07 Old Wine 01a Karajan Symphony EditionKarajan Symphony Edition
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Deutsche Grammophon 4778005

The following is an excerpt from the October 2014 Old Wine in New Bottles.

Review

The Karajan Symphony Edition (4778005) is an extraordinary offering: 38 CDs for no more than $60 retail! Here are the complete Beethoven symphonies (1972 version) + overtures; the four Brahms symphonies + Haydn Variations and Tragic Overture, the nine Bruckner symphoniesHaydn’s Paris and London Symphonies; Mendelssohn’s five symphonies; Mozart’s late symphonies; Schumann’s four symphonies and Tchaikovsky’s six symphonies, etc. All the discs reflect the latest remasterings. How is this giveaway price possible? There are a few factors to consider: DG owns the masters; the recording sessions are long ago paid for and DG is making a lot of copies for worldwide distribution. It still is hard to figure out, but who’s complaining?

03 Classical 07 NYOCDaphnis et Chloé
National Youth Orchestra of Canada; Emmanuel Villaume
Independent NYOC2014CD (nyoc.org)

Review

The great bandleader and clarinetist Benny Goodman once reflected: “Too many young musicians today want to win polls before they learn their instruments.” Quite clearly, this sentiment doesn’t apply to the gifted young musicians in Canada’s National Youth Orchestra. For more than 50 years now, the NYOC has been a bridge between academic studies and a professional career, providing experience and high-quality training for young performers.

These high standards continue to be evident in their tenth and latest CD, an attractively packaged two-disc set featuring music by Ravel, Wagner, Richard Strauss, Neal Gripp and Jordan Pal under the direction of Emmanuel Villaume.

Despite a lukewarm reception at its premiere in 1912, Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé has long been regarded as his masterpiece. Typically Gallic, the score is sophisticated and sensuous, and the NYOC does it full justice. The ensemble achieves a sonorous, full-bodied sound with a wonderful melding of strings, woodwind and brass. While the tempos are perhaps a little more languorous at times than customary, this doesn’t necessarily detract from a fine performance.

The second disc brings us to 19th-century Germany and 21st-century North America. Wagner’s Prelude to the first act of Lohengrin is quietly introspective, the warmth of the NYOC strings evoking the magical mood of the fairy tale opera to come. In total contrast, the popular 1895 tone poem Til Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss is all exuberance and jollity, where the puckish charm of the hero is fittingly characterized by a virtuosic brass section.

The remaining two compositions are recent creations. Violist Neal Gripp’s Passacaglia was intended as a dialogue between flutist Carolyn Christie and her musical colleagues in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Archly neo-romantic, the music has an elegantly elegiac mood, contrasting with the bombastic The Afar by NYOC composer-in-residence Jordan Pal. A musical depiction of the Afar triangle in Ethiopia, the score is exciting and colourful, requiring the youthful ensemble to pull out all the stops. It does so admirably, bringing the disc – and the set – to a most satisfying conclusion.

 

04 Modern 03 John FarrahBetween Carthage and Rome
John Kameel Farah
BRM BRM6328 (johnfarah.com)

Review

Canadian composer, pianist and visual artist John Kameel Farah, currently based in both Toronto and Berlin, calls this album a “book of fugues, fantasies for piano and electronics, and synthesizer landscapes.” It is all that, and then some. Unfortunately, I have space to touch on only a few aspects of this important culture-bridging work.

Showcasing his adventurous, sophisticated stylistic mash-up of 17th-, 19th- and 20th-century European and Middle Eastern musical timbres, and melodic, textural and performance sensibilities, Farah’s album seamlessly mixes his acoustic grand piano performances with sounds from electronic sources and sound field treatments. It is all presented in his signature hybrid manner, imbued at times with the ethos of ambient minimalism.

There is another salient element: Farah’s unique composer voice. Particularly convincing is his sure-handed shaping of overall form, adventurous harmonic movement, counterpoint, rhythmic vitality and sheer melodic inventiveness. The latter comes to the fore in the monody-centred works evoking a Middle Eastern modal landscape, as in parts of Sama’i Point and Between Carthage and Rome. A transcultural historically informed narrative, suggested by the title, is manifest in the vigourous interaction between the European and Middle Eastern musical vocabularies employed here. It argues for the exploration of, as the composer put it, “ties and intertwining developments of many civilizations on both sides of the Mediterranean.”

Throughout, Farah’s sensitive, brilliant touch on the piano keyboard, as well as his plucking and muting its strings with fingertips, is a luxurious listening pleasure.

04 Modern 04 Elizabeth Raum

Myth, Legend, Romance – Concertos of Elizabeth Raum
Various Artists
Centrediscs CMCCD 20615

Review

Three orchestral concertos telling stories ancient, old and modern by Canadian composer Elizabeth Raum are featured in this gorgeous release.

