01c Folling Out of Time book webHousebound in these COVID-19 days, I find I’m reading even more than usual. And it’s taking longer than normal because I’m making a point of supplementing my reading by listening to all the music mentioned in the books as I go. Pauline Delabroy-Allard’s Ça raconte Sarah, a tragic story of the love between two young women, included Schubert’s Trout Quintet and the quartet Death and the Maiden, Bartók’s String Quartet No.4 and Mendelssohn’s Octet. Sarah Léon’s Wanderer, a saga of friendship and unrequited love between a child prodigy pianist and a young composer/cellist featured Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, his late piano works, Winterreise and other lieder, along with Chopin’s Piano Trio and Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody. Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, the story of the lifelong friendship of two couples who meet early in their academic careers, led once again to the Trout Quintet, Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Most eclectic of all is Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, which I’m only a third of the way through. It has already sent me off to find Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and Piano Concerto No.2, Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debby, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band plus a number of pop classics and, strangely, a whistled version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Proud Mary. (It took a while to track this last one down, but I was able to find it on Amazon for 99 cents.) 

All this could be considered incidental music to the books, although Death and the Maiden loomed larger than that in Delabroy-Allard’s tale, as did Winterreise in Léon’s, but two discs I want to talk about this month actually take their inspiration and raison d’être from specific works of literature. My interest was sparked for Osvaldo Golijov’s Falling Out of Time when I realized that it was based on a book of the same name by David Grossman, an author whose works I have previously enjoyed. And Kjartan Sveinsson’s Der Klang der Offenbarung des Göttlichen is based on the novel World Light by Icelandic Nobel Prize-winning author Halldór Laxness, another of my favourites. 

01a Falling Out of Time webGolijov’s Falling Out of Time, performed by the Silk Road Ensemble (inacircle-records.com/releases) has another serendipitous connection to my reading life. It seems that Golijov conceived of the project after a meeting with the founder of the Parents Circle, an organization that brings together Palestinian and Israeli parents who have lost children in the ongoing conflict in their homeland(s), in hopes of finding some semblance of healing and some road to eventual peace. I had not been aware of this organization until about a month ago when I read an incredibly moving “novel” called Apeirogon by Colum McCann. I use quotation marks to qualify the definition. Although a work of fiction, McCann’s main characters are actual members of the Parents Circle, a Palestinian whose daughter was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier, and an Israeli whose own daughter was killed by a Palestinian suicide-, or more accurately, murder-bomber, both as innocent bystanders. The book incorporates chapters by both of these real fathers who describe their own states of being and give context to McCann’s fiction (which they condone). A truly magnificent book. 

01b Apeirogon book webHow does a person stay alive after losing a child? Grossman’s poetic book tells the stories of a number of people in that situation who, as a result, have fallen out of their own lives into a dreamlike state. It opens with a narration by the Town Chronicler who describes the village at night, much in the way of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. We next meet a Man who decides he must go “there” to find his dead son, although his wife assures him “There is no such place. There does not exist.” Nevertheless he departs to wander, muttering, in ever-widening circles in his search. As the book unfolds more and more lost parents join the ghostly parade, each telling of their own loss. For the Walkers, “Poetry is the language of my grief.” Golijov’s stark and wrenching adaptation of the texts, originally in Hebrew but presented in both Hebrew and English translation (included in the booklet), is extremely effective. Wu Tong is especially moving in his heart-wrenching depiction of the Walking Man. Drawing on the resources of the Silk Road Ensemble, Golijov employs a variety of traditional and exotic instruments and some electronics to accompany and extend the voices of the various characters. As Grossman calls his book “a Novel in Voices,” Golijov describes his rendition not as an opera or a song cycle, but “a Tone Poem in Voices.” Grossman says in an introductory note: “In this work by Osvaldo and the wonderful Silk Road Ensemble, I heard the voice of human pain and grief laid bare – the scream of an animal. […] It is true that no one knows what hides behind the impenetrable wall of death. But there is one place, or rather one dimension, where we can feel, if only for an instant, both the absolute nihility of death and the full absence of life. And that dimension is art. It is literature and poetry, music, theatre and cinema, painting and sculpture. When we are in that place we can sense, concurrently, both the everything and the abysmal void. The negation of life and its affirmation. I hope that listening to this creation will provide you, too, with this sensation.” It did for me.

Listen to 'Falling Out of Time' Now in the Listening Room

02a Kjartan Sveinsson webSveinsson, a member of the Icelandic ambient/post-rock band Sigur Rós, has in recent years become a celebrated film composer, including the 2005 Academy Award-nominated short film Síðasti bærinn (The Last Farm) and the 2011 Eldfjal (Volcano). Der Klang der Offenbarung des Göttlichen, The Explosive Sonics of Divinity in English, is performed by Filmorchester Babelsberg and Filmchoir Berlin under Davíð Þór Jónsson
(sonoluminus.com/store/derklang).

Laxness’ four-part novel revolves around Ólafur Kárason, an unloved foster child on a farm in rural Iceland around the turn of the last century, his belief that one day he will be a great poet, and his “incurable longing for beauty and its catastrophic consequences.” Sveinsson’s adaptation uses Kárason’s poems and thoughts from the book, translated into German. Magnus Magunsson’s English translations – he also translated the novel – are provided in the booklet. Sveinsson calls his creation an opera, but the only characters in this unique work are set designs painted by Ragnar Kjartansson. There are no people on the stage, (an opera with no divas says the composer); the orchestra, solo cellist, vocal trio and chorus perform unseen from the pit. The first of its four movements is purely instrumental and is strongly reminiscent to my ear of Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. The sombre mood continues in the following movements where the choral settings are somehow lush and stark at the same time. Kjartansson’s stage sets are said to be rooted in “Germanic romantic clichés” and I assume the striking paintings, which adorn the four panels of the cardboard packaging, are drawn from them. It is an impressive addition to Sono Luminus’ ongoing commitment to bringing Icelandic culture to the world.

