01 Tim BradyDuring the pandemic I have been spending some of my enforced stay-at-home time digitizing material from my archives, specifically composer interviews recorded during my tenure as producer and host of Transfigured Night on CKLN-FM (1984-1991). One of the earliest I have unearthed comes from January 1986, on a show previewing an event marking the 15th anniversary of the founding of New Music Concerts (NMC). On that occasion I devoted an hour to young composer and guitarist Tim Brady who discussed, among other things, the Chamber Concerto – commissioned by NMC – which would be premiered during that celebratory concert. That was Brady’s first of many appearances with NMC over the ensuing years, and my first encounter with one of this country’s most prolific and eclectic composers and musical entrepreneurs. His discography includes some 25 compact discs and the pandemic has not succeeded in slowing him down. Most recently he released a virtual edition of Instruments of Happiness 100 Guitars 2021 produced in isolation (youtube.com/watch?v=yODkTMXqFKg) and a three-CD set of mostly new material Tim Brady – Actions Speak Louder (redshiftrecords.org)

Act 1: Solos and a Quartet, is subtitled “Simple Loops in Complex Times,” which describes not only the process involved but also the temporal context in which the seven works were composed. Brady is a master when it comes to the technology available to extend the potential of the electric guitar. It’s hard to conceive of these works as solos with all the multi-layering and timbral complexity on display, but I realize that Brady can indeed perform these works by himself in real time using a plethora of looping devices and effects pedals. The final piece, Uncertain Impact (Quartet), was recorded one month into the COVID quarantine, with distanced, virtual performances featuring the members of his guitar quartet, Instruments of Happiness. On Act 2: v-Orchestra: Triple Concerto “Because Everything Has Changed”, Brady is joined by Helmut Lipsky on violin and Shawn Mativetsky, tabla and percussion. The three improvising soloists are known collectively as Of Sound, Mind and Body. Brady says the title of the concerto “refers not only to the nature of the social and political landscape of 2020, but also to how our relationship to music is continuing to be transformed by technology.” The virtual orchestra consists of sound files produced by Brady using NotePerformer 3.3.2 (an artificial intelligence instrument) to which the soloists reacted with improvised harmonies, melodies and rhythms recorded in their home studios. The result is a stunning reimagining of the orchestral experience in the context of current lockdown protocols. Act 3: Voices: Revolutionary Songs / As It Happened is comprised of an archival recording from 1995 of Brady’s setting of poems inspired by the Russian, Angolan, French and Nicaraguan revolutions featuring Bradyworks with soprano Nathalie Paulin; and an orchestrated radio documentary using a 2000 CBC interview with Linda MacDonald, who had been the subject of horrific drug and shock therapy experiments funded by the CIA at the Allen Institute in Montreal in the 1960s. The latter, Brady’s most ambitious studio production to date, is a powerful and devastating document that has to be heard to be believed. Actions Speak Louder may well be Brady’s own motto. It’s obvious that it will take more than a global pandemic to stifle his creativity.   

02 Juilliard QaurtetJuilliard String Quartet – Beethoven: Quartet Op.59 No.2Razumovsky”, Bartók: Quartet No.3, Dvořák: “American” String Quartet (Sony Classical juilliardstringquartet.org) marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the iconic group. The Juilliard made history in 1949 as the first quartet to publicly perform all six Bartók quartets, committing them to disc the following year. By the time of their second recording of the cycle in 1961, founding second violinist Robert Koff had been replaced by Isadore Cohen and cellist Arthur Winograd by Claus Adam. By the mid-70s, when I had the seminal experience of hearing them perform the cycle at the Guelph Festival, the only remaining original member was Robert Mann who would continue to sit in the first chair until 1997, when he retired after more than half a century at the helm. Over the years there have been nine different violinists, three violists and four cellists, but always with a substantial overlap of personnel whenever changes were made. Now the “old hand” is Ronald Copes who was enlisted as second violin in 1997 when Joel Smirnoff moved from second to first upon the departure of Mann. The other members are Roger Tapping, violist since 2013, Astrid Schween, cellist since 2016 and the new first violinist, Areta Zhulia, who joined in 2018. This is their first recording together, but there is no sense of that in the performances; they sound as if they have always been together, a testament to the group’s ongoing legacy. The introductory notes explain the choice of repertoire. Franz Kneisel, a young German hired as concertmaster of the Boston Symphony in 1885, would later became the first head of the violin department of the Institute of Musical Arts in NYC that would evolve into the Juilliard School. His Kneisel Quartet gave the premiere performance of Dvořák’s “American” string quartet in Boston in 1894. Bartók’s Third was the first of the cycle that the Juilliard learned shortly after their founding in 1946, and Beethoven has always been an integral part of their repertoire, including two complete recordings of his legendary 16 quartets. The performances are fresh and convincing, everything we’ve come to expect over the past three quarters of a century from this masterful ensemble. 

03 Beethoven CelloSpeaking of Beethoven, last issue I mentioned Heinrich Schiff and his out-of-print recording of the cello sonatas. I’m pleased to note that a very fine new recording arrived on my desk this month, Beethoven Cello Sonatas 3 and 4 performed by Amit Peled accompanied by Noreen Polera (CTM Classics amitpeled.com). The Israeli-born cellist is on the faculty of the Peabody Institute in Baltimore and has a dozen previous recordings as soloist and chamber musician to his credit. Peled’s Giovanni Grancino instrument (c.1695, on loan from the Roux Family Foundation) provides the perfect depth and range of sound for the lyrical and dramatic Sonata No.3 in A Major, Op.69, in perfect balance with Polera’s deft touch on a modern grand piano. Together they shine on the Sonata No.4 in C Major, Op.102 No.1, the two movements of which each begin in a contemplative slow tempo, much darker in mood than the sunny key signature might suggest. The clouds roll away, however, during the Allegro vivace finale of the second movement bringing this recital to a playful end. 

