02 rossini lequivoco grywdRossini – L’Equivoco Stravagante
Antonella Colaianni; Patrick Kabongo; Giulio Mastrototaro; Emmanuel Franco; Gorecki Chamber Choir; Virtuosi Brunensis; Jose Miguil Perez-Sierra
Naxos DVD 2.110696 (naxosdirect.com/search/2110696)

The little town of Bad Wildbad, a spa, is located in the Black Forest in Germany, a very scenic holiday spot with a small, intimate opera house and a relaxed, but keen, enthusiastic audience. This performance was for the Wildbad Rossini Festival’s 30th anniversary in 2018. L’equico Stravagante (Curious Misunderstanding) is Rossini’s first opera, written when he was only 19, his first step toward becoming a master of bel canto and an amazing career of wealth and fame and 39 operas.

It is a two-act dramma giocoso, a farce format that Rossini got very good at, but it ran into difficulties at the premiere in Bologna because its somewhat risqué libretto offended public taste! It was cancelled after three performances and disappeared into oblivion until its present day revival. Risqué because the heroine was accused of being a castrato and a deserter to avoid military service; a curious misunderstanding indeed!

It’s a silly story, but offers good theatricals and lots of funny situations. The small stage is practically bare; with ingenious lighting effects and shifting panels as a backdrop but filled with a youthful, energetic cast, headed by the primadonna mezzo-soprano Antonella Colianni and primo tenore Patrick Kabongo, all superb voices and buoyant, delightful music. Most notable are Rossini’s beginning efforts of ensemble writing: duets, trios, quartets, and a beautiful quintet: Speme soave, ah, scenda. The first act finale is a real showstopper with the whole cast on stage, all singing up a total mayhem. This feature will appear in many of his later operas and become a Rossini trademark.

We must emphasize the Overture, a remarkably mature work conducted by the young, convivial José Miguel Pérez-Sierra with vigour, hugely enjoying himself.

03 franck hulda o5317César Franck – Hulda
Soloists; Opern-und Extrachor des Theater Freiburg; Philharmonisches Orchester Freiburg; Fabrice Bollon
Naxos 8.660480-82 (naxosdirect.com/search/866048-82)

It shouldn’t have taken until 2019 for Hulda to receive its first-ever complete performance, recorded here. César Franck finished his magnum opus in 1885, but died before its 1894 premiere in an abridged version, as were all its few subsequent productions.

Set in 11th-century Norway, Charles Jean Grandmougin’s lurid, blood-spattered libretto was based on an 1854 play by Norwegian Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, 1903 Nobel Prize-winner. Hulda (soprano Meagan Miller) vows revenge on her family’s murderers, Aslak (bass Jin Seok Lee) and his sons. Forced to marry Aslak’s son Gudleik (baritone Juan Orozco), at the wedding feast she entices the king’s emissary, Eiolf (tenor Joshua Kohl), who fights and kills Gudleik. Hulda and Eiolf declare their love but when Eiolf betrays her with his former lover Swanhilde (soprano Irina Jae Eun Park), Hulda conspires with Aslak’s remaining sons to kill him, and Eiolf’s warriors to attack them in return. Her vengeance complete, she commits suicide.

Franck’s surging, vehement score, influenced by his much-admired Wagner, features the use of leitmotifs, fervent arias, ecstatic Tristan-like love duets and many opulent choruses and dances, the orchestra often in the foreground. Conductor Fabrice Ballon drives the 15 soloists, chorus and orchestra with unremitting urgency, maintaining momentum throughout the opera’s 162 minutes.

Regrettably, the 3CD set omits the French-language libretto or English translation, offering only an act-by-act synopsis (Wikipedia provides a better one). Nevertheless, I was delighted to finally hear Franck’s incandescent Hulda just as he had intended.

04 american originals 9mmoeAmerican Originals: A New World, A New Canon
Reginald Mobley; Agave
Acis APL20445 (acisproductions.com)

For countertenor Reginald Mobley, this is a deeply personal project. In his booklet notes, he describes his early years studying music as a person of colour, when he was convinced that “nothing worth hearing and knowing in classical music was ever written by anyone who looked like me.” How better to expose what he rightly calls the “whitewashing of music history” than by highlighting some remarkable, largely unknown composers of colour? And so we have this adventurous survey of vocal and instrumental works from across the Americas, dating from the Baroque to the 20th century. 

