01_Vocal_01_Handel_Ariodante.jpgHandel – Ariodante
Ann Murray; Joan Rodgers; English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus; 
Ivor Bolton
ArtHaus Musik 100065

Ariodante is a late opera by Handel. It is also one of his finest. It broke new ground in a number of ways: there are important ballet scenes; there is a real chorus; and there are substantial parts for the tenor and for the bass. This DVD is a record of the English National Opera production of the work, first mounted in 1993, then revived in 1996. Like all ENO productions it is sung in English. I think there is some point in translating a libretto into the language of most people in the audience in the case of comic operas or works with spoken dialogue. I don’t think it helps with an opera seria by Handel.

The production is by David Alden, who has in recent years given us several controversial productions for the Canadian Opera Company. There are a number of directorial excesses such as the quite gratuitous dream sequences, while the ballets that conclude both the second and third act are abominable. Moreover, the artists whom we see and hear are singers, not film stars. Several of the women are heavily made up and would no doubt look splendid from the second balcony. They do not in close-up and yet close-ups are what we get much of the time.

The conductor, Ivor Bolton, is very good and there is some fine singing from Ann Murray and Joan Rodgers, from Lesley Garrett and Gwynne Howell. But if your main interest is in the music you are better off listening to one of the CD sets available such as the version conducted by Raymond Leppard on Philips (with Janet Baker and Norma Burrowes) or that conducted by Alan Curtis on Virgin (with Karina Gauvin and Marie-Nicole Lemieux).


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01_Vocal_02_Mozart_Zauber.jpgMozart – Die Zauberflöte
Schmitt; Landshamer; Oliemans; Lejderman; Dutch National Opera; Netherlands Chamber Orchestra;
Marc Albrecht
Opus Arte OA 1122 D

Die Zauberflöte is not an easy opera to pull off, as it needs a director who is able to present the farcical elements such as the serpent that threatens Tamino at the beginning of the opera and the antics of Papageno, but is also in tune with the sense of ritual needed for the scenes with Sarastro and his initiates. This production, directed by Simon McBurney, is on the whole quite successful. I did not like everything: I could have done without the crowds of actors running on the stage, waving pieces of paper and pretending to be birds. I thought the initiates in their suits and with their neckties looked too much like the personnel of an insurance company. I don’t understand why the Queen of the Night was in a wheelchair or why the Three Spirits (very well sung by three boy sopranos) were made to look like wizened old men or why the Speaker was so grim and unsympathetic.

But there are marvellous moments. Pamina (the wonderful Christina Landshamer) and Papageno (Thomas Oliemans, a fine actor and a fine singer) set up a great relationship in their first scene together which then leads to a beautiful performance of the duet: Bei Männer welche Liebe fühlen. In several scenes Tamino plays his (magic) flute. Clearly unless the tenor is also a flutist he will mime these scenes while the flute is played by an orchestral musician. McBurney has taken the conventional presentation a stage further by either having the flutist join Tamino on stage or moving Tamino down into the orchestra pit. This is an inventive production set on a bare stage without any emphasis on theatrical illusion. Michael Levine’s set designs complement the production very well. The whole opera is well sung and there is no weak link in the cast.

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01_Vocal_03_Etienne_Dupuis.jpgLove Blows as the Wind Blows
Etienne Dupuis; Quatuor Claudel-Canimex
ATMA ACD2 2701

Etienne Dupuis developed for himself a reputation of being a clown – first with his classmates at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University and then with the attendees of his concerts. In this recording, Dupuis is all (most) business, as the mood called for in the songs of British composers is sombre. Loss of faith, end of life ruminations and such are only occasionally relieved by the wonders of nature (“O, the month of May, the merry month of May”). His voice is full and robust, and yet Dupuis uses vibrato, not very often associated with the baritone, to an interesting result in Barber’s Dover Beach. The accompaniment of Quatuor Claudel-Canimex, whose members are the mainstays of the Orchestra of Lanaudière – Canada’s best-loved classical music festival – harmonizes beautifully with his voice. The mood continues with the Adagio for string quartet by Barber – a piece no doubt demonstrating the Quatour Claudel-Canimex’s abilities, but in my opinion, unnecessarily omnipresent.

Speaking of omnipresent, the imp in Dupuis raises its head, with the hammed-up rendition of Danny Boy – though I cannot deny the beauty of the last note! The true gem of the album hides at the very end: Réjean Coallier’s setting of poems by Sylvain Garneau. Garneau died at the age of 23, leaving behind a small body of lyrical works. Coallier, a Montreal-based pianist, composer and teacher, offers a loving treatment of the poetry, with beautiful melodies lining the words with silky gentleness. Again, Dupuis sounds great – which he does whenever he overcomes his inner clown.


