03 CartographyCartography
Mariel Roberts
New Focus Recordings fcr185
marielroberts.com

Review

The following review is an excerpt from Editor's Corner (June 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.

Raging Against the Machine may be the title of the last CD discussed, but the phrase could apply equally, or perhaps even more appropriately, to Eric Wubbels’ composition gretchen am spinnrade which opens Mariel Roberts’ latest CD Cartography (New Focus Recordings fcr185 marielroberts.com). As a matter of fact I had to go online to watch a video of a live performance (at icareifyoulisten.com) to see whether or not any machine-like technology was in use. With the composer at the piano and Roberts on cello it is amazing to realize that the excruciating intensity is being generated in real time by two mere mortals. It is truly a sight, and sound, to behold, with what Wubbels describes as “alternating relentless motoric circuits with plateaus of regular ‘idling’ motion.” After repeated listening and viewing it is still not clear to me whether the microtonality in the piano part as the piece progresses is a result of the frantic banging on the keys, or if some of the notes have been specially (de)tuned in advance. Whatever the case, Gretchen is definitely pictured at a particularly post-industrial spinning wheel in this reinterpretation of Schubert’s original.

By way of respite, Aman by Cenk Ergün is a much quieter offering, but one that does involve live electronics by the composer along with Roberts’ solo cello. While it was the intensity and sheer volume of Wubbels’ scoring that made the sounds seem mechanical in gretchen, here it is the sparseness that makes them unfamiliar and somewhat otherworldly. It is as if we are “listening” through a microscope to the very structure of the sounds. It’s often hard to distinguish between the manufactured sounds and those created by extended techniques on the cello. I look forward to seeing a video of this one or, better yet, the chance to see Roberts in live performance.

George Lewis’ Spinner for solo cello veritably bursts forth after the quietude of Aman. Lewis, Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University, is also a renowned trombonist who has worked with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music for more than four and a half decades. Spinner is set in a more traditional mode for a virtuosic solo instrumental work, at least in the sense of the post-war avant-garde. It is a compendium of sounds available to the cellist using bow and fingers on the strings of the instrument, without venturing into the various extra-musical extensions sometimes called for in the context. It is a thoroughly musical work, which effectively integrates some aspects of modern jazz without compromising its status as a concert piece.

The disc concludes with The Cartography of Time by New York-based composer Davíð Brynjar Franzson. The program note includes a definition of cartography (map-making) and time (the indefinite continued progress of existence…) and a quotation from Wittgenstein, none of which sheds much light on the piece, but I do find its progress glacial and textures reminiscent of an Icelandic landscape or, in my wife’s ears, Northern Lights, perhaps linked to the composer’s birthplace, Akureyri, on the north coast of Iceland just south of the Arctic Circle.

All in all, Roberts’ disc is an incredible journey. Fasten your seatbelt and pack your parka, but be forewarned, although it begins with a bang!, it ends with a whisper…

11 Honens BurattoSchumann – Davidsbündlertänze, Humoreske, Blumenstück
Luca Buratto
Hyperion / Honens CDA 68186

Review

The following review is an excerpt from Keyed In (June 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.

Luca Buratto is the 2015 Honens Prize Laureate. An assured performer, he plays with impeccable technique. His approach to the music of Schumann on this Honens-sponsored disc Schumann – Davidsbündlertänze, Humoreske, Blumenstück (Hyperion / Honens CDA 68186) reveals an uncommon gift for fresh thinking. Buratto has captured Schumann’s Romantic urgings and compellingly channeled them through the keyboard. He has cut loose the classical moorings that many pianists respect and instead allows his interpretations to drift freely into currents where forms become more fluid. It’s here that we feel the deep pull of Brahms, Chopin and Liszt.

Humoreske in B-flat Major Op.20 demonstrates Buratto’s ability to transcend the composer’s signature melancholy that is too often the extent of a performer’s achievement. Buratto moves beyond this by creating an ethos of mysticism rarely experienced in this music. The Davidsbündlertänze Op.6, too, reveal new possibilities for understanding how far Schumann wanted to propel the music of his time from its conservative shelter. Buratto exploits every opportunity to do this by stretching inner tempos and even pulling them apart a little, as if to experiment with left and right hand being out of sync.

None of this happens at the expense of the music because Buratto plays with such conviction that you immediately know he is certain he has revealed Robert Schumann’s true voice. It’s a deep connection that he sustains effortlessly through the entire recording. Hear him live if you can.

