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RECORD KEEPING | Stewart Goodyear Offers Pristine Technique And Sensitive Interpretation Of Beethoven Concertos

Stewart Goodyear (Photo: Anita Zvonar)
Stewart Goodyear (Photo: Anita Zvonar)

Beethoven: The Complete Piano Concertos (Orchid Classics)

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Stewart Goodyear has always worn his heart on his sleeve when it comes to Beethoven, and his love of the material emerges as a technically polished and musically graceful interpretation of all five piano concertos on Beethoven: The Complete Piano Concertos, an Orchid Classics release.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales provides able support and orchestral colours to contrast the purity of Goodyear’s playing. Throughout, the recording is characterized by a lucidity of technique and lovely tone.

Stewart displays a consistency in approach over the five works. Beethoven wrote the concertos between 1795 and 1809. In delving into the music, Stewart captures the spirit of each, from the buoyant and youthful energy of the Allegro con brio of No. 1 through to No. 5 the ‘Emperor’ and its virtuosic demands. There’s a natural and unfettered flow to the music, with speed that is impressive and technique pristine, but where virtuosity is always incidental to expression.

Stewart Goodyear Beethoven Concertos

There is a nicely delicate lyricism in his interpretation of the Adagio of No. 2, with a sensitive connection to conductor Andrew Constantine and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. That turns to drama that in the Allegro con brio of No. 3, where Stewart explores tensions with the orchestra with interesting results. In the fourth movement, the Rondo vivace, Stewart and the orchestra capture one of Beethoven’s more playful moments with rhythmic intensity.

In No. 5, the Emperor, Goodyear is at his most impressive, mining the pure musicality of the difficult piece without idiosyncratic touches — entirely subsumed in the music. The second movement is unhurried, and there is a sense of harnessed power through to its impassioned ending.

Goodyear’s interpretation of the Beethoven piano sonatas, which he famously played on a single day for four concerts in Canada and the US and later recorded on the Marquis label, was celebrated by critics and music lovers alike. This recording was produced over a 10-day period in 2018, and comes in the form of three disks.

For some artists, this may have been an ego project; for Goodyear, it’s clearly more a matter of reverence for the music.

Verdict: Recommended, even if you already own another collection of the Beethoven concertos.

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RECORD KEEPING | Pemi Paull’s Musicum Umbrarum Puts The Viola In Its Dark Place

What it lacks in hits, Pemi Paull’s Musicum Umbrarum makes up for as a treasure trove of intimate portraits played by the moody middling member of the illustrious string family.

Tempting as it may be to start a review of a solo viola album with a viola joke (and I love me a good viola joke), there is nothing to lark about here. 

The main reasons are Pemi Paull, a musician who has made a career as a go-to violist in Montréal and Toronto, and his debut album, Musicum Umbrarum.

Before digging into the merits of this album, the musical string family can be summarized as follows: the firstborn violin is the perennial favourite; the showiest of the bunch with the first place ribbons to prove it. The cello is the slightly mysterious one in the family, who read a lot of Dostoyevsky a kid. The bass can pretty much get away with anything with a flex of muscle and, if need be, the threat of violence.  The viola, mind you, is the shy misunderstood middle child who never really got a good shake, (or vibrato in this case).

Marsha! Marsha! Marsha!

While this occasion offers a chance to wag a finger for not paying enough attention to the viola, no other instrument shines brighter as the colour between the lines, that without it, would leave a pale outline — an unrealized object — a blurry figure that a good pair of glasses would do wonders for.

Enter Musicum Umbrarum, an album of lesser-known solo viola works released on Métis Island records.

Staying true to the label’s tagline “we fly alone between islands”, you’ll not find any top 40 viola hits here. No Schumann Märchenbilder. No Brahms Sonatas. Nothing famous by Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorák, Mendelssohn, and Vaughan Williams. This is music from (mostly) 20th-century composers, where the palate is darker, anxious, and searching.

Opening with Enescu’s calling “Ménétrier (Impressions d’enfance, op.28)”, this piece shuffles with the favour of a country jamboree. But unlike most fiddle tunes, things turn blue, almost as if to harken back to the secret pain of an off-duty Irish cowboy.

Scott Godin’s Arte Brut inspired “Wolfli Sketches” shows Paull navigating a painfully brooding first movement, through a second movement that transforms the viola into a self-made duet with double stops and harmonics galore. Paull stays true to the colourful mandalas of “the mad genius” Adolf Wölfli, and the playing is just as thoughtful.

Besides the Ligeti Viola Sonata, which could have benefited from more ambiance from Montreal’s Pollack Hall, and added phrasing to allow the labyrinthine of angular lines to move beyond the score, it is Mahler’s “Adagietto” from Symphony No. 5 and Michael Finnissy’s “Obrecht Motteten III” that catch the most attention.

“Obrecht Motteten III” is an ode to the great Flemish-Dutch renaissance composer Jakob Obrecht. It’s an incredible composition which pulls from the same churches that one would have heard Obrecht composing in during the 14th-century. Think expertly drawn with lines that resemble sunlight shining through stained-glass on a Sunday afternoon.

The Mahler wins respect as a boiled down pizzicato arrangement of Mahler’s “Adagietto’ — a love song to his new wife, Alma. It is a perfect encore, and easily the most charming piece on the album.

This debut by Pemi Paull shows a soloist who plays for the right reasons, and offers some much-needed attention on this oft-overlooked instrument in a solo capacity.

Verdict: Recommended

Buy it here, here, or here.