Raum has won numerous awards, grants and accolades throughout her career. Here her compositions may not be the most adventurous but her romantic-infused melodies and harmonies and storytelling programmatic ideas result in lush colours, challenging virtuosic soloist parts and clear orchestral writing.

Persephone and Demeter is a tone poem based on the ancient Greek legend. The mother and daughter are musically represented by violist Rivka Golani and the composer’s violinist daughter Erika Raum. Both soloists are touching in their performances of their relationship, especially when the daughter is stolen to the Underworld. The tuba and horns of the Regina Symphony under Victor Sawa are menacing as Hades and the Underworld.

The liner notes describe Sherwood Legend as “movie music without the movie.” And so it is! In this extremely uplifting, amusing piece based on Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, French horn soloist Kurt Kellan’s performance hits the bull’s eye in tone, touch and technique, with a fine performance by the Calgary Philharmonic under Sawa.

Concerto for Violin (Faces of Woman) is less programmatic figuratively speaking but the writing brings out a tour-de-force performance by violinist Erika Raum and the Sneak Peek Orchestra under Victor Cheng. Using snippets from her daughter’s own compositions, Elizabeth has created the best musical gift a mother could give!

No myths here – this is music to be enjoyed!

December Editor scans 01 When Music SoundsWhen Music Sounds
Joan Harrison; Elaine Keillor
Naxos 9.70126

The following is an excerpt from David Olds Editor's Corner December 2014

 

Review

It has been a hard choice this month winnowing down the plethora of new and exciting discs that have crossed my desk to the few that will fit in my allotted space. The top of the pile is a recent release on the Naxos Canadian Classics label, When Music Sounds (9.70126), featuring cello and piano music by some of this country’s most significant pioneers. I first heard rumours of this recording five years ago when I was preparing the discography for John Weinzweig: Essays on His Life and Music edited by John Beckwith and Brian Cherney (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2011). Noted pianist and musicologist Elaine Keillor notified us that she had just recorded Weinzweig’s Sonata for Cello and Piano “Israel” (1949) with cellist Joan Harrison and although the disc was not available in time to be included in the book I have been looking forward to its release ever since. Although I did not realize how much time would pass before the disc would be in hand, I must say that seeing it released by Naxos with its global distribution has been worth the wait. Weinzweig’s sonata, dedicated to the newly established state of Israel, blends his use of 12-tone technique, which he had been developing over a decade at that point, and Jewish-influenced melodies, with the cello acting as the voice of a cantor.

The disc is bookended by two works by Jean Coulthard, When Music Sounds, a short and very lyrical, if somewhat contemplative work dating from 1970 making it by far the most recent composition to be found here, and the Sonata for Cello and Piano (1946) which I must confess is my favourite selection with its shades of Debussy and cascading melodies. Violet Archer is represented by another work in traditional form, the four-movement Sonata for Cello and Piano (1956, rev.1972). Again a lyrical work, but with an edge, especially in the driving toccata-like finale. There is one delightful surprise on the disc, the charming Chants oubliés and Danse (1916) by someone whose name is very familiar, but not as a composer. Evidently Alberto Guerrero (1886-1959), likely best known as Glenn Gould’s main (only?) piano teacher, was highly regarded as a composer, pianist and pedagogue in his native Chile before settling in Toronto. If this work is any indication we can only regret that he gave up composing, although we certainly have to be thankful that he did not abandon pedagogy since through nurturing the remarkable talents of Gould, Guerrero left an indelible mark on this country and the musical world.

Regarding the sound of the disc I do have a few qualms, mostly with the sound of the cello. Recorded in City View Church in Ottawa by Anton Kwiatkowski’s Audio Masters I am surprised to find the cello quite harsh, a characteristic of the particular instrument itself rather than the playing I suspect. It works quite well in the Archer, but I would like a warmer sound in the more lyrical works. That thought notwithstanding, this is still a significant release. The recordings of the title track and the Guerrero are world premieres, the Archer has not previously existed on compact disc as far as I can tell and the Weinzweig and Coulthard sonatas have had only one iteration each on CD. Now, if we could have a recording of Barbara Pentland’s cello sonata from 1943 please…

December Editor scans 02 Sounds of Our TimeSounds of Our Time
Mercer-Park Duo
Naxos 9.70212