04 Thomas ChartreBeethoven’s late works form a bridge from the Classical era to the Romantic, and the next disc has some striking works for cello from this latter period. Romantic Cello on KNS Classical features works by Schumann, Brahms and Brahms’ only composition student, Gustav Uwe Jenner, performed by young Toronto-based cellist Thomas Chartré (thomaschartre.com) and Ukrainian-born pianist Serhiy Salov (serhiysalov.com). Among Chartré’s accolades is a first prize in the Canadian Music Competition, the Sylva Gelber Award, and the loan of the “Gand Père” cello from the Canada Council Instrument Bank in 2016. He currently plays a Giovanni Battista Ceruti cello (1815) on loan from Canimex which is perfectly suited to the repertoire on display here. Salov also has many achievements and awards, but surely a highlight of his young career was touring South America with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Kent Nagano, as soloist in Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto. I must confess that Jenner’s name was new to me, but what a wonderful expansion of my knowledge of the period. It was thanks to a recommendation from Brahms that Jenner was appointed music director at the University of Maltburg in 1895, a position he held until his death 25 years later. The Sonata in D Major was first performed by Jenner and cellist Hugo Becker in 1904, and although quite Brahmsian in its sensibility, it is infused, in Chartré’s words, “with Jenner’s distinctive artistic voice.” The three-movement work in the traditional fast-slow-fast form is lyrical and at times dramatic, if a bit anachronistic – nothing forward-looking here. Of particular note is the Andante con variazioni played with tasteful expression and restrained use of vibrato. Jenner’s piece is followed by Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro Op.70 composed in 1849. Although originally for French horn, a relatively new invention at the time, and taking advantage of the chromatic possibilities of that valved instrument, the composer also intended it for performance on violin, viola or cello. It works especially well in the warm, rich range of the cello in the hands of Chartré. Brahms’ Cello Sonata No.1 in E Minor, Op.38, completed in 1865, brings the disc to a suitably Romantic close. This is a promising maiden voyage from a young duo that I hope to hear more of.

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05 Rossini a QuatroRossini – 6 Sonate a Quattro (leaf-music.ca) features two musicians who need no introduction, violinist Mark Fewer and bassist Joel Quarrington, and two rising stars, violinist Yolanda Bruno and cellist Julian Schwarz. They were recorded in conjunction with residencies at the Lunenburg Academy of Music Performance in Nova Scotia in 2017. I had the pleasure of working with Bruno in May 2018 when her Iris Ensemble participated in New Music Concerts’ Zipangu!” as part of the 21C Festival. On that occasion she played both violin and viola. Coincidentally, she was the recipient of the loan of the Stradivari Taft violin (1700) from the Canada Council Instrument Bank the same year that Chartré had the “Gand Père” cello. Schwarz, scion of the famed American musical family, made his US touring debut in 2010 with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra and was the recipient of the first prize at the inaugural Schoenfeld International String Competition three years later. Rossini’s sonate a quattro are youthful works, disavowed by the composer as “dreadful sonatas composed […] at a most infantile age, not even having taken a lesson in accompaniment.” That being said, they are charming works that must be a lot of fun to play – it certainly sounds like these musicians are having a good time at any rate. Written at the estate of Rossini’s friend Agostino Triossi at the age of 12, the unusual instrumentation – two violins, cello and contrabass – reflect the resources available there: Triossi played the bass, his cousins violin and cello, and Rossini took second desk. Rossini’s scorn notwithstanding, these pieces have been in the repertoire ever since he wrote them. They were first published as traditional string quartets and later in an arrangement for wind quartet; it was not until 1954 that the original manuscript came to light. These performances use the 2014 Critical Edition published by the Fondazione Rossini Pesaro and as such I am willing to declare them definitive. Although there are few indications of the operatic writing to come from one of the giants of that form, these are delightful works played with a twinkle in the musicians’ eyes and a sparkle in their step. One more personal note: after reading Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music which mentioned a “lost” string quintet arrangement of one of Beethoven’s piano trios, I had the temerity to ask Fewer whether he would be willing to read through the piece with me and a group of my friends. He agreed and it remains one of the highlights of my amateur music making to have spent an afternoon working on this rarely performed piece with such a consummate musician. As I recall, he did not think very highly of the string writing adapted from the piano part, but was gracious about it all and the afternoon provided me a treasured memory.

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06 Mahani TeaveAlthough I’ve never been to the South Pacific, there is a connection for me with the next disc, Rapa Nui Odyssey (Rubicon RCD 1066 rubiconclassics.com). Last issue I mentioned Liszt’s transcription for piano trio of Vallée d’Obermann from one of his Années de pèlerinage. I was not familiar with the original and wondered how all that was going on between the piano, violin and cello could have been realized in a solo piano performance. My answer came in the form of this double CD featuring Mahani Teave performing that work by Liszt and other staples of the repertoire by Bach, Handel, Scriabin, Chopin and Rachmaninoff. Teave was born on Easter Island (Rapa Nui) to an American mother and a local singer/songwriter. Music was in her blood, so to speak, and when the opportunity came to study piano – there was none on the island until a visiting teacher brought one when Teave was a young girl – she took to it like wildfire. The teacher, a violinist by profession, did not have any simple piano music and Teave’s introduction to the instrument was Mozart’s Sonata in C Major – considered easy, but by no means a beginner’s piece – and Beethoven’s Für Elise. She practised incessantly and advanced to such a degree that just a few months after those lessons Roberto Bravo, a well-known pianist from Chile who visited the island and heard her play, suggested she move to the mainland to study. She spent nine years there, receiving a degree from the Austral University of Chile in Valdivia and eventually won first prize at the Claudio Arrau Piano Competition in 1999. Teave left Valdivia with the intent to study in Europe, but a stop off in the US for a masterclass turned into a six-year stint at the Cleveland Institute of Music as a pupil of Sergei Babayan. From there she was off to Berlin to build her performing career under the wing of Fabio Bidini. This is certainly the stuff on which major careers are built, but after a few years of successful concertizing in Europe Teave decided it was more important to return to her native island to give back to the land that fostered her interest and her talent in the first place. Since then she has established an arts and culture centre to serve all the children of Rapa Nui. Her crusade for musical culture could be favourably compared to Venezuela’s El Sistema in my opinion, but her vision goes beyond culture to encompass ecology and to making the island self-sufficient. There is a wonderful film by John Forsen, Song of Rapa Nui, available (exclusively unfortunately) on Amazon Prime Video that I highly recommend. It documents her life in music, but more importantly her vision for the future of Rapa Nui and its people. Fortunately, her work there has not compromised her own performance abilities and this wonderful 2CD set, recorded in Seattle in November 2018, is a fine testament to her art. 

