04 Modern 01 Transfigured NightingaleThe Transfigured Nightingale – Music for Clarinet and Piano
Jerome Summers; Robert Kortgaard
Blue Griffin Records BGR339

Clarinetist Jerome Summers has completed his “Nightingale” trilogy of recordings, a project he began in 1994. This one, Transfigured Nightingale, comprises mostly works transcribed for clarinet, with the exception of Brahms’ Sonata in E-flat Op.120, No.2. Included on a mere technicality (it was transcribed for viola by the composer), it’s really here because Mr. Summers loves it, and why not? Late Brahms is balm to the soul of those who play the nerdiest of woodwinds, the exploding cigar of the orchestra.

Summers handles the instrument with ease. His tone on most of the material is smooth and velvety. Michael Conway Baker’s Canticle for Ryan (originally for violin) and Marek Norman’s Just Think (originally a setting of a poem by Robert Service) are effective if sugary vehicles for Summers’ fluid cantabile. Two Shostakovich symphonic extracts offer an austere counterpoint to these selections. I particularly like hearing the scherzo from the Ninth presented as a solo piece with piano. Taking it at just under full-on Russian March Hare tempo, Summers sounds like he’d fit in with any orchestra in the country.

Pianist Robert Kortgaard provides agreement, support and bundles of musicality. He and Summers agreed to a stately set of tempi for the Op.120, playing the part of elder gentlemen rather than impersonating the young Richard Mühlfeld, Brahms’ “nightingale.” Also included is Rachmaninov’s cello sonata, in Summers’ own transcription. At a hefty 36-plus minutes, it argues better for the cello than the Brahms does for the viola.


04 Modern 02 Current IcarusBrian Current – Airline Icarus
Huhtanen; Szabó; Thomson; Dobson; Sirett; Ensemble; Brian Current
Naxos 8.660356

Airline Icarus by composer Brian Current and librettist Anton Piatigorsky was initially commissioned in 2001 and underwent a series of developments in the ensuing decade. This intense, 45-minute chamber opera transports the listener through an emotional journey as it depicts the reactions of passengers and crew on a doomed commercial flight. The work was inspired by the tragic crash of a Korean airliner that was struck by a Soviet missile in 1983 and descended for nearly 15 minutes before impact.

The opera’s award-winning composer, conductor and music director, Brian Current, presents a cohesive vision for this impressive, multi-layered work that incorporates the myth of Icarus, whose wings melted after flying too close to the sun. It serves as a reminder that our technological advances can have devastating results.

Piatigorsky’s insight into human nature exposes a glimpse of humanity at its most vulnerable as the libretto juxtaposes mundane conversations with the characters’ introspective thoughts. This dramatic fluctuation is sustained, quite extraordinarily, by the chamber chorus and soloists Carla Huhtanen (Ad Exec), Krisztina Szabó (Flight Attendant), Graham Thomson (Scholar), Alexander Dobson (Worker/Pilot) and Geoffrey Sirett (Business Man).

Current’s depiction of turbulence is frighteningly realistic until an eerie stillness, beautifully performed by the instrumental ensemble, underscores the Pilot’s aria, providing an impression of suspended time and space. Superbly sung by Dobson, it ironically describes his joy of flying as the plane descends. The disturbing Epilogue closes the opera with a prolonged, final silence.


04 Modern 03 JACKáltaVoz Composers
JACK Quartet
New Focus Recordings FCR150

In this latest release by the JACK Quartet, four Latin American composers are featured, each of whom are members of the composer consortium known as áltaVoz. Members of áltaVoz see it as their mandate to promote cutting edge contemporary music concerts, workshops, symposia and interdisciplinary projects with the intension of providing a provocative forum for artists, institutions and the community at large.

The four quartets on this recording represent the confluence of its members’ willingness to embrace a wide spectrum of aesthetics and influences. First on the disc, composer Felipe Lara’s Tran(slate) invites us into a world of daring gestures, pops and slides, that charmingly evoke playful otherworldly sonic landscapes. The vast array of extended playing techniques is masterfully orchestrated and elevates the composer’s language. Next, José Luis-Hurtado’s L’ardito e quasi stridente gesto creates an unsettling mood as quiet meandering dissonances explode with jagged interruptions. Throughout Mauricio Pauly’s Every new volition a mercurial swerve, process-driven swells and pulses propel the listener into a swarm of rhythmic activity. An ethereal contrast is created with a luminous harmonic lightness before the blistering climax bombards the ear. In Jorge Villavicencio Grossmann’s String Quartet No. 3 “música fúnebre y nocturna,” the only multi-movement work on the disc, we receive the clearest allusions to the tradition of the string quartet. The influence of Bartók is quite clear and reminiscences of tonal centres are unmistakable. This, matched with lively groove-driven passages, secures this work as the most accessible of the lot.

