11 Saint SaensCamille Saint-Saëns – Symphony No.2; Danse macabre; Symphony in F
Utah Symphony; Thierry Fischer
Hyperion CDA68212 (hyperion-records.co.uk)

Is Camille Saint-Saëns an undervalued or unjustifiably obscure composer? An answer is proposed in the recording and accompanying liner notes released by the Utah Symphony under Thierry Fischer. The argument presented suggests both are true, with the second being attributed to the fact that his later compatriots such as Fauré (student of the master) and Debussy gathered more attention while his own material was overlooked by conductors and thus by the musical public. His elder, Berlioz, famously summed up the young composer thus: “He knows everything, he lacks inexperience.”

Two symphonies form substantial brackets to a rousing rendition of Danse macabre (with violin soloist Madeline Adkins). Symphony No.2 in A Minor, Op.55 opens the disc. At just under 23 minutes, the work is modest, beautifully structured and completely delightful. The scherzo movement is what Saint-Saëns should be known for, wit and agility.

Saint-Saëns no doubt felt that seriousness and long-windedness were the province of the Germans, or maybe he was atoning for the heavy-handedness of his previous effort: Symphony in F Major “Urbs Roma” (the subtitle was the pseudonym required by the terms of the competition in which it was entered). This is a more ponderous work, nearly double the length of Symphony No.2 and lacking the inspired brevity of the latter. One almost hears the composer ticking the boxes beside all the elements he knew would sway a jury on Bordeaux, and he was right; the piece took the prize, but remains on the shelf today.

12 Sibelius 1Sibelius 1
Orchestre Metropolitain; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
ATMA ACD2 2452 (atmaclassique.com/En)

Jean Sibelius was still under the influence of Tchaikovsky when he wrote his Symphony No.1 in E Minor Op.39, but these Russian overtones coexist with assuredly individualistic orchestral textures and themes. At the very opening, for example, in a highly original stroke, a clarinet over a gentle timpani roll introduces the main theme, which achieves its apotheosis at the climax of the finale.

In the second movement the debt to Tchaikovsky is clearly revealed in the way the languidly mournful opening theme is developed prior to the stormy climax. An emphatically rhythmic Scherzo reveals another influence: Bruckner, a composer whose music Sibelius had first encountered in Vienna in 1890. The finale, marked quasi una fantasia, veers between frenzied agitation and a grandly refulgent big tune in which the strings predominate.

As this disc reveals, in the right hands the First Symphony can be an extremely exciting work. Yannick Nézet-Séguin seems to give notice that he is one of the great Sibelians of the contemporary era, as he finds just the right level of energy. His control of the mood and poetics of the work – its gradations of bleakness and majesty – is affecting. As the symphony unfolds the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal, for its part, responds with a brilliance that is never forced.

Listen to 'Sibelius 1' Now in the Listening Room

13 SzymanowskiSzymanowski: Violin Concerto No. 1; Zemlinsky: Lyric Symphony
Elina Vähälä; Johanna Winkel; Michael Nagy; Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Alexander Liebreich
Accentus Music ACC 30470 (accentus.com)

Many recordings that include the Violin Concerto No.1 by Karel Szymanowski (1882-1937) or the Lyric Symphony by Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) are now available. This Polish CD features idiomatic orchestral playing of the Szymanowski; also, its particular pairing points up what the two composers have in common. French-Impressionism-influenced exoticism, romance and fantasy figure in their works, and both set Rabindranath Tagore poems from the same translation (Szymanowski in Four Songs, op. 41). Violinist Pawel Kochański’s 1915-16 collaboration gave Szymanowski great confidence; here, the resulting concerto’s fiery virtuosity and sensual melodies receive nuanced, secure treament from Elina Vähälä. By contrast, Anne Akiko Meyers’ 2017 Avie recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra features more assertive bowing and tone, with a broader sweep to lyrical passages and the cadenza.

Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony (1923) includes seven Tagore settings, presenting a love affair’s successive moods. In the central fourth movement (“Speak to me...”), Johanna Winkel’s soprano is magical, its long tones suspended over a soft ostinato plus harp and celeste glissandi. Michael Nagy brings a powerful, attractive baritone to the following riposte, “Free me ...,” whose swagger fails to mask underlying despair. I find the Polish National RSO orchestra led by Alexander Liebreich excellent; the recorded sound, however, needs more instrumental definition, as in the Orchestra de Paris version (Capriccio, 2007) conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. Still, for those whose collection lacks these two works, this Accentus disc would be a valuable addition.

01 Tasmin LittleOn her latest Chandos CD Tasmin Little plays Clara Schumann, Dame Ethel Smyth & Amy Beach (CHAN 20030 chandos.net), the outstanding English violinist is accompanied by her longtime recital partner John Lenehan. All three women composers were encouraged by their families in their early musical endeavours but experienced far less support, if not outright opposition, when it came to pursuing professional careers.

Beach’s Violin Sonata Op.34 from 1896 is a full-blooded work with sweeping melodies and rich harmonies in the German Romantic tradition; music critics in Berlin noted its indebtedness to Robert Schumann and Brahms. It draws big, strong playing from both performers.

Clara Schumann’s compositional activity declined – by choice – after her marriage to Robert, and the Drei Romanzen Op.22 from 1853 was her final chamber work. Originally described as being for piano and violin these lovely pieces again feature flowing melodies for the violin over quite demanding passage work for the pianist.

Ethel Smyth’s Violin Sonata Op.7 from 1887 also shows a strong Germanic influence, hardly surprising given that ten years earlier the then-19-year-old composer had moved to Leipzig to study and had spent the subsequent decade on the continent, being encouraged by both Clara Schumann and Brahms.

Two lovely short pieces by Beach – Romance Op.23 and Invocation Op.55 – complete a terrific CD. Little has announced her decision to retire from the concert stage in 2020 when she turns 55. Presumably – and hopefully – it won’t include an end to her outstanding series of superb CDs.

02 EllesClara Schumann’s Three Romances Op.22 appear again on another recital of works by women composers, this time as the opening tracks on ELLES, featuring the Canadian duo of violist Marina Thibeault and pianist Marie-Ève Scarfone (ATMA Classique ACD2 2772 atmaclassique.com/En). There’s no word on the transcription source (a viola version was published in 2010) for this or the following work on the CD, the Trois pièces pour violoncelle et piano by Nadia Boulanger. Written in Boulanger’s mid-20s, some seven years before she gave up composition to concentrate on teaching, the piano again features prominently in three brief movements, two of which were transcriptions of organ improvisations.

A very brief setting of a Goethe poem by Fanny Hensel, Mendelssohn’s highly talented sister, precedes the two major works on the disc: Rebecca Clarke’s Sonata for Viola and Piano from 1919; and the Sonate Pastorale for solo viola by the American violist Lillian Fuchs. A professional violist, Clarke left a wealth of viola works that finally seem to be attracting the amount of recording attention they richly deserve. Written in New York, her sonata is redolent of contemporary French music.

In all the viola and piano works, Thibeault plays with a pure tone and a smooth melodic line, ably supported by Scarfone; there are times, perhaps, when a stronger attack could be used. That, however, is exactly what we get in the two unaccompanied works that follow. Fuchs wrote little in a long life (both she and Clarke made it into their 90s) but the three-movement Sonate is a simply terrific work that brings the best playing on the CD from Thibeault.

Another solo work that began as a piece for cello, young Canadian composer Anna Pidgorna’s The Child, Bringer of Light from 2012, ends the CD. Its eight continuous sections use a variety of techniques to great effect and once again show just how talented a player Thibeault is.

Listen to 'ELLES' Now in the Listening Room

03 Brahms Wen lei GuThere’s a really lovely set of the Brahms Three Sonatas for Violin and Piano featuring the duo of violinist Wen-Lei Gu and pianist Catherine Kautsky (Centaur CRC 3684 naxosdirect.com). Both performers are on the music faculty at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.

