01_Boulez.jpgLast month Bruce Surtees wrote that Deutsche Grammophon had marked Pierre Boulez’s 90th birthday year with the release of a 44-CD box set of all his DG recordings of music composed in the 20th century. Another project to honour the iconic composer is Pierre Boulez – Le Domaine Musical 1956-1967 (Accord/Universal 4811510, 10CDs) which documents the dozen years during which founder Boulez was at the helm of this seminal French concert society. This set has many personal resonances for me. It was the Domaine Musical recordings of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Pierrot lunaire (both included here) that originally sparked my interest in the Second Viennese School of composition (and eventually led to naming my contemporary music program at CKLN-FM Transfigured Night). Other Domaine recordings provided my introduction to the music of such composers as Messiaen, Varèse, Stockhausen, Henze, Pousseur and lesser known names likes Gilbert Amy and Jean-Claude Éloy.

These new sound worlds were revelations to me and had a profound effect on my musical development. It was these recordings under the direction of Boulez, and others that they led me to, which set the stage for many of my subsequent life choices. The radio show, which aired from 1984 until 1991, provided the opportunity to meet some of the most important creators of the music of our time, many thanks to the generosity of New Music Concerts artistic director Robert Aitken. This in turn ultimately led to my accepting the position of general manager at New Music Concerts in 1999 – after stints at CJRT-FM and the Canadian Music Centre – a post which remains my day job. It was in this capacity that I had the immense privilege to meet and assist Pierre Boulez during his stay in Toronto to accept the Glenn Gould Prize in 2002 and conduct a concert of his music which Aitken had prepared with NMC musicians. I am tempted to say that brought my musical development full circle, but it has in fact continued to grow thanks to the ongoing opportunities to interact with great composers and musicians provided by NMC (and The WholeNote!). But enough about me…

The Domaine Musical concert series began in Paris in 1954 and was based on three tenets: the “references” (early musical figures like Dufay and Gesualdo and later pioneers like Bach); “great contemporaries” (composers of the first half of the 20th century that remained virtually un-performed in France like Bartók, Varèse, Schoenberg, Webern and Berg); and Boulez’ own generation (born around 1925). In addition to the ten CDs, the box includes a comprehensive more-than-100-page booklet (in French and English) with thorough program notes, historical background and a transcription of Claude Samuel’s interview with Boulez from 2005 which appears on disc ten. In the interview Boulez discusses the philosophy and evolution of the programming of the series, including a detailed look at the very first concert presented: Bach’s Musical Offering, works by Webern, Stockhausen and Nono, culminating in Stravinsky’s Renard. While the bulk of the discs are arranged by subject – Les Références Françaises (Debussy, Varèse, Messiaen), Boulez the Composer, Les Compagnons de Route (Kagel, Nono, Henze, Pousseur, Stockhausen) – the set also includes an example of the original programming idea, presenting the third concert of the 1956 season in its entirety: Giovanni Gabrieli’s Canzone dalle “Sacrae Symphoniea” 5 and 3; Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments; Henze’s Concerto per il Marigny; Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques and Éloy’s Equivalences. The set opens with the Tenth Anniversary Concert featuring seminal works by Stockhausen, Berio, Boulez (Le Marteau sans maître) and Messiaen and the final disc includes the first-ever recording of Le Marteau from 1956.

Add to this a disc devoted to Stravinsky and three exploring the early, middle and mature works of the New Viennese School and we are presented with an impressive introduction to the music of the first half of the 20th century and the seminal years of the post-war generation of composers who were to dominate Western Art Music for a number of decades. The sound quality of the recordings is varied, but as Bruce Surtees points out elsewhere in these pages “the brain soon adjusts” and the importance of this as a historic document – not to mention a personally rewarding trip down memory lane! – easily makes up for any sonic inconsistencies.

02_Kreutzer_Quartet.jpgAnother CD of music composed around the general time of the Domaine Musical came my way this past month, but without an obvious context. The Kreutzer Quartet’s Unfold (Move Records MD 3371 move.com.au) features works by four composers previously unknown to me (Don Banks, Nigel Butterley, Richard Meale and Felix Werder), as was for that matter, the string quartet itself. The back cover of the disc gives neither composer birth years nor composition dates and I found myself thinking that, since I had not heard of them, this was likely a crop of young composers being championed by an equally young ensemble. I also thought that a group named “Kreutzer” would likely be most interested in the music of Beethoven or perhaps Janáček. I put on the disc without opening the booklet and was very surprised by what I heard. Where would they have found young composers writing in such a distinctly old-fashioned way? By old-fashioned I do not mean music that sounds like it was written in the 18th or 19th century as is sometimes the case these days, but rather music written in the uncompromisingly “difficult” style of the 50s and 60s. Eventually I decided I had better read what the booklet had to say and it seems I was wrong on all counts in the assumptions I had made judging the CD by its cover.

Although I have not been able to determine when the quartet was founded, it has been around for at least 15 years and is the dedicatee of more than 200 works. Based in the UK, it is very active in Europe and its previous discography includes cycles of works by Gerhard, Finnissy, Birtwistle, Tippett and Hallgrimsson. I was also wrong about the composers. Far from being young, they are all of the Boulez generation: Don Banks (Australia 1923-1980), Felix Werder (Germany/Australia 1922-2012), Nigel Butterley (Australia b. 1935) and Richard Meale (Australia 1932-2009). So there are common threads, all Australian by birth or naturalization, and all works composed in the decade beginning in 1964. But what is the connection of the quartet to the repertoire? I’m left scratching my head. I see that the recording, on an Australian label, was funded by the Australia Council for the Arts and so perhaps that is explanation enough, but I’m still curious. I see no mention of an Australian residency or even a “Down Under” connection in the biographies of the quartet that I can find, and certainly no mention in the disc’s booklet. I think there must be an interesting story behind the project that remains to be told.

