One of the greatest challenges of editing DISCoveries is always how to do justice to as many of the fine recordings that come our way as we can. Never more so than this past pandemic year, when more artists have focused on recordings in the absence of live performance opportunities. Although we have been able to increase the number of reviews in each edition, there is still a wealth of material we could not get to, with “truckloads [more] arriving daily” to borrow an advertising slogan from the now defunct Knob Hill Farms supermarket chain. 

As Stuart Broomer notes further on in these pages, “Though it’s no exchange that one might choose, the COVID-19 lockdown has often replaced the social and convivial elements of music with the depth of solitary reflection.” 

This has certainly been the case for me, and likely also explains the number of solo projects that have crossed my desk in recent months. You will find them scattered throughout the DISCoveries section, but I have set aside a few of them for this column. 

01 Matt HaimowitzOne of the most ambitious is cellist Matt Haimovitz’s PRIMAVERA PROJECT, the first volume of which is now available: PRIMAVERA I: the wind (PentaTone Oxingale Series PTC 5186286 theprimaveraproject.com). THE PRIMAVERA PROJECT was inspired by the “multi-layered musicality” of German-American artist Charline von Heyl, her “whimsical imagination intertwined with literary and historical references,” and by Sandro Botticelli’s famous painting Primavera. The project’s co-founders, Haimovitz and Dr. Jeffrianne Young, asked von Heyl if she would ever consider reimagining the Botticelli painting for the 21st century, and discussion about the idea of commissioning new cello works inspired by the artwork began. Less than two months later, days before the pandemic lockdown, von Heyl had completed her Primavera 2020. Haimovitz says “The musical commissions of THE PRIMAVERA PROJECT celebrate our golden age of musical diversity and richness. Each new piece – like the blossoming flowers, figures, and symbols of von Heyl’s and Botticelli’s Primaveras – has been a ray of light, offering us hope for renewal of the human spirit.” There are 81 commissioned works, all based on the paintings, and this first volume includes 14 of these. With influences from the world of jazz and Latin music, Vivaldi and Scriabin, the music runs the gamut of contemporary styles. Highlights for me include inti figgis-vizueta’s the motion between three worlds, a rhythmic piece reflecting the composer’s Andean and Irish roots, Vijay Iyer’s reflective Equal night which includes an occasional nod to Bach’s iconic cello suites, the dramatic  by Roberto Sierra and Lisa Bielawa’s otherworldly Missa Primavera; but all of the tracks have something to recommend them. Haimovitz is in top form no matter how many challenges the music throws at him. PRIMAVERA II is scheduled to be released this fall. For more details about the project and upcoming in-person and virtual performances visit the website.

02 Scott Ordway 19 MovementsCanadian cellist Arlen Hlusko has taken a different approach on her latest release with Nineteen Movements for Unaccompanied Cello all written by the same composer, Scott Ordway (Acis APL85895 acisproductions.com). Ordway sees the unaccompanied solo recital as “a kind of high-wire act with no parallel in musical performance tradition.” He says the work recorded here “pushes – sometimes gently, sometimes more forcefully – on the boundaries of this convention. […] The music is sometimes fast, aggressive, and reckless. More often, though, it is quiet and contemplative. […] Each movement is a reflection on one of four ‘images’ related to the themes of solitude and wilderness: walking, singing, wind, and waves.” Most of the movements have “twins” that appear later in the cycle, reworking the material; there are seven instances of wind, six of singing, four of waves but only two of walking, the short pizzicato opening movement and the protracted bowed finale using the same motif, where only the final four notes are plucked. Although Ordway does reference existing solo cello repertoire in places, particularly Bach and Britten, I don’t find the work at all derivative. The set dates from 2018 and was commissioned by Hlusko when she and Ordway were colleagues at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Lasting most of an hour, as the composer says, Nineteen Movements demands “a different kind of virtuosity; one of endurance, focus, vulnerability and stillness.” Hlusko demonstrates all those qualities, and more.

03 HallgrimssonNext, another collection of 19 movements for a solo string instrument, this time Hafliði Hallgrímsson: Offerto – works for solo violin performed by Peter Sheppard Skærved (Metier msv 28616 divineartrecords.com/label/metier). Hallgrímsson (b.1941, Iceland) is a renowned cellist and composer who studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London and has spent much of his career in the UK, including a stint as principal cellist of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. He also has strong ties with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, with which he served as composer in residence. British violinist Sheppard Skærved has had more than 400 works composed for him but also has a strong interest in little-known repertoire from the past. In 2005 he approached Hallgrímsson for a few short sketches for a concert in an art gallery in Mexico City. Hallgrímsson later revisited and expanded these into 15 quite substantial pieces while maintaining the original title Klee Sketches, in homage to the painter Paul Klee, also an accomplished violinist. The set explores myriad aspects of violin technique, from the Stravinsky-like spiccato opening of the first movement, Klee practising an accompaniment for a popular song, to the playful and virtuosic closing moments of Klee notates birdsong in the aviary. The two books of “sketches” are separated on this recording by Offerto, Op.13 (in memoriam Karl Kvaran), written in 1991 for a close friend, recognized as one of Iceland’s finest abstract painters. The four movements, which range from contemplative to frenetic, are all played with conviction and finesse by Sheppard Skærved. One of Hallgrímsson’s own paintings adorns the cover of the CD. 