The opening bars of the Sonata No.1 in G Major Op.78 always seem to set the tone for all three works, and it’s clear from the outset here that we are in excellent hands. From the autumnal feel of the first sonata through the warmth of the Sonata No.2 in A Major Op.100 to the passion and restlessness of the Sonata No.3 in D Minor Op.108 the playing here is all you could ask for, with warmth, sensitivity, passion when needed and an ever-present sense of innate musicality.

If you collect different performances of these lovely sonatas then this will make a strong and welcome addition to your CDs; if you’re just looking for one set then this one has a great deal to offer and will certainly not disappoint you.

04 Schubert Grand DuoThe Australian violinist Elizabeth Holowell studied Viennese string performance practice during the 1780 to 1820s in her postgraduate work – studies which had a major influence on The Grand Duo, her recording of the Schubert Complete Sonatas for Violin and Piano with Erin Helyard at the fortepiano (Centaur CRC 3665 naxosdirect.com).

The result is an attempt to recreate as far as possible what a contemporary performance of the music would have sounded like. The violin here is without modern fittings and has gut strings; the bow is described as a pre-Tourte transitional model. More significantly, the fortepiano is a new copy of a contemporary Viennese model by Conrad Graf that has six pedals that provide a variety of special tonal effects, including one for Turkish or janissary bells and drums.

Holowell says that interpretation of the notation of these works led to reassessments of tempo, dynamics, phrasing, bowing and articulation. The recording levels also reflect the fact that the three 1816 sonatas – in D Major D384, A Minor D385 and G Minor D408 – were published as sonatas “with violin accompaniment.” The Sonata in A Major D574, known as The Grand Duo completes the CD.

The results are, at times, quite startling. It’s part Historically Informed Performance, part early Romantic in style: vibrato comes and goes; there’s portamento and elasticity in tempo and phrasing; and very occasional pitch issues with the gut strings. Above all, the fortepiano sound varies a good deal, including adding crashing bells and drums to the occasional chord. It’s intriguing and always more than merely interesting, but it will probably come down to a matter of personal taste as to whether you feel that this approach really enhances the music and your understanding of it, or merely serves as a historical demonstration.

Either way, it’s not your standard Schubert recital!

There are two quite superb guitar CDs from Naxos this month, both beautifully recorded at St. Paul’s Church in Newmarket, Ontario with the ever-reliable Norbert Kraft as producer, engineer and editor. At the Naxos retail price they are both simply must-buys for any lover of the classical guitar.

05 Vojin KocicThe debut CD by Serbian guitarist Vojin Kocić (born 1990) follows his win at the 2017 Heinsberg International Guitar Competition in Germany – and what a debut it is, with music ranging from the Baroque to the present day (8.573906 naxos.com).

Kocić’s own arrangement of the Bach Partita No.2 in D Minor BWV1004 for solo violin works beautifully. It’s essentially the violin score note for note, with a crystal-clear line, superb articulation in the numerous fast runs, a lovely sense of pulse and a warm resonance that allows the implied harmonies to sound through. In particular, the guitar’s chording ability means that the multiple stopping – always a stumbling block for violinists – ceases to be a problem. It makes the Sarabande and, in particular, the monumental Chaconne (with its quadruple stops) smoother, calmer and – appropriately – more stately. Add beautifully shaped phrasing that displays musicianship to match the impeccable technique and you have a performance that will stand comparison with any.

The standard never drops in the other three works on the CD. The Introduction et Caprice Op.23 is a dazzling work by Giulio Regondi, the 19th-century prodigy whose music fell into oblivion before being republished in 1981. Manuel Ponce wrote his Diferencias sobre la folía de España y Fuga for Segovia in 1930; it’s one of the more challenging works in the standard repertoire.

Marek Pasieczny’s Phosphenes (After Sylvius Leopold Weiss) was commissioned by the International Guitar Festival as a set piece for their Guitar Masters 2016 competition in Warsaw. It’s a fairly short but tough work that shows Kocić equally comfortable in the contemporary field.

06 de la MazaThe Chilean guitarist José Antonio Escobar (born 1973) is the soloist on the second CD, Guitar Music of Eduardo Sáinz de la Maza (8.573456 naxos.com). The composer’s life spanned most of the 20th century, and the works here are mostly from the period 1961 to 1973.

