03 NACOClara – Robert – Johannes: Darlings of the Muses
Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra; Alexander Shelley; Gabriela Montero
Analekta AN 2 8877-8 (analekta.com/en/albums/clara-robert-johannes-nac-orchestra)

British-born conductor Alexander Shelley assumed the role of music director of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra in 2015 and this Analekta recording is the fourth to be released under his leadership. Titled Clara-Robert-Johannes: Darlings of the Muses, it features Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero and is the first in a series of four to be released exploring the personal and professional connections among Robert Schumann, his wife Clara and Johannes Brahms.

Completed in just over a month in 1841, Schumann’s Symphony No.1 in B-flat Major “Spring” was the composer’s first attempt at orchestral writing, and its buoyant, optimistic mood was reflective of a particularly happy time in his life. From the opening fanfare, the NACO approaches the score with much panache – the playing is full and robust with a satisfying balance among the strings and brass. 

In contrast, the opening mood of Brahms’ Symphony No.1 in C Minor is dark and foreboding, aided by the steady beat of the timpani – is that really fate knocking at the door? Shelley and the orchestra successfully convey a true sense of majesty throughout the work, and today, it’s difficult to believe that this work was the source of such controversy at the time of its premiere in 1876.

For years, Clara Schumann was too often known as “an accomplished pianist who composed” – surely an unfair assessment. Her Piano Concerto Op.7 was an early work written in 1835 when she was all of 14. Gabriela Montero delivers a polished performance with the demanding solo passages allowing her ample opportunity to display a flawless technique. Clearly this music was not intended for amateurs!

Interspersed with the three major works are short improvisations by Montero based on music by Schumann, aptly demonstrating her talents as both pianist and composer.

In all, this is a promising start to an engaging series we can look forward to. Recommended.

04 Canadian National BrassConstellations
Canadian National Brass Project
Analekta AN 2 8924 (analekta.com/en/albums/constellations-canadian-national-brass-project)

The Canadian National Brass Project, founded in 2015 by artistic director James Sommerville (principal horn, Boston Symphony Orchestra) and administrative director Sasha Johnson (principal tuba, National Ballet of Canada Orchestra) is comprised of 25 Canadian brass players and three percussionists selected from 15 major Canadian and U.S. orchestras. This unbelievably outstanding big ensemble performs brass/percussion arrangements here with musicality and precise pitch/intonation.

Wagner’s Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral, arranged by Jay Friedman, opens with flawless delicate lyrical lines. As the volume and intensity build to the final majestic ending, the background musical supports hold it together while never being overwhelming. Angus Armstrong’s arrangement of Holst’s Mars and Jupiter from The Planets includes the infamous virtuosic rapid lines, loud detached notes, low rhythms and dramatic percussion crashes, performed here with so much enjoyment! Robert Fraser’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture works so well for this instrumentation from the mood-setting quiet start to the infamous melodic line, horn fanfares and breathtaking, never over the top, closing build.

Contrapuntal brass playing with vocal-like breathing and detached notes drive Timothy Higgins’ arrangement of Gabrieli’s O Magnum Mysterium and Sancta Maria. Two 20th-century works are given a brass flavour. Taz Eddy’s arrangement of Ola Gjeilo’s Sanctus incorporates its conversational sounds. Silvestre Revueltas’ dramatic Sensemaya is so well suited to the percussion and low brass of Bruce Roberts’ arrangement. 

High production values and musicianship give each work an out-of-this-world sound!

05 Tchaikovsky LeshnoffTchaikovsky – Symphony No.4; Leshnoff – Double Concerto Clarinet & Bassoon
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Mannfred Honeck
Reference Recordings (pittsburghsymphony.org/pso_home/press-room/press-releases/2019-2020/music-director-manfred-honeck-and-the-pso-release-a-new-recording-pairing-tchaikovsky-and-leshnoff)

On this 2020 release by Reference Recordings as part of their Pittsburgh Live! series, the majestic Symphony No. 4 in F Minor by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, with its famous opening clarion call that immediately commands listener attention, is paired with a lesser-known, but no less stirring, work by the American-born Jonathan Leshnoff. 

