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 Orlando di LassoOrlando di Lasso – Laudate Dominum
Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal; Andrew McAnerney
ATMA ACD2 2748

Review

Orlando di Lasso is generally considered to be one of the last and one of the finest composers of the Franco-Flemish school, a school (if that is the right word) that begins with Dufay and includes several great composers: Ockeghem and Josquin, de la Rue and Isaac. The forms that di Lasso’s motets take are often complex. Of the 13 on this disc none are in the standard four parts: six are for double choir (with eight, nine or ten voices), one is 12-part, one ten-part, one eight-part, one seven-part and one six-part. The organization within these parts also tends to be complex. In the six-part Te Deum the odd-numbered parts are plainchant and the even-numbered polyphonic. Omnia tempus habent sets the presentation of youth against old age by having a high voice choir of four sing the former and another four-voice choir, of low voices, sing the latter.

The Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal was founded in 1974 by Christopher Jackson and has, since Jackson’s recent death, been directed by Andrew McAnerney. On this record the choir consists of 13 singers who perform a cappella. This is challenging music, for the listener and the performer alike. The singing is glorious and the disc is strongly recommended.

06 Michele LosierTemps Nouveau
Michèle Losier; Olivier Godin
ATMA ACD2 2720

Review

Recognizing the versatility and musical quality of French poetry – and inspired by the German Lied – French composers of the 19th and 20th century made the lodie immensely popular. The rich and resonant qualities of Michèle Losier’s voice along with the impeccable technique of pianist Olivier Godin suit this repertoire beautifully. The mezzo-soprano’s “deep affection for the works of Massenet, Gounod and Bizet” is clearly evident in her mature and evocative delivery. Deep emotion tempered by tenderness and sensitivity is brilliantly executed in Massenet’s Dors, ami and Élégie.

Remarkable in French art song is the manner in which composers treat the flow and contour of the language, freeing themselves from the strophic and emphasizing subtleties of phrasing and rhythmic patterns that only a native French speaker like Losier can master. And, with experience performing Mercedes in Carmen, she implicitly understands the dramatic qualities of Bizet’s Absence and the playful humour of his La Coccinelle. In the title track by Saint-Saëns, Temps Nouveau, the New Brunswick-born singer conveys her absolute delight in nature and its ever-changing seasons. The interpretations are both warm and highly intelligent.

07 Aida GarifullinaAida Garifullina
Aida Garifullina; ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien; Cornelius Meister
Decca 478 8305

Review

Perhaps it is the wind from the steppes of the Russian Federation that keeps blowing in soprano after soprano, the likes of Anna Netrebko, Olga Peretyatko, Ekaterina Siurina… and now this young spinto from the Tatar republic, Aida Garifullina, Decca’s newest star, a favourite of Valery Gergiev and Placido Domingo whose Operalia Competition she won in 2013.

 Already a darling of TV audiences in Europe: at the Bastille Day big open air concert in Paris, partnered by Juan Diego Florez, with the great Gatti conducting; her sensational appearance as Queen of the Vienna Opera Ball singing her signature tune Ah! Je veux vivre was a sight to behold! No wonder the Mariinsky Theatre and the Vienna State Opera snapped her up pretty quickly for some lead roles.

This debut disc shows off her stunning voice in predominantly opera, her main interest, of French and Russian composers – Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninoff – in opera and Lieder repertoire plus, as a tribute to her Tatar ancestry, some native songs. Fearlessly she tackles the formidably difficult Bell Song from Lakmé right at the beginning with spectacular coloratura acrobatics mingled with a wistful oriental charm supported beautifully by the lush orchestration. Oriental flavour continues with Song of India sung with rapt sensuous enchantment and I was very pleased by the surprising inclusion of the gorgeous but rarely heard Seduction Aria from Le Coq d’Or, a recently acquired favourite of mine.

Suitably conducted with great panache by Staatsoper conductor Cornelius Meister and beautifully recorded in Vienna, one could say with the song This could be the start of something…great.

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.

