04 Classical 05 Saint Saens CelloIn the New Releases section of The WholeNote last October I enthusiastically reviewed Le Sacre du Printemps and Petrouchka performed by an orchestra new to me, Les Siècles directed by François-Xavier Roth. The initial interest was the score of Le Sacre, a scholarly and painstaking reconstruction of Stravinsky’s original, played on period instruments. It proved to be a lot more than simply that. Since then I now have all seven of their recordings made since 2009 and each disc is exemplary and first in its class. I am pleased to briefly draw them to your attention.

Les Siècles, founded in 2003 by their conductor François-Xavier Roth, is an orchestra of outstanding younger musicians drawn from France’s best ensembles. They have full access to original instruments from the Baroque period forward and employ the instruments in use at the time of each composition… not copies but the instruments themselves. The effect on the different overall timbre is a revelation, not weakening the impact but increasing and refining as never before. Except for the Berlioz, the liner notes with each disc list the name of every player together with their instrument and its provenance. All their recorded performances, regardless of the many venues, enjoy the same translucent 3D sound thanks to Jiri Heger, a professional violist and composer, who produces, balances, mixes and edits the recordings.

A review of Stravinsky’s Firebird (1910) and the Fokine ballet Le Orientales (1910) (ASM 06) appeared in the Classical and Beyond section of the November issue, easily found at thewholehote.com. Here are the other five North American releases on their own label, Les Siècles Live:

07 Bruce 01 BerliozBerlioz: Symphonie Fantastique (ASM 02). With all of the competition it is impressive how many unsuspected shadowy areas are gently illuminated to emotional effect. I’ve never noticed that at the end of the first movement the dreamer falls into deep sleep. The second movement has all the diaphanous textures that one could want – extraordinary articulation in the strings so well captured in the recording. Movement three is a little gentler than usual and still the soundscape is uncanny in revealing everything without highlighting anything. The fourth is rich timbres as opposed the usual blaring or shrieking. The tempo stays moderate and constant to great effect. The final movement is very controlled and has a steady forward stable flow, which without sounding driven, is faster than usual. Very satisfying indeed. Recorded live at La Côte-Saint André.

07 Bruce 02 LisztLiszt: Dante Symphony; Orpheus (ASM 07). This is an outstanding performance of this most elusive of Liszt’s large orchestral works, with long solo lines that require sensitive treatment; they certainly get it here with flowing sinuous lines, unmistakably pre-Wagnerian. The gentle effulgence of the final Magnificat is ethereally sublime with a boys choir. An uncommonly poetic reading of Orpheus benefits from the same acoustic, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Laon. Definitive performances and a must-have for fans of the repertoire.

07 Bruce 03 DuboisTheodore Dubois: Piano Concerto No.2, Overture de Frithiof, Dixtuor (ASM 09). Attractive works made all the more charming by the sound of the less percussive 1874 Érard piano. It is important to music lovers to have such sensitive performances of this still out-of-the-way French minor master. This repertoire is something Les Siècles obviously enjoy doing and they do it uniquely.

07 Bruce 04 DebussyDebussy: Premiére Suite d’Orchestre, La Mer (ASM 10). This disc contains the 25-minute orchestral suite written in 1883/84 when Debussy was departing from the tradition of his masters at the Conservatoire. Although the scoring was completed by Philippe Manoury it is self-recommending, especially after the subtle and colourful account of La Mer played with all the finesse now expected of this ensemble.

07 Bruce 05 DukasDukas: L’Apprenti Sorcier, Velléda, Polyeucte (ASM 12). The playful Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Dukas’ best known opus based on the amusing tale of the magician’s acolyte whose invocations get out of hand, is just made for this versatile group. It is nice to also have two out-of-the-way works to fill out his meagre catalogue; Velléda, a cantata for soprano, tenor and bass-baritone based on a text by Fernand Beissier, and the dramatic overture to Corneille’s tragedy Polyeucte.

Les Siècles’ live recordings are published by Musicales Actes Sud, a part of the publishing empire Actes sud in Arles.

07 Bruce 06 NovaesOne of my most pleasant memories from back in the day, around 1960, was a recital given at the University of Toronto by the Brazilian pianist Guiomar Novaes. I recall a lady of slight stature gently walking over the piano, seating motionless and waiting for the recording light to indicate that she was “on.” She immediately began playing and when she finished she just walked off. I was enchanted by her playing as were the other members of the audience. Today I still see her clearly in my mind’s eye but sadly cannot recall the repertoire. Novaes (1895-1979) was a pianist firmly rooted in the Romantic era who began making recordings in 1919 and continued well into the LP era, recording some major works including concertos by Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin and Schumann with conductors Otto Klemperer, Jonel Perlea and Hans Swarowsky. Among her admirers was the respected New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg who wrote in her obituary that “the sheer beauty of her playing managed to transcend any other considerations; it was its own reward… it is hard to think of a pianist whose playing gave so much pleasure as that of Guiomar Novaes.” It is claimed by the cognoscenti that her aristocratic and seemingly effortless playing is best represented by her pre-LP recordings, long out of print and sought after by collectors. Appian has collected her Complete 78RPM Recordings and issued them on a reduced price two-CD set (APR 6015). Recorded between 1919 and 1927 (disc one) and 1940 to 1947 (disc two), the sound reflects their vintage but the collection of short works reflects an era when an artist was expected to inflect performances. The 53 tracks include works by Gottschalk, Chopin, Albéniz, Liszt, Beethoven, Scarlatti and others, including 16 of Villa-Lobos. Note that the surface noise of the original 78s is, of course, omnipresent.  

