Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

An important premiere

From June 26, 2012:


This new Naxos disc in Antoni Wit's survey of music by Henryk Gorecki includes some well-known pieces as well as a world premiere recording of an important work.

The Harpischord Concerto, written in 1980, shows up here in the alternate version for piano. The piece loses some of its colour and texture without the harpsichord, though perhaps its underlying driving structure is more obvious. The composer's daughter, Anna Gorecka, plays the piece with panache. This is Gorecka's second recording of the concerto. Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra provide a superior accompaniment and Naxos a much better recorded sound than the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra under Agnieszka Duczmal on a Classicord disc from Polish Radio in 1991.

It's also great to see a new recording of The Three Dances op. 34, which are favourites of mine. The Warsaw musicians shine in these delightfully virtuosic pieces. Delightful is also the perfect word for the Little Requiem for a Certain Polka, a puzzle-piece for orchestra that's spooky, mocking, seductive and funny by turns.

The strongest, most important work on the disc, though, is the Concerto-Cantata from 1992, which for some reason is receiving its premiere recording. There aren't so many flute concertos out there that such an interesting work for flute & orchestra can afford to be ignored. I trust that this will be the first of many recordings to come in the future. Carol Wincenc provides an assured performance on the flute, and again Wit and the Warsaw orchestra provide impressive support. It's easy to recommend such a varied and interesting CD!

A visit to Andalusia

From June 26, 2012:


Though this is the 8th disc in Jordi Maso's survey of the complete piano music of Joaquin Turina, don't worry that there might not be pieces of interest left. All of the music on the CD shares a common theme: the music of Turina's homeland, Andalusia, and it's definitely worth the visit.

We somehow never feel closer to our roots than when we're away. Turina wrote his piano suite Jardins d'Andalousie in Madrid, and filled the movements with the rhythms and folk melodies of his native land. In Le Quartier de Santa Cruz, written immediately afterwards, he zeroes in on the neighborhood of Seville where he grew up. Though the sound-world of this music was adapted from Debussy and Ravel, Turina is expressing his most personal thoughts and emotions.

Nostalgia for home continues in the late work Las musas de Andalucia, and especially in En el cortijo (Impresiones andaluzas), which was interrupted by the Spanish civil war. Though the landscapes are varied - urban and rural, mythological and modern, dramatic and pastoral - every individual piece and variation seems intensely personal. This comes partly from the composer's inspiration but also from Jordi Maso's interpretations: full of character and technically secure. It's great that Maso & Naxos are providing this Turina series to go with those of Granados, Mompou, Monsalvatge and other Spanish composers for the piano.

Piazzolla's chamber music in impressive performances

From May 2, 2012:


One of the highlights of Piazzolla's final years was his collaboration with the Kronos Quartet. He wrote and was involved in recording two important works with the group: Four for Tango for String Quartet and Five Tango Sensations for Bandoneon & String Quartet. These two great works focus more on the classical side of his music, though the traditional tango and to a lesser extent the jazz component remain in play. They are performed by Interensemble Padova on two CDs just re-released by Newton, in impressive performances that nearly match the famous Kronos recordings on Nonesuch: Piazzolla: Five Tango Sensations and Kronos Quartet : Winter Was Hard.

Interensemble Padova released two discs of Piazzolla chamber music on the Italian label Rivoalto in 1997 and 98. This new Newton re-release, in their standard two-disc format at a bargain price, should help bring this music to a wider audience. Besides the two works already mentioned, the two generously-filled discs include a variety of works for various combinations that represent the wide range of Piazzolla's chamber music. While not every piece is a masterpiece, this set has the great advantage of variety, which unfortunately doesn't happen with many Piazzolla discs of tangos and milongas for a particular ensemble of instruments. It's a valuable showcase for a composer who studied with Alberto Ginastera and Nadia Boulanger, and who claims significant interest even if you set aside the tango wave he rode to his current fame. I'm especially impressed with Bernardino Beggio's Trois Preludes for solo piano, and with the Tres Piezas for solo guitar, as played by Marco Pavin. The whole package is highly recommended.

Beautiful orchestral sound from the Warsaw Philharmonic

From May 2, 2012:


Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic have been on a major hot streak with their Naxos recordings, winning major awards and rave reviews, and they continue with this release of music by Leos Janacek. Janacek writes passionate music of great beauty and delicacy which requires expert instrumentalists and a conductor with vision and control. The whole package is here, and once again the music is presented to best effect by the Naxos engineers. Wit's Taras Bulba is especially impressive; I would put it in the same league as the famous recordings by Charles Mackerras and Vaclav Talich. It's encouraging that in the New Europe a Polish orchestra can really get behind this music, since the Poles are the bad guys in Janacek's version of Gogol's novel about a Cossack revolt. It all happened more than 300 years ago!

The Lachian and Moravian Dances are beautifully played, though maybe a bit polished for my taste. I like this music to sound slightly more earthy. Still, Wit brings out a beautiful orchestral sound with exciting climaxes and dreamy, graceful interludes.

Fresh Dvorak from Bournemouth

From May 2, 2014:


Dvorak had strong links to Britain. The 7th Symphony was commissioned and premiered by London's Philharmonic Society, and it finds another British champion in the Bournemouth Symphony, under the direction of the Uruguayan conductor Jose Serebrier.

The first disc in Serebrier's Dvorak series from Warner Classics was well-reviewed, with "fresh" being the most common word used to describe the oft-recorded Symphony "From the New World". This disc also has a freshness; it sounds bright and warm and new. Serebrier brings out the Brahmsian weight of this great symphony without missing the occasional touch of Bohemian grace and bucolic charm that's so typical of Dvorak. The fillers, a Slavonic Dance, the Scherzo Capriccioso and the tone poem In Nature's Realm, aren't as weighty, but show off the skills of the orchestra and the light touch of the conductor. This is a welcome addition to what is shaping up as a first-rate series.

Another excellent Daphnis from Haitink

May 1, 2012:


Bernard Haitink recorded this score more than a few times, with orchestras in America and Europe. Besides this live London recording from 1979 (from the BBC archives), I was very impressed with another more recent live recording, with the Chicago Symphony on CSO Resound in 2007. This newly-remastered CD from the London Philharmonic Orchestra's own label is welcome. The concert recorded at Festival Hall shows the orchestra and the John Alldis Choir in fine form, and the engineers have captured both the music itself and the excitement of a special live performance. This version is a bit more expansive than the tighter Chicago version, and the sonics don't quite compare. But in this instance Haitink and his musicians make a strong case for slowing this gorgeous music down just a bit.

I agree with Amazon reviewer Daniel Coombs that the Montreal Symphony version of Daphnis Et Chloe with Charles Dutoit is very special. It's both my favourite version of this great music, and one of the outstanding CDs I own. But Ravel's masterpiece has many facets, and Bernard Haitink is an outstanding guide, whether the journey starts in London or in Chicago.

The Soviet Experience

From May 1, 2012 (Happy May Day, comrades!):


This is the second set in the Pacifica Quartet's Soviet Experience series for Cedille, and it's another winner. The two discs include the first 4 string quartets in Shostakovich's great cycle, and the 2nd quartet by Prokofiev, both of whose quartets are of the highest quality. The music on this disc reflects the tumultuous times in Soviet Russia from the period just before to just after the Second World War.

I know the Pacifica Quartet from their amazing Naxos recording of the String Quartets of Elliott Carter, which won a Grammy Award in 2009. The new Cedille set has the same outstanding levels of musicianship and engineering. The series provides the opportunity to immerse oneself in the heroic, horrific and incredibly sad period of the Soviet war with Nazi Germany, and the emerging war of Stalin against his own greatest artists. From the deceptive simplicity of the first Shostakovich quartet, with its folk-like melodies and glimpses of chaos to come, to the tragically great Quartet #3, the Pacifica players present an amazing tableau of the broadest range of emotions and the highest peaks of art. I look forward to the next release in this series!

