03 Brass FabulousBrass Fabulous
Jason Rosenblatt & Orkestra Severni
Independent (rachellemisch.com)

Founded in 2009 by trombonist Rachel Lemisch, the Montreal-based Orkestra Severni (Northern Orchestra) performs brass band repertoire of Klezmer, Moldavian and Serbian traditions. Besides their great energetic performances here, what makes their debut release even more exciting is that all 11 tracks are original works rooted in the new Eastern European music genre by composer/pianist/harmonica player Jason Rosenblatt.

Rosenblatt’s compositions embody many styles. The opening Sirba from the three-movement Sirba a la Oscar is driven by fast upbeat rhythms that are always in control. A great effect is having its final cadence resolve into the introduction of the next movement, Hora, a work comprised of more traditional-sounding melodies, rhythms and exquisite dynamic shifts. The striking rhythmic bounces of the silences between the resounding brass shots in the third movement, Freylach, showcase the musicians’ tight ensemble technique. Rosenblatt Kid’s Contra features a descending chromatic line that makes for happy walking music with a carnival feel. Nice style contrast is Chassidic Love Tango, with its traditional tango groove interspersed with brief three-quarter waltz sections. The closing Anshei Brzezan Nign has a lullaby-feel ending with sublime held-piano sounds.

All the accomplished band musicians, along with special guest Ben Holmes (trumpet) play brilliantly. Sound quality is great too. Brass Fabulous lives up to its name. This a spectacular addition to the brass band repertoire, well deserving of lots of fans and of lots of listening hours.

04 DalavaThe Book of Transfigurations
Songlines SGL 2408-2 (songlines.com)

About the group Dálava, reviewer Mark Tucker wrote, “… I was both chilled and thrilled by the fusion of avant-garde, ancient, and progressive musics…” After listening to their second album The Book of Transfigurations, released on the Vancouver boundary-crashing Songlines label, I’d have to agree. Dálava’s project crosses and combines several genres, disciplines, generations and continents. At its core is the duo of American vocalist Julia Ulehla and guitarist Aram Bajakian (known for his work with John Zorn and with Lou Reed). Musical and life partners, they perform Moravian folk songs of the 19th and early-20th century transcribed over 100 years ago by Ulehla’s Czech musicologist great-grandfather. The songs are then transfigured through their 21st-century sensibilities, informed by world music, creative jazz and post-rock.

Ulehla is currently working on her PhD researching Moravian song with UBC ethnomusicologist Michael Tenzer. Her scholarship is amply illustrated in the lavish 36-page booklet (including original lyrics with English translations and commentary) and it richly informs Dálava’s interpretations. As for Bajakian, he keeps busy gigging on guitar with other bands, including the American-Hungarian folk/art-rock band Glass House Ensemble.

The duo’s music, while a profoundly personal statement, is also emotionally supported and amplified on the album by leading musicians on the Vancouver creative music scene: cellist Peggy Lee, Tyson Naylor on multi-keys, bassist Colin Cowan and Dylan van der Schyff on drums.

Ulehla and Bajakian have reportedly already made a splash in the Czech Republic with their live interpretations of this material. I predict Dálava’s affective music will gain many more global fans with this release.

The year just ending marked one important milestone in musical history. The first so-called jazz record was issued in 1917 by the Original Dixieland Jass Band (ODJB). Obviously that musical designation, which in its century of existence has gone through as many permutations and retrenchments as so-called classical music has in many centuries, is far different then the ODJB’s primitive efforts. But jazz/improvised music continues to evolve, buttressed by new voices. Here is a group of youngish improvisers who will likely still be contributing to the shape of jazz during its 125th anniversary – and probably for years afterwards.

01 EricRevisFirst is Vancouver-born, Brooklyn-based pianist Kris Davis, 37, whose presence on advanced jazz sessions over the past half-decade or so has become almost as ubiquitous as Lennon-McCartney tunes at retro-60s parties. Sing Me Some Cry (Clean Feed CF 428 CD cleanfeed-records.com) finds the Canadian pianist in a combo led by bassist Eric Revis, featuring tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Ken Vandermark and drummer Chad Taylor. Although each of the other players has extensive experience, there are points at which Davis dominates. Good Company, for instance, which begins with a J. Arthur Rank-like gong resonation from Taylor’s cymbals and reed asides in brief Morse Code-like dashes, retains its tension from the pianist’s kinetic pressure, with the saxophonist’s peek-a-boo contributions hardening into pressurized honks that unroll in tandem with keyboard tinkling. Obliogo features a middle section where high-frequency piano notes slice kinetically through saxophone snorts and string elaboration from Revis, but maintain the composition’s careful shape. Instructively Rye Eclipse, the one Davis composition, is multi-sequenced and more complex. Mixing Revis’ sliding bass notes with stopped piano keys, Vandermark’s sheets of sounds become staccato just as the piano playing becomes more percussive. The result shapes reed overblowing, string reverberations and complex drum beats into a groove of storytelling and solid forward motion.


02 RobertoOTTAnother pianist who is equally valuable in international collaborations as leader and sideperson is the United Kingdom’s Alexander Hawkins, 36. On Sideralis (Dodicilune Dischi Ed 354 dodicilune.it), he joins veteran American heavy hitters, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Gerry Hemingway as part of Italian saxophonist Roberto Ottaviano’s QuarkTet, to interpret ten of Ottaviano’s compositions that range from rhythm numbers to ballads. Checking off the saxophonist’s influences, Planet Nichols, Ottaviano’s stop-time salute to pianist Herbie Nichols, gets much of its rollicking shape from Hawkins’ high-frequency key splatters and crescendos, with a walking bass line and cymbal breaks also contributing. At the same time the power of Formanek’s accompaniment on Planet John Lee Hooker, coupled with singular soprano saxophone breaths, makes the tune appear more a salute to Charles Mingus than the Mississippi bluesman. Replete with shadowing of the composer’s every breath on Berenice’s Code, Hawkins’ keyboard caressing preserves the balladic mood while moving the piece linearly. Centaurus’ lilt is cemented by inner piano string plucks that confirm the composition’s jocular theme, with Hemingway’s bell pealing and the pianist’s key slaps and crunches deconstructing and extending the melody until the saxophonist’s tiny reed bites reel it into straight-ahead swing. This same freedom that never exceeds its parameters is displayed on the title tune. Stopped keys and scrubbing slides from the pianist plus the drummer’s rubs provide the perfect contrast to Ottaviano’s intense note puffing. Subsequent return to a rumbling pulse confirms the tune’s gentle motion and the collaborative skill of this ad-hoc quartet.

03 TimelessMinimalist and experimental, Timeless (JACC Records 034 jacc-records.com) is a duet between Portuguese guitarist Marcelo dos Reis and French pianist Eve Risser, 35, who made her reputation working in ensembles as different as France’s Orchestra National de Jazz and in a rock-oriented duo. With both instruments prepared with numerous objects, as well as played straight, the selections are compressed and cramped, inhabiting a narrow spectrum, but never abandoning rhythm or feelings. A piece such as Balance Spring, for instance, suggests computer-generated wave forms even though there is no electronic processing. Instead, as the guitarist creates a strummed continuum, the pianist emphasizes carefully thought out patterns, culminating in chiselled movements. In the same way, clanks and crunches from internal piano strings plus external ones on the guitar neck, produce timbres on Hourglass that could have come from a vibraphone. This sound, jolted along with bottleneck-guitar slashes, reaches a thematic crescendo that’s almost lyrical as Riser’s splayed and sharp tones amalgamate into melodic interface. With the tracks reflecting ambience as well as aggression, a piece like the extended Water Clock reflects this strategy in miniature. While dos Reis’ metallic string sawing and percussive strums narrow the interface to a single, almost static line, Risser’s sharp strokes move from aping the guitarist’s heft and power to become chromatic. Eventually, sweeping acoustic piano lines reveal an underlying melody that sets up an unconventional groove.

