11 Jeanette LambertGenius Loci Mixtape
Jeannette Lambert
Jazz from Rant rant 1953 (jazzfromrant.com)

A distinctive and creative singer, Jeannette Lambert presents an imaginative and intimate travelogue in music here, interacting spontaneously with numerous musicians in different locales. Sometimes she sings other writers’ lyrics, sometimes her own; whether playfully or wistfully, she sings with a poet’s diction, making every song a model of clarity.

The most frequent collaborators are her musical family: her husband, Montreal drummer Michel Lambert, plays on all 11 tracks; her brother, Toronto guitarist Reg Schwager, on four. His appearances include two recordings from a Barcelona apartment: the opening Keys explores a stark text about trust among lovers by Catalan poet Clementina Arderiu; the final vision is Gaudi, a celebration of the architect’s crowning achievement, the city’s Sagrada Familia, now a century in the making. Lambert artfully conveys the complex emotion of her lyric about “something that was created for the sake of creating.”

In between are other evocations of the spirit of place. Two tracks from Puget-Ville, France, have Lambert improvising melody with a rambunctious quintet that includes the great veteran bassist Barre Phillips. Sometimes poem and site create compound spaces: the welling emotion of Anne Brontë’s A Windy Day was realized with pianist Greg Burk in Ostia, Italy, while Spanish poet Federico García Lorca’s Gypsy Nun was recorded in Montreal with harpsichordist Alexandre Grogg. The most joyous music here comes from furthest afield, the virtuosic Coyote, recorded at a festival in Sulawesi, Indonesia with Schwager and bassist Fendy Rizk.

12 Karoline LeblancDouble on the Brim
Leblanc; Gibson; Vicente; Mira; Ferreira Lopes
Atrito-Afeito 011 (atrito-afeito.com)

Pianist Karoline Leblanc and drummer Paulo J Ferreira Lopes have a developing relationship with Lisbon, a warmer complement to their Montreal base. Lisbon is a burgeoning centre for free jazz and improvised music, with numerous performance spaces, these genres’ most active record labels (Clean Feed and Creative Source have produced over 600 CDs each since 2001) and a growing list of well-known improvisers taking up residence. Leblanc and Ferreira Lopes recorded A Square Meal there in 2016, and Leblanc recently recorded Autoschediasm in Montreal with Lisboan violist Ernesto Rodrigues. Double on the Brim, recorded in Lisbon this year, develops the connection further.

The quintet here includes Brazilian-born saxophonist Yedo Gibson, trumpeter Luís Vicente (returning from A Square Meal) and cellist Miguel Mira. There are six episodes, ranging in length from four to 16 minutes. The longest of them, Anthropic Jungle and the title track, are intense collective improvisations that pulse with vitality, moving tapestries in which instruments tumble over one another. The relatively brief Singra Alegria, almost dirge-like, foregoes the usual density, with Leblanc’s looming bass clusters creating an ominous mood in which Vicente’s subdued lyricism comes to the fore. Jaggy Glide is the most tightly focused, with Gibson’s alto spiralling through the dense rhythmic field created by Leblanc, Ferreira Lopes, and the versatile Mira, who can also provide convincing bass lines when required.

Sometimes instrumental identities will blur, but Leblanc’s brilliant articulation and Ferreira Lopes’ multidirectional drumming shine.

13 BrishenTunes in a Hotel
Quinn Bachand’s Brishen
Independent CP104 (brishenmusic.com)

When I first listened to Cheyenne (Quit Your Talkin’) from Brishen’s second album, Blue Verdun, I assumed it was a cover of a jazz/pop song from the 1930s. It was surprising to discover this clever and engaging song was written and sung by Quinn Bachand, a young musical prodigy from Victoria. He was studying at the Berklee College of Music (on a full scholarship) and recorded that album in his apartment in Verdun, Quebec while on a semester leave. It is a remarkable trip into a past style creatively re-imagined in the present.

Brishen, Romany for “bringer of the storm,” has released a third album, Tunes in a Hotel, which is an idiosyncratic re-imagining of several Django Reinhardt tunes (including Odette, It Had to Be You and Pennies from Heaven). The backstory is dramatic with Bachand’s Berklee residence involved in a fire which left his instruments safe, but smelling of smoke. He and other students were relocated to the Boston Sheraton where he recorded this album in room 737! The ensemble sounds tight and feisty with Bachand (at points) playing a borrowed Gibson ES 125 through an “amazingly crunchy 50s tube amp.” One striking aspect of these pieces is their crisp economy: with an average length of less than three minutes, the melodies and solos seem compressed and melodically inventive with Eric Vanderbilt-Mathews (clarinet) and Christiaan van Hemert (violin) contributing several excellent improvisations. Bachand’s guitar playing is both an homage to Reinhardt and an expression of his own eclectic originality. I highly recommend this retro, low-fi, yet modern revisiting of Reinhardt’s catalogue. And I look forward to the surprises of a fourth Brishen album, possibly even recorded in a studio!

14 Jaelem BhateJaelem Bhate – On the Edge
Various artists
Independent (jaelembhate.com)

Jaelem Bhate’s website contains listings for what seem to be two or three different people: conducting competitions in Italy and Romania, an inaugural concert as musical director of Symphony 21 in Vancouver and other symphony conducting gigs. Then a catalogue of classical orchestral, chamber and solo works and, finally, a jazz section where On the Edge is listed as his debut album. Bhate is a very busy person with a range of musical interests.

On the Edge is an ambitious album with a 20-piece band of excellent musicians from the Vancouver area. In his liner notes Bhate says every work “represents some edge in my life, as does the whole album.” The title could also represent Vancouver on the “edge” of the ocean and the country. The core of the CD is the magnificent Pacific Suite with four programmatic movements: Straights and NarrowsWeeping Skies, Uninhabitation and Sea of Glass. Straights and Narrows contains slower and faster sections with a few drum solos that could reference the movement of water through narrow straights and onto the beaches, Weeping Skies begins with an elegant pizzicato bass solo which sounds like individual drops building into the steady rain we expect on the West Coast. Sea of Glass opens with an up-tempo piano and bass duet that could be a soundtrack for a floatplane gliding low over a pristine and still harbour. The plane lands when the horns enter and the beat switches to a punchier swing feel with a jaunty melody.

On the Edge is well produced with a great band and excellent solos by several musicians including Steve Kaldestad on a soulful tenor saxophone. We can only hope Bhate adds to his résumé with more jazz projects in the future.

15 Brandon RobertsonB.O.A.T.S – Bass’d on a True Story
Brandon Robertson
Slammin Media (brandonrobertsonmusic.com)

Emmy-nominated musical director and Florida staple Brandon Robertson has released a stellar debut album featuring all but two original songs written over the span of the past 14 years. He has referred to the record as “the first chapter of his musical biography,” wherein each song harks back to a significant moment in his lifetime. Featured is a band comprised of stars on the jazz circuit, including collaborators such as Lew Del Gatto on tenor saxophone, Zach Bartholomew on piano and Gerald Watkins Jr. on drums.

The record is sultry and luscious, especially when giving a close listen to Robertson’s bass riffs that are very literally on fire. Each song has its own distinct flavour, almost creating an image in the mind of what kind of memory the bassist was recalling in the midst of writing. An interesting feature of the album is that Robertson is clearly just as comfortable leading within a piece as he is accompanying his collaborators and allowing them to have a moment in the spotlight. East of the Sun and The Next Thing to Come are great opening tracks as they have an irresistible, foot-tapping rhythm. Robertson’s pizzicato technique can really be appreciated on Lullaby for Noelle, while bowing is also used earlier in the same piece. While each track has its own story, there is also a welcome togetherness throughout the record, which makes it a sound choice for any jazz listener.