Absolut Prokofiev

February 22, 2012:
Non-musicans often think of arrangements as being analogous to translations, and we're inclined to worry about what's "lost" in the process. But the adaptive re-use of music might be done for all sorts of practical or artistic reasons, and there is often something gained as well. In the case of Vadim Borisovsky's arrangements for viola & piano of Prokofiev's amazing Romeo & Juliet ballet, I think a better analogue is "distillation". If these clever arrangements don't exactly bring out the "essence" of the score, which is one of the greatest and most colourful orchestral works of the 20th century, they distill some of the many moods of Shakespeare's original work, as they were so imaginatively re-imagined by Prokofiev.

This new Naxos disc of Borisovsky's arrangements includes three additional movements, transcribed by David Grunes and Matthew Jones, and all the pieces have been reordered to follow the original ballet score. The choice of viola and piano works well for the more neo-classical scenes, which can sound like movements from an angular trio-sonata. The more romantic scenes take advantage of the full expressive range of the viola (and in a couple of cases, two violas) and the complete dramatic arsenal of the pianist. The Dance of the Knights is amazing: the viola provides so many different sounds through different bowing techniques and the full range of the viola, ncluding harmonics. This is a rich re-orchestration!

Violists Matthew Jones and Rivka Golani and pianist Michael Hampton provide passion and expertise in equal parts. They really convinced me of the value of this music!

Notable orchestral music from Venezuela

From February 14, 2012:


Most classical music fans know Venezuela as the home of the extraordinary music education scheme El Sistema, which helped to create today's biggest classical music rock-star, the conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Now we're learning more about the mid-20th century classical music traditions in Venezuela upon which El Sistema was based.

Two of the three great Venezuelan composers born between 1915 and 1917 are fairly well known: the guitarist Antonio Lauro and composer/conductor Antonio Estévez, who wrote the famous Cantata Criolla. A third is Evencio Castellanos, a pianist and teacher, and, from the evidence on this new Naxos disc, a writer of impressive orchestral music.

Santa Cruz de Pacairigua from 1954 is a work jammed full of "local colur": folk dances, a medieval church tune, and plenty of percussion, all following a program about the building of a church. The Suite Avilena, written in 1947, contains a series of characteristic pieces representing various locations between Caracas and the sea.

The best work on the disc, though, is the 1946 work El Rio de las Siete Estrellas (The River of the Seven Stars). As often happens with music inspired by a river (Villa-Lobos's Amazonas or Smetana's Moldau, for example) the representation of a strong current provides a structure for programmatic incidents that might otherwise seem unconnected.

I know the conductor Jan Wagner from a Bridge disc of orchestral music by Villa-Lobos, which coincidentally shares many characteristics with this one. The Bridge CD featured the Odense Symphony, which he led before and after the turn of the century. In this new Naxos disc he conducts the excellent Orquesta Sinfonica de Venezuela, who play quite spendidly for their Danish leader. Wagner makes sure the music sparkles, for these are indeed showpieces, but he takes the time to emphasize Castellanos's more reflective moods. Aaron Copland once complained that Latin American music too often alternated between "the languorously sentimental or the wildly orgiastic mood, with very little in between". Wagner makes sure to present the subtleties that Castellanos, at his very best, does contain.

Out from under Villa's shadow

From February 14, 2012:


Francisco Mignone is finally coming out a bit from the immense shadow of his older contemporary Villa-Lobos, and this CD from the Cuarteto Latinoamericano should help the Sao Paulo-born composer win some new friends. Though most of these pieces come from Mignone's nationalist phase, his string quartets, like Villa's, are about more than just the folklore, dances, and popular music of Brazil. Both the 1st and the 2nd String Quartets are elaborate and sophisticated works of serious music, with much the same solid structure and appealing forward movement of Haydn's or Bartok's string quartets. The program also includes a number of short, light, traditional Brazilian and Spanish dances, but also two abstract pieces of the highest quality and inspiration: the Two Essays for String Quartet from 1958. These dozen minutes of music demonstrate why Mignone deserves to be classed with South America's greatest composers.

In this new disc from Dorian Sono Luminus, the Cuarteto Latinoamericano make the same persuasive argument for Mignone that they did for Villa-Lobos in their 2009 recording of the complete String Quartets. There's that shadow again!

Highly recommended Piazzolla

From February 14, 2012:


Piazzolla's music thrives in many different environments, from the standard concert stage to the jazz club, and in many instrumental & orchestral forms. In this new disc from Azica we have an intimate chamber work (Histoire du Tango, written for flute & guitar, but presented here in Julian Labro's version for bandoneon & guitar), along with two works written for or arranged (again by Labro) for guitar, bandoneon, and string orchestra.

Histoire du Tango works especially well, I think, in its new arrangement. It's a trip from Tango's traditional home, at the turn of the 20th century in the bordellos of Buenos Aires, through newer versions of the dance which Piazzolla himself contributed to or invented. The long, slow second movement (Cafe 1930) is a real highlight for me, my favourite amongst all of Piazzolla's works. Music is one of the best ways to communicate the full range of emotions that we call nostalgia, and this is a great re-creation of what would likely have been among Piazzolla's earliest musical memories. Of course, the sound of the bandoneon certainly belongs here.

Piazzolla can take pride in his own contribution to the jazzy Nightclub 1960 version of the tango; he brings 'cool' to the new form of tango (nuevo tango) he developed. The angular, avant-garde sound he brings to the final Concert d'Aujourd'hui introduces his other contribution to the form, musical ideas borrowed from classical composers from Bach to Stravinsky. This movement points to the more adventurous 'alt-classical' scene of today. The recording, made at the Cleveland Museum of Art, is warm and intimate.

Vieaux and Labro play along with A Far Cry Chamber Orchestra in Piazzolla's concerto Hommage a Liege, and in Labro's version of Las Cuatro Estaciones Porenas for the same forces. The performances are polished and alive. The recording is bright, though balancing these solo instruments with the orchestral forces is problematic. Still, this disc is very highly recommended!

Fine Rachmaninov playing from pianist & orchestra

From January 30, 2012:


While the 3rd Piano Concerto, with its big tunes and over-the-top virtuosity, is the more popular work on this new disc from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's own label, the greater work is the op. 45 Symphonic Dances. It requires as much virtuosity from the orchestra as the Concerto needs from the pianist. That's a tall order, but Robert Spano has his musicians hitting on all cylinders, with a tightly-disciplined and well-prepared reading of this important 20th century score. Spano's version is perhaps a bit more careful than other famous recordings, or white-hot live performances, fondly remembered, by favourite conductors. But I think it makes an excellent case for a masterpiece by a composer who doesn't have the reputation he once did. In this case, dialing things up to '11' in the Spinal Tap manner doesn't necessarily provide any gains. A well-balanced recording, with some deficiencies noted in B. Guerrero's review above, gives us a clear feel for the back-bone of the work as well as its surface sheen.

Even better, the Atlanta engineers have attained the perfect balance between piano and orchestra, allowing both the delicacy and the power of Garrick Ohlsson's playing to come through in the 3rd Piano Concerto. This disc is a triumph of virtuosity, musicality, and technology. Kudos to Ohlsson and Spano, and the musical & technical team in Atlanta!