The JACK Quartet has approached each work with a passionate virtuosity and impressive attention to detail. The punchiness and clarity of gesture throughout is a fine example of the quartet’s expressive capabilities. The JACK Quartet is known for impassioned interpretations of contemporary works, and this recording certainly lives up to that expectation.


04 Modern 04 Satie SlowlySatie Slowly
Philip Corner
Unseen Worlds UW12

I was impressed with the program notes written by Philip Corner in what was really a small book. His writing was extremely entertaining and informative. The written words really gave a sense of the wit and brilliance of Satie. For example: “Satie is not as great as John Cage would have us believe. Who could be? Certainly not Bach or Beethoven.” My favourite quote has to be: “If his piano pieces are so easy why are they so badly played? […They resist all] added expressivity; they make those who indulge sound ridiculous. Yet nothing is lacking in them.” Corner’s written analysis of each piece reflects the personality of Satie’s music. Critics during the time slandered Satie and called him a “petit maître” alongside Debussy and Ravel. He was not revolutionary in a flamboyant way but cloaked his visions in traditional forms reflected in the more obscure repertoire chosen for these CDs.

A medieval theme is reflected in the selections which are the Ogives, The Feast Given By the Norman Knights to Honour a Young Girl, Preludes of the Nazarene, The Gothic Dances, Fanfares of the Rose+Cross, Chorales. These were all played in a very slow tempo but represented the nature of the music. Gnossienne No.1, Gymnopedies (1,2,3) and the Empire’s Diva didn’t fit the rest of the program but were played in the same tempo. I would have liked to hear more swing in the Gnossienne and Gymnopedies and definitely a more up-beat tempo for the Empire’s Diva, who was a stripper in a music hall. However, I could see a Satie wink in this unique double CD.


04 Modern 01 Metropolis saxophoneMetropolis
Harringon/Loewen Duo
Ravello Records RR7889

New Canadian saxophone music is taking flight recently, much as a result of the commissioning efforts of Winnipeg-based saxophonist Allen Harrington. Prairie composers Gordon Fitzell, Michael Matthews and Diana McIntosh are featured on this disc with pianist Laura Loewen.

Harrington’s debut recording begins with a bang: literally, with the saxophone screeching and popping whilst the pianist hits the strings with mallets inside the instrument. Fitzell’s Metropolis is a kind of sonic experiment, or lexicon of extended techniques for both instruments; the piece is always in motion, despite its fragmented form and sparse texture.

I find the crystalline sound and static drama of Sudbury composer Robert Lemay’s modernism more successful: this composer has written many works for saxophone – and also uses every technique available – but Oran always has a clear motivation.

Harrington and Loewen show their years of collaboration successfully in the more traditional works on the disc: Srul Irving Glick’s Sonata and Matthews’ The Skin of Night highlight their sensitivity to lyrical passages – his alto saxophone sound has a warm intensity in the middle range and she has a dramatic and articulate touch on the piano.

Being the only Canadian to place at the Adolphe Sax Competition (in 2006), Harrington is a strong soloist. But it is his collaborative efforts with Loewen that are impressive; the recording (done at the Banff Centre) masterfully captures both instruments in equality. The saxophone and piano repertoire will continue to grow as this duo continues to inspire Canadian composers.


04 Modern 02 American ChamberAmerican Chamber Music
James Ehnes; Seattle Chamber Music Society
Onyx 4129

In addition to the great European tradition of chamber music, American composers have also made significant contributions to the genre, beginning with the works of Arthur Foote in the 19th century. American chamber music is alive and well 150 years later, and this recording is a fine representation of repertoire from the 1930s and 40s with music by Copland, Ives, Bernstein, Carter and Barber performed by Canadian violinist James Ehnes and musicians of the Seattle Chamber Music Society.

While some of the music on this CD might not be all that well known, it’s all worth investigating. Copland’s Violin Sonata from 1943 is a study in contrasts, with its buoyant opening movement, a restrained march and the rhythmical finale performed here with much panache by Ehnes and pianist Orion Weiss. Leonard Bernstein was still a student at Harvard when he composed his Piano Trio in 1937, its exuberance very much the music of a 19-year-old prodigy. The most familiar piece on this recording is surely Barber’s String Quartet, if only because of the famous Adagio, most often heard arranged for string orchestra. Here, the warmly resonant strings further heighten the movement’s elegiac mood. Equally elegiac is the brief Largo for violin, clarinet and piano by Charles Ives. Insurance broker by day and composer on the weekend, Ives was very much an individualist. His approach to music was distinctly American, and I liken the introspective mood of this piece from 1901 to those stark urban landscapes by Edward Hopper created 30 years later. Elliott Carter’s Elegy for viola and piano from 1943 is marked by a romantic conservatism not seen in his later style.

So it would seem that during the 1930s and 40s, there was more going on musically in America than the jitterbug and big bands and this CD proves it admirably. Kudos to James Ehnes and his group from Seattle for bringing to light some treasures that most certainly deserve greater exposure.


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