Melodies of Marco Polo Dance into Your Body: A CD review by Stanley Fefferman

marcopoloThe Musical Voyages of Marco Polo. Kyriakos Kalaitzidis: Harmonia Mundi/ World Village. Release: 2014-03-11

The title tells you about the historical Silk Route journey concept of this project, so let me tell you how it sounds.

The music of composer Kyriakos Kalaitzidis, based in Byzantine classical traditions, sings melodically, but with a strong sense of dance. The nasal whining and twang of his oud lines move like loping camels  ornamented by the patient jingle-jangle of their bells. Huiran Wangs’ plectrum on the strings of the solo pipa sounds elemental like stones rattling in a tin pot. The melodies are rhythm-based: strokes of implement or hand on stretched skins of tombak  and other percussion reflect the strokes on stretched strings of oud, setar and sarang. The nuances of rhythmic changes and   melodic inflections dance right into your bones.

Styles, timbres, temperaments and textures of the vocalists couldn’t be more wide-ranging, various and interesting. Some of them  shout—field shouts. Nodira Primatova supplicates like a love-lorn banshee in her Uzbek song “Ey Dilbari Jononim.” Maria Farantouri sings the album’s most affecting song, “The Stranger,” in a high, haunting voice of exquisite sensitivity. Amartuvshin Baasandorj’s “Chandmani untag,” a Mongolian style song, is an exotic tour de force because his mouth and hand jive— like Tibetan overtone – harmonic or throat – singing—growls in gritty lower pitches or whistles and whines like a jews harp.

This project is a collaboration between two ensembles: En Chordais, directed by virtuoso oud play player Kyriakos Kalaitzidis, and Constantinople comprising brothers Kiya and Ziya Tabassian (Kiya plays setar, sings and composes, Ziya explores the infinite possibilities of the tombak and other percussion instruments), and Pierre-Yves Martel— a viola da gamba player from Montreal.

There is a whole world of listening here, a generously packaged  feast for the ear and the mind. Five Stars.


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Catherine Russell’s CD BRING IT BACK is Aged and Mellow

Bring it backWhat do you do when the thrill is gone? Bring it Back. What Katherine Russell brings back on her fifth album is the thrill of  ‘Swing’. Behind her direct and warm stylings you get into hearing echoes of Roy Eldridge’s muted trumpet in front of Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra; Louis Armstrong’s horn with his own band; Basie on piano with Freddy Green on guitar, or Ellington leading Jimmy Blanton on bass and Ben Webster on sax.

Of course, Swing never really went away, so you’re entitled to hear Jimmy McGriff’s bluesy riffs behind Catherine as she vamps the 1956 hit “After the Lights Go Down Low.” Her second track “I’m Shooting High,” has the Jimmy McHugh signature vibe that helped real jazz be popular and become perennial. The album has tunes by Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Harold Arlen, Johnny Otis and Johnny Green that all make you want to dance, fast or slow. But you also want to listen to Russell’s phrasing which never calls attention to itself, but always takes you into the emotion of the song. My nominee for the most interesting number is “Aged And Mellow.” By including this tune, Catherine Russell brings back the tradition of bandleader Johnny Otis, who also wrote “Hound Dog” and discovered singers Little Esther, Etta James, and Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton.

Catherine Russell was born into the history of jazz. Her mother is the recently deceased vocalist Carline Ray, who played rhythm guitar back in the day for Erskine Hawkins and Mary Lou Williams. Her father, Luis Russell led the band and arranged for Louis Armstrong who wrote the ballad “Lucille” which she records here for the first time. To share her personal heritage project on the Harmonia Mundi Jazz Village imprint, Catherine Russell collaborated with a fine ten-piece band and arrangers who make the music sound authentic for then and real for now. It’s a keeper.