Iconic performances of great chamber music

January 19, 2012:


These recordings of the late Dvorak quartets were made in New York by Sony in the early 1970s. Newton Classics has put together another double-disc set of very attractive repertoire, as is their wont, though the price is not as attractive as some double-disc re-issues.

This is amazing music, played as well as you could wish, and it's very well recorded, with warmth and a nice sense of space. It's not perhaps as carefully presented as the music and performances deserve, as another reviewer here has noted. But in this day of such an embarrassment of classical music riches, it's good that Newton is pushing forward these iconic performances of some of the greatest chamber music of the 19th century. And it's nice to hear the Terzetto (a quartet minus the cello). What an odd little piece, but certainly a charmer! It's an illustration of Dvorak's cleverness, and how much he loved and understood the viola.

Another fine disc from Trio Pantango

From January 11, 2012:


Trio Pantango have been making music to much acclaim since 1993, and their latest disc, from ARC, provides a fine selection of tangos and other dances from Argentina. It's nice to hear some tangos from other composers besides Piazzolla. The title track, Madame Ivonne, by Eduardo Pereyra, is a stand-out, as is Alberto Castillo's sad Silbando.

This is not to say that the musicians don't do a fine job with the more well-known works by Piazzolla. Verano porteno, from the Cuatro estaciones porteñas suite, is my favourite piece by Piazzolla, and the Trio Pantanto produce solid forward propulsion to the piece. Bandoneonista Guillermo Destaillats and guest bassist Dirk Luking provide suitable emotive power in the sad middle part without going over the top. The disc ends with guitarist Fernando Rubin Saglia playing Quique Sinesi's atmospheric piece for solo guitar Contra viento y marea (Against wind and tide).

O Canada

From January 11, 2012:


I've long been a fan of the American Classics Series from Naxos. Over the years the series has helped to cement the reputations of great American composers, while bringing new names to the forefront. So I was excited to see the first disc in the Canadian Classics Series, complete with prominent red and white maple leaf flags. And, suitably, I'm writing this review on John A. Macdonald's birthday (he was our first Prime Minister), so you'll have to allow for a certain amount of patriotism while reading this review.

The three works on this disc were all composed by Jeffrey Ryan in the first decade of this century, and were recorded in 2008 and 2010 in Vancouver's Orpheum Theatre. In his orchestral showpiece The Linearity of Light, Ryan provides a challege to the virtuosity of the orchestra, and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra under conductor Bramwell Tovey pass with flying colours. The work comes with a program relating to the qualities and properties of light. It glitters and pulsates, and though it might seem at first superficial, it's actually quite emotional and left me strangely unsettled the first time I heard it. Subsequent listening confirms that this is more than just a piece to show off how fast or how loud an orchestra can play.

The Triple Concerto concept, taken up fairly regularly by composers in the past 200 years following Beethoven's model, creates some problems of balance for the composer, and I can imagine for recording engineers as well. Ryan's Triple Concerto, called Equilateral, gives equal weight not only to each of the soloists, but provides a balance between the piano trio and the orchestra. This creates an interesting concerto grosso texture, especially in the first movement Breathless, which is a standout, my favourite part of the disc. See the Wikipedia article on triple concertos for a list of works for piano trio & orchestra, by the way.

I know the Gryphon Trio well from their many fine chamber music recordings with Analekta. Each of the members gets his or her chance to shine: cellist Roman Borys and violinist Annalee Patipatanakoon in the 2nd movement Points of Contact, and pianist Jamie Parker in the last movement Serpentine.

The title work of the album, Fugitive Colours, is Ryan's First Symphony (though I see from the catalogue of works on his website he hasn't yet published a second.) This work also begins with visual concepts, but this time built on a symphonic frame. It's proof that the symphonic form still has plenty of life in this century.

I look forward to many, many more discs in this series, and I trust that the series will also include more from Jeffrey Ryan.

A fine disc of Debussy for solo instruments & orchestra,

From January 11, 2012:


This is the seventh volume in the very useful Naxos series of the complete orchestral works of Claude Debussy, containing works for solo instrument and orchestra.

The Fantaisie for piano and orchestra is a relatively early work, though Debussy made revisions to it later in his life. We hear the composer's latest version here. It's a slight but appealing work. I like the way Thibaudet swings this music, and Markl keeps things light and frothy and moving ahead.

The other works on the disc represent the mature composer's greatness in creating beautiful and dramatic soundscapes. Though Debussy had to be dragged kicking and screaming into writing a piece for saxophone, you couldn't tell from the Rapsodie that the composer wasn't completely attuned to the sonorities of this instrument, which contributed so much to the special sound of French modernist music. The works featuring the harp and the clarinet similarly present new sounds that would be taken up by generations of composers who made their way to Paris in the 1920s: George Gershwin, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and so many others. With standout solo work by saxophonist Alexandre Doisy, harpist Emmanuel Ceysson, and especially clarinetist Paul Meyer, and strong support from Markl and the musicians of the Orchestre Naqtional de Lyon, this disc is very highly recommended.

An excellent survey of music for the Spanish Guitar

From January 11, 2012:


The Minneapolis-based guitarist James Flegel has chosen an especially interesting programme for his new guitar disc on Clear Note. Some of these works will be well known even to Classical Guitar neophytes, while others might be new even to those familiar to the music of Spain and Latin America. The disc provides a good survey of music for the Spanish Guitar from its 16th century roots through the classical period to its great flowering in the 20th century. The music also shows off Flegel's virtuosity and his musicianship. His technique is assured, for example, in the well-known Asturias by Albeniz, as it is in the Allegro Solemne of Barrios. He doesn't bring to Turina's Sevillana Fantasia quite the same combination of passion and delicacy as Manuel Barrueco on EMI, but it's still an impressive reading of this important work. He plays the deceptively simple pieces of Barrios and Lauro with admirable clarity, and he brings out the charm in this lovely music.

New to me was the Argentine composer Jose Luis Merlin's Suite del Recuerdo. The suite has an interesting mix of rhythms and appealing melodies. It is folkloric, evoking the pampas, but there is a classical/baroque feel as well. Like so often in Villa-Lobos one can hear bits of Bach, and in Merlin's case also Scarlatti.

A fine new release - recommended!

Jaunty, accessible, sombre, spiritual Honegger

From December 13, 2011:


This new disc fom the LPO illustrates Honegger's journey from his modernist period as a member of Les Six in 1920s Paris to his less ironic and more expressive maturity in the 1940s and 50s. The earliest work on the disc, the 1920 Pastorale d'Ete, is a sometimes jaunty and jazzy trip into the countryside. It has a pastoral feel, but it's often slightly off-centre. This is a fascinating, and for me immensely appealing, seven minutes of music.

Honegger, like Villa-Lobos who took a similar journey during the same years, was swimming upstream in the post-WWII period. His 4th Symphony was designed to be just the opposite of the fashionable music of the day: accessible and expressive. In 1946 Honegger wanted to give his audience, and perhaps himself, some relief from the austerities of the post-war world. This music might have seemed old-fashioned and even banal at the time, but I appreciate its directness and simplicity.

Honegger's final composition is the 1953 Christmas Cantata, which was written during his final illness. The first movement is very dark - sombre seems too light a word for the oppressive mood Honegger creates. But of course darkness is part of many Christmas stories, from the Massacre of the Innocents to the depressing first draft of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. When Honegger lets the light in, the effect is magical. This is deeply spiritual music, well-crafted and very moving.

So much credit for this excellent disc goes to the conductor Vladimir Jurowski. As he explains at the LPO website, he believes that Honegger deserves a much higher reputation than his present quite modest ranking. Jurowski seems to have communicated this passion to the musicians who performed at the Royal Festival and Queen Elizabeth Hall concerts recorded for this CD. And he's convinced me!

