Most of my listening this month has related in one way or another to my “other hat” as general manager at New Music Concerts. In the early days of January we presented one of our most successful concerts in some years, with standing room only at the Music Gallery. “Conducting the Ether,” a concert originally mounted during the Open Ears Festival last summer in Kitchener, featured German theremin virtuoso Carolina Eyck and the Penderecki String Quartet, with the participation of pianist Gregory Oh, oboist James Mason and composer D. Andrew Stewart.

Patented in 1928 by electrical pioneer Léon Theremin, the theremin is an early electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact by the performer, who literally “conducts the air.” The concert included one of the first ensemble pieces to incorporate the theremin, Bohuslav Martinů’s Fantasia (1944) with oboe, string quartet and piano, works by Omar Daniel for theremin, string quartet and electronic organ, D. Andrew Stewart for string quartet and Karlax (a contemporary digital musical instrument), a transcription of Ravel’s Kaddish for theremin and piano and Eyck’s own recent Fantasias, structured movements for string quartet overlaid with theremin improvisations by the composer.

01 Carolina EyckIt is a recording of these Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet featuring Carolina Eyck and members of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (Butterscotch Records BSR015) that has been in constant rotation on my sound system in recent weeks. While the eerie electronic sound of the theremin can be deceptively close to that of the human voice and is often used that way by composers writing for the instrument, the freshness of Eyck’s pieces for me is the breadth of range presented here. Of the six pieces, two use what I would call the traditional sound of the theremin – familiar from horror movie soundtracks and the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations – but the other four exploit other aspects of the instrument, from chirps and swooshes to rumbles and groans, bell sounds to joyous explosions of mirth. Meanwhile the quartet accompaniment varies from minimalist ostinati to Bartók-like night music, drones to rollicking clouds of harmony and in one instance sounds like a Renaissance consort of viols. For anyone unfamiliar with the theremin, or labouring under the misapprehension that it is a “one-trick pony,” these Fantasias will provide an exhilarating introduction to its true versatility.

Founded in the 1980s in Poland as the New Szymanowski Quartet, the Penderecki String Quartet earned its new name when it won a special prize at a 1986 competition in Lodz for its performance of Quartet No.2 by Krzysztof Penderecki and the composer invited the quartet to take his name. They later went to the USA and were affiliated with the University of Wisconsin before establishing a permanent residency at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo in 1991. There have been numerous personnel changes over the years, with violinist Jerzy Kaplanek the only Polish member remaining. Violist Christine Vlajk has been with them for two decades and Jeremy Bell has been sharing first chair duties with Kaplanek since 1999. Only American cellist Katie Schlaikjer, who joined in 2013, is a relative newcomer. In addition to teaching positions at WLU, the PSQ enjoys an active international career and has recorded more the 25 compact discs with repertoire ranging from Beethoven through Bartók – the first Canadian recording of the Bartók cycle – to commissions from many composers of the present day.

02 PSQTheir most recent release – De Profundis (Marquis Classics MAR 81473) – features two works by Polish-born Norbert Palej who now teaches at the University of Toronto, and their namesake Krzysztof Penderecki’s String Quartet No.3 “Leaves of an Unwritten Diary” (2008). The PSQ worked closely with the composer at Symphony Space in New York City on the occasion of Penderecki’s 80th birthday in 2013. In his liner notes Bell says they became aware on this encounter “that Penderecki’s ‘unwritten diary’ is key to understanding this quartet. While there seems to be an outpouring of autobiographical references in this work, it was clear upon meeting the composer that this diary is to remain private. This is a highly evocative and nostalgic quartet that Penderecki wishes to be his gift to music, to listeners, and to performers – a work of abstract art that we can approach with our own humanity and emotion.”

As mentioned, Palej, who is the coordinator of the U of T New Music Festival which runs January 29 through February 5 at the Faculty of Music, is represented by two pieces, both world premiere recordings. String Quartet No.1 “De Profundis” dates from 2011, a time when Palej was reading Oscar Wilde’s book of that name. Two years later he returned to the medium, this time adding soprano vocalise (Leslie Fagan) in the penultimate movement. String Quartet No.2 “Four Quartets” takes its context from T.S. Eliot. Although both these works have literary inspirations, or at least connotations, Palej says “I can’t explain exactly where the influence is revealed. The subtitles of my quartets merely point toward it, hoping this gentle gesture will not in any way delimit the listeners’ flights of imagination. Can the dark desolation of Reading Gaol be heard in the first quartet? Or can you hear the ‘deception of the thrush,’ the ‘association of man and woman in daunsinge,’ the flowing of the ‘brown strong god,’ or ‘the dove descending’ in the four movements of the second? Maybe, but maybe not. It is not important, at least not to me, the composer.” Be that as it may, he also says, “Without the influence of this poetry the music would have turned out completely differently: more than that: I would now be a different person, a poorer one spiritually.” At the risk of sounding bombastic I would dare to add that we would all be poorer without these dark and probing works so majestically performed.

03 SzymanskiContinuing with the Polish theme, I would note that my introduction to the music of Paweł Szymański (b.1954) was the result of New Music Concerts back in 1988, long before my association with that organization began. On that occasion, one of the works featured was for solo piccolo and an unusually low ensemble of horn, trombone, two percussion, two violas and two cellos. A recent disc by harpsichordist Małgorzata Sarbak – Dissociative Counterpoint Disorder (Bolt Records BR1035) – features another concertante work from that year, Partita III, but in this instance the accompaniment is provided by traditional orchestra (Janáček Philharmonic; Zsolt Nagy). It starts at full speed with continuous harpsichord lines juxtaposed with busy, flamboyant orchestral textures. All this activity stops suddenly after two minutes for an abrupt and disconcerting silence of almost 20 seconds after which the frenetic activity begins again. This happens a number times with increasing frequency during the one-movement work, with subsequent silences of shorter duration giving way to nearly inaudible string chords before the busyness returns. The quiet passages ultimately overcome the frenzied sections and the piece fades into an otherworldly quiet with a single high repeated note on the harpsichord as if a beacon flashing into outer space.

The title work is the most recent and was written in 2014 for Sarbak, unlike Partita III and Through the Looking Glass (1994) which were composed for the iconic Polish harpsichordist Elżbieta Chojnacka who had championed the works of Ligeti, Xenakis and other post-war composers. Dissociative Counterpoint Disorder as its title suggests, is somewhat bipolar, once again alternating between frantic activity and more stately passages, but this time for harpsichord alone. The “Alice”-inspired solo work begins with more frenetic stops and starts with the harpsichord sounding almost like a calliope, and once again fades to black, this time with a series of sustained yet isolated notes in the lowest register.

In music the term “parody” does not imply ridicule, but simply means “in the style of” as with Palestrina’s parody masses and parody madrigals based on works of Cipriano de Rore and others. Szymański is a masterful parodist in this sense, as witnessed by Les poiriers en pologne ou une suite de pièces sentimentales de clavecin faite par Mr. Szymański. Critic Alex Ross wrote of another of Szymański’s pseudo Baroque suites in the New Yorker that it “not only sounds like Bach but could be mistaken for Bach – the latter being rather more difficult than the former.” Sarbak, who is herself a specialist in Baroque performance, says “…Szymański is actually composing in the idiom of the Baroque…using the words – melodical and rhythmical formulas, the expressions, rhetorical figures that were very important then – in the language of the period. […]Szymański wouldn’t put in any score markings, which were also absent at that time…He leaves the freedom to the performer…[which is] what’s great and vivid about playing Baroque music.” One of Szymański’s earliest works from his student days was for violin and harpsichord. It is obviously an interest that has stuck with him throughout his career and the result is really something to behold.

