07_mahler1-10Mahler - Symphonies 1-10

Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich; David Zinman

RCA Red Seal 88697 72723 2

Until recently Switzerland’s Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich had little international prominence and, by comparison with Ernest Ansermet’s renowned Suisse Romande orchestra, a sadly meagre discography. That all changed with the arrival in 1995 of American conductor David Zinman. He brought an injection of fresh blood to this venerable ensemble and soon hit a home run with of a swiftly-paced, revisionist box set of Beethoven symphonies which sold over a million copies. The rejuvenating effect of his stewardship is confirmed by the genuine optimism and esprit-de-corps expressed in interviews with the members of the orchestra in an accompanying documentary covering the recording of the Sixth Symphony and the story behind its composition. (Incidentally, this DVD includes a visit to the control room where the producers claim with a straight face that they aren’t adjusting the balance through the mixing board. Not when the cameras are running, anyway.)

Few boxed sets of Mahler symphonies have ever proven themselves outstanding in all respects, though the Bernstein and Kubelik collections from the 1960s remain worthy contenders despite their age. Though Zinman’s excursion to the nine planets of Mahler’s known universe contains more hits than misses, there are a few disappointments along the way. The bulk of the ebullient First Symphony (Zinman includes the excised Blumine movement as an appendix) falls flat, the genial Fourth fails to smile, and the infinite longing of the first movement of the Ninth Symphony fails to register emotionally due to clumsy or non-existent tempo adjustments and less than subtle dynamic gradations.

The more objective middle symphonies fare best, with an excellent Third and Fifth and highly effective Sixth and Seventh symphonies, the latter two distinguished by the sweetest, most contented cowbells I’ve ever heard. The choral symphonies, Two and Eight, feature world-class vocal soloists including Juliane Banse, Anna Larsson, Birgit Remmert and Anthony Dean Griffey backed by the magisterial WDR Rundfunkchor Köln.

The set concludes with the incomplete Tenth Symphony in the rarely-heard Clinton Carpenter version, an interventionist realization that attempts to flesh out the harmonies of Mahler’s extant sketches and incorporates quotations from his previous symphonies. I’m not entirely convinced by the results but it’s fascinating to hear this alternate to the prim and proper Deryck Cooke version. My reservations aside, the mid-range price, ample documentation and exemplary sonics (including an offbeat 4.1 (sic) SACD layer for ye boys what have such toys) make this an attractive proposition and a leading contender among the avalanche of recent releases in the ongoing Mahler celebrations.

The Honens International Piano Competition, based in Calgary, commenced in the early 1990s and occurs every three years. Its next edition will take place in 2012, with a prize advertised as the largest anywhere: $100,000 cash, plus three years of management and concerts, for the first-place winner.

Another angle to the Honens Competition is the occasional issuing of CDs of past winners. Four releases have just appeared, each recorded in 2010 at the Banff Centre. They are an homage to the recently deceased Andrew Raeburn, who directed the Honens for a decade, and earlier in his career ran classical record labels in England and the US. Raeburn is listed as producer on one of these discs, the Bach release by Minsoo Sohn, a follow up to Sohn’s Liszt recording as First Laureate of the 2006 competition. The other three, featuring the 2009 laureates, were produced by Banff recording engineer Theresa Leonard.

The piano sound captured is uniformly fine, closely miked yet resonant. Music choices are diverse, and avoid much of the customary core piano repertoire - no Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Scriabin, or Rachmaninoff.

08b_honens_starodubtsevRussian Evgeny Starodubtsev presents the most interesting recital, clustered around the 1920s: Karol Szymanowski’s three bracing Masques, Paul Hindemith’s jazzy Suite (1922), Schoenberg’s Five Pieces, Op. 23 and Stravinsky’s Sonata (1924). His playing is objectivist in spirit, which may suit a neoclassical milieu.