01_Vocal_04_Marshall_Songs.jpgNicholas Marshall – Songs and Chamber Music
James Gilchrist; Various Artists; Manchester Chamber Ensemble
Metier msv 28552 divineartrecords.com

This CD showcases songs and instrumental music by British composer Nicholas Marshall, born in the 1940s and still busily at work today. Marshall’s musical influences and talents are many and varied, and while certainly having his own inventive voice he follows in the musical footsteps of Warlock, Delius, Vaughan Williams and Sir Lennox Berkeley, with whom he also studied. The disc opens with The Birds, a song cycle of poetry by Hardy, Belloc, Yeats and others set beautifully for tenor voice, recorder and piano.  A brief but evocative Plaint for cello and piano precedes The Falling of the Leaves, another cycle set for tenor voice, alto recorder, cello and harpsichord on six poems by Yeats. The balance between all three voices is delicately well struck, in the writing as well as in performance; tenor James Gilchrist sings exquisitely, and Harvey Davies sounds equally at home on both harpsichord and piano.

Other songs on the program feature the poetry of James Reeves (Music in the Wood) and G.K. Chesterton (Three Short Songs), very deftly matched in character and spirit by Marshall’s writing. Two pieces for recorder and string quartet round out the program: Marshall’s Recorder Concerto, of which the slow movement is particularly beautiful, and The Nightingale, a short and sweet fantasia on a Welsh folk song. These are played with attentive affection and deserve more attention from other recorder players out there!

01_Vocal_05_Jensen_From_Sea_to_Sea.jpgAaron Jensen: From Sea to Sea – Vocal works featuring Canadian Poetry
Various Artists
Centrediscs CMCCD 20815

In an interview with The WholeNote’s David Perlman, composer/singer/impresario Aaron Jensen stated that “vocal music is flourishing in Toronto, and we plan on leading the singing revolution.” And he went on to do just that as artistic director of the Harbourfront SING! Festival. That and more so, representing all of Canada with the 2013 debut of his song cycle From Sea to Sea. It was eight years in the making, with Jensen first choosing poetry from each province and territory. Then came the arduous task of obtaining rights from each poet (or poet’s estate), and then the craft of honouring each poem with its own unique musical treatment. The result is a delightful and most interesting variety of styles within the one work, perfectly matching Jensen’s description of the “abundance of wit, craft, and poignancy” of the texts. In addition to expressing through the genres of folk, classical and jazz, he invokes overtones of Inuit throat singing (Uvavnuk Dreams), pointillist notation mirroring the Braille alphabet (Poems in Braille), bodhrán rhythms (Rain in the Country), as well as many more highly effective musical sketches and characterizations. Most of the vocal groups who performed the work at SING! appear on the recording and deliver exquisite performances: The Elmer Isleler Singers, The SING! Singers, Countermeasure, Cawthra Park Chamber Choir, KAJAK Collective and the Canadian Men’s Chorus.

02_Classical_01_Kuhnel_Voix_humaines.jpgAugust Kuhnel – Sei Sonate O Partite
Les Voix humaines
ATMA ACD2 2644

Solo, rather than consort performances of the bass viol increased in popularity – not to say melodic and harmonic potential – in Europe in the mid-17th century. France emerged as a key centre for bass viol solo music but Germany was not so far behind. August 1645 saw the birth of August Kühnel in Saxony. Kühnel’s father Samuel, himself a composer and viol player, trained him to the extent that he was appointed viola da gambist to the court orchestra of Maurice, Duke of Saxe-Zeitz.

Only Kühnel‘s six sonatas or partitas were published; the rest of his music survives as manuscripts. In fact, the partitas deserve a wider audience. They start with a prelude which features rich embellishments and follow with rigorous allegros and adagios. Susie Napper, Margaret Little and Mélisande Corriveau tackle these movements with gusto. Their playing is reminiscent of what was called stylus phantasticus, a demanding interpretation which tests the bass viol player with its rigorous scoring.

Sonata I sets the pace in this respect even if Sonata II is more restrained; the former could almost be one of the folk-tune settings which had inspired early 17th-century viola da gamba players. Sonata III falls somewhere between its predecessors. This is not surprising as it is annotated solely as aria variata by Kühnel.

It is Kühnel himself who encourages the spirited playing of the Voix Humaines Consort as he himself acknowledges that it is impossible to annotate everything: he places an apostrophe where he requires an ornament to be played, leaving performers free to choose trills, vibratos, appoggiaturas and many others! It is a bit like leaving schoolchildren free to roam in the chemistry laboratory or, in the sleeve-note writer’s words, “the telepathic communion of a pair of jazz saxophonists.”

And the last three sonatas? The country-dance characteristics of some of their movements is certainly brought out, particularly in Sonata V, while Sonata VI is very reminiscent of the music accompanying baroque dramas. It is easy to see why Napper and Little are so admired for their interpretations of this genre.


