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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 17, No. 4 December 2011


December 1, 2011

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A Napoli
Marc Hervieux, tenor; Louise-Andrée Baril, piano & orchestral arranger
ATMA Classique ACD2 2620

One of the most versatile tenors in Canada, Marc Hervieux is at home in a variety of genres, from opera and oratorio to the pop field, including success in the blockbuster rock opera Starmania. For ATMA he has recorded an opera aria disc with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and a Christmas album. Here is his third, a collection of fifteen beloved Neapolitan songs, supported by ten Québecois musicians led by Louise-Andrée Baril. Given his robust tenor with a decidedly Italianate timbre that occasionally recalls a young Domingo, these Neapolitan songs are tailor-made for him. No, it’s not note-perfect— the passaggio and the top can sound a little uncomfortable, and he sometimes croons, but he sings everything with passion and gusto, two welcome qualities in this repertoire. Baril is responsible for the orchestral arrangements—occasionally one is in danger of an overdose of sweetness and sentimentality, but that goes with the territory! Incidentally, Hervieux dedicates the disc to music philanthropist Jacqueline Desmarais, who has been a champion of the tenor from the beginning of his career. Fans of Hervieux will find this disc most entertaining and an excellent choice as a Christmas stocking stuffer. Joseph K. So

Bach: Cantatas BWV 54 & 170/Suite in A minor BWV 1067/Double Concerto BWV 1060
Daniel Taylor, countertenor; Tafelmusik/Jeanne Lamon
Analekta AN 2 9878 (68 min 46 s)

Analekta has presented us with two of Bach’s most beautiful cantatas for alto. With “Pleasant rest” BWV 170 for oboe d’amore, organ obbligato and strings, we immediately fall into a state of grace, and remain there until the end of this magnificent recording. What lovely sounds, lights and shadow that caress the soul, tears and joy inspired by a heavenly moment! Daniel Taylor sings with great artistry and demonstrates perfect mastery of his pure voice. The countertenor seems to surrender completely to the music. The same attention is accorded to BWV 54, “Just resist sin”. More staccato in the strings could have better highlighted the text; however, we are swept up by the rich timbre and the mind surrenders. Next, BWV 1067 is performed in a version for violin and strings. Such elegance in the rondeau, tenderness in the sarabande! Jeanne Lamon conducts her ensemble (one instrument per part) with such skill that the version for flute is forgotten. The BWV 1060 is also absolutely superb. By contrast, the sorry look of the record sleeve does not do justice to the quality of the performers it represents. René F. Auclair

Bartok: Violin Concerto No. 1/
Violin Concerto No. 2/Viola Concerto
James Ehnes, violin and viola; BBC Philharmonic/
Gianandrea Noseda
Chandos CHAN 10690 (77 min 45 s)

Canadian violinist James Ehnes has moved very rapidly to the forefront of the ranks of the world’s great violinists. He is at home in a wide repertoire and plays with both maturity and virtuosity. This Bartok album is surely one of his best so far as he demonstrates prowess on both violin and viola.
Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2 is “the” Bartok Violin Concerto and is well established as a Twentieth Century masterpiece. The Violin Concerto No. 1, an early work, is far less well known. The Violin Concerto No. 2 is a far more varied and original piece, but the earlier concerto has charms of its own and deserves more performances. Ehnes plays both of them on the 1715 “Marsick” Stradivarius, with a remarkably rich tone and complete understanding of the idioms. Noseda and his orchestra are wonderful and the sound quality on this disc is excellent.
The Viola Concerto was left incomplete when the composer died, but Tibor Serly produced a performing version from the sketches, which is the version Ehnes used. It is a beautiful piece, and Ehnes gives a fine performance. Paul E. Robinson

Brahms on Brass: Waltzes Op. 39/Ballade in D minor Op. 10 No.1/Eleven Chorale Preludes Op. 122
Canadian Brass
Opening Day ODR 7415 (50 min 25 s)

The Canadian Brass has now become one of the oldest ensembles of its kind. After 40 years it is not surprising that there have been changes in personnel—tubist Chuck Daellenbach is now the only original member left in the group – but the same high standards and astonishing versatility remain intact.
But Brahms on Brass? And an entire album? The Canadian Brass has always been innovative in its choice of repertoire, but this is a real stretch. The composer’s contrapuntal proclivities and preference for darker colours work against the idea of brass transcription. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the Waltzes Op. 39, originally composed for piano duet, as arranged by Chris Coletti and Brandon Ridenour, CB’s two trumpeters. This is some of Brahms’ lighter music, and CB plays them with a wonderful sense of style, fine trumpet playing and a great feeling for rhythm and phrasing.
The other major work is the Op. 122 Chorale Preludes arranged by Ralph Sauer. This is heavy duty late Brahms and even in its original version for organ it hardly makes for easy listening. In the brass arrangement, the trumpet writing sounds awkward and the problem of sustaining tone in slow-moving music—a non-existent issue on the organ—becomes a major liability. Paul E. Robinson