We invite submissions. CDs, DVDs 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

01 Azuline DuoThere are two fascinating CDs from Canadian guitarist Emma Rush. On Fandango by the Azuline Duo she is joined by flutist Sara Traficante in a program of mostly contemporary works for flute and guitar (azulineduo.com). The title track is the duo’s own arrangement of a piece for solo Baroque guitar by Santiago de Murcia (1673-1739); the duo also arranged the two works by the Brazilian Chiquinha Gonzaga (1847-1935).

Traficante plays alto flute in Miroslav Tadić’s Macedonian Pieces and wooden flute and tin whistle in Five Celtic Pieces, Gerald Garcia’s striking arrangements of traditional Irish and Scottish melodies. Maximo Diego Pujol’s Nubes de Buenos Aires and Jeffrey McFadden’s Aguardiente complete a refreshingly different and quite beautiful CD.

02 Emma RushRush’s solo CD Wake the Sigh – 19th Century Music for Guitar (emma-rush.com) opens a window on a world we rarely encounter with a collection of works for both accomplished amateur guitarists and professional players, all written by women, five of whom were renowned soloists in their own right.

Featured are: Emilia Giuliani-Guglielmi (1813-1850); Angiolina Panormo Huerta (1811-1900); Catharina Pratten (1824-1895); Susan C. Domett (1826-1911); Julie Fondard (1819-1864?); Julia Piston (c.1800-1842); and Madame Delores de Goñi (1813-1892).

As with the Fandango CD, there’s clean, sensitive playing of an intriguing program. No information on when or where they were recorded, other than “in Hamilton Ontario, produced and engineered by Kirk Starkey,” who clearly did a terrific job.

03 Pascal ValoisNapoli 1810: Italian Romantic Music is the first album on the Analekta label for Canadian guitarist Pascal Valois, who performs music from the Romantic era on period instruments (AN 2 9195 analekta.com/en). The guitar here is a Cabasse-Bernard model c.1820 with a soft, warm sound – not big, but with a nice range of colour and tone.

Italian music, with its strong bel canto vocal influence, dominated the early-19th-century virtuoso guitar repertoire, and Valois uses period-appropriate elements of the style to highlight the lyrical nature of the music. Niccolò Paganini’s Grand Sonata, Mauro Giuliani’s Sonata Op.15 and Ferdinando Carulli’s Six Andantes Op.320, his Sonatina Op.59 No.1 and Sonata Op.159 No.1 – the latter two in world-premiere recordings – make an attractive and finely played recital.

04 Elgar Renaud CapuconRenaud Capuçon is the soloist on Elgar Violin Concerto & Violin Sonata with Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra, pianist Stephen Hough joining Capuçon in the sonata (Erato 9029511282 warnerclassics.com).

Capuçon admits that the concerto has always moved him deeply, and that recording the work with Rattle and the LSO – the orchestra that played in the 1910 premiere and was also conducted by Elgar in the famous 1932 Menuhin recording – was an inspiring experience, feelings that are clearly evident in a heartfelt performance.

The Violin Sonata in E Minor Op.82 from 1918 is a truly lovely work, with Capuçon and Hough proving to be sensitive partners in an outstanding reading.  

05 Trio Arnold BeethovenThe Trio Arnold is in outstanding form on its debut CD for the Mirare label, Beethoven String Trios Op.9 (MIR550 mirare.fr).

The three works – No.1 in G Major, No.2 in D Major and No.3 in C Minor – were written as Beethoven sought to establish himself as a chamber music composer, the risk of comparison with the string quartets of Haydn and Mozart leading him to choose the safer option of string trios. They clearly act as preparation for the string quartets, and indeed sound like quartets at times.

The release sheet cites “beauty of sound and a high degree of instrumental virtuosity” in the works, and that’s also exactly what the Trio Arnold displays in superb performances.

06 Liya PetrovaThere’s more Beethoven on another Mirare CD with Liya Petrova playing Beethoven & Mozart Violin Concertos in D with the Sinfonia Varsovia under Jean-Jacques Kantorow (MIR552 mirare.fr).

The Beethoven is a beautiful performance in all respects, but the bigger interest here, perhaps, is the Violin Concerto No.7 K271a/271i attributed to Mozart, the true provenance of which remains unknown and hotly debated. Breitkopf & Härtel published an edition in 1907, and a set of parts was prepared in 1837 in Paris, apparently from the now-lost autograph. It’s a substantial work with passages of pure Mozartean beauty and sections that sound less than convincing, especially the pizzicato cadenza in the slow movement.

Again, simply beautiful playing makes a strong case for a fascinating work.

07 Danish Prism IIIBeethoven was obsessed with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and used many melodic motifs from it in his late quartets. Prism III is the third volume in the ongoing series by the Danish String Quartet that aims to show how the radiance of Bach’s fugues is refracted through Beethoven’s quartets to illuminate the work of later composers. (ECM New Series ECM2563 ecmrecords.com/catalogue).

There’s a clear line here from Bach’s Fugue in C-Sharp Minor, with its four-note BACH motif, through Beethoven’s String Quartet No.14 in C-Sharp Minor Op.131, which starts with a fugue and a four-note motif, to Bartók’s String Quartet No.1, which also opens with a four-note motif and pays direct homage to the Beethoven.

Outstanding playing and interpretation result in a terrific CD. 

08 KarnaviciusEven if you’re aware of the Lithuanian composer Jurgis Karnavičius (1884-1941) you almost certainly haven’t heard his string quartets; Jurgis Karnavičius String Quartets Nos.1 & 2, the first two of his four quartets, are presented in world-premiere recordings by the Vilnius String Quartet (Ondine ODE1351-2 naxosdirect.com/search/ode+1351-2).

