Editor's Corner - November 2014

november editor scans 01 hetuThe latest release in the Naxos Canadian Classics line is an important addition to our recorded legacy. Jacques Hétu – Complete Chamber Music for Strings (8.573395) with the New Orford String Quartet and guests features significant works spanning the career of the late Quebec composer who died in 2010 at the age of 71. The Adagio and Rondo, his first work in the string quartet medium, dates from 1960 at the time of his graduation from the Montreal Conservatory and is really a foreshadowing of things to come; as pointed out in the program notes, “motivic and thematic elements from this work can be seen in all of his subsequent chamber works for strings.” For this reason I wish that it had been placed first on the disc to give context to the overall program. Instead, the recording begins with the first of his two named quartets, String Quartet No.1, Op.19 from 1972, which “combines 20th-century techniques with neo-romantic harmonic language” – a combination that would be Hétu’s signature throughout his distinguished career. A conservative voice that some would consider anachronistic, his music is expressive and extremely well-crafted. While the first quartet is in the traditional four movement form – fast, slow, slow/fast and fast (although it ends in a peaceful calm) – String Quartet No.2, Op.50 (1991) consists of a Vivace somewhat reminiscent of Bartók’s “night music” writing framed by two slow movements. The Andante finale is particularly lush in its Romantic sensibility and the members of the New Orford capture the sense of wistful longing with acuity as the music fades in a quiet cello solo.

Written the following year, and placed directly after the second quartet, the Scherzo Op.54 with its re-use of the solo cello theme at first appears to act as an upbeat afterthought to the foregoing work, but this sense is dispelled with the inclusion of a quotation from, and later a pizzicato reworking of, a fragment from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. For the Sérénade Op.45 (1988) the members of the quartet – violinists Jonathan Crow and Andrew Wan, violist Eric Nowlin and cellist Brian Manker, themselves principals of the Toronto and Montreal Symphony Orchestras – are joined by MSO principal flutist Timothy Hutchins. Written on commission as an anniversary gift, the work was inspired by Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. After a gentle Prélude a lyrical, if somewhat melancholy, Nocturne is followed by a boisterous Danse bringing the charming bonbon to a close.

The disc ends with Hétu’s final work for strings, the Sextet, Op.71 written in 2004, for which the quartet is joined by former TSO principal violist Steven Dann and cellist Colin Carr. After an upbeat opening the work once again slips into Hétu’s familiar sombre lyricism, this time with the texture darkened by the doubled lower strings. This is followed by some playful cat-and-mouse activity with unison voices that alternates with slow, thoughtful passages until finishing in a flurry some 12 minutes later.

The New Orford String Quartet, like its namesake half a century earlier, was founded at the Orford Arts Centre in Quebec in 2009, 18 years after the original quartet disbanded following a distinguished international career that spanned nearly three decades. Despite the fact that their only previous release included Schubert and Beethoven (on Bridge Records, a label otherwise known for contemporary recordings), according to its Naxos bio “the New Orford String Quartet is dedicated to promoting Canadian works, both new commissions and works from the past 100 years.” With the quality of their playing – amply showcased here – this is good news indeed for Canadian composers. I look forward to future recordings of repertoire from the current century.

In August the distinguished Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe died at the age of 85. Named a National Living Treasure in 1997 by the National Trust of Australia, Sculthorpe stated that in his music he sought to “find the spirit of the land and the landscape – the sacred, if you like – in nature.” A true exponent of the Pacific Rim, he was influenced by Japanese and Balinese culture, but more significantly by the Aboriginal music of his homeland. This is heard throughout his often brooding works; of specific note are the libretto to his 1974 opera Rites of Passage, which is partly in the Aranda dialect of Northern Australia, the orchestral work Earth Cry (1985), Requiem (2004) and four of his late string quartets which include a prominent role for didjeridu.

november editor scans 02  sculthorpeSculthorpe – The Complete String Quartets with Didjeridu (Sono Luminus DSL-92181) features Stephen Kent and the Del Sol Quartet. The 2-CD set (with additional Blu-ray audio disc) is prefaced by an extended quote from the composer: “I began to lose interest in the comforting vistas that surrounded me in Tasmania. I found myself drawn, more and more, to the harsher landscapes that I’d left behind in mainland Australia. I was drawn to desert and wilderness places that I’d not then visited. Eventually, the Australian landscapes became one of the major concerns of my music. I set out to give life to the landscape through the sun, and a human dimension to it through loneliness, resignation and death.”