08c_honens_tchaidzeRussian Georgy Tchaidze offers a lovely Schubert program with warmth and care. He plays the songful A Major Sonata, Op. 120, the Wanderer Fantasy, and four short character pieces like he loves them.

08d_honens_vonsattelAmerican Gilles Vonsattel delivers a compelling, mostly French recital: Ravel’s Sonatine and Gaspard de la Nuit, five selections from Debussy’s Images, and short pieces by Arthur Honegger and Heinz Holliger (b. 1939). His playing is notably colorful and expressive.

08a_honens_sohnKorean-American Minsoo Sohn’s rendering of the lofty Goldberg Variations is gentle and pianistic, with fleet tempos, lyrical counterpoint, and occasional zest. Sohn observes the repeat signs in each variation, yet almost decoration-free: his Bach journey stretches to a sobering 75 minutes, when it could have been more pleasant at under 40.

While not issued as a set, all four black-and-white CD jackets and booklets look exactly alike: sternly modern in design, with frustratingly small type. Eric Friesen, the CBC classical radio broadcaster, has supplied brief conversational liner notes, taken from his interviews with the performers. For more information visit www.honens.com.

This month I’m catching up on a backlog of solo recital CDs.

01_bach_cello_violaAnalekta has issued a beautiful 2CD set of the Bach Six Cello Suites on Viola by the outstanding English violist Helen Callus (AN 2 9968-9). Five of the Suites are in the original keys, while No. 6 is transposed up a 4th from D major to G major, apparently to enable Callus to retain more of Bach’s open-string effects. The move away from the cello tessitura – the viola is tuned one octave higher – gives the works an added brightness and a quite different feel. Callus maintains a beautiful sense of line, and handles the multiple-stopping and contrapuntal elements quite effortlessly. Recorded at Domaine Forget’s Salle Françoys-Bernier in Saint-Irénée, Quebec last year, the sound is warm and resonant.

02_bach_cello_baroqueA direct comparison is provided by the Avie Records 2CD set of the Six Suites performed on Baroque cellos (although one is from 1798) by Tanya Tomkins (AV2212). The playing here seems a bit slower and more contemplative, with a tone quality closer to a viola da gamba than a cello, but I found that it didn’t hold my interest over extended listening: I had no problem listening to the Callus set from start to finish, but couldn’t do it here. Perhaps the lack of a strong sense of pulse, particularly in the dance movements, contributed to that. Don’t get me wrong though – this is thought-provoking, intelligent and carefully measured playing, albeit somewhat cool and with not the same life or spirit as the viola set – or perhaps more accurately, with a different spirit. Tomkins’ Benvenue Trio co-member Eric Zivian composed a double for the Sarabande in the Suite No.6.

03_bach_solo_violinYou don’t have to read the booklet notes for the Linn 2CD set of the Bach Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin by Pavlo Beznosiuk (CKD 366) to realize that this is another performance by a Baroque specialist – the thin high register, the sparse vibrato, and the overall lack of a big sound make it obvious from the opening bars. Again, though, this is clearly a very personal and thoughtful interpretation. Tempos are not fast, but the dance movements in the Partitas are never allowed to drag. Beznosiuk makes some interesting choices with variations in some of the repeats, as well as with the inner workings of the chordal sections; he also changes or omits the occasional note from the standard editions, but he’s not exactly alone in that respect. Overall, though, this is an interpretation that didn’t engage me emotionally, a response that probably wasn’t helped by the distant nature of the recording.

04_ysayeThere’s another terrific CD of the Six Sonatas for Violin Solo by Eugène Ysaÿe, this time by the Icelandic-born violinist Judith Ingolfsson (GENUIN GEN 1102). I reviewed the Rachel Colly D’Alba set on Warner last February, and referred then to the startling originality and individuality of these remarkable works. They’re arguably the most significant solo sonatas since Bach’s, yet despite being well represented on CD – one single web search today turned up 16 different issues – they haven’t been recorded by many of the really “big” names in the field. It’s almost impossible to offer an objective comparison with so many choices available, but this is another impressive set that never makes the pieces sound forced or awkward. And that’s saying something.

