The column this month has been, even more than usual, a personal journey for me. A week ago when I should have begun, I found myself wondering what there was to write about. I had assigned the discs that were of most interest to me to other writers for a full treatment rather than glossing over them here. Of particular note were the Dutilleux recordings, and I must say that Elliot Wright’s appreciation of them later in these pages confirms that to have been the right decision. But it left me nearly empty-handed and I warned publisher David Perlman at The WholeNote’s early January gathering that there might not be an Editor’s Corner this month. So much has happened since then that it is hard to imagine that just one week has passed.

The first event was a kitchen party at my friends Michael and Mary’s house, an annual affair to welcome in the New Year with a wealth of pickin’ and grinnin’. In addition to the usual plethora of guitars in various tunings, fiddles, mandolins and octave mandolins, there were hand drums, harmonicas, a keyboard, an accordion and more than a dozen voices lifted joyously in song. It was a magical evening, as so often these gatherings can be. I took particular delight in the opportunity to play with the accordionist, who was adding myriad colours and rhythms to the mix. As I was leaving – earlier than was my wont due to the tail-end, or so I thought, of a lingering chest cold – I mentioned my pleasure to Mary who told me to hang on and went to grab me a copy of the accordionist’s new CD, “hot off the press.” It seems she was the graphic designer of the package (altdesign.ca) and had a box of discs on hand, and so I left the party knowing my journey had begun.

01 Tom LeightonLeighton Lifeis a wonderfully eclectic recording that showcases the writing skills and musical dexterity (piano, synths, accordion, organ, jaw harp, whistle, trombone, percussion, bouzouki and bodhrán) of Tom Leighton (tomleighton.ca). Not content to rest on his own laurels (and the mixing skills of producer Paul Mills), Leighton surrounds himself with a marvellous array of musical friends too plentiful to name, to create horn sections, string arrangements, cello solos and string band accompaniments as required. The opening track All Thumbs is a playful Penguin Café Orchestra-style minimalist moto perpetuo with the ostinato provided by the ticking of a mechanical clock and a triangle (at least that’s my guess). A Summer Jig features the accordion in the lead role of a warm, lush instrumentation. A Letter Found is a haunting ballad with violin and cello in unison and harmony on the memorable melody over piano and accordion accompaniment. Hank Dances is a rhythmically propulsive swing tune with horns, extrapolated from music Leighton wrote for a production of Hank Williams, The Show He Never Gave by Maynard Collins. The 12 tracks included here – all instrumental – run the gamut from old timey, to R&B, Scottish traditional to The Hurdy-Gurdy which Leighton says was “written for the hurdy-gurdy…by a non-player. Alas, it doesn’t play well on a hurdy-gurdy but conjures my image of the player.” Quite convincingly I might add. The album comes with a “Warning! Listening to instrumental music activates emotional, motor and creative areas of the brain!” It also includes the notice that all compositions are available as sheet music from the composer, so as spontaneous as much of the music feels, it is obviously conceived in its entirety by this wonderful musician. I look forward to having the opportunity to play with him again.

02 Bela FleckThe next steps on the journey began just a block from Michael and Mary’s house, at the Dufferin bus stop at Davenport. A few minutes after I arrived at the stop another man carrying a guitar case came to wait alongside me. I asked if he was going out to play, or like me, coming home from doing so. He said he was coming from a friend’s house where they had been playing bluegrass music all evening. Long time readers of this column will know that I am enamoured of the “new grass” band Joy Kills Sorrow that was active from 2005 to 2014. I asked this guitarist if he was familiar with the band and he said no, but that he knew “the song.” Not knowing the song myself, I said “Oh?” “Yes,” he said, “it’s a great song by Béla Fleck.” And so my next quest began. It turns out that When Joy Kills Sorrow appeared on the 1999 CD The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales From The Acoustic Planet, Volume 2 (Warner Bros. 9 47332-2), where Fleck’s cronies from the 1988 album Drive reunite and are joined by legends Earl Scruggs, Vassar Clements and John Hartford and contemporary stars Vince Gill, Tim O’Brien and Ricky Skaggs, for a number of Fleck originals and several traditional and classic tunes. Since this CD is old news and only new to me I won’t dwell on it other than to say it’s been in heavy rotation on my player since it arrived last Wednesday from Amazon (HMV couldn’t locate the one copy their superstore’s computer said they had). Highlights of the disc are the above-mentioned Joy Kills Sorrow, an old Flatt & Scruggs tune Polka on the Banjo and a two-banjo arrangement of the Clarinet Polka by Fleck and Hartford. Having grown up with the George Barnes solo guitar take on the latter as the theme to the Max Ferguson Show and now hearing this banjo version, I found myself wondering why I hadn’t ever heard it played on the clarinet. Hats off to YouTube, I didn’t have to look far…

03 Duane AndrewsOne of the discs to cross my desk in the official way this past month, Conception Bay (duaneandrews.ca), is the latest from Newfoundland jazz and swing guitarist Duane Andrews entitled The shadow of Django Reinhardt looms large as it always does in Andrews’ repertoire both in the form of Reinhardt covers and original compositions in the Hot Club style. I was delighted to find Reinhardt’s Swing 39, which I first heard on a Quintet of the Hot Club of France LP some 40 years ago, in a lively and convincing rendition which sees Andrews in duet with fellow Newfoundlander, violinist Mark Fewer. As a matter of fact, all four members of the string quartet who make up the band here are originally from Newfoundland: Lynn Kuo, violin; Angela Pickett, viola and Amahl Arulanandam, cello. Not all of the music is in the swing style and fittingly there are some Newfoundland-inspired tunes including Andrews’ Gigues plus traditional Reels and Otto Kelland’s Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary’s. The quartet members all have strong careers in classical music (although not to the exclusion of other musical forms – they are remarkably eclectic) and we find nods to the world of composed music in the form of the Lullaby from Stravinsky’s The Firebird and a suite of Improvisations on Chopin’s Op.64, No.2. The darkly impressionistic title track, another Andrews original, is a stark portrayal of the landform, presumably in the dead of winter. But we are not left out in the cold – the disc ends with a sunny, breakneck version of Sweet Georgia Brown. Highly recommended!

The other disc that I had reserved for my own purposes, an arrangement of Brian Eno’s Discreet Music performed by Toronto’s Contact ensemble, turned out to be a timely release, but not for the reasons one would hope. The news of David Bowie’s death last week brought many memories and realizations. Bowie’s chameleon-like career affected audiences and artists across the spectrum, me among them. I was not much aware of the glam rock era, but became drawn to Bowie at the time he started collaborating with Eno. Already a fan of Eno’s ambient approach to composition and sound, I was curious to see how he would interact with the “space oddity” that was Bowie.

04a David Bowie LowIn Francis Whatley’s 2013 film David Bowie: Five Years, Eno says that Bowie was drawn to his “longest, slowest, quietest” work, Discreet Music, and that their projects grew out of this interest. This was at a time when Bowie was tired of the rock-star lifestyle that had brought him perilously close to death by overdose and misadventure in L.A. His subsequent move to Paris and then Berlin, where he undertook a Spartan low-profile existence, ultimately resulted in a trilogy of Bowie-Eno albums beginning with the 1977 Low (RCA LP CPL1-2030). In 1991 Rykodisc would re-issue Low on compact disc (RCD 10142) with bonus tracks. Not being in the habit of replacing my vinyl collection with CDs, I was unaware of the extra material until I revisited the Low Symphony by Philip Glass (POINT Music 438 150-2), which was inspired by two tracks by Bowie and Eno and one by Bowie alone. I was confused when I was unable to find Some Are, one of the duo compositions, on my LP and eventually ended up downloading the missing title from iTunes last week… Three music platforms later I now have the full picture!

