06 Vikingur OlafssonFrom Afar
Vikingar Ólafsson
Deutsche Grammophon 00289 481 1681 (vikingurolafsson.com)

Award-winning Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson (b.1984), dubbed “Iceland’s Glenn Gould” by The New York Times, is well known for his challenging programming. His 22-track (times two) double album From Afar is no exception, revealing his eclecticism in surprising and satisfying ways.

As he recounts in the booklet, Ólafsson’s album project was the result of a chance encounter with nonagenarian Hungarian composer György Kurtág. It turned out to be an impromptu, life-changing, private recital for Ólafsson. The wide-ranging program on this album is his thank-you note, pivoting on several Kurtág piano works, both original compositions and arrangements of Bach keyboard opuses. Another novel aspect of the record is that the entire recital is played twice. CD 1 features a Steinway grand, while on CD 2 Ólafsson plays an upright piano with felt covering the strings, rendering a permanent soft pedal effect. Thus, two contrasting sound worlds are evoked from the same repertoire: the public concert hall, and the intimate living room. Interestingly, I often preferred the upright performances.

In addition to Kurtág, Bach, Mozart, Schumann, Brahms, Bartók and others, Ólafsson gives the world premiere of British composer Thomas Adès’ aphoristic, impressionistic The Branch, dedicated to Kurtág. Ólafsson’s sensitive touch and pellucid, singing tone – often with slower than usual tempi – explores the mellow end of the piano’s dynamic and expressive range. Might one expect more variety in such a high-concept re-examination of three centuries of European piano music? Well, I found this brilliantly curated and played recital set just the right mood this snowy winter night.

07 Brahms Verheh clarinetDestination Riverdale – Brahms; Verhey
Robert Dilutis; Mellifera Quartet
Tonsehen (tonsehen.com)

Pessimism never sounded as sweet as in the last great chamber work of the 19th century, Brahms’ Quintet for Clarinet and Strings Op.115. If music is meant to console, this work will assure you that your grief is entirely justified. Weep freely. The very capable Mellifera Quartet and clarinetist Robert Dilutis join forces for this, and to present an arrangement of the Concerto for Clarinet and Strings by Theodorus Verhey. An effective arrangement by Ray Fields notwithstanding, the piece doesn’t hold a candle to Brahms. Its inclusion reflects Dilutis’ enthusiasm for discovering repertoire, coupled with the odd fact that clarinetist Richard Muhlfeld served as muse for both composers. Only one of the two managed something truly worth keeping.

There’s a great deal to like about this version of Opus 115. The tempi keep the piece buoyant, when too easily it can become lumberish. Cellist Benjamin Wensel’s sound is just so deep, as God and Brahms intended. Sometimes I find the balances odd and I suspect a heavy hand at the mixing board.  Dilutis plays a keen and expressive clarinet, usually in tune with the strings, if tending sharp at times. 

The group make interesting pacing decisions in the rhapsodic section of the Adagio, not all of which I agree with, but respect nevertheless. The third movement reminds one that joy is still accessible to the aged (he was only 60-ish for heaven’s sake). Its two opposing characters are played (correctly) in a uniform pulse; smaller beat subdivisions rather than a change in tempo bring forth the contrast. In general, the group avoids any self-indulgent tempo variation, which feels somewhat austere: they might have allowed more flexibility in pulse, especially in the development section of the first movement. Well-resined horsehair renders the heartbeat motif accompanying the sad duet between the clarinet and first violin. They remind one that the heart is, after all, a muscle. The devastating return of the opening thematic material that arrives at the very close of the Con Moto finale plays at the same pulse as the opening, undermining the tragedy. Call me sentimental, but I think the sorrow-filled final utterances should linger just a bit more.