05_emmanuelle_bertrand_cello_parleOn her latest solo CD+DVD set, le violoncelle parle (the cello speaks) (harmonia mundi HMC 902078) the French cellist Emmanuelle Bertrand presents an excellent programme: Britten’s Suite No. 3 in C minor, written for Rostropovich; Gaspar Cassado’s Suite from 1926; a relatively new (2003) and quite moving work from Bertrand’s partner and regular accompanist Pascal Amoyel called Itinérance; and a knock-out performance of the Kodaly Suite Op. 8, which really doesn’t sound like it was written in 1915. Bertrand’s breathing noises are a bit intrusive at times, but nothing can detract from the wonderful playing here. The DVD is an engrossing 47-minute film by Christian Leblé that features Bertrand talking about the music (in clear, understandable French with sub-titles) along with sections of the actual CD studio recording of each work and a fascinating look at Bertrand one-on-one with one of her students in a section of the Kodaly Suite.

06_stravinsky_violin-pianoNewton Classics has reissued the 2CD Complete Works for Violin and Piano by Stravinsky, originally issued by Philips in 1989, and played by Dutch violinist Isabelle van Keulen and Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen (8802062 2CD). The recordings were made in 1987 and 1988 in Switzerland, but sound as fresh as if they were made last week. Most of the works here are transcriptions of Stravinsky’s own orchestral works, with virtually all of them crediting Stravinsky and Samuel Dushkin as the arrangers. Stravinsky met the Polish-American violinist in 1930, when Schott, the composer’s German publisher, suggested that Stravinsky write a concerto for Dushkin. The two got on well, and as Stravinsky needed to increase his income they formed a performing duo which toured extensively throughout the 1930s. All of the music on these CDs resulted from that partnership. Van Keulen’s playing is exemplary – clean, warm, stylish and with no trace of excessive show; it’s fitting, given that what attracted Stravinsky to Dushkin’s playing was the latter’s sensitivity and a complete lack of showy virtuosity. Mustonen provides the perfect support. Beautifully packaged, and with really excellent booklet notes, this is one of the best “complete works” sets I’ve seen in a long time. Distributed by Naxos here, the budget price makes it an even more attractive buy.

07_brahms_steinbacherAn equally attractive Super Audio CD comes from PentaTone Classics, with Arabella Steinbacher and Robert Kulek performing the Complete Works for Violin and Piano by Johannes Brahms (PTC 5186 367). I always feel you can judge how performances of the Brahms sonatas are going to turn out just by listening to the first 4 bars of the G major sonata: the two piano chords and the almost hesitant off-beat entry of the violin have to be perfectly judged in all respects – tempo, dynamics, pulse, touch, style, warmth, you name it – as they set the mood for the whole work. Well, no problems here. This is classic Brahms playing, bringing to mind all the usual adjectives: warm; glowing; expansive; autumnal. Simply beautiful. I’ll be playing this one again and again.

08_rautavaaraSummer Thoughts is the title of a new Ondine CD of the Works for Violin and Piano by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, played by violinist Pekka Kuusisto and pianist Paavali Jumppanen (ODE1177-2). Rautavaara, who turns 83 on October 9, has had a highly successful career, despite apparently not understanding why: he says that he writes his music “for myself and no one else,” and is “very flattered and surprised” if someone else finds something rewarding in it. His style is very eclectic. The works here, four of which are world premiere recordings, cover most of Rautavaara’s career: Summer Thoughts and April Lines are both recent re-workings of material from the early 1970s; Lost Landscapes was a 2005 commission from Midori; Dithyrambos and Varietude for solo violin were written as the compulsory pieces for the International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition in 1970 and 1974 respectively; Notturna e danza was also an obligatory piece, written in 1993 for a youth chamber music competition. The most successful piece for me was, ironically, the only one in which the performers don’t actually play together. Pelimannit, or The Fiddlers, is a 6-movement piano suite from 1952 inspired by Finnish violin polska tunes notated some 150 years earlier. For this recording, Kuusisto hit on the idea of playing the actual fiddle tunes before the relevant piano sections. It works wonderfully – and there’s some tremendous fiddle playing!

