01_VipersThe Vipers

The Vipers

Independent www.silverbirchprod.com

The self-titled CD from bluesy jazz group The Vipers is a treat from start to finish. Produced by group members Pat Carey and Howard Moore, the disc features dynamic vocalist Sophia Perlman and additional band members Mitchell Lewis, Ross MacIntyre and Jeff Halischuk. Guitarist and arranger Ted Quinlan also guests on some of the disc’s strongest tracks.

The tasty opener, East of the Sun, West of the Moon (Brooks Bowman), has no shortage of swing. The horns are arranged in tight, Med Flory-inspired lines while Perlman’s glorious alto soars with maturity and all the right musical decisions. Her husky, June Christy-ish tone is the perfect complement to Quinlan’s crisp, lyrical guitar line. Vocalist Perlman also shines on That’s Why I’m Cryin’ - a rarely performed gem by blues icon Koko Taylor. Perlman’s approach is all at once soulful, gut-wrenching, funky and provocative.

Other stand outs include You Make Me Feel So Young (Myro/Gordon), a charming duet with Perlman and Moore that brings to mind the duets of Ray Charles and Betty Carter, and an energetic arrangement of Old Devil Moon from Burton Lane’s Broadway smash, Finian’s Rainbow. The tune is an up-tempo cooker with vibrant guitar from Quinlan and drum solo from Halischuk. Also notable is an evocative version of Billie Holiday’s Don’t Explain, which is literally drenched in musical “film noir” and features Perlman’s breathtaking and chameleon-like vocal instrument.

01_ehnes_bartokWhen I saw the artistic pairing on the latest CD by James Ehnes, the Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 and the Viola Concerto by Béla Bartók (Chandos CHAN 10690), my expectations sky-rocketed: not only was Ehnes playing, but the conductor was the terrific Gianandrea Noseda with the BBC Philharmonic. A dream team! For years, the Violin Concerto No.2 was assumed to be the only one that Bartók wrote, until the discovery of an earlier two-movement concerto, written in 1907-08 for the young violinist Stefi Geyer, to whom Bartók was romantically attached. The score remained unpublished and in her possession until her death in 1956. Ehnes is terrific in the lush, romantic first movement, as well as in a second half that more approaches the style of the mature composer. Despite Ehnes’ comment that this is music that has been very close to his heart since childhood, I found the Concerto No.2, one of my favourites, to be a bit less than I hoped for. It’s a passionate and lyrical reading, true, but I felt it lacked the contrasts and the sense of mystery that Menuhin – who knew Bartók – used to bring to this work. The Viola Concerto was left unfinished at Bartók’s death; unfortunately, the supposedly complete draft turned out to be just a pile of unnumbered manuscript pages with only a couple of indications of instrumentation. Bartók’s friend Tibor Serly, himself a violist, managed to solve the puzzle and complete the work, and Ehnes plays it with a commitment that never leaves its authenticity in any doubt. Noseda does his usual terrific job of bringing the very best out of the orchestra. One personal comment: the booklet bio again uses that quote from a Toronto newspaper hailing Ehnes as “the Jascha Heifetz of our day.” Does anyone else find this ridiculous? What’s wrong with Ehnes being hailed simply as one of the truly great players of his generation? If you want to appreciate how silly this is, then just imagine someone releasing a historical reissue of Heifetz recordings, and hailing him as “The James Ehnes of Yesterday.” Exactly!

02_ebene_dissonancesI know it’s a bit of a cop-out to be quoting a large chunk of the booklet notes in a CD review, but the opening remarks by the Quatuor Ebène for their Mozart Dissonances CD (Virgin Classics 50999 070922 2 0) tell you all you need to know about their approach to the music: “Mozart – despite the surface simplicity of his music – is one of the most difficult composers to interpret well, if not the most difficult of all. For his works demand two things of performers: absolute technical assurance, as anything less than perfect intonation and articulation would be all too clearly apparent in music that is so pure and transparent, …but above all the ability to let go and bare all.” And that’s exactly what you get on this wonderful recording of two of Mozart’s greatest quartets – the D minor K421 and the C major “Dissonance” – and the early Divertimento in F, K138. This is Mozart playing at its glorious best: warm, expansive, both passionate and sensitive, intelligent and thoughtful, and full of contrast and nuance. Add the simply beautiful recorded sound and you have a Mozart disc that will be hard to equal, let alone surpass.