17 Waxman WillisauWillisau
Leimgruber/Demierre/Phillips/Lehn
Jazz Werkstatt JW 191 (jazzwerkstatt.eu)

Adding another voice to an established trio is a risk. But as these extended performances from saxophonist Urs Leimgruber and pianist Jacques Demierre, both Swiss, and expatriate American bassist Barre Phillips indicate, the inclusion of German Thomas Lehn’s analogue synthesizer illuminates new tinctures in the improvisational picture the others perfected over nearly two decades. This ever-shifting continuum of electronic judders not only enhances this program, but also allows the creation of parallel duos. For the first time, low-pitched string bowing is matched with keyboard strums and cadenzas while altissimo reed sputters are backed by wave-form grinding. Throughout, partners are changed as in a decidedly un-square dance.

Individual set pieces for each remain though, as when Lehn’s vibrations alternate wood-flute-like gentleness and intensely vibrated doits, subtly seconded by pumping piano cadenzas; or when the jagged subsequent shape of Monkeybusiness 2, defined by Phillips’ low-pitched sweeps in the introduction, darkens and deepens to spiccato string pumps, buttressed by Leimgruber’s burbling split tones by the finale. Elsewhere, Demierre’s key dusting can swiftly turn to a crescendo of notes plus inner-piano string plucks alongside circular-breathed saxophone tones.

Cooperation and control are triumphantly obvious at the climax of Monkeybusiness 1, when a combination of reed multiphonics, wriggling electronics and pounding keys drive the track to peak excitement that then subtly relaxes into piano glissandi and delicate reed peeps. Willisau proves that if an auxiliary musical voice is properly attached it elevates the results.

18 NeoN NiblockNiblock/Lamb
Ensemble neoN
Hubro HUBRO CD 2601 (hubromusic.com)

Two over-20-minute microtonal compositions by variations of the strings, reeds and percussion of Norwegian Ensemble neoN not only yield provocative listening but also recognize how the sub-genre has evolved over time.

To Two Tea Roses by Phill Niblock (b.1933), with its miniscule microtonal displacement, borders on a solid mass as the six-piece group begins playing a collective crescendo and continues with an unresolved drone throughout. While separate layers of thickness and intensity give the choked program shape and fascination, individual instrumental identity is curtailed.

In contrast, Parallaxis Forma by Catherine Lamb (b.1982) sets up a program where seven instrumentalists contrast and comingle tonalities into a musical wash that parallels a vocal exposition from Stine Janvin Motland and Silje Aker Johnsen. As the singers’ voices drift in and out of aural focus, their closely related lyric soprano timbres unite in near church-like harmonies or pull apart with tremulous pitches, trade leads, hocket or reach protracted pauses. Eventually, the thickened buzz that develops from these sequences allows individual tones to peep outwards as the piece undulates to its conclusion.

Without jarring moments, this program still rewards deep listening as it provides unparalleled sonic definitions in dissimilar interpretations.

19 Caine PassioThe Passion of Octavius Catto
Uri Caine
816 Music 816-1904 (uricaine.com)

Concise in length but expansive in execution, this CD could be termed a secular oratorio, celebrating the life, contributions and premature violent death of African-American activist Octavius Catto (1839-1871). Composed by pianist Uri Caine, the ten-part, 29-minute program integrates the sophisticated rhythms of Caine’s trio, including bassist Mike Boone and drummer Clarence Penn, with the amplified colouring provided by a full-sized, specially constituted philharmonic orchestra conducted by André Raphel, two vocal ensembles and, most crucially, singer Barbara Walker, who personalizes episodes in Catto’s storied life that ended in murder during election day riots when blacks first tried to vote in post-bellum Philadelphia.

Using ragtime and swing tropes to advance the narrative, Caine’s playing meshes with multilayered orchestral timbres, particularly during Murder (October 19, 1871), which also integrates gunfire and police whistles, and culminates with the pianist’s subtle key clinking and military-style drum beats dolefully celebrating the fallen protagonist.

Elsewhere the swell of Walker’s vocal equipment with melismatic emphasis, backed by sympathetic affirmations from the 35 singers, almost turns each outing into gospel music. This is no mean feat when the syllables being emphasized deal with topics such as rallying free men of colour to the Union cause, new amendments to the American Constitution or, on Change, replication of a memorable Catto speech from 1866.

A momentous achievement. If there were fairness in the musical world, performances of The Passion of Octavius Catto would be part of any symphony’s repertoire, rather than a one-time event.

01 Skye ConsortSkye Consort & Emma Björling
Emma Björling; Skye Consort
Leaf Music LM225 (leaf-music.ca)

How exactly does a Celtic-Quebeco-Franco-Anglo-Acado-Gallo-Baroquo band team up with a Swedish folk singer? The answer to this intriguing question, posed by the liner notes, begins in November 2017, when vocalist Emma Björling was invited to Montreal to take part in a project which also featured members of the Skye Consort. The musicians casually discussed another possible collaboration; however, when Björling’s return flight to Sweden was cancelled due to inclement weather, the plans for this collaboration really began to solidify. On the final night of her stay, it was decided: there would be a new project. Glasses were raised, and voilà, Skye Consort & Emma Björling was on its way.

Flash forward to 2019, the group is embarking on tour and releasing their first CD. There is truly something for everyone on this fine recording, a collection of Swedish, Norwegian, Irish, Scottish, English, French-Canadian and original songs. Herr Hillebrand, a fitting upbeat opener, showcases the talents of the entire group. Next, Björling delivers a powerful, riveting rendition of Om Berg Och Dalar, a traditional Norwegian love song which segues into a Swedish polska. Björling’s stunning original, En Ängel, features empathic support from Amanda Keesmaat (cello) and Seán Dagher (bouzouki). The fiddle tunes, played by Alex Kehler, are an absolute pleasure.

The songs are beautifully arranged, and Björling’s vocals are fully integrated into the ensemble, giving the music the feel of a true collaboration. One of the best folk recordings of 2019.

Listen to 'Skye Consort & Emma Björling' Now in the Listening Room

Gamelan of Java, Vol. 5: Cirebon Tradition in America
Gamelan Sinar Surya; Richard North
Lyrichord Discs LYRCH 7461 (lyrichord.com)

Gamelan Music of Cirebon, Indonesia
Gamelan Sinar Surya; Richard North
Sinar Surya Records G5503 (gamelansb.com)

Gamelan Music of Cirebon, Indonesia: Volume 3
Gamelan Sinar Surya; Richard North
Sinar Surya Records G5503 (gamelansb.com)

Richard North, the California-based gamelan musician and lecturer at UC Santa Barbara, has been studying, teaching and performing gamelan music and related arts since 1972. This passion has taken him from Sundanese villages in highland West Java to the coastal palaces of the Sultans of Cirebon on the island of Java. Recognized today as an authority on the musical traditions of the ancient kingdom of Cirebon, North has called it “an ancient spiritual centre [where] all of the arts radiate a wonderful vitality and energy.” His contributions to the preservation, transmission and development of Cirebonese gamelan music have not gone unappreciated – they have been rewarded by both Cirebon’s royal palace and the Indonesian government.

Back home in Santa Barbara, North has directed the community group Gamelan Sinar Surya since 2002. The group plays two complete gamelan orchestras. The prawa set (in a 5-tone tuning without semitones) plays gamelan repertoires of Cirebon, Sunda and Malaysia. The pelog set (in a 7-tone tuning with semitones) plays pelog gamelan musics of Cirebon, as well as Sundanese degung klasik music which typically uses instruments tuned to a 5-tone subset of pelog. The three CDs in this review are a record of Gamelan Sinar Surya’s dedication to the study and performance of a repertoire rarely heard outside its Cirebon homeland.

02a Gamelan of Java Cirebon Trad in America 2010 vol.1Released nine years ago, Gamelan of Java, Vol. 5: Cirebon Tradition in America was a 2010 landmark: the first commercial recording by an American group of examples of five traditional gamelan genres practised in Cirebon. It gave non-insiders a tantalizing taste of the aristocratic and ritual music of this rich 500-year-old musical culture. This is music on a more intimate scale than the larger and better-known gamelans of Southcentral Java and Bali.