08 Coleridge TaylorColeridge-Taylor
Chineke! Orchestra
Decca 485 3322 (chineke.org/news/new-album-release-coleridge-taylor)

New Yorkers called him the “Black Mahler,” probably because he and then-New York-based Mahler were both composers and conductors. Now, his very un-Mahlerish, Weltschmerz-free compositions are increasingly performed and recorded, paralleling America’s belated recognition of Black composers. 

London-born Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was the son of Englishwoman Alice Martin and physician Daniel Taylor from Sierra Leone, who returned to Africa before Samuel’s birth. His mother named him after the famous poet; Samuel added the hyphen. Successful in England, he made three U.S. tours and was welcomed at the White House by Theodore Roosevelt. Coleridge-Taylor’s early death was from pneumonia.

This two-CD set presents seven of his compositions and one by his daughter performed by London’s Chineke! Orchestra, founded in 2015 as Europe’s first predominantly Black and ethnic-minority orchestra. (Chineke means “God” in Nigeria’s Igbo language.)

American violinist Elena Urioste’s warm, velvety tone caresses Coleridge-Taylor’s lyrical melodies in two works conducted by Kevin John Edusei. The songful, openhearted, 31-minute Violin Concerto in G Minor, Op.80 features imposing fanfares and a sweet, wistful violin melody (Allegro maestoso), a serenely reverent nocturne (Andante semplice) and a cheerful, Scottish-tinged marching tune (Allegro molto) –themes from the previous movements joining in at the concerto’s celebratory conclusion. The nine-minute Romance in G, Op.39, is a dreamy pastorale with a brief, dramatic central section, Urioste’s violin singing throughout.

Two works purportedly influenced by Coleridge-Taylor’s African heritage instead conjured for me fin-de-siècle Vienna or Paris. Edusei conducts the genial, light-textured, African Suite, Op.35; Kalena Bovell leads the more dramatic, colourful, Ballade in A Minor, Op.33

The theatrical Othello Suite, Op.79, conducted by Fawzi Haimor, begins with Dance – urgent fanfares and a headlong march – followed by the smiling Children’s Intermezzo, stately Funeral March and The Willow Song, poignantly “sung” by a trumpet over hushed winds, strings and percussion. The grandiose Military March ends the suite. Anthony Parnther conducts Coleridge-Taylor’s Petite Suite de Concert, Op.77, its frothy, sentimental, balletic tunes once frequently heard at band and salon concerts, on piano rolls and recordings. The Chineke! Chamber Ensemble performs the Brahmsian, four-movement Nonet, Op.2, for winds, strings and piano. Composed by the 19-year-old Coleridge-Taylor while studying at London’s Royal College of Music, it displays his already considerable melodic gift.

Roderick Cox conducts the 13-minute Sussex Landscape, Op.27 (1936) by Avril Coleridge-Taylor (1903-1998). Her rhapsodic, powerful evocation of a storm-swept, grey-shrouded English seacoast receives its overdue, much-deserved first recording.

09 Childrens CornerChildren’s Corner – Music for Solo Piano
Melody Chan
Independent (melodyyvonnechan-li.com)

FACTOR – The Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings was set up in 1982 “to provide assistance toward the growth and development of the Canadian Music industry.” Among its primary mandates is to support the production of sound recordings by Canadian musicians and Children’s Corner is among the recent CDs resulting from this worthy endeavour. 

It features American-Canadian pianist Melody Chan presenting a thoughtfully chosen program of music spanning a 250-year period, including works by Mozart, Brahms and Debussy. Born in Los Angeles, Chan was raised in Vancouver and studied at the University of British Columbia, later receiving her doctorate in performance from the University of Toronto. She has appeared with Orchestra Toronto and has taken part in the International Music Festival at Casalmaggiore, Italy.  

The disc opens with Mozart’s well-know variations on Ah vous dirai-je Maman! K265, completed around 1782. Chan’s approach is poised and elegant, and she easily handles the technical requirements of this deceptively challenging work.  

