05 ZimbamotoTambai
Zimbamoto
Independent (zimbamoto.com)

Tony Montague, music journalist for the Georgia Straight and ROOTS, wrote, “Zimbamoto is the most exciting band playing African music to emerge on the West Coast for too many years.” Based on the evidence on Tambai, I have to agree.

Led by lead singer, mbira, and marimba player Kurai Mubaiwa, his band Zimbamoto’s sound and energy firmly rooted in the exhilarating traditional and contemporary melodies and rhythms of Zimbabwe and surrounds. Having played the mbira since childhood in his native Zimbabwe, Mubaiwa has in the last 20 years established himself as a leading mbira/marimba musician and teacher. He has toured internationally with musicians like Cesária Évora, Chiwoniso Maraire and Vusi Mahlasela. His group Zimbamoto sings in Shona and plays with an Afrobeat sensibility. The band’s drive is firmly anchored by Curtis Andrews’ deeply West African informed and tonally-inflected drum kit playing. Vancouver guitarist Mark Campbell, bassist Greg Valou and percussionist/singer Navaro Franco round out this adept band.

The lyrics of this exhilarating ten-song album explore Mubaiwa’s experiences growing up in Zimbabwe. I love the moments when a song switches to cut time, as on the outstanding track Asila Mali. Other beautiful musical moments of note: harmonically textured and contrapuntal vocal response choruses, striking reggae moments, and every time a countermelody or response chorus confidently strides across the prevailing 6/8 feel.

Mubaiwa chose a Shona word for “dance” for the title of Zimbamoto’s debut album and I for one can’t stop moving to this infectious and well-crafted music.

06 Robi BotosOld Soul
Robi Botos; Larnell Lewis; Mike Downes; Seamus Blake
A440 Entertainment (robibotos.com)

This new release by Robi Botos, a multi-instrumentalist, composer and two-time JUNO Award winner, is personal and frank, an ode to life experiences. In his liner notes Botos explains the inspiration behind each song – a tribute to his hometown of Budapest and a childhood musician friend, a journey from Europe to North America, a favourite standard and a salutation to a tune by Prince. Recorded in one day, off the floor, this album truly keeps up with a centuries-old tradition of joyful music-making.

Although a mixed bag of styles (jazz, funk, Motown, gospel, Romani folk), each tune is very much played in Botos’ style – groovy, grand, upfront and authentic. Musicians on this record are exceptional and the esprit de corps is compelling. Robi Botos plays several instruments, including a lesser-known harpejji (electrical stringed instrument), but it is the magnetism of his piano solos that is the most captivating. Out of five original tunes, Budapest has the most nostalgic feel and Old Soul brings forth many of the musical traditions that influenced Botos in his career. Praise, a musical poem on being grateful, has the most mesmerizing piano motif that grabs you from the beginning and doesn’t let go. The album concludes with a tribute to Prince. Calhoun Square is a funky, full-bodied piece, with wild solos and rhythms.

Skillfully crafted, emotionally intelligent, this record is distinguished by its heartfelt tunes and first-rate musicianship.

07 Rick WilkinsTribute to Rick Wilkins
Ensemble Vivant with Guido Basso; Brian Barlow; Mike Murley
Opening Day (ensemblevivant.com)

Ensemble Vivant is just the chamber group you would want when you need music to sound symphonic. And when you add the husky seduction of Guido Basso’s horn, the cool eloquence of Mike Murley’s tenor saxophone, the rumbling majesty of Jim Vivian’s bass and the percussion colouring of Brian Barlow, what you get is absolute magic.

This is exactly the case with Ensemble Vivant’s live Tribute to Rick Wilkins, a fitting homage to the prodigious composer, arranger, conductor and tenor saxophonist. He was a pillar of such legendary bands as the Canadian Brass and the orchestra of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (among many others), and onetime music director of CBS, Los Angeles – credentials surely deserving of the rhapsodic homage accorded the 81-year-old by the Ensemble here.

This is chaste and faultless Wilkins-arranged repertoire ranging from Kern and Gershwin to J.S. Bach and Ernesto Lecouna, presented on DVD (directed by Darryl Lahteenmaa) and on CD (captured with muted serenity by Chad Irschick). Led by pianist and artistic director Catherine Wilson and comprising violinist Corey Gemmell, violist Norman Hathaway and cellist Sybil Shanahan, the music (recorded at Grace Church on-the-Hill in Toronto) sheds fresh light on Wilkins’ work. An obsessive perfectionist, he polished these works into gleaming gems. As a composer who also played piano, he seems to have written for the instrument idiomatically and this is heard in everything, most especially on Ragtime from “Divertissement”.

Ensemble Vivant parleys with the familiarity of old friends, yet their playing always retains a sense of gracious etiquette associated with the noble chamber ballroom for which this music was intended. Nothing is forced, exaggerated or overly mannered; tempos, ensemble and balance all seem effortlessly right. The string sound is lucid, while the trumpet, flugelhorn and saxophone add great warmth and swing. These are, in sum, sincere and poised accounts, a fitting tribute to the musical character of Rick Wilkins.

Listen to 'Tribute to Rick Wilkins' Now in the Listening Room

Although there were vogues at points from the 1930s to the 1960s for stride and boogie-woogie keyboard teams, piano duos have never been as prevalent in jazz as in so-called classical music, starting in the late 18th century. More recently, however, with keyboardists cognizant of both notated and improvised music and with standard performance configurations liberated, duo piano pieces have become more common in exploratory jazz, as these sessions attest.

01 PetroleCD005The closest link to the classic(al) duo concept is piano duo Pétrole’s Créations raffinées pour deux pianos [Refined Pieces for Two Pianos] (Pépin & Plume P&P 005 pepinetplume.com). The stated aim of French pianists Nathalie Darche and Carine Llobet (the former known as a jazz player and the latter specializing in chamber music) is to renew the duo piano repertoire by playing pieces by younger jazz composers. Tilts in varied directions enliven the interpretations. This is most obvious on Les pensées offshore d’Arthur, the first and longest piece. Relaxed romanticism, the adagio sequences are only slightly transformed by quick jazz-like modulations at the end. The obverse is evident on Pétrole Interlude, mostly concerned with vibrating the darkest parts of the instruments’ action and soundboard. Tremolo torque spreads the interpretation so that it’s mesmerizing as well as kinetic, with echoes created by four hands pumping at once. These are the CD’s parameters; the players’ high level of coordination allows them to slide nearly effortlessly from neo-classical, almost sugary passages that match crystalline fingering with front-parlour-like sentimentality, to bright, modernist sequences, where theme depiction is both lively and agitated. Overlapping cadenzas constantly move the melody delineation and tune decoration from one instrument to the other.