02_Classical_03_Beethoven_Kodama.jpgBeethoven – Complete Piano Sonatas
Mari Kodama
Pentatone PTC 5186 490

The 32 sonatas of Beethoven are a milestone in musical history and one of the marvels of human civilization. The piano was Beethoven’s own instrument; he first became famous as a concert pianist. The sonatas also trace the development of the instrument itself; with technical improvements it became more and more articulate and expressive, noticeable throughout the sonatas. Interpretation dates back to the time of Liszt and complete recordings by some of the piano giants are many, but almost exclusively by male pianists.

I met Mari Kodama at the time of launching her new set for PentaTone. She immediately impressed me as quiet, unassuming, rather reclusive and modest but very dedicated to her art. Well, quiet waters run deep as I certainly found out later in listening to her play. It took her some ten years to complete this project and “time was her greatest gift” as she thoroughly researched each sonata and understood the compositional process from the inside out as her extensive notes demonstrate. Kodama was virtually unknown when she started this project and so it was doubly difficult to make herself known as well as make a new statement on this field. Comparisons are limitless as everyone has his/her favorites they swear by, although it wouldn’t be fair to this relatively young pianist and the enormity of her effort and accomplishment.

Her playing can be summed up as impeccable, painstakingly observing the composer’s original metronome markings, usually on the fast side of what we are used to with amazing technical brilliance and rhythmic precision as well as a tremendous range of expression and structural coherence. Her playing is essentially delicate, but this is advantageous for the more light hearted, humorous pieces like the second movement of the Hunt Sonata, Op.31, No.3 and elsewhere where she is distinctly delightful in making the piano literally “swing” (Op.31, No.1). Even more challenging is the Pastoral Sonata Op.28, notoriously difficult to interpret, in which she excels. Her youthful joy of playing, especially her favourites, is infectious, which makes this set extra special.

But Kodama is certainly no lightweight. She makes an enormous impact with the Hammerklavier, Op.106, more than 41 minutes long, immensely difficult, an endurance test even for the likes of Richter. Her bold attack with the magnificent fanfare-like chords immediately rouses the listener. The long Adagio, often a stumbling block for pianists, is held together well and the enormous fugue that requires almost superhuman endurance and stamina comes off with such abundant energy that it’s simply breathtaking.

Nine CDs richly documented with Kodama’s own analysis of each sonata, the PentaTone sound is state of the art with gorgeous piano tone as if it was in your own living room.

Concert Note: Mari Kodama and Karin Kei Nagano, her 15-year-old daughter (with her husband MSO conductor Kent Nagano), perform April 25 as part of Bravo Niagara!’s second annual “Spring into Music @ Stratus festival, Stratus Vineyards, Niagara-on-the-Lake.

02_Classical_04_Scriabin_Ohlsson.jpgScriabin – Complete Poèmes
Garrick Ohlsson
Hyperion CDA67988

Titling a piano piece a “poem” is not mere affectation. Simon Nicholls’ disc notes are packed with examples of symbolist correspondences between the arts in Scriabin’s music. But on this recording of the complete Poèmes for piano, filled out with brief character pieces, the musical variety and originality of tonal structure, articulation and texture are to me more interesting than extra-musical associations. Garrick Ohlsson’s stylistic mastery makes it so.

A Chopinist among many other things, Ohlsson brings to the Chopin-influenced Scriabin’s early Deux poèmes, Op.32 moods of a sensuous nocturne (No.1) and an intense prelude (No.2). Ohlsson’s technique is clean and bass lines are well-organized. The exquisite Poème, Op.41 is melodically distinguished and full of pianistic colour in Ohlsson’s reading. Scriabin’s tonal explorations widened in his miniatures: the results range from caprice and wit (Scherzo, Op.46) through yearning (Quasi valse, Op.47) to languor (Rêverie, Op.49, No.3), the latter a unique take on the hoary sequence of fifths. Through attentive pedalling Ohlsson manages to balance and shape Fragility, Op.51, No.1, a favourite of mine, floating right hand chords over a left hand playing both melody (thumb) and accompaniment (fingers). Much more could be written about the remarkable late Poème-Nocturne, Op.61 and Vers la flame: poème, Op.72; it is in handling varied textures, fleeting motifs and nuanced dynamics within the overall nocturnal ambience that Ohlsson creates his magic.

Author: Roger Knox
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02_Classical_05_Tchaikovsky_6.jpgTchaikovsky – Symphony No.6 in B Minor, Pathétique
Vienna Symphony Orchestra;
Philippe Jordan
Wiener Symphoniker CD WS 006

This CD was issued late last year and has just come my way. It is rather special. Philippe Jordan is a young Swiss conductor, now 40, the son of conductor Armin Jordan. He is presently music director of the Opera National de Paris and conducts in opera houses around the world. Included in his operas on Opus Arte DVDs are the unforgettable Covent Garden Salome with Nadja Michael and the flamboyant Glyndebourne Carmen with Anne Sophie von Otter.