03 Bach sonatas partitasJ.S. Bach – Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin
Movses Pogossian
New Focus Recordings FCR178 (newfocusrecordings.com)

Review

On the back cover of the booklet inserted in the album sleeve is the handwritten note: “in memory of our common research of g minor. a minor sonata / Budapest 6.9.2015 / Márta-György Kurtág.” Before recording the Sonatas and Partitas Movses Pogossian journeyed from Los Angeles to Budapest to work with the 89-year-old Kurtág and his wife Márta. Pogossian had collaborated with the composer before, but on Kurtág’s music, notably the Kafka Fragments, which he performed with soprano Tony Arnold in Toronto this past March. It was then that I asked Movses about his “research” with the Kurtágs. He said that Kurtág was very particular about harmony, structure and tempo and had an allergy to anything that did not feel right. Capturing the character of the piece was the most important thing. For instance, Kurtág said the subject of the A Minor Fugue should be “without emotion,” suggesting the link between key and Affektenlehre.

Their “research” resulted in transforming the Sonatas and Partitas into something in the nature of six Baroque altarpieces, where each movement is a panel depicting a tableau that illustrates some aspect of the key in question. Pogossian remains faithful to the affect of each set, even in the Double of the Corrente of the B Minor Partita, where he frames the torrential stream of notes within the penitential mood of that key. Phrasing is free, as though allowing singers to breathe and dancers to pause between phrases. Pogossian’s approach is far from those who treat this repertoire as though an extreme sport.

The G Minor Adagio, dark timbre, grieving harmonies, each phrase rising from stillness, the fioriture parsed for motivic shapes, the last chord held 12 seconds a niente for a running time of nearly six minutes; the grave Fugue (Kurtág wished it slower); the lilting Siciliana danced with sad restraint; the grimly brilliant Presto. The desolate A Minor Sonata, the Andante, an aria of loss (compare Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben). Pogossian plays the D Minor Partita with noble restraint, and takes the cosmic Chaconne at a stately quarter = 46. He treats the Adagio of the C Major Sonata as though the Creator is breathing on the waters (eighth = 40), while the Olympian Fugue follows as the fully formed world. The pastoral Largo in F major is all smiles, and the final Allegro could be titled Tutto nel mondo è burla. The E Major Partita radiates uttermost joy.

The three CDs are a panoply, but they give only a hint of when one sees Pogossian in person, for he enacts the affects of the Sonatas and Partitas with his whole body and breath. Such intense identification of body, mind and spirit with sound is a rare gift. I am also grateful for the notes by Paul Griffiths, who wrote virtually short poems on each of the types of movements. They end with words on the Ciacconia: “Finally the voices spiral into the keynote. This was the lesson that had to be taught and learned. How to end.”

04 Vanhaul EyblerJohann Baptist Vanhal – Six Quartets, Op.6
Eybler Quartet
Gallery Players of Niagara GPN 17003 (eyblerquartet.com)

Review

Johann Baptist Vanhal was a Bohemian composer active in Vienna. In his autobiography the Irish tenor Michael Kelly (who sang in the first performance of The Marriage of Figaro) records that he attended a concert of a string quartet which consisted of Haydn, Mozart, Vanhal and Ditters von Dittersdorf. It is a quartet one would have liked to have heard! Vanhal was also a prolific and successful composer.

The Eybler Quartet is an ensemble of distinguished Toronto musicians well-versed in 18th-century performance practice: Julia Wedman and Aisslinn Nosky, violin, Patrick Jordan, viola, and Margaret Gay, cello. It was founded in 2004 with the aim of exploring the first century and a half of string quartet repertoire. The quartet’s concerts have featured the work of Haydn and Mozart, but its main emphasis has been on bringing back the work of composers now rarely heard, such as Joseph Leopold Edler von Eybler (after whom the quartet is named) and now Johann Baptist Vanhal. These are attractive works, and they are beautifully played. They are also unremittingly cheerful (they are all in major keys) and that constitutes both an asset and a limitation. It was well worth unearthing this music, but a comparison with, say, Mozart’s G Minor Quintet or any of the mature quartets by Haydn brings out that limitation.

01 Avery RaquelWithout a Little Rain
Avery Raquel
Independent GKM 1029 (averyraquel.com)

Review

On her sophomore recording, young vocalist Avery Raquel has not only created a satisfying follow-up to her 2016 debut but has matured into a fine, contemporary songwriter. Collaborating with producer, arranger and musician Greg Kavanagh (and vocalist Sophia Perlman), Raquel has co-authored six tracks, and in so doing, has established her own, unique voice as both a composer and singer – no easy trick.

Joining Raquel and Kavanagh (who plays guitar on this project) is a strong lineup of musicians, including Adrean Farrugia on acoustic and electric piano, Ross MacIntyre on bass, Joel Haynes on drums, Ben Lemma on guitar, Amoy Levy on backing vocals, Kaelin Murphy on trumpet/flugelhorn, Brandon Tse on alto sax, Emma Haynes on percussion and special guest, the iconic David Clayton-Thomas (of Blood, Sweat & Tears) on the Disney classic from Toy Story, You’ve Got a Friend in Me – which is a fresh, jazzy, soulful take on this Disney standard, featuring excellent bass work on this track by Jaden Raso.

