08 Orion WeissArc II: Ravel; Brahms; Shostakovich
Orion Weiss
First Hand Records FHR1128 (firsthandrecords.com)

This FHR CD titled Arc II featuring American pianist Orion Weiss, is the second in a projected three-disc set, all of which aim to address the ways composers come to grips with the emotion of grief. A native of Cleveland, Weiss studied at the Cleveland Institute and the Juilliard School and has an impressive list of awards including winner of the Classical Recording Foundation’s Young Artist of the Year.

The disc opens with Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin, an homage not only to the French Baroque tradition, but to fallen friends in the First World War. Weiss’ playing is elegant and thoughtfully nuanced where he artfully captures the spirit of the early clavecinists.

Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Schumann from 1854 was written when the composer was all of 20, shortly after his introduction to the Schumann family and just four months prior to Schumann’s attempted suicide. The piece is very much a study in contrasts which ultimately lead to a gentle finale.

In complete contrast is the Piano Sonata No.2 by Dmitri Shostakovich, composed in 1943 and dedicated to the composer’s teacher and friend Leonid Nikolaev who perished that year in the mass evacuation from Leningrad. The opening movement is raw and emotional with Weiss easily handling the formidable technical demands, while the second movement largo is clearly a haunting epitaph for his late friend. The finale opens with a sombre theme followed by nine variations and a quiet conclusion.

The final two choral preludes from Brahms Preludes Op.122 written shortly after the funeral of Clara Schumann round out a well-chosen program, masterfully performed – we can look forward to the third disc in the series.

01 Vagues et ombresVagues et ombres (Waves and shadows), the latest release from the Montreal string ensemble Collectif9 features music by Debussy and Canadian-American composer Luna Pearl Woolf (Alpha Classics 858 collectif9.ca/en).

The central work on the disc is Woolf’s Contact, an extremely effective and fascinating piece described as “a sonic view into the underwater world of beluga whales in the St. Lawrence Estuary,” including the impact of human actions.

It’s the Debussy selections that steal the show, however, in quite brilliant arrangements by Thibault Bertin-Maghit, the group’s bass player. Four piano pieces – Étude No.4, Des pas sur la neige, and Passepied and Clair de lune from the Suite Bergamasque open the CD, the increase in players and the resulting expansion of textures being balanced by the challenge faced in reducing Debussy’s orchestral masterpiece La Mer to nine players. The latter is an astonishing reinterpretation that draws quite remarkable playing from the ensemble in music in which – as they note – timbre and colour are paramount. It’s breathtakingly brilliant in all respects.

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02 Mozart Concertos 3 5Baroque violinist Gottfried von der Goltz is the soloist on Mozart Violin Concertos Nos.3-5 with the Freiburger Barockorchester under Kristian Bezuidenhout (Aparté AP299 prestomusic.com/classical/products/9364986--mozart-violin-concertos-nos-3-5).

The three concertos – the G Major K216, the D Major K218 and the A Major K219 – are “presented in a new version: in accordance with practices of the time, Bezuidenhout improvises a pianoforte part, while conducting the orchestra… A totally new and exciting approach to these works!” Well, don’t get too excited about the resulting impact – the pianoforte is almost totally inaudible, although it may well be subtly adding to the texture; if I hadn’t known I would never have noticed it, except possibly in a few moments in the D Major concerto.

No matter, for these are superb performances any way you look at them, beautifully judged and balanced, with faultless solo work and orchestral playing that is full of life on one of the finest Mozart discs you will hear.

03 Beethoven Stravinsky Vilde FrangThe brilliant Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang is in top form on Beethoven Stravinsky Violin Concertos, with The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen under Pekka Kuusisto (Warner Classics 0190296676437 vildefrang.com/beethoven-stravinsky).

Kuusisto, himself a violinist makes his debut recording as a conductor, and what a debut it is, forming a perfect partnership with Frang. There’s a decided chamber orchestra feel to the performance with the timpani prominent, the lengthy first movement cadenza being a transcription of the one (with timpani) that Beethoven wrote for his own piano transcription of the concerto.

