by Andelich and the Ebène Quartet is boldly assured, imbued with a deeply-rooted sensitivity to the demands of the music.

One of the most intriguing pieces in this collection is the String Quartet in E Minor, the only one Fauré ever wrote and the last of his works to be completed. It was written only at the request of several colleagues, including his pupil Ravel, and even then Fauré did not fully embrace the project. The end result is an angular piece that has a decidedly atmospheric quality to it – a haunting swan-song concluding a lifetime devoted to music.

An added bonus in this set is the inclusion of musical miniatures for which Fauré is justifiably famous, pieces such as the Élégie, Sicilienne and Romance. And as if great music superbly performed wasn’t enough, the attractive packaging - involving “Belle Époch” graphics and typeface on the covers - serves to further enhance this most appealing collection which will surely become a mainstay in the catalogue.

06_rachmaninovRachmaninov - Piano Concerto No.3; Symphonic Dances
Garrick Ohlsson; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; Robert Spano
ASO Media CD-1003

“After America, I’ll be able to buy myself that automobile,” Rachmaninov is reported to have explained when finally deciding to embark on his voyage to America in 1909, a tour that promised handsome financial compensation. It was for this trip that he composed the great Piano Concerto No.3 in D Minor, admirably presented here on this Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Media recording with Garrick Ohlsson and the ASO conducted by Robert Spano.

Ohlsson was a gangly 22 year old when he won first prize at the International Chopin Competition in 1970. Forty-one years later, he has come to be regarded as one of the American veterans of the concert stage. Despite his eclectic discography, ranging from Bach to Gershwin, Ohlsson has never spent much time with the Russian romantics, so this recording, which not only features the concerto, but also the three Symphonic Dances, is a journey into uncharted territory. And what a satisfying voyage it is indeed! The concerto - surely one of the most demanding in the repertoire - is a plethora of contrasting moods and tempos, but Ohlsson handles them all with aplomb. Piano pyrotechnics are treated with ease, while the quieter, more lyrical sections demonstrate an introspective elegance. Spano has been director of the ASO for ten years now, and here, his competent baton achieves a warmly romantic sound from the players. Concluding the disc is the set of three Symphonic Dances from 1941, the last works ever to be penned by Rachmaninov. The ensemble delivers a polished performance and the Direct Digital Stream sound further enhances this most satisfying recording.

01_daughertyThe Montreal violinist Alexandre Da Costa is back with another outstanding CD of contemporary works, this time with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal under Pedro Halffter in Fire and Blood, featuring the music of the American composer Michael Daugherty (Acacia Classics ACA 2 0931). The title work is a violin concerto from 2003; commissioned by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, it was inspired by the “Detroit Industry” murals at the Detroit Institute of Art, painted in the early 1930s by the Mexican artist Diego Rivera on a commission from Edsel Ford. The opening movement – “Volcano” – invokes the fires of Mexican volcanoes and the blaze of factory furnaces. The beautiful second movement – “River Rouge” – is named for the Ford complex where Rivera spent several months sketching with his wife, artist Frida Kahlo; her long-term serious health problems – she almost died from a miscarriage while in Detroit with her husband – resulted in “the color of blood” being everywhere in her works of that period. The third movement – “Assembly Line” – is described by the composer as “a roller coaster ride on a conveyor belt,” with the violin representing the worker surrounded by a mechanical and metallic orchestra that includes a ratchet and brake drums! It’s stunning stuff with wonderful orchestration. It’s difficult to imagine it being performed any better. Two shorter works complete the CD: Flamingo, for two tambourines and orchestra; and Ladder to the Moon, for violin, wind octet, double bass and percussion. Da Costa is again outstanding in the latter, a two-movement work also inspired by art – this time a musical tribute to Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1925-30 paintings of New York skyscrapers and the Manhattan cityscape.

