02_beethoven_naganoBeethoven - Gods, Heroes and Men (Symphony 3; Creatures of Prometheus)

Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal; Kent Nagano

Analekta AN 2 9838

My love affair with the Eroica symphony started at the age of 10 when I first heard it at a concert conducted by the legendary Otto Klemperer at the Music Academy in Budapest. It didn’t dawn on me as anything special until much later when I found out that Herbert von Karajan travelled all the way to London just to hear Klemperer do the Eroica. Speaking of Karajan, Kent Nagano was a student and associate of Seiji Ozawa who in turn was a student and associate of Karajan. The “bloodline” having been established, now we can rest assured that my beloved Eroica is in good hands here. And indeed it is…

Nagano takes a refreshing look at the symphony. At a brisk tempo it pulsates with life and excitement. The wonderful secondary theme (1st movement) really sings and the complex architectonics of the 1st movement are made crystal clear. The great fugue of the 2nd movement, always a challenge for the conductor, has a shattering, extraordinary power. The Montreal horns delight us with their joie de vivre and uncanny precision in the 3rd movement Trio. The Finale crowns the Symphony with its ubiquitous Prometheus theme and variations and stampedes along with breathtaking virtuoso bravura. Here Beethoven is caught in his lighter side with the unexpected, devil may care Hungarian gypsy episode.

In the liner notes, Nagano shows scholarly insight in drawing parallels between the budding Romanticism, the cult of the Hero, the Greek myth of Prometheus and Napoleon, a single man who could bring empires to their knees. There is more to it than that in view of the bloodbath that followed which left the French male population decimated for decades to come. But even without his personal views and literary interpretations, Nagano establishes himself as a great conductor for our time and this recording with full bodied sound is a treasure.

03_songs_without_wordsSongs Without Words

Julius Drake

ATMA ACD2 2616

Julius Drake is a sought-after English pianist who devotes most of his career to accompanying singers, typically intelligent art song recitalists of the calibre of tenor Ian Bostridge and Canadian baritone Gerald Finley. Here he has returned to his solo piano roots while still saluting the song idea, by crafting a tender program of short lyrical character pieces, many of them familiar to the piano student or the adult amateur player.

The title of the CD pays homage to Felix Mendelssohn, two of whose Songs Without Words are included, a Venetian gondola song and the Duetto. Schumann is represented by two Album for the Young selections, and one from Scenes from Childhood. There is a Brahms Intermezzo, a Schubert Moment Musical, a Grieg Lyric Piece, and Debussy’s Clair de Lune. You get the concept: Romantic-era brevity and intimacy.

More recent selections are a lullaby by Poulenc, four of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos pieces, and the haunting, spare “Night” from Benjamin Britten’s Holiday Diary (1934), a suite I’ve never encountered on any piano recital.

Recorded in London, England by Canadian sound engineer and ATMA label founder Johanne Goyette, Drake’s songful renderings are restrained and polished. The Steinway employed sounds both present and resonant.

A lovely, “small” release. This would make a nice gift to any music lover who shuns thunder.

04_hamelin_lisztLiszt - Piano Sonata

Marc-André Hamelin

Hyperion CDA67760

In April, I had the pleasure of reviewing the double disc set of Marc-André Hamelin performing the complete Liszt Années de Pélerinage. Now he is back with more music by the “Mephistopheles disguised as an abbé” on this Hyperion recording comprising four works including the great Piano Sonata in B minor.

Opening the CD is the Fantasy and Fugue on the letters B-A-C-H, Liszt’s homage to Johann Sebastian Bach. The piece was originally written for organ in 1854, but a revised version for piano appeared 14 years later. Hamelin demonstrates a solid command of the pianistic pyrotechnics inherent here, and we can only imagine today how 19th century audiences must have adored this type of showstopper, broken piano strings and all!

A welcome contrast is the piece that follows, the serene Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude, from the collection Harmonies poétiques et religieuses completed in 1853. I have always likened this composition to a serene lake (maybe Lac Maggiore?) with the opening measures a lyrical melody heard in the bass, and a rippling accompaniment provided by the right hand. Any evidence of bombast and virtuosity are noticeably absent in this marvellously expansive composition, and Hamelin’s performance shimmers with a wonderful luminosity.