Other notable tracks include the catchy and engaging title tune, Without a Little Rain; the funky Your Mouth Is the Door, which not only boasts a clever lyric, but displays Raquel’s vocal power and control as the song builds in intensity. Without question, Dreaming (co-written with Perlman) is one of the strongest compositions on the recording – not overly arranged, as well as rhythmic and appealing, the song seamlessly highlights the lovely gossamer lightness of Raquel’s vocal quality. Sophisticated chord voicings and wonderful flugelhorn work by Murphy are the icing on this irresistible cake.

Concert Notes: Avery Raquel has a busy schedule this summer with performances June 11: Barrie Jazz Festival – Bradford West Gwillimbury Public Library; June 24: Children of the Forest Fundraiser – The Duke Live, Toronto; June 29: Music on the Waterfront – Hamilton; July 20: Summer Concert Series – Goderich; July 22: Jazz at the Museum – Haliburton; August 19: South Coast Jazz Festival – Port Dover; and August 20: Riverfest – Elora.

07 Blue VerdunBlue Verdun
Quinn Bachand’s Brishen
Beacon Ridge Productions CP102 (quinnbachand.com)

Review

Quinn Bachand is an old soul in a 21-year-old body. Or maybe he’s a time traveller from the ’30s who’s simply (and successfully) channelling the gypsy-jazz souls of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli. Whatever the case, Victoria, BC’s multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist Bachand is a seriously impressive young artist.

Blue Verdun, Bachand’s second album with his group, Brishen, is an unabashed celebration of all things swing, and a showcase for Bachand’s exceptional musicianship and versatility. With Bachand on  violin, guitar, banjo, bass guitar, lapsteel and vocals, along with Brishen bandmates Connor Stewart (horns), Maude Bastien (drums), Paul Van Dyke (bass) and Béatrix Méthé (vocal harmony), Blue Verdun takes us on a magical romp through the musical landscapes of gypsy jazz and Western swing.

Remarkably, save for one track the tunes are all Bachand’s – inspired, fresh takes on old traditions, demonstrating a profound respect for that marvellous music of “yesteryear.” Moreover, Bachand clearly relishes this stuff and, as is apparent on every track, is determined to help keep it relevant and alive. The album is a joy. Reinhardt and Grappelli are never far from mind, but it’s Bachand’s masterful performances on his lilting Cheyenne (Quit Your Talkin’) and virtuosic Swing ’96 that take centre stage. I swear I heard hints of a young Chet Baker (singing) on Fading Light, and of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World on Lonely Star, attesting to Bachand’s having done his homework. He has also made it nearly impossible to remember that he is only 21!

01 Plante Tango borealLa Bibliothèque-Interdite – Denis Plante
Sébastian Ricard & Tango Boréal
ATMA ACD2 2752

Review

The following review is an excerpt from Editor's Corner (May 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.

Let me start with a disclaimer: I don’t get opera; I don’t like tango; and cabaret is not my cup of tea. That being said, imagine my surprise to find that the disc which has been getting the most play on my system this month is a cabaret-style “tango opera” by Denis PlanteLa Bibliothèque-Interdite (ATMA ACD2 2752) features actor-singer Sébastian Ricard and Plante’s ensemble Tango Boréal in a tale set in the dark days of mid-20th-century Argentina.

“The odyssey began,” Plante tells us, “with a concert […] by Les Violons du Roy, the Tango Boréal Trio and actor Sébastian Ricard. Its theme: Jorge Luis Borges. I had been commissioned to write tangos to accompany the poetry of Argentina’s great literary figure for the production. Sébastian Ricard captivated the audience as, pacing like a caged tiger, he played several roles […] One year later I suggested to Sébastian that we continue the experiment in musical theater by creating an original show, La Bibliothèque-Interdite [The Forbidden Library]. I wanted to present an impressionistic portrait of tango at the end of that Infamous Decade [which began in 1930 with the military coup that overthrew President Hipólito Yrigoyen and lasted until 1943 when another coup resulted in the rise of Juan Perón]. I have long been fascinated by this period – and by the fact that, sometimes risking their lives, it was the gaucho minstrels and tango enthusiasts, the payadores and the tangueros, who first denounced the rise of the fascists…”

Plante has created a libretto that is “a confession, a life story and ideological speech” sung by a fictional poet. Although this character sprung from the composer’s imagination, it is also based on stories told by his father-in-law Alfredo Monetta, “an Argentinian exile who barely escaped the genocide of the dirty war of 1976.” He goes on to say “Other memories are my own. I discovered the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires in dramatic and violent circumstances: blinded by tear gas during the crisis of the pot-banging protests of December 2001.”

