Pt. 1 of 3 • March 2003

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BACH: The Complete Keyboard Works of Johann Sebastian Bach : The Well-Tempered Clavier (Books I and II); Six Partitas; The Goldberg Variations; Two- and Three Part Inventions; Italian Concerto; Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach; 18 Preludes; Keyboard Concertos Nos. 1 - 7; French Suites; Overtures; English Suites Nos. 1 - 6; Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue; Toccatas; Fantasias; Brandenburg Concerto No. 5; Concertos for 2 Keyboards and Strings; 4 Duetti; Adagio in G; Aria Variatta in A; Capriccio in Bb; Preludes; Fugues; Fughettas / João Carlos Martins, Piano, with José Eduardo Martins, Second Piano - The Sofia Soloists / Plamen Djurov, Conductor - Labor Records LAB 7000 (20 CDs!):

João Carlos Martins does not exactly enjoy the kind of name recognition that he surely deserves; placed alongside Glenn Gould as one of the foremost Bach interpreters of our time, any conversation regarding recordings of Bach’s prodigious keyboard output would be seriously misinformed without consideration of Martins’ work. Glenn Gould’s big 1955 splash into the media spotlight with his best-selling and unforgettable Goldberg Variations, not to mention his often-eccentric and quirky persona, indelibly engraved his image into the public’s consciousness; the marketing savvy and production dollars that Columbia Records brought to the table probably didn’t hurt things either. The timing and public acceptance of Gould’s Goldberg Variations is really remarkable, as well – who would ever have thought that a relatively arcane group of variations would become the basis for the best-selling classical album of all time? Bach purists scoffed at the idea of any of Bach’s works played on anything but the harpsichord, and who could have guessed that the record-buying public would embrace a modernist view of Bach held by seemingly so few musicians. Wanda Landowska, the great harpsichordist, quoted in reference to Bach played on the piano said, “You play Bach your way, and I’ll play him his way!”

Martins’ journey was never an easy one; he didn’t received the same level of intense media attention given Glenn Gould, and his path toward greatness was repeatedly sidetracked early on in his career. He sustained nearly career-ending injuries while playing soccer (another of his passions), which came close to forcing his early retirement. Countless hours of practice and rehabilitation brought him back to the concert hall, only to suffer serious self-doubt regarding his ability to perform following harsh attacks from the critics. He virtually left the music scene to pursue other interests, hardly touching a piano for years. He never lost his love for the music, however, and returned to the studio with renewed zeal and the desire to fulfill a lifelong dream of recording all of Bach’s keyboard works. After many years of recording and with his goal within sight, he was mugged and brutally beaten outside of a studio in Sofia, Bulgaria; he suffered brain injuries so severe that he had to virtually retrain his brain to make his fingers work properly. Finally in 1998 (and after 20 years of work) he completed the set. These recordings on the small, New York-based Labor Records label have become legendary among those in the know, and are collected here as a set for the first time. They represent a singular body of work has stood the test of time, and should secure João Carlos Martins’ place among the elite company of 20th century Bach interpreters.

Upon hearing Martins’ for the first time, most either loved him or hated him – there’s a great anecdote from the Dubal’s book that relates a story about a Juilliard class that was played some of Martins’ Bach. Just as the music started, one of the class immediately rose and asked to be excused from the session, rather than have to further endure such music!

The obvious temptation here is for direct comparisons between Martins’ recordings and those of his great contemporary, Glenn Gould, although the Gould recordings will sometimes be the reference version. Other pianists (Murray Perahia, Angela Hewitt and Maria João Pires, to name a few) offer compelling versions of some of the works presented here, as well, and provide a good basis of comparison for a thorough examination of Martins’ art.