Stravinsky’s spiky and neoclassical Violin Concerto in D Major Op.8 isn’t heard as often as it should be, the performance here underlining what we’re missing. It’s full of life and never merely academic, with an emotionally deep Aria II third movement.

Frang started studying both concertos at the same time in her teens, always feeling some sort of relation between the two. Certainly they make an ideal pairing on an outstanding CD.

04 Andrew Wan Charles Richard Hamelin Schumann The Three Violin SonatasWith Schumann: The Three Violin Sonatas violinist Andrew Wan and pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin continue the partnership that gave us the recent outstanding 3CD set of the complete Beethoven sonatas (Analekta AN 2 9003 analekta.com/en).

The Violin Sonatas No.1 in A Minor Op.105 and No.2 in D Minor Op.121 are from 1851, written at the suggestion of violinist Ferdinand David. The Violin Sonata No.3 in A Minor WoO27 incorporates the two movements Schumann contributed to the F-A-E sonata, the 1853 collaboration with Brahms and Albert Dietrich that was a gift for Joseph Joachim, Schumann adding a first movement and a scherzo to complete an original third sonata.

Effortlessly beautiful playing from both performers coupled with exemplary recording quality makes for another outstanding release.

05 Shostakovich RachmaninoffFrom one outstanding duo release to another: Shostakovich Rachmaninoff Sonatas for Cello & Piano finds cellist Carmine Miranda and pianist Robert Marler in superb form in two of the great cello sonatas (Navona NV6475 navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6475).

Miranda’s deep, rich cello and Marler’s clear, warm piano, perfectly balanced and beautifully recorded, immediately promise great things – and boy, do they deliver! Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata in D Minor Op.40 from 1934 is described as a lyrical, classical work, but it still has the pain-ridden slow movement and frantic fast movements so typical of his later works.

The Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata in G Minor Op.19 from 1901 is a big Romantic work that requires a big technique from both players, its third movement Andante surely one of the most glorious movements ever written. It’s hard to imagine a more gorgeous performance than this one.

06 Patricia KopatchinskajaViolinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and pianist Fazil Say have been playing together as a duo since 2004, and the close nature of their musical relationship is clearly evident in the three sonatas on Janáček Brahms Bartók (Alpha Classics ALPHA885 outhere-music.com/en/classical-music-shop/latest-releases).

The Janáček and Bartók sonatas were both completed in 1921, and both show the influence of folk music on the two composers. The Brahms work is the last of his three, the Sonata No.3 in D Minor, Op.108, completed in 1888. 

Kopatchinskaja has a clear, bright tone that can sound quite light at times without ever losing strength, and the ease with which she handles the technical demands never lacks depth and conviction. Say is an equal partner in all respects on an excellent disc.

07 Guitar FavouritesXuefei Yang was the first Chinese guitarist to study at London’s Royal Academy of Music, and the first to launch a worldwide professional career. Guitar Favourites, her latest CD, reviews her 35 years with the guitar, returning to the quintessential guitar music that first drew her under its spell (Decca 485 8195 xuefeiyang.com). 

Her technique is flawless and apparently effortless, but it’s what she does with it that makes this such a remarkable disc; the clarity, definition, dynamics and flowing, flexible phrasing making even the most familiar pieces sound fresh. Works include Albéniz’s Asturias, Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra (with rubato!) and Capricho Árabe, Sor’s Variations on a Theme by Mozart Op.9, four pieces by Augustín Barrios Mangoré including the three-part La Catedral, Yang’s own Xinjiang Fantasy, the first recording of When the Birds Return by guitarist John Williams and single pieces by Rodrigo, Lauro and Villa-Lobos. 

A gorgeous arrangement of Danny Boy completes a stunning recital.

08 Takacs Quartet Hough Dutilleux Ravel String QuartetsA composition by the British pianist Stephen Hough opens Hough, Dutilleux & Ravel String Quartets, the latest CD from the Takács Quartet (Hyperion CDA68400 hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA68400).