In six gorgeous songs – and two instrumental song arrangements – by Florence Price (whose music is finally starting to receive the attention it deserves), Mobley and the versatile musicians of Agave convey the impassioned vision underlying the composer’s evocative imagery. The Brazilian priest José Mauricio Nuñes Garcia’s exquisitely Mozartian Te, Christe, solum novimus leaves me wanting to hear more from this composer (his magnificent Requiem is featured in Paul Freeman’s landmark Black Composers Series on Sony Classical). A virtuosic performance of Baroque composer Esteban Salas y Castro’s Taedet Animam Meam reveals its sublime intensity. It’s hard to understand why his music is so rarely heard outside his native Cuba. 

Mobley draws on seemingly endless reserves of power and beauty. But there’s something even more exciting going on here – a direct, urgent connection with the music. In this he is well matched by Agave’s vivid colours and stylish phrasing.

01 scarlatii knox xjk78Scarlatti – Essercizi Per Gravicembalo
Hank Knox
Leaf Music LM248 (leaf-music.ca)

Hank Knox has used the lockdown period very fruitfully. He spent ten months immersed in this, the only authorized publication by Domenico Scarlatti and, to its credit, one that has remained in print since it was published in 1739. Essercizi per gravicembalo is accurately translated as Exercises for harpsichord, underpinned by Hank Knox’s choice of a harpsichord after the Dulcken family of Flemish harpsichord makers. 

From the start, the combination of Scarlatti’s very lively composing, its consequently demanding playing techniques and the brilliance of Knox, create a solo harpsichord masterpiece. For example, in its complexity the Sonata in A Minor (track 3) is reminiscent of everything J S Bach could create. Perhaps Scarlatti and Bach learned by listening to each other’s works.

Even the longest sonatas, such as that in G Major (track 13) do not let up in their demands on the harpsichordist. This is especially true of the significantly longer second CD. Here, the Sonata in D Major (track 29) continues to bring out the best in Knox.   

It is rare to find a collection of pieces so consistent throughout. Consequently, the sheer consistent joyfulness and exhilaration of these 30 Sonatas mean it is difficult to isolate any particular one as being superior to the others; we are spoiled for choice.

Born in 1685, along with Handel and Bach, Scarlatti is by far the least recognized composer of these three greats. The virtuosic exuberance of his Essercizi in this rendering makes a strong case for diminishing the recognition gap.

Listen to 'Scarlatti: Essercizi Per Gravicembalo' Now in the Listening Room

02 melisande corriveau dg7w5Bach – Au Pardessus de Viole (transcriptions of diverse sonatas with clavecin)
Mélisande Corriveau; Eric Milnes
ATMA ACD2 2826 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Although relatively obscure today, it is not hard to imagine pardessus de viole being the queen of the instruments in mid-18th century France, albeit for a short period of time. The smallest member of the viola da gamba family was invented in France to counter the newcomer of that time – the violin. Its uniquely delicate sound and slender shape were particularly popular with women, inspiring a slew of new compositions and arrangements before falling off the musical radar. 

Multi-instrumentalist Mélisande Corriveau shines spectacularly on this recent release of selected Bach compositions adapted for pardessus de viole. An imaginative and elegant player, Corriveau ventures on a fine exploration of the contemplative aspects of Bach’s music, further enhanced by the sonic qualities of her instrument, which, interestingly, was made during the reign of King Louis XV. On the other end of this musical equation is harpsichordist Eric Milnes, an intrinsic performer with a splendid feel for balance and flourish. Here the voices are so finely attuned to the nuances of Bach’s music that we never question the fact that Bach did not write a single piece for this instrument and, in fact, may not have been aware of its existence. 

The album is comprised of sonatas and trios originally for violin, viola da gamba and organ, rich with counterpoint and dialogue between instruments. There is a stillness and beauty to the ensemble playing that engages the listener on a deep level.

Listen to 'Bach: Au Pardessus de Viole' Now in the Listening Room

03 fabio biondi bach lqr83Bach – Sonatas & Partitas
Fabio Biondi
naïve (highresaudio.com/en/album/view/xhdnab/fabio-biondi-bach-sonatas-partitas)

These timeless works receive a superb and fanciful recorded performance from one of the most interesting and adventurous violinists alive today. 

