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Notes on Recent Finds, No. 11 - Alpha Classics!

08-16-2023 | By Rushton Paul | Issue 129

This edition of Recent Finds will be a bit different because I'm including some 44.1 kHz reviewer sample files from Alpha Classics that I've been enjoying. I've been accused of listening only to DXD and DSD256, but I plead "Not true!" Or, at least not entirely true. Sometimes one just has to go where the music is to be found even if the labels have not chosen to release it in higher resolution. These are all available in various PCM resolutions, some up to 192kHz, but the actual resolution is not always clear as the term "Studio Master" is used in place of any meaningful description. But, regardless of resolution, any of these come with my recommendation if you think the music might appeal. Or, be adventurous! If you stream, at least search for them in your streaming service and give them an audition.

Meeting My Shadow, Giorgi Gigashvili. Alpha Classics 2023 (CD and PCM Studio Master resolutions) HERE

I was quite taken by the music chosen for this album by pianist Giorgi Gigashvili. It is all classical music for solo piano, but not the usual fare. He begins with Beethoven's Variations and Fugue in E-Flat Major, Op. 35 (complete), then slides into a bit of Scarlatti, then Scriabin, an 11-minute excerpt from Messiaen's Vingt regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus, the full 3 Intermezzi, Op. 117, by Brahms, and closes with Scriabin once again in his Valse in A-Flat Major, Op. 38. It is a delightful recital program with lots of interesting music shared.

Born in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 2000, Gigashvili studied the piano without ever thinking about a professional career as a pianist. His pianistic career took a decisive turn in April 2019 when he won First Prize at the Vigo International Piano Competition, with Martha Argerich as president of the jury and Nelson Freire at her side. A few months later, he won Third Prize and the Audience Prize at the Sixty-Second Busoni Competition.

Gigashvili is a wonderful example of the many excellent musicians about whom very little is heard in the major news outlets. So talented! So immensely enjoyable to hear perform. He plays with a fluidity that entrances as he blends both delicacy and nuance. I found myself simply reveling in the dancing figures of his performance of Scarlatti's Keyboard Sonata in D Major, K. 29. Just a pleasure to hear! As was the entire album which I played from start to finish, and then played it again.

Voyage Intime, Sandrine Piau and David Kadouch. Alpha Classics 2023 (CD and PCM Studio Master resolutions) HERE

This is the 2023 debut recording from the newly created duo of renowned soprano Sandrine Piau and pianist David Kadouch. Sandrine Piau notably enjoys intermingling languages and the worlds of different composers and poets around a theme and so on this disc, Schubert, Liszt, Wolf and Clara Schumann rub shoulders with Lili Boulanger, Duparc and Debussy.

I first encountered Sandrine Piau in a 2006 recording of works by Vivaldi, In furore, Laudate Pueri e Concerti Sacri, on the Naïve label (here on Discogs). I've been a fan ever since. But I'd lost track of her work because she released on CDs and I was only listening to vinyl. With my transition to digital, I'm delighted to find her once again in this beautifully rendered recital on Alpha Classics. Doing a bit of research, I see she's released a dozen or so albums now on Alpha Classics and I look forward to catching up with more of her recordings. 

Piau sings expressively, with a clear pure tone, in French and German on this album. While I don't understand the words, I easily follow her phrasing, inflection, and emotional content. She has that special ability to apply subtle gradations of color for nuance and emphasis. Pianist David Kadouch is he perfect collaborator. Between them, they craft a give and take, a juxtaposition followed by unity, of musical engagement. 

I've thoroughly enjoyed this recital, which Piau describes as a story, a personal intimate journey, told through the smaller stories taken from each of the composers presented across the program. One doesn't need to know the lyrics to fully enjoy such musicianship. As Tim Ashley writes in Gramophone about this album, here, "It all adds up to a beautiful, often profoundly affecting recital, to which you will want to return again and again."