The main work on the CD is the lovely Platero y yo (Platero and I), a suite of eight scenes from the 138 prose-poems of the same name by the Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez that illustrate tales of the donkey Platero and his owner. It’s a work full of tenderness and colour. Ten shorter works that still serve to illustrate the composer’s technical and expressive breadth fill out the CD, including a delightful Habanera that involves tuning down the two lower strings and three Homenajes – homages to Haydn, Toulouse-Lautrec and the guitar itself.

Again, the playing here is clean, warm, resonant and full of colour, and with impeccable technique, the fast tremolo in the Campanas del Alba (The Bells of Dawn) being particularly brilliant. 

07 TwardowskiThe music of Lithuanian composer Romuald Twardowski (b.1930) is presented on Violin Concerto, featuring the New York-based Polish violinist Kinga Augustyn with Poland’s Toruń Symphony Orchestra under Mariusz Smolij (Naxos 8.579031 naxos.com). Twardowski’s music is described as blending tradition and modernity with what the composer calls “a clarity of expression,” and the works here are all highly accessible and finely crafted.

Three pieces – the brilliant Spanish Fantasia from 1984, Niggunim “Melodies of the Hasidim” from 1991 and Capriccio in Blue “George Gershwin in memoriam” from 1979 – were originally for violin and piano and later orchestrated by the composer. The respective influences – Andalusian music, Polish/Ukrainian Jewish melodies, and jazz – are captured effectively and give the soloist ample opportunity to display a range of styles.

The major work is the quite lovely 2006 Violin Concerto, a mainstream work with a challenging cadenza. The Serenade for string orchestra from 2003, another lovely work with a lush Andante movement, completes the CD. Augustyn’s playing is clear, warm and assured, untroubled in the technically challenging passages and with a flowing line in the many melodic sections. Orchestral support and recorded sound are both excellent.

08 Russian CelloLi-Wei Qin is the cello soloist on Russian Cello Concertos with the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice under Michael Halász (Naxos 8.573860 naxos.com). It’s a somewhat misleading title, given that of the seven works on the CD only one – Glazunov’s Concerto ballata in C Major Op.108, written in 1931 after he had left Russia – is anything like a true concerto, although admittedly Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme in A Major Op.33, heard here in the usual revised and rearranged version by the composer’s colleague Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, does come close.

Qin draws a lovely sound from his 1780 Guadagnini cello in the two major works as well as in the shorter recital pieces: Glazunov’s Deux Morceaux Op.20 and the Chant du ménestrel in F-sharp Minor Op.71; Tchaikovsky’s Pezzo capriccioso in B Minor Op.62 and the Andante Cantabile from his String Quartet No.1 in D Major Op.11; and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Serenade Op.37. 

01 Gerstein BusoniKirill Gerstein’s new recording of the Busoni Piano Concerto (Myrios Classics, MYR024, naxosdirect.com) is a mammoth production in every way. The Piano Concerto in C Major Op.39 is a five-movement work that takes more than 70 minutes to perform and calls for a large male chorus that sings extensively through the final movement. Premiered in late 1904, it displays a breadth of conception and orchestration stylistically similar to later Mahler symphonies and Rachmaninoff piano concertos. And while it predates the modern cinema by many decades, the music has a grand sweep of musical ideas for both the piano and the orchestra that conjures up epic films on big screens.

Busoni has made the piano very much an equal partner with the orchestra in this work rather than having the two engage in a contest of wills. Some of the critical writing about the concerto sees the work as the final iteration of this late-Romantic form, the end of one era rather than the beginning of a new one. But there is so much forward-looking writing in the concerto that grounds for the counter argument are very strong. Busoni’s own personal evolution toward modernism and experiments with keyboard tonality are further evidence of his contribution to music in a time of profound transition.

This disc was recorded live at Symphony Hall in Boston. Gerstein’s output of sheer pianistic energy for the duration of this enormous work is amazing. For many, this Busoni concerto will be new material, and because of its superb performance, should be eagerly acquired.