That being said I think the music speaks well enough for itself and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to get acquainted with it. Peter Sculthorpe is the only contemporary Australian composer I’ve had much exposure too and this music is very different from his, which is so grounded in the landscape and aboriginal culture. This is not to say that the composers represented here are four peas in a pod. Each has a distinctive voice – Werder’s the most abrasive and Butterley’s the most atmospheric, with Banks and Meale each echoing aspects of Schoenberg and his school, but in individual ways – and together they provide an intriguing insight into a lesser-known place and time.

I find it curious that the thoughtfully presented program notes, which provide welcome background on the individual works (if not of the project itself), are arranged in a different order than the pieces are presented on the disc. On second listening I chose to program the works as per the notes described and found it a very satisfying experience, one that I would recommend to anyone interested in discovering some unknown classics of the 20th century.

03_Piano_Northwest.jpgThe latest Centredisc to come my way is Piano Northwest – Music of William Pura (CMCCD 20915) featuring pianist Sylvia Shadick-Taylor performing works spanning a quarter of a century by the senior Winnipeg-based composer. Although a founding member of the Manitoba Composers Association and Winnipeg’s IZ Music, as well as serving on regional councils of the Canadian Music Centre and the Canadian League of Composers, Pura’s academic training was in fine arts and he taught at the University of Manitoba School of Art until his retirement in 2010.

Pura also studied piano extensively and his idiomatic understanding of the instrument serves him well in the compositions presented here, all of which draw on extra-musical subjects for their inspiration. Nemesis (2008) has two such points of departure, a poem of the same name by H.P. Lovecraft and Johannes Kepler’s 17th-century calculation of the intervallic relationships between the six known planets. It is a dense yet pointillistic work, which explores a variety of moods over its ten-minute duration.

The Statue’s Desire once again draws on texts, in this case a prose poem by the artist Giorgio de Chirico as well as a song by Charles Ives. Although the works are not settings per se, the texts are given in the composer’s program notes, allowing us the opportunity to search for parallels between the words and the music.

The most substantial work on the program is Sonata Northwest 1985, written in 1990 (and revised in 2006) to commemorate the centennial of Louis Riel’s 1885 Northwest Rebellion. (This is a theme Pura would return to a decade later in his hour-long musical drama Batoche for two singers, three dancers and small ensemble.) An extended Lento cantabile movement is followed by a brief Trio in which a harmonica and snare drum are added, hauntingly simple parts which can be played by the pianist or, as in this case, by additional musicians (George Andrix and Jonathan Taylor respectively). I imagine the slowly repeated snare drum taps as representing a march to the gallows. The last movement Ballade is somewhat reminiscent of Ives’ Concord Sonata, with its polyrhythms and polytonalities and passing references to familiar-sounding tunes.

Shadick-Taylor’s biographical entry makes a point of noting her exploration of composers’ ideas and inspirations, musical building blocks, which in combination with her command of her instrument “transform a fine performance into a captivating story.” Pura’s prosaic compositions benefit greatly from the understanding of this “brilliant storyteller.”

04_Shoeless.jpgAs usual, my month would not have been complete without something completely different. The Shoeless is the eponymous album by a young Toronto string band (theshoeless.com) with the somewhat unusual instrumentation of cello (Eli Bender), banjo (Frank Evans) and fiddle (Emilyn Stam), with occasional vocals by all. This debut release is a melange of mostly original tunes (with Stam penning the lion’s share) and traditional tunes, with a couple of outside offerings by accordionist Stéphane Milleret and fiddler Gudrun Walther. Although the CD is bereft of any information beyond titles, composers and durations plus recording credits, a visit to the website, and the links beyond, provides evidence of a wealth of experience that belies the youth of the individual members. Self-described as a “cross-cultural stew, combining the sounds of Klezmer, French, Celtic, Appalachian and English music,” this album is a breath of fresh air and another fine example of a new generation rejuvenating an old tradition.  Concert note: The Shoeless can be heard in Hamilton on May 6 at the Artword Artbar, in Kitchener on May 7 at Café Pyrus (with the Ever Lovin’ Jug Band) and here in Toronto on May 13 at Musideum (with Soozi Schlanger).

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website thewholenote.com where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels and additional, expanded and archival reviews. clip_image001.png

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com

Author: David Olds
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01_Poulenc_Mass.jpg

Poulenc – Mass in G Major; Sept Chansons; Motets
Elora Festival Singers; Noel Edison
Naxos 8.572978

This disc features a cappella choral works of Poulenc, both sacred and secular. Exquisite as they are, these works pose a considerable challenge to a choir, with soprano lines that soar high into the ether, daring chromaticism and shifting, often-ambiguous harmonies with no instrumental accompaniment to grasp on to.

Though serious in nature, the Mass in G Major, written in 1937 after the death of Poulenc’s father and the composer’s return to Catholicism, retains some of the playfulness inherent in the Cocteau-esque Sept Chansons from his more youthful years with Les Six. Each of the chansons references a body part: arms, face, breasts, eyes, hair and hands and textually and musically are as steeped in hedonism as in wit. The most dramatic contrast with these, perhaps, is provided in the Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence (1938-39), a sombre meditation on Holy Week while the Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël (1952) convey all the mystery and joy of the season.

Noel Edison leads the Elora Festival Singers adeptly through these varied and difficult ranges of character and emotion with enviable accuracy of pitch and perfectly nuanced expression.

 


02_Brokeback_Mountain.jpgCharles Wuorinen – Brokeback Mountain
Daniel Okulitch; Tom Randle; Heather Buck; Hannah Esther Minutillo; Teatro Real de Madrid; Titus Engel
BelAir Classics BAC111

In 2005, when acclaimed Taiwanese director Ang Lee adapted a 1997 short story by Annie Proulx, the film set off a firestorm – not just because it showcased a homosexual relationship and exposed the ugly face of rural homophobia, which it did admirably. The riveting performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and especially the late Heath Ledger, as masculine, restrained “Marlboro men” cowboys were miles away from any stereotype. The manner of one character’s death invoked uncomfortably the tragic real-life story of Matthew Shepard.