05 Erickson These DreamsBut that picture was further enhanced by These Dreams of You (Europa Editions ISBN 978-1-60945-063-2), a 2012 novel by Steve Erickson, which I found myself reading for the third time over the past few days (which may have set a record for frequency of rereading for me). Erickson, whose eight previous novels number among my favourites – a shout out to Jowi Taylor for turning me on to Arc d’X all those years ago! – frequently incorporates pop culture, particularly music and film, into his novels. Although These Dreams of You is nominally speculative and surreal, as are most of his books, the narrative strands are fairly linear, albeit many layered. The protagonists are a family of four in contemporary L.A. in danger of losing their house as a result of the economic crisis and the nefarious machinations of the banks. The father, Zan, has recently been let go from his position as professor of literature at the local university and is the sole DJ on a low-wattage radio station broadcasting without a license from a local Mexican restaurant in the Valley. His wife, Viv, is a freelance photographer whose work is drying up and whose one claim to fame, stained glass butterfly art, has been co-opted by an infamous commercial artist. Their children are Parker, a 12-year-old whose namesake is Charlie Parker but whose musical interests favour gangsta rap, and Sheba, a precocious four-year-old orphan adopted from Ethiopia, who is seeming wired internally to a certain un-named “red-headed British alien who wears dresses.” The not-so-veiled references to David Bowie continue as he permeates the story, in particular with tales of his time in Berlin with roommates The Professor (Eno?) and Jim (Iggy Pop?), which lead to the album Low. Erickson cleverly weaves his tales – another one including presidential hopeful Bobby Kennedy in the months leading up to his assassination, and a third, an aspiring 1970s author, who after being beaten and left for dead by German skinheads, wakes to find himself in 1919 Berlin with a paperback copy of a novel that will shape the literature of the coming century but won’t be published until 1922 – through three eras and three continents. The convolutions are eventually resolved, and although there are no particularly happy endings, it does make for a very compelling read. Part of the fun is identifying the myriad historical characters that are never actually named. A great read indeed, and a great tribute to David Bowie.

06 Contact Discreet MusicBut back to Contact’s rendition of Discreet Music (Cantaloupe Music CA21114 cantaloupemusic.com). Eno’s original LP side was an electronic intertwining of some very simple melodic material according to some basic programming in Eno’s synthesizers. Four decades later Toronto percussionist and founding member of Contact Contemporary Music, Jerry Pergolesi set out to make a live performance version of the iconic work. In the booklet notes he says: “In keeping with the spirit of the original, my ‘arrangement’ consists of seven mutually compatible melodies (the result of Eno’s original two melodies being occasionally altered) and instructions that render the band itself into the looping apparatus that Eno describes as the ‘score’ for the original. The ‘arrangement’ sets parameters for the musicians to follow, while giving them some leeway to make decisions with regard to what they play and when. Once the performance starts, however, the resulting sound is out of anyone’s hands.” The members of Contact – Mary-Katherine Finch, cello; Sarah Fraser Raff, violin; Wallace Halladay, soprano sax; Rob MacDonald, guitar; Peter Pavlovsky, bass; Jerry Pergolesi, vibraphone; Allison Wiebe Benstead, piano; complemented here by Emma Zoe Elkinson, flute and Dean Kurtis-Pomeroy, gongs – perform with real conviction – tone and intonation are warm and consistent – and they manage to hold our attention throughout the hour-long take in which “nothing happens.” I can’t imagine what it is like to take part in such a static performance, but congratulations are due to all concerned for realizing a viable live presentation of an electronic classic.

07 Bowie Black StarIt has been a month of losses in the musical arts. Canadian-born jazz icon, Paul Bley, and French father of avant-garde concert music, Pierre Boulez, are honoured elsewhere in these pages, although their passing garnered little attention in Toronto’s mainstream media. In contrast, much has been said about the death of David Bowie across all media and all platforms – including 24 continuous hours of programming on Much Music as I write this column – so I will not say much more here. He was a unique artist who constantly reinvented himself and touched more lives than most. His final offering Blackstar (ISO Records 88875173862) was released on his 69th birthday, two days before his death, and once again we are presented with a new man, seemingly from beyond the grave. Indeed one of the songs and videos is called Lazarus. I was lucky enough to purchase a copy of Blackstar before they all disappeared from the shelves (and online catalogues) but it will take me some time before I’m able to assimilate it. It’s a journey I am convinced is worth undertaking.

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, “buy buttons” for on-line shopping and additional, expanded and archival reviews. 

Author: David Olds
For a list of writings by this author, click the name above
More from this author:

07 Beethoven Giltburg

Beethoven Piano Sonatas No.8 “Pathétique,” No.21 “Waldstein” and No.32
Boris Giltburg
Naxos 8.573400

Review

The following review is an excerpt from Keyed In - February 2016 which can be read in its entirety here.

Little more than a year into his exclusive contract with Naxos, Boris Giltburg has recorded his second CD, Beethoven Piano Sonatas No.8 “Pathétique,” No.21 “Waldstein” and No.32 (Naxos 8.573400). Whether he aspires to recording all 32 sonatas remains to be seen. Still, his first Beethoven disc gives us a good sampling of the early, middle and late periods and of Giltburg’s understanding of how Beethoven’s expression in this form evolved.

His overall approach is one of rather intense carefulness. Giltburg is patient. Never rushing unnecessarily, he takes his time, pausing and hesitating to highlight the intimacy of the music. Speed and power are, however, no obstacle to him and he shies away from nothing.

The opening of the Pathétique is quite deliberative and in considerable contrast to the speed of the final movement. He begins the Waldstein with barely contained energy that spills out quickly over the rhythmic pulse of the left hand. The second movement seems wonderfully expanded in time as if he wants us to find something new in the open spaces between the notes. Giltburg then crafts some lovely sounds around the final movement’s bell-like main idea.

The Sonata No.32 Op.111 is Beethoven in completely new territory. Giltburg delights in the moments that appear unstructured and so modern for the period but he also plunges with feverish delight into the passages with fugal elements that Beethoven wrote for effective contrast. The jewel in this crown is unquestionably Giltburg’s performance of the final movement. The long opening arietta is memorably tender and the movement’s close, even more so.


01 Osborn SchubertSteven Osborne has no fear of intimacy. In his latest recording, Franz Schubert (Hyperion CDA68107) Osborne plays the Impromptus D935 and Three Piano Pieces D946, as if he were the composer. He adopts a modest posture, lingers in the shadows of the music and emerges only when Schubert coaxes him out. He is never rushed. Assured and playing at a relaxed pace, he maintains a strong sense of forward motion especially in the slower sections. He also has a sense for melodic lines and gives them wonderful clarity over Schubert’s accompanying harmonic pulse. Osborne makes the well-known Impromptus D935 seem new again. He seems to understand their true scale and never overplays them.

He uses the same approach to the Three Piano Pieces D946, where No.2 in E-flat Major is substantially longer than the others and requires more attention to thematic development. He begins it softly and finishes it even more so. Magical. The Hüttenbrenner Variations D576 are playful and entertaining. Built on a short and simple idea, Schubert’s 14 iterations find an affectionate and capable performer in this pianist. The Steinway used in this recording is beautifully voiced and has the perfect colours for this repertoire.

Concert note: Osborne performs the Schubert Impromptus Nos.1 & 4 D935 in Toronto on Tuesday, March 1 as part of Music Toronto’s Piano Series, in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.

02 Rachmaninoff DuetsHélène Mercier and Louis Lortie are longtime piano partners who’ve played and recorded together since the 1980s. Whether playing four hands or two pianos, they always impress with a profoundly unified approach to the music. One simply can’t imagine a significant difference of interpretive opinion between them. Their newest CD, Rachmaninoff Piano Duets (Chandos CHAN 10882) is another example of this mature musical relationship where one cannot distinguish either of them from the other. Their keyboard techniques are identically matched and their sensibilities deeply shared.

