Back in the day, I remember a particular WholeNote cover, of maple leafs floating downstream – them autumn leaves of red and gold, you might say – and floating among them four or five standard black and white artist headshots of established and rising singers, Canadians all!

“Something in the Water?” the headline asked, as Jean Stilwell, Stephanie Piercey, Richard Margison, Russell Braun and Measha Brueggergosman sailed gently down the stream.

It was October 2000, and the cover story, by WholeNote founding publisher, Allan Pulker, was about the seemingly neverending stream of Canadian singers on the world stage. Among his prescient examples: Brueggergosman, Isabel Bayrakdarian, James Westman, Barbara Hannigan … “Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka,” he says at some moment, “recently made her La Scala debut, drawing not a ripple of attention here.”

“I could go on and on,” he concludes, “but the point is clear: this country has produced in recent years a significant number of singers who are among the best in the world. As someone said (from the Met and therefore definitely an expert, eh?) ‘Why are so many great singers coming from Canada these days? Is it something in the water?’”

That was then. This story is about something in the air!  

I sensed it at a Toronto Consort concert, “Love Remixed,” in early February listening to James Rolfe’s spellbinding 2011 composition Breathe which sets words by 12th-century composer Hildegard von Bingen and accomplished contemporary Canadian librettist Anna Chatterton to music for period instruments.

“Medieval music in the right hands,” Rolfe says in his program note, “comes alive, as fresh and relevant to our modern ears as the day it was created … with its clarity of expression and purity of line … a living and breathing organism.” He goes on to say that his “great fortune” in getting to work with ensembles such as Toronto Consort has been “to experience just how much early musicians love their music … they have access to many shades of just intonation, with its pure intervals which resonate in our bodies and souls.”

I sensed the same thing again a couple of nights ago, in the bizarrely appropriate setting of the atrium, at the Royal Ontario Museum, that links the ROM’s old and new buildings. Surrounded by dinosaur skeletons, Opera Atelier showcased the latest iteration, titled The Angel Speaks, of a work by violinist Edwin Huizinga and dancer Tyler Gledhill which marries the vocabulary of Baroque music and ballet with a compelling contemporary syntax and sensibility. Commissioned originally by the Royal Chapel at Versailles, where Opera Atelier is now a regular visitor, the work is evolving, literally and figuratively, by leaps and bounds. Let’s see, with fresh wind in its sails, where it travels next.

And, once again, the topic of old meeting new so that each can inform the other hung in the air when I sat recently to talk to Tafelmusik’s Elisa Citterio a couple of weeks ago about her vision for the ensemble, a season-and-a-half into her appointment as the orchestra’s artistic director. That story comes next in this issue (if you’re reading this in print, that is).

Jessye Norman’s Visit Revisited

Highlight of the gala concert, Wednesday February 20 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, to celebrate Jessye Norman’s acceptance of the 12th Glenn Gould Prize was when Norman herself, at the close of it all, supported vocally by her chosen protégé, jazz singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, sang the Bernstein/Sondheim song “Somewhere” from West Side Story, with a quiet flame, even more so in contrast to the star-studded operatic highlight reel that preceded it. The words “There’s a place for us” as hard-won manifesto took on a meaning richer and deeper than the song’s creators could ever have imagined. As to whether there was a dry eye in the house, I couldn’t really see at that moment, for some reason.

It was, however, Norman’s presence at an exhausting range of other activities during the ten-day visit that will resonate most deeply; none more so than the three-hour masterclass she gave to young singers at the U of T’s Walter Hall, in front of a packed audience. (You can read Paul Ennis’ blog account of the event on our website.) And the moment that summed it up, for WholeNote reader Carol Ann Davidson was when Norman, “in response to a question about singers being vocally categorized, swiftly responded: ‘Do not allow someone else to place your voice. Know your voice and where it is most comfortable. You are a singer, not a category.’”  

Even “singer,” as a category, does not do justice to Norman’s life and work.

Unpicking the “seamstress” story

Speaking of categorization, I must thank another reader, Peter Feldman, for calling me to account in regard to something I wrote last issue in my Jessye Norman story where I described Norman’s participation in the White House ceremony awarding “Alabama seamstress
Rosa Parks” the Congressional Medal of Honor.

“Re: Rosa Parks,” Feldman wrote, “ I think you’ll find that Rosa Parks was much, much more than just a ‘seamstress’.  [She] was a seasoned freedom fighter who had grown up in a family that supported Marcus Garvey, and who married an activist for the Scottsboro boys. She joined the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP in 1943, becoming branch secretary. She spent the next decade pushing for voter registration, seeking justice for black victims of white brutality and sexual violence, supporting wrongfully accused black men, and pressing for desegregation of schools and public spaces. Committed to both the power of organized nonviolent direct action and the moral right of self defence, she called Malcolm X her personal hero.”

A healthy reminder.

publisher@thewholenote.com

01 PommesRatamacue! is one of the exclamations that the percussionist is called upon to ejaculate during Chanter la pomme (to flirt/to seduce) for snare drum. This is the first of eight short pedagogical exercises in the collection Pommes by Robert Lemay recently recorded by Ryan Scott and released by the Canadian Music Centre’s digital arm Centretracks (CMCCT 11218 musiccentre.ca/node/154883). The digital EP is the result of an ongoing collaboration between the Sudbury-based composer and one of Toronto’s leading percussion soloists. Pommes is a series of études for solo percussion instruments, four for snare drum, one for temple blocks, one for toms, one for tam-tam and one for bass drum. The title refers to the percussion sound POM, but also to the apple (the fruit). Each piece has a title that includes the word “apple” in French (pomme). Only the exuberant first includes vocalizations by the performer, but all require dexterity, precision and control. One might wonder whether a solo percussionist using just one (non-pitched) instrument for each exercise could sustain interest over the cumulative duration of roughly 20 minutes. I’m pleased to say that it is indeed possible, and in fact the result is quite entertaining. Of particular note are the delicacy of Tomber dans les pommes (to pass out) for temple blocks, the deep gong’s resonance of Pomme d’Adam (Adam’s apple) for tam-tam and the intensity of La grosse pomme (The Big Apple) for bass drum, which juxtaposes the low rumble and “pomming” of the skin of the drum with rhythmic patterns of rim shots. All in all, an exuberant adventure leading me to believe, as I have always suspected, that being a drummer must be a lot of fun!

02 John PsathasSticking with a theme, John Psathas – Percussion Project Vol.1 (navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6204) is the culmination of another composer/percussionist collaboration that began in 2013 when Omar Carmenates arranged Psathas’ piano and gamelan piece Waiting: Still for percussion trio. Psathas is a Greek-New Zealand composer and in the past five years a number of his chamber works have been arranged for percussion ensemble by Carmenates, an American, who directs this project and is the featured soloist in a number of the works. There are 10 members of the nameless percussion ensemble involved throughout the disc, so there is no question of monophony in this instance – just about every sound imaginable from a percussion instrument turns up somewhere on the disc. But a few of the pieces employ fewer, similar instruments such as Musica scored for two players, Carmenates on vibraphone and a different partner on marimba in each of the three movements: Soledad, Chia and El Dorado.

