02_ebony_bandPolish Masterpieces

Barbara Hannigan; Ebony Band; Werner Herbers

Channel Classics CCS 31010 (www.channelclassics.com)


I have to admit that this recording started for me as an enigma. Having been born, and for the most part, educated in Poland, I consider myself relatively well versed in my homeland’s musical heritage. Alas, the names of Jozef Koffler and Konstanty Regamey were completely unknown to me. Much to my relief, I found out I was in good company. The manuscripts of Jozef Koffler, including his haunting Die Liebe – Cantata Op. 14, sung beautifully here by the Canadian soprano, Barbara Hannigan, were gathering dust in the archives of the Music Library of the University of Warsaw. It is a revelation to hear music composed according to Schoenberg’s principles infused with both Jewish and Polish culture. Why this national extension of dodecaphony is not wider known - now, that’s a true enigma. The works by Regamey, although apparently better known, are also restricted in their circulation – due mostly to the fact, that after the war, the composer left Poland for Switzerland.


Kudos to the Ebony Band (players from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra) for bringing these composers to our attention. One could argue, albeit not very successfully, that the technical demands of their music prevent its frequent inclusion in concert programs. Here, in a live recording, Werner Herbers and friends bring it with great panache to an enraptured audience. You don’t have to consider yourself an aficionado of the modern musical idiom to experience the wonder and the gratitude at discovering these unknown, true masterpieces.


shostakovich_8Shostakovich - Symphony No. 8
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Vasily Petrenko
Naxos 8.572392

The Eighth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was composed in the summer of 1943 as Soviet forces turned the tide of war with their decisive victory at the Battle of Kursk. Though it is less well-know than its much-hyped predecessor, the garish “Leningrad” Symphony, it is in all respects a far superior work. The epic five-movement structure of the Eighth is balanced on a pair of memorable Scherzo movements that move from biting sarcasm to sheer terror, flanked by a poignant 25-minute opening movement and a finale terminating in an atmosphere of serene resignation. The ambiguous, highly personal language of the work was criticized for its dearth of overt patriotism and was poorly received. Christened the “Stalingrad” Symphony by Soviet propagandists, performances of the work were officially banned in 1948 and the work was not heard again in Russia until 1956.

This superb Naxos disc marks the third installment of a very promising series of Shostakovich symphonies conducted by Vasily Petrenko with the Liverpool Philharmonic. Though a mere 34 years old, the Russian maestro clearly has the Liverpool ensemble in his thrall. With his uncanny knack for drawing together the disparate elements of Shostakovich’s prolix language into a coherent argument and an equally fine ear for subtle interpretive details, Petrenko makes a very strong impression indeed. The recording is bright and spacious, the performance is excellent, and the price can’t be beat.

Ara Malikian; Daniel Del Pino
Non Profit Music NPM0911

01b_malikian_no_seasonsNo Seasons
Ara Malikian; Non Profit Music Chamber Orchestra
Non Profit Music NPM093 (www.nonprofitmjsic.org)

The Lebanese-born Armenian violinist Ara Malikian is one of the younger generation of soloists who, while classically trained, are not afraid to let other musical styles influence their playing.

Malikian, currently concert-master of the Madrid Symphony Orchestra, has recorded the solo works of Bach, Ysaÿe and Paganini, but is clearly very much at home in these two CDs of mostly contemporary – and mostly Spanish and Argentinian – works, where his love of gipsy and tango music in particular makes him an ideal interpreter.

The “Minds” CD is a selection of shorter works for violin and piano. Only Gerald Finzi’s lovely Elegy and an early Kodaly work, the Brahmsian Adagio, are not recent compositions. Astor Piazzolla’s Tanti Anni Prima is a beautiful opening track; Lera Auerbach’s Postlude is short but sweet.

Marjan Mozetich’s Desire at Twilight is recorded here for the first time, as is Agua y Vino by Fernando Egozcue, formerly one of Piazzolla’s arrangers.

Jorge Grundman’s sonata What Inspires Poetry, also a premiere recording, is the biggest work on the disc, but also unfortunately the least appealing for me, with too much formulaic writing and little character. Elena Kats-Chermin’s Russian Rag, in the same vein as William Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost, is a charming closer.

There are three larger works on the oddly-titled “No Seasons” CD. (An RTVE concert of the same works by the same artists was called – more logically - 12 Seasons)

Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires were originally written as separate pieces for his quintet with bandoneon between 1964 and 1970. This arrangement is by Leonid Desyatnikov, who added direct quotes from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Malikian is again clearly in his element with Piazzolla’s idiosyncratic music.

Joan Valent’s Four Seasons in Mallorca fits Malikian’s style perfectly, but Grundman’s Four Sad Seasons Over Madrid, for soprano, violin, piano and string orchestra, is a disappointment. Susana Cordon has a big voice, but really struggles with her English pronunciation. Not that it matters – despite her singing at full belt, the unsympathetic setting and heavy orchestration make her words almost inaudible.

