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?

A Little Knight Music – Selected works

04 A Little Knight MusicA Little Knight Music – Selected works
by General Sir Maurice Grove Taylor
Joan Harrison; Elaine Keillor; Brigit Knecht

The Ottawa-based cellist Joan Harrison has produced a fascinating and delightful CD on her own label, The Enterprising Rabbit, featuring the music of the amateur English composer General Sir Maurice Grove Taylor(1881–1961) cleverly titled A Little Knight Music. Taylor was a career soldier in the British army, but his abiding passion was music. Despite being a distinguished and highly regarded piano professor at the Royal College of Music, his father Franklin Taylor refused to teach his son, who was consequently entirely self-taught.

Composed essentially for fun, and primarily for private performance, Taylor’s music exists only in manuscript form. On the evidence of this CD it’s interesting, competent and attractive writing, albeit with little sense of any real development.

Harrison is joined by pianist Elaine Keillor for the Sonata for Cello and Piano; violinist Brigit Knecht is the third member in the Trio for Violin, Violoncello and Piano, which has a simple but very effective slow movement. Both works needed a few touches from Keillor to finish the incomplete finales.

The other four works on the CD — the Llyn Maelog Suite, Fair Winds, Brave Wind and Sunset — were originally for violin and piano (Taylor’s wife was a fine violinist) and were transcribed for cello by Harrison.

This isn’t music that will change the world, but it does prove yet again that the exploration of the byways of music can yield such satisfying results. The playing throughout is exemplary, and it’s beautifully recorded too.

Harrison, who discovered this music through a chance encounter with one of the composer’s grandsons, plans to make the music for the recorded works available on her websites, and, where the CD will also be available for purchase. The sheet music should be available for download this month.

Constantine Caravassilis: Visions – The Complete Books of Rhapsodies and Fantasias

01 Visions CaravassilisConstantine Caravassilis:
Visions – The Complete Books of Rhapsodies and Fantasias
Christina Petrowska Quilico
Centrediscs CMCCD 18613

As evidenced in each of her many releases on the Centrediscs label Christina Petrowska Quilico’s technique is blazingly virtuosic but never “showy” and her interpretations are always deeply intelligent and sympathetic to her composers. She has championed many Canadian composers, many women composers and has been the main exponent of Ann Southam’s piano music in particular. Her latest collaboration is with Greek-Canadian Constantine Caravassilis. Knowing his soloist well (she was his piano teacher), the composer has created music that highlights her skills and her performer’s personality very effectively. The overall artistic mien of Petrowska Quilico’s work in this recording I would call sunny, as in “radiant” and “brilliant” — perhaps it’s the famous Greek sunshine, come to think of it. Her technique can be immensely delicate but also very forceful, while never betraying any sense of effort. This is quite an offering of piano music by a single composer but Caravassilis’ work sustains interest with its stylistic and emotional range and textural and dynamic shifts, while Petrowska Quilico’s interpretation ensures a delicious listening experience.

Caravassilis approaches composition essentially as an expressionist. That is to say, his personal ideas and feelings are the motivation for, and form the content of, his music. As he writes in the liner notes: “...  an attempt to creatively mold information drawn from the subconscious into an artistic form, often through the use of borrowed material.” The borrowed material in this case is of two main types: the music, both secular and sacred, of Caravassilis’ Greek heritage and some core elements of 19th and 20th century classical piano repertoire (plus contributions from Hildegard von Bingen and Alan Hovhaness).

Mercurial is a word that comes to mind as one follows the rapid ups-and-downs of the music of The Book of Rhapsodies, the first disc of Visions. The Shadow Variations on a theme by Alan Hovhaness, for example, is a work of almost a half-hour’s duration, but since the composer has used a formal scheme that divides the piece into 24 parts, even here there is little room for sustained reflection.

The Book of Fantasias, comprises the program for the second disc. It begins similarly to the first Book, a modal melody unfolding over a long, repeated pedal tone. Most of these Fantasias give their ideas more time to unfold and it is in general a somewhat more relaxed/relaxing listen compared with the bracing first disc. This is especially true of the beautiful, elegiac Lumen de Lumine, dedicated to the memory of Ann Southam, which closes the program.

Voces Boreales - Yoko Hirota

02 HirotaVoces Boreales
Yoko Hirota
Centrediscs CMCCD 18713

Voces Boreales is a record of which the entire creative team, and all of us music-lovers in this northern country, can be justly proud. As Japanese-Canadian Yoko Hirota explains in her notes, the title refers both to her North Ontario home and to Canada as a whole as represented by the “northern voices” of this album’s selected composers.

Ms. Hirota is a specialist in contemporary repertoire, and her dedication to this field is clear in the thoroughly contemporary sensibility she brings to her interpretations. Sensitive and searching sonic exploration of the instrument takes the place of post-Romantic expressivity — Ms. Hirota and her chosen composers are perfectly in step in this regard.

The program displays the beguiling breadth of contemporary Canadian piano music. Although the compositions themselves are all quite recent, the composers’ birthdates span almost 50 years, so we are assured of a wide cross-section of what can be called contemporary. Brian Current’s Sungods begins the proceedings, a short work equally charming, impressive and clearly constructed. Robert Lemay has drawn inspiration from Alain Resnais’ famous film Hiroshima mon amour, while François Morel’s work pays homage to the great Montreal abstract painter Yves Gaucher (d. 2000) who was himself often inspired by modern music. The works by Lemay and Morel display these composers, better known for their works for large ensemble, savouring the intimacy and rigour of solo piano. Laurie Radford’s experience in electroacoustics lends his music a tactile materiality, and Brian Cherney’s Nachtstücke are definitely among the most evocatively nocturnal-sounding pieces this listener has ever heard.

For anyone with the ears and heart for contemporary music — and I don’t mean just aficionados either but, well, everyone — this record is a joy to listen to from beginning to end. Highly recommended.

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