Karnavičius moved to St. Petersburg in 1903, writing his first quartet on graduating from the Conservatory in 1913. Drafted into the Russian army the following year, he wrote his second quartet in 1917 while a prisoner of war. They are works in the Russian classical tradition, tinged with Lithuanian folk elements and a hint of early-20th-century modernism.

The Lithuanian Vilnius Quartet, founded in 1965, gives wonderfully sympathetic performances, beautifully recorded with a full, resonant sound quality on a gorgeous CD.

09 Great Violins 4Peter Sheppard Skærved continues his fascinating exploration of outstanding violins with The Great Violins Vol.4: Girolamo Amati, 1629, performing the Six Partias for solo violin from 1715 by Johann Joseph Vilsmaÿr (1663-1722) (Athene ATH 23210 naxosdirect.com/search/ath23210).

The Partias, all consisting of eight, nine or ten very short movements, are described as “an extraordinary bridge” from the solo compositions of German composers like Biber to the later masterpieces of Bach and Telemann. They receive beautifully nuanced performances in a generous CD of almost 82 minutes.

As always, Sheppard Skærved’s booklet essay is remarkably erudite and informative, examining the use of scordatura and the emotional effects attached to specific key signatures in order to understand the physical and emotional structure of the music.

10 Nordic RhapsodyThe 20-year-old Swedish violinist Johan Dalene, winner of the 2019 Carl Nielsen Competition, is joined by Norwegian pianist Christian Ihle Hadland on Nordic Rhapsody, his second CD on the BIS label (BIS-2560 naxosdirect.com/search/bis-2560).

A dazzling Presto from Sinding’s Suite im alten Stil Op.10 sets the tone for a recital bursting with strong, brilliant tone and outstanding technique, with Hadland an excellent partner. Stenhammar’s Two Sentimental Romances Op.28, three of the Six Pieces Op.79 by Sibelius, Nielsen’s Romance in D Major, Rautavaara’s Notturno e Danza and Grieg’s Sonata No.1 in F Major Op.8 complete an impressive recital disc from a player from whom we will clearly be hearing a lot more in the future.

11 A French ConnectionOn A French Connection violinist Daniel Rowland and pianist Natacha Kudritskaya present what the violinist calls “two wonderful, luscious, gorgeously romantic pieces, one a perennial favourite, the other still all too rarely heard” (Champs Hill Records CHRCD157 champshillrecords.co.uk).

The latter is Chausson’s Concerto for Violin, Piano & String Quartet, the duo being joined by violinists Francesco Sica and Asia Jiménez Antón de Vez, violist Joel Waterman and cellist Maja Bogdanović in a passionate performance to open the disc.

World-premiere recordings of effective arrangements of three Debussy Preludes by Craig White precede the “perennial favourite”: the Franck A Major Sonata. It does indeed turn up regularly on CD, but is nevertheless always welcome, especially in warm, sensitive performances like this.

12 Duo ShuCellist Yi-wen Zhang and pianist Nanyi Qiang have been collaborating since 2002 and founded the DUO SHU in 2019. Their self-titled debut CD on the Blue Griffin label features two songs by Fauré, Schumann’s Five Pieces in Folk Style Op.102, Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise Op.34 No.14, Dvořák’s Four Romantic Pieces Op.75 and Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances, together with Longing for SHU by Weijie Gao (BGR581 bluegriffin.com).

It’s a very pleasant disc with some passionate playing, particularly in the Dvořák, with a singing cello tone and crystal-clear piano playing, although the double-stopping passages in the cello sound a bit laboured in places.

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13 Wieder AthertonChances are you’ve never heard Boccherini cello concertos sound the way they do on Cadenza, the new CD from cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton that features the concertos No.3 in D Major G476, No.4 in C Major G477 and No.6 in D Major G479 in small combo arrangements by Wieder-Atherton and cimbalom player Françoise Rivalland. The other players are Amaryllis Billet (violin), Rémi Magnan (double bass) and Robin Billet (bassoon) (ALPHA667 naxosdirect.com/search/alpha667).

Wieder-Atherton says that incorporating the cimbalom results in our “hearing the dances, the infinite colours and the bursts of rhythmic music,” but it does seem an odd way to present Boccherini, especially when you add the lengthy cadenzas from various contributors with – at times – cimbalom, drones and finger cymbals, and musical material from Handel and Stravinsky. 

14 Nights TransfiguredGuitarist Aaron Larget-Caplan follows up his 2010 CD New Lullaby – 14 Enchanting Ways to Fall Asleep with Nights Transfigured – Vol.2 of the New Lullaby Project, a second collection of short pieces by 14 different composers written for Larget-Caplan between 2009 and 2020 (Stone Records 5060192781106 stonerecords.co.uk).

Don’t be misled by the title. Although there’s obviously a general sense of calm throughout the CD, this isn’t a disc of music for children but a fascinating collection of exquisite contemporary miniatures for classical guitar that explore a wide range of musical languages and often employ extended guitar technique, all of it beautifully played and recorded.

15 Kontogiorgos KaleidoscopeGreek guitarist Pavlos Kanellakis is the soloist on Kaleidoscope, a recital of world-premiere recordings of works by George Kontogiorgos (Naxos 8.579084 naxosdirect.com/search/8579084). The music is essentially tonal and very accessible.

The five-movement Sea Vespers from 2015 takes melodies from the composer’s songs from the 1960s and 1970s. Kanellakis is joined by cellist Vangjel Nina in the four-movement Cansonata from 2014. Elegy was written in 1980 and revised for Kanellakis in 2006 when Kontogiorgos was writing the commissioned guitar suite that gives the CD its title, the four-movement Kaleidoscope consisting of multi-coloured fragments that shift and dance as if viewed through a kaleidoscope.

The darker Emotions from 2018 completes a recital of performances that can be considered definitive, Kanellakis having worked closely with the composer.

16 Violeta VicciMirror Images, the latest album from violinist, violist and vocalist Violeta Vicci, features world-premiere recordings of solo works by Ragnar Söderlind, Imogen Holst and Jean-Louis Florentz, plus related works by Bach and Ysaÿe and six interspersed improvisations (two of them vocal) by Vicci (Gramola GRAM98010 naxosdirect.com/search/gram98010).