04 TransformationsViolinist Elizabeth Chang says that American composer Leon Kirchner (1919-2009) had a “profound artistic and pedagogical influence” on her as an undergraduate at Harvard. Reflecting on the relationships formed with her own students and on how “the particularity of the teacher/student relationship […] bears fruit in our evolution as human beings and musicians,” she conceived of Transformations (Albany Records TROY1850 albanyrecords.com). It features works for violin alone and in duo with piano and cello by Kirchner and his teachers Roger Sessions and Arnold Schoenberg, both “pioneers in seeking a new compositional language in the post-tonal world while being deeply rooted in the Germanic tradition.” Chang goes on to tell us that “Kirchner’s voice reflects the thorny complexity of modernism while palpably reaching for the sensuality of the musical language of a previous era.” The disc begins with a late work by Kirchner, the Duo No.2 for Violin and Piano (2002) in which this approach is aptly demonstrated. Sessions’ extended Solo Sonata follows, a four-movement mid-career work dating from 1953, and then his brief and evocative Duo for Violin and Cello from 1978. Schoenberg’s Phantasy Op.47 for violin and piano, written in 1949, completes a compelling disc. “Thorny complexity” notwithstanding, I found it interesting to notice my wife moving rhythmically along with this supposedly academic fare as we listened while playing our daily game of cribbage, one of our COVID stay-at-home routines. She isn’t normally engaged by the music when I’m doing my “homework” listening.

Listen to 'Transformations' Now in the Listening Room

05 John Luther AdamsAfter so many solo string sonorities and so much craggy modernism it was something of a relief to immerse myself in the lush wash of Alaskan composer John Luther Adams’ Arctic Dreams (Cold Blue Music CB0060 coldbluemusic.com). The gradually changing textures and rich sonorities, an early example of Adams’ “Aeolian” sound world, grew out of his “experiences listening to wind harps on the tundra.” Arctic Dreams is dedicated to the memory of the composer’s dear friend, naturalist and author Barry Lopez, and shares its title with one of his greatest books. The seven movements of the suite, with evocative titles such as The Place Where You Go to Listen and Where the Waves Splash, Hitting Again and Again, are scored for four string players (Robin Lorenz, violin; Ron Lawrence, viola; Michael Finckel, cello and Robert Black, bass), four singers (Synergy Vocals) and three layers of digital delay. The eerie, yet calming, music is a perfect antidote to the stress and tribulations of these troubled times.  

06 Arching PathAnother disc which I’m finding “good for the soul” is The Arching Path featuring contemplative, mostly soothing music by American composer Christopher Cerrone (In a Circle Records ICR021 cerrone.bandcamp.com/album/the-arching-path). Pianist Timo Andres is featured on all tracks, alone on the title work, and with electronics by the composer on Double Happiness where they are joined by percussionist Ian Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum also returns with soprano Lindsey Kesselman on the five-movement song cycle I will learn to love a person where clarinetist Migzhe Wang is also credited; but you have to listen very carefully to notice. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a clarinet played so subtly or sensitively, simply extending the colour palette of the ensemble sound. I’m very impressed with Kesselman’s voice and control; even in the highest tessitura there’s no strain or shrillness. The texts are five poems by American novelist Tao Lin in which he “ponders the contradiction inherent to life in the digital age, how it is possible to feel at once overexposed and unnoticed to the point of vanishing.” The use of the vernacular is somewhat disconcerting, but the overall effect is riveting, at times with its intensity and at others with its sense of calm resignation. The disc concludes with Hoyt-Schermerhorn, a meditation where the piano is once again alone except for some gently nuanced electronics reminiscent of tinkling icicles. 

07 Territorial SongsI first became aware of Danish recorder virtuoso Michala Petri during my tenure at CJRT-FM in the early 90s when I picked up an RCA CD on which she performed contemporary concertos, including one by Toronto’s own Gary Kulesha. I found it compelling and intriguing and I think it was the first time that I had heard a recorder as an orchestral solo instrument. Since her debut at age 11 Petri has toured the world and performed more than 4,000 concerts, with repertoire spanning the Renaissance era to the present day. She has commissioned more than 150 works and is a tireless champion of living composers; her discography extends to 70 critically acclaimed recordings. Petri’s latest CD, Territorial Songs – Works for Recorder by Sunleif Rasmussen (OUR Recordings 6.220674 ourrecordings.com), presents works in a variety of genres by that celebrated Faroese composer, including the unaccompanied Sorrow and Joy Fantasy, Flow for recorder and string trio (meant to be a companion piece to Mozart’s flute quartets mentioned elsewhere in these pages, performed here with members of the Esbjerg Ensemble), “I” with a cappella choir (Danish National Vocal Ensemble), Winter Echoes with 13 solo strings (Lapland Chamber Orchestra), and the title work, a concerto with full orchestra (Aalborg Symphony under Henrik Vagn Christensen). Territorial Songs is the earliest work presented here, composed in 2009 for Petri when Rasmussen was composer-in-residence with the South Jutland Symphony Orchestra. The soloist uses various members of the recorder family – soprano through tenor – in the different movements. There is an “anti-cadenza” in which Petri is called upon to sing and play her instrument simultaneously, a lyric episode “providing a colourful contrast to the non-stop pyrotechnics” heard elsewhere in the concerto. In the concluding section, before the tolling bells of the opening return, the soloist “pushes the recorder’s virtuosity to its limits, with triple tonguing, rapid chromatic figuration, breathtaking waves of rolling triplets and punishingly difficult octave leaps.” It’s an exhilarating ride handled deftly with seeming ease by Petri. Don’t miss the train, get on board!

Listen to 'Territorial Songs: Works for Recorder by Sunleif Rasmussen' Now in the Listening Room