RECORD KEEPING | Christina Petrowska Quilico Revisits Ann Southam With Diminishing Returns

So much of Canadian art music composition sits silently on shelves, laptops and portable flash drives. The bulk of our composers’ output may never be performed more than once or twice, and the possibility of recording it is even more remote, given its sales potential and the expense of studio and recording time and expertise.

It may be small consolation that Canadian creations are in great company with the output from other countries and centuries, but if we don’t hear it, does it really exist? It is only potential music, not the real, living, streaming kind.

Kudos to people like Toronto pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico for trying to remedy this. Last month she released Soundspinning, an album devoted to the solo piano music of the late Ann Southam. It is available on the Canadian Music Centre’s Centrediscs label

Quilico and fellow Torontonian Eve Egoyan became friends of Southam’s, and both have had success with recitals and albums featuring her compositions. Quilico’s two Glass Houses albums sparkled. Egoyan’s three contributions — 5, Returnings and Simple Lines of Enquiry — were mesmerizing.

Now Quilico is back with 53 minutes of music that include nine works, of which seven have not been released on a commercial recording before. The oldest and most substantial piece on the album, Altitude Lake, dates back to 1963, when Southam would have been 26 years old.

The most recent is Where, a 1995 Christmas present to Halifax pianist Barbara Pritchard. Southam died in 2010.

Southam’s compositional style evolved considerably over the years. The earlier pieces are atonal, adapting 12-tone writing. The more recent pieces use a variety of process or pattern music forms.

Quilico is an energetic, brilliant player who puts the brightest spin on the variety of short pieces on the album. But most of them are not Southam’s best work. This album is a clear example of diminishing returns.

The album’s openers are three pieces that last a total of two-and-a-quarter minutes (Sonocycles) and eight pieces that run to seven-and-a-quarter minutes (Soundspinning, minus Southam’s original ninth movement).

Both date from 1979 and sound like miniature studies for later works like Glass Houses. Listening to them is not much different from walking past a miniature abstract in a gallery. There is well-crafted work here, but not enough of it to allow genuine appreciation.

In the same vein, the twelve movements of Slow Music, also from 1979, timeout at 10 minutes. Quilico has chosen four of these, all sounding like short sketches that Southam later elaborated to great effect in Simple Lines of Enquiry. The music comes out brittle in Quilico’s hands, undermining any possible hypnotic effect.

Where, another short piece with dreamlike potential, is rendered as a short, mechanical recitation.

3 in Blue are fun, jazzy pieces, while Cool Blue; Red Hot are the shortest of miniatures, placed by Quilico in opposite order to Southam’s original intention. (They were also recorded on a four-CD set sample of Canadian music for piano students 18 years ago.)

The big work on the program is Altitude Lake, a virtuosic, sprawling, sonata-like atonal piece that lasts 11 minutes. Its structure is fascinating, but listening to it is work rather than something to do while nursing a single-malt Scotch.

The gem, the one piece from this album that is destined for immortality, is the closing track: Remembering Schubert, which dates from 1993. Quilico’s recording of this work is its third, already giving it elite status among Canadian compositions. It is a seductive, 10-minute dream of repeated patterns embedded with Schubertian references.

Quilico’s take is, unfortunately, a bit too bright and articulated compared to Egoyan’s smooth, seductive interpretation (which you can check out on YouTube below). The third interpreter was Toronto pianist Mary Kenedi (on Palimpsest, a year-2000 recorded compilation of Canadian piano music), whose interpretation is silky yet much slower.

In short, Soundspinning makes far more sense as a historical record than something to savour. This hardly makes an enthusiastic case for recording the stacks of Canadian compositions that are still awaiting a stage or a recording mic. But at least someone tried.

For more information about Soundspinning, click here.

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Toronto pianist Adam Sherkin continues to explore contemporary art music for the solo piano. His late-afternoon concert season is on hiatus because of changes to the way the Glenn Gould Studio is being managed, but he is recording and offering intimate recitals at his home in Toronto’s west end (whimsically titled Piano Lunaire).

During this transition period, Sherkin has released Soliloquy, an EP consisting of five tracks: A fabulous little Prélude in F Major, written in 1956 by Montreal composer Jacques Hétu; a 1926 piece by Colin McPhee titled Invention; and three Meditations by Sherkin himself — “Midsummer Ballad,” “Soliloquy,” and “Scotch & Hapiness.”

The McPhee piece is a playful treat, while Sherkin demonstrates his prowess with tone colour and atmosphere in his own creations. He is a fine, sensitive and virtuosic pianist who deserves our encouragement.

Soliloquy has been released by Centrediscs, as well, as either a conventional CD or a vinyl album (click here for more info). You can check out “Scotch & Happiness” on Sherkin’s website, here.

RECORD KEEPING | Even Yannick Nézet-Séguin Can’t Make Us Love Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito

Rolando Villazón and Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Rolando Villazón, and Joyce DiDonato do their best to convince us that La Clemenza di Tito is a masterpiece. (Photo via Universal Music)

Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito. Rolando Villazón, ten (Tito). Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-sop (Sesto). Marina Rebeka, sop (Vitellia). Regula Mühlemann, sop (Servillia). Tara Erraught, sop (Annio). Adam Plachetka, bass-bar (Publio). Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Yannick Nézet-Séguin. DG 483 5210 (2 CDs). Total Time: 140:40.