The following is an excerpt from David Olds Editor's Corner December 2014

Review

I grew up with the understanding that Weinzweig, Archer and Coulthard were the first generation of Canadian composers and they were already in the late stages of their careers as I was coming to musical consciousness. But the works presented by Harrison and Keillor are the creations of young(ish) composers, the most senior being Archer at the ripe old age of 43 (although she did revisit the work almost two decades later). In another Naxos Canadian Classics release, Sounds of Our Time (9.70212), we are given the opportunity to hear a new generation of composers, ranging in age from 22 to 35 at the time of composition. Again the works are for cello and piano, in this instance performed by the Mercer-Park Duo (Rachel Mercer and Angela Park), themselves emerging artists at the beginning of blossoming careers, who perform together in a variety of contexts including this duo, the Seiler Piano Trio, the Kang-Mercer-Park Trio and the piano quartet Ensemble Made In Canada. They have each received innumerable distinctions, perhaps most notably Mercer’s being awarded the loan of the 1696 Bonjour Stradivarius cello from the Canada Council Instrument Bank from 2009 to 2012 which is heard in all its glory on this recording. I said the works were for cello and piano, but in one instance this is not the case and we get to hear the Strad in duet with itself as Mercer plays both parts in Ex Animo for Two Cellos, a 2010 composition by 22-year-old Hunter Coblentz. Producer Norbert Kraft says the process of overdubbing was a new one for him as a classical recording engineer, where the norm is one player per instrument, but the end result is entirely convincing with no hint of prestidigitation in the warm and well-balanced performance.

Coblentz is just one of the names new to me here. The disc starts with William Rowson’s (b.1977) Sonata for Cello and Piano (2012) and finishes with I Thirst (2008) by Mark Nerenberg (b.1973), both composers I was unaware of. Rowson’s opens with belling chords in the piano and a lilting melody in the cello which is later traded back and forth between the players. Like all the works on the disc, chosen by the duo for their immediate appeal, there is strong lyricism and fairly traditional tonality combined with a sense of drama. Inspired by the Seven Last Words (of Christ on the Cross), I Thirst is a bit of an exception with its mood of quiet contemplation providing a gentle and effective end to a marvellous journey.

In between we encounter the work of a couple of more established composers, Kevin Lau and Abigail Richardson-Schulte, both laureates of the Karen Keiser Prize at the University of Toronto. Lau is currently an affiliate composer of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, a post that Richardson-Schulte held from 2006 to 2009. She continues as the coordinator of the TSO’s annual New Creations Festival and is currently Composer-in-Residence with the Hamilton Philharmonic. Lau’s one movement work Starsail (2008) represents, in the composer’s words, “one individual’s journey into the great unknown, both beautiful and terrifying in its infinitude and mystery.” As the cello sails through the oft-stormy textures of the piano we are taken along for a wild ride with a transcendental ending. Richardson-Schulte’s Crossings (2011), although couched in a traditional four-movement chamber form, employs some interesting contemporary alternatives to standard practices which the composer outlines in the program note. Of particular interest to my ears is the quietly playful second movement in which the pianist explores the inside of the instrument with the aid of a ping-pong ball resulting in some unusual sounds. This work was commissioned by the Mercer-Park Duo and, like the rest of the pieces included here, is a world premiere recording. Throughout the performances are brilliant and the sound, recorded in Glenn Gould Studio, is flawless.

At the launch for this new “disc” I was surprised to learn that it is one of Naxos’ digital only releases. I wondered how this could be as I looked down at the hard-copy in my hand and was told that the duo had requested some physical product to sell at performances. Evidently this is the way of the immediate future. Naxos (and other companies) are quickly moving away from the production of discs and in many instances downloads will be the only way to obtain new releases other than from the artists themselves. As a staunch believer in full frequency listening (not possible with mp3s) I am initially skeptical about this new development. I have been assured however that “lossless” formats do exist and that Naxos will be offering “high definition” downloads that exceed the audio standards of the compact disc. I am not yet convinced, but will try to keep an open mind (and ear) as we explore the various options and possibilities in WholeNote articles in the coming months.

01 Vocal 02 Cecelia BartoliSt. Petersburg
Cecilia Bartoli; I Barocchisti; Diego Fasolis
Decca 478 6767

Review

With celebrity comes responsibility, at least it should in the arts. That is why many celebrated soloists, once having established themselves with the standard repertoire, seek new or forgotten gems to create their legacy. After all, Maria Callas opened our ears anew to the music of Cherubini and Bellini.

Cecilia Bartoli, a mezzo, whose impact on the musical scene was in my opinion at times overestimated, has researched and recorded a fascinating disc of largely forgotten music. In stark contrast to 2014, Russians of the 1700s desperately tried to emulate and get closer to Western Europe. Peter the Great, he of St. Petersburg and the infamous “beard tax,” started a cultural trend that continued until the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution. A large part of this Europeanization of Russia was a musical development, encouraged and supervised by three Tsaritsas – Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine the Great. The course chosen by those powerful women was to import Italian opera wholesale, including Italian composers and Italian musical sensibilities. Famously, Porpora refused to be seduced by the “Third Rome” (as the Tsars referred to their capitol, suggesting that they had continued with the Byzantine tradition). This opened the way for lesser talents such as Francesco Domenico Araia and Vinzenco Manfredini. Alas, even Cimarosa contributed to this “Russian renaissance,” which came to an abrupt halt when Catherine the Great turned her attention to the stage plays of Voltaire and Diderot.

