Editor's Corner - October 2014

I have not often experienced epiphanies in this life. The first I remember was as a teenager on a family holiday which took us to Washington, D.C. and included a visit to the National Gallery of Art where, wandering off on my own, I turned a corner and found myself face to face with Salvador Dali’s The Sacrament of the Last Supper. That was a profoundly moving moment and all at once I understood what was meant by the term masterpiece. That would have been in the late 1960s. The next came in 1984 while attending the finals of the CBC National Radio Competition for Young Composers. That year the only prize awarded in the electronic music category went to Paul Dolden for The Melting Voice Through Mazes Running. Although this extremely dense and dynamically intense work drove a number of people from the hall with fingers plugging their ears, I was enraptured by its visceral power. It was that work which inspired me to commission radiophonic works for my program Transfigured Night (1984-1991) at CKLN-FM. With the assistance of the Ontario Arts Council and later the Canada Council I was able to commission a dozen composers, beginning with Dolden who produced Caught in an Octagon of Unaccustomed Light which went on to win the Third Prize of the Luigi Russolo International Competition (Varese, Italy 1988).

Some 30 years later Dolden is still at it, honing his technique which involves recording and layering hundreds of tracks of instrumental and vocal sounds, and more recently including field recordings – cicadas, grasshoppers and crickets in the current instance – to create works of vast sonic complexity. The predominantly acoustic nature of the sound sources – although there is an extended electric guitar solo included here – is integral to his process which, while using technology to stack the layers, does not manipulate the samples electronically thereby leaving the purity of sound intact. In essence Dolden, who plays most of the instruments himself, creates and conducts a vast orchestra which could not exist in the everyday world.

01 Editor 01 DoldenPaul Dolden’s latest release, Who Has the Biggest Sound? (Starkland ST-220 starkland.com), includes two titles. The somewhat tongue-in-cheek, or at least playfully self-referential, title track which includes a narrator (Dolden) asking questions such as “Who can play the fastest? Who has the dreamiest melodies? Who can talk faster: crickets or man?” was co-commissioned by Réseaux des arts médiatiques (Montreal) and Diapason Gallery (New York). Although the narration seems a little condescending and self-indulgent, the layered textures that constitute the bulk of the composition are incredible to behold, or more accurately, behear.

The companion piece, The Un-Tempered Orchestra, commissioned by the Sinus Ton Festival (Germany), takes Bach’s exploration of the equal-tempered tuning system in the Well-Tempered Klavier as its point of departure. Whereas Bach demonstrated the viability of the then new symmetrical division of the octave into 12 equal steps, Dolden’s intention is to establish a “non-symmetrical building which uses non-tempered tuning systems, many of which have no octaves […] to create a new musical space within which Western and non-Western musical practices can co-exist […] a big modern multi-cultural family.” He goes on to say “In order to construct this house, first I wrote simple diatonic melodies and chord progressions. Then I recorded Eastern and Western performers reading these lines in their native dialect or tuning system. With the aid of new technologies I edited all these performances to fit under one symmetrical roof. […] Specifically we see our current Western [style] of playing reflected back to us and distorted by ancient musical tuning systems. By combining different musical languages and styles we invert time: what is old becomes new and vice versa. Please enjoy these moments of musical transcendence.” I know I did, but buyer beware. These sounds are big, bold, brash and often abrasive, and listening is not recommended for the timid.

In brief:

01 Editor 02 Hearts RefugeIn 2012 renowned countertenor Daniel Taylor, head of the Early Music department at the University of Toronto, founded the Schola Cantorum. In its first two seasons this ensemble has already achieved remarkable success, appearing with the likes of the Tallis Scholars (2012-2013) and the Gabrieli Consort (2013-2014). The Heart’s Refuge,a recent Analekta recording (AN 2 9143),features both this choir and Taylor’s long-established Theatre of Early Music in vocal works of Buxtehude, J.C. Bach, Kuhnau and Bruhns as well as a short instrumental selection by Schmelzer. Recorded at Humbercrest United in April 2013, the sound of the five vocal soloists, 20-voice choir, strings and continuo is superb, with none of the purity and clarity of the period performance lost in the natural resonance of the church’s glorious acoustic. Concert note: On November 9 the choir and orchestra of the Schola Cantorum and the Theatre of Early Music present “The Coronation of King George II” under Daniel Taylor’s direction at Trinity College Chapel.

01 Editor 03 NU BC CollectiveBeyond Shadows, the latest release from Vancouver’s Redshift Records (TK432 redshiftmusic.org), features The Nu:BC Collective, an ensemble-in-residence at the University of British Columbia comprised of flutist Paolo Bortolussi, cellist Eric Wilson and pianist Corey Hamm. The group is often supplemented by guest artists, including clarinetist Cris Inguanti and percussionist Brian Nesselroad on this recording. The disc features existing works by two Americans, Dorothy Chang (who currently teaches at UBC) and Marc Mellits, and pieces composed specifically for the ensemble by two Ontario-born composers who both now make Montreal their home and teach at McGill University, Brian Cherney and Chris Paul Harman. Chang’s title work, written in 2008 for the Stoney Brook Contemporary Chamber Players, is for clarinet(s), cello, percussion and piano (with Bortolussi conducting), is a busy piece which takes place predominantly in the lower registers of the instruments with interesting textures and juxtapositions. Harman’s Doubling from 2007 adds clarinet to the core ensemble and as the title suggests incorporates a lot of unison work in a playful game of tag. Mellits’ 11 Pieces for Flute and Piano (1992) explores a variety of moods as the individual movement titles indicate: i.e. Persistent; Distraught; Languid, Frantic etc. The most recent work, and also the only one to feature just flute, cello and piano, Brian Cherney’s Twenty-Two Arguments for the Suspension of Disbelief (2010) is to my ear the most satisfying. Dark and probing, it goes beyond the level of the other works which, accomplished though they are, lack the depth and introspection of Cherney’s polished gem.