Four selections from Brahms’ Sixteen Waltzes Op.39 from 1865 – originally for piano four hands – are wonderfully spirited, while Debussy’s familiar Children’s Corner Suite from 1908, is an endearing depiction of childhood from a simpler time. Beginning with Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum, Chan’s playing is sensitively articulated, with just the right amount of tempo rubato.

In Summer by Canadian composer Christine Donkin is less familiar, but this languorous essay artfully depicts a summer’s day in northern Alberta, while the four-movement suite Music for Piano by Alexina Louie is an attractive study in contrasts, providing a fitting conclusion to a satisfying program.

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10 Buzz BrassHorizons – Gershwin; Piazzolla; Saint-Saëns
Buzz Brass
Analekta AN 2 8929 (analekta.com/en) 

World-renowned Canadian quintet Buzz Brass was formed in 2002. Here eight tracks of genre-spanning compositions are arranged for their brass instrumentation and occasional special guest musicians.

Buzz Brass’ own arrangement of Khachaturian’s Gayaneh: Sabre Dance showcases their tight clear ensemble work in performing the composer’s famous steady groove beat, descending melody sliding glissandos and contrasting higher-pitched section. Guest arrangers of the remaining tracks complement their brass sound. François Vallières’ arrangement of Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre has guest harpist Valérie Milot adding colourful plucks against brass legato themes and detached notes. His intricate arrangement of Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, with guest pianist Philip Chiu, is a bouncy, uplifting and true to classic rendition. Arranger/friend Javier Sebastián Asencio provides a bras-only arrangement of Piazzolla’s dance Milonga del ángel. The melodies and rhythm sounds generated by the bandoneon bellows air movement translate successfully to breathing into brass instruments especially in held notes and loud volumes. His Montréal Hora Cero five-piece medley adds vibraphone with unexpected vibe and horn slides, drums, and slower brass tunes with vibe backdrop. His Claude Bolling swinging brass Toot Suite: Allègre arrangement opens with trumpet solo in a mix of Baroque and jazz ideas like fast horn lines, ringing vibraphone tones, electric bass and short drum solo/accompaniments. Paul Dukas and Lew Pollack composition arrangements by Enrico O. Dastous and Steve Cooper respectively are enticing too.

So many clear brass sounds to listen to here as each Buzz Brass member is an awe-inspiring passionate musician alone and in ensemble.

11 LOOPLOOP – Ligeti’s Inspiration & Legacy
Rose Wollman
Acis APL30100 (acisproductions.com)

Some new classical releases are concept albums, finding meaning in underlining connections between pieces from different composers and periods. The pieces may relate to each other through style, gestures, compositional techniques, tonality or themes. Loop: Ligeti’s Inspiration & Legacy is brimming with such relations. The album is centred around György Ligeti’s Sonata for Viola Solo, written in the late 20th century and expressing distinct elements of the Baroque sonata, with six movements based on different tempi, rhythms and themes. Violist Rose Wollman’s ingenious concept is based on imaginative yet logical pairing of each of the six movements with a piece from the Baroque era and commissioning six contemporary composers to write a companion piece to the Ligeti/Baroque set. The result is remarkably insightful: pieces within each triptych segue beautifully, as if they had all been written at the same time. The companion pieces support and illuminate aspects of Ligeti’s movements, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Featured Baroque composers include Bach, Tartini, Gabrielli, Corelli, Telemann and Biber, with their recognizable rhythmical and thematic elegance. Ligeti’s movements have Eastern European folk elements as well as jazz and Latin influences, but they are very much written in Ligeti’s unique language and display clever compositional techniques. Contemporary composers – Garth Knox, Alexander Mansour, Rose Wollman, Atar Arad, Melia Watras and Natalie Williams – match and mix the colours, gestures, language and structure in the most imaginative ways.

Wollman’s extensive liner notes give a detailed explanation of her creative and analytical process in finding common threads. Her playing is agile, intelligent, movingly expressive; her articulation superb. The intimate atmosphere makes this album even more appealing.