08 Schwarz BartI first wrote about saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart back in December 2018 when he released Hazzan, in which he explored his half-Jewish heritage in the context of jazz. Schwarz-Bart’s latest, Soné Ka-La 2 Odyssey (Enja 9777 enjarecords.com/wordpress), revisits his hybrid of Guadeloupean Gwoka music and jazz first explored on the original Soné Ka-La release in 2005. On that, he set out “to pioneer a sophisticated modern jazz language cross-pollinated with Afro-Caribbean rhythms and melodies inspired by the Gwoka traditions from my native island of Guadeloupe.” On Odyssey he is joined by singer Malika Tirolien (from Montreal via Guadeloupe) and backed by a dynamic rhythm section with Grégory Privat on piano, Reggie Washington, bass, Arnaud Dolmen, drum kit and Sonny Troupé, traditional ka drum. Tirolien is a true partner in this venture where her wordless vocals, often in intricate unison with the leader’s saxophone and extensions, blend seamlessly and add to the distinct signature sound bolstered by the busy percussionists. On first listening I wondered why I found this album hauntingly familiar. Eventually I figured it out. Back in my formative years when I was first exploring the world of jazz, I was introduced to many of the greats by a 3-LP collection called Energy Essentials on the Impulse! label, featuring the likes of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Saunders, Sonny Rollins, Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor among many others. Of particular note was the track Garvey’s Ghost from Max Roach’s album Percussion Bitter Sweet. Roach’s drumming was supplemented by a pair of Latin percussionists adding island beats, but more important was soprano Abbey Lincoln’s bell-like vocalise, soaring and blending with the instruments in a way I’d not heard before. A half a century on from that discovery, Odyssey takes me back to my epiphany with Tirolien’s vivid vocal expressions as flexible and controlled as any horn you might normally have expected to find, in duet with Schwarz-Bart’s supple saxophone lines. His mother, novelist and playwright Simone Schwarz-Bart, describes it well: “Sumptuous duo, astonishing, perilous and breathtaking: the metal is grateful for the ecstatic generosity of the human voice, the voice is thankful for the powerful and delicate vibrato of the metal… Marvel of souls liberated.” There is definitely “Essential Energy” here. 

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 Paganini IbragimovaWhen the COVID lockdown started in March 2020 the London-based Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova decided to use the forced seclusion to do “some serious work” on the notoriously difficult Paganini 24 Caprices. The result, recorded in an empty Henry Wood Hall, is her new 2-CD set on the Hyperion label (CDA68366 alinaibragimova.com/recordings).

In his excellent booklet essay, which outlines the individual technical issues and challenges in each caprice, Jeremy Nicholas refers to Paganini as a shockingly underrated and “inspired and well-schooled composer whose innovative advances in violin technique couched in music of great drama and poetry remain his most significant contributions to the history of music.” 

Well, technique, drama and poetry is just some of what you get from the brilliant soloist here. It’s a quite stunning performance, with never a hint of any technical problems but also never a hint of mere virtuosity – there’s an astonishing palette of colours and moods that holds your interest from beginning to end. If you’ve ever viewed these pieces as mere technical studies then this set – an absolute must-buy at two CDs for the price of one – will certainly change your mind.

02 Hadelich Bach Sonatas PartitasAnother product of the lockdown is the Bach Sonatas & Partitas set from violinist Augustin Hadelich, who took the opportunity to complete a recording project that had long been a dream of his (Warner Classics 190295047955 warnerclassics.com/release/augustin-hadelich-bach).

His perceptive booklet notes examine the changing approach to Bach’s music through the historically informed revolution to the current variety of styles. He uses a Baroque bow with his 1744 “Leduc, ex-Szeryng” Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù violin, which he found to be liberating and a revelation, allowing for more fluid multiple stops and more buoyant, light articulation.

Hadelich uses vibrato when he feels it appropriate for expression, and adds occasional ornamentation. Tempi are dazzlingly fast at times, but bowing and intonation are always flawless.

These are brilliant performances; strong, bright and assertive but never lacking introspection.

03 Metamorphosis Bach on violaWhen the pandemic forced the suspension of Colorado’s Boulder Bach Festival, its music director also took the opportunity to begin the Bach recording project he’d been planning for years. The result is Metamorphosis: Bach Cello Suites 1, 2 and 3 played on viola by Zachary Carrettín (Sono Luminus DSL-92247 sonoluminus.com).

Carrettín has extensive experience as guest concertmaster with numerous Baroque orchestras, and has lived with these works for over 25 years. The result, not surprisingly, is a superb set of beautifully judged performances. Any loss of low cello resonance is more than compensated for by the lighter warmth of the viola, its octave-higher tuning making these seem a perfectly natural performance choice, and not transcriptions.

The viola is an 18th-century model by an unknown maker, set up with internal and external historical fittings – bridge, tailpiece and bass bar – and wound gut strings, with Carrettín using an ironwood tenor viola da gamba Baroque bow.

Listen to 'Metamorphosis: Bach Cello Suites 1, 2 and 3' Now in the Listening Room

04 Gluzman Beethoven SchnittkeVadim Gluzman is in tremendous form on Beethoven/Schnittke No.3 violin concertos, with the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester under James Gaffigan (BIS-2392 naxosdirect.com/search/+bis-2392+).

Strong opening timpani strokes in the Beethoven announce a performance of real character, but what really sets it apart is the use of the cadenzas written by Alfred Schnittke in the mid-1970s. With their snatches of Bach, Brahms, Bartók, Berg and Shostakovich, they strike Gluzman as “an incredible time bridge, uniting all into one and pointing to the Beethoven concerto as being the root, the source of inspiration and in a way a model for generations to come.” They’re remarkably effective, never deserting Beethoven’s material but viewing it through different eyes, never simply virtuosic and never disrespectful – better, in this respect, than some of the standard cadenzas.

A cadenza starts Schnittke’s own three-movement Violin Concerto No.3, written in 1978 for Oleg Kagan and scored for 13 wind instruments and string quartet, the latter not heard until the transition to the third movement.

Gluzman, playing the 1690 ex-Leopold Auer Strad, is superb throughout, with outstanding support from the Lucerne ensemble on a terrific disc.

05 Phoenix WawrowskiPhoenix, the latest CD from violinist Janusz Wawrowski with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Grzegorz Nowak, features two concertos written in times of personal stress for their composers: the “Phoenix Concerto” for Violin Op.70 by the Polish composer Ludomir Różycki (1883-1953) and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto Op.35 (Warner Classics 0190295191702 wawrowski.com/albums-shop).