Latin music for solo violin, with a surprise ending

From November 20, 2011:


In Rachel Barton Pine's new disc of solo violin music this highly talented musician presents a variety of pieces from Spain and Latin America. Some of the music was written for the violin, both practice pieces and show-pieces written to show off the violinist's virtuosity. As well, there are arrangements of music originally written for guitar. Two well-known works in the latter category stand out. Barton Pine's own version of Albeniz's great Asturias (Leyenda) is very impressive, though I find Francisco Tarrega's Recuerdos de la Alhambra (in Ruggiero Ricci's arrangement) fits less well on the violin. Both pieces are played here with precision and strong feeling.

Technical skill is pretty much a given here, but I find the more evocative pieces of more interest than those that focus on playing lots of notes all in the right order. The three tango-related pieces, by Jose Luis Gonzalez, Jose Serebrier, and Astor Piazzolla, are alternately driving and passionate, and beautifully played. Virtuosity is always on display, but more importantly, so is musicianship of the highest order.

But wait, there's more! The disc ends with a real surprise: Alan Ridout's Ferdinand. The actor Hector Elizondo narrates the beloved Munro Leaf story Ferdinand the Bull, while Barton Pine provides the musical accompaniment that helps to make this story every bit as entertaining as the Oscar-winning Disney cartoon from 1938.

In the beginning is the night

From November 10, 2011:


Sandrine Piau's new collection of songs on Naive, entitled "Après un rêve", gathers a fascinating group of pieces by a wide range of composers that all share the subjects of dreams, sleeping, and waking. "In the beginning is the night," Piau says in the introductory note included in the uncommonly full and interesting liner notes, "the cradle of our childhood terrors, peopled with creatures as fearsome as they are fascinating..."

With more than capable support from pianist Susan Manoff, Piau is outstanding in the French songs - Faure, Chausson, Poulenc - and more than capable in the three by Richard Strauss. The song set "Galgenlieder" by Vincent Bouchot was new to me, and certainly fit the mood set by the rest of the pieces chosen for this recital. I was especially pleased with the three folk song arrangements of Benjamin Britten which finish the disc. They add a final childish twist to a sometimes spooky and always disorienting hour of music that's beautifully presented.

Super-Romantic music from Poland

From November 10, 2011:


Mieczyslaw Karlowicz's music has been fairly well served on CD, especially by Chandos and Naxos, but he doesn't seem to have broken through in the same way some other formerly obscure composers have. That's a pity, since this music is easily accessible, with a rich sound and memorable melodies. Karlowicz turns up the Romantic dial to 11 in this music, which isn't surprising considering its main influences are Tchaikovsky's Pathetique and Wagner's Tristan.

Both the Symphony and The White Dove music are relatively early works, though Karlowicz didn't live long enough to build a very large body of work. He was killed in an avalanche while skiing at the age of 33. This music very much wears its heart on its sleeve, and Wit lets his Polish musicians loose in the kind of music they must know well. I found the entire disc very appealing. Naxos does its usual excellent job of capturing the mood and presenting unfamiliar music well worth our time and money.

More superb Russian music from Seattle

From November 10, 2011:


Gerard Schwarz and his Seattle players have excelled in Russian repertoire, with a really excellent Rimsky-Korsakov series on Naxos. Their mastery extends to the music of Alexander Borodin, the professional chemist who excelled at his avocation of composing. The great, nationalist 2nd Symphony is presented to excellent effect by the Seattle Symphony, playing as well as I've heard (and they have recorded a very large amount of interesting repertoire over the years). In the First Symphony Borodin is learning to write orchestral music. He succeeds brilliantly, especially in the long first movement. Schwarz makes the best possible case for this work.

The Third Symphony is such an interesting work, a reconstruction by Glazunov of sketches of two movements left unfinished by Borodin at his death. A spare and wistful work, it's an impressive achievement in its own right, but also sadly points to what might have been if the composer hadn't died so young.

Vital Smetana and Dvorak

From October 3, 2011:


Newton Classics has been re-releasing some outstanding classic recordings recently; this time last year I was very impressed with their repackaged Decca disc of Spanish music played by Alicia de Larocha Falla: Suites from El Sombrero de tres picos; El amor brujo; Fantasia Baetica; Cuatro piezas espanolas. Here comes another: two discs from Antal Dorati recorded at the Concertgebouw by Decca in 1986.

Smetana's Ma vlast (My country) includes six movements, but most music lovers know only The Moldau, with its famous river theme. That theme was featured in Terrence Malick's film The Tree of Life; look for the movie's trailer on YouTube to see how Malick uses The Moldau theme to represent life itself. The movement, and the entire tone poem, is perfectly framed by Dorati, beautifully played by the Dutch musicians, and presented in sparkling, clear, lifelike sound by the Decca engineers. By the way, the version used in Malick's film is by Vaclav Smetacek and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, on Supraphon, which is a classic recording as well, and, of course, completely authentic. But there is no lack of authenticity in this performance as well, as Dorati brings out the best of Bohemian music with a middle-European flavour and world-class musicians. Make sure you take the time to listen to all 80 minutes of Ma vlast; these are castles, woods and fields worth visiting with Smetana as your guide.

The Overture: In Nature's Realm by Antonin Dvorak is another work I recommend highly, especially to those of you who only know his Symphonies (and perhaps only his best-known, From the New World). Dvorak's tone poems contain some of his best music, with lovely and lively themes and rich orchestral colour. Dorati is once again a more than reliable interpreter; his Dvorak is as vital and alive as his Smetana.

Sociable music with charm and character

From August 22, 2011:


I know Mathieu Lussier as a bassoonist, especially in Latin American and Baroque repertoire, but he's also an accomplished composer. This new CD from ATMA Classique shows this accomplishment, and also highlights his range and broad appeal.

All of these works feature music for wind instruments, and are presented by Pentaedre, the wide-ranging and progressive wind chamber group based in Montreal. Lussier's music is accessible and colourful, often marked by playfulness and sentiment. It shows the influence of French composers of the 20th century such as Milhaud, Francaix, & Poulenc, and of Latin American composers like Piazzolla and Villa-Lobos. Most important, though, is the general "folkloric" feel of the music. There is something timeless about the often simple melodies from which Lussier builds these well-constructed pieces. This music is crafted for use in the manner of the sociable Baroque musician rather than the Romantic artist writing for posterity in his lonely attic. Lussier knows these instruments well - flute, clarinet, oboe d'amour, horn, and saxophone, as well as bassoon. The performers (from Pentaedre, as well as guest artists) play with character, charm and virtuosity. He also writes interesting music for the pianist to play. These are not always merely accompaniments, and Louise Lessard plays her parts with musicality, wit and grace.

The final work on the CD is a major chamber work for wind quintet and contrabassoon. The Sextuor, op. 19, is evocative music, courtly, grave, phantastical and wistful. This piece deserves to be taken up by wind ensembles around the world.

A winner from Naxos American Classics

From August 19, 2011:


The American composer Joseph Schwantner has been called a "gifted orchestral colorist". That might be considered faint praise, with an implication of superficiality. But I don't believe that true mastery of orchestral colour can be achieved without delicacy, depth and drive. I'd rather think of the great masters of orchestral color - Debussy or Villa-Lobos, for example - as being colorists in the same sense that Titian was a great colorist of painting. That's raising the bar pretty high, of course, and the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic elements of the music need at least to be along for the ride (as they always are for Debussy, and usually are for Villa-Lobos).

