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.

Listen to 'Time' Now in the Listening Room

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.

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