02 Busoni Late WorksSvetlana Belsky has an enduring fascination with Busoni whose life as a pianist figures centrally in her doctoral dissertation. Her new release Ferruccio Busoni – The Late Works (Ravello RR8007, ravellorecords.com) reveals Busoni’s emerging modernist views on tonality and eventual rejection of late-Romantic performance practices.

Busoni was renowned for his technique, as any who have played his transcriptions of Bach organ works will know. Massive chords, dense harmonies and seemingly impossible reaches speak to his mastery of both composition and performance. These familiar baroque transcriptions make it all the more intriguing to hear Busoni writing in a voice so firmly early 20th century.

Belsky opens the disc with Sonatina Seconda, a striking example of the composer’s inclination to challenge conventional tonality. The Nine Variations on a Chopin Prelude follow with their increasing degree of technical difficulty. The last work is the set of six Elegies, each dedicated by Busoni to one of his piano students. A curious feature of this set is the appearance of some material from his Turandot Suite. Busoni mistakenly thought the tune Greensleeves was a Chinese folk melody and used it as such in this setting (apologies still owing to Henry Tudor or an anonymous contemporary).

This disc is an important document. With it, Belsky reveals a little-known side of this composer whose original works are refreshingly innovative for their time. 

03 Boris GIltburgBoris Giltburg’s new Naxos release Liszt Études d’exécution transcendante (8.573981, naxos.com) expands his impressive and growing discography for the label.

A good many musical scribes have opined on the way that Liszt’s work, in the hands of the finest performers, forges a powerful single expression in which the components are indistinguishable. Composer, performer and instrument become a unified artistic force. Giltburg plays Liszt? Or Liszt plays Giltburg? Such ambiguity can only arise because of the brilliance of this performance. There is both total surrender and total control. Ambiguity and contradiction, the powerful drivers of the highest artistic experience, are everywhere in this recording. Any one of the Études could serve as an example of peerless performance but No.4, “Mazeppa” stands out for its captivating rhythm as well as the three harmonic suspensions in the middle section that add a brief contemplative moment to the maelstrom.

The Études alone would be enough to fill a disc but Giltburg also adds Liszt’s Paraphrase de concert sur Rigoletto and the second of the 3 Études de concert, S144/R2b. The Verdi Paraphrase is an example of the distance that any of Liszt’s paraphrases lie from their original material. With only the melody intact, Giltburg wraps the composer’s harmonic and ornamental creation around the operatic excerpt in a way that reimagines it as wholly new.

04 Andrey GugninAndrey Gugnin has also recorded the Liszt Études d’exécution transcendante (Piano Classics, PCL10158, naxosdirect.com). This award-winning, festival-conquering young pianist plays with a towering technique. More poignant, however, is the affinity he displays for Liszt’s writing. From the very outset of the Études he plays with the single-minded conviction that the piano is no longer just a piano. Gugnin, like Liszt, is seemingly unburdened by any limitations that he or the instrument might have. Herein lies the transcendental nature of this music. The pianist’s extraordinary technique moves the music beyond conventional levels of comprehension to a richer understanding of what the sounds can actually convey. Having transcended the physical challenges of the music, Gugnin brings a mysticism to his playing that matches the composer’s, note for note. It’s the perfect pairing of master and disciple with the tantalizing promise that the student may even surpass his mentor.

Gugnin’s entire performance blazes with energy – yet his ability to retreat into the quiet moments of Paysage and Harmonies du soir is as impressive as his explosive eruptions of Lisztian genius. Feux follets displays a beautifully sustained and controlled line that runs through the piece, with unassuming determination providing the backdrop for Liszt’s main ideas.

This performance is the rare combination of youthful athleticism and an unnatural early maturity.

05 Buchor GoldbergAnne-Catherine Bucher is among the latest to record the Johann Sebastian Bach Goldberg Variations (Naxos 8.551405, naxos.com). The peculiar challenges of the Variations seem to place them among the peaks that many keyboard artists want to conquer at least once in their performance lifetime. Considering the illustrious performance history of the work and the height at which that bar has been set, the undertaking can be a career risk. In this recording, however, there is no such hazard.