01 Hilary HahnViolinist Hilary Hahn was planning to record the Dvořák Violin Concerto in A Minor Op.53 with Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, pairing it with Alberto Ginastera’s Violin Concerto Op.30, which she had yet to learn, and Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy, which she loved but had never played, when the COVID outbreak put plans on hold. In the booklet notes to Eclipse, the resulting album, Hahn discusses the emotional journey through lockdowns and personal doubts that finally bore fruit (Deutsche Grammophon 486 2383 deutschegrammophon.com/en/artists/hilaryhahn/hilary-hahn-eclipse-2225).

The Dvořák concerto was live streamed from the orchestra’s hall at the radio station in March 2021, with no audience. It’s a beautifully expansive and committed performance; “Our playing,” says Hahn ”was vivid and palpably redemptive.”

The June concert at the Alte Oper hall’s reopening also marked Orozco-Estrada’s farewell as music director as well as Hahn’s personal premiere of the other two works. The challenging Ginastera concerto, which Hahn calls “nearly unplayable” is a fascinating and unusually structured work that draws an exceptional performance from all involved; the Carmen Fantasy is played with suitable brilliance.

02 Brahms Double MutterA new CD of music by Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann presents a quite outstanding performance of the Brahms Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor Op.102 featuring violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and cellist Pablo Ferrández in a live January 2022 Prague concert recording with the Czech Philharmonic under Manfred Honeck. It’s paired with a studio recording of Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio in G Minor Op.17, where Lambert Orkis is the pianist (Sony Classical 196587411022 sonyclassical.com/news/news-details/anne-sophie-mutter-and-pablo-ferrandez-1).

Mutter’s playing in the Brahms is a revelation, her tone, phrasing and dynamics in the opening movement in particular all contributing to one of the most beautiful renditions I’ve heard. Ferrández, who incidentally plays two Stradivarius cellos on the disc is an equal partner throughout. 

Orkis adds his own special talents to a captivating performance of the Schumann trio to round out a superb CD. Concert note: Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Mutter Virtuosi perform on Tuesday, February 7 at Roy Thomson Hall.

03 Rachmaninov BrahmsPianist Yuja Wang is joined by cellist Gautier Capuçon and clarinettist Andreas Ottensamer on a CD of Works by Sergei Rachmaninoff & Johannes Brahms (Deutsche Grammophon 486 2388 deutschegrammophon.com/en/artists/yujawang).

Wang and Capuçon have been playing together since the 2013 Verbier Festival, and Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata in G Minor Op.19 was part of that debut recital. The quality of their playing and ensemble work here is of the highest order.

There are two works by Brahms. Capuçon brings a warm, deep tone to the Cello Sonata in E Minor Op.38, with Wang’s empathetic accompaniment a real joy. Ottensamer, the principal clarinet with the Berlin Philharmonic joins for the Clarinet Trio in A Minor Op.114 – not as frequently heard as the Clarinet Quintet Op.115, perhaps, but a real gem.

04 Vivaldi Concerti per violino XThe Vivaldi Edition, the ongoing project to record some 450 works by Vivaldi in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin, reaches its 69th volume with Vivaldi Concerti per violino X ‘Intorno a Pisendel’, with Julien Chauvin as soloist and director of Le Concert de la Loge (Naive OP 7546 bfan.link/vivaldi-concerti-per-violino-x-intorno-a-pisendel)

The six works here are all linked to the virtuoso violinist Johann Georg Pisendel (1687-1755), a major figure at the Dresden court who met Vivaldi in Venice on a court visit in 1716-17 and became a friend and pupil. Pisendel copied many of Vivaldi’s works and also received several dedicated manuscripts.

Three of the concertos – RV237 in D Minor, RV314 in G Major and RV340 in A Major – are from the dedicated manuscripts, and three – RV225 in D Major, RV226 in D Major and RV369 in B-flat Major – are from Pisendel’s hand-written copies. All are three-movement works with Allegro outer movements and Largo or Andante middle movements.

