01_salsa_baroqueSalsa Baroque

Ensemble Caprice; Matthias Maute

Analekta AN 2 9957

Matthias Maute’s notes explain salsa baroque as being 17th and 18th century Latin American and Spanish music with a diffusion of harmonies and rhythms of Europe and Africa blended with Amerindian nuances and styles. Hybrid must be an under-statement.

The choice of pieces is itself varied as Zipoli’s pastorales vie with his battaglias and in turn mingle with Gaspar Fernandes’ compositions with their unsullied pre-conquistador titles. The opening (anonymous) chaconne combines easily recognizable baroque music with spirited Latin American embellishments; Variations on la Gayta and the lively singing of further settings bring home the passionate nature of this fusion of music from Spain and her new colonies. Listen to Lanchas para baylar for further confirmation. Those looking for something more indigenous need only listen to the second piece, the definitely non-Hispanic Hanacpachap cussicuinin. It is incomparably Latin American, mainly because it is dated to 1631 in Cuzco!

Looking at the cover design of this CD with its electronically-drawn drizzlings of Latin American dressings and then translating its title (baroque sauce), you might get the impression this is one for the tapas-bar yuppies. It is, in truth, a valuable introduction to music created by Spanish and Portuguese composers who were assigned to Latin America and influenced by the music they found there.

02_vivaldi_oboe_concertosVivaldi Oboe Concertos

Alex Klein; New Brandenburg Collegium; Anthony Newman

Cedille FOUNDation CDR 7003 (www.cedillerecords.org)

One of the most prolific composers of his time, Antonio Vivaldi (1675-1741) wrote a total of 14 concerti for oboe, plus an additional three for two oboes. This sampling of eight of them, from one of the world's finest oboists, is a recent re-release of material originally recorded in 1993. Alex Klein is probably best known as a former principal oboist of the Chicago Symphony, a position he held from 1995 to 2004, when he left the job due to focal dystonia, a neurological condition affecting the muscles in some of his fingers. (He has since recovered, and I had the pleasure of hearing him perform live in Kitchener a couple of years ago).

In addition to composing, Vivaldi also taught music at the Ospedale della Pietá, an orphanage for girls in Venice. In the insightful liner notes with this recording, Klein suggests that these works were perhaps written for these girls, with their particular talents and personalities in mind. Given the technical challenges of these concerti and the limitations of the oboe of the time, if this is true, these girls must have been true prodigies! Speculation aside, this recording presents these works in their best light, played here by a true virtuoso. Klein's technical mastery of the instrument is staggering – even the most virtuosic passages are executed with flawless precision, giving an impression of total ease; and embedded within the most technically demanding sections, Klein manages a sensitivity and subtlety of expression that only a true master can convey. This recording deserves undivided listening attention to fully appreciate the complexity and nuance of both the composer's work and this first class performance.

03_bach_organJ.S. Bach - Organ Works

Nicolas-Alexandre Marcotte

XXI-21 Productions; XXI-CD 2 1713

Organist Nicolas-Alexandre Marcotte plays a magnificent organ built in 1973 by Karl Wilhelm for Église Saint-Matthias (Montréal). It is entirely mechanical (tracker action) and voiced in the very best Baroque style. Marcotte’s repertoire choice (some duets, a Fantaisie, a Trio Sonata, etc.) is far from standard Bach but carefully chosen to demonstrate the Baroque keyboard technique of note detachment, the very antithesis of the Romantic tendency for legato in nearly everything. The playing is brilliant and the acoustics perfect – an altogether outstanding recording achievement.

01_mozart_piano_sonatasMozart - Piano Sonatas

Robert Silverman

IsoMike 5602 (www.isomike.com)

If we accept Hans von Bulow’s decree to pianists that “Bach is the Old Testament and Beethoven is the New Testament of music,” where does that leave Mozart? As a kind of musical John the Baptist?

But if Mozart has been relegated to the role of a pianistic voice crying in the wilderness, it’s not the composer’s doing, but the fault of the musical world. Some pianists, such as Glenn Gould, have disdained his piano music as lightweight. Others, such as Alicia De Laroccha, have unwittingly given credence to this view by performing Mozart with a mannered superficiality. And then there are folks who feel that Mozart’s piano music needs to be performed on a period fortepiano – as if he can’t quite compete with “important” piano composers when played on a modern instrument.

