Elżbieta Sikora - Solo and Electronics

07 sikoraElżbieta Sikora - Solo and Electronics
Various Artists
DUX 0679a (www.dux.pl)

The soundworlds of the four works composed by Polish born Elżbieta Sikora emerge in this album out of the inspiration generated by the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert. Through the skilful interweaving of instrumental and electroacoustic timbres, each piece is an evocative sonic image stimulated by Herbert’s words: a striding Orpheus-Apollo; a hesitant Nike beckoning; a waking dream shimmering; a collection of stones distilling midair.

Although celebrated in Europe Sikora is relatively unknown in this country, but if you love listening to new sounds and are intrigued and curious about the electroacoustic genre, this CD offers music of breathtaking imagination and compelling sonic textures. Each piece presents an interaction between a solo instrument – flute, cello, harpsichord, piano – and electronic sources generated within a studio environment. 

This interaction takes varying forms: question and answer, expression of opposite polarities, or one sonic plane enhanced by the other. And within each of the pieces, she has carefully crafted various approaches to creating a sense of open flexibility within the realm of a fixed time frame -- always a compositional challenge with electroacoustic works for live players and pre-recorded electronics.

Even though the pieces were created over a period of 25 years, at no time do you feel as if the older technologies used are a limitation. In fact, quite the opposite. Each piece offers a window into a rich and diverse sonic language, and is full of dramatic vigour and intensity. Definitely a composer worth discovering.

On the Nature of Electricity & Acoustics - Electro-Acoustic Music from Ireland

01-Electricity-and-AcousticsOn the Nature of Electricity & Acoustics
Electro-Acoustic Music from Ireland
Curated by Daniel Figgis
Heresy 010

Imagine the sound of a traditional Irish jig or reel in the hands of someone who loves playing with electronic instruments and recording devices. Think of all the possible combinations that could arise. That’s exactly what you will hear on the CD On the Nature of Electricity & Acoustics. Curated by Daniel Figgis, this album is a compilation and sampling of 23 pieces, each created by a different Irish composer or musician. And to add to the mix, these musicians come from a wide range of backgrounds and influences: contemporary classical composers, rock musicians, sound experimentalists, traditional music virtuosi and visual artists. The fascinating images in the accompanying booklet offer glimpses into early instruments — both acoustic and electric in nature.

Over the last three or four decades, traditional Irish music influences have swept across the globe, bringing their unique identity to the pop, rock and world music genres. With this album we are treated to the inimitable Irish sound under the influence of experimentation and boundary pushing. It opens with a very early electroacoustic work, created in 1978 using classic tape techniques, by one of the country’s leading composers, Roger Doyle. We immediately land in the familiar soundworld of the piano presented with a driving rhythmic force so characteristic of the Irish essence. These strong rhythmic qualities, along with looping and repetitive melodic or harmonic patterns, textural layering and the presence of a recognizable instrument are present in almost every work on the album. The distinctive instrumental sounds heard include the fiddle, bagpipes, bodhrán, accordion, electric guitar, cello, as well as a few flashes of a Celtic vocal presence. Electronic sounds include the presence of lush synthesizer textures, wild electric guitar riffs, static and noise articulations and gliding filter sweeps.

The final track by the curator Daniel Figgis really sums up the spirit of the whole album. If I were to lift a pint of beer to my mouth and close my eyes, I could easily imagine I was sitting in a traditional Irish pub, tapping my toes in time with the music. Yet my ears would be overjoyed to hear the unusual and mind-bending twists and turns that unfolded before me. There would be no denying that I was in the presence of an ancient musical tradition whose indelible spirit penetrates through time, technologies and trends.

Dompierre – 24 Préludes

05 DompierreDompierre – 24 Préludes
Alain Lefèvre
Analekta AN 2 9292-3

Canadian composer François Dompierre has had an eclectic career to say the least. Born in Ottawa in 1943, he studied music at the University of Ottawa and the Conservatoire de Montréal in addition to his private lessons with Claude Champagne, Clermont Pépin and Gilles Tremblay. Since then, his career has taken him on several paths, including those of conductor, composer, CD producer and travel writer. His own compositions demonstrate a myriad of genres – soundtracks for more than 60 films, a full-scale opera and upwards of 30 concert works.

Dompierre’s 24 Préludes were inspired by longtime family friend “Bob” whose keyboard dexterity and interest in boogie-woogie were a source of great fascination to the young François. Hence, it was with Bob in mind that Dompierre created this enticing collection of miniatures, engagingly performed here by Alain Lefèvre on a two-disc Analekta recording.

The set opens with a prelude aptly titled Frénétique which features a rollicking boogie-woogie style bass, very much à la 1940s. From here, many of the preludes pay homage to a particular dance or pop style, one for each of the major and minor keys of the tonal system, and all as diverse as the set of 24 preludes by Frédéric Chopin. For example, the eighth, titled Déterminé (Tango) is a rhythmic and bombastic interpretation of the famous Argentinean dance form, while No.12, Immobile (Cool) lies at the other end of the spectrum, minimal and introspective. Lefèvre demonstrates a real feeling for the music, capturing the mood of each piece with great panache. Many of them contain complex cross rhythms, syncopations and chromatic harmonies, elements best addressed by only the most musically adept of pianists.

In all, the disc is an appealing case of “new wine in old bottles” with composer and performer perfectly complementing each other. Bob would surely have approved!