Found in the archives of the Mariinsky Theatre, the works recorded here are restored to life in a lavishly illustrated edition, played with great sensitivity by I Barocchisti. Kudos to Bartoli for this find, although the arias themselves at times tax her stubbornly small mezzo.

01 Vocal 05 Milhaud OrestieMilhaud – L’Orestie d’Eschyle
Soloists; University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra, Chorus and Percussion Ensemble; Kenneth Kiesler
Naxos 8.660349-51

Review

Aeschylus’ Orestia trilogy was transformed by Paul Claudel and Darius Milhaud into two plays with music and one opera. For L’Agamemnon (1913), Milhaud created one notable imitative chorus with dramatic interpolations by Clytemnestra, who had just murdered her husband. From her entering high B onward, soprano Lori Phillips sings Clytemnestra splendidly. Modal harmony over long pedal notes, repetitive elements and insistent rhythm become an early manifestation of minimalism.

In Les Choéphores (1915-16) Orestes returns to avenge his father Agamemnon’s death. Milhaud’s choral magic continues in the funeral chorus underpinned by his characteristic orchestral parallel chords in different keys, and in the weeping Libation chorus “Go away my tears, drop by drop.” Dan Kempson’s baritone is lustrous in his compelling portrayal of Orestes. As the slave women’s leader Sophie Delphis is thrilling in her rhythmically spoken solo (spoken word poetry is not new!), amply propelled with no less than 15 percussionists in the “kitchen.”

Completing the trilogy is the three-act opera Les Euménides (1917-23) where Orestes is on trial. Presiding goddess Athena emerges as complex, awe-inspiring and three-voiced! Her hair-raising trios sung magnificently by Brenda Rae, Tamara Mumford and Jennifer Lane contain some of Milhaud’s most adventurous vocal writing. Throughout, the Michigan choirs and orchestra set a professional standard in this tremendous project initiated by Milhaud-taught composer William Bolcom. There’s much more to say, about the choruses and orchestra, about Milhaud’s Brazilian influences … a disc recommended for the intrigued.

 

02 Early 01a ConstantinopleMetamorfosi – Impressions Baroques
Suzie LeBlanc; Constantinople
Analekta AN 2 9142

02 Early 01b Leblanc Noel

La Veillée de Noël
Suzie LeBlanc
ATMA ACD2 2523

Review

Featuring the music of Barbara Strozzi and her mentors and contemporaries (Monteverdi, Kapsberger, Rossi, Merula and Landi), the incomparable soprano Suzie LeBlanc has teamed up with a most remarkable ensemble. In this recording, Constantinople looks to the early baroque with its well-established technique of infusing early and contemporary Western music with Persian musical traditions. And the repertoire of 17th-century Venice lends itself very well to the fusion, with its own tradition of highly-ornamented stylization, resulting in an intricate and marvellous interpretation. Joining theTabassian brothers Kiya (setar) and Ziya (percussion) are Enrique Solinis (baroque guitar/theorbo), Pierre-Yves Martel (viola da gamba) and Miren Zeberio (baroque violin). Unique exchanges abound amongst the instrumentalists, particularly in the Kapsberger selections, ever shifting in rhythmic nuance. It is a delight to hear LeBlanc interpret the songs of Barbara Strozzi, a singer and composer known as much for her intellect, learning and wit as her talent and beauty. LeBlanc skillfully captures her spirit. Her profoundly moving performance of Monteverdi’s Si dolce è il tormento bears witness to a wide range of emotion encapsulated in its simple strophic form. 

This has proven to be a particularly prolific year for LeBlanc. A scholar in her own right, she has also been busy of late researching rare Christmas tunes from France and Acadia, resulting in the release of a lovely collection on her latest CD, La Veillée de Noël.

03 Classical 01 Hummel Piano TriosHummel – Piano Trios 1
Gould Piano Trio
Naxos 8.573098

Review

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) was an influential composer, virtuoso piano performer and a well-known teacher during his lifetime. He was a student of many famous teachers: Clementi, Mozart, Albrechtsberger, Salieri and Haydn. His friends included Beethoven, Schubert and Goethe. He wrote beautiful music, mostly for piano, but also explored other less popular instruments (such as trumpet and guitar), and made Weimar a European musical capital while he was active there. Hummel’s musical aesthetics were founded on a classical model of clean lines and balanced melodies, at a time that was giving birth to a new wave of bravura piano players and general discontent with musical conventions. The world’s obsession with the romantic ideals could be the main reason why Hummel’s music was forgotten after his death.

