John Burke – Mysterium - Ensemble Vivant

04 Modern 01 Burke MysteriumJohn Burke – Mysterium
Ensemble Vivant
Independent (ensemblevivant.com)

John Burke is a distinguished Canadian composer whose work has for two decades moved beyond the concert hall to engage with contemplative practices of several cultural traditions. This disc includes pieces from the composer’s repertoire of works based on walking a labyrinth. The informative program notes describe Burke’s music as: “Neither concert nor ritual, it accesses a third type of experience, surpassing the sum of its parts.” In my own experience, both one’s own passage and the presence of other labyrinth walkers can become uncanny. Burke’s finely wrought writing takes labyrinth music to a new level that will be especially rewarding to those interested in this work, with precisions of sonority, dynamics and rhythm that Ensemble Vivant, led by pianist Catherine Wilson, fully deliver.

Mysterium, the opener, encompasses the sequence of 12 harmonies upon which all the pieces are based. Expressive long tones played by Erica Beston, violin, and Sharon Prater, cello, over a repetitive broken-chord piano accompaniment remind me of passages in Messiaen and in minimalism; the mood is sombre. Wilson’s playing of Lungta, an improvisatory piano solo with tone clusters and flourishes, is evocative. Longest is the multi-sectional Hieratikos, with intricate ensemble writing performed magnificently by Wilson, Joseph Peleg, violin, and Sybil Shanahan, cello. Norman Hathaway, violin and David Young, bass, join in a closing variant of Mysterium, rounding off a moving experience.


Olivier Messiaen – Turangalîla Symphonie.

04 Modern 02 Messiaen TurangalilaOlivier Messiaen – Turangalîla Symphonie.
Angela Hewitt; Valérie Hartmann-Claverie; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Hannu Lintu
Ondine ODE 1251-5

I remember well a performance of this stunning 1948 work in the mid-1960s during Seiji Ozawa’s time at the helm of the Toronto Symphony (1965-1969). Ozawa later recorded this modern classic with the TSO for RCA to great international acclaim with the composer’s wife and sister-in-law, Yvonne and Jeanne Loriod, as soloists. This new recording also has a Toronto connection because it was here in 1985 that Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt came to the world’s attention by winning the Toronto International Bach Piano Competition, of which Olivier Messiaen was one of the adjudicators. As we know, she has since gone on to a stellar career.

Turangalîla is taken from two Sanskrit words – turanga, time and lîla, love – and this about sums up the essence of this work, perhaps the most inventive, original and forward-looking piece since Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. The ten movements increase in complexity as the work proceeds. The odd numbers deal with serious issues, like life and death, the “tragic plane” as the great Arthur Koestler would say. The even-numbered ones like the fourth represent love with a playful scherzo that moves towards the sentimental with Janáček-like harmonies embellished lovingly by the piano solo. Hewitt conjures up marvellous sounds with the extended bird-calls in the sixth movement; this is certainly an apex of the composition, where one simply melts into the heavenly harmonies back and forth between Lintu’s virtuoso orchestra and the pianist.

For extra orchestral brilliance Messiaen added a curious electronic instrument, called ondes Martinot (played by Valérie Hartmann-Claverie ), with shivers of glissandos glistening in the love music and some weird barking shouts of joy amidst the overwhelming jollity and magnificent cacophony of the finale, a triumphant movement of total mayhem that somehow reminded me of Strauss’ Symphonia Domestica. This is a gorgeous disc, in the four-star category.

 


Symphonies of Wind Instruments - Royal Norwegian Navy Band; Ingar Bergby

04 Modern 03 Symphonies of WindsSymphonies of Wind Instruments
Royal Norwegian Navy Band; Ingar Bergby
2L 102

The venerable Royal Norwegian Navy Band (RNNB), founded in 1820, apparently includes a mere handful of actual members of the military, yet it performs with the precision one might expect of soldiers or exceptionally sober sailors. Ingar Bergby, much in demand as a guest conductor throughout Norway, has been the principal conductor of the band since September 2008. The repertoire of this new disc includes some of the most notable works of the 20th century band repertoire. The title track, a scintillating performance of the celebrated composition by Igor Stravinsky, is likely the most familiar of these to the average listener. Stravinsky’s former nemesis, Arnold Schoenberg, is also represented by his purportedly “accessible” Theme and Variations for band, commissioned by Karl Engel in 1943 for the U.S. high school band market. Though couched in a tonal language it is both technically and intellectually more challenging than what the publisher likely had in mind. The RNNB breezes through this intriguing work without a care on that front. The bulk of the album is devoted to outstanding renditions of two major works by Paul Hindemith. The Konzertmusik Op.41 from 1926 is a rarely recorded, powerfully performed three-movement composition in an amusingly neoclassical style while the Symphony in B flat is an imposing wind band masterpiece from 1951. The performance of the latter is as fine as can be imagined, far surpassing the classic stereo version by the Eastman Wind Ensemble and Hindemith’s own recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra, in both sound and technical precision. The disc concludes with Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin’s intriguing Changes (1984), an essay in the sonic interplay of static and incisive gestures. The 2L audio production engineered by Morten Lindberg is spectacular, with a wide sound stage and vivid presence even in the conventional binaural format. In addition to the SACD layer an extra Blu-ray audio disc is provided for the hyper-discerning audiophile.