Threads008THREADS (Quintet)
Trio Records TRP-019

Every since he arrived in Toronto from his native Vancouver in 2001, guitarist Ken Aldcroft has been a constant presence on this city’s improvised music scene. Whether helping to organize concerts, teaching, playing solo gigs or as part of ensembles of varied sizes, he’s constantly exceeding expectations of what jazz involves. Also exceeding expectations is the first CD by his newest ensemble, which presents this music in concert at Jazz at Oscar’s this month.

Having recorded six CDs with his regular Convergence combo, Aldcroft changes gears on 10/09/11 by supplanting its free-bop orientation for one that offers more space and an almost unmetered beat. Besides Aldcroft, the only Convergence holdover is alto saxophonist Karen Ng, with the band filled out by drummer Germaine Liu plus the characteristic grooves of Josh Cole’s electric bass and Jonathan Adjemian’s analog synthesizer. With each of Aldcroft’s three originals entitled Threads plus a numeral and the disc recorded in 2013, it’s likely the CD title refers to a time of inspiration and composition.

Essentially each of the longish tunes, clocking in at between 18 and almost 25 minutes, showcases varied facets of the quintet. With percussion pulses that slide from parade band whacks to (Canadian) Indian-like rattling and back again, Threads III is the gentlest of the three, with slowly evaporating sax slurs matched with echoing guitar timbres. Threads I has more energy. Here Aldcroft’s crescendo of arpeggiated string licks faces tough, angled reed bites and buzzing synth interjections. Underneath, Adjemian’s staccato blurts plus Liu’s bass drum pops replicate an Upper Canadian version of a Second Line rhythm. Lengthiest of all, the introductory Threads II defines the quintet’s distinct parameters. Harmonized bass and guitar strums steady the beat, leaving enough openings for Ng’s blazing staccato cries, Liu’s irregular thumps and ruffs plus synthesizer fills that at points resemble Morse code, at others what an electric piano would sound like with a cold. Aldcroft’s twangs plus Ng’s volatile tone nudge the narrative towards a satisfying climax.

A notable achievement from an ensemble that offers sonic maturity as it’s in the process of being created.

Concert note: The THREADS (Quintet) is in concert at Jazz at Oscar’s, Hart House University of Toronto January 16.

December Editor scans 01 When Music SoundsIt has been a hard choice this month winnowing down the plethora of new and exciting discs that have crossed my desk to the few that will fit in my allotted space. The top of the pile is a recent release on the Naxos Canadian Classics label, When Music Sounds (9.70126), featuring cello and piano music by some of this country’s most significant pioneers. I first heard rumours of this recording five years ago when I was preparing the discography for John Weinzweig: Essays on His Life and Music edited by John Beckwith and Brian Cherney (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2011). Noted pianist and musicologist Elaine Keillor notified us that she had just recorded Weinzweig’s Sonata for Cello and Piano “Israel” (1949) with cellist Joan Harrison and although the disc was not available in time to be included in the book I have been looking forward to its release ever since. Although I did not realize how much time would pass before the disc would be in hand, I must say that seeing it released by Naxos with its global distribution has been worth the wait. Weinzweig’s sonata, dedicated to the newly established state of Israel, blends his use of 12-tone technique, which he had been developing over a decade at that point, and Jewish-influenced melodies, with the cello acting as the voice of a cantor.

The disc is bookended by two works by Jean Coulthard, When Music Sounds, a short and very lyrical, if somewhat contemplative work dating from 1970 making it by far the most recent composition to be found here, and the Sonata for Cello and Piano (1946) which I must confess is my favourite selection with its shades of Debussy and cascading melodies. Violet Archer is represented by another work in traditional form, the four-movement Sonata for Cello and Piano (1956, rev.1972). Again a lyrical work, but with an edge, especially in the driving toccata-like finale. There is one delightful surprise on the disc, the charming Chants oubliés and Danse (1916) by someone whose name is very familiar, but not as a composer. Evidently Alberto Guerrero (1886-1959), likely best known as Glenn Gould’s main (only?) piano teacher, was highly regarded as a composer, pianist and pedagogue in his native Chile before settling in Toronto. If this work is any indication we can only regret that he gave up composing, although we certainly have to be thankful that he did not abandon pedagogy since through nurturing the remarkable talents of Gould, Guerrero left an indelible mark on this country and the musical world.

Regarding the sound of the disc I do have a few qualms, mostly with the sound of the cello. Recorded in City View Church in Ottawa by Anton Kwiatkowski’s Audio Masters I am surprised to find the cello quite harsh, a characteristic of the particular instrument itself rather than the playing I suspect. It works quite well in the Archer, but I would like a warmer sound in the more lyrical works. That thought notwithstanding, this is still a significant release. The recordings of the title track and the Guerrero are world premieres, the Archer has not previously existed on compact disc as far as I can tell and the Weinzweig and Coulthard sonatas have had only one iteration each on CD. Now, if we could have a recording of Barbara Pentland’s cello sonata from 1943 please…

