01 Viva piccoloViva Piccolo
Jean-Louis Beaumadier; Véronique Poltz
Calliope-indeSENS CAL22104 (indesensdigital.fr/?s=viva+piccolo)

The cover photo of the artists, incongruously standing in a field of poppies, Beaumadier holding his flauto piccolo in front of his left shoulder and Poltz with her bright red Schroeder-esque  “pianoforte piccolo” resting on her right shoulder, suggests the spirit of fun lying behind this recording. The wildly varied repertoire indicates that there are no limits to where the fun can be had or to the capabilities of these highly accomplished musicians!

The opening tracks, Four Hungarian Dances by Brahms for example, sound so right that you could assume that they had been written by the composer himself! The fifth track, Théobald Boehm’s Capriccio 16, Op.26, a study for flute students, has been transformed into a charming recital piece, with the piano accompaniment composed by Poltz herself, as is the piano part of Joachim Andersen’s Moto Perpetuo. Beaumadier’s virtuosity in this is staggering, as it is in Benjamin Godard’s Valse, the third movement of his Suite of Three Pieces, Op.116

The great French flutist, Philippe Gaubert, carried the French School of flute playing into the 20th century not only through his students, most notably Marcel Moyse, but also through his compositionsrepresented on this disc by Deux Esquisses. Beaumadier plays these elegiac soliloquies with a tenderness that reveals both another side of his artistry and the capabilities of his instrument.

This is a most engaging recording, to be recommended to all flutists and everyone else interested in expanding their musical horizons.

02 Schumann MahlerSchumann – Symphonies 3 & 4 (reorchestrated by Mahler)
Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien; Marin Alsop
Naxos 8.574430 (naxos.com/Search/KeywordSearchResults/?q=8.574430)

Leonard Bernstein’s erstwhile student and disciple, Marin Alsop, has certainly taken a big step since I reviewed her in June 2018 with the Sao Paolo Symphony, to that holy shrine of classical music, the city of Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Bruckner and Mahler: Vienna. At present she is regarded, as The New York Times put it, not only “a formidable musician and a powerful communicator” but also “a conductor with a vision.” Having appeared as guest conductor with the Vienna Radio Symphony in 2014, in 2019 she became the orchestra’s first woman chief conductor. This new issue completes their cycle of Schumann’s symphonies.

Although much maligned for their orchestration as being weak and uneven, typically by Wagner (but not by Brahms), the symphonies were reorchestrated by Mahler. Expanding to the size of a modern orchestra, increasing the strings, strengthening the winds and the brass, now, in stereo and digital splendour, they sound as never before.

Schumann having just moved from Leipzig to Dusseldorf for a well-paying job, the “Rhenish” Symphony No.3 in E-flat Major is an exclamation of sheer joy, greeting that city on the Rhine River. Alsop drives it beautifully and we can watch her on YouTube having a lot of fun with the great outburst of the Vienna brass at the finale of the exuberant, horn-dominated first movement. This optimism carries through in the lovely Scherzo (Landler) second movement and that resplendent fourth movement, inspired by the magnificent Cologne cathedral.

With the Fourth Symphony I cherish the memory of the legendary Georg Solti conducting it here in Massey Hall c.1964. It is the most innovative of Schumann’s four. No doubt influenced by Liszt and Wagner it is composed as one single movement, the sections blending into each other with one theme cropping up like a leitmotif throughout. Alsop’s tempo is perfect and with a slight accelerando, the cycle ends triumphantly on a high note.

03 Soiree de VienneSoirée de Vienne
Rudolf Buchbinder
Deutsche Grammophon 486 3072 (deutschegrammophon.com/en/catalogue/products/soiree-de-vienne-rudolf-buchbinder-12855)

Vienna reveres her composers. I remember strolling along the beautiful chestnut tree-lined Ringstrasse with a statue of Johann Strauss playing the violin and others of Schubert, Bruckner and more. Now imagine five of your favourite composers namely Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann and Johann Strauss having been invited to some music-loving aristocrat’s Salon to fill the evening with piano playing. 