04a AmokAmorOf course it’s not just pianists who will determine the future of 21st-century improvised music. Horn players and drummers will make their own noises. Take for example two of the players in the Amok Amor (AA) quartet, American trumpeter Peter Evans, 36, and German drummer Christian Lillinger, 33. Their work with alto saxophonist Wanja Slavin and bassist Petter Eldh on We Know Not What We Do (Intakt CD 279intaktrec.ch), shows their interactive skills in one of the many bands in which they participate. It’s the same story with Chicago-based tenor saxophonist Dave Rempis, 42, and drummer Tim Daisy, 41, featured on The Halfway There Suite (Relay Recordings 016 timdaisy.com) by the drummer`s Celebration Sextet. Different discs could find Rempis in the leadership role or both as sidefolk.

Composers as well as players – Evans wrote two tunes on We Know Not What We Do and Lillinger three – the key to their talents is how carefully they work in an organized setting, as on Pulsar, the Evans-penned first track. It’s lavish and lovely, notched with contrapuntal slurs and staccato tremors from the horns as the drummer’s percussive bumps and focused rim shots keep the tune bouncy and relaxed. These ambulatory dynamics are also present on Trio Amok, a Lillinger composition, pushed along with percussion bumps and rumbles and resonating pumps from bassist Petter Eldh. While Evans’ spectacular brassiness adds to the tune’s tautness, a respite after he intertwines open-horn brays with staccato tongue flutters from Slavin dissipates the tension. A more striking instance of the drummer’s dexterity is on A Run through the Neoliberalism, another of his compositions, during which altissimo reed squalls and trumpet tattoos set up as a staccatissimo, near-bebop romp. The drummer’s accompaniment may crackle and churn, but as the horns’ work explodes the theme into atoms, his cymbal cascades and rim shots glue it back into a swinging whole. With some of the other tracks utilizing palindromes, balladic melancholy, fiery stomps and rhythmic stop-time sequences, AA keeps the session engaging and moving. The saxophonist and bassist get solo space as well, with the combination of power and bluster from the rhythm section and inventive flutters and echoes from the horns ensuring that while predicting what sounds will appear next is nearly impossible, the knowledge that they will be first-class is confirmed.

04b TimDaisyDaisy and Rempis are other first-class sound explorers featured on The Halfway There Suite along with Chicago associates, clarinetist James Falzone, trumpeter Russ Johnson, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and visiting New Yorker, trombonist Steve Swell. Composed as a birthday present for himself and the featured musicians, it isn’t clear whether Daisy’s CD title refers to mortality or the length of the four-part suite that lasts only 33 minutes. But like brevity being the soul of wit, the arrangements and solo work are exceptional enough to not need more length. Rempis’ showcase is on Part 2, where his skyscraper-high multiphonics and glossolalia bring energetic freedom to the piece which otherwise flows along with orchestral calm and a steady jazz groove. Falzone’s solo tone is closest to so-called legitimate as he negotiates linkages between the two genres. Swell, and to a lesser extend Johnson, are the disrupters. The trombonist sprays many of the arrangements with gutbucket-styled slurs and tailgate-like elaborations. With the cellist scratching out notes and Daisy replicating kettle-drum-like pressure, Part 3 rolls from crescendos to diminuendos without breaking the melodic continuum. These disparate currents climax in the concluding Part 4, with stop-time polyphony shattered by a clean trumpet blast that joins with cello pumps to herd the sequence into a finale that swings, and neatly refers back to the introduction on Part 1. Throughout, Daisy’s solos, whether involving press rolls and bass drum stomps or freer jumping and double time rhythms, don’t draw attention, but advance the suite.

On the evidence here, the Celebration Sextet is a lot more than halfway along to reaching musical goals. It’s another confirmation of how from their ideas and those of the players on the other CDs, jazz innovation will thrive in the years to come. 

01a Leonard Bernstein Artwork Cover November 14 2017

Leonard Bernstein - The Remastered Edition (100 CDs)
Sony 541714

In her 1998 DVD Reaching for the Note, Susan Lacey recalls the way the moment felt. “It is very rare that someone dies and the whole community seems to be part of that event. It’s as if everything else stopped and for that moment the world turned around that event.”

Such was the case in New York City following the death of Leonard Bernstein on October 14, 1990. When the funeral cortege left from the Dakota, his apartment on the Upper West Side, there was already a large gathering across 72nd Street to pay homage and see him off. “There was this phalanx of motorcycle cops and police cars leading this enormous cortege out to Brooklyn’s Greenwood cemetery… When we came out on the Brooklyn side of the East River there was a big construction project and in spite of all the cops and motorcycles and police cars and everything, we came to a dead halt. And on the side were all these hard hats and mothers of various sorts with baby carriages and Orthodox Jews who just happened to be passing by. A perfect cross-section of New York City. And finally the sirens began again as this slowly started to move out, all these people! I especially remember the hard hats all waved and took off their hats and said. ‘Goodbye Lenny, goodbye.’ I can’t think of anything, anything, in the world that would have pleased Lenny more than that.”

Leonard Bernstein – The Remastered Edition does not pretend to be in any way encyclopedic, but it gives profound insight into every facet of his musical life. New York City claimed him but Bernstein, conductor, composer, pianist, educator, author and music lecturer was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts on August 25, 1918, the eldest of three children of Ukrainian-Jewish parents. Soon after, they moved to Boston where father Samuel built up a prosperous business in hairdressing supplies. Samuel expected, naturally, that his elder son would go to college, return and take over the business. However, when Leonard was only ten, cousin Lillian’s unwanted upright piano was moved into their parlour and the die was cast. From the first note he knew that music was his calling. He could play by ear the tunes he had heard and improvise freely. At 13, he composed a piano concerto with a program, “a war between the Russians and the Gypsies.” At 14, after a disastrous year with two really incompetent teachers, he went to Heinrich Gebhard, one of Boston’s most respected teachers who entrusted him to his assistant, Helen Coates. She completely understood her earnest pupil’s impatience with practise and studies but instilled in him self-discipline. Bernstein credited her with being a decisive influence in his training. When he became known and successful he sent for her to be his personal secretary. She became his close friend and lifelong personal assistant and representative. Their letters are part of the Bernstein Collection in the Library of Congress.

At 16, he heard his first live concert when he went with his father to hear the Boston Symphony under Serge Koussevitzky who later became his teacher and close friend. He attended the Boston Latin School. In the summers at Sharon, Massachusetts, he produced and directed shows with the Boston Public School Orchestra with entertainments like Gilbert & Sullivan and Carmen. He graduated in 1935 and thence to Harvard, where he met many of those who would become his lifelong friends. He studied with Walter Piston, Edward Burlingame Hill and Arthur Tillman Merritt. He met Aaron Copland who became a major influence. Also, Dimitri Mitropoulos asked him to play and was so exceedingly impressed that he invited Bernstein to rehearsals with the Boston Symphony. For Bernstein’s part, he was taken by the older conductor’s intellect, his unique conducting style and his personal dynamism. He graduated from Harvard in 1939 and enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where he studied conducting with Fritz Reiner, orchestration with Randall Thompson, counterpoint with Richard Stöhr and score reading with Renée Longy Miquelle. Reiner said later that Bernstein received the only “A Grade” he ever awarded. After Curtis he spent some time in NYC, then in Boston where Koussevitzky, who was sort of a father figure, was a major influence on Bernstein’s emotional interpretations.

Shortly after he had been appointed (under Artur Rodziński) assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein made his life-changing major conducting debut. Guest conductor Bruno Walter was unable to conduct the afternoon concert of November 14, 1943. Bernstein was told early that morning that he was to conduct the concert. He had not rehearsed but stood before the orchestra and conducted the concert that was heard coast to coast on the CBS Radio Network. A star was born and Leonard Bernstein was well on his way.

In 1958, after he guest conducted major orchestras around the world, he was appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic, a post he held until 1969. After that he was seen and heard around the world conducting and teaching, making recordings and videos and, when he could make time, composing. In truth he most solemnly desired to be remembered as a composer. Consider his works for the theatre that include Peter Pan (1950), On the Town (1944), Trouble in Tahiti (1952), West Side Story (1957) and Candide (1956 rev.1973 rev.1989); also all the ballets, Fancy Free (1944), Facsimile (1946) and Dybbuk (1974), all of which are included in this unique edition of the remastered original recordings. His own works for the concert hall chosen for inclusion are the three symphonies, Jeremiah (Symphony No.1, 1942), The Age of Anxiety (Symphony No.2, 1949 rev.1965) and Kaddish (Symphony No.3 1963 rev. 1977). Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (commissioned by Woody Herman in 1949) is here with Benny Goodman. Torontonians heard this work with Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in Roy Thomson Hall in the late 1980s.

