02_argerichLive from Lugano 2010

Martha Argerich and Friends

EMI 0 70836 2

Once again, in June 2010 in Lugano (Switzerland) “the hills are alive with the sound of music.” Those lucky enough to find a hotel room can enjoy Martha Argerich’s famous festival with many of today’s most talented young musicians playing solo and chamber music. Martha is as good as ever but her interests now extend towards a) teaching and inspiring the young and b) getting involved with chamber works as well as new adventurous projects, new music and even jazz. This year, apart from nearly 20 young artists, we have her usual stalwarts like the amazing brothers, violinist Renaud and cellist Gautier Capuçon and even her ex-husband the famous pianist Stephen Kovacevich.

2010 being the year of 200th anniversaries for Schumann and Chopin these are dutifully celebrated with Schumann’s Violin Sonata in a minor played beautifully by Renaud Capuçon and Argerich and his Adagio and Allegro Op. 70 for cello and piano, performed with Gautier Capuçon. To honour Chopin there is a wonderfully relaxed performance of one of Martha’s long time favourites the E minor piano concerto.

But here ends the “traditional” part and the “adventurous” now begins. First comes a fiendishly difficult transcription for two pianos of Liszt’s Les Preludes presaging next year’s Liszt celebrations. Erich Korngold’s rarely heard, feverishly overheated post-Straussian Piano Quintet still harkens back to late Romanticism but not the next work. Bartok’s Sonata for 2 pianos and percussion is from the composer’s “barbaric” period, a relentlessly percussive, uncompromising piece. If some listeners think it is “ugly” then Bartok actually achieved his purpose. It is played with great aplomb and exuberance by Argerich and Kovacevich. It had already been recorded by these two but alas that disc was deleted from the catalogue. Now with this set thankfully it is back.

I doubt Stravinsky ever heard Carlo Maria Griguoli’s three piano version of the Firebird Suite but he would certainly have approved of this stunning virtuoso arrangement played by three young pianists including the arranger himself. Now for a suitable ending of this fascinating set, terrifying noises of the big city emanate from Alfred Schnittke’s Piano Quintet (1976). Fully atonal with plenty of quarter tones we hear sirens of an ambulance at one point and at another unbearable noise of a swarm of hornets closing in around one’s head. Yet at the end ironically there is heavenly peace inspired by Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.

03_mahler_dvdKeeping Score: Mahler - Origins and Legacy

Michael Tilson Thomas; San Francisco Symphony


This is the third season of the San Francisco Symphony’s admirable “Keeping Score” music documentary series, a project that can be followed on certain PBS stations (unfortunately Buffalo’s WNED is not among them). The episodes are typically an hour long, though the latest Mahler instalment is twice that length. The retail version of the broadcast includes a second CD featuring the complete First Symphony and isolated movements from three more symphonies (details are available at keepingscore.org). This handsomely produced and thoughtful documentary is considerably enhanced by on-location visits to Mahler’s boyhood home of Iglau (now Jihlava, in the Czech Republic) and the re-creation of its unique soundscape: a melange of military bands, the hymnody of St. Jacob’s church (Mahler, though Jewish, joined the choir there), the rustic sounds emanating from his father Bernard’s tavern, and the sylvan stillness of the ravine just beyond the town walls. Tilson-Thomas delivers an extended and quite engaging thematic analysis of Mahler’s First Symphony, convincingly demonstrating how Mahler forged the touchstone for all his subsequent works from these disparate cultural elements. Mahler’s rapid rise to the very top of his profession as a conductor is traced via stops in Budapest, Vienna and New York, including an unprecedented opportunity to enter his villa on the Wörthersee and visits to the various “composing huts” he had built for his precious few summers of composing. We learn of the genesis of most, though not all, of his 10 symphonies along the way. It is perhaps understandable, considering the huge expense of the recording contracts involved, that the choral symphonies (2 and 8) are glossed over and the grandiose 8th symphony rates but a single sentence. It is nonetheless an unfortunate omission, as both these works embrace a message of resurrection and transcendence that belie the clichéd thesis of Mahler’s introverted “otherness” which forms such a large part of Tilson-Thomas’s argument.