Each CD comes in a beautifully-produced hard-cover booklet in English and Spanish, although the English translation is awkward at times. Sound quality is excellent throughout.

02_tenneyOld School: James Tenney
Zeitkratzer Productions ZKR 0010

Without the necessity for surround-sound or other methods of sonic dissemination, James Tenney (1934-2006) composed tension-laden pieces such as the three here, whose crescendos and decrescendos derive from concentrated orchestration. As the Berlin-based, ad hoc Zeitkratzer ensemble of two woodwinds, two brass, three strings, percussion and director/pianist Reinhold Friedl demonstrate on this exceptional CD, properly performing the themes of the long-time (1976-2000) York University music professor depends as much on harmonic convergence as intonation, attack and acoustics.

Most fascinating and mostly fortissimo is 1988’s Critical Band. Based on standard pitch A and its fundamentals, this exercise in tonal expansion undulates on pitches that concentrate and divide as they modulate infinitesimally and recurrently. Only when the final variation arrives can the capillary timbres of Matt Davis’ trumpet and Hayden Chisholm’s alto saxophone be distinguished from the others.

Slightly lengthier, 1976’s Harmonium #2, which details the deliberate build-up and break-down of a chord, exposes fundamentals, as the harmonic progression expands through Friedl’s intense keyboard clusters. After variants on the narrative – related to the circle of fifths – reflect inwards onto themselves as they advance chromatically, the resolution involves a crescendo involving articulating Hilary Jeffrey’s trombone reverberations plus thick piano patterns.

Distinctive, the performances are both authoritative and inventive.

01_arc_ensembleTwo Roads to Exile
ARC Ensemble
RCA Red Seal 88697 64490 2

“A sense of exile”, the opening of the CD booklet notes tells us, “is not always accompanied by geographical displacement.” Hence the title of this outstanding disc of virtually unknown works by Adolf Busch – who, although not Jewish, chose to leave Germany when Hitler came to power in 1933 – and Walter Braunfels, who, while half-Jewish, chose to remain in Germany despite the implications for his career and personal safety.

Toronto’s ARC Ensemble (Artists of The Royal Conservatory) specializes in reviving long-buried and essentially-forgotten repertoire, especially the works of composers whose lives were fundamentally altered by the Second World War and in particular by the Holocaust.

Both Busch, now remembered primarily as a violinist and as leader of the Busch Quartet, and Braunfels were established composers in 1920s Germany. Busch’s String Sextet Op.40 from 1928 (revised in 1933) remains unpublished, however, and Braunfel’s String Quintet Op.63, from 1945, has never been recorded before. Both works are strongly in the German Romantic tradition, a factor which worked against both composers in the post-war years, despite their treatment by the Third Reich.

The ARC members – Marie Bérard and Benjamin Bowman (violins), Steven Dann and Carolyn Blackwell (violas), Bryan Epperson and David Hetherington (cellos) – are superb throughout. Recorded in the RCM’s Koerner Hall last November, every nuance of their performance is magnificently captured by producer David Frost. The recording has the distinction of being the first produced in this acoustically superior new concert venue. The excellent booklet notes are by ARC Artistic Director Simon Wynberg. An absolute gem of a CD.

05_adesThomas Adès – Tevot; Violin Concerto
Berliner Philharmoniker; Sir Simon Rattle; Anthony Marwood; Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Thomas Adès
EMI Classics 4 57813 2

This tremendous CD of recent orchestral works by the English composer Thomas Adès offers convincing proof that, while contemporary composers may have difficulty gate-crashing the standard repertoire, their efforts deserve - and reward - our fullest attention.

Born in 1971, Adès is clearly a composer with ‘something to say’. There isn’t a weak or unconvincing track here, and the orchestration is outstanding. Tevot, written for Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic in 2007, is a live recording from a Berlin concert the same year. The haunting Violin Concerto, Concentric Paths, written in 2005 for Anthony Marwood and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, is a live 2007 performance by them at London’s Barbican Hall, with Adès conducting. The same concert included the UK premiere of Three Studies from Couperin (2006), fascinating re-workings of Couperin keyboard pieces that retain the same number of bars as the originals as well as the same rhythms and harmonies. Finally, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain under Paul Daniel gives us the richly decadent Overture, Waltz and Finale, the suite that Adès made in 2007 from his first opera, Powder Her Face, although this time using full orchestra instead of the original 15 instruments.

It’s tempting to play the ‘sounds like…’ game – here’s Britten (Adès was artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival from 1999 to 2008); there’s Janacek; that’s Ravel – but there is no doubting that this is an original and accomplished individual voice.

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