As a Mozartean of long-standing and as a proud former board member of Toronto’s Mozart Society, I take a back seat to no one in my admiration for the legendary Salzburg master. When it comes to his last opera, La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus), however, I side with the distinguished pianist/scholar Charles Rosen, who wrote: “It is difficult to convey how unmemorable it is.” The opera is mostly second-rate Mozart, and this new recording does little to change my opinion.

La Clemenza di Tito is based on a libretto by Metastasio which had been used by dozens of composers before Mozart got his hands on it. Commissioned to write the opera for ceremonies surrounding the crowning of Leopold II in Prague as King of Bohemia, it was very much a rush job for Mozart – so much so that he fobbed off the composition of the recitatives to his assistant Süssmayr. In fact, the recitatives in La Clemenza di Tito seem to go on forever, while most of the arias are short and perfunctory and the ensembles routine compared to those Mozart had composed for Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro or Così fan tutte.

This new recording is the fifth installment in a Mozart opera series masterminded by conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and tenor Rolando Villazón for Deutsche Grammophon. So far the recordings have been uneven, with some stellar solo singing, superb orchestral playing and lively and stylish conducting. On the negative side, we have some questionable casting and a growing sense that these performances would have benefitted from being based on a staged production rather than on a couple of concert performances; that said, while Nézet-Séguin and his colleagues fail utterly to convince us that La Clemenza di Tito is a masterpiece or anything close to it, they do give us some moments to cherish.

The two great arias in the opera are Sesto’s “Parto, ma tu, ben mio” and Vitellia’s “Non più di fiori.” As it happens, each of these arias features a solo instrument — clarinet in the former and basset horn in the latter — and there is some evidence that these two arias might have been composed as concert pieces prior to Mozart’s being commissioned to write the opera. Joyce DiDonato delivers an excellent rendition of Sesto’s aria with her warm lower register and technical dexterity in the rapid triplets. A wonderful artist, Marina Rebeka gives Vitellia’s great aria a seamless line and a beautiful sound. One could hardly imagine Servilia’s aria “S’altro che lagrime,” a much slighter piece, sung more beautifully than it is here by Regula Mühlemann.

Rolando Villazón, who has appeared in all the operas in the series — mostly in secondary roles — is the star of the show in La Clemenza di Tito. After rising to superstar status on the operatic scene, Villazón encountered recurring vocal problems and his recent career has featured more lows than highs. As Tito, Villazón gives us some ringing top notes as well as some of his familiar vocal mannerisms, and by using a wide range of expressiveness and dynamics, a multi-dimensional and all too human Emperor.

Nézet-Séguin does what he can with the tedious moments in the score and but he seems to be even more enamoured than in the past with the Mozart style preferred by the historically informed movement; the violins of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe are exceedingly sparing in their use of vibrato, and the orchestra often sounds lightweight. To my ears, this makes the music even drier than it needs to be. An opera that sets out to be grand and celebratory surely calls for a far more robust sound.

In short, what we have here is an opera of dubious quality not at all improved by the imposition of a questionable musical concept.

RECORD KEEPING | Giovanna d’Arco With Anna Netrebko Explains Why The Best Operas Survive

Riccardo Chailly combined with the artistry of Netrebko, saves this La Scala production of Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco from over-the-top silliness.

Verdi: Giovanna d’Arco. Anna Netrebko (Giovanna), Francesco Meli (Carlos VII), Carlos Alvarez (Giacomo). La Scala Orchestra and Chorus/Riccardo Chailly. Stage Directors: Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. Set Designer: Christian Fenouillat. Decca Blu-ray Disc. Total Time: 136:00.

Historians tell us that Joan of Arc (c.1412-1431) was a real person who led France against English invaders in the latter part of the Hundred Years War. Having led France to several battlefield victories, she was eventually captured and burned at the stake by the English forces. Declared a martyr by Pope Eugene IV several years after her death, she was canonized in 1920.

Joan of Arc’s story has inspired several composers — most notably Tchaikovsky (opera: The Maid of Orleans) and Honegger (oratorio: Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher [Joan of Arc at the Stake]). Giuseppe Verdi wrote an opera about Joan of Arc based on a Schiller play; not among his greatest achievements, it is rarely produced and has had only a handful of recordings, of which this latest one is particularly noteworthy, at least for its musical merits.

Giovanna d’Arco, written in 1844, immediately after I due Foscari and just before Alzira, was Verdi’s seventh opera. In short, this is early Verdi and lacks the musical maturity and dramatic insights of his later operas. That said, it is a good vehicle for a first-rate singing actress and the score does have more than a few touches of originality; for example, in the last act there is a fine baritone aria with a lovely accompaniment featuring English horn and solo cello.

Russian soprano Anna Netrebko is without a doubt one of the foremost singing actresses of her generation. With a commanding stage presence and a voice that can be either muscular or melting as the music requires, she has triumphed in recent years as both Tosca and Violetta, roles that suit her perfectly. While she is a little old (47) to be portraying a 19-year-old Joan of Arc, her vocal power certainly justifies casting her in the role.

This new Blu-ray Disc of a 2015 production of Giovanna d’Arco, chosen as his debut production by then-incoming music director Riccardo Chailly, marks the first time in 150 years that the opera had been given at La Scala. Chailly, who had led performances of Giovanna d’Arco as far back as 1990, has demonstrated a lifelong affection for the opera.