Hough’s six-part String Quartet No.1, “Les Six rencontres” was written in 2021 specifically as a companion piece to the Dutilleux and Ravel works. It’s extremely attractive, finely crafted and idiomatic writing, dedicated to the Takács Quartet and given what must be a definitive performance here.

Henri Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit from 1973-76 began as a group of short studies in sonority, the seven linked sections creating fascinating effects and tonal colours. Again, there’s superbly controlled and nuanced playing from the quartet.

A dazzling reading of Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major from 1902-03 completes a terrific CD. 

09 RVW Quartets2022 saw the Tippett Quartet mark their 25th anniversary year and the 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’ birth with Ralph Vaughan Williams & Gustav Holst String Quartets (SOMM Recordings SOMMCD 0656 somm-recordings.com/recording/vaughan-williams-holst-string-quartets).

Vaughan Williams spent the year 1907-08 studying with Ravel in Paris; his String Quartet No.1 in G Minor from 1909 showed a resulting greater textual clarity, although it remained unpublished until a revised version appeared in 1922. The viola, Vaughan Williams’ own instrument, is prominent in the String Quartet No.2 in A Minor from 1942-43; the work is dedicated to Jean Stewart, violist in the Menges Quartet that gave the first performance in 1944. The beautiful Romance second movement, in particular, is Vaughan Williams at his most characteristic.

 Holst wrote his Phantasy Quartet on British Folksongs Op.36 in 1916, but eventually withdrew it, feeling it to be “insufficient.” His daughter Imogen published a string orchestra version some years after his death. The viola is again prominent in this charming quartet edition by Roderick Swanston.

10 Piatti QuartetThere’s more Vaughan Williams on Boyle, Moeran, Ireland, Vaughan Williams, his Household Music – Three Preludes on Welsh Hymn Tunes from 1940-41 opening the new CD from the Piatti Quartet (Rubicon RCD1098 rubiconclassics.com/release/piatti-quartet-boyle-vaughan-williams-moeran-ireland). 

The main work here though is the premiere recording of the lovely String Quartet in E Minor from 1934 by the unjustly neglected Irish composer Ina Boyle (1889-1967), who, apart from travelling to London for lessons with Vaughan Williams, from 1923 spent virtually her entire life in the family home in County Wicklow. This attractive work remained in manuscript until a new performing edition was made in 2011.

John Ireland’s brief The Holy Boy is his 1941 arrangement of a 1913 piano solo. The disc ends with E.J. Moeran’s undated two-movement String Quartet No.2 in E-flat Major, discovered in his papers after his death in 1950. The Novello edition felt it to be “clearly an early work,” but while the first movement may support this view the Irish folksong nature of the second movement suggests a strong post-war influence of the songs he collected in County Kerry, some of which he published in 1948.

11 David Oistrakh QuartetOn Beethoven Shostakovich Schubert String Quartets the four Russian musicians of the David Oistrakh Quartet, all soloists in their own right, “embrace the fury of these three works” with full-blooded playing (Praga Digitals PRD250426 prestomusic.com/classical/products/9408438--beethoven-schubert-shostakovich-string-quartets).

Beethoven’s String Quartet No.4 in C Minor, Op.18, if a little rushed at times, certainly shows passion, which works particularly well in the Allegro prestissimo fourth movement. 

Shostakovich’s String Quartet No.3 in F Major, Op.73 from 1946, is the heart of the disc, both physically and emotionally. It became known as his “war quartet” after the composer renamed the movements in the manner of a war story to avoid being accused of “formalism” or “elitism.” Blythe ignorance of the future cataclysm, Rumblings of unrest and anticipation, Forces of war unleashed, In memory of the dead and The eternal question: why? and wherefore? give a clear indication of the music‘s soundscape.

Schubert’s String Quartet No.12 in C Minor, D703 “Quartettsatz” from 1820 is the brief first movement from an unfinished quartet. The final track, not mentioned in the booklet notes, is the quartet’s violist Fedor Belugin’s dazzling arrangement of Paganini’s Caprice Op.1 No.24 in A Minor.

