02_beethoven_9Beethoven – Symphony No.9
Christine Oelze; Petra Lang; Klaus Florian Vogt; Matthias Goerne; Deutscher Kammerchor; Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen;
Paavo Järvi
Sony 88697576062

The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Orchestra was founded in 1980 by a group of exceptional young students and went on to become one of the most sought-after chamber orchestras, appearing at the UN in 1983. They were invited to play at Gidon Kremer’s Lockenhaus Festival where their 1986 performance of Gubaidulina’s Seven Words was issued by Philips. Since 1992 they have been based in Bremen and are self governing, owned by the players. Paavo Järvi has been their conductor since 2004 and in August of that year they began recording a new Beethoven cycle using the Barenreiter Urtext Edition, starting with the Eighth.

The reduced strings contribute to the creation of new textures that are in no way less satisfying for the audience. The winds and brass are more present without losing perspective. Listeners will have a new appreciation of the genius and beauty of Beethoven’s scores.

Järvi has a clear stamp on these performances wherein he refreshes the scores with his own phrasing and accents, with tempi that adhere to Beethoven’s metronome markings. Diehard fans of the traditional school are likely to find Järvi too acerbic and will not easily accept his approach. Even though I was very familiar with Järvi’s performances of all the others, this Ninth came as a quite a shock. It is as if Järvi has finally taken the wraps off, stepped aside and let Beethoven speak for himself, unencumbered by generations of well meaning interpreters. It works well for me and I find Järvi’s non-routine, clear headed interpretations throughout the nine fully justify their existence among a plethora of sets, new and re-issued, which are mostly indistinguishable from each other.

The state-of-the-art hybrid SACD/CDs, whether heard in stereo or surround, are of audiophile quality accurately delineating the instruments exactly as the conductor intended. The executive producers of these recordings are the orchestra itself and Maestro Järvi, which just may account for their excellence.

01_beethoven_9symphonies_liveBeethoven – Live Symphonies
Orchestra de la Francophonie; Jean-Philippe Tremblay
Analekta AN 2 9975-9

If I’m not mistaken, a particular musicologist once said, “French orchestras are incapable of playing German music.” Whoever it was who made this claim would surely have second thoughts upon hearing this fine five-disc Analekta recording of the complete Beethoven symphonies featuring l’Orchestre de la Francophonie under the direction of Jean-Philippe Tremblay. Founded in 2001 for the fourth Jeux de la Francophonie in Ottawa-Hull, this ensemble has earned a reputation as one of the country’s finest youth orchestras, having given more than 200 concerts across Canada, and undertaking a successful tour of China in 2007.

There is certainly no dearth of Beethoven complete symphonies sets, so do we really need one more? Having said that, I can assure you that this one, recorded live at Québec City’s Palais Montcalm in July of 2009, can easily hold its own against the older more established recordings. From the opening hesitant measures of the Symphony No. 1, the listener is immediately struck by the youthful freshness of OF’s approach. The playing is noble and elegant, and when dramatic intensity is called for, it is achieved without the heavy-handed bombast that has sometimes characterized Beethoven recordings from the past.

Admittedly, one of my favourite symphonies of all time is Beethoven’s No.7. I’m pleased to report that the interpretation here is splendid, particularly in the first and final movements, where the strings seemingly shimmer in joyful exuberance. The second movement, mysterious and somewhat cryptic, is treated in a deservingly subtle manner, while the boisterous finale, at one time compared to the merry-making of peasants, brings the symphony to a rousing conclusion. Wagner, who also happened to love this work, (once referring to it as “the very apotheosis of the dance”), would be pleased indeed!

The climax of the set comes with the powerful Symphony No. 9, a true world unto itself. Soloists Marie-Josée Lord, Geneviève Couillard Després, Guy Bélanger, and Ētienne Dupuis together with the Choeur de la Francophonie maintain a wonderful vocal cohesion, admirably blending with the orchestra to form a unified whole.

Despite this being a live recording, extraneous noises are minimal, and the burst of enthusiastic applause at the end of each symphony seems particularly fitting in light of the superb performances. My only quibble concerns the flimsy packaging – it may have been a cost-cutting measure, but a fine recording such as this deserves better. Kudos to l’Orchestre de la Francophonie, to the soloists, the chorus, and to Jean-Philippe Tremblay for breathing some overdue fresh air into this well-trodden repertoire.