02 Puccini TurandotPuccini – Turandot
Nina Stemme; Maria Agresta; Aleksandrs Antonenko; Coro e Orchestra del Teatro Alla Scala; Riccardo Chailly
Decca 071 3937

Review

Puccini’s regretfully unfinished Turandot was premiered at La Scala in 1926 under the baton of Toscanini. It was a likely choice to celebrate Milano Expo 2015, directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff and conducted with passion and vehemence by La Scala’s new music director, Riccardo Chailly. It also features a new ending composed (in 2001) by modernist Luciano Berio that unfortunately does away with the jubilant and exuberant finale that served well for over 80 years and which one would expect after the cruel and terrifying mayhem of this fairy-tale opera.

The opulent and impressive monumental, symmetrical set suggests a timeless, universal rather than explicitly Chinese milieu with an ever-present bloodthirsty crowd of identical gloomy figures in dark gowns and face masks reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Gorgeous colours shift according to the mood of each scene and the central focus is the Emperor or the Princess elongated into divine proportions.

True to the spirit of La Scala the singers are top quality. Famous Swedish soprano Nina Stemme (Turandot) has phenomenal presence in her black multi-dimensional costume, her voice impressive as it soars over the theatre in the showstopper In questa Reggia. The grand tradition of Pavarotti lives on in Aleksandrs Antonenko’s splendid Nessun Dorma. The riddle scene is a spectacular climax with both tenor and soprano in top form dramatically and vocally. Maria Agresta (Liu) was touching, beautifully singing Tanto amore, segreto with a gossamer-like ethereal vocal line. There is a commedia dell’arte quality in the comedy trio of the three Chinese ministers consistent with the surrealistic feel of this unorthodox but impressive and thought-provoking production.

02 Ottensamer New EraNew Era – Stamitz; Danzi; Mozart
Andreas Ottensamer; Kammerakademie Potsdam; Emmanuel Pahud; Albrecht Mayer
Decca 481 4711

Review

Andreas Ottensamer, principal clarinet of the Berlin Philharmonic, has released a delightful assortment of tracks on a disc designed to educate and entertain. New Era refers to the period in Mannheim from the mid- to late-18th century, an epoch in which composers and performers consorted, collaborated and so consolidated what we now call the Classical Style.

Most wind players encounter Johann (père) and Carl (fils) Stamitz, as well as Franz Danzi, en route through undergraduate performance courses. Seldom are these composers heard outside of the academic recital hall, perhaps owing to the tendency in our own era to reduce and highlight, so that we use Mozart as a stand-in for an entire range of musical peaks, as we might with Everest for the Himalayas. These four composers are represented here. For once Mozart’s sublime Concerto K622 is left off the menu in favour of two transcribed arias (from Mitridate and Don Giovanni), and a fantasy on the beloved La ci darem la mano, written by Danzi. For substance, there is a concerto from each Stamitz, and a delightful Concertino by Danzi for clarinet and bassoon (transcribed to great effect for cor anglais). Danzi’s Fantasy is an early iteration of the virtuosic form where a technical tour de force is derived from the music of a popular opera.

Ottensamer plays with fluid precision and a surprisingly bright tone that suits the material; perhaps long gone are the days when to be a member of the Berlin Philharmonic meant using the darkest possible set-up. His articulation is crisp, his intonation trustworthy, and his improvisational cadenzas in the concerti are like rifts in the time-space continuum, somehow joining that New Era with our own. Collaborators include flutist Emmanuel Pahud (on both of Stephan Koncz’ transcriptions of the arias) and Albrecht Mayer on cor anglais, both colleagues of Ottensamer in Berlin, and like him brilliant instrumental musicians. The back-up band, Kammerakademie Potsdam, is equally brilliant under the clarinetist’s direction.

05 Bruckner BarenboimAnton Bruckner – The Complete Symphonies
Staatskapelle Berlin; Daniel Barenboim
Deutsche Grammophon 479 6985

Review

There is a story about Karajan that once when he got sick and had to cancel a few concerts, the Philharmoniker decided on Daniel Barenboim to substitute. As soon as he heard this, Karajan exclaimed “OMG not HIM!!” and sick no longer, he jumped out of bed and ran back to conduct.