Bach’s Partita No.3 in E Major (with hardly any repeats, lasting just 14 minutes for all seven movements) and Ysaÿe’s Sonata in A Minor are given competent if somewhat mundane performances; the Söderlind is the brief Elegia II and the Florentz an equally-brief Vocalise. By far the most interesting work, though, is the 1930 Holst Suite for Solo Viola, which also draws the best playing from Vicci.

01 Eccles SemeleJohn Eccles – Semele
Academy of Ancient Music; Cambridge Handel Opera
AAM Records AAM012 (aam.co.uk)

What looks like Handel, sounds like Purcell and is a world premiere recording? If you guessed the answer to be the latest release from the Academy of Ancient Music, you win! Any mention of the words “opera” and “Semele” together immediately turns minds to Handel’s frequently performed 1744 masterwork, but there is another older, lesser-known Semele living in the operatic world, written in 1707 by the English composer John Eccles.

Eccles’ Semele provides fascinating insight into how opera in England might have developed after Henry Purcell’s death had Handel not moved to London in 1712, for this Semele’s musical vocabulary is indeed a slightly more advanced and refined adaptation of Purcell’s own lexicon; if one were to select a pinnacle of the English Baroque, they would be hard-pressed to find a more representative example than this. Despite his indebtedness to Purcell, Eccles achieves even greater depths of expression and extremes of emotion than his predecessor, utilizing similar forms and expanding their structure, so that Semele ends up being more than double the length of Dido and Aeneas, for example, but without once feeling overspun.

What is most remarkable about Semele is the way in which music and text receive equal attention. The delivery of William Congreve’s libretto and forward motion of the drama is never interrupted, suspended or usurped by over-composition. Director Julian Perkins and the Academy of Ancient Music in turn keep the opera moving forward, selecting tempi that lend the necessary affect to these dance-based arias and overtures while keeping the text constantly intelligible.

With world premiere recordings being issued with ever-greater frequency, it can be challenging to find those works that contribute something worthwhile to the canon, much less provide an eye-opening exploration of something revelatory, but Semele does just that. The saying “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” is correct more often than not, but in this case, we are grateful that those behind this recording could, and did.

02 Lhomme armeL’homme armé – La Cour de Bourgogne et la musique
Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal; Andrew McAnerney
ATMA ACD2 2807 (atmaclassique.com/en)

The Court of Burgundy’s powers extended well beyond the borders of the modern French region. Its musical brilliance obviously affected the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal: with eight composers on one CD, it is difficult to think of a major Burgundian composer not included here.

At the heart of the CD is the Missa L’homme armé, itself set 40 times from roughly 1460 to 1560. Track one is the Anonymous/Morton interpretation, featuring not only the original words to L’homme armé but also a contemporary twist willing on a crushing defeat (in three passionate and imploring voices) for those fearsome Ottoman Turks on their way to destroy Christendom.

Not everything, though, is so belligerent. Listen to the ethereal Kyrie Eleison from Antoine Busnois’ own Missa L’homme armé, uplifted by the sackbut playing of the Studio. Then be inspired by the delicate performance of Gilles Binchois’ Motet Asperges me. It may have been Binchois who taught and inspired Johannes Ockeghem, who in turn did teach Josquin des PrésThis comes out in this CD: in addition to the pieces by Binchois, the Studio performs Ockeghem’s Sanctus, a full-blooded performance combining sometimes stark singing with the Studio’s sackbuts.

As for Josquin, he is remembered by two compositions. First, Agnus Dei is performed admirably, notably in its soprano part. Then there are the five parts of Ave verum corpus. Josquin relished the more complex structure: the Studio rises to the challenge with its appropriately celestial singing. 

Josquin was a contemporary of the revolution in music printing. His sheer musical genius and the printing press ensured his influence on composers for at least a century.

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03 and the sun darkenedAnd the sun darkened
New York Polyphony
Bis BIS-2277 (bis.se)

For as long as music has been written down, the Catholic Church has played an essential role in the development of the art form. Whether directly, as in early monodic plainchant and Palestrina’s polyphony, or tangentially, for example in post-Reformation works by Tallis in England and Bach in Germany, the influence of the Catholic Church has provided inspiration to composers for centuries.

New York Polyphony’s And the sun darkened surveys a range of Catholic-centric works, ranging from the 15th century to the 20th. With such an enormous body of material to work with and choose from, this release focuses its attention on music for Passiontide, the last two weeks of the Lenten season, using this specific and narrow segment of the liturgical year as its theme.

The focal point of this disc is the world premiere recording of Loyset Compère’s Officium de Cruce, a multi-movement motet cycle based upon a set of devotional texts focused on the Cross. A contemporary of Josquin who followed a similar career path, Compère was a Franco-Flemish composer who worked in Italy for the Duke of Milan (where Josquin would arrive a decade later). Officium de Cruce is expressive in its simplicity, exploring the text’s facets through spacious and effective settings, and New York Polyphony’s poised performance is a fine introduction to Compère and his works.

In addition to music by Compère’s contemporaries Josquin, Willaert and de la Rue, And the sun darkened contains two striking works by much more recent composers. Cyrillus Kreek’s Psalm 22 (1914) is a striking and evocative setting by one of Estonia’s greatest musical figures, while Andrew Smith’s Psalm 55, written in 2011, synthesizes old and new harmonic languages to produce a remarkably organic blending of medieval, Renaissance and modernist lexicons.

Far more than just a seasonal listen, And the sun darkened is a worthwhile exploration of fascinating composers and musical works expertly and sensitively performed by New York Polyphony, well worth listening to regardless of the time of year.