Sculthorpe composed extensively for the string quartet medium, his output exceeding even that of Beethoven, Shostakovich and, closer to home, Schafer. String Quartets Nos.12, 14, 16 and 18 all include the didjeridu, a wooden drone instrument indigenous to the far north of Australia. Made out of termite-hollowed branches of large eucalyptus trees, it is thought to have been in use by native cultures for some 1,000 years. The natural drone effect is varied by overblowing which produces a broad spectrum of haunting, growling sounds.

Originally requested to write a work for string quartet and didjeridu by the Kronos Quartet as early as 1991, it was not until Sculthorpe began working closely with the young indigenous musician William Barton ten years later that he accepted the idea. Barton, now widely recognised as one of Australia’s finest traditional didjeridu masters and a leading player in the classical world, gave the first performance of a revised version of String Quartet No.12 “From Ubirr” in 2001. The quartet, which was essentially a reworking of the aforementioned Earth Cry, was arranged for strings alone in 1994. First conceived as “quick and joyous music,” while working on the piece Sculthorpe came to the conclusion that it would be “dishonest of me to write music that is altogether quick and joyous. The lack of common cause and the self-interest of many have drained Australians of much of our energy. […] Perhaps we need now to attune ourselves to this continent, to listen to the cry of the earth, as its Indigenous inhabitants have done for many thousands of years.” Sculthorpe continued to incorporate awareness and concern for Australia’s natives in much of his later work. String Quartet No.14 “Quamby” or “Help Me” in the local language, refers to the slaughter which colonial troops inflicted on Aboriginals at a place later named Quamby Bluff. It was composed in 1998 with didjeridu added in 2004.

Although in the preceding works the didjeridu is well integrated with the strings it was not until 2005 with String Quartet No.16 that the indigenous instrument was an integral part of the score from the outset. The opening movement Loneliness combines drones and animal-like cries with plaintiff string melodies and seagull-like harmonic effects. The subsequent movements – Anger, Yearning, Trauma and Freedom – are fairly self-explanatory. String Quartet No.18 (2010), Sculthorpe’s last, is also in five movements – Prelude, A Land Singing, A Dying Land, A Lost Land and Postlude. In this instance the work is intended as “a heartfelt expression of my concern about climate change, about the future of our fragile planet.” He uses Australia as a metaphor for the whole planet and includes his characteristic bird and animal sounds and didjeridu effects, both in that instrument itself and in the strings.

The San Francisco-based Del Sol String Quartet got its start at the Banff Centre in 1992, but if the convincing performances recorded here are any indication, they seem to feel quite at home in the desolate (musical) landscapes of Australia. British-born Steven Kent trained as a French horn player but while working in Australia as music director of Circus Oz he developed a profound interest in Aboriginal culture and immersed himself in the didjeridu. He states, “The didjeridu is played with the greatest respect for the Aboriginal Peoples of Australia and the struggle for rights in their homeland.”

At the time of recording Peter Sculthorpe was still alive. I can’t help but feel that this posthumous release is an appropriate monument to a man who let his art speak for his conscience, with no compromise to either. An important example to us all.

Toward the end of his life and already sick with cancer, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) conceived the project of composing “six sonatas for diverse instruments” of which he completed only three; the first for cello and piano, the third for violin and piano and a second which spawned a whole new genre, for flute, viola and harp. Two recent releases explore the repertoire created for this unusual combination of instruments.