02 EightOctavesCD001Meanwhile, tremolo syncopation and overlapping piano percussiveness are taken to extremes without swing on Music in Eight Octaves (Immediata IMMO 11 anthonypateras.com), by two Australians performing as the duo 176. Chris Abrahams is a member of The Necks trio, and Anthony Pateras is involved with electroacoustic and multi-disciplinary projects. If the preceding disc could be compared to a volume of tasteful poetry, then this one is a novel, with colourful melodrama on every page. One super-fast and aggressive 50-minute track, Music in Eight Octaves is the result of the two recording four takes in each octave of the piano, which Pateras then multi-tracked and superimposed over each other. Overwrought and almost opaque textures call to mind Conlon Nancarrow player piano studies and George Antheil’s original Ballet Mécanique for synchronized player pianos. Besides the sinewy speed of this performance, which rattles through pan-tonality and double counterpoint, higher pitches suggest marimba timbres. Transitions in the piece are only obvious when both pianists cease playing in either the higher- or lower-pitched keys, leaving some breathing room, which quickly upsurges again to almost unyielding friction. Consistently pulse-quickening, the effects mash together Cecil Taylor-like kinetics and Oscar Peterson-like comprehension so that the combination of tempo changes and thickened discord becomes exhausting as well as exhilarating. Following its own logic, the session never climaxes; it just stops.

03a EveRisserCD004The next two CDs were recorded in concert: To Pianos (Clean Feed CF 448 CD cleanfeedrecords.com) with Paris-based Eve Risser and her Slovenian associate Kaja Draksler; and Octopus (Pyroclastic Records PR 03 krisdavis.net), featuring Canadian Kris Davis and American Craig Taborn. Interestingly enough the eight tracks on the first disc and six on the other are split between compositions and improvisations, except for a (different) Carla Bley tune on each, and Davis and Taborn also assaying Sun Ra’s Love in Outer Space. By contrast, the Risser-Draksler duo begins the concert in inner space, with ringing bell-like reflections, then diffuses the program in double counterpoint with ambulatory or more settled creations. Among the improvisations, To Pianists is notable for inner-string plucks and e-bow vibrations which play up the instruments’ percussiveness; inchoate drones and wood-echoing thumps almost turning the piano into 88 tuned drums. Unlike the inconclusive scene-setting of that track however, To Women’s key rattling and stopped strings, filtered through changing tempos, moves a hushed interaction from stiff to swinging. The duo’s playful mash-up of Bley’s Walking Woman and Batterie, with swelling variations on the theme(s), adds a springy sheen to the proceedings. Detours into funereal pacing and key slapping affect some other tunes, but To You, the concert encore, finds the two synthesizing their balanced approach. This moderated, meditative piece is both expressive and energetic, with sympathy as well as strength in evidence.

03b OctopusCD003Davis and Taborn work through material recorded at three concerts, ranging from the equivalent of Risser/Draksler’s supportive phrase-making to Abrahams/Pateras’ keyboard fluctuations, and a mid-course involving as many instances of adaptation as advances. Prone to Bill Evans-like meditations elsewhere, they demonstrate on tracks like the Davis-composed Ossining and Chatterbox their capacity for popping and plucking sequences where, by the tunes’ completion, harder voicing takes its place alongside a connective tonal blanket. Especially telling is the latter, with syncopation shifting between the two until singular paths evolve into unison tremolo and a final dual crescendo. Bley’s Sing Me Softly of the Blues mixed with Taborn’s Interruptions Two is supple and effervescent, with the piece becoming brighter as it evolves and the countermelody slyly appearing in a darker tempo and then transitioning without interruption into a more genteel theme before backing into a simple ending as contrasting expositions are joined. Played with more sweetness than the original, with tolling arpeggios and line extensions, the Ra composition almost becomes a lullaby. Once the melody is delineated, however, key clipping returns the dynamic upsurge.

04 AppliedCS002Ra’s cosmic explorations might serve as a starting point on Applied Cryptography (pfMentum CD 106 pfmentum.com) since Tim Perkis’ electronics are the foil to the piano of Scott Walton. During the 11 tracks, ranging in length from 90 seconds to almost six minutes, the strategy of the California-based players involves the pianist pinpointing a formalist theme and Perkis’ processed whooshes and burbles advancing it in unexpected directions. That’s advancing, not accompanying, though. So while the Perkis/Walton concept may appear somewhat celestial compared to the other duos’ terrestrial expositions, both players’ creativity is as evenly matched as the duo work on the other discs. On a track such as Naked Egg, for instance, what begins with Walton’s precise narrative meeting unruly buzzes and signal-processed flanges from the electronics soon changes to treble frequencies from the piano that elaborate the theme in the bass clef, as Perkis’ twangs and chirps expand the sound palette. Conversely, Perkis’ elaboration of pressurized sound envelopes on Subliminal Channel and other tracks is framed with key rattles and modulated glissandi from Walton. With the pianist predisposed to concentrate on the instrument’s lyre in order to either pluck harpsichord-like tones (as on Possible Objects B) or bellicose scratches and stops (as on Normal Form), the subsequent musical drama is evoked as much from Walton’s dynamic movements as the blurry textures from Perkis’ laptop-directed machine. By the climactic Blind Signature, as electronic drones fluctuate, kinetic key flourishes allow Walton to interject timbres with the same intensity, adding up to a process where it’s impossible to imagine the incisive tune expressed without droning oscillations or without the clear linear process from the piano.

To be memorable, a keyboard duo must blend exploratory concepts so that the two instruments are nearly indistinguishable, while maintaining individual identification. Each of these duos demonstrates that this can be done.