04 La DoriPietro Antonio Cesti – La Dori
Ascioti; Enticknap; Mazzulli; Baráth; Accademia Bizantina; Ottavio Dantone
Naxos 2.110676 (naxosdirect.com/search/2110676)

Making peace, the Nicaean and Persian kings pledge the marriage of their infants, Dori and Oronte. In Egypt, Ardete’s wife accidentally kills the king’s baby daughter, also named Dori. Ardete ransoms Nicaean Dori from her pirate kidnappers, bringing her to Egypt where the king, unaware of his daughter’s death, believes this Dori to be his. Years pass. Oronte, now betrothed to Dori’s sister Arsinoe, visits Egypt. Inevitably, he and Dori fall in love. Fleeing Egypt to follow him, Dori is captured and, disguised as a man, becomes Arsinoe’s slave “Ali,” while Egyptian prince Tolomeo, in love with Arsinoe, disguises himself as Arsinoe’s female slave “Celinda.” All this happens before the curtain rises! The ensuing comedy-drama of concealed identities is no less convoluted until all ends joyfully.

La Dori was a 17th-century hit, with over 30 productions throughout Italy. This 2019 production in Innsbruck, site of its premiere in 1657, is as unrealistic as the libretto, with timelessly indeterminate sets and costumes, stage director Stefano Vizioli contributing innumerable comedic touches. 

Cesti’s richly melodic, often beautiful score mixes frivolity with pathos, vigorously performed by Accademia Bizantina conducted by Ottavio Dantone. Mezzo-soprano Francesca Ascioti (Dori), countertenor Rupert Enticknap (Oronte) and sopranos Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli (Arsinoe) and Emőke Baráth (Tolomeo) head the excellent cast of eight soloists.

With its fine music and singing, La Dori is a pleasure to listen to and its silly goings-on make it great fun to watch as well.

05 Gounod FaustGounod – Faust
Michael Fabiano; Erwin Schrott; Irina Lungu; Royal Opera House; Dan Ettinger
Opus Arte OA1330D (naxosdirect.com/search/oa1330D)

The Faust legend and the idea of man bargaining with the devil has always fascinated artists, writers and composers. Goethe’s metaphysical play inspired Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner and Busoni towards various musical forms, but Gounod’s opera became so beloved and successful that for 150 years it never left the stage in France and even in England where it became Queen Victoria’s favourite opera. So it’s no surprise the ROH would create a lavish, over-the-top and “theatrically exuberant” new production in the hands of their star director, David McVicar. The original German medieval tale is catapulted into the French Second Empire, in fact into Gounod’s lifetime with opulent sets and costumes. A real extravaganza. 

The adaptation had some interesting, albeit questionable, features such as the beautiful village waltz in the second act turned into a wild, frantic cabaret can-can and the famous ballet later in the fourth act seen as a horrifying, infernal nightmare that I am sure Gounod never intended. Musically however we are amply compensated with a superb cast, chorus and orchestra. With brisk tempi, young and energetic conductor Dan Ettinger is thoroughly engaged with full control of the score. 

American tenor Michael Fabiano (whose debut disc I reviewed here in November 2019) as Faust has some difficulties acting as a decrepit old man, but quickly becomes a dashing young lover with a voice to match. Particularly his third act Cavatina, Salut, demeure chaste et pure is wonderfully sung with the concluding high C almost ethereal. With Russian soprano Irina Lungu (Marguerite) they make a wonderful couple and their love duet is sheer delight. Mephisto, the devil, a rather youngish Uruguayan powerful bass-baritone, Erwin Schrott, is very friendly and debonair in the first half of the opera, but gradually turns dark and menacing as the action descends into a terrible tragedy. Interesting and thought-provoking, this new production is a visual delight.

06 Heggie Atwood SongsJake Heggie; Margaret Atwood – Songs for Murdered Sisters
Joshua Hopkins; Jake Heggie
PentaTone PTC 5186270 (songsformurderedsisters.com)

In collaboration with Margaret Atwood and Jake Heggie, Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins delivers both a call to action and a powerful homage to his sister Nathalie Warmerdam, a victim of domestic violence. 

With a concept inspired by Schubert’s Winterreise, Songs for Murdered Sisters follows Hopkins on his journey of seven short songs: Empty Chair, Anger, Dream, Bird Soul, Lost, Rage and Coda: Song. Hopkins is beyond moving in his vulnerability and willingness to address the complicated and disorderly feelings of grief, the grieving process, and the loss of a loved one under tragic and violent circumstances. Atwood’s experience in writing opera libretti comes through with evocative and heartrending singable texts: Who was my sister is now an empty chairYou opened the door… I was too late… so many sisters lost. Heggie’s seasoned writing skills are also on display throughout, especially in the setting of texts, the skillful use of Hopkins’ vocal register and colours, the compelling dynamic choices, and, most powerful, the deafening silences. 

With this 27-minute song cycle, Atwood, Heggie and Hopkins use their collective voices to raise awareness about violence against women from an intimate or former partner. In the film version of Songs for Murdered Sisters, Warmerdam’s Empty Chair eventually turns into hundreds more chairs, a powerful statement representing the countless women lost to gender-based violence. Hopkins invites the listener to take the white-ribbon pledge to end violence against women and girls (whiteribbonsisters.com).

Co-commissioned by Houston Grand Opera and Canada’s National Arts Centre, Songs for Murdered Sisters is offered in digital format. The NAC plans to premiere an orchestral version when concert halls reopen.

07 Peter EotvosPéter Eötvös – Senza Sangue
Viktória Vizin; Jordan Shanahan; Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra; Péter Eötvös
BMC Records BMC CD 278 (bmcrecords.hu)

Senior postmodern Hungarian composer-conductor Péter Eötvös (b.1944) is among today’s most active opera composers. His 12th stage work, Senza Sangue (2015), is an opera in one act with libretto by Mari Mezei after a novel by Alessandro Baricco. 

Eötvös’ first large-scale compositions were for film and his feel for drama and pregnant atmosphere is amply reflected in the premiere live 2018 recording of Senza Sangue starring mezzo Viktória Vizin and baritone Jordan Shanahan. The composer conducts the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra in his colourful score for an orchestra and cast very similar to the one in Béla Bartók’s weighty and difficult to program single-act opera, Bluebeard’s Castle. It’s no coincidence; according to Eötvös, he expressly composed Senza Sangue as a concert companion to Bluebeard

The resemblances extend to their librettos. As in the Bartók opus, love, sex and death go hand in hand in the Eötvös opera, except that multiple deaths precede the narrative unfolding in Eötvös’ 45-minute work. Entwined themes of war-fuelled cruelty, violence, compassion, trauma and above all revenge, transform into a kind of parable of reconciliation as the last mysterious low chord dies out. 