Bucher, an organist and harpsichordist, performs on a modern instrument by builder Matthias Griewisch. The two-manual harpsichord (cembalo) is a replica of a 1745 instrument from the workshop of Flemish builder Johann Daniel Dulcken. With three choirs of strings and at least one buff stop, the instrument offers a variety of individual and combined sounds along with opportunities to solo a voice on a separate manual with a different sound. This is something Bucher does first in Variation 7 and many times subsequently with wonderful effect. Bucher also has a profound grasp of the larger progressive structure Bach uses through the 30 variations. She makes this obvious both in her playing and in her concise liner notes.

The Goldberg Variations are, like any piece of music, a window into the soul of the performer. Choice of instrument, tempi, phrasings, etc. all say something about the player sitting at the keyboard. While Bucher’s recording is scholarly and informed, it rises quickly to gratifying levels of inspired creativity that have a lasting emotional impact. It’s a performance of thought and substance.

06 Mendelsson Piano ConcertosRonald Brautigam has a new recording of the Mendelssohn Piano Concertos (BIS, BIS-2264, naxosdirect.com) in which he performs on a modern fortepiano, a copy of Pleyel Op.1555 from 1830 which is still preserved in the Paris Museum of Music. The instrument’s sound is an immediate clue to the period project in which Die Kölner Akademie also performs with period orchestral instruments, historical seating plan and critical editions of scores.

Brautigam’s instrument is remarkable. While it has the characteristically short resonance of all fortepianos, it is 244cm (8 ft.) long and offers plenty of power against the volume of the orchestra. Equally impressive is the quick keyboard response to the extremely fast passages. The Presto movement of the Concerto No.1 is an example of this amazing key action technology from 1830. It’s unlikely that Pleyel had yet developed his own double escapement action to match his competitor Érard who’d invented it just a decade earlier. But Pleyel’s hammers and actions were known to be lighter and very responsive to the need for speed and repetition. Additionally, Brautigam’s modern copy also holds its tuning remarkably well for all the rigour that Mendelssohn’s score imposes on it. The upper register in particular is beautifully pitched and voiced.

In addition to the two Mendelssohn concertos, the disc also includes his Rondo Brillant in E-flat Major, Op.29, Capriccio Brillant in B Minor, Op.22 and Serenade and Allegro Giojoso, Op.43.

07 Leininger fortepianoThomas Leininger – Fortepiano, Mozart, Beethoven (Talbot Records, TR 1901, talbotrecords.net) is a new disc recorded at Von Kuster Hall, University of Western Ontario. Leininger plays a modern fortepiano built in Freeport, Maine after an instrument by Anton Walter, a German-born builder who ran a successful business in Vienna for nearly 50 years.

Leininger is a trained organist and harpsichordist. His recognized specialization in early music has attracted invitations for him to compose missing passages, many of them extensive, in fragmentary works by Handel and Vivaldi. On this disc, his performance of Mozart’s Sonatas K331 and 332, and Beethoven’s Sonata Op.2, No.1 demonstrates not only how such works could have sounded to their composers and audiences, but how differently phrasings, speeds and dynamics must have been understood. These period instruments respond differently to touch, produce different colours and offer a musical experience unlike what we know today.

Leininger knows his instrument extremely well. He uses the lighter, simpler mechanical action to shape the tone of his notes with great effect. His playing style uses the well-documented freedoms of tempo and ornamentation that are common for the repertoire period. An intriguing feature of this recording is the brief prelude that Leininger improvises before each of the sonatas. The production is well informed, and intelligently and beautifully played.

08 Schiff Schubert ECMIn 2010 Andras Schiff acquired a stunning walnut Brodman fortepiano built in Vienna ca. 1820. Brodman was one of Vienna’s finest builders whose instruments were, not surprisingly, owned by the Austrian Royal Family. The last Austrian Emperor took this one into Swiss exile with him in 1919. One of Brodman’s young apprentices named Bösendorfer in time took over the business and made it the familiar name we know today. This instrument underwent some restoration in 1965 and has been on loan to the Beethoven Haus in Bonn since Schiff took ownership. Schiff brought the instrument to London for a recital at Wigmore Hall in early 2015 where he performed a program of three Schubert Sonatas. The following year he used it to record this disc Franz Schubert Sonatas and Impromptus, (ECM, ECM 2535/36, ecmrecords.com) in the Kammermusiksaal at the Beethoven Haus back in Bonn.