The disc begins with the full ensemble work Corybas which started out in life as a traditional piano trio. It opens with a gentle ostinato of mallet instruments overlaid by a lovely vibraphone melody. This eventually gives way to a raucous section where unpitched instruments come to the fore before gradually subsiding into a calm finale with low marimba notes, bowed vibraphone drones and a high chiming melody. The second work, Piano Quintet, also began as a piece for the standard formation named in its title, but in this instance the piano (played by Daniel Koppelman) is retained in the transcription, and the strings are replaced by percussion instruments. Again there is a wealth of ostinati, but not in the minimalist sense of strict repetition with minor variations. The work is multilayered in the extreme with different voices rising out of the murky textures, often to beautiful effect. Drum Dances, commissioned by Dame Evelyn Glennie for drum kit and piano, features Justin Alexander in the starring role, with the piano accompaniment here transcribed for mallet instruments and a variety of other pitched and non-pitched beaters. Psathas says he was “greatly inspired by the drumming of Dave Weckl, the very different piano styles of Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, and the enormous energy in the music of guitarists like Steve Vai.” There is great energy and great beauty in these dances, and all throughout this disc.

John Psathas: Percussion Project is a good reminder that the modern percussion arsenal is vast and varied, and that although studies may begin with intriguing exercises like those devised by Robert Lemay as mentioned above, this merely scratches the surface of a wild and wonderful world that can include anything that can be struck, bowed or beaten, sometimes including the kitchen sink.

A good example of this will be seen at New Music Concerts’ April 28 presentation “Luminaries,” a tribute to two masters of 20th-century composition who passed away in recent years, Pierre Boulez and Gilles Tremblay. Ryan Scott will be one of three percussionists involved in the concert along with Rick Sacks and David Schotzko. Both Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître (with mezzo Patricia Green) and Tremblay’s piano concerto Envoi (with soloist Louise Bessette) are scored for three percussionists, although in very different ways. In the Boulez, one player is assigned the rare xylorimba throughout (Scott), another vibraphone (Sacks), and only the third (Schotzko) plays on a variety of instruments from the percussionist’s “kitchen.” In the Tremblay all three have extensive set-ups. It should be quite a sight.

03 LourieAnd speaking of New Music Concerts as I am wont to do – I’ve been general manager there for the past 20 years – I am writing this the morning after a stunning performance at Gallery 345 by young German pianist Moritz Ernst. The evening was NMC’s annual benefit concert, in this instance a recital that included music of Sandeep Bhagwati (who was in attendance and gave an insightful introduction to his complex work Music of Crossings with examples provided by the pianist), Karlheinz Stockhausen, Michael Edward Edgerton (a piece written for Ernst), Miklós Maros and Arthur Lourié.

In 2016 Ernst’s recording of the complete Solo Piano Works of Arthur Lourié was released by Capriccio (3CDs C5281 naxos.com/catalogue/item.asp?item_code=C5281). Lourié played an important role in the earliest stages of the organization of Soviet music after the 1917 Revolution but later went into exile, failing to return from an official visit to Berlin in 1921. His works were thereafter banned in the USSR. His music reflects his close connections with contemporary writers and artists associated with the Futurist movement. In 1922 he settled in Paris where he maintained a close relationship with Igor Stravinsky, and then fled to the USA in 1940 when the Germans occupied the city. He settled in New York and wrote some film scores but gained almost no performances for his more serious works.

Lourié wrote extensively for the piano, as these three discs attest, but although he lived until 1966, in the last 25 years of his life after fleeing Europe he did not compose any solo keyboard works. The collection includes his early Soviet period (in which his interests included Futurism, somewhat experimental forms, micro- and expanded- tonality, and even some work with 12-tone techniques, albeit not in the Schoenbergian manner) and the output of his two decades-long residency in France. Despite the long association with Stravinsky, Lourié’s piano writing does not involve the percussive aspects so prominent in that of his countryman. It is much more subdued and gentle, tinged by the Impressionist sensibilities so prominent in his adopted land. Nocturne, the work that Ernst performed here in Toronto, with its quiet left-hand clusters gradually building and then receding under the right-hand musings, is a prime example. Written in 1928, it is one of the last solo pieces Lourié would compose. Two short final solo works complete his piano oeuvre, the little Berceuse de la chevrette (1936) and the Phoenix Park Nocturne (1938), “to the memory of James Joyce.”

An exception to the chronological order of the first two CDs, the third disc of the set concludes with a 1917 setting of an “absurdes dramolette” for piano and speaker entitled Der Irrtum der Frau Tod (Death’s Mistake), a half-hour-long monodrama by Velimir Chlébnikov. For this dramatic recitation Ernst is joined by Oskar Ansull. Although narrated in German, there is a full translation in the accompanying booklet. Ansull is also featured on CD2 in the peculiar Nash Marsh (Our March) from 1918 which is a strangely lilting “march” in 3 / 4 time.

This collection is an important addition to the discography, and to the awareness of an innovative and once-influential composer whose legacy virtually disappeared after falling out of favour with the Soviet regime. Congratulations to Moritz Ernst for embracing lesser-known repertoire. His discography also includes music of Walter Braunfels, Viktor Ullmann, Norbert von Hannenheim and Sir Malcolm Arnold. Also Joseph Haydn! As Ernst explains in an interview with composer Moritz Eggert in the notes for Volume One of a projected 11CD edition of the complete solo piano works of Haydn (Perfect Noise PN 1701), the keyboard music of Haydn remains surprisingly under-recorded with the exception of a very few sonatas.

Thanks also to Ernst for gracing a very appreciative audience at Gallery 345 with his insights and extraordinary skill. 

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

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com

01 PEMIPAULL CDOn Musicum Umbrarum, his debut solo album, the Canadian violist Pemi Paull presents five solo works that he feels show the interplay between past and present – “how the past speaks to the present and how the present responds.” (Metis Islands Records MI-008; metis-islands.com).

George Enescu’s Menetrier is actually the opening movement of his Impressions d’enfance for violin and piano; adapted here by Paull, it provides a great start to the CD. The Two Wölfli SketchesHorror Vacui and Musicum Umbrarum, from 2011 by the Canadian composer Scott Godin (b.1970), take their inspiration from works by the early 20th-century Swiss painter Adolf Wölfli, who spent much of his later years in psychiatric care and therapy. The brief Obrecht Motetten III, from 1980 by the English composer Michael Finnissy (b.1946), looks anew at the polyphony of the Flemish Renaissance composer Jacob Obrecht.

