By Terry Robbins

Reviewing contemporary music can be a bit like being handed a copy of War and Peace in the original and being asked what you think of it when you don’t speak Russian; if you’re not fully conversant with the composer’s individual language then how can you judge? Music is different in one critical respect, of course, in that regardless of the particular musical language the composer uses, something should be communicated by the music itself. Does it actually say anything?

There are two essential CDs of contemporary string quartet music this month that say a lot, plus an extremely interesting DVD that doesn’t say quite as much.

CDPer Nørgård, now in his mid-70s, has long been a major figure on the Danish music scene, and the world premiere recordings of his String Quartets 7, 8, 9 and 10 by the Kroger Quartet (DACAPO 8.226059) provide a fascinating glimpse of his recent work. Written between 1993 and 2005, these are complex, varied and difficult quartets that display a very strong command of structure and sonority. The Kroger Quartet shot to prominence 8 years ago with a performance of Nørgård’s Fifth String Quartet (to which they dedicated thirty rehearsals!), and Nørgård has worked closely with the artists since then; two of the quartets, numbers 7 and 10, are dedicated to the Kroger, with the latter being written for them. These are definitive performances, highly expressive and technically dazzling.

CDArtistic cooperation between composer and performers is also a key element in Launch Pad, an album of five Canadian string quartets commissioned and performed by the Penderecki String Quartet (Centrediscs CMC CD 13308). There is an interesting diversity of sound and style here from five established mid-career composers: Laurie Radford, Alice Ho, Piotr Grella-Mozejko, Daniel Janke and Jeffrey Ryan. Of particular note are Radford’s Everything We See In The Sky (2005), a single-movement work involving digital signal processing, although the computer manipulations are not as apparent as you might expect, Ho’s String Quartet No.2 (2003) in two parts - a soulful Dream and an agitated Reality - and Ryan’s String Quartet No.3 “sonata distorta” (2006), a fascinating work reflecting on the Tolstoy story The Kreutzer Sonata and the Beethoven violin sonata that inspired it, with excerpts from the Beethoven appearing ‘distorted’ at various levels in the quartet. Some readers will recall the premiere performance of this work at Music Toronto in a theatrical presentation that included actor Colin Fox. Again, this disc features definitive and stunning performances in all respects by the PSQ.

CDIn the 1960s Karlheinz Stockhausen, who died last December at the age of 79, was the darling of the musical avant-garde and capable of sparking passionate arguments about what was or wasn’t music. Now comes a timely DVD of Frank Scheffer’s documentary on Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet (medici arts 3077508), which was written for the Arditti Quartet and premiered at the 1995 Holland Festival. The quartet members play in four different helicopters flying through the air, shouting numbers in German, but unable to hear each other and linked only by a click-track for coordination. The music (mostly tremolo scrubbing) is sent to a ground-level mixing board operated by the composer. The footage of the rehearsals is riveting, but disappointingly the only performance footage is from the helicopters, giving us no idea of what the performance was actually like for the audience on the ground. Love it or hate it - and the comments on the YouTube video postings prove that Stockhausen’s ability to spark heated controversy hasn’t diminished over the years - this is a thought-provoking and fascinating insight into the composer’s philosophy.

What does the music itself ‘say’ for me, though? Unfortunately, absolutely nothing.

Terry Robbins

By Ori Dagan

CDWhen he isn’t gigging with fellow young cats on the local scene, guitarist Harley Card leads three groups: “God’s Gift to Yoda”, “Hobson’s Choice” and a quartet under his name. The Harley Card Quartet’s independent debut CD Non-Fiction is an assortment of eight originals by the leader, all titled in two words or less. Contrast is somewhat lacking here, and except for the formidable composition and strong arrangement of Right Arm, the disc is not as interesting as one wishes it were. However, even if the writing is somewhat formulaic, the players make the best of it. This ensemble grooves harmoniously from start to finish, each member soloing in their own sweet way. Pianist Matt Newton stands out with a personal touch, and with aces Jon Maharaj on bass and Ethan Ardelli on drums, one can’t go wrong. www.harleycard.ca

CDSoulful guitarist Rick Washbrook’s latest outing as a leader, West Mystic, offers a unique take on the guitar-piano-bass-drums quartet. The liner notes reveal that the part of revered pianist Bob Erlendson was intentionally overdubbed atop a trio recording of Washbrook on guitar, Dennis Pendrith on bass and Steve Kostashuk on drums. A project 5 years in the making, this disc comes across as a carefully prepared meal, the ingredients being seven originals, a cover and two standards, all immaculately engineered. Compositionally, Washbrook is an engaging storyteller that draws from a wide pool of worldly styles. One of several highlights is an aptly sizzling take on Scorched Sun by recently departed American jazz guitarist Eddie Fisher. To top it all off, a surprising vocal performance on the Arlen/Koehler chestnut I’ve Got the World on a String. Although Washbrook has an average voice he sings, as he plays, with pure passion. www.washbrookmusic.com