Enter Robert Silverman, the Vancouver-based pianist who has earned a reputation as a Beethoven interpreter with a penchant for complete sonata cycles. Now, in this seven-disc boxed set on the audiophile IsoMike label, Silverman has recorded all 18 Mozart sonatas, and also the Chromatic Fantasy in C Minor.

What makes these performances so consistently engaging is the breadth he brings to his interpretations. He’s not out to directly overthrow traditional ideas about Mozart, but rather to enfold them within a broader vision: while there’s sometimes a “Mozartkugel” sweetness to his playing, there’s much more than that. In Silverman’s hands, this music is dramatic, humourous, effervescent, calm, blissful, tragic, and many other things as well.

For instance, there’s Sonata No. 15, which Silverman, in his notes, describes as “the most curious work in Mozart’s entire keyboard oeuvre.” In this recording, the first movement begins as a lively romp, but with the underlying strength of supple and flexible steel. The second movement is less complex, perhaps, but inward-looking and carefully shaped. And the last movement is pure innocence and charm – until the change from major to minor brings just a touch of wistfulness.

The only non-sonata on these discs, the C Minor Fantasy, is no less impressive. Contrasts are sharply drawn, intensity builds and recedes, colours range from light to dark, and the music is always going somewhere.

Sonically, these discs are as clear as a bell and as pure as the driven snow. And speaking of Glenn Gould (whom I mentioned four paragraphs back), can Silverman be heard very quietly humming in some lyrical passages? It sounds like he might be.

02_beethoven_symphoniesBeethoven - The Symphonies & The Beethoven Project

Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen; Paavo Järvi; Christiane Oelze; Annely Peebo; Simon O’Neill; Dietrich Henschel; Deutscher Kammerchor

SONY 86977814396 (4 DVDs)

“As long as we will be performing the Beethoven symphonies they will always be slightly different. There is no way of making an identical performance... it simply doesn’t work that way. One of the things that I value most by doing those cycles is that I feel that the next one can be a little bit better because I have learned something from the one before and I feel that I know how to do them better and I feel that the orchestra and I have a closer communication because we’ve been through this process.”

Paavo Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie had already recorded the Beethoven Symphonies for CD release over a period of four years from 2004-2008. Those performances had positive reviews and I was very impressed by the clarity and energy of the playing and the hard-edged recording.

The new cycle on DVD was recorded not in four years but four consecutive days, September 9-12, 2009 in the Beethovenhalle in Bonn. It is plain to hear that the ensemble has refined into a more personal style that is far more engaging and persuasive. The thrilling live performances are both inspired and inspiring, a tribute to Järvi’s panache and inspiration; they glow from within... a refreshing experience. The sound dynamics, whether heard in stereo or 5.1 surround sound are exceptional, as they must be here.

Play the extra DVD, “The Beethoven Project Music Documentary,” first as it tells how this event came together and also get to know a few of the players and experience the orchestra’s general camaraderie. More valuable are the rehearsal excerpts in which Järvi works with the players on matters of tempi, phrasing, dynamics, and balance and illustrates Beethoven’s sense of humour. Later, one of the players relates a conversation between players on the last day as to whether they should play it safe in the Ninth. They decided to go all out and hold back nothing.

I promise that even the most jaded listener will be listening with new ears.

03_widor_organ_symphoniesWidor - Complete Organ Symphonies

Jean-Guy Proulx, Gilles Rioux, Benjamin Waterhouse, Jacquelin Rochette,  Jacques Boucher

XXI-21 Productions; XXI-CD 2 1720

Organ recordings are as much about the instrument as they are about the performer and the repertoire, so it’s often hard to say what should really get top billing. XXI presents us with a complete set of Charles-Marie Widor’s 10 (Organ) Symphonies performed by five different organists on five different instruments built by Canada’s Casavant Frères of Saint Hyacinthe, Québec. This set is a substantial document. It illuminates a unique period of French music history in the early 20th century when advancing technology had a huge impact on pipe organ building. New materials, better mechanisms and electrification gave builders the opportunity to design “orchestral” instruments with broad palettes of colours. Moreover, a growing body of organ works in this “orchestral” genre was waiting to be heard and Widor’s 10 symphonies are among the best to illustrate this phenomenon. These six CDs offer many outstanding examples of how skilful organists can register (colour) the complex inner voices of Widor’s writing. Some remarkable highlights deserve special mention.