02b World Light book webDuring my tenure at CJRT-FM in the 1990s, one of my great pleasures was getting to know and work with Latvian-Canadian composer Tālivaldis Ķeniņš (1919-2008). During one of my years there “Tāli” was the subject of our annual week-long Canadian Composer Retrospective, which involved an extended documentary which I produced, and daily broadcasts of his music, including a concert that featured his Viola Sonata, commissioned for Rivka Golani especially for the occasion. After service in the Second World War, Ķeniņš settled in Paris where he studied with Tony Aubin and Olivier Messiaen at the Conservatoire. After successful completion of his degree, including a first prize in composition for his Cello Sonata, he moved to Canada and became an important fixture in our musical life, teaching for many years at the University of Toronto and serving as the president of the Canadian League of Composers. 2019 marked the centenary of Ķeniņš’ birth and although I’m not aware of any particular fanfare to mark that occasion, it is nice to see that two new recordings of his orchestral music have just become available. 

03 Ondine Kenins webThe first to arrive, Tālivaldis Ķeniņš – Symphony No.1; Two Concertos, features the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra on the Ondine label (naxosdirect.com/search/ode+1350-2). The Concerto di camera No.1 for piano and chamber ensemble (flute, clarinet and strings) was composed in 1981 and first performed during the Latvian Song Festival at U of T on Canada Day that year. Ķeniņš says, “This is not a virtuoso romantic concerto but rather a work held within the baroque and classical framework in a concertante style, where the thematic material is a neverending development and takes shape in the dialogue between the soloist and the other members of the chamber group.” The soloist in this performance is Agnese Egliņa. In the Concerto for Piano from 1990 the accompanying string orchestra is complemented by an extensive obbligato percussion part, performed by Edgars Saksons. Once again the soloist is Egliņa. Both concertos are conducted by Guntis Kuzma. The earliest work, dating from 1959, is the first of eight symphonies that Ķeniņš would pen over his career. The eminent Latvian critic in exile, Jānis Cīrulis, called this work “a mighty symphonic edifice, which rises above our local musical structures.” It was first played at the Indianapolis Latvian Song Festival in 1960 and shortly thereafter in Vancouver and Winnipeg and broadcast by the CBC. This June 2020 performance from Riga’s Great Guild Hall is conducted by Andris Poga.

04 LMIC Kenins webThe second disc was produced by the Latvian Music Information Centre. Tālivaldis Ķeniņš – Violin Concerto; Concerto for Five Percussionists and Orchestra; Beatae voces tenebrae (LMIC088 skani.lv) once again features the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Andris Poga in performances from the Great Guild Hall earlier this year. The Violin Concerto dates from 1974 and was commissioned by the CBC for Steven Staryk who gave the first performance with the CBC Vancouver Orchestra. The internationally renowned Canadian soloist and concertmaster – he had been the youngest ever to hold that position with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the age of 24 – was visiting professor at the University of Victoria at the time. At the premiere, Vancouver Sun critic Lloyd Dykk perceived the Violin Concerto as “an old-fashioned melange of Romantic and Neo-Classical patterns and moods ... prominent in its Milhaudish playfulness.” The soloist in this performance is Eva Bindere, winner of the Latvian Grand Music Award in 2016 for musician of the year. She says: “This concerto was a true surprise. I believe it’s absolutely world-class music, written extremely professionally, with a wonderful technical understanding of the instrument, [...] In the musical sense, the concerto is very saturated; much depends on the soloist’s personal contribution... [but] the whole process brought me joy, and I never felt that this composition needed any sort of subjective ‘assistance.’”
The Concerto for 5 Percussionists and Orchestra (1983) was commissioned by the Faculty of Music, U of T, with support from the Ontario Arts Council, on the occasion of Ķeniņš retirement (although he would stay active as professor emeritus for many more years). Ķeniņš had a close relationship with percussion. In a conversation with Edgars Kariks, he stated: “I appreciate the extensive opportunities that percussion instruments offer. They provide so much colour. They give my music a dynamic profile... something like an independent objective. They serve as the foundation for all of the dramatic elements...”

Beatae voces tenebrae was commissioned by the Composers, Authors and Publishers Association of Canada (CAPAC, now SOCAN). In 1977, in conjunction with the Frankfurter Buchmesse, the world’s largest trade fair for books, CAPAC organized Canadian Music Week in several cities in Germany – eight concerts featuring various compositions and performers from Canada. The premiere of Beatae voces tenebrae was given by the Beethovenhalle Orchestra in Bonn, conducted by Boris Brott. The CBC issued a double LP of works featured during that event which has held a treasured place in my collection over the years. I am delighted by this new recording of one of Ķeniņš’ most moving orchestral works. He did not often provide detailed program notes, but this work is an exception: “This composition coincides with a period of grief in the life of the composer who was mourning the sudden passing of two close friends. These events have influenced the meaning and design of the work and explain the frequent allusions to motivic ideas by classical composers bearing on similar concerns. Through a series of images of serenity and drama, past and present intermingle in sudden flashes of emotion and various dimensions of human anguish...”  The excellent booklet notes detail some of the quotations from Liszt, Bach (and the well-known BACH motif – B flat, A, C, B natural which appears frequently), Beethoven and Fauré, with bar numbers and timings of where to find them in the recording. The composer’s epigraph on the score reads “to those beloved shadows who once were a part of our lives.”

I am honoured to have known Tāli Ķeniņš as a colleague and proud that he considered me a friend. He inscribed my copy of his biography Between Two Worlds (by Ingrida Zemzare, in Latvian, with English summary) “For David Olds, in true friendship.” I will treasure it always.