Mahler figured prominently in Bernstein’s programs, recording all the symphonies except the Eighth with the Philharmonic during his tenure there. His Mahler was something to hear and see, as his demeanour suggested an enraptured identification with the composer. Mahler’s symphonies Two, Three, Six and Nine are here together with Kindertotenlieder and excerpts from Rückert Lieder both with Jennie Tourel, and Des Knaben Wunderhorn and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen with Christa Ludwig, Walter Berry and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. In this unique collection are the works of 70 composers from A to Z in compositions ranging from marches, incidental music, ballets, encore-type pieces, chamber music, concertos, symphonies, operas, ballet music, lieder, film music, overtures, etc. Assisting artists include Isaac Stern, Lucas Foss, Adele Addison, Glenn Gould, Eileen Farrell, Andre Watts, Charles Bressler, Felicia Montealegre, Benny Goodman, Zino Francescatti, Regina Resnik, Erich Kunz, Yehudi Menuhin, Julius Baker, Judith Raskin, Judith Blegen, Robert Casadesus, Barbara Cook and others. Also heard are the Juilliard String Quartet, the Westminster Choir, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna State Opera Chorus and the Camerata Singers, among others.  

01b Leonard Bernstein The Remastered Edition Pack Shot November 14 2017In summary: this edition is a collection of some significant recordings from 1945 to c.1976 issued by Columbia/Sony, either recently or newly remastered for the occasion. The opulent boxed set of 100 CDs in original covers includes a lavishly illustrated, 196-page hardcover book of presentation quality outlining the often complex remastering of the process. Compared to the previous releases of all the recordings that I have sampled these new incarnations are a revelation. For instance, I was disappointed in the perfunctory performance on the original release of Liszt’s Faust Symphony, also with the version on The Royal Edition. However, in this new presentation the sound is immediate and dynamic, revealing playing that is most certainly alert.

I wonder, out of the many hundreds of Bernstein performances of so many different works in the Sony archives, how particular recordings were chosen. It certainly wasn’t the choice of someone or other with little or no knowledge, nor was it a computer’s choice based on sales. For example, the performance of The Age of Anxiety decided upon is the original mono version recorded on February 27, 1950 with soloist Lucas Foss, a recording that required a lot of time and dedication to restore the less-than-mint original elements. How much easier it would have been to utilize the 1965 performance with Philippe Entremont. Regardless, it is the earlier performance that we hear on this well-chosen collection. Well-chosen indeed; there are works one would never think of including, but there is not one that I would remove.

There are complete details of every disc at arkivmusic.com and an interesting YouTube video about the project, titled Leonard Bernstein – The Art of Remastering.

01 Vincent HoSeveral months ago in this column, in reference to Harry Freedman’s orchestral works, I noted that “I grew up understanding that what [identified] Canadian music as Canadian [were] aural landscapes reminiscent of the north, stark and angular, crisp and rugged, but at the same time lush and evocative.” I had that feeling again listening to The Shaman / Arctic Symphony – Orchestral Music of Vincent Ho (Centrediscs CMCCD 24317) featuring the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, of which Ho was the composer-in-residence between 2007 and 2014. The WSO performs both works under the direction of Alexander Mickelthwate. The Shaman is a percussion concerto written for Dame Evelyn Glennie who premiered it during the WSO’s New Music Festival in 2011, the performance recorded here. It is a stunning work, in the words of John Corigliano who wrote the Foreword to the booklet notes: “a work that set an atmosphere of magical stillness, with the soloist evoking unearthly sounds – wolf calls, shimmering colours, and the lightest of orchestral textures. [… In the second movement] Vincent has written a heavenly theme with almost no accompaniment by the orchestra. It goes to the heart, and is simple without ever being simple-minded. [… The final movement] grows into a primitive drum-led dance that is wild and relentless […] The Shaman should be played often!” Glowing praise indeed from one of the most significant mainstream American composers of our time.

Although he is now an accomplished mid-career composer as his residencies (he is currently the artistic director of Calgary’s Land’s End Ensemble) and accolades testify, I can’t help thinking of Ho (b.1975) as a young composer. I first encountered his music in the summer of 1999 at the Strings of the Future workshop in Ottawa, where the iconic Arditti Quartet was reading through a number of fledgling works. Ho’s String Quartet No.1 made a lasting impression on me and went on to win a SOCAN Award. It was premiered during the November 2000 Massey Hall New Music Festival by the Composers Quartet. You can check it out on Soundcloud and judge for yourself.

At nearly 40 minutes, Ho’s Arctic Symphony is a mammoth, fully mature work. Written after a residency with the Circumpolar Flaw Lead System Study aboard the arctic research vessel CCGS Amundsen in 2008, the five-movement work is a dramatic depiction of Canada’s North and its Northern peoples. Ho writes of witnessing the interaction of scientists and Inuit elders as they shared valuable information about climate change and how it is affecting the culture and way of life in Indigenous communities. It opens with the haunting Prelude – Lamentations which starts with the eerie sounds of tundra winds and an Inuit welcome song performed by Nunavut Sivuniksavut Performers. As the song fades, the orchestra enters with a quiet shimmering cymbal and dark string textures reminiscent of that wind. Among the dramatic effects is an extended unison melody in the double basses juxtaposed with pointillist piano and interpolations from an extensive percussion battery. Three short, descriptively titled movements follow – Meditation, Aboard the Amundsen and Nightfall – during which Ho’s brilliant orchestration creates vivid pictures drawing on the full resources of the modern orchestra. Towards the end of the fourth movement however, all grows calm and a muted, vibrato-less solo strings chorale is heard, in the distance as it were, somewhat like the fleeting appearance of a theme from Death and the Maiden in George Crumb’s Black Angels for electric string quartet. The extended final movement O Glorious Arcticus – Postlude begins with quiet strings again but builds gradually to a rousing middle section, kind of a Northern take on Copland’s Rodeo or Weinzweig’s Barn Dance from The Red Ear of Corn. This too gradually passes as the work slows and diminishes, giving way to the sound of the wind again and the return of the Indigenous choir singing the joyous Inuit Sivuniksangat – The Future of Inuit by Sylvia Clouthier, the final lines of which are translated as “There is strength in who we are / We mustn’t forget that we are in this together.” A sentiment we would all do well to keep in mind.

These are two important additions to Canada’s orchestral repertoire and to paraphrase Corigliano, they should be played often. Kudos to Ho, to the WSO for recognizing and fostering his potential and to Centrediscs for a fabulous recording.

One of the perks of working at (my day job) New Music Concerts – beyond the privilege of daily contact with one of this nation’s foremost artists, Robert Aitken – is getting to meet some of the most brilliant minds in the field of contemporary music from around the world. Among my most cherished memories is the time spent with the late Elliott Carter (1908-2012) during several of his visits to Toronto, the last of which took place on the occasion of his 97th birthday. Arrangements were in place to bring him back five years later for a concert celebrating his 102nd, but a major snow storm in New York City curtailed his travel plans and we had to present the historic concert in Carter’s absence. On that occasion Carter’s associate Virgil Blackwell gave the very first performance of Concertino for bass clarinet and ensemble and Aitken gave the Canadian premiere of his Flute Concerto. Carter died in November 2012, just a month before his 104th birthday, and since that time New Music Concerts has presented one of his late works each December in honour of the iconic composer who took part in our concerts on seven occasions over the years.

02 Elliott CarterAnd this brings me to a new Ondine release, Elliott Carter – Late Works (ODE 1296-2), which features among its titles several pieces presented by New Music Concerts in the past decade. Dialogues (2003) for piano and ensemble is here performed by pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, along with Epigrams (2012) for piano trio, which features Aimard with Isabelle Faust and Jean-Guihen Queyras. Aimard, a frequent Carter collaborator, is also featured with the Birmingham group in Dialogues II (2010) and, with percussionist Colin Currie, on Two Controversies and a Conversation (2011) for piano, percussion and chamber ensemble, plus Interventions (2007) and Soundings (2005) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Oliver Knussen’s direction. The brief orchestral work Instances, from Carter’s final year, completes the disc.

