04_anderszewskiPiotr Anderszewski - Unquiet Traveller
Bruno Monsaingeon
Medici Arts 3077938

Voyageur intranquille, Unquiet Traveller, opens with pianist Piotr Anderszewski boarding the train that, by choice, will be his home, complete with grand piano and a kitchen, until the end of this tour. So begins the documentary of an extraordinary musical figure.

During this winter’s journey across Poland we will listen in on his conversations about musical aesthetics, love, and the composers for whom he has a special affinity. He speaks about his personal journey and the decisions that have led him to this point in his life.

His profound favourite composer is Mozart and he is delighted to vocalise passages from The Magic Flute, reducing the orchestral accompaniment to some basic keyboard figures. We also hear him in various venues across Europe playing Bach, Chopin, Szymanowski, Beethoven, Brahms, and Schumann. The film ends with a most affectionate tribute to Lisbon, now his home.

Anderszewski has the rare gift of sharing every performance with his audience, conveyed by his sincere, overflowing personality. Incidentally, he plays only works he likes!

Born in Warsaw in 1969, Anderszewski is a pianist with ample technique and an intriguing personal philosophy, proof that there is true musical force in his generation.

01_janitschJohann Gottlieb Janitsch
Sonate da camera Volume 1
Notturna; Christopher Palameta
ATMA ACD2 2993

For all his militarism, Prussia’s Frederick the Great supported composers who left their mark on music; the role of J.J. Quantz in developing the modern flute comes to mind. Frederick’s most senior musicians included Johann Gottlieb Janitsch whose manuscripts were stored at the Berlin Singakademie; World War Two (when the Singakademie was plundered) deprived us of many of Janitsch’s works.

Twenty-seven quadro sonatas did survive. Christopher Palameta brings us five; that in G Minor (O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden) takes precedence and with good reason. The opening bars of the Largo are at once celestial and solemn; the all-but-forgotten Janitsch is no composer of dull chamber music.

Throughout the recording Palameta’s passion for the oboe is clear. Two of the three used are copies of contemporary oboes from Leipzig, one from Saxony. Both oboists in Notturna rise masterfully to the varied and demanding challenges of the Allegro in the C Minor Sonata Op 4.

It would be wrong to ignore the contribution of the strings to this recording. Janitsch was fond of using the viola which he selects slightly more frequently in his sonatas than either the flute or the violin. Two violas certainly add a slightly darker quality to the Vivace of the Sonata in E Minor Op 5B.

Through his own inspirational direction Palameta has literally revived Janitsch’s music; three of these five sonatas are recorded here for the first time ever.

Maria João Pires
Deutsche Grammophon 477 7483

Nothing but good can be said about this set issued by DGG to celebrate Maria João Pires’ 20 years with the Gesellschaft and entirely devoted to Chopin. Now in her sixties, this rather elusive artist, inspiring teacher and ardent philanthropist has avoided the trimmings of easy fame and the nowadays so prevalent jet-setting. Even on this disc, instead of just playing “popular pieces” she focuses on Chopin’s last five years, beginning with the Third Sonata and ending with his ultimate work, the Mazurka in f minor.

Chopin as we know died very young, at age 39 and his last years were plagued with illness, an unhappy love affair and other pressures. Although already the most original innovator for the piano, by extending the keyboard to its full length and making new harmonies using the enharmonic scales and chromaticism, in his last years he even tried to break out of this bond by rejecting the tonal centre entirely. In this respect he was paving the way to Debussy and Scriabin. The 3rd sonata is “profoundly chaotic and using an energy towards an entirely new logic” (Pires). Her playing, with the beautifully seductive expression of the 2nd theme of the opening movement, the filigree dexterity of the Scherzo, the heartrendingly delicate Lento and the emotionally turbulent, exhausting Finale, makes it the most momentous performance on the disc.

The very complex Polonaise Fantasie is another example of this “new logic” that seems to go in many directions, but with the pulsating, syncopated and sometimes barely present dance tempo solidly maintained she holds the piece triumphantly together. There is also a curiosity, the Cello Sonata (with Pavel Gomziakov), and a number of Mazurkas, Nocturnes and Waltzes to round out the disc, among them the Minute Waltz played in just under 2 minutes!

03_rufus_choiA Musical Journey
Rufus Choi
Cambria CD-1188

An eclectic program of piano music played by the Korean-American pianist Rufus Choi is featured on this Cambria label CD, music described in the notes by the artist as “in the grand romantic style”. Choi is a graduate of both the Juilliard School and the Musik Hochschule in Hanover, Germany. He was a first prize winner at the inaugural Jose Iturbi International Music Competition in Los Angeles in 2007.

The disc opens with Four Chorale Preludes by Bach as arranged by Ferruccio Busoni. These are tasteful adaptations - indeed, Busoni was a brilliant arranger, and the pieces sound as convincing for solo keyboard as they do for chorus. Yet as successful as Choi is at capturing the mood of noble grandeur, I have the impression that he is more at home with the type of piece that follows - the Rachmaninoff Piano Sonata #2 from 1913. This is music of exceptional difficulty, requiring formidable technique. Happily, Choi rises to the challenge admirably, tossing off the difficulties with apparent ease, while at the same time, approaching the quieter, more introspective passages with great sensitivity.