Judged even by these criteria, though, I would call Schwantner's Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra (1994) a major success. I knew the concerto in its arrangement by Andrew Boysen for Percussion and Concert Band, on two different recordings from Calgary & West Texas. This new Naxos CD has the major advantage of having a full orchestra; Schwantner is working here with a full palette. And not just any orchestra - the Nashville Symphony is in fine form under the direction of Giancarlo Guerrero. Christopher Lamb, who commissioned the work, provides an incredible range of sounds from his large battery of instruments. This is a major masterpiece of the last decade of the 20th century.

Of the two other pieces on the disc, both World Premiere recordings, I was most impressed with Morning's Embrace, an evocative naturescape. Schwantner, like a few other American composers, is able to write music inspired by nature that stays out of the well-worn grooves of the English pastoral tradition and "New Age" kitsch. This is music with interesting "sound environments" (Schwantner's own words) that have a strong underlying musical logic. I was less taken, though, by Chasing Light..., though the work's appeal might just take longer to get through. I'll certainly be listening to this CD more often than most other discs of new music. Another winner from Naxos American Classics.

Heeere's Klaus!

From July 4, 2011:


This is a live recording from Royal Festival Hall made in 1991. You'll see from the other reviews here that while Tennstedt is universally admired as a Mahler interpreter, there is some controversy about whether his live recordings are more successful than those done in the studio. I come down more on the studio side myself. I acknowledge, though, that there can be some thrilling moments in a live Tennstedt recording, as there were in the 6th Symphony recorded with the LPO the same year as this one; and as there are occasionally in this disc, newly released on LPO's own label. Tennstedt often "milks" a phrase for maximum effect, while losing sight of the longer arcs of the Symphony. His highly emotional approach seems cranked up in these live recordings, while the studio recordings often have more discipline, though they still have real passion.

The sound on these CDs is better than you might imagine from a television recording of this vintage. The soloists mainly acquit themselves well, and the choral singing from the LPO Choir, Eton College Boys' Choir and the London Symphony Chorus is excellent.

If you like your Mahler with a touch of Jack Nicholson in the Shining, this might be your cup of tea.

Frightening, cathartic and celebratory

From July 2, 2011:


Violinist/composer Ittai Shapira has written an intensely personal work with a programme that's frightening, cathartic, and celebratory. But Concierto Latino stands by itself as a completely self-contained and deeply satisfying violin concerto.

Shapira's story begins in January 2005 in New York, when he was attacked by a group of thugs on the street. Though he was released from hospital the next day, the psychic and neurological effects of the incident were significant, and Shapira worked through them in musical fashion. The result, two years later, was this splendid violin concerto.

The first movement, "The Attack", presents the aftermath of the incident, the sounds Shapira hears in his head. The music is intense, at times brutal, as music unlocks his memories of the attack. The second movement, "Lament", is about reflection and catharsis. The upbeat "Party" celebrates the end of the long journey Shapira has taken through his art.

The music is Latin in its broadest sense. The influences in this piece represent pretty much the whole range of popular and classical music from Iberia and Latin America, but this is no pot-pourri. The piece has a musical logic of its own, and it's presented in a most appealing package of dance rhythms, orchestral color, and a virtuosic but still deeply melodic solo violin line. This is a "CD single" from Champs Hill Records, containing 26 minutes of music. But the work makes such an impression and packs in so much incident and beauty that I would cheerfully pay full price for it.

An Outstanding Brahms Program,

From June 28, 2011:


Every competent performance of a Brahms violin sonata will have in it something of interest: each phrase is perfect and inevitable, but somehow at the same time constantly surprising and evocative. Great performances will always be emotional but not sentimental, and classically balanced but not dry or academic.

There's an old Gaelic proverb that says "When the cup is fullest it is most difficult to carry." Brahms has filled the cups to the very brim in his three violin sonatas, and the challenge to violin and piano partners who would carry them is daunting. This new disc from Arabella Steinbacher and Robert Kulek is as accomplished as any recent CD in this repertoire.

I'm a big fan of Steinbacher's tone, and her technical capabilities are obvious. Kulek provides more than simple accompaniment; he's an equal partner in this challenging music. This is outstanding musicianship, with the artists' egos subjugated to the logic of the music. Pentatone has provided stunning sound in this 2010 Dutch recording. The multi-channel super audio format is perfect for presenting both the drama and the intimacy of Brahms' chamber music.

Not every disc of the Violin Sonatas finds room for the Scherzo that Brahms contributed to the FAE Sonata, along with Albert Dietrich and Robert Schumann. This is no mere filler, but an accomplished work by the 20-year-old composer. It's a splendid encore to an outstanding program of masterpieces for violin and piano.

Fantastic orchestral music

From June 15, 2011:


Josef Suk was a student of Dvorak, and later his son-in-law, and his music definitely follows in the Czech tradition of Smetana and Dvorak. But his mature works are as much about the 20th century as the 19th. Suk was aware of and his music was coloured by familiarity with Debussy, Richard Strauss, and Mahler.

This new Naxos disc presents Czech pastoral scenes with exotic and fantastic elements. Though it partakes of folkloric elements, unlike Smetana or Dvorak Suk doesn't quote any actual folk songs. It's all very sophisticated, and Suk gives the music a bright shiny gloss through his clever orchestration and modernist hints.

The tone-poem Fairy Tale, op. 16, is an impressive work for a composer in his early 20s. Working in the "exotic east" genre popular with European composers at least since Mozart's "Turkish" music, Suk manages to make the music sound fresh and very much his own. The Fantastic Scherzo, written five years later, is more rustic, but just as individual. Both of these pieces are orchestral show-pieces that show off the strengths of the Buffalo musicians and conductor JoAnn Falletta's direction, and the clean, clear, bright, alive sound we've come to expect from Naxos.

But the best part of this collection is, I believe, the Fantasy in G minor for violin and orchestra, a real surprise for me. This piece is another fantasy tone-poem, but this time with a part for concertante violin. The violin wanders a fantastic landscape in much the same way as the viola in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, though without an explicit programme. This music is dramatic and compelling, and violinist Michael Ludwig and conductor JoAnn Falletta really sell it. I couldn't believe that 23 minutes had passed when it was done.

More superb Shostakovich from Petrenko

From June 15, 2011:


The Naxos series of Shostakovich symphonies with Vasily Petrenko conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic goes from strength to strength. I was mightily impressed with the most recent releases, symphonies 8 and 10.

The First Symphony is an amazing achievement for a teenager, but we're down a level in terms of the composer's inspiration from those great, mature works, and then down another level in the Third, an experiment which doesn't quite come together. But Petrenko and his Liverpool orchestral and choral musicians make the best possible case for both works. And both are certainly worth the time to listen to, and listen closely.

The musicians are ably supported, as usual, by the Naxos production team. The Shostakovich symphonies are one of the 20th century's great artistic accomplishments. Vasily Petrenko and Naxos may be this century's best guide to the series.

Dimitri Mitropoulos's final performance

From June 15, 2011:


Dimitri Mitropoulos's Mahler from his time with the New York Philharmonic was somewhat over-shadowed by his replacement Leonard Bernstein. But Mahler recordings conducted by Mitropoulos from New York and other orchestras are of very high quality. Recordings of the 1st, 5th, 9th, & 10th Symphonies have probably the highest reputation.

Mitropoulos's surviving New York recording of the 3rd Symphony was severely cut to fit into a radio broadcast schedule. Luckily, there exists a recording with the Kolner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester of a full, live, performance of the 3rd Symphony from October 31, 1960. It definitely trumps the New York recording, and perhaps deserves a place among Mitropoulos's best Mahler. This new disc from ICQ Classics is the first CD release of this performance.