The Six Sonatas and Partitas were written sometime between 1717 and 1723, while Bach was employed by Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. The sonatas are each made up of four substantial movements, including brilliant and virtuosic fugues. The partitas are jammed with a variety of dance movements and “doubles,” the D Minor Partita concluding with the justly renowned extended Chaconne.

The brilliant Fabio Biondi is a celebrated violinist, conductor and the founder of Europa Galante who has made a specialty of Baroque works large and small, including recital tours with pianists, harpsichordists and fortepianists. That said, he plays on a fortified modern violin with technical prowess, confidence and a big personality that would not be mistaken for being historically informed. He made this recording a special project as he turned 60, saying in the notes that he has long felt intimidated by these towering works “so intimate, yet so universal, so close to the essence of things and so technically demanding as well.”  

These performances are fresh, assured, lyrical, exciting and full of vitality. Highlights include the Presto of Sonata I, the Giga and Chaconne of Partita II, the three enormous fugues, the heartbreakingly nostalgic F Major Largo of Sonata III and the Gavotte en Rondeau of Partita III. Some of the tempi are a little too breakneck, some of the ornamentation is outrageous and at times the overall sound gets a little too heavy and intense. But this is playing with a self-assured point of view, a big heart, a rock-solid technique and a humble wisdom, full of respect for how these pieces connect to the human soul. Highly recommended.

04 schumann organ tjmhsSchumann – The Roots & The Flower: Counterpoint in Bloom
Jens E. Christensen
Our Recordings 6.220675 (naxosdirect.com/search/6220675)

A prolific and highly respected composer of the Romantic era, Robert Schumann wrote in a variety of styles for a range of instruments, from solo piano to large orchestra. Tucked within Schumann’s 148 opus numbers are a few works written for the pedal piano which, rather than having the standard three foot pedals, contained an entirely separate keyboard, similar to that found on pipe organs, which was manipulated by the feet. Once a relatively common household instrument, the pedal piano has since become extinct, though separate foot pedal attachments and even complete replicas can still be found.

The presence of a pedalboard is a unique similarity between the pedal piano and the modern organ which has led to a number of works for the former instrument being adapted to the latter. Schumann’s pedal piano works are of particular note in this regard – their contrapuntal dexterity and complexity are conveyed particularly well on the organ, as demonstrated by renowned Danish organist Jens E. Christensen. 

Performing Schumann’s Six Fugues on B-A-C-H, Op.60 and the Six Canonic Studies, Op.56, Christensen shows Schumann at his most cerebral, writing that is rigid in its structure yet fluid in its harmonic style. Indeed, the choice of the famous B-flat - A - C - B natural motif (B-A-C-H in German note names) is a not-too-subtle homage to Schumann’s idol. His choice to use this theme as the source of six independent fugues is a demonstration of Schumann’s devotion to his craft, a flexing of musical muscles that demonstrate his ability to exist within a defined structure while simultaneously expanding and manipulating these structures to their limits.

One of the great challenges with performing this music on the organ is the registration, or stops and pipes, that the organist must choose to best convey the composer’s intentions. Christensen is heard here on the organ in Copenhagen’s Von Frelser Church, an instrument that is historical both in age and temperament, best suited to the works of Bach and earlier composers. Despite the apparent temporal discrepancy, this sound is exceedingly effective: while Christensen may occasionally incorporate one too many Baroque phrasings into his interpretations, the combination gives Schumann’s chromatic material the backwards-looking realization it requires, reinforcing the direct references to Bach and his own contrapuntal genius.

05 yn s sibelius 3 9cuyfSibelius – Symphony No.3
Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
ATMA ACD2 4033 (atmaclassique.com/en)

After gaining world fame and plaudits too numerous to mention, Yannick Nézet Séguin is back in Canada with his first orchestra, the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal and, with ATMA Classique, is in the process of recording the seven symphonies of Jean Sibelius. This new release is part of this ambitious series.

The seven symphonies of Sibelius are certainly music the world had never heard before; music of the North, inspired by Finnish myths and sagas and a landscape with elemental forces of nature. Interestingly, there is a stylistic evolution from the first to the seventh symphony. Despite their wildly different characteristics, all progress towards the same purpose, a condensation, a telescoping of elements that comes into full fruition in the Seventh Symphony where all four movements fuse into a single one.

Nearly the shortest of the seven and in the key of C Major, the Third has almost a Mozartian clarity with transparent textures and straightforward momentum. Mysteriously however, somewhere in the first movement suddenly everything quiets down with a perpetual, nearly inaudible rustle of strings as if we would disappear into a misty thicket with only an occasional shriek of a bird (on the clarinet) breaking the silence.