02_ehnes_tchaikovskyThe latest CD from Canada’s James Ehnes sees him paired with the Sydney Symphony and Vladimir Ashkenazy in an all-Tchaikovsky programme recorded live at Australia’s Sydney Opera House in December 2010 (ONYX 4076). I was lucky enough to catch this same team in a memorable performance of the Elgar violin concerto in Sydney in 2009, and it’s no surprise to find them continuing their relationship. Ashkenazy was also the conductor for the Ehnes CD of the Mendelssohn concerto in 2010. The Violin Concerto is obviously the main work here, and it’s a terrific performance, with Ashkenazy drawing idiomatic playing from the orchestra, and Ehnes always managing to find something fresh to say in the solo part while making the technical difficulties sound easy. The two other works with orchestra, the Sérénade mélancolique Op.26, and the Valse-scherzo Op.34, receive equally compelling performances from all concerned.

Ashkenazy returns to his first profession as pianist for the final work, accompanying Ehnes in the three-movement Souvenir d’un lieu cher Op.42. Again, the mutual understanding is there for all to hear. It’s another terrific addition to the already impressive Ehnes discography.

03_christian_tetzlaffThere are more live recordings featured on the latest CD from Christian Tetzlaff (ONDINE ODE 1195-2) which features the Violin Concertos of Mendelssohn and Schumann, with Paavo Järvi conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. Tetzlaff was artist in residence with the orchestra when the recordings were made in September 2008 and February 2009. The Mendelssohn is a beautiful performance, never over-played, with an affecting slow movement and a finale that displays detailed, subtle and sensitive playing without ever losing a sense of line. The Schumann concerto has had a troubled history and waited 84 years for its eventual premiere in 1937. The beautiful slow movement is its saving grace, but the opening movement material is not the greatest, and with its demanding technical difficulty it’s not hard to see why the concerto continues to struggle to enter the mainstream repertoire. Tetzlaff, however, does a lovely job with this work, as he does with the Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, which was also written in 1853 and quickly fell out of favour. It was originally felt to be a brilliant and cheerful piece, but Schumann’s mental illness and death within three years seemed to change the public perception of the work. In this repertoire, though, Tetzlaff is up against stiff competition from Ulf Wallin, whose definitive performances of these works on the BIS label were reviewed in depth in the September 2011 Strings Attached column.

04_jasperThe Kernis Project: Beethoven is the title of a new CD from a young American ensemble, the Jasper String Quartet (Sono Luminus DSL-92142). It pairs the Beethoven Op.59, No.3 with the String Quartet No.2 musica instrumentalis, by American composer Aaron Jay Kernis, the last movement of which is based on the finale of the Beethoven quartet. The Jasper Quartet gives a full-blooded, committed reading of the Beethoven, but the real treasure here is the Kernis. The three-movement work, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998, is an absolute stunner: deep, strong, rich,accessible. There are shades of Shostakovich in the slow movement, and the finale – “Double Triple Gigue Fugue (after Beethoven)” – is truly exhilarating. Although it wasn’t written for them, the Jasper Quartet comment that this was a work they connected with “right from the start.” It’s easy to hear why, and to share their connection. How reassuring – and what a thrill – to hear contemporary works that can hold their own against the classics.

05_river_of_lightKernis also turns up on River of LightAmerican Short Works for Violin and Piano, a new Naxos release in the superb American Classics series (Naxos 8.559662). The title is slightly misleading, as two of the works – Philip Glass’ “Knee Play 2” from Einstein on the Beach and Patrick Zimmerli’s three-movement The Light Guitar – are for violin solo. Virtually all of the works are by living composers and written within the last 35 years, the exception being the 1953 Wistful Piece by Ruth Shaw Wylie, who died in 1989. Lev Zhurbin’s Sicilienne, Jennifer Higdon’s Legacy, Zimmerli’s piece and Richard Danielpour’s title track River of Light are all world premiere recordings. The Kernis Air, Kevin Puts’ Aria and William Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost Rag complete a fascinating and predominantly lyrical programme. The American violinist Tim Fain, who was recently featured in the movie Black Swan, is in his element here, as much at home in the frenetic Glass piece as in the lyrical beauty of the Puts, Kernis and Zhurbin works. Fain grew up playing the standard 19thcentury short virtuoso pieces, and sees this CD as bringing the tradition into the present. Pianist Pei-Yao Wang is a perfect partner in music that is always thought-provoking and immensely satisfying, without ever resorting to the merely virtuosic.

