05 modern 03 hindimith concertosHindemith – Complete Piano Concertos
Idil Biret; Yale Symphony Orchestra; Toshiyuki Shimada
Naxos 8.573201-02

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the death of Paul Hindemith (1895–1963) Naxos has released a double-disc anthology of his works for piano and orchestra in performances by the Turkish-born pianist and frequent Naxos collaborator Idil Biret and the student ensembles of Yale University under the direction of Professor Toshiyuki Shimada. It is a logical pairing as Hindemith taught from 1940 to 1953 at the prestigious Ivy League school and had previously served in the 1930s as a consultant to the Turkish government, helping to establish the national standards and infrastructure for classical music education.

The earliest work represented here (from 1923), Piano Music with Orchestra (for Piano Left Hand), was commissioned by the affluent Viennese one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein. Unfortunately the pianist greatly disliked it and refused to perform it, though by contract he retained the exclusive rights to do so (the same impasse occurred with a work he commissioned from Prokofiev). The score was considered lost until the year 2001, when a copy was discovered in the Wittgenstein family archives. The ever-prolific Hindemith was likely none too concerned, for the lavish $1,000 fee in US dollars he received at the height of the German hyperinflation crisis (equivalent to 30 million marks at the time) enabled him to renovate and move into his dream home, a four-story 14th-century tower in Frankfurt.

The Kammermusik No.2 for piano, string quartet and brass (1924) is a much stronger work, brimming with the saucy inventiveness and powerful brass writing typical of the brilliant Kammermusik series of concertante works for diverse instruments. The same can be said of the innovative instrumentation of the intriguing Concert Music for Piano, Op.49 for two harps and brass (1930). The Yale brass section takes to this music like ducks to water, though all three performances suffer from sloppy co-ordination between the instrumental groups. Whether this is the fault of poor communication between the conductor and pianist or some quirk of the acoustics of the cramped Woolsey Hall stage I cannot say.

The Four Temperaments for piano and strings (1940) began life as a ballet score and is the most often performed of all the works here. Here again an underpowered string orchestra ( in instrumental shorthand, as observed in a YouTube video posted by Ms. Biret) playing in a 3,000 seat convocation hall fails to provide the sonic weight Hindemith routinely demands, though the performers themselves are quite capable. The album closes with the mechanistic Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1945), the finest moment of which occurs in the surprising final pages with an arrangement of the lively old medieval melody “Tre Fontane.” Perhaps we could consider this retreat into the past as a coded reference to his gothic ivory tower in Frankfurt, now bombed and incinerated.

While the dispirited Bartók and embittered Schoenberg struggled to survive in America, Hindemith’s influence in the United States was profound and his music was widely performed there. By the time of his death however the larger world of composition had turned its back on him. Perhaps it is time to once again grant this grand old lion his due and acknowledge the power, nobility and impeccable craftsmanship of his music; this anthology would be a good place to start.

05 modern 04 sound dreamingSound Dreaming – Oracle Songs from Ancient Ritual Spaces
CD and 5.1 DVD audio format discs wendalyn.ca

Toronto-based Wendalyn is a composer, vocal performer and sound energy practitioner. In this thought-provoking release, her improvised vocalizations recorded in ancient temples in Malta and Crete provide the initial soundscapes to which she has later added environmental, instrumental and vocal layers.

Wendalyn provides clear and succinct liner notes which describe her personal emotional and subsequent musical responses to her temple journeys. These greatly aid in understanding the composer/performer’s esthetic and provide the listener a welcome tool to listening and appreciating the six tracks. Chant-like in nature, her music has an extremely calming effect. Her voice is clear, her pitch is exact and production quality is high. The initial track “Stone Mysteries” features long syllabic tones (such as ooohs) and subtle static changes of pitch and quivering vibrations. There is a welcome addition of water-like sounds of the Egyptian Rebaba (played by Randy Raine-Reusch) and melody- driven changes in the second track “Sirens of the Deep.” “Serpentine Dance” has the opening vocal breath rhythms juxtaposed against tambourines and a cicada chorus. This sets up the most interesting track of the set, in both its spontaneous response to the Crete temple, and compositional expertise.

At times the chants and musical ideas drag on for too long, and her inspirational musings seem too farfetched to be believed. But this is an interesting aural foray into the world of an inquisitive and honest artist searching for and finding her own inner sound.

01-LindbergMagnus Lindberg – EXPO;
Piano Concerto No.2; Al largo
Yefim Bronfman; New York Philharmonic; Alan Gilbert
Dacapo 8.226076

Magnus Lindberg was the Marie-Josée Kravis composer-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic from 2009 to 2012 and this CD was recorded live with the New York Philharmonic under the leadership of music director Alan Gilbert. You couldn’t ask for a better orchestra or performances. The New York Philharmonic and Israeli/American pianist Yefim Bronfman are both incredible virtuosos who can play anything and make it sound effortless.

EXPO (2009) is a dynamic piece using contrasting fast and slow tempi. Friction is created when the pulse is calm and the quicker-paced music begins to agitate nervously, merging the various layers of flowing music in a kind of perpetuum mobile. This is a stunning opener for the CD and it is no surprise that EXPO has received numerous performances.

The Piano Concerto No.2 (2012), a veritable cornucopia of styles, begins with the solo piano in a slow, hesitating quasi-improvisatory cadenza which is most appealing. Except for a few more quiet moments the concerto continues in a classic dialogue between piano and orchestra in a menu of flashy pianistic tricks requiring a virtuoso technique and stamina from the soloist. Yefim Bronfman does not disappoint. He has the skill and energy to make scales, arpeggios and fast repeated notes sing and flow. Only chords could have been played with more voicing and colour. But this is a live recording and the excitement that was prevalent is intoxicating. There are many references to the Ravel piano concerti and I could hear Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff as well. The movements are played without interruption but I would have liked a few more sections of repose and tranquility to break up the continual technical display. However, I applaud the work and performance. This should become a standard in piano concerto repertoire.