04 Bernstein SymphoniesI first heard Leonard Bernstein’s symphonies in my formative years, in his recordings with the New York Philharmonic. They impressed me then and they still do. There are three and none of them follow the traditional symphonic mould. Each has a subtitle and they all employ a soloist: Symphony No.1 “Jeremiah” features a mezzo soprano; Symphony No.2 “The Age of Anxiety” a pianist and Symphony No.3 “Kaddish” a narrator (Bernstein’s wife Felicia Montealegre in the version I grew up with), plus soprano and choir.

Marin Alsop has now completed her recording of the cycle with Bernstein – Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Naxos 8.559790). Jeremiah is a three-movement work: Prophecy, Profanation and Lamentation. Bernstein said “The work I have been writing all my life is the struggle that is born of the crisis of our century, a crisis of faith. Even way back, when I wrote Jeremiah [1939-1942] I was wrestling with that problem.” The first movement is contemplative and the second is dance-like, presaging some of the composer’s later stage music. It is in the third movement that the mezzo – Jennifer Johnson Cano here – enters, singing Hebrew texts selected by Bernstein from the Lamentations of Jeremiah which are expectedly heart-wrenching and dramatic before an extended quiet orchestral coda.

Inspired by W.H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety which Bernstein discovered in 1947 and called “one of the most shattering examples of pure virtuosity in the English language […] almost immediately the music started to sing.” Jean-Yves Thibaudet is the soloist in this extended work in 18 movements divided into two main sections. Part 1 begins with a quiet orchestral Prologue followed by two sets of variations, The Seven Ages and The Seven Stages, where the piano is prominent. Although lasting half of the work’s 35 minutes, Part 2 has only three sections, The Dirge, The Masque and The Epilogue, which continues the flamboyance of the preceding movement in its opening stages but then features an extended introspective piano cadenza and a swelling, triumphant orchestral finale. As Frank K. DeWald’s program notes suggest however, in the Second Symphony the crisis of faith is “discussed, probed [but only] superficially resolved…” Bernstein will take up the theme again in his final symphony.

Somehow I overlooked Alsop’s recording of Symphony No.3 ”Kaddish” with Claire Bloom narrating when it was released last year (Naxos 8.559742). With the powerful performances of the first two symphonies presented here as evidence, I will definitely be rectifying that shortly.

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01 Giuliani GuitarCanadian guitarists Jeffrey McFadden and Michael Kolk are the performers on Volume 1 of Music for Two Guitars by Mauro Giuliani, a new CD featuring Rossini Overtures, Variations and Polonaises (Naxos 8.572445).

Michael Kolk has been the subject of several glowing reviews in this column and is usually heard in duo performances with fellow guitarist Drew Henderson, but here he is joined by the outstanding McFadden, with whom Kolk studied at the University of Toronto. It’s a terrific pairing, with both performers displaying clean, technically outstanding playing with equally impressive musicality and sensitivity.

Giuliani (1781-1829) was one of the greatest guitar virtuoso performers and composers. When he returned to Italy from Vienna in 1819 he became an associate of Rossini and transcribed four of the opera composer’s overtures for two guitars in the early 1820s. All four – La gazza ladra, Il barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola and L’assedio di Corinto – are included here. As the jewel case blurb notes, they abound in lyrical melodic lines, fast arpeggios, subtle colours and technical virtuosity. The equally demanding Gran variazioni concertanti, Op.35 and the Variazioni concertanti, Op.130 are handled with deceptive ease, and the Tre Polonesi concertanti, Op.137 round off an immensely satisfying program.

The recorded ambience is quite lovely, hardly a surprise given that the recording was made at St. John Chrysostom Church in Newmarket with the always reliable Naxos production team of Norbert Kraft – himself a top guitarist – and Bonnie Silver. It’s a CD that meets every hope and expectation you might have when you open it – and that’s saying something!

02 Spanish Guitar 2The same Newmarket church is the setting for another outstanding Kraft and Silver guitar recording, Volume 2 of what is turning out to be a ground-breaking four-volume series of 21st Century Spanish Guitar music played by the American guitarist Adam Levin (Naxos 8.573409).

In 2008 Levin was able to use several scholarships, including one from the Program for Cultural Cooperation Fellowship from Spain’s Cultural Ministry, to start a three-year residency in Madrid to research and perform contemporary Spanish guitar repertoire. The project resulted in a major collaboration with four generations of Spanish composers who created 30 new works commissioned by and dedicated to Levin. The recording project to document these pieces began in 2012, with Volume 1 of the series released in May 2013 to rave reviews.

Composers included here are Leonardo Balada (b.1933), Jesús Torres (b.1965), Marc López Godoy (b.1967), Antón García Abril (b.1933), Luis De Pablo (b.1930), Eduardo Soutullo (b.1968), Jacobo Durán-Loriga (b.1958), Benet Casablancas (b.1933) and Juan Manuel Ruiz (b.1968); the works cover the period 2010-2014, so clearly the collaboration continues to bear fruit beyond the term of the residency. All but one of the pieces are world premiere recordings.

Despite Levin’s warning that this is “not your father’s guitar music” and that the musical language of Spain has evolved since the days of the master guitar composers these are all clearly works that are intrinsically Spanish, with a wide range of sonorities, techniques and effects that never forget their roots. It’s a fascinating look at a country’s musical culture that knows its heritage and looks to the future with supreme confidence.

Needless to say, Levin is superb throughout the CD, and is captured with ideal sound quality. We can certainly look forward to Volumes 3 and 4 with great anticipation.

03 Ehnes QuartetJames Ehnes leads his quartet partners Amy Schwartz Moretti, Richard Yongjae O’Neill and Robert deMaine on a beautiful new CD by the Ehnes Quartet of two works that share the theme of death, and the fear of death (Onyx 4163).

Schubert’s String Quartet No.14 in D Minor “Death and the Maiden” D810 was written in 1824, four years before the composer’s death, but at a time when Schubert was already seriously ill and experiencing failure, poverty and great misery in his life. Jean Sibelius’ String Quartet in D Minor “Intimate Voices” Op.56 was completed in 1909 after his life had been threatened by a throat tumour and he had, in the words of his biographer Erik Tawaststjerna, “passed through the shadows of the valley of death.”

Both works receive quite exceptional performances here, with fully committed emotional playing, a fine range of dynamics and a terrific ensemble feel, all enhanced by a warm and richly recorded ambience.

The Schubert is by far the better known of the two works, but the Sibelius may well be the surprise here for many listeners. The composer’s only quartet, it has a nostalgic, deeply personal feel not unlike Smetana’s first quartet From My Life. The booklet essay notes that the work has generally been regarded as uncharacteristic and has never really become a repertoire favourite, and the remark that its neglect “remains unexplained and regrettable” is 100 percent accurate.

Hopefully this beautiful and moving performance will help to rectify that.