In his later years, Carter’s music became a bit less craggy and unapproachable, although he never joined the ranks of “friendly music” composers. As Robert Aitken likes to say, good music “must challenge someone – the composer, the performer, the listener; preferably all three” and Carter’s music certainly continued to do that to the end. Back in 1990, before I joined the New Music Concerts team, I had the privilege of attending two rehearsals and a performance of the Canadian premiere of the String Quartet No.4 (1986) by Accordes. I was amazed that at each listening the work sounded unfamiliar, as if I had never heard it before. There were simply no touchstones for my relatively unsophisticated ears to grasp onto in the complexity of the score where seemingly each of the four parts moved independently.

As I say, there is no compromise in the late works, but somehow they do not seem as daunting. Perhaps it is my own development over the past two and a half decades, but I do think that the music itself also changed, becoming more genial and perhaps warmer. A case in point is the Two Controversies and a Conversation, which began as a single-movement concerto for piano and percussion, to which the two brief introductory movements were added at the invitation of Knussen. There is both playfulness and tension, harmony and discord. As the comprehensive notes by John Link tell us, “… from the final movement’s opening chords, the soloists quickly separate to engage in rapid fire exchanges with the orchestra and each other. The pianist proposes slow music, but is diverted by auto-horn-like blasts in the orchestra, which lead to a pianistic scherzando. Undaunted the piano returns to its rhapsodic music, speeding up and slowing down in long phrases that enact a would-be reconciliation […] The final gesture leaves the two conversationalists both far apart and exactly together.” This also happens time and again in my favourite piece on this disc, Epigrams, in 12 brief movements lasting just 14 minutes. I wonder if my comfort level is a result of having heard Stephen Sitarski, David Hetherington and Gregory Oh play it on a New Music Concert back in December 2014. Is it possible that Carter’s music can sound familiar after all? This new disc is a wonderful way to find out for yourself.

03 Eliana CuevasOne of the loveliest World/pop-inflected discs to cross my desk in recent memory is Golpes y Flores by singer-songwriter Eliana Cuevas, who has made her home in Toronto for the last two decades. Released by Alma Records (ACD98172 almarecords.com), the disc is dedicated to her two daughters and her native country, Venezuela. Afro-Venezuelan rhythms permeate the entire project, which comprises seven Cuevas original tunes and three she co-wrote with producer/keyboardist Jeremy Ledbetter who also did the arrangements. Central to the recording is Yonathan “Morocho” Gavidia and several percussionist colleagues who Cuevas met through Aquiles Báez, a Venezuelan guitar-and-quatroist who performed in Toronto last year and who is also featured here on several tracks.

I confess I am at a disadvantage in that, although lyrics are included in the booklet, there are no translations and I don’t have much of a Spanish vocabulary. Fortunately the press release that accompanied my copy of the disc includes an explanation of the title. Cuevas says “‘Golpes’ means hit, often referring to rhythms, while ‘flores’ means flowers. To me, the title suggests a combination of the sophistication, beauty and gentleness of flowers and the strength and force of the Afro-Venezuelan rhythms.” There is one song in English, A Tear on the Ground, inspired by a visit to India, where Cuevas “spent a few days doing yoga at an ashram that was right by a lake that had a sign warning people to be careful of the crocodiles.” The song includes the lyric “crocodiles will swim in our tears / and our hearts will pound together without fear,” giving a new take on the phrase “crocodile tears.”

In addition to a number of Venezuelan musicians there are several familiar names from the local jazz scene including Mark Kelso, Rich Brown, George Koller and Daniel Stone. As mentioned, infectious rhythms abound and it’s hard to sit still while listening. One exception is the lush and lovely Mi Linda Maita inspired by Cuevas’ grandmother. With rich string sonorities and Cuevas’ pure voice it is breathtaking, but even here we end up swaying to the beat that builds as the song develops. Golpes y Flores, her fifth release, will further cement Cuevas’ place in Toronto’s World Music firmament and, I expect, will go a long way in bolstering her international career. It is a dandy!

Concert Note: The Eliana Cuevas Ensemble performs at the Rex, 198 Queen St. W. on January 4 and 5 at 9:30pm and at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on January 10 (one set only at 5:30pm; free).

04 Cory WeedsI will briefly mention one more pop-inspired disc that I’ve been enjoying this month, Let’s Groove: The Music of Earth, Wind & Fire, Cory Weeds’ latest venture on his Cellar Live label (CL041017 cellarlive.com). First off, I love the cover. I don’t know if it will come through in the miniature version shown here, but it’s worth a trip to the website just to check it out. I’m not sure it would be safe to “groove” in those oversized shoes, but it’s a great picture! The project was the brainchild of pianist and organist Mike LeDonne who did the arrangements of the iconic R&B band’s tunes and plays soulful and funky Hammond organ throughout. I was always a sucker for EWF vocal gymnastics, missed here, but the saxophones of Weeds (alto) and colleague Steve Kaldestad (tenor) are a satisfying substitute, especially their tight harmonies in unison passages and the flights of fancy in their solos. The excellent rhythm section includes LeDonne’s longtime associate drummer Jason Tiemann, percussionist Liam MacDonald and guitarist Dave Sikula. My favourites are the title track, Getaway and Shining Star. If you’re in the mood to Groove, you can’t top this.

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website thewholenote.com where you can find enhanced reviews in the Listening Room with audio samples, upcoming performance details and direct links to performers, composers and record labels.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor


01 Verdis GuitarThere seem to have been several CDs lately featuring outstanding Canadian classical guitarists, and you can add another one to the list with Verdi’s Guitar – Fantasies for Solo Guitar by J. K. Mertz based on operas by Giuseppe Verdi, performed by British Columbia guitarist Alan Rinehart (Ravello RR7975).

Operatic transcriptions were very popular throughout the 19th century in the days before recordings and radio, and were usually made with home performance in mind. These Mertz transcriptions, though, were clearly not aimed at amateurs, gifted or otherwise. The technical challenges of reproducing operatic scores within the limitations of the guitar must have been daunting, but Mertz – an important figure in the development of the Romantic guitar style – produced an Op.8 Opern-Revue that consisted of 34(!!) transcriptions of operas by composers from Adam to Wagner.

The six Verdi transcriptions – all included here – are from Ernani, Rigoletto, Nabucco, Il Trovatore, La Traviata and I Vespri Siciliani. They are delightful fantasia-style works, with familiar arias popping out from time to time: Ernani, involami; Caro nome; Questa o quella; and La donna e mobile.

Rinehart’s playing is clean and stylish throughout, especially in the tremolo passages in Ernani and I Vespri Siciliani, a technique later used to great effect by Francisco Tárrega.

Now, if we could only hear Wagner’s Flying Dutchman


02 Holly BlazinaAnother very interesting Canadian guitar CD is Transcendencia, the debut disc from Alberta flamenco guitarist, Holly Blazina (iTunes; Spotify; hollyblazina.com).

Originally trained as a classical guitarist Blazina has a solid grounding in the traditional flamenco technique and has been composing her own pieces in the genre for more than a decade, workshopping them with noted flamenco masters Paco Fernandez in Seville and Ricardo Diaz in San Francisco. They are in traditional flamenco forms – Alegría, Bulería, Abandolao and Farruca, for instance – and mostly with the traditional accompaniment of male and female voices, palmas and percussion, but often introduce instruments from other musical worlds, such as violin (on three tracks), and saxophone, piano and Persian santur dulcimer (on different single tracks). The result is not so much a mixing of genres as an extension of the flamenco musical style with an added dimension, and it’s very effective.

Blazina’s playing is clean, crisp and idiomatic – especially in Invocación, the solo final track with its excellent tremolo – and the contributions from the nine other musicians fit in seamlessly. A lovely recorded sound adds to a highly entertaining disc.