The Sonata in B minor - preceded by a set of three short pieces, Gondoliera, Canzone, and Tarantella - has had both admirers and detractors since its publication in 1854. Yet there is no denying the meticulous craftsmanship and wealth of ideas contained within. Hamelin approaches it with a bold assurance, making ease of the abundant technical demands and the ever-contrasting moods. What a sense of mystery he achieves in those cryptic opening measures before the appearance of the strident octaves in the secondary theme! This is a superb performance, easily among the best currently available, and rounds out another fitting tribute to Liszt’s bicentenary.

05_hamelin_romanticThe Romantic Piano Concerto Vol. 53

Marc-André Hamelin; RSO Berlin; Ilan Volkov

Hyperion CDA67635

Like a big meal, the Max Reger piano concerto in F minor, Op. 114 is a challenge both to serve up and to digest. Admired by Berg and Schoenberg for his commitment to modernism, Reger nevertheless admitted that his concerto would be misunderstood for years. Its critical rejection in 1910 caused him personal distress, loss of health and an early death at age 43.

Pianist Marc-André Hamelin’s performance in this recording is a jaw-dropper. He meets Reger’s relentless demand for highly articulate virtuosity with apparent ease. He also finds rare melodic ideas in an otherwise dense storm of rhythmically driven motives.

Reger’s music is contrapuntally thick and Hamelin works wonderfully with conductor Ilan Volkov to ensure that the orchestral score remains balanced, especially in the concerto’s often frenetic outer movements. The second movement, however, allows only a partial respite from this tumult. The tender moments here are a compliment to both pianist and conductor and provide a stark contrast to the rest of the work.

The Steinway used in the recording stands up remarkably well. Despite the heavy playing its tuning holds rock steady throughout the entire first movement – nearly eighteen minutes!

The other item on this CD is a clever choice. Its late 19th century vintage creates a sense of relief following the Reger. Richard Strauss’ Burleske is also a demanding work, but it comes across as light, airy and slightly impish – as perhaps a “burleske” should.

06_rachmaninoff_papanoRachmaninoff - Symphony No.2; Lyadov – Enchanted Lake

Orchestra dell’Academia Nazionale de Santa Cecilia; Antonio Pappano

EMI 9 49462 2

“If there were a Conservatory of Music in Hell, Rachmaninoff would receive from it the first prize for this symphony.” So wrote one critic after the first symphony’s premier in 1897, for which the composer had the fondest hopes... a dismal event, due in no small part to an inebriated conductor, Alexander Glazunov, who was shamefully ill-prepared. This failure led Rachmaninov to enter a state of self-doubt and lethargy, even though he was known around the world as the composer of the Prelude in C sharp minor, opus 3. Eventually, after three months of daily treatment by Dr. Dahl, a psychiatrist and hypnotist who practiced a form of autosuggestion, his confidence returned.

Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony followed in 1907, for which the composer conducted the premier. It is unashamedly romantic. Rachmaninov was of the late Romantic Era remaining a 19th Century composer who lived and wrote well into the 20th. Even though he revolutionised nothing nor ventured beyond the established instrumentation and traditional forms, his every composition is unmistakeably Rachmaninov.

There is no shortage of fine performances available, some with cuts, beginning with the splendid Vladimir Sokoloff / Cleveland recording of 1928 but Pappano’s is at least equal to the best and in some respects better. From the opening bars there is a mood of tranquility and repose, a feeling of being... not of doing. The Scherzo still bustles but more open and less agitated. The Adagio lingers and luxuriates in the sensuality of Rachmaninov’s gorgeous score. Pappano lets them out in the finale’s allegro vivace bringing the symphony to a triumphant close. I loved it!

The performance of Lyadov’s Enchanted Lake from the same 2009 concerts in Rome is a perfect set-up for the symphony. The six minute, diaphanous impressionist water colour barely rises above pianissimo without a ripple.

06b_rachmaninov_concerti_andsnesEMI has also recorded Pappano conducting the four Rachmaninov concertos with the Berlin Philharmonic in Concertos One and Two and the London Symphony in Three and Four. Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes is totally attuned to both the composer’s introspection and gutsy strength (Concertos 1&2 on 7488132 and 3&4 on 6405162). Andsnes has the full measure of these concertos with hand-in-glove support from Pappano and the two orchestras producing mighty performances of genuine stature captured in you-are-there sound. In a time when it seems that volume, brilliance and speed are the sole qualities sought after by audiences it is inspiring to hear superb performances in which the essence of the composer’s score is recognised and well served.

