02a_Bach_Jalbert02b_Bach_BarenboimBach – Goldberg Variations
David Jalbert
ATMA ACD2 2557

Bach – Goldberg Variations
Daniel Barenboim
EuroArts 2066778

We have so many “Goldbergs” to choose from. In fact Goldbergitis fever insures us that one or more new versions will be released each year. What differentiates each of these performances? There is also the question of whether any of the new CDs will ever replace the two iconic Glenn Gould recordings. Often the choice is subjective and sentimental. I grew up listening to the Gould version but I also love Andras Schiff, Murray Perahia and the very personal and unique performance by Simone Dinnerstein. What puts new CDs in the top echelon of Goldberg recordings? I believe it is the quality of tone, effortless technique, virtuosic control and command of the contrapuntal lines, orchestrating the piano and the indecipherable quotient of magic.

David Jalbert on the ATMA label certainly has the virtuoso technique and articulation to be in the elite few. The opening Aria was beautifully shaded and his control of quick passagework in succeeding variations was crisp and articulate. I enjoyed his smooth lines which created an extremely musical flow in spite of the many embellishments and busy counterpoint. His playing was always controlled, yet incisive without being metronomic. His sensitivity to the tempi for each variation made for engaged listening. Jalbert’s tonal quality is not as warm and sweet as Dinnerstein’s or Perahia’s but his command and power at the keyboard is unquestionable. I found his trills to be remarkably even and precise. What makes this recording work for me is that Jalbert discovered the thread that links each variation and he made the performance a cohesive masterpiece.

I also like the liner notes by Robert Rival. I found his writing very informative and revealing from a composer’s perspective. It brought to life Bach’s complex and virtuosic composition technique in creating this remarkable and timeless work of art.

Released this year, the DVD of Daniel Barenboim’s performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations was actually recorded in 1992 and I was surprised to hear such a sensitive and musical interpretation. Past performances have not always lived up to expectations in tonal quality. This performance exudes energy and deep emotional commitment to the work. Barenboim uses a wide range of dynamics and articulations to create the instrumental sounds from Bach’s time.

He makes pianistic references to the famous high trumpet, the oboe, the string family and the organ. Barenboim has created an orchestra from the piano. This is no surprise as he is a highly respected conductor and it shows in his “orchestration” of each variation. His faster variations are dance-like and real toe-tappers. However, despite the speed or tempo he never loses his refined touch and exquisite control of the rhythm and ornaments. Each variation breathes musically, dances, sings or speaks in a contemplative manner. Although linked, each variation tells a unique story.

Anthony Short in his excellent program notes wrote that if Bach’s early biographer Johann Forkel is to be believed, when Bach’s extended family got together they often struck up a chorale that would mix spiritual and serious songs with comic and scabrous popular tunes of the era. These improvising harmonies produced a quodlibet which is a contrapuntal combination of several different popular songs featuring a selection of lowly brassica vegetables such as the tune for “Cabbages and turnips have driven me away, had my Mother cooked meat, I’d have opted to stay.” I feel that Barenboim captured the spirit of this quodlibet in several of the variations as well as the reflective and spiritual quality of some of the other variations.

Both Barenboim and Jalbert have virtuosic techniques and the ability to cast a spell when performing this work. Both have the communicative and musical skills to take their place in the elite group of Goldberg performers. If I had to choose between Jalbert and Barenboim I would pick Barenboim. His playing had a greater range of tonal colour and dynamics. I don’t mean dynamics as simply loud and soft but dynamics that created different moods and instrumental soundscapes. I also thought his warm touch gave him a slight edge over Jalbert. I would love to hear Jalbert record the Goldberg many years from now. I was mesmerized by his recording now but what an amazing performance he will give in the years to come. We are so lucky to have an artist like David Jalbert in Canada.

Picking your favorite Goldberg CD is such a subjective experience. Do any of them knock Gould off his iconic pedestal? Depends on the day but I believe that these two recent performances join him in that special group with others which are certain to come. This is indeed a testament to the great J.S. Bach whose music continues to be such a joy and revelation that we forever keep searching and learning from his masterpieces.