01 111 ConductorsIn 2009, to celebrate their 111th year of making recordings, DG issued 111 years of Deutsche Grammophon in two collector’s boxes of 55 and 56 CDs containing landmark recordings from the earliest days to the (then) present. Issued as limited editions, they are still to be had… at a price! Since then they have produced more “111” collections: sets featuring the violin and the piano, as well as 11 Great Videos (a 13DVD set) – all a boon to the enquiring minds of countless collectors. The latest, 111 - The Conductors (DG 4797477, 40 CDs) offers outstanding performances from 40 maestros recorded by DG who were part of the classical music scene since the 1930s. There is absolutely no padding in this collection; each performance was critically praised in the initial release, very often becoming the recommended performance in its repertoire. Here are some: Daphnis and Chloe, etc. (Abbado); Saint-Saëns Third Symphony, etc. (Barenboim); Mahler First and Second Symphonies (Bernstein); Bruckner Eighth Symphony (Böhm); Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms, Schoenberg (Boulez); Mendelssohn Fourth, etc. (Fritz Busch, 1950); Prokofiev Third Symphony, etc. (Chailly); Messiaen Turangalîla-Symphony (Y. and J. Loriod; Chung); Brahms Fourth Symphony, Kodály (de Sabata); music of Revueltas, Ginastera, etc. (Gustavo Dudamel); Johann Strauss works (Fricsay); Brahms First, Schubert Eighth (Furtwängler,1952); Beethoven Fourth and Sixth (Gardiner), Bruckner Ninth (Giulini); Mozart Violin Concertos Three, Four and Five (Gidon Kremer, Harnoncourt), Sibelius tone poems (Neeme Järvi); Mozart “Jupiter, Schubert “Unfinished” (Jochum); Beethoven Ninth, etc. (Karajan 1962); Beethoven Symphonies Five and Seven (Carlos Kleiber); Dvořák Symphonies Eight and Nine (Kubelik).

Know that this is not a list of the best of the best, selected from the 40 CDs, but the exact contents of the first 21 discs, conductors A to K! These honoured performances with the finest orchestras, Berlin, Vienna, Boston, Leningrad, London and others, all in the best sound, are beyond any serious criticism. The other 19 include Lehmann, Leitner, Levine, Maazel, Markevitch, Mravinsky, Andris Nelsons, Ozawa, Nézet-Séguin, Rattle, Steinberg, Previn, Sinopoli, Thielemann, Minkowski, Schuricht … and the list goes on. An irresistible collection all around. See the complete track listing at deutschegrammophon.com/en/cat/4797477.

02 BohmDeutsche Grammophon also offers special editions of selected conductors’ recordings, including Karl Böhm’s acclaimed interpretations in Karl Böhm: Great Recordings 1953-1972 (4797021, 17 CDs). Böhm was of the old school of conductors, in the best sense of that appellation. He conducted with a firm beat and, as far as I’ve seen or heard, was not inclined to romanticize. Included is a cross section of powerful performances, mostly with the Berlin Philharmonic with whom he had a close working relationship over the years: Beethoven, Symphonies 3, 5, 7 and the Missa Solemnis; Brahms Symphonies 1 and 2; Haydn The Seasons; lots of Mozart; Mahler Kindertotenlieder and four Rückert Lieder (Fischer-Dieskau); and lots of Richard Strauss. Just as one would expect. Also of interest is a 40-minute rehearsal followed by the complete performance of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony (Berlin, 1963).

As an aside, consider Böhm’s business-like tempi in Wagner’s Ring as heard in the 1966/67 live recordings from Bayreuth issued a few years ago, re-mastered on Decca (4782367, 14 CDs). It has been argued that Böhm’s faster-than-usual, objective tempi are a downside, but listening with a different attitude can lead to a different appreciation. Incidentally, Birgit Nilsson fans may know that of all her recordings including the Solti, she considered this to be her finest Brunnhilde.

03 PouishneffIt is a fact of life that in the performing arts, fame can be and often is short-lived for instrumentalists, vocalists and conductors alike. Appian Recordings has gone to a lot of search and research to issue a 2CD set of pianist Leff Pouishnoff – The Complete 78-rpm and selected Saga LP recordings (APR2022 aprrecordings.co.uk). I’m sure that some aficionados recognize the name but I did not. Leff Pouishnoff (1891-1959) was born in Odessa, the birthplace of so many famous names in the classical hierarchy. The parents of George Gershwin and Bob Dylan also migrated from Odessa. Pouishnoff studied composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with Rimsky-Korsakov, Liadov and Glazunov, graduating in 1910 with a Gold Medal. In 1911 he toured with violinist Leopold Auer. The Russian Revolution forced him into exile and he went to Persia, where he became the first pianist ever to tour that country. He went to Paris but soon moved to London where he did rather well, giving five recitals in Wigmore Hall during February and March 1921 playing Bach, Rachmaninov and Scriabin to great acclaim.

From 1921 on, one can almost track the course of his life via his recordings. He played at the Proms in 1922 and recorded four sides for Columbia that are to be heard on the first disc of this release. Six more sides in 1923. He made his North American debut in 1923, then back at the 1923 Proms, returning to tour the United States in 1924. It was in the 1920s he earned a reputation as a Chopin player and in 1926 gave a week of Chopin recitals in Wigmore Hall. So successful were they that he repeated the series in 1927.

In May 1926, the dawn of electric recordings, Pouishnoff set down the Rosamunde Ballet music of Schubert and Glazunov’s Polka. In March 1928 for the Schubert centenary, he recorded the Sonata in G Major “Fantasie” op.78 “that displays all of Pouishnoff’s best qualities, the luminous tone, elegance and suave control.” Heard here on CD1, it does. He made his last recordings for Columbia in February and March 1929. During the Second World War he continued playing and gave concerts for the troops but in truth, his halcyon days were back in the 1920s.

After the war, it seemed that his repertoire was out of favour, to be replaced by such heavies as Artur Schnabel and Wilhelm Backhaus playing more substantial works from the Austro-German school. He returned to the studio in mid-1948, this time for HMV where he recorded five Chopin sides. In 1958 Saga Records brought him back for some Chopin and the longer Theme and Variations by Glazunov and much more. Leff Pouishnoff died in June 1959, followed less than three weeks later by his wife, who chose to die. All his 78s are here and some Saga items although there is a mystery, detailed in the booklet, concerning the whereabouts of the missing Saga tapes. Along with the Schubert Sonata, which runs 31 minutes, and the Glazunov Theme and Variations at 18 minutes, there are 33 charming short pieces by the masters, masterfully delivered. Very pleasant listening. The two-disc set is priced as one.

04 Axhkenazy BeethovenDecca and DG are reissuing some outstanding analog recordings in new remastered editions on Blu-ray audio discs. I should say audio disc, singular, as there is the complete Karajan Ring Cycle on one disc, and a complete Salome with Nilsson sounding shockingly real on one disc. Now we have the five Beethoven Piano Concertos from Vladimir Ashkenazy with Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on a single Blu-ray disc packaged with three newly remastered regular CDs. These acknowledged performances and recordings enjoy a new reality, particularly on the +Blu-ray edition (Decca 4832579, 3 CDs & 1 Blu-ray disc).

01 Leclair Six SonatasViolinists Gwen Hoebig and Karl Stobbe have been sitting together on the front desk of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra for 20 years, and have been playing duets together for almost that long. A staple of their repertoire, the Six Sonatas for Two Violins by Jean-Marie Leclair is featured on a new CD from Analekta (AN 2 8786 analekta.com).

