02 KuhlauKuhlau – Grandes Sonates Opus 71 & 83
Mika Putterman; Erin Helyard
Analekta AN 2 9530 (analekta.com)

Born in Hamburg and later based in Copenhagen, Friedrich Kuhlau (1786-1832) was encountered by my generation mainly as a piano sonatina composer. In his time, however, he succeeded best with music for the flute. Montreal-based specialist Mika Putterman here provides an exemplary demonstration of the Romantic flute’s beauties, in collaboration with Australian fortepianist, conductor and musicologist Erin Helyard. In Kuhlau’s Grand Sonata for Fortepiano and Flute Obbligato, Op. 71 in E Minor (1825) and the similarly named Op. 83, No. 1 in G Major (1827) the duo also practises tempo modification, i.e. speeding up or slowing down beyond what is specified in the score. It takes time to get used to this, as is usual with unfamiliar historically informed performance practices.

I particularly enjoyed the E-minor sonata for its instrumental interplay, florid display and melodic attractiveness. Putterman plays with pure, non-vibrato tone that can be sweet or sad, and is very affecting in the slow movement’s melody. Helyard is a confident fortepianist, though sometimes his solid chords are over-prominent. Both are excellent technically and their ensemble is tight. The G-major sonata’s middle movement is a set of variations, where each player impresses with the ability to play fast passages with convincing expressive touches. Of the outer movements I preferred the first, and must mention Helyard’s fluent double-thirds here and elsewhere. Along with specialists, I think this disc would appeal to those open to new challenges for performers and listeners alike.

03 Beethoven FluteBeethoven – Works For Flute 1
Kazunori Seo; Patrick Gallois; Mitsuo Kodama; Asuka Sezaki; Koichi Komine
Naxos 8.573569 (naxos.com)

Japanese flutist Kazunori Seo takes centre stage in this recording of Beethoven’s wind-focused chamber music. First up on the program are three duos for flute and bassoon, transcribed by Seo to substitute a flute for the clarinet originally called for on the upper part. It’s not certain that these duos are really Beethoven’s, and they don’t display the complexity of the other two pieces which follow them here – but their transparent simplicity is charming. Seo and bassoonist Mitsuo Kodama play with grace and attentiveness here, but are perhaps a little too cautious in their interpretation. That said, Seo’s sound on his wooden modern flute is lovely, his use of vibrato as a decorative choice is exemplary, and the instrumental blend is top-notch.

Much less reserve can be heard in the Duo in G Major for two flutes, played by Seo and Patrick Gallois with strongly shaped phrasing, dramatic shifts of dynamic range, and expressive use of articulation and ornament. The conversation’s saltier and the results are definitely fun!

The interpretive thoughtfulness continues with Serenade in D Major for flute, violin and viola, Op.25, which receives a nuanced and intrepid performance in its original scoring. This is a wonderful piece of chamber music and it’s good to hear it played with such polish and spirited engagement.

04 Schubert TriosSchubert – Piano Trios
Trio Vitruvi
Bridge Records 9510 (bridgerecords.com)

Hailing from Denmark, Trio Vitruvi had both their Carnegie Hall debut performance and the official release of their debut album with Bridge Records in April this year. After winning two chamber music competitions and several awards in 2014, the ensemble began touring and found its unique voice in the process – their playing is polished and noble, sophisticated, astute and spirited, open to improvising in the moment yet respectful of musical traditions. The trio’s name comes from Roman architect and philosopher Vitruvius, whose concepts regarding beauty, structure and proportions the trio adopted and applied to their understanding of music and interpretations. Niklas Walentin (violin), Jacob la Cour (cello) and Alexander McKenzie (piano) are not only talented but also highly attuned to Schubert’s music.

Schubert’s final piano trio (D.929) is rich, monumental, ingenious, surprisingly intimate at times, a masterpiece of structural and harmonic genius, and one of my favourite pieces of music. I cannot help but note the parallel between the Vitruvian Triad (as written in De Architectura) and the trio’s interpretation of Schubert’s music: it seems that both Vitruvius and Vitruvi aspired to make their creations solid, useful and beautiful. Vitruvi takes it one step further – they infuse Schubert’s music with a sense of adventure and limitless colours. Here we are treated to the original, longer version of the fourth movement, which makes this recording even more precious. Notturno, written in the same year, makes for the lush, lyrical conclusion of this album.