CDNigerian-Canadian jazz vocalist DK Ibomeka possesses the sort of voice that commands your attention. Smiley and striking in performance, the 6’7” giant’s vocals are not only big, but also sweet, smooth and well-suited to the romantic repertoire at hand. In this setting, Ibomeka is ensconced by musical excellence: prized Toronto bassist George Koller wears the producer’s hat, while the smoking band includes Davide DiRenzo on percussion, Michael Shand on keys and Kelly Jefferson on tenor. Fans of DK will not be disappointed. The album is called I’m Your Man and the title track, penned by the inimitable Leonard Cohen, works better than expected. Even though the swingers are arguably phrased a little on the safe side, the tender ballads allow DK’s gift to shine through. Look out for our big man to take the world by storm: “I’m Your Man” will be released in the U.S. on September 27 and in Europe in October. www.dkibomeka.com

CDOn the Edge - The artistry displayed by these jazzers is astonishing given that they cannot yet order a drink! Nearly every one of these players is in Grade 10, 11 or 12, participating in the Senior Enriched Jazz level of the Humber Community Music Program; a few guests appear courtesy of Humber’s world famous post-secondary music program. Hopefully these kids know how lucky they are to be mentored by Canadian jazz luminaries such as Kirk MacDonald, Barry Romberg, Jim Vivian and Don Palmer. Embracing the modern American art form from start to finish, the repertoire ranges from Nat Adderley to Steve Swallow, Jimmy Van Heusen to John Coltrane. Significantly, some of the highlights happen to be Canadian content: Kirk McDonald’s The Torchbearers, Kenny Wheeler’s Hotel le Hot and an original by guitarist Sam Dickinson, Etch-a-Sketch. It’s difficult to single anyone out, but drummers Adam Arruda and Aaron Landsberg deserve special mention for their astounding maturity. www.creativeandperformingarts.humber.ca/music

By Terry Robbins

CDFranz Clement is generally remembered - if he is remembered at all - as the soloist in the premiere of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, supposedly sight-reading from the manuscript and at one point apparently playing his violin upside down. Not quite the sort of figure you would expect to be the subject of a musical revelation, but that’s exactly what he is on Beethoven and Clement Violin Concertos, a superb 2-CD set featuring Rachel Barton Pine and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under José Serebrier (Cedille CDR 90000 106).

Beethoven held Clement in the highest regard, and with good reason: he was an exceptional violinist and a gifted composer. His D Major Violin Concerto is an impressive work that puts the Beethoven, long regarded as being stylistically unique for its period, in a new perspective, and is all the more remarkable for pre-dating the Beethoven by more than a year. The concerto has not been performed in 200 years, and this world premiere recording uses the new edition prepared by Clive Brown, who also provides the outstanding booklet notes. Barton Pine is superb in both concertos, combining a sensitive understanding of contemporary performance practice with flawless technique and glorious tone; she also wrote the excellent cadenzas. The RPO and Serebrier are perfect partners, and the recorded sound is outstanding. At the bargain single-CD price this is an absolute ‘must-buy’!

CDNine violin concertos have been attributed to Haydn over the years, only four of which have proved genuine. One has been lost, and the other three are featured on an excellent Naxos disc by Augustin Hadelich with the Cologne Chamber Orchestra under Helmut Müller-Bruhl (Haydn Violin Concertos Naxos 8.570483). The CCO has a long history of period performance, since 1987 on modern instruments, and the balance between period style and a full, warm sound is very satisfying. The harpsichord continuo adds a great deal, and the tempos are crisp and bright throughout. Hadelich’s playing is excellent in all respects. He swept the awards at the Indianapolis International competition in 2006, and looks set for a stellar career; this CD marks his professional recording debut. Highly recommended.

CDPeriod style is more prominent on another intriguing 2-CD set, Giuliano Carmignola’s recordings of the Mozart Violin Concertos and the Sinfonia Concertante with Claudio Abbado and his new, hand-picked Orchestra Mozart (DGG Archiv 00289 477 7371). This is the orchestra’s first period-instrument recording, and their stylised playing may not be to everyone’s taste. The softer attack frequently has little sustain, for instance, making for quite different phrasing. The interpretations are sensitive and thoughtful though, with a sparing use of vibrato and some interesting ornamentation choices. CDTempos are again quite fast, with a devilish “Turkish” episode in the Rondeau finale of the A major, and there is no languishing in the slow movements either. Danusha Waskiewicz plays viola in the wonderful Sinfonia.

Incidentally, Abbado and the OM have also just released an excellent 2-CD set of five Mozart symphonies in the same style (DGG Archiv 00289 477 7598). The performances are live Italian concert recordings from 2005/06, but the excellent sound quality gives virtually no indication of an audience being present.
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