01 Editor 04 PergamentMoses Pergament – The Jewish Song (Caprice Reissue Series CAP 21834) was recorded live at the Stockholm Concert Hall in 1974 and originally issued on LP in 1976. It features vocal soloists Brigit Nordin and Sven-Olof Eliasson, the Stockholm Philharmonic Choir and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of James DePriest (who served as music director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec from 1976 until 1983 and was Director Emeritus of Conducting and Orchestral Studies at the Juilliard School and Laureate Music Director of the Oregon Symphony at the time of his death last year). Pergament (1893-1977) was born in Finland of Lithuanian Jewish stock (the name Pergament, or vellum, came from his great-grandfather’s occupation, Torah scribe). He studied composition and violin in St. Petersburg and settled in Sweden in 1915 where he became well known as a music critic before establishing himself as a composer. The mammoth cantata The Jewish Song for vocal soloists, chorus and large orchestra was composed in 1944 on poems by Ragnar Josephson in which “the skald (poet) sings of the Jewish people’s devotion to God, its piety, its past, its heroism, its bravery, its trust and thankfulness for the protection of the Lord.” The stunning 75-minute work opens with Prelude: In Memoriam – a dramatic wordless lament for the six million Jews “who fell victim to the cruelty of the Third Reich” and continues with settings of a dozen poems culminating in a moving We Thank You Lord. Pergament is sadly underrepresented by recordings and this important re-issue of the dramatic, uplifting and exhilaratingly performed work is a welcome addition to the catalogue.

01 Editor 05 Through TimeThrough Time featuring bassoonist Rui Lopes and the English Chamber Orchestra (Solo Musica SM 211 solo-musica.de) presents little-known works from the first half of the 20th century juxtaposed with more familiar fare by Mozart and Vivaldi. Lopes is an acknowledged master of the baroque and modern bassoon and both are heard to advantage here. The disc opens with a charming Portuguese folk-based work by Heitor Villa-Lobos followed by the playful Divertissement by Jean Françaix originally scored for bassoon and string quintet, heard here in the world premiere of a string orchestra version. The Bassoon Concerto in B-Flat K191 was composed at the age of 18 and was Mozart’s first concerto for a wind instrument. Written shortly after the Symphony No.29, like that work it represents an early example of the composer’s mature orchestral sound. Lopes contributes his own virtuosic cadenzas. The Vivaldi C-Major concerto is also virtuosic, ebullient and wonderfully melodic. The disc ends with Edward Elgar’s Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra, Op.62, a lush work which brings me to my only criticism of this otherwise flawless disc. In a way the Elgar brings us full circle back into the early 20th century, but despite its warm and lyrical nature, on each listening I found it jarring after the flamboyant Vivaldi. Perhaps it would work better as an encore after a rousing round of applause to clear the palette, but in the context of the disc I would have preferred the journey “through time” to be linear rather than circular.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com


What I Did On My Summer Vacation

 

It all began as I was registering for an online service and was asked the security question “Who is your favourite author?” I realized that the answer has not changed in about 35 years since I first read William GaddisThe Recognitions (I hope this admission will not leave me vulnerable to identity theft!) which led to a re-reading of his final work, Agapē Agape. And there my story begins...

With Gaddis’ fixation on mechanical reproduction (specifically the invention of the player piano) and the ways technology changed the perception and availability of art in the 20th century, in particular the phenomenon of Glenn Gould and Gould’s wish to “eliminate the middleman and become [one with] the Steinway,” the stage was set for my wonderful summer’s journey.

It began with The Loser, Thomas Bernhard’s account of a fictional Glenn Gould’s studies in Salzburg with Vladimir Horowitz, and the devastating effects his presence (and his interpretation of the Goldberg Variations) had on two fellow students, the unnamed narrator and the character Wertheimer, who abandoned promising solo careers and were ultimately destroyed by the contact (Wertheimer in fact a suicide). Evidently Gaddis was reading Bernhard toward the end of his life and it was there he found the premise of Gould wanting to become the piano.

September Editor Scans 01 Musical NovelIt was about this time that I realized that a book which had arrived at The WholeNote a few months earlier and which I had browsed but put down as being too dry and academic, The Musical Novel by Emily Petermann (Camden House 978-1-57113-592-6), might provide some insights and inspiration after all.

EditorsCorner-Gould FanI still found it hard going – with its use of such unfamiliar words as inter-, intra- and multi-medial, poiesis and palimsestuous (as opposed to palimsestic, she explains), all of which I was able to make out from their roots and context but which I notice set off spell-check alarms – and ended up focussing on Chapter 5: “Structural Patterns in Novels Based on the Goldberg Variations.” Of the four books analyzed – Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations; Nancy Huston’s The Goldberg Variations; Rachel Cusk’s Bradshaw Variations and Richard Powers’ Gold Bug Variations – I had read (several times) all but the Cusk. The inclusion of this latter was in itself worth the effort of persevering with Petermann’s thesis.

I took a break from the scholarly tome to (re)read each of the books in question. Reading them all together, interspersed with a number of recordings of the namesake, occupied me for most of a month and provided some delightful moments and revelations. Having now gone back to The Musical Novel to read Chapter 6 and the Conclusion has also furnished a number of explanations and clarifications, both about the novels in question and the structure of Bach’s masterpiece.