03 Joel QuarringtonTranscriptions form the entire program of another Canadian CD this month, as bassist Joel Quarrington is back with another recital disc of transcriptions for double bass and piano (his Brothers in Brahms was reviewed here in September 2013), this time in Schubert “AN DIE MUSIK” with pianist David Jalbert (joelquarrington.com).

Although transcriptions served a specific purpose in the pre-gramophone days, making otherwise unavailable music available for home performance, in many instances since then they have served primarily to enlarge the repertoire for certain instrumentations, not always with complete success. Any misgivings you may have in that respect are simply blown away by Quarrington’s playing, however, with his astonishing agility, his sensitivity and delicacy and the warmth and richness of his tonal colour dispelling any lingering doubts. Granted, part of the attraction is listening to him doing the impossible on what is usually considered a large and unwieldy instrument, but his performances go way beyond the novelty attraction – this is pure music-making of the highest order.

The title track is one of seven short pieces here, but the two major works are the “Arpeggione” Sonata in A Minor D821 and the Violin Sonatina in D Major D384. Both are completely satisfying in all respects, with the final Allegro vivace movement of the latter providing a simply dazzling end to the disc.

With the sensitive accompaniment of David Jalbert the CD is an absolute delight, as well as an absolute wonder, from beginning to end.

04 Euclid QuartetThe American Euclid Quartet presents two works separated by almost exactly 100 years on American Quartets, featuring works by Antonín Dvořák and Wynton Marsalis (Afinat Records AR1701).

The Dvořák is the String Quartet No.12 in F Major Op.96, “American,” written during the composer’s three years as director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York and first performed in 1894. The performance here is warm, effusive, vibrant and dynamic.

It seems a long journey from such a completely familiar and frequently heard work to the Marsalis String Quartet No.1 “At the Octoroon Balls,” written at the request of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in 1995, but what a fascinating contrast it presents.

The quartet is named for the legendary 18th- and 19th-century balls in the composer’s native New Orleans, described in the booklet notes as being “…given as a way to facilitate long-term relationships between wealthy White men and usually fair-skinned women of colour.” The work has been called Marsalis’ conscious exploration of the American Creole contradictions and compromises – cultural, social and political – exemplified by life in New Orleans.

It’s a long (almost 45 minutes) but utterly engrossing work of seven sections, the longest of which – at ten minutes – is the astonishing opening Come Long Fiddler for solo violin, recalling, in dazzling fashion, the old Black country dance fiddle tradition. Blues, jazz, African, folk, spiritual and ragtime influences abound in the remaining sections, with simply terrific writing and playing: Mating Calls and Delta Rhythms; Creole Contradanzas; Many Gone; Hellbound Highball; Blue Lights on the Bayou.

Finally, with Rampart St. Row House Rag, here we are at what Dvořák envisioned and encouraged – the use of New World musical material as the basis for classical composition. It makes perfect sense of an apparently diverse program on an outstanding CD.

05a Bach Cello NarrowayThere are another two excellent sets of the cello suites by Johann Sebastian Bach to add to the already extensive list: Six Cello Suites BWV 1007-1012 by the Australian cellist Richard Narroway (Sono Luminus SLE-70010); and Suiten für Violoncello by the Swiss cellist Thomas Demenga (ECM New Series 2530/31).

There are several immediate differences: at the time of the recordings (2015 and 2014 respectively) Narroway was 24, Demenga 59; it’s the first recording of the suites for Narroway, the second for Demenga; Narroway uses a modern cello and bow, Demenga a Baroque bow and gut strings on 18th-century instruments; Narroway plays at modern pitch, Demenga down a full tone.

There are also similarities though: both players are fully aware of early performance issues and have made extensive study of contemporary sources; and both see these works as essentially dance suites, with lively – but not necessarily fast – tempos.

Narroway has a lovely rich sound that never overwhelms, with beautiful phrasing and a fine rhythmic sense that is given room to breathe and expand. It’s all bursting with life and sounds quite effortless.

05b Demenga Bach Six Cello Suites CD bklt Page 01Demenga’s tone can sound a bit tight at times, but again there is freedom in the phrasing and rhythms. On the down side, there is a fair amount of noise from the left-hand fingers hitting the fingerboard. You may or may not find that to be distracting, but it does mean that with Demenga you are frequently aware of the presence of the performer; with Narroway, however, rarely if ever are you aware of anything but the music, and it’s his recordings that I will keep returning to.

06 Danish String QuartetThere’s more immensely satisfying quartet playing on Last Leaf, a recital of Nordic folk tunes all arranged by the Danish String Quartet (ECM New Series 2550). There’s a wide range of sources for the 16 short pieces here, from ancient hymn tunes and medieval ballads to boat songs and traditional dance music. In addition, there are original compositions by two members of the quartet – three by cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin and one by violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen – as well as a polska by Swedish fiddler Eva Sæhter. Sjölin and Sørensen also add the occasional harmonium, piano and glockenspiel and double bass contributions to enrich the sound.

It’s a really lovely collection, beautifully arranged and played. The quartet members say that they “gathered a bunch of amazing tunes and hope you will enjoy what we have done to them.”

Well, consider it job done.


07 Altius ShostakovichDmitri Shostakovich wrote four string quartets in the period 1946-56, years in which his standing with the Soviet regime was still uncertain, so I’m not sure I agree with the statement by the Altius Quartet, on their new CD of Shostakovich String Quartets 7, 8 & 9 (Navona Records NV6125) that these three works, from 1960-64, were written “directly after World War II when art was often oppressed.” By 1960 Stalin had been dead for seven years and the composer’s rehabilitation was well under way.

There is, however, no doubting the quartet’s assertion that these three highly personal works form a triptych, dedicated as they are to the composer’s first (No.7) and third (No.9) wives and ostensibly to the victims of fascism (No.8) including Shostakovich – indeed, his daughter Galina claimed that he originally dedicated it to himself, with the published dedication imposed by Soviet authorities.

There’s a lovely feel to the playing from the outset, from the String Quartet No.7 in F-sharp Minor Op.108 through to the highly positive ending of the String Quartet No.9 in E-flat Major Op.117, but it’s the String Quartet No.8 in C Minor Op.110 that is at the heart of this group, not merely physically but also emotionally. The opening four notes D, E-flat, C and B (or D, S, C, H in German notation) that form the composer’s musical signature reappear in every movement, and the autobiographical nature of the music is constantly underlined by numerous quotations from earlier works.

It’s a committed and moving performance by the Altius, albeit perhaps with not quite the air of utter desolation and despair that some performances wring from the final pages.

08 Martin BoykanThe American composer Martin Boykan, who turned 86 in April, may be a new name to a lot of people, but there is no doubting his pedigree: he studied with Copland, Piston and Hindemith. His output is predominantly in the chamber music realm, which probably makes the new CD Rites of Passage – Chamber Music 1993-2012 (Bridge Records BRIDGE 9483) a fairly representative introduction to his works.

A good deal of American classical music over the past 25 years or so has been unabashedly tonal, but Boykan is clearly not of this persuasion. There’s not a great deal of emotional warmth or purely melodic material, and the absence or ambiguity of tonality together with the often extreme dynamics means that it’s not always easy listening. Still, there’s no doubting that this is a strongly individual and skilled composer fully in control of his structures and material.

The works, recorded between 2011 and 2015 by combinations of ten different players, are: Impromptu for Violin Solo (1993); Sonata #2 for Violin and Piano (2009); Piano Trio #3 “Rites of Passage” (2006); Sonata for Viola and Piano (2012); and Psalm 121 (1997) for mezzo-soprano and string quartet. The violin and viola sonatas were written for the soloists here, Curtis Macomber and Mark Berger respectively.

01 Satie ErardNoriko Ogawa has just released the second volume of her project to record all the solo piano works of Erik Satie, Noriko Ogawa plays Erik Satie (BIS 2225 SACD). Both this disc and Volume I are performed on an 1890 Erard grand piano, an instrument from the period of Satie’s life (1866-1925). The piano maker Erard was noted for numerous innovations in piano design, especially the double escapement action which allowed for rapid note repetition, a feature ever more in demand by composers of the late 19th century. The instrument used in this recording is in remarkably fine condition, sounding well-voiced and mechanically capable of the frequent staccato touch, often at great volume, that Satie requires.

