05 MoszkowskiMoritz Moszkowski – Complete Music for Solo Piano Volume One
Ian Hobson
Toccata Classics TOCC 0572 (toccataclassics.com)

Moritz Moszkowski composed in all genres, but he’s remembered today, if at all, for his 250-plus piano pieces, still occasionally sourced for recital encores. This CD, the first in a projected comprehensive compilation, presents Moszkowski’s earliest piano works, all dating from 1874-1877, when the composer was in his early 20s.

The playful opening Conservatoristen-Polka, humorously labelled “Op.½,” and identified as composed by “Anton Notenquetscher” (Note-Squeezer), references a much-reprinted satiric poem by Moszkowski’s older brother Alexander.

Among the disc’s other 13 pieces, three are fairly substantial, at over nine minutes each. Fantaisie (Hommage à Schumann), Op.5, successfully echoes Schumann’s style and its extremes of assertiveness and tenderness, with lyricism prevailing. In Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op.6, warm, gently rippling melodies slowly build to a fortissimo climax, marked grandioso. Humoreske, Op.14, is a buoyantly cheerful, virtuosic essay in dotted rhythms and rapid runs.

Of the shorter pieces, I particularly enjoyed the reflective, Schumannesque Albumblatt, Op.2, the sentiment-laden Melodie (the first of the Skizzen, Vier kleine Stücke, Op.10) and, most of all, Con moto (the second of Trois Moments Musicaux, Op.7), in which episodes of urgent plaintiveness are offset by beautiful, serene, hymn-like reassurances.

Ian Hobson’s many recordings include all of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas and Chopin’s complete piano works. He also conducted Moszkowski’s orchestral music on the fine CD I reviewed in the December 2020/January 2021 edition of The WholeNote. In Hobson’s very capable hands, future Moszkowski CDs promise many more hours of enjoyable discoveries.

06 Ravel Saint SaensRavel & Saint-Saëns – Piano Trios
Sitkovetsky Trio
Bis BIS-2219 SACD (bis.se)

The subtle colours and evanescent textures of Ravel’s piano music are often compared to those of his older contemporary Debussy, but, in fact, Ravel got there first. Like in Jeux d’eau from 1902, his Piano Trio in A Minor (1914) which features rippling liquid arpeggiated figurations derived from Liszt, is imbued with a singular new delicacy. The four wistful movements of the trio seek to convey an increasingly wide range of vivid sensations, aural and visual to create what is, in effect, a miniature tone poem. 

In one of their best recordings, the Sitkovetsky Trio interpret this piece with idiosyncratic brilliance. The variety of touch and the extraordinary control of dynamics that violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky, cellist Isang Enders and pianist Wu Qian bring to this performance balance limpid tonal clarity and questing energy.  

The other work on this scintillating album is Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Trio No.2 in E Minor Op.92. A child prodigy with Mozartian potential, the composer remarked that he lived in music “like a fish in water.” That is eminently clear from this Piano Trio, which, like his concertos, is pleasant on the ear but murder on the fingers. Like their Ravel, the Sitkovetsky Trio’s Saint-Saëns sounds startlingly fresh. Qian’s enthusiastic pianism displays great technical assurance and a sense of tremendous forward momentum. Sitkovetsky’s and Enders’ playing is sinewy and dramatic. Together the trio also give this work a spirited reading.

08 Sibelius LuonnotarSibelius – Luonnotar; Tapiola; Spring Song
Lise Davidsen; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra; Edward Gardner
Chandos CHSA 5217 (naxosdirect.com/search/chsa5217)

Jean Sibelius – together with Grieg and Dvořák – was largely responsible for the late-19th-century upsurge of musical nationalism. Sibelius’ greatest achievements were to reassert the Finnish ethos as something distinct from both Russia and Sweden – something that made him a cultural figurehead in Finland. This could be attributed to his splendid compositional technique, and a special skill that enabled him to unite the heroic imagery of the Finnish epic Kalevela and the sounds that characterized Scandinavia with the influences of the greater European tradition. 