06_bowen_violaEnglish viola music has already been well-served by the Naxos label, and now there’s a new CD featuring the Viola Sonatas Nos.1 and 2 and the Phantasy of Edwin York Bowen in performances by the Bridge Duo (Naxos 8.572580). York Bowen, born in 1884, was a prodigiously-gifted musician and an outstanding composer, but – as was the case with several other British composers – his style came to be considered outdated in the years following the Great War. Bowen worked closely with Lionel Tertis, the man who was almost single-handedly responsible for establishing the viola as a legitimate solo instrument: Tertis premiered Bowen’s Viola Concerto in 1908, as well as these two sonatas a few years earlier. Both sonatas, No.1 in C Minor and No.2 in F Major, date from 1905. They are marvellous works, quintessentially English and exhibiting great strength and variety. The single-movement Phantasy was written in 1918 and was Bowen’s entry in the annual W. W. Cobbett Phantasy composition competition that produced so many outstanding English works. Tertis saw no reason to treat writing for the viola any differently than writing for the violin and as a result all three works are technically very challenging, a fact that no doubt contributed to their somewhat sparse performance history until fairly recently. The Bridge Duo – violist Matthew Jones and pianist Michael Hampton – are fully up to the challenge in a beautifully-recorded disc that makes a fine companion to their recital of English Music for Viola (Naxos 8.572579).

07_jongenThere is more viola music – again from a mostly overlooked composer and with another link to Tertis – on the CD of the Complete Works for Viola & Piano by Joseph Jongen (FUGA LIBERA FUG586). Jongen, born in 1873, was also a precociously-gifted musician, and met Tertis in London in 1914 after fleeing from occupied Belgium at the outbreak of the Great War. He also knew the great French viola player Maurice Vieux in the 1920s. Like Bowen, Jongen was a craftsman who produced works of the highest order, but whose reputation suffered as musical styles evolved through the middle of the 20th century. Both Tertis and Vieux were prominent in establishing the viola as a legitimate solo instrument, and both had a huge influence on Jongen’s viola works – and on their technical difficulty. The young Belgian violist Nathan Braude is simply outstanding in a recital that includes Jongen’s Allegro appassionato Op.79 from 1925, the Introduction & Danse Op.102 from 1935, the Concertino Op.111 from 1940, the two-movement Suite Op.48 and the Andante espressivo. His tone is deep and warm in the lower register, and brilliant and bright, though never thin or lacking in strength, in the upper register. Technically he is flawless and never less than completely musical. He is supported by some terrific piano playing by Jean-Claude Vanden Eynden, who not only has his work cut out in the viola works, but also supplies outstanding performances of the two excellent piano solo pieces that complete the CD: the second Étude de concert Op.65 No.2 and the Soleil à midi Op.33 No.1. The booklet notes make an impassioned plea – and a strong case – for a reassessment of Jongen’s music, and of his place in 20th century music. The charming and beautiful works on this CD make an even stronger one.

08a_haydn_7108b_haydn_74The ever-reliable Hyperion label has issued two CDs by the Takács Quartet of String Quartets of Joseph Haydn, one featuring the three quartets Op.71 and the other the three quartets Op.74 (Hyperion CDA67781 and CDA67793). All six works were written in Vienna between Haydn’s visits to London in 1791-2 and 1794 and were clearly written for public – as opposed to private – performance, following the success of his Op.64 quartets at the Salomon subscription concerts in London. The Takács Quartet plays with precision, warmth and richness, as you would expect, but the real stars here are the works themselves, amply demonstrating the inexhaustible wit, humour and invention for which Haydn is so justly noted.

01_Mozart_HewittMozart - Piano Concertos 6, 8 & 9

Angela Hewitt; Orchestra da Camera di Mantova

Hyperion CDA67840

Has it really been 26 years since Angela Hewitt made the world sit up and take notice as the winner of the Toronto International Bach Competition? Since then, the Ottawa native (now based in London) has gone on to achieve international fame through her interpretations of such diverse composers as Bach, Couperin, Ravel and Messiaen (himself one of the judges in the competition). This newest Hyperion release features three early piano concertos by Mozart, the nucleus of a proposed project to record all 27. Together with the Orchestra da Camera di Mantova, under the leadership of Carlo Fabiano, Hewitt proves that she is as at home with Mozart as she is with music from the baroque or late romantic period. The disc is a gem! Her playing is stylish and elegant, demonstrating well-articulated phrasing and a refined sensitivity to the technical demands, while the 29-member ensemble constitutes a formidable musical partner.