Sandrine Piau and David Kadouch

Because, Reginald Mobley, with Baptiste Trotignon. Alpha Classics 2023 (CD and PCM Studio Master resolutions) HERE

In this delightful new release, American countertenor Reginald Mobley—a rising figure in baroque music, notably under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner with whom he sings regularly—and French jazz pianist Baptiste Trotignon combine their talents to celebrate spirituals and music of Black composers, including Harry T. Burleigh (1866 - 1949) and Florence Price (1887 - 1953). 

In the opening track, pianist Baptiste Trotignon gives us a jazzy, subtle arrangement of the famous "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child," sung with power and grace by Mobley. This set my expectation for this album being something truly unique, and I was not disappointed. The pace changes dramatically in the next track with Mobley's a capella opening to the timeless Spiritual "Were you there," sung with great emotional impact and then accompanied by Trotignon in gentle and tasteful support. Mobley and Trotignon then change things up once again with a lively, jazz rendition of "I got a robe," with Trotignon's solos full of life, energy and innovation. "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" receives a rather different treatment than I've not heard before, with Mobley singing softly and Trotignon accompanying very simply at first, then adding greater complexity as the song progresses.

As you may surmise from my comments thus far, this is a full partnership between Mobley and Trotignon. One is not simply supportive of the other. Each makes a fully equal and inspired contribution across the breadth of this album. 

The melody "Because," composed by Florence Price, with lyrics from a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, inspired the title of the album: "Because I had loved so hard... Because I had loved so vainly..." And Mobley says the reason he wanted to make this album was simply "Because..." He needed to make it. It "reflects our wish to give this powerful repertoire a new interpretation, to offer it a different sound from the one it is more used to."

Listen to it. You will be the better for having done so.

Britten and Bruch Violin Concertos, In memoriam, Kerson Leong, Patrick Hahn, Philharmonia Orchestra. Alpha Classics 2023 (CD and PCM Studio Master resolutions) HERE

The Britten and Bruch Violin Concertos are an unusual pairing—they represent very different extremes of expression. And that is the point of the pairing here. Canadian violinist Kerson Leong writes, "The Britten expresses a raw and exposed experience, while the Bruch is comforting and uplifting. After the last few years in which the world has experienced much difficulty and uncertainty due to pandemic, war, and crisis, recording this album in London in January 2022 with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Patrick Hahn was a profoundly cathartic moment. It is in the spirit of catharsis that I offer this album."

I have long valued Britten's Violin Concerto in D Minor, op. 15, and I've been pleased to see it becoming more and more regularly performed in recent years. The work is unsettled, conflicted, ambiguous, frustrated. Written in 1939, at a time when war between Britain and Germany seemed increasingly inevitable, it is one of Britten's most emotionally complex works. I have long valued the recordings of this music by Ida Haendel with Berglund and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (EMI, 1977) and of Wanda Wiłkomirska with Witold Rowicki and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra (1967). But this new recording by Kerson Leong and Patrick Hahn suits me very nicely. It is fully competitive with recent performances by Linus Roth (Challenge Classics, 2014) and Arabella Steinbacher (Pentatone, 2017) both of which are excellent, and both of which bring out different aspects of Britten's music. I enjoy all three, and I do not hesitate to recommend the Kerson Leong performance were you to acquire only one.

As an aside: I note that there is a scathing review of Leong's performance of the Britten by an Amazon reviewer. I clearly do not agree with this reviewer's comments and urge you to ignore them should you come across them.

Keong's performance of the Bruch Violin Concerto is nothing short of brilliant. And if one is hesitating about what recording to purchase, the inclusion of the Bruch might well be the deciding factor. There is a lot of competition in the catalog for performances of this music: Heifetz, Stern, Francescatti, Kyung-Wha Chung, Midori, Erica Morini, Ricci... But Keong more than holds his own amongst these other great performances. He has all the technique, assurance, and emotional maturity needed to make for an excellent rendition of this work.