Though Sibelius’ output is dominated by his seven symphonies, by the time he had written the first of these he had already honed his craft with a series of orchestral pieces on national themes written during the 1890s. This album includes two of these: Rakastava (The Lover) Op.14 and the tone poem Vårsång (Spring Song) Op.16. It also includes two other tone poems, Luonnotar Op, 70 and, arguably Sibelius’ greatest tone poem – Tapiola Op.112, Finlandia notwithstanding. 

The Bergen Philharmonic and Edward Gardner’s account of these works has a truly magisterial authority; Gardner’s control of the imagery of the works – in fine gradations of mood and colour – is utterly convincing. Lise Davidsen’s luminous soprano is heard on Luonnotar and the album’s longest work Pelléas och Mélisande – incidental music for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play. Orchestra and soprano have rarely sounded so beautiful and profoundly absorbed as in these stellar works. An album to die for.

07 Brian Wendelthis is home
Brian Wendel
Independent (brianwendelmusic.com)

For Brian Wendel, principal trombonist of the Vancouver Symphony and a faculty member at the University of British Columbia, the concept of “home” is as much spatial and geographic (now residing on Canada’s West Coast after having grown up in Massachusetts and having lived in New York City as a Juilliard student) as it is metaphoric (identifying repertoire so familiar and comfortable to be thought of as a musical home in which one is capable of expression, creativity and a mature statement of identity). For Wendel, This is Home, is just that; a thoughtful collection of music that includes J.S. Bach, Prokofiev, Enrique Crespo’s Improvisation and Scriabin. 

United not by era, theme or even tunefulness, the pieces chosen instead put forth a compelling statement of where Wendel draws inspiration and gives voice. Often presented in duo format with pianist Carter Johnson, Wendel also plays solo on the Bach and Crespo selections, a format that I do not associate with “classical” music (instead, the albums by George Lewis and Albert Mangelsdorff come to mind here), but would be intrigued to hear more of from this extremely capable and fine musician.  

Although a thorny and difficult instrument, in the right hands (such as Wendel’s) the trombone ranks among the most expressive instruments in music, underscoring and highlighting sublime passages of music heard many times before (such as Bach’s Cello Suites) while giving a unique voice and perspective to both the new and the less familiar.

09 Parker Quartet KashkashianKurtág – Six moments musicaux; Officium breve; Dvořák – String Quintet No.3
Parker Quartet; Kim Kashkashian
ECM New Series 2649 (ecmrecords.com/shop)

In a program of contrasts, the musically sensitive Boston-based Parker Quartet plays the music of György Kurtág with virtuoso panache, and are joined by their mentor, violist Kim Kashkashian, in an Antonín Dvořák work in their ECM New Series debut. Czech composer Dvořák’s easygoing late American period String Quintet No.3 is bookended by two of Kurtág’s tightly wound quartets. The latter’s Six moments musicaux (2005) and the Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky (1988/89) glitter jewel-like in their neo-expressionistic refinement.

Composed in three days in Spillville, Iowa in 1893, Dvořák’s lyrical work differs from his other quintets in his use of two violas and also in its formal straightforwardness: there’s little development of thematic material and extensive repetition. The Parker Quartet’s feeling for instrumental colour, texture and attention to detailed ensemble work is evident from the first measure.

The same can be said about the quartet’s performance insights into Kurtág’s scores, developed through extensive work with the senior Hungarian composer. I was particularly moved by the Parker’s riveting rendering of Kurtág’s brilliantly intense 15-section Officium Breve in Memoriam… Even as they mirror the concision of each miniature movement, paradoxically the music becomes even more static, timeless – and elegiac. 

A perceptive reviewer once wrote that his music was “like opening a trapdoor in your floor and dropping for a moment into the infinity of the cosmos.” Kurtág’s notes often seem unmoored from conventional function, freed to resonate in a much larger musical and emotional space.