november editor scans 03 kashkashian - tre vociTre Voci is an ensemble created at the Marlboro Music Festival in 2010 consisting of Canadian-born flutist Marina Piccinini (an internationally renowned soloist now teaching at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore and at the Hochschule in Hannover, Germany), American violist Kim Kashkashian and Israeli harpist Sivan Magen. Their inaugural recording Takemitsu / Debussy / Gubaidulina (ECM 2345) features Debussy’s seminal work from 1915 which began it all, and two works which take poetry as their point of departure. The disc opens with And then I knew ‘twas Wind by Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) which takes its inspiration, or at least its title, from a poem by Emily Dickinson. It is a single-movement work composed in 1992 which, like much of Takemitsu’s last work, is quite reminiscent of Debussy albeit within the Japanese composer’s own quiet and lush sensibility. Following the three-movement Debussy sonata – Pastorale, Interlude, Final: Allegro – the disc concludes with the mostly contemplative The Garden of Joys and Sorrows, by Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina (b.1931) dating from 1980 which is replete with rich flute tones, “bent” harp notes and Gubaidulina’s characteristic overtone-series harmonics from the viola. The work ends with an ad libitum recitation of a poem by Moscow poet Iv Oganov: “When is it truly over? When is the true end? […] Tomorrow we will play another game.”

The sound on this disc is as pristine and warmly clear as we have come to expect from ECM under Manfred Eicher’s careful supervision, and the performance leaves nothing to be desired. I was a bit surprised however, to find that the 28-page booklet included six photographs of the musicians (and one each of the composers) but no biographical information at all about the performers and only cursory bits about the composers in the otherwise impressive liner notes (in German and English, including the texts of the poems). If it weren’t for the press release sent with the recording (which didn’t mention Piccinini’s Canadian upbringing other than her success in the CBC Young Performers Competition) I would have been left Googling to find out about the players. It seems a surprising oversight, especially considering Kashkashian has been an ECM artist since 1985. The booklet does however credit the abstract cover photo (which I take to be a very stunning cloudscape) to Kashkashian, revealing another side of this accomplished artist.

november editor scans 04 six departuresCanadian Trio Verlaine (Lorna McGhee, flute; David Harding, viola; Heidi Krutzen, harp) released their first CD Fin de Siècle – Music of Debussy and Ravel back in 2008 (reviewed in these pages by John Keillor in May of that year). Although now based in different cities (Krutzen is principal harp of the Victoria Opera, McGhee and Harding now live in Pittsburgh working as principal flute of the Pittsburgh Symphony and professor at Carnegie Mellon University respectively) they continue to perform and record together. Six Departures (Ravello Records RR7895 trioverlain.com) explores repertoire created on the Debussy model with music by Sir Arnold Bax, Jeffrey Cotton, R. Murray Schafer and André Jolivet.

In addition to Bax’s Elegiac Trio and Jolivet’s Petite Suite, both staples of the repertoire, the disc includes two world premiere recordings of works written for Trio Verlaine: the title track by Cotton, an American composer who died last year at the age of 55, commissioned by the Seattle Chamber Music Society, and Schafer’s Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp, co-commissioned by Michael Koerner, the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival and Music on Main. The first is based on the baroque suite, a set of six dances beginning with a prelude and including two Passacaglia movements. Cotton’s lyrical tonal language reflects “the deceptively sunny Los Angeles of his childhood filtered through the haunted German expressionism he encountered as a student of Hans Werner Henze.” Schafer’s trio sounds particularly French to my ear, perhaps referencing the origins of this instrumental combination. The three movements – Freely flowing; Slowly, calmly; and Rhythmic – are again lyrically tonal in their language with no shortage of Schafer’s characteristic playfulness.

Recorded earlier this year, the performances are committed and commendable, the crisp attacks and seamless ensemble playing captured admirably in the warm acoustic of St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Vancouver.

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

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com


Editor's Corner - October 2014

I have not often experienced epiphanies in this life. The first I remember was as a teenager on a family holiday which took us to Washington, D.C. and included a visit to the National Gallery of Art where, wandering off on my own, I turned a corner and found myself face to face with Salvador Dali’s The Sacrament of the Last Supper. That was a profoundly moving moment and all at once I understood what was meant by the term masterpiece. That would have been in the late 1960s. The next came in 1984 while attending the finals of the CBC National Radio Competition for Young Composers. That year the only prize awarded in the electronic music category went to Paul Dolden for The Melting Voice Through Mazes Running. Although this extremely dense and dynamically intense work drove a number of people from the hall with fingers plugging their ears, I was enraptured by its visceral power. It was that work which inspired me to commission radiophonic works for my program Transfigured Night (1984-1991) at CKLN-FM. With the assistance of the Ontario Arts Council and later the Canada Council I was able to commission a dozen composers, beginning with Dolden who produced Caught in an Octagon of Unaccustomed Light which went on to win the Third Prize of the Luigi Russolo International Competition (Varese, Italy 1988).