05 Kenins biography webAnd one final note, speaking of colleagues and friends, while preparing for this article and for David Hetherington’s recent virtual recital “Cello Masterworks” (newmusicconcerts.com), I listened to Hetherington and William Aide’s recording of Ķeniņš’ prize-winning Cello Sonata on a disc that also includes his Piano Quartet No.2 (with Paul Meyer and Steven Dann) and the Concertante for flute and piano with Aide and Robert Aitken (Centrediscs CMCCD5997 cmccanada.org/shop/cd-cmccd-5997). Highly recommended! 

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

There are two 2CD sets of the complete Mozart violin concertos this month, one of which is simply unique.

01 Mozarts ViolinOn Mozart’s Violin: The Complete Violin Concertos violinist Christoph Koncz and Les Musiciens du Louvre, one of Europe’s leading period-instrument ensembles perform the concertos with Koncz – astonishingly – playing Mozart’s own violin (Sony Classical G010004353645E sonyclassical.lnk.to/Koncz_MozartsViolinPR).

The violin, made in the early 1700s by Klotz of Mittenwald after a Jacob Steiner model, was played by Mozart while he was concertmaster in the Salzburg Hofkapelle from 1769. It was entrusted to his sister Maria Anna (Nannerl) when he moved to Vienna in 1781. The concertos date from 1773-75, so would have been played on this instrument; indeed, Koncz makes a strong case for the violin’s particular sound clearly influencing the compositions. The instrument passed through various owners – all listed in the booklet notes – before being acquired by the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation in 1955. Remarkably, it has retained its original Baroque form, and not suffered any alterations.

Koncz clearly understood and appreciated the remarkable privilege accorded him by this recording project, and he responded with absolutely faultless performances. The violin has a sweet, clear sound, and Koncz plays it beautifully, with a tasteful use of vibrato and with warmth and feeling. Mozart left no cadenzas – these would have been improvised at the time – and Koncz supplies his own, after studying the extant cadenzas for the piano concertos and immersing himself in the style of Mozart’s Salzburg years. Les Musiciens du Louvre, the first ensemble to perform Mozart on period instruments at the Salzburg Festival, provides the perfect accompaniment.

It’s not simply the emotional and personal impact of the instrument that makes this set so special; the performances themselves, recorded in the Salzburg Mozarteum, are technically and musically superb in what is a quite stunning release.

If I could own only one set of the Mozart violin concertos, this would be it.

02 Mozart Baiba SkrideNormally, any release by the outstanding Latvian violinist Baiba Skride would likely be topping my list, but this time her Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos.1-5 with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra under Eivind Aadland (also included are the Adagio in E Major K261 and the two Rondos in B-flat K269 and C Major K373) (Orfeo C997201 naxosdirect.com/search/orf-c997201.) is up against the Koncz set.

Skride draws a beautiful sound from the Yfrah Neaman Stradivarius violin that she plays on extended loan, with a clear tone and an effortless grace and warmth. Like Koncz, Skride performs her own cadenzas to great effect. 

There’s never a hint of an issue with Skride’s playing in beautifully judged and finely nuanced modern-instrument performances, but while there’s elegance and depth in the orchestral playing, their recorded sound seems less than ideal; they seem set fairly far back with a particularly over-heavy bass line that often muddies the texture.

03 Wan Richard Hamelin BeethovenThe ongoing Analekta series of the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas with violinist Andrew Wan and pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin continues with the second volume, this time featuring the three Op.12 Sonatas – No.1 in D Major, No.2 in A Major and No.3 in E-flat Major – and the “Spring” Sonata, No.5 in F Major Op.24 (AN 2 8795 analekta.com). Volume One was reviewed here in December 2018.

The Op.12 sonatas from 1797/98 were the first to be written and show the two instruments on an equal footing despite the customary “piano and violin” designation. They are joyful works – only one movement is in a minor key – and, while formally conventional, are imaginative and bright in texture. A pure delight from start to finish, the performances here are of the same high standard as on the earlier volume of a series that continues to impress.

04 Beethoven Dover QuartetThe Dover Quartet swept the board at the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition, the first prize announcement noting that they “consistently demonstrated an exceptional level of maturity, poise and artistry.” Add five or six years of performance experience to that judgement and you will have a good idea of the exceptionally high standard of their new release (2CDs priced as a single) Beethoven Complete String Quartets Volume 1 The Opus 18 Quartets (Cedille CDR 90000 198 naxosdirect.com/search/cdr+198).

The Dover Quartet has performed the complete Beethoven quartet cycle in recital several times, the Montreal Chamber Music Festival performances being reviewed as a “musically transformative” event. The players have waited until they felt completely comfortable with their interpretations before committing them to disc, the recordings here being made in late 2018 and late 2019.

Although influenced by Haydn and Mozart, the Op.18 quartets show Beethoven clearly moving forward on his own path. The Dover members refer to them as playful and conversational and full of dramatic contrasts of mood and character, qualities which all shine through in performances of conviction and depth. This promises to be an outstanding set.

05 Nathan MeltzerThere’s a fascinating story behind Nathan Meltzer: To Roman Totenberg, the debut CD by the 20-year-old Austrian violinist, who has studied at Juilliard since he was 13, and pianist Rohan De Silva (Champs Hill Records CHRCD161 nathanmeltzer.com/cds). Totenberg’s 1734 Ames Stradivarius violin was stolen after his 1980 recital at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts and was not recovered until 2015, three years after Totenberg’s death at 101. Professionally restored and consequently sold by Totenberg’s daughters, the violin has been on loan to Meltzer since October 2018.

All the music on this CD was performed by Meltzer at a “Homecoming” concert at that same Longy School in November 2019, with Totenberg’s three daughters present. The pieces were all favourites of Totenberg, who recorded two of them – the Franck and the Bartók – on this very violin. It’s certainly a glorious instrument. Meltzer describes it as dark and resonant with a warm tone in every register, but there’s also a real brilliance in the high register.