01 Varese LutoslawskiVarèse, Ligeti, Lutosławski, Baldini
Miranda Cuckson; Maximilian Haft, Münchner Rundfunkorchester; UC Davis Symphony Orchestra; Christian Baldini
Centaur Records CRC3879 (naxosdirect.com/search/crc3879)

What to do when the music stops? If you’re Christian Baldini, music director of the University of California at Davis Symphony since 2009, you rummage through your archives, choose your best performances from the past and publish them with the caveat “unedited live recordings.” There are some real collegiate gems to be heard here, notably two of the finest violin concertos to have been composed in the late-20th century. 

Ligeti’s Violin Concerto from 1994 can be a challenge for all involved, but for the marvellous soloist Miranda Cuckson it’s a piece of cake. Most of these difficulties occur in the bizarre third movement, where the horns must do their best to perform solely on the overtone series (i.e. without the use of valves) and the wind players are compelled to hoot away on a quartet of decidedly screechy quarter-tone ocarinas. Fear not though, as the stylistic range of this five-movement work is captivating enough to appeal to many tastes. The concerto concludes with the insertion of a lengthy solo cadenza of unacknowledged origin; I for one would like to know its author (possibly Thomas Adès?) and, while we’re at it, the identity of the jackass whose hard-heeled footsteps break its magic spell on stage. 

Though Lutoslawski’s 1985 violin concerto is clearly less technically demanding than Ligeti’s, Maximilian Haft’s pugnacious performance of Chain 2 is nonetheless commanding and stylish and the orchestra is clearly much more comfortable and capable in this music. Two purely orchestral works are also on offer. A performance of Varèse’s 1927 version of his brutalist tone poem Amériques, while decidedly short on nuance, displays a youthful enthusiasm for the volcanic eruptions that pervade the work, though the 2015 pick-up of the gargantuan, screaming orchestra is lacking in depth and detail. It also has something unique going for it: midway through the printed score there is a trombone solo marked with the lyrics “Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha!”; here, that text is shouted through a megaphone! No other recording I know observes this detail. 

A short work from Baldini’s own hand, Elapsing Twilight Shades, opens the disc with a rambling essay characterized by loud orchestral outbursts followed by quasi-improvised noodling and percussive rumblings in a performance by the very adult Munich Radio Orchestra at the Salzburg Festival in 2012.

02a CPQ Sound VisionariesSound Visionaries
Christina Petrowska Quilico
Navona Records nv6358 (navonarecords.com)

Retro Americana
Christina Petrowska Quilico
Navona Records nv6361 (navonarecords.com)

With over 50 recordings and a storied record of critical acclaim, veteran piano virtuoso Christina Petrowska Quilico delivers yet another reason why she is regarded as one of the most celebrated interpreters of 20th-century music. The listener is treated to surprisingly original interpretations of frequently recorded selections such as Debussy’s second book of Preludes and Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus. The pianist’s attention to detail and delicate approach to phrasing are unparalleled. 

The piano sonatas of Pierre Boulez are considered among the most difficult among the solo piano repertoire of the 20th century. In Petrowska Quilico’s recordings of the first and third sonatas of Boulez, the virtuoso’s dynamic command over this highly demanding music produces an assertiveness that undoubtedly will become compulsory atop the list of many recordings of this music. Incidentally, Petrowska Quilico was coached by Boulez before her performance of the first sonata at the presentation of the Glenn Gould Prize to Boulez in November 2002.

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02b CPQ Retro AmericanaOn her most recent release, Petrowska Quilico brilliantly tackles solo American repertoire from throughout the 20th century. With some rarely performed selections such as Henry Cowell’s Six Ings and Bill Westcott’s Suite combined with some more recognizable titles by Rzewski, Tatum and Gershwin, Petrowska Quilico is able to provide an impressive recital highlighting her technical command over varying styles. 

There are four selections by composer Meredith Monk – each unfolding as the true gems on the disc. These four pieces reveal the highly compelling originality of the composer – a voice that seems to lend itself to Petrowska Quilico’s performance sensibilities with a bewildering ease and effortlessness – an expressive attribute that will enchant the listener. 

This release is yet another statement from a restless virtuoso who has a seemingly inexhaustible ability to provide gripping interpretations of the music of our time.