Here the wide sweeps of Rachmaninoff’s musical imagination find their voice on the keyboards of two Fazioli grand pianos. The vocabulary is unmistakable and even surprisingly whole quotes from works like the Piano Concerto No.3 appear in the Suite No.2 Op.17 for Two Pianos. The Fantaisie (Tableaux), Op.5 opens the recording in a very dramatic way with Mercier and Lortie pulling the listener right to the edge of the seat with some very edgy playing.

This music is written to be big. While the first two repertoire items have plenty of familiar orchestral allusions, the real showstopper is Rachmaninoff’s transcription for two pianos of his Symphonic Dances Op.45. The versatility required here is remarkable. The first movement contains a musically threadbare middle section where the pianists obviously enjoy the contrast to the rest of the piece. The third movement is a long slow build to a truly blazing finish. On any decent sound system, this recording makes you tingle with the pianists’ energy. You can only imagine the effect Mercier and Lortie have in live performance.

We are given to appropriate wonder when we encounter child prodigies whose keyboard skills and musical maturity seem demonstrably beyond their years. Rarer still are those musicians who have lived into old age with their gift still largely undiminished by the decades. Their experience and insights give them a freedom not entirely available to the younger. I recall the documentary film of Vladimir Horowitz making his long-awaited return to Moscow to perform at the conservatory, watching him hunched over the piano and gliding through a Chopin valse as if he were only 20.

03 Wilde ChopinAnother such elder pianist is David Wilde, who at age 80 is still performing, recording and teaching, as he has done all his life. On listening to Wilde plays Chopin Vol. III (Delphian DCD34159) one is immediately struck by the dexterity and power of this pianist. He is definitely in command, not only of the music’s demands but also of its content. It’s as if Chopin has surrendered licence to Wilde to reshape his phrases, alter his tempi and dynamics to reflect who this pianistic sage is.

Wilde’s performance of the Valse in D flat Major, Op.64 No.1 “Minute Waltz” is amazing for its speed. The Scherzo No.2 in B-flat Minor, Op.31 is a monumental and powerful statement as is the “Military” Polonaise. All through this CD one is struck by the enormous expressive freedom that Wilde has at his disposal. It’s an inspiring recording.

04 Barabino ChopinListening to Adolfo Barabino – Chopin Volume 4; London Symphony Orchestra; Lee Reynolds (Claudio CR 6021-2) it’s tempting to believe that this pianist has found that secret, internal place from which only Chopin can come. It’s a place of great fragility. Barabino’s own liner notes speak of delicacy, elegance, nuances and slender sound. His performance of the Berceuse Op.57 gives the impression that some of the notes are actually too shy to be played. The six Mazurkas are far more meditative than they are dancelike. Even with the London Symphony Orchestra his performance of the Piano Concerto No.2 is never very large and always seems ready to become reclusive at the next pianissimo. While the second movement is particularly beautiful for Barabino’s treatment of the main theme, the outer movements sparkle more like an aurora than fireworks. It’s altogether a remarkable interpretation. The Steinway he plays surrenders the loveliest of colours in the many passages of light touch.

This is his fourth volume in what is to be a complete recording of all of Chopin’s piano works. It’s a set worth collecting.

05 Lori Sims BachAnother Bach Goldberg Variations BWV 988 (TwoPianists Records TP1039244) is competing for attention and its performance by Lori Sims offers good reasons for making this a valued addition to those who collect Goldbergs.

Most importantly, Sims understands the architecture of the work and how Bach proceeds through his canons with ever-widening intervals. She addresses this and other structural complexities in her brief but very well-written liner notes. Also, Sims has committed to observing all the repeats and using the baroque practice of more elaborate ornamentation in them.

Finally, she has made this recording in live performance with an audience that, after a few initial coughs, quickly settles into an astonishingly silent awe at the feat unfolding before them, all 80 minutes of it. This changes the pace of things, because the performer needs to keep the harmonic core of the variations alive in the listener’s ear as the idea evolves through its often challenging forms.

Sims does a terrific job at holding Bach’s many threads together while still applying her own nuances to phrases, individualizing her ornaments, playing with a light clear touch and avoiding the sustain pedal altogether. The better you know the Goldberg Variations, the more you’ll appreciate this live performance. It’s an exciting document.

06 Zhu BachAnother pianist who has recorded the Goldberg Variations live, albeit as a video, is Chinese-born Zhu Xiao Mei. She has also recorded Bach’s The Art of Fugue, but most recently the J. S. Bach Inventions and Sinfonias (Accentus Music ACC30350).

It’s familiar music to most keyboard players. The 15 Inventions and as many Sinfonias have been, as Bach intended, a staple in the keyboard study repertoire for centuries. Zhu is a performer, teacher and frequent jurist at major piano competitions. She offers a passionate argument in her liner notes for the higher regard that these pieces deserve. While dealing mostly with just two and three polyphonic voices, she nevertheless believes they contain an “extraordinary density of music.”

Zhu’s playing is sensitive, articulate and precise. It’s obvious she takes this music very seriously. She argues that Bach wanted players to learn how to play polyphonically and so, be able to highlight the dialogues between voices. She also believes Bach wanted young players to experiment with different approaches by varying tempos and phrasings. Her interpretations reflect this as they move gently and fluidly through what many students deliver as merely dutiful finger exercises. It’s a very satisfying performance and convincingly raises this collection of Bach keyboard works to a significantly higher level.

This recording is a timely reminder about the reverence we need to nurture around the act of making music, even with the simplest of works.

Review

07 Beethoven GiltburgLittle more than a year into his exclusive contract with Naxos, Boris Giltburg has recorded his second CD, Beethoven Piano Sonatas No.8 “Pathétique,” No.21 “Waldstein” and No.32 (Naxos 8.573400). Whether he aspires to recording all 32 sonatas remains to be seen. Still, his first Beethoven disc gives us a good sampling of the early, middle and late periods and of Giltburg’s understanding of how Beethoven’s expression in this form evolved.

His overall approach is one of rather intense carefulness. Giltburg is patient. Never rushing unnecessarily, he takes his time, pausing and hesitating to highlight the intimacy of the music. Speed and power are, however, no obstacle to him and he shies away from nothing.

The opening of the Pathétique is quite deliberative and in considerable contrast to the speed of the final movement. He begins the Waldstein with barely contained energy that spills out quickly over the rhythmic pulse of the left hand. The second movement seems wonderfully expanded in time as if he wants us to find something new in the open spaces between the notes. Giltburg then crafts some lovely sounds around the final movement’s bell-like main idea.

The Sonata No.32 Op.111 is Beethoven in completely new territory. Giltburg delights in the moments that appear unstructured and so modern for the period but he also plunges with feverish delight into the passages with fugal elements that Beethoven wrote for effective contrast. The jewel in this crown is unquestionably Giltburg’s performance of the final movement. The long opening arietta is memorably tender and the movement’s close, even more so.

08 Hough SciabinAn enlightening quote by the performer opens the notes of Scriabin – Janáček, Sonatas & Poems (Hyperion CDA67895). In it Stephen Hough explains his reason for alternating these two eccentric Slavic composers throughout the program of the CD. Describing Scriabin’s music as horizontal and Janáček’s as vertical, and further explaining how the two are essentially dissimilar, we have the rationale for the contrasting placement of all the music on this recording. Hough’s argument is that too much of either detracts from itself. But he also calls their voices contrasting and compelling, and this view is borne out in his playing.

Scriabin’s two sonatas, Nos.4 and 5, as well as the two Poèmes have that distinctive French impressionistic drift that is as seductive as it is hypnotic. Hough understands this form well and blends his lines with superb fluidness.

His approach to Janáček is, by necessity, very different. While somewhat programmatic the music is a demanding mix of romanticism, occasional moments of minimalism and plenty of modern form. Hough reflects the imagery beautifully in On the overgrown path – Book I. He captures the darkness of the Piano Sonata 1.X.1905, From the street, recalling the grim political events it marked as well as the composer’s deep personal struggles.