Leclair (1697-1764) was considered the father of French violin playing, merging the Italian influence he picked up while working for the ballet in Turin in his 20s with the French dance forms. These Op.3 Duos are known for their difficulty, but despite the need for technical mastery and virtuosity are never merely brilliant show pieces but works full of elegance and reserve, and of “lilting pastorals, graceful sarabandes and fiery jigs.”

Hoebig and Stobbe have technical mastery to spare, with a bright, clear sound and beautifully clean playing. The first and second violin parts are equally important here, with constant interplay and textural depth, and it’s virtually impossible to tell them apart.

Leclair had what the publicity release calls a tumultuous life, and was stabbed to death in front of the house he owned in a rather seedy area of Paris, possibly at the instigation of his former wife, who had been left penniless upon their divorce and who inherited his house and possessions, or by his nephew, an aspiring violinist angered at Leclair’s refusal to help advance his career. In the booklet notes Stobbe suggests that the nature of the duos – “the intimacy of two violins working together through tribulations and trials, romance, and violence” – may well reflect the circumstances of Leclair’s life, giving the performers a good starting point to explore the music’s character. His hope that these performances go beyond the technical challenges to give a sense of the man who created them is more than fulfilled in an outstanding CD.

02 Faust Bach coverViolinist Isabelle Faust and harpsichordist Kristian Bezuidenhout are in outstanding form in a 2CD set of J.S. Bach: Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord (harmonia mundi 90225657).

These six works BWV 1014-1019 probably date from the Cöthen period of 1717-23, but Bach apparently continued to revisit and revise them throughout his life, suggesting that they were works that meant a great deal to him. From a historical perspective they form a crucial link between the Baroque trio sonata and the violin and piano sonatas of the Classical and Romantic periods, Bach treating the left and right hand keyboard parts as bass line and melodic voice respectively, with the violin interacting primarily with the melodic voice.

The performances here are quite superb, with a lovely balance between the instruments and a striking warmth and clarity. In his perceptive booklet notes Bezuidenhout offers the suggestion that the acquisition of a new double-manual harpsichord by Michael Mietke of Berlin at Cöthen in 1719 may well have provided the inspiration for Bach’s sudden keyboard innovations; there seem to be no other sources for this sudden departure from the standard trio sonata form.

The harpsichord used here, courtesy of Trevor Pinnock, is a modern John Phillips instrument modelled after a 1722 harpsichord by Johann Heinrich Grabner. Bezuidenhout notes that the sound “is both full… and wonderfully articulate,” the clarity between the registers ideal for the three-voice counterpoint so much at the heart of these sonatas. Faust plays a 1658 Jacob Stainer violin, which Bezuidenhout notes has the “necessary brilliance... but also a certain warmth and darkness of tone that is ideally suited to the more melancholy moments.”

All in all, it’s a wonderful set.

03 Kotik MozartI didn’t know the playing of Tomas Cotik before last month’s outstanding Piazzolla Legacy CD, but his latest release, a simply beautiful 4CD set of the Complete Mozart 16 Sonatas for Violin and Piano with his regular partner Tao Lin (Centaur CRC 3619/20/21/22 centaurrecords.com), leaves me in no doubt as to what I must have been missing.

This set – Cotik’s 14th issue – does not include the “juvenile” sonatas for keyboard and violin from 1763-66, where the violin rarely does little more than conform to the keyboard right hand, but presents the 16 sonatas written in the period 1778-88: the six sonatas K301-306 published in Paris in late 1778 and known as the Kurfürstin or Palatine Sonatas; the six sonatas K296 and K376-380 published by Artaria in Vienna in late 1781 and dedicated to Mozart’s pupil Josepha Aurnhammer; and the later Viennese sonatas K454 (1784), K481 (1785), K526 (1787) and K547 (1788).

In the accompanying publicity material, Cotik describes the lengths to which he and Lin had to go to reduce and eliminate the extraneous noises from the Fort Lauderdale church they had chosen as the recording venue. The resulting full-movement takes more than justify their efforts: the sound quality and balance are excellent, with the violin never too far forward but never overshadowed by the piano either. Both performers play with a resonant, clear and warm tone, and dynamics, phrasing and tempi are all perfectly judged.

Cotik readily admits to having always loved Mozart’s music, and calls his recordings of these sonatas a milestone in his musical life. It’s a sentiment that is clearly evident in every single track of this exemplary set.

04 Rachel Barton PineThis really has been a tremendous month for violin CDs. The American violinist Rachel Barton Pine marks her 36th recording and her fourth album for the Avie label with the Elgar and Bruch Violin Concertos, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton (AV2375 avie-records.com).

Pine calls the project an “indulgence in Romanticism,” being the first time that the shortest of the regular repertoire Romantic concertos – the Bruch Violin Concerto No.1 in G Minor Op.26 – has been recorded together with the longest – Elgar’s Violin Concerto in B Minor Op.61. Although they have little in common from a historical perspective, Pine has long thought of them together because each work reminds her of the warm, rich and soulful sound she looks for in the other.

The Bruch was the first Romantic concerto that Pine learned (at the age of eight!) and the Elgar was one of the last, its highly technical challenges, numerous tempo changes and sheer length making it particularly difficult to learn (James Ehnes expressed the same concerns prior to his recording with Andrew Davis in 2007). The original conductor for this project was Sir Neville Marriner, who conducted the Academy of St Martin in the Fields on Pine’s critically acclaimed Avie album of the complete Mozart violin concertos, but he passed away shortly after Pine visited London to play and discuss the Elgar with him. It was a sad loss, for Marriner’s teacher was Billy Reed who, as the young concertmaster of the London Symphony Orchestra, had helped Elgar with the solo violin part. What would Sir Neville have brought to his first recording of the work, one wonders.

Still, Litton does an excellent job with a concerto that can be difficult to hold together, his accompaniment having a quite different sound at times – not exactly lighter or smaller, but perhaps not as serious as some, with a great deal of sensitivity and attention to detail. There is certainly no tendency toward Elgarian pomp or Edwardian stuffiness that can sometimes make the concerto sound a bit laboured or meandering in less experienced hands.

Pine’s playing in the Elgar is thoughtful and unerringly accurate with no hint of mere virtuosity, although there is perhaps less of a feel of sweeping grandeur than in some other performances. Much the same can be said of the Bruch, where again the foremost impression is one of intelligence and sensitivity in the playing rather than unabashed Romantic passion. It supports Marriner’s observation of Pine’s playing in the Mozart set, when he said “...there is no utter embellishment, everything is there for a purpose, and musically speaking, it makes such good sense.”