The first two volumes of the set (four CDs) consist of the 48 preludes and fugues that make up the Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I and II. These works are integral to Martins’ career and served as the program for both his Brazilian and American debuts, and provoked such a positive response following the concert here that he was immediately asked to record them for the Connoisseur Society label (still in print). One of the highlights of Dubal’s book that accompanies the set is a piece by piece dissection/discussion of all 48 preludes and fugues and provides much insight into Martins’ approach to the works. The Well-Tempered Clavier gives us the first taste of the source of much of the controversy Martins generated early on; namely, the rapid-fire tempi of the playing (along with his extensive use of the pedal) seen throughout the set. In the opening Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C major, the prelude is played pianissimo, so quietly that I raised the volume to what I thought was close to a normal level; suddenly, the fugue comes storming in at a near-fortissimo – this is par for the course throughout the set. Martins' deeply romantic readings, however, breathe new life into all pieces in the set, which are typically given overly polite and much more baroque performances.

The third volume (2 CDs) collects the six Partitas. Once again, the tempi seem rather quick, though not excessively so. I reached for a DG disc (447 894-2) that I use as a reference for recorded piano sound featuring the Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires playing Bach’s Partita No. 1; this disc was given rather low marks from Gramophone, entirely based on the rapid tempi throughout. I’ve always enjoyed Pires’ Bach, and really have been somewhat disappointed over the last few years that the reclusive pianist has not chosen to record more. Martins’ and Pires’ Bach mirror each other remarkably, and I honestly had to keep close check on which disc was playing when to tell them apart! Although these pieces are generally regarded to require less virtuosity to perform than many of Bach's other works, if Martins' nimble renderings of the Partitas isn't virtuosity, I don't know what is!

Volume 4 gives us the Goldberg Variations, and I must admit an almost engraved preference to Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording, despite the fact that the recorded sound has always been somewhat lacking. Fortunately, I have the recent Sony release State of Wonder, which collects both the 1955 and 1981 Gould recordings in splendid, updated sound; this allowed me to easily compare and contrast all three versions, starting with the Martins recording.

The opening Aria played, followed by the first Variation; within a minute’s time, my 17-year old daughter had raced downstairs and exclaimed “Who is this, and why is he playing this variation so loud and fast?” I had to laugh – once again, Martins’ never fails to make an impression on the uninitiated. After the disc’s completion, I then spent some time in A/B/C comparisons between Martins’ and the two Gould discs. The 1955 Gould disc clocks in much faster than his 1981 version; from all accounts, he blamed his swifter, earlier recordings on youthful impetuousness. Much of the blazing technique is still in evidence in the 1981 recording, however, even if the tempi are somewhat slower. Martins’ falls somewhere in between here; along with the blinding speed he often exhibits, his playing has a definite fluidity and romanticism about it. There are moments – Variation 14, for example – one of those dizzying, hand-crossing numbers where I have to give Glenn Gould an edge in technique (If you can, get the DVD of the 1981 Gould Goldbergs – what a rare treat it is to see this played!). After repeated listenings to all three, however, I’ve begun to embrace Martins’ version – there’s a certain rightness to his playing, and a clarity in his interpretation that ranks alongside both Gould recordings.

Volume 5 consists of the Two and Three Part Inventions (and Sinfonias). Again, we here have another good opportunity for direct comparison with Glenn Gould, and as before, the two share many of the same attributes. A good case in point is the famous Two Part Invention No. 13 (possibly Bach’s most recognizable effort), and Martins’ recording is very fast indeed – but then play Gould’s almost superhuman version – it almost seems impossible that fingers could move that fast! With repeat playings, and as with the Goldbergs, however, Martins brings a very lyrical quality to the pieces that makes their appeal very compelling, to say the least.

The Anna Magdalena Notebook begins Volume 6, along with the 12 Little Preludes and 6 Little Preludes. Although these pieces are well within the range of beginners, Martins offers them beautifully precise readings. He then concludes by mastering the complexities of the Italian Concerto, and imparts a lyrical quality to the music that I just don't hear in the Gould version.

Volume 8 (two CDs) opens with a premiere recording of the Overture in the French Style, and then follows with the six French Suites. Of great interest here is the Overture, which receives its' first recording on this disc; it differs in form from the French Suites in that, rather than a small collection of popular dances (popularized by the French, and hence, their name), it shares much more in common with the concerto grosso form. Contemplative slower movements alternate with Martins' characteristic rapid-fire precision playing, as evidenced in the Vivace. This pattern continues throughout the French Suites, and offers another chance for comparison with Maria João Pires; as before, it was a task to distinguish between the two discs, so similar are their playing styles.