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03 Frank Horvat Project DovetailFrank Horvat – Project Dovetail
Frank Horvat; Edwin Huizinga; Elixir Baroque Ensemble; TorQ Percussion Quartet; et al.
Independent (frankhorvat.com/discography)

Toronto composer-pianist Frank Horvat “has carved a niche for himself among today’s composers, wearing his fragile heart on his sleeve,” observed CBC music critic Robert Rowat. Project Dovetail, Horvat’s final release in an album trilogy spanning 2021, follows that emotional thread. Featuring some of Canada’s top chamber musicians, Project Dovetail has an intriguing synesthetic twist. Horvat has taken the art and artists that have inspired him and “dovetailed” aspects of them into his music. Among others, the works of two Canadian artists are featured: best-selling author Suzanne Desrochers and master printmaker Lorna Livey. 

Lorna’s Metamorphosis is a good example of the composer’s synesthetic dovetailing. In it, Livey speaks candidly about her passion for butterflies and the environment. Remarkably, Horvat has accurately scored the rhythms of her voice and then composed a dynamic instrumental counterpoint to it for vibraphone, two marimbas, piano and tympani. The composer notes that “it captures the Lorna I know: determined, honest and kind… compliment[ing] her driving, forward-thinking personality.”

The Sad Life of Laure Beauséjour for two violins, viola da gamba and harpsichord takes its cue from scenes in the novel Bride of New France by Desrochers. Horvat depicts the protagonist’s many hardships in music, choosing period instruments to evoke the novel’s 1670s setting. The Sad Life’s four slow movements are all intentionally similar in key, their melancholy melodies receiving straightforward accompaniments. In his program notes Horvat invokes the musical influence of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes in this work, and I can feel the emotional throughlines spanning a century and a third.

Newfoundout CoverNewfoundout
Nick Storring
Mappa Editions MZP027 (nickstorring.bandcamp.com)

Toronto Composer Nick Storring is a prolific artist. As a composer, writer, musician and arts curator he seems to be everywhere, and yet he managed to touch down long enough to complete his seventh solo album. Consistently surprising us with his dexterous layering and technology skills, Newfoundout is a perfect blend of Storring’s musical ear for raw audio beauty and his skillful sound assembly. A completely acoustic layering of curiosities – is that a vuvuzela in harmony? – the compositions are so deftly complete you will forget to keep asking what you are hearing. From the first track Dome, a full 12’41” piece that could have been presented in a concert hall, it’s nearly impossible to find the distinction between what might have been improvised and what might be composed. Each track is intentionally directed, spare and transparent, blissfully curious at times and at others suspended in outer space, swirling in dust and light. Storring ensures that there is nothing superfluous to cloud the beauty of the found sounds; drums dance, dog whistles sing, and the final mix is perfect. One is reminded of the phrase “truth is stranger than fiction.”

The album flows superbly as a whole. Never aimless, each piece weaves intentionally between composed sections and exquisitely layered psychedelia, anchored with an assortment of undefined instruments, plucked strings, pianos and drum rhythms. It’s like witnessing the mysteries of life on Earth. With tracks named after Ontario ghost towns, Newfoundout is a sublimely delicious curiosity. I lost track of the beginnings and ends of each piece and just enjoyed the entire album start to finish.

05 Felipe Tellez Songs of LongingFelipe Téllez – Songs of Longing
TakeFive Ensemble
Centrediscs CMCCD 28721 (cmccanada.org/shop/cd-cmccd-28721)

The TakeFive Ensemble (comprised of violinists Lynn Kuo and Csaba Koczo, violist Carolyn Blackwell, cellist Emmanuelle Beaulieu Bergeron and pianist Shoshana Telner) have recorded two substantial works by Colombian-Canadian composer Felipe Téllez. The first – in three movements – titled Fate, is rather traditional in its language and form. This music cycles through a tempestuous first movement into a tender and lyrical second movement and finishes with a dramatic and sorrowful third and final movement. The composer describes fate as taking on many contrasting characteristics that may or may not be within our control. With the cheery punctuation heard in the final measures of this work, it is clear that fate has delivered a happy ending in this case.