Chauvin is outstanding, his bright, clear tone, faultless intonation and virtuosic agility perfectly backed by the resonance and effective dynamics of the orchestra, all beautifully recorded. And yes, a lot sounds like The Four Seasons, but there’s a continual freshness to the music that makes each concerto a real delight.

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05 Black Violin ConcertoesIn 1997 violinist Rachel Barton Pine recorded four Violin Concertos by Black Composers of the 18th and 19th Centuries with conductor Daniel Hege and the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra’s Encore Chamber Orchestra. To mark the 25th anniversary of its release Cedille has reissued three of the original recordings on Violin Concertos by Black Composers Through the Centuries (Cedille CDR 9000 214 cedillerecords.org).

Included are the Violin Concerto in A Major Op.5 No.2 (c.1775) by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the Violin Concerto in F-sharp Minor (1864) by George Enescu’s teacher José White Lafitte (1836-1918) and the 1899 Romance in G Major by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, whose violin concerto wouldn’t fit on the original album. The original fourth work has been replaced by a new recording of Florence Price’s 1952 Violin Concerto No.2, with Jonathon Heyward conducting the Royal National Scottish Orchestra.

The Saint-Georges is an absolute gem with a glorious slow movement, the Lafitte a standard mid-19th century virtuosic Romantic concerto very much in the Max Bruch Germanic mould, but none-the-less effective for that. The Coleridge-Taylor is a lush melodic piece, again very much of its time.

Price’s music has been getting a great deal of attention recently. The concerto here is a rather uneven single-movement work with a truly lovely recurring hymn-tune melody but contrasting material that occasionally approaches the banal. Her orchestration can seem somewhat amateurish at times, probably more reflective of a personal sound and style than any lack of craft.

Performances throughout are top notch.

06 Schubert JubileeThe UK-based Jubilee Quartet is in superb form on Schubert String Quartets, with outstanding performances of quartets from each end of the composer’s career (Rubicon Classics RCD1082 rubiconclassics.com).

The String Quartet in E-flat Major D87 was written when Schubert was only 16, but was already his tenth quartet. It’s light and joyful, with an all-to-be-expected song-like quality, beautifully captured here.

The String Quartet in G Major D887 from 1826, Schubert’s 15th and final quartet is a large-scale, groundbreaking masterpiece, the equal of the late Beethoven quartets. Words used in the booklet notes to describe its extreme emotions include dramatic, violent, painful, menacing, introverted and innocent. There’s a terrific range of dynamics and of touch and sensitivity in a quite remarkable performance of a quite remarkable work.

A warm, crystal-clear recorded sound captures every nuance.

07 Dudok QuartetAnother really impressive quartet disc is Reflections, on which the Dudok Quartet Amsterdam presents works by Dmitri Shostakovich and Grażyna Bacewicz, two composers who often masked their true feelings in their music (Rubicon Classics RCD1099 rubiconclassics.com).

Shostakovich’s String Quartet No.5 in B-flat Major, Op.92 was written in 1952, four years after the composer’s second denunciation in the infamous 1948 Zhdanov decree; it’s given a deeply perceptive and emotional reading here. Five of his 24 Preludes Op.34 for piano from 1933 are heard in really effective arrangements for string quartet.

The String Quartet No.4 by Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz was written in 1951, with the booklet notes suggesting the influence of the oppression of the Polish people by the Soviet regime in the late 1940s; its frequent folk music references, however, made it acceptable to the authorities. It’s another deeply felt reading of a very strong work.

08 TelemannThere’s another CD of the Telemann: Fantasias for Solo Violin, this time by the outstanding Alina Ibragimova (Hyperion CDA68384 hyperion-records.co.uk/a.asp?a=A1677).