Rachmaninov’s own performances of the concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody with Stokowski and Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra, recorded from 1929 to 1941, are still available from RCA. They are, as one might deduce, definitive (616582, 2 CDs).

As an aside, in the late 1930s American audiences were asked which living composers would be played one hundred years hence. The radio audience rated Sibelius first, then Richard Strauss and in third place, Rachmaninoff (as it was spelled then).

07_rite_of_springStravinsky - Rite of Spring; Pétrushka

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra; Andrew Litton


Igor Stravinsky once recalled that his fondest memory of his abandoned homeland was “The violent Russian spring that seemed to begin in an hour and was like the whole Earth cracking.” In 1913 his ballet Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) shook the musical world awake and still carries a tremendous wallop. Andrew Litton, late of the Dallas Symphony, is currently in his eighth season as director of Norway’s Bergen Philharmonic, an orchestra he has honed to a new standard of excellence. His new Stravinsky recording on the BIS label is a welcome triumph of studio engineering in an age of unremarkable reality-TV style concert performances. The production of The Rite of Spring (engineered by Matthias Spitzbarth) provides an astoundingly transparent sound stage, almost as if we were listening through the mind’s ear of the composer. Litton’s steady hand suits this objective music well and the orchestra rises to the challenge of this notoriously difficult score. Audiophiles are in for a real treat.

Unfortunately the performance of the decidedly more romantic tale of the puppet Pétrushka, while technically flawless, is sorely lacking in drama and sheer visceral impact. While it does offer the opportunity to hear the rarely performed original 1911 orchestration, Litton’s reticent reading pales in comparison to the vibrant 1971 recording of this version with Pierre Boulez and the New York Philharmonic or for that matter Stravinsky’s own 1960 performance of the revised score. Stay for the Rite and take a powder on the puppet show.

01_antheillViolinist Mark Fewer, never one for simply sticking to the standard repertoire, has combined with pianist John Novacek on an absolutely stunning CD of Sonatas for Violin and Piano by the American composer George Antheil (Azica ACD-71263) which grabs you by the ears right from the start and never lets go. In the early 1920s Antheil was a fixture of the “Americans in Paris” social scene, where he was befriended by the poet Ezra Pound and the American violinist Olga Rudge, for whom the first two sonatas were written in 1923. Sonata No.2 is an astonishing single-movement aural onslaught, parodying and distorting a whole range of well-known melodies and styles over a percussive chordal accompaniment; it could almost have been written by Charles Ives. Sonata No.1 is no less challenging, and calls for a huge range of unorthodox effects, Antheil’s music at that time reflecting his fascination with machines and mechanical noise. Sonata No.4(2) dates from 1947-48, when Antheil was back in America, and having second thoughts about his avant-garde years; it leans more towards Prokofiev than to the percussive Stravinsky of the earlier works. Although the fourth sonata Antheil wrote, it was officially termed his “New Second Sonata” after he disowned the original No.2 and revamped Nos.1 & 3 into a single “new” No.1. The unfinished Solo Sonata from 1927 completes the CD. Antheil gave the manuscript to Rudge; now in her papers at Yale, it has never been performed before. The first movement is complete; the second merely a few haunting minutes. Fewer and Novacek are both simply brilliant throughout. The booklet notes by Mauro Piccinini are outstanding, contributing enormously to a fuller understanding of the music’s background. Recorded at McGill’s Schulich School of Music, the sound quality matches the stunning performances.

02_janine_jansenI’ve raved about the Dutch violinist Janine Jansen before; Beau Soir, her new CD with pianist Itamar Golan - and her first recital disc - is yet more proof of her musical artistry and sensitivity (Decca 478 2256). The Debussy and Ravel sonatas are the backbone of a programme of French pieces, including Debussy’s Beau soir and Clair de lune, Messiaen’s Thème et Variations, Fauré’s Après un rêve and Lili Boulanger’s Nocturne. Richard Dubugnon, who wrote a concerto for Jansen in 2008, also contributes four miniatures; he noticed the common nocturnal theme in some of the selected works, and suggested structuring the CD as a musical journey from evening through to morning, writing his pieces to supply the missing parts. They fit perfectly. Jansen clearly has an innate understanding of the French sound, with its subtlety and delicacy, and offers interpretations that are full of nuance, shimmering warmth and ravishing sensuality. I just wish they would dispense with the cheesy booklet photos: she really doesn’t need them.