04 Death and the MaidenThe Schubert work turns up again, this time in an arrangement for string orchestra, on Death and the Maiden, a collaborative exploration of the theme of death by violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (Alpha Classics 265).

Recorded live in concert in Saint Paul over three dates in March 2015, this multifaceted project intersperses short works that date mostly from the 16th century between the four movements of the Schubert quartet, the latter arranged by Kopatchinskaja. We hear Augustus Nörmiger’s Toten Tanz; an anonymous Byzantine Chant on Psalm 140; John Dowland’s Pavan from Seaven Teares for String Quintet; Carlo Gesualdo’s madrigal about death Moro lasso; and two pieces by the 20th-century Hungarian composer György Kurtág.

The meat of the program, however, is clearly the Schubert, and it proves to be very effective in this string orchestra version. The Romantic nature and the scope and drama of the quartet are certainly enhanced by the greater dynamic forces, especially in the theme and variations movement that gives the work (and this CD) its name. Kopatchinskaja leads the ensemble from the first violin stand, and the orchestral playing is superb, especially in the dazzlingly brilliant final Presto.

05 WeinbergAnother CD that intersperses short movements between the major works is the new Super Audio disc from the German violinist Linus Roth of the Mieczysław Weinberg Solo Sonatas for Violin Nos.1-3 (Challenge CC72688).

The Polish/Soviet Weinberg settled in Moscow in the early 1940s with Shostakovich’s help, and the two composers shared a close friendship and clearly influenced each other. Weinberg’s music has long been unjustly neglected, but that has gradually been changing since his death in 1996, with an ever-increasing number of CDs exploring his extensive and hugely impressive output.

It’s music by Shostakovich that is interspersed with the three Weinberg sonatas, the Three Fantastic Dances from 1922 in the Harry Glickman arrangement for violin and piano intended to – in Roth’s own words – “lighten the texture of the otherwise awfully dense and dark fare” that the Weinberg sonatas present. José Gallardo is the pianist.

Certainly Sonatas Nos.1 and 3, from 1964 and 1978, are unrelenting, somewhat intimidating works of extreme difficulty – the latter is a single movement work of almost 30 minutes’ length. Sonata No.2 from 1967 is shorter, somewhat easier (in relative terms!) and less aggressive – and certainly more immediately accessible.

Roth plays superbly throughout the CD, but particularly in the three works that are a significant part of the solo violin sonata repertoire.

06 Artis QuartettThere’s more excellent string quartet playing on the latest CD from the Artis-Quartett Wien, with seldom-heard works by Kreisler, Zemlinsky and Schulhoff (Nimbus Records NI 5942).

If the Viennese violinist Fritz Kreisler is known as a composer at all it’s usually for his series of “in the style of” pieces that he eventually admitted were original compositions, but his String Quartet in A Minor is a surprisingly strong work. Written in 1919, its tonal language is very much that of the early 20th-century Austro-German composers, and is almost certainly a nostalgic look back at the Vienna of Kreisler’s youth and of the Hapsburg Empire, a Vienna lost forever in the First World War. Kreisler had served in the Austrian army at the outbreak of the war, but was wounded and discharged within three months, spending the rest of the war years in the United States.

Although he lived in Prague during the 1914-1918 war, Alexander Zemlinsky was another Viennese composer who ended up in the United States, in his case as a result of the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment in the Germany of the 1930s. His String Quartet in E Minor is a very early work from 1893 that was suppressed by the composer after its initial rejection and did not appear in print until 1997. Clearly – and not surprisingly – influenced by Brahms, it is a strongly Romantic work with a particularly lovely Andante movement.

The Prague-born Erwin Schulhoff completes the trilogy of composers whose careers were impacted by war, although in his case it would cost him his life. He served in the Austrian army throughout the First World War, but after being arrested by the Nazis in Prague in 1941 was deported to the Wülzburg concentration camp in Bavaria, where he died of tuberculosis a year later.

From the opening bars of his Five Pieces for String Quartet from 1923 we are in a different world, one closer to the world of Schoenberg than the late 19th-century tradition of Kreisler and early Zemlinsky. It’s essentially a suite of short dance movements strongly influenced by Czech speech inflections and rhythms, with terse, animated writing and muted strings creating a sense of social and cultural unease.

The Artis-Quartett was founded in Vienna in 1980, and is in its element with these three intriguing works.

07 Vivaldi SeasonsGiven the constant stream of new recordings of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons we could be forgiven for wondering if there could possibly be anything different left to say with them, but if the stunning new Super Audio CD from Gunar Letzbor and the Ars Antiqua Austria (Challenge Classics CC72700) is anything to go by then the answer is quite definitely yes.

This is Vivaldi with a quite different sound and clearly an equally different approach, made all the more impressive by the small size of the eight-piece ensemble – Ars Antiqua consists of single players for the solo, violin one and two, viola and cello parts, and a continuo of violone, organ/harpsichord and theorbo. The sheer size of the sound and dynamic range that they produce is astonishing.

So many of the movements here sound refreshingly different, and the attention to the wording of the accompanying sonnets (which are printed in full in the booklet) is clear, whether it’s the steady rhythmic stresses, the bird song effects, the heavy stomping of a rustic country dance or the furious outburst of a storm. Major tempo changes throughout the individual movements add to the effect.

The Violin Concerto in D Minor by the Bohemian composer František Jiránek, who studied in Venice (possibly with Vivaldi) between 1724 and 1726, completes the CD. It is much in the style of his contemporary, and is played here in a manner closer to the Vivaldi we usually hear.

Between the recording sessions in April 2016 Ars Antiqua performed this same program in two concerts; the audiences, Letzbor notes, were enthusiastic about the Vivaldi, “but at the same time also surprised. The unanimous opinion: we have never heard it like this before.”

Well, neither have I – and the chances are, neither have you. If you have any interest whatsoever in The Four Seasons then this is a CD you simply must hear.

08 Violin for All SeasonsThe Four Seasons are also featured on A Violin for All Seasons – Music by Antonio Vivaldi & Roxanna Panufnik, another Super Audio CD with Tasmin Little as both soloist and conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Chandos CHSA 5175).

Although on first hearing this seems to be a performance more in the mainstream manner, Little was clearly fully aware of the great variety of performances available and of the need to offer something individual to the listener; she has apparently waited many years before deciding to commit a performance to disc. She admits to having been influenced by Baroque violinists although not being one herself, but as a modern player she feels that a larger orchestral accompaniment can add greater drama and nuance than a smaller group.

Playing this CD right after the Ars Antiqua CD cast more than a little doubt on that belief, but there is much here that lifts this performance out of the ordinary. For starters, Little is superb, with some simply dazzling playing and some fresh ideas, in particular her increased dialogue with continuo harpsichordist David Wright, whom she encouraged to be “as bold and different as he wished.” Both players improvise links between movements on occasion, and there is certainly an air of freshness about the entire proceedings.

The Vivaldi work continues to inspire new compositions as well as new approaches and interpretations, and such is the case with Four World Seasons, the Panufnik work that receives its premiere recording here. The work resulted from Little’s 2008 request for a new set of “Seasons” to be performed alongside the Vivaldi and was completed in 2011; since then Little has programmed both works in numerous concerts.