Ably supported by De Silva, Meltzer is quite superb in a program that includes Bach’s violin and keyboard Sonata No.3 in E Major BWV1016, Franck’s Sonata in A Major, Szymanowski’s La Fontaine d’Arethuse from his Mythes Op.30, Bartók’s Rhapsody No.1 and Wieniawski’s Polonaise de Concert in D Major Op.4.

It’s an outstanding debut recording from a prodigiously talented player with an admirable sense of history.

06 Schumann SchubertFragment, the new Schumann Quartet CD of music by Franz Schubert, is part of their return to regular activity after the coronavirus hiatus, the ensemble having already played several concerts in July and August (Berlin Classics 030141OBC schumannquartett.de/eng/discography).

The three quartets here were chosen to show how Schubert evolved over the years, with failure a part of that development. The String Quartet No.6 D74 from 1813, when Schubert was just 16, shows a composer trying to find his own style. What was intended to become the String Quartet No.2 in C Minor in 1820 was apparently abandoned and is now known as the Quartettsatz D703, an Allegro assai first movement followed by an Andante fragment in which the first violin simply fades away after 40 bars. It is included here, giving the CD its title, and the final notes and ensuing silence seem to lead perfectly into the start of the String Quartet No.13 D804, the “Rosamunde,” a large-scale work that reflected Schubert’s approach to the symphony by way of chamber music.

Performances throughout are quite superb, with a lovely balance that allows all voices to be clearly heard, outstanding ensemble work, terrific dynamics and an obvious emotional connection with the music.

In 1938 the Austrian composer Eric Zeisl (1905-59) fled Vienna for Paris, where he was befriended by Darius Milhaud. Milhaud helped Zeisl’s family move to Paris and subsequently to Los Angeles in 1939, Milhaud himself following to Oakland, California in 1940. The two remained close friends.

07 Paris Los AngelesThe French violinist Ambroise Aubrun discovered Zeisl’s music during his doctoral research at the University of California in Los Angeles, and his new album Paris <> Los Angeles with pianist Steven Vanhauwaert depicts the composers’ friendship as well as revisiting a Mozart sonata that apparently fascinated Zeisl (Editions Hortus 189 ambroiseaubrun.com).

Two short pieces by Zeisl open and close the disc: Menuchim’s Song (1939) from the incomplete opera Job and the world-premiere recording of the lyrical Zigeunerweise, the first movement from the unpublished 1919 Suite for Violin and Piano Op.2 that Aubrun discovered in the Zeisl Collection at the university. The other Zeisl work is his substantial three-movement Brandeis Sonata from 1949, named for the California Institute where Zeisl was composer-in-residence.

Milhaud is represented by his four-movement Violin Sonata No.2 from 1917, a quite lovely work. The Mozart is the Violin Sonata No.21 in E Minor K304. Written in 1778 during the Paris visit that saw the death of his mother, it is his only minor key violin sonata as well as his only instrumental work in that key.

There’s excellent playing throughout a terrific CD, with the Mozart in particular a beautifully judged reading – clean and nuanced, with a finely balanced emotional sensitivity.

Listen to 'Paris <> Los Angeles' Now in the Listening Room

08 Rivka Romance webViola Romance is the new 2CD set from violist Rivka Golani, accompanied by pianist Zsuzsa Kollár. It’s a collection of 35 transcriptions of works originally for violin and piano, mostly arranged and revised for viola and piano by Golani (Hungaroton 32811-12 hungarotonmusic.com).

Fritz Kreisler and Edward Elgar dominate CD1, with nine Kreisler originals and four Kreisler arrangements of single pieces by Chaminade, Granados, Tchaikovsky and Gluck. Eight Elgar tracks complete the disc.

Kreisler’s presence is also felt on CD2 with six arrangements: five pieces by Dvořák to open and Eduard Gärtner’s Aus Wien as the final track. In between are three pieces by František Drdla, two Brahms/Joachim Hungarian Dances, Jenö Hubay’s Bolero and two Leopold Auer transcriptions of works by Robert Schumann.

The Kreisler influence is no accident, the interpretations here having been inspired by Golani’s collaboration with Kreisler’s longtime accompanist Franz Rupp, who died in 1992; his final performance was with Golani in 1985.

Most of these short pieces (27 are under four minutes) are well-suited to the darker tone of the viola, although Golani’s generally wide and fairly slow vibrato tends to reduce the warmth at times. Still, as you would expect, there’s much fine playing here.

Listen to 'Viola Romance' Now in the Listening Room

09 Glass HouriThe New York-based Irish violinist Gregory Harrington founded the Estile Records label in 2006 (gregoryharrington.com), and has built a reputation for successfully transforming movie scores, jazz, rock and pop music into brand new violin concert pieces. His new CD Glass Hour with the Janáček Philharmonic under Mark Shapiro features music by Philip Glass, including the world-premiere recording of Harrington’s The Hours Suite, his own attractive arrangement of music from the 2002 Oscar-nominated Glass score for the movie The Hours. The three movements – Morning Passages, The Poet Acts and The Hours – were respectively tracks 2, 1 and 14 on the soundtrack album, and as the timings are almost identical they would appear to be straight transcriptions.

Glass’ Violin Concerto No.2 “American Four Seasons, scored for strings and synthesizer, is the other work on the CD. Glass left the four movements untitled, with a solo Prologue and three numbered Songs between the movements acting as violin cadenzas. There’s a lovely feel to the slower sections in particular, although there are one or two moments in the fast perpetual motion passages where the intonation feels a bit insecure.

