December 2008 CD Roundup:Five Reviews by Stanley Fefferman

2006 HONEN’S LAUREATES– 3 CDs

Honens International Piano Competition, an event I have been following since 2003, is one of the world’s most prestigious competitions. They have just released the long awaited latest in a series of recordings by laureates of their 5th triennial Competition. These new recordings by 2006 Laureates Minsoo Sohn, Hinrich Alpers and Hong Xu are based on their respective winning programs and afford wonderful listening. Minsoo Sohn’s album is dedicated to Liszt transcriptions; Hinrick Alpers plays Schumann, and Hong Xu performs a program of Mozart Sonatas.

All these artists have impeccable technique. What makes Alpers stand out is the warmth and colour of his playing. He has recorded a piece once admired by Franz Liszt, Schumann’s “Piano Sonata in F sharp Minor, Op.11.” From his attack in the opening bars of the Schumann, one begins to understand that Alpers is a fiery player. His response to the shifting moods, once he moves through the “Adagio” of the first movement into the “Allegro Vivace, renders them almost convulsive, marked by thunder and obsessive colourations. He makes the Steinway ring in the “Aria”, and the difficult “Scherzo e Intermezzo” is bold in defining the powers of longing and the sense of doom that strive for dominance in Schumann’s music. I place Alpers’ poetic phrasing of “Kinderzenen, Op.15” as the equal of the later Horowitz recording.

Minsoo Sohn’s album is dedicated to transcriptions of Bach, Paganini, Beethoven and Mozart by Franz Liszt. The performances are riveting. Mr. Sohn is a virtuosic player: one can understand his devotion to Liszt. Seeing him live in performance in Ottawa this past summer, one recalls a Gouldian presence. His body moves fluidly as he is stirred by his passion for the music, and indeed, for the instrument which he seems at times to be embracing. His hands are poetic, caressing the keys lightly or striking them with great force, but always precisely, and always bringing out subtlety in the phrasing that individualizes the character and feeling of the music. The program on this recording consists mostly of compositions not longer than 5 minutes and offers a rich kaleidoscope of pleasures.

Hong Xu’s strength is clarity. His playing of each of the Mozart Sonatas (K. 282,310,332,576) and the “Adagio in B minor, K. 540 is well thought out and clear in outline. He is elegant and rational, with a sense of delicacy bounded by forcefulness that only sometimes seems a bit too enthusiastic for my taste. It was easy to listen to him play for over an hour, and I look forward to doing it again.

You can find information about these albums and albums by past lauraeates at the Honens website .

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SO YOU WANT TO WRITE A FUGUE? A Celebration of Glenn Gould. CMCCD 13208, © 2008 Centrediscs

What we have here are preludes and fugal meditations by eleven of the ‘who’s who’ of Canadian Composers on the musical signature (G-E-G-D) of the great ‘whoo-whoo’ of Canadian Music (Glenn Gould), played by two handsful of the most ‘can do’ pianists in the country.

The composers were challenged and seemed to have had fun reviving this antique form in the atmosphere of their own musical universes. The creativity on this disk is astonishing for the variety of treatments of a single subject. The musicians are of the highest possible level. If one had to say which ones stood out, it would be Christina Quilico, Gregory Oh, and Andrew Burashko.  Each of the composers gives something valuable, new, and worth listening to. Cha Ka Nin, Heather Schmidt, and Stewart Goodyear are outstandingly personal and listenable.

The liner notes (contributed by each composer) are equal to the music in wit, invention, and rich in ideas that bring the music closer.

Credit and kudos for the concept of this project go to CBC Radio 2 producer Neil Crory who put together a virtual 75th birthday of the late G-E-G-D, with the knowledge that composers throughout history have honoured Bach, the composer most associated with G-E-G-D, by composing works based on the letters of his name. Crory must also be given credit for basing “the title of this festive feast of fugal fecundity on one of G-E-G-D’s compositions “So You Want to Write A Fugue,” that aired on CBC TV in 1963. Centrediscs.ca
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National Youth Orchestra of Canada conducted by Jacques Lacombe: “Selections from the 2008 National Tour”. 2 Cds. www.nyoc.org.

CD 1 is opened by Kelly-Marie Murphy’s “Through the Unknown, Unremembered Gate” 81/2 minutes of brooding mystery that swells through angelic spaces into an energetic beyond. Then we have a most listenable version of Mahler’s bucolic Idyll, the Symphony No. 1 in D Major, filled with the most songlike melodies you would ever want to hear.

CD 2 has Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, Op.20, a 1916 concert version of the music from his ballet Ala and Lolli, based on a prehistoric tribe of blood-drinkers, the Scythians. The NYOC does justice to Prokofiev’s brilliant orchestration. They evoke the vivid colors and instrumental effects of this work that survives as one of the most brilliant orchestral essays of its era.

Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) is a fifty-minute tone poem Richard Strauss completed in 1898. It may be a serious or a tongue-in-cheek view of his own life. A Hero’s Life exploits the resources of the modern orchestra, and it remains an outstanding landmark in that respect.

The CD ends with two short pieces of Early Music, John Dowland’s “Come Again,” and “La, La. La, Je ne l’ose dire.’

This is a richly varied offering, handsomely packaged, well-played and well recorded, by an ensemble that is led by some of the best musicians in Canada, an ensemble that produces more than one third of this country’s dedicated musical professionals. www.nyoc.org

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