A combination of the third and fourth movements, the Finale is magnificent: as the rhythmically pulsating, suspenseful Scherzo gradually dies down, a new march-like theme emerges almost imperceptibly; pianissimo on the cellos and gaining momentum, and before we know it we are in the midst of the Finale. Soon, all the strings and the woodwinds join in louder and louder. Finally the clarinets, flutes and horns raise their instruments high and the trumpets and trombones bring everything to a final glory. Nézet-Séguin manages this giant crescendo masterfully.

06 schulman goodman a net of gems cover wijqoA Net of Gems
Suzanne Shulman; Erica Goodman
Wolftone WM21061 (shulmangoodman.bandcamp.com)

The CD opens with flutist Franz Doppler’s and harpist Antonio Zamara’s co-composed Casilda Fantaisie, based on the opera, Casilda, by Ernst II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (and Queen Victoria’s brother-in-law). Erica Goodman and Suzanne Shulman navigate this mix of lyricism and virtuosity admirably, offering virtuosic lyricism and lyric virtuosity!

Next comes Bernard Andrès’ Narthex followed by David Occhipinti’s Net of Gems, which gives the disc its name. Though composed 49 years apart, they have much in common, both inspired by religious themes, the first by Romanesque church architecture, the second by Hinduism’s net of Indra. Melodic, through composed and episodic, both have the surreal quality of a metaphorical journey through a variety of distinctive and contrasting neighbourhoods. The performers’ sensitivity to the contrast between episodes is what really helped me to navigate this difficult musical structure.

Next on the program was Camille Saint-Saëns’ Fantaisie, Op. 124, originally composed for violin and harp but so well adapted for the flute by Hidio Kamioka and Shulman that you would never guess that Saint-Saëns ever had any other instrument in mind. To me this was the highlight of the CD: both players seemed so comfortably at home both with the music and with each other. In Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No.5, which might be translated as “the unknowable part of the known,” Shulman and Goodman play without expression, perfectly conveying this miniature’s implicit irony. John Keats’ words come to mind: “Heard melodies are sweet … therefore, ye soft pipes, play on….”

An afterthought:  A case could be made that wars, floods, fires, famines and pandemics, laying waste to the complacency that seems to come with peace, and destroying trust in formerly trusted institutions – governments, medicine, the judiciary, the media, universities and more – give rise to creation and the search for beauty. A friend quoted this recently: “When fishermen cannot go to sea, they stay home and mend their nets”; one might add, “When coming together to listen to music is prohibited, musicians compose, learn new repertoire and record!”

07a florence price nezet seguin uys5oFlorence Price – Symphonies 1 & 3
The Philadelphia Orchestra; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Deutsche Grammophon (deutschegrammophon.com/en/catalogue/products/price-symphonies-nos-1-3-nezet-seguin-12476)

Florence Price – Symphony No.3; Mississippi River; Ethiopia’s Shadow in America
Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien; John Jeter
Naxos 8.559897 (naxosdirect.com/search/8559897)

Who Is Florence Price?
Students of the Special Music School at Kaufman Music Center, NYC
Schirmer Trade Books ISBN-13: 978-1-7365334-0-6 (chapters. indigo.ca)

07b florence price sym3 tm2ewThe so-called classical canon, capturing a list of composers and compositions deemed worthy of study, multiple performances and recordings, has been expanding. It now represents a more fulsome group of individuals from a wider swath of identities – mainly seeing growth in the areas of nationality, gender, race and sexual orientation – than has traditionally been characterized. Said broadening is but one important step taken to cultivate a culture of inclusion within classical music and present a more representative snapshot of what constitutes historical significance. Further, it has been shown to be important that burgeoning performers and composers both hear and see themselves represented in the canon so that, for example, female African-American composers can locate others who perhaps have an intersectional identity not totally unlike their own.