03_jennifer_pikeThe Debussy and Ravel Violin Sonatas, along with the Franck, are also featured on a CD - apparently her first - from young British violinist Jennifer Pike (Chandos CHAN 10667), who has been attracting a good deal of attention in England since winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 2001 at the age of 12. There’s a different mood to the Debussy here, less subtle and more straightforward than the Jansen, and with less of a “French” feel about it. The Ravel fares better, with the last movement in particular benefitting from Pike’s drive and energy. The Franck is competent and workmanlike without being in any way memorable. The experienced pianist Martin Roscoe provides solid support.

04_vilde_frangAnother young European garnering a lot of attention is the Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang, whose CD of the Grieg and Strauss Violin Sonatas with pianist Michail Lifits (EMI Classics 9 47639 2), together with the Bartok Solo Sonata, is also a first recital disc, following her well-received debut CD of the Sibelius and Prokofiev No.1 concertos. Frang, her label’s Young Artist of the Year in 2010, is understandably at home with the Grieg, and there is also fine playing in the Strauss, but at first sight the Bartok seems an odd stable-mate. Still, Frang’s clean, almost easy-sounding performance makes it feel possibly a bit less visceral and more “mainstream” than usual. This is clearly a player to watch.

If the CD is becoming an obsolete technology and a commercial dead duck, then somebody apparently forgot to tell Naxos. This month sees two more CDs from British violinists, as the label continues to make significant and invaluable contributions to the recorded repertoire by taking the road less-travelled.

05_alwynThe English composer William Alwyn (1905-85), previously best-known for his film scores, has been particularly well-served by Naxos, with over a dozen CDs of his orchestral, chamber and vocal music issued to date. Scottish violinist Lorraine McAslan is the soloist in his Violin Concerto (Naxos 8.570705), with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under David Lloyd-Jones. Astonishingly, the work has never received a professional concert performance: the closest it came was a private violin and piano performance in 1940, the year after it was completed. It was considered for a Henry Wood Promenade concert in 1943, but rejected by the BBC, and was finally resurrected for a commercial recording in 1993. The CD blurb describes it as “romantic and rhapsodic”, and it is fully that, and more, with a big “main title” movie opening, a beautifully atmospheric slow movement, with shades of Vaughan Williams, and a strong finale. McAslan, who seems to specialize in lesser-known English concertos, is very much at home here. I found her lower tone a bit on the nasal side, but in the higher register she is terrific - assured and brilliant in tone. Alwyn’s wonderful gift for orchestration is also on display in the Miss Julie Suite, a three-movement arrangement by Philip Lane of music from Alwyn’s early 1970s opera. It’s a brooding, dramatic, sweeping score with superb orchestral colour. No wonder Alwyn was so successful with his film scores. The short Fanfare for a Joyful Occasion, a short work for brass and percussion from 1958, completes an immensely satisfying CD, with the crystal-clear recording quality well up to the usual Naxos standard.

06_mathiasThe second Naxos disc features the Violin Sonatas of the Welsh composer William Mathias (1934-92), performed by Sara Trickey and Iwan Llewelyn-Jones (Naxos 8.572292). The Sonata No.1 was written in 1961 on a commission from the Cheltenham Festival, where it was first performed in 1962. It has a sparse, angular opening - “spiky and aggressively rhythmic” in the composer’s words - with a lyrical middle movement and an energetic finale. Sonata No.2 was a commission to celebrate Mathias’s 50th birthday in 1984; the booklet notes rightly refer to the “four vividly contrasted movements” making “virtuosic demands of both performers.” I found the third work on the disc, the world premiere recording of the Violin Sonata (1952), to be the most enjoyable - perhaps surprisingly, given that Mathias apparently chose not to recognize it. Written when he was 18, and between school and university, it was the first work of the composer’s to be performed in public, and was the first entry in Mathias’s personal catalogue of compositions, albeit without an opus number. It was subsequently withdrawn and never performed again. In 1992 Mathias reviewed his entire catalogue, and chose to rehabilitate some of his withdrawn works - but this wasn’t one of them. Since his death, however, his estate has occasionally given careful consideration to the limited release of the withdrawn scores, and agreed to the inclusion of the work in this CD. Sara Trickey is a precise and accurate player, with a sweet tone, possibly a bit thin at times, but not a great deal of tonal or dynamic contrast. Her vibrato seems a bit unfocussed in the slower passages, and she only really seems to take flight in the faster, rhythmic sections. On this evidence I’m not sure I would call her playing “fiery and passionate” (the quote from The Strad magazine that dominates her publicity material) - The Guardian’s reference to her “clean-cut precision” seems much more appropriate.