An example of the former is Cusk’s inclusion of a narrator-less chapter written entirely in dialogue without commentary (shades of Gaddis, although Cusk’s speakers are identified) which stuck in the craw of at least one reviewer as being non-sequiturial and annoying for its lack of context. Petermann points out that the chapter in question is parallel to Bach’s Variation XXVII in the structure of the book and is a literary representation of this “canon at the ninth,” which involves just two voices without the “commentary” of the bass line present in all of the other variations. So there is the context which the reviewer found lacking. Likewise Petermann explores the unique A-B structure of Variation XVI, the midpoint of Bach’s cycle, and relates it to several of the literary works, most notably the Josipovici. In an extension of the legend of the origin of another of Bach’s masterpieces, The Musical Offering, Josipovici recasts the story of Bach’s musical meeting with Frederick the Great to be Goldberg’s – a writer rather than a harpsichordist in this novel – literary joust with King George III and subsequent reworking of the King’s theme into “seven tiny tales” and a longer three-part cautionary story. Other insights abound…

Bach provided the title Clavierübung (keyboard study) consisting of an Aria with Diverse Variations for the Harpsichord with Two Manuals Composed for Music Lovers, to Refresh their Spirits. Johann Nikolaus Forkel, in the first biography of Bach written some six decades after the composer’s death, provided a background story from which the name we now associate with the work originated. Forkel tells us that Baron von Keiserling, an insomniac who employed a young harpsichord player named Goldberg to play him soothing and entertaining music at night from an adjoining room to help him sleep, or at least deal with his sleeplessness, commissioned Bach to write a set of suitable pieces for Goldberg to play. That story has long since been debunked, as listening to some of the more rambunctious variations might suggest, but the myth has continued to entice us for more than two centuries.

The recordings I revisited during this extensive immersion in the Goldberg Variations were of course Glenn Gould’s seminal 1955 and ultimate 1981 versions (in a 2002 three-CD commemorative package that includes an extended conversation between Gould and music critic Tim Page, SONY S3K 87703), plus Luc Beauséjour’s harpsichord rendition (Analekta fleur de lys FL 2 3132), Dmitri Sitkovetsky’s string trio arrangement with Sitkovetsky, Gérard Causé and Misha Maisky (Orfeo C 138 851 A, but you might choose a Canadian recording of the same arrangement with Jonathan Crow, Douglas McNabney and Matt Haimowitz on Oxingale OX2014, reviewed by Terry Robbins in the March 2009 WholeNote) and Bernard Labadie’s string orchestra version with Les Violons du Roy (Dorian xCD-90281), each of which brings very different aspects of the work to light and all of which I would recommend without hesitation. As I would the literary titles mentioned above.

September Editor Scans 03 Goldberg 2PianosIt was a new recording, Bach Goldberg Variations for Two Pianos, that drew my particular attention however. Evidently Joseph Rheinberger (1839-1901) felt that the original 1741 solo keyboard (two-manual harpsichord) work would provide enough material to keep two pianists busy and in 1883 made an arrangement for two pianos in which the liner notes tell us he “took substantial liberties with Bach’s original voicing, doubling melodies and fleshing out harmonies as he saw fit… [leaving] an unmistakably Romantic impression on the work.” Thirty years later Max Reger “smoothed out a few of the [remaining] rough edges” of Rheinberger’s adaptation and published the version recorded here in a wonderful performance by Nina Schumann and Luis Magalhães (TwoPianists Records TP1039213). It is this “Romantic” version for two pianos that comes the closest to being something I would like to hear at the edge of sleep. If I ever have the luxury of going to bed next to a room furnished with two grand pianos and such accomplished performers as Schumann and Magalhães I would love to put the Keiserling premise to the test.

Having spent July immersed in Bach’s music, I spent August exploring the first half of Petermann’s treatise, devoted to the Jazz Novel, a genre with which I am mostly unfamiliar. As a matter of fact Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter is the only book covered that I had read, and Toni Morrison the only other author mentioned I had previously heard of. It turned out to be quite a challenge to track down many of the books discussed, but I am pleased to say that, after a mostly unfruitful search at the Toronto Public Library, with the aid of Toronto’s (few remaining) used book sellers and the Internet I have been able to find books by all of the authors discussed (including Xam Wilson Cartier, Christian Gailly, Jack Fuller, Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray). This too has been a very satisfying journey.

September Editor Scans 04 Bach CantatasYou might think that after all those Goldberg Variations I would have had enough of Bach for a while, but perhaps I am like those animals who, even when choices abound, continue eating a single food type until its source is depleted before moving on to something else (not that one could ever exhaust the available wealth of Bach recordings). For a change of pace I found that a new recording of Bach Cantatas entitled Recreation for the Soul featuring the Magdalena Consort (Channel Classics CCS SA 35214) did indeed provide a refreshing respite. I must confess that I am not well versed in Bach’s many cantatas – some 209 have survived – although I am of course familiar with some of the more famous arias. Listening to this new recording, which features stellar soloists Peter Harvey (bass and direction), Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano), Daniel Taylor (alto) and James Gilchrist (tenor) in one-voice-per-part arrangements, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the beloved melody I know as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring appears not once but twice in the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and mouth and deed and life) BWV147, as the final chorale of Part One Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habe (What joy for me that I have Jesus), and as the grand finale of the work, Jesus bleibet meine Freude (Jesus remains my joy). The other “musical offerings” on this marvelous disc are Jesu, der du Meine Seele (Jesu, by whom my soul) BWV78 and Nach dir, Herr, Verlanget Mich (Lord, I long for you) BWV150, both rich in Bach’s trademark melodies and counterpoint, heard here in a clarity not always found in full choral presentations. Highly recommended.

September Editor Scans 05 Stephen BrownHoping to wean myself gently off the Bach overdose and realizing that no one writing for solo cello would be able to avoid at least some influence of the master, I decided to check out Lady in the East, Solo Cello Suites 1-3 by BC composer Stephen Brown, featuring Hannah Addario-Berry (stephenbrown.ca). The opening notes of Takakkaw Falls, Suite No.1 confirmed my suspicion regarding echoes of Bach, but almost immediately the contemplative Air established its own independent voice and the following Strathspay & Reel and Slow Waltz, although based on dance patterns like a Baroque suite, were obviously drawing inspiration from different cultural sources – Canadian folk songs and fiddle tunes. It is not until halfway through the final Jig that we once again find a nod to Bach in a stately middle passage before a return to the playful fiddle tune of the opening.