12 Beautiful PassingOn Beautiful Passing the title track is the single-movement violin concerto written by the American composer Steven Mackey in 2008 and inspired by the death of his mother. Anthony Marwood is the soloist, with David Robertson conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (Canary Classics CC-22 canaryclassics.com).

Consisting of two halves separated by a cadenza, it’s a tough, uncompromising work that has passages of real beauty above and amid the sometimes-brutal orchestral texture, with a demanding and finely woven violin line brilliantly played by Marwood. It’s a work that invites and will surely reward further listening.

The remainder of the CD consists of Mackey’s Mnemosyne’s Pool from 2014, a five-movement symphonic saga dealing with aspects of remembering, Mnemosyne being the Greek goddess of memory. Described by Musical America as “the first great American symphony of the 21st century” it’s a hugely impressive orchestral canvas that receives an outstanding performance.

13 WeinbergMieczysław Weinberg Complete Works for Violin and Piano, Volume Four completes the series of music by the Polish-born Soviet composer and close friend of Shostakovich that began in September 2010. Yuri Kalnits is the excellent violinist and Michael Csányi-Wills the equally fine pianist (Toccata TOCC 0188 toccataclassics.com). 

This final release covers music from Weinberg’s teenage years – the Three Pieces from 1934-35 – to the 1959 Sonata for Two Violins Op.69, in which Kalnits is joined by Igor Yuzefovich. The Largo in F Major from 1944, only rediscovered in 2012, was originally part of the Sonata No.2 Op.15. The Two Songs without Words from 1947 and the Concertino in A Minor Op.42 from 1948, originally for violin and string orchestra, complete an excellent disc and series. 

14 Angele DubeauComposer Alex Baranowski is the latest subject in the Portrait series that has been so successful for violinist Angèle Dubeau and her La Pietà string ensemble (Analekta AN 2 8750 analekta.com/en).

The CD follows the usual format of short pieces and extracts arranged – in this case by the composer himself – for Dubeau’s group. This collaboration was clearly a joy for composer and artist alike, Dubeau calling Wiosna, the piece she commissioned, the heart of the album, while Baranowski calls it one of the most personal pieces he’s ever written.

Most of the tracks reflect Baranowski’s work for screen and stage, with several extracts from the movies The Windermere Children and Nureyev, and the ballets Nineteen Eighty-Four and Kes. There’s not a great deal of variety, but the beautiful writing and top-notch performances will make this a sure-fire winner with Dubeau’s many fans. 

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01 PachelbelPachelbel – Magnificat Fugues
Space Time Continuo
Analekta AN 2 8911 (analekta.com/en)

This recording is fascinating, both in conception and execution. Comprised entirely of Baroque continuo instruments (i.e. cello, lute and organ), typically heard as the bass-line foundation of early music ensembles, Montreal-based Space Time Continuo presents a variety of Johann Pachelbel’s pipe organ works arranged and performed for their unique makeup.

As indicated by the album title, this recording features a number of Pachelbel’s fugues based on the Magnificat, a canticle often known as the Song of Mary. Perhaps best known for its multi-movement setting by J.S. Bach and the many smaller-scale versions written by English Cathedral tradition- composers for use in the Evensong liturgy, Pachelbel’s Magnificat arrangements are purely instrumental, with no expression of the text itself. 

Pachelbel wrote a great number of these little fugues: 95 in all and, while there is some debate on whether these organ works were composed for intonation or alternation, there is no doubt that they were used in the context of the sung text, either before, during or after. For this performance, director and cellist Amanda Keesmaat arranged 13 of these fugues, along with the well-known Chaconne in F Minor – one of Pachelbel’s largest-scale organ works – resulting in music that, although contrapuntally identical to its original, is strikingly different both in timbre and texture.

Known largely for his Canon in D and little else, this recording demonstrates that there is much music by Pachelbel that deserves to be rediscovered. From the serious and solemn to buoyant and joyful, there is much here for everyone to enjoy and the uniqueness of having this terrific music performed by an equally magnificent bass-instrument ensemble makes this sophomore release from Space Time Continuo worthwhile listening for all.