More so than anything else, Brokeback Mountain is a story of a life unfulfilled out of fear of judgement. Proulx has frequently commented that she wishes she had never written the story, as disappointed fans continue to pester her for a happy ending rewrite or at least a sequel. All this only confirms the power of the story here set to music by Charles Wuorinen. And so Brokeback Mountain became an opera.

Wuorinen gets the foreboding nature of the story, as his music is austere, dry and powerful, just like the mountain ridge that is the backdrop to a human tragedy. He illustrates the tragic tale with music filled with longing and regret. What is missing perhaps, are the fleeting and rare, but still real moments of pure pleasure and love that stubbornly persist between the two men, despite all the efforts to eradicate them.

In the final scene of the opera, the mood lifts, though not enough to allow the gravity-defying ascension. The music remains oppressive to the very end, smothering any budding inner peace. A powerful production.

 


01_Comedie_et_Tragedie.jpgComedie et Tragedie Vol.1
Tempesta di Mare Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra
Chaconne CHAN 0805

Louis XIV’s cultural offensive involved the arrival of Giovanni-Battista Lulli, duly converted to Jean-Baptiste Lully. Lully then became director of the Petite Bande of string musicians. Combine Lully’s genius for composition with Molière’s brilliant social satire Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme and you have a magnificent comédie-ballet.

Tempesta di Mare’s interpretation of the overture to the comedy gives a flavour of what to expect; a rather clumsy and pompous nature admirably reflects Molière’s social climber Monsieur Jourdain. By contrast, the real dancers enjoy Lully’s graceful country dances in their 17th-century French heyday. Add to this the slightly oriental quality of the Cérémonie des Turcs and you realize how suited to each other Molière’s words and Lully’s music truly were.

On to Les Éléments by Jean-Féry Rebel (a pupil of Lully) who won great respect for his dance music. Le Chaos started life as an instrumental piece but was incorporated into the ballet. It is not what one expects from a baroque entertainment. Parts for bass, flutes, piccolos and violins represent respectively earthly tremors, the flow of water, air and fire. All attempt to impose themselves vigorously on the ballet and to be distinctive from one another. More soothing is the following Loure-Chaconne; earth and water are reconciled before we hear Rebel’s sprightly interpretations of traditional dance movements.

Marin Marais is best known as a bass viol composer, his prowess enabling him to come to the attention of, yes, Lully. Alcyone is a classically themed opera comprising an overture and five acts. The dramatic plots in each act would unfold until interrupted by a divertissement (entertainment). The 13 suites performed by Tempesta di Mare reflect this accurately whether with the stately prologue: ouverture or the relaxed airs for a whole sequence of characters such as sailors, magicians and priestesses of Juno. Enjoy above all the sarabande, tempest and concluding chaconne.

After listening to both Lully and Marais, listeners will have received a textbook introduction to the French baroque music which enhanced comedy and tragedy alike.

 


02_Faust_Schumann.jpgSchumann – Violin Concerto; Piano Trio No.3
Isabelle Faust; Jean-Guihen Queyras; Alexander Melnikov; Freiburger Barockorchester; Pablo Heras-Casado
harmonia mundi HMC 902196

Among the violin concertos by the great masters of the middle Romantic era, Brahms, Bruch, Mendelssohn and even Sibelius, Schumann’s is least popular and is infrequently performed. Also, it is considered of lesser value and impact among the composer’s own concertos. Both the piano Op.54 and the cello Op.129 are each at the summit of their genre and favourites for well over a century. Was the violin concerto inconsistent with his output and indicative of lessening musical genius? Written in 1853, the concerto, his last major work, remained without opus number and was secreted for 80 years until November 26, 1937 when it received its debut played by Georg Kulenkampff in Berlin with Böhm and the Philharmonic. On December 20 that year Telefunken recorded it there with Kulenkampff and Schmidt-Isserstedt conducting. Yehudi Menuhin championed the work in concert and in 1938 he recorded it in New York with the Philharmonic under Barbirolli. The value of the work however remains in controversy.

Isabelle Faust and the Freiburg Baroque make a convincing case for it in which the clarity and texture of the period instruments present a refreshingly different palette. The bonus DVD in this release contains the concert performance in the Berlin Philharmonie, revealing unexplored contours and textures characteristic of a baroque orchestra. From the very first bar this is echt Schumann! There are pros and cons of such treatments and while this concerto may not be the very best of Schumann, this sit-up-and-take-notice performance could change a few minds.

The Trio Op.110 in G Minor is another matter. While it may be thought of as the least of Schumann’s three trios, listening to it here challenges that opinion. It is assuredly worthy of a fine performance which it certainly receives. Faust and her colleagues radiate ardour and optimism, performing with sensitivity, sincere musicality and flawless ensemble that hold the listener’s attention. A genuine must-have.

This is the first of three albums by Faust and her colleagues (all passionate about Schumann – me too!), of all the concertos and trios using a historic piano and instruments with gut strings.

 


 

 

 

Review

03_Netrebko_Strauss.jpgStrauss – Four Last Songs; Ein Heldenleben
Anna Netrebko; Staatskapelle Berlin; Daniel Barenboim
Deutsche Grammophon 4793964

If, as they say, Verdi murdered sopranos then Richard Strauss simply adored them. His operas are all about women, the soprano being the heroine, their very essence. (Rosenkavalier has no less than three of them!) Interestingly the great Anna Netrebko, who became a shining star in the Italian, French and Russian repertoire, had never sung Strauss, but even so DG chose her to celebrate his anniversary. Netrebko, always up for new challenges, once again surprised everyone with a rapt, luminous account of the elegiac Vier Letzte Lieder (1948), Strauss’ last and greatest contribution to this genre. Her voice of unique colour, sumptuous beauty, lovely intonation and musical intelligence makes her interpretation stand up favourably to the formidable competition of great German sopranos of the past, not to mention the tremendous contribution of Barenboim’s lush and luxurious orchestral support that will silence all snobbish prejudice once and for all.