The two-movement Różycki concerto was written in 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising but never performed. When he encountered manuscript fragments of the work several years ago (no complete fully orchestrated version survives), Wawrowski was determined to see the concerto reborn; he located the manuscript piano reduction, discovered further fragments, including some of the original orchestration, rewrote sections of the violin part that were unplayable, and had a full orchestration prepared. The result is an extremely attractive work, premiered in 2018, with a first-movement theme that will melt your heart, especially given Wawrowski’s sweet-toned, strong, rhapsodic playing. His remark that the concerto reminds him of Gershwin or – in particular – Korngold, with a slight glance towards Hollywood, is spot on.

The Tchaikovsky concerto was written following the breakup of the composer’s disastrous marriage. The performance here is top notch – carefully measured and thoughtful, with great control of tempi – but I’d buy the whole disc just for that achingly, hauntingly beautiful Różycki theme.

06 Rachel PodgerViolinist Rachel Podger, with Christopher Glynn at the fortepiano, completes her nine-CD series of Mozart’s violin sonatas with Mozart Jones Violin Sonatas Fragment Completions, world-premiere recordings of six sonata-allegros and a fantasia for violin and piano, completed by Timothy Jones (Channel Classics CCS SA 42721 rachelpodger.com/recordings).

Since 2013, Jones has produced over 80 completions of some 30 Mozart fragments in all genres, a process discussed in detail in his extensive and fascinating booklet essay. Four fragments from Mozart’s last decade in Vienna form the basis of the remarkable reworkings here, with multiple versions showing the various possibilities, all based on Mozart’s evolving style during the 1780s. Three fragments – Fr1782c in B-flat, Fr1784b in A and Fr1789f in G – are each heard in two completions; the remaining fragment is the Fantasia in C Minor Fr1782l.

It’s virtually impossible to tell when the fragments end and the completions begin – the continuity is seamless, and never for a moment do you feel as if you’re not listening to Mozart.

The violin is a 1739 Pesarinius, and the fortepiano a 2019 German model by Christoph Kern, based on an 1825 original by Conrad Graf of Vienna. They are well matched, and there’s a lovely tonal balance on a quite fascinating disc.

07 McDonagh beethoven complete cello sontats album coverThe Irish duo of cellist Ailbhe McDonagh (her first name pronounced AL-vah) and pianist John O’Conor make their contribution to the Beethoven 250 celebrations with a double-album set of Beethoven Complete Cello Sonatas 1-5, released in late May and available on all major music platforms (Steinway & Sons naxosdirect.com/search/034062301812).

O’Conor is an acknowledged Beethoven specialist, having won first prize in the International Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna in 1973, and having recorded the complete piano sonatas as well as the complete piano concertos. McDonagh, who as a child studied piano with O’Conor, is a great partner and clearly on the same level here, the duo being as one with every nuance in dynamics and tempi in outstanding performances.

Recorded in St. Peter’s Church in Drogheda, Ireland in August of last year, the sound is resonant and warm and the balance excellent. I listened on YouTube, where there is also a short documentary on the project.

08 Intimate ImpressionsIntimate Impressions for 2 guitars, featuring Canadian guitarists Adam Cicchillitti and Steve Cowan, is a collection of 20th-century works written in Paris, heard here mostly in arrangements by the performers (Analekta AN 2 8793 analekta.com/en).

The only original piece for two guitars is the four-movement Sérénade by André Jolivet from 1959. Ravel’s Sonatine, Germaine Tailleferre’s Sonate pour harpe, four short pieces by the Catalan composer Federico Mompou and two Debussy Préludes – Bruyères and La fille aux cheveux de lin – are all arrangements, with the Drew Henderson/Michael Kolk arrangement of the Prélude from Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin closing the disc.

Each guitarist has a solo track: Debussy’s Arabesque No.1 for Cicchillitti, and Ravel’s Pavane pour une enfante défunte for Cowan. Fine playing throughout, recorded by the always-reliable Drew Henderson, makes for a delightful CD.

09 Rodrigo Guitar 3The first two volumes of the Naxos series of the guitar music of Joaquín Rodrigo featured guitarist Jérémy Jouve, but on Rodrigo Guitar Music 3, a selection of eight works ranging from 1948 to 1987, the soloist is the brilliant Turkish-American guitarist Celil Refik Kaya (8.574004 naxosdirect.com/search/8574004).

Although unable to play the guitar, Rodrigo produced about 25 solo works for the instrument, an output that, as Graham Wade notes in his excellent booklet essay, is now appreciated as one of the central pillars of the concert repertoire.

The first thing that strikes you is the wealth of variety and imagination and the sheer technical demands of the music. The second thing is how superbly Kaya meets every challenge, with faultless technique, a wide range of tone colour and dynamics and impeccable musicianship. He is joined by flutist Marianne Gedigian in two short works for flute and guitar, but the brilliance here is in the solo pieces.

Norbert Kraft’s name as producer guarantees a superb recorded sound on an outstanding disc.

10 DIALOGOG John Henry CrawfordDIALOGO is the excellent debut album from the American cellist John-Henry Crawford, accompanied by the Filipino-American pianist Victor Santiago Asuncion (Orchid Classics ORC100166 orchidclassics.com). 

“Dialogue” is Crawford’s description of the recital’s concept: Dialogo is the first of the two movements of the brief but striking Sonata for Solo Cello by György Ligeti, but the cellist also sees conversation between the partners in Brahms’ Cello Sonata No.2 in F Major Op.99 and the desire for dialogue in the Cello Sonata in D Minor Op.40 by Shostakovich, who at the time of the work’s composition was temporarily separated from his wife.

Crawford draws a warm, rich tone from the 200-year-old cello that was smuggled out of Austria by his grandfather following Kristallnacht in 1938, and is ably supported by fine playing from Asuncion in performances of strength, sensitivity and passion.

Listen to 'DIALOGO' Now in the Listening Room

11 Warren NicholsonSonidos del Sur, the latest CD from Canadian guitarist Warren Nicholson, features works by composers from Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Paraguay and Cuba (Composers Concordance Records COMCON0063 warrennicholsonguitarist.com).