December Editor scans 02 Sounds of Our TimeI grew up with the understanding that Weinzweig, Archer and Coulthard were the first generation of Canadian composers and they were already in the late stages of their careers as I was coming to musical consciousness. But the works presented by Harrison and Keillor are the creations of young(ish) composers, the most senior being Archer at the ripe old age of 43 (although she did revisit the work almost two decades later). In another Naxos Canadian Classics release, Sounds of Our Time (9.70212), we are given the opportunity to hear a new generation of composers, ranging in age from 22 to 35 at the time of composition. Again the works are for cello and piano, in this instance performed by the Mercer-Park Duo (Rachel Mercer and Angela Park), themselves emerging artists at the beginning of blossoming careers, who perform together in a variety of contexts including this duo, the Seiler Piano Trio, the Kang-Mercer-Park Trio and the piano quartet Ensemble Made In Canada. They have each received innumerable distinctions, perhaps most notably Mercer’s being awarded the loan of the 1696 Bonjour Stradivarius cello from the Canada Council Instrument Bank from 2009 to 2012 which is heard in all its glory on this recording. I said the works were for cello and piano, but in one instance this is not the case and we get to hear the Strad in duet with itself as Mercer plays both parts in Ex Animo for Two Cellos, a 2010 composition by 22-year-old Hunter Coblentz. Producer Norbert Kraft says the process of overdubbing was a new one for him as a classical recording engineer, where the norm is one player per instrument, but the end result is entirely convincing with no hint of prestidigitation in the warm and well-balanced performance.

Coblentz is just one of the names new to me here. The disc starts with William Rowson’s (b.1977) Sonata for Cello and Piano (2012) and finishes with I Thirst (2008) by Mark Nerenberg (b.1973), both composers I was unaware of. Rowson’s opens with belling chords in the piano and a lilting melody in the cello which is later traded back and forth between the players. Like all the works on the disc, chosen by the duo for their immediate appeal, there is strong lyricism and fairly traditional tonality combined with a sense of drama. Inspired by the Seven Last Words (of Christ on the Cross), I Thirst is a bit of an exception with its mood of quiet contemplation providing a gentle and effective end to a marvellous journey.

In between we encounter the work of a couple of more established composers, Kevin Lau and Abigail Richardson-Schulte, both laureates of the Karen Keiser Prize at the University of Toronto. Lau is currently an affiliate composer of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, a post that Richardson-Schulte held from 2006 to 2009. She continues as the coordinator of the TSO’s annual New Creations Festival and is currently Composer-in-Residence with the Hamilton Philharmonic. Lau’s one movement work Starsail (2008) represents, in the composer’s words, “one individual’s journey into the great unknown, both beautiful and terrifying in its infinitude and mystery.” As the cello sails through the oft-stormy textures of the piano we are taken along for a wild ride with a transcendental ending. Richardson-Schulte’s Crossings (2011), although couched in a traditional four-movement chamber form, employs some interesting contemporary alternatives to standard practices which the composer outlines in the program note. Of particular interest to my ears is the quietly playful second movement in which the pianist explores the inside of the instrument with the aid of a ping-pong ball resulting in some unusual sounds. This work was commissioned by the Mercer-Park Duo and, like the rest of the pieces included here, is a world premiere recording. Throughout the performances are brilliant and the sound, recorded in Glenn Gould Studio, is flawless.

At the launch for this new “disc” I was surprised to learn that it is one of Naxos’ digital only releases. I wondered how this could be as I looked down at the hard-copy in my hand and was told that the duo had requested some physical product to sell at performances. Evidently this is the way of the immediate future. Naxos (and other companies) are quickly moving away from the production of discs and in many instances downloads will be the only way to obtain new releases other than from the artists themselves. As a staunch believer in full frequency listening (not possible with mp3s) I am initially skeptical about this new development. I have been assured however that “lossless” formats do exist and that Naxos will be offering “high definition” downloads that exceed the audio standards of the compact disc. I am not yet convinced, but will try to keep an open mind (and ear) as we explore the various options and possibilities in WholeNote articles in the coming months.

Lest you begin to suspect that all the composers of the new generation are imbued with romantic tendencies and write only in traditional styles, or for that matter that Naxos is the only source for contemporary Canadian music, I want to disabuse you of both notions. The Canadian Music Centre continues to release a wealth of material on its Centrediscs label in a wide range of artistic styles and there are a number of independent sources as well. A case in point is young composer Nick Storring, recipient of the 2011 Toronto Emerging Composer Award administered by the CMC and supported by Michael M. Koerner and Roger D. Moore. The annual award “supports the creation of a new musical work or the completion of an existing music-based project. It will be offered to the candidate who best demonstrates artistic excellence matched by innovation, experimentation and a willingness to take risks.” Incidentally, the deadline for proposals for the next award is January 23, 2015.

December Editor scans 03 Nick StorringGardens (nickstorring.ca) is a 45-minute suite inspired by composer/arranger Charles Stepney and more specifically, pop icon Minnie Ripperton’s debut album Come To My Garden which Stepney produced a decade before Storring was born. While this may seem a surprising point of departure for a (post)classical composition, the result is an intriguing melange of sound that the composer says, contains no borrowed material. Storring also points out that there is no special effects processing involved in the production of the somewhat otherworldly sounds which all have their origins in live instrumental performance. The list of instruments is extensive, some four dozen in all, ranging from violin, cello, banjo and autoharp through a variety of electric strings and keyboards to percussion instruments, recorders, flutes, pan pipes and kazoo, plus a number of exotic sounding things the nature of which I can only imagine. All are played by Storring himself. The overall effect is vaguely dreamlike, at times reminiscent of Brian Eno’s ambient experiments with touches of Indonesian gamelan textures, Ry Cooder or perhaps Bill Frisell guitar slides, bagpipe-like drones (although I don’t see pipes listed) and bell-chime melodies suggesting Ripperton’s haunting soprano voice. All in all it must be heard to be believed. Certainly the seed money provided by the emerging composer award has come to full blossom on this disc.