Some 30 years later Dolden is still at it, honing his technique which involves recording and layering hundreds of tracks of instrumental and vocal sounds, and more recently including field recordings – cicadas, grasshoppers and crickets in the current instance – to create works of vast sonic complexity. The predominantly acoustic nature of the sound sources – although there is an extended electric guitar solo included here – is integral to his process which, while using technology to stack the layers, does not manipulate the samples electronically thereby leaving the purity of sound intact. In essence Dolden, who plays most of the instruments himself, creates and conducts a vast orchestra which could not exist in the everyday world.

01 Editor 01 DoldenPaul Dolden’s latest release, Who Has the Biggest Sound? (Starkland ST-220 starkland.com), includes two titles. The somewhat tongue-in-cheek, or at least playfully self-referential, title track which includes a narrator (Dolden) asking questions such as “Who can play the fastest? Who has the dreamiest melodies? Who can talk faster: crickets or man?” was co-commissioned by Réseaux des arts médiatiques (Montreal) and Diapason Gallery (New York). Although the narration seems a little condescending and self-indulgent, the layered textures that constitute the bulk of the composition are incredible to behold, or more accurately, behear.

The companion piece, The Un-Tempered Orchestra, commissioned by the Sinus Ton Festival (Germany), takes Bach’s exploration of the equal-tempered tuning system in the Well-Tempered Klavier as its point of departure. Whereas Bach demonstrated the viability of the then new symmetrical division of the octave into 12 equal steps, Dolden’s intention is to establish a “non-symmetrical building which uses non-tempered tuning systems, many of which have no octaves […] to create a new musical space within which Western and non-Western musical practices can co-exist […] a big modern multi-cultural family.” He goes on to say “In order to construct this house, first I wrote simple diatonic melodies and chord progressions. Then I recorded Eastern and Western performers reading these lines in their native dialect or tuning system. With the aid of new technologies I edited all these performances to fit under one symmetrical roof. […] Specifically we see our current Western [style] of playing reflected back to us and distorted by ancient musical tuning systems. By combining different musical languages and styles we invert time: what is old becomes new and vice versa. Please enjoy these moments of musical transcendence.” I know I did, but buyer beware. These sounds are big, bold, brash and often abrasive, and listening is not recommended for the timid.

In brief:

01 Editor 02 Hearts RefugeIn 2012 renowned countertenor Daniel Taylor, head of the Early Music department at the University of Toronto, founded the Schola Cantorum. In its first two seasons this ensemble has already achieved remarkable success, appearing with the likes of the Tallis Scholars (2012-2013) and the Gabrieli Consort (2013-2014). The Heart’s Refuge,a recent Analekta recording (AN 2 9143),features both this choir and Taylor’s long-established Theatre of Early Music in vocal works of Buxtehude, J.C. Bach, Kuhnau and Bruhns as well as a short instrumental selection by Schmelzer. Recorded at Humbercrest United in April 2013, the sound of the five vocal soloists, 20-voice choir, strings and continuo is superb, with none of the purity and clarity of the period performance lost in the natural resonance of the church’s glorious acoustic. Concert note: On November 9 the choir and orchestra of the Schola Cantorum and the Theatre of Early Music present “The Coronation of King George II” under Daniel Taylor’s direction at Trinity College Chapel.