The piano trios on this recording were written over the span of 15 years and feature all the elements of the classical style but also offer a wealth of melodies and fresh musical ideas. Each trio, for example, features a Rondo as the concluding movement, but each Rondo comes with its own style, whether borrowing motifs from Turkish or Russian musical traditions or introducing scherzo elements and surprising modulations.

The Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould, violin, Alice Neary, cello, and Benjamin Frith, piano) clearly enjoys bringing this somewhat forgotten music to life. Most impressive are the nuanced articulation in the violin and balanced phrasing of the ensemble. This recording will be greatly appreciated by fans of the classical period who just might discover a new voice.

03 Classical 02 Beethoven 9 SymphoniesBeethoven – 9 Symphonies
Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal; Kent Nagano
Analekta AN 2 9150-5

Review

Has it really been nine years since Kent Nagano took over the podium of the Montreal Symphony? Never mind the mop of waving hair or the animated conducting style, he is a musician par excellence, and has maintained the high standards set by his predecessor, Charles Dutoit. For their newest release, the orchestra has issued a complete set of the Beethoven symphonies, having presented them singly during the past six years. Six of them were recorded live between 2008 and 2014 and along with excerpts from Egmont and the Creatures of Prometheus, it’s a handsome collection on the Analekta label.

There are innumerable recordings of Beethoven’s complete symphonies, so what makes this one stand apart from the others? For one thing, it’s Nagano’s lack of sensationalism. Despite this conductor’s sometime exuberant persona, his interpretations are known for their intelligence and clarity, and this is nowhere more evident than in this collection. The Symphony No.1 is a case in point. From the first hesitant measures, the listener immediately senses that indeed, this is what Beethoven would have wanted. This groundbreaking work is presented in an energetic and articulated manner, the phrasing always carefully nuanced.

On the other hand, Symphony No.3 is suitably heroic, my only quibble being a slightly brisker tempo in the opening movement than I’m used to. When comparing this to the more measured interpretations by European conductors it may come across as too hurried. But this is a minor point, and the careful phrasing coupled with the exemplary performance by the brass and woodwinds more than makes up for it.

The much-beloved “Pastoral” is all gentleness, the strings demonstrating a particular warmth and resonance.

What more can be said about the great Symphony No.9? This particular performance was recorded for the inaugural concert in the new Maison Symphonique de Montréal in September, 2011 and features sopranos Adrienne Pieczonka and Erin Wall, mezzo Mihoko Fujimura, tenor Simon O’Neill and bass Mikhail Petrenko along with the OSM Chorus and the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir. While the approach is noble and confident, to my ears, it doesn’t break any new ground in interpretation – but this is not necessarily a bad thing, and the soloists all deliver solid performances.

But how do they handle my favourite symphony, the glorious No.7 written in 1812? Not surprisingly, Nagano and the OSM live up to expectations. The performance is magnificent – energetic and robust – at all times displaying a wonderful cohesion of sound particularly evident in the joyful finale.

Bravo to Maestro Nagano and the musicians of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. You have proven that there is indeed room for yet another set of the complete Beethoven symphonies – and the rousing applause at the conclusion of the live performances is a clear indication that others felt the same.

03 Classical 04 InvocationInvocation
Herbert Schuch
Naïve discoveries V 5362

Review

Since he first attracted attention by winning three important competitions – the Casagrande, the London International Piano Competition and the International Beethoven Competition in Vienna, Romanian-born pianist Herbert Schuch has been regarded as an artist less focused on flash and pizzazz and more on thoughtful and sensitive interpretation. This is certainly the case with his newest CD, Invocation. As a basis for the recording – his tenth – he used his fascination with bells and their sonorities, reflected in the inclusion of three 20th-century works: Tristan Murail’s Cloches d’adieu, Messiaen’s Cloches d’angoisse and La vallée des cloches by Ravel. Apart from Bach transcriptions by Ferruccio Busoni and Harold Bauer, the other compositions are all by Franz Liszt, resulting in a most intriguing program.

What makes this disc particularly appealing is the juxtaposition of musical styles. It opens with a Busoni transcription of Bach’s chorale Ich ruf zu dir, her jesu Christ BWV639, music of quiet introspection. In total contrast is the short piece by Tristan Murail from 1992, music showing distinct influences of Messiaen with its tone clusters and use of polymodality. We’re then back in the 19th century for three movements from Liszt’s set of Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. The third and seventh, Benédiction de dieu dans la solitude and Funérailles are large-scale canvases that should be undertaken by only the most capable of Liszt players, but Shuch handles the technical requirements with apparent ease, achieving a wonderfully sonorous tone throughout. The pieces by Messiaen and Ravel are moody and mysterious, and Shuch’s refined interpretation demonstrates a compelling sense of rhythm and nuance.

