Monthly Archives: June 2010



 Roger Benedict (viola), Ben Jacks (horn), Timothy Young (piano)

music by Charles Koechlin and Joseph Jongen

TPT: 68’36”

MELBA CD 301126

reviewed by Neville Cohn


Is there a more treacherous instrument in the string family than the viola? How intractable it can be to those many who endeavour to play it in tune but succeed only fitfully. But when Roger Benedict tucks it under his chin, how perfectly behaved it is. Here indeed is a viola tamed – and it does his master’s bidding to the most beguiling of ends in a way that most other violists would give their eye teeth to emulate. It is impossible to overstate the merit of this recorded recital; it brims to overflowing with good things, not least the stream of often exquisitely mellow tone which Benedict conjures from the instrument.


Here’s a fascinating compilation, well off the beaten track – and yet another instance of Melba’s adventurous forays into the seldom heard, even less seldom recorded.


Charles Koechlin’s Sonata for viola and piano (which years later would be followed by sonatas for cello and for horn) is a major opus to which both Benedict and Young bring a wealth of experience and insight.


Koechlin’s sonata is unlikely ever to reach the top ten of viola favourites. There is little about it which could be thought of as either memorably catchy or of Olympian profundity. But it is nonetheless a valuable addition to the sadly small repertoire of music for the instrument – and it is played with such beauty of tone and insights of such intense musicality that it holds the attention from first note to last. Certainly, the dark and sombre nature of the opening adagio is wonderfully evoked – as is the wild dance that is the essence of the scherzo. And the calm, thoughtful approach to the extended soliloquy which takes up much of the third movement is musical to the nth degree.


I particularly liked Koechlim’s Quatre Petites Pieces in which Benedict and Young are joined by Ben Jacks whose horn playing here is the stuff of aural delight, enchanting  moments that would surely charm the grumpiest bird from a twig. The musical chemistry of the trio is constantly apparent here, not least in the opening andante in which a songlike viola and Jacks at his winning best make magic. I particularly admired the skilled and most effective internal tonal balance. Young is everywhere convincing, not least in finely stated, rippling figurations in the movement marked tres modere.


Benedict and Young come up trumps, too, in four engaging pieces by Belgian composer Joseph Jongen. These, too, are as polished in presentation as the Koechlin works.

Kevin Kanisius Suherman (piano)


 Music by Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Granados, Albeniz, de Falla



TPT: 64’ 10”




reviewed by Neville Cohn


If you’ve not yet heard of Kevin Suherman, then, if you are a follower of music for the piano, you may well come across the name in the near future. Because if this recording is anything to go by, this is a youthful pianist on a direct route to the stars.


Is there a more hackneyed work for the piano than Liszt’s La Campanella? Yet, here,  unhurried,  wondrously clear and with beautifully considered rubato, is a performance of extraordinary merit. In this young musician’s hands, this so-frequently encountered piece sounds fresh and newly minted – and that is no mean achievement. It’s a model of pianistic insight.


Much the same could be said of Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu in a reading informed by a passionate intensity that sounds intuitively right. In the same composer’s Ballade in G minor, there are interpretative felicities that one would normally associate with a pianist at the height of maturity. In so young a musician, it is astonishing. Revelations of its romantic essence, beautiful tonal colourings and near-perfectly calibrated climaxes augur well for a concert career of distinction.


In the Polonaise in A flat – the Heroic –  the right hand is powerfully declamatory. But the villainously difficult semiquaver octaves in the left hand are less persuasive; there is a sense of strain. And in Liszt’s arrangement of Schumann’s lied Widmung, there is some stodginess in the opening measures; its euphoric essence is lacking.


In Beethoven’s Sonata opus 2 no 3, this young pianist sounds in his element. The virtuosity he brings to the opening allegro con brio is astonishing and gratifying. Nimble fingers make light of passages that would defeat lesser pianists. And the villainously difficult thirds in the right hand are tossed off, diamond bright, with the nonchalance of mastery. There is about much of the playing here a peremptory brilliance that is as impressive as it is satisfying to listen to. A pleasingly expressive slow movement, a sparkling scherzo and a finale taken at a spanking pace with intermittent flashes of grandeur reveal a young man well on the way to pianistic glory.


Albeniz’s Seguidillas sounds over-rapid although clear and accurate. But in Granados’ The Maiden and Nightingale, the presentation unbottles the music’s idiosyncratic and ecstatic genie to admirable effect.