The recording has some significant historic interest, since it represents the very last performance by this great conductor. Mitropoulos suffered a heart attack during the long first movement, and, refusing medical attention, conducted the remainder of the work from a chair. He died three days later, while rehearsing the same work in Milan. I find it very moving to listen to this music, written by someone who lived much of his life with serious illness, and whose preoccupation with death played such an large role in his music.

The Koln orchestra shines in both the Mahler Symphony and Debussy's La Mer, which was recorded a few days before the Mahler, and which nicely fills out the second CD of this set. It's great to have this music available, not only for its historic significance, but for the music itself. This is music that can be appreciated by any Mahlerian, and not just a hard-core Mitropoulitan. The sound is very good: warm and full, with the excitement that comes with the best live recordings. This is very highly recommended!

Mysticism and Modernism

From June 1, 2011:


Adventurous programmes and amazing technique are the hallmarks of Jenny Lin's recordings over the past decade. I really sat up and took notice when Hannsler Classics released her Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues in 2009. This was a fresh take on some of my favourite music; an outstanding disc with depth as well as fireworks.

So I was really pleased to see her new disc of Federico Mompou's Musica Callada - Silent Music - an important work from the 1960s. This music is without fireworks of any kind, but it requires a skilled pianist to put across this deceptively simple music. The third piece of the first book, "Placide" is an excellent example. It is indeed placid, and simple, almost child-like. It reminds one of some of Schumann's Kinderszenen, or the folk-like tunes of Villa-Lobos's Guia Pratico. It has a nostalgic sadness, and Lin plays it with restraint, almost reverence.

Musica Callada is Mompou's late masterpiece, written under the twin influences of mysticism and modernism. His literary inspiration was the 16th century Spanish poet St. John of the Cross, who provides Mompou's title. But the composer also makes reference to the French Symbolist poet Paul Valery, when he quotes the poem Le pas at the top of the score to the second piece in Book I, Lent.

Mompou's musical influences are Spanish and and French modernists. The great Catalan composers Albeniz and Granados share Mompou's interest in Ravel and Debussy, but I wonder if all three are channeling their own regional folk music as well. Mompou is especially interested in Erik Satie, though the pieces on this disc partake only of Satie's understatement and not his humour. This music is spare, but hardly light!

This disc is the first I've seen from the brand new Steinway & Sons label. The sound is lifelike, open, and resonant. Guess what kind of piano Lin is playing?

New classics of Fado

From March 3, 2011:


Custodio Castelo is a master of the guitarra portuguesa, a really cool instrument that looks like a mandolin and has odd tuning and sympathetic strings, like a baryton or sitar. It's an important part of the traditional accompaniment for the genre of music known as fado, which comes from 19th century Portugal and which remains very popular around the world today.

Any type of music becomes of only antiquarian interest unless there are great interpreters to breathe life into old works, and great composers to re-invent the form. Castelo plays both roles, and the evidence is here in this new CD from ARC music. Castelo's Ausente ("Absent", the second track on the disc) seems destined to be a fado classic. It's reminiscent of Gente da Minha Terra, the song written by the great Amália Rodrigues and popularized by Mariza. This song typifies "saudade", the nostalgic feeling of loss and sadness so often connected with fado, and with many other forms of music throughout the Portuguese-speaking world.

The album includes less mournful moods as well, though. Quase morna ("Almost warm") is a sprightly dance, while Homage a Paredes shows Castelo is a virtuoso in the same league as the guitarist Carlos Paredes, the famous "man with a thousand fingers". This disc is very highly recommended to fans of world music and great guitar-playing.

Important recordings in the Brian revival

From March 3, 2011:


The works on this disc were recorded in 1993 and 1997, and were part of the series of Marco Polo discs from the end of the century that helped move Brian from cult status more or less into the mainstream of British classical music. It's nice to have this music at budget price, and more widely available (though this particular Marco Polo issue is still out there both on CD and through MP3 downloads). The CD begins with two very early works. Both the Concert Overture: For Valour and the Comedy Overture: Doctor Merryheart owe a great deal to Elgar and to Richard Strauss. They're very expressive and highly emotional; Brian wears his heart on his sleeve in this music. Don't expect Monty Python in the Comedy Overture, by the way; this is very much in the Falstaff hearty-laughs-and-ale tradition.

The symphonies come from much later in Brian's career. I'm certainly no Brian specialist, but I find this craggy/lyrical music to be highly cogent, and more accessible than I had assumed. The music repays careful listening, but chunks of these symphonies blasting from the CD player in my car have provided spur-of-the-moment inspiration along with much admiration for an uncompromising, crusty old composer.

Gentle and tuneful guitar music from South America

From February 11, 2011:


Guitarist Andres Villamil brings us a lovely mix of music from his homeland of Colombia, in this new disc in the Debut series from Oehms. These pieces are often reminiscent of Tarrega or Villa-Lobos, and many are suffused with a very appealing sense of melancholy and beauty. Occasionally one encounters the more lively rhythms that one associates with the Andes. Standouts include Jose Antonio Morales's Pueblito Viejo, an arrangement by Villamil of a graceful waltz which is considered a classic in Colombia; and Samuel Bedoya's Seis por Numeracion, a kind of guitar etude that ends up being as fun to listen to as I'm sure it is to play. But my favourite works on this disc are the four pieces written by Andres Villamil himself. The prelude Camburpinton transports Bach, via Villa-Lobos, to the Colombian jungle. The CD's title piece, Chicaquicha, makes reference to the indigenous people of Villamil's home region, and is written in the form of a bambuco. Mery, written for the composer's mother, is a pasillo, another graceful and slightly sad Colombian dance with a more urgent middle section. His homage to Piazzolla, which ends the program, adapts Andean rhythms to the tango style.

An excellent start to a new Polish orchestral series

From January 31, 2011:


This new Chandos CD provides three important works by one of the 20th Century's most important composers. There's a great deal of cleverness evident in the Concerto for Orchestra, written in the early 1950s, a virtuoso showpiece modelled after Bartok's work. More cleverness was required to disguise some quite radical musical ideas as "social realism" for his political masters. Lutoslawski's Third Symphony, written for Solti & the Chicago Symphony in the early 1980s, is probably the composer's masterpiece. The Third Chain, written later in that decade, is slighter in scope but not in effect.

Gardner and his orchestra are at their best in the Symphony and Chain III. They're not quite hitting all of the virtuoso highlights of the folk-inspired Concerto for Orchestra, though the playing is still of a very high calibre. Both of the later works make use of aleatory, the introduction of chance into a musical work. Though Lutoslawski nails down pitches and rhythms, he gives the orchestral musicians the freedom to play sections of the piece in their own time.

This provides us with unexpected combinations of sound, which a multi-channel recording has the potential to expose to us more explicitly. Actually, I can see the advantage of really cranking this up, exaggerating the separation between instruments of the orchestra, even if it results in a less than accurate reproduction of the concert-hall experience. As it happens on this disc, the Chandos engineers have spread out the orchestra, but not at the expense of atmosphere and musical coherence. I expect to listen to this CD often, letting these often surprising sounds wash over me. And I look forward to other discs in Gardner's new series of Polish orchestral music.

Outstanding new disc of 20th Century piano concertos

From January 28, 2011:


Following a well-reviewed debut CD of meaty Russian music for solo piano, Anna Vinnitskaya returns with a very strong concerto disc on the Naive label. The Prokofiev 2nd Piano Concerto has had its share of fine versions on disc; Martha Argerich, and Horacio Gutierrez stand out for me. The new performance of this concerto master-work is not at all out of place in that company. And in the Ravel, a special favourite of mine, Vinnitskaya is right up there with Argerich, and even Michelangeli.