As the new chief conductor of the Vienna Symphony Jordan turns in a meticulously prepared, articulate performance worthy of top honours among the legions of available recordings. Over the years conductors have fallen into the inherited conventions of drawing out the maximum drama and pathos at many accepted points in the score. And audiences attending concerts or at home look for and expect these.

Jordan does little more than make incremental changes in tempi which may be noted or not as we listen to the most refreshing performance around. The orchestra’s sound is easily distinguished from the Philharmonic, being not nearly as opulent but with impeccable ensemble and polish, particularly in the strings and winds. The listener may wish Jordan would let the orchestra loose at certain places but that doesn’t happen until the last movement and the climax of the entire work comes with the final outburst a few pages from the close.

In sum, all the conventional performance traditions are gone and a clearer Tchaikovsky emerges. The dynamic range of the performance is extraordinary, particularly in the first and last movements. Recorded in the Musikverein we are privy to every nuance, so well-captured in every detail.

02_Classical_06_Mahler_12.jpgMahler – Symphonies 1 & 2
Camilla Tilling; Lilli Paasikivi; Frankfurt RSO; Paavo Järvi
Cmajor 718008

The genial Paavo Järvi, scion of his ubiquitous father Neeme’s musical clan, is evidently well-regarded in Frankfurt where he served as music director of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra from 2002-2013. During his tenure there he presented a televised broadcast cycle of Mahler symphonies for Hessian Radio which is only now reaching these shores on the C major label. The First Symphony was filmed in the spa town of Wiesbaden in 2012. It is a curiously inconsistent performance, the highlight of which is a superbly paced third movement. I was quite taken aback to find Järvi’s take on the Scherzo movement stealing a move from the 2009 playbook of Gustavo Dudamel, namely broadening the first four bars of the bass ostinato in an oafish manner then gradually and elegantly leading into a lively dance tempo. Unlike Dudamel, in Järvi’s hands the gesture is merely clumsy and inconsistent. The grand finale is well enough done but suffers from incompetent video direction: a clear shot of the stunning coup de théâtre of all seven horns standing for the triumphant final peroration of the movement is totally missed! In sum this performance brings to mind the saying attributed to Samuel Johnson: “The part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”

The presentation of the Second Symphony fares far better. It was filmed at the former monastery of Kloster Eberbach over the course of two afternoons in June 2010. The extraneous studio lighting in daylight gives the unexceptional 720x480 video a decidedly washed-out look and the unfortunate Järvi sweats profusely, resembling an anxious Vladimir Putin caught under a searchlight. The performance of the first movement is solid though underwhelming, with Järvi applying an unusually broad tempo to the lyrical secondary theme and a rather too fast tempo in the coda. Matters improve considerably in the following movements, with a coyly fetching Menuetto and a Scherzo à la Bernstein being most impressive for the care taken to deal with the abbey’s long echoes. The penultimate “Urlicht” movement features the heartfelt mezzo solo of Lilli Paasikivi, who also excels in the subsequent movement. The performance catches fire in the Finale with an impressively frightening and tightly played “march of the dead” development section. Sadly, the combined NDR/Bavarian Radio choruses are set so far back in the apse of the cloister that their hushed entrance for the movement’s grand apotheosis is barely audible; furthermore the voice of the soprano soloist Camilla Tilling is intended to emerge imperceptibly from this choir but as she is placed far to the front of the orchestra the effect is ruined. Fortunately the dome above them serves as an effective resonator for the resounding passages later on. There is also an organ to be heard – though mysteriously unseen – in the closing pages. The DVD will certainly be of interest to Järvi fans and the orchestra is quite a fine one but the mundane television production values fail to approach the superb videos of Claudio Abbado from the Lucerne Festival.



Robbins_01_Vivaldi_Avital.jpgIf you listen to Classical 96.3FM on anything resembling a regular basis you’ve probably heard the Israeli mandolinist Avi Avital’s astonishing rendition of Monti’s Czárdas (if you haven’t, you can always watch it on YouTube). It certainly meant that I approached his latest CD, Avi Avital Vivaldi (Deutsche Grammophon B0022627-02) with keen anticipation, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The mandolin has its roots in 17th- and 18th-century Italian music, and is particularly well suited to the style of Vivaldi. The composer’s one concerto for the instrument, the Concerto in C Major RV425, is featured here along with three concertos, a sonata and a short movement all transcribed for mandolin by Avital.

Two of the concertos – the A Minor RV356 and the G Minor RV315, “Summer,” from The Four Seasons, were originally for violin, and work particularly well on the mandolin, the two instruments sharing the same tuning. The Concerto in D Major RV93 was originally for lute. These are not huge pieces – the RV356 and RV425 concertos are both three-movement works less than eight minutes in length – but the predominantly upbeat tempos and Avital’s clean, agile playing along with the lovely, light and airy accompaniment by the Venice Baroque Orchestra make for delightful listening.