The second work is a collection of songs without words in five movements that adopts a less classical treatment than the first piece on the disc. Titled Colombian Songs, it utilizes colourful gestures and clever twists of mood to provide a pleasing reaction to some traditional Colombian song sources. The musicians in TakeFive execute Téllez’s music with a shimmering brilliance. The expressive quality permeating from each instrument in the ensemble is at once individually impressive but also blends into an exquisite whole. Bravo to TakeFive on some superb performances – an ensemble I hope to hear much more from in the future.


06 Leslie Dala Philip GlassPhilip Glass – The Complete Piano Etudes
Leslie Dala
Redshift Records (redshiftmusicsociety.bandcamp.com/album/philip-glass-the-complete-piano-etudes)

Continuing the tradition established by Chopin, Debussy and Ligeti, piano etudes by Philip Glass have been loved by many concert pianists. Although most etudes are created for the purpose of pursuing a specific harmonic or technical preoccupation related to the instrument, Glass’ carry a particular element of beauty and depth. Melancholy is mixed with sweetness, rhythmical drive with unique harmonic language; one senses an arc of the composer’s personal relationship with the piano in this music.

The new recording by Leslie Dala, a conductor and pianist based in Vancouver, brings in a solitary air of an artist who has found stillness. Dala has a natural pianistic affinity for Glass’ compositional language. He experiments with a wealth of colours found in these etudes but never strays away from the classical pianistic tradition. A strong percussive touch accentuates the fluid motion of the music. The result is an album that is refined and rich, natural in its expression.

Hearing the 20 etudes in succession makes for the best listening experience. Each etude has its own character and atmosphere but it is the flow, the longer narrative and the observation of correlational aspects and the morphing of Glass’ compositional and Dala’s interpretative ideas that gives the listener deeper understanding of this music. By the time the last etude is played, gentle and unassuming, the sonic space becomes clear. And when the sound blends with silence at the very end, one is granted the sense of closure.

07 Maya Beiser Philip GlassMaya Beiser x Philip Glass
Maya Beiser
Islandia Music Records (islandiamusic.com)

Talking Heads front person David Bryne, in his 1999 essay “I Hate World Music” that predates his excellent book, How Music Works, describes so-called “world music” as “a name for a bin in the record store signifying stuff that doesn’t belong anywhere else in the store.” In 2021, as bins, record stores and, to a lesser extent, musical genres and meaningless categorizations in terms of the way that sound is captured and assembled (and marketed) fades into the rear view, there remain vestiges of (to artificially demarcate things historically) the pre-streaming playlist-driven genre tribalism of the “Before Times.” 

I say all of this to push back on the characterization that I have read of Maya Beiser – the exceptionally talented American cellist who has released an evocative and wonderful retrospective of Philip Glass’ music on her own Islandia Music Records label – as “avant-garde.” This recent recording offers, simply put, beautiful music (it’s Glass after all!), played exceptionally well by an expressive and emotive artist who has much that is new and insightful to say on these largely familiar Glass pieces.  

Captured in beautiful fidelity at the Hudson Opera House and, through the studio wizardry of multi-tracking, looping cello parts and the creation of what she calls a “sonic cello kaleidoscope,” Beiser puts forth meaningful arrangements on this fine recording that defy every categorization other than good! It is little wonder why Beiser has such insight into Glass’ music: she was the cellist chosen (by Glass) to be part of the Philip Glass Ensemble on the worldwide tour of his Qatsi trilogy in 2005 and she brings this familiarity, creativity and attention to detail to the fore on Maya Beiser x Philip Glass.

08 AmendsAmends
Matt Magerkurth
People Places Records PPR 023 (peopleplacesrecords.bandcamp.com)

Amends, the debut album of pieces for solo cello from American cellist and composer Matt Magerkurth, presents as a contemplation of isolation and experimentation. Recorded in Bixby, Oklahoma’s Closet Studios, the album is composed of pieces in skeletal form to be played semi-improvisatorially. The seven pieces are introspective self-examinations and seem to highlight the loneliness experienced by so many artists during the current pandemic. 