This recording is a mature and challenging project and is extraordinarily well done.

09 Bax Scriabin MussorgskyA new recording by young Italian pianist Alessio Bax, Scriabin, Mussorgsky (Signum Classics SIGCD426) brings yet another Scriabin piano sonata to the marketplace. The Sonata No.3 Op.23 is a considerably earlier work than its successor, with 16 years between them. The flowing impressionism of the 4th and 5th sonatas is only moderately evident in the slow movement of the 3rd sonata while the rest of the work is fairly classical in structure. Alessio Bax plays this work with a great deal of affection and his opening liner notes explain his fondness for the piece.

Bax is young, powerful and a capable interpreter with a natural instinct for drawing out the beauty of a melodic line. This is obvious in the Etude in C sharp Minor Op.2 No.1. The Prelude for the left hand alone, Op.9 No.1 is as beautiful as it is amazing to contemplate. One should like to see it in performance.

If we needed to be more impressed, we might reserve judgement until hearing Bax’s performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, but the decision would be a foregone conclusion. Each of these little vignettes is superbly played. Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks and The Market Place sparkle with energy and the Great Gate of Kiev towers over the Pictures in pianistic grandeur.

Contemporary music has long used unconventional sound sources, among them the “prepared” piano. This usually involves some physical change in the mechanism or tuning of the instrument. Digital technology has, however, opened new opportunities to take this approach much further. The possibilities are limited only by imagination.

10 Beyond 12OnBeyond 12 – Reinventing the Piano (MicroFest Records MF3) pianist Aron Kallay performs works commissioned from eight American composers. They were given two ground rules to follow in composing their works. First, retune the 88-note keyboard to represent just a single octave. Second, remap the keyboard so that high/low or left/right can be interchangeable and pitches can be in any order.

What has emerged is a body of works playable on a digitally conceived model that uses software to reconfigure a traditional digital keyboard to meet these requirements. The eight composers are mostly professional musicians and academics with a strong inclination for technology in their music writing.

It’s surprising to hear how much of this music has a strong tonal centre and uses familiar rhythmic patterns to drive it forward. Also intriguing is the way the ear quickly adjusts to the very small differences of pitch between adjacent notes. It’s as if the brain resets and quickly begins to make melodic and harmonic sense out of this unconventional music model. This is a truly fascinating disc and worth hearing for both pleasure and debate.

11a Into the MilleniumAmerican harpsichordist Elaine Funaro has made a career of championing new music for the harpsichord. In 1996 she recorded Into The Millennium – The Harpsichord in the 20th Century (Gasparo GSCD-331). Twenty years later the recording is as exciting as it was when first committed to DAT in the beautiful and cavernous Duke University Chapel (North Carolina).

Two tracks deserve special mention. The Postlude of Dan Locklair’s dance suite The Breakers Pound will lift you right out of your seat. The raw energy coming from such a traditionally non-dynamic instrument is indescribable. It has the feel of Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance. Also, Tom Harris’ Jubilate Deo is extraordinary for the way it builds tension with increasing stacks of harmonies. It’s wonderful to see this older recording reissued.

11b Platti sonatasAlso among Elaine Funaro’s recently reissued recordings is Giovanni Benedetto Platti “il grande” Sonatas for Clavicembalo (Wildboar WLBR 9901). Here, the repertoire is material from the early 18th century. Funaro plays two modern instruments, a harpsichord and a fortepiano, copies of originals from that period. The fortepiano in particular, produces an unusual and pleasant timbre not often heard in recordings.

Funaro has audio and video samples of her work at funaroharpsichord.com.

 

 


Goodness only knows how many attempts at string quartets Johannes Brahms destroyed before he finally felt able to present a completed work to the world in 1873 – there may have been as many as 20 – but at least the three quartets we do have are real gems.

01 Brahms New OrfordThe two quartets Op.51, in C Minor and A Minor, were followed by the B-flat Major Op.67 in 1876, but with each of the three works being about 35 minutes in length it’s simply not possible to include more than two on a single CD. Still, as the song says, two out of three ain’t bad, especially when the performances are as beautiful as those on Brahms String Quartets Op.51, Nos.1&2 by the New Orford String Quartet (Bridge 9464).

Just about all of the Brahmsian qualities you would want to hear are present: these are warm, passionate, nuanced, beautifully judged and balanced performances, full of that almost autumnal, nostalgic introspection so typical of the composer and with a lovely dynamic range. Jonathan Crow and Andrew Wan play first and second violin respectively in the Op.51 No.1, changing places for the second quartet.

The warm and resonant recording quality should come as no surprise, given that the location was the Multimedia Room at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music in Montreal.

02 My ArmeniaThe outstanding Armenian brother and sister duo Sergey and Lusine Khachatryan are back with another superb violin and piano recital on My Armenia (naïve V5414), dedicated to the 100th Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide.

The program of works by Komitas Vardapet, Eduard Bagdasaryan, Edvard Mirzoyan, Aram Khachaturian and Arno Babadjanian gives both performers ample opportunity to shine. Lusine Khachatryan is excellent in the piano solos that account for almost half of the very generous running time of the CD – close to 80 minutes – but the disc really takes off in the duos, with Sergey’s impassioned, brilliant playing taking the music to new heights and emotional depths.

There’s a lovely recorded sound and balance right from the opening two short-but-lovely duo pieces by Vardapet before Lusine features in his Seven Folk Dances for Piano Solo. The three duo pieces at the centre of the CD – Bagdasaryan’s Rhapsody and Nocturne and Mirzoyan’s Introduction & Perpetuum mobile – are also the heart of the recital. The Rhapsody is a truly rhapsodic and beautiful piece, and the short Nocturne an absolute gem. The Mirzoyan work is a real showstopper, with a simply dazzling second half.

Khachaturian, probably the best-known of the composers on the disc, is represented by three short pieces, including the familiar Sabre Dance in a typically showy transcription by Jascha Heifetz.

The CD ends with Babadjanian’s Six Pictures for Solo Piano, a challenging work both technically and harmonically, with a brilliant Toccatina movement straight out of the same drawer as Prokofiev’s Seventh Piano Sonata. It’s another dazzler.

All in all, it’s wonderful playing and musicianship from a wonderfully gifted duo. This is music that is clearly deeply ingrained in their hearts and souls as well as in their fingers.

Regular readers will know how I feel about reviewing complete sets of the Bach unaccompanied solo works, be it the Sonatas & Partitas for violin or the Cello Suites: the sheer size, scope, depth and complexity of the music, together with the wide range of versions available, makes any in-depth review almost impossible. All you can really do is note the arrival and try to give some idea of the stylistic approach and overall effect.

03 Midori BachThe latest addition to the already lengthy list of available versions of the Bach Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin is a beautiful 2-CD set by Midori (Onyx 4123). Again, as with the recent Gil Shaham release, there is a clear sense of these wonderful works having been a constant in the performer’s life, together with a reluctance to create a permanent record of what is essentially only one in a continually developing and changing series of interpretations. “After thirty years on stage,” says Midori, “the time felt right for me to fully embrace these most daunting and invaluable compositions.”

The recordings were made in Cologne in August 2013 as a result of Midori’s Bach Project that marked the 30th anniversary of her 1982 debut with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic. Presumably made for broadcast on German radio – the booklet cover has WDR The Cologne Broadcasts as a sub-heading – the recorded sound is clean and clear, with a natural presence.

There is much to comment on here: the compactness of the chords in the G Minor Fugue; the brightness, speed and sense of pulse in the uptempo dance movements in the Partitas; the lightness and ease of the multiple-stopping, without ever obscuring the line; the light and warmth in the tone, combined with a strength and richness.