Florence Price (1887-1953), a native of Little Rock, Arkansas and a graduate of Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, was a pianist and composer who, despite enjoying a modicum of recognition during her lifetime (including having her Symphony No. 1 in E Minor premiered in 1933 by Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a first for an African-American woman) was a composer whose work was almost lost to history. As the charming illustrated children’s book Who is Florence Price?, written by students of the Special Music School at New York’s Kaufman Music Center recounts, a box of Price’s dogeared and yellowed manuscripts of original compositions and symphonic works was found (and thankfully not discarded) in 2009 in a dilapidated attic of the Chicago-area summer home in St. Anne, Illinois in which Price wrote. This discovery has led to what could be described as a Price renaissance, with multiple recordings, premieres, the dissemination power of the Schirmer publishing house (that acquired worldwide rights to Price’s catalogue in 2018), and, most recently, two excellent discs that capture the American composer’s elegant music in its full glory. 

07c florence price book m938kRooted in the European Romantic compositional tradition that was her training, but blended with the sounds of American urbanization, the African-American church, as well as being imbued with elements of a folkloric vernacular blues style, Price’s Symphonies 1 & 3 (on Deutsche Grammophon) and the never before recorded Ethiopia’s Shadow in America (Naxos American Classics) come to life with tremendous splendor and historical gravitas in the capable hands of Yannick Nézet-Séguin and The Philadelphia Orchestra and the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra respectively. 

Of note is Price’s under-recorded The Mississippi River, that ORF conductor John Jeter suggests captures “the depth of the American experience… like no other composer.” Articulating in sound the experience of the Great Migration, the large-scale movement and relocation of African-Americans from the Southern United States to such Northern locales of employment, urbanization and distance from “Jim Crow” laws as Chicago, Detroit and New York, that was both compositional fodder for Price and her own lived experience. 

The book and two discs represent tremendous strides towards greater inclusion and representation within the canon and, at least for this reviewer, facilitated the discovery of a creative and exceptional new musical voice.

08 americascapes cpzvaAmericascapes
Basque National Orchestra; Robert Trevino
Ondine ODE 1396-2 (naxosdirect.com/search/ode+1396-2+)

Alsace-born Charles Martin Loeffler (1861-1935) moved to the U.S. in 1881. His 25-minute “Poème dramatique,” La Mort de Tintagiles, Op.6 (1897), based on a play for marionettes by Maurice Maeterlinck about a murderous queen, is definitely “dramatique.” Between its stormy opening and mournful close, Loeffler’s lushly scored, ravishing music conjures a scenario of sensuous longing and dangerous conflict, with long-lined, arching melodies and vibrant orchestral colours redolent of French late-Romanticism-Impressionism. I loved it; why isn’t it better known?

Carl Ruggles (1876-1971) depicted his wife and three friends, including Charles Ives, in his four-movement, ten-minute Evocations (1943), orchestrated from earlier piano pieces. Hardly affectionate music, it’s austere and perturbed. To me, Ruggles’ very name embodies what I hear in all his music, including Evocations – rugged struggles.

The cinematically rhapsodic Before the Dawn, Op.17 (1920), anticipates the many beauties that would be heard in the symphonies of Howard Hanson (1896-1981), his first appearing just two years later. The brief (under seven minutes) tone poem here receives its long overdue, first-ever recording.

Henry Cowell (1897-1965) spent the winter of 1956-1957 in Iran, part of a tour jointly subsidized by agencies of the U.S. and Iranian governments. Three works resulted: Persian Set, Homage to Iran and the 19-minute Variations for Orchestra (1956) recorded here. It’s filled with exotic sonorities hinting at arcane magic and nocturnal mysteries.

Thanks to conductor Robert Trevino and the Basque National Orchestra for these revelatory performances of four almost-forgotten American works.

01 new jewish music 3 irduyNew Jewish Music Vol.3
Sharon Azrieli; Krisztina Szabó; Nouvel Ensemble Moderne; Lorraine Vaillancourt
Analekta AN 2 9263 (analekta.com/en)

The Azrieli Foundation has released their recording of this year’s composition prize for new Jewish music, along with recordings of commissioned works in the categories of Canadian Composition and Jewish Music: Yotam Haber’s Estro Poetico-armonico III  in the latter, Keiko Devaux’s instrumental work Arras in the Canadian category. Yitzhak Yedid’s Kadosh Kadosh and Cursed won the prize for an existing work of Jewish Music. Dissidence, a concise and somewhat anachronistic work for small orchestra and soprano (Sharon Azrieli, a fine soprano and founder of the prize) by the late Pierre Mercure, rounds out the disc.

