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.


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.

01_French_Trumpet.jpgFrench Trumpet Concertos
Paul Merkelo; Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal; Kent Nagano
Analekta AN 2 9847

Three challenging French trumpet concertos composed in the 20th century are given pristine, energetic and rollicking performances by soloist Paul Merkelo with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal under Kent Nagano. Merkelo has been principal trumpet with OSM since 1995. This long working association with his orchestral colleagues is heard in the performances, especially in sections where the soloist and orchestra have tight musical conversations. Conductor Nagano is yet again brilliant in his ability to lead them both while allowing considerable freedom for individual sound statements.

Each concerto is interesting in its compositional attributes. Militarist musical references such as trumpet fanfares and snare drums with jazz-like solo trumpet lines highlight Henri Tomasi’s Concerto pour trumpette et orchestre. Alfred Desenclos’ Incantation, Thrène et Dance pour trompette et orchestre is the most academic of the works here. Rooted in the Romantic harmonic and melodic tradition, Desenclos also sneaks in jazz-rooted ideas, creating a movie music scenario which ends with an appropriate big bang. Even more jazz influences are found in André Jolivet‘s Concerto pour trompette No.2. Described by the composer as “a ballet for trumpet,” 14 different percussion instruments, piano and saxophones lead the rest of the orchestra to groove like a big band. Merkelo shines in the second movement solo with its changing sonic qualities.

These may not be the strongest trumpet concertos ever written but the abounding essence of fun and enthusiasm in performance is uplifting!

02_Spirit_of_American.jpgSpirit of the American Range
Oregon Symphony; Carlos Kalmar
Pentatone PTC 5186 481

The “American Range” moniker of this album is a tad disingenuous as the three composers represented here all honed their craft in Paris in the 1920s and hailed from the East Coast of America. Boston-based Walter Piston (1894-1976) was an esteemed figure in mid-20th century American music who taught a generation of composers as a professor at Harvard. His most popular work, the masterful and highly entertaining suite from his 1938 ballet The Incredible Flutist opens this fine recording with panache.

George Antheil (1900-1959), the self-described “bad boy of modern music,” was born in Trenton, New Jersey. His 1927 composition, A Jazz Symphony, was first performed at Carnegie Hall by the African-American Harlem Symphonietta directed by W.C. Handy. The orchestra responds to this swaggering score with great gusto, with notable contributions from a very tight brass section.

Brooklyn-born composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990) stressed in his program note for the 1946 Boston premiere of his Third Symphony under Koussevitsky that his work contained “no folk or popular material,” hallmarks of his previous highly successful series of ballet scores. Nevertheless, the triumphalism of this, his most ambitious and extended composition, mirrored the optimism of the Postwar Era and the work was swiftly hailed as the epitome of the longed-for “Great American Symphony.” Kalmar’s interpretation eschews the tub-thumping often brought to this symphony with a highly sensitive and fluid reading which illuminates the complex thematic relationships between the four movements of this mighty work.

Pristinely captured in vivid sonics, these are live performances unmarred by any extraneous noises. This is a recording you’ll surely enjoy listening to repeatedly.


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