01_goreckiThe Polish composer Henryk Gorecki, who died last November, wrote three string quartets fairly late in his career - a fourth was apparently unfinished at the time of his death - and these are presented on the specially-priced 2-CD set Gorecki: The Three String Quartets (Hyperion CDA67812) performed by the Warsaw-based Royal String Quartet. It’s certainly not easy listening, with predominantly slow, quiet, and often dissonant meditative passages with low harmonies and little vibrato, interspersed with rich tonal outbursts. Already it is dusk, from 1988, Quasi una fantasia, from 1991, and ...songs are sung, completed in 1995 but not released until 2005, all offer ample support for Adrian Thomas’ comment in the booklet notes that “contemplation was always central to Gorecki” - certainly there is a sacred as well as a secular feel to these complex and very individualistic works. All three quartets were commissioned and first performed by the Kronos Quartet, who have also recorded them. I haven’t heard their versions, but however different they may be it’s hard to believe that they could be any more authoritative than these exemplary performances by the Polish ensemble.

02_dvorakHyperion continues to add outstanding discs to its catalogue, and has just re-issued the Anthony Marwood and Susan Tomes recital of Music for Violin and Piano by Dvořák in their Helios budget-label series (CDH55365). It’s an absolute delight from start to finish, with really fine works, outstanding playing, and a beautiful recorded sound. The Sonata in F minor and the Sonatina in G are the major works, but there isn’t a single track that is less than top-drawer. The Four Romantic Pieces were originally written for 2 violins and viola, Dvořák arranging them almost simultaneously for violin and piano; two shorter works, the Ballad in D minor and the Notturno in B major, complete the disc. Marwood’s playing is simply faultless, with perfect intonation, a lovely tone, and sensitive and intelligent phrasing. He is matched in all respects by Tomes. Marwood has a half-dozen other fascinating and highly-acclaimed CDs on the Hyperion label, ranging from Weill and Stravinsky to little-known British Romantic concertos. He’s clearly a player with a range to match his ability – and that’s saying something.

03_concerto_latinoI’m constantly reminded of how difficult it is to keep up with contemporary performers and compositions – or at least reminded of the fact that I’m probably not doing as well as I should be in that respect. A case in point is the new CD from the Israeli violinist Ittai Shapira, who is active as a soloist and as a composer. He performs his own Concierto Latino on an abbreviated (26 minutes) CD from Champs Hill (CHRCD020) with the London Serenata conducted by Krzysztof Chorzelski. Shapira is a new name to me, but in addition to his own works he has already had 14 concertos written for him by other composers! This concerto was written in response to a personal assault Shapira experienced when he was mugged by a New York gang in January 2005: the three movements, titled Assault, Lament and Party, clearly indicate the therapeutic nature of the work, and Shapira’s celebration of his recovery. It’s an interesting and accessible piece, with a mix of various technical and musical influences - Latin, Iberian, Sephardic, Cuban, among others – and is extremely well played by all the performers. Recorded at St. Paul New Southgate, London the sound quality is excellent.

04_sarasate3Naxos has released Volume 3 of the projected 8-volume series of the complete Music for Violin and Orchestra by Sarasate (8.572275). I wrote a glowing review of the earlier volumes a few years ago, and this latest CD is clearly their equal. The young Chinese violinist Tianwa Yang is again simply brilliant throughout, playing Sarasate’s own violin on two of the tracks. The Orquesta Sinfonica de Navarra (founded by Sarasate himself in 1879) under Ernest Martinez Izquierdo provides the most idiomatic support imaginable. And don’t think for a moment that the standard of the works themselves is lagging as the series proceeds: the Concert Fantasy on Mozart’s Die Zauberflõte is dazzling; Navarra (with the soloist double-tracked) is an exuberant duet; the bagpipe-influenced Muineiras is a delight. The Nouvelle fantasie sur Faust de Gounod, the Barcarolle venitienne and the Introduction et Caprice-Jota complete an immensely satisfying, entertaining and probably definitive disc.

05_saint-saensNaxos has issued a fascinating CD of Saint-Saëns String Quartets (8.572454) played by the Fine Arts Quartet. Saint-Saëns was born ten years before the premiere of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and died eight years after the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, but such radical change was never reflected in his music. The quartets are both late works – the E minor Op.112 from 1899 and the G major Op.153 from 1918 – but it’s hard to tell from their decidedly 19th century musical style. It’s quite astonishing, for instance, to think that the Op.153 was written by a French composer during the last year of the Great War, and ten years after Schoenberg had first abandoned tonality; in places it’s almost Beethovenian. Fine Arts violinist Ralph Evans correctly describes the quartets as “serious, intellectual, brilliantly crafted yet delightful works,” but it’s difficult to identify a personal voice in them; they tend to remind you more of other composers than of Saint-Saëns himself. It’s also easy to see why his reputation in France had faded by the time of his death - he simply belonged to a different era.

