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.

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.

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