01 Editor 03 NU BC CollectiveBeyond Shadows, the latest release from Vancouver’s Redshift Records (TK432 redshiftmusic.org), features The Nu:BC Collective, an ensemble-in-residence at the University of British Columbia comprised of flutist Paolo Bortolussi, cellist Eric Wilson and pianist Corey Hamm. The group is often supplemented by guest artists, including clarinetist Cris Inguanti and percussionist Brian Nesselroad on this recording. The disc features existing works by two Americans, Dorothy Chang (who currently teaches at UBC) and Marc Mellits, and pieces composed specifically for the ensemble by two Ontario-born composers who both now make Montreal their home and teach at McGill University, Brian Cherney and Chris Paul Harman. Chang’s title work, written in 2008 for the Stoney Brook Contemporary Chamber Players, is for clarinet(s), cello, percussion and piano (with Bortolussi conducting), is a busy piece which takes place predominantly in the lower registers of the instruments with interesting textures and juxtapositions. Harman’s Doubling from 2007 adds clarinet to the core ensemble and as the title suggests incorporates a lot of unison work in a playful game of tag. Mellits’ 11 Pieces for Flute and Piano (1992) explores a variety of moods as the individual movement titles indicate: i.e. Persistent; Distraught; Languid, Frantic etc. The most recent work, and also the only one to feature just flute, cello and piano, Brian Cherney’s Twenty-Two Arguments for the Suspension of Disbelief (2010) is to my ear the most satisfying. Dark and probing, it goes beyond the level of the other works which, accomplished though they are, lack the depth and introspection of Cherney’s polished gem.

01 Editor 04 PergamentMoses Pergament – The Jewish Song (Caprice Reissue Series CAP 21834) was recorded live at the Stockholm Concert Hall in 1974 and originally issued on LP in 1976. It features vocal soloists Brigit Nordin and Sven-Olof Eliasson, the Stockholm Philharmonic Choir and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of James DePriest (who served as music director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec from 1976 until 1983 and was Director Emeritus of Conducting and Orchestral Studies at the Juilliard School and Laureate Music Director of the Oregon Symphony at the time of his death last year). Pergament (1893-1977) was born in Finland of Lithuanian Jewish stock (the name Pergament, or vellum, came from his great-grandfather’s occupation, Torah scribe). He studied composition and violin in St. Petersburg and settled in Sweden in 1915 where he became well known as a music critic before establishing himself as a composer. The mammoth cantata The Jewish Song for vocal soloists, chorus and large orchestra was composed in 1944 on poems by Ragnar Josephson in which “the skald (poet) sings of the Jewish people’s devotion to God, its piety, its past, its heroism, its bravery, its trust and thankfulness for the protection of the Lord.” The stunning 75-minute work opens with Prelude: In Memoriam – a dramatic wordless lament for the six million Jews “who fell victim to the cruelty of the Third Reich” and continues with settings of a dozen poems culminating in a moving We Thank You Lord. Pergament is sadly underrepresented by recordings and this important re-issue of the dramatic, uplifting and exhilaratingly performed work is a welcome addition to the catalogue.

01 Editor 05 Through TimeThrough Time featuring bassoonist Rui Lopes and the English Chamber Orchestra (Solo Musica SM 211 solo-musica.de) presents little-known works from the first half of the 20th century juxtaposed with more familiar fare by Mozart and Vivaldi. Lopes is an acknowledged master of the baroque and modern bassoon and both are heard to advantage here. The disc opens with a charming Portuguese folk-based work by Heitor Villa-Lobos followed by the playful Divertissement by Jean Françaix originally scored for bassoon and string quintet, heard here in the world premiere of a string orchestra version. The Bassoon Concerto in B-Flat K191 was composed at the age of 18 and was Mozart’s first concerto for a wind instrument. Written shortly after the Symphony No.29, like that work it represents an early example of the composer’s mature orchestral sound. Lopes contributes his own virtuosic cadenzas. The Vivaldi C-Major concerto is also virtuosic, ebullient and wonderfully melodic. The disc ends with Edward Elgar’s Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra, Op.62, a lush work which brings me to my only criticism of this otherwise flawless disc. In a way the Elgar brings us full circle back into the early 20th century, but despite its warm and lyrical nature, on each listening I found it jarring after the flamboyant Vivaldi. Perhaps it would work better as an encore after a rousing round of applause to clear the palette, but in the context of the disc I would have preferred the journey “through time” to be linear rather than circular.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

 

It all began as I was registering for an online service and was asked the security question “Who is your favourite author?” I realized that the answer has not changed in about 35 years since I first read William GaddisThe Recognitions (I hope this admission will not leave me vulnerable to identity theft!) which led to a re-reading of his final work, Agapē Agape. And there my story begins...