03_sauretYou would be hard-pressed these days to find someone who would mention the French violinist Émile Sauret (1852-1920) in the same breath as Paganini, but such were his performing skills – he was giving concerts in London, Paris and Vienna at age 8! – that contemporary critics detected the same hint of the supernatural about his playing. Sauret was another of that breed that essentially died out during the 20th century: the virtuoso performer with compositional skills to match. Naxos has issued a charming CD of his Music for Violin and Piano (8.572366) played by the American violinist Michi Wiancko and the Russian pianist Dina Vainshtein. Their playing of these attractive, well-crafted pieces, that are closer to Sarasate in style than to Paganini, is an absolute delight. Recorded at the CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio by the always-reliable Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver, the sound quality displays perfect balance and a spacious ambience.

04_hoffmeisterViola players are not exactly overwhelmed with choice when it comes to concertos for their instrument, so the recent Naxos release of a CD of Viola Concertos by Stamitz and Hoffmeister (8.572162) is a welcome one. It’s an intriguing one as well, for viola concertos were not that common in the 18th century. Carl Stamitz, whose father Johann was the leader of the famous Mannheim orchestra, was a viola virtuoso as well as a violinist and composer, and his Concerto No.1 in D major, published around 1774, combines a technically challenging solo part with a skilful and sensitive orchestration. Although the composer Franz Anton Hoffmeister is now mostly remembered as a successful music publisher, his viola concertos in D major and B flat major were never published: each work has survived only in a single contemporary set of manuscript parts. This recording uses the new Artaria edition prepared from those parts by Allan Badley, who also wrote the booklet notes. Violist Victoria Chang is perfectly at home in this charming, if somewhat insubstantial, music and receives excellent support from the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra under Markand Thakar. The booklet notes remark that all three works remind us of the musical riches that can be found in the most unexpected corners of the 18th century. That’s quite true, but they also remind us of just how far Mozart was ahead of his contemporaries.

05_russian_viola_sonatasI didn’t know the names of any of the three composers on Russian Viola Sonatas (Sono Luminus DSL-92136), the new CD from the American violist Eliesha Nelson and the U.K.-based Nigerian pianist Glen Inanga. Varvara Gaigerova (b.1903), Alexander Winkler (b.1865) and Paul Juon (b.1872) all died between 1935 and 1944, but not – as you might suspect – as a result of the political situation in Russia at that time. Only Gaigerova died in Russia, in 1944 at the early age of 40, but her folk-inspired compositions and politically correct works in the 1930s apparently never put her at odds with the Soviet regime. Winkler emigrated to France 11 years before his death there in 1935; Juon retired to Switzerland in 1934, and died there in 1940. All the works on the CD are from the 20th century, but there is little of the sound and style that we associate with composers such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev. All three composers were influenced by Russian folk elements, making for very attractive and highly accessible works, but there’s hardly a moment when you have no doubt that you are listening to 20th century Russian music: there’s more of a German Romantic feel here a lot of the time. Winkler and Juon, of course, received their training in the 19th century, but even the Gaigerova work has turn-of-the-century echoes of Scriabin, Brahms, Ravel and Rachmaninov. Juon, whose Sonata in D major, Op.15 is the only work on the CD that is not a world premiere recording, was raised in a German-speaking household and spent virtually all of his working life in Berlin. His three-movement sonata, written in 1901, makes it clear why he was often referred to as the “Russian Brahms.” There is more than a trace of the same composer in the Winkler Sonata in C minor, Op.10, from 1920, by far the biggest work on the CD – in fact, there is an almost direct quote from the Brahms A major violin sonata in the first movement. Winkler’s Two Pieces Op.31, the slow Méditation élégiaque and the scherzino La toupie, are well-crafted and effective light music pieces. Gaigerova is perhaps the most interesting composer here – very little information is available about her – and she was the composer most strongly influenced by the folk music of the numerous Soviet Republics. Her four-movement Suite Op.8, published posthumously in 1969, is a beautiful work, and makes you wonder what we might be missing in her neglected string quartets and symphonies. Nelson’s viola tone is mostly warm, although it’s a bit thin at times in the upper register, but the tonal quality and the steady, constant vibrato hardly vary at all throughout the disc. There’s not much dynamic contrast either, and the end result is that the works tend to sound rather the same. How much this is due to the compositions themselves rather than the performance would make an interesting discussion, but I really can’t hear the power and passion or the sensitive phrasing that some reviewers of this CD have found in Nelson’s playing. Inanga is a fine partner at the keyboard, although the recorded balance makes the piano sound a bit distant at times.