My favourite track is Pacul Goang (Chipped Rice Hoe), characterized at first by the gentle musical ambiance I associate with gamelan Cirebon performance, which then turns fast, fiery and dense in texture. Its atmospheric hallmarks include the dynamic playing of the kendang and larger bedhug (drums), the characteristically sweet suling (bamboo flute) melodic riffs in the soft sections, and the upbeat alok vocalizations of the musicians imbuing life to the instrumentals in the animated fast section.

02b Gamelan Music of Cirebon vol.2.2015Gamelan Music of Cirebon, Indonesia (2015) is the second volume in the series. Gamelan Sinar Surya plays nine pieces on gamelan pelog and gamelan prawa. Standouts for me are the performances of the endangered ritual genres, the joyous gong renteng, magic-imbued denggung and ancient sacred gong sekati, genres happily experiencing a very recent revival.

03c Gamelan Music of Cirebon Vol.3 2019Gamelan Music of Cirebon, Indonesia: Volume 3 (2019) features not only five different Cirebon gong ensembles but also a solo appearance of the rare mellow-sounding Cirebonese gender (multi-octave metalophone).

The liner notes relate that “To tell a Cirebon musician that their playing is ‘leres,’ or correct, is faint praise. A true compliment is to say that their music is ‘urip’ – alive!” The special spirit and sound of the instrumental music of Cirebon is very much alive on these albums.

04 Tangos and moreTangos… and something more
Grupo Encuentros; Alicia Terzian
Navona Records nv6246 (navonarecords.com)

In 1979 , Argentinian composer/musicologist/conductor Alicia Terzian created the Grupo Encuentros whose international performances have brought Latin American and Argentine music to listeners around the world. Here, Terzian leads the ensemble in the evolving tango genre. She capably arranges familiar traditional tangos, such as the three Astor Piazzolla pieces, which maintain his rhythmic, melodic and upbeat tango feel. Roggero’s Mimi Pinzon builds from calm to intense while Demare’s 1940s tango Malena features a dramatic, interesting, closing fugue-like section.

Listeners wishing to hear the tango evolution will applaud the new works. Finnish composer Tiensuu’s Tango lunar (1989) travels to the new music outer space, as tango lines sound against more electroacoustic washes, soundscapes, squeaks, use of spoken world and mezzo a cappella closing. Terzian’s Argentino Hasta La Muerte has the opening bandoneon and mezzo swells, rubatos and accented notes so tight that it is hard to tell what the lead line is. Her Un Argentino de Vuelta is played with intensity and subtleties, including bandoneon vibrato and fast runs, flute interlude, clarinet repeated-note rhythms, quasi jazzy/Romantic-style piano solo and faster tango section. In his duet, Llamado de Tambores, composer/bandoneonist Daniel Binelli, with the mezzo vocalist Marta Blanco, tells a tango story with effects and emotional flourishes.

All seven performers are great tango interpreters able to change with the tango’s decades-long developments. Wish there were English translations for the words. There is a bit of something for every tango taste to enjoy and explore.

Legendary as the country where every type of Western music has some followers and where every disc extant is rumoured to exist in some form or another, Japan likewise has a healthy jazz and free music scene. This appreciation extends to homegrown improvisers, but few are known throughout the larger musical world. Not only do these discs demonstrate how this situation is changing as Asian players interact with more Westerners, but some outsider players have also moved there since they found the country’s audiences to be sympathetic to their music. 

01 ArashiIn the former group, one of the most prominent is Hiroshima-born alto saxophonist/clarinetist Akira Sakata, 74, who’s been improvising in an individual free jazz style since the early 1970s which also involves his off-the-wall vocalizing. A marine biologist as well as a musician, Sakata organized the co-operative trio Arashi a few years ago with Norwegian percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love and Swedish bassist Johan Berthling. The exciting Jikan Arashi (PNL Records PNL 045 paalnilssen-love.com) is its newest disc. Reminiscent of the heyday of “The New Thing” sound explorers, on saxophone, Sakata has seemingly never found a tone he couldn’t split or a timbre he couldn’t overblow. This is demonstrated most convincingly on the extended Yamanoue-no-Okura with a solo that’s all snarls and growls, and that inflates with pressurized vibratos and propelled reed bites each time he outputs a phrase. In sympathy, Betherling’s accelerated strumming and Nilssen-Love’s constant thumping, fluidly pulse and push with the same intensity. Besides the trio’s sliding and shredding instrumentally up and down the scale, here and elsewhere Sakata vocalizes guttural syllables that wouldn’t be out of place on a Japanese horror film soundtrack. Eventually, gurgles and mumbles that involve the guts and throat more than the mouth and lips give way to small instrument whumps and cymbal lacerations from the drummer culminating in triple intensity. While the saxophonist’s frenetic Aylerian screams and pressurized stutters mix with Nilssen-Love’s constant pounding on the title track, he also shows off restrained chalumeau-register clarinet storytelling on Tsuioku, partnered by cymbal slides. Despite his concluding shrilling output and a return to guttural mumbling, Jikan is another indication of why the reedist has maintained his creativity over the decades.

02 Sol AbstractionAnother first-generation Japanese improviser who has maintained a similar musical ingenuity is Yokohama-born percussionist Sabu Toyozumi, two years Sakata’s senior. Having worked over the years in different-sized assemblages with local and foreign Free Music players, Sol Abstraction (Sol Disk SD 1901 soldisk.com) is a stripped-down live date from the Philippines where he goes head-to-head with American alto saxophonist Rick Countryman on nine tracks. A committed free jazzer, the saxophonist’s collection of multiphonics, irregularly pitched vibrations, tension- building and sopranissimo screams are met with expressive touches, resonating conga-like hand slaps brought into play alongside claps and swing affiliations. Although only the extended Integrity of Creation includes what could be termed an albeit brief drum solo of claps, clatter, press rolls and rattles, Toyozumi’s constant rumbles and patterns keep up with Countryman who crams as many notes as he can into every bar, pulls his split tones as far as possible without breakage and triple tongues into the stratosphere before ending with crying flutter tonguing. The drummer’s skill using the erhu or spike fiddle is also displayed on a couple of related tracks as he cannily manages to mirror the saxophonist’s circular textural screams and squeaky overblowing with two-stringed slices, even as place-marking drum beats remain. The two also manage to append a relaxed shuffle groove to the feverish sallies that make up Broken Art Part I and Part II, but the best expression of Toyozumi’s – and by extension Countryman’s – versatility occurs on the three parts of Ballad of Mototeru Takagi. A threnody for a deceased saxophonist colleague, the suite moves from tongue-slapping, reed-shaking theme development to repeated diaphragm-intense cries from the saxophonist, as the drummer’s narrative contribution is cymbals tolling with narrow clangs. Finally Toyozumi’s slaps rebound at a choppier pace as Countryman elaborates the now passive theme with melancholy sound spurts.

03 CottonMoving on a generation and compounding Japanese improvisers, almost-clichéd fascination with electronics is In Cotton and Wool (Ftarri ftarari-980 ftarari.com), a duet between the audio feedback generated by Toshimaru Nakamura’s no-input mixing board and the trumpet and electronics of Berlin’s Axel Dörner. Moving past expected musical tropes, or for some music, the program mixes manipulated loops of industrial-strength voltage feedback from Nakamura’s machine to such an extent that the outcome appears to possess the strength and velocity of both a high-speed locomotive and a tropical thunder storm. This is particularly true of the extended Hemp, especially when extended electronic rumbles nearly attain drum-beat qualities, with Dorner`s response a combination of dissociated peeps and an intermittent moose-call-like ending. Variations of this strategy play out during the subsequent selections, with, for instance, grace notes from the trumpet audible through a cloud of heavily amplified drones on Silk, before the track speeds up to the extent that it could be the sound of a car crash captured in real time, until the noise is abruptly cut off. The loops of blurred whistling and puffs are resolved on the final track, Cashmere, as narrow tongue splatters from the horn are overshadowed by blurred input-output pulses from the mixing board to create an ambulatory synthesized exposition which Dörner amplifies with capillary bites and echoes until brass qualities are buried under synthesized pulsation created by both his and Nakamura’s electronics.