The recording quality is very good. The balance between orchestra and soloists is nicely judged, with excellent capture of detail of both the solo violin and the other instruments of the orchestra. I particularly enjoyed the impact of tympani and brass punctuating various passages. There is an overall level of energy and excitement captured by this recording that eludes some of the other recordings I've mentioned.

Marin Marais' Ariane et Bacchus, Herve Niquet conducting Le Concert Spirituel and Les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles. Alpha Classics 2023 (CD and PCM Studio Master resolutions) HERE

Yes, I'm a sucker for Baroque opera and oratorios. Particularly when they are as well performed as this recent recording by Herve Niquet, Le Concert Spirituel and a splendid cast of soloists. Judith van Wanroij is superb in the title role. Hervé Niquet conducts Le Concert Spirituel with vigor in an historically informed performance thrilling for its lack of unnecessary ornamentation. As another commentator says "it's a splendiferous affair."

Marin Marais (1656 - 1728) became a viol player at the Académie Royale de Musique in 1676, just as his mentor Lully’s Atys triumphed there. Best known for his large catalog of compositions for viola da gamba, Marais nevertheless wrote half a dozen operas, of which Ariane et Bacchus is probably his most well known. First performed at the Paris Opéra on March 8, 1696, it tells the myth of Ariadne as recounted in Ovid's Metamorphoses.

This recording uses for the first time the exact performing forces and layout of that Paris Opéra orchestra, thus giving us an historically informed version of this tragédie en musique by Marais. This production, made possible by the support of the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, was performed in concert at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées to great acclaim in 2022. 

Highly recommended to those with any affinity for Baroque or vocal music.

Enjoy a YouTube video snippet of this production to get a preview of the wonderful music making in store for you:

Perpetuum, Anthony Romaniuk. Alpha Classics 2023 (CD and PCM Studio Master resolutions) HERE

As if in some fascinating portrait gallery, we meet music by Kapsberger, Scarlatti, Purcell, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Ravel, Satie, Ligeti, Adams, and improvisations, played on a Fazioli concert piano, a Graf fortepiano from 1835, a Flemish muselar virginal, a seventeenth-century harpsichord, a Yamaha CP80 electro-acoustic piano and a Prophet Rev2 synthesizer. It is a fascinating tour, and a tour de force by the very talented multi-instrumentalist Anthony Romaniuk.

Opening with John Adams' scintillating China Gates (1947) on piano, and then followed by an excerpt from Erick Satie's Pièces froides on fortepiano, Romaniuk sets the stage for an interesting program. The intrigue continues as Romaniuk moves from one composer to another and one instrument to yet another: piano to fortepiano to synthesizer, back to piano, then to harpsichord, then to virginal. The variety of timbre, texture and dynamics is engaging and very different as he moves us across centuries and styles of music. It is truly a journey and an exploration. I encourage you to sit back and soak it in.

Jazz-obsessed in his youth in Australia, Romaniuk then studied classical piano in New York (Manhattan School of Music), spent several years specializing in early music (harpsichord and fortepiano in the Netherlands) and, post-studies, has continued his development across the realms of improvisation, alternative and ambient/electronic music.

As a classical recitalist, his repertoire includes music from Byrd to Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Brahms (often on historical instruments), to Ligeti, Crumb and contemporary music. He works regularly with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and tenor Reinoud Van Mechelen and is also a core member of Vox Luminis. 

Anthony Romaniuk

Some thoughts about Alpha Classics...

This has been my first foray into the catalog offered by Alpha Classics and I am quite impressed with the quality of the artists heard thus far and with the recording quality I'm hearing. Yes, I wish they recorded and released in DXD for a bit greater resolution and transparency—they say nothing about the recording engineers or technology used in making these recordings, unfortunately. But, the engineering standards for microphone placement and sound capture appears to be very satisfyingly high. And, more importantly, the artists and music presented are of a very high standard. I am impressed with their overall aesthetic values as represented in this first set of albums to which I've been listening. I hope to listen to more releases from Alpha Classics because their catalog suggests much more of interest to explore.

All photos courtesy of Alpha Classics