Kadosh… is concerned with Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, the place shared as sacred by three major religions. Embattled chattering and shouts introduce Yedid’s work, followed by brassy bombast and unison modal melody in alternation, depicting conflict, even violence. A middle section provides relief, insofar as mourning relieves cataclysm. The individual players of Montreal’s excellent Nouvel Ensemble Moderne get a brief chance to sing before hostilities recommence, devolve into a nasty Hora, returning tragically to increasing strife. By the end of the movement, we’re hoping, nay praying for peace. Hope deferred, the heart is sick. A chant melody in the piano calls through maddened violin scratches and braying brass. Yedid seems pessimistic; in spite (or because) of the spiritual importance of the Temple Mount, hostilities persist.

The formidable mezzo Kristina Szabó joins the ensemble for Haber’s work, a complex piece with so much historical/textual weight it deserves a review unto itself. Highly effective writing. 

Arras is a woven tableau, relying on breath and bow effects, microtonal vibrato and dissonances, and shifting background textures to frame lush, even lurid melody. A single movement of nearly 25 minutes’ length, it makes a patient argument for beauty.

Listen to 'New Jewish Music Vol.3 ' Now in the Listening Room

02 andrew stainiland ftdkpAndrew Staniland – Reddened by Hammer (Earthquakes and Islands Remixed)
Robin Richardson; Tyler Duncan; Martha Guth; Erika Switzer
Centrediscs CMCCD 29121 (andrewstaniland.com)

Andrew Staniland is on the faculty of music at Memorial University where he teaches composition and electronic music. He is director of the Memorial ElectroAcoustic Research Lab which has produced the Mune digital instrument. Reddened by Hammer: Earthquakes and Islands Remixed is based on Staniland’s earlier song cycle for soprano, baritone and piano with the poetry of Robin Richardson. In fact “Side B” of this album features a selected set of recordings from that cycle (performed by soprano Martha Guth, baritone Tyler Duncan, pianist Erika Switzer) remastered for vinyl. “Side A” uses those recordings as a source, but overlays many electronic effects to both obscure and reinvent the original compositions.

Meditations is contemplative and I am reminded of standing beside a river with trees creaking, wind blowing and a storm working its way closer Reddened by Hammer is more industrial sounding and the original recording with piano and singers is more immediate (as if someone is performing music in another room). The vocals, emerging from behind the electronics, bring a resonant, ethereal and sometimes spooky quality to the proceedings (particularly in All the Grey Areas are God). All five of the remixes are fascinating and their effects range from intense/ambient to edgy and percussive. Listening to the whole album allows us to first hear the reinventions which then inform our appreciation of the acoustic originals. The digital release is available now from the Canadian Music Centre, with a limited-edition vinyl pressing to come early in 2022.

03 dmitri klebanov o581oChamber Works by Dmitri Klebanov
ARC Ensemble
Chandos CHAN 20231 (rcmusic.com/arc-ensemble)

After his Symphony No.1 (1947), “dedicated to the memory of the martyrs of Babi Yar,” was performed in his native Kharkiv and then in Kyiv (where, in 1941, Nazis had massacred over 30,000 Jews at the Babi Yar ravine), Jewish-Ukrainian composer Dmitri Klebanov (1907-1987) was vilified as “unpatriotic” for memorializing Jewish civilians rather than Soviet soldiers. The Union of Soviet Composers banned the symphony and Klebanov lost his posts as chairman of the Composers Union’s Kharkiv branch and head of the Kharkiv state conservatory’s composition department. He was eventually “rehabilitated.”

This latest in the Music in Exile series by Toronto’s ARC Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory) presents violinists Erika Raum and Marie Bérard, violist Steven Dann and cellist Thomas Wiebe in Klebanov’s String Quartets Nos.4 and 5. The joyous No.4 (1946), filled with singable, folk-like tunes, is dedicated to the memory of composer Mykola Leontovych, a Ukrainian separatist murdered by the secret police in 1921. It includes two melodies by Leontovych familiar to Ukrainian listeners, one of them known in the West as the Christmassy Carol of the Bells.

No.5 (1965) is more “serious,” its melodies tinged with dissonance and pessimism, with heavily accented rhythms – it’s strong, attention-riveting music. Pianist Kevin Ahfat joins Bérard and Wiebe in the highly Romantic Piano Trio No.2 (1958). Here, warm, tender lyricism alternates with splurges of invigorated celebration, ending as sweetly as it began.

There’s real beauty on this disc, all beautifully played.