December Editor scans 04 Magister LudiI first heard the music of Gordon Fitzell when New Music Concerts (of which, in the spirit of full disclosure, I will admit to being the general manager) presented Generation 2000, the first of what would become a bi-annual cross country tour by the Ensemble contemporain de Montréal (now ECM+) as part of the second Massey Hall New Music Festival. In the intervening years New Music Concerts and the Music Gallery have been the Toronto hosts for each of the subsequent tours, which feature four young composers selected by jury from across Canada, most recently this past November with Generation 2014. That occasion was also the launch of Magister Ludi – Music of Gordon Fitzell,the latest CD by ECM+ and their second on the Centrediscs label (CMCCD 20414).

Manitoba-born Fitzell studied at the Universities of Brandon and Alberta before completing his doctorate at UBC, and now teaches at the University of Manitoba. As mentioned, his relationship with ECM+ dates back a decade and a half and as director Véronique Lacroix relates in the liner notes, it has been something of an ongoing affair and a rewarding one at that. In addition to Flux, written for that first “Generation” tour, ECM+ commissioned the title track – a work for flute octet and solo cello – and premiered Pangaea Ultima, for bass clarinet, percussion, piano, electric guitar, violin and double bass. All of these are featured on this disc, along with violence, a work commissioned and previously recorded by the renowned American contemporary sextet eighth blackbird, and Evanescence for small ensemble (doubling on crystal glasses and ceramic bowl) with interactive electronics. This latter is actually based on the former work and was premiered by eighth blackbird at The Kitchen in New York in 2007. Since that time Evanescence has received nearly 100 performances (including one in Toronto by the New Music Concerts ensemble under the direction of Robert Aitken in 2011) and was the centrepiece of an ECM+ concert of the same name in 2014.

Fitzell’s work is often inspired by extra-musical ideas – Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game being the basis of “an audacious expression of the fundamental and seemingly ethereal presence of the universe” in Magister Ludi, “exploring the phenomenon of perceived variances in the flow of experiential time” in Flux and reflecting on the “hypothetical supercontinent that is expected to form over the next several hundred million years as the result of a merging of the Earth’s landmasses” in Pangaea Ultima. His sound world involves extended instrumental techniques and extra-musical effects – the electronic processing and crystal glasses mentioned above and a prominent musical saw in Pangaea Ultima to name a few. The language is firmly based in the “hard core” school of contemporary composition with no hint of the neo-Romanticism so prominent among many younger composers, without however being particularly abrasive. There is a warmth and welcoming in the music that belies the fact that you won’t come away from the listening experience humming any catchy tunes. 

Like so much of what ECM+ takes on, this is challenging repertoire and a brave undertaking. The ensemble proves itself once again well up to the task with its virtuosity and fluency in contemporary idioms. This disc is a testament to the vision and determination, not to mention the consummate musicianship, of Lacroix who has been at the helm since founding the ensemble in 1987. 

December Editor scans 05 Beethoven PendereckiIf there’s one genre I like above all others it is the string quartet, and it doesn’t get any better than late Beethoven. This is not to say it doesn’t get as good as that in for instance Bartók and Shostakovich, just that Beethoven is hard to beat. So it was with pleasant anticipation that I took up the latest release from the Penderecki String Quartet – Beethoven String Quartets Opp.132 & 135 (Marquis MAR 81449).

There is of course no shortage of recordings of Beethoven’s quartets; a quick search of the Atelier Grigorian website resulted in 95 to choose from, including complete cycles of all 16 by most of the major quartets of the 20th and 21st century. In a strange way this is why it is in a sense refreshing to have a single release from one of Canada’s premiere ensembles, encouraging focus on just a couple of great works rather than immersion in an entire oeuvre. These final two offerings (although as the liner note points out No.15, Op.132 was in fact composed before No.13, Op.130) stand alone in the canon and are surprisingly different from each other. Op.132 in A minor is extremely dark, but never lugubrious, over most of its 45 minutes, with a central Molto Adagio-Andante movement lasting more than a quarter of an hour. A stately, but at times still mysterious Alla Marcia provides a bridge to the uplifting Molto appassionato; Presto finale providing light at the end of the tunnel. The final quartet in F major, is relatively light-hearted with its Allegretto opening and scherzo-like Vivace second movement in which, in the words of annotator Jan Narveson, “the lower three instruments play the same slightly mad figure over and over (48 times!) while the first violin cavorts insanely above them.” A darker Lento assai is then followed by a finale that starts out Grave with Beethoven’s own question “Must it be?” but soon resolves into a sunny and ebullient response: “It must be!”

The Penderecki Quartet is in fine form throughout, with its nuanced inflections capturing the various moods of these mighty works. This release confirms that the PSQ is as at home in the standard repertoire as it is in the realm of the modern and contemporary where they are most often found. Known for their interpretations of such modern masters as Szymanowski, Bartók, Lutosławski and their namesake, the quartet also champions the work of Canadian composers including Harry Freedman, Alice Ho, Gilles Tremblay, Piotr Grella-Możejko, Glenn Buhr and Marjan Mozetich to name a few. The PSQ website lists 30 CD titles (some unfortunately out of print) including half a dozen on the Centrediscs label, as testimony to its myriad activities since being founded in Poland in 1986 (where it won the Penderecki Prize at the National Chamber Music Competition in Lódz, and with that the right to use the composer’s name). The PSQ has been in residence at Wilfrid Laurier University since 1991 and an integral part of creative life in Southern Ontario throughout the past two decades.