The composition of each of the movements here is influenced by a country with which the particular season has become culturally associated. Autumn in Albania is in memory of Panufnik’s father, the composer Andrzej Panufnik; Tibetan Winter (complete with Tibetan singing bowl), Spring in Japan and Indian Summer are dedicated to Tasmin Little. It’s a simply outstanding work, much deeper, more emotional, wide-ranging and passionate than the Vivaldi, with which it shares almost the same orchestration. It draws more terrific playing from Little and the BBC Symphony.

09 Schumanns EnigmanSchumann’s Enigma: An Exploration of Robert Schumann’s Sonatas for Violin and Piano is the excellent debut CD from violinist Svetlana Tsivinskaya and pianist Natalia Tokar (Blue Griffin BGR 391).

The Sonata in A Minor Op.105 and the Grand Sonata in D Minor Op.121 are both given accomplished readings, with some lovely playing from both partners – fairly restrained at times and not too dramatic, but always warm and with no lack of depth or commitment.

What gives these performances added interest, though, is the research and thought that has gone into them. Tsivinskaya provides an excellent essay on Schumann’s contrasting and imaginary alter egos Eusebius and Florestan, and the way he used them to explore his own contrasting ideas and his mental processes – and indeed the way he used cryptography and coded signatures of his wife Clara and his own various names to determine thematic material and choice of key in his works.

There seems to be a growing awareness of the significance of this approach among performers, with the cellist Carmen Miranda’s extremely detailed article along the same lines on Schumann’s Cello Concerto featured in a CD review in this column just last September.

Tsivinskaya’s penetrating essay here is a riveting and convincing analysis, and adds a great deal to our understanding of the two works.

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01 Debussy EffectA century ago we removed the boundaries that defined the general order of things in our world. Notions of social class, religious belief and art all flowed into a sea of mixing currents as we challenged ourselves to be comfortable with things much less clear than once had been. Composers, like painters, developed a powerful, post-Romantic language that guided the human experience of art beyond intellect and emotion and into something of an altered state. Less concerned with linear argument than impression, composers like Debussy mastered the vocabulary of other worlds and left us a creative legacy that has scarcely aged a day. So it seems natural that a contemporary musician like Kathleen Supové should commission a project from a group of seven 21st-century composers asking how the music of Claude Debussy has shaped their art, The Debussy Effect (New Focus Recordings FCR170).

Listening to these works in this context, they are all clearly tributes to the French impressionist, although some more tenuously than others. Still, there’s plenty of originality in this repertoire and Supové plays wonderfully, whether with or without electronic effects. Jacob Cooper’s La plus que plus que lent slows down Debussy’s waltz significantly as it plays with fragments of the original. Cakewalking (Sorry Claude) by Daniel Felsenfeld is especially creative in its unmistakable rhythms and occasional quotes from Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk.

The most effective work may well be Randall Woolf’s What Remains of a Rembrandt. Here the composer argues that the essence of Debussy is the element of mystery. Supové’s playing demonstrates a complete understanding of how Woolf sets out to render this element and achieves exactly what both he and Debussy would have intended.

The Debussy Effect is a bold and creative project that is as admirably clever as it is superbly performed.

02 Bruce AdolpheAmerican composer Bruce Adolphe is often inspired by very contemporary social and political issues, and so it is that his latest recording, Bruce Adolphe – Chopin Dreams (Naxos 8.559805) is a little unusual.

The recording’s title work is an impression of how Chopin might compose today were he a jazz musician playing in a New York club. Adolphe does an artful job of borrowing Chopin’s distinctive keyboard language. He replicates the melancholy harmonies, the cascading right-hand arpeggios, the ornaments and filigree that we uniquely associate with the composer. He also writes in the forms that make up much of Chopin’s repertoire, the prelude, nocturne, mazurka and other dances.

While the premise of Chopin as a New York Jazz club pianist offers a comic element to be sure, it’s quickly dispelled by the highly informed and engaging nature of Chopin Dreams. Jazzurka, New York Nocturne, Quaalude and the other items in the set unmistakably use Chopin’s vocabulary. Even so, the frequent presence of the blue note seems entirely appropriate for Chopin, given his affection for the richness of minor keys.

Considerably more serious is Adolphe’s recent work Seven Thoughts Considered as Music (2016). Using short quotes from seven thinkers including Emerson, Chief Seattle and Kafka, Adolphe explores the transfer of deeper meaning to the voice of the piano. There’s great substance to these pieces and they merit more than one hearing.

Italian pianist Carlo Grante plays the newly redesigned Bösendorfer 280VC concert grand on this CD and has a great deal of fun with the nine Piano Puzzlers, short pieces that Adolphe regularly composes and performs on the American Public Radio program Performance Today. Familiar tunes like Deck The Hall, The Streets of Laredo and many others are set in the unmistakable style of Chopin’s best-known pieces, leaving listeners grinning at the composer’s imitative wizardry.

03 Horatio GutierrezHoracio Gutiérrez is a respected pedagogue and performer. His newest recording, Chopin 24 Preludes, Op.28; Schumann Fantasie Op.17 (Bridge 9479), is an impressive example of his playing. Never short of powerful expression and blazing speed at the keyboard, he is also capable of the tenderest phrasings required in Chopin’s 24 Preludes Op. 28. Each of these short pieces (some merely a half minute) is a complete idea that Gutiérrez treats as though it were entirely independent. Still, the progression of keys is logical and patterned, and so he holds the collection together for performance as a larger utterance. Many argue this was, in fact, Chopin’s intent.

Unlike Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues, these are not studies or practice pieces. Nor are they preludes to anything as one writer once famously queried. Instead they are best received as a kind of pianistic haiku. Short, self-contained and entirely complete.

Gutiérrez plays with a great deal of disciplined freedom that remains in control of the emotional content through a very precise keyboard technique. This is especially important for the Schumann Fantasie Op.17 where the great contrasts in mood are vital to the work’s impact. The middle sections of the second and third movements demonstrate this wonderfully as does the final, tranquil ending. Every note and phrase is perfectly placed. There is no excess. All is in perfect balance.

Gutiérrez’s students at the Manhattan School, where he currently teaches, are fortunate to have such a mentor.

04 Chopin Richard HamelinSecond-place winner of the 17th International Chopin Piano Competition in 2015, Charles Richard-Hamelin’s live performances on Chopin Sonata B Minor Op.58; Nocturnes (The Fryderyk Chopin Institute, Polish Radio NIFCCD 617-618) demonstrate why he impressed the panel of judges so profoundly. Perhaps more than anything, Richard-Hamelin plays as if no one else were present, firmly connected to the core of the music and completely given over to it. His technique is impeccable and his interpretive decisions mature and credible. Moreover, he manages to inject subtleties into his performances that would catch the judges’ attention. Micro hesitations, refinements of standard dynamics, tempo relaxations, all give his playing of well-worn works originality and freshness.

Despite the fact that the pieces were recorded at various sessions, the three auditions and the final concert, it would have been evident early on that Richard-Hamelin was a serious contender for one of the top spots in this race. Disc one of this 2-CD set closes with the Rondo in E Flat Major Op.16. It’s a piece that uses almost every one of Chopin’s devices and Richard-Hamelin sails through them effortlessly, never showing fatigue or anything less than total focus on the artistic demands of the work.