09_elgar_violinNaxos has issued a 3CD box set of Elgar - The Violin Music (8.572643-45), although the performers aren’t quite what you might expect for this most quintessentially English of composers: the orchestra for the Violin Concerto and the Serenade for Strings is the West Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra under Bundit Ungrangsee. The Kazakhstan-born violinist Marat Bisengaliev, who founded the orchestra in 2003, clearly has strong ties to Elgar’s home base, however: the acknowledgements in the booklet notes include reference to his work as musician in residence in Malvern, and thanks for the loan of Elgar’s violin and bow. CD 1, recorded in 2009, contains the orchestral works; CDs 2 and 3, recorded in 1998 and 2000 and previously released by Black Box Music, consist almost entirely of works for violin and piano, with Benjamin Frith at the keyboard. The concerto receives a very presentable reading, with a nicely-balanced orchestral opening and a clean, transparent sound – no “stuffy” Edwardian approach here. Bisengaliev enters sounding more like a viola, with a big tone, quite nasal in the middle and lower registers, and with a tendency to scoop a bit between notes. Although he is much better in the faster sections of the concerto – especially the opening to the third movement – he sounds a bit strained in the quieter, slower moments, which I felt didn’t have the pensive, contemplative feel that is so essential in this music. Overall, this is a performance that occasionally scales the heights, but doesn’t really plumb the depths of this very personal and emotional work. CDs 2 and 3 contain almost 30 short works for violin and piano, both original and transcriptions, as well as the E minor Violin Sonata. Bisengaliev’s full tone and constant vibrato become a bit tiresome after a while. CD2, incidentally, ends with five remarkable Etudes caractéristiques for solo violin, which I never even knew existed!

01_jadinJadin - Quatuors a cordes, Oeuvre 1

Quatuor Franz Joseph

ATMA ACD2 2610

Child prodigy Hyacinthe Jadin premiered his own piano concerto at the age of 13 during the French Revolution, an event which both inspired and overshadowed him. He composed in almost every contemporary genre, including harpsichord and piano pieces, revolutionary hymns, conventional sonatas and trios and chamber music when it was exclusive to the aristocracy.

Quatuor Franz Joseph is certainly conventional: two violins, viola and cello. However, it introduces us to Jadin’s first quartet with a largo which very soon becomes an allegro that is tackled with relish by the quartet. The allegro and following adagio, minuet and second allegro combine to create chamber music at its most exhilarating.

Much less serious in tone are the two other quartets, in A major and F minor. Both exemplify the conventional chamber music of the pump room, albeit enlightened with the demands of the presto last movement of the A major and the folkloric quality of the F minor’s polonaise.

Jadin is said to have been influenced by Haydn, highly likely as Haydn’s influence was by then ubiquitous. Jadin was unique first in that he wrote chamber music when it was almost never publicly performed and second in that he was influenced by Haydn’s slow introductions to his symphonic works. All from a 19-year-old!

We are lucky that Quatuor Franz Joseph is bringing Jadin to the ATMA label; his spirited music makes his death at 24 all the more tragic.

02_beethoven_fliterBeethoven - Piano Sonatas 8; 17; 23

Ingrid Fliter

EMI 0 94573 2

Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, with his symphonies and string quartets are among the supreme achievements of civilization in the same sphere as the work of Shakespeare, Dante and Michelangelo. The best pianists have recorded them, like Schnabel, Backhaus, Gieseking, Kempff, Rubinstein, Horowitz and Richter to name only a few. Now a new challenger by the name of Ingrid Fliter has arrived to add to the roster.