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 “Romantic”
Orchestre Métropolitain/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
ATMA Classique ACD2 2667 (69 min 47 s)

Nézet-Séguin is slowly working his way through recording all nine Bruckner symphonies and this is the latest installment. Once again one is astonished by the quality of playing and conducting. The Orchestre Métropolitain sounds just as good as most of the famous orchestras which have recorded the work. Most of the credit must go to the players, but Nézet-Séguin sets the standard and imposes a vision that is both exacting and emotional.
The conductor uses the 1936 Haas edition, which is essentially the standard version. Nézet-Séguin adds nothing in the way of interpretative surprises. This is a mature reading that pays careful regard to tempo, dynamics and balance, while building the massive climaxes with care and nobility. Having recently heard Nagano and the OSM perform this work in the new Maison symphonique, comparisons come easily to mind. Both orchestras play very well indeed and Nagano is an even more experienced Brucknerian than Nézet-Séguin. Yet I would give the edge to Nézet-Séguin for the greater joy and exuberance of his interpretation. The fine-sounding ATMA recording was made in the Saint-Ferdinand Church. Paul E. Robinson

Bruckner: Symphony No. 7
Bayerisches Staatsorchester/Kent Nagano
Sony 88697909452 (64 min 17 s)

Kent Nagano recently conducted the OSM in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 at their new hall in Montreal. That performance and this one reflect a consistent view of how Bruckner should be played and conducted. In both cases the orchestra plays very well and balances are very carefully calibrated. But in each case, while there is much to admire and enjoy, it strikes me as almost beside the point. Where is the power of those great Brucknerian climaxes? Where is the inner life of the music?
Nagano seems almost apologetic about the dynamic extremes in the music. For him, it is more important that we be able to hear all the instruments, all the time, even when some are clearly more important in what they have to say than others. Nagano is particularly careful with the trumpets. They are rarely heard in his Bruckner performances even when they are playing the melody or animating the rhythm in the big climaxes.
The sound on this recording is excellent, and the live performance was made in the Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, September 23, 2010. But there are other conductors who get more out of the music. Paul E. Robinson

Colinda – Noëls de Provence
Analekta, AN 2 9840 (40 min 49 s)

This CD hot off the grill from Analekta is just in time for Christmas. Strada continues to take us through the greatest musical traditions across Europe in its most recent disc featuring Christmas carols of Provence that are based on the Noëls de Notre-Dame des Doms, a manuscript from the 17th century preserved in the Avignon Cathedral. With period instruments and accompanied by virtuoso Miquèu Montanaro, the Strada singers and the sound of their polyphonic music transport the listeners to ancient times of winter solstice celebrations. Far from popular modern Christmas discs, this recording of clear voices and of joyful music is great to accompany festive preparations and parties during the winter season. Francine Bélanger

La Mandragore
Fidelio Musique FACD031 (55 min 2 s)

Convivencia can be translated to conviviality or cohabitation. Specializing in medieval music, Montreal’s La Mandragora attempts to relive those early days of Spain where different cultures met and lived together in peace. In the Andalusia region, Jews, Muslims, and Christians cohabitated between 929 and 1031. It is known as the Caliphate of Córdoba. The music presented here is a tribute to this heyday. Many pieces are adaptations of Sephardic, Arabic and even French texts, mostly from the 12th and 13th centuries. Some tracks on the disc are new compositions by musicians of the ensemble, inspired by period—all are excellent. The anachronistic use of various instruments that did not exist during this period is surprising! So much for musical exegesis; however, the overall result is quite pleasant. It’s an exotic feast for the ears and heart. Voices, instruments and even the drums are very well rendered by a high quality sound recording. What a joy to hear these sounds that take us away! To the past, to a dream world, to a mythical Andalusia... René François Auclair

Franck, Debussy, Poulenc: Sonates
Anne Gastinel, cello, Claire Désert, piano
Naïve V 5259 (61 min)
From Here on Out: Muhly, Greenwood, Perry
Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony/Edwin Outwater
Analekta AN 29992 (68 min 34 s)