The Al largo (2010) is almost symphonic at about 24 minutes. The New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert showcase the horns in the opening fanfares with energy but also highlight the lyrical strings with their lush intensity. It is an extraordinary mix of fresh chamber music and Mahler-like symphonic grandeur. These are excellent performances from all the musicians and conductor.

01 Francaix StrattonFrançaix – Music for String Orchestra
Sir Georg Solti Chamber Orchestra, Budapest; Kerry Stratton
Toccata Classics TOCC 0162

Sometimes all it takes is a letter to provide further impetus for a new disc. At least, that was the case with Canadian conductor Kerry Stratton who, upon searching for some fresh material, contacted Jacques Françaix, son of the eminent composer Jean Françaix, asking if there was any music by his father that had never been recorded. Yes, came the reply, the score for the ballet Die Kamelien and the Ode on Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Two years later, both pieces are to be found on this fine CD of music for strings on the Toccata Classics label featuring the Sir Georg Solti Chamber Orchestra.

2012 marked the centenary of Françaix’s birth — he lived until 1997 — and over the course of his lifetime, he quietly carved out a niche as a gifted and prolific composer, completing more than 200 pieces in numerous genres. The disc opens with the Symphony for Strings, written in 1948. Containing more than just a touch of French insouciance, this is elegant music, elegantly played, with the GSCO’s strongly assured performance further enhanced by a warm and resonant sound. Less well known is the ballet music Françaix wrote for Die Kamelien (The Camellias), loosely based on the 1848 play by Alexandre Dumas, which premiered at New York City Centre in 1951. The score is a study in contrasts, from the eerie opening to the highly spirited fifth movement, Im Spielsaal. Also receiving its premiere on CD is the brief Ode on Botticelli’s Birth of Venus from 1961, a haunting and evocative homage to the Renaissance Italian painter. Here, the delicately shaped phrasing goes hand in hand with a wonderful sense of transparency.

Kudos to Kerry Stratton and the GSCO, not only for some fine music-making, but for uncovering some unknown treasures that might otherwise have been overlooked.

02 Bell Gravity GraceAllan Gordon Bell – Gravity and Grace
Land’s End Chamber Ensemble
with James Campbell
Centrediscs CMCCD 19013

Gravity and Grace is a collection of recent chamber works by Alberta composer Allan Gordon Bell, featuring Calgary’s Land’s End Chamber Ensemble with guest James Campbell on clarinet. Bolstered by great performances by the core piano trio and guests, Bell’s music shimmers and shrieks, grumbles and growls.

Bell is afflicted with delight in sonority and fascinated by the physical fact of consonance, using an effective range of dissonance as a foil. He expresses a kind of gratitude to the world around him in all these works. He is a strongly visual composer; in one piece sounds create images of falcons rising on thermals above the prairie or cascades of water tumbling into pools. In Field Notes he begins with a depiction of two rivers meeting and finishes with a sunset. Sweetgrass wraps paired contrasting images of the prairie around a still central movement that takes a page out of Béla Bartók.

The album title derives from the final work on the disc. Trails of Gravity and Grace, for clarinet cello and piano, was commissioned by Toronto’s Amici ensemble. As good as the title is, it is the weakest part of a strong collection. The limited palate doesn’t suit the composer, and I must confess that at times I found Mr. Campbell’s intonation questionable.

Apart from that, the playing is solid and committed; I especially enjoyed Sweetgrass, (written in 1997, the earliest of these pieces) for a sextet requiring three guests: Calgary musicians flutist Mary Sullivan, Ilana Dahl on clarinets and Kyle Eustace on percussion. Bell is wise to write for some common groupings in the contemporary idiom: here it’s “Pierrot plus percussion.” Field Notes is written for the same group as Quartet for the End of Time.

Both Bartók and Olivier Messiaen could be fellow travellers with Bell. They shared a similar mystical regard for the natural world and made efforts to incorporate that world into their music. Bartók’s Contrasts and the Messiaen Quatuor would ride alongside Field Notes quite comfortably.

03 Johnston Runs with WolvesWoman Runs with Wolves
Beverley Johnston
Centrediscs CMCCD 18913

This new release by Canadian superstar percussionist Beverley Johnston has everything a listener loves — stellar performances, strong compositions and clear sound quality.

The title track, Woman Runs With Wolves by Alice Ho, is based on the myth La Loba from Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. It is a dramatic work, with Johnston vocalizing a text of an invented language while playing hand-held percussion instruments. The work also involves acting and movement but Johnston’s precise rhythmic patterns and surprising range of vocal colours make it moving even without the visuals.

Christos Hatzis’ In the Fire of Conflict is a two-movement solo marimba and audio playback version of an earlier work also featuring cello. The marimba part adds a contrapuntal melodic line to the haunting rap tracks by Bugsy H. (aka Steve Henry) and tape effects, while the rhythmic component breaks down the boundaries between classical and pop music. Hatzis’ Arctic Dreams also features flutist Susan Hoeppner and soprano Lauren Margison in a soundscape of jazzy marimba, trilling flute and lush vocals against a wilderness-evoking tape part.

David Occhipinti’s moving marimba solo Summit, and three duets with pianist Pamela Reimer — Tim Brady’s rhythmically driven Rant! (based on a Rick Mercer “Rant”), Micheline Roi’s Grieving the Doubts of Angels and the film score-like Up and Down Dubstep by Lauren Silberberg — add compositional contrast and colour.

Johnston’s sense of phrase, tone colour and respect for the composers shine throughout this perfect release from a perfect musician.

Back to top