Schiff’s fortepiano exhibits all the mechanical and tonal characteristics of its period: very brief open resonance, comparatively little overall power, and a unique tonal colouring that makes this recording a real gem. Each of the high, middle and low registers has its own quality. Additional mechanisms create a gentle bassoon-like buzz in the bass and a general dampening of the strings in play. But the most striking feature is the intense intimacy, the true smallness of sound that Schiff is able to create from the keyboard. Whether for historical reasons or out of pure curiosity, this recording is a must-have. 

01 Hummel FluteJohann Nepomuk Hummel – Flute Sonatas
Dorothea Seel; Christoph Hammer
Hanssler Classics HC18103 (naxosdirect.com) 

Dorothea Seel is both a flutist and a musicologist, whose area of research is the playing techniques and sound aesthetics of 19th-century flutes. She has presented her research in her dissertation, Der Diskurs um den Klang der Flöte im 19. Jahrhundert (The Discourse about the Sound of the Flute in the 19th Century), published earlier this year by Kunstuniversität Graz, for which she has received the Award of Excellence from the Austrian government.

Her collaborator on this recording, Christoph Hammer, also a specialist in the music and instruments of the 19th century is, according to the liner notes, “also committed to the revival of less-well-known composers and the research and editing of their works.”

What I heard listening to this recording was something of a shock; it revealed an entirely different sound aesthetic from that with which I am familiar and, I would say, have come to expect, listening to recordings of music for the flute. As the liner notes explain, Seel’s research led her to “forgotten playing techniques... many of which would meet with the disapproval of modern-day exponents.” When I left behind my expectations, however, Hummel’s music took on an almost exotic quality, revealing the forgotten zeitgeist of a world long gone.

So, while I am not about to abandon my Boehm flute for an early 19th-century Viennese Ziegler instrument of the type played by Seel on this recording, I am extremely grateful for her work and her ability to translate her research into practice.

02 Mendelsson Piano Concerto 2 and Symphony 1Mendelssohn: Symphony No.1; Piano Concerto No.2
Kristian Bezuidenhout; Freiburger Barockorchester; Pablo Heras-Casado
Harmonia mundi HMM 902369 (smarturl.it/xs369d)

This brand new issue belongs to a series initiated by young conductor Pablo Heras-Casado’s Diving into German Romanticism and what better way to start than Mendelssohn? Mendelssohn was probably one of the most gifted musicians that ever lived and was capable of composing a symphony for full orchestra at the age of 12!

Perhaps due to the superiority of his later mature works, Symphony No.1 has been unjustifiably neglected but it’s certainly worth hearing as it is performed here. Typically sturm und drang and written in the sombre key of C Minor, the first movement is full of sound and fury at a frantic speed of Allegro di molto with strings rushing like a whirlwind demonstrating this orchestra’s amazing virtuosity. Peace and solace relieve the storm in the beautiful second movement that sings like one of Mendelssohn’s Lieder Ohne Worte where the interplay of woodwinds is a pure delight. The dominating C Minor stormy mood returns Allegro con fuoco piu stretto in the fourth movement with interesting contrapuntal episodes but ending the symphony triumphantly in a major key.

The Piano Concerto No.2 in D Minor was regrettably completely overshadowed by Mendelssohn’s popular, irresistible first foray into the genre. However, South African Kristian Bezuidenhout’s agile brilliance yet gentle touch on the Fortepiano Érard (Paris 1837) plus a highly precise and exciting period instrument accompaniment, makes this concerto truly shine.

As the recording progressed I found myself falling in love with Mendelssohn over and over again. And that energetically driven, passionate rendition of the Fair Melusina Overture tops it all. I haven’t heard it played as beautifully since Sir Thomas Beecham.

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