04 BrotherMore general acceptance of projects like Nakamura-Dörner’s is what persuades even more experimental players to settle in Japan. Case in point is Saskatchewan-native Tim Olive, who lives in Kobe. Using his preferred tools of magnetic pickup and electronics, Olive joins with Beijing-based Yan Jun, who manipulates electronics and field recordings, on Brother of Divinity (845 Audio 845-10 845 audio.bandcamp.com), for a fascinating 28-minute sound collage that admittedly makes even the previous discs appear conventional. A rare electronic session that culminates with foreground resonance after synthesizing the impulses created by the duo, Brother of Divinity works its way from loops of crackles and pops, as distant voice singing or beating out rock-styled music comes in and out of aural focus. As ring modulator-like gonging-feedback loops become more prominent, the blurry interface also takes on percussive side scratches and bounces until what initially seemed to be neverending pulses splinter into chirps and thumps in double counterpoint. With its keyboard-suggested bent-note narrative, the final section becomes more reductionist with metronomic timepiece-like clicks, suggesting a stain spreading slowly on a yielding surface, crunching beats and church-bell-like pealing, project with synthesized pulsations into conclusive buzzes and shuffles.

05 EternalIf Japanese free improvisers are little known outside of a small coterie, imagine the situation for a Korean saxophonist committed to experimental music. Yet An Eternal Moment (NoBusiness Records NBCD 115 nobusinessrecords.com) is a 76-minute live 1995 Yamaguchi concert by Japanese percussionist Midori Takada and alto saxophonist Kang Tae Hwan, visiting from Seoul. One track is an extended solo saxophone meditation and the last, Dan-Shi, posits what sonic challenge would result if sax/drum duos like it mixed narrow, high-pitched, sometimes barely audible reed explorations, with gamelan-like marimba pops and sizzling cymbal hisses, besides regular drum beats. However, the key paring is the nearly 42-minute Syun-Soku, During the exposition, Hwan’s strained reed vibrations work up to lacerating split tones and down to narrowed ghost notes, then up to bagpipe-like overblowing timbre-smears as Takada hits tuned aluminum bars and shakes reverberating cymbals. Rhythmic drum taps spark thin chirps from the saxophonist, who soon seems able to simultaneously output a slim, whistling tone and more rounded coloratura variations. Reaching the first climax at mid-point, the narrative slows down to the extent that Hwan’s dissonant slurps seem to be being pushed back into his horn’s body tube. Crashing ruffs from the percussionist become non-metered whacks in opposition, helping to transform reed multiphonics into low-pitched trills that neatly affiliate with unforced cymbal patterns, leading to a finale that links splash cymbal power with retrained reed snarls.

Politically and sociologically Asia is no longer the Mysterious East for most Westerners. These CDs could provide a similar demystification of sound when it comes to improvised music. 

In the last century, many superb conductors, in North America at least, did not achieve the fame that was accorded to the matinee-idol maestros under contract to and promoted by the major record labels.

01a Camberling DebussyOver the decades, many of these first-rate musicians, conductors and soloists alike, were engaged by the SDR (Southern German Broadcasting of Stuttgart) and SWF (South West Radio, Baden-Baden) to appear with their incomparable orchestras. In 1998 the two merged as the SWR. Some recent SWR releases in a sub-section, “20th Century Classics,” include Debussy Orchestral Works (SWR 19508) under the baton of the French conductor Sylvain Cambreling. The three Images: Gigues, Iberia and Rondes de printemps are conducted with enthusiasm, as are the two Danses: Danse sacrée and Danse profane, closing with a very credible La Mer

01b Norrington MahlerRoger Norrington also has several surprisingly impressive versions of some familiar favourites for SWR. His recent releases in “19th Century Classics” include two Mahler symphonies, the First and the Fifth. One might wonder why they selected Norrington, well known in Baroque and early music interpretations, for that repertoire. Listening, it becomes clear that he was the right man for the job. The First Symphony includes the Blumine movement making this a five-movement work (SWR 19510). There is a palpable sense of discovery throughout, leading to the closing pages that are keenly driven to a positive resolution. The sound is thrillingly open and clear with no instrument obscured. Norrington is also responsible for desirable performances of the Dvořák Seventh and Eighth Symphonies (SWR 19511). Three more Norrington performances in “20th Century Classics” are Elgar’s First Symphony with Wagner’s Meistersinger Prelude (SWR 19520), Holst’s The Planets with Elgar’s Serenade for Strings (SWR 19507) and Elgar’s Enigma Variations, In the South and the Introduction and Allegro (SWR 19509).

Looking back, previous SWR releases that may have gone unnoticed include these favourites: The Mahler Sixth Symphony under Kirill Kondrashin from 1981 (SWR 19416); a 3-CD set of the legendary pianist Wilhelm Backhaus recorded in 1953, 1959 and 1962 playing Beethoven’s Third and Fifth Concertos and the Waldstein and Hammerklavier Sonatas; the Brahms Second Concerto and some short encores (SWR 19057, 3CDs); and violinist Ida Haendel in captivating performances of two concertos, the Tchaikovsky (1960) and the Dvořák (1965), conducted by Hans Müller-Kray (SWR Hänssler 94.205).

It is a truism that a composer does not automatically make a conductor, even of their own works, but there are, of course, exceptions. Paul Hindemith and Benjamin Britten have both conducted notable performances for the SWR: Britten conducts the Suite from Gloriana, the Sinfonia da Requiem, Variations on an Elizabethanian Theme and Chaconne from Purcell’s King Arthur (SWR Hänssler 94.213); and, from June 24, 1968, the prolific conductor Hindemith directs the Bruckner Seventh Symphony (SWR 19417) replete with composerly insights.

The most popular and successful film biography of the 1940s was the 1945 biopic, A Song to Remember, a portrait of Frédéric Chopin, with José Iturbi as the pianist on the soundtrack. So convincing was his “playing” that for the longest time, star Cornel Wilde received earnest invitations from various groups to engage him for a recital. Iturbi’s recordings on RCA/HMV became bestsellers, particularly his Chopin. Similarly, Song Without End, the story of Franz Liszt, is a 1960 movie in which Jorge Bolet (1914-1990) was the pianist for Dirk Bogarde’s Liszt, but in Bolet’s case purists condemned him for his ultra-Romantic playing in the film. All was forgiven after a triumphant Carnegie Hall recital in 1974, after which music lovers sought out his recordings on various labels, and he became a virtuoso among virtuosi. The Havana-born Bolet studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia with Leopold Godowsky, Josef Hofmann and Moritz Rosenthal. In 1937 he won the Naumburg Competition and made his debut. In 1942 he joined the army and was sent to Japan as part of the Army of Occupation. He conducted the first performance in Japan of The Mikado!   

02 Jorge BoletAmazon has 274 Jorge Bolet discs listed, the latest release being The RIAS Recordings Vol.3: Berlin 1961-1974 (Audite 21.459 3CDs). The repertoire is slightly esoteric, from Beethoven to Norman Dello Joio. In performance order, Chopin’s 12 Etudes Op.25 is followed by Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 with the Berlin Radio Symphony conducted by Moshe Atzmon (1974). CD2 opens with Schumann’s Piano Sonata No.3 Op.14 (1964), followed by 12 excerpts from Grieg’s Ballade in G Minor, Op.24; continuing with César Franck’s Prelude, Aria et Final, FWV 23 and concluding with Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu. CD3 opens with four polonaises of Chopin; The Grande Polonaise in E flat major, Op.22 and three numbered ones, No.3 Op.40/1, No.4 Op. 40/2 and the very famous No.6 in A-flat Major Op.53, followed by Liszt’s arrangement of Schumann’s Frühlingsnacht from Liederkreis, Op.39 No.12, and three pieces from Debussy’s Images II plus Masques. To most listeners the Piano Sonata No.2 by Dello Joio, “whose rugged – partly modernist, partly expressionist, soundscape Bolet mastered with aplomb” will be something new. The collection ends with an arrangement of themes from Die Fledermaus, the second part of Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Johann Strauss II, written by Bolet’s teacher, Godowsky. 