Ogawa’s choice of repertoire for Volume II offers a more esoteric and quirky side of Satie’s personality, the two sets of preludes for flabby dogs, Préludes flasques (pour un chien) being a case in point. The Trois sarabandes are untitled early works, although the second of the three is dedicated to Ravel. These are surprisingly forward-looking, with a feel that occasionally evokes a modern jazz club. Sports et divertissements is a catalogue of 21 social pastimes, often quite comical, and each requiring less than a minute to play.

Ogawa has a very credible understanding of French music of this period, although Satie admittedly sits comfortably outside the mainstream. Still, her previous recordings of the complete piano works of Claude Debussy reveal a studious and comprehensive approach that offers a convincingly genuine feel to her interpretation of Satie’s music.

02 GodowskyEmanuele Delucchi is a young Italian pianist with extraordinary technical ability. His recording Godowsky Studies on Chopin Op.10 (Piano Classics PCL0122) is a rare opportunity to hear this unusual repertoire. Godowsky claimed his studies were equally appropriate for public concert as well as private playing. The music is always immediately recognizable as Chopin, but Godowsky has taken the material and recomposed it as a series of studies for aspiring players. They are devilishly difficult and intentionally so. Many are written for left hand alone and just one is for a solo right hand.

Godowsky takes Chopin’s main thematic material and moves it around, often from one hand to the other, meanwhile creating Chopin-style cascades of other figures around it. Some of these transcriptions are quite strict, others freer, and still others structured as cantus firmus and variation versions. It’s altogether quite an experiment and in its day would have sparked a debate about originality and legitimacy. Anticipating this, Godowsky was careful to include introductory remarks in his publication to clarify his aims. Essentially, he believed that pianists, composers and piano builders had more evolutionary potential to realize. Hence, the Herculean challenge.

Despite all the muscle and stamina, Godowsky’s music is not without its beauty. Chopin’s genius remains intact, both musically and technically. Delucchi ensures that technique is never glorified at the expense of art. He plays a beautifully restored 1906 Steinway, from Godowsky’s day.

03 Piano at Ballet 2Known as “Tony” to his friends, British pianist Anthony Goldstone passed away early this year (2017) and was unable to see his last CD released. A superb pianist equally appreciated as a soloist as well as half of the Goldstone and Clemmow Duo, his final recording, The Piano at the Ballet Volume II - The French Connection (Divine Art dda 25148) is dedicated to his memory.

Goldstone delighted in transcriptions and recorded several featuring music from opera and ballet. This disc is the conclusion of the latter project and uses French composers as the thematic link. Most of the pieces are world premiere recordings, transcribed by various others, although the notes admit that Goldstone made a few improvements along the way.

Goldstone’s playing at age 72 is simply incredible. Speed, reach, accuracy and, above all, unerring musicality mark every transcription he performs. The music tends, understandably, to be extremely athletic and Goldstone’s level of sustained energy is impressive. The finales of Poulenc’s Les Biches and Maurice Thiriet’s L’Oeuf à la coque are fine examples of this. He also captures the grandness of the orchestral score in these transcriptions. Claude Debussy’s Printemps (Suite Symphonique) is the best example of this, with its great washes of sound that conclude the second movement.

04 Ivan IlicReicha Rediscovered Vol.1 (Chandos CHAN 10950) is the promising launch of a series that will see pianist Ivan Ilić record the largely unheard solo piano works of a composer better known for his wind ensemble pieces. A contemporary of Beethoven, Reicha was highly educated and musically intelligent. A number of his later theoretical and philosophical treatises were translated for major European music circles.

The challenge for Ilić is to find and integrate the unique features of Reicha’s language into his playing. The modern ear hears Reicha and understandably recognizes some Haydn, some Mozart and occasional tempestuous bursts of a young firebrand named Beethoven. But the new ground Reicha was breaking was harmonic. The disc contains three pieces from Reicha’s collection titled Practische Beispiele. Ilić encounters each of the composer’s adventurous modulations and plays through them with confidence that pianists of Reicha’s day might well have lacked.

Other tracks include a wonderful set of variations on a theme from Mozart’s The Magic Flute and a substantial mid-career Grande Sonate in C Major that reveals a composer struggling to be free of classical forms. The following volumes by Ilić look promising indeed.


05 Eliane RodriguesBrazilian pianist Eliane Rodrigues has recorded the 21 Nocturnes by Chopin on her newest disc Frédéric Chopin – Notturno (Navona Records NV6123). The two-disc set also includes the Ballades No.1 in G Mino, Op.23 and No.4 in F Minor, Op.52.

Rodrigues teaches at the Royal Conservatoire in Antwerp, performs frequently and has more than 25 recordings in her discography. She traces her Chopin connection to her earliest years at the keyboard playing the Waltzes and Mazurkas. But her affection for the Nocturnes is more than wistful nostalgia. A passing reference in her notes suggests a very deep and personal experience made the sadness and melancholy of the Nocturnes profoundly meaningful to her. As if to underscore this, she uses quotations from a fictitious Chopin diary to capture the mood of each Nocturne.

The playing, however, is the proof of her ownership. Entirely consistent and sustained throughout both discs, her interpretations never stray from the beauty and tenderness that Chopin poured into these pieces. Rodrigues never rushes anything. Arching phrases, ornaments and grace notes are all critical to completing the composer’s every utterance, and she gives each one the time it needs to unfold. It’s an arresting and beautiful performance.

06 KartvelishviliKetevan Kartvelishvili is a power pianist. The title of her new recording The Chase – Liszt, Bartók, Prokofviev (Blue Griffin BGR 437) says it all. Using the title of the final movement from Bartók’s Out of Doors Sz.81 BB89, Kartvelishvili establishes an ethos for this remarkable disc by demonstrating her formidable technique through this relentless onslaught of musical passion. It’s not surprising that Bartók used this piece in his rather dark ballet The Miraculous Mandarin.

Kartvelishvili opens her CD with Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No.1 S514. She takes this at a blistering speed without ever losing momentum or intensity. Her performance of the Liszt Sonata in B Minor S178 is marvellous. By this point her technical skills are beyond question and what emerges is the tenderness Liszt requires to withdraw into his crucial moments of repose. Even at the sonata’s conclusion, those final measures are powerfully hesitant and highly effective.

Prokofiev’s Sonata No.7 in B Flat Major, Op.83 concludes the disc. It’s the second of his three “War Sonatas” and is sometimes called the “Stalingrad.” The outer movements are violent and destructive and leave no doubt about the work’s origin in 1942 Soviet Russia. The middle movement offers Kartvelishvili another opportunity to reveal the depth of her musicality. With an allusion to a Schumann lied, the movement is fairly withdrawn until she builds it to a near climax in the second half before returning to a quiet ending.

Kartvelishvili plays with both impressive might and tender conviction.

07 dont push pianoFlorian Wittenburg is a German-born contemporary composer. He is active throughout Europe but his academic and early career years were spent in the Netherlands. Don’t Push the Piano Around (NurNichtNur 117 01 26) is his latest disc and it adds to an already substantial discography and body of works. Pianist Sebastiaan Oosthout performs on this disc and reveals a strong affinity for Wittenberg’s music. Wittenberg is highly creative and takes his artistic inspiration from everything around him. As a composer, he revels in playing with patterns and sequences. Whether animal sounds, words, or the spelling of a name, Wittenberg is quick to place his subject into changing structures where he plays with progressions and variants.

Oosthout’s grasp of Wittenberg’s language gives him access to the deep emotion of the music, especially in several of the Quotes. Litany for one pianist is particularly effective as a thoughtful and searching work, in which Oosthout is required to whistle along with a few specific notes he plays. But the most captivating of Wittenberg’s works on this disc is the opening track Eagle prayer. It’s based on the call of an African fish eagle, notated and harmonized in a highly engaging and creative way. This is an intriguing recording worth hearing.

08 Russian Four HandsIt’s uniquely gratifying to hear the work of piano duos when they have performed together for many years. Peter Hill and Benjamin Frith have been crafting their sound for more than three decades into an impressive single voice. Their newest recording, Russian Works for Piano Four Hands (Delphian DCD 34191) is an example of how remarkable the combination of such talents can become. They have moved far beyond simply playing together and evolved a unified conception of making music.