01a_Nosky01b_SwartzBach; Ysaÿe; Oesterle
Aisslinn Nosky
Independent IF004

Suite Inspiration
Jonathan Swartz
Soundset SR1039

These are two fascinating discs both of which feature strong performances of the music for unaccompanied violin by J.S. Bach and other more modern pieces which reflect and refract the glorious light of Bach’s works.

The irrepressible and omnipresent Aisslinn Nosky is one of the Toronto music scene’s precious treasures. As this, her debut solo CD, proves, she is possessed of a rock-solid technique and an open and probing musical mind. Three extended pieces for solo violin make up the program: the Partita in E Major by Bach, Eugene Ysaÿe’s Sonata Op.27 No.2 and Stand Still, written especially for Nosky in 2011 by the German-Canadian composer Michael Oesterle.

Oesterle’s captivating piece is both minimalist and lyrical and exploits the “voice” of the violin to great effect. Nosky’s performance, with its varied dynamics and articulation, brings out the fanciful character of the music as well as its fragility. The Bach partita and Ysaÿe’s sonata are inextricably linked thematically and are both given luminous performances here. Nosky’s playing and musical intentions are crystal clear throughout and her free and bright sound is well supported by the fine production values of the disc.

The Toronto-born violinist Jonathan Swartz was educated at Rice University and Mannes College, and teaches at Arizona State University, where he is active as a soloist and chamber musician. His cleverly-titled CD Suite Inspiration is filled with dance movements for solo violin by Johann Georg Pisendel, J.S. Bach and the Canadian composer Kieren MacMillan. Following a chronological order, Swartz begins the disc with the weakest piece, unfortunately. Though it is given a convincing performance, Pisendel’s A Minor Sonata doesn’t have enough interest to either move or entertain. The highlight of the program is MacMillan’s Suite No.1 and intriguing Chaconne, which — with its hypnotic, circular patterns — provides a trance-inducing, deeply satisfying conclusion to Swartz’s program.

Both Nosky’s and Swartz’s performances of Bach’s works are brave and thoughtful. My fondest wish for both players – if it’s not too corny to say — is that they keep searching their hearts for ever deeper ways to bring this music across, and that they keep revisiting this repertoire, as I know they will, throughout their careers. There is a delicious sense of abandon in Nosky’s live playing that is captured thankfully in spades, in her recording of the E Major Partita, especially in the outer movements. Swartz’s performance of the D Minor Partita, with the biblically-proportioned final Chaconne, is a little more reserved and careful and is at times marred by questionable ornamentation choices.

These are two welcome additions to any violin-lover’s collection. Bravo to both players for commissioning new works from excellent, imaginative composers and for sharing their musical “voices” so generously.

02a_Chopin_Fialkowska02b_Chopin_LortieChopin Recital 2
Janina Fialkowska
ATMA ACD2 2666

Chopin – Volume 2
Louis Lortie
Chandos CHAN 10714

Two artists, each presenting a second instalment in their Chopin discography, invite us to ponder their muse through the music of Chopin.

While both Louis Lortie and Janina Fialkowska record on Steinway pianos, their sound is remarkably different. The Lortie/Chandos recording is dark, more heavily pedaled and given more room. Whether this darker tone is the result of instrument voicing or recording equalization is unclear. But the contrast to Fialkowska’s brighter, more present sound lays the groundwork for appreciating the difference between these two pianists.

Fialkowska is quick, articulate and generous with interpretive variations in her tempi. The impression her playing gives is of an artist revelling in the energy of Chopin’s pianistic dance forms. Her command of this composer’s language leaves no doubt about her convictions to follow Chopin through the turmoil of cascading note clusters and the depths of melancholic harmonies. Her playing gives the impression that she feels quite “in-charge” of this material but never surrenders herself entirely to the seduction of Chopin’s voice. Still, she performs very much from “inside” the music.

Lortie is no less an interpreter or technician. He is adept at fluidity of phrasing and coaxing Chopin’s menacing growls to emerge from the piano’s bass register. He favours a more weighty approach that blends keyboard articulation into longer ideas. Somehow, Lortie introduces a stronger element of mystery into this same music. We recognize the composer and his language but see him in less definite terms, with more unanswered questions.

The two recordings present different repertoire with Fialkowska playing waltzes, polonaises and mazurkas, along with the larger F Minor Fantaisie and the B-Flat Minor Scherzo. Lortie, by contrast, gives us nocturnes, ballades, the Berceuse and Barcarolle. Both, however, perform the Ballade No.2 in F Major Op.38 and here we find ground for a revealing comparison.