Eclectic and thoughtfully programmed, Invocation is a tribute to a wide range of piano music performed in a manner that combines sensitivity with brilliance – and as such, it is a most welcome addition to the catalogue.

07 Bruce 01 Strauss KraussThe Complete Decca Recordings
Clemens Krauss, Richard Strauss
Decca 4786493

The following is an excerpt from the December 2014 Old Wine in New Bottles

Review

In 2000 Testament issued four CDs of orchestral music by Richard Strauss, recorded by Decca in the Grosser Saal of the Musikverein by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Clemens Krauss. My excited review of them at the time found these uniquely inspired performances to be incomparable in every respect. Decca has gathered them all together in a compact 5-CD set, Clemens Krauss – Richard Strauss The Complete Decca Recordings (4786493), together with the still talked about 1954 recording of Salome with Christel Goltz, Julius Patzak, Anton Dermota et.al. The Vienna-born Krauss, although he worked through the Nazi era, was not a Nazi. These Strauss performances, writes Nigel Simeone, reveal an interpreter “who understood the importance of transparent orchestral textures, intelligent pacing, a natural sense of line, a fine ear for detail and a clear sense of trajectory.” These qualities are abundant in each of all nine works; Don Juan, Ein Heldenleben, Zarathustra, Don Quixote, Sinfonia Domestica, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme Suite, Aus Italien, Till Eulenspiegel and Salome.

Early in the 1950s when these recordings were made, English Decca’s FFRR LPs had already achieved a level of recording excellence unsurpassed by the other companies, thriving in the new, world-wide enthusiasm for classical music, an enthusiasm well supported by the press and dedicated periodicals. People no longer had a record player… they had a hi-fi. Victor Olof, Decca’s head recording producer led the team that documented these Strauss recordings that awed and delighted the music lovers of the day. The inspired and inspiring recordings now find their ultimate realization in this dynamic little set that is the icing on the cake honouring this 150th anniversary year of Strauss’ birth.

01 Vocal 05 Burry Baby KintyreDean Burry – Baby Kintyre, An Opera
Soloists; Ensemble; John Hess; Dairine Ni Mheadhra
Centrediscs CMCCD 20314

Review

Composer/librettist Dean Burry has taken a gruesome piece of Toronto history and created an episodic, edge-of-seat serial radio opera thriller originally performed in six consecutive 2009 broadcasts of CBC’s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera.

I remember the media frenzy surrounding the horrific event. In 2007, a home renovator discovered a mummified baby wrapped in a 1925 newspaper in the floorboards of an East Toronto home. Burry was so moved by the discovery, that he used the news details of the characters to create so appropriately emotional, strong and larger-than-life operatic characters.

Burry’s libretto weaves a spellbinding tale with splashes of slapstick-flavoured humour in this story set in both the 2007 renovator’s discovery, and the 1920s’ life in the house on Kintyre Ave. The vocal melodies are tonally contemporary yet accessible. Burry’s use of “Amazing Grace” and “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” add a popular music sentiment. The performances by all the singers are clear and colourful. Eileen Nash is especially outstanding in her performance and childlike vocal tuning of the ten-year-old Rita. The small orchestra, with super pianist John Hess, plays with abandon and colour. Snippets of newscasts, cell phones and other modern day tidbits complete the soundscape. The CBC Radio Metro Morning documentary Baby Kintyre – Part 1 & 2 is included after the opera, pushing the story back into the real world.

Dean Burry has written a clever, thought-provoking and solid opera that requires no visual set to keep the listener enthralled! Oh, the secrets that families hold.

  Robbins 05 Daniel HopeEscape to Paradise: The Hollywood Album
Daniel Hope
Deutsche Grammophon 4792954

This review is an excerpt from Strings Attached November 2014.

Review

The title of violinist Daniel Hope’s new CD, Escape to Paradise: The Hollywood Album (Deutsche Grammophon 4792954), is a bit misleading. Hope’s focus is on composers who escaped from Hitler’s Europe to the warmth of the Hollywood movie scene, but there’s non-Hollywood music here from pre-and post-war Germany – including a Korngold work from 1908 – as well as non-escapee music from second-generation Hollywood composers like John Williams and Ennio Morricone.

Hope and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under Alexander Shelley display a big Hollywood tone right from the opening notes of Miklós Rózsa’s Love Theme from Ben Hur, and carry the same style into the major work on the disc, Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto Op.35; the concerto was built around themes from Korngold’s Hollywood movie scores. It’s a fine performance of a lovely work.