In this 2015 performance, Chailly elicited superb playing from his orchestra and a cast that could hardly be bettered. Nebrebko, partnered by tenor Francesco Meli as Carlo VII — he sang magnificently — and by baritone Carlos Alvarez, with as rich and expressive a voice as one could imagine as her father, Nebrebko, apart from some moments of roughness in Act I, was in great form.  Note: Meli deserves special credit for tolerating his “all gold” costume, face and hair included.

Opera plots — the one devised for Giovanna d’Arco is a perfect example — are often implausible and silly. While the directing team of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier did their best to gloss over that silliness, their efforts probably made matters even worse. In this production, Joan of Arc only imagines leading the French forces into battle and falling in love with the King. During the Overture she is asleep, and the fact that her bed and bedroom reappear as the scene of most of the action in the opera, raises some questions: If Joan was a real historical figure why is she depicted as a demented peasant girl in the opera? And even in a young girl’s bad dreams, does it makes sense to have her father denounce her as a heathen traitor in one scene and declare her a God-fearing patriot in the next? And what are we to make of the father’s brutal assault on his daughter in front of the French forces? He slaps her twice in this production, and each time with considerable force? Some father. Some dream.

There are numerous special effects in this production, including projections of red-hued devils and masses of angels representing the warring factions in Joan’s soul, and a fairly impressive scene in which Rheims Cathedral seems to rise out of the floor. But as is the case in many operatic productions, these effects seem contrived and are poorly executed. Having recently watched the new film Mission Impossible — Fallout with my grandchildren, I was duly impressed by the astonishing computer-generated effects. While just as silly as the Giovanna d’Arco plot, the use of the latest technology made the story highly entertaining; by comparison, our opera houses seem to be making do with special effects technology that is at least 50 years out of date. But to be fair, Mission Impossible had a budget of $178 million, and as of August 6, had already grossed $334 million.

In defence of our opera houses and their precarious financial states, the music ultimately is “the thing”, which explains why the best operas survive and continue to attract discerning audiences. And from time to time, thankfully, stage directors appear who can make magic with meagre budgets and inadequate technology. In the case of this new Giovanna d’Arco Blue-ray Disc, although the production is little more than passable and the music is not all that great, even early Verdi has its pages of genius; that fact, combined with the artistry of Netrebko, Meli, Alvarez and Chailly makes the viewing of this new release an enjoyable experience.

RECORD KEEPING | Boston Symphony Hits The Shostakovich Bullseye (Again)

BSO/Nelsons Boston (Photo: Marco Borggreve)
Just when you thought you’ve heard the best, the Boston Symphony may have just set a new standard for Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4. (Photo: Marco Borggreve)

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4 in c minor Op. 43. Symphony No. 11 in g minor The Year 1905 Op. 103. Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons. DG B0028595-02. Total Time: 127:03 (2 CDs).

This 2-CD set is the fourth installment in the Boston Symphony’s Shostakovich cycle and it is another winner. Music director Andris Nelsons and his players are dialled in all facets of the Russian composer’s musical persona and are beneficiaries of one of the world’s best concert halls, Boston’s Symphony Hall. Not coincidentally, in 1959 Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic travelled to this legendary venue to make their best Shostakovich recording: the Symphony No. 5.

Composed in 1936, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 was not performed in public until 1961. The original premiere was cancelled by the Soviet authorities on the grounds that it was too difficult and too pessimistic. What the authorities wanted was music that was easy to understand, music that would inspire the masses.

No less pessimistic today than it was in 1936, Symphony No. 4 is nonetheless one of Shostakovich’s finest works. Although its long slow ending expresses the essence of despair, elsewhere it overflows with creative energy — even humour.

Nelsons chooses a rather quick tempo for the first movement (marked Allegretto con moderato) compared to other conductors, including Simon Rattle and Bernard Haitink. To my ears, this quicker tempo makes sense, as it prevents the music from becoming lugubrious.

The performance quality on this CD is wonderful, with distinguished solo playing from all sections of the orchestra. And then there is the lightning fast fugue halfway through the movement, in which the first violins lead off with their seemingly endless volleys of sixteenth notes followed soon after by the violas, second violins and cellos doing the same thing. This is thrilling virtuoso playing of the highest order. The final pages of the last movement, with their colourful and original orchestration, are eloquent and moving. Double basses and harps provide a sonorous foundation in octaves on the note ‘C’ through the last five minutes or so, followed by a delicate repetitive motive on the celesta. Trumpet and timpani solos and sustained upper strings are added to the mix — mournful, but magical too. The acoustics of Symphony Hall and the DG engineers capture the music on disc brilliantly.

Symphony No. 11, dating from 1957, is a very different kind of piece. While the Fourth is what one might call ‘pure music’, the Eleventh is clearly programmatic, depicting the events of “Bloody Sunday,” January 9, 1905, when Cossack horse guards opened fire on a peaceful demonstration in St. Petersburg. Hundreds of protesters were killed. Shostakovich makes use of revolutionary folk songs in his symphony to honour those who fell that day. Once again, Nelsons and the Boston Symphony give us playing of extraordinary expressiveness. The colours and textures in the opening bars — the grim foreshadowing of what is to come — touch one’s very soul. The third movement is equally sublime, opening with incredibly precise pizzicati in the cellos and basses, leading to a long, beautiful melody for the violas; it could hardly be played more eloquently than it is in this performance. The actual charge of the Cossack horsemen is depicted by the composer with blood-curdling forcefulness. In Russian musical literature “The Battle on the Ice” in Prokofiev’s score for the film Alexander Nevsky is a classic musical depiction of this kind of brutal event, but the comparable passage in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 is even more terrifying. The BSO percussionists give it everything they’ve got and once again, Symphony Hall and the DH engineers render this great music-making as vividly as I have ever heard it.