03 Kathleen FerrierEven now, over 65 years after her death, the British contralto Kathleen Ferrier remains a voice of interest to music lovers around the world thanks to her legacy of fine recordings. Ferrier was born on April 22, 1912 in Lancashire, living until October 8, 1953. She was much admired for her Bach, Brahms, Mahler and Elgar as well as for folk song interpretations. And she remains so. She was catapulted to fame when the 1952 Decca recording of Das Lied von der Erde, conducted by Bruno Walter with Julius Patzak and the Vienna Philharmonic, hit the world. That recording has never been out of print. SOMM Recordings has issued a first release of the Bach Magnificat, BWV 243.2 in a live performance from June 10, 1950 in the Musikverein in Vienna (Kathleen Ferrier: In Celebration of Bach, ARIADNE 5004). Ferrier is joined by Irmgard Seefried, Otto Edelmann and five other distinguished soloists with the Chorus of the Vienna State Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Volkmar Andreae. This is an exuberant performance, clearly and dynamically recorded. A treasure. Three cantatas that were recorded in London in 1949 with the Jacques Orchestra and Reginald Jacques fill out this most welcome collection. Sung in English are Cantata No.11, Praise our God; Cantata No. 67, Hold in affection Jesus Christ and Cantata No.147 Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. An added bonus: the informative booklet contains a chronology of Ferrier’s life. 

01 Gillian SmithInto the Stone (Leaf Music LM228 leaf-music.ca) is a particularly interesting and timely disc of “Music for Solo Violin by Canadian Women” featuring Gillian Smith, a dynamic East Coast performer who serves as instructor of violin and viola at Acadia University in Wolfville and is head of the upper strings department at the Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts in Halifax. I suppose it is the adage “never ask a woman her age” that explains the lack of birth years given for the composers in the liner notes. I will not give away any secrets further than saying the five composers involved were born in places as far flung as Hong Kong, Australia, Serbia, Ontario and Quebec in the two decades between 1956 and 1975. The pieces themselves span 1997 (the title track) through 2010 (the opening selection, Alice Ho’s Caprice). The latter is a playful work that, in the words of the composer, is “a fancy, a virtuosic piece… [in which the] performer is asked to show both technical skill and musicality.” Smith’s performance abounds with both. This is followed by Ana Sokolović’s Cinque danze per violino solo. The five dances are rooted in the angular and often dissonant folk music of her native Balkan region, although Sokolović says there is no direct quotation involved. Each movement is distinct, although distinctly related, ranging from the somewhat abrasive first to the contemplative, although at times somewhat enervated, finale. “I try to create different climates while keeping material and gesture strongly related.” Both the composer and performer succeed in conveying this effectively.

The quiet ending of Sokolović’s last dance is a perfect set up for Veronika Krausas’ piece that gives the disc its title. It begins gently in the lower register but gradually rises in both pitch and intensity. Krausas says: “The piece is inspired by a line from Canadian poet Gwendolyn MacEwen: ‘What lives inside the stone? Miracles, strange light.’” Kati Agócs’ Versprechen (Promise) is based on Bach’s harmonization of the Lutheran chorale Ist Gott mein Schild und Helfersmann (God is my Shield and Helper). “The piece casts the soloist as the hero in a musical peregrination… [that] traces spiritual yearning, supplication, and redemption, with the chorale melody always present, although at times ‘refracted’ as if heard through an auditory prism.” With this uniting theme there is a continuity to the development, but the refractions are diverse enough that it is a sonic relief when the original melody is revealed toward the end of the eight-minute piece. For Le ciel doit être proche by Chantale Laplante from 1999, no translation is given for the title and neither is there a context in the program note. This makes it unclear whether “ciel” refers to sky or to heaven, but as the piece is built on “the use of intervals slowly introduced in widening order, keeping the perfect fifth as the final step to some serenity” I’m going to translate it as Heaven must be near. This serenity provides a very satisfying end to a stunning debut album by a rising star from the East (coast). Congratulations to Smith and all concerned.

Growing up in northern Etobicoke the Richview library, 20 minutes down the road on the Islington bus route, became a major resource and influence on my musical development. It was there that I discovered such diverse artists as Thelonious Monk, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Terry Riley. I remember bringing home a recording of Riley’s seminal modular piece In C – where the musicians are instructed to repeat each of the 53 short phrases as long as they (individually) want before moving on to the next – and putting it on the record player (I don’t think we had a “stereo” in those days) in the living room. After about five minutes my mother called out from the kitchen “Your record is skipping.” That was my introduction to minimalism and I was hooked, quickly moving on to the music of Philip Glass, who I saw perform with his ensemble for New Music Concerts in 1980 at Walter Hall. It was also through NMC that I first heard Steve Reich’s music live, in 1976, when Robert Aitken was able to convince Reich that rather than just his own Steve Reich and Musicians, he should let others play his music, in this case the NMC ensemble, if he wanted it to live on in posterity. 1976 was also the year that I first encountered Kronos Quartet, although that was through a recording of music by Dane Rudhyar rather than a live performance. (They would not perform in Toronto for another seven years when NMC invited them to perform the premiere of Morton Feldman’s almost-four-hour long String Quartet No.2.) So you see, even though I have retired from my position as general manager of NMC, it remains an integral part of my musical history.

02 Kronos RileyBut back to Kronos Quartet. I think it might surprise many people that the Kronos Quartet was active as early as 1976, and also that Rudhyar, a pioneer of modern transpersonal astrology considered by some to be among the most important thinkers of the 20th century, was also a composer of serious modernist works, but I have the vinyl to prove it. Kronos and Terry Riley have collaborated frequently over the decades since their first commission Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector back in 1980. Their most recent release, on the Nonesuch label, is titled Sun Rings (nonesuch.com). Twenty years after Sunrise Kronos received a call “out of the blue” from NASA, which had a small budget for commissioning space-based artwork to mark the 25th anniversary of the launching of Voyager 1. NASA also had access to recordings made possible by the engineering feats of scientist Donald Gurrett, who designed special microphones to record in the so-called vacuum of outer space. Riley, with his own interest in astrophysics, agreed to the project, but the 9/11 terrorist attack occurred while composing the new quartet and Riley says his “original, gee-whiz enthusiasm for Sun Rings suddenly felt too much like kid’s stuff, shooting rockets into space at an unsettlingly sabre-rattling time.” It was only after hearing poet and novelist Alice Walker recite her September 11 mantra, “One Earth, one people, one love,” that he realized that “pondering the universe put the problems on Earth into a needed, interplanetary perspective.” The 80-minute multimedia work that Riley eventually completed incorporates recordings from both in and out of space crafts – most presented as ambience with a “music of the spheres” feel, but some including words spoken by astronauts and ground controllers – string quartet, the vocal group Volti (in two movements), the voice of Alice Walker repeating her mantra, and visual design by Willie Williams. The result, even as just an audio recording without the visual aspects, is truly stunning.

I could go on and on about how, as a young(ish) cellist I was moved and inspired by the Bach Solo Suites and Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas, but suffice it to say that they did, and have continued to, influence my understanding of the instrument. I have spent, literally, countless hours playing the first three Bach suites and movements of the remaining ones, and although I have not yet managed to achieve any measure of success with the Beethoven sonatas themselves other than my favourite movement, the opening of the A Major Sonata, Op.69, I have managed to get one of his three non-sonata offerings, the Variations on “See, The Conquering Hero” from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus – the original being one of my mother’s favourites – to performance level. So it was with great pleasure that I received new recordings of both complete cycles this month.