I find it interesting to note that the suite was originally composed for solo flute. In my correspondence with Hans de Groot about the disc of Francis Colpron’s transcriptions for recorder reviewed elsewhere in these pages I mentioned that one of my favourite versions of the Bach cello suites was Marion Verbruggen’s performance on the recorder. I’m pleased to note that the process of translation can also work the other way around, from flute to cello.

The disc includes two other suites (evidently Brown has composed six in all, so far), Fire, which is influenced by the classic rock of Hendrix, Procol Harum, Cream and the like, adapted very effectively and idiomatically for solo cello, with a contrasting slow Recitative and Aria movement again reminiscent of Bach, and There Was a Lady in the East in which Brown returns to folk songs and fiddle tunes. As an amateur cellist I am pleased to note that the sheet music for these works is available from the Canadian Music Centre (musiccentre.ca). I availed myself of the CMC’s purchase-and-print-it-yourself service and have enjoyed the challenge of working on the first suite in the past few weeks.

September Editor Scans 06 Grieg Janacek KodalyMy final selection this month does not show any noticeable influence of J.S. Bach, but does feature solo cello with German-Japanese Danjulo Ishizaka accompanied by pianist Shai Wosner. Grieg, Janáček, Kodály (Onyx 4120) features three relatively obscure, or at least rarely recorded, works for cello and piano – Janáček’s dark and lyrical Pohádka (Fairy Tale) and his brief, dramatic Presto, whose origin is unclear but which may have been meant originally as a movement of the fairy tale suite, and Grieg’s Cello Sonata in A minor, Op.36. Ishizaka’s committed performance of the Grieg and Janáček works makes me wonder why they aren’t more often played. After all, these are mature works by respected composers who did not publish much in the way of chamber music – in the case of Grieg two violin sonatas and a string quartet and Janáček just a smattering of works for violin and piano, two string quartets and a woodwind sextet. That alone would make this recording important, but for me it is the centrepiece of the disc, a staple of the modern repertoire, Kodály’s Solo Cello Sonata Op.8 which is most worthy of note.

Presented in a context of “folkloric” works in the liner essay by Ishizaka, I find it hard to make that connection. Of course Kodály worked with Bartók in the early years of the 20th century collecting and transcribing literally thousands of folk songs from Hungary and surrounding lands, and this experience had a lasting influence on both composers and their music. But frankly I don’t hear it here. From the abrasive opening through a contemplative middle movement and on to its driving finale, this extended work from 1915 is a thoroughly modern, uncompromising tour de force which extends the cello’s sonic possibilities with its re-tuned and simultaneously plucked and bowed strings. Ishizaka’s performance brings out all this and more. It’s a welcome addition to the discography.

I mentioned above that I imagined that all composers writing for solo cello would be influenced by Bach’s solo suites. I find myself unable to find these influences in Kodály however, although I have come up with an explanation. It was Pablo Casals who first brought widespread attention to the Bach suites, having stumbled upon the score in 1890 at the age of 13. He then proceeded to spend several decades working on the suites and developing them as the performance showpieces we know today. Before that time it seems they were regarded as mere finger exercises, learning pieces not fit for the concert hall. Although Casals did record four of the six movements of the C Major Suite in 1915, the year Kodály composed his Sonata, it would be two more decades before he made his seminal recordings of the entire cycle. I think it may well be that Kodály was not aware of the Bach Suites when he composed his masterwork. If this is indeed the case, it is an even more remarkable achievement.

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com

 

Editor's Corner - June 2014

00 editorial 01 jeanne lamonJeanne Lamon’s more than 30 years at the helm of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra has been an incredible journey which has resulted in the development of one of the world’s great orchestras and brought respect and renown (and the best period performers in the world) to Toronto. A leader in the true sense of the word, when Lamon declared her intention to retire last year there was a sense of shock throughout the music community, only somewhat mitigated by the announcement that she would stay involved through a newly established legacy project, the Tafelmusik Institute.

Another recent legacy project was the eponymous recording label Tafelmusik Media through which the orchestra has garnered control of its back catalogue, reissuing such classics as Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and producing new CDs and DVDs recorded in Toronto’s flagship venue Koerner Hall. To celebrate her extraordinary association with Tafelmusik the latest offering from the label is a collection of highlights from earlier recordings featuring Lamon in prominent roles entitled The Baroque Virtuoso (TMK1026CD).

Bach’s Concerto for 2 Violins in D Minor, in which Lamon is joined by longtime Tafelmusik colleague Linda Melsted, opens the disc in suitably festive and flamboyant style. This is followed by the Concerto Grosso in C Major after Corelli by Geminiani whose contemplative opening and third movement adagios are contrasted by the playful allegros in which the ensemble and soloist enjoy a merry chase. The full string orchestra is featured in these works, but in Schmelzer’s long slow Sonata III from Sonatae unarum fidium Lamon is showcased alone with the accompaniment of only a chamber organ. Also on a smaller scale, but with full continuo and small string section, is Biber’s Partia V from Harmonia artificioso-ariosa. These, plus another concerto grosso by Geminiani and the “Summer” concerto from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons were recorded in the 1990s and originally released by Sony. The final selection, Bach’s Suite in A Minor for violin and strings after BWV1067, is a more recent performance from a 2011 Analekta recording.