The central work on the CD is the towering Sonata for Viola Solo by György Ligeti. A relatively late work from 1991-94 it has a fascinating and original construction: a first movement played entirely on the low C string; a second of frantic double stops; a third movement of torment and struggle; a muted perpetual motion fourth; a fifth mostly in parallel seconds and sevenths; and a Chaconne chromatique to finish. Paull meets every challenge with ease and authority.

The final track is one that makes you look twice at the track listings to make sure you read it correctly – the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, written as a love song to his then-new wife Alma. It’s an intriguing possibility, but the reality is even more intriguing, the piece being played entirely pizzicato as performed (and notated for Paull) by Ljova, the Russian violist Lev Zhurbin. It’s really quite beautiful, and a lovely ending to an outstanding debut CD.

Listen to 'Musicum Umbrarum' Now in the Listening Room

02 Pogossian coverLinks between past and present are central to another solo recital, as violinist Movses Pogossian follows up his 2017 release of the Bach Solo Sonatas and Partitas with Inspired by Bach (New Focus Recordings FCR206 newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue/movses-pogossian-inspired-by-bach), a CD that features three new works that he feels “follow in the inescapable shadow of Bach’s music for unaccompanied violin… connecting the listener with Bach and extending the legacy of the unaccompanied string works.” The connection with Bach may be a bit tenuous at times, but they certainly do fulfill the latter aim.

Kaija Saariaho’s four-movement Frises starts with the final D of the Bach D-Minor Chaconne, and each of the movements is focused on one historical ostinato-variation form – passacaglia or chaconne, for instance. In a concert setting, prepared sound materials are triggered by the soloist during the performance, together with real-time processing of the violin sound. Not here, though: Pogossian recorded the violin part alone, with Jean-Baptiste Barrière adding the electronics afterwards. It’s a tough listen at times, but always engrossing.

The American composer and pianist Gabriela Lena Frank’s Suite Mestiza was inspired by South American Andean culture, in particular sights and sounds remembered from trips to Peru with her mother. Described as programmatic and colourful, the seven movements depict scenes and characters from the Andes region. It’s imaginative and wide-ranging writing that draws quite remarkable playing from Pogossian. You can watch his performance on YouTube.

The American composer and violinist Andrew McIntosh says that his seven-movement work was partly inspired by the idea of juxtaposing different, clearly defined but unconnected shapes and colours. Certainly his Shasta starts that way, a fast and bustling opening that recalls the bariolage passages in the Bach works, followed by a still, long-held single note. An unexpected addition is the scoring for eight wine glasses bowed by four performers; they make their most noticeable contribution in the final movement, giving the work a peaceful ending that sounds like gentle breathing

Whatever the technical or musical challenges, nothing seems to create problems for Pogossian, who is quite superb throughout a terrific CD.

Listen to 'Inspired by Bach' Now in the Listening Room

03 Crozman CavatineCavatine is the really impressive debut CD from Canadian cellist Cameron Crozman, ably accompanied by pianist Philip Chiu (ATMA Classique ACD2 2787; atmaclassique.com/En/Albums/AlbumInfo.aspx?AlbumID=1619). Having studied at the Paris Conservatoire for six years Crozman says it was inevitable that his first album would be filled with French music, and the multi-faceted program here includes Debussy’s Cello Sonata from 1915 and works that the soloist feels emerged from the new wave that Debussy created.

The delightful Cello Sonata by Francis Poulenc really deserves to be heard more often; completed in 1948, its four movements are full of the lyrical charm so typical of the composer.

In the early 1930s Charles Koechlin set 20 Breton folksongs for cello and piano, the first two of the three sets being published in 1934 as Chansons bretonnes sur des thèmes de l’ancien Folklore Op.115; four short pieces from the first collection and two from the second are heard here.

Jean Françaix’s Variations de concert date from 1950, the ten brief variations displaying a wide range of mood, style and tempo, and ending with a dazzling final variation.

The Louange à l’éternité de jésus, the fifth movement from Olivier Messiaen’s astonishing Quatuor pour le fin du Temps completes the disc. A calm, soaring and meditative cello melodic line over quiet piano chords, it perhaps loses some of its effectiveness outside of the context of the complete work, but nevertheless is a beautiful ending to a highly commendable CD.

Listen to 'Cavatine' Now in the Listening Room

04 Haydn CelloThere’s more outstanding cello playing on Haydn Cello Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 with the American cellist Robert deMaine and the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Joel Eric Suben on Nova Scotia’s Leaf Music label (LM 222; leaf-music.ca/product/lm222).

The soloist, an original member of the Ehnes Quartet, is principal cello of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, having held the same position with the Detroit Symphony for over a decade, as well as a stint as guest principal cellist for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. His playing in both concertos – No.1 in C Major and No.2 in D Major – is strong and vibrant, with great agility and touch, especially in the long and often virtuosic first movement of the D-Major work.

Both works were written for cellists in the Esterhazy court orchestra, the C Major in the early 1760s (although not known to us until the discovery of a copy of the score in 1961) and the D Major some 20 years later for the cellist Antonín Kraft, a player noted for his beautiful singing tone, expressive phrasing and an explosive technique, especially in the cello’s upper register. Qualities, indeed, displayed here by deMaine. The excellent and idiomatic cadenzas are by the soloist.

I’m not sure whether or not this is a re-issue: the recordings were made in the Czech Republic in September 2009, but are listed on deMaine’s website as a projected release on the Sono Luminus label with a release date that is earlier than the recording dates. There’s no mention of this current Leaf Music issue.

Listen to 'Haydn Cello Concertos Nos. 1 & 2' Now in the Listening Room

05 duportThis is certainly a good month for cellists. The French cellist Raphaël Pidoux is the stellar soloist on Jean-Louis Duport Concertos pour Violoncelle, with the Stradivaria – Ensemble Baroque de Nantes under Daniel Cuiller (Mirare MIR394; mirare.fr).

The Duport brothers – Jean-Louis (1749-1819) and Jean-Pierre (1741-1818) – were both brilliant cello virtuosi in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Jean-Pierre eventually pursued a career in the Prussian court, leaving Jean-Louis to take over his position in Paris where he eventually became more celebrated than his older brother. Sensing the dangers of the coming French Revolution in 1789, Jean-Louis followed his brother to Prussia, returning to Paris in 1806 where, despite being well-received and teaching at the Conservatoire, he never fully re-established himself. He remains little-known as a composer, although his Essay on the fingering of the violoncello and on the conduct of the bow, completed in 1806, was a seminal treatise on cello technique.