The most well-known pieces are Agustín Barrios’ La Catedral, Antonio Lauro’s four Valses Venezolano and João Pernambuco’s Sons de Carrilhões (Sounds of Bells). Also included are Maximo Diego Pujol’s five-movement Suite Del Plata No.1, José Ardevol’s three-movement Sonata Para Guitarra, Julio Sagreras’ El Colibri and Dilermando Reis’ Xôdô da Baiana.

As always with this player, there’s solid technique and clean playing with some lovely moments, but there’s also an occasional sense of earnestness and over-deliberation which tends to prevent the music from really expanding and flowing.

12 Xander SimmonsMontreal-based composer Xander Simmons has released a digital EP of his String Quartet No.2, a five-movement work lasting just over 20 minutes (xandersimmons.com).

Simmons describes it as post-minimalist in style, with lyrical, mostly tonal melodies layered on minimalist compositional structures, which is exactly how it sounds. It’s a confident, highly competent piece given a terrific performance by Montreal’s Quatuor Cobalt, with whom Simmons workshopped and revised the work. It’s well worth a listen. You can check it out on YouTube.

01 DistanceDistance
Choeur de l’Eglise St. Andrew and St. Paul; Jean-Sébastien Vallée
ATMA ACD2 2840 (atmaclassique.com/en) 

Recorded at the height of Montreal’s second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic under extremely specific and restrictive public health conditions, Distance could not be more appropriately titled. Despite these challenging times and conditions, this disc manages to distill an extraordinary amount of strength and beauty into its 69 minutes, a testament to the quality of the Choir of the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul and its director, Jean-Sébastien Vallée.

Spanning nearly five centuries of music and a great range of styles, there is something for everyone here. Beginning with a stunning performance of Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei (his own arrangement of the Adagio for Strings), Trevor Weston’s atmospheric Magnificat and Bach’s Komm, Jesu, Komm, the first three works are notable for the way in which the choir is able to modify their performance practice to meet the demands of each era.

The remainder of Distance is equally stimulating, with Elgar’s legendary Nimrod appearing in a vocal arrangement by John Cameron titled Lux aeterna, and works by Rachmaninoff, James MacMillan, and Uģis Prauliņš. In addition to these renowned composers, there are also appearances by contemporary composers Reena Esmail, Caroline Shaw and William Kraushaar, each born in the 1980s. 

There is little more to say about the performances on this disc, other than that they are extraordinary. The virtuosity present in the Barber is entirely different from that demanded by Bach, which is itself radically different from Prauliņš, and each is simply stunning in its own way. This reviewer is very rarely rendered speechless but, when something is done as well as the interpretations presented here, it is undoubtedly better to talk less and listen more.

Listen to 'Distance' Now in the Listening Room

02 Winterreise DiDonatoSchubert – Winterreise
Joyce DiDonato; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Erato 0190295284245 (warnerclassics.com)

There is ample evidence, in their individual oeuvres, to suggest that luminous mezzo Joyce DiDonato and maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin are artists of the first order; enough, it may be said, to have earned them the right to do whatever they may wish to. This recording of Winterreise, Franz Schubert’s iconic and desolate song cycle, is an altogether more challenging assignment, but one that’s pulled off with aplomb. 

This unique duo interprets this music from the despondent woman’s perspective and provides Schubert’s music and Wilhelm Müller’s verses with a new benchmark. This is no simple replacement of the male protagonist – the rejected lover on the verge of madness – with a female one. The lonely peregrinations of Schubert’s old character through the snowbound landscape have been given dramatically new meaning by DiDonato. Müller’s 24 verses speak to the mezzo in a very special way. She has, in turn, interiorized the bleak despondency of Die schöne Müllerin and recast the music’s unrelenting desolation in a breathtaking new landscape of personal pain. 

Meanwhile, from his vantage point in the shadows behind his piano, Nézet-Séguin conducts himself with impeccable decorum, occasionally emerging into the limelight if only to gently emphasize or provide poignant relief from the music’s bleak mood. His musicianship throughout is eloquent. His astute pianism – especially in Der Leiermann – highlights and embellishes the emotional veracity of Winterreise, combining with DiDonato’s darkly lustrous performance to take Schubert’s magnificent art song cycle to a rarefied realm.

03 Donizetti Lucrezia BorgiaDonizetti – Lucrezia Borgia
Marko Mimica; Carmela Remigio; Xabier Anduaga; Varduhi Abrahamyan; Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini; Coro del Teatro Municipale di Piacenza; Riccardo Frizza
Dynamic 37849 (naxosdirect.com/search/37849)

Nestled on the southern slopes of the Italian Alps is the lovely small town Bergamo, birthplace of one of the great masters of Italian bel canto, Gaetano Donizetti. Lucrezia Borgia, one of his early successes, premiered in 1833 at La Scala shortly after Anna Bolena, his first major breakthrough. It is rarely performed, as it requires soloists, especially the lead soprano, of the highest calibre. Over the last century the opera went through many revisions, but it never left the stage and attracted the likes of Caruso, Gigli, Caballé, Sills, Gruberova and Sutherland for the principal roles.

The opera centres around one of the most despicable characters of the Italian Renaissance, the daughter of Pope Alexander VI, Lucrezia Borgia who murdered three husbands and is presently on her fourth, Don Alfonso, ruler of Ferrara. The story that follows is a total mayhem of horror, jealousy, vendetta, poisoning, mass murder and suicide, but the music remains one of the composer’s most compelling and forward-looking scores. In fact, he is attempting to break the traditional rigid rules of bel canto by bringing the recitativo and aria closer together towards a more fluid style and expressive language, a step closer to Verdi.

The strongest feature of this memorable performance is Italian soprano Carmela Remigio in the title role. She truly carries the show with her dramatic persona, total emotional involvement, absorption into the role and a mesmerizing voice powerful in all registers. Gennaro, her illegitimate son, cause of much of her grief and anguish, is the sensational Spanish tenor Xabier Anduaga, winner of Operalia Competition 2019. Young Marko Mimica from Zagreb, Croatia, as Don Alfonso, is a powerful bass-baritone and the supporting cast is remarkable. Riccardo Frizza, master of Italian opera, conducts.