Track Listing: Bring It Back; I’m Shooting High; I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart; You Got To Swing and Sway; Aged and Mellow; The Darktown Strutters Ball; Lucille; You’ve Got Me Under Your Thumb; After The Light Go Down Low; I’m Sticking With You Baby; Strange as it Seems; Public Melody Number One; I Cover The Waterfront.

Personnel: Catherine Russell: vocals, percussion (6, 10); Matt Munisteri: guitar; Mark Shane: piano; Lee Hudson: bass (1-5, 7-13); Nicki Parrott: bass (6); Mark McLean: drums, percussion (6); Andy Farber: tenor saxophone; Jon-Erik Kellso: trumpet; Brian Pareschi: trumpet (2-13); Dan Block: alto saxophone, tenor saxophone (5), clarinet (4); John Allred: trombone; Mark Lopeman: baritone saxophone; Glen Patscha: Hammond B-3 (6, 9, 10).

Record Label: Harmonia Mundi Jazz Village Music






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Pieczonka Proves the Power of Forgiving in The Canadian Opera Company’s A Masked Ball

13-14-04-MC-D-1573February 5, 2014. Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto.

Verdi’s A Masked Ball is a blend of splendid elements. It has romance: Riccardo, the Governor of Boston and Amelia are in the toils of an irresistible attraction.  It has drama: Amelia is married to the Governor’s best friend and political advisor, Renato. It has intrigue: the Governor’s political opponents, led by Samuel and Tom, are planning to assassinate Riccardo, and Renato is his most loyal defender. The first act writhes with dramatic irony because Renato does not understand that the man he is loyal to is his betrayer. In the third act, which is a masked ball, all the masks are peeled away, and a tragic truth is revealed. READ THE FULL REVIEW


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Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov Play Beethoven Violin Sonatas with Passion Tempered by Gentleness

FaustMelnikovJanuary 24, 2013. Koerner Hall, Toronto.

When Tolstoy listened to Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata,”  he imagined a crime of passion. Tolstoy wrote a story about a performance of this violin sonata that drives a husband  to kill his wife  after hearing her play it with another man.Isabelle Faust accompanied by pianist Alexander Melnikov did not play Beethoven’s Op. 47  that way last night in Koerner Hall. Dressed in a diaphanous coat of shimmering green and magenta, her tone brought to mind a dragonfly hovering on transparent wings above the sparkling cascades of Melnikov’s piano. Their performance swelled with passion tempered by gentleness. READ THE FULL REVIEW ON BACHTRACK.COM

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Atom Egoyan hits Trifecta with Cosi Fan Tutte in Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman


CosiJanuary 18, 2014. Four Season’s Centre, Toronto.

Cosi Fan Tutte is Mozart putting it all on the line. He gambles on the unattractive premise of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s book: that women are all the same: treacherous—not one can be trusted. To support this moral outrage, in 1790, Mozart composed three hours of music so beautiful and unified in expression, the world would not hear its like again for nearly 70 years till Wagner’s Ring. Cosi was a flop in Mozart’s lifetime. Morally high-minded European audiences kept it out of the running for more than 100 years. However, last night’s Canadian Opera Company Toronto première of Cosi hit the trifecta for cast, conducting and direction. READ THE FULL REVIEW ON BACHTRACK.COM


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Ignat Solzhenitsyn Lights Up Toronto’s 10th Mozart Festival


Ignat Solzhenitsyn conducting Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 18 photo by Josh Clavir 2

January 11, 2014. Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

He conducts the orchestra as if he were playing the piano; his playing is a dance, and beyond that when he speaks, Ignat Solzhenitsyn reveals the writer in his blood. Because of the eloquence and enlightenment they contain, I feel privileged to share selections from my notes of Solzhenitsyn’s introduction to this first of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s five Mozart@258 concerts. 