Duport’s were the first French cello concertos; six are extant, of which three are presented here: No.1 in A Major; No.4 in E Minor; and No.5 in D Major. The first concerto predates 1789; the other two were apparently written while he was in Prussia. They are played here “according to the composer’s wishes” with a string orchestra, horns and oboes being added for Nos. 4 and 5. All follow the same pattern, with a substantial and well-developed opening movement, a short slow movement and a virtuosic rondo finale.

These are really attractive works that bridge the gap between the late classical and early Romantic periods, their fast scales and arpeggios in thirds, sixths and octaves from the lowest to highest registers offering proof that the cello was already in a highly developed state as a solo instrument.

Pidoux plays a 1680 Gioffredo Cappa cello with a William Dodd bow from 1790/95, handling the technical challenges with grace and ease and always displaying a warm, bright tone. The idiomatic support from the Stradivaria ensemble is of the highest quality on an extremely satisfying CD.

06 Mind and MatterThe American composer Paul Lombardi describes the five duets for strings on the CD Pieces of Mind & Matter – String Duets as chronicling a 13-year-long refinement of his compositional voice (Ravello RR8804; ravellorecords.com/catalog/rr8804). Presented in chronological order, they are: Holocene (2004) for violin and viola; Acquiesce (2006) for violin and cello; Persiguiéndose (2007) for two cellos; Phosphorescent (2008) for cello and double bass; and Fracture (2017) for two violins.

The performers – who vary from track to track – are Megan Holland, Roberta Arruda and David Felberg (violins); Kimberley Fredenburgh (viola); Joel Becktell, Lisa Collins and David Schepps (cellos); and Mark Tatum (bass).

The works are difficult to describe, although not difficult to listen to; Lombardi says that he likes to explore self-similar and recursive patterns. They’re modernistic with some strong melodic lines, taut rhythms, dissonance, motivic structure and some interesting textures and harmonies. Overall they’re strongly individual pieces, well-written and extremely well-played. 

07 Spanish MiniaturesIt’s been five years since we saw a CD from the Canadian guitarist Warren Nicholson (his Latin American Guitar Favourites issued in September 2013) but he’s back with Spanish Miniatures, a selection mostly of works by Fernando Sor, Francisco Tárrega and Isaac Albéniz (Independent WAN Records WANCD60918; warrennicholsonguitarist.com).

Federico Moreno Torroba’s Madroňos opens the disc, followed by four Studies and two Lessons selected from Fernando Sor’s Opp.6, 35, 44 and 60 works. Tárrega is represented by six works: his Preludes Nos.1 and 2; Lagrima; Maria; Adelita; and the famous Recuerdos de la Alhambra with its constant right hand tremolo.

Mallorca, Asturias and the Tango from Espaňa are the Albéniz selections, and the CD ends with two items from more recent but lesser-known composers: Waltz No.1 by Bartolomé Calatayud (1882-1973); and Cancion y Danza No.1 by Antonio Ruiz-Pipó (1934-1997).

The playing is again technically accomplished, clean and thoughtful. The only reservation I have – and one I had about his previous release as well – is that there is a tendency for the playing to come across as a bit too measured and carefully considered at times, with the result (in the Recuerdos in particular) that it can sound a bit pedestrian and fail to fully engage the listener.

Still, there’s fine playing overall and much to admire here in a well-produced and nicely-presented CD. 

01 Jan Lisiecki Cover PhotoCanadian pianist Jan Lisiecki’s recording career continues with his latest issue of Mendelssohn (Deutsche Grammophon DG 4836471; deutschegrammophon.com/en/artist/lisiecki), the sixth time his name appears on this prestigious label. Lisiecki plays the Concerto No.1 in G Minor Op.25 and No.2 in D Minor Op.40 along with the Variations sérieuses, Op.54 and a couple of shorter pieces. His earlier recordings set expectations very high and he has no difficulty in exceeding them. At age 23, his towering technical ability and the blazing speed and accuracy of his playing promise to propel him for a good many years toward some still distant pinnacle. It would all be something of a meteoric flash were it not for his maturity.

The willingness and ability to forgo the energized brilliance of a youthful performance is the early mark of a musician with something to say, something worth hearing. Lisiecki’s fast playing is so impressive it’s a wonder the piano is mechanically capable of keeping up. But the middle movements of both concertos along with the more pensive sections of the Variations are the places where the artist becomes subsumed in the art. In the moments of pause and suspense, where so little seems to happen, so much is conveyed. Lisiecki shows how completely he is able to surrender to this music, to lift away from it and let it speak. It’s a beautiful recording that promises as much and more for what Lisiecki will still do.

02 Levinston CitizenBruce Levingston’s new CD Citizen (Sono Luminus DSL 92228; sonoluminus.com/m-175-bruce-levingston.aspx) finds its inspiration in his invitation to perform at the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. Being his home state, it occasioned considerable reflection for him on the deep questions at the core of his community’s history and conscience. Two of the works are world premiere recordings from composers commissioned to write music for the same opening. They, along with the four others represented on the disc, speak with a remarkably similar voice. Levingston has programmed his recording to be this way – a reflection of the higher ideals the Civil Rights Museum enshrines.

The opening track is Nolan Gasser’s An American Citizen. It’s inspired by one of Marie Atkinson Hull’s portraits of Mississippi tenant farmers and sharecroppers. Gasser uses many recognizably American idioms to build a highly complex work that nevertheless offers immediate and sustained emotional access. A more contemplative work is David T. Little’s Accumulation of Purpose inspired by the Freedom Riders, the civil rights activists who rode buses across the South in 1961. The final tracks go to Price Walden whose Sacred Spaces is a profoundly moving remembrance of the countless churches where African-Americans gathered and contributed to their sense of community. His arrangement of Amazing Grace closes the recording. It’s a straightforward structure that uses some extraordinary harmonic transitions to make this iconic hymn even more meaningful in the context of the disc.

This recording by Bruce Levingston is far more than a simple CD. It’s a meditation on one of the central issues of our time and can only benefit from being heard and experienced in that way.

03 Liszt TiberghienCédric Tiberghien focuses on the closing years of one of the 19th century’s greatest musical figures in his latest recording Liszt – Années de pèlerinage, troisième année & other late works (Hyperion CDA68202; hyperion-records.co.uk). It begins with a handful of shorter works from the last five years of Liszt’s life. Tiberghien’s posture in these works is hard to describe but a valiant effort might yield something like “micro-playing.” The understated pianissimos seem to come from a distant instrument in another place. It’s a remarkable technique that can extract so small a whisper from such a powerful instrument. But Liszt is contemplating another world and Tiberghien transcendentally plays from there. The voice he creates at the keyboard speaks a language free to be atonal and arrhythmic as Liszt so daringly intends in the Bagatelle sans tonalité and the Fourth Mephisto Waltz. Contemplation of what lies beyond the threshold of mortality is nearly, but not entirely, without hope. The simple beauty of Wiegenlied and En rêve are sparingly applied to the dark certainties of La lugubre gondola II and Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort. Tiberghien’s playing in these late works may be the most beautiful you have ever heard.