05 Visca LAmorVisca L’Amor – Catalan Arts Songs
Isaí Jess Muñoz; Oksana Glouchko
Bridge Records 9548 (bridgerecords.com/products/9548)

Six song cycles by Catalan composers, music and words brimming with urgency and passion, are illuminated by the fervent, vibrato-warmed singing of tenor Isaí Jess Muñoz, accompanied by pianist Oksana Glouchko.

In La rosa als llavis (The Rose on the Lips) by Eduard Toldrà (1895-1962), a lover burns with desire until the sixth and final song, Visca l’amor (Long Live Love), ending with the words “la volia, i l’he pres” (I wanted her, and I took her). Ricard Lamote de Grignon (1899-1962) set his three brief Cants homèrics (Homeric Hymns) to translations of ancient Greek prayers. Those to the Muses, Apollo and Zeus are declamatory in words and music; that for Aphrodite, gentle and caressing.

Achingly beautiful melismas make Haidé, three miniature love poems set by Narcís Bonet (b.1933), my particular favourite among this admirable collection. Combat del somni (Struggle in the Dream) by Frederic Mompou (1893-1987) is filled with intense yearning for an absent lover. (I first heard these three plaintive songs, infused with extravagant poetic imagery, on a still-treasured LP from the 1950s.) 

The four songs of Imitació del foe (Imitation of Fire) by Elisenda Fábregas (b.1955), commissioned by Muñoz and Glouchko for this CD, dramatically deal with “delirium,” “blood waves,” long-haired winged men,” “racing suns” and “sharpened flames.” The devotional Ave Maria, Benedictus and three Alleluias of Les Paraules sagrades (Sacred Words) by Joan Comellas (1913-2000) provide a richly satisfying conclusion to this richly satisfying CD.

06 Coleridge Taylor SongsSamuel Coleridge-Taylor – Heart & Hereafter
Elizabeth Llewellyn; Simon Lepper
Orchid Classics ORC100164 (naxosdirect.com/search/orc100164)

The neglect that Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1923) seems to have suffered in his lifetime (and after) could rival that of Franz Schubert and Gustav Mahler. Moreover, like Schubert and Mahler, Coleridge-Taylor’s reputation as a composer of exceptional breadth and scope is also being illuminated by the ceaseless proselytizing of a few performers – the latest being the breathtakingly agile lyric soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn together with pianist Simon Lepper. 

On Heart & Hereafter Coleridge-Taylor’s skill unfolds through a breathtaking array of work, from musical settings of Christina Rossetti’s poetry to selections from his other songbooks, all of which constitute profound meditations in music brought to life by Llewellyn and Lepper.

Coleridge-Taylor’s limitless creativity in art song is evident in the range of expression displayed in this collection. It’s clear from the sweep of this music that the composer found inspiration to illuminate each subject with emotional depth and luminosity.

Throughout, Llewellyn does Coleridge-Taylor’s work poetic justice. Her instrument is lustrous, precise and feather-light. Melodies are ideally weighed and measured as Llewellyn digs fiercely into the meaning of each gesture, bringing ceaseless variety, fluid dynamics and – not infrequently – a quite magical quality to her phrasing. Lepper’s fingerwork is exceptional and he exhibits a gleamingly blended tonal quality in his pianism. It’s hard to imagine a duo better suited to this repertoire, with both musicians bringing distinct and deeply interiorized readings to complement each other’s execution of these utterly beautiful songs.

07 dwb driving while blackSusan Kander – dwb (driving while black)
Roberta Gumbel; New Morse Code
Albany Records TROY1858 (albanyrecords.com)

Near the end of dwb (driving while black), a woman is teaching her son to drive. “Is this car a ticket to freedom or a time bomb?” she asks herself. It’s not a car crash she worries about. It’s a police stop – will her son be assaulted, even murdered, because he is driving while Black? 

In Roberta Gumbel’s poetic libretto, scenes created from her own experiences as a Black mother alternate with hard-hitting news bulletins. The racially charged incidents these bulletins announce, from dramatically shifting perspectives, escalate from creepy encounters to vicious attacks. 

Composer Susan Kander has scored this chamber opera for one singer, a cellist and a percussionist. Her imaginative exploration of this unusual combination resonates with the intensity of a full-scale opera’s worth of colourful sonorities and textures. dwb (driving while black) is just 46 minutes long, and it moves quickly. But the emotional impact resonates long after it’s over. 

Gumbel, a soprano, sings the part she created with engaging expressiveness. In the detailed vignettes showing her loving relationship with her son, we feel the joys as vividly as the fears – through the jazzy vocalises, the tender lullabies and the theatrical monologues. Her impassioned commitment is matched by that of the versatile musicians of New Morse Code, cellist Hannah Collins and percussionist Michael Compitello. 

Together they reinforce the deep sense of urgency driving this powerful work, shining some light on our fraught times.

01 Beausejour New BaroqueNew Baroque Sessions
Luc Beauséjour
Analekta AN 2 8919 (analekta.com/en)

Solitary ways of existence brought on by the current pandemic have resulted in spurs of interesting solo projects around the world. Many performing artists have been contemplating the question of their artistic identity in the circumstances that extinguish the very nature of their art. A solo statement of a kind, New Baroque Sessions is an album that captures one artist’s way of retaining the essence of their creative expression while playing the music they love. 

This second volume of Baroque music played on piano (the first one was published in 2016) is a collection of Luc Beauséjour’s favourite pieces from the Baroque repertoire. The compositions, by Bach, Couperin (Armand-Louis and François), Scarlatti, Fischer, Sweelinck, Froberger and Balbastre, touch upon different corners of vast Baroque treasures. Some are well known, others explored less often. All are predominantly written for harpsichord but translate exceptionally well to piano, which was one of Beauséjour’s intentions with this album. 