Symphony No.1 is a collage of contrasting dynamics and colour. Organist Jean-Guy Proulx plays the 1921 Casavant restored in 1979 by Guilbault-Therien (Cathédrale Saint Germain de Rimouski) and makes the Marche Pontificale the most memorable movement. Proulx also plays the Symphony No.4 in what is the most skilfully registered (tonally coloured) and virtuosic performance in the entire set. Superb.

Benjamin Waterhouse performs Symphony No.2 at Cathédrale Saint Hyacinthe on one of Casavant’s earliest instruments (1885, rebuilt in 1978). The fugal 4th movement Scherzo is a playful dance of solo reeds and the Symphony’s Finale is truly magnificent.

Symphony No.3 is played by Gilles Rioux on a 1964 Casavant, rebuilt in 1990 in the Basilique Notre-Dame-du-Cap, Cap-de-la-Madeleine. The 2nd movement Minuetto is an utter delight and the 3rd movement Marche is simply explosive!

Organist Jacquelin Rochette plays the 1943 Casavant (rebuilt 1995) in Église Saint-Roch, Quebec City. Her performance of the Symphony No.5 features the famous Toccata every organist either plays or wishes they played better. Her Symphony No.6 Finale is even more spectacular and shows Widor at his rhythmic and inventive best.

Symphonies 9 and 10 are both more compact works with fewer movements. Organist Jacques Boucher has the advantage of playing the 1995 rebuild of the 1915 Casavant in Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal. Of all the organs this one seems most solidly in tune throughout its entire set of ranks. Most others show some minor tuning issues, though not serious enough to detract from their performance.

04a_brahms_perahiaBrahms - Handel Variations; Rhapsodies; Piano Pieces

Murray Perahia

Sony 88697794692


04b_brahms_sylvestreBrahms - Works for Solo Piano

Stéphan Sylvestre

XXI XXI-CD 2 1717

As youthful in appearance as pianist Murray Perahia may be, he is now rightfully regarded as one of the veterans of the concert-stage, having enjoyed a successful international career ever since making his debut at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1966. His recordings cover most of the major repertoire, yet for some reason, the music of Brahms has never figured prominently in his creative output. (Perhaps he felt that Bach was better suited for his recurring hand ailment.) Nevertheless, he has finally returned to the master from Hamburg in this Sony recording which features the Handel Variations, the two Rhapsodies Op.79, and two sets of Piano Pieces, Opp.118 and 119. From the very opening measures of the Handel Variations, the listener senses that this disc is a winner. True to his pianistic style, the playing is controlled, elegant, and naturally, technically flawless. This is decidedly Brahms for the 21st century, clean and straight-ahead without being fussy and over-sentimentalized. I did find some of his tempos a bit brisk, such as in the first rhapsody, and the first two Intermezzos in the set of piano pieces Op.118. And I also found the tone a little bright – a little more bass please! But this is the Perahia we have come to know and respect, at all times allowing the music to speak for itself.

From a veteran, we go to music of Brahms as performed by a young Canadian artist, Stéphan Sylvestre. Currently on faculty at the University of Western Ontario, Sylvestre is a graduate of the Université de Montréal and the Glenn Gould School. He was twice a prize-winner at the Jeunesses Musicales of Canada, and also a winner at the Prix d’Europe, the Canadian Music Competition, and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra Competition. This CD, on the XXI label, is his fourth, and features the Brahms Ballades Op.10, and the two sets of Piano Pieces Op.118 and 119. In contrast to Perahia’s no-nonsense interpretation, Sylvestre’s approach is much more romantic, but equally appealing. His playing is introspective and thoughtful, imbued with a deep sensitivity. Tempos are considerably more languorous, and he produces a wonderfully warm and resonant tone from the instrument. If this is Brahms for the 19th century, so be it – Sylvestre’s masterful performance is a welcome presence in our sometimes harsh and too- technologically advanced world.

So for all lovers of Brahms’ piano music (and there should be many), these are two fine recordings, both of them welcome additions to the catalogue.

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