Listen to 'Glass Hour' Now in the Listening Room

02 Voices in the WildernessVoices in the Wilderness – Music from the Ephrata Cloister
Elizabeth Bates; Clifton Massey; Nils Neubert; Steven Hrycelak; Christopher Dylan Herbert
Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0141 (brightshiny.ninja/voices-in-the-wilderness)

This technically thrilling and historically significant recording is the brainchild of noted musical director/producer, Christopher Dylan Herbert, and boasts the prestigious vocal talents of soprano Elizabeth Bates, alto Clifton Massey, tenor Nils Neubert and bass Steven Hrycelak. The entire project is composed of a cappella hymns, written just under 300 years ago by the residents of the Ephrata Cloister – an 18th-century celibate community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, established in 1732. Nearly all of the music here was written by the solitary sisters of Ephrata – the earliest known female composers in North America.* These challenging pieces have never before been performed by a professional ensemble, and in keeping with the authenticity of the CD, the recording itself was done in the very room for which the material was originally composed.

With the opening, Rose-Lillie-Blume Sequence, the voices introduce themselves and come together in perfect symmetry, rendering this rich composition in all of its original majesty. The acoustics of the Ephrata Cloister provide the sonic platform for this stirring piece – rendered in perfect classical, High German. On Herzog Unsrer Seligkeiten, dynamics as well as precise rhythmic motifs are utilized, and of special mention is Wann Gott sein Zion Losen Wird, where the satisfying arrangement explores curiously modern chordal motifs, foreshadowing chorale works yet to come, and the eventual emergence of 12-tone composition.  

The final track, Formier, Mein Topffer, is both emotional and direct. Written by Sister Föbin (Christianna Lassle) the chord voicings are placed in the exact sweet spot for each register, creating a shining jewel of vocal music, and a celebration of early female composers/vocalists, as well as their creative vision, which is more than timely.

Editor’s note: Some might dispute this claim, and suggest that an Order of Ursuline nuns in Montreal were more likely the first female composers on the continent. I checked with noted Canadian music specialist John Beckwith who told me that, in an essay on Canada’s earliest music-theory treatise (1718), Erich Schwandt (formerly with the music department, U. of Victoria), claimed that the Ursulines wrote original music. The order was established in 1639 and was noted for its attention to culture and the arts, especially music, suggesting that these sisters were composing nearly a century before those of the Ephrata Cloisture.

03 Beethoven Christ Mount OlivesBeethoven – Christ on the Mount of Olives
Elsa Dreisig; Pavol Breslik; David Soar; London Symphony Chorus; LSO; Sir Simon Rattle
LSO Live LSO0826D (lsolive.lso.co.uk)

In the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke capture Jesus’ last moments as a free man. Aware of his impending arrest and execution – having been betrayed by Judas Iscariot – Jesus uses his final night to reflect and pray at a familiar location, the Garden of Gethsemane, located on the Mount of Olives. To this day, the location remains a site of Christian pilgrimage and, in 1803, afforded rich artistic fodder to Beethoven, who used its physical beauty and importance as a site within Christian theology to pen his compelling, rarely performed, and only Passion oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives

Although not theologically Christian, but rather an Enlightenment-era deist, Beethoven was most certainly drawing a parallel between this Gospel narrative of Jesus at his most fallible and his own looming existential crisis of encroaching deafness and isolation. Written while living at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien and understood, at the time, within the context of other 18th-century oratorios that focus on religious themes, subjects and iconography, Christ on the Mount of Olives deserves to occupy a more central place within Beethoven’s already bountiful canon. Good thing then, that it is performed and recorded so beautifully here on this 2020 LSO Live release by the London Symphony Orchestra with Sir Simon Rattle at the helm. 

Fleshed out with an enormous chorus of nearly 150 under the direction of Simon Halsey and released in honour of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, this must-have recording packages together a compelling religious narrative with the majestic backing of the LSO and inspired soloists Elsa Dreisig, Pavol Breslik and David Soar performing a variety of biblical figures from Franz Xaver Huber’s libretto. With the religious importance for some of the upcoming Christmas season, this recording could not have come at a better time.

05 ElgarElgar – Sea Pictures; Falstaff
Elīna Garanča; Staatskapelle Berlin; Daniel Barenboim
Decca Records 00028948509683 (deccaclassics.com/en/catalogue)

A new and sumptuous live recording from Decca features two important works by Sir Edward Elgar: the five Sea Pictures, Op 37 (1899) and the seldom-heard “symphonic study,” Falstaff, Op.68 (1913).

Elgar was both proud and fond of his Falstaff. While it was well received at its premiere in 1913, it hasn’t quite found its footing in the standard repertoire to date (at least outside of England). Conversely, the Sea Pictures have long captured the imaginations of singers and audiences alike. The sea itself is central to British identity and, while many other cultures could claim the same, an Englishman’s love for his island’s coastal waters is of a particular brand; Elgar epitomizes this relationship in his cycle. They are unique for their dark and rich soundscapes, initially scored for contralto. (Canada’s own Maureen Forrester sang them – almost as trademark – throughout her career.) The five Pictures set words from different poets, including the composer’s wife: In Haven (Capri).

Daniel Barenboim is no stranger to interpreting Elgar. What an experience it is, to hear him steer this record’s course. Barenboim’s seasoned Elgar is luminous and emotive, ever balanced and rational. One might argue that he brings just a hint of German cerebralism to such overtly English Romantic music. Mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča contributes her own impressive artistry here, embracing this ravishing repertoire with all that she’s got. Her voice soars above the Staatskapelle Berlin, buoyed and serene, “to rolling worlds of wave and shell.”