In addition to the exceptional quality of these performances, with the notes in the booklet accompanying the CD set, DG has enhanced its production even further by paying tribute to a long-time member of the Boston Symphony. Vyacheslav Uritsky, who has been a member of the second violin section of the BSO for more than 43 years, also played in the very first performance of Symphony No. 4 in December 1961, with Kirill Kondrashin conducting the Moscow State Philharmonic. Uritsky also played in the first Odessa performance of Symphony No. 11, in the presence of the composer.

Music-lovers who don’t mind travelling some distance to hear exceptional performances should note that Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony are scheduled to play the Shostakovich Symphony No. 4 at Tanglewood August 17 this year, at the Proms in London September 3, in Hamburg September 5, Vienna September 11, Lucerne September 12 and Amsterdam September 17.

RECORD KEEPING | TSO’s Triumphant Vaughan Williams Album Is First-Class Music Making

TSO Vaughan Williams
TSO Vaughan Williams

Vaughan Williams: Piano Concerto. Oboe Concerto. Serenade to Music. Flos Campi. Louis Lortie, piano. Sarah Jeffrey, oboe. Teng Li, viola. Carla Huhtanen, sop. Emily D’Angelo, mezzo-sop. Lawrence Wiliford, ten. Tyler Duncan, bar. Elmer Iseler Singers (Lydia Adams, director). Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Peter Oundjian. Chandos CHSA 5101. Total Time: 82:21.

It is always a special delight to “discover” a new piece of music. After a lifetime of playing and listening to music, I had never had occasion to encounter Vaughan Williams’ Concerto for Oboe and Strings, either in concert or on a recording. Yes, several recordings of the piece have been produced over the years, but none had ever come my way, nor had I sought one out. My loss, it turns out.

From the opening bars of this new recording of Vaughan Williams’ Concerto for Oboe and Strings, I was mesmerized by the beauty of the composer’s creation in a genre which has far too few really outstanding pieces. The Mozart and Richard Strauss concertos come to mind, and then? This well-planned and well-reproduced CD also has three other fine Vaughan Williams pieces to commend it. All in all, a notable release, not least of all because it is Peter Oundjian’s last recording as music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO).

Kudos to oboist Sarah Jeffrey, whose glorious sound, technique and stamina help bring this gorgeous piece to life. A native Torontonian and principal oboe of the TSO since 2005, she played with several other Canadian orchestras before joining the TSO and becoming one of its greatest assets. Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto opens with an exuberant solo passage which takes the instrument from the very bottom to the very top of its range. Whereas some oboists struggle to get more than an ugly honk out of the low notes, Jeffrey makes each one a thing of beauty. And her top notes are remarkably secure and full-throated. Vaughan Williams’ default mode was always smoothly flowing pastoral lines; that is certainly the case here, and this style of writing is also ideal for the instrument. But toward the end of the last movement, the composer tosses in a brilliant staccato flourish that seems at odds with the style of the rest of the piece. Perhaps he should have done more with this idea for the sake of contrast. That said, this is a fine piece that deserves to be played more often.

The same could be said of Vaughan Williams’ Piano Concerto in C major. Not known for his piano music, his writing for the instrument tends towards block chords and percussiveness. The slow lyrical movement in this piece, however, feels quite different, almost improvisational. This is hauntingly lyrical writing for the piano with some lovely wind solos added from time to time along the way. He adds a hard-nosed chromatic fugue in the third movement – Busoni and Hindemith come to mind here – before ending the piece with a waltz.

The Piano Concerto was written to be played by Harriet Cohen, who gave the first performance in 1933. Cohen had such difficulty playing it that Vaughan Williams was persuaded to allow the piece to be reworked by Joseph Cooper as a concerto for two pianos. For this new version, he provided a meditative cadenza for the final bars. As it happens, just last year Chandos gave us a new recording of the version for two pianos featuring Louis Lortie and  Hélène Mercier (CHSA 5186). Canadian pianist Louis Lortie is also the piano soloist in this current recording of the single piano version. Not the original version, this current version incorporates that final cadenza the composer added in 1946. In both recordings, Lortie plays superbly and convinces me that the solo piano version stands up perfectly well. In fact, I prefer the solo piano version, especially in the Romanza slow movement and in the final bars.

Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music is a setting of lines from Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. In its original version, the composer set the lines for sixteen solo voices with orchestra, and had particular singers in mind for each part.  A unique composition in this form, it is often trotted out for special occasions, and never fails to have an uplifting effect on both performers and audiences. This new recording uses a version for four solo voices, chorus and orchestra. Although beautifully executed, it lacks the special qualities of the original version.

Flos Campi (Flower of the Field), a love song expressed through the voices of two lovers, is a piece in six movements inspired by the Song of Songs or the Song of Solomon, with a Latin quotation from the Song of Songs at the head of each movement The scoring for solo viola, chorus and small orchestra is quite unusual. Rather than singing text from the Song of Songs, the chorus instead provides wordless singing. Vaughan Williams’ writing for the chorus is remarkable, and the Elmer Iseler Singers give his often ecstatic outbursts both passion and beauty of sound. Whereas in a live concert, it is always a tricky matter to balance a solo viola with an orchestra because its mid-range register and dark sound tend to be easily covered, this is not a problem on a recording; Teng Li’s Amati viola comes through with impressive eloquence.

