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Highly Reviewed Recordings

February 20 - March 5, 2013

BARTOK, B.: Violin and Piano Works, Vol. 2 (Ehnes, Armstrong) - Violin Sonatas, BB 28, 124 / Hungarian Folksongs
(Chandos: CHAN10752)

BARTOK, B.: Violin and Piano Works, Vol. 2 (Ehnes, Armstrong) - Violin Sonatas, BB 28, 124 / Hungarian Folksongs So far in his amazing career, Brandon, Man., native James Ehnes has turned into gold every note touched by his violin bow. His second album devoted to the music of Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881–1945) is nothing short of spectacular. The attraction of Bartók’s music is that you can enjoy the late-Romantic side as well something more modern. So much of his music vibrates with the vitality of folksongs and dances. They start off as clear depictions in his earlier music, gradually becoming more abstract over time—like Pablo Picasso’s faces, which ultimately bore only a fragmentary resemblance to the original subject. Ehnes has his feet firmly planted on the earthiness of the folk elements as he tosses off this virtuosic music with panache. The big showpiece on this generous album is the 1944 Sonata for solo violin, a four-movement monster that tests the violinist’s every skill. A 1903 Sonata with piano accompaniment is easier listening, but no easier to play. Ehnes has a strong, elegant accompanist in Andrew Armstrong, who is also there for three sets of folksong transcriptions for violin and piano. This album is a wonder from beginning to end.

© 2013 The Buffalo News

(Carl Davis Collection: CDC021)

BOND FOR ORCHESTRA This new recording of noted film composer Carl Davis conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra through 25 tracks of marvelous James Bond movie theme music is the latest release from the Carl Davis Collection, the composer/conductor’s new label devoted to issuing his scores and performances. Back in 1997, Davis released a Bond album in Interscope called “Carl Davis Conducts James Bond Themes,” featuring orchestral interpretations of a dozen Bond themes from DR NO’s “James Bond Theme” through GOLDENEYE, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This new recording with Philharmonia is a much more vivid interpretation, featuring vibrant solos from Guy Parker (trumpet) and Pavel Šporcl (violin, whose running of the melody line from THE SPY WHO LOVES ME’s “Nobody Does It Better” is a delight). The sonic range is much more dynamic on this recording, which covers more than twice as many scores, including themes from every 007 score through QUANTUM OF SOLACE (including the unofficial 1967 CASINO ROYALE and 1983 NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN, and two themes from ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE). I think it’s rather interesting that Davis has chosen David Arnold’s proper theme song from TOMORROW NEVER DIES, “Surrender,” to cover, rather than the Sheryl Crow track foisted upon the film by the studio. For that, I salute you, Mr. Davis. The album is not purely a symphonic interpretation as the 1997 CD was, as guitars, drumkit, and the aforementioned trumpet soloing are quite prominent, but neither is it in any way an “easy listening” album either. Fans of the Bond music and film theme performance should enjoy Davis’ capable interpretation of these venerable tunes for full orchestra, as they resound impressively with symphonic prowess embellished by the effective pop influences that molded the original compositions. The release includes a 16-page booklet with bios of Davis and the principal players and an essay, “Bond and I” by Davis.

© 2013

LISZT, F.: Beethoven Symphonies (Complete), Vol. 1 (Baldocci) - Symphonies Nos. 1 and 6, "Pastoral"
(Dynamic: CDS731)

LISZT, F.: Beethoven Symphonies (Complete), Vol. 1 (Baldocci) - Symphonies Nos. 1 and 6, Franz Liszt’s solo piano transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies may not exactly be standard repertoire, yet more and more pianists are committing them to disc. Gabriele Baldocci’s superb performances of the First and Sixth augur well for his projected cycle of all nine. Although his care with voicings, balances, polyrhythms (notice the precise yet never rigid articulation of the “Pastoral” first movement’s constant two-against three patterns), and dynamics surely signify Baldocci’s knowledge of the orchestral originals, a high pianistic culture informs his tasteful rubatos and his elegant, lean, and well modulated sonority.