Reading Vinnitskaya's reviews from her major competition triumphs beginning in 2007 to her recent concerts and recordings, it wasn't surprising to hear such accomplished playing, with the widest range of power and delicacy. I was also impressed, though, with the orchestral accompaniment of Gilbert Varga and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchestrer Berlin, especially in the Prokofiev; and with the sound provided by the Naive producers and engineers. While the real focus of the Prokofiev work is in the piano part, the Ravel Concerto is as much about the virtuosity of the orchestra as that of the pianist. Though Varga lets the energy falter just a bit in the middle of Ravel's brilliant first movement, this is a fine performance overall, with excellent playing from both individual instruments and the whole orchestra.

New arrangements of Villa's music, beautifully played

From January 28, 2011:


The music of Villa-Lobos has always attracted arrangers, including the composer himself. Villa adapted his own works in a multitude of formats; his first thoughts about musical ideas were rarely his last. There is so much interesting music to adapt beyond the usual Aria from Bachianas Brasileiras #5 (which is out there in so many versions, including harmonica, saxophone, and percussion) and the Little Train movement from BB #2 (a favourite of marching bands and even reggae groups).

The Brazilian Guitar Quartet included an arrangement of the entire Bachianas Brasileiras #1 in a previous CD "Essencia do Brasil" which I thought worked out very well. The new BGQ Plays Villa-Lobos CD includes a wide selection of music originally written for piano and chamber ensemble, arranged by Tadeu do Amaral for four guitars. The music is selected and presented to show off Villa's music and the group's musicianship to best advantage. There are a variety of infectious rhythms, some sweet and sad melodies, moments of modernist angularity, and transcendent beauty from one of Villa's greatest chamber works.

While Villa-Lobos often composed at the piano, and he wrote a host of amazing, idiomatic pieces for the instrument, his native instrument was the guitar. His nickname as a member of a choroes group was "classical guitar". His few pieces for guitar loom so large in the music for guitar, and he often imitates the guitar in his piano works and even his orchestral music. When he wrote music for harp (besides his 1953 Harp Concerto, he wrote some very important chamber works with harp, especially in the 1920s) he was often thinking of the guitar: "I played the harp from my experience with the guitar", he once said. I mention the harp because the four guitars of the BGQ often evoke this instrument in Amaral's Villa-Lobos arrangements.

It's interesting, then, to listen to the BCG version of the early modernist piano work Suite Floral, written under the influence of Debussy, Faure, and Ravel. The sound of the guitars evokes the sound-world of Parisian chamber music with harp as much as it does the piano music of the impressionist masters. This is definitely transatlantic music, though, since Brazilian rhythms are an important part of the work. Another piece on this disc which stands out is Amaral's adaptation of the Twelfth String Quartet, one of Villa's greatest chamber works, a piece of great subtlety and power. This disc is very highly recommended!

Dynamic 21st Century music,

From November 3, 2010:


The Naxos American Classics series has introduced me to so many new voices in American music, and this new entry is certainly welcome. Though I appreciated an earlier Naxos disc containing two of his symphonies (8.559329 from 2007), I think the more rhapsodic style of the pieces on this new disc are a better fit for Cooman's considerable composition skills. The common thread that ties together most of these works is "dreaming", and Cooman's dreams are translated into sound in a most appealing way.

The composer's inspirations for this music, explained in his admirable liner notes, come from a variety of sources: the natural and built landscapes and histories of special places; interesting meteorological effects; and in one case (Miacomet Dreaming), an oil painting by Loretta Yoder (though not the Yoder painting featured on the CD cover). Most interestingly, he builds landscape changes into two of the most interesting works on the disc.

In Sankaty Dreaming (String Quartet #4), Cooman tells a story of nature reclaiming a landscape. It's a stirring story that ends on a elegaic note. Cooman calls Flying Machine "workshop/construction" music. This clever piece is about the shifts in perspective that result in different ways of looking at a landscape.

All in all, this music tells a story about the world around the composer. It's a much more dynamic story than the more static pastoral tradition of 20th century British music, so perhaps it's more typically American. This music is about dreams, but it's not all dreamy!

A set I'll be collecting

From November 3, 2010:


"Opera Omnia" is the very encouraging title of this new series of CDs from the Accord label that feature the music of Witold Lutoslawski. This is the second disc in the series, and it features the second symphony, written in the period from 1965-7, and the fourth symphony, one of the last works Lutoslawski completed before his death in 1994.

Coming as they do before and after Lutoslawski's magnum opus, the great (and relatively popular) third symphony, these works provide some historical context to someone new to the music of this great master. They also demonstrate the wide range of musical styles Lutoslawski was comfortable writing in.

Jacek Kaspsyk leads the NFM Orkiestra Filharmonii Wroclawskiej in performances that are distinguished by their verve and energy in the 2nd, and a real sense of mystery in the 4th. In both works the complex inner parts are exposed without draining the music of its forward momentum. The musicians are well supported by the producers and engineers, and the disc is as splendidly presented as any CD I've seen this year. Downloading the audio files and a PDF of the liner notes doesn't match up against this package. It's a rare musical analogue of the question of whether eBooks can compete with the paper book. If all CDs were this beautifully packaged, there might be more sold!

Eavesdropping on something special

From November 2, 2010:


Fans of recorded music have always talked about the sense of being more or less in a concert hall, listening to music as real as a live concert. The sound from this disc is so vivid and lifelike that I had a more privileged, intimate feeling. I could imagine that I was present at the recording, one of a handful of hangers-on allowed to sit in Geneva's lovely Victoria Hall while the recording took place, experiencing the creation of something special.

I don't have the high-end system or the high-end ears of a true audiophile, but this feeling of the musicians' presence enhanced my enjoyment more than I thought it could. The outstanding quality of Arabella Steinbacher's performance of these two pieces (the second of which tops my list of the greatest 20th century violin concertos) was just as apparent to me when I listened to the MP3s on my iPhone, as was the musicality Marek Janowski brought out from the Suisse Romand Orchestra. But this Hybrid Multichannel Super Audio CD is at the intersection of the highest levels of creation, interpretation, and technology. Watch for this disc to show up on many "Best Of" lists to come!

A Piazzolla grab-bag, but beautifully played

From October 29, 2010:


The Nashville Symphony Orchestra really showed their stuff in Latin American repertoire with their highly-regarded Naxos recording of the complete Bachianas Brasileiras of Villa-Lobos in 2000 (conducted by the late Kenneth Schermerhorn). This new Naxos disc brings this strong tradition to the most important orchestral works of Astor Piazzolla, under the direction of Nashville's dynamic Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero.

The Sinfonia Buenos Aires was written under the influence of Piazzolla's teacher Alberto Ginastera. Though this rather episodic work doesn't share Ginastera's formal mastery, it's a sprawling, colourful symphonic work (or rather, three symphonic movements). The Concerto for Bandoneon is, I think, more successful. It may, in fact, be Piazzolla's best orchestral work, partly because it's scored for strings and percussion only.

The final work on the disc is Las Cuatro Estaciones Portenas (Four Seasons of Buenos Aires), in a version for violin and orchestra made by Leonid Desyatnikov after Piazzolla's death. Though I'm not a complete musical purist - I love Charlie Parker's sessions with strings, for example - I'm not a fan of this particular pastiche. Piazzolla's nuevo tango style is itself a melding of traditional tango, Baroque, and jazz styles, so it's natural to experiment with new orchestrations. But I much prefer this music in a bandoneon-led small group. That said this version is very well played indeed, with Tianwa Yang providing some hair-raising turns on her violin.