The Great Pianists



Shura Cherkassky / Leopold Godowsky

Dal Segno DSPRC D051

TPT: 60’10”

reviewed by Neville Cohn


Shura Cherkassky is in his element here. A master of pianistic fantasy,  he,  Midas-like, transforms everything he touches into musical gold. Not the least of the wonders of this offering is the fact that, despite his pianism sounding like that of a mature, arrived master, Cherkassky was still a teenager when making these piano rolls. I cannot too highly praise his playing.


Listen, for instance, to his account of Tchaikowsky’s Song without Words, a miniature routinely murdered by legions of earnest, untalented school girls and boys. Here, its oh-so-hackneyed measures flash into enchanting life.


Rachmaninov’s Polka de W.R, too, with its magical lift to the phrase, seduces the ear as does Liszt’s Rigoletto Paraphrase, where astounding fleetness of finger, perfectly finished, rippling arabesques and wondrous tonal colourings make this fiendishly difficult work sound ridiculously easy.


Cherkassky’s name is frequently spelled incorrectly as Cherkassy!


Leopold Godowsky is in another class; his playing had an emotional depth that Cherkassky never reached. He gives a wondrous account of Mozkowski’s Polonaise in D in playing that is informed by a superb hauteur. From the opening fanfare-type flourishes, it is clear we are in the presence of a master although his rubato sounds excessive to early 21st-century tastes. Schumann’s Traumerei, too, is mined for every subtlety in a reading that points up detail after exquisite detail, fascinating listening despite now-quaint-sounding rubato.


Godowsky is in wonderful form in Henselt’s little Lullaby with a glorious right hand melody that would surely tempt the grumpiest bird from a twig. This and the same composer’s La Gondola are so beautifully essayed that, at least for the duration of the playing, we forget what cheap stuff it is. Godowsky’s rhythmic liberties in Chopin’s Three Ecossaises sound mannered but his account of Ballade in G minor is frankly thrilling. Here, Godowsky reaches for the stars, building up to magnificent climaxes with a brilliance that takes the breath away – and ascending octave passages at a speed that would have had other virtuosos nervously looking to their laurels. At its most powerful, the playing is incandescently persuasive.

The Great Spanish Pianists


The Great Spanish Pianists

The Original Piano Roll Recordings

Music by Albeniz, de Falla, Granados, Segovia – and Ravel

performed by de Falla, Granados, Segovia – and Rudolf Ganz

Dal Segno DSPRCD037

reviewed by Neville Cohn


In earlier days when the piano roll was briefly king, there were any number of what looked like perfectly ordinary pianos in the front parlours of innumerable homes across the world. But ordinary they were not. They were constructed in a way that allowed them to be used for the playing of piano rolls. Once the latter had been inserted into its proper place in the innards of the instrument, the notes of the keyboard would fall and rise eerily as if under the control of some ghostly, perhaps long-dead, pianist. It was not long in vogue, though, and quite soon the 78rpm shellac record disc would depose  the piano for ever.


Periodically, the musical riches of the piano rolls are made available on compact disc.


This collection is devoted almost entirely to piano music of Spain played by eminent Spanish musicians. But one track – of Albeniz’s ubiquitous Tango in D (not to be confused with the far less well known Tango in A) – is played by that greatest of all Brazilian pianists, Guiomar Novaes. This is pure magic, ineffably fine; it should be required listening for anyone – teacher or pianist – essaying this miniature which is regularly massacred by earnest schoolchildren at this or that eisteddfod.


There’s also a novelty: Ravel’s Bolero in a piano version offered by the long-dead Austrian musician Rudolf Ganz, now almost forgotten. Some pianists may recall the cadenza he wrote for Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D. The piano version of Bolero’s mesmeric snare drum part in Bolero can be tricky to bring off well. It is less than perfectly managed here. But it detracts only minimally from listening pleasure.


More interesting by far are the few tracks by Paquita Segovia, student of Granados who was once married to the great classical guitarist Andres Segovia. Listen to her splendidly characterful playing, with tone colourings that charm the ear. For modern tastes,Segovia’s approach to rhythm is at times curiously wayward. But she brings huge flair to her playing, as in Albeniz’ Aragonesa from opus 47; it pulses with life with consistent buoyancy in terms of both mood and momentum.


Granados has the lion’s share of the compilation. It’s a curious and tragic irony that this composer, who had a horror of travelling on water, was to die by drowning. Unlike his fellow Catalonian, Isaac Albeniz (who had an insatiable wanderlust), Granados far preferred to remain in his native Spain. And it was only a profound desire to be present at the world premiere of his opera Goyescas in New York that overrode his travel phobia.This was in 1916.


