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Skye Consort & Emma Björling
Leaf Music, LM225

Sentez l’air frais du nord s’insinuer dans vos oreilles avec cette rencontre remarquable entre la chanteuse suédoise Emma Björling et l’ensemble Skye Consort formé de Seán Dagher (bouzouki, banjo, voix), Alex Kehler (nyckelharpa, violon, voix) et Amanda Keesmaat (violoncelle, voix). Né grâce à la complicité des artistes et au retard fortuit de l’avion d’Emma lors d’un retour de concert au Québec, l’album Skye Consort & Emma Björling compile des airs traditionnels scandinaves, anglo-saxons et acadiens ponctués de compositions instrumentales. L’album est bien équilibré dans le choix des pièces; le groove fleuri et ensoleillé dans The Banks of the Sweet Primroses révèle les talents d’arrangeurs des musiciens, la ballade En Ängel composée par Emma Björling est un pur délice qui trouve idéalement sa place dans le corpus. La chanteuse révèle une voix douce, souple, aérienne typique du folklore qui prend un caractère ornementé discret et toujours de bon goût dans le répertoire suédois qui lui va comme un gant. Les musiciens, habitués à mélanger les traditions, marient habilement la touche celtique aux accents populaires modernes, avec par moments des lignes et respirations baroques. Skye Consort et Emma Björling nous offrent un album poétique, délicat qui établit un pont naturel entre les folklores nordiques transatlantiques et fait revivre avec fraîcheur les traditions musicales ancestrales. Une franche réussite. Benjamin Goron


Beethoven: Piano Concertos
Jan Lisiecki, piano and conductor.
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
Deutsche Grammophon 0289 483 7637 7 (3 CDs)
Total Time: 173:56

Sometimes the best records get made with no foresight whatsoever. As part of his label switch from Sony Classical it had been planned that Murray Perahia would record the five concertos for the Beethoven year, live in Berlin where he had concerts scheduled with the visiting Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Then Perahia suffered a recurrent hand injury and had to be replaced by the Canadian Jan Lisiecki. The DG team were already booked for the recording so they went ahead. And, what do you know, the results were better than expected. Much better.

Lisiecki, 24, has been coasting a bit since he burst onto the scene at the turn of the decade with a technique and sensitivity rarely seen in one so young and an endearing refusal to compete in the Warsaw and Moscow gladiatorial arenas for new pianists. Maybe he was just biding his time. If so, this is it. His performances of the first two concertos are rewarding for their complete absence of agenda. Lisiecki makes no attempt to argue that this is Beethoven at around his own age bursting out of the Haydn and Mozart style to stamp his fists on Vienna. Rather, his reading lets lyricism loose and nails the ear to the singing line.

Where the set shoots up into the ranks of greatness is in the C Minor Concerto, offering a daringly restrained approach that unfurls the music layer by layer, involving the listener in the quest. Lisiecki, as pianist and conductor, is a guide one would trust anywhere in the herbaceous maze of Beethoven’s barely penetrable mind.

The G Major Concerto is no less impressive, its hushed opening perfectly judged and nothing within the score overdone. I am not sure the Fifth Concerto automatically joins my all-time favourites, if only because the Academy’s playing lacks the studied ease of superior orchestras in Vienna and Berlin. That said, I suspect it might grow on me. Either way, this is a magnificent achievement by a young Canadian artist whose lack of haste is vastly refreshing in these me-me-me times. I’d go a long way to hear Lisiecki again, and I say that knowing there are at least three more sets of the piano concertos in the mail to me today. Norman Lebrecht


Chopin: Ballades and Impromptus
Charles Richard-Hamelin, piano.
Analekta AN 2 9145
Total Time: 59:45

Charles Richard-Hamelin here gives every indication of having deserved his silver medal in the 2015 Warsaw Chopin competition. The purity of tone, the refinement of touch, the sure sense of when to apply pressure and when to let up — all point a high level of mastery, not to say a full appreciation of the scope of Chopin’s musical mind. The gentle opening of the F Major Ballade gives no hint — quite properly — of the storms that ensue. Four minutes into is cousin in A Flat Major we are delighted by the entirely natural evocation of inner voices.

The Impromptus demonstrate that that a relaxed approach to music-making need never be mundane. The agitato spirit of the Fantaisie-Impromptu is nicely captured at a subdued volume and the “chasing rainbows” melody is rescued from its sentimental reputation. Right-hand flurries in the Impromptu No. 2 in F Sharp Major are as engaging as they are impeccably groomed. Indeed, the sheer aplomb of Richard-Hamelin’s playing might be a demerit for those who prefer a more explosive and Horowitzian approach to this composer. For those on the Rubinstein side of the debate, this recording is a no-brainer. The superb Analekta engineering is apparent from the resonant opening C of the First Ballade. Arthur Kaptainis


Beethoven: Clarinet Trio Op. 38.
Brahms: Clarinet Trio Op. 114.
Alexander Bedenko, clarinet; Kyril Zlotnikov, cello;
Itamar Golan, piano
Orchid Classics ORC100102
Total Time: 62:00

Beethoven’s first self-promoted concert in April 1800 in Vienna contained works by Mozart and Haydn alongside his own First Symphony, First Piano Concerto and a Septet, Op. 20, that was the hit of the night. On the notion that nothing succeeds like success, Beethoven sold his publisher an additional version of the Septet, scaled down to a Trio for clarinet (or violin), cello and piano and later registered as his Op. 38. Contrary to expectations, it never matched the popularity of the Septet, then or since. I cannot recall a really gripping recording.

