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Jed Distler reviews Beethoven and Neefe from Susan Kagan: ‘Kagan’s warm sonority receives beautiful reproduction in one of the best-engineered releases I’ve heard ’ REVIEW ON PAGE XI


Laurence Vittes reviews a musical ode to America’s past: ‘It melts pleasantly into the back ground, like hearing all six Brandenburg Concertos at once’ REVIEW ON PAGE XIII

JS Bach ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier – A Composer’s Approach’ Das wohltemperierte Clavier, Book 1, BWV846 93 Don Freund pf Navona B b NV5869 (111’ • DDD) Bonus DVD: ‘Composition lessons with JS Bach’

Composer Freund’s view of Bach’s keyboard Everest The ultimate finality with which each composer’s death seals off his truest intentions continues to drive attempts to reach across the centuries and align with them. Don Freund has focused this common obsession on Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and brought to it, along with his unique viewpoint as a composer himself, an unusual amount of intimacy, clarity and understanding that are remarkably in touch with the piano’s own physical characteristics.

Freund implicitly posits a very close relationship with his instrument by not using the damper pedal and only occasionally the sustain. Each note, therefore, once struck, must travel out to its fullest extent. This means, to avoid blurring, the phrase and pace of the music must be laid out and then adjusted very carefully. The process itself, when carried out by an experienced artist like Freund, who has listened to the music many more times than Bach himself, is endlessly fascinating; it sounds at times as if the music were being not just improvised but invented spontaneously.

As the lines extend out from Freund’s contact with the keys, the vibrations of each note seem to perceptively move down each string of the piano. Freund’s hypersensitivity to this at some places and his desire to maintain transparency, as in the gently flowing Prelude in F sharp major, BWV858, creates a pleasantly retrograde effect which shows an affection for the music, as opposed to its performance, and a reluctance to let it go, that a composer would most deeply feel.

The DVD provides Freund’s lecturedemonstration-performances of four of the

Preludes and Fugues that stand on their own as engrossing explorations of the music; whether watched before or after listening to the CDs, they make an intriguing, interactive choice. Laurence Vittes

Bolcom Complete Gospel Preludes Gregory Hand org Naxos American Classics S 8 559695 (71’ • DDD) Played on the Skinner organ at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, University of Chicago

Bolcom’s refracted hymn tunes on the Rockefeller chapel organ Few composers have as much surprising material up their sleeves as William Bolcom, who can usually be counted upon to devise intriguing soundscapes in whatever genre he’s tackling. This certainly holds true for his Gospel Preludes, a dozen hymns for solo organ that Bolcolm tweaks with invigorating, respectful and often feisty brilliance. Gregory Hand gives the collection sonorous and probing performances on the Skinner organ at the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.

Bolcom’s inventiveness is in prime time throughout the hymns, which are grouped in four books. The original tunes occasionally rear their poignant or jubilant heads, with subtle changes of harmonic and thematic persuasion to let us know that new perspectives are in motion.

The American composer often goes to weird and delightful extremes, rendering a beloved hymn virtually unrecognisable until it magically emerges from a thicket of hazy sonorities. The collection’s triumph in this respect is ‘Shall we gather at the river’, with its image of trickling water setting the scene before the hymn tune makes a brief marching appearance and then fades back into the aquatic abyss.

The music throughout the collection is eclectic, in true Bolcom fashion, with jazz elements rubbing shoulders with cabaret ideas and spiky 20th-century techniques. It is a smorgasbord of creative musings reverent and otherwise, as well as a lexicon of organ possibilities. With all limbs at his musical command, Hand brings a spectrum of expressive and sonic shadings to Bolcom’s gospel tour de force. Donald Rosenberg

Kernis . Schubert Kernis String Quartet No 1, ‘Musica celestis’ Schubert String Quartet No 14, ‘Death and the Maiden’, D810 Jasper Quartet Sono Luminus F DSL92152 (73’ • DDD)

Second disc in Jasper’s project to ‘partner’ Kernis quartets The juxtaposition of the two quartets acts as such a startling transformational device that you realise at once the Jasper String Quartet has achieved its stated mission goal, ‘to illuminate a new vantage point into both works’.

Aaron Jay Kernis’s String Quartet No 1 is like music heard in dreams long ago and now suddenly remembered, and loved, and deeply missed. The references to other composers, as to late Beethoven in the first movement, are mostly to music the composers never wrote. It was written in 1990, when Kernis was 30, and is called Musica celestis because of an ethereal second movement. The 15-minute first movement, ‘Flowing’, dominates the piece; after a careening journey through richly harmonic, tonal but absorbingly unpredictable landscapes, the following movements fall as if in a trance under its dizzying fantasy. The third movement, a Scherzo, dances with the brilliance of a young Benjamin Britten, rich with strummed pizzicato chords. At 3'25", it could become a popular encore number. The last 30 seconds of the finale take a terrible risk. More Kernis, please.

The Jasper Quartet, in common with their young Canadian colleagues Cecilia and Afiara, share an extreme sensitivity to the way composers layer sound and use harmony to


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