03_berliozBerlioz: Symphonie Fantastique op.14;
Le Carnaval Romain
Anima Eterna Brugge; Jos van Immerseel
ZIG-ZAG CD ZZT100101

• I am always leery about ‘period instrument groups’ tackling post 1800 repertoire. Although I am not about to change my prejudice, right from the first bars this recording impressed me as something very special. The uniqueness of this performance is not so just because of the period instruments; conductor van Immerseel brings a fresh approach in colour, tempo, balance, articulation, phrasing and dynamics.

For rabid fans of this symphony (myself included) the experience of first hearing this performance is startling. The presentation is so transparent that details of the scoring, invariably obscured in modern performances, are revealed, particularly from the winds, affirming that Berlioz was a peerless innovative genius.

And what about the ‘period instrument’ component? The Anima Eterna Orchestra, particularly the winds, are superb, playing with joie de vivre, gorgeous sound and beautiful tone colours. As a group they create an irresistible, luminous texture throughout the work. Listeners will be surprised to hear, not the usual bell sounds in the Witches Sabbath but the sustained piano chords as specified in the Berlioz manuscript. The piano strings blend with the orchestra to solemn effect adding a new sense of gravitas with a sobering subterranean effect, quite different from the mood of the tolling bells.

Without any doubt, Van Immerseel and his group daringly demonstrate the originality and genius of the composer. The recording, captured in faultless sound, was made in the sonically impressive Concertgebouw in Bruges to which this group is very well attuned. For me, this has been an unexpected and rewarding discovery.

02_biberBiber – Mensa Sonora; Battalia
Baroque Band; Garry Clarke
Cedille CDR 90000 116

Pity the poor composer who needs must provide music meant to be ignored! Such is the case for Biber’s collection of genteel pieces for dining, the six suites for strings entitled Mensa Sonora (Sonorous Table) served up in 1680 for the gustatory delectation of his then employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg. Not initially expecting anything special, I was pleasantly surprised at the cunning of Biber’s art. He manages by dint of the off-kilter asymmetries of his melodic craft to project a sub-text of sophistication completely over the head of his patron. Biber marvellously subverts the conventions of the genre, concluding the whole enterprise with a disjointed denouement worthy of Haydn. He proves himself a visionary as well with the celebrated, outlandish Battalia in 10 parts of 1673 in which one finds innovations not to be exploited again until centuries later: the snap-pizzicato of Bartok; playing with the wood of the bow à la Berlioz; and, in the loopy inebriation of a scene depicting drunken soldiers, the polytonality and collage technique of Charles Ives. As director and concertmaster Gerry Clarke mentions in his liner notes, Biber (1644-1704), the Bohemian-Austrian violin virtuoso and composer, was regarded by Paul Hindemith to be “the most important Baroque composer before Bach”, yet it is only in recent decades that his music has seen a significant revival. The Chicago-based Baroque Band, formed in 2007, plays this music to perfection with a highly effective blend of subtlety and precision. Truly delicious!

01_viola_damoreViola D’Amore
Hélène Plouffe
Analekta AN 2 9959

The viola d’amore was demanding. It has the complication of resonating strings, is crafted as if it were a viol but is played like a violin, and is the size of the already-existing viola. And yet it survived throughout the Baroque and has even inspired modern composers.

Hélène Plouffe’s selection shows how sensuous this instrument is, notably in von Biber’s Partia VII, with its soothing praeludium, allamande and aria. The skill it requires is demonstrated in the concluding arietta variata.

If the viola d’amore is rare in North America, try finding a bass chalumeau - the link between recorder and clarinet. Hélène Plouffe did so and Graupner’s Trio in F major is the result, the allegro and vivace above all expressing both instruments’ qualities.

Bach’s St. John Passion allows us to see the viola d’amore supporting the human voice but those wishing to hear the instrument at its plainest will enjoy Ah que l’amour, an extract from Milandre’s Méthode facile pour la viole d’amour. This exercise proves that the instrument does indeed have an individual sound.

And so to Petzold’s Partita in F major, a collection of early baroque dances. As with the Milandre piece, the music for solo viola d’amore played here best shows off what the instrument can bring to its audience, particularly with Hélène Plouffe’s interpretations.

