08_Louis_Babin.jpgLouis Babin – Saint-Exupéry: De Coeur, De Sable et D’Étoiles
Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra; Petr Vronsky
Les Productions Louis Babin ODL-LB-002 (louisbabin.com)

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is perhaps best remembered today as the creator of the famous children’s book Le Petit Prince. Yet he was not only an acclaimed French author of several important works and laureate of high French literary awards, but also a French Air Force pilot who lost his life during a reconnaissance mission in 1944. What a noble character to honour in music, and that’s exactly what Québec-born composer Louis Babin has undertaken here. The CD opens with Saint Exupéry: de coeur, de sable et d’étoiles, a three-movement work named for Saint Exupéry’s novel from 1939. The music pays homage not only to the author but to his whole life. Vol de vie, the first movement, is suitably bold and heroic, featuring an appealing array of tonal colours treated by the Moravian Philharmonic with great panache. The second movement, Les adieux au Petit Prince is moody and mysterious, making effective use of percussion, while La marche des Hommes with its stirring brass sections, is pure cinematography.

Couleurs for string orchestra is a poignant reflection on the trials of adolescence while the Suite du promeneur is a musical depiction of life’s passage on earth. Also scored for strings, the suite comprises four miniature movements, each a study in contrasts, from the wistfulness of Le Curieux to the steadfast defiance of La morale de cette. Despite its French roots, this music seems to have a Scandinavian feel to it, the sprightly rhythms and angular lines akin to those of Dag Wirén or Carl Nielsen. The warm and resonant sound from the Moravian strings further enhances a solid performance.

The premise behind this CD is an intriguing one and it’s resulted in some fine music by a composer we should be hearing more from – bravo to Babin and the musicians from Moravia.

Yotam Haber – Chamber Music 2007-2014
Contemporaneous; Mivos Quartet; Max Mandel; Eric Huebner
Roven RR10015

In this release of chamber music selections by renowned composer Yotam Haber, creative influences range from modernist sculpture to Jewish chant. Each piece on the disc provides a sonorous glimpse into Haber’s compositional world; it is rich and full of haunting expression. The diversity of style on display throughout each piece is a testament to his range of influence. While there remains a close tie to a rigid brand of modernism, Haber is not afraid to explore passages filled with lavish lyricism and broad melodic contour.

We Were All and On Leaving Brooklyn are pieces that exemplify a careful and unique deliberation paid to vocal timbre and text setting. Reichian bursts of post-minimalism are interspersed with clever passages infused with driving rhythmic exuberance. A compelling sense of pacing and harmonic inventiveness in Last Skin (a piece for eight micro-tuned violins in two parts) is perhaps the most captivating example of why Haber’s voice is distinctly his own. Microtonal eeriness and waves of colourful harmony culminate to reach a powerful set of gestures all within the confines of limited materials. The string quartet Torus evokes a three-dimensional listening space around which tremendous and threatening forces rustle and drive at breakneck speeds. In From the Book of Maintenance and Sustenance, Haber uses Jewish liturgical melodies that echo touching historical associations and a haunting nostalgia.

The musical environment on this disc is abundant and boundless. Each work is an indication that Haber’s ear is tuned in to the surrounding world. These influences make their way into the music and are married with a truly distinctive creative voice. The result is a riveting set of chamber compositions that make for a rewarding listening experience.


Iannis Xenakis – the piano works
Stephanos Thomopoulos
Timpani Records 1C1232

Xenakis: IX – Pleiades; Rebonds
Linn Records CKD 495

10a_Xenakis_Piano.jpgThe music of iconoclast modern composer Iannis Xenakis has by now been mostly released on disc. There are a few firsts, though, in these two new discs. Stéphanos Thomopoulos, a Greek pianist now living in France who did a doctorate on Xenakis’ piano music, has delved into the archives to dig out some early pieces completed while the composer was studying composition in the years 1949-52: Six chansons pour piano, and Trois pièces inédites. There is very little “Xenakis” in these pieces, but they are interesting and quite well written for the piano. The collection is eclectic, not traditional but not avant-garde. Thomopoulos adds the early trio, Zyia, for soprano, flute and piano, to his exploration of Xenakis’ juvenilia. This has been recorded before, and is quite a substantial work, a rather strange mixture of simple modal melodies, virtuosic flurries, low clusters and mathematical (Fibonacci) ostinato patterns. There is nothing here to be heard of Xenakis’ groundbreaking works Metastaseis and Pithoprakta, even though they appeared just a few years later. On the rest of the disc Thomopoulos presents excellent readings of Xenakis’ four mature piano works: Herma, Evryali, Mists and À R. I thought I heard a piano string snapping at a climactic point in Herma, but there are a few other snaps, pointing to hot levels during the recording. The sound is otherwise clear and full.