In sum, this is a fine collection of mostly unjustly neglected pieces in first-class performances by some of our finest artists.

Vaughan Williams: Concertos (Chandos) is available at Spotify,  iTunes and amazon.ca.

RECORD KEEPING | OSM Releases Bernstein’s A Quiet Place, But Will It Win New Friends?

Marking Bernstein 100th-anniversary year, the Montréal Symphony’s new recording of A Quiet Place is played with care and authority, but its structural problems are difficult to surpass.

Bernstein: A Quiet Place. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Libretto by Stephen Wadsworth. Libretto and Orchestration adapted by Garth Edwin Sutherland. WORLD PREMIERE RECORDING OF THE 2013 VERSION. Claudia Boyle (Dede). Joseph Kaiser (Francois). Gordon Bintner (Junior). Lucas Meachem (Sam). OSM Chorus. Orchestre symphonique de Montréal/Kent Nagano. Decca 483 3895. Total Time: 93:04.

The 1983 Houston premiere of the opera A Quiet Place, the major work of Leonard Bernstein’s later years, was a fiasco. Since then, several attempts have been made to rework the composition, the most recent of which is captured in this new recording. A significant improvement over the original, it nevertheless remains to be seen whether A Quiet Place will ever become one of the jewels in the Bernstein Pantheon.

A somewhat jazzy satire on life in suburbia in the 1950s, Bernstein’s one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti, composed in 1952, focused on the lives of a married couple, Sam and Dinah. Thirty years later, in A Quiet Place, Bernstein and his librettist Stephen Wadsworth revisited the couple. In A Quiet Place, many years have passed. Dinah has just been killed in a car crash. We later learn that it may have been suicide. Sam and the children gather for her funeral and the interactions between them make it clear that this was an unhappy, dysfunctional family. After seemingly endless bickering and recriminations, at the end of the opera, there is a tentative reconciliation.

The 1983 Houston premiere of A Quiet Place opened with Trouble in Tahiti. After intermission, the 110 minutes of A Quiet Place was performed without a break. While the life story of Sam and Dinah provided some continuity to link the two operas, musically they were as different as chalk and cheese. In the 1983 production Bernstein’s quasi-Broadway 1950s Trouble in Tahiti style had morphed into something far more dissonant; the often amusing bickering had become angrier and much more personal. A Quiet Place also gave us mental illness, homosexuality and incest, all of which made Houston audiences uncomfortable.

Bernstein and Wadsworth reworked A Quiet Place again after the Houston premiere. This time, they cut a great deal of the opera and incorporated Trouble in Tahiti as a flashback. Although this version was produced at the Vienna State Opera and recorded (DG 419761) in 1986, Bernstein was still dissatisfied with the opera and probably would have attempted another version had he not passed away in 1990.

Conductor Kent Nagano, who had worked closely with Bernstein during the Vienna performances, felt that a revised version should eliminate Trouble in Tahiti altogether, restore some of the music eliminated in the 1986 version, and, above all, use a reduced orchestration. The orchestra required for both the original Houston version in 1983 and for the 1986 Vienna version was huge and often overwhelmed the voices and obscured the text. The man tasked by Kent Nagano with scaling down the orchestration for this 2013 version was Garth Edwin Sutherland. He reduced the original complement of more than 72 players to a mere 18 and eliminated much of the percussion as well as the electric guitar and the synthesizer, with the result that the instrumental textures are much lighter and more appropriate to what is, for the most part, a chamber opera for four singers. While one assumes that with a smaller orchestra it is easier to hear the voices and understand the words, that is impossible to judge based on a recording; balance issues can be easily rectified by a skilled engineer.

It should be emphasized that Sutherland not only reduced the orchestration but also made major changes in the content and structure of the opera; for example, he restored three arias that were cut from the Vienna version and “reassigned the reading of Dinah’s letter, ‘Dear Loved Ones,’ from Junior to François.” It is certainly questionable whether it is ethical to make such wholesale revisions to the score without authorization from the composer. Perhaps this should be called the Bernstein-Sutherland version.

Ethical questions aside, the performance could hardly be better. The playing of the OSM musicians is consistently brilliant and Nagano shapes the music with authority. The soloists are all excellent, especially baritone Lucas Meachem (Sam) who delivers his long solos with a wide range of expression.

In this Bernstein 100th-anniversary year, a new recording of A Quiet Place is certainly welcome, although it is still not clear that this opera will win new friends. The story of this dysfunctional American family certainly reflects some of the widespread societal tensions of its time and there are moments of great tenderness in both the text and the music, but the opera overall remains almost unbearably bleak and depressing, and as in Bernstein’s Mass the reconciliation at the end can seem abrupt and unconvincing.

There are certainly equally dark works in the operatic repertoire — Richard Strauss’  Elektra and Berg’s Wozzeck come to mind — but musically A Quiet Place is simply not in the same league.

RECORD KEEPING | 85 Hours Of Rafael Kubelík Should Keep You Busy For A Good Long While

Rafael kubelík: Complete Recordings For Deutsche Grammophon. Complete symphonies of Beethoven, Schumann, Dvořák and Mahler. Schoenberg: Gurrelieder. Wagner: Lohengrin. Weber: Oberon. Pfitzner: Palestrina. Verdi: Rigoletto, etc. Kubelík Documentary “Scenes from a Musical Life”. Kubelík Rehearses Bruckner with the Vienna Philharmonic. Berlin Philharmonic; Boston Symphony; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Vienna Philharmonic. DG Limited Edition 66 CDs & 2 DVDs.