Volumes 1 through 6 and Volume 8 were recorded at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and date anywhere from 1979 to 1984. The recorded sound (from all digital sources) throughout is generally quite good, and is much more full-bodied than many other piano recordings I've heard of a similar vintage. If one sets the playback level too high, there's the slightest trace of tape hiss, but this is neither distracting or unusual for tapes twenty years old. The piano is miked fairly closely, but one still gets a fairly good representation of the recorded space. My only real complaint here is that the upper registers are very slightly range-restricted and congested, but this is only noticeable on passages played at excessive volumes, i.e., Volume 1, Track 1.

In the remaining discs, Volume 7 and Volumes 9 through 15, the recording venue changes to the Salle Bulgaria, in Sofia, Bulgaria; this change in venue offers a metamorphoses for the recorded sound as well – it moves from already very good to astonishingly so! The Sofia recordings just have a much more visceral quality, especially the piano, which has more weight in its sonority. These recordings also offer much more spatial information, with excellent dynamic range and no tape hiss to be found.

Volumes 7, 11 and 13 (3 CDs) collect the seven Concertos for Keyboard and Orchestra, along with the two Concertos for Two Keyboards and Orchestra, and the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. The Sofia Soloists provide sympathetic accompaniment here, with the music taking on a truly intimate charm, quite unlike the "big band" treatment that these pieces are so often given when played on piano. A recent set on Sony featuring Murray Perahia along with the Academy of St. in the Fields Martin of the seven Concertos offers a good comparison to Martins' performances. Perahia's playing has a delicacy in his touch that offers each note in great relief, but it's not lacking in lyricism, and the orchestra is reasonably restrained. In the Martins' version, the orchestral accompaniment is nothing short of superb; the strings are not nearly so massed – you can almost identify the individual players. Martins' playing flows much more lyrically – the music has so much more of the chamber quality so appropriate to it here.

Standouts on these volumes are the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and the two Concertos for Two Keyboards and Orchestra. The Brandenburg is usually played with harpsichord, and the massed instruments usually overshadow the work of the keyboard player. Not so, here; Martins' playing in the lengthy Cadenza that ends the first movement is absolutely breathtaking! In the Concertos for Two Keyboards, we get the added treat of hearing Martins' older brother, José Eduardo Martins, as the second pianist; in the second movement of the C major Concerto, they play essentially as an unaccompanied duo spectacularly – talent obviously runs deep in this family!

Volumes 9, 10 and 12 collect the six English Suites, most of the Toccatas, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue and the Fantasia in C minor. Volumes 14 and 15 offer the two remaining Toccatas, the Overture in F major, the Aria Variata in A minor, the Adagio in G major, 4 Duetti, a Cappricio, more Fantasias, Preludes, Fugues and Fughettas. The major works here are the English Suites and the Toccatas; the English Suites have been recorded recently by Murray Perahia on Sony, and the Toccatas by Angela Hewitt on Hyperion. Again, while each offers exceptionally well played and valid renditions (each also offers splendid recorded sound), the playing is a tad too much in the traditional vein; the individualism that Martins’ brings to the keyboard is refreshing. The final disc in the set collects private recordings of Martins from 1949 - 1961. The recordings are mostly quite primitive, and while predominantly of historical interest, it leaves no doubt as to the brilliance of his playing, even from an early age.

The presentation of the set here is nothing short of exquisite; the 20 CDs come enclosed in a deluxe cherry-wood box emblazoned with Martins’/Bach/ Labor Records logos on top. A separate compartment in the lower section of the box holds Peabody Award-winner David Dubal’s book “Conversations with João Carlos Martins,” which serves as an indispensable companion to the music within. The 200-page book not only offers biographical information regarding Martins, but extensively explores his vision of Bach in addition to offering his entertaining views on a variety of other composers, as well as politics, soccer, etc. I found the book to be not only interesting and historically informed, but an invaluable reference in getting to know the man and his music, and a fascinating read, as well. The set sells for about $210 (that’s roughly $10 per CD, which sell individually for about $16 each, not to mention the book), and with classical music prices spiraling seemingly out of control and considering the scope and comprehensive nature of this set, it qualifies as an incredible bargain and should not be missed. Very highly recommended! Purchase Here