Rudolph Buchbinder is the very accomplished Viennese pianist who takes us into such an evening. The pieces that follow show the light side of each composer; the purpose is to entertain, not compete. And who should we begin with if not the quintessential Viennese: Johann Strauss II to set the tone – a Concert paraphrase or potpourri from Die Fledermaus followed by the Pizzicato Polka, the very essence of good humour played with infinite charm and delicacy. Schubert is next with the March Militaire, again a rather humorous piece I last heard played by 100 teenagers collected from all over Berlin and conducted by none other than Lang Lang.

Schubert is further represented by Four Impromptus, which are mandatory for any aspiring piano student. My big accomplishment was playing No.4 in A-flat Major with those rather difficult cascading runs and a grand melody emerging in between. I loved playing my heart out with the passionate middle part. These impromptus are easy compared to those of Chopin, particularly the magnificent Fantasie-Impromptu in C-sharp Minor Op.66. And so it goes. Chopin Waltzes and Nocturnes, a Beethoven Bagatelle and Schumann’s Liebeslied. Oh, then my favourite Strauss waltz: Voices of Spring – I wish it comes soon!

04 Liszt PolgarLiszt – Harmonies Patriotiques et Religieuses
Eva Polgar
Hunnia Records HRCD2101 (evapolgar.com)

In contrast to Liszt-the-magician-of-the-keyboard’s turbulent side of his heyday, this interesting new recording shows his quiet and contemplative persona. It came about that the aging Liszt, disappointed that by order of Pope Pius IX he was unable to marry his beloved Princess Carolyne, a divorcee, he took religious vows and withdrew to a monastery near Rome. He actually lived in a cell with minimal furnishings and an old beat-up piano with the middle D key missing.

Eva Polgar, a very talented and celebrated Hungarian pianist praised for her intelligent interpretations and emotional power, here performs pieces that resonate with the deep-seated Catholicism and patriotic aspect of Liszt’s late works. This new style is most noticeable by strange unearthly harmonic progressions bordering on the atonal, like the very first piece, Sursum Corda Erhebet eure Hertzen (Lift up your Hearts) and the Coronation Mass, composed for the coronation of Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. Religion notwithstanding, his love for his homeland is manifest in the Hungarian Rhapsodies, here represented (and gracefully performed) by No.11 a quiet, gentle piece that only turns into a lively Hungarian dance at the very end.

Liszt’s wandering around the Eternal City inspired some works I love most on this album, namely Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este, an impressionistic piece depicting the play of water of the hundreds of beautiful fountains of the unbelievable Baroque gardens of Villa d’Este in Tivoli. Another lovely piece, Legend No.1, is where St. Francis of Assisi preaches to the birds, an exercise of trills and a real test for the flying fingers of our master pianist.

Listen to 'Liszt – Harmonies Patriotiques et Religieuses' Now in the Listening Room

05 ConsolationsConsolations
Antoine Malette-Chénier
ATMA ACD2 2855 (atmaclassique.com/en)

There are perhaps no more beautiful sounds in European art music then the classical pedal harp, particularly so when the instrument is masterfully played, exquisitely recorded and gorgeously captured within a naturally resonant acoustic environment such as the Église St-Benoît in Mirabel, Quebec. Further, there are few more intimate musical experiences than the solo performance. Here, with the artist alone and exposed, one traverses a performative tightrope as both artist and listener, edging on the precipice of exhilarating beauty and potential pitfall. Thankfully, it is the former, rather than the later, that is the case on this fine 2022 recording from the Quebec-based harpist, Antoine Malette-Chééénier.