I began this article by saying that there was just too much of interest to actually cover in the allotted space. A couple of other quartet titles that caught my attention but which I will dutifully pass on to Terry Robbins for Strings Attached in the next issue, after enjoying them for a while longer, were the first installment of the Alcan Quartet’s Beethoven cycle (ATMA ACD2 2491) and the Ying Quartet’s complete Schumann (Sono Luminus DSL-92184). I mention them as more than worthy of note in case you don’t want to wait for Terry’s endorsement. Also received too late for assignment this month, an intriguing DVD and CD release from Centrediscs, Bookburners – Music by Nicole Lizée (CMCCD 20514). The DVD includes the multi-media works Hitchcock Études (a re-mix of Hitchcock scores replete with images from his films) and the title track for turntables and solo cello (featuring Stéphane Tétreault). Stay tuned for full reviews in February.

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01 Vocal 01 MessiahHandel – Messiah
Gillian Keith; Daniel Taylor; Tom Randle; Summer Thompson; Handel and Haydn Society; Harry Christophers

The Boston Handel and Haydn Society has had a long and distinguished history. It was founded in 1815 (these recordings mark its 200th anniversary), at a time when Handel represented the old and Haydn the new. Messiah has been important for many years: the Society performed excerpts in 1815, gave the first American performance of the complete work in 1818 and began its annual performances in 1854.

On this recording the soprano (Gillian Keith) and the alto (Daniel Taylor), both Canadians, are superb. I also liked the baritone, Summer Thompson, who is imposing in exactly the right way. I have reservations about the tenor, Tom Randle, who sings with great involvement but also with a great deal of vibrato. The very good orchestra of the Society is now led by “our own” Aisslinn Nosky, who in the past has given us so much pleasure as a member of Tafelmusik, I Furiosi and the Eybler Quartet. Harry Christophers conducts with real momentum and the choir is terrific (just sample them in All we like sheep).

High points: there are many, but I especially enjoyed the soprano’s precision in Rejoice greatly, the alto’s He was despised (beautifully decorated in the return of the opening section in a way that never obscures the vocal line) as well as the alto-soprano duet He shall feed his flock. Handel originally wrote the duet as a soprano aria and his revision was well judged: the entry of the soprano is magical. When I was asked to review these discs, my first thought was: another Messiah – who needs it? I couldn’t have been more wrong.


01 Vocal 02 Cecelia BartoliSt. Petersburg
Cecilia Bartoli; I Barocchisti; Diego Fasolis
Decca 478 6767

With celebrity comes responsibility, at least it should in the arts. That is why many celebrated soloists, once having established themselves with the standard repertoire, seek new or forgotten gems to create their legacy. After all, Maria Callas opened our ears anew to the music of Cherubini and Bellini.

Cecilia Bartoli, a mezzo, whose impact on the musical scene was in my opinion at times overestimated, has researched and recorded a fascinating disc of largely forgotten music. In stark contrast to 2014, Russians of the 1700s desperately tried to emulate and get closer to Western Europe. Peter the Great, he of St. Petersburg and the infamous “beard tax,” started a cultural trend that continued until the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution. A large part of this Europeanization of Russia was a musical development, encouraged and supervised by three Tsaritsas – Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine the Great. The course chosen by those powerful women was to import Italian opera wholesale, including Italian composers and Italian musical sensibilities. Famously, Porpora refused to be seduced by the “Third Rome” (as the Tsars referred to their capitol, suggesting that they had continued with the Byzantine tradition). This opened the way for lesser talents such as Francesco Domenico Araia and Vinzenco Manfredini. Alas, even Cimarosa contributed to this “Russian renaissance,” which came to an abrupt halt when Catherine the Great turned her attention to the stage plays of Voltaire and Diderot.

Found in the archives of the Mariinsky Theatre, the works recorded here are restored to life in a lavishly illustrated edition, played with great sensitivity by I Barocchisti. Kudos to Bartoli for this find, although the arias themselves at times tax her stubbornly small mezzo.


01 Vocal 03 Strauss ArabellaStrauss – Arabella
Renée Fleming; Thomas Hampson; Dresden State Opera; Christian Thielemann
Cmajor 717208

Fleming – Hampson – Thielemann. Salzburg Easter Festival certainly did well by getting this team for a new Arabella for the Strauss anniversary season. Director Florentine Klepper overcame the challenge for something new and different yet in immaculate taste by traversing the scene into the 20th century, the Art Deco period with a gorgeous, panoramic set fitting nicely onto the wide stage of the Grosses Festpielhaus. Being a woman, she had the right feeling and empathy for the female characters; so important in this opera.

Not that she had a difficult time. For the title role, Renée Fleming has been the reigning diva of Straussian heroines. Her uncanny ability to delve her entire self into the character has been legendary and her soprano voice has all the delicacy and nuance for this very demanding role. Arabella is in the midst of a difficult decision of choosing a husband from a trio of rich, bumbling suitors and hopes for the right man to miraculously appear, and he does.

The right man, American baritone Thomas Hampson (Mandryka) is having some difficulty in becoming this gauche, shy provincial fellow, but his handsome physique, stamina and vocal power amply compensate. The two fall into each other’s arms and the opera would be over, but unfortunately that’s where all the trouble begins, caused by the younger sister and her lover, who provide a lot of sparkle to the story.

Highest praise goes for Thielemann who conducts with beautifully sustained broad tempi, relishing in the beauties of the score, keeping it as an undercurrent, but coming to the fore just at the right moments and towards a ravishing finale.


01 Vocal 04 Renee FlemingVienna at the Turn of the Century – A Recital with Renée Fleming
Renée Fleming; Maciej Pikulski
ArtHaus Musik 102 196

In an age of instant gratification and overnight (YouTube) success, enduring artists like Renée Fleming are a rare breed. The singer, currently in her mid-50s, epitomizes the slow-burn. At the age when many sopranos are considering retirement, Fleming is in peak form, defying any tarnishing of the upper register as well as the visual impact of middle age. I was not always a fan. In fact, some two decades ago I dismissed her as a lightweight. What I did not recognize then was that this was a singer on her way to greatness. The proof came a few seasons ago, at the Met, where she conquered the role of Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. Immediately inviting (and challenging) comparisons with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, her erstwhile teacher, Fleming has firmly established herself as the pre-eminent soprano of our times.

