The American Ying Quartet -- violinist Ayano Ninomiya along with Janet (violin), Phillip (viola) and David (cello) Ying -- has just released a gorgeous album of chamber music by Russian composer Anton Arensky (1861-1906). It is late-Romantic music at its most vivid, intelligently and expressively interpreted. The disc is also an eloquent argument in favour of programming Arensky's music more often.
(Toronto's Gryphon Trio has programmed Arensky's gorgeous and relatively well-known Piano Trio in D-minor for its Nov. 17 Music Toronto recital.)
The Yings' album doesn't really have a title, but it could have been called The Arensky Variations, because each of the three pieces on the disc contains intricately rendered variations. The most substantial come in the String Quartet No. 2, in A minor. The second of its three movements contains a theme, seven contrasting variations and a coda. The Finale movement includes expert displays of both canon and fugue.
The first and second Quartets date from 1888 and 1894, respectively, written while the gold-medal composition graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory was teaching at the Moscow Conservatory (where his students included Sergei Rachmaninov).
The Piano Quintet, recorded with the help of Arensky-loving pianist Adam Neiman, dates from 1899. At this point, Arensky had moved back to St. Petersburg, where he had been appointed music director of the Imperial Choir in 1895.
All of the music here displays a deep mastery of classical musical structure and counterpoint as well as a facility with melody -- in particular being able to fold in the soulds of Russian folk music. There is nothing adventurous in the architecture, but the careful proportions of each movement feel so right, that I don't feel like anything's missing.
Listening to this particular music at this time of year is a music-lover's equivalent of lighting up the fireplace and settling down in a comfortable chaise for a moment of escape from the world's many noises and demands.
I haven't always been a fan of the Yings' interpretations, which I've sometimes thought a bit shallow. Perhaps the addition of Ayano Ninomiya last season made a difference. They are wonderful here, finding poise, balance and extroversion where necessary. Neiman is fleet and elegant, playing as one with the quartet.
Like any commodity, the less you have, the more precious it becomes.
Since the music critic's job at the Star went the way of VHS, I've had little time to listen -- I mean listen, not hear -- to music, making the moments when I can have both particularly precious.
Koren-born Canadian pianist Minsoo Sohn's new recording of J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations has been one that I keep returning to and, with each listen since the CD arrived in late August, I come to appreciate some new facet of what he has done here.
There's been a mini rush of Goldberg recordings in the last half-decade and, each time I hear a new interpretation in concert or on disc, it comes with a fresh appreciation of Bach's craft, as well as the tremendous amount of thinking that the pianist has to do about how to make each of the 30 variations sound.
Some performers find an inner lyricism. Others treat the Variations as technical exercises broken by slower passages that allow the pianist to catch their breath during this 80-minute marathon.
The beauty in Sohn's performance comes from its underlying clear-headedness, blended with a very strong grasp of the playful nature of Baroque dance forms Bach inserts.
The music shimmers with playful light. Bach's contrapuntal textures are as clear and sparkling as a Swarowski store window. Sohn also refrains from imposing too much Romantic sweetness on the slow sections, making this a refreshing, enlightening and very welcome addition to my reference collection.
Check out the details as well as track samples in the Multimedia section of the Honens music competition website (Honens, as a gesture of confidence in its laureates, has been issuing Sohn's recordings).
I've been hugely enjoying Janina Fialkowska's new Liszt Recital album from ATMA Classique, which is a treat from beginning to end. This is one of the year's definitive tributes to Franz Liszt, whose 200th birth anniversary falls on Oct. 22.
The disc's programme is a mix of fireworks and fireside, with the extravagant Valse-caprice No. 6 and Valse de Faust (a memory of Gounod's opera) bookending Liszt's respectful transcriptions of six Chopin songs, Gretchen (a transcription of the middle movement of his Faust-Symphonie) and Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude.'
Failkowska achieves something extraordinary in her blend of flawless technique, complete control and a feeling of genuine spontaneiety. Her playing is never strident or showy or, in moments of total reflection, slack. This is much, much more difficult to achieve than it sounds.
Rather than being in the presence of an ego, the album left me with the impression of being in the presence of a (very) good and faithful servant of the composer.
The piece that has affected me the most is Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, which I listened to a lot as a tween (it was an Angel LP by Georges Cziffra, if I remember properly). Fialkowska's interpretation is positively ethereal.
The piece is one of a set inspired by the 1830 collection, Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, by French poet Alphonse de Lamartine, which, a couple of years later, deeply affected a 22-year-old composer madly in love with the Comtesse d'Agoult. (Liszt wrote the 10 pieces in this set piecemeal, and didn't get them published until 1853.)