04_ames_piano_quartetHahn; Schmitt; Dubois
Ames Piano Quartet
Sono Luminus DSL-92141

This is the 14th release by the Ames Piano Quartet, the resident chamber music ensemble of Iowa State University. The quartet has been hailed for their two decades worth of well-received releases for Dorian Records, subsequently re-issued as a box set by the Virginia-based Sono Luminus label. Their latest recording features French chamber music from the first half of the twentieth century.

Best known for his vocal works, the Venezuelan-born Francophile Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) is represented here by a late Quartet in G published in 1946. Hahn, partly Jewish and once the intimate partner of Marcel Proust, kept an understandably low profile during the war years hiding away in Monte Carlo. His elegant, finely crafted quartet betrays little personal anxiety considering the circumstances; though the tender third movement suggests a certain regret, the general tone is one of restrained optimism.

Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) enjoyed tremendous success at the outset of his career but alienated the establishment through his acidic music reviews (his habit of shouting out his verdicts in the concert hall led the publisher Heugel to brand him “an irresponsible lunatic”) and perceived pro-Germanic stance owing to his Alsatian origins. Be that as it may, his truly delightful “petit concert” Hasards Op. 96 (1944) towers over his compatriots on this recording thanks to its brilliant colours, refreshing mutability and sheer rhythmic inventiveness.

Bringing up the rear is the teacher of both Hahn and Schmitt, the distinguished Théodore Dubois (1837-1924), now mostly remembered for denying Maurice Ravel the Prix de Rome. The thoroughly conventional structure and fulsome harmonies of his impeccably proper Quartet in A minor (1907) bring to mind the music of César Franck, an impression confirmed by the cyclic return of earlier themes in the finale of the work. Schmitt remains the indubitable star of the show however and reason enough to own this intriguing collection of lesser-known repertoire.

Concert Note: Reviewer Daniel Foley’s latest composition Music for the Duke of York will receive its premiere at an afternoon concert honouring the late Antonin Kubálek at Walter Hall on November 6.

03_russian_favouritesRussian Favourites
Alexander Sevastian
Analekta AN 2 9929

“Russian Favourites” showcases Quartetto Gelato accordionist Alexander Sevastian in a number of Russian solo accordion works and arrangements.

The accordion specific works are important examples of “classical” 20th century Russian accordion repertoire. Compositional acumen and the monster virtuosic strength of the Russian players created a challenging collection. Here Vyatcheslav Semionov’s Don Rhapsody No.1 is a prime example. In just under five minutes, it showcases almost everything the accordion can do. Massive chords, lyrical melodies and blasting sound walls are all controlled brilliantly by Sevastian. The work is saved from becoming a musical parody of itself primarily thanks to the composer’s clever compositional skills. Original works by Shenderyov, Korolyov, Panitsky and Zolotaryov are also featured.

Sevastian himself arranged works by Rachmaninoff, Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky. The success of any arrangement for the accordion from Romantic piano repertoire is tricky. The piano is a percussion instrument – finger articulation causes a hammer to hit a string which causes it to vibrate. Pedals figure prominently too. Lots of sound source possibilities. The accordion is a wind instrument – the bellows force air through metal reeds causing them to vibrate once buttons or keys are depressed. There is only has one sound source. That’s why sometimes an arrangement like Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise sings with its inherent flowing melodic beauty while Mussorgsky’s “The Gnome” from Pictures at an Exhibition stumbles with too many simultaneously vibrating reeds.

Sevastian is a sensitive and accomplished performer in this crowd-pleasing jewel.