Principal harpist for the l’Orchestre Symphonique de Trois-Rivières and a graduate of McGill, the University of Montreal, Yale and the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Lyon, France, Malette-Chénier brings experience, considerable education and training, as well as valuable artistic interpretation to Consolations, his first disc of solo harp pieces for the ATMA Classique label. In addition to achieving his “central desire… to touch souls, to communicate heart to heart” by prefiguring music that resides at the nexus of romance, Christian spirituality and beauty, Malette-Chénier has also used this platform to shine a light on the compositions of fellow harpists Albert Zabel, Charles Schuetze and Henriette Renié, programming their exquisite (and new to me) music alongside such better-known 19th-century composers as Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt. The album’s title, Consolations, comes from the 1830 Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve poetry collection, Les consolations, which provides the needed conceit for Malette-Chénier to delve into the themes of romantic spirituality and divine power that he mines so gracefully here.

Listen to 'Consolations' Now in the Listening Room

06 Francine KayThings Lived and Dreamt
Francine Kay
Analekta AN 2 9004 (analekta.com/en)

There are relatively few Czech composers regularly featured within the Classical canon, and the majority of these are renowned for their large-scale orchestral and choral works. Antonín Dvořák’s symphonies, Bedřich Smetana’s Má vlast and Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass are all examples of such composers and their expansive, oft-performed music.

In addition to these great works, each of these composers also wrote a variety of piano music, featured here on Canadian Francine Kay’s Things Lived and Dreamt. With repertoire by Dvořák, Smetana and Janáček, as well as Josef Suk and Vítězslava Kaprálová, this recording provides a comprehensive overview of 19th- and 20th-century Czech piano music.

Each selection on this disc is notable for its expressive power and poignancy, from Janáček’s solemn and profound Sonata 1.X.1905 – written after the composer witnessed the killing of an unarmed Czech protester by a German soldier – to the levity of Dvořák’s Humoresques, which are both delightful and ingenious little pieces. Suk’s Things Lived and Dreamt is a Schumann-esque diary portraying people, places and events through lyrical movements that express far more in three or four minutes than some composers can in 30 or 40.

Kaprálová’s April Preludes is a highlight of this recording, a stunning suite of pieces by a quite unknown composer. Kaprálová studied in Prague and Paris, passing away at the age of 25 while fleeing the Nazi occupation. Despite her young age, the April Preludes are strikingly mature and complete, demonstrating a mastery of late-Romantic technique that stretches the limits of tonality through dissonance and bitonality.

A testament to the greatness of Czech music, Kay’s recording is fertile ground for those who are interested in the Czech symphonic tradition – from Dvořák’s Humoresques to Kaprálová’s April Preludes, this disc goes from strength to strength.

Listen to 'Things Lived and Dreamt' Now in the Listening Room

07 Kenny BrobergSonatas by Medtner; Rachmaninov; Scriabin
Kenny Broberg
Steinway & Sons 30198 (kennybroberg.com)

The music of three Russian composers – Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Medtner – all of whom worked against the backdrop of a particularly turbulent political scene, and each with dissimilar ideals, are presented here on this Steinway & Sons recording featuring American pianist Kenny Broberg. Born in Minneapolis, he was the silver medalist at the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and won bronze at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2019.

Rachmaninov completed his Piano Sonata No.2 in 1913 and although the piece was well received, he revised it in 1931, shortening the length and simplifying many of the difficult passages. The original must have been daunting indeed, as technical challenges still abound from the very beginning. Nevertheless, Broberg demonstrates a formidable technique, delivering a polished and exuberant performance. 

No less daunting is the Scriabin Sonata No.5 Op.53 from 1907. Scriabin, a piano virtuoso, infused his music with mysticism resulting in a thoroughly modern style which closely paralleled Symbolist literature of the period. The one-movement piece – barely 12 minutes in length – has long been regarded as among his most difficult.

A younger contemporary of Rachmaninov and Scriabin, Medtner was born in Moscow in 1880. His Sonata Op.25 No.2 “Night Wind” written in 1912 is his most extended of the genre. The score is archly Romantic with a second movement Allegro molto sfrenatamente which is no less demanding than the first – the night wind never ceases. The third movement Danza Festiva proves a rousing conclusion that Broberg performs with great bravado.

In all, a fine recording by a young artist from whom we can hope to hear again.

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