 


Shostakovich – Cello Concertos

04 modern 01 shostakovich celloShostakovich – Cello Concertos
Truls Mørk; Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra; Vasily Petrenko
Ondine ODE 1218-2

These concertos, particularly the first, are on my short list of favourite cello works. The Concerto No.1 in E-flat Major, Op.107 has been recorded by almost every prominent solo cellist and is a regular on the programs of symphony orchestras everywhere. Since Rostropovich premiered and recorded the first concerto in 1959 and the second in 1967 we have heard them recorded by, to name a few, Heinrich Schiff, Mischa Maisky, Natalia Gutman and an earlier recording by Truls Mørk himself with Jansons and the LPO from 1995.

My first impression of this recording was that while it is energetic, forward moving, heartfelt and entertaining, it is also light and happy in approach from both soloist and orchestra.

Shostakovich was such a genius that even with completely different approaches his music speaks to the listener effectively. An alternative take in this music is the digging-in with acidic and sarcastic statements. Shostakovich could be great as the “war-correspondent” or the smiling composer of dance music. Shostakovich devotees explore both interpretations and in between.

This new version enjoys remarkable solo playing wrapped in beautiful and warm sound. Under Petrenko, who has as of this writing completed all but one of his Shostakovich symphonies cycle, Mørk has precise and crisp orchestral support including excellent contributions from the solo winds. In addition, the wide-range recorded sound is superb, well balanced and transparent. While I still appreciate the acerbic Shostakovich of Rostropovich (the versions on Supraphon SU 4101), Messrs Mørk and Petrenko provide a very convincing second opinion.

 


Glass Houses Vol.2 – Music of Ann Southam

04 modern 02 glass houses 2Glass Houses Vol.2 – Music of Ann Southam
Christina Petrowska Quilico
Centrediscs CMCCD 20114

Glass Houses Vol. 2 is an outstanding solo piano recording that showcases the artistry of concert pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico and her depth of insight derived from the 30-year collaboration and friendshipthat she shared with composer Ann Southam (1937-2010).

Petrowska Quilico has previously recorded Southam’s Glass Houses Revisited (Centrediscs, CMCCD 16511), Rivers on the three-CD set Canadian Composers Portraits: Ann Southam (CMCCD 10505), a two-CD set Pond Life (CMCCD 14109), and multiple individual works on compilation albums. This stunning new release from Centrediscs presents six of the composition’s fifteen movements composed in 1981 and later revised for the pianist in 2009.

Inspired by the American minimalist composer Philip Glass, Southam’s Glass Houses features highly complex passagework delivered at lightning speed, with lengthy repeating figures in the left hand interacting with varying lines in the right hand. The dynamics, articulations and pedalling are left entirely to the performer’s discretion and this is where Petrowska Quilico’s interpretive powers are most impressive.

The pianist and production team have given careful thought to the order that the pieces appear on the album. From a shimmering opening to intense, driving movements, there are also playful moments with unexpected jazz riffs. Petrowska Quilico’s recording exemplifies the artistry and physical endurance that are required to create this seamless musical vision for one of Ann Southam’s masterpieces.

 

Sins & Fantasies - Mark Takeshi McGregor

04 modern 03 macgregor sins fantasiesSins & Fantasies
Mark Takeshi McGregor
Redshift Records TK430
(redshiftmusic.org)

What a brilliant conceit – seven pieces, each by a different living Canadian composer, and inspired by the Seven Deadly Sins. Beginning in 2010, Vancouver-based flute virtuoso Mark Takeshi McGregor gave life to this project, and the results are gloriously presented here. The disc begins with Dorothy Chang’s Wrath, a hissing, spitting and raging exploration of tone, breath and vocal sound, followed by Gregory Lee Newsome’s Avarice and Owen Underhill’s Three Reflections on Pride which employ flute, piccolo and alto flute. Jocelyn Morlock’s take on lust makes exquisitely erotic use of the alto flute, McGregor’s voice, and words from a 20th-century icon which completely spooked me out. James Beckwith Maxwell’s Invidere (envy) wanders into the far reaches of extended techniques, and Benton Roark’s Untitled gives a meditative and melancholy spin to sloth.

In all these, McGregor’s remarkable gifts as a player are mesmerizing. Besides his extraordinary technical mastery, his is playing of the most imaginative and creative kind. And to top it off, the disc closes with McGregor’s own Le dernier repas de M. Creosote, inspired by the infamous Monty Python character and an absolute tour de force any way you slice it. Three of Telemann’s Fantasias are also included as foils to the new pieces; for me, McGregor’s sense of musical adventure here pales in comparison. But no matter: as Chaucer says in The Parson’s Tale, the deadly sins “all run on one Leash, but in diverse manners,” and here their diversity is astonishing, inspiring, and only dangerous in the best possible way.

 


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