02_tchaikovskyTchaikovsky - Symphonies 4-6
Mariinsky Orchestra; Valery Gergiev
Mariinsky DVD MAR0513; Blu-ray BD MAR0515

Philips issued CDs of these three symphonies with Gergiev conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in live performances from 2002, 1998, and 2004. Although they were very well received in some quarters, I found them to be quite perfunctory. Here is a wiser Gergiev in 2010 with his own orchestra live from the Salle Pleyel in Paris and the performances are polished, spectacular and substantial.

The first movement of the Fourth Symphony sounds eccentrically slow on first hearing but after listening to all three symphonies it now fits perfectly into Gergiev’s new understanding and appreciation of Tchaikovsky’s music. The Fifth Symphony is unusually stirring from the first notes to a hectic, triumphant finale. The Sixth can be driven too hard as Gergiev did in the Vienna recordings but here it unfolds with unusual respect and sensitivity. That is not to imply that it is not thrilling, which it assuredly is, but there is an atmosphere of inevitability throughout heard in no other performances that I know of. The tragic last movement, Tchaikovsky’s valedictory address, is played with intense passion and is quite final. I “Do not go gentle into that good night,” he seems to say.

There is a bonus in which Gergiev talks about Tchaikovsky’s orchestrations with interesting observations. Not an overly large orchestra, about 50 players, the textures and balances are never obscured. For me, these extraordinary, vital performances set a new standard. Perfect sound and thrilling dynamics throughout make this Blu-ray disc an uncontested first choice. Enthusiastically recommended.

01_beethoven_naganoBeethoven - In the Breath of Time
Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal; Kent Nagano

The Montreal Symphony has much to be happy about these days. Conductor extraordinaire Kent Nagano is now in his sixth season as music director and the orchestra is sounding great. This is in part because of its new hall, which opened in September and is proving to be an acoustical gem. Furthermore, the ensemble has begun to record on its own label – OSM - and this latest offering – a two-disc set titled “In the Breath of Time” is another in the series featuring music by Beethoven, specifically symphonies six and eight, in addition to the Grosse Fuge as arranged by Felix Weingartner.

As fine an ensemble as the MSO is, there are no surprises here, nor is there any ground-breaking. Instead, under Naganos’s competent baton, the orchestra concentrates on solid musicianship, performing with a particular warmth and sensitivity. The “Pastoral” Symphony is a delight – here are the familiar bird-calls, the peasant dances and the joyful mood of life in the country as Beethoven witnessed it. The more traditional Symphony No.8 is approached with a suitable spirit of nobility and the monumental Fuge – all seventeen minutes of it – with the grandeur it deserves.

In keeping with the overall theme of time and change, the second disc concludes with a brief spoken word trilogy titled Declaration of INTERdependence, written and narrated by David Suzuki. While the recitation is moving and poignant, it’s the music itself that makes this such a satisfying recording – a fine interpretation of familiar repertoire by one of Canada’s most renowned orchestras.

01_couperinCouperin - Concerts royaux

Bruce Haynes; Arthur Haas; Susie Napper

ATMA ACD2 2168

Around 1700 Pierre Naust crafted an hautboy in Paris – it may be the earliest hautboy (forerunner of the oboe) now in private hands. In 1703 Barak Norman created a viola da gamba in London. This recording unites these two instruments in some of Couperin’s concerts royaux, precisely the repertoire for which Naust’s hautboy would have been played.

The recording was originally released in 1999 but one very poignant reason explains its redistribution. US/Canadian Bruce Haynes, the hautboy soloist, died this year; reintroducing the hautboy into France (!) and five books and 50 articles on early music are his legacy.

Concert 7’s sarabande is the first opportunity to hear the Naust hautboy. It is both outwardly expressive and yet slightly sensitive; Couperin was well able to bring out the quality of this instrument.

In Concert 11, despite the rather stately quality of all eight movements, the standard of hautboy playing is always maintained. It is Susie Napper’s mastery of the gamba which gains exposure, reinforced in her duet with harpsichordist Arthur Haas in a track from Couperin’s third book of harpsichord pieces. In fact, Bruce Haynes returns with some of his most inspired playing in two musétes. Rural can only begin to describe the combination of hautboy, harpsichord and gamba as they imitate the sounds of the French bagpipe!

And then the even more varied Concert 3 (with another muzette - sic) to conclude this tribute to Bruce Haynes, and to the instrument he revived in the country of its birth.

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