The remainder of the CD is given over to 14 short pieces, most of them arrangements; five are for duo or chamber ensemble, including three that feature members of the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin. Ex-Police frontman Sting sings his own lyrics (replacing Berthold Brecht’s!) to a song from Hanns Eisler’s Hollywood Liederbuch, and German singer Max Raabe contributes a flat (unfortunately in both meanings of the word) performance of Kurt Weill’s Speak Low.

The best tracks are those for soloist and orchestra, including the themes from Rózsa’s El Cid, Morricone’s Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, Williams’ Schindler’s List and Thomas Newman’s American Beauty. The disc ends with a slow, low-key and really quite odd solo violin arrangement of As Time Goes By.

The CD is a strange mixture in many ways; some moments resonate less than others, and the vocal tracks in particular seem more like intrusions than contributions, but Hope’s playing is stylish and of a very high standard throughout. Editor’s Note: Alexander Shelley succeeds Pinchas Zukerman as conductor of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in September 2015. 

03 Classical 3b Lefevre ChopinChopin – 24 Preludes
Alain Lefèvre 
Analekta AN 2 9287

Review

The following is an excerpt from a longer review of Chopin CDs which can be read in it's entirety here.

In fact, I would venture to say that the music of Chopin is a lot like wine – it is a result of the terroir, the quality of grapes and the winemaking technique. As for terroir, there is something magical when one hears that music at the Royal Baths Gardens in Warsaw, near the statue of Chopin (wrapped by two bronze weeping willows) or at Chopin’s family cottage in Zelazowa Wola, where his alleged piano is still in working order. Alas, that’s a pleasure not accorded to many. Still, there is something uncanny in the ability of Polish pianists to re-capture that ever-important terroir. Then there are the grapes – the beauty of Chopin’s writing was that no piece, no matter how slight, could be considered minor. The Minute Waltz, the Preludes, the Mazurkas or songs, regardless of length, command attention equal to that of the Piano Concerti. If all his scores are difficult, then the Mazurkas are particularly so, as their intuitive, internal rhythm has tripped up many a virtuoso. There is a reason, after all, for a separate award category for Mazurka interpretation at the Chopin International Piano Competition – a prize so elusive, that on several occasions it was not awarded. Finally we come to the winemaking technique. All three of the pianists in this review are no amateurs and their technique can be vouched for by the international prizes they have garnered – Ingrid Fliter was a silver medalist of the 2000 Chopin Piano Competition, Janina Fialkowska won the inaugural 1974 Arthur Rubinstein competition and Alain Lefèvre scored a JUNO, Prix Opus and ten (That’s ten!) Prix Felix. So, how do they fare?

03 classical 01 beethoven tafelmusikBeethoven – Symphonies 1-4 & Overtures
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra; Bruno Weil
Tafelmusik TMK1023CD2 (tafelmusik.org)

Review

Toronto’s Tafelmusik ensemble is nearing completion of their long-term Beethoven Symphony Project with this release of the first four symphonies of Beethoven on their own independent label, with only the Ninth yet to appear on disc. Tafelmusik, nominally considered a Baroque ensemble, is here expanded to roughly 40 players with a larger string section, though this added strength is attenuated by the use of gut strings and the total suppression of vibrato. Bruno Weil, a longtime collaborator with the orchestra, draws a finely articulated and transparent response from the rarely seen Tafelmusik podium.

The performances of the first two symphonies (programmed on separate discs), though rich in detail, seem to take their time to fully blossom. Surprisingly, the strikingly subversive series of dominant chords that launches the First Symphony are tossed off quite nonchalantly, though it gradually becomes evident that Weil is a master of the slow burn. The subsequent Andante movements of both works, though fleetly paced in accordance with Beethoven’s after-the-fact metronome marks, in my opinion have a tediously conventional character that is difficult for any conductor to overcome. All is put right however with a pair of powerful and scintillating finales.

The renderings of the Third and Fourth Symphonies can be recommended without qualification; both are superb throughout. The Third in particular (previously paired with Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony in an earlier release) has a rare sense of urgency and spontaneity and offers many outstanding solo contributions; I was particularly enchanted by the deliciously tangy pair of oboes and the brassy stopped tones of the three horn players.

The two-disc set is flanked by two overtures, opening with the Prometheus Overture and ending with a commanding performance of the Coriolanus Overture. These live performances were recorded in Toronto’s Koerner Hall in 2012 and 2013 with exceptional clarity yet with nary a peep to be heard from the audience.

04 classical 03 michael kolkMosaic – Classical Guitar Favourites
Michael Kolk
ALMA ACD11232 (almarecords.com)

Review

The Toronto-based classical guitarist Michael Kolk provides an absolute master class on his second solo CD, Mosaic, with an outstanding recital of short compositions and transcriptions that stretch from Bach to Leo Brouwer, and which beautifully illustrate the guitar’s range.