This disc presents the music of three composers for whom folk music played an inspirational role. While Rachmaninov’s Six morceaux Op.11 quotes no folk material, it’s written in a style that recalls the dance and energy of folk traditions. Rachmaninov was just 21 but his writing already shows the now-familiar ability to think in large-scale terms. He uses the entire range of the keyboard without hesitation and draws on its dynamic power, amplified under the hands of two players. Hill and Frith are superb in meeting the contrasting demands of this piece, from the gentlest moments of the Romance to the magnificent ending of Slava.

The selections from Tchaikovsky’s Fifty Russian Folk Songs quote directly from folk material, although much of it very briefly; there is, however, no mistaking the focus that Hill and Frith bring to this work. Their touch and tone are wonderfully connected to the often dark modal nature of the melodies.

Stravinsky’s Petrushka is brilliantly played throughout. Flawless execution is matched by complete immersion in the music. The piano duo delivers the Russian Dance with all the wild energy it requires and Petrushka’s Death with the contrasting gravitas the composer intended. Hill and Frith are true masters of their art. clip_image009.png

01 Rossini William TellRossini – William Tell
Gerald Finley; Malin Byström; John Osborn; Royal Opera Hous; Antonio Pappano
Opus Arte OA 1205 D

I first heard William Tell in the spring of 1972, in Florence. That production was billed as the first complete performance since the 1830s. It was clear where a major problem lay. The principal tenor role is long, loud and high. Nicolai Gedda, who was Arnoldo in 1972, had totally lost his voice by the last act.

Since then performances have become more frequent (in Toronto we recently heard a concert performance by the Turin opera) and singers are more able to cope with the demands that their roles impose. It is also notable that, whereas the 1972 performance had been in Italian, companies are now giving it in French, the language in which William Tell was composed.

John Osborn has no trouble with the notorious tenor part, while Gerald Finley is magnificent in the title role. A blot on the 1972 performance was the soprano who sang Mathilde, the Habsburg princess. Malin Byström is much better but her high notes are shrill and unpleasant. There are good performances from Eric Halfvarson as the patriarch Melcthal, from Sofia Fomina in the travesti role of Tell’s son and from “our own” Michael Colvin as a very unpleasant army commander.

The DVDs come with a booklet and an interesting essay by Jonathan White, who argues convincingly that the opera is primarily about the occupation of the land and the enslavement of its citizens. That emphasis finds physical expression in a prominently displayed uprooted tree, an emphasis that is reinforced by the excellent chorus.

02 Laitman Scarlett LetterLori Laitman – The Scarlet Letter
Claycomb; Armstrong; MacKenzie; Belcher; Knapp; Gawrysiak; Opera Colorado; Ari Pelto
Naxos 8.669034-35

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic American novel, abridged into libretto form by David Mason, premiered in 2016 as a two-act opera composed by Lori Laitman. Strict and stifling moral codes in a c.1600 Puritan community result in the punishment of young Hester Prynne and torment the secret father of her child, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, as well as her long-lost husband (now returned under an assumed name). Operatic fodder indeed, but strangely juxtaposed with a rather dismal and restrictive setting.

Laitman’s challenge as a composer to reconcile the two is an interesting conundrum. She does indeed provide highly dramatic moments, such as the crowd’s raging at Prynne and the taunting of Dimmesdale by Mistress Hibbons, the town witch (sung by the formidable mezzo Margaret Gawrysiak). As Dimmesdale, tenor Dominic Armstrong’s talents are showcased with long, dramatic episodes of hysteria and guilt. Also remarkable is baritone Malcolm MacKenzie, as the husband bent on revenge. Prynne, on the other hand, proving to be much more stalwart of character, is given a much calmer, gentler musical portrayal. Soprano Laura Claycomb shines in the lullaby sung to daughter Pearl; as a singer, she manages some amazingly high notes without ever sacrificing Prynne’s aura of tenderness. The Opera Colorado Chorus does an excellent job standing in judgement of all. An interesting project indeed and well executed.

03 Thousands of MilesThousands of Miles
Kate Lindsey; Baptiste Trotignon
Alpha Classics ALPHA 272 (alpha-classics.com)

Kurt Weill may be correctly described as a misunderstood genius. He was very serious about his music, yet was (and still is by many) dismissed as a “cabaret composer.” Despite the success of his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht, these works were banned in Nazi Germany and took the better part of the 1970s to reclaim their place in the repertoire. Similarly, his American works (One Touch of Venus, Street Scene, Lost in the Stars) were judged to be “not American enough” and not sufficiently “jazzy.” Here is a pairing of two artists to put both of these myths to well-deserved rest.

Kate Lindsey, a classically trained mezzo, takes on Weill as if his works were more traditional German and Austrian lieder. In fact, when intermingled with songs by Alma Mahler, Erich Korngold and Alexander von Zemlinsky, the interpretative point is beautifully made. On the other hand, jazz pianist Baptiste Trotignon eschews often sketchy and reliably non-Weill arrangements and reductions and instead interprets the melodies in the best jazz tradition. The result is as fresh and surprising as you would expect: Weill the classical composer, and Weill the Gershwin rival! Although for many of us it may be hard to get the voice of Lotte Lenya out of our heads, the genius of Weill demands no less than that.

05 O Gladsome LightO Gladsome Light
Lawrence Wiliford; Marie Bérard; Keith Hamm; Steven Philcox
Stone Records 506019278065 (stonerecords.co.uk)

That tenor Lawrence Wiliford’s voice is perfectly suited to English repertoire is clearly illustrated on this recording. In songs and hymns by Gustav Holst, his lesser-known student Edmund Rubbra and contemporary Ralph Vaughan Williams, Wiliford displays his gift for expressiveness, sensitivity to text and challengingly high tessitura. These qualities were assimilated through his experiences singing in the church since boyhood, roles in Canadian Opera Company productions and as co-founder of the Canadian Art Song Project along with pianist Steven Philcox (who also accompanies beautifully on this recording).

Because Rubbra is relatively unknown, we are grateful for the singer’s inclusion of transcendent modal songs such as The Mystery and Rosa Mundi as well as Meditations on a Byzantine Hymn for solo viola played sublimely by Keith Hamm and Variations on a Phrygian Theme for solo violin on which Marie Bérard displays her signature sweetness of tone. (Both Hamm and Bérard are members of the COC orchestra.) Also of note from Rubbra is Hymn to the Virgin and Jesukin. Upon first hearing, I spent several minutes searching through liner notes for the name of the harpist. In fact, Rubbra had cleverly composed his accompaniment by the use of spread piano chords, resulting in a “harp-like rendition” played so rockingly gentle by Philcox that one is easily lulled and thus bewildered, but happily so.

06 Donizetti FavoritaDonizetti – La Favorite
Elīna Garanča; Bayerische Staatsoper; Karel Mark Chichon
Deutsche Grammophon 073 5358 

This is indeed a superlative performance from Munich, to be remembered for a long time to come. It brings out all the glory that lay partly dormant in past performances, although the opera did well for the last 177 years since first performed in Paris with great success. This new production perhaps wouldn’t have happened without Elīna Garanča’s keen interest in the project; the role seems written for her and she even brought along her husband Karel Mark Chichon to conduct as if the score was written for him. A happy situation, as there is a symbiotic relationship here; the two inspire each other and it sparkles like electricity in the air.

The great mezzo towers over everything, vocally, artistically and even physically with tremendous vocal and emotional range and an incredible commitment to the character she plays. Léonor de Guzman is a beautiful woman literally enslaved by the King of Castile in 14th-century Spain, trying to break out by finding true love with a young man, only to be outwitted by the King, losing everything including her life. No less memorable are the men: American lyric tenor Matthew Polenzani, as Fernand the hapless lover, is glorious in his passionate love for Léonor and displays magnificent emotional and vocal fireworks in his grand scene at the third act finale when he finds out he’s been cheated by marrying the King’s mistress. Internationally famous Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien is perfectly cast as the charming, but utterly ruthless, powerful monarch who, also infatuated with Léonor but having to give her up, is thirsty for revenge.