The Années predate this period and are freer of the later works’ darker contemplations. There is much grand-scale writing and brilliant pianistic conception in these pages and Tiberghien dominates with power and dexterity. His Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este is a breathtaking portrayal of Liszt’s fountains. And his interpretations of Angelus! and Sursum Corda are convincing evocations of their spiritual and liturgical roots.

04 Melisande McNabneyMélisande McNabney’s new release Inspirations (Atma Classique ACD2 2780; atmaclassique.com/En/Albums/AlbumInfo.aspx?AlbumID=1620) offers an intriguing twist on expectations of harpsichord repertoire. These works are transcriptions of music originally for lute. As such, they lack the conventional form that keyboard works devised for two hands would ordinarily display. Instead, these reveal a kind of hybrid piece, principally adapted for keyboard but still revealing much of the lute’s character in the way brief solo thematic ideas alternate with great strum-like keyboard arpeggios. Even the lutenist’s finger plucking is recreated as clustered staccato patterns by the harpsichordist. It takes some careful listening but the ear begins to hear what the music might have sounded like as a lute piece. It sounds terribly difficult at times with endless cascades of keyboard notes that would have been easier on the lute. Still, 17th-century demands for repertoire for the popular emerging keyboard instrument made transcription a necessary composer’s skill. McNabney herself transcribed two works by Rameau, Tendre amour and Air de la Folie. On this recording, she performs on a 1981 instrument built by Keith Hill after an original by the builder Blanchet.

Listen to 'Inspirations' Now in the Listening Room

05 Messing AroundHakan Toker’s latest recording is aptly titled Messing Around (Navona Records NV 6202; navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6202). Yes, this is one of those lists of familiar tunes jazzed up by a talented and creative player. But wait, this inventive and, frankly, brilliant pianist takes the practice to a new level. Imagine Henry Mancini’s Moon River being reconceived as a Bach invention or a Satie Gnossienne as a Czardas; or how about Beethoven’s Für Elise as Elise’s Got The Blues! This is beyond simply clever, it’s genius. The Bach Toccata and Fugue in Blue, like the other tracks, shows Toker’s understanding of the original forms and his fluency with the modern ones that enables his fusion (or maybe it’s fission?) of ragtime, blues, jazz and seemingly any other musical style. It’s a little comic at first but very quickly becomes stunningly impressive. The disc includes Paul Desmond’s Take Five and Mozart’s Rondo alla turka rethought in the most entertaining ways

Toker is the master of everything he plays, regardless of style or technical difficulty.

06 Deschenes OvalleAndree-Ann Deschenes is a California-based French-Canadian pianist. Her new 2CD set The Ovalle Project (aadpiano.com/the-ovalle-project) celebrates the music of Jayme Ovalle, a Brazilian composer of the first half of the 20th century. Ovalle wrote a modest body of works that include some songs, instrumental pieces and 24 compositions for piano. They are varied in style and length but generally conform to classical Western forms and tend toward character pieces and dances but also include several virtuosic works. Deschenes’ website describes her attraction to the music and its harmonic richness, density and chromaticism. She has spent some time searching for scores and assembling the manuscripts to be able to record the 24 piano pieces.

The most substantial items in the set are the three Legenda Opp.19, 22 and 23. These are conceived on a larger scale than most of the other material. Massive chords and a wider dynamic make these stand out quite impressively. By contrast Album de Isolda Op.27 is simple and at times seems to have been written in the spirit of a Baroque exercise.

Ovalle’s writing takes a few risks with tonality but only rarely. Rhythm is his principle tool and Deschenes uses this masterfully. She has a natural affinity for the Latin spirit of this music and Ovalle’s harmonic language. There’s a surprising amount of very satisfying variety in this program, aided significantly by Deschenes’ obviously passionate interest in Ovalle’s work.

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07 David WittenThe Eclectic Piano Music of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (Albany Records Troy 1732; albanyrecords.com) is David Witten’s new recording treating listeners to an exotic and luscious program of music not often heard. Despite the familiarity of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s name, his piano music is infrequently performed or recorded. Witten’s selection of works highlights the modal nature of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s writing and demonstrates his impressive ability for caricature and programmatic writing.

The Seasons Op.33 is a wonderful example of how Witten works the subtle emotional elements used to portray the feel of each season. Similarly, Sonatina Zoologica Op.187 carries titles like Dragonflies, The Snail, Little Lizard and Ants that match the musical portraits the composer paints of the garden creatures. Witten plays the Sonatina beautifully, seizing every opportunity to exploit the composer’s picturesque devices. Witten’s liner notes offer an instructive reminder of the composer’s successful career as a Hollywood film composer and suddenly it all makes sense. This is music for the imagination as much as the ear.

On a higher level, however, Castelnuovo-Tedesco writes Greeting Cards Op.170 in which he devised his own coding system to convert the alphabet into musical notes in order to compose tributes to musicians he admired. Three such pieces on this disc pay homage to Walter Gieseking, André Previn and Nicolas Slonimsky. Witten’s playing throughout this disc is consistently superb. He exhibits an abiding curiosity that drives him to explore the reaches of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s language, and a musical intelligence that guarantees the highest fidelity to the composer’s intention.

08 Prokofiev KholodenkoVadym Kholodenko has more than a half dozen recordings to his credit and now adds his new release Sergei Prokofiev Concertos No.1, 3 & 4 (Harmonia Mundi HMM907632; harmoniamundi.com). Having recorded Piano Concertos 2 and 5 on a previous disc, he completes the cycle with the remaining three. These three come from very different circumstances in Prokofiev’s life. The well-known story of Concerto No.1 in D-flat Major, Op.10 has Prokofiev as a 21-year-old pianist winning the Rubinstein Piano Competition performing it. It’s a short work played through without movement breaks. Kholodenko immediately captures the boldness and youthful optimism of this work with his opening statements of the main idea, and drives through the rest of the work with undiminished energy.

Concerto No.3 in C Major, Op.26 comes from nearly a decade later, after Prokofiev had left the Soviet Union. Kholodenko plays this in a way that reflects the more confident modernity the composer found in a new environment that encouraged some careful flirtation with atonality. Kholodenko maintains the sense of rhythmic drive that underscores the strong dance impulse of this music.

Concerto No.4 for the left hand in B Flat Major, Op.53 was written in 1931 for Paul Wittgenstein who disliked it and refused to play it. He was kinder to Ravel who also wrote him a similar work. It’s a very difficult piece that Kholodenko plays flawlessly.