The Fine Arts Quartet has been around since 1946; three of the current members have been there for at least 28 years. Their playing here is of the highest level, although the big vibrato and the occasional “scoop” give it a somewhat dated feel. The sound quality is very resonant, in places almost too much so.

06_bruchVadim Gluzman turns his attention to the music of Max Bruch on his latest Super Audio CD (BIS-SACD-1852), with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Andrew Litton. Given that Bruch wrote three violin concertos plus the Scottish Fantasy it’s a bit disappointing, albeit not particularly surprising, to see that once again it’s the Concerto No.1 in G minor – “the” concerto – that is the main work here. Bruch himself was constantly exasperated by the popularity of this concerto over the others: apparently little has changed! Still, it’s an impassioned and extremely satisfying performance from Gluzman, perfectly showcasing his rich, warm tone, and with Litton providing a sympathetic and glowing accompaniment. The Romance in F major was written for viola and orchestra, but rather than switching instruments (as did Janine Jansen on her 2008 CD) Gluzman uses the violin part from the violin & piano version prepared by the composer. It works very well, but if you know the viola version this one loses something in the translation. The third work on the CD, the String Quintet in A minor, has much in common with the Saint-Saëns String Quartet No.2 reviewed above. Bruch and Saint-Saëns had almost identical life-spans – 1838-1920 and 1835-1921 respectively – and the works were both written in 1918, when the world that both composers still belonged to had vanished completely. Like the Saint-Saëns quartet, Bruch’s quintet gives absolutely no hint of the new world order. It’s a well-crafted, lovely work, but it comes as no surprise to hear 19th century voices – particularly Mendelssohn and Brahms – in the melodies and harmonies.

Gluzman is joined by Sandis Steinbergs on violin, Maxim Rysanov and Ilze Klava on violas, and Reinis Birznieks on cello in a finely-balanced and well-recorded performance.

07_beethoven_artemisThis May, Virgin Classics released the final CD in the complete cycle of Beethoven quartets by the German Artemis Quartet. Their 2010 release of the String Quartets Op.18/6 and Op.130/133 (50999 694584 0 8) has just reached me, and presents the perfect opportunity to mention the project. The series started on the Ars Musici label, and Virgin reissued two single Ars Musici CDs as a Virgin Classics 2-CD set last year. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to write a full review at the time, but the CDs were top of my list of highlights of the year. The playing on each CD I’ve heard so far is as good as any you will encounter, and the recorded sound is full and warm, although the cello tends to “boom” a bit on this latest disc. According to the Quartet’s website, the entire project will be issued as a box set in the near future - definitely something to look out for, especially if it’s attractively priced.

01_constantinopleEarly Dreams

Constantinople; Françoise Atlan

Analekta AN 2 9989

Constantinople has been specialising for ten years in exploring Mediterranean oral tradition and medieval musical manuscripts. A vast area in terms both musicological and geographical, not least with the export of Spanish music to the New World! And it is (very) early New World-based composers who feature here.

“Early Dreams” unites Constantinople’s core of sétar, percussion and viola da gamba with a guest baroque guitarist and, above all, the voice of Françoise Atlan, herself of Judeo-Berber origin.

One must single out Detente, sombra de mi bien esquivo (based on Spagnoletta, a Renaissance “dance hit”), which brings together Ms Atlan’s clear enunciation, a magnificent combination of impassioned da gamba and lute playing, and the words of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the first great Latin-American poetess.

Eventually, Françoise Atlan’s voice does come to dominate this CD, not only with her interpretations of baroque settings of de la Cruz’s poetry but also those of modern Canadian composer Michael Oesterle. Her clarity of voice alone would make these recordings special.

One pleasant question to decide is whether Oesterle’s settings or those of the Latin composers are more inspiring. But first listen to the Fandango of Mexico-based Santiago de Murcia. We speak of Spain enjoying a golden age of its music in the mid-16th century; we are only now discovering the musical legacy of Spain’s conquests of Latin America.