Disc two features a few more smaller pieces but offers the B Minor Sonata Op.58 as its major work. Richard-Hamelin’s capable grasp of its wide-ranging demands earned him his winning spot plus the Krystian Zimerman prize for the best performance of a sonata.

The 2015 17th International Chopin Piano Competition was the first time Canada had appeared in the rankings in the competition’s history.

05 Schubert VogtLars Vogt’s new recording, Schubert – Impromptus, D899, Moments Musicaux D780, Six German Dances D820 (Ondine ODE 1285-2) offers familiar repertoire although with a detectable inward focus.

The liner notes include a wonderful interview with Vogt in which he reveals his personal thoughts on Schubert and the repertoire in this recording. It’s worthwhile and instructive to read about the intellectual process behind the creative one.

Vogt has a unique style at the keyboard. It’s one that has all the warmth and romanticism to express Schubert’s most heartfelt passages, yet also includes a sharp, bright exclamatory touch that can be as brief as a single note or sometimes carry an entire phrase. This plays nicely against the otherwise mellow nature of Schubert’s rich harmonies.

The Six German Dances, in particular, are surprisingly tender in Vogt’s hands. Here he argues for an approach that is truer to the original style of the pieces, more down to earth and tender, perhaps even pointing to the convivial bliss of simple country folk.

The familiarity of the Impromptus D899 makes them a special challenge. Vogt does a terrific job with them all, but really makes No.4 stand out with his remarkably light staccato on all the descending runs in the treble.

The Moments Musicaux D780, too, are favourites and require something to make them distinctive. No.6 is often played with far more contrast than Vogt brings to this performance. Instead, he opts for a more wistful approach throughout and it works well. Overall, Vogt seems to raise the bar on everything without ever going too far. It’s an impressive process of balance and taste that has produced a very satisfying recording for Schubert collectors.

06 Beethoven BavouzetJean-Efflam Bavouzet has completed his recording of the Beethoven piano sonatas with the release of Beethoven Piano Sonatas Vol. 3 (Chandos CHAN 10925(3)). Do we need another Beethoven Sonata cycle? Bavouzet occupied himself with this very question before committing to the project for Chandos. Those who know and cherish these works will each have favourite interpreters who have revealed new meaning in them. Bavouzet argues that projects like this are evolutionary and therefore benefit from all those that preceded them.

As a mature artist in his mid-50s, Bavouzet indeed has something to say and he says it convincingly. His performance of the Sonata Op.57 “Appassionata” is surprisingly understated through most of the second movement. This heightens the impact of the final movement which follows very aggressively without a break. His speed and precision seem effortless. He shapes Beethoven’s phrases intelligently and manages to keep the composer’s impetuous nature teeming without boiling over.

The Sonata Op.106 “Hammerklavier” is the towering, complex work after whose final measures, a sonata cycle like this either succeeds or crumbles. Bavouzet emerges in this performance as an artist fully capable of embracing the essence of what Beethoven had to say, and how to say it. Bavouzet’s revelation in this repertoire is that Beethoven was not a mad composer pouring magnificent anger from his pen. Rather, he was an impassioned genius crafting everything with an exacting science rooted in his soul. Bavouzet obviously “gets” Beethoven – in the profoundest way.

07 Glassworlds 5In addition to his stature as a Liszt interpreter, Nicolas Horvath devotes a considerable amount of his career energy to contemporary music. The new release Glassworlds • 5: Enlightenment (Grand Piano GP745) continues his recordings of the piano music of Philip Glass.

Two large, major works nearly fill this disc. Mad Rush, written in 1979 as a commissioned organ piece under a different title, has since been renamed and performed as dance accompaniment as well as a piano solo. Glass performed it himself several times and perhaps most interestingly as music for the entry of the 14th Dalai Lama into the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

600 Lines is a 40-minute piece built on just five pitches played in varying rhythmic patterns constantly shifting emphasis on principal notes in those patterns. If you’re acquainted with the English bell ringing tradition of “ringing changes,” this piece will surprisingly make a lot of sense.

Considerably shorter but no less engaging is Metamorphoses (5): No. 2. The work had never been published, so Horvath naturally takes some pride in performing its world premiere as a solo piano work. Horvath clearly has a deep affection for Glass’ music that goes far beyond the intellectual. His grasp of it is both passionate and revealing.

In writing his own, excellent liner notes for this recording, Horvath closes by quoting the composer, “Music is a social activity…Music is a transaction; it passes between us.”

08 Komitas VardapetThe most exotic item in this month’s collection is Keiko Shichijo’s new release Komitas Vardapet – Six Dances (Makkum Records MR.17/Pb006). It’s as unusual for its repertoire, as it is for its brevity, a mere eighteen minutes. The dances are based on Armenian folk melodies which the composer transcribed from original settings for folk instruments. Komitas is said to have notated some 3,000 Armenian folk tunes; only 1,200 survive.

Although an ordained priest, his work as an ethnomusicologist has made him an icon in the history of Armenian culture. His exposure to Western European music came from his studies in Berlin at the end of the 19th century. Shichijo chose to record his solo piano work Six Dances after performing some of his other compositions with a chamber ensemble. She is remarkably persuasive in the way she portrays the percussive, and otherwise non-Western, stylings of this music. It’s nearly all monodic, just a single melody line, sometimes in octaves, against the barest of accompaniments. There’s a definite feel of Debussy’s exoticism about Komitas’ music.

While it’s a modest recording effort, it’s a beautiful fusion of worlds that creates the temptation to hear more of this composer’s repertoire.

09 Jack GallagherAmerican composer Jack Gallagher claims the piano is not his principal instrument, but his apology evaporates as soon as you hear his music. In Jack Gallagher Piano Music (Centaur CRC 3522) pianist Frank Huang captures the colour and imagination of Gallagher’s writing whether in works lighthearted or those more cerebral.

Gallagher writes with a great care for structure. Form and planning are important to him. This makes his works easy to navigate for both listener and performer while he evolves his more complex musical material.

Huang plays this repertoire with ease and familiarity. Works like the Sonata for Piano are very technically demanding as is Malambo Nouveau. Others like Six Bagatelles and Sonatina for Piano, less so. Still, works like Six Pieces for Kelly, written specifically for young performers, never lack for a mature and profoundly musical touch. Every so often a Gershwin-like harmony slips by, leaving an echo of Broadway and a reminder of how American this music is.

Huang’s performance is confident, bold and celebratory; Gallagher’s writing seems to induce those qualities. This recording is a perfect match between composer and performer.

10 Bach Partitas harpsichordHarpsichordist Jory Vinikour has released Partitas BWV 825-830 J.S. Bach (Sono Luminus DSL-92209), a wonderful example of how varied and engaging Bach can be at the harpsichord. If you need an introduction to Bach, then his 1731 self-published Opus 1 is a good place to start.

Using a two-manual instrument built in 1995 on the scheme of a 1738 German harpsichord, Vinikour takes very deliberate time to play through the six Partitas in this three-disc set. While most items in the Partitas are labelled as dance movements, some offer a very different character and Vinikour is careful to find and exploit the essence of each piece.