A versatile performer, equally at home on harpsichord, organ and piano, Beauséjour has an elegance to his playing that is truly rare. Here is the performer that plays with colours and articulations; a performer of subtle gestures that amount to grand statements. The pieces themselves contain creative elements one does not necessarily expect – musical portraits, clever compositional techniques, tributes to Greek muses, or simple utterances of the resilience of their times. While honouring Baroque traditions, there is a touch of contemporaneity to Beauséjour’s interpretations, adding an incredible freshness to this album.

02 SacabucheHidden Treasures – 17th-Century Music of Habsburg and Bohemia
¡Sacabuche!
ATMA ACD2 2798 (atmaclassique.com/en)

This is something new. We are aware of the talented and sometimes prodigious output of Austrian composers such as Haydn or Mozart but their predecessors are all but unknown. Enter ¡Sacabuche! For 15 years under the direction of Baroque trombonist Linda Pearse, this Canadian ensemble has rediscovered works from Habsburg and Bohemian sources. What is more, the range of instruments such as cornettos and theorbos is particularly diverse. 

Indeed, it is strident trombone playing that makes its presence immediately felt in O dulce nomen Jesu by the Viennese composer Giovanni Felice Sances. Massimiliano Neri’s Sonata quarta Op.2 is even more complex, demanding an intricate playing which makes the disappearance of these pieces from mainstream music all the more puzzling. 

On occasion the CD includes anonymous pieces; the eight-part Sinfonia is a vibrant full-blooded composition which any modern brass band would be proud to perform. Of course, this does not rule out vocal input as another anonymous composition Salve regina à 4 brings out the contralto contribution of Vicki St Pierre – holding her own even while outnumbered by ten instrumentalists! In fact, while most of the compositions on this CD are scored for several of these instrumentalists, St Pierre’s performance of O quam suavis (again anonymous) brings a virtuoso voice to the selection.

When we consider our familiarity with the contemporary composers from say Venice, the absence of this CD’s composers is very surprising. We owe much to Linda Pearse and her fellow musicians in bringing us this anthology.

03 Spira SperaSpira, Spera
Emmanuel Despax
Signum Classics SIGCD 665 (signumrecords.com/?s=Spira)

In the liner notes to the terrific 2021 release Spira, Spera, the name taken from Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, French pianist Emmanuel Despax writes that studying and performing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is metaphysical in that “there is no chaos, just beauty.” Most certainly, during these trying times, humanity’s quest for beauty is, if nothing, unabated. As such, I would suggest (expanding on this point) that Bach’s music – particularly when played as beautifully as is captured on this wonderful recording – is an equivalently metaphysical journey for engaged listeners. Perhaps this sounds trite, but beauty is the antidote to ugliness. And sadly, there is tremendous ugliness in society and in the world at present. Beauty, and beautiful artifacts, such as the music of Bach as performed boldly and with nuance by Despax, hold out the possibility of something (a beauty ideal?) towards which we aspire. 

Although much of the music contained on this disc may be familiar, the arrangements and album concept (paying tribute to the legacy of pianists and composers – Liszt and Busoni among others – who both revered Bach’s music and transcribed it for the contemporary piano) is both unique and musically satisfying. The whole recording is sublime. Even on such workhorses as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, Despax finds freshness in Dame Myra Hess’s transcription and brings to life beautiful musical subtleties that, of course, were always contained within, but needed the deftness of touch and recording sensitivity that Despax and this album offer, to reveal themselves anew.

04 Madame BrillonIn the Salon of Madame Brillon – Music and Friendship in Benjamin Franklin’s Paris
The Raritan Players; Rebecca Cypess
Acis APL40158 (acisproductions.com)

This inspired new recording from the noted Raritan Players was conceived and directed by pianist and scholar Dr. Rebecca Cypess, and is the result of arduous research and performances. The project is focused on the pre-Revolutionary War Parisian hostess, patroness and composer, Anne-Louise Boyvan d’Hardancourt Brillon de Jouy (1744-1824), and on both her musical canon and the sparkling workings of her fabulous, fashionable and elite Parisian salon. Her luminous guests were drawn from the rarified worlds of music, art, philosophy and diplomacy – including her flirty pen pal Benjamin Franklin (then U.S. Ambassador to Paris). 

There are seven world-premiere recordings here, which include Brillon’s duet for harpsichord and square piano (performed on a rare 1780 English instrument by Johannes Zumpe). All selections have been performed on period instruments and feature not only Brillon’s work, but music preserved in her personal collection, including compositions dedicated to her by the iconic cellist Luigi Boccherini. 

Of particular beauty in this heady bouquet are Boccherini’s Sonata No.4 in D Major from Sei Sonate di Cembalo e Violino – particularly the Andante, which explores the gorgeous and unexpected, natural sonic symmetry of the violin and harpsichord. Brillon’s own Sonata No.4 in G Minor is a fresh-sounding and compelling work, and in the Andante con espressione, the square piano resonates with passion and urgency – engulfing the length of the keyboard. Henri-Joseph Rigel’s three-movement piece for piano and harpsichord, Duo No.2 in C Minor is a spine-tingling celebration of musical possibilities. 

Constrained by the societal restrictions of her day, Brillon, who nearly disappeared from history, manifested an international life of artistic and historical significance that still resonates today.

05 Boccherini FluteBoccherini – Complete Flute Quintets
Rafael Ruibérriz de Torres; Francisco de Goya String Quartet
Brilliant Classics 96074 (naxosdirect.com/search/5028421960746)

Virtuoso cellist and composer, Luigi Boccherini, born in 1743 in the city of Lucca in Tuscany, Italy, only 92 kilometres west of Florence, received his musical education in Lucca and subsequently in Rome. He spent some time in his mid-20s in Paris, which led to his moving to Madrid and his appointment as a musician in the household of the Infante Don Luis, brother of King Charles III.

It was there in 1773 and 1774 that Boccherini composed the two sets of Six Flute Quintets Opp.17 and 19, recorded on the first two CDs of this three-CD set. The third CD is of the Flute Quintets Op.55, composed in 1797, either in Spain or in Berlin, where he was employed by King Frederick William II of Prussia.