05 Wagner OrchestralWagner – Orchestral music from Der Ring des Nibelungen
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta
Naxos 8.573839 (naxos.com)

Apart from having a great sense of theatre, Wagner was also a tremendous orchestrator, much of it self-taught. He increased the size of the orchestra, invented new instruments (e.g. Wagner tuba), and like Debussy later, created a new sound, new orchestral colours, and had definite ideas as to the placement of the orchestra in relation to the stage. He was also the first one who thought of turning off the lights in the auditorium during performance. Naturally the orchestra became an integral part of his music dramas and much of his orchestral music can be independently played at concerts.

The Ring has ample scope for this, collected now on a single CD by Naxos with the Buffalo Philharmonic and their current music director, JoAnn Falletta. It’s primary purpose most likely is to show off the virtuosity of this fine ensemble and its conductor and perhaps give an introduction to the uninitiated at a low price. The excerpts evoke some of the great scenes, like the Entry of the Gods into Valhalla over a rainbow bridge or the Ride of the Valkyries where you can hear the shrieks of laughter of the warrior maidens and the neighing of the horses, or the wondrous Magic Fire Music with its shimmering curtain of sound. We can even hear the waves of the mighty Rhine carrying Siegfried to his eventual doom.

Given the enormous popularity of the Ring today and dozens of new video versions, this modest CD is a good reminder of the timeless musical beauties that might escape the hurried wayfarers of our digital, plug-in world.

06 Mahler 1 FischerMahler – Symphony No.1
Düsseldorfer Symphoniker; Ádám Fischer
Avi-Music 8553390 (avi-music.de)

It started innocently enough. Our stalwart editor kindly brought me this Mahler disc conducted by a fellow named Fischer. I presumed his first name was Iván, well known for the excellence of his Mahler recordings with his Budapest Festival Orchestra; but what was he doing in Düsseldorf? Well, I was (not so) sadly mistaken; Iván has an elder brother, named Ádám, who has been the music director of the venerable Düsseldorf orchestra since 2015. And what of the Düsseldorf ensemble? Established 200 years ago, it was led in its early days by the likes of Mendelssohn and Schumann. Though their symphonic profile is unfortunately overshadowed these days by their onerous commitments to the local opera house, they are an aristocratic ensemble of outstanding sensitivity that deserves a far greater international reputation.

In fact, I was so impressed by the excellence of this recording of Mahler’s fledgling symphony I eagerly sought out and strongly recommend their earlier volumes of this ongoing cycle as well, which Fischer boldly launched in 2015 with the most under-appreciated of Mahler’s symphonies, the sphinx-like Seventh. I was floored by that 2015 performance, which is amongst the finest I have ever heard. From start to finish Fischer never loses sight of the connecting threads of this highly sectional work, expertly driving it to a triumphal conclusion. I was reminded of an incident in 1976 when I was astonished to witness a high school band sauntering down Bloor Street during the annual Christmas parade, blasting away the principal theme of the finale of this work. Mahler himself would have been delighted to have witnessed that event; his time had indeed come! That’s exactly how joyously the conclusion of this work reaches its spirited apotheosis.

The subsequent volume featuring the Fourth Symphony is equally fine, a beautifully sculpted sonic landscape imbued with the effervescent spirit of Haydn, over which passing clouds of mock menace occasionally appear. No detail is overlooked and the performance is full of personality with a chamber-music-like delicacy. It rivals my sentimental favourite performance by George Szell.

The recordings in this ongoing cycle are edits of live performances captured by German Radio. The sound is excellent and the audience is undetectable, though at times the lower frequencies seem slightly indistinct (notably in the First Symphony), likely due to the unusual spherical design of the Düsseldorf Tonhalle, a repurposed, massive planetarium constructed in 1926. Fischer himself contributes his own provocative thoughts in the program notes.

A fourth volume devoted to the Fifth Symphony was released in March. Digital downloads are available at avi-music.de. This series promises to rank among the most compelling of Mahler cycles in a very crowded field.

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