Talented director Amélie Niermeyer has a well-thought-out konzept definitely centring on the woman. Sets are minimal but powerful and create intimacy as well as religious fervour, not to mention space and grandeur that works so well that it even invokes the Grand Opera in Paris.

Thomas Hampson; Maciej Pikulski
Pentatone PTC 5186 681 (pentatonemusic.com)

Dominick Argento – The Adree Expidition
Brian Mulligan; Timothy Long
Naxos 8.559828 (brian-mulligan.com)

07a Thomas HampsonPoor baritone – the undisputed “viola of voices.” You see, among orchestral instruments, the violas get no respect. All the best jokes about musical instruments start with something like this: “What do you call 100 violas at the bottom of the ocean….” Seemingly, baritones get the same dismissive treatment. You’ve heard the Three Tenors, you know of the Celtic Tenors. There are superstar sopranos, diva sopranos – even an occasional mezzo star (Magdalena Kožená, Frederica von Stade and many others). But when, oh when, have you heard about a baritone superstar? A part of this neglect is rooted in the repertoire – baritones are usually the villains, scoundrels, humourless fathers or sour priests. But the true mystery to me is why a baritone (one of the loveliest voices you are likely to hear, and for me THE best voice for chanson, lieder and any other voice-and-piano music) has never reached the levels of adoration that other voices have.

07b Dominick ArgentoHere to prove my point, two gentlemen poles apart in their careers. Thomas Hampson, arguably the “old guard” baritone, with several decades, and some 170 CDs to his name, is pitted against Brian Mulligan, a young and already accomplished graduate of the Juilliard School, here making his recording debut. Even their choice of music underlines the elegant divergence in their approaches: Hampson recorded his first record exclusively dedicated to French songs by opera composers, while Mulligan chose new vocal works by the American, Dominick Argento. Both are passionate, lyrical, thoughtful singers. Both fully understand the works they sing – no empty sound-making typical of some sopranos here. Both have the benefit of intelligent accompaniment by great piano players: Hampson with the phenomenal Maciej Pikulski, and Mulligan with the equally redoubtable Timothy Long. So maybe the recording quality will give one of them an edge? Alas, the PentaTone transparent recording is matched here by the more present Naxos studio job – both excellent. So the contest is a complete draw, as both singers are wonderful, unabashed, triumphant and resounding baritones!

The king of voices (in my small universe) proves again its power and beauty, showcased by both a seasoned and a novice singer, delivering the most satisfying vocal music of the past and the present and leaving the listener with an urgent need to hear more. Now, about those violas…

08 Aldridge Sister CarrieRobert Aldridge – Sister Carrie
Zabala; Phares; Morgan; Jordheim; Cunningham; Florentine Opera Chorus; Florentine Opera Company; Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra; William Boggs
Naxos 8.669039-40

Moby-Dick, The Grapes of Wrath, Little Women, The Scarlet Letter… The list of new operas based on classic American novels keeps growing. In 2012, the Naxos recording of Robert Aldridge’s Elmer Gantry, with a libretto by Herschel Garfein, won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. That same year, Aldridge and Garfein completed Sister Carrie, based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel. It was premiered and recorded in 2016 by Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera Company.

It’s 1900. Carrie (mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala) leaves her job in a Chicago shoe factory, becoming the mistress of salesman Charlie Drouet (tenor Matt Morgan). Besotted with her, restaurant manager George Hurstwood (baritone Keith Phares) steals $10,000 from the restaurant safe, abandons his wife and children, and tricks Carrie into joining him on a train to New York.

Tracked down, Hurstwood avoids prosecution by returning $7,000, promising to repay the balance. Suddenly impoverished, he becomes depressed and reclusive. Carrie leaves him, finding work as an operetta chorister (the dress-rehearsal scene is hilarious). Hurstwood, unemployed and homeless, is severely beaten leading homeless replacement-workers during a labour strike. The opera ends with a chorus of homeless men, Hurstwood’s suicide and Carrie, now a star, singing in the operetta production-number, Why I’m Single.

Naxos describes Aldridge’s two-and-a-half-hour score as “richly melodic and unapologetically tonal.” Drawing upon the energy and bright colours of Broadway musicals (although a darker palette would have been more appropriate), Sister Carrie succeeds as very accessible, highly theatrical entertainment.

01 Beethoven Trios 260Beethoven: Piano Trios Vol.5 – “Archduke” Trio, Kakadu Variations
Xyrion Trio
Naxos 8.572343

Just like the Emperor Concerto, Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B-flat, Op.97 is also aptly named. Apart from Archduke Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria to whom it was dedicated, it is also the grandest, most noble of the six works in this genre, a real Archduke of trios. It has an unforgettably beautiful opening theme that Beethoven breaks down into small fragments with ever-changing instrumental combinations and moods so they become sources of further surprises. My love affair with it began in my youth after hearing the legendary Cortot/Thibaud/Casals recording on EMI; it reverberated in me so much that I resisted listening to any later version. Until now that is, when I came across this new recording by three young women from Germany who have recorded all of Beethoven’s trios as their debut with Naxos, winning some prestigious prizes and world acclaim thereafter.

I was immediately surprised by the upbeat tempo, a bit faster than I remembered, and quite taken by the youthful, exuberant and fresh spirit, where the strong personalities and virtuosity of the individual artists add a new insight, achieving a “vibrant and glowing” (Fono Forum) and intense performance.

The Archduke Trio is flanked by two lesser works. First is the earlier (1803) Kakadu Variations, where Beethoven’s sense of humour is evident with its long, gloomy slow G-minor introduction that abruptly bursts into a popular ditty and a set of bravura variations. At one point one can even hear the kakadu (cockatoo) shrieking on the violin. The even earlier Trio in E-flat Major, WoO 38 from 1790 closes and adds further richness to this delightful recording.

Programs 13 & 14; Programs 15 & 16
All-Star Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz
Naxos 2.110561 and 2.110562

02a All Star 13 14It’s been three years now since the American conductor Gerard Schwarz embarked on an ambitious project: assemble 95 leading musicians from top orchestras across 22 states and record an annual series of concerts without an audience over a brief four-day period using high-definition video cameras. The undertaking has garnered considerable critical acclaim, and since 2014, the All-Star Orchestra has made a significant name for itself both through television performances on PBS and WNET and by means of a series of DVDs on the Naxos label. The recording sessions made during the third season have been captured on two DVDs – programs 13/14 and 15/16 respectively – and together they present eclectic programs of music from the late Romantic period to the 20th century.

The first of these, subtitled “Russian Treasures” and “Northern Lights,” features Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, excerpts from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet and the Symphony No.2 by Jean Sibelius. Prior to each performance, Schwarz provides an informal commentary, while various members of the orchestra offer their thoughts on the music as well, all of which makes for an engaging personal touch – and the myriad of effective camera angles throughout gives the ensemble a strong sense of presence. The performances of all three works are uniformly excellent. The individual movements from Pictures are finely crafted, while the familiar segments from the ballet – Capulets and Montagues, Portrait of the Young Juliet, Minuet and Death of Tybalt, are in no small way aided by the warm strings, a full and well-rounded brass section and woodwinds with impeccable clarity. Sibelius’ grand and expansive symphony from 1902 is treated with much aplomb, from the gentle opening movement to the jubilant finale.

02b All Star 15 16Programs 15 and 16 take the viewer from Northern Europe to England and America of the 19th and 20th centuries. “British Enigmas” presents Elgar’s noble and dignified Enigma Variations and Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Less well known are the ethereal Symphony No.2Mysterious Mountain” by American composer Alan Hovhaness and the Jubilee Variations, a collaborative work by English composer Eugene Goossens and ten American composer friends. The final movement of the variations, written by Goossens himself, is a true tour de force requiring the ensemble to pull out all the stops, thus bringing the work – and the DVD – to a fitting conclusion. The viewer is left almost wishing there was a live audience present to offer a round of well-deserved applause!

So to Gerard Schwarz and the ASO, a big bravo – here’s hoping this ambitious undertaking will be around for many years to come, bringing fine music-making to home audiences around the world.

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