These 18 quintets, while far from Boccherini’s total output, reveal a very skilful and original composer, different from but not inferior to his much better-known colleagues, Haydn and Mozart. First and foremost is his gift for melodic invention, evident in everything on the CD, even in the third set, composed when he was in his mid-50s. 

The flute would, you might think, be a bit of a fifth wheel when added to a string quartet, but not for Boccherini. He sometimes uses the flute as a soloist, as in Op.19, No.3, which is almost a concerto, the flute even having a cadenza; sometimes as an orchestral colour to bring out a series of modulations, as in Op.17, No.1; and sometimes as a source of contrast, as in Op.19, No.4, where the flute and the cello alternate as soloists.

The performers are the Spanish Francisco de Goya String Quartet and flutist, Rafael Ruibérriz de Torres. The quartet’s playing is technically flawless, and their sensitivity to each other and to the flute is exemplary. Ruibérriz de Torres always sounds as if he belongs, and his facility on the period instrument is astounding during the virtuoso passages. Bravissimi to the five for giving us this first complete recording of these hitherto neglected works.

06 Flute Passion MozartFlute Passion: Mozart
Nadia Labrie; Antoine Bareil; Isaac Chalk; Benoit Loiselle
Analekta AN 2 8925 (analekta.com/en)

Mozart’s dislike of the flute has long been a topic of controversy, and whatever truth there may be behind the theory, some of his most charming works were written for the instrument, albeit the result of commissions received between 1778 and 1787. Five of these compositions – the Quartets K285, 285a and 285b in addition to the Quartet K298 and the renowned Andante K315 (as arranged and adapted by François Vallières) are presented here on this delightful Analekta recording performed by flutist Nadia Labrie and her accomplished colleagues Antoine Bareil, violin, Isaac Chalk, viola and Benoit Loiselle, cello. First-prize winner from the Conservatoire de musique du Québec, Labrie holds a master’s degree from the Université de Montréal and has appeared as soloist with such ensembles as the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec and the Vienna Chamber Orchestra. This is her third in the Flute Passion series.

These one-, two-,  or three-movement works – never more than 17 minutes in length – may have only been written for the purpose of financial gain, but after 250 years they remain miniature gems – amiable chamber music where all parts are deemed equal. 

As a cohesive ensemble, this group of four succeeds admirably!  From the beginning, the listener is struck with the wonderfully intimate sound these musicians produce. Labrie’s pure and sonorous tone is perfectly complemented by the underlying strings that provide a sensitive partnership. This is nowhere more evident than in the second movement of K285b, a theme and six variations. Here, the artists approach the graceful intertwined melodies with great finesse, achieving a delicate balance throughout.

Félicitations à tous! This is a wonderful performance of engaging music played by four gifted musicians. Whatever feelings Mozart may have had for the flute, he would surely have approved!

07 Mozart Gran PartitaMozart – Gran Partita & Wind Serenades
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Harmonia Mundi HMM902627 (akamus.de/en)

Alte is German for “old,” perhaps leading one to imagine fustiness, cobwebs or creaking joints. The Akademie für Alte Musik invert the age of the music, making old sound new, in their release of two of Mozart’s beloved Wind Serenades, K.375 in E-flat Major and K.361 in B-flat Major (known affectionately as the Gran Partita). I imagine the players wearing some fashions of the later 18th century, shoe leather worn by the cobblestones of Vienna, marvelling at and revelling in the sounds they are called on to make by the newly written score; some probably in need of a bath, wishing their masters paid more, hoping to avoid cholera. 

This music is never old, no matter how often it’s reworked. The playing is so damned fine that every moment is a joy, conjuring the freshness that Mozart inserted into the charming form of the Serenade during its moment of popularity. Ever the canny businessman, he wrote the second of these entertainments “quite carefully” to catch the attention of a wealthy potential patron: Emperor Joseph II. Wind players and their audience are much the richer for his efforts.

There’s some oddness of pitch, owing to the use of period instruments; the bassoon sound in particular is quite special. The ensemble colours are fresh and juicy, the phrasing and articulation precise. These performances rank among the finest recordings of this material I’ve heard. Bonus delight: the audible breath upbeats beginning each track.

08 Mozart Albrecht MayerMozart – Works for Oboe and Orchestra
Albrecht Mayer; Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen
Deutsche Grammophon (deutschegrammophon.com/en/catalogue/products/mozart-albrecht-mayer-12210)

The new Deutsche Grammophon album Mozart consists of six works transcribed for oboe, oboe d’amore and English horn, including a completed version of the first movement of the unfinished Oboe Concerto in F Major, expertly performed by internationally renowned solo oboist of the Berlin Philharmonic, Albrecht Mayer and the Kammerphilharmonie Bremen chamber orchestra. Comprised of a thoughtful selection of works originally for soprano, violin and flute, Mozart showcases Mayer at the top of his craft. 

The fragmented and unfinished concerto movement was commissioned to be completed by Mayer’s friend, Swiss composer Gotthard Odermatt. Keeping with the style and flare of Mozart, the fragments were imagined by Odermatt into a delightful, charming and convincing first movement. Another highlight is one of Mozart’s most recognized masterpieces, the Concerto for Flute and Harp. Transposed to the key of B-flat Major, it was arranged for oboe and harpsichord, featuring Vital Julian Frey. The choice of the harpsichord was a unique and effective substitute for harp, fitting perfectly with the timbre of the oboe. It is truly an elegant performance.

With the addition of Ave verum corpus performed on English horn, Exsultate, jubilate and Ch’io mi scordi di te performed on oboe d’amore as well as the Rondo in C and Ah se in ciel, benigne stelle performed on oboe, this album really is a “best of” collection featuring the entire oboe family.

The Kammerphilharmonie Bremen follows and matches the elegant, tasteful phrasing of Mayer, highlighting the mastery of the instruments and his clear love of Mozart.

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