Admittedly, I’ve never been a big fan of Liszt’s transcriptions of music by other composers – too much tinsel and glitter, and often too many notes! Having said that, there are two such compositions featured here, a piece by Chopin titled Meine Freuden from his Chants Polonais Op.74, and Schumann’s popular Widmung. Once again, Choi seems in his element, both in these and in the concluding work, the famous Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No, 2, a technical tour de force. Here he pulls out all the stops, and delivers an impressive performance, in true command of the music at all times. A most satisfying musical journey indeed, by a young artist on the threshold of a promising career.

05_sa_chenRachmaninov - 6 Etudes;
Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition;
A Night on Bald Mountain
Sa Chen
PentaTone PTC 5186 355

The name of pianist Sa Chen is perhaps unfamiliar to most music-lovers today, but will undoubtedly become more famous in years or even months to come, judging from the prodigious talents exhibited on this new SACD of Russian music on the PentaTone label. Born in Chongqing, China, Sa Chen began her musical studies at the Sichuan Conservatory, and she later continued at London’s Guildhall School and the Hochschule für Musik in Hanover. Although she has been the recipient of prizes from age 14 onward, it was at the International Chopin Competition in 2000 and later at the Van Cliburn Competition, that her reputation was secured. A critic once wrote: “Fleet- fingered pianists are a dime a dozen today – where are the musicians?” From the haunting opening measures of the Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableau Op.33 No.2, it’s clear that Sa Chen is a musician of the first-rank, one who combines a flawless technique with an innate musicality. She presents 6 Etudes in all, drawn from Opp.33 and 39, and throughout, her playing is marked by a delicacy of shading with never a moment of bravura for its own sake.

As equally demanding as the Etudes-Tableaux is A Night on Bald Mountain, Modest Mussorgsky’s first major work for orchestra - a tale of spirits, witchcraft, and bells tolling at dawn, a sort of 19th century Thriller, 90 years before Michael Jackson. The piano transcription is as difficult as it sounds, and Sa Chen approaches the music with a splendid panache. Nevertheless, in my opinion, she leaves the best until last, with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition from 1874. Inspired by a group of paintings by Victor Hartmann, the work encompasses a myriad of contrasting moods, and Sa Chen captures them all effortlessly, thereby bringing to a close this most satisfying disc.

06_ames_piano_quartetComplete Dorian Recordings 1989-2009
Ames Piano Quartet
Dorian Sono Luminus DSL-90908

Founded in Ames, Iowa, in 1976, and currently the resident chamber music ensemble at Iowa State University, the Ames is that rarity in the chamber music world - a designated and permanent piano quartet. Only pianist William David remains from the original line-up, but with just one personnel change in the past 20 years the group’s unanimity of thought and interpretation is very evident.

Apart from three CDs of 20th-century works on the Albany label, the Ames has recorded almost exclusively for Dorian, with a repertoire of French, German, Czech and Russian piano quartets from the Romantic era through the mid-1900s. All 7 Dorian CDs are included in this box set, together with a bonus CD of the Chausson and Saint-Saëns quartets originally issued by the Musical Heritage Society in 1989.

The Dorian discs cover the three Brahms piano quartets, the two by both Fauré and Dvorak, and the single opuses of Schumann, Richard Strauss, Widor, Taneyev, Paul Juon, Suk, Novak and Martinu. An effective arrangement of Borodin’s Polovetsian Dances by Iowa State alumnus Geoffrey Wilcken completes the Russian CD, although it’s completely ignored in the otherwise comprehensive booklet notes.

Recording dates are not listed, but despite the 20-year span there is a remarkable consistency in the exceptionally high performance level, as indeed there is in the sound of the recordings themselves, which are always warm, resonant and beautifully balanced. At under $50, this is an outstanding set.

04_french_flute_chamberFrench Flute Chamber Music
Mirage Quintet
Naxos 8.570444

I’m not sure how “real” the Mirage Quintet is – a quick Google of the name reveals no references to concerts performed anywhere, and the ensemble’s discography seems to consist entirely of this recording.

But never mind. Even if the group is just a mirage, its players are all fine musicians: Canada’s reigning flutist, Robert Aitken; leading studio musician and Aitken’s long-time recital partner, harpist Erica Goodman; violinist Jacques Israelievitch, recently retired as concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; and violist Teng Li and cellist Winona Zelenka, both current principals of that orchestra.

The music is also quite fine: several works are thoroughly impressionistic in style, others are touched with neo-classicism, but all are very French. CD collectors shouldn’t be discouraged if some of the early 20th-century compositions recorded here are unfamiliar.

Marcel Tournier was himself a harpist, as his lush writing for the instrument suggests. But his Op.34 Suite isn’t just a showpiece for the harp; it’s true chamber music, with a sophisticated interplay of instrumental forces. I particularly like the way the Mirage players dig into the final movement’s big, emphatic chords with an expansive sweep.

Similarly, Florent Schmitt’s Suite en rocaille Op. 84 is an elegant work – although there’s an edgy urgency in the second and fourth movements. And Gabriel Pierné’s Variations libres et finale derives an archaic quality from the composer’s use of the Lydian mode. Jean Françaix’s Quintette is a charming piece; and so is Roussel’s Sérénade Op. 30, although its instrumental effects and harmonic leanings also give it a quirky, modernist quality.

This isn’t the deepest music ever written – it’s a little too suave to be profound. But it is enjoyable, and very well performed.

Colin Eatock

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