01_1939.jpg1939 (Jongen/Ullmann/Hindemith/Hua/Klein)
Teng Li; Meng-Chieh Liu; Benjamin Bowman
Azica ACD-71301

Since Teng Li moved here to join the Toronto Symphony Orchestra as principal viola, she has become a much-valued presence on the Toronto concert scene in her own right. But, surprisingly, this is her first solo disc.

At its heart is Hindemith’s third Sonata for Viola and Piano. Like most of the works here, it was written in 1939, as the horrors of World War II were being unleashed on the world. Li’s impassioned performance, with pianist Meng-Chieh Liu, underlines the expressive force of Hindemith’s dazzling work.

Gideon Klein was just 20 when he wrote his audacious Duo for Violin and Viola. Li is well-matched by violinist Benjamin Bowman in a shattering evocation of Klein’s despair. An extraordinary work – in an unforgettable performance.

Viktor Ullmann’s situation was as dire as Klein’s in 1939. But his Five Love Songs, like Joseph Jongen’s luminous Concertino for Viola and Piano, are infused with hopeful, if bittersweet, longing. Arranged for viola and piano by Liu, Ullmann’s songs, though fleeting and unmoored without their texts, find an eloquent poetic voice here.

Moon Reflected in Er-Quan takes us to Li’s native China with this tender elegy composed by the blind itinerant Yanjun Hua. Li manages to evoke the distinctive sound of the erhu in this moving arrangement for solo viola.

This is a memorable disc. The recorded sound is clear and authentic, and Li’s own booklet notes, in English, French and Chinese, are persuasive in presenting these works as direct responses to their fraught times.


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02_Shostakovich_Gergiev.jpgShostakovich – Symphony No.9; Violin Concerto
Leonidas Kavakos; Mariinsky Orchestra; Valery Gergiev
Mariinsky MAR0524

Symphony No.9 in E-Flat Major Op.70 is a lively, mocking, inspiring, bouncy, sarcastic picture of human nature. Originally imagined as a monumental work, with chorus and soloists – the ode to the victorious ending of the brutal war – it eventually emerged as a 22-minute-long creation that was lighthearted, humorous and transparent. Shostakovich himself said: “It is a merry little piece. Musicians will love to play it, and critics will delight in blasting it.” He was right, indeed. The work had a disappointing effect on the general public, and was quickly banned by the Soviet regime. However, amidst the parades and humour, this symphony is illuminated by deeply felt moments of human suffering in the slower movements and features the most heartbreaking bassoon solo in the fourth movement. The Mariinsky Orchestra, under the baton of maestro Valery Gergiev, displays a wonderful uniformity of sound and phrasing. Their interpretation of this work is both exciting and reassuring.

The Ninth Symphony is coupled here with the dark and reflective Violin Concerto No.1, arguably one of the best violin concertos ever written. It opens with Nocturne, essentially a long violin narrative. Dance-like elements become more devilish toward the end of the Scherzo, increasing the virtuosity in the violin lines. The central movement, Passacaglia, brings a sense of inevitability that culminates in the cadenza, which starts as a beautiful lament but changes into a furious display of emotions. The soloist, Leonidas Kavakos, while superb throughout, truly shines in this movement – his expression is raw, vulnerable yet powerful, revelatory in nature, bewitching to the listener. Burlesque, the last movement, has an eerie combination of spookiness and light, ending in swirls of melodies and rhythms, like a shamanic dance.

The outstanding acoustic qualities of the Mariinsky Theatre (where this album was recorded) makes this disc even more enjoyable.


03_Taktus_Glass_Houses2.jpgGlass Houses for Marimba – Music by Ann Southam
Centrediscs CMCCD 21415

It was with great pleasure that I listened to Taktus (percussionists Greg Harrison and Jonny Smith) playing Glass Houses for Marimba. It was difficult not to compare this version to the piano pieces, which I have recorded; however, music should be experienced in the moment and in different interpretations so I enjoyed this CD.

In these performances tempi and articulation vary from the piano in interesting ways. No.5 by the marimbas clocks in at 5 minutes 21 seconds in comparison to the piano’s 8 minutes 28 seconds. The marimbas play this Glass House in a slower tempo and make it more meditative, rather than the virtuosic piano version. I like that their version is quite different from the piano, although I do prefer No.5 with all its repeats, faster and with an edge. Glass House No.1 as heard here is twice as long as the piano version, although the tempi were comparable (more repeats were added). The shorter version is closer to the original score but the transcription from piano to marimba results in different tonal colours and phrasing.

I do think it is important to have different performances and interpretations. How boring music would be if everyone played the same way. I like the contrasting dynamics in No.7, which is almost three minutes slower than the original. Again, different sounds emerge from different instruments and this highlights the unique quality of this music. No.8 is wicked for the piano – there is a 33-note drone which the pianist must memorize in order to focus on the right hand melodies. Needless to say I relished hearing two people perform this difficult piece with such relaxed ease and expertise. My favourite Glass House in this CD was the performance by Taktus of No.9 because it accentuated the colours and delicate nuances of the marimbas. The playing throughout the CD was impeccable and articulate.

Editor’s Note: Centrediscs will be re-issuing Christina Petrowska Quilico’s piano recording of Ann Southam’s complete Glass Houses as a 2-CD set in the coming months.

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05_Vivienne_Spiterri.jpgIsadora Sings
Vivienne Spiteri
Isadorart isi 03 (isadorart.qc.ca)

The harpsichord is an instrument of opposites. Of ancient origins, it lives on through recent trends of recreation. Sounding with pointillistic attacks of sharp precision, it can unfold with a rich and flexible resonance and tone. Thick blocks of complex sounds contrast with clear, transparent layers of register and texture. Although known for its role in early music performance, these qualities provide a rich sonic palette for today’s composers. Isadora Sings reveals these colours through a series of evocative and dynamic pieces. Vivienne Spiteri and her collaborators pair the harpsichord with electronics, blending them into unique sound fields, extending the instrument beyond its usual capabilities.