So what does this all sound like? It begins with Eden, a languidly nostalgic song – I often dreamed of a library with secret doors…it was my childhood and my destiny: I became a poet – that gives way to Inspecteur Barracuda, a harder-edged portrait of the prince of the renegades, the nabob of tango. [Translations mine.] There are 16 contrasting movements, each with their own story from Icarus’ Descent and a Bestiary to ruminations on departures, memory, silence and life. The instrumentation is simple and clean, featuring bandonéon (Plante), nylon-string guitar and charango (David Jacques) and acoustic bass (Ian Simpson), with occasional added percussion and small chorus. Stylistically it is a pastiche, as freely admitted by Plante, with moods that vary from ballad to narrative to dance-like, including of course more than a fair share of tango.

What struck me most however was the clarity of Ricard’s vocals. I studied French throughout public and high school plus several post-secondary summer immersions, and although I cannot carry on a fluid conversation in la belle langue, I am able to read fairly sophisticated texts en français (my summers always include reading a least one French novel in the original). But listening to art songs or popular music in French I often have trouble following the lyrics. So I was immediately hooked when I realized that I could understand la plupart of what Ricard was singing, thanks to his clear diction and to Plante’s careful setting of the texts. I was reminded of the vocal writing of John Weinzweig, oh not in the musical language, but in the careful selection of words that could be clearly understood when sung.

The booklet notes include a dedication paragraph and, as quoted in part above, a “Diary of Creation” by Denis Plante, a foreword by Sébastien Ricard, a poem by Brigitte Haentjens and artists’ biographies, all in both official languages. Strangely the libretto only appears in French, leaving me glad of all those years I put in building my vocabulaire. Highly recommended.

01 Hope SeasonsFor Seasons
Daniel Hope; Zurich Chamber Orchestra
Deutsche Grammophon 479 6922

Review

The following review is an excerpt from Strings Attached (May 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.

For Seasons is the new CD from violinist Daniel Hope with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra and 11 individual collaborators (Deutsche Grammophon 479 6922). The album’s title is carefully chosen, as the disc contains not only Hope’s first recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons but also 12 short pieces linked to the months of the year, a concept Hope came up with 20 years ago and which he calls a very personal celebration of the seasons.

It’s fascinating to see how the Vivaldi concertos retain their freshness despite what seems like a neverending series of new recordings. The performances here are simply lovely – crisp, clean and warm, with some brilliant playing from Hope and an excellent continuo sound from the harpsichord, theorbo and baroque guitar. It’s another terrific interpretation to add to the already extensive list.

The rest of the CD is an absolute delight, although the connections with the months of the year – if they exist at all – are somewhat tenuous. Only Aphex Twin’s Avril 14th, Tchaikovsky’s June, Chilly Gonzales’ Les doutes d’août and Kurt Weill’s September Song are specifically linked to the appropriate month, with the remainder of the brief tracks apparently intended to convey the feelings and emotions associated with the changing seasons.

No matter, for they’re all real winners, with the January of Nils Frahm’s beautiful Ambre and the December of Chilly Gonzales’ Wintermezzo framing music by Rameau, Max Richter, Robert Schumann, Bach and his contemporary Johann Molter, and a particularly striking improvisation on Amazing Grace with Dom Bouffard on electric guitar. The Zurich Chamber Orchestra provides the accompaniment on four of the tracks. Hope’s lovely solo violin arrangement of Brahms’ Lullaby, Guten Abend, gut’ Nacht, provides a beautiful close to an outstanding CD.

The CD booklet, incidentally, includes the accompanying artwork produced by 12 visual artists in response “to the music and to the seasons” in Hope’s For Seasons project.

02 Rachmaninov TriosPREGHIERA Rachmaninov: Piano Trios
Gidon Kremer, Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė, Daniil Trifonov
Deutsche Grammophon 479 6979

Review

The following review is an excerpt from Strings Attached (May 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.

Another terrific Deutsche Grammophon CD, PREGHIERA Rachmaninov: Piano Trios features outstanding playing by violinist Gidon Kremer (celebrating his 70th birthday with this release), cellist Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė and pianist Daniil Trifonov (479 6979).

The CD’s title is taken from the opening track, Fritz Kreisler’s Preghiera, a violin and piano collaboration between Kreisler and Rachmaninoff that reworked the Adagio sostenuto from the composer’s Piano Concerto No.2. It’s a short but beautiful work that serves as an effective curtain-raiser to the two piano trio works.

Dedicated to “the memory of a great artist,” the Trio élégiaque No.2 in D Minor was Rachmaninoff’s response to the death of Tchaikovsky, whom he revered; it was started on the very day of Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893. Rachmaninoff said that all his thoughts, feelings and powers were devoted to it, that he tormented himself the entire time and was “ill in spirit.” Those sentiments are certainly reflected in the music, for this is a large-scale work written in what the booklet notes call “a musical idiom of almost unbridled emotionality.” The performance here is outstanding, perfectly capturing the melancholy and passion of the work and with a particularly ravishing piano sound.

The Trio élégiaque No.1 in G Minor is a short, one-movement student work that again features a prominent role for the piano and that offers more than a hint of Rachmaninoff’s mature elegiac style. Another fine performance rounds out a top-notch CD.