Brundibár – Music by composers in Theresienstadt (1941–1945)

01 BrundibarBrundibár – Music by composers
in Theresienstadt (1941–1945)
The Nash Ensemble

The outstanding Nash Ensemble presents a compelling tribute to four Jewish composers based in Czechoslovakia and held in the Theresienstadt ghetto for prisoners often Auschwitz-bound. Hearing these works we mourn the untimely deaths of Holocaust victims Hans Krása, Victor Ullman, Gideon Klein and Pavel Haas.

The concise String Quartet No.3 by Ullman (1898–1944) is particularly accomplished. Expressiveness akin to Alban Berg’s pervades the opening movement. The colourful finale opens march-like and in canon, then takes off with many grainy sul ponticello effects and pizzicato chords. All is handled expertly by the Nash’s strings: Stephanie Gonley and Laura Samuel, violins; Lawrence Power, viola; and Paul Watkins, cello.

Their performances of the String Quartet No.2 “From the Monkey Mountains” by Haas (1899–1944) and the String Trio by Klein (1919–1945) also deserve accolades. In the Haas quartet’s opening movement, “Landscape,” intonation of violinists Samuel and Gonley is superb in high, difficult figures reminiscent of Haas’ teacher Janáček. In the hilarious “Coach, Coachman and Horse,” all players provide suitably grotesque glissandi to portray the sliding cart!

The young Klein’s trio includes deft and imaginative variations on a Moravian folksong. Finally, the full Nash Ensemble including winds, piano and percussion gives an energetic reading of a suite from the children’s opera Brundibár by Krása (1899–1944). It is a delightful work with witty allusions to popular styles. Brundibár stands as a brilliant testimony to the resilience of cultural life in Theresienstadt.

Britten – Les Illuminations; Variations; Serenade; Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal

02 BrittenBritten – Les Illuminations; Variations; Serenade; Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal
Barbara Hannigan; James Gilchrist;
Jasper de Waal; Amsterdam Sinfonietta; Candida Thompson
Channel Classics
CCS SA 32213

It’s centennial season again and it’s Benjamin Britten’s well-deserved turn to hog the limelight. This new disc from the Amsterdam Sinfonietta brings us two familiar song cycles and an early work for string orchestra. A knockout performance of Les Illuminations, ten sophisticated settings of the poetry of Artur Rimbaud from 1939, opens the disc. Soprano Barbara Hannigan is in fine fettle here, singing very beautifully in excellent French while the virtuoso string orchestra blooms luxuriantly in the warm acoustics of Haarlem’s Philharmonie Hall. Hannigan, renowned for her expertise in contemporary music, is one of Canada’s most celebrated vocalists and though that information figures quite prominently on her personal website, the liner notes ruthlessly delete any reference to her nationality!

An eclectic parody of myriad musical styles for string orchestra follows, the 1937 Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, dedicated to Britten’s first composition teacher and “musical father.” Bridge was an outlier in the parochial British music scene and one of the very few who appreciated the progressive music of continental Europe, knowledge he passed down to his eager teenage pupil. The recording cleaves quite closely to the timings and interpretation of Britten’s own 1966 recording though the modern sound, recorded in the Stadsgehoorzaal in Leiden, is excessively reverberant and over-modulated, though I suppose this might be considered a virtue for SACD fanatics.

Superior microphone placement makes this less of a problem in the closing item, the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings from 1943. It features James Gilchrist, a fine singer with more heft to his voice and less affectations than most English tenors, partnered with the assured playing of the principal horn of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Jasper de Waal.

David Tanner; Jose Elizondo – Of Birds and Lemons

03 Birds and LemonsDavid Tanner; Jose Elizondo –
Of Birds and Lemons
Moravian Philharmonic; Vit Micka,
Petr Vronsky; Millennium Symphony; Robert Ian Winstin
Navona Records 96931

For those who have always tended to shy away from contemporary music for fear it’s too “avant-garde,” this disc titled Of Birds and Lemons featuring music by two composers may be just the thing. The two in question — David Tanner (born in 1950) and José Elizondo (born in 1972) both write in a style that may rightly be described as “contemporary conservative.” Indeed, there isn’t a tone cluster or a trace of electronica to be heard anywhere on this CD.

Born in the UK, Tanner came to Canada as a child, and while in his 20s, earned fame as a member of the rock group Lighthouse. He is also known as a fine saxophonist and has taught the instrument at the University of Toronto and the Royal Conservatory of Music. Tanner’s approach — that music should be enjoyed by performers and audiences alike — is very much reflected in the pieces included on this disc — Pocket Symphony, Tango of the Lemons, I’ll Come to Thee by Moonlight and Tyger — performed by the Moravian Philharmonic and the Millennium Symphony. Together, they embody a buoyant and optimistic spirit, perfect for the community groups for which many of them were intended.

Mexican-born José Elizondo shares a similar outlook. In addition to his musical studies, Elizondo also studied electrical engineering at MIT and Harvard. He too, writes in an affable, contemporary style which he claims might be “too simple” for certain tastes. But his pieces Estampas Mexicanas, Leyenda del Quetzal y la Serpiente and Danzas Latinoamericanas — clearly reflecting his roots — are joyful and engaging and the two orchestras conducted by Petr Vronsky, Vit Micka and Robert Ian Winstin perform with great bravado.

This is definitely “music with a smile on its face” — and who’s to say we don’t need more of that these days?

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