It’s easy to see why violinists hesitate to commit performances of these works to disc: the more you play them and live with them, the more the challenges and possibilities, both technical and emotional, continue to grow and not diminish.

All we can do is sit back and enjoy the journey, albeit a different one each time, and feel grateful for the privilege.

04 Podger BiberMany of the same problems for a reviewer are presented by the Mystery Sonatas (also known as the Rosary Sonatas) of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, now available in a beautifully judged 2-CD set by the outstanding period-performance violinist Rachel Podger (Channel Classics CCS SA 37315). David Miller, Marcin Świątkiewicz and Jonathan Manson supply the excellent continuo.

The sonatas depict the mysteries in the life of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Anyone familiar with Biber’s descriptive piece Battalia will know how startlingly inventive he can be, but nothing prepares you for what he does in these 16 sonatas.

Scordatura (from the Italian word that gives us “discordant”) is a technique in which the strings of a string instrument are tuned differently from the usual arrangement. It’s not that uncommon, but in these sonatas Biber takes it to simply astonishing lengths, radically altering the violin’s normal GDAE tuning in all but the outer movements by retuning anything from one to all four of the strings by intervals as large as a fifth. Every tuning is different, and some – GGDD, DFB-flatD and BF-sharpBD, for instance – are simply eye-popping. The result is essentially a different instrument for each movement, with enormous possibilities for radically different chordal work and multiple-stopping.

These astonishing sonatas have long been a favourite with baroque specialists – a quick online search produced almost two dozen CD sets currently available – and while Podger is up against some stiff competition (including an outstanding set by Tafelmusik’s Julia Wedman) these are performances of works that stretch both the violin and the violinist to the limit that will hold their own against any.

05 Igbragimova BachWhen Hyperion released the Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova’s recording of the Bach Sonatas & Partitas in 2009, Gramophone magazine noted that “… her Bach comes as something of a revelation … all her stylishness and technical refinement is at the service of an ingrained understanding of the music.” Add another six years, and it should come as no surprise that in her latest Hyperion release, Bach Violin Concertos with the string ensemble Arcangelo under their founder Jonathan Cohen (CDA 68068), Ibragimova delivers terrific performances of consummate skill and style.

Arcangelo plays with a lute and harpsichord continuo, but it’s the lute that predominates in the balance here, giving the performances a soft, warm background that provides a perfect setting for Ibragimova’s sensitive interpretations. The booklet notes point out that this music comes from an age when the distinction between star soloist and ensemble player was more blurred than it is today, and Ibragimova really seems to have taken that to heart. Her imaginative playing is full of sensitive phrasing and dynamics, but is quite laid back, sounding more like a thread running through a tapestry than an out-front solo performance. Everything is light and spacious, and never heavy or routine.

The two standard solo concertos – in A Minor BWV1041 and E Major BWV1042, both of which were transcribed for keyboard by Bach – are here, but not the D Minor Double Concerto. Instead, we have three solo concertos that are described as “back-transcriptions,” being reconstructed solo versions of keyboard concertos that were themselves transcriptions of solo works. The Concerto in A Major BWV1055 is from Keyboard Concerto No.4; the Concerto in G Minor BWV1056 is from the transposed Keyboard Concerto No.5 in F Minor; and the Concerto in D Minor BWV1052 is from the Keyboard Concerto No.1.

The original A Major concerto may have been for oboe d’amore, and the original G Minor for violin or oboe; the D Minor, however, was described by no less an authority as Donald Tovey as “the greatest and most difficult violin concerto before the time of Beethoven.”

It makes a fine ending to an immensely satisfying CD.

06 Cyril ScottHowever much you may know about the music of the English composer Cyril Scott, whose Lotus Land was transcribed and recorded several times by Heifetz in the 1920s and 1930s, you’re almost certainly not going to know either of the works on the CD Dawn and Twilight – The First and Last Violin Sonatas of Cyril Scott (Affetto AF1504) unless you’ve already heard the CD: both works are world premiere recordings.

Scott, who died in 1970 at the age of 91, wrote close to 400 works in a wide range of genres but his music was largely neglected at his death, although there has been a resurgence of both interest and recordings since the turn of the century. He wrote four numbered violin sonatas, only the first of which is a youthful work: written in 1908, it was heavily revised and shortened in 1956. The revised version, along with the second and third sonatas from 1950 and 1955 respectively, was featured on a 2010 Naxos release, but Dawn and Twilight pairs the original version with the unpublished Sonata No.4, written in 1956, the same year as the revision of No.1, and provided in a photocopy of the original manuscript by the composer’s son Desmond Scott.

Violinist Andrew Kirkman and pianist Clipper Erickson are the performers here in works that are difficult to compare because, as Desmond Scott notes, there is a world of stylistic and other differences between them. Certainly the 1908 version of the First Sonata, almost a third longer than the revised version, shows a composer already leaving behind the influences of Debussy and Strauss and moving away from tonality and regular rhythm, and not surprisingly attracting a fair amount of uncomprehending attention from contemporary reviewers. To our ears it’s a stylish and finely crafted rhapsodic four-movement work, with a simply beautiful slow movement, and what the booklet notes call “a bravura disregard for the kind of formal control that informed its later revision.”

The Fourth Sonata, the direct contemporary of that revision, is another fine work that also shows the formal control and precise musical thought process of a mature composer then in his late 70s.

Kirkman and Erickson started performing the original No.1 in 2011, and gave a few concert performances of the unpublished No.4 before recording it for this release. There are times when Erickson seems to be playing with more emotional commitment and dynamic range than Kirkman, but overall these are fine performances of two works that fully deserve to be added to the standard repertoire of 20th-century violin sonatas.

07 Alexander QuartetThere are two outstanding CDs this month featuring the works of American women composers. Patagón (Foghorn Classics CD2015) features the Alexander String Quartet in three works by Cindy Cox, now in her mid-50s and very active as a pianist as well as a composer.

Cox’s music here is quite fascinating, quite varied and not easy to describe.The composer Robert Carl, writing in Fanfare Magazine, said that “Cox writes music that demonstrates an extremely refined and imaginative sense of instrumental colour and texture … this is well wrought, imaginative, and not easily classifiable music.” It’s exactly that.

The Alexander String Quartet was formed in 1981, and performed and recorded Cox’s first string quartet, Columba aspexit, after Hildegard von Bingen, some 20 years ago. It’s performed here along with the title work, Patagón, a five-movement work written in 2011 on commission from the Alexanders to celebrate their 30th anniversary and dedicated to them. Inspired by a trip to the Valdes peninsula nature preserve in southern Argentina, it employs some quite remarkable effects, including sliding harmonics, col legno (playing with the wood of the bow), sul ponticello (playing near the bridge), sul tasto (playing above the fingerboard) and overbowing, where the bow is pressed hard but slowly against the strings. Imagine these sounds and then look at the title of the third movement – Southern right whales and Magellanic penguins – and you will have some idea why these effects seem so perfectly suited to the music.

The quartet’s first violinist Zakarias Grafilo opens the CD with the short but lovely 1990 solo violin work Elegy, dedicated to the memory of Cox’s fellow compositional student Eric Heckard, who died in 1989 at the young age of 26.

The ASQ and Cox have been collaborating ever since that early recording of the Columba quartet, and it’s hard to imagine more satisfying or better-informed performances of these lovely works.

08 Jessie MontgomeryAll of the works on Strum: Music for Strings, the first album dedicated solely to the music of the young African-American composer and violinist Jessie Montgomery (Azica ACD-71302) were written in the past three years, and they display a remarkable self-assurance and confidence together with a striking musical inventiveness and imagination.

Starburst is a short work for string orchestra that plays on rapidly changing musical colours. Source Code for string quartet began life as sketched transcriptions of various sources from African American artists prominent during the peak of the Civil Rights era; it’s played here by the Catalyst Quartet. Break Away, a five-movement work for string quartet, was written for the PUBLIQuartet, who perform it here; born out of a series of improvisations the ensemble was working on while in residence at the Banff Centre, it requires the players to literally break away from the score and improvise, especially in the final movement.