With Gaddis’ fixation on mechanical reproduction (specifically the invention of the player piano) and the ways technology changed the perception and availability of art in the 20th century, in particular the phenomenon of Glenn Gould and Gould’s wish to “eliminate the middleman and become [one with] the Steinway,” the stage was set for my wonderful summer’s journey.

It began with The Loser, Thomas Bernhard’s account of a fictional Glenn Gould’s studies in Salzburg with Vladimir Horowitz, and the devastating effects his presence (and his interpretation of the Goldberg Variations) had on two fellow students, the unnamed narrator and the character Wertheimer, who abandoned promising solo careers and were ultimately destroyed by the contact (Wertheimer in fact a suicide). Evidently Gaddis was reading Bernhard toward the end of his life and it was there he found the premise of Gould wanting to become the piano.

September Editor Scans 01 Musical NovelIt was about this time that I realized that a book which had arrived at The WholeNote a few months earlier and which I had browsed but put down as being too dry and academic, The Musical Novel by Emily Petermann (Camden House 978-1-57113-592-6), might provide some insights and inspiration after all.

editorscorner-gould fanI still found it hard going – with its use of such unfamiliar words as inter-, intra- and multi-medial, poiesis and palimsestuous (as opposed to palimsestic, she explains), all of which I was able to make out from their roots and context but which I notice set off spell-check alarms – and ended up focussing on Chapter 5: “Structural Patterns in Novels Based on the Goldberg Variations.” Of the four books analyzed – Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations; Nancy Huston’s The Goldberg Variations; Rachel Cusk’s Bradshaw Variations and Richard Powers’ Gold Bug Variations – I had read (several times) all but the Cusk. The inclusion of this latter was in itself worth the effort of persevering with Petermann’s thesis.

I took a break from the scholarly tome to (re)read each of the books in question. Reading them all together, interspersed with a number of recordings of the namesake, occupied me for most of a month and provided some delightful moments and revelations. Having now gone back to The Musical Novel to read Chapter 6 and the Conclusion has also furnished a number of explanations and clarifications, both about the novels in question and the structure of Bach’s masterpiece.

An example of the former is Cusk’s inclusion of a narrator-less chapter written entirely in dialogue without commentary (shades of Gaddis, although Cusk’s speakers are identified) which stuck in the craw of at least one reviewer as being non-sequiturial and annoying for its lack of context. Petermann points out that the chapter in question is parallel to Bach’s Variation XXVII in the structure of the book and is a literary representation of this “canon at the ninth,” which involves just two voices without the “commentary” of the bass line present in all of the other variations. So there is the context which the reviewer found lacking. Likewise Petermann explores the unique A-B structure of Variation XVI, the midpoint of Bach’s cycle, and relates it to several of the literary works, most notably the Josipovici. In an extension of the legend of the origin of another of Bach’s masterpieces, The Musical Offering, Josipovici recasts the story of Bach’s musical meeting with Frederick the Great to be Goldberg’s – a writer rather than a harpsichordist in this novel – literary joust with King George III and subsequent reworking of the King’s theme into “seven tiny tales” and a longer three-part cautionary story. Other insights abound…

Bach provided the title Clavierübung (keyboard study) consisting of an Aria with Diverse Variations for the Harpsichord with Two Manuals Composed for Music Lovers, to Refresh their Spirits. Johann Nikolaus Forkel, in the first biography of Bach written some six decades after the composer’s death, provided a background story from which the name we now associate with the work originated. Forkel tells us that Baron von Keiserling, an insomniac who employed a young harpsichord player named Goldberg to play him soothing and entertaining music at night from an adjoining room to help him sleep, or at least deal with his sleeplessness, commissioned Bach to write a set of suitable pieces for Goldberg to play. That story has long since been debunked, as listening to some of the more rambunctious variations might suggest, but the myth has continued to entice us for more than two centuries.