Pairings of this sort (a warhorse coupled with something new) are, of course, familiar within live musical performance practice, but here we are in a world wherein there is no current ability to mass gather and experience powerful symphonic music (perhaps one of the least socially distant musical forms). So, the recording medium will have to suffice. Good thing then that this album captures the dependably great Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, under the musical direction of Manfred Honeck, in fine form. The performance brings musical urgency and vitality to two important works capable of cleansing the banality of everyday life from one’s musical palette, and affording listeners the kind of hopeful optimism that only great music can provide during a time when, without the engagement of socialized work, friends, nightlife or human interaction, it is perhaps most needed. In this way, both works (Symphony No. 4 and Leshnoff’s Double Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon), the skillful way in which their performances were undertaken and the clear recording capture, are good for the soul. 

This indeed is life-affirming music during a difficult time, and it is nice to be reminded of the heights of human creativity and expression. Recommended!

06 Mahler 7Mahler – Symphony No.7
Minnesota Orchestra; Osmo Vänskä
Bis BIS SACD-2386 (minnesotaorchestra.org/about/recordings)

Mahler’s Seventh Symphony might be considered the antidote to the intense pessimism of his Sixth, so-called “Tragic,” Symphony. Portions of this symphony (movements two and four) were in fact conceived concurrently with the Sixth, and there is an architectural similarity between the opening movements of the two works. 

The unjustly neglected Seventh is Mahler’s most “modern” symphony, an outlier whose progressive tonality and free-associative structure foreshadow the dissolution of the Romantic era. Darkness pervades the heart of this work, culminating in the frightening central Scherzo, yet it ends in brilliant sunshine. Beneath the surface of the frantic marches, haunted waltzes, militant fanfares and moments of deep tenderness lies a subliminal ambiguity that only fully reveals itself on deeper reflection. This is especially true in the mock-triumphalism of the finale of the work, which imposes an interpretive challenge far greater than that of any of the previous or indeed subsequent symphonies. In the words of the pre-eminent Mahler biographer Henri-Louis de la Grange, “To fathom the meaning of this enigmatic Rondo, we need, perhaps, to refer to more recent music in which quotations, borrowings and allusions to the past constitute the principal aim.” 

It takes a light and nimble hand to guide us through these thickets. Osmo Vänskä and his Minnesota musicians rise to the challenge in this brilliantly recorded performance which ranks amongst the finest interpretations known to me of this oracular masterpiece. Highly recommended.

07 de FallaManuel de Falla – El Sombrero de tres picos; El amor brujo
Marina Heredia; Carmen Romeu; Mahler Chamber Orchestra; Pablo Heras-Casado
Harmonia Mundi HMM902271 (harmoniamundi.com/#!/albums/2538)

This exciting new issue from Harmonia Mundi presents de Falla’s two best stage works back to back on a single CD conducted by the young, energetic, brilliant Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado who is very much in demand these days. Both of these scores pulsate with fiery flamenco rhythms and melodies, so Heras-Casado is in his element and enjoying himself thoroughly.

El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat) is the more elaborate of the two. It is a comedy ballet/pantomime, a morality tale with the message “love belongs to the young and old fogeys should not chase young women.” The old fogey in this case is the village magistrate (El Corregidor) with a three-cornered hat who is after the Miller’s pretty young wife. She flirts with him for a while, but in trying to catch her he keeps stumbling and falling on his face to the ridicule of the village folk. Simple enough story, but full of delightful dances one after another, each different and each assigned to a different soloist – the Fandango (Miller’s wife), the Minuet (Corregidor), the Farruca (Miller) or the gentle rollicking Seguidilla for the neighbours celebrating St. John’s night, the night of love. At the end is a real apotheosis where it all comes together in the Final Dance, the Jota, with everyone dancing and all is forgiven.

As a contrast El amor brujo (Love the Magician) is much more serious although also a ballet. It tells of a young woman trying to exorcise the ghost of her unfaithful husband and be ready for a new love. It’s a dark score, full of mystery and black magic with dances like the Dance of Terror or the famous Ritual Fire Dance, but the story has a happy ending in a major key (Dance of the Game of Love) and all the bells are ringing. Excellent sound, great entertainment.

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