Barenboim was 11 when he was introduced to Furtwängler, who premiered the Four Last Songs, and now some 60 odd years later the “boy” is taking over. And how! He was first noticed as a young pianist, but now the celebrated music director of two most venerable opera houses (Milan and Berlin), with some recent, simply earth-shaking performances of musical genius, here gives his account of Ein Heldenleben, a problematic score that’s notoriously given headaches to Strauss apologists. Even Karajan’s stellar version descends sometimes into cacophony and bombast, but Barenboim instead chooses understatement, clarification of orchestral detail and, with each part subservient to the whole, emphasizing compositional strengths (rather than weaknesses). Unquestionably first choice.


01_Isserlis.jpgProkofiev; Shostakovich – Cello Concertos
Steven Isserlis; Frankfurt Radio Symphny Orchestra; Paavo Järvi
Hyperion CDA68037

Prokofiev began this concerto in Paris in 1934, where he was urged by fellow émigré Gregor Piatigorsky to write such a work. Piatigorsky was enthusiastic over the first movement and the opening of the second but at that point Prokofiev returned to Russia. The work waited until 1938 to be completed in Moscow where it debuted to resounding indifference. The cellist had played it, against the composer’s wishes, as a sentimental piece and the conductor had no opinion. In 1940 its debut in the United States by Koussevitzky and Piatigorsky in Boston was hardly a triumph.

The 1956 recording of the concerto by János Starker and the Philharmonia under Walter Susskind is a polite affair and while beautifully played the overall mood misses the pungency that Prokofiev must have intended. The 1972 performance by Christine Walevska conducted by Eliahu Inbal is a far cry from the Starker, animated and alert and well recorded by Philips.

Recorded in concert in 2013, Steven Isserlis and Paavo Järvi together have set the record straight with new eyes on the score, delivering a fresh, vital interpretation. The first pages of the first movement announce that this is to be a compelling performance. The third movement, a set of theme and variations, is totally engaging, more rhythmic and interesting than previously revealed.

Their Shostakovich, too, is outstanding. One would believe that in his several recordings Rostropovich, the dedicatee, had the field covered. Easygoing tempo and high-spirited playing provide a most attractive alternative, especially with the tidy yet dynamic orchestral collaboration. The sound and wide range of the recording are state of the art. The Prokofiev solo March, arranged by Piatigorsky, is a jaunty little encore.

 


02_Kernis.jpgAaron Jay Kernis – Three Flavors; Two Movements; Superstar Etude No.3
Andrew Russo; James Ehnes; Albany Symphony Orchestra; David Alan Miller
Naxos 8.559711

Aaron Jay Kernis was all of 23 back in the early 1980s when he first attracted attention with the premiere of his composition Dream of the Morning Sky by the New York Philharmonic. Since then, the Pennsylvania-born composer has earned a reputation as one of the most distinguished of his generation – a winner of not only a Pulitzer Prize, but also the Prix de Rome and the Grawemeyer Award. His large output is characterized by an affable and eclectic style, clearly evident on this Naxos recording which features three of his compositions performed by the Albany Symphony, conducted by David Alan Miller with Andrew Russo, piano, and James Ehnes, violin.

Three Flavors initially began as a concerto for toy piano, but it was later adapted for a modern instrument. To say the least, the piece is a study in contrasts. The first movement abounds in driving repetitive motives and modal harmonies – do I hear a hint of Stravinsky and a nod to Indonesian gamelan? In total contrast, the second movement, Lullaby-Barcarolle, is all gentleness, containing a lyricism not dissimilar to that found in works by Samuel Barber. Blue Whirl, the third movement finale, is clearly influenced by jazz rhythms and blues that Andrew Russo performs with great bravado, while the Albany Symphony provides a solid foundation.

It was in homage to his late father that Kernis composed Two Movements (with Bells) in 2007, a BBC Proms commission for James Ehnes. Scored for violin, piano and orchestra, the two movements each begin wistfully, but the mood soon becomes more flamboyant. Together, Ehnes and Russo engage in an animated and lively discourse, adroitly handling the energetic angular lines. Russo returns for a solo in Ballad(e) out of the Blue(s) – Superstar Etude No.3.  Although the piece was inspired by Gershwin, there are also echoes of Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and Errol Garner through its jazz harmonies and improvisational quality.

Kudos to all the artists on this CD for showcasing music by one of America’s most eclectic contemporary composers.

 


03_Missy_Mazzoli.jpgMissy Mazzoli – Vespers for a New Dark Age
Victoire; Glenn Kotche; Lorna Dune
New Amsterdam Records NWAM062

Missy Mazzoli is a young American composer based in New York who continues to receive critical acclaim for her concert works. This release contains a new piece, Vespers for a New Dark Age, for female voices and instrumental ensemble that was commissioned by Carnegie Hall for the 2014 Ecstatic Music Festival. The music is set to fragments of text by poet Matthew Zapruder replacing the sacred vesper text. It is interesting to note that in traditional Catholic liturgy, the Vespers are to be sung as evening prayer at sunset. Further, Mazzoli describes the piece as, “…distorted, wild, blasphemous...” However, despite brief moments in the text that only occasionally reveal mildly blasphemous suggestions, the music, on the contrary, is full of light and optimism, a mood that remains relatively unvaried throughout the piece. While the work is divided into nine movements, the listener is treated to a continuous unfolding of broad and lyrical vocal weavings floating above punchy percussion rhythms and edgy folk-like violin gestures. At times, we hear passages containing obvious reminiscences of 1970s progressive rock akin to bands like Yes or Genesis. Any abrasiveness in the music is quickly balanced with soaring vocal washes that shimmer and infuse the music with a crystalline sheen. Perhaps the strongest section of the piece occurs in the seventh movement, providing the listener with a striking contrast to the rest of the piece stylistically. In this movement, the dramatic harmonies in the vocal part seem to occupy a different sonic environment than previously heard. This piece is a strong statement from a composer who is comfortable writing to the strengths of the performers she is working with. This music is perfect for those seeking a moment of respite and release within a contemplative and reflective listening experience.