01 Chopin LisieskiChopin: Works for Piano & Orchestra
Jan Lisiecki; NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, Krzysztof Urbanski
DG 479 6824

Review

The following review is an excerpt from Keyed In (May 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.

One of Canada’s brightest young talents is Jan Lisiecki. The Calgary-born pianist has been astonishing audiences since his orchestral debut at age 9. Now 22, his list of international performances with major orchestras and conductors grows yearly. His newest recording Chopin: Works for Piano & Orchestra, NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, Krzysztof Urbanski (DG 479 6824) is his fourth for Deutsche Grammophon.

Lisiecki’s playing is unerringly precise with a lightness of touch that gives him astonishing tonal control, speed and clarity. He approaches Chopin with calm introspective depth unusual for an artist so young. The Nocturne in C-sharp Minor Op.Posth. demonstrates this with its mellow left-hand accompaniment of a brighter line in the right. Lisiecki’s finish is astonishing in its balanced perfection.

Every track on this CD is extraordinary. But what really emerges as the showpiece is the set of Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Op.2. Speed, technique, astonishing rapid octaves and other devilish Chopinesque devices make this performance an example of genius running joyously amok.

Lisiecki plays beautifully with orchestra. A natural ease keeps him in step with the ensemble through the Rondo à la Krakowiak in F Major Op.14 and the Andante Spianato & Grand Polonaise Brillante Op.22.

Almost all of this disc also appears as part of DG’s 20-CD set The Complete Chopin, featuring Lisiecki along with other performers.

02 SokolovMozart, Rachmaninov Concertos & “A Conversation That Never Was” A Film by Nadia Zhdanova
Grigory Sokolov
DG CD/DVD479 7015

Review

The following review is an excerpt from Keyed In (May 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.

Grigory Sokolov is legendary for his rejection of celebrity. He gives no interviews and for some years now has stopped performing with orchestras. He also dislikes and avoids recording studios. It’s something of an achievement therefore, for Deutsche Grammophon to have obtained Sokolov’s agreement to reissue two live performances from 2005 and 1995 in Mozart, Rachmaninov Concertos & “A Conversation That Never Was” A Film by Nadia Zhdanova (DG CD/DVD479 7015). The addition of the film (on DVD) makes this set unusual. Zhdanova interviews Sokolov’s friends and colleagues and adds newly found archival material to create a portrait of this very private and sometimes reclusive artist.

The Mozart Piano Concerto No.23 in A Major K488 is the more recent performance. Recorded in 2005 in Salzburg with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Trevor Pinnock, it’s an intimate reading with Sokolov’s characteristic crisp, clear staccatos punctuating the opening of the final movement.

The other performance is with the BBC Philharmonic at the Royal Albert Hall in 1995. The Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No.3 in D Minor Op.30 is loved by audiences and equally feared by pianists for its technical challenges. The speed at which Sokolov takes the opening of the final movement is scarcely believable. The same rapid repeats of chordal passages appear in the first movement, where Sokolov gives the piano such a pounding that some notes in the upper register begin slipping out of tune and make for a few interesting effects as the performance proceeds without a pause to correct the matter. Still, the scale of Sokolov’s interpretive conception is awesome and often startling.

06 Benelli Mosell RachmaninovRachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2, Corelli Variations
Vanessa Benelli Mosell, London Philharmonic Orchestra
Decca 481 393

Review

The following review is an excerpt from Keyed In (May 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.

With a handful of recordings already in her discography, 30-year-old Italian pianist Vanessa Benelli Mosell has now added her orchestral debut with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2, Corelli Variations (Decca 481 393). The concerto is a staple in the repertoire. The sheer beauty of Rachmaninoff’s writing makes it a good choice for a young performer breaking into the market. The real test of this work is, however, the second movement and it’s here that Mosell truly proves herself as a musician. This movement is much less dense than the outer ones and leaves the performer quite exposed with sparse lines and slow tempos. What holds this movement together for Mosell is the honesty of her playing. Nothing’s contrived. Her phrasings are straightforward but clearly the product of much thought. She and Rachmaninoff are the perfect match.

The disc also includes Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op.42. The 20 variations are an extremely demanding set to perform. Mosell plays through them with impressive ease, meeting every demand for big powerful sound as well as the deepest introspection. It’s obvious she has invested a great deal in her interpretation and the impact is even more profound than her performance of the Concerto No.2. It’s quite surprising that the small filler piece on the recording’s program steals the show so convincingly.

01 Rafal BlechaczJohann Sebastian Bach
Rafal Blechacz
Deutsche Grammophon 479 5534

Review

The following review is an excerpt from Keyed In (April 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.