Born in Buenos Aires and studied in Europe, she has already won prizes at numerous international competitions and received the prestigious Gilmore Award. This is her 3rd issue with EMI after two very successful Chopin recordings. Here she selected works that probably best suit her temperament, three of the Master’s most turbulent and passionate sonatas, all with a nickname: Pathétique, Tempest and Appassionata.

She plays with great fervour, almost reckless passion, abandon, phenomenal technique, precision and imagination rarely found in other pianists. Nowhere does this come out better than in the performance of Op. 57, the “Appassionata”, where the nearly deaf Beethoven with violent outbursts is virtually shaking his fist to the heavens. Interestingly, it is somewhat related to the 5th Symphony. Notice the four note motive in the bass - D flat, D flat, D flat, C - very similar to the Fate motive that permeates the 1st movement of the 5th. The whirlwind, turbulent last movement where the speed and excitement just builds and builds to the breaking point, ending with an even faster frantic gypsy dance coda is guaranteed to lift you out of your seat, that is if you are not already standing.

03_dupontGabriel Dupont - Les heures dolentes; La maison dans les dunes

Stéphane Lemelin

ATMA ACD2 2544

In this terrific 2-CD release, pianist Stéphane Lemelin makes a strong case for the remarkable piano music of French composer Gabriel Dupont (1878-1914). These works amalgamate late romantic and impressionist elements into a personal voice that meaningfully conveys the composer’s struggle with tuberculosis. Dupont was known in his day for operas; here too melody pours out and harmony is intriguing. The 14-piece set Les heures dolentes (Doleful Hours) is a diary from the composer’s sickbed at a spa. Particularly touching is the charming “A Friend has Come with Some Flowers” at the work’s midpoint. The last four pieces suggest confrontation and resolution: “Death Grinds,” “Some Children Play in the Garden,” the truly great “White Night - Hallucinations” with its terrifying bass figurations and dissonant harmony, and finally “Calm.”

The ten pieces of La maison dans les dunes (The House in the Dunes) reflect nature, especially the sea. Water has life-giving status in both the playful “The Sun Plays in the Waves” and the dissonant, surging menace in “Sea Swells at Night” where Lemelin delivers a tour de force of “maritime pianism.” The penultimate “Star Light” I found to be the most spiritual piece of all, on the level of the “In Paradisum” from Fauré’s Requiem. Whether the pianistic challenge is handling soft, rapid filigree around a singing melody, pedalling dense passages without getting waterlogged, or achieving transcendent calm, Lemelin can do it. Highly recommended.

04_elgar_quintet-quartetElgar - Piano Quintet; String Quartet

Piers Lane; Goldner String Quartet

Hyperion CDA67857

Elgar has always been more famous for his large-scale orchestral and choral works than for his chamber music, but included among his output are a fine string quartet and a piano quintet. Both pieces were written over a two year period between 1918 and 1919 when the aging composer was residing in a cottage in West Sussex – and both are presented here on this Hyperion recording by the Australian-based Goldner String Quartet with pianist Piers Lane.

The quartet is an appealing anachronism. After all, only six years before, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had caused a scandal in Paris, while in Vienna, the Second Viennese School was making strides with serialism. Elgar himself admitted, “It is full of golden sounds… but you must not expect anything violently chromatic or cubist.” Nonetheless, this is elegant music, elegantly played, and the Goldners handle the intricate string writing with its subtle harmonic shifts with great precision and warmth.

The more expansive piano quintet is equally conservative, but is marked by a considerably more serious tone. Piers Lane and the quartet are perfectly matched, treating the tempestuous opening movement with bold assurance. Similarly, the middle movement adagio is given the pathos and anguish it deserves, while the finale, with its mood of buoyant optimism, brings the disc to a satisfying conclusion.

Between the two chamber works are four hitherto unrecorded solo piano pieces, two dating from the early 1930s, and all of them, charming examples of Elgar’s keyboard style. In all, this is an exemplary recording of music written by a composer who was nearing the final chapter of his creative life - there’s hope for us all!

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