As for the musical language, it is expressionistic, with splashes of bold emotion, though Eötvös insists that “there are no avant-garde endeavours whatsoever [in it]. I’d like my work to be performable in 50 years too.” Judging from the performance on this album chances are very good that it will.

Eötvös’ subsequent opera, Sleepless, composed in 2020, is scheduled to premiere in Berlin later this year, with additional performances slated for Geneva in 2022.

08 Chaya CzernowinChaya Czernowin – Heart Chamber
Patrizia Ciofi; Noa Frenkel; Dietrich Henschel; Terry Wey; Ensemble Nikel; SWR Experimentalstudio; Deutsche Oper Berlin; Johannes Kalitzke
Naxos 2.110673 (naxosdirect.com/search/2110673)

A woman drops a jar of honey on a busy stairway. A stranger picks it up and gives it to her. Their hands touch. From that chance encounter results the complicated love affair that the much-performed Israeli-American composer Chaya Czernowin explores in her brilliant new opera, Heart Chamber.  

With tangible immediacy, she tightly interweaves her music with her own libretto. It feels organic, pertinent and real – like life itself. Past traumas and present dreams drive the two unnamed characters to ask each other tough questions like “Will you open up my life?” and “Will you always stay?” Layers of gorgeous sonic textures suggest the possibility of happiness for them. But there’s a lot of pain as well, reflected in angular, primal episodes. 

I can’t imagine these characters portrayed with more conviction and poignancy – and technical dazzle – than by soprano Patrizia Ciofi and baritone Dietrich Henschel. Ciofi wears her apprehensions with playfulness and, in spite of her unfortunate costuming, allure. Henschel shows how charismatic vulnerability can be. 

As the woman’s internal voice, contralto Noa Frenkel eloquently exposes her most intimate subconscious feelings. The man’s internal voice, powerfully sung by countertenor Terry Wey, is as candid as his female counterpart. But he’s less demanding, so causes less trouble for his character.  

This is the third opera by Czernowin that Claus Guth has directed. Like his production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro seen at the Canadian Opera Company in 2016, it’s set on a stairway. But here, unlike the controversial Mozart production, the relationship between Guth’s concept and the work itself is seamless. 

Conductor Johannes Kalitzke deftly commands the large assemblage of remarkable musicians, with the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and Czernowin’s frequent collaborators, the new music group Ensemble Nikel, enhanced by vibrant electronics from SWR Experimentalstudio.

09 Songs by Black ComposersDreams of a New Day – Songs by Black Composers
Will Liverman; Paul Sánchez
Cedille CDR 90000 200 (cedillerecords.org)

Dreams of a New Day – Songs by Black Composers is an album that features art songs by eight composers. From Henry Burleigh (1866-1949) to Shawn E. Okpebholo (b.1981), the album showcases several generations of composers and a repertoire that offers an honest, and, at times, devastating, account of life for African Americans in the United States. Composers set music to texts of raw poetry by American poets and artists such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes and Adela Florence Nicolson. 

Paul Sánchez captures our attention with a breadth of pianistic sonorities and timbres while baritone Will Liverman’s skilled and beautiful singing elicits all of the nuances of challenging topics that include the Middle Passage, Civil Rights, past and present injustices, and Black pride. Most poignant are Okpebholo’s Two Black Churches songs (Ballad of Birmingham and The Rain, commissioned for the album) and Birmingham Sunday (Richard Fariña 1937-1966). Whereas the first pair combines several tragic events and deals with race-based violence, the last song reminds us that while dreaming of a new day, the road to equality for all is still ahead of us. 

The booklets included with the album provide both context and the rich history behind the repertoire with a 15-page song booklet and a 20-page extensive program note booklet written by Dr. Louise Toppin, a specialist of African American composers’ concert repertoire.

10 Scott OrdwayScott Ordway – Girl in the Snow
Julia Dawson; Anna Naretto
Acis APL85820 (acisproductions.com)

Composed by Scott Ordway, Girl in the Snow is a song cycle featuring Canadian mezzo-soprano Julia Dawson and Italian pianist Anna Naretto. Inspired by Saint Augustine’s Confessions, a deeply personal and philosophical narrative, Ordway creates allusive metaphors to describe both the imaginary landscapes of the mind and the places where we store memory. The girl in the snow is initially portrayed as a young girl wandering a snow-covered dreamland and remembering parts of her relationship with nature. The eight songs of the cycle total approximately 37 minutes of music and as the cycle progresses we understand the girl to be a woman reminiscing about her life, the events that have shaped her since, the love she experienced, ultimately, coming back to the present and “awakening” to the end of her life. 

Dawson and Naretto act as narrators and bring the audience on an intimate, philosophical journey. Their connected interpretations give life and meaning to poetry that needs a touch of decoding but music that is rich in sounds and colours. Naretto’s playing is nuanced and deliberate while Dawson’s tone quality and colour, distinctively mezzo-soprano, are written in a range more closely aligned with a higher soprano. This, along with the solemn and ethereal nature of the work, especially in the Memory Play sections, leaves the listener feeling unsettled, perhaps intentionally, about the sometimes intangibleness of remembrance.

Boundless
Sirens
Leaf Music (leaf-music.ca)

The ethereal polyphony of the Sirens Choir is absolutely bewitching on Boundless. You would be forgiven for falling prey to the charms of the women of this Prince Edward Island-based choir as they wax eloquent with their celestial 11-voice harmonies on this disc. So perfect is this programming that it is surprising to note that this debut didn’t happen much earlier. 

This is a quietly potent recording. Its feminism is whispered rather than broadcast, with all the singers conveying a sense of strength, joy and spontaneity. Ensemble director Kelsea McLean guides, with a firm hand, the often delicate musicality of the group. Together with the rest of Sirens, she is able to inspire a performance where balanced rhythm, soaring harmonies and subtle dynamics are both flexible and dramatic. The overall sound is highly translucent, made more memorable in the meditative atmosphere of St. Bonaventure’s Church, where the recording took place.