The Trio Sonata in C Major RV82, originally for violin and lute, features a beautifully full continuo sound contributed by harpsichord, lute and cello. The short movement is the Largo from the Concerto in C Major RV443, originally for flautino.

Avital is joined by tenor Juan Diego Flórez in a beautiful rendition of the traditional Venetian song La biondina in gondoleta, which provides a lovely end to an extremely pleasant and entertaining CD.


Vivaldi; Concerto in D Major RV 93: Allegro

Vivaldi: Concerto in D Major: Largo

Vivaldi: Concerto in D Major: Allegro


Robbins 02 Eleisha NelsonPermutations is the third CD from the American violist Eliesha Nelson, with pianist James Howsmon (Sono Luminus DSL-92186). The theme of the CD is American Classical Music and the Viola, although the earliest work on the disc only dates from 1953.

At first sight the opening work seems out of place, but the contemporary Russian composer Nikolai Kapustin has been greatly influenced by American jazz. His Sonata for Viola and Piano Op.69 doesn’t have quite the frenetic quality of his astonishing piano études, but is a spiky, jazzy work with a Gershwinesque middle movement.

The Two Pieces for Solo Viola by John McLaughlin Williams are a real tour de force, and Nelson is particularly outstanding in the technically demanding Toccata, with its echoes of the Dies Irae.

The Second Sonata for Viola and Piano by Ross Lee Finney (1906-97) is a 12-tone work, but this is serialism clearly influenced by the Romanticism of Alban Berg, and an extremely effective composition.

Wending, by Jeffrey Mumford (b.1955) is another challenging but very interesting solo work that draws another terrific performance from Nelson.

The Sonata for Viola and Piano by George Walker (b.1922) is an atonal – but quite accessible – work written in 1989. Another excellent performance by both artists rounds out a really interesting CD.

As with her previous CD of Russian Viola Sonatas, I find Nelson’s viola sound a bit nasal and tight at times, but her playing here really makes the most of the instrument’s full tonal range and colour. In addition to the standard CD, the package comes with a Pure Audio Blu-ray CD equipped with the mShuttle application, enabling you to access portable copies of the tracks on the disc.

Robbins_03_Homages.jpgHomages – A Musical Dedication is the latest CD from Swiss guitarist Christoph Denoth, and presents a fairly traditional recital of predominantly Spanish compositions spanning more than four centuries (Signum Classics SIGCD404).

There are short pieces here by Joaquín Malats y Miarons, Luis de Narváez, Miguel Llobet, Fernando Sor, Manuel de Falla, Joaquín Turina, Isaac Albéniz and Joaquín Rodrigo, but the centrepiece of the CD is music by the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. His Schottish-Chôro is the second movement of his Suite popular brasileira, but the real gem here is Denoth’s performance of the five Preludes, four of them written as a specific homage to aspects of Brazilian life and one reflecting the influence of Bach’s music on the composer. The CD’s title connection is quite clear here, although with some of the other works on the disc it’s somewhat tenuous at best.

Still, no matter, for this is a lovely and substantial (over 70 minutes) program, beautifully played, and with a clear, resonant and not-too-close recording quality.

Robbins_04_Chopin_1846.jpgIt’s been a while since I’ve received anything featuring the terrific French cellist Emmanuelle Bertrand, but she’s back with her regular partner, pianist Pascal Amoyel, on Chopin: 1846, dernière année à Nohant (harmonia mundi HMC 902199). The CD celebrates Chopin’s last summer on his lover George Sand’s estate, where he had spent seven years composing the majority of his works; the two would finally separate the following year. The beautiful Cello Sonata in G Minor Op.65, the last work published during Chopin’s lifetime, is at the heart of the CD, while Amoyel takes the spotlight for performances of the Barcarolle Op.60, the three Mazurkas Op.63, the three Valses Op.64, the Mazurka Op.67, No. 4 and the two Nocturnes Op.62.

The Cello Sonata wasn’t completed until the time of Chopin’s separation from Sand in July 1847. It’s a strong, turbulent work that is given a passionate and nuanced performance by Bertrand and Amoyel, who clearly have an innate understanding of how each other plays. Amoyel’s sensitive interpretations of the solo piano pieces, beautifully recorded, are a pure delight.

Robbins_06_Weinberg_Chamber_Symponies.jpgThe music of the Polish Soviet composer Mieczysław Weinberg, 3 friend and colleague of Dmitri Shostakovich, certainly seems to be turning up on CD more frequently these days. The Swedish conductor Thord Svedlund has already directed four Chandos Super Audio CDs of Weinberg’s concertos and symphonies, and now conducts the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra in excellent performances of Weinberg’s Chamber Symphonies Nos.3 and 4 (Chandos CHSA 5146).

Both works, from 1990 and 1992 respectively, were written late in the composer’s life, although three of the four movements of the Chamber Symphony No.3 Op.151 for string orchestra recycle material from his 1945 String Quartet No.5.