03 Ornamented BachI must admit I was a little wary when I first heard about Going Off Script – The Ornamented Suites for Cello, JS Bach (King Street Records KING001) from Baroque cellist Juliana Soltis (julianasoltismusic.com). My general feeling is that masterworks don’t need any improving or personalizing; that it is incumbent on the performer to do their best to realize the composer’s intent as written on the page. I learned during my many years at New Music Concerts just how important it is to bring the composer to work with the musicians, to ensure that those intentions are being respected. Of course that is not possible in the case of composers no longer with us, but there is a long history of interpretation and scholarship that tells us what those marks on the page mean and how they should be treated. Soltis addresses this in her very personal notes to the recording. “As musicians, we spend years learning to decipher and interpret these instructions, and as with any good recipe, we trust that everything we need to know is there. But what if we’re missing something?” She goes on to say “…those instructions – the pitches and rhythms, the harmonies and articulations – are but a starting point, a simple framework crowning Bach’s instruction.” The booklet includes some graphic illustrations using fragments of the score of the first suite, with which Soltis makes a case for the “spaces,” created by tied or dotted notes, actually being an invitation to “improvise here.” Realizing that Bach was a renowned improviser – think of the spontaneous origins of The Musical Offering – I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. I am pleased to report that I was not disappointed. Her interpolations are unobtrusive and, as far as I can tell, idiomatically sound and consistent with the spirit of the pieces. Much closer to that spirit than, for instance, the larger-than-life flourish with which Misha Maisky ended the first suite on his 1985 recording of the cycle. To quote Soltis again, “…whenever I thought about the incredible chorus of voices and versions that is the Recorded Bach Cello Suites, I knew that I didn’t want to join in that particular conversation unless I had something important to say. And for the longest time I wasn’t sure that I did.” We can be thankful that she changed her mind and has given us the chance to appreciate her thoughtful interpretation.

Listen to 'Going Off Script – The Ornamented Suites for Cello, JS Bach' Now in the Listening Room

04 Beethoven Nancy GreenAlthough not as extensive as with the Bach Suites, there is a wealth of recordings of Beethoven Cello Sonatas, with most “name brand” cellists having contributed to the discography from Casals, through Navarra, Fournier and Rostropovich, to Ma, Harrell, Schiff, Harnoy and Queyras, to name but a few. The latest to enter the ring, Beethoven Complete Works for Cello and Piano (JDI Recordings J143 jdirecordings.com) featuring Nancy Green with pianist Frederick Moyer, is certainly a contender for high honours. Green, who is known for her recordings of both obscure repertoire and staples of the standard canon, enjoyed an outstanding concert career that took her throughout the USA, Europe and the Far East. In 2015 she formally withdrew from the concert stage to devote herself exclusively to recording.

One of the most important aspects of Beethoven’s cello sonatas is the way he makes the cello and piano equal partners, as pointed out in the excellent and comprehensive program notes by R. Larry Todd. Before Beethoven, the cello served as either simply part of the continuo “rhythm section” or was the featured voice with accompaniment. Green appears here in a truly balanced partnership with Moyer, himself a renowned soloist who has performed in 43 countries and with such orchestras as Boston, Cleveland and Philadelphia, etc. Together they bring an unmistakable verve to these works which span Beethoven’s early, middle and late periods. Green’s powerful sound is matched but never overwhelmed by the piano. Her tone is immaculate; light and lyrical in the delicate passages, yet full, rich and meaty as required. It is no wonder that she has been compared to such greats as Rostropovich, Yo-Yo Ma, Leonard Rose and Jacqueline du Pré. The production values are outstanding. This is a very welcome addition to my library.

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

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com

01 Martha MastersHow I’ve managed to miss the playing of guitarist Martha Masters is beyond me; she won the 2000 International Competition of the Guitar Foundation of America (of which she is currently president) and has issued five CDs. Her latest, Baroque Mindset (marthamasters.com) is an absolutely faultless and quite stunning recital of transcriptions of original violin and lute solo compositions by four exact contemporaries of the Baroque era: Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767); J. S. Bach (1685-1750); David Kellner (1670-1748); and Sylvius Leopold Weiss (1687-1750).

Telemann is represented by Fantasias I & III from his 12 Fantasias for solo violin; Bach by the Sonata No.3 in C Major BWV1005 for solo violin; Kellner by three pieces selected by Masters; and Weiss by the Fantasia and Passacaglia for lute. Everything here, from both a technical and artistic viewpoint is of the highest level – clarity, articulation, tonal warmth and colour, phrasing, dynamics and sense of line; are all superb.

It’s a simply outstanding CD.

Concert Note: October 19 the Guitar Society of Toronto presents Martha Masters at St. Andrew's Church, 73 Simcoe St., Toronto.

02 DanceThe guitar is just one of five instruments on Dance, a CD of chamber music featuring guitarist Jason Vieaux with the Escher Quartet (Azica ACD-71328 azica.com).

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Guitar Quintet Op.143 from 1951 was a result of his long collaboration with Andrés Segovia. It’s a gloriously warm work that enthralls you from the opening bars and never lets go. It would be worth the price of the CD on its own, but the other two works here are anything but fillers.

100 Greatest Dance Hits from 1993, with its sounds of the 1970s, certainly shows the lighter side of Aaron Jay Kernis. Its percussive first movement is a bit jarring after the Castelnuovo-Tedesco, but the work soon establishes a delightful mood.

Boccherini’s Guitar Quintet No.4 in D Major, with the famous Fandango finale ends a terrific CD. Vieaux and the Escher Quartet have been playing these works together for the best part of ten years, and their delight and sheer enjoyment in recording three of their favourite quintets is clear for all to hear.

Listen to 'Dance' Now in the Listening Room

03 LeshnoffJason Vieaux is also the soloist on a CD of works by American composer Jonathan Leshnoff (b.1973), this time the Guitar Concerto with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra under Giancarlo Guerrero (Naxos 8.559809 naxos.com). It’s a really strong and attractive work, idiomatic and much in the style of the great Spanish concertos.

The concerto is the centrepiece on a CD of world premiere recordings, the two-part Symphony No.4 “Heichalos” from 2017 opening the disc and the dazzling orchestral tour-de-force Starburst from 2010 closing it, both works strongly tonal and with more than a hint of Samuel Barber in their sound.

Really top-notch performances and recording quality make for a compelling CD.

04 ZalkindThe American cellist Matthew Zalkind makes an outstanding solo CD debut with Music for Solo Cello (Avie AV2406 naxosdirect.com), featuring Bach’s Suite No.6 in D Major BWV1012, the Suite for Solo Cello by New York composer Michael Brown (born 1987) and the monumental Sonata for Solo Cello Op.8 by Zoltán Kodály.

The Bach Suite is believed to have been written for a five-string piccolo cello, but Zalkind uses a conventional modern four-string instrument and set-up. The awkward challenges this presents never impact on Zalkind’s warmth and fine sense of dance rhythm.

The Brown Suite is relatively short and, having apparently been influenced by both other works, makes a fitting bridge to a stunning performance of Kodály’s magnificent Sonata. 

05 Gruebler scanSwiss cellist Cécile Grüebler’s first CD – one on which she wanted to tell a story and not simply play pieces – sprang from a chance meeting in New York in 2017 with the Manhattan-based American composer Walter Skolnik (born 1934). When the two played music together, Grüebler learned that Skolnik’s principal teacher, the German-American Bernhard Heiden (1910-2000) had in turn studied with Hindemith. The result is Hindemith. Heiden. Skolnik, an intriguing CD of works by all three composers, with Grüebler accompanied by her longtime duo partner, pianist Tamara Chitadze (Cybele SACD 361804 cybele.de).

The Hindemith works are Drei Stücke Op.8 (1917) and A frog he went a-courting – Variations on an old English Nursery Song (1941). Heiden, who was born in Frankfurt and immigrated to the United States in 1938 is represented by his Cello Sonata (1958) and the short Siena (1961), while the works by Skolnik, who studied with Heiden at Indiana University, are the Cello Sonata (2004) and Four Bagatelles (1998). Grüebler’s commitment to the project results in excellent performances of some little-known works.

06 Bion TsangBion Tsang is the excellent soloist in the interesting pairing of Dvořák & Enescu Cello Concertos with Scott Yoo conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Sony Classical S80459C biontsang.com).

There’s no booklet and a complete lack of bio or program notes, but the infrequently heard two-movement Symphonie Concertante Op.8 by Georges Enescu is an appropriate partner for the more famous Dvořák Concerto in B Minor Op.104 – it’s in the same key and was written in 1901, a mere six years after the Dvořák, when Enescu was just 20. Both works are given lovely performances.