-- Tom Gibbs

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 3, Triple Concerto - Urban Svensson, violin; Mats Rondin, cello; Boris Berezovsky, piano; Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard - Simax PSC1183 (79 mins.):

This, the fifth installment in Dausgaard's recording of Beethoven's complete orchestral music based on the "latest material and research," is a work of staggering originality captured in razor-sharp sound from Andrew Keener. The young conductor's commitment to scrubbing clean traditional Beethoven conventions, combined with a vividly intense attention to the inner mechanical workings of the composer's engine, result in performances of astonishing, even revolutionary power and drive.

This means speeds on the fast side, flat textures occasionally devoid of vibrato in the strings and winds, and a reliance on layering and color that must have required taking apart the score in an effort to find out how Beethoven assembled his amazing effects. Using a small body of strings (the Swedish Chamber Orchestra numbers 38 out of which the strings probably count for 25), Dausgaard relies on accents and surprise (he simply doesn't have the string size to create what we hear as warmth in conventional performances) to create the spaced-out world Beethoven must surely have had in mind. This are the performances of someone who worships Beethoven the master blueprint maker more than the mystical romantic.

Surprisingly, the two frequently converge in these performances, particularly in the last two movements of the Piano Concerto. At first, Berezovsky (Gold Medalist at the 1990 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow) seems to be going along robotically with Dausgaard's insistence on fluid movement, but gradually he begins to relax and then expand into the spaces created by Beethoven's sense of dramatic structure to do some amazingly poetic things including a dazzling cadenza in the last movement.

In Dausgaard's hands, and with the brilliant playing of the three soloists led by cellist Mats Rondin, the Triple Concerto, with its ungainly proportions and, in the hands of many interpreters, mind-numbing passage work, receives its best recording ever. It has size and stature, and a command of flow and continuity that reveals what Beethoven was (imperfectly) going after. Only one complaint, and this applies to literally every performance or recording I have heard: the Polish snap of the polonaise that is the third movement's main theme is unaccountably smoothed over.

In a word, snap this up. Keener's tremendous sound captures punch, panache and detail without losing the size of the soundstage, and the very interesting liner notes by George Hall make great reading. Purchase Here

- Laurence Vittes

CHOPIN: Etudes Op. 10 & 25 - Murray Perahia - Sony Classical SK 61885:

The two books of a dozen etudes each explore a wide range of keyboard challenges and are at the opposite pole from the composer’s simpler Nocturnes. They have been called the Himalayas of piano literature. Each etude concentrates on a specific technical concern but they are far more than exercises for the studious pianist. They were dedicated to Liszt, and he performed them with typical brilliance. Perahia himself is fully up to the challenges and in all his recent recordings seems more exciting and colorful than I recall from his discs of a few years ago. Horowitz and Rubinstein were masters of these difficult works but even in this standard CD version, Perahia’s sonic far outdistance that of the older recordings - and it will surely be released as a SACD later on for even greater resolution improvement. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Here’s a grab-bag of five different saxophone CDs...
American Breath - DAVID MASLANKA: Sonata for Alto Sax & Piano; LARRY THOMAS BELL: Mahler in Blue Light; RUSSELL PETERSON: Concerto For Alto Sax and Percussion Orchestra - Russell Peterson, alto sax/Douglas Schneider, piano/Diane Tremain, cello/Tri-College Percussion Ensemble - Barking Dog Records BDR2181:

Three exciting American works which employ the alto sax and other instruments to convey a bold and sophisticated feeling that doesn’t try to ignore the instrument’s connection to a musical world well outside that of classical. In the third movement of the Maslanka Sonata the composer was influenced by the madrigals of Gesualdo. All four movements of the Bell work are a passacaglia based on a fragment from Mahler’s Song of the Earth. He saw the piece as his own Mahler portrait seen thru the blue sound of the saxophone. Performer Peterson’s own concerto was for me the hit of the CD in its successful mix of classical and pop. The first movement shows an influence of minimalism Steve Reich and in the third movement it is both Spanish modes and heavy metal rock. This work is a winner, and the entire CD is worthy of major attention. Again, try