Rafael Kubelík (1914-1996), to the best of my knowledge, conducted only on one occasion in Toronto — several 1967 concerts with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) that included Copland’s Billy the Kid, Martinů’s The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca, and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony — a typical Kubelík program, if there was such a thing.

Kubelík had perhaps the widest repertoire of any conductor of his generation. He was authoritative in the classics, he always championed the music of his homeland – Dvořák, Smetana, Janáček, Martinů, etc. — and he embraced contemporary music wherever he found it. Only 36, when he was invited to become music director of the Chicago Symphony, he made some legendary recordings in Chicago, but management ultimately decided he was playing too much new and unfamiliar music and he stayed only three seasons (1950-1953). His CSO tenure concluded with concert performances of Wagner’s Parsifal.

After stepping down as music director, Kubelík remained a favourite CSO guest conductor. By October 18, 1991, when he made his last appearance in Chicago at the Gala Centennial concert, he had been in semi-retirement due to the ravages of arthritis but made exceptions for special occasions.

Kubelík became music director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1955 and conducted what was virtually the first complete modern performance of Berlioz’ opera Les Troyens. In 1961, he was appointed music director of the Bavarian Radio Symphony (BRSO), and he led that orchestra with distinction in concerts and recordings for the next 18 years. In 1971, he added the music directorship of the Metropolitan Opera in 1971, which he left after only six months.

Rafael Kubelík, the son of the great violinist Jan Kubelík, studied violin with his father and became proficient enough on the instrument to play the ferociously difficult Paganini Violin Concerto No. 1 at his graduation concert. Also an excellent pianist, he was his father’s accompanist for a U.S. tour in 1935.

An extraordinary musician, Kubelík left a huge legacy of excellent recordings, many of the best of which are included in this massive new boxed set from Deutsche Grammophon. Kubelík recorded Smetana’s Ma Vlast no fewer than five times over the course of his career. The Chicago Symphony version is superb, but the Boston Symphony recording included in this set may be even better; it certainly has superior sound quality. The Dvořák Symphony cycle from the early 1970s with the Berlin Philharmonic still stands as a reference version after all these years. While the Kertesz/London Symphony set released about the same time on Decca was always a formidable competitor, and there is no doubt that it is a more fiery approach to the music, Kubelík’s performances offer more beautiful playing and nearly immaculate balances.

Another fine cycle in the set features all the Beethoven symphonies conducted by Kubelík with eight different orchestras, among them the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics. The Mahler cycle with the BRSO has been universally acclaimed for the conductor’s profound understanding of the music and for the excellence of the playing.

Some big choral works are included in the box, among them Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, Dvořák’s Stabat Mater, Mozart’s Coronation Mass, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, and Haydn’s Mass in Time of War.

Deutsche Grammophon also documented Kubelík’s mastery as an opera conductor. There is a wonderful Rigoletto with Fischer-Dieskau in the title role, Lohengrin with James King and Gundula Janowitz, Pfitzner’s Palestrina with Nicolai Gedda in the title role., Carl Orff’s Oedipus der Tyrann with Gerhard Stolze and Astrid Varnay, and Weber’s Oberon with an incomparable cast headed by Arleen Auger, Birgit Nilsson, Placido Domingo and Hermann Prey.

The box also includes a CD devoted to interviews with Kubelík about Mahler and his music; unfortunately, only about five minutes is in English and the rest in German.

Finally, there are two DVDs devoted to Kubelík performances of music by Mozart, Beethoven and Bruckner with various orchestras. The special item here is a complete performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 “Romantic” with the Vienna Philharmonic from 1971, and extensive excerpts from the rehearsals. Kubelík speaks in German, but there are English subtitles. Kubelík was a frequent guest conductor with the Vienna Philharmonic. It is important to note that this is a self-governing orchestra and that the members of the orchestras choose their own conductors; while they obviously had great respect for Kubelík and played their hearts out for him, the rehearsal segments reveal that the musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic are the same as orchestra players everywhere. They sometimes get bored and distracted, enjoy private jokes with each other and often talk when they should be listening. Several times during the rehearsals, Kubelík is clearly annoyed as he tries to get them to be quiet or to sit properly; that said, he is, for the most part, affable, works quickly, talks only about the technical aspects of the music, and takes great care over the tiniest details.

A special bonus is a documentary on Kubelik which features appreciative comments from several critics including Howard Taubman, formerly of the NY Times, and the well-known Chicago writer Robert C. Marsh. Kubelik is shown in conversation alone and with his second wife, Australian soprano Elsie Morison. In one conversation, Kubelik is shown pursuing a favourite hobby, recreating chess games played by the great masters.

Deutsche Grammophon is to be commended not only for putting together this valuable collection of performances by a great conductor who is sometimes overlooked, but for similar boxes they have already issued devoted to Böhm, Jochum, de Sabata, Karajan, Bernstein, etc. While the Kubelík box sells on Amazon for about $200, it is a bargain considering the number of CDs and DVDs included in the package.

While Kubelík recorded almost exclusively for Deutsche Grammophon, many of his finest performances may be found on Orfeo or Mercury. Warner Classics also issued a 13-CD set of his complete HMV recordings a few years ago. In addition, there are some wonderful live performances that have been released on smaller labels, one of the most fascinating of which is an album devoted to a concert he gave in 1952 during his Chicago years, not with the CSO, but with the University of Illinois Symphony Orchestra. The program was amazing and again shows the breadth of Kubelík’s musical interests: Chavez: Sinfonia India; Malcolm Arnold: Beckus the Dandipratt Overture; Walton: Belshazzar’s Feast. Details on all Kubelik recordings may be found here.