Listen to 'Dvořák & Enescu Cello Concertos' Now in the Listening Room

07 Vieuxtemps Saint SaensSouth-African cellist Peter Martens is the soloist in Vieuxtemps & Saint-Saëns Cello Concertos, with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra under Bernhard Gueller (Cello Classics CC1033 celloclassics.com).

Connections abound in this recording project. Both concertos are No.1 in A Minor – Op.46 for Vieuxtemps and Op.33 for Saint-Saëns; both composers also wrote a second, less successful cello concerto. The Saint-Saëns was the first concerto Martens played with an orchestra – the Cape Town Philharmonic in its previous incarnation as the Cape Town Symphony. Conductor Gueller was a front-desk cellist in the celebrated recording of the Vieuxtemps concertos by Heinrich Schiff, with whom Martens had a masterclass while a student in Salzburg.

Marten’s decision to pair the concertos instead of recording two by Vieuxtemps feels absolutely right, as does his choice of the three fillers on the disc: two by Saint-Saëns – his Allegro appassionato Op.43 and, in Paul Vidal’s arrangement, The Swan; and Fauré’s Elégie Op.24 in the composer’s own orchestration.

Martens is terrific in the two extremely virtuosic and difficult concertos, handling the technical challenges with deceptive ease and displaying a fine sense of line and phrase.

08 Strauss Muller SchottRichard Strauss left only three works for cello, and two of them are performed by the German cellist Daniel Müller-Schott on Richard Strauss Don Quixote (Orfeo C 968 191 naxos.com). Herbert Schuch is the pianist in the early Cello Sonata in F major Op.6 and in two songs transcribed by Müller-Schott specifically for this recording – Zueignung Op.10 No.1 and Ich trage meine Minne Op.32 No.1.

The sonata elicits some truly lovely playing, but the main interest here is the quasi-tone poem Don Quixote – Fantastic variations on a Knightly Theme Op.35 from 1897 when Strauss was 33 and leading the way from Romanticism to the modern era. Inspired by the Cervantes novel and recorded in live performance with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis in June 2017, it’s a richly textured work lasting over 40 minutes, drawing great playing from all concerned.

09 Popper scanDavid Popper was one of the 18th century’s most important cellists and a more than merely competent composer, as well as virtuoso and teacher. His four seldom-heard Cello Concertos are performed by Austrian cellist Martin Rummel with the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice under Tecwyn Evans (Naxos 8.573930 naxos.com). Mari Kato is the accompanist in the Cello Concerto No.4 in B Minor Op.72, heard here in the version for cello and piano.

The three concertos No.1 in D Minor Op.8, No.2 in E Minor Op.24 and the single-movement No.3 in G major Op.59 are all delightful works, stylistically exactly what you would expect from a Romantic composer who was primarily a great cellist and pedagogue. Rummel provides really lovely playing, with a singing tone and a smoothness that belies the undoubted technical difficulties.

10 Reinecke scanMartin Rummel is also the soloist, this time with pianist Roland Krüger, on another excellent Naxos disc, the Complete Works for Cello and Piano by Popper’s exact contemporary, the German Carl Reinecke (Naxos 8.573727 naxos.com).

Rummel brings the same idiomatic Romantic styling to the three Cello Sonatas – No.1 in A Minor Op.42 (1855), No.2 in D Major Op.89 (1866) and No.3 in G major Op.238 (1897) and the Three Pieces Op.146 from 1893. Tully Potter’s booklet essay notes the “technical skill and easy flow of melody” in Reinecke’s cello music, with the cello and piano clearly on an equal footing.

Outstanding playing coupled with the usual top-notch Naxos production standards make for a terrific CD.

11 Mario scanAnother Naxos CD explores Works for Cello and Piano by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco with the Italian duo of cellist Enrico Dindo and pianist Alessandro Marangoni (Naxos 8.573881 naxos.com).

The selected pieces cover the period 1927-1946, the main works being the Cello Sonata Op.50 (1928), I nottmbuli (Variazioni fantastiche) Op.47 (1927), the Toccata Op.83 (1935) and, in a world-premiere recording, the Sonatina Op.130 from 1946. Four short pieces, including the unpublished Kol Nidre “Meditation” (1941) complete the CD.

There’s fine playing throughout a beautifully recorded disc, with the virtuoso piano part reflecting the composer’s own pianistic skills.

12 Schumann ThorntonCleveland Orchestra cellist Brian Thornton is the cellist and Spencer Myer the pianist on Robert Schumann Works for Cello & Piano on the Steinway & Sons label which was founded in 2010 (Steinway 30117 steinway.com).

Thornton has a deep, warm and velvety tone in the Adagio and Allegro Op.70, the Fünf Stücke im Volkston Op.102 and the Fantasiestücke Op.73, ably partnered by Myer.

Schubert’s Ave Maria D839 is a simply lovely, if somewhat unexpected, closing track.

13 Schumann Murail YthierThere’s more Schumann cello on Une rencontre, a CD of works by Robert Schumann and the French composer Tristan Murail (born 1947), who explains his encounters with both Schumann and cellist Marie Ythier in the extensive booklet notes (Métier msv 28590 divineartrecords.com). There’s a lighter and cleaner balance between Ythier and pianist Marie Vermeulin in the Fünf Stücke im Volkston Op.102 and the Fantasiestücke Op.73 than on the Steinway disc, with perhaps a touch more tonal nuance.

Attracteurs étranges (1992) and C’est un jardin secret, ma sœur, ma fiancée, une fontaine close, une source scellée from 1976 are both solo cello works by Murail; flutist Samuel Bricault joins Ythier in Murail’s Une letter de Vincent (2018).

The final encounter is Murail’s recent instrumental re-interpretation of Schumann’s piano work Scènes d’enfants (Kinderszenen) Op.15, subtitled Une Relecture pour violoncelle, flûte et piano, Murail using a range of instrumental techniques to make the orchestration sound larger than a trio.

Listen to 'Une rencontre' Now in the Listening Room

14 Mozart Cello DuetsThe sheet music publishing company Opus Cello was formed by Boston Symphony Orchestra principal cellist Blaise Déjardin in 2013 with the aim of bringing new, quality additions to the cello ensemble repertoire. Three works arranged by Déjardin are on Mozart New Cello Duos, the first CD release from Opus Cello (opuscello.com) and featuring Blaise Déjardin and the Parker String Quartet’s cellist Kee-Hyun Kim.

The 12 Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je Maman” K265/300e provide plenty of virtuosic fireworks as an introduction to the two Duos for Violin and Viola in G Major K423 and B-flat Major K424. There’s a lovely feel to the duo transcriptions, although the lower voicings make for a slightly thicker texture at times. Still, there’s really fine playing on a nicely recorded and highly enjoyable disc.

01 Jane CoopThree Keyboard Masters – Bach; Beethoven; Rachmaninoff
Jane Coop
Skylark Music Sky1901 (skylark-music.com)

Veteran pianist Jane Coop brings three composers into focus on her new fall release: Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Bach. While the aggregate of the music on disc is indeed a favourable one, the record as a whole tends to play more as a recital program than as an album. Coop’s musical conviction and integrity merits discussion of each component, singly: 

Her choice to record the seven jejune Bagatelles Op.33 of Beethoven is a fruitful one. Coop brings a childlike exuberance to this music, augmented by just the right dash of buffoonery. She achieves an essentially scherzando quality, from which the personal side of Beethoven’s art can gleam. Coop has a zeal for these pieces, expert in the Canadian tradition of Beethoven pianism inherited from her teacher, the great Anton Kuerti.

In drastic juxtaposition, a set by Sergei Rachmaninoff plunges in next. Despite the extreme textural disparity between Rachmaninoff’s preludes and Beethoven’s bagatelles, Coop seems easily at home in the vaulting halls of Russian Romanticism. One hears an icy, almost Gouldian austerity. Punctuating the preludes are lesser-known transcriptions by Rachmaninoff, penned late in the composer’s life and intended for his own concert tours.