02_frobergerFroberger - Libro Quarto, 1656

Webb Wiggins

Friends of Music FOM 10-027.28 (www.smithsonian.org)

Johann Jacob Froberger, organist at the court of Vienna, paid very close attention to the formalities of Baroque music: Libro quarto contains six toccatas, six ricercars, and six capriccios, followed by six suites, with five based on the standard allemande, gigue, courante and sarabande. Only a lament on the death of the Austrian Crown Prince - and Webb Wiggins’ own choice of organ or harpsichord as he feels appropriate – provide variation.

So how did Froberger deal with a rigidity imposed upon him by Austrian court procedures? Well, his toccatas, notably No. 4, are as testing as any by the more famous baroque composers; Froberger helped the toccata emerge from being a mere warm-up exercise.

More conservative are the ricercars played on organ; some could almost be a renaissance woodwind consort, not surprising as the organ is reconstructed on early 17th century principles. The capriccios, nearly all on organ, are taxing pieces but Webb Wiggins rises to the challenge.

And so to the suites. Wiggins breathes liveliness into Froberger’s charming gigues and courantes, accompanied by a sense of feeling for the allemandes. It is difficult to select which of these twenty-four movements are the most entertaining as they are of a consistently high quality when played by Wiggins.

Travels throughout Western Europe and time with Girolamo Frescobaldi helped Froberger become a pioneer of “mainstream” baroque music; Webb Wiggins reinforces that status.

03_telemannTelemann - The Recorder Collection

Clas Pehrsson; Dan Laurin

BIS BIS-CD-1488/90

This six-disc boxed set offers a thorough collection of Telemann’s “solo” recorder music: the fantasias, sonatas and miscellaneous pieces with basso continuo, duets, and solo and double concertos. The players are Dan Laurin, an active member in the current recorder soloist circuit; and Clas Pehrsson, who taught at Stockholm’s Royal College of Music from 1965 until 2009 and was one of several players who helped put the recorder on the map in the ‘70s. While some of the material has been newly recorded, most of the contents are reissues of earlier recordings, and herein lies one of this compilation’s unusual virtues – a chance to hear two different players, at different phases of their musical lives, and to compare two somewhat different approaches to this fundamental and rich repertoire for the instrument. The solo fantasias were recorded by Laurin in 1994, and his other solo contributions are the two lovely Neue Sonatinen recorded in 2008 – it’s very interesting to hear what has changed in his playing over 14 years. Pehrsson’s contributions, which include some bravura takes on the solo sonatas, range in recording date from 1974 to 1987.

It’s thought provoking to hear the different takes on ornamentation in slow movements, use of vibrato, articulation styles, and the liberties taken (or not) with what Telemann actually indicated in his own publications. And does one keep a tempo reasonably steady, or move it around? What’s the difference between vivace, allegro, and presto, and even between various allegros? Though this is possibly more recorder music than some would ever want to hear, it’s some of the best Baroque repertoire available for the instrument, performed by fine players. And these CDs make clear the fact that instrumental taste changes over time… Postmodernism and the recorder? Go figure.

04_scarlattiAlexandre Tharaud plays Scarlatti

Alexandre Tharaud

Virgin Classics 50999 6420162 7

Squirreled away in the relative solitude of the royal courts of Portugal and Spain, Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) turned from the public world of opera championed by his father Alessandro and turned inward. He developed into a true maverick, absorbing the rich, lively sonic world of Iberia and creating a stream of musical miniatures of unprecedented originality. It is a delicate matter to chose from the hundreds (at least 555) of harpsichord sonatas that have come down to us. Alexandre Tharaud succeeds admirably with a judicious mix of the many sides of Scarlatti’s character, presenting 18 sonatas with a particular emphasis on the composer’s melodic gifts, so often overshadowed by his fascinating harmonic and motivic innovations.

Performances of these works on the modern piano present a challenge to the performer as articulations and dynamic levels unavailable on the harpsichord have to be re-invented. Undaunted, Tharaud shamelessly exploits the full resources of the piano, utilizing a wide dynamic range from the raucous to the introspective with a soupçon of tasteful ornamental spices and well-controlled pedaling. He brings an infectious enthusiasm to the more extroverted sonatas and conjures up wonderfully subtle tonal palettes for the more tranquil ones. I look forward to further instalments from the treasure trove of Scarlatti.

Recorded in Switzerland, Tharaud performs on a closely recorded, somewhat brittle sounding Yamaha piano which displays touches of distortion in the louder passages in my review copy.

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