Dedicated “to the memory of a musical hero and generous friend, Sir Neville Marriner,” the CD is an excellent addition to Pine’s impressive discography.

05 Dvorak coverThere’s playing of the utmost warmth and sensitivity on Antonín Dvořák: String Quintet Op.97 & String Sextet Op.48, featuring the Jerusalem Quartet with violist Veronika Hagen and, in the sextet, cellist Gary Hoffman (harmonia mundi 902320).

The Sextet in A Major was written in 1878 and was clearly modelled on the two string sextets of Brahms, who commented many years later on the “wonderful invention, freshness and beauty of sound” in the work. It was Brahms who had recommended Dvořák to his own publisher Simrock in 1877, and there is certainly more than a hint of the German Romantic tradition here as well as the inevitable Slavonic folk influence. The performance has effusiveness and passion, with a lovely Dumka movement and a terrific Finale.

There’s no less passionate and committed playing in the Quintet in E-flat Major, which simply abounds in lyrical warmth and beauty. It was written, along with the “American” string quartet, in the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa in the summer of 1893 during Dvořák’s stay in the United States.

These are simply ravishing performances, with Alexander Pavlovsky’s gorgeous first violin playing leading the way and setting a standard that the other performers have no problem matching.

06 Jupiter DuoThe Russian pianist, composer and teacher Alla Elana Cohen came to the United States in 1989 and is currently a professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Jupiter Duo is the title of a new CD of her music, as well as the name of the performing duo of cellist Sebastian Bäverstam and Cohen herself on piano (Ravello Records RR7978 ravellorecords.com).

Cohen discovered Bäverstam, now 29, when he was barely 12 years old, and the first work of hers that they performed then, the Book of Prayers Volume 1, Series 7, opens the CD. All subsequent Cohen cello works were written for Bäverstam, and there are three other cello and piano works here: Third Vigil, an arrangement (which Cohen prefers) of her Concerto for Cello and Orchestra; Querying the Silence Volume 1, Series 2; and Book of Prayers Volume 2, Series 4, which closes the CD.

Sephardic Romancero Series 2 is a challenging solo work ably handled by Bäverstam, although Cohen’s statement that “for anybody else it will be almost impossible to play this piece” says little for her awareness of contemporary world-class cellists. Cohen also contributes two works for solo piano: Three Film Noir Pieces and Spiral Staircases.

It’s tough music to get a handle on, with little melodic content, a lot of thick, dense texture in the predominantly discordant piano writing and a good deal of large, heavy chords spread across the entire keyboard range. From the cello perspective Bäverstam handles all the technical challenges with ease; his lower tone in particular is beautifully rich.

Of the final work on the CD, Cohen says that it is one of the rare-for-her compositions “in which lighter colours prevail. It is also the most ‘consonant’ by sonority, at times even quasi-tonal.” That should give you some idea of the music on the rest of the disc, which generally seems to be tough, abrasive and frequently decidedly dark.

01 Radiant ClassicsIn this debut release (recorded at Glenn Gould Studio), Radiant Classics (Really Records RR 2017002, really-records.com), Nina Soyfer demonstrates her innate ability to meet the stylistic demands of a remarkably varied program. This admirable skill rests on the foundation of an impressive keyboard technique and artistic insight. She performs the Bach Toccata in D Major BWV912 with freedom and sensitivity. The Fugue in particular dances beautifully under the lightness of her touch.

The disc opens with Beethoven’s 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C Minor WoO 80 and closes with his Appasionata Sonata. The Variations demand many changes in mood and the sonata depends greatly on the convincing delivery of the first movement’s heroic theme. Soyfer comes to these works with an unerring sense of who Beethoven is in all his emotional complexity, and creates an experience that is both authentic and profound.

The recording’s most interesting pieces are the two Preludes by Ukrainian composer Vasyl Barvinsky. Not many of his works survive. His late-Romantic, impressionistic style is highly crafted and somewhat reminiscent of Chopin. Soyfer brings considerable emotion and power to his music, leaving the clear impression that more of it needs to be heard.

Listen to 'Radiant Classics' Now in the Listening Room

02 Lindsay GarritsonLindsay Garritson is no stranger to competitions, touring and live performance. Her impressive list of achievements makes this first disc, Lindsay Garritson, piano (lindsaygarritson.com), a welcome recording. It shows the intensity of her style and the eloquent expression of which she is so remarkably capable.

She begins the disc with the Liszt Rhapsodie Espagnole S.254. It’s a full-on engagement with all the power and nuance that the composer’s work requires. The major item on the CD is the Schumann Sonata No.3 in F Minor Op.14. Its four movements demand a great deal of scope from the performer, from the often deep introspection of the second and third movements to the blazing technique of the Finale. Garritson’s technical and interpretive abilities are inspiring. She has clearly lived with this piece for a long time and justifiably owns it.

Rachmaninov’s setting of the Kreisler Liebesleid completes her program in a show of capricious keyboard genius. It’s the kind of playing that brings audiences to their feet after encores. You can do it in the privacy of your living room – your secret will be safe with us.

03 Bruce LevingstonThis beautiful CD Windows (Sono Luminus DSL 92218 sonoluminus.com) is the seventh in Bruce Levingston’s discography. The main work is Schumann’s Kinderszenen Op.15. Levingston proves himself an artist whose first impulse is to find and reveal a composer’s most fragile moments. His ability to do this is quite disarming. The best example of this is Träumerei. Not since Horowitz played this as the encore in his 1986 Moscow concert near the end of his life, have I heard such playing. Words completely fail. Levingston brings this approach to the whole piece and thereby creates something quite unlike anything recorded of late.

The other works on the CD are commissions from two contemporary composers. The Shadow of the Blackbird by David Bruce is the program’s opening piece and is very much in the character of the Schumann that follows it. It’s deceptively simple yet searching and contemplative. A perfect beginning to Levingston’s program.

The CD’s title tracks Windows are James Matheson’s five-movement composition inspired by the stained glass windows of Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse. Matheson uses the piano’s colours very effectively in his writing. Levingston plays this in a way that draws an interpretive thread convincingly through the works of all three composers.

04 Liza StepanovaLiza Stepanova takes an unusual and creative approach to her new CD Tones & Colors (Concert Artists Guild CAG 120 concertartists.org). Using paintings as the inspiration for her four-part program, she blends music from Bach to Ligeti into themes depicting A Spanish Room, Nature and Impressionism, Conversations Across Time, and Wagner, Infinity and an Encore.