The poem goes on (at length) in signature Romantic style how, after great inner turmoil and unhappiness and some time spent savouring the manifold pastoral charms of the countryside, the Grace of God has calmed and comforted the soul. "Un nouvel homme en moi renaît et recommence," writes Lamartine (A new man is reborn in me).
For those of you who can read French, here is the final, breathless, stanza:
Conserve-nous, mon Dieu, ces jours de ta promesse,
Ces labeurs, ces doux soins, cette innocente ivresse
D'un cœur qui flotte en paix sur les vagues du temps,
Comme l'aigle endormi sur l'aile des autans,
Comme un navire en mer qui ne voit qu'une étoile,
Mais où le nautonier chante en paix sous sa voile !
Conserve-nous ces cœurs et ces heures de miel,
Et nous croirons en toi, comme l'oiseau du ciel,
Sans emprunter aux mots leur stérile évidence,
En sentant le printemps croit à ta providence;
Comme le soir doré d'un jour pur et serein
S'endort dans l'espérance et croit au lendemain;
Comme un juste mourant et fier de son supplice
Espère dans la mort et croit à ta justice;
Comme la vertu croit à l'immortalité,
Comme l'œil croit au jour, l'âme à la vérité.
The full magic of Fialkowska's performance comes from being able to earnestly render Liszt's caresses and sighs with a determined energy, and to carefuly dissimulate the technical hurdles (and there are many) with a gauzy, ethereal peace.
(It helps that Fialkowska recorded on one of Canada's finest concert instruments, a Hamburg-built Steinway at the Palais Montcalm in Quebec City.)
Because Fialkowska's performance is not available on YouTube, I listened to many well-known names looking for something that could rival her interpretation, to share here.
The best I could come up with is a 1948 recording by the late, great French pianist Raymond Trouard (1916-2008), on a funky sounding Pleyel grand. Trouard had as one of his teachers Emil von Sauer, a student of Liszt's.
There's been a flurry of fresh interest in Bach's Goldberg Variations since New Yorker Simone Dinnerstein stunned us with her Romantically flavoured recording four years ago. She made them as much her own as Glenn Gould had done a half-century before.
Being music written for harpsichord, the Goldergs leave a pianist open to a wide range of options when able to take advantage of the much, much larger tonal and dynamic palette offered by a modern piano.
Although I love Dinnerstein's interpretation, and have a lot of respect for Gould's original take, my personal gold standard is Russian pianist Evgeni Koroliov. I'm eagerly anticipating Canadian pianist David Jalbert's recently completed recording, which is being released in the fall (we can get a preview of his thinking at the Elora Festival on Jul. 30, when he presents the full Goldbergs in recital at St. John's Church, at 4 p.m.)
The gentle “Aria” that begins J.S. Bach’s legendary Goldberg Variations might fool you into thinking this is going to be a soft, seductive journey through a famous keyboard suite that marks the 270th anniversary of its publication this year.
But American pianist, and occasional Toronto Symphony guest, Nicholas Angelich has exaggerated each variation’s character, creating an 80-minute marathon punctuated by dynamic and stylistic contrasts: Slow variations are slower than usual; fast ones are dizzyingly fleet.
You can marvel at this man’s phenomenal control and technique, but this is one of those journeys that doesn’t improve with each return visit.
Here are four clips: 1. Angelich (Aria), 2. Koroliov (Var. III-VII, 2009) 3. Gould (Var. XII-XIX, 1955), 4. Dinnerstein (Var. XXV):
I'm packing myself off to London (Ontario) to drop in on National Youth Orchestra boot camp and and a visit with this summer's conductor, Jonathan Darlington. It's a great moment to celebrate one of my reliable sources of inspiration: seeing young talents making music for the sheer, unbridled enjoyment of it.
A lot of our culture of consumption -- which very much includes the performing arts -- relies on the thrill of discovery, where often the performer is a brighter and shinier object than the material they are performing. But, for me, it's the sheer exuberance of young sensibilities that turns my crank.
I've spoken to so many people who work with kids, and, to a person, they say that engaging with them in creative ways is the single best way to stay young. This is the true fountain of youth -- and the well is constantly being replenished.
In that youthful vein, it's worth checking out freshly-turned-19 British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor who, tomorrow, will be the youngest soloist to perform at the First Night of the Proms -- the start of what I think is the world's finest and richest summer music festival. (He joins his own country's National Youth Orchestra for a concert in Birmingham in early August.)
We can hear many of the Proms concerts over the web, thanks to BBC 3.