Of note is Cinéma, mode d’emploi by Pierre Derochers which, through live sampling, creates a thrilling layering of dense, frenzied activity. Also, in Hope Lee’s Tangram, added bass clarinet (played by Lori Freedman) supplements the vastness of the electronics, as well as complementing the harpsichord in its ritual-like meditations and ecstatic outbursts.

Most interesting is the title track, a collaboration between Spiteri and composer Kent Olofsson, which uses an array of rarely heard extended techniques. Hand muting, pitch bending, strumming, plucking, even rubbing the strings to excite harmonics, are echoed in the electronics, creating a vast, spacious world of sound. Shadow and light of varying intensities come into focus, from obscure faintness to blinding opaqueness. An imaginative and unique exploration for the curious listener.

While the pieces can feel a bit lengthy, the artists’ vision provides rich sonic rewards for the willing ear.


Author: Wesley Shen
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François Houle; Jane Hayes
Redshift Records TK438 (redshiftmusic.org)

François Houle; Jane Hayes
Afterday AA1501 (francoishoule.ca)

06a_Houle_Sassicaia.jpgThe versatile Vancouver-based duo Sea and Sky consists of clarinetist François Houle and pianist Jane Hayes. They have released a pair of CDs: Sassicaia features current Canadian compositions, many of them commissioned by the duo; the other, Zarabandeo, is a collection of pieces in, for want of a better word, Latin style. Both collections are compelling, and both demonstrate the considerable interpretive strengths of this seasoned ensemble. Releasing them together makes sense. It lends a weight to the enterprise that might be missing if one or the other had come out alone. They are set against one another by contrast, not similarity.

The title track on the Canadian collection is by Bruce Mather, who has named a number of works for impressive wines. His pointillist and microtonal piece is both gravel terroir and heady bouquet. It is a contemplative, mysterious centerpiece to the disc. Owen Underhill’s Duotone features pointillism and microtones as well, and also the captivating clarinet double tones that Houle demonstrates with mastery.

Less effective to me is the headbanger by Keith Hamel entitled Cyclone. Intended to depict the energy of the weather event, its heavy base and static quality forced my ear into shelter. As unfortunate an inclusion as that piece is, the meditation that begins immediately following in Paul Dolden’s Eternal Return of a Ritual Form serves as balm that quickly turns to hallucinogenic drug. Dolden spins a basic repetitive formula into nervous dervishness. Cleverly constructed as a kind of maniacal passacaglia, the 17-minute piece keeps the listener wondering “what next?” When a free improv section gives way to a drum solo, before one can think “OH NO!” it heads on into mad variation X. A gradual disintegration should lead to a calm coda, but instead, everything is all insect buzz and numb desolation. Quite a trip.

06b_Houle_Zarabandeo.jpgThe opening track of the other disc provides the title. Not your parents’ sarabande, Zarabandeo is by Mexican composer Arturo Marquez. Following this tuneful and romantic rondo form are two effective short works by Cuban clarinetist/composer Paquito D’Rivera. Featured also are works by Argentinians Carlos Guastavino and the tango master Astor Piazzolla. In Ravel’s Pièce en forme de Habanera Houle shows a nice touch, though here he doesn’t meet the style standard set by the remarkable Jane Hayes, whose work on this second album is full of character and verve. Houle includes two takes of Piazzolla’s haunting nocturne Oblivion (he emulates many jazzers here and gives us two interesting improvised intros to the piece). I don’t agree that Two Majorcan Pieces qualifies for inclusion. For me the rest of the collection is utterly charming and substantial enough without Joseph Horovitz’ ersatz Spanishism. Houle lets his sound go in playing this material, allowing his jazz chops to take some focus away from his tone. No one else will likely quibble with that and I can just suffer my envy of his slap tongue in silence.


07_PEP_2.jpgPiano and Erhu Project Volume 2
Nicole Ge Li; Corey Hamm
Redshift Records TK440 redshiftrecords.org

In the February 2015 issue of The WholeNote I weighed in on the satisfying premiere album by the Vancouver Piano and Erhu Project (PEP). With the prompt release of PEP, Volume 2 the transcultural duo of pianist Corey Hamm and erhu virtuoso Nicole Ge Li have further raised the bar. The album offers substantial rewards for listeners. Among them: nine well-crafted compositions in the Western art music tradition for this not-quite-yet standard instrumental pairing by nine composers with strong Canadian ties.

The album’s repertoire exhibits several high points including Keith Hamel’s emotion-packed, elegiac Homage to Liu Wenjin, nominated for Composition of the Year at the 2015 Western Canadian Music Awards. The other contributing composers are represented with works rich with glints of virtuosity, humour, nostalgia and dreamscape.

It is Who Made the Inch of Grass composed by Aaron Gervais which haunted me the most, however, prompting repeated pleasurable listening. Gervais explores the erhu’s richly lyrical voice in his Debussy-daubed work, which in several passages is also subtly favoured with Messiaen-like chordal harmonies in the piano.

The duo’s musically nuanced playing, combined with repertoire freshly commissioned in 2013 and 2014 – attractively captured in this recording – has caught the attention of critical ears. The album earned a nomination for Classical Recording of the Year at the 2015 Western Canadian Music Awards. Given the rewards on display here and PEP’s ever-growing repertoire and reputation, in what musical directions will Volume 3 take us?


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