It’s a skillfully assembled repertoire list and beautifully played throughout. A number of tracks stand out. El pelele by Granados makes a brilliant opening, with its rich harmonies and sparkling writing. Stepanova has equal success with the three impressionist pieces in the second set. Fanny Hensel’s September: At the River is especially effective.

The third set uses four pieces in the key of E-flat minor. A Bach Prelude and Fugue BWV853, George Crumb’s Adoration of the Magi and a second fugue by Lyonel Feininger based on the subject used by Bach in his fugue. It’s quite striking to hear how the shared key draws these disparate works so tightly together.

Stepanova begins her final set with Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser. It’s magnificent playing that captures the grand scale of Wagner’s work, from the solemn chorale-like opening to its towering climax. Ligeti’s Etude No.14 Infinite Column is a devilish piece to perform and reveals Stepanova’s true power at the keyboard. A graduate of Juilliard and a seasoned performer, Stepanova is one to follow in the piano world.

05 Robert PresterRobert Prester may be better known today as an accomplished jazz pianist, but his new CD Robert Prester – Rapsodya (robertprester.com) is a reminder of his many years as a young pianist absorbing the classical repertoire. The learning of this period has shaped his playing with a light and precise touch, a keen interpretive impulse focused clearly on emotion, and a remarkable grasp of musical architecture.

This new recording contains the Beethoven Sonata No.12 in A-flat Major Op.26 performed with a fresh and energized enthusiasm – as if it were a world premiere. Debussy’s Jardins Sous la Pluie is an impressive example of Prester’s keyboard agility. The Bach Prelude and Fugue No.6 in D Minor WTC Book II is an excellent example of the musical discipline and intuition that Prester brings to all his playing.

The real gem on this disc, however, is Prester’s own composition. The Sonata in F Minor is a fusion of classical and jazz harmonies. It adheres closely to the structure of sonata form but is deeply imbued with the harmonic clusters, intervals and rhythms we associate intimately with jazz. This mix is seamless and well balanced. If anything, it’s a reminder of our enduring tendency to keep these two genres isolated in their own worlds without believing their co-mingling can produce something unique and truly beautiful.

It’s a terrific recording. Visionary, successful and altogether brilliant.

06 Nancy Zipay DesalvoNancy Zipay DeSalvo presents the work of two contemporary composers in her new recording Small Stones – Modern Piano Music (Navona Records NV 6139 navonarecords.com).

Jason Tad Howard’s Piano Sonata No.2 is not really a sonata in the formal sense. Rather, it explores eight short musical ideas that the composer calls Short Shorts, before bringing them together in a final expression amusingly described as a Not Quite So Short Short Short. Despite the light humour, the work is quite substantial and at times very technically demanding. The eight pieces are varied in style and mood, and kept to less than two minutes’ playing time. They tend slightly toward a minimalist form and finally emerge in the complexity of the last movement.

Daniel Perttu’s Sonata for Piano is inspired by a visit to Stonehenge. Perttu uses many compositional devices to evoke the ancient mystery associated with this landmark: minor modes, atmospheric writing and plenty of technical exploitation of the piano’s potential in evoking the moods he requires. This sonata is more challenging for the performer than the earlier work. DeSalvo handles it all with a confidence that speaks to her lifetime as a performer and teacher.

The two sonatas are a good selection and represent a fine example of contrasting approaches to contemporary piano writing.

07 Lynell JamesLynelle James has recorded her first solo piano CD, Lynelle James Piano (Blue Griffin Recording BGR435 bluegriffin.com). She includes the Beethoven Piano Sonata No.28 in A Major Op.101, in which the third movement emerges as a masterpiece of deeply touching melancholy. It’s a very satisfying performance that is even more thrilling for the energy that erupts in the final movement. Her command of the keyboard is inspiring, especially in the frequent restatements of the fugal subject in the bass line.

Some of James’ academic work has focused on the life and music of Russian avant-garde composer Nikolay Roslavets. It’s natural that she would use her first recording to bring this lesser-known repertoire to public attention. Roslavets’ Five Preludes reveals an ethereal and somewhat mystical language that James captures with conviction and authenticity. The music is replete with dynamic and emotional changes and moves strongly in the direction of atonality while never quite losing a tonal centre, however distant.

Her performance of the Scriabin Sonata No.4 in F Sharp Major Op.30 is extraordinary. The two movements are of such contrasting character, it’s difficult to believe they’re by the same composer. James understands the core of Scriabin’s expression and holds the work together wonderfully.

The Schumann Symphonic Etudes Op.13 concludes the CD. Structured as a theme and variations, the bulk of the piece is a series of etudes on the opening idea. As such, it quickly becomes a beautiful display of keyboard technique and varied musical devices that Schumann conceived in his own brilliant way. James plays these with flair and an expansive grasp of their symphonic scale.

08 Panayiotis DemopolisPanayiotis Demopoulos’ latest recording Brahms, Demopoulos, Mussorgsky (Diversions ddv 24166 divineartrecords.com) is his third and includes one of his own compositions, Farewells for Piano. The work is a tribute to his two principal teachers in the UK. It’s structured in four parts, each representing a farewell offered in one of the four seasons. Demopoulos writes that the work has no explicit program beyond its title. The four short pieces are very modern in their language and surprisingly abrupt in mood change.

The main work on the CD is the Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition. Demopoulos uses the 1931 edition edited by Pavel Lamm that corrected the numerous and questionable portions of the 1886 version edited by Rimsky-Korsakov. The 16 short pieces that comprise the Pictures encompass the entire expressive spectrum and call upon the pianist to be everything from sprite to superhero. It is Mussorgsky’s demand for contrast on such an enormous scale that presents performers with the daunting task of playing the piece complete in live performance. At least the recording studio offers the respite of breaks between takes.

However Demopoulos did it, it’s breathtaking. By the time he’s portrayed little chicks, the busy market place, the realm of the dead and arrives at the Great Gate of Kiev, awe is all that remains.