In the English Channel (on the way home), the steamship Sussex was hit by a German torpedo. Mrs Granados jumped into the water and her husband dived in to help her. Both perished. The dreadful irony is that the ship didn’t sink but eventually limped into port. How uncannily true the fortune teller turned out to be.


Only a few days before sailing from New York, Granados visited the Duo-Art studios where he made a number of piano rolls of, among some of his other works, his Danzas Espanolas Nos 2, 5, 7 and 10. They make fascinating listening. Dance No 5 in E minor (Andaluza), far and away the best known of the set, is played with fluctuating tempi and notes added in relation to the printed score. Entire bars are deleted from No 10 and, like Andaluza, is presented with a rhythmical freedom which sounds extraordinarily inapposite to early 21st century ears.  In fact, if any pianist were brave or rash enough to emulate Granados’ playing style along these lines nowadays, they be clobbered by the critics and booed by the audience. Incidentally, the piece described as Dance No 1 is most definitely not the first dance – or any other – of the set of twelve pieces comprising Danzas Espanolas.


And track 10, Spanish Waltzes, opens with a vignette that is most certainly not in triple time. Here, the playing cries out for digital discipline; it teeters occasionally on  the brink of hysteria.


Listen to Manuel de Falla playing his own In Cuban Style; his musicianship is stunning, the playing alive in the very best sense, as is his Aragonesa which comes across in an enchantingly improvisatory way.


This is fascinating fare that should appeal to anyone interested in the history of recorded sound.

Concentration Camp Music..


Works by Viktor Ullmann, Robert Lannoy, Marius Flothuis and Jozef Kropinski



Francesco Lotoro (piano) and friends



KZMUSIK CD8  232525



TPT: 63’27”



reviewed by Neville Cohn


 Marius Flothuis                                                                Viktor Ullmann

Although the greater part by far of this compact disc series is devoted to music written by composers who perished while incarcerated in nazi concentration camps, a number of musicians survived the camps and went on to productive musical lives.


One of these is Marius Flothuis who, initially a music critic, was also assistant artistic director of Amsterdam’s famous Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1942 when he was deported to Amersfoort before being transported to the notorious Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Flothuis died in 2001 in Amsterdam.


He wrote a number of works while in the camps, such as his piano duets opus 21 and a sonata for solo violin. But it is his Sonata da camera for flute and piano that provides some of the most beguiling listening with flautist Pasquale Rinaldi and Lotoro (piano) in excellent fettle throughout. I particularly liked the beautifully expressive stream of mellow flute tone in the opening cadenza – and the plaintive quality of the second movement is finely evoked by both players. The brilliance of the concluding rondo is a fine foil for the melancholy Lamento which precedes it.


Another survivor was Robert Lannoy who died as recently as 1979 in Lille. Conscripted into the French army, he became a POW in Czechoslovakia, the Ukraine and Stalag  XVIIB in Austria. He made numerous escape attempts but they were all foiled. After the war, he produced a large body of work in his native France. Lannoy’s Berceuse comes across in rather too heavy-footed a way for a lullaby, an impression reinforced by a surfeit of tremolo from the piano.


Berlin-born Josef Kropinski survived Buchenwald and lived on until 1970. He was a prolific composer. Pianist Francesco Lotoro, who works tirelessly to place on disc as much music as possible which was written in confinement, has painstakingly reconstructed fragments of 14 short piano pieces which include three each of mazurkas and tangos. The pieces are most musically played but melodically, harmonically and style-wise they are unremarkable, formulaic and predictable and have little intrinsic worth.  But, as with all music in this series, these keyboard miniatures cry out for recognition as music that came into being in uniquely terrible and terrifying circumstances.


Kropinski, incidentally, was astonishingly prolific; his output includes more than 300 songs as well as string quartets and much else for piano solo.


Lotoro brings a great deal of energy to a piano version of the overture to Ullmann’s opera Don Quixote Dances the Fandango. The orchestral score is lost, so we have to be content with a piano reduction that survived the camps.  There is a great deal of rather noisy tremolo in this intensely dramatic piece. There’s also a tantalisingly brief fragment from a projected two-act opera about Joan of Arc – and a dozen lieder which make up Der Mensch und sein Tag. Angelo de Leonardis and Lotoro take us into a world of deep emotion here but for those who are not German-speaking, a translation of the text into English would have been most helpful. Certainly, it would have made the listening experience that much more meaningful.