The recordings I revisited during this extensive immersion in the Goldberg Variations were of course Glenn Gould’s seminal 1955 and ultimate 1981 versions (in a 2002 three-CD commemorative package that includes an extended conversation between Gould and music critic Tim Page, SONY S3K 87703), plus Luc Beauséjour’s harpsichord rendition (Analekta fleur de lys FL 2 3132), Dmitri Sitkovetsky’s string trio arrangement with Sitkovetsky, Gérard Causé and Misha Maisky (Orfeo C 138 851 A, but you might choose a Canadian recording of the same arrangement with Jonathan Crow, Douglas McNabney and Matt Haimowitz on Oxingale OX2014, reviewed by Terry Robbins in the March 2009 WholeNote) and Bernard Labadie’s string orchestra version with Les Violons du Roy (Dorian xCD-90281), each of which brings very different aspects of the work to light and all of which I would recommend without hesitation. As I would the literary titles mentioned above.

September Editor Scans 03 Goldberg 2PianosIt was a new recording, Bach Goldberg Variations for Two Pianos, that drew my particular attention however. Evidently Joseph Rheinberger (1839-1901) felt that the original 1741 solo keyboard (two-manual harpsichord) work would provide enough material to keep two pianists busy and in 1883 made an arrangement for two pianos in which the liner notes tell us he “took substantial liberties with Bach’s original voicing, doubling melodies and fleshing out harmonies as he saw fit… [leaving] an unmistakably Romantic impression on the work.” Thirty years later Max Reger “smoothed out a few of the [remaining] rough edges” of Rheinberger’s adaptation and published the version recorded here in a wonderful performance by Nina Schumann and Luis Magalhães (TwoPianists Records TP1039213). It is this “Romantic” version for two pianos that comes the closest to being something I would like to hear at the edge of sleep. If I ever have the luxury of going to bed next to a room furnished with two grand pianos and such accomplished performers as Schumann and Magalhães I would love to put the Keiserling premise to the test.

Having spent July immersed in Bach’s music, I spent August exploring the first half of Petermann’s treatise, devoted to the Jazz Novel, a genre with which I am mostly unfamiliar. As a matter of fact Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter is the only book covered that I had read, and Toni Morrison the only other author mentioned I had previously heard of. It turned out to be quite a challenge to track down many of the books discussed, but I am pleased to say that, after a mostly unfruitful search at the Toronto Public Library, with the aid of Toronto’s (few remaining) used book sellers and the Internet I have been able to find books by all of the authors discussed (including Xam Wilson Cartier, Christian Gailly, Jack Fuller, Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray). This too has been a very satisfying journey.

September Editor Scans 04 Bach CantatasYou might think that after all those Goldberg Variations I would have had enough of Bach for a while, but perhaps I am like those animals who, even when choices abound, continue eating a single food type until its source is depleted before moving on to something else (not that one could ever exhaust the available wealth of Bach recordings). For a change of pace I found that a new recording of Bach Cantatas entitled Recreation for the Soul featuring the Magdalena Consort (Channel Classics CCS SA 35214) did indeed provide a refreshing respite. I must confess that I am not well versed in Bach’s many cantatas – some 209 have survived – although I am of course familiar with some of the more famous arias. Listening to this new recording, which features stellar soloists Peter Harvey (bass and direction), Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano), Daniel Taylor (alto) and James Gilchrist (tenor) in one-voice-per-part arrangements, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the beloved melody I know as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring appears not once but twice in the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and mouth and deed and life) BWV147, as the final chorale of Part One Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habe (What joy for me that I have Jesus), and as the grand finale of the work, Jesus bleibet meine Freude (Jesus remains my joy). The other “musical offerings” on this marvelous disc are Jesu, der du Meine Seele (Jesu, by whom my soul) BWV78 and Nach dir, Herr, Verlanget Mich (Lord, I long for you) BWV150, both rich in Bach’s trademark melodies and counterpoint, heard here in a clarity not always found in full choral presentations. Highly recommended.