 


01_Throne.jpgThe Throne
Ochs-Robinson Duo
NotTwo MW 918-2 (nottwo.com)

Eschewing all regal trappings, this game of throne strips interactive improvisation to its bare bones, demonstrating how expansive a duet between one saxophonist and one drummer can be. Rova member, soprano and tenor saxophonist Larry Ochs, doesn’t need other reed backup on these nine tracks, carving out strategies involving sharpened abstraction plus an underlying swing, which at points is surprisingly harmonious. Responsive rather than confrontational, Donald Robinson uses all parts of his kit from cymbals to bass drum to push, promote or punctuate the interface.

Tarter tunes such as Red Tail and Breakout give Ochs a Sonny Rollins-like showcase to extract all possible tonal consideration from a theme, abandoning it like a dog with a bone only when maximum improvisational nourishment has been extracted; other lines are more sympathetic. Push Hands for instance, one of two memorials to departed musicians, is a study in pinched chromatics. Here Robinson bends his beats with an Africanized lilt, in order to accompany Ochs’ gravelly threnody. Song 2 is another revelation. What starts off as an essay in modulated reed slides and smears wedded to a rumpled pulse becomes a vibrant, coherent narrative that assumes song form.

Near-human vocalized cries which Ochs pulls from both his horns throughout are refined from stacks of timbral smears to a growly renal-like exposition that defines the concluding title track. At the same time Ochs’ thematic exposition relates back to Open to the Light, the first track, memorializing another musician. Ultimately Robinson’s emphasized ruff marks a distinct ending both to the final piece and this well-balanced program.


Because of Billie
Molly Johnson
Independent 253787133
(mollyjohnson.com)

Coming Forth By Day
Cassandra Wilson
Legacy 888750636225

To Lady With Love
Annie Ross; Bucky Pizzarelli; John Pizzarelli
Red Anchor Records CAP1047

Reviews

02a_Molly_Johnson.jpgKnown for her conversational approach to singing and a voice both raspy and authoritative, Molly Johnson has been aptly compared to Billie Holiday; Because of Billie is her response to that compliment. On this heartfelt tribute, the Toronto native recalls Holiday in her heyday, swinging with sparkling intelligence and digging deeply into every lyric. Fans of the original versions will likely enjoy this straight-ahead set, exquisitely arranged by bassist Mike Downes and featuring some of Canada’s finest jazz players, including pianist Robi Botos, whose solo on What a Little Moonlight Can Do invites repeated listening. Johnson and the band have some fun on an extended version of Them There Eyes, manage a memorable take on the iconic Strange Fruit and take some exciting liberties with Lady Sings the Blues and Now or Never, both tunes co-penned by Lady Day herself. Proceeds from the album go to the Boys and Girls Clubs across Canada.

Video

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02b_Cassadra_Wilson.jpgReminiscent in scope of Holiday’s penultimate Lady in Satin, Coming Forth By Day was produced by Nick Launay of post-punk experimental rock outfit the Bad Seeds. While ardent swing-era traditionalists might be less than impressed, loyal fans of Cassandra Wilson will not be surprised by this audacious project, especially since it was made possible by a triumphant crowdfunding campaign. Wilson’s witchy contralto finds itself nestled within Van Dyke Parks’ haunting string arrangements, augmented further by Robby Marshall on reeds, guitarists Kevin Breit and T Bone Burnett, and original members of the Bad Seeds on bass and drums. Songs such as All of Me and The Way You Look Tonight are stripped of their swing feel, but not their poetry. The effects are melancholic and mysterious; miraculously, it all works. More appealing with each listen, this album is a fascinating, courageous work of art that captures Holiday’s spirit. This is intoxicating music that begs to be turned up.

02c_Annie_Ross.jpgIn the prime of her career Annie Ross possessed one of the most elastic voices in jazz. Uniquely suited to the intricacies of bebop, her horn-like instrument back in the day was skyscraping in range and weapon-like in precision. A half-century later, decades of hard living and the inevitabilities of time have transformed this mythical vocalist, actress and lyricist down to human size. A real-life friend of Billie Holiday, on To Lady With Love the frail 84-year-old Ross bares her naked heart for the listener in a fashion Lady Day would have treasured. The minimalistic accompaniment of phenomenal father/son duo Bucky and John Pizzarelli adds immensely to the album’s musical intimacy. On torch anthems such as It’s Easy to Remember and I’m a Fool to Want You phrases sting like iodine on a fresh wound. This unforgettable album was, without a doubt, a cathartic experience for Ross. Listen with headphones and you might cry, too.

 

Author: Ori Dagan
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03_ATOMIC_COVER_LUCIDITY.jpgLucidity
Atomic
Jazzland Recordings Norway No. 2
471-991 B (jazzlandrec.com)

First formed in 2000, the quintet Atomic has developed into a key voice in current jazz, its distinct identity comprised of strong rhythmic grooves, free jazz fireworks and the edgy ensemble precision of post-bop jazz. The Scandinavian band has honed its art in the furnace of frequent tours over years, becoming a genuinely international presence. Lucidity is the band’s first CD since drummer Paal Nilssen-Love’s 2014 departure and Hans Hulbœkmo’s arrival, the band’s first personnel change. Atomic has done more than survive the loss of Europe’s most dynamic younger drummer: it’s found a new balance.