Barenboim’s approach to Bruckner is different from the holier-than-thou century-old Germanic tradition, trademark of many venerable conductors, mostly dead by now. I remember the great Celibidache stopping the orchestra (the BPO) 15 times before reaching the end of the first bar of the Seventh Symphony to get the opening tremolando just right, his tempo so slow, the symphony ended up a half-hour longer than anybody else’s. Now Barenboim, a consummate musician, does not revere anything but the music, making it as enjoyable, interesting, even exciting as possible and his tempi in Bruckner have always been faster, but never rushed. This is true for this new, beautifully recorded set of the nine numbered symphonies, already the third such cycle in his career, but now on his own label Peral Music, under the aegis of Deutsche Grammophon. The orchestra this time is the Berlin Staatskapelle, one of the oldest in the world, once upon a time the Prussian Court orchestra which the maestro, being its director for the last 20 years, had moulded it into perfection. It even gives the famous Berlin Philharmoniker a run for its money.

There is a unified approach, a remarkable consistency, and the orchestral playing is incredibly precise. Most of the players are young, highly skilled, enthusiastic, very devoted to each other and simply revere their conductor. I have watched some of the performances (televised by medici.tv and Mezzo) and his conducting style avoids all histrionics and, being past 70, he budgets his strength and gets maximum effect with very little effort. All performances are solid, high-quality and the symphonies throb with life, infused with rhythmic vitality. One will discover previously unheard details in the tremendously rich orchestral palette and the conductor’s stamp is always felt. The fff outburst in the Largo of the Seventh Symphony has never been more impressive on record and made even me jump out of my seat practically hyperventilating. Incidentally this had been the moment of my own conversion to Bruckner some 40 years ago.

If you want to enjoy Bruckner rather than worship it, this is the set for you.

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.

02 Opus 8Melancholy & Mirth
Opus 8
Independent OPUS001 (opus8choir.com)

Review

Opus 8 is a new Toronto ensemble. This is their first disc. The ensemble consists of eight singers and it is directed by Robert Busiakiewicz, who also sings tenor. Busiakiewicz is the director of the choir of St. James Cathedral in Toronto and a number of the singers in Opus 8 are members of the cathedral choir.

Great care has been taken on this disc to provide songs from different periods. The oldest is Josquin des Prez’s great elegy on the death of Johannes Ockeghem; the most recent is a folk-song arrangement by Keith Roberts, who was born in 1971 (when I myself was in my early 30s). In between we have Renaissance madrigals (Thomas Weelkes and John Ward), part-songs by Delius and Parry and 20th-century works by Ravel and Schoenberg, Stockhausen and Maconchy. There is also variation in the number of singers employed: the three Ravel songs take the form of a duet between mezzo and tenor; the Stockhausen sets a soprano soloist against the choir.

Different listeners will like different things. I myself could do without the Martinů with which the disc opens. On the other hand, I was very moved by How are the mighty fallen by Robert Ramsey, an early 17th-century work, perhaps an elegy written on the death of Prince Henry, the British Crown Prince. I was also much taken by Elizabeth Maconchy’s piece on the burial of a dead cat, sad and skittish at the same time.

The performances are very fine in terms of rhythmic precision and purity of intonation. I look forward to the group’s next concert and their next CD.

01 Ensemble la CigaleUp in the Morning Early – Baroque Music from Celtic Countries
Ensemble La Cigale
Leaf Music LM 211 (leaf-music.ca)

Review

Quebec-based early music ensemble La Cigale has a hit on its hands with this collection of Baroque instrumental music from Celtic countries. The tight ensemble playing, sensitivity to style and musical moods, and clear production values, showcase a range of performances from the witty to the danceable to thoughtful to florid.

The large number of works featured is mind-boggling and educational for any Celtic music fan. The opening track is the ensemble’s arrangement of the Scottish song John Come Kiss Me Now. Complete with the lilt and bounce of the faster sections, and lyrical recorder in the slower sections, it is a successful combination of classical with Celtic folk traditions, and foreshadows the flavourful music to follow. Scottish music is the big feature, with works by James Oswald, William McGibbon and General John Reid. Five short Scottish lute works from the Rowallan and Straloch Lute Books circa early 1600s are given a breathless rendition by artistic director Madeleine Owen, especially in the waltzing songbird tune The Canaries. Irish composer Turlough O’Carolan’s Carolan’s Concerto is a curious mix of Irish folk and serious Italian art music.