He spoke of Toronto’s tradition of getting “to know the music of this man who flashed like a comet in the Vienna sky and vanished, leaving behind music that we come back to over and over. Mozart is the most accessible of composers, whether we come to him again or for the first time. He is also the impregnable enigma that haunts musicians all our lives. It is  not difficult to play the notes of his music: children can play Mozart. But to find the message of his music takes a lifetime. For me Mozart is like the fairy-tale mirror that shows us ourselves in the present, the past and the future: who we are and who we really can be. Mozart’s greatness is his perfect expression and it is for that we will always come back.” READ MORE


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Ensemble Made In Canada’s Debut CD Paced with Style and Grace reviewed by Stanley Fefferman


ENSEMBLE MADE IN CANADA. Mozart Piano Quartet No. 2, Brahms Piano Quartet No. 3. 65’07″.

Ensemble Made in Canada offer Piano Quartets by Mozart and Brahms for their debut CD.  The program is nicely balanced and they play well together with a sense of style and with something to say about each work.

Mozart wrote his Piano Quartet No. 2 in E Flat major, K. 493 of 1786 to showcase the clarity of the Stein fortepiano whose novel engineering gave him opportunities for subtleties of dynamic contrast, articulation, shading, colourings and orchestral textures that were unimaginable on the previously available keyboards.

The Ensemble’s opening tutti invites you into that excitement. Mozart’s writing then separates into parts for piano and for string trio. The call of Angela Park’s piano has sparkle. The string’s answering response in both antiphonal or unison passages has an intriguingly yielding, dare I say, feminine quality. The voice of Sharon Wei’s viola underscores some sensuous and intimate moments during the recapitulation. Generally, the Ensemble chose and held a perky tempo that comes across as ‘Sentimental’ in the Eighteen century sense, meaning their main subject inclines to feelings more than to form.

The songlike Larghetto is lush and liquid; but the pace they maintain is sluggish, relieved by the piano’s crystal runs and the thrilling throb of Rachel Mercer’s cello. In the end, and after enjoying the liberties Mozart allows for individual voices to combine freely in various alliances, what the Ensemble has to offer comes down to this: they find in Mozart’s contrasts a bold sense of drama that makes the music sound at times like Beethoven.

It is not surprising that the Ensemble keys this note of drama up several notches in the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor (“Werther”), Op. 60. As the subtitle tagging Goethe’s suicidal hero suggests, this Piano Quartet is dark matter, the stuff of melodrama. Begun in 1855 but not published till 20 years later, this work belongs to the period in Brahms’ life that was gored by the horns of his love for Clara Schumann and  his feelings of guilt over her husband Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide, madness and death.

Emotional turbulence marks the character of the second movement scherzo. The piano part is especially dense, but Angela Park keeps it agile and flowing. Elissa Lee’s violin provides a strong leading life-line through the emotional froth. The penetrating lament of Rachel Mercer’s cello in the third movement achieves consolation in a dialogue with the piano. As the third movement develops, the conversation among the instruments establishes a tone of emotional balance, neither sentimental nor melodramatic, as if everything is just right and everyone has just what they need. The descending figures of the finale plunges us back into dark matter.

This is a bold and stylish debut for Ensemble Made In Canada. The sound of their recording in the Glenn Gould Studio co-produced by violinist Scott St. John and engineered by Ron Searles is first-rate.




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Plenipotentiaries of the Piano: Five CD Reviews by Stanley Fefferman

There has been a predominance of piano music coming for review in recent weeks. The players are among the best in the world: Angela Hewitt, Stephen Hough, Marc-André Hamelin, and Kristian Bezuidenhout. Their albums, in my opinion, are gifts to the world. They do not require many words of introduction or recommendation beyond these: listen carefully.