What appears to distinguish these two extraordinary artists is the extent to which they pull back the curtain to reveal Chopin. The opening ideas of the ballade are short and tender, supported by simple but artful harmonies that return as a coda to close the work. Between them lies a bombastic and turbulent middle section that demands breathtaking technique.

Fialkowska is ready to expose both the explosive and the deeply intimate by pushing the piano to its technical limits from massive volume to notes that are barely played. It’s an all-or-nothing approach with immediate impact. Lortie, by contrast, keeps back from the brink and doesn’t take us all the way to where we know the emotional journey must surely go. This distance of untraveled emotion may be the key to the mystique in Lortie’s art — the power of unfulfilled expectation.

Both these artists command complete attention. Their interpretations are mature and eminently credible. Which of these a listener favours may depend merely upon the mood of the moment. Any serious Chopin collector should own both of these recordings.

Caroline Léonardelli; Matthew Larkin
Centaur Records CEN1110

Now here’s something you don’t come across every day: an album of music for harp and organ. Harpist Caroline Léonardelli joins organist Matthew Larkin in a singular recital of celestial sounds from the post-Romantic era. The music of Marcel Grandjany, doyen of the French harp school in North America, opens the disc in an understated fashion with his solemn and dignified Aria in Classic Style. Russia is represented by the second movement from Glière’s Harp Concerto, a livelier work with some lovely registrations provided in the arrangement by Matthew Larkin. A heavyweight from Vienna incongruously appears in the form of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. I’m sorry to say the balance of the instruments here is frankly a travesty. The overstated harp part, copied verbatim from the orchestral version in an unimaginative transcription by Joachim Dorfmüller, is not, and was never meant to be, a concerto! (Mahlerians might care to seek out David Biggs’ mind-blowing performance of the complete symphony on the Gloucester Cathedral organ.) Two extended works follow by the equally obscure composers Rudolf Zingel and Alfred Holy, both entitled Légende. Athematic and teeming with arpeggios, they are well-nigh stylistically indistinguishable from each other. The Concerto for Harp by the American Leo Sowerby struck me as the most effective and imaginative work of the lot, providing numerous opportunities to demonstrate the registral varieties of the organ of Christ Church Cathedral in Ottawa.

Mahler aside, the recording values are generally excellent and the artists are both at the top of their game. The packaging however is infuriating, replete with confusing layouts, virtually illegible English translations and no track timings. To add insult to injury, the identity of the very well-maintained organ is nowhere apparent until one removes the disc from its spindle. Here’s hoping Centaur gives the estimable Mr. Larkin his due in the future with a disc of solo organ music.

05_Wagner_en_SuisseWagner en Suisse
Orchestre Symphonique Bienne;
Thomas Rosner
ATMA ACD2 2580

Tribschen, the Wagner villa in Lucerne, is on the cover of this surprisingly beautiful collection by ATMA. I visited this house and its breathtaking surroundings exactly 100 years after Siegfried Idyll was first performed in its central staircase as “Symphonic Birthday Gift” to his soon-to-be second wife, Cosima von Bülow (December 25, 1870). Wagner’s Swiss exile due to political reasons is so rich in significant events, inspiration and compositional scope that volumes could be written. Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger, the completion of Siegfried will barely scratch the surface …

The original chamber version of Siegried Idyll dreamily performed recreating the intimate acoustic properties of the house, suitably starts off the program. This is followed later by Traume, an early study for the phenomenal second act love duet, dedicated to Mathilde Wesendonk, his Zurich benefactor’s wife and object of Wagner’s tempestuous love affair that inspired Tristan und Isolde. All this and much more is contained here, lovingly played by the Orchestre Symphonique Bienne conducted by a young and up and coming Thomas Rösner. His fresh inspiration breathes new soul into these works.

In stark contrast, Richard Strauss’ “sojourn en Suisse” in 1946 was not really an exile, more like an escape from the defeat of the Third Reich (whose composer emeritus he was), looking for greener pastures and a more comfortable life. His Oboe Concerto written, ironically, for an American GI oboist certainly reflects his newfound peace. Much inspired by Mozart, Strauss, by this time, abandoned his earlier, overheated post-Romantic, albeit masterful, style. Performed to perfection and virtuoso grace by Louise Pellerin, it makes an appropriate close to this highly recommendable new release.