Words fail spectacularly in trying to describe Rafal Blechacz’s performance on Johann Sebastian Bach (Deutsche Grammophon 479 5534). Playing Bach demands rigour, stamina, discipline. It also requires a profound intellectual grasp of Bach’s contrapuntal intentions. Critical too, is an innate ability to draw from Bach’s writing that unique idea that can be credibly shared by composer and performer as jointly original. In some speechlessly wondrous way, that happens on this disc.

The Partitas Nos.1 in B-flat Major and 3 in A Minor are the familiar collection of Baroque dances. They are, however, raised to a remarkable standard of exhilarating technical display, framed by tasteful expression. Blechacz plays them with emotional vulnerability and unmatched lyricism. Each set concludes with a memorably blazing Gigue.

Blechacz plays the Italian Concerto in F Major BWV 971 at a sustained speed that hasn’t been matched since Alexis Weissenberg broke the sound barrier with his recording in the mid 1960’. Still, there is striking clarity throughout the first and third movements that offers every opportunity to discern the inner counter melodies racing past each other to the final measure.

The Fantasia and Fugue in A Minor BWV 944 offers an unbelievably long and complex fugal subject that cascades through its development section with ease under Blechacz’s hands. He ends the disc with a rapturous performance of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring – Dame Myra Hess’ arrangement.

02 Andras SchiffEncores after Beethoven
Andras Schiff
ECM New Series 1950 B0025872-02

Review

The following review is an excerpt from Keyed In (April 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.

Blechacz was the winner of the 15th International Chopin Piano Competition. This is his sixth recording for Deutsche Grammophon in addition to a handful of others. You might as well start collecting them now. Andras Schiff presented his cycle of the 32 Beethoven sonatas at the Zürich Tonhalle from 2004 to 2006. His choice of encore after each concert was quite deliberate and they have now been compiled into Encores after Beethoven (ECM New Series 1950 B0025872-02).

Schiff sought to link the encore in some musical way to the sonatas he’d played on the program that night. These live recordings document his choices. Although now separated from their original context, they still carry a residual connection to the music that preceded them, and Schiff uses his notes as a brief outline to explain these relationships.

The opening selections by Schubert, from Three Piano Pieces D946 and Allegretto in C Minor D915 are linked by a strong conceptual kinship to Beethoven’s Sonatas Op.2 and Op.7 as well as Op.10 and Op.13. The Mozart encore Eine Kleine Gigue in G Major K574 is a humourous study in fugal form like the finale of Beethoven’s Sonata Op.10 No.2 on that evening’s program.

Beethoven had originally intended the Andante Favori in F Major WoO57 to be the second movement of the Waldstein Sonata Op. 53, before eventually setting it aside. Schiff used it as the encore for his performance of the Waldstein.

The final movement of the Hammerklavier is an enormous fugue, understood to reflect Beethoven’s admiration for Bach and his evolution of the form. Schiff’s choice of encore for that performance was Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in B Flat Minor BWV867.

The encores are presented on the disc in the date sequence of their performance and show the program information that preceded them. The Zurich audiences listen in rapt silence and reveal themselves only to applaud enthusiastically.

05 Glass OlafssonPhilip Glass – Piano Works
Vikingur Olafsson
Deutsche Grammophon 479 6918

Review

The following review is an excerpt from Keyed In (April 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.

Mid-30s Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson is a Juilliard graduate and a busy concert performer with a passion for contemporary music. His acquaintance with Philip Glass makes for fascinating reading in the liner notes of his new recording, Philip Glass – Piano Works (Deutsche Grammophon 479 6918).

The recording is largely devoted to 11 of the 20 Études that Glass wrote between 1999 and 2012. Olafsson plays them from a personal place of detachment but with all the subtlety and nuance they require. His performance of the final Étude No.20 is striking for its otherworldly feel. He relates the story of asking Glass how this one étude came to be so different and how the composer answered that he didn’t know, he just somehow found himself out in space.

The disc also includes the now well-known Opening from Glassworks as its first track. The same piece appears again as the final track, but reworked for piano and string quartet. It’s a very satisfying comparison. The reworked version comes across with richer sonority, and with the piano taking on a much lesser role than might be expected.

Olafsson has produced a very fine performance in a field growing ever more populous. The calibre of his playing assures he will always stand out.

03 Chopin ChoChopin – Piano Concerto No.1; Ballades; London Symphony Orchestra; Gianandrea Noseda
Seong-Jin Cho
Deutsche Grammophon 4795941

Review

The following review is an excerpt from Keyed In (March 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.

Seong-Jin Cho won the 17th International Chopin Piano Competition in 2015, the first Korean to do so. His latest recording Chopin – Piano Concerto No.1; Ballades; London Symphony Orchestra; Gianandrea Noseda (Deutsche Grammophon 4795941) shows how his focus on the singing qualities of Chopin’s ideas won him that coveted prize. Cho’s treatment of the principal melodic ideas in the opening movement is fluid and lyrical. Even his ornaments come across more as small eddies in a current than clusters of notes on a page. The second movement Romance is exquisite. Cho manages to retain a fragility about his playing, even through the slightly more assertive middle section. His technical display in the final movement is flawlessly clear.