The touching closing track is the group’s very loyal, respectful arrangement of the Canadian fiddler Oliver Schroer’s (1956-2008) modern day lyrical Celtic work A Thousand Thank-yous.

And more than a thousand thank yous to director Madeline Owen (lute, theorbo, Baroque guitar), Sara Lackie (harp), Vincent Lauzer (recorders), Marie-Laurence Primeau (viola da gamba) and Sari Tsuji (violin) for this joyous music!

 

05 Pictures at an ExhibitionMussorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition
Wiener Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel
Deutsche Grammophon 479 6297

Review

Of all the composers in the Russian nationalist school “The Mighty Handful,” Mussorgsky is arguably the greatest. True, Rimsky-Korsakov’s highly colourful style left its mark on Glazunov and Stravinsky, but it was Mussorgsky’s works that were ground-breaking. And though Rimski-Korsakov disparaged Mussorgsky’s work as having “absurd, disconnected harmony, ugly part-writing, sometimes strikingly illogical modulation…” these characteristics were grist to the mill for Mussorgsky’s power, earthiness and sheer musical invention that inform, for instance, the mighty work: Pictures at an Exhibition (1874). This tribute to the architect and painter Victor Hartmann was written as a suite of piano pieces and, like other versions, not performed until after Mussorgsky’s death.

This Wiener Philharmoniker version conducted by Gustavo Dudamel comes from Maurice Ravel’s 1922 orchestration. Unlike every previous recording of Pictures at an Exhibition – including Berliner Philharmoniker and Claudio Abbado’s – in this interpretation (of Ravel’s Mussorgsky) Dudamel restores Mussorgsky’s Pictures to its architectural grandeur. The ten pictures – each one an atmospheric miniature – are connected by a recurring theme (the Promenade) and suggest Liszt’s influence, but with a greater psychological insight. The sinister melancholy of Gnomus, playfulness of Tuileries and grand triumphalism of The Great Gate of Kiev are dazzling. The intense beauty of the performance is completed by Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and the Waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Now all we need is a documentary of the 900 Superar children aged 5 to 16, from Vienna’s tenth district that contributed to this project.

Editor’s Note: Superar is a high quality musical program for young people. The program is free for participants and offers courses in choirs and orchestras. Superar is an offer to young people who for various reasons have little or no access to cultural education. Superar was founded in 2009 by Vienna’s renowned institutions the Wiener Sängerknaben, the Caritas of the Archdiocese of Vienna and the Wiener Konzerthaus.

03 Weinberg KremerMieczyslav Weinberg – Chamber Symphonies; Piano Quintet
Kremerata Baltica; Gidon Kremer
ECM New Series 2538/39

Review

In his late 60s, Mieczyslav Weinberg began reaching back over 40 years, transforming three unpublished string quartets into three Chamber Symphonies for string orchestra, making numerous changes and composing new movements for each. Many Hindemith-like neo-Baroque melodies and sequences indicate Weinberg’s early stylistic orientation.

 Chamber Symphony No.1 (1986) is sunny, graceful and dance-like, its Presto finale resembling an episode from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. No.2 (1987) is darker and more dramatic, the newly composed middle movement a wry Mahlerian ländler. No.3 (1990), based on a quartet from 1945, is darker still, its first and third movements sombre reflections of their wartime origins. The vigorous second movement suggests the influence of Shostakovich, Weinberg’s friend and mentor whose stylistic fingerprints cover many pages of Weinberg’s scores, including the newly composed, eerily haunting Andantino that ends No.3.

 As much as I enjoyed No.3, I was unprepared for the emotional impact of Chamber Symphony No.4 (1992), Weinberg’s last completed work, containing quotations from several of his mature compositions. Here, Weinberg truly sounds like no one else but himself. In this profoundly affecting music, I hear a lifetime of experiences – long-ago loves, losses, pleasures and griefs, the klezmer clarinet an aching echo from Weinberg’s childhood in Poland, before he fled the Nazis to live in Russia. I consider it a masterpiece.

 Weinberg’s youthfully robust Piano Quintet (1944), arranged by Weinberg enthusiast Gidon Kremer and percussionist Andrei Pushkarev, completes this very significant and satisfying 2-CD set.

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