With compositions provided by saxophonist and clarinetist Fredrik Ljungkvist and pianist Håvard Wiik, Atomic presses forward on strong personalities and rare flexibility, with the aggressive brassy presence of trumpeter Magnus Broo defining the ensembles and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten the group’s molten core. While Ljungkvist’s Major swings hard and continuously, Wiik’s Laterna Interfuit touches down on many bases, a gentle folk-like opening, a brashly dissonant fanfare and improvised passages that range through collective blowing from the horns and Wiik’s own airy, post-bop interlude.

That quicksilver creativity extends to Ljungkvist’s descriptively titled Start/Stop, from its eerie and slightly muffled night music beginning to its eventual rapid theme filled with wide intervals and accompanying clusters. Negotiating a shifting ground between composition and improvisation and a host of sounds, moods and methodologies, Atomic is devoted to keeping themselves and the audience engaged.

 

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04_TwoPiano.jpgTwo Piano Concert at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Michael Snow; Thollem McDonas
Edgetone EDT 4148 edgetonerecords.com

Besides distinguishing himself as one of Canada’s most lauded filmmakers and visual artists, Toronto’s Michael Snow maintains a parallel career as an improvising pianist. Most frequently working as a charter member of the local CCMC, on occasion he matches wits with outsiders. A bonus as part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s retrospective of his work Two Piano Concert featured a duet with peripatetic American improviser Thollem McDonas. Although both are pianists, the selections clearly outline the individuality of each so-called avant-garde player.

With the metronomic 176-key assault only brought to the fore for emphasis, the most frequent strategy in this three-track recital is for one pianist to squirm and skip a theme to a certain point where it’s either embellished with arpeggios and strums or challenged at half speed with contrapuntal asides by the other. Besides this, the keyboardists often converse like an old married couple, finishing each other’s phrases. More like hearing two Cecil Taylors, rather than any conventional piano duo, the two utilize all parts of their instruments. Shrill key clips and tremolo backboard echoes are only part of this; so are wood-rending scratches and harp-like inner string strums. Snow identifies himself most clearly on Two even as McDonas pounds out sardonic Chopstick-like rhythms or identifiable bop runs. Unexpectedly, the Canadian, who apprenticed playing classic jazz, sounds out a perfect stride piano lick which would have done James P. Johnson proud. McDonas’ response is to swell his glissandi to such an extent that they fill every molecule of the resulting soundscape. That challenge met, the final track features a satisfying return to carefully timed sympathetic patterning.

There’s no way Snow will ever have to fall back on his second career, but Two Piano Concert confirms that his keyboard inventiveness and professionalism allow him to hold his own with – and sometime best – a full-time improviser.

 


01_Red_Chamber.jpgGathering
Red Chamber
Za Discs N17 mei-han.com

Review

Red Chamber is not your typical Chinese string band. The Vancouver-based group has seriously eclectic, transcultural tastes. Led by the zheng scholar and virtuoso Mei Han, the group includes Guilian Liu on pipa, Zhimin Yu on zhongruan, daruan, and Geling Jiang on sanxian and zhongruan. They are all masters of their respective plucked Chinese string instruments.

Already well established as professional musicians in mainland China, these women sought a second home on Canada’s west coast where they have expanded both their careers – and ears. Mei Han reflects on this process of cultural awareness: “[As we] travelled around the world and collaborated with artists from a wide range of cultures, we have grown to become more open and aware.”

Gathering, their second album, exhibits influences of diverse musics discernable in the inclusion of instruments such as the tabla, djembe, dumbek and gong. Multiethnic melodic layers are also in ample evidence. The scores variously draw on Chinese, Arabic, West African, Klezmer, Greek, Turkish, Cape Breton and Métis sources, performed on Red Chamber’s Chinese plucked strings. The latter range from the brittle high-trilled notes of the pipa to bass daruan tones.

The album’s success owes much to Vancouver composers Moshe Denburg, John Oliver and Randy Raine-Reusch. They each contributed scores, exploring this transcultural terrain, which were then skillfully articulated and extended by the musicians. Just one example: while Ah Ya Zein, an Arabic love song arranged by Raine-Reusch, is culturally anchored by Gord Grdina’s moody oud expositions, it is MeiHan’s inspired mercurial zheng solo that provides the most unexpected musical thrill.

I saw Red Chamber live at Toronto’s Music Gallery in 2010. I was mightily impressed not only by the individual virtuosity of the musicians, but also by their tight ensemble and culturally inclusive repertoire. Until they grace a hall near you, this enjoyable record is the closest to a transnational musical Silk Road journey you can experience.

Listen

Madly Riding

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Dark Red Ruby

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Ah Ya Zein

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Video

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Author: Andrew Timar
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02_Purcells_Revenge.jpgPurcell’s Revenge – Sweeter Than Roses?
Concerto Caledonia; David McGuinness
Delphian DCD34161

Listening to this CD, I felt as though I’d mysteriously stumbled onto the playlist of a stranger who had searched using the keywords “Purcell, Scottish, early music, folk, crossover, James Oswald.” Anyone looking for multiple ways to reinvent Purcell and traditional tunes connected to him will find much to enjoy in the broad swath that this program cuts; but cohesive it’s not.

James Bowman makes a cameo appearance singing Sweeter Than Roses with viol consort, and Jim Moray sings a convincing and innocently folky Fairest Isle. Olivia Chaney’s singing in her wonderful arrangement of There’s not a swain on the plain reminds me of the great Maddy Prior; and Pamela Thorby does an excellent job of whistle-izing a recorder. The connection between Purcell’s New Scotch Tune for solo harpsichord and a hook harp version of the tune speaks elegantly for itself, as does a broken consort version of Purcell’s Fantazia 11, and there are a couple of delightful new pieces by Chaney and Ana Silvera.