Scaramouche = MILHAUD: Saudades Do Brasil; Scaramouche Suite For Saxophone & Orchestra; VILLA-LOBOS: The Discovery of Brasil Suite No. 2; Suite No. 3 - Jeremy Brown, saxophone/Calgary Philharmonic Orch./Hans Graf - DBD Records SMCD 5217:

Another imaginative and original programming effort here. Both of these composers were strongly influenced by the exotic sounds of Brazil - Villa-Lobos because he was born there, and Milhaud because he spent two years there during the First World War. Saudades means nostalgia, so Milhaud is dreaming of his time in Brazil. The exciting musical culture of Brazil is filtered thru French ears in the swinging Scaramouche Suite - normally heard in a two-piano version. The two Villa-Lobos suites are derived from his soundtrack music to a Brazilian quasi-documentary on the country’s early history. This provincial Canadian orchestra might seem ill-equipped for such colorful Brazilian scores, but they do a bang-up job. Purchase Here

KOECHLIN: Le Saxophone Lumineux (complete works for saxophone and piano) - 15 Etudes for Sax & Piano; 7 Pieces for Sax & Piano - Federico Mondelci, alto and tenor sax/Kathryn Stott, piano - Chandos CHAN 9804:

Though Koechlin was a prolific French composer, he worked as a teacher and writer. These works - heard here in their recording premieres - share with most of his works in not being published during the composer’s lifetime. Of course the instrument is of French origin so French composers have more frequently turned to the sax than composers of other nationalities. Koechlin hated jazz, so there’s no flavor of that genre in these flowing and lyric works of great intimacy. He regarded them as a sort of songs without words. The Etudes were created for pedagogical reasons but stand alone well as dreamy and expressive little improvisations. This is surely an unexpected discovery for fans of the classical saxophone as well as French music in general.
Purchase Here

London Landmarks, featuring John Harle, saxophone = WATTS: Metropolis, MORLEY: Rotten Row, LANE: London Salute, GUNNING: Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra, TATE: London Fields, WOOD: London Landmarks suite, LEWIS: Festival of London March - with The Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Gavin Sutherland; also Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, cond. by Gunning and Lewis respectively in their own works - ASV White Line CD WHL 2138:

Nice to see that it isn’t just French composers who tend to be partial to the saxophone! London has inspired many different composers over the centuries and it just happens that these seven composers chose to employ Adolph Sax’s invention in their musical evocations of place or feeling. Christopher Gunning had a fine excuse - he wanted to capture musically the mood of London sights at sunset while standing on a bridge over the Thames - and a street musician happened to be playing a sax under the bridge at the time. Harle is one of the leading soloists on his instrument in the world today and has made numerous recordings. He has even composed his very own saxophone concerto which probably will be available on CD soon. Most of the present pieces fall into the British Light Music rubric but are thoroughly enjoyable without corniness. This is sure to appeal to several audiences - sax connoisseurs, light music fans, and Londonphiles. Purchase Here

An American Exhibition - Music by LIBBY LARSEN, WM. GRANT STILL, DAVID D. CANFIELD, JOHN CHEETHAM, LEONARD MARK LEWIS, JAY VOSK & WALTER HARTLEY - Kenneth Tse, saxophone/Mami Nagei, piano - Crystal Records CD657:

More American music here, including three works written especially for skilled saxist Tse. Still and Larsen will probably be the most familiar names. The first is a short mixture of impressionist and swing band elements, and Larsen’s ten-minute tour de force Holy Roller pays tribute to the early 1900s’ preacher Rev. Wm. Seymour - the composer says it can be thought of as a “singing sermon.” A liturgical connection is also found in the 13-minute sonata by Canfield composed for Tse: a quote of the hymn Faithfulness in the third of its four movements. Although the closing Sonata for Baritone Sax and Piano by Hartley is in the academic serialist style that long had a stranglehold on the contemporary classical world, the lovely tone of the sax (shades of Gerry Mulligan!) and its clever exchanges of intricate counterpoint with the piano, make even this selection interesting listening.Purchase Here

- John Sunier

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