While we wouldn’t normally pay attention to a compilation of earlier releases, this tribute to Jeanne Lamon on the occasion of her departure from Tafelmusik gives a worthy context and a welcome reason to revisit this marvellous music making. Changes of this magnitude which mark an end of an era also give the opportunity for new beginnings and we look forward to the next phase in the history of this important Toronto institution.

Another extraordinary Canadian orchestra with a relatively short history is the National Arts Centre Orchestra, established in 1969 in the nation’s capital under the direction of the late Mario Bernardi. One of the seminal experiences in my own development as a listener was a performance in the early 1970s at Massey Hall which featured Bernardi conducting the NACO from the piano in a Mozart concerto. Although I have forgotten the exact details of that evening – I believe it was one of the “20-something” concertos – what has remained with me is the flamboyance of Bernardi’s performance and way he was able to communicate with the orchestra by a simple nod of the head or lift of the wrist. The musicians, and the audience, were enthralled.

00 editorial 02 mozart hewittNow, more than four decades later, I am again captivated by NACO performances of Mozart concertos. Designed as a “classical” orchestra at less than two thirds the size of a modern symphony, the NACO is perfectly suited for the music of Haydn and Mozart. In this instance the soloist is renowned Canadian Angela Hewitt – I also remember when she won the 1985 Toronto International Bach Piano Competition at which one of the adjudicators was Olivier Messiaen – and the conductor is Finnish rising star Hannu Lintu. Mozart Piano Concertos 22 & 24 (Hyperion CDA68049) features Hewitt’s characteristic crisp and nuanced playing perfectly balanced with the orchestra, whose horns, winds and reeds are in especially fine form. There are extensive and elucidating booklet notes by Hewitt herself and biographical information is included about the soloist, conductor and orchestra. The only thing missing that I would have been interested to know is how it came about that Lintu was selected for the recording rather than the orchestra’s director Pinchas Zukerman, whose recordings of Haydn, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart are referenced in the notes. This recording from the National Arts Centre dates from July last year, so some time after Zucherman’s announcement that he would leave the orchestra in 2015, but still well within his tenure…

Concert note: Angela Hewitt is featured in an unusual pairing with choreographer/dancer Tré Armstrong on June 11 at 9pm in “Keys on the Street – A recital of Urban Dance and Piano” at the Luminato Festival Hub at David Pecaut Square. The program includes music of Bach, Couperin, Messiaen and Debussy. Admission is free.

00 editorial 03 rubbing stone ensembleThe Canadian Music Centre, established ten years before the NACO, has been producing recordings since 1981 through its Centrediscs label. The very first offering was an LP of live electronic music created by the Canadian Electronic Ensemble and over the years electronic and electroacoustic music has had a place in the catalogue in varying degrees. More than three decades since that first offering and having just surpassed the 200-release mark, one of the most recent discs incorporates state-of-the-art computer technology in four of its seven compositions. The Lethbridge Sessions (CMCCD 19213) features Calgary’s Rubbing Stone Ensemble in interactive works by David Eagle, Laurie Radford, Arlan N. Schultz and Anthony Tan as well as acoustic works by Alain Perron, Shelley Marwood and Nova Pon.

The intriguing name of the ensemble was inspired by a landmark of Calgary’s geography and history – a “beautiful big rock […] gracefully presiding over the Calgary region for many centuries and known to native people of the region. It was a place for bison to rub their fur coats, creating smoothed stone surfaces that survive to this day.” The collective of nine musicians dedicated to the creation and performance of new music was founded in 2007 and includes among its instrumentation saxophone, flute, clarinet, piano, harp, percussion, violin, cello and soprano. Jeremy Brown’s saxophones (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone) are the most pervasive influence, appearing in all but one of the variously orchestrated compositions on offer. In fact it was Brown and composer David Eagle who brought the initial intention to fruition and their stamp remains strong on the group. Eagle’s Resound – Soundplay 5 for saxophone and electronics is one of a series of works designed as “games” in which sound files, melodic and spoken fragments, solo and ensemble movements, extensive live processing and sound spatialization can be combined in different ways.

Considering astronomer Edwin Hubble’s discovery that the universe is constantly expanding, contrary to Newton’s law of gravity and Einstein’s collapsing universe model, but intrigued by the existence of such phenomena as black holes where gravity is so great that everything collapses inward, Radford’s Infolding proposes “a concept where sound and energy move inwards, converge […] where intensity is created as events fold inwards wave upon wave…”The work is scored for soprano saxophone, violin, piano, percussion, live signal processing and eight-channel sound. Another work with elevated inspiration, Schultz’s Ikos – kun tu ‘bar ba uses texts created by the composer, meditations on light based on Orthodox liturgy and Tibetan religious philosophy. The extended composition is scored for soprano (recitation of the texts, often buried in the overall textures), tenor saxophone, percussion, harp, piano and processed audio. Tan’s UnRavel, like Eagle’s Resound, uses just one instrument and electronic processing, in this instance a virtuosic violin line performed by David Seidle. As in many of Tan’s works the computer is used to extend the range and textures of the instrumental line both micro- and macroscopically.

Even the purely acoustic works on the CD tend to expand the sonic palette through unusual combinations of instruments – Perron’s Cycle 4 using four saxophones (one player), piano and percussion; Nova Pon’s Wayfaring for tenor saxophone and harp; and even Shelley Marwood’s Merge, which although ostensibly written for the standard “Pierrot” ensemble includes the addition of soprano saxophone giving some unexpected timbres to the mix. All of the composers represented have strong ties to the Prairie Provinces, although a number of them hail from elsewhere and have made Alberta (Eagle and Radford) or Saskatchewan (Perron) their home. Marwood is a native of Alberta but is currently pursuing postgraduate studies at the University of Toronto and Canadian-born Chinese-Malaysian composer Tan currently resides in Germany.                