06_Dvorak_CeciliaDvorˇák – String Quartet No.13; Cypresses
Cecilia String Quartet
Analekta AN 2 9892

Dvořák’s String Quartet No.13 in G Major was written towards the end of 1895, a particularly happy time in the composer’s life. Only a few months earlier, Dvořák had returned from his second successful tour of the USA and was now back in the familiar landscape of his beloved Bohemia. Working from his country home in Vysoká, he completed the quartet in just four weeks, putting the final touches on it on Christmas Day. The piece exudes contentment, and its buoyant spirit is clearly evident in this new Analekta recording featuring the Cecilia String Quartet.

Named for the patron saint of music, the Toronto-based ensemble formed when all four members were studying at the University of Toronto. The quartet won the Felix Galimir Chamber Music Award in 2005, went on to win first prize at the Banff International Quartet Competition in 2010 and has since made appearances both in Europe and North America. This is the Cecilia’s first recording in a series of four to be recorded for Analekta, and it’s a gem! From the quartet’s sprightly opening measures, the ensemble achieves a wonderful sense of balance throughout the finely interwoven counterpoint. The intonation is clear and precise, and there is none of the muddiness which can sometimes occur in string performance. The languorous lines of the Adagio result in a wonderful sound, while the Finale is treated with an arresting energy, the changes in mood and tempo adeptly handled.

An added bonus on this disc is the set of Cypresses Op.152. These expressions of young love initially began as songs, but were later adapted for string quartet. Together, they contain a bevy of contrasting moods, from yearning and tender to anguished and defiant. The Cecilia Quartet does them all justice, playing with an assured elegance, as it does the set of Two Waltzes Op.54 which rounds out this most satisfying recording.

Concert Note: This year’s Felix Galimir Prize will be presented to the Arkadas String Quartet in a concert at Walter Hall on Sunday May 13 at 3 PM. Arkadas will perform Beethoven’s “Serioso” quartet, Wolf’s Interlude and Bartok’s String Quartet No.6.

01_Windermere_QuartetToronto’s Windermere String Quartet was founded in 2005, but has only just released its first CD, The Golden Age of String Quartets, on Alison Melville’s Pipistrelle label (PIP0112). The ensemble bills itself as the Windermere String Quartet “on period instruments” and the players, violinists Rona Goldensher and Elizabeth Loewen Andrews, violist Anthony Rapoport and cellist Laura Jones, all have extensive experience with leading period instrument ensembles.

Their debut CD highlights the period at the heart of their repertoire, with Mozart’s Quartet in C Major K465, the “Dissonance,” Haydn’s Quartet in E-Flat Major Op.33 No.2, “The Joke,” and Beethoven’s Quartet in C Minor Op.18 No.4.

As you would expect, there is no overtly “romantic” approach to the playing here, but these are terrific interpretations, with fine ensemble playing, great dynamics and expression, excellent choices of tempo, sensitivity in the Mozart, a fine sense of humour in the Haydn and real passion in the Beethoven.

The recordings were made almost two years ago in St. Anne’s Anglican Church in Toronto, with the expert team of Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver, and the ambience is spacious and reverberant.

Period performances often display a sparsity of vibrato and a softness of attack that can make them sound somewhat flat and lifeless, and lacking in fullness and warmth — or at least, warmth the way we have come to expect it. There is never any danger of that here, though. These are period performances that blend life, spirit and soul with a perfectly-judged sensitivity for contemporary style and practice. It’s the perfect marriage, and hopefully we won’t have to wait too long for further offspring to accompany this exemplary debut disc.

Two interesting CDs of early Italian string quartets arrived recently, neither of which turned out to be quite what I expected.

03_BocdheriniLuigi Boccherini (1743–1805) is mostly remembered for his famous Minuet, but along with Haydn he was in at the birth of the string quartet form, writing close to 100 quartets, almost always in groups of six, starting with his Op.2 in 1761. The six String Quartets Op.8 from 1768 are featured on a budget re-issue CD from the Italian DYNAMIC label in excellent 1994 performances by the Quartetto d’archi di Venezia (DM8027).