In addition to the Bach Prelude, Fugue and Allegro BWV998 there are two pieces by Albéniz, four by Tárrega, one by Giuliani and two by Brouwer, along with Preludes Nos.2 & 5 by Villa-Lobos and Agustin Barrios Mangoré’s La Catedral. Transcriptions of two Debussy pieces – La fille aux cheveux de lin and Danseuses de Delphes – complete a highly satisfying program.

Kolk’s technical mastery and musical sensitivity are evident on every track, and are perfectly captured by the intimacy of the recording. The tone is sumptuous across the instrument, with a rich resonance in the lower register and clarity and warmth in the high register, where, in some hands, the guitar can tend to sound somewhat tight and thin. Not here, though! Intonation is faultless throughout; the use of vibrato is beautifully judged, and there is a virtual absence of left-hand finger noise.

The CD was recorded by producer Peter Capaldi and engineer John “Beetle” Bailey, at Glenn Gould Studio where Kolk said it was “so quiet it was almost alarming at first. Every nuance comes out…” And what nuances they are! This is playing and musicianship of the highest order, and an absolute must-buy CD for anybody who wants to hear just how wonderful guitar playing can be.

Concert Note: Michael Kolk is featured with the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society on March 25 at 8:00pm in the KWCMS Music Room.

04 classical 03 michael kolkMosaic – Classical Guitar Favourites
Michael Kolk
ALMA ACD11232 (almarecords.com)

Review

The Toronto-based classical guitarist Michael Kolk provides an absolute master class on his second solo CD, Mosaic, with an outstanding recital of short compositions and transcriptions that stretch from Bach to Leo Brouwer, and which beautifully illustrate the guitar’s range.

In addition to the Bach Prelude, Fugue and Allegro BWV998 there are two pieces by Albéniz, four by Tárrega, one by Giuliani and two by Brouwer, along with Preludes Nos.2 & 5 by Villa-Lobos and Agustin Barrios Mangoré’s La Catedral. Transcriptions of two Debussy pieces – La fille aux cheveux de lin and Danseuses de Delphes – complete a highly satisfying program.

Kolk’s technical mastery and musical sensitivity are evident on every track, and are perfectly captured by the intimacy of the recording. The tone is sumptuous across the instrument, with a rich resonance in the lower register and clarity and warmth in the high register, where, in some hands, the guitar can tend to sound somewhat tight and thin. Not here, though! Intonation is faultless throughout; the use of vibrato is beautifully judged, and there is a virtual absence of left-hand finger noise.

The CD was recorded by producer Peter Capaldi and engineer John “Beetle” Bailey, at Glenn Gould Studio where Kolk said it was “so quiet it was almost alarming at first. Every nuance comes out…” And what nuances they are! This is playing and musicianship of the highest order, and an absolute must-buy CD for anybody who wants to hear just how wonderful guitar playing can be.

Concert Note: Michael Kolk is featured with the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society on March 25 at 8:00pm in the KWCMS Music Room.

03_Tafelmusik_Dreams.jpgHouse of Dreams
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra; Jeanne Lamon
Tafelmusik TMK1020DVDCD

Review

Alison Mackay plays violone and double bass with Tafelmusik. She has also devised several elaborate and imaginative audiovisual programs for both Tafelmusik and the Toronto Consort. An earlier such program for Tafelmusik, The Galileo Project, was released in March 2012. A month before that date House of Dreams was first performed at Banff. It has since been shown elsewhere in Canada (including Toronto), in the US, Australia and New Zealand.

House of Dreams is structured around one palace (in Paris) and four houses (in London, Venice, Delft and Leipzig) which are important to the story that Mackay has written. In the London section, for instance, we are taken into Handel’s house and we can see and hear his music with, as background, reproductions of the paintings which we know he owned. The musicians play on the DVD without scores (an impressive achievement in itself) and there are many lovely moments of musical and dramatic interchange, such as the item in the Handel section with the violinists Cristina Zacharias and Thomas Georgi. I have to say though that occasionally there is an unconvincing over-insistence on the players’ part in their attempt to bring out how much they are enjoying this. And it may be my imagination but were there not also moments of self-parody?

The DVD comes with a CD which contains the soundtrack (of the music, not the narration). I was especially taken with the slow movement of Vivaldi’s Lute Concerto (Lucas Harris), the Sweelinck harpsichord solo (Charlotte Nediger) and the “Allegro” from Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins (Jeanne Lamon and Aisslinn Nosky). The performances are superb throughout but I cannot pass over the wonderful woodwind playing (John Abberger and Marco Cera, oboe, and Dominic Teresi, bassoon).

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