Finally, Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue brings a sense of homecoming. One has the suspicion that each of these pieces has been well-worn and well-loved by Coop; this is music she’s held dear for a long time. How generous of her then, to share it with us.

Adam Sherkin

Listen to 'Three Keyboard Masters – Bach; Beethoven; Rachmaninoff' Now in the Listening Room

02 Mozart VogtMozart – Piano Sonatas Nos.2, 3, 8 & 13
Lars Vogt
Ondine ODE 1318-2 (naxos.com)

The newest disc from the 40-something pianist, conductor and educator, Lars Vogt, delivers refined and compelling readings of four Mozart piano sonatas. The range of curation here is admirable, as is the enticing (and thoroughly considered) nature of Vogt’s interpretation. We meet an accomplished and intellectually curious artist at the height of mid-career prowess.

To open such an album with Mozart’s early Sonata in F major, K280 is an unusual choice, yet a convincing one. Where Vogt overrides status quo classical sensibilities with modern expressive concepts (cf. the A minor Sonata, K310), he manages to steer us aptly to the brink and then back again with just enough mastery to re-charm us under his pianistic spell. It takes some level of courage to play Mozart like this. Notwithstanding, it seems more acceptable today for a performer to stretch such boundaries and take small yet consequential risks, finding novel paths through well-trodden music.

Among the disc’s notable attributes are its polish and poise. Vogt renders Mozart’s familiar notes with both a wide-eyed curiosity, (as if hearing it all for the first time) and a learned interpretive command that is exceedingly well informed (the second movement of the Sonata in B-flat Major, K333, Andante cantabile, is one such example.)

If anything is amiss, it is a reluctance to take these convictions and whims even further: to pilot the listener beyond the brink, as it were, to the very heart of Mozartian spontaneity.

Adam Sherkin

03 Schumann DownesClara and Robert Schumann – For the Love of You
Lara Downes; San Francisco Ballet Orchesra; Martin West
Flipside Music (laradownes.com)

American pianist Lara Downes offers a new release honouring the 200th anniversary of Clara Wieck Schumann’s birth on September 13, 2019. For the occasion, Downes allies with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, opening the disc with Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op.54.  The proceeding tracks feature pieces for solo piano – Op.11 by Clara and Op.12 by Robert, dating from “the last three tumultuous and decisive years of courtship, before their marriage.”

Known for her lush and generous playing, Downes brings her customary warmth to bear as concerto soloist. Equally rivalling the orchestra’s might, she appears to revel in the quintessentially Romantic currents, inspired as they ebb and flow through the only concerto Schumann ever finished for the instrument. At times, Downes’ tonal command borders on a pianistic muscularity – an attractive commingling of classical training with a popularized understanding of music’s communicative shtick in the 21st century. She urges the listener to feel at ease: to embrace the brand of hospitality issued from her keyboard.

Aside from the utterly standard repertoire selections (Schumann’s Opp.54 and 12), the Three Romances, Op.11 by Clara bring a fresh and personal stamp to the record. It sounds as if Downes is just getting started with Clara’s catalogue. Surely, in 2019, this music can now stand alone, apart from Robert, and declare itself? Many accomplished proponents of Clara’s Wieck Schumann’s music are active today; Downes should consider joining this consortium, full time!

Adam Sherkin

04 Ivan Ilic 1Haydn Symphonies transcribed by Carl David Stegmann
Ivan Ilić
Chandos 2020142 (chandos.net)

Here we are in for a treat. Noted Serbian-American pianist Ivan Ilić, who has already made a reputation for adventurous repertoire and has never shied away from detective work, is now unearthing century-old music found in a dusty box in someone’s attic in Cologne, Germany: actually the discovery of three Haydn symphonies transcribed for the piano dating back to 1811 by Carl David Stegmann, a musician and contemporary of Beethoven. These things can happen: after all, Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony was also found in an attic by a certain Felix Mendelssohn!

Well, Ilić immediately tried them out and they sounded terrific on the piano, so he subsequently recorded them. First and foremost is the famous Oxford Symphony No.92, one of the late ones written just prior to the London Symphonies and it is a wonderful mature work. Right at the outset we are struck by the pianist’s enthusiastic and joyful approach, a feeling of discovery, grasping the essence of Haydn and his sense of humour. With immaculate, highly precise pianism he emphasizes the clear melodic line and delves fearlessly with his strong left hand into the complex architecture of the contrapuntal middle part. By this time the piano literally sings, and how charming that little closing subject sounds!

I was also delighted by the horn imitation in the trio part of the third movement Menuetto and the terrific freewheeling bravura of the complex yet irresistibly melodic last movement. Symphony No.75 is notable for its second movement’s interesting set of variations showing Italian influences while Symphony No.44 (Mourning) has an astounding last movement Presto, a hot-headed and determinedly monothematic score” Ilić even features in a video on YouTube.

Janos Gardonyi

05 Beethoven Guembes BuchananLate Beethoven
Luisa Guembes-Buchanan
Del Aguila Records DA 55313(luisagbuchanan.com)

Late Beethoven such as the Bagatelles, Op.119 and the Diabelli Variations Op.120 appear to have arrived in music’s world not in a dimming of the light that comes at the end of life, but like an immeasurable future; an unimaginable time beyond time. Certainly the immortal Variations, all 33 of them, coming as they did on the heels of the great Goldberg Variations of J.S. Bach, heralded a Beethoven whose creative urge seemed to have swelled like a kind of historical floodwater, bearing Anton Diabelli’s prosaic waltz upon its crest.

Luisa Guembes-Buchanan’s recording of the Diabelli is a classic, as free flowing as Beethoven’s approach to the variation form. Her playing is muscular, yet supple, accentuating the integrity of each variation without sacrificing the sense of overall structure. That all-important final chord is like a goal reached at the end of a long, long journey.

The pianist’s approach to the Bagatelles – among the best-known of Beethoven’s shorter pieces – is a refreshingly matter-of-fact manner, bringing out the vigour and the fluidity of the pieces but not at the expense of their poetry. Her Fifth Bagatelle is pointedly unsentimental, but most exquisitely and artfully shaped.

Theodor Adorno saw late Beethoven works as profound meditations – partly conscious, perhaps – on death. But he admits that “death is imposed only on created beings, not on works of art…” which might explain the immortal nature of these late works, living fragments of life’s beauty.

Raul da Gama

06 Julia SigovaRussian Piano Music
Julia Sigova
Classica Dalvivo CDL-0518 (juliasigova.com)

As surprising as it may seem, collections of Russian solo piano music on CD are not all that common and when they do appear, they are likely to feature the works of only one or two composers with a similar compositional style. As a result, this recording by pianist Julia Sigova on the Classica Dalvivo label is a welcome addition to the catalogue. Not only did this Minsk-born artist choose four different composers, but ones spanning an 80-year time period – from the Romanticism of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff to the more austere modernism of Prokofiev and Shchedrin.

Today, Tchaikovsky is scarcely remembered for his contribution to the piano repertoire, but his keyboard compositions are still not without their charm as evidenced in the opening track Dumka Op.59 from the set titled Scenes from a Russian Village written in 1886. Sigova’s approach is elegant and self-assured, with just the right touch of melancholia that characterizes much of Tchaikovsky’s music.

Rachmaninov’s first set of Études-Tableaux Op.33 were supposedly written as “musical evocations of external stimuli” although he never really divulged their true inspiration. These are a remarkable study in contrasts – from the pensive seriousness of the Second to the bombastic fervour of the Seventh. In all, they require a formidable technique, and Sigova rises to the demands with much bravado.

Compared to the lush romanticism of Rachmaninoff, the Sarcasmes Op.17 of Sergei Prokofiev and two pieces – Humoresque and A la Albeniz – by Rodion Shchedrin are very much products of the later 20th century. Here, Prokofiev almost seemed to be thumbing his nose at the more conservative musical conventions of the time while the two miniatures by Shchedrin – with their jaunty rhythms and progressive harmonies – round out an eclectic and very satisfying program.

Richard Haskell

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