Three young composers are represented on this disc by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra, two of which are issued by the universe of “alternative” rock—Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead) and Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire). Curiously, the most consonant and “accessible” work is written by the only composer with “classical” training, Nico Muhly, based in New York. His piece From here on out stems from a type of post-impressionist American modernism that is very enjoyable. The textures are always kaleidoscopic, featuring luminous counterpoint of the various orchestral instruments in a defined manner. Oboe, flute, violin, keyboard percussion, everything melds together evocatively. There are very few sound blocs and there are never sections used as a mass. Everything is gossamer and scintillating. At times, this music recalls that of Russian Valentin Silvestrov’s. It’s very pretty. At the other end of the spectrum, Jonny Greenwood offers a heartfelt homage to Penderecki—of the 1960s and 70s—with piercing quarter tones and uncompromising dissonances in Popcorn Superhet Receiver. Then, Richard Reed Parry continues with an intriguing work where musicians, connected to stethoscopes, follow their bodies’ rhythms. For Heart, Breath and Orchestra, despite the random character, is enjoyable and even fun. Frédéric Cardin

Great Piano Trios: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Shostakovitch
Gryphon Trio
Analekta AN 2 9510-8 (9CD)

Canada’s Gryphon Trio has recorded a wide range of chamber music for Analekta. The recordings represent the evolution of the piano trio from the classical period to pre-romanticism. Why then did they abandon the Haydn trios they had already recorded? We would have liked them included in this box set as much as those of Shostakovitch, who, despite his captivating music, disturbs the unity. This choice is difficult to explain… But it doesn’t detract from the performers. The box set is a tribute to the group’s excellence. From Mozart, to the almost complete Beethoven (notably well played), to Schubert and Mendelssohn, the musical quality is always present. Jamie Parker’s piano playing is superb and always inspired. The violin and cello play without too much vibrato and discretely support the pianist, never showing excessive aggressiveness. Thus, the ensemble’s sound is pleasant and warm. The soloists have neither the harshness nor the feverish passion of Trio Borodin (Chandos). But failing to be contrasted to the extreme as are other ensembles, the Gryphon Trio makes us experience exquisite moments, perfectly fulfilling the heart and mind. René F. Auclair

Handel: Streams of Pleasure
Karina Gauvin, soprano; Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto; Il Complesso barocco/Alan Curtis
Naïve V5261

This new Handel recording with Karina Gauvin and Marie-Nicole Lemieux, recorded earlier this year in Italy, is titled “Streams of Pleasure”—how aptly named! In the vocal cords of these two first ladies of Canadian classical music, the pleasure is entirely the listener’s. The disc contains a generous selection of fifteen arias and duets from nine Handel oratorios, all composed between 1744 and 1750, the composer’s last creative phase. Some are well known (Judas Maccabaeus, Hercules, Theodora), the last two occasionally staged as operas; others (Susanna, Joseph and his Brethren) are relatively unfamiliar. Gauvin has an exquisitely smooth, soft-grained sound; Lemieux’s contralto is opulent, resonant and powerful. Their voices blend perfectly in the several duets—it’s hard to imagine “To thee, thou glorious son of worth” and “Streams of Pleasure ever flowing,” both from Theodora, better sung. Their English diction is exemplary—if only all singers enunciated so clearly! Alan Curtis has worked extensively with the two Canadians, and his incisive and idiomatic conducting is terrific. It’s nicely packaged with an informative essay, singer bios, texts in English and French, and best of all, four candid black and white photos of the two women taken at the recording sessions. The sonic quality is first rate. To my ears, this disc is a serious contender for disc of the year in the vocal/oratorio category. Joseph K. So

Human Misery-Human Love: Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor Op. 125 “Choral”
Erin Wall, soprano; Mihoko Fujimura, mezzo-soprano; Simon O’Neill, tenor; Mikhail Petrenko, bass; OSM Chorus and Tafelmusik Chamber Choir/Ivars Taurins, Guest Choir Conductor; Orchestre symphonique de Montréal/Kent Nagano
Analekta AN2 9885

This past September the OSM celebrated the opening of its new hall—La Maison symphonique—with performances of Beethoven’s Ninth. Analekta took the opportunity to make a recording as part of its ongoing project to record all the Beethoven symphonies with the OSM and Nagano. But Analekta is not content to let the music speak for itself. Each of its Beethoven releases has a title and a philosophical idea. In the case of the Ninth, the title is “Human Misery-Human Love”, but it is anybody’s guess what that means. Nagano’s explanation in the booklet is more obscure than the title. Yann Martel’s words are even more baffling.
But few conductors achieve the level of clarity that is routine in every Nagano performance, and his performance of the Ninth is remarkable in this respect. Every detail has been polished and balanced and the OSM plays superbly. Nagano is guided by period performance practice in matters of tempo, phrasing, vibrato and balance, and that means his performance of the Ninth is “modern” as compared to fuddy-duddies like Toscanini, Walter, Klemperer or Karajan. Unfortunately, it also means that we have a Ninth without real Beethovenian fire. Nagano’s Ninth seems more like a blueprint than a performance.
The soloists seem to inhabit another performance altogether. Their sounds and phrasing are far more traditional than what Nagano obviously has in mind. The chorus, however, is on a very tight period performance leash and seems underpowered.
A triumph for the OSM and Nagano if you happen to like his approach. If not, try Blomstedt among recent recordings (Profil Hänssler CD PH11009). Paul E. Robinson