But some of the other material left me cold, such as the revamp of Purcell’s Evening Hymn, the original of which is so gorgeous I don’t know why anyone would want to mess with it. Elsewhere there’s some very good harmonica playing, and “rock on” amplification, of which I’d have liked either more, or none. There’s much cleverness and musical delight here, but this particular “anything goes” program doesn’t quite satisfy.

 


Review

01_Hilary_Hahn.jpgThe wonderful Hilary Hahn has a new CD that features two concertos that have a strong personal resonance for her. On Violin Concertos: Mozart 5 Vieuxtemps 4 (Deutsche Grammophon 4793956) Hahn plays two concertos that she first learned at the age of 10. The Vieuxtemps Concerto No.4 in D Minor Op.31 was the last work she learned with Klara Berkovich, her first main teacher, and Mozart’s Concerto No.5 in A Major K219 was the first work she learned with Jascha Brodsky when she moved to the Curtis Institute of Music later the same year.

Hahn notes that both works have been pillars of her performance repertoire ever since, and her familiarity with and deep understanding of these works is evident throughout the CD, the Mozart in particular benefitting from her usual crystal-clear tone and her immaculate and intelligent phrasing.

The Vieuxtemps Concerto No.4 has always lived in the shadow of his Concerto No.5 in A Minor, and will probably be new to most listeners; I don’t recall having heard it before. It’s somewhat unusual in that it has four movements instead of the customary three, although Vieuxtemps did indicate that the Scherzo third movement could be omitted in performance. You can perhaps understand why: the Scherzo has a very strong ending that sounds for all the world like the end of the concerto,while the Andante opening to the actual Finale feels more like the start of a completely new work. Still, it’s a fine concerto, with a particularly effective slow movement, and it’s difficult to imagine it receiving a better performance.

Hahn is accompanied by the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen under Paavo Järvi, whom she describes as “musical partners for a long time.” It certainly shows in these terrific performances.

Listen

Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 5 - Allegro aperto
https://open.spotify.com/track/3IIps6UFhvqBK8RQrkcD7A

Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 5 - Adagio
https://open.spotify.com/track/1IQK8wjZCCb5LkwsSJXVhH

Vieuxtemps: Violin Concerto No. 4 - Andante - Moderato
https://open.spotify.com/track/24W6j0YnggVnUD5EioFVac

02_Goldberg.jpgThe Bach Goldberg Variations have been the subject of many varied instrumental arrangements over the years, with one of the best being the transcription for string trio that the violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky made in 1985 to mark the 300th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The string trio version serves the predominantly three-part keyboard writing particularly well, and Sitkovetsky later expanded this into a transcription for string orchestra; it is this version that is given a beautiful performance by England’s Britten Sinfonia, directed by their associate leader Thomas Gould, on a new harmonia mundi Super Audio CD (HMU 807633).

The larger forces involved (the string strength is 6-5-4-3-2) don’t ever seem to present a problem with regard to the intimacy and nature of the music, partly because it’s not a case of everybody playing all the time; there is a judicial use of solo instruments, especially in the really tricky fast passages, and the playing is always beautifully measured.

The CD jewel case quotes a Guardian newspaper review of a concert performance of this version of the Variations by the Britten Sinfonia, calling it “an astonishing performance that preserved the delicate contrapuntal intricacy of Bach’s original.” The same can confidently be said of this CD.

03_Bach_Hopkinson_Smith.jpgThere are more Bach transcriptions available in a 4 CD box set of the works for solo violin and solo cello, Sonatas & Partitas, Suites, this time in transcriptions for lute and theorbo by the American lutenist Hopkinson Smith (naïve 8 22186 08939 2). The set is a reissue in box form of Smith’s previous CDs; the Violin Sonatas & Partitas were recorded in 1999 and the Cello Suites in 1980, 1992 and 2012. A theorbo is used for the first three cello suites and a 13-course baroque lute for the violin works and the cello suites four to six.

The two individual cello CDs were reviewed in this column in April 2013, but these performances of the violin works are new to me. They are naturally in much the same style as the cello transcriptions, with a good deal of filling-in of harmony – although an underpinning of the implied harmonic structure might be a more accurate description – and a softer sound and smaller dynamic range than the original. Multiple stopping is much smoother, making it easier to hold and bring out the melodic line. The English composer and guitarist John Duarte, in his July 2000 Gramophone magazine review, called these performances “arguably the best you can buy of these works – on any instrument.”

In the expansive and detailed booklet notes, Smith makes a strong case for transcribing this music, pointing out that Bach himself played the violin works on the harpsichord with full accompaniment. These CD performances, however, make the strongest case you could ever need. It’s a marvellous set.

04_Haydn_Seven.jpgAnother work presented in a transcribed version on a new CD is Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross, performed by the Attacca Quartet in a new arrangement by their cellist Andrew Yee (Azica ACD-71299). Although this is a work that is now most commonly performed by a string quartet it does exist in several versions, and Yee has chosen a new and creative approach with his arrangement.

Haydn wrote the work in 1786 on a commission from Cádiz Cathedral for an orchestral setting to be used in their Good Friday service, in which the reading of – and short sermon on – each of the seven quotes from scripture was followed by a musical interlude appropriate in expression to the preceding reflections. The work proved to be extremely popular, and Haydn clearly considered it valid outside of the liturgical framework, the publication of the orchestral version in 1787 being accompanied by both a Haydn-approved piano four-hand reduction and a string quartet version. The latter (which may not have been entirely Haydn’s work) essentially followed the violin, viola and cello parts from the orchestral version and ignored the wind parts. Haydn apparently wasn’t too happy with it, and although it probably wasn’t intended for anything other than amateur home performance it is the version we usually hear today.