The Ballades too, reveal Cho’s fascination with the singing qualities of Chopin’s ideas. Much of the Ballade No. 1 in G Minor Op.23 is remarkably understated, making for a starker contrast with the outburst of the middle section as well as the closing measures. The Ballade No.2 follows in a similar vein. The effectiveness of Cho’s playing lies as much in his virtuosity as in his ability to fall into Chopin’s moments of repose with a delicacy that transcends the pianissimo markings. He’s a tall young man whose interviews reveal a shyness, a non-star-like simplicity that seems to suit him perfectly for this music.

09 Jack GallagherJack Gallagher - Piano Music
Frank Huang
Centaur CRC 3522

Review

The following review is an excerpt from Keyed In (February 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.

American composer Jack Gallagher claims the piano is not his principal instrument, but his apology evaporates as soon as you hear his music. In Jack Gallagher Piano Music (Centaur CRC 3522) pianist Frank Huang captures the colour and imagination of Gallagher’s writing whether in works lighthearted or those more cerebral.

Gallagher writes with a great care for structure. Form and planning are important to him. This makes his works easy to navigate for both listener and performer while he evolves his more complex musical material.

Huang plays this repertoire with ease and familiarity. Works like the Sonata for Piano are very technically demanding as is Malambo Nouveau. Others like Six Bagatelles and Sonatina for Piano, less so. Still, works like Six Pieces for Kelly, written specifically for young performers, never lack for a mature and profoundly musical touch. Every so often a Gershwin-like harmony slips by, leaving an echo of Broadway and a reminder of how American this music is.

Huang’s performance is confident, bold and celebratory; Gallagher’s writing seems to induce those qualities. This recording is a perfect match between composer and performer.

01 Chopin DLX

The Complete Chopin - Deluxe Edition
Various Artists
Deutsche Grammophon 4796555

Review

 
The following is an excerpt from Old Wine in New Bottles - Fine Recordings Re-Released (February 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.
 
For The Complete Chopin – Deluxe Edition (DG 4796555, 20 CDs, one DVD, large 108 page book) DG has assembled an outstanding collection of well-chosen performances from its archives together with new recordings by many contemporary artists.

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth in 1810, DG issued Chopin, The Complete Edition on 17 CDs (DG 4778445) that certainly was complete as claimed and contained acclaimed performances of, well, everything. The contents of that edition are pretty well duplicated in this new one… with some changes and four extra discs of some interesting alternative performances. Changes to this set are: The Arrau/Inbal versions of the works for piano and orchestra are replaced by a new June 2016 recording by Canadian Jan Lisiecki conducted by Krzysztof Urbanski; The Rondo for two pianos in C Major Op. posth.73 passes from Kurt Bauer and Heidi Bung to Daniil Trifonov and Sergei Babayan; For the 19 Waltzes, Ashkenazy is replaced by Alice Sara Ott; The Grand Duo concertant on themes by Meyerbeer finds Anner Bylsma and Lambert Orkis replaced by Gabriel Schwabe and José Galiado.

CD 18 in the new set is a live recording from the XVII International Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 2015 of the winner, South Korean Seong-Jin Cho who was 21 years old at the time. His artistry came as a pleasant surprise for, unlike many technical wizards, he plays with understanding beyond his years without empty artifice. There are the 24 Preludes, the Nocturne in C Minor Op.48 No.1, the Second Piano Sonata and finally the Polonaise in A-flat Major Op.53. All adding up to an unexpected, insightful and thrilling 73 minutes.

CD 19 has 20 legendary Chopin pianists, the usual suspects and others – Halina Czerny-Stefanska, Adam Harasiewicz, Monique Haas, Julian von Karolyi, Géza Anda and Stefan Askenase – playing familiar shorter pieces from the repertoire. CD 20 has pianists from the younger generation: Lisiecki, Trifonov, Blechacz, Grosvenor, Grimaud, Uja Wang and others. Disc 21 is a DVD of Arthur Rubinstein playing the Second Piano Concerto with André Previn conducting the LSO in 1947 and the Second Scherzo from 1973. Both very worthwhile in very good video.

The new edition is an overtly opulent production in the form of a unique 11” wide x 8” tall “book” bound in burgundy vinyl moleskin, with gold embossed boards. Enclosed is an impressive, well-researched and illustrated 11” x 7 5/8” 108-page book. If you own the earlier set you may not consider this a reasonable purchase. If you don’t, the peerless new edition is certainly the one to have.

04 Tchaikovsky Quartes 1 3

The Heath Quartet
Tchaikovsky String Quartets Nos.1 & 3

Review

The following is an exerpt from the November 2016 Strings Attached.