Jeffrey Ryan: Fugitive Colours
Gryphon Trio; Vancouver Symphony Orchestra/
Bramwell Tovey
Naxos 8.572765 (69 min 13 s)

With this release, Naxos inaugurates its new Canadian Classics series, Canada’s answer to the popular and varied American Classics. The arrival of this series is very promising for the diffusion of Canadian music, especially considering the immense scope of Naxos’ distribution as well as its online music bank. So far, only one release is available, but we hope that this collection will follow in the footsteps of its southern sibling, promoting both contemporary music and older Canadian works. For now, we can appreciate the accessible musical language and iridescent instrumental colour of three pieces by Vancouver composer Jeffrey Ryan. The symphonic poem The Linearity of Light and the symphony Fugitive Colours are both interesting and captivating works. The triple concerto Equilateral is one of Ryan’s strangest pieces, simultaneously evoking Vivier and Shostakovitch! Nevertheless, there is a compelling dynamic between the three soloists and the orchestra. The performers are excellent and bring rigour and passion to these works which were created in close collaboration with the composer. Éric Champagne

Johann Christian Bach: Missa da Requiem
Lenneke Ruiten, soprano; Ruth Sandhoff, alto; Colin Balzer, tenor; Thomas E. Bauer, bass; RIAS Kammerchor; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/Hans-Christoph Rademann
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902098 (74 min 55 s)

What a great discovery! This piece must be one of the most beautiful works by the youngest Bach. Although relatively conventional in its musical structure, this luminous and superbly balanced Requiem is remarkable for its lyrical Italianate expressivity. Bach composed this Missa da Requiem in Milan, and had little regard for the traditional form, composing only the Introitus, Kyrie and Sequenz (in twelve sections). The soloists benefit from a frothy and exciting score offering many opportunities to shine, which they do not fail to do! As well, this recording features a Miserere in B-flat major by Hans-Christoph Rademann, also composed in Milan. This work foreshadows the compositional style of Johann Christian Bach with its emerging symphonic style, clarity of expression and powerfully suggested affects. The performance of the Rademann is supple, convincing and radiant. Magnificent, from all points of view. Frédéric Cardin

Mozart: Dissonances
Quatuor Ebène
Virgin Classics 5 0999 070922 2 0 (71 min 5 s)

Ebène’s interest in musical crossover has without a doubt solidified their public reputation. The young French quartet affirms that in the Mozartian style, the dissonance is a “sign of maturity”, and they wish to illustrate this principle with their recording of two of the quartets dedicated to Haydn, one in D minor and one in C major (the “Dissonance”), along with the Divertimento KV 138. The execution is calculated and precise, and the dynamic markings are scrupulously rendered, though in tempi generally slower than usual. But it is a well-known fact that attention to detail, laudable though it may be, does not ensure a good rendering of a piece’s spirit. This is perhaps the case here: the emphasis on detail bars spontaneity, and the choice to emphasize effects in the work of a composer beloved for the contrary qualities is curious, at least. The quartet in D minor, a heart-rending cry, suffers more from this tendency than the “Dissonance.” Close miking produces at times an almost orchestral sound quality, with a huge cello. Let us return to the old Italians: let fluid, natural, moving song be again the order of the day! Alexandre Lazaridès

Musica Vaticana: Musique Polychorale
Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal/Christopher Jackson
ATMA ACD2 2508 (57 min 5 s)

The works presented were almost all composed by Italian composers who were at one time directors of the Cappella Giulia in Rome between 1600 and 1743. The other well-known chapel in the eternal city was, of course, the Sistina. We are not in Rome for this recording, but happy in the church of Saint-Augustin in Mirabel, whose warm, hushed acoustics have been well captured. In this room, the rich voices and gentle expression of the ensemble lift the listener to heights of admiration and contemplation. The vocal parts call, respond, and circle each other in perpetual balance. SMAM’s sixteen voices are distinct enough that we can easily “visualize” each part and appreciate the counterpoint. The soloists are grouped in three or four distinct choirs, accompanied sometimes by a basso continuo (cello, harp, and organ). Two Benevoli motets for three and four soprano soloists are a fine contrast. They are brilliantly executed with joyful ornaments and immense virtuosity. Of especial note is the fugue which closes Pitoni’s Dixit Dominus for sixteen voices in four choirs: bravissimi! René F. Auclair