The Lethbridge Sessions is an eclectic collection of intriguing works by composers ranging from emerging to mid-career, all with strong and unique voices. Congratulations are due to both the Rubbing Stone Ensemble and Centrediscs for bringing them to our attention.

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website thewholenote.com where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels, “buy buttons” for on-line shopping and additional, expanded and archival reviews.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com

Editor's Corner - May 2014

may editor scans 01 americaTwo months ago while writing about Richard Powers’ Orfeo I mentioned that I had neglected to add Steve Reich’s Proverb to my record collection when it came out on Nonesuch in 1996 featuring Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices with Steve Reich and Musicians. Although that recording is now a collector’s item (but still available for download), I am pleased to note that there is a new recording which features this lush work for three soprano and two tenor voices, two vibraphones and two synthesizers (sounding vaguely like small baroque organs,) performed by the SWR Vokalensemble, Stuttgart under the direction of Marcus Creed. America (Hänssler Classic CD 93.306) also includes choral works by Aaron Copland (Four Motets), John Cage (Five), Morton Feldman (Rothko Chapel), Leonard Bernstein (Missa Brevis) and Samuel Barber (A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map). It is an eclectic mix of mostly religious works spanning much of the 20th century. Copland’s motets date from his student days in Paris and they evidently so impressed his teacher, Nadia Boulanger, that she used them as examples for several decades. Copland himself we are told in the liner notes was less fond, declaring them “schoolboy works exhibiting some influence of Mussorgsky, whom I greatly admired back then. They may in a certain sense satisfy curiosity – people may perhaps like to know what I did as a student – but it is not really my style.” That being said, they do provide a warm and welcoming opening to the disc, albeit with occasional moments of close harmonies and dissonance, in the alternating movements of entreaty to and praise of God.

Rather than a biblical text, Reich’s Proverb draws on a sentence from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein – “How small a thought it takes, to fill a whole life” – and treats it in a number of ways over the course of 14 minutes. At times reminiscent of Reich’s 1981 Tehillim, although much more subdued, it is also evocative of the organa which Perotin introduced c.1200. This is followed by a fairly late work by John Cage, Five, composed in 1988 as one of the 52 Number Pieces which occupied much of the last six years of his life. As with many of Cage’s “compositions” there is a set of instructions rather than a score per se, with many of the creative decisions left to the performers. In this case each of five actors is simply given five pitches to sing within prescribed “time brackets” and left to decide when to actually begin and end. As such the result will be different in each performance. I found this rendition mildly akin to a streamlined version of Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna made so familiar in the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Morton Feldman’s piece was composed in 1971 for performance in the non-denominational of the same name in Houston, Texas designed as a place of quiet meditation, which houses 14 site-specific paintings by Mark Rothko. The music, nearly half an hour in length, scored for soprano, alto and mixed choir with one percussion (timpani, vibraphone), celesta and viola, is indeed very meditative. The singers’ ethereal vocalise can at times be mistaken for electronic textures and the instruments, especially the viola, enjoy long solo passages that are at least as important as the voices in this quiet masterpiece.

Like Cage’s Five, Bernstein’s Missa Brevis dates from 1988 and is a late work in the composer’s oeuvre. This mostly a cappella setting of the Catholic mass was written for an adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s play The Lark. Once again the voices are accompanied (intermittently) by percussion (timpani, tambourine and bells). Samuel Barber is represented by a relatively early work (1940) which is quite modern, at least in the context of this relatively conservative composer. Once again the choir is complemented by timpani – I found the preponderance of kettle drums on this choral disc to be quite striking (if you’ll excuse the pun) – and is otherwise unaccompanied. The text, lamenting the death of a soldier of the Spanish Civil War (and by extension war itself) is by Stephen Spender. I was unfamiliar with this setting and find it unlike those wonderful lyrical works by Barber with which we are normally presented. One might have expected to hear yet another rendition of Barber’s Agnus Dei (a vocal setting based on his famous Adagio) in this context, so I am particularly pleased to be presented with an atypical work rather than the expected.

For that, and a number of other reasons, this is a very strong disc, with committed performances of some rarely heard repertoire. It is interesting that it is a German choir presenting it. But that brings me to my one reservation about this release. I mentioned that this is a disc of mostly religious works, but I found the emphasis on four of the composers’ Jewish heritage in the liner notes a bit strange. Even creepy, considering that of the four, only Copland’s texts from the Old Testament can be considered Jewish. As mentioned, Reich’s is a secular philosophical quotation, Feldman’s wordless setting is meant for a non-denominational chapel and Bernstein’s is from the Catholic Church. So of what relevance is it that Copland was born “the son of Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn,” Reich “born to German-Jewish parents in New York City,” Feldman “the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn” or that Bernstein was “the son of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants in Massachusetts” – especially when all we are told of Cage is that his father was an inventor and that Barber was born in Pennsylvania? At first I imagined a possible anti-(or pro)-Semitic agenda, but after discussions with a number of colleagues I have decided that it is actually just a case of lazy scholarship. I have found that if you check the Wikipedia entries for all six composers, the biographical section commences with exactly the information offered here. So unless Wikipedia is part of a larger conspiracy, I think we can accept the seeming emphasis on Jewish heritage which marred my enjoyment of this otherwise excellent disc, to be inadvertent and an editorial misjudgment.