The music of Selene’s Boat and of Boundless is utterly captivating. Turlutte acadienne montréalaise may be the disc’s apogee. By the time you get here, however, you may wish that you had a booklet of lyrics with which to follow the vocalists; it’s a small price to pay for listening to this outstanding music. Odysseus may have resisted the mesmerism of the Sirens of the Aegean Sea, but you will not be able to resist the charms of these Canadian singers.

Listen to 'Boundless' Now in the Listening Room

12a Crossing Tower GardenThe Tower and the Garden
The Crossing; Donald Nally
Navona Records NV6303 (crossingchoir.org)

Gavin Bryars – A Native Hill
The Crossing; Donald Nally
Navona Records NV6347 (crossingchoir.org)

American professional chamber choir The Crossing, conducted by Donald Nally, is a multi-Grammy-winning ensemble dedicated to new music, collaboration and modern day social, spiritual, environmental and cultural issues. In these two recordings, they perform recent works with in-depth understanding of the music and issues the composers explore. 

The Crossing commissioned three composers on The Tower and the Garden. Estonian Toivo Tulev set Walt Whitman’s words in the slow new music-flavoured, haunting A child said, what is the grass? (2015). Almost shrill attention-grabbing opening vocals lead to contrasting high female and low men’s interval patterns and drones in fluctuating tonal/atonal segments to the final hopeful long note. The Tower and the Garden (2018) for choir and string quartet by Gregory Spears, is a more tonal four-movement setting of poems by Keith Garebian, Denise Levertov and Thomas Merton exploring religion, technology and conservation. Highlight is the tonal third movement Dungeness Documentary. Set to Garebian’s text which pays homage to the late filmmaker Derek Jarman’s final days, its slower, slight dissonant strings opening, and subsequent emotional tight choral vocalizations with strings, is breathtaking listening. Composer Joel Puckett’s I enter the earth (2015) sets words, spoken by shaman Kxao =Oah of northwestern Botswana in 1971, in a meditative work connecting body and soul with vocal swells, wide-pitched lead lines and static reflective held notes.  

12b Crossing A Native HillA Native Hill (first complete performance 2019) is a 12-movement work for 24-member a cappella choir with minimal keyboard parts, composed by Gavin Bryars as a gift to The Crossing. A follow-up to his Grammy Award-winning work composed for them, it is based on the 1968 essay of the same name by American author and activist/environmentalist Wendell Berry about his rural life existence. 

Bryars’ understanding of The Crossing’s talents makes this over-one-hour monumental composition amazing in content, musicality and choral sounds. Mostly tonal, each movement has a nature-based name. Highlights include Sea Level where the wave motion can be heard in longer, full harmonic notes and dynamic swells. More water music in The Music of Streams with slower occasional sudden swells and subtle atonalities. The shorter The Hill has answering between vocal groups and a suspenseful drone. Clever use of choral whistles and hums in Animals and Birds. At Peace is a dramatic change in sonic pace with the opening featuring each choir member singing their own note to create a 24-voice cluster followed by touches of romanticism, atonalities and tonal harmonies building dramatically to close the work.    

Conductor Donald Nally is brilliant leading The Crossing from musical subtleties to complexities. The Crossing’s performances illuminate their expansive musical artistry. Production is clear and detailed. Both these discs are highly recommended!

01 Daniel ZapicoAu Monde
Daniel Zapico
Alborada editions ALB001 (alborada-editions.com)

Daniel Zapico explains that, as soon as he picked it up, the theorbo was to be his instrument. Such is his dedication to it that he takes manuscripts of compositions for inter alia harpsichord, viola da gamba and guitar and transcribes them for theorbo.

Taking inspiration from the Vaudry de Saizenay manuscript of 1699, Zapico performs pieces from six composers in Au Monde. From the start, the theorbo demonstrates capabilities in excess of its younger sister the lute, in the shape of a more resonant, mellow and deeper tone, the instrument being perfectly suited to Zapico’s interpretations. Robert de Visée’s Prélude brings out this very deep and resounding sonority.   

Then there are the longer and more demanding compositions. Zapico selects Couperin’s Les Bergeries and de Visée’s Pastoralle to demonstrate his forceful technique. Contrast these with the sensitivity of Monsieur du Buisson’s Plainte sur la mort de Monsieur Lambert (one of the other composers featured on this CD). This piece is complex and makes real demands on Zapico’s technique.   

Of course, there is always the Bourée by de Visée for a lighter enjoyment of this CD, which is sufficiently varied to show Zapico’s mastery of an instrument overshadowed by the lute in popularity and ultimately by the harpsichord. Zapico’s love for the theorbo is brought home by the highly complex tablature he works from – printed in copper-coloured ink to grace even further this very sumptuously presented CD.

02 Telemann PolonaiseTelemann – Polonoise
Holland Baroque; Aisslinn Nosky
PentaTone PTC5186878 (naxosdirect.com/search/827949087868)

One walks a fine balance when performing early music. Often, musicians and audiences who perform, record and appreciate early music are, and I say this kindly, authenticity fetishists who value the period veracity of everything from the repertoire, tempo and interpretation of the music to, in some cases, the lineage and pedigree of the instruments played, to the ensemble dress. Holland Baroque, led by Judith and Tineke Steenbrink (who supply new arrangements of Georg Philipp Telemann’s familiar music for the recording here), manages to thread the difficult needle of adhering to the purity and concretized tradition of Germanic Baroque performance while imbuing a flair for innovation that places this musical style in a contemporary setting that includes elements of improvisation and innovative collaboration. It is little wonder then that the ensemble has won fans worldwide. 

Here, on their second strong release for PentaTone Records, the group is sure to earn even more accolades and listeners. Joined by Canadian early music violinist Aisslinn Nosky, the group explores Telemann’s Danses d’Polonié (TWV 45), which the composer wrote during his Polish travels, and which had a lasting impact upon his compositional style and artistic output. Cinematic and rich in its thematic mining of the imagery, landscape and nature of Poland and its surroundings, this recording is a winner. Sure to delight connoisseurs of early music while making fans out of other listeners too.

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