The Toccata of Partita No.6 in E Minor BWV830 opens and closes with waves of fantasia-like arpeggios that are a sharp contrast to the highly ordered material between them. The Overture of Partita No.4 in D Major BWV 828 begins with an extended statement that offers all the drama of an opera before moving into the discipline of a fugue. The following Allemande is a beautiful and languorous melodic wander through Bach’s harmonic world. Vinikour knows this territory well, using every technical and interpretive device to maximum effect. He knows how far to push the limits of free Baroque forms as well as complying with the rigours of Bach’s fugal treatments.

On a technical note, the recording uses terrific stereo separation that’s very effective.

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01 Bach Magnificat

Bach – Magnificat BWV243; Kuhnau – Cantate “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern”
Winkel; Zomer; Laing; Wilder; Brock; Arion Orchestre Baroque; Alexander Weimann
ATMA ACD2 2727 (


Bach composed the Magnificat for Christmas 1723. The work was originally in E-flat Major but revised to the lower tonality of D Major. Like most recordings this CD presents the revised version but with two differences. The first version included four interpolations. These have been included (transposed in accordance with the D-Major tonality) on the present recording. A more substantial difference with most performances lies in the handling of the choral sections. Most performances observe a marked difference between the solo and the choral sections but Weimann’s interpretation follows the views of Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott that the choral sections should also be sung one to a part. The gain in clarity in movements like Fecit Potentiam and Sicut locutus is unmistakable. There is an odd error in the Table of Contents which states that Suscepit Israel is a duet between the two soprano voices. It is actually a trio with the alto taking the lowest part.

The performance is very successful and several moments stand out: the virtuoso trumpets in the opening and closing movements, the soprano solo (Johanna Winkel) and oboe d’amore obbligato (Matthew Jennejohn) in Quia respexit, the alto and tenor duet (James Laing and Zachary Wilder) in Et misericordia and the alto solo and the flutes’ obbligato (Claire Guimond and Alexa Raine-Wright) in Esurientes implevit bonis.

The CD also contains Johann Kuhnau’s Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, also for five voices and also performed one to a part. It is an imaginative coupling: Kuhnau is best known as Bach’s predecessor as cantor of Saint Thomas’ in Leipzig, but he is clearly an important composer, whose works are worth listening to for their own sake.

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02 Franco Fagioli

Franco Fagioli; Armonia Atenea Choir and Period Orchestra; George Petrou
Deutsche Grammophon 479 5681


The best ever? In the early 1960s I was fortunate to hear and meet Alfred Deller and Russell Oberlin, pioneers who created the standard for countertenors well before their voice type entered the musical mainstream. They were models for those who followed and eventually surpassed them, such as the splendid David Daniels.

But when I watched the DVD of Vinci’s Artaserse (Erato 46323234) I felt a new level of countertenor brilliance had been achieved. The DVD of Hasse’s Artaserse and the CD Arias for Caffarelli (Naive V5333) convinced me that Franco Fagioli’s phenomenal coloratura technique and uniquely dark timbre make him the greatest of all countertenors.

This, Fagioli’s first CD as an exclusive DG artist, focuses on Rossinian trouser roles, male characters written for and traditionally sung by mezzo-sopranos. Other than arias from Tancredi and Semiramide, four rarities are represented: Demetrio e Polibio, Matilde di Shabran, Adelaide di Borgogna and Eduardo e Cristina.

Though unfamiliar, the music is high quality, showcasing Fagioli through emotions from anguish to joy, fearfulness to triumph. I especially enjoyed the two scenes from Adelaide featuring martial choruses and Fagioli as the heroic Otto singing, of course, heroically. In the scene from Eduardo e Cristina, he spins a breathless, lyrical line before launching into the spectacular coloratura finale, also the CD’s thrilling conclusion. Special credit to George Petrou’s crackling period-instrument orchestra and chorus.

Texts and translations are included. A super disc by a super singer.

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03 Verdi AidaVerdi – Aida
Lewis; Rachvelishvili; Berti; Doss; Orchestra and Chorus Teatro Regio Torino; Gianandrea Noseda
Cmajor 736908

Aida was composed to celebrate the opening of the Cairo Opera House; this production marks the reopening of the Egyptian Museum in Turin. The director is William Friedkin, mainly known as the director of The Exorcist, who has become interested in directing opera in recent years: Wozzeck and Rigoletto in Florence, Salome in Munich and Tales of Hoffmann in Vienna. His production of Aida is not particularly innovative but it is to his credit that he does not try to impose a counternarrative on the opera as so many directors now do. The balance between solemnity and intimacy is well conveyed.

Of the singers I did not particularly like the Radames, Marco Berti. He has a strong voice but tends to be unremittingly loud. If one turns to Jon Vickers’ rendition of the role (with its wonderful tenderness in Celeste Aida) one has a clear sense of how that part could be performed. The female singers are much finer: Kristin Lewis as Aida is particularly fine in O patria mia (Act III) and in O terra addio (final scene). The mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili (we recently heard her as Carmen in Toronto) as Amneris and the baritone Mark S. Doss as Amonasro are also very good. A particular mention should be made of the very fine choreography by Marc Ribaud.

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04 Donizetti Roberto DeverauxDonizetti – Roberto Devereux
Marilla Devia; Kunde; Tro Santafé; Caria; Orchestra and Chorus Teatro Real de Madrid; Bruno Campanella
BelAir Classics BAC130

English speaking audiences will rejoice hearing God Save the Queen in the overture, but curb your enthusiasm because this opera is just about the most gruesome and appalling tragedy, made even more gruesome by the dark and menacing but very effective staging in red (for blood) and black (for death) and dominated by a huge mechanical spider.

Gaetano Donizetti wrote three successful operas about the ill-fated Tudor Queens as the topic seemed to have fascinated Italians. Not for long though, as all three disappeared from public consciousness for over a century. Roberto Devereux, being the least popular, didn’t see the light until the 1960s’ bel canto resurgence when the great American soprano Beverly Sills reinstated it into mainstream repertoire.

This 2015 revival by Teatro Real of Madrid was a huge success and its main attribute was the magnificent Italian soprano Mariella Devia, who literally inhabited the role of Queen Elizabeth I, and even late in her spectacular career created such a sensation in New York that people camped out overnight to get tickets, something they hadn’t done since Callas. Now at age 68 she made history with her wonderful control and vocal fireworks and a terrifying yet pitiful portrayal of a woman betrayed and crying out for revenge.

American lyric tenor Gregory Kunde as Robert, Second Earl of Essex the unlucky object of royal fury, whose voice grew more powerful recently, was a good match for Devia, passionate, heroic yet tender in the love scenes. The high vocal standard was carried even further by Spanish mezzo Sylvia Tro Santafé and principal baritone Marco Caria’s heartrendingly anguished performances. A glorious night for bel canto!

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05 MefistofeleBoito – Mefistofele
Pape; Calleja; Opolais; Babajanyan; Bayerisches Staatsorchester; Omer Meir Wellber
Cmajor 73920

The story of Faust, a misguided scholar who trades his soul to the devil for another chance at youth and love, has inspired countless writers and composers. In the world of opera, it wasn’t only Gounod and Berlioz, but also Louis Spohr, Ferruccio Busoni, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, Alfred Schnittke and of course, Arrigo Boito. Boito’s only finished opera, Mefistofele focuses on the devil himself, rather than the hapless professor. It is significant for another reason as well – the opera is considered an important transition piece between the Verdi period in Italian opera and its Puccini successor. But all was not smooth at the Milan premiere in 1868. Accused of “Wagnerism” and “weirdness,” Boito witnessed riots and quick cancellation of the production. Striking his own “Faustian bargain,” he rewrote and shortened the piece, giving it another premiere seven years later. As they say, the rest was history.