The Chamber Symphony No.4 Op.153 was the last work Weinberg completed, and is scored for string orchestra with obbligato clarinet and triangle, the latter having just four notes in the entire piece. It incorporates quotes from some of Weinberg’s earlier works, but apparently was never intended as a summation of his life and work.

Robbins_07_Dubeau_Einaudi.jpgIt’s difficult to know exactly what to say about Ludovico Einaudi – Portrait, the new CD from Angèle Dubeau & La Pietà (Analekta AN 2 8738). It’s very similar in content to some of her previous CDs, which will be good or not so good news depending on your point of view.

The Portrait series presents contemporary composers who write with what Dubeau calls a unique musical signature, although Glimpse might be a more accurate title. Einaudi is a classically trained composer and pianist who has achieved great commercial success in what is generally termed the World Music field, and is represented here by 13 short pieces with titles like Life, Experience, Run, Time Lapse and Giorni dispari.

Eleven of the pieces, though, are arrangements by François Vallière and Angèle Dubeau – what Dubeau calls “rethinking its character while bringing a new sonic dimension;” moreover, they are nearly all essentially the same length, hovering around the five-minute mark – a cynic might think with radio playlists clearly in mind.

They also tend to sound much the same: there is very little harmonic, rhythmic or melodic variation or adventure, and while they are clearly well-crafted, attractive and communicative on a certain level there is very little change of mood.

The booklet notes again highlight Dubeau’s career album sales figures, which are in excess of an astonishing 500,000; it’s easy to hear why. Dubeau’s CDs in this particular vein may well be aimed at a specific commercial market, but with excellent arrangements of pleasant, undemanding popular music, beautifully played and recorded, they nevertheless unfailingly provide high quality performances of music that clearly continues to appeal to many.

It’s probably a bit too simplistic to say that if you hear a string work that sounds like some Dvořák that you haven’t heard before, then it’s probably by his son-in-law Josef Suk (although that certainly works for the Serenade for Strings) but there’s no getting away from the huge similarities in their music.

Robbins_08_Suk.jpgJosef Suk Complete Works for String Quartet is a new 2-CD set featuring the Minguet Quartett (cpo/Deutschlandfunk cpo 777 652-2). CD1 has the two String Quartets, while CD2 has a selection of short single movements as well as the Piano Quintet Op.8, in which the Minguet is joined by pianist Matthias Kirschnereit.

The String Quartet No.1 in B-Flat Major Op.11 is an early work from 1896, when Suk was 22, and is a lovely work with a particularly beautiful slow movement. Not surprisingly, there’s a good deal of Smetana influence here as well. Some 20 years later Suk revisited the work and re-wrote the final movement, although the resulting Quartet movement in B-Flat Major, also included here, never established itself as part of the complete work.

In the String Quartet No.2 Op.31 from 1910-11 we are in a quite different world; the Bohemian feel of Dvořák and Smetana is still there, but there is a heightened chromaticism – particularly in the second movement – and an almost Impressionistic character to the writing.

The Piano Quintet in G Minor Op.8 is another early work, from 1888, but was revised by Suk in 1915; it is again redolent of Dvořák, but the combination of its purely Romantic themes with Suk’s more modern later style makes for some interesting moments.

Two of the four short pieces that complete CD2 had their origins in early works: the Minuet in G Major from 1911 first appeared in two piano works a dozen years earlier; and the Barcarolle is a 1923 re-working of a middle movement from an early 1888 string quartet that Suk did not include in his list of recognized works.

The Ballade in D Minor was one of three Ballades the teenage Suk wrote in 1890, and the Meditation on the Old Bohemian Hymn “St. Wenceslas” Op.35a is a patriotic piece written in 1914. All four short pieces are quite delightful.

Performance and recording standards are fine throughout.

Robbins_09_Northern_Lights.jpgIt’s always gratifying when you have no idea what to expect from a CD and it turns out to be an absolute delight. That’s exactly what happened with Northern Lights, a new Super Audio Hybrid CD that covers a period of more than 150 years of Scandinavian music and features violinist Kathrin Ten Hagen and the Folkwang Kammerorchester under Johannes Klumpp (ARS 38 157).

Solitude sur la Montagne is composer Johan Svendsen’s string orchestra arrangement of the lovely Herd-Girl’s Sunday by the 19th-century Norwegian violin virtuoso Ole Bull. It’s a short, wistful melody with more than a touch of Grieg (Bull’s brother was Grieg’s uncle).

The Latvian Peteris Vasks (b. 1946) is one of three composers on this CD whose work I didn’t know. His Vox amoris: Fantasy for violin and string orchestra is a quite lovely tonal work that draws some simply beautiful playing from Ten Hagen.