The Rhapsody No.1 for solo violin gives Montgomery the chance to display her outstanding violin playing, and Banner for solo string quartet and string orchestra, with the Catalyst Quartet and the String Orchestra conducted by Julian Wachner, is a rhapsodic tribute to the 200th Anniversary of The Star-Spangled Banner.

Strum, the title track of the album, is the final version of a work started in 2006, but revised and partially rewritten in 2012 for the Catalyst Quartet, whose performance rounds out an impressive debut disc of Montgomery’s compositions.

This is clearly a significant talent, and definitely someone to watch. Expect to hear a lot more from this artist.


01 Galuppi FilosofoBaldassarre Galuppi – Il filosofo di campagna
Zanetti; Baldan; Unsal; Cinciripi; Torriani; Antonini; Mezzaro; Boschin; Ensemble Barocco della Filarmonica del Veneto; Fabrizio da Ros
Bongiovanni AB 20030

Opera buffa dates from the beginning of the 18th century. It was essentially a Neapolitan art form; it was farcical and lightweight. By the late 1740s it had metamorphosed into the dramma giocoso which was still comic but had more plausible situations with semi-serious parts and a more realistic psychology. These works were usually Venetian and they included librettos by Carlo Goldoni, set to music by Baldassare Galuppi – as is the case here. In this opera Eugenia wants to marry the young nobleman Rinaldo but her father, Don Tritemio, insists that she marry the wealthy farmer Nardo, the philosopher, instead. Things end happily, of course: Eugenia marries Rinaldo and her maid Lesbina marries Nardo, while Don Tritemio makes do with Nardo’s niece Lena.

The DVD gives us a live performance from the Teatro Comunale in Belluno, which took place in October 2012. The director, Carlo Torriani, makes a clear distinction between the more rounded characters like the young lovers and those who are conceived more farcically: the crusty father and especially the notary, who is affected by interminable bouts of sneezing. I suspect that it is the latter which will prove most difficult to take in subsequent rehearings or reviewings. The conductor, Fabrizio da Ros, presents the music with loving care and the work is well sung. I especially enjoyed the soprano Giorgia Cinciripi, who sings Lesbina.


02 Vivaldi Aradia

Vivaldi – Sacred Music 4
Claire de Sévigné; Maria Soulis; Aradia Ensemble; Kevin Mallon
Naxos 8.573324

Review

Since 2004, Toronto’s Aradia Ensemble has returned every few years to record another offering of Vivaldi’s sacred music for voice and instrumental ensemble. With seven years since the third volume was released, this, the fourth, is most welcome. The majority of Vivaldi’s vocal music was written during his time as teacher and music director at the Ospedale della Pietà, which accounts for the wealth of repertoire for female soloists. And some of the young women there must have been extraordinary singers, as demonstrated in this recording by the gloriously dramatic performance of In turbato mare irato by soprano Claire de Sévigné. And though the motet Vestro principi divino is somewhat more warm and sedate, it ends with more demanding and athletic runs in the Alleluia. In this, and the very operatic motet Invicte, bellate, mezzo Maria Soulis is alternately reflective and valiant, with marvellous tonal quality. The crisp execution of In exitu Israel, Laudate Dominum and Laetatus sum by the choral ensemble is splendid. To contrast her earlier motet, de Sévigné delivers O qui coeli terraeque serenitas in all its sweetness of calm repose. The core of Aradia, its excellent instrumental ensemble led by Kevin Mallon, is, as always, impeccable in performance.


Puccini – Turandot
Khudoley; Massi; Yu; Ryssov; Wiener Symphoniker; Paolo Carignani
C major 731408

Puccini – Turandot
Dessi; Malagnini; Canzian; Chikviladze; La Guardia; Teatro Carlo Felice; Donato Renzetti
Dynamic 33764

Puccini’s last, unfinished opera is arguably his greatest, certainly the most innovative, harmonically adventurous and a score of genius. It is also a grand opera well suited for lavish, extravagant productions. Fortunately, two marvellous video recordings have just arrived and both fulfill their promise. I state categorically that both are excellent in their own way and I do not prefer one to the other.

03a Puccini Turandot CmajorThe newest is from the Bregenz Festival, July 2015 (bregenzerfestspiele.com). Not many may have heard of Bregenz, a sleepy old town at the Western end of Austria on the shores of Lake Constance (Bodensee), but their festival rivals Salzburg with the highest artistic standards. The giant open-air amphitheatre includes an incredible stage set (designed by M.A. Marelli) right in the lake with something like the Great Wall of China towering 100 feet forming the backdrop to a circular stage, a revolving cylinder accessed by ramps snaking around it like a Chinese dragon. Over this is a huge circular disc equipped with myriad LED crystals forming computer generated multi-coloured images to suit the mood of the moment. It really has to be seen to be believed and I must say it’s a lot more comfortable to see it on DVD in home comfort than being there freezing in the rain. (I’ve been in Vorarlberg and even in summer the weather is unpredictable.) The orchestra cannot be seen and nor can the conductor, the dynamic Paolo Carignani who gave Toronto a thrilling Tosca some time ago. The overall, somewhat modernized show is a sound and light extravaganza with dancers, pantomimes and circus acts to dazzle the eye, but the opera comes through musically superb with spacious acoustics and some top singing artists plus two choruses, not to mention the Wiener Symphoniker giving it orchestral support. Young Italian tenor Riccardo Massi (Prince Kalaf) copes well with the power and the high notes; he is best in show. Young, up-and-coming Chinese soprano Guanqun Yu gives a heartrending performance as Liu, the little servant girl who sacrifices herself for love. For the pinnacle role of the Ice Princess expectations are high and Callas or Sutherland both being gone, Mlada Khudoley, Russian dramatic soprano from the Mariinsky struggles heroically, suitably hateful most of the time, but relaxes beautifully to a glorious finale, an outburst of joy seldom witnessed in opera theatres.

Review

03b Puccini Turandot DynamicWe now enter Puccini territory, because the next production is from Genoa, the heart of Liguria, the region where Puccini and most of the cast comes from. The Opera House in Genoa is a grandiose affair and the stage is very large and very high in order to accommodate the monumental set, a multi-level Chinese palace with staircases on either side. Ingeniously the set can easily adapt, alternately being grandiose or intimate, using lighting effects giving it different moods and gorgeous colours. Yet it remains entirely traditional, just as Puccini envisaged it. Being an Italian production, it is done with the emphasis on the music and the quality of the singers, which is superb. The leading lady Daniela Dessi, one of the top sopranos in Italy today, is a sensitive, even anguished and entirely believable Turandot. The primo tenore Mario Malagnini, a compassionate and tender Kalaf with tremendous vocal power even in the high tessitura, makes a strong impression. The young Roberta Canzian steals some of Signora Dessi’s glory with her brave and impassioned, beautiful performance as Liu. Right down to the lowliest choristers the singing is first class, but the three Chinese ministers deserve a special mention for their amusing, colourful and superbly choreographed trios that comment on the action with a rather cruel, even sadistic humour. And the one who controls it all is Donato Renzetti, an old hand in Italian opera who, with oriental rhythms and shimmering textures, makes everything come alive and throb with excitement.