This glittering concert at the acoustically perfect Golden Hall of the Musikverein hall Vienna is a virtual compendium of lieder over almost 50 years. From Mahler and Zemlinsky to Korngold and Strauss, Fleming’s recital tells in music the story of the Golden Age of the great city on the Danube. Polish pianist Maciej Pikulski offers sensitive, Gerald Moore-like piano support. This beautiful disc may prompt listeners to get dressed in their Sunday best before pressing the start button.


01 Vocal 05 Milhaud OrestieMilhaud – L’Orestie d’Eschyle
Soloists; University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra, Chorus and Percussion Ensemble; Kenneth Kiesler
Naxos 8.660349-51

Aeschylus’ Orestia trilogy was transformed by Paul Claudel and Darius Milhaud into two plays with music and one opera. For L’Agamemnon (1913), Milhaud created one notable imitative chorus with dramatic interpolations by Clytemnestra, who had just murdered her husband. From her entering high B onward, soprano Lori Phillips sings Clytemnestra splendidly. Modal harmony over long pedal notes, repetitive elements and insistent rhythm become an early manifestation of minimalism.

In Les Choéphores (1915-16) Orestes returns to avenge his father Agamemnon’s death. Milhaud’s choral magic continues in the funeral chorus underpinned by his characteristic orchestral parallel chords in different keys, and in the weeping Libation chorus “Go away my tears, drop by drop.” Dan Kempson’s baritone is lustrous in his compelling portrayal of Orestes. As the slave women’s leader Sophie Delphis is thrilling in her rhythmically spoken solo (spoken word poetry is not new!), amply propelled with no less than 15 percussionists in the “kitchen.”

Completing the trilogy is the three-act opera Les Euménides (1917-23) where Orestes is on trial. Presiding goddess Athena emerges as complex, awe-inspiring and three-voiced! Her hair-raising trios sung magnificently by Brenda Rae, Tamara Mumford and Jennifer Lane contain some of Milhaud’s most adventurous vocal writing. Throughout, the Michigan choirs and orchestra set a professional standard in this tremendous project initiated by Milhaud-taught composer William Bolcom. There’s much more to say, about the choruses and orchestra, about Milhaud’s Brazilian influences … a disc recommended for the intrigued.


01 Vocal 06 GaliciansGalicians 1: The Art Songs
Pavlo Hunka et al.
Ukrainian Art Song Project (ukrainianartsong.ca)

For the past decade the British-born bass-baritone Pavlo Hunka has made it his life’s work to share the art songs of his Ukrainian heritage with the entire world. In partnership with Roman Hurko, composer, opera director and producer, he has previously recorded three CDs of this repertoire and has recently unveiled a 6-CD collection of music from the Galician (Western) region of Ukraine with even more yet to come.

The first disc in this set also serves to introduce us to the team of celebrated Canadian vocal artists that has given life to this ambitious project. In addition to Hunka’s own powerful voice, they include sopranos Monica Whicher, Nathalie Paulin and mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, tenors Benjamin Butterfield and Colin Ainsworth, and baritone Russell Braun, with additional support from pianists Carolyn Maule and Serouj Kradjian. This initial volume is devoted to the art songs of Denys Sichynsky (1865-1909) which date mainly from the twilight of romanticism. They are typically declamatory, earnest minor key laments with often quite elaborate keyboard parts, dispatched with panache by the expert pianist Albert Krywolt, who accompanies the lion’s share of the songs in this anthology.

The long life of Stanyslav Liudkevych (1879-1979) requires two CDs to tell his story. Though the majority of the 28 songs on offer date from the early 20th century, the composer was still active into the mid-1960s. His harmonic language is often daring and freely modulatory and the ingenious textures of his piano accompaniments suggest an orchestral conception. Eclecticism aside, it’s nonetheless clear that a major talent is on display here. The first CD is so totally dominated by male voices that the sole exception sung by Nathalie Paulin comes as quite a relief. Fortunately the second CD is more judiciously shared between the genders.

A tragic figure, Vasyl Barvinsky (1888-1963) was the director of the Lysenko Institute of Music and its successor institution the Lviv Conservatory and maintained a commanding profile both locally and internationally. In 1948 however, political intrigues brought him crashing to earth. He was arrested, his musical scores were publicly burned in the Conservatory courtyard and he was sentenced to spend the next decade toiling at a labour camp in the backwaters of Mordovia. He spent the remainder of his life attempting to reconstruct his musical legacy, which is stylistically indebted to Debussy yet always strikingly lyrical. Fortunately compositions he had considered lost forever are slowly coming to light from Western sources. The majority of the selection of 17 songs are shared between Hunka and the excellent soprano Szabó and include some beautifully rendered violin passages by Annalee Patipatanakoon.

Though described as a “modernist,” there is little to fear from the passionate and often deeply autobiographical music of Stefania Turkewich (1898-1977). Stylistically it does not go far beyond the extended tonality of the earliest works of Alban Berg. A pupil of Barvinsky, she went on to study with Schoenberg and Schreker in Berlin in the 1920s and subsequently worked in Lviv. Acclaimed as the first Ukrainian woman composer, she emigrated to England in 1948, where she sought recognition in vain within the intensely insular post-war British musical establishment. Hunko and company make just emends for her neglect in this extensive selection of 20 songs, including two winning and resolutely tonal English-language nursery rhymes.