Thomas May's thoughtful liner notes include a wealth of pertinent information about Piazzolla's life and music. This is just one of the areas in which Naxos excels. The label has raised the art and business of classical music to a very high level, especially considering the state of today's musical commerce.

Superb Adams and Glass from Canada

From October 20, 2010:


Composer John Adams has called the two piano pieces China Gates and Phrygian Gates "my opus ones,... my first coherent statements in a new language". Written in 1977 and 1978, they have a theoretical framework as complex as Schoenberg's or Bach's, but they sound completely organic, as if produced by some natural process.

Adams calls Phrygian Gates "a behemoth of sorts". The work requires a pianist gifted with significant technical abilities, in much the same way as Liszt's B minor Sonata or Villa-Lobos's Rudepoema. Such skills are on display in David Jalbert's fine new recording from Canada's ATMA label. He has the dexterity to manage Adams' separate-hand waves (a much more complicated and more musical version of patting your head and rubbing your stomach), and he can turn on a dime when Adams abruptly shifts modes, as a gate (analogous to logic gates in computers) changes its state. As well, he has the stamina to dilineate Adams' architecture built from long arches of sound. China Gates uses similar ideas but is much less complex. It has a delicacy that the larger piece doesn't have, and Jalbert brings out plenty of beauty from this simplicity.

The Orphee Suite by Philip Glass was transcribed for piano by Paul Barnes, based on Glass's 1991 chamber opera, which was inspired by the great 1950 film by Jean Cocteau. Jalbert's version of this dramatic music is preferable to Barnes' own recording, released on Orange Mountain in 2003. It seems to me more incisive, less sentimental. As well, the ATMA disc has exceptional sound.

David Jalbert's 2008 recording of the Shostakovitch Preludes and Fugues is a favourite of mine. It was, quite rightly, very well received, and this new disc should bring similar praise.

Tangos in an ice storm

From September 30, 2010:


Opposites attract. That's one explanation for the odd connections between the music of Latin America and music enthusiasts in subarctic places. Tropical music of all kinds has had an amazing uptake in Scandanavia, for example, and the music of Villa-Lobos looms large in chilly Alberta. And one of the world's greatest Bandoneon performers & composers makes his home in Quebec.

Denis Plante's original compositions use traditional forms in original ways. Plante is described as "a spiritual son of Astor Piazzolla", and from start to finish the new disc Tango Boreal bears this out. The elements of jazz and Baroque music that Piazzolla melded to traditional tango to create "Nuevo Tango" are important parts of Plante's musical upbringing. The Argentine roots of this music are clear, but I'm thinking as well that Plante sometimes incorporates folk traditions closer to his Quebec home.

Plante's interesting and enlightening liner notes mention that his first tango compositions were written at the time of the famous Ice Storm that hit Quebec in 1998. That brings this world-spanning music into focus.

Denis Plante's playing, on an ancient and very special instrument akin to the one played by Piazzolla himself, is completely assured, and ably supported by guitarist David Jacques and bassist Ian Simpson.

A strong Spanish programme by a much-loved pianist

From Septembe 29, 2010:


Alicia de Larrocha, who died in September 2009, was always closely identified with the music of the great Spanish composers: Albeniz, Granados, & Manuel de Falla. This new disc on Newton brings back, in a splendid package, a Decca disc of important piano works by de Falla which were originally recorded at Kingsway Hall in June of 1973.

The centre-piece of the programme is the Fantasia Baetica of 1919. This amazing work of modernism was written for Arthur Rubinstein, just like another 20th century masterpiece, the Rudepoema of Villa-Lobos. As with the Rudepoema, Rubinstein didn't keep this difficult work in his repertoire long, though of course we owe him so much for having commmissioned such great pieces in the first place. The Fantasia shows many influences: Spanish flamenco; the French piano music Falla came across in Paris, most notably Debussy; and the harpsichord music of the baroque period, especially Scarlatti. Guitar plucking and strumming, and chords based on guitar tuning, are found throughout. This is a work that rewards multiple listening. Good luck to the pianist who attempts to master it!

The disc also includes some more accessible music: de Falla's first important piano work, the Cuarto piezas espanolas; and the lively piano versions of two important ballets. The CD provides nearly an hour of entertainment and enlightenment, played by a most distinguished artist, close to the peak of her powers.

The first piano masterworks of Granado

From September 22, 2010:


This CD is part of the 10-disc Naxos series of the complete piano music of Enrique Granados, with the American pianist Douglas Riva. It's odd, though, to see this March 2009 recording billed as volume one in the series, even though most of the other discs were recorded and released much earlier in the 2000s. Riva is obviously at home in the piano music of the Spanish master, and he makes a strong showing, if not the strongest, in the Spanish Dances. These were Granados's first masterpieces, and they contain some of the his most appealing piano music.

This music is extraordinarily well served on CD. Martin Jones on Nimbus is outstanding, and I also really enjoyed Angela Hewitt on CBC Records. You can even hear the composer play four of the Dances, on a Nimbus disc called The Composer Plays. But the gold standard in this music, is, of course, Alicia de Larrocha, available in various CD incarnations on RCA.

I quite like Riva's approach to this music. His version of the famous Andaluza (#5) is impressive, and I also liked what he did with the final two pieces Arabesca (#11) and Bolero (#12). But like many others in the lovely Orientale (#2) Riva pushes forward the full beauty right away, while the composer holds something back at first and lets it unfold later in the piece. Meanwhile, de Larrocha somehow has it both ways, and it's perfectly poetic from beginning to end.

Riva has an advantage over some of his rivals in his sound. His producer and engineer John Taylor has provided him the most natural, open sound, which suits both the open-air music and Riva's way of playing. This is must-hear music, and a fine disc to include in your collection, though everyone must have de Larrocha!

A useful collection of Ginastera orchestral music

From July 28, 2010:


It's interesting how many of the orchestral scores of the very greatest Latin American composers were written for the ballet. The Brazilian Villa-Lobos wrote more than a few, as did the Mexicans Carlos Chavez & Silvestre Revueltas, and most of these works are of very high quality. But perhaps the most impressive ballet scores come from the Argentine composer Alberta Ginastera. This disc includes a wide range of ballet scores, from the first, Panambi, op. 1, to his very last work, Popol Vuh, left unfinished at his death in 1982. As well, this fine new Naxos disc includes an extended suite from one of Ginastera's finest works, Estancia, a nostalgic evocation of the fast-disappearing gauchesco world; the Suite de Danzas Criollas, in a new orchestration by Shimon Cohen; and Ollantay, a post-war score based on an Incan poem.

As with the recently-released Naxos disc of Revueltas music, we have here a collection of fairly recent and older recordings from various orchestras, all conducted by the excellent conductor Gisele Ben-Dor. Naxos has packaged 1997-2006 recordings made in Wales, Israel, and Abbey Road, though there are unfortunate overlaps with other CDs. Still, at a bargain price this may not be a major disadvantage.

For me the most interesting work here is Popol Vuh: The Mayan Creation. The original commission for the work, from Eugene Ormandy & the Philadelphia Orchestra, goes back to 1957, though Ginastera didn't begin work on the piece until the early 1980s. It's interesting that Ginastera should have set Popul Vuh for his ballet, since this is the same text used by Edgard Varese in his avant-garde classic Ecuatorial (1933). While Ginastera's music isn't as cutting edge, these creation stories have called forth some of his most impressive orchestral sounds. That's saying a lot, since Ginastera is a master of the orchestral palette.

Once again we tip our hats to Gisele Ben-Dor, and hope that she's in the recording studio again soon, with more premiere performances of such great Latin-American music.