The British string ensemble the Heath Quartet has built an enviable reputation for itself since its foundation at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester in 2002, and garnered glowing reviews for its 2013/14 recording of the complete string quartets of Sir Michael Tippett that comprised its debut CD on the Wigmore Hall Live label last year.

Their new CD of Tchaikovsky String Quartets Nos.1 & 3 (HMU 907665) marks the start of a new relationship with the outstanding Harmonia Mundi label, and what a start it is!

The String Quartet No.1 in D Major Op.11 was written for a March 1871 concert intended to promote Tchaikovsky and his music, and includes the famous Andante cantabile slow movement which almost immediately achieved a life of its own. The Heath Quartet is in tremendous form from the outset, with full-bodied and passionate playing, a warm, rich tone, a lovely dynamic range and sensitive phrasing.

The players for the first performance, assembled from Tchaikovsky’s colleagues at the Moscow Conservatory, were mostly the same for the String Quartet No.2 in 1874. Ferdinand Laub, the Czech first violinist in both performances, died the following year at 43, and the String Quartet No.3 in E-flat Minor Op.30 was Tchaikovsky’s response to the loss. The third movement Andante funebre e doloroso was intended as an elegy to Laub, and not surprisingly made the biggest impression at the premiere. It really is played quite beautifully here.

The Heath Quartet’s next CD release will be the complete Bartók quartets in 2017, apparently recorded during its performance of the complete cycle at London’s Wigmore Hall this past May. That cycle won rave reviews in The Telegraph, and if this outstanding Tchaikovsky CD is anything to go by the Bartók issue should really be something to look forward to.

Concert note: The Heath Quartet will feature music of Bach, Beethoven, Bartók and Dvořák during its Canadian debut tour which includes performances at the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society on January 20 and Mooredale Concerts in Toronto on January 22.

 

03 Papineau Couture

Jean Papineau-Couture - String Quartets 1-4
Quatuor Molinari
ATMA ACD2 2751

Review

The following is an excerpt from Editor's Corner (December 2016) which can be read in its entirety here.

I grew up understanding that John Weinzweig was the “Dean of Canadian Composers” but in my formative years came to the realization that, as with so many things Canadian, there are Two Solitudes and that Jean Papineau-Couture (1916-2000) was “The Dean” in La Belle Province. He was born into one of the most distinguished Quebec families and his forebears include the statesman Louis-Joseph Papineau and the composer Guillaume Couture, who was his paternal grandfather. As a matter of fact Papineau-Couture was named in honour of his grandfather’s masterwork, the oratorio Jean le Précurseur, John the Baptist.

There are many parallels between the two “deans.” After studies at home in Toronto, Weinzweig went to the USA to study at the Eastman School and Papineau-Couture left his native Montreal to attend the New England Conservatory and later studied with the iconic Nadia Boulanger who spent the war years in America. Both moved back to Canada to establish careers as composers and university professors. They were founding members of the Canadian League of Composers (CLC) and the Canadian Music Centre (CMC) and enjoyed a friendly rivalry over the decades. I had the pleasure of meeting Papineau-Couture on several occasions and the privilege of interviewing him for my program Transfigured Night at CKLN-FM in the 1980s. He was a charming man and a generous soul, a fierce champion of the rights of artists and staunch defender of serious culture. He was also an active administrator serving as the president of the CLC, the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec and the Canadian Music Council, dean of the music faculty at the Université de Montréal and the director of the Montreal office of the CMC.

I was delighted when I heard that Quatuor Molinari was recording his complete music for string quartet along with the string trio Slanó (ATMA ACD2 2751). And even more delighted to find that in addition to the String Quartets 1 and 2 with which I was familiar, there was a third from 1996 and an incomplete fourth recently found among his papers. So we are effectively presented with works spanning nearly half a century and all the periods of his mature career. String Quartet No.1 dates from 1953 and shows the influence of French composers of the early 20th century. By the centennial year when he composed String Quartet No.2, although eschewing the serial school of composition, he was exploring an expanded tonality using all 12 tones. It is the string trio from 1975 that is the most experimental, with its elaborate use of extended techniques and layering of timbres. Quartet No.3 is a one-movement work which presents a sense of stylistic transition, moving away from the somewhat abrasive world of the string trio, embracing a certain lushness while at the same time approaching the sparse lyricism with which we are presented in the posthumous final work. Although unfinished, I must say that it does not give the impression of being incomplete.

This is a wonderful retrospective of one of our most important composers on the occasion of his centennial and it includes two world premiere recordings. Kudos to founding first violinist Olga Ranzenhofer and the members of the Molinari Quartet for their ongoing commitment to the music of our time through recordings of some of the most significant works of the last half century and their efforts to develop new repertoire with the Molinari International Composition Competition, the sixth of which took place in 2015. Praise is also due to the designers of the attractive and informative package which includes some wonderful photos of Papineau-Couture throughout his life, from an adolescent in a sailor suit through to the pensive, but ever-smiling, grand old man.

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