These concertos were all written before Mozart was 22 and, not surprisingly, contain a mood of youthful optimism. Yet the music is not all galanterie. Indeed, for me, the highlight of the recording is surely the slow movement from the Concerto No.9, a work completed in January 1777 for Victoire Jenamy, the daughter of the famed choreographer Jean-Georges Noverre. Here, the sombre and elegiac mood is so perfectly evoked that I can’t help but envision a country churchyard in late autumn, the bare tree branches silhouetted against a grey sky. Sunshine returns with the jubilant finale – among the only concerto movements Mozart wrote in which the soloist begins before the orchestra – thus bringing this pleasing disc to a close. Bravissimo a tutti on a fine performance – we look forward to others in the series.

02_Fialkowska_LisztLiszt Recital

Janina Fialkowska

ATMA ACD2 2641

Canadian pianist of world renown, Janina Fialkowska made an heroic recovery from cancer in 2002 and bravely returned to her brilliant career. Although primarily known for her Chopin interpretations she now surprises us with a full blown Liszt recital. A sensitively selected program of not-so-well-known works of enormous difficulty played with tremendous skill, masculine power, stamina and charming feminine grace would sum up this very successful issue. Interestingly, only two of the pieces are original Liszt compositions. All the others are transcriptions, or rather complete reworkings, of Schubert, Chopin and even Gounod, all propelled into Liszt’s magical sound world.

First an elegant Waltz by Schubert from Soirées de Vienne, greatly extended by Liszt’s cascading fioraturas is dashed off with superb panache. Next comes original Liszt, Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude, a deeply religious piece that reminds me of the Petrarca Sonnets with most heartfelt and beautifully built up melodies. The “Polish Connection” brings a rarely heard set of six songs by Chopin put into piano settings and dedicated to Liszt’s paramour, Polish princess Carolyne. They include virtuoso mazurkas, tender nocturnes and a wild, stormy finale that thunders along like the Revolutionary Etude.

The final portion of the disc dedicated to Goethe’s Faust is represented by a piano transcription of the second movement (Gretchen) of the Faust Symphony. Fialowska’s sensitive, deeply felt and fully understood performance sounds even better on the piano than with full orchestra. Here one can concentrate on the girlish longings of its simple melody followed by the more menacing themes of Faust. The two in combination build to a passionate climax like a love duet.

A sumptuous paraphrase of the delightful waltz from Gounod’s Faust brings us to a brilliant close. Liszt sums it up by saying that, “in the compass of the piano’s seven octaves it includes the entire scope of the orchestra, and the 10 fingers of a single man suffice to render all the harmonies produced by the concurrence of over a hundred concerted instruments.”

03_BusoniBusoni - Piano Concerto

Roberto Cappello; Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma; Francesco La Vecchia

Naxos 8.572523

Ferruccio Busoni’s gigantic Piano Concerto (1902-1904) is rarely performed in concert due to its lengthy duration (c. 80 minutes), super-human demands on the soloist and the unusual incorporation of an invisible male chorus singing a Hymn to Allah in the finale of the work. It is stylistically unorthodox as well, with the piano cast as more of a commentator on the ongoing symphonic events rather than the usual self-centred protagonist. It has fared well on disc however, with multiple releases following the landmark 1968 performance by the legendary Busoni champion John Ogdon.

The present disc features the rarely recorded Italian pianist Roberto Cappello in a truly spectacular display of the challenging amalgam of power, energy and nobility the score demands. Balances in this production are straightforward, emphasizing the elaborate piano writing with a judicious mixing of the orchestra. The Rome Symphony Orchestra proves itself a proficient partner, though the attention to dynamics and voicing by conductor Francesco La Vecchia is tenuous. To truly appreciate the finesse of Busoni’s orchestration I would recommend the 1989 Telarc recording by pianist Garrick Ohlssohn with Christoph von Dohnányi leading the incomparable Cleveland Orchestra. That being said, at this price one need not be too picky and the soloist is indeed truly magnificent. Thank you Naxos for making this awesome leviathan of a concerto more widely available.

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