06 Egon WelleszEgon Wellesz – Die Opferung des Gefangenen
Hwang; Cerha; Dewey; Koch; Vienna Concert Choir; Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien; Robert Brooks
Capriccio C5423 (naxosdirect.com/search/845221054230)

Austrian-British composer Egon Wellesz (1885-1974), of Hungarian Jewish origin, was a prolific composer. Extensively performed and decorated during his lifetime, he achieved success early, being the first of Arnold Schoenberg’s students to receive a publishing contract from Universal Edition, before Berg or Webern. Generally neglected in the decades since his death, this world premiere recording, by the Vienna Concert Choir and the Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien of Wellesz’s 1924-25 opera-ballet Die Opferung des Gefangenen (The Sacrifice of the Prisoner), is part of a wider revival of interest in his music. 

The opera’s story is based on a scenario by Eduard Stucken after the ancient Mayan play Rabinal Achi, performed annually in Rabinal, Guatemala. Subtitled “a cultural drama for dance, solo singers and choir,” Wellesz’s work is about an imprisoned prince who is waiting for his execution after a battle. It’s not a huge stretch however to see the story reflecting many of the post WWI anxieties around the consequences of the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

Replete with dramatic vocal and choral scenes and massive orchestral passages with Mahlerian and Schoenbergian echoes, Die Opferung is a prime example of Wellesz’s mature Viennese musical style. His signature colourful orchestration is underscored by forte brass choir and bold percussion statements.  This theatrical work, parts of which would not be out of place on a later blockbuster movie soundtrack, reads surprisingly well on audio CD, even without the visual and dance elements of a stage production. 

07 English SongsEnglish Songs à la Française
Tyler Duncan; Erika Switzer
Bridge Records 9537 (bridgerecords.com/products/9537)

British Columbia-born/New York-based baritone, Tyler Duncan, and his wife, pianist Erika Switzer, are internationally renowned performers as a duo, and individually. The clever idea of performing French composers’ settings of original English texts started when French baritone François Le Roux handed them Camille Saint-Saëns’ Cherry-Tree Farm score, set to Horace Lennard’s poetry. More of these Romantic/20th century songs were compiled, which, after their recital in Tours, led to this, their remarkable first duo album.

A literal who’s who of French composers successfully set the original English texts. Reynaldo Hahn’s Five Little Songs (1914), set to Robert Louis Stevenson’s words, are short children’s songs with tonal word painting like the florid piano lines behind lyrical vocals in The Swing, and colourful low vocal pitches with piano tremolo night sky effects in The Stars. Darius Milhaud’s settings of five Rabindranath Tagore Child Poems (1916) are operatic, such as the fully orchestrated piano part supporting lyrical emotional singing in the closing, The Gift. Love Maurice Ravel’s Chanson écossaise (1910) setting of Robert Burns’ text. Ravel emulates a Scottish quasi-bagpipe folk song without ever creating a parody. Jules Massenet’s setting of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Come into the Garden, Maud (1880) foreshadows future musical theatre sounds. Poulenc, Roussel and Gounod works complete the recording. 

Duncan and Switzer deserve a “bilingual” standing ovation for their tight duo musicianship and colourful interpretations of these one-of-a kind art songs.

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08 Saman ShahiSaman Shahi – Breathing in the Shadows
Maureen Batt; Fabián Arciniegas; Tiffany Hanus; Various Instrumentalists
Leaf Music LM237 (samanshahimusic.com)

The debut album by Iranian-Canadian composer and pianist Saman Shahi, Breathing in the Shadows, feels like a gentle journey through the kaleidoscope of meaningful images, each captured in a subjective and probing way. The three song cycles included on this album are worlds unto their own – powerful and empowering, existential blocks of unique and diverse musical language combining minimalism, dodecaphony, hints of Iranian traditional music and rock. The poetry is beautiful and impactful, but it is the music that propels it beyond its scope. Shahi’s music lets the poetic images breathe and blossom and underlines the themes of inner and outer struggles, yearnings, rebelliousness and death (symbolic and physical). The rhythmic drive and atonal segments create an immediacy that is enlivening. 

The titular song cycle, Breathing in the Shadows, is based on poems by five poetesses from around the world and features a wonderfully talented duo – soprano Maureen Batt and pianist Tara Scott. Each song is a statement of independence and defiance in the face of oppression, longing or, simply, love. 

The second cycle, Orbit, builds on sharp imagery conceived by Serbian-Canadian singer-songwriter Jelena Ćirić. The waves of colours Shahi creates in the piano lines are just gorgeous and tenor Fabián Arciniegas’ phrasing underscores the words with subtle urgency.

The concluding cycle, Song of a Wandering Soul, merges several musical forms that Shahi considers a part of his musical identity. Written for a larger ensemble, using improvisation and electronics to create varied textures and riding on the perfectly suited timbre of Tiffany Hanus’ voice, this cycle is pure rock ’n roll in a classical setting. 

Listen to 'Saman Shahi: Breathing in the Shadows' Now in the Listening Room

09 Elora SingersReena Esmail – This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity; Barbara Croall – Giishkaapkag
Elora Singers; Mark Vuorinen
Independent TESR-001 (elorasingers.ca/hear/recordings)

The professional Elora Singers have established a reputation as one of the finest chamber choirs in Canada, particularly known for their commitment to Canadian repertoire. This admirable new release on their own imprint features two contrasting large-scale choral works by Canadian composer Barbara Croall and American composer Reena Esmail.

The subtitle, Prayers for Unity, of Esmail’s This Love Between Us (2016) tips listeners off to the composer’s intent. The work’s seven movements are titled after the major religious traditions of India: Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Jainism and Islam. Esmail has selected representative texts in the original seven languages from each, evoking unity, universal brotherhood and kindness. A signature element of the work is the inspired and effective incorporation of a Hindustani sitarist, vocal soloist and tabla player into the orchestral and choral texture, underscoring the fusion of North Indian and Western classical musical elements, both traditions Esmail is at home in.