I doubt if any record label has done as much for the promotion of American music as has Naxos with their ongoing and comprehensive American Classics series. Two new CDs in the series feature the violin works of two established but quite different composers now in their 50s.

07_gompperWolfgang David is the soloist in the Violin Concerto of David Gompper, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Emmanuel Siffert (Naxos 8.559637). The disc highlights the problems you can encounter trying to review contemporary music, when you probably don’t know the composer or his works, and have no scores to consult. The booklet notes, by Gompper himself, did little to help in that regard; in fact, far from being an aid to understanding, they just made things more obtuse. In Spirals, for instance, we are told that “…the Fibonacci series is applied to all musical parameters, including pitch distribution, density control and formal and micro-rhythmic structural formulations.” Great. But, hey, music either communicates or it doesn’t, and this does. This is someone who clearly knows exactly what they’re doing, and the description of Gompper’s music on the CD cover - “tightly-organised yet free-flowing” - is spot-on. The Violin Concerto, which occupied Gompper for the best part of a decade, is a substantial work in the traditional three-movement form, and after a tough opening settles down into an often lyrical and beautifully orchestrated piece. David and the RPO are in top form. Ikon, from 2008, is a representation of a 19th-century Russian house icon that the composer obtained in Estonia that year while on tour with David. Flip, from 1993, was written for a chamber orchestra, and playfully flips or switches various musical ideas and borrowed snippets. Spirals, despite the complex programme note, is a highly effective 2007 work in which David is joined by violinist Peter Zazofsky. I still have no idea what Gompper means about the framework, but it really doesn’t matter: you don’t have to understand the architect’s blueprints to appreciate an impressive building.

08_dillonLawrence Dillon, on the other hand, is an instantly accessible composer, and the CD of his Violin Music marks the recording debut of the Mexican-American violinist Danielle Belen (Naxos 8.559644). Her playing is terrific from the outset, with a full, warm tone and a daunting technique. There isn’t a single moment on the entire CD when you don’t feel that she is in complete control, both technically and musically. There are seven pieces here, covering a period of 25 years. The story behind the two solo violin works, Mister Blister - the opening track - and Fifteen Minutes, is quite fascinating, and was the genesis for the CD. In 2006, Dillon was one of fifteen composers asked by violinist Piotr Szewczyk to write a short solo violin piece of a few minutes’ duration; Dillon left the project for several months and, becoming somewhat confused, thought he was to write a one-minute piece. He ended up writing sixteen, and, unable to pick one, sent them all to Szewczyk. The virtuosic Mister Blister was rushed off in a single afternoon when the error was pointed out. The other sixteen pieces were rearranged into Fifteen Minutes; Szewczyk ended up premiering both works and putting them on his website, where Belen found them while looking for an American composer to feature on her debut CD. They are varied and quite dazzling - and in one of the movements Belen is even required to accompany herself on a kazoo! The earliest work on the disc is Façade, a deceptively simple student work from 1983 that I found quite captivating, but which apparently caused a stir at its premiere. Frequently performed since then, it is a particular favourite of Belen’s. David Fung is the accompanist. Canadian born violist Juan-Miguel Hernandez joins Belen for the Bacchus Chaconne, a 1991 work that Dillon wrote as part of his coming to terms with the last-minute loss of a commission for a cello concerto that he was just completing after 18 months’ work. The Violin Sonata Motion, from 2008, was originally scored for flute and piano, although Dillon had always had a violin adaptation in mind; he finally made this when Belen contacted him in 2008 to ask about recording his complete violin works. Fung is again the accompanist, as he is in The Voice, a transcription of an aria from Dillon’s 2001 opera Buffa. Stan Muncy accompanies Belen on marimba in Spring Passing, a 1997 version of an elegy Dillon wrote for his father, who died when the composer was only 2. The always-reliable Naxos team of Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver handled the production at St John Chrysostom Church, Newmarket, and the CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto. The former location, with its added resonance, was used for the solo string works.

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