10b_Xenakis_Kuniko.jpgThe quality of sound is one of the main features of the Kuniko disc, presenting two of Xenakis’ important works for percussion, Pléïades and Rebonds. They have both been recorded before, but never has Pléïades, a 40-minute opus for six percussionists, been done by one player! (It is multi-tracked, of course.) The label, Linn Records, is connected to the high-end audio company based in Scotland. This hybrid disc lets you listen in pristine surround sound (requiring SACD capacity) or in stereo. If you get the chance, listen to the surround version: it is amazing – the intricate layers of rhythms and instruments coming at you from all round. Kuniko is a fine percussionist, and she clearly has taken much care with this recording. I especially enjoyed the sound of her Sixxens, metallic instruments specially fabricated for this piece. In concert, the sound can be quite harsh, but here we get all the details, the sound a cross between Indonesian gamelan and Harry Partch microtonal percussion. The disc closes with the solo work, Rebonds, for drums and woodblocks. She plays well, the one surprise being the substitution of a marimba-like instrument for the woodblocks.


Author: James Harley
For a list of writings by this author, click the name above

11_Hersch_Last_Autumn.jpgMichael Hersch – Last Autumn
Jamie Hersch; Daniel Gaisford
Innova 907 (michaelhersch.com)

Michael Hersch is a composer who has experienced considerable success from an early age. He won first prize in the Concordia American Composers Awards, one of the youngest composers to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in music, and a Rome Prize recipient, all in his 20s. Due to this early success, many orchestras began to regularly commission Hersch which led to an impressive catalogue of large ensemble words. In recent years however, the composer has shifted to compositions for smaller forces that are comprised of increasingly expansive forms. The music of Last Autumn is no exception. Scored for cello and horn, the piece consists of 41 movements lasting nearly two hours. While this seems like an impossible instrumental combination to maintain a level of interest necessary over two hours, Hersch, on the contrary, has composed an endlessly impressive collection of moods and textures for the two instruments. Inspired by classical dance forms and the poetry of W.G. Sebald, each movement occupies a unique sound world ranging from the pungent and monumental to the beautifully stagnant and fragile. Many of the movements are violent entryways into small forms with unified gestures. Various solo interludes are wonderful examples of how the composer is able to successfully transfer the essence of the chosen poetry into impressive sonic journeys. Much of the music in the piece is violent and extreme while maintaining a mysterious clarity. The careful interplay between the horn and cello begins to fashion a connective tissue that stabilizes the miniature sound worlds throughout each movement. Perhaps the most impressive writing is for the cello, a feature of the piece that is undoubtedly aided by the fact that the cellist is the composer’s brother, Jamie Hersch. This impressive set of miniatures is an ideal listening experience for those seeking truly novel sonic experiments within a modernist approach.


01_Women_Composers.jpg20th-Century Women Composers
Trio des Alpes; Lorna Windsor
Dynamic DCS 7717

This is inspired programming, with the works on this disc thoroughly complementing each other. All three composers represented here were born within a quarter-century of each other. They each write in an expressive style that marks the transition from romanticism to modernism. None are musical innovators. But as women, they are rightly regarded as pioneers today.

Amy Beach, who was born in Boston in 1867, is the most well-known composer here. Her Trio for violin, cello and piano is a complex, virtuosic work, which ends with a memorable flourish. Swiss soprano Lorna Windsor’s performance of four art songs are engaging enough to make me want to explore more of Beach’s enormous song repertoire.

English composer and violist Rebecca Clarke enjoyed what she called her “one whiff of success” when she introduced her Viola Sonata in 1919, and then, soon after, this lovely Trio. Flamboyant, intense, driven, this is an exciting work, especially as performed by the Swiss-based Trio des Alpes.

The youngest composer here, Frenchwoman Lili Boulanger (sister of the influential teacher and composer Nadia), was only 25 when she died in 1918. The Trio des Alpes brings out the moody expressivity of her two contrasting pieces for piano trio, the first, D’un soir triste, plaintive, the second, D’un matin de printemps, exuberant.

These fine pieces are too rarely heard, making this thoroughly enjoyable disc particularly significant.


02_Shostakovich.jpgShostakovich – Piano Quintet;
String Quartet No.2
Takács Quartet; Marc-André Hamelin
Hyperion CDA67987

This recording of Shostakovich’s chamber works is an absolute delight – hauntingly beautiful, insightful and, above all, highly sentient to the mix of turmoil and soaring of Shostakovich’s life as expressed through his music. Chamber music was perceived as an act of bourgeois elitism in Stalin’s Soviet Union, even though it was precisely the form that allowed the most intimate connections between composer, musicians and their audience. So it is no surprise that Shostakovich composed eight symphonies before his second string quartet was premiered in 1944. Interestingly enough, 13 more string quartets followed in rapid succession.

String Quartet No.2 in A Major shows little connection to the stormy events of the Second World War (as opposed to his symphonies), appearing to be much more personal. It was composed in a mere 19 days and includes wonderful folk melodies, syncopated rhythms and minor modes of Gypsy/Jewish inflections. The Takács Quartet’s playing is robust and energetic in the first movement and deeply touching in the Recitative, where violin improvisatory lamentations are supported by the rest of the ensemble playing soft seventh chords. Outstanding solos are intercepted with close-knit ensemble sound in the third and fourth movements, which end majestically yet uncharacteristically in the minor key.

The Piano Quintet in G Minor premiered in 1940, becoming one of the most beloved piano quintets of all time. It contains five movements, with the emotional tension peaking in the ethereal Intermezzo and ending with a cleverly innocent Finale. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin is dominantly powerful in percussive sections while adding sublime textures to the ensemble sound in contemplative parts. Highly recommended.


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