Odawa First Nation composer and musician Barbara Croall’s 2019 Giishkaapkag (Where the Rock is Cut Through) is scored for choir, percussion and the pipigwan (Anishinaabe cedar flute) eloquently played by the composer. The vocals are underscored by a powerful, elegiac text condemning the violence to the feminine in creation. “Due to colonization,” writes Croall, “many women and girls likewise have suffered (and continue to suffer) … due to the many past and continuing violations of Shkakmigkwe (Mother Earth).” Referencing the present tragedy of murdered and missing Indigenous women, Croall reminds us that “the rocks bear witness and speak to us of this” – a message also heard clearly through her powerful music.

10 Rosa MysticaRosa Mystica – Musical Portraits of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir; Paul Spicer
Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0617 (naxosdirect.com/search/748871061729)

Among the stated objectives of this record label, one stands out and it is this: “to uncover new [music] … from the unique to the extraordinary…” This disc, Rosa Mystica, not only fits that objective, but it does so with a great deal of reverential eloquence. 

The centerpiece – halfway through the album – is Benjamin Britten’s ardent setting of Gerald Manley Hopkins’ poem Rosa Mystica (Mystical Rose), an invocation in the 16th-century Litany of Loreto, which actually dates back to the Tanakh and Song of Songs (2:1), and which, when translated, reads: “I am the Rose of Sharon.” Paul Spicer and the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Choir interpret the work with shimmering passion. 

It is Siva Oke, the recording producer, who makes sure that your edification begins from track one, with the inimitable John Tavener’s Mother of God, here I stand. Remarkably, each track thereafter is instrumentally and lyrically fresh despite the underlying theme of all the music being the same: that is, dedication to the praise and worship of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

The producer has also reflected a keen sense of history and openness for new material in the selection of these Musical Portraits of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Nicholas Ludford (1485-1557) offering, Ave cujus conceptio, is the oldest. Meanwhile, from the contemporary era, Carl Rutti’s Ave Maria, Judith Bingham’s Ave virgo sanctissima and Cecilia McDowall’s Of a Rose make their debuts on this impressive recording.

11 Lieberson SongsPeter Lieberson – Songs of Love and Sorrow; The Six Realms
Gerald Finley; Anssi Karttunen;Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Hannu Lintu
Ondine ODE 1356-2 (naxosdirect.com/search/0761195135624)

American composer Peter Lieberson (1946–2011) had a fascinating, bicultural career. A composition student of rigorous American modernists Milton Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen, at an early age he imbibed the classical music of earlier eras, as well as mid-century jazz and musical theatre in the NYC home of his prominent record-executive father Goddard Lieberson and ballerina mother Vera Zorina. 

Starting in the 1970s he embraced the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism which profoundly influenced his compositional approach. Lieberson’s mature works successfully fuse those seemingly disparate influences into a cohesive idiosyncratic chromatic style threaded with an appealing lyricism and anchored by inventive orchestration.

Lieberson composed The Six Realms (2000), a dramatic concerto for amplified cello and orchestra, at the request of Yo-Yo Ma. The work’s backstory outlines a key Buddhist teaching: differing states of mind shape human experience. Thus each of the concerto’s six continuous sections illustrates a different realm in Buddhist cosmology and aspect of human emotion. The work receives a powerfully emotional rendering on the album by contemporary music specialist, cellist Anssi Karttunen, a close Lieberson friend.

The record’s other work features an outstanding performance by Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley as soloist in Lieberson’s orchestral song cycle Songs of Love and Sorrow (2010), among his last works. Set to five sonnets from Cien sonetos de amor by Pablo Neruda, the Songs are imbued with love for – but also a sense of quiet farewell to – the composer’s late wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, ending with a haunting repeated “adios.”

12 Venables RequiemIan Venables – Requiem
Choir of Gloucester Cathedral; Adrian Partington
Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0618 (naxosdirect.com/search/sommcd+0618)

The requiem Mass is one of the most frequently set texts in all of music, with many of history’s greatest composers turning their pens to this ancient burial rite. Traditional settings date from the medieval era to the present and range from the contemplative (Fauré and Duruflé) to the bombastic (Berlioz and Verdi), while a number of 20th- and 21st-century settings incorporate additional texts, such as Britten’s War Requiem and Howard Goodall’s Eternal Light.

One of the most recent contributions to the requiem genre is Ian Venables’ 2018 Requiem, Op.48, which presents a selection of the traditional requiem Mass texts in a contemporary setting. Scored for chorus and organ, Venables composed this work with liturgical performance in mind; although this might seem to be a restrictive limitation when compared to the immense orchestrations of the great musical requiems, Venables uses the timbres and textures of both the organ and choir to produce a range of effects that reflect the drama, terror and peacefulness present in the text. This attentive and effective synthesis of words and music should come as no surprise, as Venables is a respected and highly experienced art song composer who has also written a range of instrumental and choral works.

Venables’ Requiem is characterized by a mixture of textures, woven together throughout the duration of the work to produce varying results. One such distinguishing feature is the use of modality, which often erupts into bright, open quartal chords that produce a luminescence not otherwise attainable in the major/minor system. While tuning is always of paramount importance for any performing group, it becomes even more so when non-traditional harmonies are used, and the Gloucester Cathedral Choir executes every such passage with precision and accuracy, breathing life into this mass for the dead. 

13 Voices of the PearlVoices of the Pearl Volume 3
Anne Harley; Stacey Fraser; James Hayden; Various artists
Voices of the Pearl (voicesofthepearl.org/albums)

The ambitious Voices of the Pearl project commissions, performs and records works by international living composers, who set texts by and about females from diverse traditions throughout history, illuminating their lives, struggles and beliefs. Volume Three features five works based on Buddhist, Chinese and other Asian texts, performed by Canadian/California-based sopranos Anne Harley (who is also artistic director) and Stacey Fraser, with American instrumentalists and singers.