may editor scans 02 berio   ruoItalian composer Luciano Berio (1925-2003) is probably best known for his Sinfonia for orchestral forces and vocal octet with its texts by Samuel Beckett and Claude Lévi-Strauss and musical quotations from Mahler, Ravel, Stravinsky, Ives and others, and for his series of 14 Sequenzas for solo instruments. Toronto audiences had the rare opportunity to hear all 14 of these (and one of the six alternate versions as well) in January 2013 at the University of Toronto in a marathon performance organized by Joseph Petric and David Hetherington featuring some of this city’s finest musicians. The series spans Berio’s creative output from Sequenza I for flute composed in 1958 to Sequenza XIV for cello written a year before his death. About midway through, in 1976, Berio wrote his homage to the violin, an instrument of which he had “tortuous” memories as a result of his own studies as a teenager. This Sequenza VIII is based around the dissonance of the major second interval between the notes A and B and culminates in an extended ten-second long double-stopped A-B which in the words of violinist Carolin Widmann who wrote the program note for Universal Edition, which is quoted in the CD booklet, are “ten seconds of A-B which are an eternity.” Five years later Berio returned to the material of Sequenza VIII and expanded it into Corale for solo violin, two horns and strings. For this performance on the Oberlin Music label (Luciano Berio – Huang Ruo OC 14-01) violinist David Bowlin is joined by the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble under the direction of Timothy Weiss in a rare opportunity to hear the two versions back to back. It is quite an exhilarating experience.

American-based Huang Ruo, whose website defines him as composer, conductor, pianist and folk singer, was born in China in 1976, the year the Chinese Cultural Revolution ended and, incidentally, the year Berio composed his violin Sequenza. After winning the Henry Mancini Award at the International Film and Music Festival in Switzerland in 1995, Huang moved to the USA where he did his undergraduate studies at Oberlin Conservatory and then completed masters and doctoral degrees in composition at Juilliard. We are presented with two works here, again one for violin alone and one for solo violin and large ensemble, but in this instance the composition process was reverse to that of Berio in that the Four Fragments for solo violin were extrapolated from the existing Violin Concerto No.1 “Omnipresence.” Although we are told that Huang’s music takes equal inspiration from Chinese ancient and folk music, as well as Western avant-garde, rock and jazz, I find these particular pieces to be firmly grounded in the modernist Western Art Music tradition with only occasional melodic suggestions of his homeland in the solo lines. The result is extremely effective, with none of the downfalls often associated with “hybrid” art. Soloist David Bowlin is in fine form in all of the offerings and has obviously made this repertoire his own. My only qualm about this release is the three-paneled cardboard packaging, which is simply too tight to be able to remove the disc without gripping it with fingers on the playing surface of the CD.

may editor scans 03 shostakovich finleyI would have thought with the 40th anniversary of Shostakovich’s death just over the horizon (2015) that there would be no unearthed treasures left in his catalogue. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to receive Shostakovich – Six Romances; Scottish Ballad; Michelangelo Suite in what purported to be world premiere recordings featuring Canadian baritone Gerald Finley and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under Thomas Sanderling’s direction (Ondine ODE 1235-2). It turns out that in the case of the Six Romances on Verses by English Poets it is the version for large orchestra which had disappeared after the premiere in the 1940s that has not been recorded before. It also uses the original English texts for which Shostakovich had used Russian translations, so this is new on two counts (although conductor Sanderling had recorded the English version before using Shostakovich’s chamber orchestration). The composition dates from the same period as the Eighth Symphony and bears some resemblance to that mammoth work. To my ear it is also reminiscent of the oratorio The Song of the Forests which Shostakovich wrote in 1949. Annie Laurie, A Scottish Ballad is Shostakovich’s 1944 orchestration of an 1835 setting by Lady John Scott (Alicia Ann Spottiswoode) of William Douglas’ lament on unrequited love.

Shostakovich wrote the Suite on Poems by Michelangelo Buonarroti for bass and piano using Russian translations in 1974, the 500th anniversary of the birth of the great Renaissance artist. Orchestrating it the following year was one of his very last projects. The orchestral version was premiered several months after his death conducted by his son Maxim. This recording uses Michelangelo’s original Italian texts and there is an extended essay by Finley in the booklet which discusses the intricate process of Setting Michelangelo to Shostakovich. Finley was obviously very involved and dedicated to this project and his fine bass-baritone voice makes the music shine. All in all, these are welcome additions to the canon.

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website thewholenote.com where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels and additional, expanded and archival reviews.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

discoveries@thewholenote.com

Editor's Corner - April 2014

01 editor 01 brandenburg freiburgQuite a few years ago, frankly almost half a century if I care to do the math, I built my classical record collection by scouring the bargain bins on Yonge St. at Sam the Record Man and A&A Records. At the time it was possible to find some superb recordings for 99 cents to $1.99, including as I recall, my first exposure to Schubert lieder as sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Boulez conducting the Domaine Musical Ensemble in works of Gilbert Amy and Anton Webern, Honegger symphonies performed by Ansermet and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and the Bartok Quartets with the Fine Arts Quartet (well, that 3-LP set may have been $3.99) to name just a few highlights. What takes me back to those memories is a new recording of the Bach Brandenburg Concertos featuring the Freiburger Barockorchester (Harmonia Mundi HMC 902176.77). My first recording of these iconic works came from those same bargain bins and inadvertently introduced me to the world of period performance practice in, as far as I know, one of its earliest incarnations. Featuring the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis on two Heliodor LPs this was an ear-opening, if not quite life-changing, event for me. I’d never heard anything like it before and I was hooked, although it would be a good many years before I figured out what it was that made it so special. Of course period performance is almost de rigueur these days, thanks in large part to the influence of the Schola which Paul Sacher founded in Basel in 1933, but back in the 70s it was quite a new idea to most of the musical world. Since that time as I say, historically informed performances abound and Toronto’s own Tafelmusik has played a major role in establishing this as the norm. Their own 1995 Juno award-winning recording of the Brandenburgs, recently re-released on their own Tafelmusik Media label (TMK1004CD2), is itself a benchmark against which others are to be measured. I’m glad to have the luxury of not having to choose between an embarrassment of riches and am simply able to enjoy them all. I’m happy to have had an excuse to revisit my favourite recordings – including the thrilling modern-instrument performance featuring the CBC Vancouver Orchestra under Mario Bernardi with soloists including Robert Aitken – thanks to this new release from Freiburg, which incidentally is just across the border from Basel. I particularly enjoyed the crisp attacks and well-balanced recording throughout the two discs, the wonderful (and wondrously in tune!) natural horns in the First Concerto and of special note, the harpsichord cadenza by Sebastian Wienand in the Fifth. This is a welcome addition to my collection.