Among the most felicitous moments are the introduction to the First symphony’s finale, with its perfectly gauged upward scales and their effortless transition into the movement’s main theme; the same symphony’s animated yet gracefully shaped Andante; and the “Pastoral” storm’s careful textural delineation leading into a febrile climax. Baldocci also favors a slightly faster and more fluid basic tempo for the Andante molto mosso than either Leslie Howard or Cyprien Katsaris, while imbuing Beethoven’s bird-call imitations with more color and poetic fantasy. Aside from a wee bit of congestion in loud chordal passages, the Borgato grand piano is captured with attractive presence and naturalness. I look forward to following this cycle as it progresses. 

By Jed Distler, © 2013 ClassicsToday

SCHUBERT, F.: Piano Sonata No. 21 (performance on 3 different pianos) / 3 Klavierstucke (Badura-Skoda)
(Genuin: GEN12251)

SCHUBERT, F.: Piano Sonata No. 21 (performance on 3 different pianos) / 3 Klavierstucke (Badura-Skoda) Austrian pianist Paul Badura-Skoda, born October 6, 1927, has established himself as one of the best-informed interpreters of the piano literature, not only for the precision and clarity of his execution but also for understanding emerging from scholarship of impressive quality. I count myself lucky to have experienced both sides of his career through recitals and lectures I was able to attend at both Lincoln Center and Yale University. I also value every one of his recordings in my collection.

Now well into his eighties, Badura-Skoda is as active as ever in recording projects motivated by scholarship. The end of this month will see the release of a new recording from the German GENUIN label that is as daring as it is unusual. This two-CD set is currently available for pre-order from; and, for those more impatient, it can currently be downloaded from ClassicsOnline. What makes this recording so unique is that Badura-Skoda has taken a single sonata by Franz Schubert, the monumental D. 960 in B-flat major (the last piano sonata Schubert composed), and recorded it on three different instruments: a fortepiano made by Conrad Graf in 1826 (Schubert finished D. 960 on September 26, 1828), a 1923 Bösendorfer (number 23274), and a 2004 Steinway grand (number 569686). This “journey” through the three performances is prefaced by an “overture” consisting of the three “impromptu” pieces of D. 946, composed earlier in 1828 and also performed on the Graf.

This makes for a rather extraordinary listening opportunity, but I expect that it will have limited appeal. I have been fortunate enough to listen to Badura-Skoda perform on all three of these instruments (although probably not the exact model numbers); and there is no doubt that each brings its own characteristic set of sonorities around which the performer must fashion his/her approach to interpreting the music. However, the differences tend to be subtle and thus may be of interest only to those who take pleasure in obsessing over the finest details.

For those just beginning to get a sense of those differences, however, I am not sure that this particular recording is the best place to start. I would be more inclined to recommend Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 106 in B-flat major (“Hammerklavier”), which Badura-Skoda recorded on an 1824 Graf for Astrée in 1978. (Unfortunately, this has become a rather pricey collector’s item, at least on There is a transparency in his interpretation that discloses no end of details in Beethoven’s counterpoint that are frequently muddied by even the best-intentioned performances on a modern instrument. There is also the nail-biting suspense of wondering whether or not this instrument, built after Beethoven completed Opus 106 but also before the composer’s death, would have been able to withstand physically the demands of the score.

Schubert, of course, could be just as demanding. However, I have to say that, as a rank amateur, I invested several months in working on D. 960; and I discovered that it is far more accommodating to well-intentioned hands than, for example, the D. 760 “Wanderer” fantasia in C major. There is a popular anecdote that Schubert tried to play this at one of those Schubertiads and gave up, probably during the massive fugue. The point is that the virtues of D. 960 reside primarily in its harmonic inventiveness, particularly Schubert’s turn-on-a-dime modulations into remote keys; and those techniques are just as transparent on a modern instrument as they are on one from the composer’s own time. In D. 780, on the other hand, one has to content with the same thick density of contrapuntal interplay that proves so challenging for Beethoven’s Opus 106 on a modern instrument. I would therefore be so bold as to suggest that D. 760 would have made a far more suitable case study for comparing pianos and performance techniques than D. 960, even if the later sonata is, without a doubt, one of the most heavenly works to come from Schubert’s pen.

Nevertheless, I make this observation with hesitation, because how can one possibly turn down the opportunity to hear one of Schubert’s greatest compositions performed by one of his greatest living exponents?

© 2013

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