01_rachmaninov_triosAlthough resident in Quebec since 1993, Paris-born Patrice Lare studied in Moscow for 8 years, and is steeped in the Russian piano school tradition. His playing provides a massive foundation for the Complete Rachmaninov Piano Trios (XXI-CD 2 1700) with his wife, cellist Velitchka Yotcheva (also Moscow-trained), and Canadian violinist Jean-Sebastien Roy. Rachmaninov’s Trios Elegiaques are both early works in his Romantic, post-Tchaikovsky mold. No.1 is a single-movement trio in G minor from 1892, and No.2 a three-movement work in D minor, written after the death of Tchaikovsky in late 1893 and dedicated “To the Memory of a Great Artist”. This is big but always sensitive playing, perfectly attuned to the style and nature of the music. Recorded at the Radio-Canada studios in Montreal, the sound quality matches the tremendous performances.

 

02_lang_lang_vadim_mischaI’ve sometimes wondered if the technical heights reached by Lang Lang are always matched by the depths of his interpretations, but he certainly does his artistic reputation no harm with his first chamber music CD, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov Piano Trios with Vadim Repin and Mischa Maisky. Presumably this is his final major release from Deutsche Grammophon (477 8099), following his $3 million signing with Sony; if so, it’s a fascinating farewell, suggesting chamber music as a new field with huge potential for him. The Rachmaninov trio is the G minor, and both here and in the Tchaikovsky A minor trio Lang Lang really seems to avoid “showy” playing, getting to the heart of the music and clearly sharing the interpretative view of his Russian colleagues. Again, the standard of the recording matches that of the two outstanding performances.

 

03_horn_triosAt first sight, there doesn’t seem to be any connection between the works on the latest CD from faculty members at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music (XXI-CD 2 1699), but they are in fact closely related. Jonathan Crow (violin), John Zirbel (horn) and Sara Laimon (piano) open with a beautifully warm reading of the Brahms E flat Horn Trio. This was the first work written for this instrumental combination, and was inspired by the death of the composer’s mother. Brahms chose to use not the newly-developed valve horn but the natural waldhorn, with its sentimental ties to his family and his youth in Hamburg. It was, in turn, a request from a Hamburg pianist for a horn trio to be played along with the Brahms that led György Ligeti to write his own Horn Trio in 1982; moreover, Ligeti had also lost his own mother earlier that year. Sub-titled “Hommage à Brahms”, it is a demanding, complex and multi-layered work in the same four-movement form. Again, the performance is exemplary. Brahms’ mentor Schumann wrote his Adagio & Allegro for horn and piano in 3 days in February 1849; the first substantial solo work to fully explore the potential of the new valve horn, it is still a demanding piece, and Zirbel and Laimon are terrific. Recorded at the acoustically-excellent Schulich School, the sound quality is outstanding.

06_stravinskyStravinsky - Pulcinella; Symphony in Three Movements

Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Pierre Boulez

CSO RESOUND CSOR 901 920

 

At the ripe old age of 85 Pierre Boulez remains as fit as a fiddle and twice as stringy. This recording from the Chicago Symphony’s own Resound label captures a concert from February 2009 featuring Boulez, currently celebrating his 15th season as CSO principal guest conductor, in fine form in familiar works by Stravinsky with an exceptionally attentive and virtuosic Chicago Symphony. The largest work here is the complete ballet score of Pulcinella, Stravinsky’s strategic retreat into neo-classicism from 1920. The work for small orchestra includes vocal contributions from a trio of fresh-faced singers, mezzo Roxana Constaninescu, tenor Nicholas Phan, and bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, with Phan making the lasting impression. I am happy to see that the texts and multiple translations have been provided.

 

Though this is certainly not Boulez’s preferred period of Stravinsky’s oeuvre, he provides a genial performance nonetheless, though rather insouciant compared to the composer’s own account of it. It is bested by a magnificent performance of the Symphony in Three Movements of 1945, which revives the old spark of Stravinsky’s early rhythmic drive, and the enigmatic Four Études from 1914. The notably desiccated acoustic of Chicago’s Symphony Hall complements both the laser-like precision for which Boulez is celebrated and the dry champagne that is Stravinsky’s music.

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