hewitt faureAngela Hewitt is currently offering her favourite solo piano works by Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). The selections she has chosen for this album are ‘old friends,’ works Ms. Hewitt learned in her teens and twenties with the help of LPs. Her difficulties in memorizing Fauré’s works reccommend them: their “unmistakable harmonic language and melodic contours,”  their “constantly shifting harmonies, enharmonic changes pushed to the extreme, slight variations in passages that are otherwise similar—[and] the sheer technical difficulties.” Reading about these ‘difficulties’ makes my mouth water. Angela Hewitt  writes as well as she plays—her liner notes are a feast of information and direction to enhance your listening pleasure. FAURE Piano Music. ANGELA HEWITT. Hyperion. Distributed by Harmonia Mundi. 7 tracks. 72’51″

hewitt beethAngela Hewitt’s fourth album of Beethoven Piano Sonatas continues her practice of organizing works not by the numbers of date or opus or period, but as a recital that expresses what she feels the music has to say. Her playing is free from egoism: as someone said, “every note she plays honors the composer.” If she adds anything to Beethoven, it is the warm sound of her 1981 Fazioli. Angela Hewitt offers three sonatas that had special meaning for the composer during successive stages of his career. The B flat major Op. 22 that Beethoven declared was ‘really something’ when he published it with his Symphony No.1; the E flat major, Op. 31, No. 3 from the composer’s middle period when Beethoven’s unique voice manifested in his Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”; and the A major, Op. 101 that Beethoven dedicated to his favourite pianist and pupil Dorothea von Ertmann.  BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas. ANGELA HEWITT. Op.22, Op. 31 No.3, Op.101. Hyperion. Distributed by Harmonia Mundi. 12 tracks. 72’29″

houghStephen Hough, a MacArthur ‘genius’ Fellowship holder is especially known for his recordings of the complete Rachmaninoff piano concertos(CDA67501/2) and the complete works for piano and orchestra of Saint-Saëns(CDA67331/2). Hough is gaining respect as a composer with a distinctive voice. He is also an energetic blogger who posted the following remark about the two Brahms concertos he has just recorded:

“I would venture to say that of the two Brahms piano concertos the Second is the better piece but the First is the greater piece. I think the Second is better constructed, better orchestrated, themes are better developed, harmonies are better judged, textures are better balanced … but to me the First has a greater burst of utter, natural, divine genius.  Its flame flares with such intensity, and with such promise of more to come, that I find myself overwhelmed by it in a way I’m not by the Second. ” Sounds like a win-win.

Hough’s recent double-disc recording for Hyperion is in competition with the record he made for Virgin in the late 1990′s. The newer recording has superior dynamic range and detail. The Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg under Mark Wigglesworth values simplicity and purity of line over the orchestral richness offered by Hough’s previous partnership with Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Nonetheless, the enthusiasm Hough brings to his new D minor is frequently thrilling. Throughout the B flat major, the cable-tautness of Hough’s attention to architecture is palpable and entrancing. Hough’s piano textures in the Allegro are protean in their shape-shifting. The Andante is memorable for the intimacy Hough shares with Marcus Pouget’s cello. The finale sparkles like sunlight on a mountain brook.

Whether you have an affinity for the Olympian gravitas of the Second concerto, or like Hough you are vulnerable to the intensity of the First doubly coupled to Brahms’ love for Clara Schumann and  his feelings of guilt over her husband Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide, both streams of this album flow from the heart. STEPHEN HOUGH, Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Mark Wigglesworth, BRAHMS: The Piano Concertos. Hyperion. 2 Discs. 7 tracks. 97’59″.

hamelinMarc-André Hamelin with more than 90 CD’s in his discography may well be the most recorded classical pianist alive. A virtuoso’s virtuoso, Mr. Hamelin has delighted in making recordings of composer-pianist-virtuosos like Valentin Alkan and Leopold Godowski, whose reputations, like Lizst’s until recently, inclined towards their technical facility and transcription abilities by a public that values originality above all things. This album is Hamelin’s long look at one such composer to whom Mr. Hamelin gave a passing glance on eight of his earlier recordings: Ferrucio Busoni (1866-1924).