01 Bach BWV21JS Bach – Cantata BWV 21
Bach Choir of Bethlehem; Greg Funfgeld
Analekta AN 2 9540 (analekta.com/en)

Of all the musical commentaries on the biblical texts used in service – most importantly on the Gospel reading – the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach are not only the most famous, but are also as pious as they are magnificent. These are the works that foretold the choral masterpieces such as the mighty St John and St Matthew Passions that came in 1724 and 1727 respectively.

The repertoire on this disc, Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, Cantata BWV21 (1714) precedes those two great Passions as well as Bach’s B-Minor Mass (1749). The cantata marks a transition from motet style on biblical and hymn text to operatic recitatives and arias on contemporary poetry; and Bach characterized the work as “e per ogni tempo (and for all times),” indicating that due to its general theme, the cantata is suited for any occasion. On this disc it is bookended by two arias: Heil und Segen from Gott, man lobet dich in der stille (God, You are praised in the stillness) BWV120 and Liebt, ihr Christen, in der Tat from Die Himmel eräzhlen die Erhe Gotte (The heavens tell the glory of God) Cantata BWV76.

These gentle works get suitably sensitive performances from the Bach Choir of Bethlehem with sopranos Cassandra Lemoine and Rosa Lamoreaux, countertenor Daniel Taylor, tenor Benjamin Butterfield and baritone William Sharp investing everything as they solo with heartfelt intensity. Conductor Greg Funfgeld points up the drama of Bach’s choral works with eloquent restraint, seriousness and joy.

Handel – Agrippina
Theater an der Wien; Patricia Bardon; Jake Arditti; Danielle de Niese; Filippo Mineccia; Balthasar Neumann Ensemble; Thomas Hengel Brock
Naxos 2.110579-80 (naxosdirect.com)

Handel – Ode to St. Cecilia’s Day
Bach Choir of Bethlehem; Greg Funfgeld
Analekta AN 2 9541 (analekta.com/en) 

These two recordings take very different approaches to two key works in Handel’s life, including choices between period and modern instrumentation.

02a Handel AgrippinaIn 1709, in the early phase of Handel’s operatic career, he was approached in Venice by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani to set Grimani’s satirical libretto based on Agrippina’s machinations to have her son Nero named emperor of Rome. Generally regarded as Handel’s first great opera – there’s a treasure trove of arias – its ribald text has been inspiring radically contemporary stagings for the past 20 years, most notably by David McVicar. Theater an der Wien’s production is a highly entertaining combination of musical purity and Robert Carsen’s provocative staging. The Balthasar Neumann Ensemble plays period instruments and three of the eight roles are sung by countertenors. Meanwhile, there’s a steely sheen to the furnishings, an iMac adorns a desk, and the fine mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon, who has sung many of Handel’s principal females, plays the title role, stalking the halls of power in a leather skirt; at other times, the scatterbrained Nero, sung by countertenor Jake Arditti, frolics poolside with bikini-clad maidens. There’s some quickie desktop sex, a conspicuous issue of Vogue, onstage cameras and projections, staged news stories, a Mussolini-esque Claudio and, following the traditional happy ending, a gratuitous grand guignol bloodbath led by a mad Nero. Filmed in March 2016, staging that might have seemed over the top just three years ago approaches verisimilitude as our political culture increasingly resembles ancient Rome in decline.

02b Handel St CeciliaWith a 30-year leap in Handel’s career, we come to his 1739 setting of John Dryden’s Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day, here performed by the Bach Choir of Bethlehem and issued in commemoration of the choir’s 120th anniversary and Greg Funfgeld’s 35th as its conductor. The 88-voice choir is a Pennsylvania institution along with its annual Bach Festival and Bach Festival Orchestra. It’s Handel on a relatively moderated but still grand scale, harkening back to 19th- and early 20th-century traditions. The orchestra is playing modern instruments, but there are only 27 of them, and that large choir provides depth and an impressive richness. Two fine Canadian singers appear as soloists, lending distinguished skills to the arias. Halifax-native, tenor Benjamin Butterfield, brings a brassy bravado to the drum and horn effusion of The trumpet’s loud clangor, while Edmonton-born Cassandra Lemoine’s refined soprano dovetails beautifully with Robin Kani’s flute on The soft complaining flute. Lemoine’s grace and clarity also highlight the full force of choir and orchestra in the sustained conclusion of As from the pow’r of sacred lays.

03 Mahler Alexander QuartetIn Meinem Himmel – The Mahler Song Cycles
Kindra Scharich; Alexander String Quartet
Foghorn Classics FCL 2019 (foghornclassics.com) 

This project comes from San Francisco and it is an experiment by the renowned Alexander String Quartet to transcribe three of Mahler’s orchestral song cycles, Songs of a Wayfarer, Rückert-Lieder and Kindertotenlieder for string quartet in order to experience this repertoire in an intimate chamber music setting and perhaps enrich and enhance its emotional world. I had some misgivings, because nowadays there is a definite trend to different versions of the great works, by ambitious musicians, that could harm and distort the composer’s original intent.

To my mind, these are definitely orchestral songs and require the power and the colours of the full contingent of a symphony orchestra with Mahler’s unique orchestration for their musical and emotional impact. The sound of a string quartet is entirely different and hasn’t the pungent quality the wind instruments provide and it cannot possibly duplicate what Mahler had in mind, although the transcriber violinist Zakarias Grafilo, gave much thought and effort to preserve some of the aural colours and even the emotional innigkeit of the original, yet es ist kein Mahler as I imagine Leonard Bernstein would say.

Nevertheless it’s a labour of love. Idiomatic and virtuoso string playing and the singing is simply gorgeous. Young American mezzo Kindra Scharich has a beautiful voice, total emotional commitment and musical imagination that certainly makes worthwhile listening. Her soulful, anguished tone when the rejected lover sings about the two beautiful blue eyes of his lost sweetheart (Die zwei blauen Augen) is simply heartbreaking and I just loved her voice so full of joy in exclaiming Heia! in Ging heut morgen. An interesting experiment, but not quite Mahler.

04 Harbison RequiemJohn Harbison – Requiem
Soloists; Nashville Symphony Chorus and Orchestra; Giancarlo Guerrer
Naxos 8.559841 (naxosdirect.com) 

John Harbison’s Requiem captures the nature of death with both metaphysical and aesthetic sophistication, firstly because of the authentic use of the Latin text in its scriptural context and secondly because of the utterly existential prescience of this choral performance. Despite the fact that the music eventually soars with the apposite release of Libera me, the shadowy solemnity of the preceding sequences makes the work both profoundly melancholic and breathtakingly beautiful. It is a monumental work – Harbison’s pièce de résistance – appropriate to the events of 9/11 which inspired it. Consequently the use of the Latin in the setting of a traditional requiem might commemorate a divine passion – such as in the Introit – yet the work commemorates abject human suffering.