This production, captured here in HD, is opera-as-big-budget entertainment. Opulently staged and phenomenally cast, this is a showcase for Mefistofele, the Harley-riding Rocker and Faust, the deluded Playboy. The sublime Kristine Opolais as Margherita and consistently gorgeous playing of the orchestra under the baton of Meir Wellber add to the incredible aural power of the recording. Equal parts eye candy and feast for the ears, this is grand opera as it should be. No need to shut your eyes or suspend disbelief. Ah, I’d give my left pinkie to have seen it live!

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06 Mahler SchoenbergMahler arr. Schoenberg – Songs
Susan Platts; Charles Reid; Roderick Williams; Attacca Quartet; Virginia Arts Festival Chamber Players; JoAnn Falletta
Naxos 8.573536

Arnold Schoenberg’s quixotic concert series, Vienna’s “Society for Private Musical Performances,” was established in 1918 to perform the latest new music. No applause was permitted at these events, every work (you wouldn’t know what was on offer until you got there) was heard twice, and absolutely no music critics were allowed. The towering figure of Schoenberg’s acolyte Alban Berg personally checked your credentials at the door. Over the course of three seasons some 100 works were performed. The repertoire spanned an era beginning with the works of Gustav Mahler, presented in chamber music arrangements prepared by Schoenberg and his minions. The master would mark up the original scores and leave it to others to do the donkey work.

The most ambitious of these Mahler transcriptions, the song cycle Das Lied von der Erde, was never completed as the series eventually failed under the burden of rampant postwar hyperinflation. It was not until 1983 that Rainer Riehn brought Das Lied to fruition. Over a dozen discs devoted to the Society’s Mahler arrangements have appeared since then. In the current offering the sure-footed baritone Roderick Williams makes a compelling impression in the opening Gesellen cycle which, due to the transparency of its original scoring, works well in transcription, though the feebleness of a mere two violins (members of the Attacca Quartet) is an ongoing concern. British-Canadian contralto Susan Platts, well-known for her sensitive Mahler performances, is joined by the stentorian Charles Reid in Das Lied. The latter is a true Heldentenor though I question the casting of such a powerful voice in this more intimate setting.

The ensemble of a dozen players and their direction by Buffalo-based conductor JoAnn Falletta is admirable, with special kudos for clarinetist Ricardo Morales and the noble horn of Jacek Muzyk. A peculiar low rumbling is detectable in the quieter moments from the session captured at Norfolk’s Robin Hixon Theatre in 2015; complete texts and translations are included.

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07 El PublicoMauricio Sotelo – El Público
Klangforum Wien; Coro del Teatro Real; Pablo Heras-Casado
BelAir Classics BAC134

Theatrical works about theatre and its relation to the audience (“el público”) are usually metaphors for reality. There’s nothing remotely realistic, though, about this opera, a 2015 world-premiere production from Madrid’s Teatro Real.

Andrès Ibáñez’s libretto, based on a play by Federico Garcia Lorca, deals with an “underground” production of Romeo and Juliet and the conflicted relationship of the director, Enrique (baritone José Antonio López) and his lover Gonzalo (baritone Thomas Tatzl). Ibáñez’s text, despite frequent references to “love” and “masks” is as surreal as the stage action; I had to consult the booklet synopsis to get any inkling about what was happening.

Enrique’s take on Shakespeare includes horses (!) trying to seduce Juliet (soprano Isabella Gaudí), freshly risen from her tomb. When he then casts a teenage boy in her place, “the public” violently rebels, leading to Gonzalo’s death. Along the way, we see a Roman emperor, Jesus, a magician and a short silent film of animated silhouettes.

What held me throughout as a member of “the public” was the most essential element of any effective opera – the music. Mauricio Sotelo’s “spectral” orchestral score is riveting – rhythmic and atmospheric, with glittering percussion and spicy interludes of flamenco vocals and guitar.

Extended sequences for semi-nude male dancers and an array of bizarre, extravagant costumes make El Público almost as much a surrealistic modern ballet as an opera. Either way, it offers a fascinating experience both for ears and eyes.

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08 Einstein on the BeachPhilip Glass – Einstein on the Beach
Lucinda Childs Dance Company; Philip Glass Ensemble; Michael Riesman
Opus Arte OA1178D

Einstein on the Beach (1976) is the groundbreaking collaboration of three New York artists in full career stride: director/visual artist Robert Wilson, composer/musician Philip Glass and choreographer/dancer Lucinda Childs. It’s been hailed as one of the most significant artistic achievements of the 20th century. LA Opera’s website touted the most recent production with “Einstein on the Beach breaks all rules of conventional opera.” Or does it? In a video interview the year previous, Glass was asked to describe the opera then being prepared for its 2012 restaging and subsequent tour. “We’re talking about the elements of movement, image, text and music,” replied Glass. “…that’s all there is.…Opera’s the only [theatrical] form that uses all four consistently.”

Einstein employs all those elements in addition to clocking in at a respectably opera-length four and a half hours, certainly qualifying in scope and scale. Its resolutely non-narrative structure plus its highly repetitive and tonal minimalist score however did pose a bracing challenge to general opera audiences of the 1970s. And Glass’ interpretation of the non-plot aesthetic of Einstein is clearly articulated in the libretto. Singers recite numbers, solfège syllables and short sections of poetry rather than lyrics employed in the service of advancing the story as in conventional opera. This was then a startling innovation, and it remains one still today to a degree.

If there is no story, then what’s the work about? Wilson’s series of powerful recurrent stage images drawn from the famous physicist Albert Einstein’s life serve as the work’s frame. The dramatic device is imaginatively underpinned by Glass’ composition for soloists, chorus and his instrumental ensemble. It’s further explored by the masterfully conceived and movingly performed modern dance sequences choreographed by Childs.

This new DVD release accurately reflects the superb 2012 production I saw at Toronto’s Luminato that same year. Highlights of that performance included violin virtuoso Jennifer Koh made up to resemble Einstein – a lifelong amateur violinist – and the impressively precise chorus masterfully conducted by the veteran Glass Ensemble member Michael Riesman. David Cromwell’s improvised soulful modal jazzy saxophone solo is a standout on the DVD, as is the reflective aria in the Bed scene, both in Act IV.

In the final scene a bus driver tenderly retells one of the oldest of stories, that of the wondrous beauty and boundlessness of romantic love. Isn’t that a theme which fuels many an opera? I find Einstein a touching, moving and oddly reassuring work, one which I’ll be revisiting soon.

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Author: Andrew Timar
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09 SimoonErik Chisholm – Simoon (Opera in One Act on a play by Strindberg)
Irwin; Sheffield; Thantrey; Drummond; Music Co-OPERAtive Scotland; Ian Ryan
Delphian DCD34139

Luke 4:24 “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.” These biblical words must have been ringing in Erik Chisholm’s ears like derisive laughter. Born in Glasgow in 1904, the concert pianist and composer was promoting the Scottish musical tradition from the very beginning. In addition to incorporating folk music in his compositions, he also co-founded the Scottish Ballet Society and Celtic Ballet. After that, in Glasgow, he set up the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music. Aside from bringing the likes of Szymanowski, Bartók and Hindemith to Scottish audiences, he also conducted the British premieres of many operas, including Les Troyens by Berlioz.