 


05 Verdi AidaVerdi – Aida
Lewis; Sartori; Rachvelishvili; Gagnidze; Salminen; Colombara; Coro e Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala; Zubin Mehta
C major 732208

To revive Aida in 2015 at that holy temple of Italian opera, La Scala of Milan, puts much at stake. Times are difficult economically yet expectations are high, the audience sceptical, often giving great artists a rough time, (Carlos Kleiber once was booed in the pit!), but success for a young singer in La Scala could make a career. That dream came true for young American soprano Kristin Lewis, who simply enchanted the audience in a heartbreaking, gloriously sung performance as Aida. She even burst into tears in the midst of final applause. The other young lady, the lead mezzo (Amneris), Anita Rachvelishvili (see The WholeNote November 2015 for my review of the Tsar’s Bride from Berlin), perhaps stole the show with “the authority of her performance and warm, burnished tone and sheer vocal power” (Kenneth Chalmers) and made a big impression. Fabio Satori’s Radamès was somewhat less convincing as a glorious hero and lover than in his subsequent misfortune, but he surely hit those high notes! George Gagnidze was an energetic, rather youthful Amonasro and Matti Salminen’s Ramfis, the high priest, a stately figure. But the great basso, nearly 70, was having serious difficulties with his voice. Conductor Zubin Mehta, quite dapper and almost 80, conducted without a score according to Italian tradition, with minimal movements, and gave a sensitive, solid, well-detailed reading to impressive sonic effect, his trademark.

The top credit however is for German director Peter Stein, who contrary to the usual grand-opera bombast, sees the opera more intimately, as a set of confrontations between a few individuals in unique settings, turning every stage set into a stunning work of art with glorious colours and strong geometry accentuated by backlighting and silhouettes. The designers Ferdinand Wögerbauer (sets), Nanà Cecchi (costumes) and Joachim Barth (lighting) created a thoroughly integrated, visually beautiful experience worthy of Verdi’s masterpiece.


07 HvorostovskyShostakovich – Suite on Poems by Michelangelo; Liszt – Petrarch Sonnets
Dmitri Hvorostovsky; Ivari Ilja
Ondine ODE 1277-2

Dmitri Hvorostovsky is a pure artist and a natural-born talent. Born and educated in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, a place not renowned for being a fertile cultural ground (despite having also been the birthplace of the French novelist Andreï Makine), Hvorostovsky shot to international stardom after defeating Bryn Terfel in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1989. This success came on the heels of triumphs at the Toulouse Singing Competition in 1988 and the Glinka Competition in 1987. Since then, he has been present on all major opera and concert stages in the world – predominately in Verdi roles. He created an unforgettable portrayal of the Marquis de Posa in Don Carlo, but was equally acclaimed for Simon Boccanegra, Rigoletto, Un ballo in maschera and La Traviata. When he appeared for the first time in Tchaikovsky operas – The Queen of Spades, and especially, Eugene Onegin – critics proclaimed that he was born to sing those roles.

This album shows a different side to Hvorostovsky – that of a lieder singer. When Shostakovich set the poems of Michelangelo (in translation by Abram Efros) to music in 1974, he knew he was a dying man. A year earlier, in addition to a serious heart condition that he had lived with for most of his life, he was also diagnosed with terminal cancer. The music he composed is full of anger and resentment, expressing a battle he ultimately lost a year later. Chillingly, Hvorostovsky had himself been diagnosed with a brain tumour early in 2015, but has since returned to the stage. As you listen to the stark, ominous music on this disc, spare a kind thought for this great Russian baritone, whose struggle may be ongoing.


08 Weinberg PassengerWeinberg – The Passenger
Breedt; Saccà; Kelessidi; Rucinski; Doneva; Wiener Symphoniker; Teodor Currentzis
ArtHaus Musik 109179

This DVD’s booklet contains a lengthy encomium by Weinberg’s friend and muse, Shostakovich, calling The Passenger “a masterpiece, both in shape and style.” Unsurprising, as Shostakovich’s own “shape and style” pervade Weinberg’s compositions, including this one.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996), a Polish Jew who fled to the USSR in 1939, completed The Passenger in 1968. His memorial to Holocaust victims, among them his parents and sister, was never staged until 2010 at Austria’s Bregenz Festival, the production preserved here. It has since been performed many times in other countries.

The set is on two levels: above, a ship deck in 1960, where Lisa and her husband Walter are bound for Brazil; below, wartime Auschwitz, where Lisa had been an SS guard. On board, Lisa thinks she recognizes Martha, supposedly killed in Auschwitz. Shaken, she reveals her Nazi past to Walter – and to us, the audience, in the Auschwitz scenes where most of the opera unfolds. Here, extended passages of poignant lyricism are punctuated by brutal orchestral outbursts and the onstage brutality of the guards.

Did Martha really survive, or is the veiled, silent passenger an apparition of Lisa’s haunted conscience? In the opera’s epilogue, alone on stage, an unveiled Martha sings
“… never forgive … never forget …”

If not quite “a masterpiece,” with its well-sung, effective music and potent drama, The Passenger will surely wrench guts and jerk tears. A bonus documentary provides details about Weinberg and this unforgettable production.


05 Ho Legend of Da JiAlice Ping Yee Ho – The Lesson of Da Ji
Toronto Masque Theatre; Larry Beckwith
Centrediscs
CMCCD 22115

In her music theatre work The Lesson of Da Ji, Hong Kong-born Toronto composer Alice Ping Yee Ho has struck a fine, if not always easy, cultural balance between features of classical Beijing (Peking) opera and the European masque tradition, as interpreted in 21st-century Canada.

It is no mean feat to present eight Canadian voices supported by the string tonalities of the Chinese zhongruan, erhu, pipa and zheng. It is even more complex when all that is seamlessly meshed with the sonority of the European baroque lute, harpsichord, viola da gamba, violin and recorders, plus a percussion battery. Ho does just that admirably, presenting along the way a bracing new hybrid soundscape to enjoy.

Her skillfully orchestrated score hangs directly on Canadian playwright Marjorie Chan’s libretto. It tells the chilling tale of the famous concubine Da Ji of the Shang Dynasty (c.1600 to 1046 BCE), honing in on her illicit love affair with a musician and the bloody revenge enacted by the jealous King Zhou. It’s the sort of court drama common to both Chinese and Eurocentric opera traditions.

The composer once noted that “colours and tonality are two attractive resources to me: they form certain mental images that connect to audiences in a very basic way.” The Lesson of Da Ji follows that dictum, and her approach works to convey character, place, mood and imagery, even via the audio CD medium. My guess is that a video presentation – or better yet, a live production where the multiple visual and choreographic elements are at work – would make for an even more involving evening of theatre.

Commissioned by the Toronto Masque Theatre in 2012 The Lesson of Da Ji immediately won critical acclaim as well as the 2013 Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Original Opera. The release of the recording of this hour-long opera in two acts within just a couple of years of its premiere reflects the work’s enthusiastic initial reception. It may well also mark the beginning of its acceptance by a wider public in Canada, as well as in the composer’s country of birth.


01 Chaconne EternityChaconne – Voices of Eternity
Ensemble Caprice; Matthias Maute
Analekta AN 2 9132

There is a difference between the chaconne and the passacaglia – or so textbooks tell us. In the chaconne a theme is repeated over and over again in the bass, while in the passacaglia the repeated theme does not need to be in the bass. Matthias Maute, in the booklet that comes with his recording, is inclined to play down the distinction, saying that the repetition of a harmonic motif is essential to both forms. One of the most famous of all chaconnes is that written by J. S. Bach for solo violin. Here it constitutes the final item on the recording, arranged (not altogether convincingly) for two recorders and cello. Many of the other items are earlier and they include works by Monteverdi, Landi and Falconieri. Among the most famous of chaconnes are the variations on the popular tune, La Follia, and this recording gives us two examples of such variations: by Falconieri (again) and by Vivaldi. There are two other kinds of music here: instrumental versions of seven 16th-century Czech folksongs (arranged by Maute) and seven very short, unaccompanied vocal chaconnes by Maute. The latter are expressive and haunting. They are beautifully sung by the sopranos Dawn Bailey and Jana Miller and alto Maude Brunet. Elsewhere there are eight instrumentalists and the playing is of a high order. Warmly recommended.