The musicians of the Nashville Symphony and Chorus convey the gravitas of Harbison’s epic work with a powerful sense of both sorrow and spontaneity. Chorus director Tucker Biddlecombe’s inspired choices of male and female voices – the powerful and incisive (solo) singing of Jessica Rivera (soprano), Michaela Martens (mezzo-soprano), Nicholas Phan (tenor) and Kelly Markgraf (baritone) – and the ensemble performances, bring a passionate, soaring intensity to the antiphons, responsories and sequences, to produce an absorbing and inexorable service. Giancarlo Guerrero fixes his sights on the sheer drama of the proverbial solemn high mass and shepherds a program that swirls with sinewy energy heavy with the atmosphere of foreboding before its ultimate – even joyful – release of the final In paradisum.

05 Kira BraunDamask Roses – Art Songs by Mozart; Dvorak and Quilter
Kira Braun; Peter Krochak
Independent (kirabraunsoprano.com)

With Valentine’s Day approaching I enjoyed this love-themed CD, the latest in a series of varied art-song programs by Canadian duo Kira Braun and Peter Krochak. A relative (niece/first cousin) of famed Canadian father-and-son baritones Victor and Russell Braun, soprano Kira demonstrates her own high standard. Here there are three song groups by different composers: Mozart (18th century, in German), Dvořák (19th century, in Czech), and Roger Quilter (early 20th century, in English). The opening three Mozart songs demonstrate the duo’s fine ensemble and Braun’s excellent diction and tone, though I would have liked to have heard even more charm and colour in both voice and piano. By contrast, the interpretations of four selections from Quilter’s Seven Elizabethan Lyrics, Op.12 are especially appealing, including the title song, Damask Roses. Braun’s pure soprano is attractive and she brings both restraint and conviction to Weep You No More and also to Quilter’s earlier Love’s Philosophy from Three Songs, Op.3.

In both the Quilter lyrics and Dvořák’s Gypsy Songs, Op.55 there are songs in a higher range, that she is quite equal to, adopting a fiery demeanor in Set the Fiddle Scraping that Krochak matches with lively piano accompaniment. Their version of the well-known Songs My Mother Taught Me is appropriately affectionate; they bring out Dvořák’s contrasts and distinctive touches in this set, making it one I’m pleased to be able to return to.

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Roger Knox

06 I Carry Your HeartI Carry Your Heart
University of South Dakota Chamber Singers; David Holdhusen
Navona Records nv6203 (navonarecords.com) 

South Dakota? Isn’t this midwestern state most famous for its beautifully rugged landscape, including Mount Rushmore? Nevertheless, in light of this fine recording titled I Carry Your Heart, featuring the University of South Dakota Chamber Singers under the direction of David Holdhusen, it seems that South Dakota also has a vibrant choral scene.

The USD Chamber Singers is the institution’s premier vocal ensemble, having earned a reputation for high performance standards with a focus on a cappella repertoire. The ensemble presents formal concerts on campus each semester and its annual tours have taken the group to various parts of the United States and to Europe.

From the opening track of the CD – the rousing South African folk-tune, Tshotsholoza – it’s clearly evident that the ensemble loves what it’s doing – what a jubilant and joyful sound! Yet it is not only the exemplary performing throughout the disc that makes I Carry Your Heart so attractive, but the carefully-chosen program – indeed, there’ s something for everyone. In addition to the uplifting spirituals such as Sit Down Servant and Ain’t That A-Rockin’ are compositions of a more serene nature such as Jonny Priano’s motet Sicut Cervus and Kenneth Lampl’s Dirshu Adonai, the latter a sensitive meditation with layered harmonies and rich tonal clusters. It is in pieces such as these that the choir’s fine melding of vocal ranges comes across so clearly. Several numbers also make use of vocal and instrumental soloists, thereby showcasing the high musical standards even further.

My only disappointment is the absence of program notes – it would have been nice to have the texts, or at least some background material on the pieces. Yet this is a minor quibble and in no way mars a splendid performance. For lovers of a cappella choral music, I Carry your Heart is a delight.

01 Gryphon TrioImmortal and Beloved
Gryphon Trio
Analekta AN 2 9522 (analekta.com/en) 

Shortly after Beethoven’s death, three letters to “meine unsterbliche Geliebte” (my immortal beloved), dated July 6/7 (1812), were discovered among his effects. Speculation about her identity has since abounded, with numerous suggested candidates. A 1994 British movie, Immortal Beloved, even portrayed her, absurdly, as his sister-in-law! Recent attention has focused on Countess Josephine von Brunswick, the secret dedicatee of Beethoven’s piano piece Andante favori.

Carleton University professor James Wright (b.1959) has rearranged excerpts from the letters to compose a moving, memorable 15-minute cycle of three songs, Briefe an die unsterbliche Geliebte (Letters to the Immortal Beloved) (2012), quoting the opening of the Andante favori near the end of the third song. Canadian baritone David John Pike, accompanied by the Gryphon Trio, effectively expresses the hyper-emotional words of Beethoven’s desperate longing. These beautiful, heartfelt songs should be welcomed into the lieder repertoire, perhaps in a version for voice and piano alone.

Pike, accompanied by Gryphon pianist Jamie Parker, also contributes a sensitive performance of Beethoven’s song-cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved), another outpouring of longing for an absent lover.

Filling 40 of this CD’s 70 minutes is the Gryphon Trio’s exuberant 2008 recording of Beethoven’s Archduke Trio, needlessly reissued while still available on Analekta AN 2 9858. Surely, music not yet in the discographies of Wright, Pike or the Gryphon Trio would have been preferable.

Nonetheless, Wright’s fervent song cycle definitely deserves repeated hearings. Texts and translations are included.

02 Schubert BRockSchubert – Symphonies 1 & 6
B’Rock Orchestra; René Jacobs
Pentatone PCT 5185 707 (naxosdirect.com) 

This new recording of Schubert’s First and Sixth Symphonies is René Jacobs’ first foray into the music of this composer and it certainly promises to be an exciting new adventure. Thus far I have been acquainted with the Belgian maestro as a distinguished interpreter of Baroque repertoire, but as is usually the case with extraordinary musical minds, they soon branch into the classics or even the Romantics.

Schubert was the first love of my life and I grew up with the lush and graceful interpretations of German conductors, beautifully rendered with modern instrument orchestras. Little did I know that Schubert’s original scores were augmented by Brahms, so Jacobs’ principal aim is to restore authenticity with the original, leaner orchestrations with period instruments using the B’Rock Orchestra, a group of young enthusiastic and energetic players famous for their original approach to the classics.

Notwithstanding some critics’ complaints about harsh sounds, extreme dynamics and sonorities of period instruments, we are amply compensated with how even the First Symphony, written by a mere teenager, dashes forth with such verve, fire, joie de vivre, brilliance and humour at the hands of these young players. The fourth movement especially, is a delight.