Schnittke: Quartets 1-4
Molinari Quartet
ATMA ACD22634 (2 CD; 103 min 20 s)

While the Molinari Quartet might not reach the dramatic heights of the Kronos Quartet nor attain the surgical precision of the Arditti String Quartet, they are more than competitive when it comes to timbre (and the competition is stiff indeed!). The varied instrumental colours are so perfectly fused that listening to the quartet is like listening to one soloist. This imaginary soloist isn’t immune to the occasional mistake or affectation, but we barely even hear such passing errors. The listener doesn’t linger on imperfections, but rather hangs on the shimmering tremolos of the first quartet, the melancholy of the second, the enveloping unisons of the third. If this imposing repertoire interests you, dive in post-haste. René Bricault

Schumann: Piano Sonata No. 2 in G minor
Op. 22/Fantasie in C major Op. 17
Anton Kuerti, piano

Over the years, Kuerti has recorded much of Robert Schumann’s piano music, including the chamber music and the Piano Concerto (CBC SMCD-5218). In all of these recordings, Kuerti has shown great empathy with the bipolar emotions expressed in the music. That is the case again here too but coupled with a remarkable command of subtleties of dynamics and tone that are so much a part of Schumann’s contribution to piano literature.
The performances are enhanced immeasurably by a clear, rich piano sound. No doubt Kuerti’s own attention to the voicing of his instrument has something to do with it, but producers Jacob Harnoy and Clive Allen must be entitled to some of the credit. We can fairly assume that the acoustics of Willowdale United Church in Toronto made a contribution too.
An interesting feature of this recording is the inclusion of the original Finale of Op. 22. Kuerti has chosen to add it as what he calls “a second scherzo.” I agree with him that the ending is too abrupt for the movement to be satisfying as a finale. The second finale has much greater cumulative power. Paul E. Robinson

Honens Laureate Series
1) Bach: Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Minsoo Sohn, piano
2) Debussy/Holliger/Honegger/Ravel
Gilles Vonsattel, piano
3) Hindemith/Schoenberg/Stravinsky/Szymanowski
Evgeny Starodubtsev, piano
4) Schubert: Sonata in A major D.664/Drei Klavierstücke D.946/Fantasy in C major D.760/
Allegretto in C minor D.915
Georgy Tchaidze, piano

Given the space constraints and the vastly different repertoires, one is loathe to compare—let alone rank the discs, but suffice it to say each pianist brings his uniquely personal gift to the performance. Top on this reviewer’s personal list is Minsoo Sohn’s Goldberg Variations. After a stunning debut disc of Liszt transcriptions, Sohn goes from strength to strength with a recording that stands up to comparisons with the best—yes, even Glenn Gould’s “good standard” 1955 and 1981 recordings. Striking is Sohn’s felicitous mix of singing tone, innate nobility of phrasing, and above all his poetic imagination. Having played this monumental work in live performances, it’s good that he has now committed it to disc. Another standout is the all-French program of Gilles Vonsattel who shows an uncommon affinity for Debussy and Ravel, played here with unfailingly ravishing tone, a wide spectrum of colours, and an altogether magical touch. The recorded sound is properly atmospheric if a touch too distant. As he explains in the liner notes, 2009 First Laureate Georgy Tchaidze is particularly drawn to Schubert and it shows. He does full justice to the joyous and elegant opening movement of the A major Sonata, his brisk tempo making the very familiar work sound fresh. To my ears, Tchaidze’s playing is most convincing in the more lyrical and introspective pieces, while the more dramatic and darker moments in pieces like the Fantasy in C major tend to be a touch overwrought. Starodubtsev’s “modern” program is perhaps the least familiar, but he plays it with great conviction and lyricism, brilliantly underscoring the kinship of Szymanowski and Hindemith with Debussy. It’s to his credit that even the Schoenberg sounds totally accessible to indifferent ears. The production values are exemplary—great sound, informative liner notes (particularly Eric Friesen’s Q&A with each pianist), and beautiful packaging—if only there were a photo or two of the recording sessions. These four pianists have already gained their rightful places among the most promising artists of today, and these releases are a testament to their ever developing artistry. Joseph K. So

Translation: Miriam Cloutier, Natalie Gauthier, Rona Nadler, Karine Poznanski

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