This performance, by Alexander Bedenko, Kyril Zlotnikov and Itamar Golan, takes a quiet approach, seeking out intimate silences between the instrumental lines. It works like a family conversation where you don’t want to interrupt and it makes the strongest case I have yet heard for the smaller form of the jolly Septet.

Brahms, who developed a late love for the clarinet, reserved the instrument for his most reflective statements, notably in the ultimate pair of clarinet sonatas Op. 120. In the same burst of activity he also wrote a Clarinet Quintet and a Clarinet Trio, all for the benefit of the virtuoso player Richard Mühlfeld. The Trio, opening with a languid cello line, is Brahms at his most masterful, controlling his participants like a chat-show host, never letting the content flag. Approaching death, he looks steadfastly ahead at new melodic lines. There is nothing late about late Brahms. He’s alive as you or I. Norman Lebrecht


Shostakovich: Preludes and Piano Sonatas
Hyperion CDA68267
Total time: 79:13

If I listen one more time to Andrey Gugnin playing DSCH I shall probably be locked up for my own safety, at least until after Brexit. But it’s going to happen. Like Brexit, I can’t stop it.

The music on this compelling album comes from recesses of the composer’s soul, created at times when he was more troubled by personal issues than political. His percussive First Piano Sonata of 1927 runs alongside his Second Symphony and has much in common with Bartók’s Sonata of 1926, though also with Alban Berg’s Sonata Op. 1.

The Second Sonata, written in the middle of the Second World War, is a kind of epitaph for Shostakovich’s piano teacher, who had just died. In between, Gugnin plays the astonishing 24 Preludes of 1932–33, a series so introspective it amounts almost to a man talking to himself in the mirror. Bach is the obvious model — as he would be 20 years later for the Preludes and Fugues Op. 87 — and yet this untravelled, Soviet-enclosed composer is drawn to a wider range of cultures. The Fifth prelude sounds like a Vaughan Williams pastoral, the Seventh like Kurt Weill on black coffee.

Gugnin, a young Russian who won a piano competition in Sydney, Australia, plays at times maddeningly fast, just to show he can. But amid the helter-skelter there are moments of tender and profound contemplation that I need to hear again and again. The Hyperion record label had its first hit many years ago with Tatiana Nikolayeva’s immersive account of the Preludes and Fugues Op 87. To all who know that epic album, I need only say that this recording comes close, very close. Almost to the edge of elsewhere. Norman Lebrecht


Montero: Piano Concerto No. 1 “Latin Concerto.” Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major.
Gabriela Montero, piano.
The Orchestra of the Americas/Carlos Miguel Prieto
Orchid Classics ORC100104
Total Time: 51:47

Most musicians go through life trying to avoid trouble, especially of the political kind. Gabriela Montero is an exception. Venezuelan by birth and an exile from childhood, she made her name as a flamboyant soloist in 20th-century piano concertos. As encores she invented her own riffs on themes requested by the audience. Over time, these became full-length compositions.

Unable to ignore the government-impelled disintegration of her home country, she infused many of her musical thoughts with a political message of range and hope. The main item in this release is a Piano Concerto by Montero fusing Latin American tropes with a large-form vision. The themes are ear-catching and the development never flags. Montero is up front and centre as soloist with a percussion-heavy orchestra playing obbligato accompaniments, mostly with dance and jazz rhythms. It’s 30 minutes long and the concluding Allegro Venezolano is definitely not downbeat. Montero is a life-affirmer. Venezuela will rise again. Have fun.

The companion piece is a cracking rendition of the Ravel G Major Concerto, jazzier than most interpretations and with an authentic 1920s swing. In the Adagio, where Montero takes deep breaths, one gets full measure of the original artist that she is. Norman Lebrecht


Memories of Places Past
Trio Dell’Aria
Really Records

Memories of Places Past est le premier album du Trio Dell’Aria; un trio inhabituel, constitué de la soprano Kripa Nageshwar, du clarinettiste Michael Westwood et de la pianiste Ruta Viavade. Sur cet album, ils ont choisi l’une des rares œuvres du répertoire composées pour leur effectif. Il s’agit des Six Lieder de Louis Spohr, composés en 1837. À cela s’ajoutent deux œuvres contemporaines de compositeurs canadiens : Memory of a Place, auquel le titre de l’album fait allusion, de Franck Horvat et Ashes of Soldiers de Colin Eatock.

À la clarinette, Michael Westwood démontre une bonne musicalité. Ses phrasés sont exécutés avec fluidité et ses aigus sont agréables à l’oreille. Toutefois, la captation sonore de l’enregistrement est telle qu’on l’entend beaucoup, presque trop par rapport à ses deux partenaires. Ruta Vaivade, au piano, est difficilement audible; un accompagnement qui manque à la soprano et au trio dans son ensemble. Outre le fait qu’elle ne soit pas assez soutenue musicalement et qu’elle paraisse ainsi manquer de conviction, Mme Nageshwar montre ses limites dans le médium-grave et le grave, sa voix n’étant pas assez timbrée. On retiendra, toutefois, son interprétation pleine d’émotions dans Ashes of Soldiers, dernière piste de l’album. Une œuvre magnifiquement composée par Colin Eatock, dont on rappelle ici le nom. Justin Bernard

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