September Editor Scans 05 Stephen BrownHoping to wean myself gently off the Bach overdose and realizing that no one writing for solo cello would be able to avoid at least some influence of the master, I decided to check out Lady in the East, Solo Cello Suites 1-3 by BC composer Stephen Brown, featuring Hannah Addario-Berry (stephenbrown.ca). The opening notes of Takakkaw Falls, Suite No.1 confirmed my suspicion regarding echoes of Bach, but almost immediately the contemplative Air established its own independent voice and the following Strathspay & Reel and Slow Waltz, although based on dance patterns like a Baroque suite, were obviously drawing inspiration from different cultural sources – Canadian folk songs and fiddle tunes. It is not until halfway through the final Jig that we once again find a nod to Bach in a stately middle passage before a return to the playful fiddle tune of the opening.

I find it interesting to note that the suite was originally composed for solo flute. In my correspondence with Hans de Groot about the disc of Francis Colpron’s transcriptions for recorder reviewed elsewhere in these pages I mentioned that one of my favourite versions of the Bach cello suites was Marion Verbruggen’s performance on the recorder. I’m pleased to note that the process of translation can also work the other way around, from flute to cello.

The disc includes two other suites (evidently Brown has composed six in all, so far), Fire, which is influenced by the classic rock of Hendrix, Procol Harum, Cream and the like, adapted very effectively and idiomatically for solo cello, with a contrasting slow Recitative and Aria movement again reminiscent of Bach, and There Was a Lady in the East in which Brown returns to folk songs and fiddle tunes. As an amateur cellist I am pleased to note that the sheet music for these works is available from the Canadian Music Centre (musiccentre.ca). I availed myself of the CMC’s purchase-and-print-it-yourself service and have enjoyed the challenge of working on the first suite in the past few weeks.

September Editor Scans 06 Grieg Janacek KodalyMy final selection this month does not show any noticeable influence of J.S. Bach, but does feature solo cello with German-Japanese Danjulo Ishizaka accompanied by pianist Shai Wosner. Grieg, Janáček, Kodály (Onyx 4120) features three relativelyobscure, or at least rarely recorded, works for cello and piano – Janáček’s dark and lyrical Pohádka (Fairy Tale) and his brief, dramatic Presto, whose origin is unclear but which may have been meant originally as a movement of the fairy tale suite, and Grieg’s Cello Sonata in A minor, Op.36. Ishizaka’s committed performance of the Grieg and Janáček works makes me wonder why they aren’t more often played. After all, these are mature works by respected composers who did not publish much in the way of chamber music – in the case of Grieg two violin sonatas and a string quartet and Janáček just a smattering of works for violin and piano, two string quartets and a woodwind sextet. That alone would make this recording important, but for me it is the centrepiece of the disc, a staple of the modern repertoire, Kodály’s Solo Cello Sonata Op.8 which is most worthy of note.

Presented in a context of “folkloric” works in the liner essay by Ishizaka, I find it hard to make that connection. Of course Kodály worked with Bartók in the early years of the 20th century collecting and transcribing literally thousands of folk songs from Hungary and surrounding lands, and this experience had a lasting influence on both composers and their music. But frankly I don’t hear it here. From the abrasive opening through a contemplative middle movement and on to its driving finale, this extended work from 1915 is a thoroughly modern, uncompromising tour de force which extends the cello’s sonic possibilities with its re-tuned and simultaneously plucked and bowed strings. Ishizaka’s performance brings out all this and more. It’s a welcome addition to the discography.

I mentioned above that I imagined that all composers writing for solo cello would be influenced by Bach’s solo suites. I find myself unable to find these influences in Kodály however, although I have come up with an explanation. It was Pablo Casals who first brought widespread attention to the Bach suites, having stumbled upon the score in 1890 at the age of 13. He then proceeded to spend several decades working on the suites and developing them as the performance showpieces we know today. Before that time it seems they were regarded as mere finger exercises, learning pieces not fit for the concert hall. Although Casals did record four of the six movements of the C Major Suite in 1915, the year Kodály composed his Sonata, it would be two more decades before he made his seminal recordings of the entire cycle. I think it may well be that Kodály was not aware of the Bach Suites when he composed his masterwork. If this is indeed the case, it is an even more remarkable achievement.

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.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com

 


Back to top