Sweden’s Kurt Atterberg (1887-1974) wrote his Suite No.3 Op.19, 1 for violin, viola and string orchestra in 1917. It’s a short, accessible work in three movements in which Ten Hagen is joined by violist Itamar Ringel.

Anders Eliasson (1947-2013) was also Swedish, and is represented here by his Concerto for violin and string orchestra from 1992. It’s quite different to anything else on the CD – very rhythmic, energetic and complex, and tonally quite challenging.

Sibelius’ Suite for violin and string orchestra Op.117 from 1929 was written at the prompting of Carl Fischer, his American publisher, who then decided that the work wouldn’t be profitable and did not publish it. It remained unpublished during Sibelius’ lifetime, and wasn’t performed until 1990. Its three short movements – Country Scenery, Evening in Spring and In the Summer – are everything you would expect them to be, and bring an entertaining and highly satisfying CD to a close.

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03_Modern_01_Nordic_Concertos.jpgNordic Concertos
Martin Fröst; Various Orchestras
Bis BIS-2123 CD

This disc is a repackaging of previous recordings, made between 1996 and 2003. The four performances feature four different orchestras and conductors. Three of the works are from modern or contemporary Nordic composers, the last from the early Romantic. They all demonstrate Fröst’s mastery of the clarinet.

Fröst plays his strongest card at the outset. Peacock Tales by Anders Hillborg is an exciting work tailored to Fröst’s outrageous abilities (which include dance). After an unaccompanied prologue the orchestra enters to provide the frame and backdrop for the peacock’s haunted cries. A Turkish MarchBig Band Battle and Gallop Macabre follow in harrowing sequence. A return to the opening material is accompanied this time by Copland-sweetened harmonies, and after some super-fast pointillist boogie-woogie, the piano and clarinet join in a last melancholic duet.

Concerto No.3, Op.21 by neo-classicist Vagn Holmboe opens with a fanfare followed by a mournful solo (must be a Nordic thing). The exceedingly prolific Holmboe produced over 400 works, including 13 symphonies and 21 string quartets along with more than a dozen concertos for varying instrumental combinations. Op.21 is listenable and satisfying, a clean spare aesthetic. It’s suit and tie music, comfortable and finely cut.

Karin Rehnqvist’s tone poem On A Distant Shore is the dourest of them all. Its five sections are The Dark (another brooding soliloquy!); The Light (blinding rather than illuminating); The Wild  (ferocious, carnivorous music); The Singing (more pavane than song); and The Call (a call for…to…of… siren or seagull?). Understated and masterful writing.

Barging in on the solemn proceedings, like a jolly elder relative drunk at a funeral, Bernard Henrik Crusell’s Introduction, Theme and Variations on a Swedish Air qualifies on account of its Nordic provenance. Why not include Nielsen’s wonderful concerto instead? Perhaps it would have been one too many melancholic flights through madness.


03_Modern_02_Stravinsky_Piano_Concerto.jpgStravinsky – Concerto for Piano and Winds; Capriccio; Movements; Petrouchka
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet; São Paulo Symphony Orchestra; Yan Pascal Tortelier
Chandos CHSA 5147

In addition to his frequent appearances as a conductor of his own music, the illustrious genius known as Igor Stravinsky composed a number of concertos for his exclusive use as a pianist, ready alternatives to the all-too-familiar requests for yet another performance of the Firebird Suite. A stunning new Stravinsky recording by the esteemed pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet brings together these concertos and then some.

Stravinsky’s 1924 Concerto for piano and wind instruments opens this excellent disc, followed by the Capriccio for piano and orchestra from 1929. Both works are delightful concoctions from the composer’s carefree French epoch, teeming with bonhomie and sparkling wit and recorded in flatteringly crystalline sound. Movements for piano and orchestra (1959) is late Stravinsky and represents the culmination of a growing interest in the serial techniques advocated by his arch-nemesis Arnold Schoenberg after the latter’s death in 1951. This is an intentionally esoteric work that may puzzle some listeners though connoisseurs will recognize here a very fine and scrupulous reading. The disc concludes with a fiery performance of the 1947 version of the ballet score Pétrouchka, a work that was originally conceived as a piano concerto. An audibly grunting Yan Pascal Tortelier elicits an electric response from the excellent São Paulo musicians while Bavouzet delights in playing the prominent piano part from inside the orchestra. The recording of this densely orchestrated work suffers at times from congested orchestral balances (notably so in The Shrove Tide Fair section) that pale in comparison with Stravinsky’s own 1960 recording, brilliantly mixed by the late John McClure and still my personal favourite.


Author: Daniel Foley
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03_Modern_03_Points_of_Departure.jpgPoints of Departure
Nicholas Papador
Centrediscs CMCCD 20715

University of Windsor Associate Professor of Percussion Nicholas Papador is a powerhouse performer with wide-ranging subtleties in his playing as showcased in this new release.