01 Secret Fires of LoveSecret Fires of Love
Daniel Thomson; Terry McKenna; Thomas Leininger; Studio Rhetorica; Robert Toft
Talbot Productions TP1701 (belcantohip.com)

The love song has been a mainstay of vocal music, through its incarnations as performed by minnesingers or troubadours, followed by lieder or chanson artists, to John Cusack with a boom box above his head in Say Anything, to the seemingly ubiquitous Ed Sheeran. Throughout this time, it grew steadily louder: the meekest of instruments, the lute, has been supplanted by the guitar (sometimes electric) while the harpsichord yielded to the pianoforte and synthesizers. One thing, seemingly, has been lost: the contemplative, almost meditative quality that permeated the Renaissance and Baroque songs of courtly love. The intimate connection is still there in modern music, the sweet pain of love still exerts its pangs, but the whisper has turned to a shout. No wonder – in our crazy 24/7 world, who really does take time to smell the roses? Robert Toft, that’s who! The music scholar from Western University in London brings together a stellar cast to survey the love songs of the Italian and English Renaissance and Baroque. The unique talents of Daniel Thomson, Terry McKenna and Thomas Leininger recreate the very intimacy, closeness and wonder of music played and sung pianissimo, requiring us to tune out the world and meditate alongside.

Thomson, an Australian countertenor, is having “his” moment: his muscular, precise voice is pure joy. McKenna, a Canadian lutenist, coaxes his “meek instrument” into a commanding performance. Leininger, a German master of the harpsichord, makes one long for the days before the invention of the pianoforte. Arriving a few weeks late for Valentine’s Day, nevertheless this will be the best gift for the one you love.

02 Peoples PurcellThe People’s Purcell
Michael Slattery; La Nef
ATMA ACD2 2726 (atmaclassique.com)

As with his 2012 recording, Dowland in Dublin, tenor Michael Slattery has collaborated again with La Nef to present the music of a beloved composer, reworked and transformed in fresh and novel ways that prove most pleasing (and accessible) to a modern listener. Though Henry Purcell enjoyed an elevated position as composer at the court of Charles II, his theatrical music, based on popular song and dance forms of the time, was clearly loved by the more common folk. As well, there has been a long tradition of re-arranging Purcell’s sublime melodies for public use, beginning with Playford’s collection The Dancing Master in 1651.

Each piece selected for this recording has been individually stamped by either Slattery or a member of La Nef, without compromising the original intent of the music. Baroque cellist Amanda Keesmaat and cittern player Seán Dagher infuse their arrangements of instrumental suites from The Fairy Queen and King Arthur with playful interplays and folksy articulations. Flutist Grégoire Jeay and tenor Slattery take turns providing arrangements of the songs, with stunning results. The recording ends with Slattery’s reworking of Dido’s Lament in which a vacillation between the minor and major key provides a surprisingly dramatic and rather surreal effect, poignantly enhanced by the tenor’s artful and subtle delivery.

03 sony yonchevaThe Verdi Album
Sonya Yoncheva; Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Massimo Zanetti
Sony Classical 88985417982

“A high C that takes no prisoners,” muses Presto Classical editor Katherine Cooper wittily about the final note on this disc. And neither does Verdi. In fact, he “murders” sopranos so the legend goes (even though he married one). Bulgarian dramatic soprano Sonya Yoncheva is his latest intended victim. I’m happy to report that she is alive and well after her sensational debut at the Met’s Tosca and this, her latest CD issued on February 2, has already won an award. The final high C comes from Abigaille’s hair-raising cabaletta in the second act of Nabucco, young Verdi’s first breakthrough success.

Verdi is the ultimate challenge for the soprano. Not just for the voice, but a certain quality the great master insisted on: beauty of tone, intelligence and feeling. Right at the outset in Leonora’s opening cavatina (Il Trovatore, Act I), Yoncheva’s handling of the wonderful soaring tune that culminates in a heartrending fortissimo makes her rich vocal colour and emotional intensity immediately manifest. In the ensuing cabaletta, her voice becomes light as a feather by contrast. Her stunning high register further impresses in Come in quest’ora bruna from Simon Boccanegra: the heroine sings her heart out to a shimmering spring morning in Genoa on the Ligurian Sea, and I shiver in delight whenever I hear it.

But the real test is far more difficult: the tragic, the defiant, the anguished, the women in despair (Odabella in Attila, Luisa Miller, Lina of Stiffelio, Desdemona or Elisabetta in Don Carlo), where Yoncheva’s congenital empathy and effortless mid- and low register dominate. And then there are those iconic prayers sung in hushed near silence like Ave Maria from Otello... and more. Massimo Zanetti of Tutto Verdi fame conducts with zest and vigour.

A daring new issue by a singer with a great future.

04 Sarah WegenerInto the Deepest Sea!
Sarah Wegener; Gotz Payer
SWR2 8553374 (sarah-wegener.de)

For the profound beauty of Brahms’ Meine Liebe ist grün Op.63 No.5 to have its greatest impact on the senses, its majestic beauty must unfold in a mere minute and 44 seconds. It does so here in the voice of lyric soprano Sarah Wegener. At her command even the shortest of phrases are sung with gilt-edged, almost liquid silkiness. This is, however, not only the case with Wegener’s Brahms. It’s true of her Schubert, Strauss and everything else.

Throughout Into the Deepest Sea! not only does Wegener sing with utter beauty, but her interpretations of Brahms, Schubert, and indeed, the other composers, communicate very strongly the meanings of the words, as if each song speaks to her in the secret of her heart before reaching her lips. Her expressive manner of communicating pure poetry of feeling is echoed in the pianism of Götz Payer, who enters into each lied as a protagonist in his own right, playing his part in the music with vim and verve.

Wegener is wonderfully adept at maintaining the emotional centre of gravity of each song, navigating with graceful beauty around the outermost extremities of its narrative, yet always returning to the beating heart of the song. Her passionate performance extends to the mystical songs of Sibelius and the pastoral grandeur of Grieg, too. Everywhere on this disc, every nuance and subtlety has been carefully considered and beautifully sung, performed with both sublime delicacy and intense contrasts.

01 Beethoven StraussBeethoven – Septet; Strauss – Till Eulenspiegel einmal anders!
OSM Chamber Players
Analekta AN 2 8788 (analekta.com)

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Septet, Op.20 (1799) was a pivotal work. Such learned musicians as the composer’s former teacher Joseph Haydn applauded its expert deployment of four stringed and three wind instruments: violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, bassoon and horn. Energy, wit and sunny moods gained it public popularity, and listeners will likely find this recording by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal Chamber Soloists attractive. Variety in sound brings the work its distinctiveness. While artistic director Andrew Wan’s agile violin and Todd Cope’s impeccable clarinet take the lead, other instruments also have solo turns, and wonderful instrumental groupings sustained this listener’s interest. In the Adagio, instrumentalists make the most of expressive opportunities; Neal Gripp’s viola solo is particularly attractive. All players bring fine articulation to the minuet, while in the trio Cope, Stéphane Lévesque, bassoon, and John Zirbel, horn add beautiful decorative arpeggios. Cellist Brian Manker and double bassist Ali Yasdanfar contribute greatly to overall balance and tight ensemble; the finale is a tour de force.

Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel (einmal anders!), abridged and arranged by Franz Hasenöhrl (1885-1970) for the above forces minus viola and cello, is a tour de force of a different kind. Premiered in 1954, it squeezes the familiar tone poem’s thematic material into less than nine minutes, including exciting virtuosity and humorous touches that in the Chamber Soloists’ capable hands remain within the bounds of taste!

02 French Flute musicNouvelle Vie – A Rediscovery of French Flute Music
Michelle Batty Stanley; Margaret McDonald
Navona Records NV5135 (navonarecords.com)

Nouvelle Vie, by flutist Michelle Batty Stanley and pianist Margaret McDonald introduces us to some lesser-known compositions and composers working during the years of the Belle Époque in Paris. It also includes three better-known works by Philippe Gaubert, who might be considered a child of the Belle Époque, since the year of his birth was 1879.

René de Boisdeffre’s Canzonetta, Op.39 No.8, provides the recording with a strong opening and is played with vivacity, precision and grace. Stanley’s articulation, something much more difficult on the flute than on most other instruments, is terrific, pretty well as good as Aurèle Nicolet – and her use of rubato at the ends of phrases and the subsequent a tempi are an inspiration!

Émile Bernard’s Romance, Op.33, which, with its long, languorously lyrical phrases, could only have been written by a French composer, was also new to me, as were Émile Pessard’s Troisième and Quatrième Pièces, every bit as interesting as his delightful and better known Andalouse.

Alphonse Catherine’s Barcarolle, with its nautical undulating 6/8 piano part (played exquisitely on this recording by McDonald), and his Sérénade Mélancolique, which begins evocatively, a bit like Taffanel’s Andante Pastoral et Scherzettino, are both charming and suggest that the golden age of the flute continued beyond the 1880s and 90s, since Catherine lived until 1927.

Victor-Alphonse Duvernoy’s Deux Morceaux and Joseph-Henri Altès’ Romanza, Op.33 No.1, also new to me, are also wonderful.

03 Saint SaensSaint-Saëns – Symphonic Poems
Lille National Orchestra; Jun Märkl
Naxos 8.573745 

There is a wonderful part in middle of the tone poem Phaéton: as the audacious but foolish young man dares to take Apollo’s chariot for a forbidden ride, with urgent, syncopated rhythms the horses swing into action, the chariot begins to rise upwards and suddenly vistas open up in heavenly radiance – all this depicted in glorious music. Phaéton gleefully revels in it, but his joy is short-lived. There is a brutal ending to his offending the god.

This and many more delights are in store for us, like Hercules’ punishment of having to spin wool dressed as a woman, in probably the finest of Saint-Saëns’ tone poems and a favourite of Sir Thomas Beecham, Le Rouet d’Omphale: here, a delightful rondo imitates the spinning of the spool, but in the midst of all this a powerful roaring melody emerges towards a shattering fortissimo climax. This is no joke anymore. This is Hercules!

Invented by Liszt and a product of Romanticism, the symphonic poem was happily brought to France by Saint-Saëns, who applied to it his considerable gifts of “melody and form” and “impeccable craftsmanship,” not to mention his vivid imagination and love of Greek mythology. All of this is coupled by Naxos’ choice of a lesser-known but excellent, dedicated orchestra and the young, imaginative and talented conductor Jun Märkl, breathing new life into these pieces.

With state-of-the-art spacious sound, the brilliant and colourful orchestral palette shines through and the disc has already become Presto’s Editor’s Choice for December 2017.

04 Suengkee Lee clarinetFull Circle
Seunghee Lee; Katrine Gislinge
Musica Solis (seunghee.com)

Full Circle is a collection of clarinet music performed by Seunghee Lee accompanied on piano by Katrine Gislinge. According to the liner notes, the collection represents the musical journey Lee has followed over the course of her recording career. She has a singing quality that suits the lyricism of all of the works, not one of which will give your ear any difficult sounds to sort through. Her earlier releases are colourful renderings of “classical” reworkings, segments of symphonies, opera arias, art song, etc. She is a player with indisputable technical strength and expressive tone, who on recordings stays away from more “difficult” repertoire. This is fine; she plays this material with grace and lovely conviction.

Included are two of the more substantial works of the Romantic era: the Fantasiestücke of Robert Schumann (Op.73) and Fantasy Pieces Op.48 of Niels Gade. Lee demonstrates the depth of expression needed to bring both to life, and if you’ve never heard the Gade, this is a great introduction. Bent Sørenson provides a somewhat syrupy confection in his Romance, premiered herein; Lucas Foss’ Three American Pieces for violin and piano, transcribed for clarinet by Richard Stoltzman and edited by Lee under the composer’s supervision, lend a somewhat more bracing counterpoint to the easy-listening character of most of the tracks. Music from a British television series, an Italian film-scoring composer, a little-known Vocalise (1935) by Olivier Messiaen and the well-worn Pièce en Forme de Habanera by Maurice Ravel round out this quirky collection. 

01 Beckwith CallingJohn Beckwith – Calling: Instrumental Music 2006-2016
Various Artists
Centrediscs CMCCD 24917 (musiccentre.ca)

Canadian composer, music educator and writer John Beckwith segued into his tenth decade last year with a fertile 70-year back catalogue, which includes well over 130 major compositions covering solo, choral, stage, orchestral and chamber genres. Calling, an album of his newest instrumental works, demonstrates that his inquisitive sonic imagination and desire to express it with both conventional and unconventional instruments and unusual sound textures shows no signs of ebbing. Let’s listen in on just two of the seven works therein.

A choice example of Beckwith’s exploration – framed within a modernist aesthetic – is his Fractions (2006), scored for Carrillo piano and string quartet. With 97 keys packed within its single octave, the Carrillo piano is tuned in 16th tones. While it looks like a conventional upright, it certainly doesn’t sound like one. In Fractions, linear melodies snake expressively, almost appearing to pitch bend over the dramatic gestures and elegiac statements provided by the Accordes String Quartet. Heightening the microtonal tension even more, two members of the quartet tune their instruments a quarter tone higher than the other two. The result is a compelling and sometimes haunting listening experience.

Quintet (2015) also questions conventional instrumental groupings. Beckwith scores it not for a standard woodwind, brass or string quintet, but rather opts for a mixed ensemble: flute, trumpet, bassoon, viola and string bass. Performed by members of Toronto’s venerable New Music Concerts, the oft jaunty work satisfyingly completes this musical survey by a composer in his prime.

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