01 editor 02 morlock cobaltThe Canadian Music Centre’s Centrediscs label is busier than ever it seems, and this month has three new releases featured in these pages. The one I have chosen for myself, Cobalt (CMCCD 20014), is an eclectic offering featuring mostly large-scale music by the chameleon-like Jocelyn Morlock performed by five different orchestras. The exception is a dark and brooding piano trio written for Duo Concertante (Nancy Dahn, violin and Timothy Steeves, piano) with guest cellist Vernon Regehr, Asylum, a tribute to and meditation on Schumann’s life and music. The opening track, Music of the Romantic Era, written for and performed by the Windsor Symphony, is a pastiche whose inspiration was the concern that classical music is disappearing from our lives. It would be fun to hold a contest to see how many sources of the familiar and almost-familiar phrases found therein can be identified. The title track is a sort of concerto grosso for two violins and orchestra, a lyrical reflection on the luminous cobalt blue of the night sky, the properties of cobalt the element (poisonous, magnetic and radioactive), and kobold, the mischievous goblin that inspired its name. Jonathan Crow and Karl Stobbe are the soloists with the National Arts Centre Orchestra under Alain Trudel. Disquiet is a short homage to Shostakovich which explores “a sense of oppression and urgency, such that I imagine would have been the perpetual emotional state of Shostakovich and his contemporaries.” The haunting work is performed by the CBC Symphony Orchestra, again under Trudel’s direction. Bramwell Tovey leads the Vancouver Symphony in the nature-inspired Oiseaux bleus et sauvages, a nod to Messiaen with some moments reminiscent of John Adams.

Perhaps the most curious work on the disc is Golden, written in memory of Morlock’s teacher Nikolai Korndorf and performed by the Pacific Baroque Orchestra and oboist Philippe Magnan. The piece starts with quiet percussive sounds and disjointed whispered phrases and gradually grows into dirge-like, quasi-medieval textures in the strings and solo oboe. The final piece Solace also found it’s inspiration in early music, Josquin’s Missa L’homme armé. The orchestra, the strings of the Vancouver Symphony, is divided into subgroups: an “early music” ensemble playing music based on Josquin’s mass; a group of “ethereal” violins playing long harmonies over top the tutti; and a concertante violin and cello. It is the soloists that are most prominent and while the background is based in medieval music, the soaring melody of the violin, echoed effectively by the cello, is to my ear quite reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending in its quiet grandeur. All in all this is a wonderfully lyrical disc and a great reminder that we do have an important body of orchestral work in this country. Now, if we could just get our orchestras to play it more often… (I know I always say that, but that doesn’t make it any less true!)

01 editor 03 petits nouveauxAnother disc that took me back to the early days of building my record collection, specifically the discovery of Django Reinhardt, Stéphane Grappelli and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, is a delightful eponymous disc by Les Petits Nouveaux (lespetitsnouveaux.bandcamp.com). There’s not much information included with the self-produced CD but surfing the web I have gleaned that this gypsy jazz group was formed in 2009 when Swedish guitarist Mikko Hildén was studying the manouche stylings of Django Reinhardt under the tutelage of Drew Jurecka at Humber College. Les Petits Nouveaux is currently a trio with another original member, Montreal violinist Aline Homzy and, since 2011, Toronto guitarist Andy Mac. The disc is mix of gypsy jazz standards (including Reinhardt’s gently swinging Douce Ambiance on which the group is joined by mentor Jurecka on bass clarinet) and original compositions, one from each member: Hildén’s El Cafecito, Homzy’s Siva Macka and Mac’s particularly idiomatic Ville Belle. At just a half an hour in length this disc falls somewhere between EP and full-length offering (and is priced online accordingly at just $7), but it serves as a satisfying introduction to the group, and to the idiom if you’re not familiar with it. A very effective treatment of Gene de Paul’s classic I’ll Remember April brings this little gem to a close.

01 editor 04 song of grassesThe final disc that has been in rotation on my system this month is a meditative project which is based in the song of Chassidic niggunim and Sephardic Jewish traditions. Song of the Grasses features Siach HaSadeh, a clarinet and double bass duo (Yoni Kaston and Joel Kerr) complemented with violin (Daniel Fuchs), cello (Gaël Huard), harmonica (Jason Rosenblatt) and oud (Ishmail Fencioglu) as the repertoire requires. The quiet flowing clarinet over the subtle supportive bass lines is a constant delight throughout the 15 tracks, but for my ears it is the percussive melodies plucked on the oudand the extremely lyrical harmonica playing (it’s hard to imagine this as the same instrument known as the “blues harp” in Rosenblatt’s hands – the iconic Toots Thielemans comes to mind) that really makes this music special. In the program notes (only available on the website siachhasadeh.com), it states that “the songs […] were created as vehicles to reach the depths of spiritual space. Many of them have passed through fire and water to reach us, and are not known outside of the communities where they are still sung. While they are distinctly Jewish, they express something deeply universal, something that can only be expressed in wordless melody, and that could be obscured by text. Here, they become platforms for improvisation and musical conversations.” The spirituality is achieved without any New Age trappings and the resulting contemplative journey is one well worth undertaking. It has given me a much appreciated sense of calm and some quiet stimulation over that past few weeks.

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website thewholenote.com where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels, “buy buttons” for on-line shopping and additional, expanded and archival reviews.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com


Back to top