Papador’s own A Very Welcome written for his wife and newborn son employs extended intervals in each hand using four mallets. Subtle dynamic and colour shifts are especially breathtaking in the sections with simultaneous very high and very low pitches. Isabelle Panneton’s Les petites reprises is a harmonically rooted marimba work exploring French and Japanese chromatic expressionism which perhaps requires more intense listening to be fully appreciated. In Nicholas Gilbert’s quasi-programmatic Ariane endormie, an exhausted dreaming Ariane’s fitful sleep is recreated with vibraphone modulating chords, motor and silent or subtle swelling phrase changes.

Inspired by South Indian drumming, François Rose’s Points d’emergence is scored for three each of metals, drums and wood instruments sharing three pitches. Papador’s rhythmic precision avoids a counting train wreck in the tricky opening three minutes where Rose gradually shortens each of the section’s seven phrases to create an impressive accelerando feel. Back to more vibraphone with Linda C. Smith’s lyrical and calming Invisible Cities. Smith’s exploration of the instrument’s sonic textures and capabilities results in a work of lush sonorities and splashes of shifting moods performed with virtuosic attention. Night Chill for marimba and electronics has composer Christien Ledroit drawing on punk and world music influences to evoke the rustling and bareness of autumn.

Papador’s commitment and passion for Canadian solo percussion repertoire drives this exemplary recording. Enjoy!

03_Modern_04_Charke_Tundra_Songs.jpgTundra Songs – Music by Derek Charke
Kronos Quartet; Tanya Tagaq
Centrediscs CMCCD 21015

The story of the music on this extraordinary album is multi-faceted and interwoven with transcultural skeins. Allow me to tease out a few threads.

On one hand all the music is composed by the JUNO Award-winning Canadian composer Derek Charke (b. 1974). He is also a flutist and a composition and theory professor at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. On the other hand the gifted young storyteller Laakkuluk Willamson Bathory is the only presence on track 7, reciting a gripping Green-landic version of the creation story that exists all across Inuit lands, the Sassuma Arnaa. She remarks that “we don’t so much own this story as we belong to it,” keeping it alive through retelling it today, “despite intensive colonization and religious conversion…”

That story is retold in Clarke’s exhilarating 30-minute opus Tundra Songs (2007) by the third presence on the CD, the Polaris Music Prize-winning Inuk avant-garde vocalist Tanya Tagaq. Her masterful virtuoso vocal presence, at times taking on the multilayered quality of two Inuit women throat gamers and at others the innocence of childhood, domi-nates this work of vast scope.

The fourth element on the album is perhaps the best known to music lovers: the renowned Kronos Quartet. In over four decades, specializing in modernist, post-modernist and wide-ranging world music collaborations, they have been astonishingly productive, commissioning more than 800 works and arrangements. I have seen them several times live and they never fail to engage their audience musically, and also often inter-culturally. They do both in this album.

In Tundra Songs the most substantial work here, the story being told is of the Arctic, its soundscape, animals and peo-ple. The telling accumulates several layers including Charke’s Nunavut field recordings and his polished string quartet score brought to life by Kronos’ brilliant string playing. Also featured in the sweeping mix are studio-produced sounds, a regional origin myth, and a star turn vocal performance by Tagaq who just won a 2015 JUNO Award for her album Animism. As the North becomes more readily accessible – I did my first Arctic Skype sessions last year – so too the world is slowly learning to open its ears and hearts to its remarkable music and musicians.

Author: Andrew Timar
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04_Jazz_02_Red_Garland.jpgSwingin’ on the Korner
Red Garland Trio
Elemental Records 5990426

Red Garland brought an electric brightness to the piano, whether playing block chords or scintillating runs; Philly Joe Jones, a polyrhythmic master, was perhaps the most explosive drummer in jazz history. They were key parts of one of the greatest bands in that history, Miles Davis’ mid-50s quintet, until Davis fired them in 1958 for unreliability. This two-CD set catches the two of them nearly 20 years later during a week in December 1977 at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner, anchored by the fine bassist Leroy Vinnegar, a worthy partner. Garland had gone through stretches of retirement by then, and Jones was less prominent than when he propelled many of hard bop’s greatest records, but if they were supposed to go gently into that good night, the two hadn’t gotten the message. The genre never burned more brightly.

The music is almost entirely standards, drawn from Garland’s vast repertoire, including a sweetly balladic rendition of the obscure If I’m Lucky, a signature swinging arrangement of Billy Boy and a soulful version of Bags’ Groove that celebrates Garland’s mastery of blues. Familiarity feeds the trio’s fervour: this is joyous, raw music, touching, even reckless. Sometimes subtle, Garland can match Jones for sheer ferocious energy; Jones creates wild oblique patterns with thundering drums, building complex, melodic solos against a beat that’s only implied.

The set includes extensive interviews and memories of Garland from some noted critics and musicians: it’s the first such tribute to a pianist who deserves far more attention.

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