Grosvenor has a freshly-released album on Decca, which I haven't had a chance to hear, yet, because the international release date isn't until next spring. He's been buzzing about the U.K. and Europe over the past couple of years, and it looks like he's on the verge of becoming much better known in this corner of the world.
Earlier this year, the Guardian's Tom Service sat down with a nice chat with Grosvenor, which you can read here.
Here's Grosvenor tackling Chopin's Nocturne in F-sharp Major during his Decca recording sessions, followed by a clip of his cherubic 11-year-old self performing Scarlatti and Balakirev at the BBC Young Musician of the Year final round in 2004. He won, of course.
One of our city's most intriguing experimenters, John Kameel Farah, has finished recording Between Carthage and Rome, a new album of new works in Berlin, and is ready to give us a preview in a live set tonight at 8, at Beit Zatoun in Mirvish Village (612 Markham St.).
Expect a blend of ancient, Renaissance and electronic -- something you're not likely to hear anywhere else. It's powered by an amazingly keen mind, unbounded curiosity -- and impressive technique.
If you're in an Elizabethan frame of mind, check out a very nice recent recording of Farah's of William Byrd's Lady Nevell's Grounde -- done totally straight on harpsichord -- on Farah's website.
For something more au courant, here is Farah improvising in Berlin's Church of the Holy Cross last summer:
QUATUOR FRANZ JOSEPH Hyacinthe Jadin, Op. 1 String Quartets (ATMA) **** First of all, you're forgiven if you thought Hyacinthe Jadin was a woman. You're also forgiven if you've never heard of this French composer, born into a family of Flemish musicians working in the court of Louis XVI and who came of age and died of tuberculosis (aged 24) during the First Republic. There are two dates cited for his birth, but the correct one likely is April 27, 1776.
Hyacinthe's more famous and longer-lived brother deserves brief mention in English-language reference texts, and Hyacinthe only rates a short mention in my Dictionnaire de la musique.
So you're forgiven, yet again, for thinking that there probably isn't much to appreciate. Wrong again.
Montreal period-instrument Quatuor Franz Joseph has been championing Jadin's string quartets for years. They recorded the first three (out of a total published output of 12) -- all dedicated to Joseph Haydn -- in 2008, but ATMA has only just released them.
In short, these four-movement pieces are gorgeous, and given their full due in muscular, engaging interpretations by the Quatuor.
This is music that would have been unusual, and likely not appreciated, in the France of 1795, the year this set of three quartets was published. They are written in a style closely reminiscent of Haydn's, featuring carefully elaborated musical subjects. The young Jadin was a devotee of Sturm und Drang expression, which was not the French way.
Public performances of chamber music did not really begin to happen until a generation after Jadin's death in 1800, so this was music for private consumption -- yet written for advanced players. This, and the fact that public life in France was a mess during the Directoire (which issued a new decimal-oriented calendar, among other wild things) means that Jadin, a prodigy who was among the first keybaord teachers hired at the founding of the Paris Conservatoire in 1795, was a victim of historical circumstance.
Thank goodness there are people like Quator Franz Joseph to right history's wrong. Click on the bold-face name of the performers at the top of the review to read and hear all about this wonderful album.
Veteran French pianist Jean-Claude Pennetier is a fan of Jadin's piano sonatas. Here he is at a fortepiano playing Sonata No. 4, in F-sharp minor, Op. 4 No. 2, which was published the same year as the three Haydn-dedicated quartets (this is from a Harmonia Mundi disc from the mid-1980s):
Last fall, the legendary Alfred Brendel, just shy of his 80th birthday, gave a memorable performance in Koerner Hall. He has officially retired from concert life, but continues to make public appearances as a music lecturer who happens to have 10 miraculous fingers available for instant illustration.
His engrossing Koerner Hall lecture was "Does Music Have to be Entirely Serious?" He illustrated the creative use of humour principally with music from the Baroque and Classical eras. (He also took time to explain how and why humour was shown the door by the Romantics.)
There are two other of these lectures in his public portfolio: "Musical Characters," which looks at how a composer establishes mood in a piece of music (focusing on Beethoven's sonatas); and "Light and Shade of Interpretation," which is a clever double-entendre on the art and craft of creating a musical performance (also heavily based on late-18th and early-19th Austro-German composers).
All three -- presented at the Schüttkasten in Salzburg, Austria over three days last September -- are collected in a new, 3-DVD set just issued by Unitel Classica.
These are 225 must-view minutes for any serious music lover. Yes, there's only a piano in the room, but what Brendel says applies to any instrument, and even voice.