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02 Lost in VeniceLost in Venice
Infirmi d’Amore; Vadym Makarenko
Eudora Records EUD SACD-2206 (eudorarecords.com)

No less a figure than Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote “When I seek another word for ‘music,’ I never find any other word than ‘Venice’.” Over the years, many have written glowingly about this magical city and this Eudora recording is a fitting musical homage, featuring works by Vivaldi, Marcello and Veracini performed by the Baroque ensemble Infermi d’Amore led by Vadym Makarenko. The six-member group draws musicians from the entire world, all of whom studied at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Basel, Switzerland. 

Of the six pieces by Vivaldi – four concertos, a single movement and a sinfonia – three are the result of reconstructions by musicologist Olivier Fourés, and four of them are world-premiere recordings. Similarly, the scores by Veracini and Marcello were unearthed in Venetian libraries, thus making the disc very much one of “undiscovered treasures.” 

Clearly this small ensemble derives great enjoyment from playing together – what a fresh and robust sound they produce! And this vibrancy is further enhanced by a technical excellence evident throughout. As an example, the final movement from the Vivaldi Concerto in E Major RV263 presented here on its own was the original finale for another concerto, RV263a from the collection La Cetra. Nevertheless, Fourés points out that it was originally deemed “unplayable” for the average violinist of the time and was substituted at the request of the publisher. Here, soloist Makarenko easily meets the technical challenges, delivering a virtuosic performance.

The Overture No.6 by Veracini and the Violin Concerto Op.1 No.9 by Marcello are both worthy inclusions and their respective discoveries were truly fortuitous.

A fine recording of some unfamiliar repertoire from the Baroque period – we should all be so fortunate to be lost in Venice with such wonderful music accompanying our meanderings!

03 Bach Art of LifeBach – The Art of Life
Daniil Trifonov
Deutsche Grammophon 073 6270 (deutschegrammophon.com/en/artists/daniil-trifonov/daniil-trifonov-bach-the-art-of-life-2062)

While the term ambitious is perhaps an overused descriptor for musical recordings (or anything else artistic for that matter), the adjective most certainly rings true for Daniil Trifonov’s 2022 Deutsche Grammophon release: Bach: The Art of Life. Spanning two CDS with liner notes by Oscar Alan, plus an extensive live concert Blu-ray disc, the recording provides a welcome window into comprehensive, sublime and historically accurate Baroque solo piano playing (in as much as anything originally written for the harpsichord or organ but played on the piano could be historically accurate)! That aside, this recording beautifully mines the music of the family Bach (J.S., of course, but also W.F., C.P.E. and J.C.) proving, at least musically, E.O. Wilson’s famous aphorism: “genes hold culture on a leash.”

If, as the German musicologist Carl Dahlhaus pronounced, the 19th century belonged to Beethoven and Rossini (so much so that Johannes Brahms equated composing post-Beethoven to hearing “the tread of a giant behind him”), how then must it have felt to be a composer (not to mention, “son of”) following the supreme legacy left by patriarch Bach? And although this recording is centred around the elder’s Art of the Fugue, all the pieces featured here, father or sons notwithstanding, are given equal heft and import, and are dealt with rigorously by Trifonov (who up to this point has not necessarily been known for his Bach playing) in a manner that is egalitarian, rather than lesser than, and with a keyboard touch that one hopes will bring these deserving works more in line with the ever-expanding canon of Western art music. 

04 Mozart LevinMozart – The Piano Sonatas
Robert Levin
ECM New Series 2710-16 (ecmrecords.com)

Although it is not uncommon to find one or two of Mozart’s piano sonatas on recital programs, it is much less common – and much more Herculean a task – to present all 18 of his sonatas in one marathon session. Fortepianist Robert Levin embraces this challenge wholeheartedly with this remarkable six-and-a-half-hour release, featuring not only all of Mozart’s fully finished piano sonatas, but also a number of miscellaneous sonata-form movements, all performed on Mozart’s fortepiano.