The 12 short works, described here as amply justifying the high repute in which Telemann was held, are deceptively easy-looking on the printed page, but don’t be fooled. The 1968 Bärenreiter edition stated that they were intended “for the amateur or the instrumental student” but also noted that “the double-stopping and chordal work can naturally only be tackled by a competent player.” Well, there’s an Understatement of the Year winner for you. 

The 12 Fantasias, in 11 different keys, display a variety of different moods, never deeply emotional but never facile or shallow either; even the shortest sections – some only a few bars in length – display taste and craft.

Always in complete technical control, Ibragimova simply dances through them, seemingly enjoying every minute to the fullest.

09 LAuroreL’Aurore is the first solo album by German violinist Carolin Widmann for the ECM New Series label ECM 2709 ecmrecords.com/catalogue/1647418055).

Hildegard von Bingen’s Spiritus sanctus vivificans opens the CD and also reappears later in a slightly different take. George Enescu’s brilliant Fantaisie concertante from 1932, which should surely be better known, is followed by the Three Miniatures from 2002 by George Benjamin (b.1960) and a really striking performance of Ysaÿe’s Sonata No.5 in G Major Op.27.

A contemplative performance of Bach’s Partita No.2 in D Minor BWV1004 ends an excellent disc. Nothing is rushed, and Widmann is never too strict rhythmically, the intelligent use of slight stresses and stretched phrasing injecting life into every movement.

10 MozartPleyeViolinist Emmanuele Baldini and violist Claudio Cruz are the performers on Mozart and Pleyel Duos for Violin and Viola (Azul Music AMDA1781 azulmusic.com.br).

The two Mozart pieces, both of three movements, are the Duos for Violin & Viola in G Major K423 and in B-flat Major K424. The work by Pleyel, a student of Haydn and a direct contemporary of Mozart (he was born a year later but outlived Mozart by 40 years) is his Three Grand Duets for Violin and Viola Op.69 Nos.1-3. The first two duets have two movements and the third three.

There’s nothing earth-shattering here, just some beautifully competent music given stylish and sympathetic performances by two excellent players.

11 Ben LahringDriftwood is the second album released by the Calgary-based guitarist Ben Lahring, with six of the 11 tracks his own compositions (Alliance Entertainment 198004147064 benlahring.com).

Liona Boyd’s really nice Lullaby for My Love opens the disc, with short pieces by William Beauvais, Seymour Bernstein, Graeme Koehne and a Miguel Llobet arrangement of a traditional Catalan melody balancing the original Lahring compositions – the three-movement Firstborn of the Dead, Over the Pacific, Fair Winds and Following Seas and the title track.

There’s clean playing with lovely tone and colour in an attractive and fairly low-key program that doesn’t vary much in style, sound or mood. 

Finally, two updates on previously-reviewed Beethoven series:

12 Beethoven DyachkovMy May review of the digital release of the first volume of the complete music for cello and piano by the Montreal-based duo of cellist Yegor Dyachkov and pianist Jean Saulnier noted that a 3CD physical set was to be released in October, and it’s here: Beethoven Intégrale des Sonates et variations pour violoncelle et piano (ATMA Classique ACD2 2431 atmaclassique.com/en).

I previously described the playing as “intelligent and beautifully nuanced, promising great things for the works still to be released,” and the complete set more than fulfills that promise. Outstanding playing and a superb recorded sound quality make this set hard to equal, let alone surpass.

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13 Beethoven DoverThe Dover Quartet completes its set of Beethoven Complete String Quartets with Volume 3 The Late Quartets (Cedille CDR 90000 215 cedillerecords.org).

This final 3CD issue features the String Quartets No.12 in E-flat Major Op.127, No.13 in B-flat Major Op.130, No.14 in C-sharp Minor Op.131, No.15 in A Minor Op.132, No.16 in F Major Op.135 and the Grosse Fugue in B-flat Major Op.133. My previous reviews noted performances of conviction and depth, and the standard has clearly been upheld to the end of an outstanding addition to the quartet’s discography.

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