I was enjoying my first Thursday night off in months, so decided to do a Brendel marathon, for inspiration and challenge, and, to see how the old master could help me in his interpretation lecture with the question I posed here yesterday morning.
Just before making dinner, I sat down with Book I of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier. My childhood edition, from Peters, does not contain any musical instructions or footnotes; it merely lays out a pile of notes, leaving the interpreter to figure out tempo, ornamentation, phrasing and dynamics.
The possibilities are endless, and it took me less than an hour to feel completely overwhelmed as I considered the alternatives as I skipped and stumbled through the music. There are no easy formulas here.
Even with the help of more scholarly editions, it takes years to work out how to turn these piles of notes into a musical narrative worth sharing with more than the stuffed bear and sleeping dog in the corner.
After dinner, Brendel gave me a 75-minute summary of that years-long process of shaping any interpretation, further humbling me and my facile pronouncements on other people's blood, sweat and tears.
And there was the key to the whole thing: If a performer has taken the time and agony and effort to research, digest and sculpt, he or she will have created something worth hearing, something with an inner logic and an outer compulsion. That is what makes a fine recording or fine live performance, not whether or not their interpretation follows a specific set of rules or prescriptions of "this is the way it must be done."
A poker-faced pianist-teacher friend describes this, tersely, as "preparation." Oh, how simple that makes it all sound.
I think back on the concerts and operas I've reviewed over the past 10 years. I hope that giving appreciation of preparation has been the basis from which I have arrived at my commentaries. If not, I have deserved every angry email from readers.
Two other pianists, both at the start of great careers, are behind today's musings: New York City-based Italian Alessio Bax and Russian Vassily Primakov, who have just released overlapping albums of solo-piano music by Rachmaninov.
Both are compelling pianists offering richly layered interpretations. And they are completely different from each other. After multiple listens, I can't decide which one I like more -- prompting even more thought about what makes for compelling listening.
I'll let you know when I figure the two Rachmaninov discs out.
Here is a pirate video segment of Brendel's "Waldstein Sonata" from the "Musical Characters" lecture, from Oct., 2009.
I've followed this with of Ferrucio Busoni's transcription of Bach's "Nun komm der Heiden Heiland." The first is Brendel in a 1995 recital performance (in Tokyo's Suntory Hall), the second of Vladimir Horowitz in his living room, 10 years earlier:
American composer Nico Muhly is getting some time in the spotlight for his new opera, Two Boys, which is about to have its premiere at the hands of English National Opera.
Last week, Muhly and his English collaborators, the Aurora Orchestra, released a new album, which is equally noteworthy.
The album, named after its title piece, Seeing is Believing, is brilliant -- and totally Elizabethan.
Muhly has interwoven his own works (Elizabeth II) with instrumental arrangements (enriched with the young composer's own embellishments) of works by William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons (Elizabeth I).
The aesthetics are, of course, vastly different, but they share the trait of pre-dating and post-dating J.S. Bach's conventions of harmony and counterpoint. As "new" alternates with "old" on the disc, it quickly became apparent to me how much devotion and love Muhly has for the Renaissance masters. His composerly interventions (an extra shimmer of piano or celeste here, an embroidery of clarinet or oboe or English horn there) are elegant and respectful while making the music sound fresh and beguiling. The vast majority of listeners will have no idea that these pieces started off as motets -- and, in the case of Muhly's arrangements, it hardly matters.
The four new pieces by Muhly deftly mix orchestral colours and pulse with lively rhythms and overlays of melodic textures. The most humorous is the closing "Step Team," which sounds like something by a member of Les Six that's been snipped into short bits and then pasted together in a different order. "By all Means" and "Motion" rest on expertly built-up sets of overlaid note patterns.
"Seeing is Believing" is feels like an elaborate call to prayer -- in this case rendered as a sort of extended opening cadenza in a concerto for six-stringed electric violin performed by Thomas Gould -- that starts off powerfully, but then gets scattered in a sea of competing ideas and colours. It has to be intentional, structurally, but comes across as a bit unfocussed in the middle.
Overall, though, I think the mix, and the musical message, are brilliant. Young Brits, conductor Thomas Collon and Gould's Aurora Orchestra, are positively electric in their assurance and clarity from beginning to end.
John Terauds started at the Toronto Star as a freelance writer in 1988, and has been on staff since 1997. He began writing on classical music in 2001, and has been the full-time classical music critic since 2005.
He is also the organist and choir director at St. Peter's Anglican Church, a parish founded in 1863 in downtown Toronto.
If he's not listening to, writing about or playing music, it means he's either asleep, unconscious, walking his dog -- or all of the above.
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