The Sixth, my favourite from the early period, referred to as the Little C Major (as opposed to the Great C Major) is definitely a masterpiece and comes off even better. Everything makes sense, the extremely fast tempo at the ritornello of the Scherzo and its heavenly Trio, that marvellous second movement with its sudden outbursts of sadness and anger, the delightful fourth that dances along like a ballet with its interesting modulations, and that surprising sudden visionary reference to the great Ninth at the very end. A vigorous, original and highly inspired performance!

Complete set to be completed by 2021, can’t wait!

03 Brahms DvorakBrahms – Symphony No.4; Dvořák - Symphony No.9
Bamberger Symphoniker; Jakub Hrůša
Tudor Recording AGSACD 1744 (naxosdirect.com) 

As I learned from the informative liner notes contained within this highly enjoyable and beautifully captured double CD – containing, what is no doubt, some of the finest and certainly best loved music of Johannes Brahms and Antonin Dvořák – both men, at different junctures in their lives, performed the role of torchbearer for one another. Dvořák, literally, was torchbearer at the funeral of the more senior Brahms, who had famously encouraged, mentored and recommended to publishers the compositions of Dvořák, who was then living and composing in Prague, anxious to be heard and appreciated on a more international level. Brahms, more famously, was stylistic torchbearer for a future generation of composers that include Dvořák, all whom found inspiration in the late German composer’s broad Romantic themes and melodic beauty.

The relationship between the two men is programmed here, with two of their most famous symphonies (Brahms’s Symphony No.4 and Dvořák’s Symphony No.9), presented under the masterful direction of Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša, working with the dynamic German Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. In addition to the shared appreciation that the composers had for one another, these two symphonies share key, aesthetic beauty and a grandness of gesture that Hrůša and orchestra develop fully, while simultaneously teasing out the subtle differences and exploring the individual intricacies of these two masterworks, which represent the last symphonies of the two composers.

The CD is bold in its programming and beautiful in its presentation of these popular symphonic works, offering another important telling and capture of these compositions for lovers of bold Western art music.

04 NYOCMigrations
National Youth Orchestra of Canada; Jonathan Darlington
Independent NYOC2018CD (nyoc.org)

Richard Strauss commented at least once on how unusually polyphonic (many-voiced) his musical brain was. Indeed, in preparing Strauss’ extraordinary work Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) the 2018 National Youth Orchestra of Canada’s nearly 100 advanced musical brains have been suitably challenged! Expertly conducted by Jonathan Darlington, the tone poem’s long-range progression through myriad orchestral details is engrossing. Part way through the third of the composition’s six sections I realized that the performers were on a heroic path of their own with this confident performance. So, kudos to last summer’s conductor, faculty and young instrumentalists who brought this excellent recording, plus an ensuing performance tour of Germany and Scotland, to fruition.

Four works by accomplished Canadian composers follow on the disc. Evoking the natural world, Moontides by the well-recognized John Estacio is about to be connected to a forthcoming film about lunar tides. From the beginning, sweeping and brilliant orchestral colours and textures create a mysterious mood within the tonal, harmonic framework. Nature also is suggested in River Memory, a 2018 NYOC commission from emerging composer Alison Yun-Fei Jiang that is likewise imaginatively orchestrated with metamorphoses of timbre and expert percussion scoring. Here the pitch basis includes long pedal notes and intervallic patterns rather than chords. The NYOC program traditionally includes choral singing; brief and effective a cappella choruses Lead Us Home (by Matthew Emery) and Terre-Neuve (by Marie-Claire Saindon) round off this remarkable disc.

01 RihmWolfgang Rihm – Music for Violin and Orchestra Volume 1
Tianwa Yang; Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Christoph-Mathias Mueller
Naxos 8.573812 (naxosdirect.com)

Impressively prolific by any measure, the celebrated German composer Wolfgang Rihm (b.1952 ) has amassed an immense catalogue of over 400 substantial works. Rihm’s early 1970s compositions employ elements of Schoenberg’s and Berg’s expressionist compositional language while also incorporating techniques of the subsequent composer generations. Despite being associated with the 1980s concert music movement dubbed New Simplicity and New Romanticism, Rihm’s musical aesthetic never seems to have strayed far from late Austro-German Romanticism and its expressionist love child. The three works on this CD for violin and orchestra – in essence violin concerti – spread over almost four decades, clearly reflect all those influences. Nevertheless, Rihm’s idiosyncratic voice emerges collectively from these works with introspective intensity.

Rihm was in his mid-20s when he made a splash in 1977 with the premiere of his brilliantly orchestrated first violin concerto Lichtzwang (Light-duress), titled and perhaps also thematically modelled after a book of poetry by the 20th-century German author Paul Celan. It’s Rihm’s latest and most lyrical violin concerto, Gedicht des Malers (Poem of the Painter 2012–14), however, that speaks most directly to me. Rihm explains the intended narrative: “the soloist virtually embodies the painter’s brush as it moves over the canvas sometimes faster and sometimes in more deliberate ways.” In all three works, violinist Tianwa Yang brilliantly imbues her virtuoso passages with passion and intimations of inner angst and emotion, effectively supported by the Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic under Christoph-Mathias Mueller.

03 The Privacy of Domestic Life Cover ArtThe Privacy of Domestic Life
Architek Percussion
Centrediscs (LP) CMCV 10418 (musiccentre.ca)

Founded in 2012, the “quirky, virtuosic and thoroughly engaging” (Bachtrack.com) Montreal-based quartet Architek Percussion has performed across Canada specializing in percussive experimental, multi-disciplinary, minimalist music, sometimes embellished with electroacoustic elements. It has commissioned over 40 works by Canadian and international composers, and appears on five albums.

On the LP The Privacy of Domestic Life Architek performs scores of three Canadian concert music composers in their 30s who are well on the way to establishing international careers: Adam Basanta, Taylor Brook and Beavan Flanagan. All three of their works were commissioned by the group.

Brook’s Incantation transforms the metallic sounds of cymbals and bells and what sounds like clay pots into finely tuned microtonal textures and sonorities, drawing on both his Western composition and Hindustani classical music performance studies and practice.

The title cut is the most substantial work here at 19 minutes. It “is a reflection on the domestic life, delivered in three interconnected movements,” writes Montreal-based Basanta. “I imagined a daily universe in expansion, with unique sounds that come to life: discreet noises amplified, amalgamated rhythms, and unwanted sounds,” such as repeated cellphone interruptions. Furthermore, Basanta effectively exploits the interaction between human musicians, on percussion instruments, and enigmatic electronic sounds.

On one hand the music on this album sets out to explore thresholds between temporal stability – in terms of regular pulse, rhythmic continuity, metre and groove – and instability. For the listener, the sonic journey here is equally full of the thrill of discovery and the mystery of the unknown.

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