In 1795 Haydn heard a performance of the work in a German choral version by Joseph Friebert, and was sufficiently impressed to make his own oratorio arrangement for soloists, choir and orchestra, a version which incorporated significant changes to the original work. All but one of the seven sections were preceded by a chorale setting of the relevant scripture passage, and the work was split into two sections, with a new introduction to the second half.

For this Attacca Quartet arrangement, Yee studied the original orchestral, string quartet and oratorio settings, with many of the editorial decisions based on the oratorio version; indeed, the jewel case blurb calls this recording “a new arrangement of the oratorio version.” It’s certainly extremely effective, and is beautifully played by the quartet, with a sensitive and spare use of vibrato and a clear empathy for the nature and meaning of the music. It’s easily the most satisfying string version of the work that I’ve heard.

05_Autumn_of_Soul.jpgAutumn of the Soul is a charming new CD by the Italian guitarist Lorenzo Micheli featuring works by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Vicente Asencio, Angelo Gilardino, Alexandre Tansman and Pierre de Bréville (Contrastes Records CR9201409).

Andrés Segovia is not directly represented on the CD, but his influence links all the pieces together. Tansman and de Bréville were two of the composers who wrote works for Segovia following his groundbreaking 1924 solo guitar recital in Paris. Tansman, whose association with Segovia lasted for over 50 years, is represented by two works: the three-movement Hommage à Chopin and the Variations sur un thème de Scriabine. The French composer de Bréville’s short untitled composition from 1926 was never performed by Segovia, and remained unknown until the discovery of the manuscript in the Segovia archives in 2001.Gilardino was one of the two editors who published the work under the title Fantasia. Gilardino’s own Canzone notturna is included here. Asencio’s Suite mistica consists of three short movements inspired by the New Testament; the work was dedicated to Segovia, who suggested the title.

The CD opens and closes with selected movements from Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Platero y yo, a work inspired by the 1914 book of children’s prose by the Andalusian poet Juan Ramón Jiménez that tells the story of the donkey Platero and his owner. It was written in 1960, coincidentally the same year a similar suite with the same name was composed by Eduardo Sáinz de la Maza, and was originally meant to be played in conjunction with a reading of the poems. Segovia intended to record it this way, but only managed ten of the pieces without narration. Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s work perhaps doesn’t have quite the Spanish warmth of the Maza version, but the eight movements here are quite delightful. Micheli’s playing is clean and accurate throughout a quite challenging selection of works.

06_Emil_Altschuler.jpgThe young American violinist Emil Altschuler has a terrific pedigree, having studied with the legendary Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard and with Erick Friedman at the Yale School of Music. His self-titled and independently released CD (emilaltschuler.com) – apparently his second solo album – features works by Falla, Ravel, Albèniz, Poulenc and Bartók, with pianist Keunyoung Sun as accompanist.

There’s a decidedly old-style feel to Altschuler’s playing, with the almost constant fast vibrato and the bright, slightly nasal tone very reminiscent of Heifetz. His website says that he plays with gut strings and without a shoulder rest, and notes that his sound is indeed reminiscent of old school masters such as his former teacher Friedman, and Heifetz and Kreisler. Friedman was in turn a student of Heifetz, so the link is a valid one.

There is no booklet with the CD, just a single slip of paper in the jewel case front flap, so there is a complete lack of details regarding the recordings; the program, however, is apparently one which Altschuler has been touring for several years. Falla is represented by the Siete canciones populares Españolas and the Danse Espagnol from La Vide Breve; Ravel by the Pièce en forme de Habanera and the Tzigane; and Albéniz by the Tango Op.165 No.2. Poulenc’s Violin Sonata Op.119, written in 1942-43, seems to be a bit out of place in a predominantly Spanish program, but a passionate performance proves that it’s a terrific work which really should be heard more often. Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances are listed as bonus tracks – possibly because they were not part of Altschuler’s regular recital program – and provide an energetic end to the CD.

07_Little_Girl_Blue.jpgI originally knew Nina Simone only from her 1960s hit I Put a Spell on You, and then later as a jazz singer with a highly distinctive voice and style, but Little Girl Blue, the new CD from cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton (naïve V 5376), shows how little I actually knew about the range of this artist’s work. Pianist Bruno Fontaine and percussionist Laurent Kraif join the cellist in a program, sub-titled From Nina Simone, that explores Simone’s legacy – “her repertory, her arrangements, her harmonic universe and her story too,” says Wieder-Atherton in the sparse booklet notes, although the significance of one or two of the tracks isn’t made clear.

Simone was a classically trained pianist who won a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music (she left after running out of money) and was then denied admission to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, a rejection she always believed to be racially motivated. She was also an accomplished jazz pianist. Little Girl Blue was the title of Simone’s debut album in 1958, and the Rodgers & Hart song is presented here (with a nod to Simone’s own interpolation of Good King Wenceslas in the number) along with four compositions by Simone and a selection of songs by, among others, Duke Ellington, Billy Taylor, Fritz Rotter and Oscar Brown Jr., and two classical works: the Brahms setting of the Bach choral prelude Schmücke dich, o liebe seele and the Andante middle movement from Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata in G Minor.

The mood throughout the CD is predominantly quiet and introspective, but it is full of lovely moments. The tracks with just piano accompaniment fare much better than some of those with percussion – bells and clusters, hand pans, water drum, grain basket and body percussion (including popping the finger from the mouth) for example – which sometimes seems to detract from the music rather than add to it. Wieder-Atherton’s style in the ballads is quite affecting, and there is some lovely playing from Fontaine, particularly in Fritz Rotter’s That’s All I Want From You, the title track and the two classical items, neither of which sounds the least bit out of place in this setting. Indeed, Simone’s own composition Return Home, the final track on the CD, ends with a whimsical quote from Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor

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