Busoni was one of the great pianists of of the first half of the 20th century. He championed the music of Liszt and Alkan. Busoni was also a great teacher. He held posts in Moscow, Helsinki, Boston and New York before settling in Berlin. Kurt Weill was one of his students. Despite a massive output of original compositions for the piano, his reputation seems to have rested on his transcriptions of Bach. It is possible that his compostions remained in the shadows of his transcriptions because most of them are so difficult to play. Few pianists were able to stand up to the risk of raising them from obscurity—until Hamelin.

In his current 3 CD project, Hamelin has gathered 196 minutes of solo music from the last 15 years of Busoni’s output (1909-1924), some of it never recorded before. Busoni’s Seven Short Pieces for the Cultivation of Polyphonic Playing (1923) clearly show one side of Busoni’s predeliction. The Sonatina seconda (1912) written without key and time signatures or bar lines show his contribution to the development of pantonal music in the 20th Century.

It goes without saying that Hamelin effortlessly overcomes the technical challenges of the major works like the seven Elegies, and cultivates the myriad smaller pieces with intelligence, confidence and transparency. Hamelin is obviously sharing an adventure: what would be the point of refusing to follow a guide as intrepid and dazzling as Hamelin?       Marc-André Hamelin, BUSONI Late Piano Music: Elegies, Sonatinas, Toccata, Klavierbung (excerpts), Indianisches Tagebuch, Fantasia After J.S. Bach. Hyperion, distributed by Harmonia Mundi. 3CD’s, 195’54″

krisKristian Bezuidenhout has been called the finest living exponent of the fortepiano. His current double-disc recording is volumes 5 and 6 of Mozart’s compositions for the keyboard between 1772-1781, the period of Mozart’s employment in Salzburg.

It is also the period during which Mozart discovered the Stein fortepiano about whom he wrote to his father: “His instruments have this special advantage over others in that they are made with escape action….Without an escapement it is impossible to avoid jangling and vibration after the note is struck.”

Mr.Bezuidenhout plays on a modern replica of a Sohn keyboard very similar to the Stein that so excited Mozart. It goes without saying that the clarity and crispness of this antique keyboard suits special elements in the Mozart’s music. On the other hand, since the fortepiano became obsolete late in the  19th century and has only lately been revived to cater to renewed interest in ‘historically informed performance,’ its faint metallic buzzing in the bass and tinkling in the high register may not be to the taste of everyone whose ear has been informed by the stronger, more even and rounded sound of the modern grand piano.

That said, I was taken by Mr. Bezuidenhout’s ability to express the subtleties of dynamic contrast, articulation and shading that Mozart began to mark into his scores subsequent to his discovery of the Stein with its escape action. The Stein fortepiano also opened up for Mozart colourings and orchestral textures that were unimaginable on the previously available keyboards including the harpsichord. Mr. Bezuidenhout conveys a feeling that I like to imagine is Mozart’s satisfaction in these new expressions at the time of writing and in the playing of his students for whom several of these work were written. Although the sound of the fortepiano is not exactly native to my taste, because of Kristian Bezuidenhuot’s brilliance in this and previous volumes of his Mozart project, it is on the way to becoming an acquired taste. Here, for your interest, is the setlist:

Vol.5 CD 1. 69’07 Sonata in A major, K. 331 (1783) , 6 Variations on “Salve tu, Domine” in F major, K. 398 (1784), Romanze in A-flat major, K. Anh. 205, 12 Variations in B-flat major, K. 500, Sonata in C major, K. 309                                                                               Vol.6 CD 2 72’39. 12 Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je Maman” in C major, K. 265, Sonata in E-flat major, K. 282 (1775), Adagio in F major, K. Anh. 206a [A 65] (1772), Sonata in B-flat major, K. 281 (1775),12 Variations on “La belle Françoise” in E-flat major, K. 353 (1778/81).

MOZART Keyboard Music, Vols.5&6. KRISTIAN BEZUIDEHOUT, fortepiano. Harmonia Mundi. 2 CDs.













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