04 noam bierstone 10nmoMountains Move Like Clouds
Noam Bierstone
No Hay Discos NHD 001 (noambierstone.com)

Noam Beirstone is a Canadian percussionist and curator dedicated to modern artistic performance whose main projects include his saxophone and percussion duo, scapegoat, the Montreal performance series NO HAY BANDA, and Architek percussion quartet. Bierstone’s debut album, mountains move like clouds, features three works for solo percussionist by composers Hanna Hartman, Pierluigi Billone and Zeynep Toraman. This album could best be described as “long listening;” the three pieces on the album are extended discoveries of very slow arcs of scrapes, buzzes and ripples of percussion, allowed to vibrate and feedback and cycle over themselves, giving the listener time to reflect on the generation and degradation of the sounds.  

The three works are unique, and feature alternate sound sources; flower pots, bricks, knives and drum initiate the first set of sounds, metal on metal the second, and the third is best described by the artist himself: “The work captures fleeting hums, resonances, and noises – the buzzing of snares, the emerging ripples and vibrations of the skin – and feeds them back into the bodies of the instruments….” All three are interesting soundscapes in themselves, and as a collection they work well. (A word of note however, if headphones are being used: the album contains some higher resonances, but the third track in particular involves extremely high pitches that may warrant cautionary volume levels.)

05a ravenstine electron vycpeAllen Ravenstine – The Tyranny of Fiction: Electron Music; Shore Leave; Nautilus; Rue du Poisson Noir
Allen Ravenstine; Various Artists
Waveshaper Media WSM-05/06/07/08 (allenravenstine.com)

05b ravenstine shore leave f0v0qA quartet of EP discs frame an artistic effort by Pere Ubu founder Allen Ravenstine, which together bear the cryptic title The Tyranny of Fiction. Each one is about a half-hour’s worth of sonic content; attractive covers reference the respective disc titles, and on each, a micro-fiction. These shorter-than-short stories, which may or may not link to the music (I’d call it likely, with not much to go on), provoke the imagination and more than satisfy a narrative arc. Each is a slice of a longer story, a tile stolen from a mosaic. 

05c ravenstine nautilus qqi1lAnd why not allow mosaic to describe how the music and fictions interact? Maybe here I’m closing in on the essential tyranny. Listening to these while bearing in mind their story, see if you don’t feel compelled to write your own novel. Does the story demand attention while the music rolls by? Do words determine the music? 

05d ravenstine poisson noir 31fi3My favourite is the fourth disc, Rue du Poisson Noir, which features tracks with titles like Rear Window, Brothers Grimm, Open Season, complete with a menacing beast snarling at the end of a mysterious hunt through the dusk of a musical forest, with rattles and shrieks punctuating a bass ostinato. Who’s doing the hunting, on whom is the season open? Maybe there’s a clue in the text: “I was here when the dinosaurs lumbered… and I will be here when the time comes and the bell tolls…” This is film noir without dialogue or visuals. The title track combines snippets of spoken words, street noise, rainfall and Tom Waits-style clarinet lines (sampled? There’s no clarinet credit!); an intro for a monologue that never begins. Delightful nonsense verse accompanies the first track, Doff Downie Woot, more James Joyce than Ogden Nash or Edward Lear. 

The tracks range from two to six or seven minutes: mosaic fragments, or vignettes, like the stories; they mostly heel to a prog-pop aesthetic: interesting harmonic language but never jarringly dissonant. The first disc, Electron Music, features almost exclusively electronic sounds, with some acoustic piano in there as well. Its final track, 5@28, at nearly ten minutes’ length, extends itself beyond its welcome. Otherwise, the array of newer and older synthetic-sound instruments (theremin and ondes martenot, as well as prepared piano and guitar) are deployed in many ways: at times rhythmic, others lyric and still others wandering about or staying in place, always evocative, distinctive. The accompanying story is deeply sad, and then terrifying. 

The other two discs are related by a maritime theme, although not by their fictions. The story on Shore Leave captures envy and regret; Nautilus is a ghost story told in detached first person. The individual tracks of Shore Leave are gorgeous brief musical scenes. Nautilus is more unsettled and angsty. Titles like Ninety Miles to the Spanish Harbor, Fog (Devil’s Island Mix) and Red Skies at Night suggest Ravenstine is a sailor as well as a musician and fabulist. For those cool enough to have been Pere Ubu fans, maybe the material will sound familiar; to my ear it’s all more listenable and more fun.

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