 02 Ciudades de oro

Las Cuidades de Oro – Baroque Music from the Spanish New World
L’Harmonie des Saisons; Eric Milnes
ATMA ACD2 2702 

Review

The importance of Spanish music of the 17th and 18th century has long been recognized, but it is only in recent years that we have been introduced to the riches that have been preserved in Latin American archives, in Colombia and Peru, in Chile and Guatemala, in Bolivia and Mexico. It is clear from the music on this recording that there were rich polyphonic traditions in Peru (in the San Antonio Abad Seminary in Cuzco, at the shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Candelaria in Copacabana and in the Cathedral at Lima) and in Bolivia (in the Cathedral of La Plata, now Sucre). Some of the composers featured were Spaniards whose careers developed in the New World, others were born in Latin America and one (Alonzo Torices) never left Spain, although some of his works have been preserved in the Guatemala City Cathedral archives. Most of the texted works on this recording are in Spanish but one is in Latin and one in Quechua, the official language of the Inca Empire.

The recording is carefully planned: the musical language shows a great deal of variety and the documentation is excellent. The rhythms are incisive and the standards of playing and singing are high. I particularly enjoyed the two duets sung by the sopranos Hélène Brunet and Elaine Lachica.


04 Brahms DoubleBrahms – Double Concerto; Symphony No.4
Pinchas Zukerman; Amanda Forsyth; National Arts Centre Orchestra
Analekta AN 2 8782

Pinchas Zuckerman, who retired after 16 years at the helm of the NACO, has certainly left his mark on the Canadian musical scene. His promotion of musical training for young musicians surely will be his most lasting legacy, alongside the hundreds of concerts and live recordings he generated. A case in point is a new Analekta disc recorded live. The Double Concerto by Brahms is like one of those amazing perfect recipes from The Joy of Cooking: get the right ingredients, follow the recipe exactly and presto: it always works. You need one virtuosic violinist (Zuckerman fits the bill perfectly), one cellist, who can keep up (Forsyth more than keeps up here!) and an orchestra that knows not to overstep. It helps that Zuckerman and Forsyth pair up frequently for this piece and have a definite rapport, developed over their years of playing together. So this Double Concerto hits all the right buttons – it is unrestrained, powerful, and tsunami-like in delivery, while shimmering with sans pareil melodic lines. There are virtuosic passages the likes of which Heifetz and Rostropovich made us expect from soloists. Real aural pleasure, if not breaking any new ground.

Alas, it is in the Symphony No.4 that we understand why Zuckerman will be remembered as a solo virtuoso, rather than a team player. His reading of the score seems muted and slowed down, as if he expects the orchestra will not to be able to keep up. The result is still Brahms, majestic, but somewhat leaden and heavy-footed, as if the will to live were slowly trickling out of the music. After 40 years of virtuosity, it may be the most honest pronouncement from Zuckerman – he is a solo act.


Nathaniel Dett

My Cup Runneth Over – Complete Piano Works of R. Nathaniel Dett
Clipper Erickson
Navona Records NV6013 (navonarecords.com)

Review

While we have enjoyed many opportunities to hear the choral music of Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943), this is the first ever recording of the prolific composer’s complete piano works which encompass quite a range, both in period and style. Pianist Clipper Erickson, who completed his DMA at Temple University researching Dett’s work, raised funds for this recording project through a Kickstarter campaign. Recorded in Germany for Navona Records and distributed by Naxos, the disc provides an enjoyable and significant dose of music history for professional and layman alike.

Canadian-born Dett’s styles range here from popular dance music and jazz to spirituals, romanticism and impressionism, with rags and salon suites alongside works influenced by Liszt, Dvořák, Debussy and Grainger. And like some of the aforementioned influences, Dett had both education and talent to seamlessly incorporate folk idioms into art music. His piano pieces explore diverse themes: the love of nature (Magnolia), the Deep South (In the Bottoms), Rosicrucian philosophy (Enchantment), the poetry of Rabindrath Tagore (Cinnamon Grove) and scripture (Eight Bible Vignettes). Erickson, an accomplished pianist, performs with great sensitivity to these themes and an obvious admiration for the great composer. Kudos to Erickson for his initiative and to those who chose to support this endeavour. A welcome release, just in time for Black History Month.


Dutilleux – Symphony No.1; Deux Sonnets de Jean Cassou; Métaboles
Paul Armin Edelmann; Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Karl-Heinz Steffens
Capriccio C5242

Dutilleux – Métaboles; L’arbre des songes; Symphony No.2 «Le double»
Augustin Hadelich; Seattle Symphony; Ludovic Morlot
Seattle Symphony SSM1007

Dutilleux – Tout un monde lointain
Emmanuelle Bertrand; Pascal Amoyel; Luzerner Sinfonieorchester; James Gaffigan
harmonia mundi HMC 902209

Last month was French composer Henri Dutilleux’s centennial, and commemorative recordings of his meticulously crafted works began appearing in the middle of last year. Despite the premature arrival of these particular discs, however, a reappraisal of his music has long been overdue. A relatively small oeuvre, combined with a high-placed enemy in the form of a young Pierre Boulez, worked to consign Dutilleux to relative obscurity for nearly all but the last two decades of his 97-year life.

What’s more, the music which he did permit, after years of revision, to pass through the pinpoint mesh of his self-criticism never had pretensions of epoch-making in the first place. There is no avant-garde formalistic demagoguery, no school of thought behind his work (though the long shadows of Ravel and Berg loom). Instead, Dutilleux commandeers entire orchestras, as Proust commandeered thousands and thousands of pages, to convey nothing more than a deeply personal – though phantasmagorical – inner world.

Comparisons to artists in other mediums always abound when one speaks of Dutilleux, likely because he makes no secret of his debts to the Belle Époque; he has also cited Baudelaire and Van Gogh as inspirations. And yet his music is rarely programmatic, or even narrativistic. If anything, it is architectural; his pieces often feel like they occupy considerable space, like musical edifices composed of forces held in perfect equilibrium.

Review

01a Dutillieux Symphony 1His first major work to embody this panoramic style is his most performed. Written in 1964 for the Cleveland Orchestra, Métaboles is a précis of Dutilleux’s work. Tired with the thesis-antithesis of theme A versus theme B, Dutilleux looked to nature in search of a more malleable symphonic form. There he saw that, given enough transformations, evolution could bridge unimaginable gaps between organisms (as that between, say, a primordial bacteria and a human being). Adapting this model to Métaboles, he steadily modifies his thematic material until it becomes unrecognizable – yet still inextricably linked through a kind of musical metabolism to the material which germinated it.

01b Dutillieux MetabolesTwo fine recordings of this piece appeared last year. The first, recorded by Karl-Heinz Steffens and the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, is expansive, smoothing the kaleidoscope turn of Métaboles’ transformations. The next, recorded by Ludovic Morlot with the Seattle Symphony, is notable for its excellent mastering, which enhances the work’s already galactic compass. Taken together, these CDs present a kind of “métaboles” of Dutilleux’ entire career: the Rheinland-Pfalz disc contains his early works, including a rare vocal setting, while the Seattle recording features a brilliant performance of Dutilleux’s late violin concerto by Augustin Hadelich (entitled L’arbre des songes, it too draws inspiration from nature and has structural similarities with Métaboles).

01c Dutillieux CelloFilling in the gaps is Emmanuelle Bertrand’s performance of the Baudelaire-inspired cello concerto, “Tout un monde lointain…” with the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester. The concerto is worth the price of admission alone – it is perhaps his greatest work, ably performed here – but the CD also includes some historical context with a recording of Debussy’s cello sonata. Sensibly enough, for though Dutilleux was scorned by the Paris establishment, he was one of its rightful heirs. The recordings appearing now on this important anniversary are the definitive proof.

 

For a list of writings by this author, click the name above
More from this author:

Back to top