Despite all this, he was never offered a position commensurate with his efforts in his native country. So in 1946, when he was offered the Chair of Music at Cape Town University in South Africa, his decision might have been painful, but also swift. He spent the rest of his life there, after some travels to India. He produced many operas, but also composed a great deal, including a triptych of operas – Murder in Three Keys – of which Simoon is the last part. Based on a short play by August Strindberg, Simoon was never performed in a full version during the composer’s lifetime. The subject matter, as gloomy as the uprooted Scot’s preferred music, is a tale of revenge and “murder by suggestion,” as Chisholm has referred to it. Polished orchestral characterizations, Bartók-like cascading moods and an overlapping of Western and Eastern musical idioms are just three reasons why this opera should have been recorded long ago. As it is, with the help of the Erik Chisholm Trust, it is making its long overdue debut – and rightfully in Scotland!

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10 Holman PassionDerek Holman – A Play of Passion
Colin Ainsworth; Stephen Ralls; Bruce Ubukata
Centrediscs CMCCD 23016

This Centrediscs release offers a fine selection of works by distinguished Canadian composer Derek Holman (b.1931). British-born Holman’s vocal expertise shows here in well-chosen texts and effective settings with memorable moments. His musical style addresses emotionally difficult terrain with sensitivity and a sure touch, pensive yet not morbid. Canadian tenor Colin Ainsworth’s tone, diction and phrasing are praiseworthy throughout, as are the secure support and interpretative contributions of collaborative pianist Stephen Ralls.

A few song highlights: in the elegiac cycle A Lasting Spring (2004), I especially appreciate the setting of Robert Herrick’s To Music, including the repeated text “melt my pains” as the poet asks for a glimpse of heavenly light. In The Burning of the Leaves from A Play of Passion (2010), Ainsworth delivers a heartfelt warning of poet and composer against idle nostalgia in a thrilling passage capped by the disc’s highest note (C). From the same cycle, the setting and singing of Care-charmer Sleepe (Samuel Daniel) with its insomniac repeated treble line, are hypnotic and wonderful. Another subtlety: the final song of The Death of Orpheus (2005) has an insubstantial little arpeggiated downward figure, the ghost of Greek mythology’s most famous musician not rising, but here going down to Hades a second time (post-death) to meet Eurydice in the Elysian Fields. The disc also includes Bruce Ubukata with Ralls, ably playing the clever, often bi-tonal two-piano work Variations on a Melody by Doctor Arne (1999).

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11Thread of Winter

Thread of Winter
Leslie Fagan; Lorin Shalanko
Canadian Art Song Series (


When reviewing (in early 2004) the first solo album by Leslie Fagan, I stated that “she is in a class of her own.” What a pleasure to conclude, some 12 years later, that she remains just as original. Her career has taken her to the world’s most important concert stages, providing Fagan with opportunities to present both traditional (Handel, Mahler) and contemporary (Poulenc, Kulesha) repertoire. She is also active as a voice teacher, in schools ranging from Wilfrid Laurier to Juilliard. It is that latter school’s reverence for the American Songbook that prompted Fagan to record this first album of the Canadian Art Song Series.

Much to no one’s surprise, Canadian composers such as Gary Kulesha, James Gordon, Walter MacNutt, Imant Raminsh, Jeff Smallman and others, have been steadily amassing a repertoire of songs, set to the words of both Canadian and international poets. It is perhaps our ongoing doubt about the nature of Canadian identity that prevents us from recognizing and celebrating this treasure trove in the way the American Songbook is usually feted. I have a feeling that Prof. Fagan will soon change that, at least among her students.

In this first of hopefully many recordings, Fagan is in great form: clear, lyrical, playful (in Six Nursery Rhymes by Peter Tiefenbach) and pensive. She is showcasing not only her beautiful soprano (so reminiscent of her erstwhile teacher, Ileana Cortubas), but also an interpretive range to be envied. Lorin Shalanko’s accompaniment is superb – fully supportive and intelligent, bringing to mind some of Gerald Moore’s best recordings.

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12 Winter Voces

Decca 483 0968


The cover art of Voces8’s Winter accurately represents this gorgeous, chill compilation of choral pieces written and arranged by composers from countries of Northern climes. There’s an ethereal quality to the recording that evokes the Aurora Borealis, such as in the first track, Arnalds and Arnarson’s For Now I Am Winter.

And while the season pervades the album’s themes, there’s a lot of variety. Es ist ein Ros entsprungen is like a slo-mo version of the Praetorius standard, and the Balulalow text, written by the three 16th-century brothers and poets, the Wedderburns, is nothing like Britten’s version: where the Ceremony of Carols setting swells like waves off the North Sea coast, this one glides along like cross-country skis. Of course, my hero Pärt’s Nunc Dimittis is divine, as is Rachmaninoff’s Vespers. There’s harp accompaniment with a touch of the medieval in the traditional The Snow It Melts the Soonest, and the countertenors in Rebecca Dale’s premiere, Winter, reminded me of those in the Talla Vocal Ensemble. Ola Gjeilo offers up a Holst-based In the Bleak Midwinter, and it’s not so Christmasy that you can’t enjoy it now.

Perhaps most interesting are the featured Vasks pieces: three Plainscapes movements and The Fruit of Silence, the text of which was penned by Mother Teresa. All four convey the Latvian composer’s concern for and focus on environmental issues. This is a simply lovely, contemplative mood-setting release, with pristine choral and instrumental blending.

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01 Goldberg Beyond Variations

Johann Gottlieb Goldberg – Beyond the Variations
Rebel; Jörg-Michael Schwartz
Bridge Records 9478 (


Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, namesake of Bach’s famous Variations, was a highly talented musician. His life (1727-1756) was tragically short, but this CD, with five of Goldberg’s sonatas, shows us just what we were deprived of. Jörg-Michael Schwarz, playing a 1668 Jacobus Stainer violin, sets the scene with some beautiful playing in the Adagio of the B-flat Major Sonata. In the Allegro he is joined by Karen Marie Marmer playing a 1660 Stainer in a highly spirited Allegro. A Ciacona, at times stately and at others very lively, ends the sonata.

Goldberg’s Sonata in G Minor is thoughtful and involves the basso continuo much more than in the preceding sonata. There is a richness to John Moran’s cello playing in the Adagio before the violinists interpret the Allegro with a real passion and zest. The final movement of this sonata is the somewhat conventional Tempo di Menuetto.

Enter the viola of Risa Browder. The Largo in the Sonata in C Minor is indeed dignified, as the viola adds an element of complexity to the sonata. This is sustained in the cheerful Allegro and Giga.

The Sonata in A Minor features an Alla Siciliana movement, a dreamy composition which brings out both the violin playing and Goldberg’s own skills as a composer. It is movements like this and the following Allegro assai which bring home what was lost to us when Goldberg died so young.

Finally, there is the Sonata in C Major with its majestic Adagio worthy of any great Baroque composer. The Gigue which concludes the sonata also concludes this CD – again, an inspired introduction to the music of someone who could have generated a lifetime of wonderful music.

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