RECORD KEEPING | Alexei Ogrintchouk Provides A Convincing Argument For Late Era Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss: Concerto in D major for Oboe and Small Orchestra TrV 292*. Serenade in E flat major TrV106 for 13 Winds. Sonatina No. 2 in E flat major TrV 291 for 16 Winds. Alexei Ogrintchouk, oboe and direction. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Andris Nelsons*. BIS-2163. Total Time: 74:12.
Richard Strauss: Concerto in D major for Oboe and Small Orchestra TrV 292*. Serenade in E flat major TrV106 for 13 Winds. Sonatina No. 2 in E flat major TrV 291 for 16 Winds. Alexei Ogrintchouk, oboe and direction. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Andris Nelsons*. BIS-2163. Total Time: 74:12.

In his later years, Richard Strauss lived the life of a country squire at his villa in Garmisch, Bavaria, a ski town in southern Germany near the Austrian border. One of the most celebrated composers of his time, Strauss had garnered awards of all kinds, enjoyed frequent performances of his music all over the world and made occasional guest conducting appearances, always important events. And yet, all was not well with this aging musical genius.

Strauss had lived through two world wars, both started by Germany and both ending in its ignominious defeat. In the case of WWII, Strauss tried at first to cooperate with the Nazis in order to be able to continue composing, but soon found that impossible. Suffering, penniless and all but abandoned by the end of the war, like so many in Germany, he continued doing what he had done practically every day of his adult life; he sat down at his desk and wrote music.

This new CD celebrates Strauss’ productivity in his last years and reminds us that in his 80s, while not breaking any new ground, he was still writing music of singular beauty.

Sibelius (1865-1957) and Strauss (1864-1949) were almost exact contemporaries and both, though fortunate enough to live very long lives, were also victims of that longevity, overtaken by changing styles and tastes in music. Celebrities on the strength of the masterpieces they had composed early in their careers, each continued to write in much the same late romantic style while the musical world was being transformed by the innovations of Debussy, Ravel, Debussy and Schoenberg. Sibelius, realizing that he could only continue composing in the now “old-fashioned” musical language he had known all his life, ultimately gave up. For the last 25 years of his life he wrote virtually no music at all.

For his part, Strauss had the advantage of living in a world where musical romanticism was still venerated, the world of the great opera houses of Munich, Dresden and Vienna and the conservative tradition of the Vienna Philharmonic. Encouraged to write the kinds of operas he had always written, Strauss was only too happy to oblige. But then, during the war, these opera houses and most others in Germany were bombed to rubble, and even after the war it took years before anything like the pre-war musical life could be restored. Working around these restrictions, Strauss composed instrumental music and songs, the greatest of these last works being the string orchestra piece Metamorphosen and the Four Last Songs.

Strauss’ Oboe Concerto of 1946 has a very interesting genesis. Immediately after the war, Strauss had an unusual visitor in Garmisch, John de Lancie, principal oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. De Lancie, at the time a soldier in the U.S. Army involved in the liberation and rebuilding of Germany, asked Strauss to write an oboe concerto. Within a matter of months, Strauss obliged and gave the world one of the few oboe concertos that is now part of the standard repertoire. This new recording features Alexei Ogrintchouk, principal oboist of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, accompanied by colleagues from the RCO and conducted by Andris Nelsons. Ogrintchouk plays with a big sound, faultless technique, and a vast range of expression. Together these musicians give us a performance as detailed and intense as any I have ever heard.

Another product of Strauss’ last years is the Sonatina No. 2 in E flat major for 16 Winds — also known as the Symphony for Winds — one of two such major works for wind ensemble he composed in the 1940s. Like Metamorphosen, these pieces demonstrate not only an astonishing gift for orchestration but also a command of complex counterpoint, which is often overlooked in the programmatic pieces of Strauss’ earlier years.

In works like Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel, Death and Transfiguration and Don Quixote, Strauss demonstrated a masterly skill in transforming ideas into music. These pieces are also superb examples of a great composer’s ability to combine and develop multiple musical ideas at the same time. Strauss had the same combination of training and talent as Bach, who had set the bar high for this kind of thing, and continued to demonstrate it until the very end of his life.

Sonatina No. 2 is full of wonderful sonorities for different combinations of wind instruments, from small groups to the extraordinarily powerful resonance of the full ensemble. The instrumentation is also idiosyncratic. Strauss extended the range of the clarinet section by adding a rarely-used clarinet in C in the high range and a basset clarinet to go with 2 B flat clarinets and a bass clarinet. Extremely difficult to play, the Sonatina requires remarkable endurance from the players, especially in the first and last movements. The winds of the RCO are among the best in the world and they play gloriously on this recording. While the first movement is a little too fast and unyielding to my mind, elsewhere the players seem more relaxed and more inclined to take the time to bring out the warmth of the music. Alexei Ogrintchouk directs the performance from his first oboe chair.

Music lovers puzzled by the “TrV” catalogue numbers attached to the works on this CD may be interested to know that while Strauss gave opus numbers to some of his works, he gave no numbers to dozens of others. It has been left to scholars to try to assemble a complete catalogue; the most recent (revised 1999) and highly authoritative one — the one using “TrV” numbers — was initiated by the late Franz Trenner and continued by his son Florian.

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