This reference to “Mozart’s fortepiano” requires some clarification, as his first six sonatas were most likely written not for the fortepiano, but rather the harpsichord or clavichord. Invented in 1698 by the Italian instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori, Mozart first encountered the fortepiano as developed by Johann Andreas Stein in 1777 and, after giving this instrument a rave review, obtained his own from the manufacturer Anton Gabriel Walter. Haydn also owned a Walter fortepiano, Beethoven expressed a desire to own one, and it is on this instrument that Levin performs this Mozartian marathon.

The main difference between the historical fortepiano and the modern grand piano is that the hammers are much smaller, lighter and thinly covered with leather, rather than felt. The lighter strings and gentler hammer action produce a sound that is considerably different than modern pianos, with more overtones and a more rapid decay. Where modern pianos can be murky and weighty – particularly in the lower register, fortepianos are lighter and more agile, with great clarity across the keyboard’s entire compass.

The fortepiano continued to develop after Mozart’s death, growing larger and more robust, and eventually evolving into the modern piano as we now know it. While we often think of the Romantic composers performing on Bösendorfers and Steinways, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Liszt all performed on fortepianos that, although considerably different from the instrument of a century earlier, were nonetheless still quite closely related to their classical-era ancestors.

For those accustomed to hearing Mozart’s piano sonatas performed on a modern piano, this recording will serve as a revelation. The idiomatic nature of Mozart’s writing is immediately apparent as the clarity, subtle dynamic range (as compared to modern pianos), and unique lyricism of the fortepiano result in a profound paradigm shift in the listener. Passages that once seemed unclear or required slower-than-expected tempi to avoid muddying the acoustic waters are here presented with utmost transparency, as the instrument and written score combine with great effect.

Consider, for example, the ubiquitous Sonata facile (No.16, K545), one of the most frequently performed and frequently heard of all Mozart’s piano sonatas. Here one can clearly discern that the rapid decay of the fortepiano determines a great deal of Levin’s interpretive decisions, for each note of this well-known melody now has a definite period of sustain and, to maintain the lyrical line, a “minimum velocity” is required by the instrument itself.

This recording is highly recommended to all who enjoy playing and listening to Mozart’s music, for not only does it present an ingenious composer’s works performed by an expert interpreter, it also provides a window into what Mozart himself might have heard as he was crafting these pieces at his fortepiano almost three centuries ago.

05 Klaudia KudelkoTime
Klaudia Kudelko
C2 Management (klaudia-kudelko.com)

Klaudia Kudelko is an extraordinarily talented young pianist from Poland, highly accomplished in Europe and the USA, winning competitions, gathering prizes and enchanting audiences. She even played at Carnegie Hall. Her impressive website features her at a Bechstein grand performing Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude. It is an immensely difficult piece written during bombardment by Russian guns, very fast, her powerful left hand cascading non-stop fortissimo creating a constant turbulence while a defiant, heroic theme emerges in the right hand. Wow!  

Time is her debut CD, the title referring to three time periods: early Romanticism of Schubert, high Romanticism of Chopin and the present represented by Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz. Time, she says, always changes, but what never changes is relevance.

The centre of attention is naturally Chopin with two Etudes: the fast and turbulent Op.10 No.12 in C Minor, the Revolutionary as mentioned above, and the slow, introspective Op.25 No.7in C-sharp Minor, very complex and full of feeling, beautifully performed. I was most impressed by the Polonaise-Fantasie, a free-wheeling rhapsodic piece, notoriously difficult to interpret. Kudelko superbly controls the ebb and flow of emotion while maintaining the strict 3/4 polonaise rhythm and there is a magnificent ending.

The program begins with Schubert, six short pieces from Moments Musicaux Op.94, each with simple themes but all different and highly inventive. The popular No.3 is played with infinite charm, utmost delicacy and playfulness while No.5 is stormy with a syncopated (somewhat equestrian) rhythm that attests to Kudelko’s superb technique.

The concluding work is a beautifully crafted Sonata No.2 by Bacewicz that harkens back to the Second World War and here again is Time and Relevance. A memorable debut disc.

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