Canadian composer Emilie Cecilia LeBel’s You Moving Stars (2017) is based on early Therīgāthā (Verses of the Elder Nuns) poetry collection by and about female disciples of the historical Buddha from about the fifth century BCE. Performed by Harley and electric guitarist Steve Thachuk, it is sparsely orchestrated yet attention-grabbing, from the opening long-held guitar drone, sudden high soprano entry, wide-interval-pitched melody, and brief almost unison vocal and guitar sections. The two performers create a sacred, thought provoking sound.  

Chinary Ung’s Still Life After Death (1995) follows a living Soul, sung by Fraser, on her ritualistic end-of-life journey. Scored for full ensemble and performed by the terrific Brightwork newmusic, the repeated detached notes, loud crashes and almost contrapuntal flute, violin and clarinet backdrops support the soprano’s emotional wide-ranging part until the deep-calming, short-Buddhist-phrase-chanting, bass-baritone, James Hayden, relaxes the Soul to echo him until her final fearless ending.

Works by Karola Obermüller, Yii Kah Hoe, and a second Chinary Ung composition complete this amazing recording, illuminating female artists throughout history.

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14 AnchoressThe Anchoress
Hyunah Yu; Mimi Stillman; PRISM (Saxophone) Quartet; Piffaro, The Renaissance Band
XAS Records XAS 110 (prismquartet.com/recordings)

The Anchoress is a song cycle in eight movements composed by David Serkin Ludwig with text by Katie Ford. Written for soprano, saxophone quartet, and a Renaissance band, The Anchoress explores the medieval mystic tradition of anchorism. As part of a devotional practice to Christian life, an anchoress withdrew from secular society in order to live in extreme deprivation in a bricked-up cell attached to a church (an anchorhold). From her “squint” (a tiny window) to the outside world, Ford imagines a narrative from the most inner thoughts of a medieval anchoress. From that tiny window we are privy to slices of conversations, with herself and others, where the anchoress experiences intense and extreme emotions that range from contemplation and doubt to terror and religious ecstasy.

Ludwig’s striking choice of orchestration in the mixing of ancient and modern instruments moves the listener efficiently through the various narratives by creating sonorities that are both unusual and unique. The solo recorder is particularly efficient as it converses and interrupts the voice, mirroring the meandering mind of the anchoress.

The Anchoress is an expansive monologue in which soprano Hyunah Yu makes use of several vocal techniques such as vocalises and Sprechstimme. She is expertly supported by Piffaro, the acclaimed Renaissance wind band and the PRISM Quartet. The Anchoress received its world premiere in October 2018 by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. The disc also features three instrumental settings, Three Anchoress Songs, featuring flutist Mimi Stillman and tenor saxophonist Matthew Levy.

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01 Corellis BandCorelli’s Band – Violin Sonatas
Augusta McKay Lodge; Various Artists
Naxos 8.574239 (naxosdirect.com/search/747313423972)

The accomplished young Baroque violinist Augusta McKay Lodge brings her considerable musical elegance and strong personality to bear in this fascinating program of early 18th-century sonatas for violin and continuo. We hear three sonatas by Giovanni Mossi and two by Giovanni Stefano Carbonelli. Both Mossi and Carbonelli were students and/or followers of Arcangelo Corelli and indeed their works owe much to the great master, both in content and structure. The lone Corelli work on the disc is one of his greatest, the Sonata Op.5, No.3 in C Major, and the performance is sensational, a great combination of fire, precision and risk-taking. This is playing of great clarity that brings out the harmonic tension, melodic beauty and rhythmic interest in Corelli’s music.

Of the three Mossi sonatas, the two from his early Op.1 collection from 1716 are a real revelation. They’re technically challenging with a refreshing originality. The later 1733 sonata of his which opens the disc is somewhat more square and uninteresting. While obviously talented, Carbonelli seemed to have dabbled in music, possibly studying with Corelli and having known Vivaldi, who named one of his sonatas – Il Carbonelli – after him. His only published music – before he took up work as a supplier of wine to the English court – was a set of sonatas published in 1729. The two represented here are full of interest and great poignancy. 

 The continuo band is a powerhouse and provides strong support to Lodge, who is clearly emerging as one of the most eloquent and interesting Baroque violinists around.

04 Classical Piano Concerto Cramer webJohann Baptist Cramer – Piano Concertos 1, 3 & 6
Howard Shelley; London Mozart Players
Hyperion CDA68302 (hyperion-records.co.uk)

Apart from his piano Etudes Op.84 – for many years a staple in piano pedagogy – the name Johann Baptist Cramer is not all that well known today. A year after his birth in Mannheim in 1771, his father – himself a renowned violinist and conductor – moved the family to London to take advantage of the thriving musical life there. The move was clearly a fortuitous one, for over the course of his long lifetime, Cramer earned a reputation as a virtuoso soloist, composer and pedagogue. In light of his sizable output, he is definitely a composer worth re-exploring and who better to do it than the London Mozart Players with Howard Shelley both directing and performing three piano concertos on this Hyperion recording, the sixth in the Classical Piano series.

The Concertos No.1 and 3 in in E-flat and D Major respectively, were completed in the 1790s and stylistically straddle the classical and Romantic periods. While both were perhaps written with an eye to demonstrating Cramer’s technical prowess, the musical style is gracious and spirited, further enhanced by Shelley’s technically flawless performance and the LMP’s solid accompaniment.

The Concerto No.6 dates from around 1813. By that time, Beethoven had completed his seventh symphony and Wellington’s Victory. Yet any traces of the new Romantic spirit in this concerto are marginal – clearly Cramer wasn’t about to abandon a means of expression that had successfully served his purpose. Once again, Shelley and the LMP comprise a convivial pairing, particularly in the buoyant Rondo finale which brings the concerto and the disc to a satisfying conclusion.

So a hearty bravo to Howard Shelley and the LMP for once again shedding light on some fine music that might otherwise have been overlooked. As always, we can look forward to further additions to the series.

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