Despite their brevity — the longest quartet is only 14 minutes long — and their limited emotional range, this is in no way merely functional music but true part-writing that is both well-balanced and idiomatic.

02_PaganiniNiccolo Paganini wrote only three works in the quartet genre, but despite their being written some 50 years after Boccherini’s there is virtually no part-writing; it’s almost all first violin solo with string accompaniment. Perhaps surprisingly, this is not because Paganini wanted to display his virtuosic technique: they are, in fact, very much of their time. Paganini was a close friend of Rossini, and the music here — like Rossini’s — is essentially melodic, with no attempt at dialogue. The String Quartets Nos.1–3 are charming and competent, but with no great depth, and receive effortless performances by the Amati Ensemble String Quartet on Brilliant Classics (94287). These quartets live or die on the skills of the first violin, and happily, Dutch violinist Gil Sharon is more than up to the task.

04_GoosensThe Goossens family was at the centre of English musical life in the first half of the 20th century. Eugene Goossens (1893-1962) is now mostly remembered for his conducting career, particularly in the USA, but he was trained as a violinist and composer. Naxos has issued an outstanding CD of his Complete Music for Violin and Piano, featuring violinist Robert Gibbs and pianist Gusztav Fenyo (8.572860).

The violin sonatas nos.1 and 2, from 1918 and 1930 respectively, are the major works here. Heifetz played the latter, and Goossens transcribed the Romance from his opera Don Juan de Manara for him. The Lyric Poem and the Old Chinese Folk-Song complete the disc.

Gibbs is simply perfect for this material, technically stunning, with a warm, sweet, lyrical sound and a fast and fairly constant vibrato very reminiscent of Heifetz. Fenyo is every bit his equal, especially in the demanding second sonata.

05_YsayeThere is yet another CD – the third I’ve received in the past year – of the Six Sonatas for Solo Violin by Eugene Ysaÿe, this time by the American violinist Tai Murray (harmonia mundi HMU 907569). Given the number of versions available, these works obviously continue to be highly regarded and valued by violinists, even if music lovers in general seem to be unaware of their quality and significance.

This is Murray’s debut recording for the label, and it’s a real winner. She has a big, warm tone, and always keeps a clear inner line through the maze of multiple stoppings and technical challenges, with never a strained moment or jagged edge.

It’s almost impossible to recommend a single CD of these works, given the number currently available, but you really can’t go far wrong with this beautifully recorded and impeccably played interpretation.

06_Soviet_2The Chicago label Cedille has issued Volume II of The Soviet Experience, the series of String Quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich and his Contemporaries (CDR 90000 130), and it maintains the standard set by the first volume, reviewed in this column two months ago.

This time, the four Shostakovich quartets Nos.1-4 are paired with the String Quartet No.2 of Sergei Prokofiev, and the performances by the Pacifica Quartet once again show their great affinity for the music of this country and this period. The booklet notes and cover art are again outstanding.

I hope we won’t have to wait too long for the remaining volumes in this terrific series.

07_SarasateNaxos has issued another volume in its ongoing series of the Complete Violin Works of Pablo Sarasate. I think it’s volume six of a planned seven or eight – depending on which CD cover you believe – but I’m not sure, as the numbering system is a bit confusing: this is apparently Volume 3 of the Music for Violin and Piano (8.570893) and there have also been three numbered volumes of Music for Violin and Orchestra, two of which have been reviewed here. No matter, because it’s the music that counts, and once again the standard of composition never lags throughout the 14 short pieces.

In his booklet notes, Josef Gold rightly stresses not only Sarasate’s outstanding melodic gifts, which were far ahead of the other composers of salon pieces at the time, but also his skill in the piano accompaniments. Both aspects are fully evident on this delightful CD, which once again features the outstanding Tianwa Yang accompanied by Markus Hadulla. Melody does quite often overshadow pure virtuosity, but Yang is perfectly at ease with both. Hadulla supplies sympathetic and idiomatic support throughout.

Most of the tracks on this CD were recorded in Germany in 2007, with three of the longer tracks recorded there in late 2010. Yang apparently started the series in 2004, and while it seems to be taking quite some time to reach completion the quality of the playing and the standard of the production has remained extremely high.

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