A sixth compilation disc completes the set. The recordings are accompanied by a lavish booklet with texts and translations in four languages. Seamless and consistent audio editing throughout is credited to veteran producer Doug Doctor at the helm in Glenn Gould Studio. A most welcome and innovative aspect of the project includes making newly engraved editions of the scores of these neglected gems freely available through ukrainianartsong.ca. The album may also be ordered there as well as through iTunes.

02 Early 02 Bud RoachGiovanni Felice Sances – Complete Arias, 1636
Bud Roach
Musica Omnia mo0611

Bud Roach started his professional career as an oboist (he played in several American orchestras) but more recently has concentrated on singing and conducting. He is the director of Capella Intima, which in recent years has given us performances of the anonymous Giuseppe and of Gagliano’s Dafne. Both as a singer and as a director he specializes in Italian work of the early 17th century. His first recording as a tenor was of songs by Alessandro Grandi and he has now followed this up with a CD of arias by Giovanni Felice Sances, music first published in 1636. On both recordings he accompanies himself on the baroque guitar. I heard him perform these works at the Boston Early Music Festival Fringe in July 2013 and it gave me pleasure to renew my acquaintance with them. The final song on the disc (Accenti queruli) is not part of the 1636 edition: it is a chaconne which was such a prominent and influential form in the early baroque.

Roach’s voice is light but clear and distinctive; he has no problem with the high tessitura of many of the songs. Throughout he sings with real expressiveness. These songs can be seen as part of a Petrarchan tradition of erotic poetry but at the same time they show an affinity with popular song. They are now little-known and under-performed. Roach deserves credit for bringing this repertoire back to life.


02 Early 03 ApotheosesCouperin – Apothéoses
Gli Incogniti; Amandine Beyer
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902193

It is crystal clear that this recording is a labour of love and full of vibrancy and personality. The six instrumentalists of Gli Incogniti throw themselves into Couperin’s music, infusing it with youthful vigour and airy spontaneity.

The program is bookended by sonatas – La Superbe and La Sultane – both played with exquisite attention to detail and “French” virtuosity, i.e. a wide vocabulary of fresh ornamentation that gives one the idea that everything is being improvised. Violinists Amandine Beyer and Alba Roca are perfectly matched and dance around each other with great subtlety. Equally impressive is the continuo team: solid as a rock and adding heft and/or tenderness where needed.

The major pieces – Couperin’s Apothéoses de Lulli et Corelli – are works of tremendous scope, based on Couperin’s intended philosophical desire to reunite the tastes and styles of Italian and French instrumental music. They are programmatic, multi-movement masterpieces and the performances on this disc are very fine. My only argument is with the tempos of some of the more transparent movements. There is a driving quality to the group’s playing that is immensely attractive most of the time; however, some of the ethereal, transparent movements need more dreamy air and space – and could simply be slower.

Special mention must be made of the gorgeous, sensuous gamba playing of Baldomero Barciela and Filipa Meneses in La Sultane. Their performance of this sonata is worth the price of the CD alone.


02 Early 04 Stadella DuetsStradella – Duets
Susanne Rydén; Emma Kirkby; Sergio Foresti; Harmonices Mundi; Claudio Astronio
Brilliant Classics 94343

Alessandro Stradella’s private life has created a wave of speculation although it is clear that he was killed in Genoa in 1682. His untimely end deprived Italian music of an exceptional composer. On this CD, however, we enjoy the voice of the singer who is for many both the face and the voice of early music, Dame Emma Kirkby. She appears on eight duets, commencing with the lively Cara labbra che d’amore. More intense is Pazienza, finirá l’influenza with its sombre stringed introduction and continuo. Here Susanne Rydén and bass Sergio Foresti convey a message of hope, even though Foresti’s bass and the continuo still combine to produce a certain overshadowing darkness. Kirkby displays a real intensity with her interpretation of Ahi, che posar non puote, a duet with Foresti, where her skills are at their finest.

 For Rydén, one of the most testing pieces must be Fulmini, quanto sa quel sembiante severo – the musical elements portraying the arrows of emotion are clearly recognizable. For Kirkby the test of how to demonstrate pictorial qualities in music comes in Ardo, sospiro e piango, where dissonance is used to evoke musical sighs. Dietro l’orme del desio is another highly demanding duet. Many of the classic Italian devices are employed to great effect; for example, in one passage, in addition to difficult notes, pauses underline the meaning and rhythm of words.

 There is no doubt that listening to this recording confirms the loss to music when we think what Stradella might have gone on to compose and also Dame Emma Kirkby’s place in early music.

02 Early 05 Hewitt BachBach – The Art of the Fugue
Angela Hewitt
Hyperion CDA67980

Four years ago, Hyperion released all of Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt’s recordings of Bach’s solo keyboard works as a 15-disc boxed set. It was a huge project, but it didn’t include Bach’s monumental late work, The Art of the Fugue. Hewitt has now tackled this set of 18 fugues and canons, which she describes in her detailed booklet notes as “completely overwhelming, both intellectually and emotionally.”

Hewitt’s stylistic trademarks are here – dancing rhythms, nuanced touch and sparkling clarity. She colours each voice so distinctively, you can hear right into the complex textures. But her greatest achievement is to reveal the spiritual depth that suffuses this work. It becomes not just an exploration of all the things counterpoint can do, but an exploration of just about everything that music can possibly do – and then some.

Bach never specified the instrumentation for this work. Hewitt makes as convincing a case for performing it on a modern piano as any I have heard, especially with an instrument as responsive as her Fazioli.