Met with the occasional accompaniment of layered effects and occasional oceanic basslines by producer Scott Bell, Magerkurth traverses the cello in arpeggiated gestures, making use of the overtones by playing with a light bow technique, often to beautiful effect, expressive and colourful. The overall experience is one of longing and reflection.

09 Van StiefelVan Stiefel – Spirits
Van Stiefel
Panoramic Recordings PAN21 (newfocusrecordings.com)

Renowned contemporary guitarist and composer Van Stiefel set out on a mission to thoroughly compose, perform and record his own album from top to bottom; his latest release is the worthy result of that endeavour. Taking inspiration from favourites of his such as Les Paul, Chet Atkins and Glen Campbell, Stiefel puts his own twist on the concept of the studio-instrumental album by expertly using a recording and editing technique called “layered guitar.” The record is a journey through moments, thoughts and experiences in the guitarist’s life through a fascinating and immersive soundscape of sonorous snippets. 

Stiefel describes the pieces as being almost like “journal entries that hint at secrets, idiosyncrasies, and personal rituals.” Each tune is completely different from the last, calling forth a mood or image into the listener’s mind. King of Cups begins the album with a slightly country-flavoured piece over which a haunting processed melody is overlayed. Memory Jug is a unique and explorative piece with its striking dissonance and computer-generated sounds in the background creating a futuristic and robotic tune. Acquiescence – as well as a few other pieces – captivate due to the technique of “cutting and pasting” fragments of melody to create a new whole. This is an album that would be a great fit for anyone looking to expand their auditory palette.

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10 Apollo ChamberWith Malice Toward None
Apollo Chamber Players
Azica ACD-71340 (apollochamberplayers.org/media)

The Apollo Chamber Players have embraced a mission toward the championing of globally inspired programming and commissioning. The new works on their latest release, With Malice Toward None, are part of a larger commissioning project titled 20x2020 – an effort to support the creation of 20 new works from multicultural composers by the end of 2020. 

The ensemble’s passion for new music and impressive virtuosity is on full display on this new disc as the listener is treated to an inspired assemblage of repertoire. The title track (referencing a phrase uttered by Abraham Lincoln) – for electric violin and string quartet – composed by J. Kimo Williams features Tracy Silverman on electric violin. This work speaks to certain contemporary socio-political issues and the electric violin soaring over the string quartet creates a dramatic and compelling atmosphere. Some clever Hendrix quotes emerge as an unexpected contrast. 

Pamela Z’s The Unraveling is a brilliant reworking of American folk songs from the 1960s and 70s. This work, in four movements, shows Pamela Z’s unparalleled talent to create highly original sound worlds using sampling, looping and fragmentation of the familiar. Themes of Armenian Folksongs, originally composed by the Armenian composer known as Komitas and later arranged by members of Apollo and the Komitas Quartet, originates from ten Armenian folk songs that were collected by Komitas. This bright and eupeptic music reveals the world-class musicianship of the quartet players. Lastly, Eve Beglarian’s We Will Sing One Song is a wonderfully ethereal and expressive work that paints at once a disturbing and welcoming landscape with the duduk instrument providing a subdued allure – the perfect bookend to this superbly recorded release.

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11 Tanya EkanayakaThe Planets & Humanity – Piano Reflections
Tanya Ekanayaka
Grand Piano GP879 (naxosdirect.com/search/gp879)

Award-winning Sri Lankan-British pianist and composer Tanya Ekanayaka delivers a recording of original compositions which correspond to the eight planets that inhabit our solar system and the seven continents on Earth. Many of the selections utilize echoes of traditional melodies supported by a decidedly Romantic-era harmonic sensibility. 

Composed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, this cycle for solo piano represents Ekanayaka’s interest in the expressive connections between past and present. The eight movements combine to create a potpourri of moods through which Ekanayaka is able to showcase a confident and precise technical command of the piano.

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