Bach’s score ends, enigmatically, part way through the final fugue. Most performances either stop there, or add on a completion in Bach’s style. Following the original edition, Hewitt stops mid-fugue, pauses, then plays Bach’s “deathbed” chorale prelude Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein (When in the hour of utmost need), which C.P.E. Bach copied into the score after his father’s death. It makes for an intimate and moving finale.


03 Classical 01 Hummel Piano TriosHummel – Piano Trios 1
Gould Piano Trio
Naxos 8.573098

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) was an influential composer, virtuoso piano performer and a well-known teacher during his lifetime. He was a student of many famous teachers: Clementi, Mozart, Albrechtsberger, Salieri and Haydn. His friends included Beethoven, Schubert and Goethe. He wrote beautiful music, mostly for piano, but also explored other less popular instruments (such as trumpet and guitar), and made Weimar a European musical capital while he was active there. Hummel’s musical aesthetics were founded on a classical model of clean lines and balanced melodies, at a time that was giving birth to a new wave of bravura piano players and general discontent with musical conventions. The world’s obsession with the romantic ideals could be the main reason why Hummel’s music was forgotten after his death.

The piano trios on this recording were written over the span of 15 years and feature all the elements of the classical style but also offer a wealth of melodies and fresh musical ideas. Each trio, for example, features a Rondo as the concluding movement, but each Rondo comes with its own style, whether borrowing motifs from Turkish or Russian musical traditions or introducing scherzo elements and surprising modulations.

The Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould, violin, Alice Neary, cello, and Benjamin Frith, piano) clearly enjoys bringing this somewhat forgotten music to life. Most impressive are the nuanced articulation in the violin and balanced phrasing of the ensemble. This recording will be greatly appreciated by fans of the classical period who just might discover a new voice.


03 Classical 02 Beethoven 9 SymphoniesBeethoven – 9 Symphonies
Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal; Kent Nagano
Analekta AN 2 9150-5

Has it really been nine years since Kent Nagano took over the podium of the Montreal Symphony? Never mind the mop of waving hair or the animated conducting style, he is a musician par excellence, and has maintained the high standards set by his predecessor, Charles Dutoit. For their newest release, the orchestra has issued a complete set of the Beethoven symphonies, having presented them singly during the past six years. Six of them were recorded live between 2008 and 2014 and along with excerpts from Egmont and the Creatures of Prometheus, it’s a handsome collection on the Analekta label.

There are innumerable recordings of Beethoven’s complete symphonies, so what makes this one stand apart from the others? For one thing, it’s Nagano’s lack of sensationalism. Despite this conductor’s sometime exuberant persona, his interpretations are known for their intelligence and clarity, and this is nowhere more evident than in this collection. The Symphony No.1 is a case in point. From the first hesitant measures, the listener immediately senses that indeed, this is what Beethoven would have wanted. This groundbreaking work is presented in an energetic and articulated manner, the phrasing always carefully nuanced.

On the other hand, Symphony No.3 is suitably heroic, my only quibble being a slightly brisker tempo in the opening movement than I’m used to. When comparing this to the more measured interpretations by European conductors it may come across as too hurried. But this is a minor point, and the careful phrasing coupled with the exemplary performance by the brass and woodwinds more than makes up for it.

The much-beloved “Pastoral” is all gentleness, the strings demonstrating a particular warmth and resonance.

What more can be said about the great Symphony No.9? This particular performance was recorded for the inaugural concert in the new Maison Symphonique de Montréal in September, 2011 and features sopranos Adrienne Pieczonka and Erin Wall, mezzo Mihoko Fujimura, tenor Simon O’Neill and bass Mikhail Petrenko along with the OSM Chorus and the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir. While the approach is noble and confident, to my ears, it doesn’t break any new ground in interpretation – but this is not necessarily a bad thing, and the soloists all deliver solid performances.

But how do they handle my favourite symphony, the glorious No.7 written in 1812? Not surprisingly, Nagano and the OSM live up to expectations. The performance is magnificent – energetic and robust – at all times displaying a wonderful cohesion of sound particularly evident in the joyful finale.

Bravo to Maestro Nagano and the musicians of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. You have proven that there is indeed room for yet another set of the complete Beethoven symphonies – and the rousing applause at the conclusion of the live performances is a clear indication that others felt the same.


03 Classical 03 Mahler 9 ChaillyMahler – Symphony No.9
Gewandhaus Orchestra; Riccardo Chailly
Accentus Music ACC 20299

This is the sixth of Chailly’s live performances of Mahler symphonies thus far released on Blu-Ray video discs (and DVD). Each release (since the Second and Eighth) contains a discussion of the particular symphony, together with selected rehearsals and concert excerpts to illustrate Chailly’s rethinking of performance practices and where he believes Mahler’s intentions were misunderstood.

We observe Chailly and Mahler scholar and author Henry-Louis de le Grange discussing the work and weighing all the clues that led to their considered opinion that this symphony is not one of resignation and farewell as Leonard Bernstein, for one, would have it. In this performance, Chailly’s first movement reflects the metre of the first movement of the Fourth Symphony; the second movement is faster than usual with a sense of fantasy and the third, Rondo-Burleske, is pleasingly brisk. His last movement is for listeners who are weary of the hand-wringing performances, especially those of Bernstein who helped resurrect Mahler in the 1950s, that treat the symphony as a tragic resignation, another Abschied. Chailly’s is a mighty performance, very positive and life-affirming.

These are Chailly’s own insights and after several listening sessions I am inclined to agree. There is no positive right or wrong, simply different points of view. This is a brilliant performance, exceptional on every level, and deserves to be heard and reheard.


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