14 Hommage to Women ComposersHommage to Women Composers
The Piano Duo of Iris Graffman Wenglin & Ruth Lomon
Navona Records nv6254

The duo of pianist/lecturer Iris Graffman Wenglin and composer/pianist Ruth Lomon had been performing traditional two-piano programs when they came up with the idea of playing works by women composers, music that was usually difficult to find and seldom performed. When Lomon was in London, she began to research works, and this project took off. Recorded in 1976 and 1978, and remastered in 2017, this fruit of the duo’s labours features pieces by 11 women composers from the Romantic era to the late 20th century.

Two Clara Wieck Schumann piano solos played by Graffman Wenglin set the stage for future tracks. Highlights include Barbara Pentland’s Three Piano Duets After Pictures by Paul Klee (1958) featuring spaces and rhythmic attacks interspersed with lyric sections. I love Lomon’s composition Soundings for Piano Four Hands (1975) which lives up to its title with wide-ranging atonal piano effects like low ringing lines against higher tones, virtuosic chords and leaps. Thea Musgrave’s Excursions (1965) has eight under-one-minute car-driving movements like the bumpy rhythmic The Drunken Driver, the lyrical relaxing The Sunday Driver and the accented heavy chord Backseat Driver. Compositions by Tailleferre, Talma, Gideon, Richter, Fontyn, Ptaszynska and Ran complete the collection. 

Graffman Wenglin and Lomon are spectacular musicians, both individually and as a duo. They completely respect and understand the diverse styles, technique, ensemble playing and compositional intricacies of each piece and of each other’s musicianship. This timeless recording is a wonderful memorial to Lomon who died in 2017

01 AntheilGeorge Antheil – Symphony No.1; Suite from Capital of the World etc.
BBC Philharmonic; John Storgårds
Chandos CHAN 20080 (chandos.net)

This is the third in a series of invaluable volumes devoted to the orchestral works of the notorious “Bad Boy of Music,” the pistol-packing composer, pianist, inventor, author and occasional glandular advice columnist, George Antheil (1900-1959). A protégé of Ernest Bloch, he left America in 1920 in hot pursuit of his then girlfriend whose mother had banished to Paris, in an attempt to discourage their relationship. It proved a lucky break for him, for upon his arrival his piano recitals were soon lionized by the intellectual elite of the capital. He cemented his European reputation in 1926 with the literally riotous premiere of what will always remain his best known work, the sensational Ballet Mécanique for multiple pianos and percussion. Alas, the clouds of war gradually intervened and he returned to a less-than-impressed America, ending up in Hollywood scoring obscure movies. 

Of the shorter pieces on this disc the opening McKonkey’s Ferry Overture of 1948 is a boisterous depiction of George Washington’s celebrated crossing of the Delaware River at a site not far from Antheil’s birthplace of Trenton, New Jersey. The Golden Bird is a delicately scored fragment of chinoiserie, derived from a 1922 piano piece. The waltzing Nocturne in Skyrockets dates from 1951, while the Capital of the World suite is a vividly coloured, Latin-tinged anthology from Antheil’s 1952 ballet score. 

The most ambitious work on offer is Antheil’s First Symphony from 1922, an impressive declaration of patriotic American nostalgia which received only a partial premiere by the Berlin Philharmonic but was not heard again until the beginning of this century. It’s quite a winning work, polystylistic in the extreme with a little something for everyone to enjoy. Antheil was an expert and innovative orchestrator whose timbral flair is vividly brought to life by the enthusiastic ministrations of John Storgårds and his expert BBC ensemble.

02 MessiaenMessiaen – L’Ascension; Le Tombeau Resplendissant; Les Offrandes Oubliees; Un Sourire
Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich; Paavo Järvi
Alpha-Classics.com ALPHA 548 (naxosdirect.com)

To celebrate Paavo Järvi’s appointment as their new music director, the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich has released this admirable collection of early orchestral works by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), a composer demonstrably dear to Järvi’s heart. The disc begins with Le Tombeau resplendissant (1931), a lesser-known work that reflects a crucial time in Messiaen’s life; it bears an unsettling autobiographical program note that begins, “My youth is dead: it was I who killed it.” Perhaps feeling it was too personally revealing, he withdrew the work from his catalogue for decades. It was eventually published in 1997. This is followed by the transcendent “symphonic meditation” Les Offrandes oubliées (1930), one of his most successful works in this genre. 

Notably absent in the works of the 1930s, Messiaen’s preoccupation with birdsong is front and centre, alternating with retrospective hymnal passages reminiscent of his earlier style, in the late Un sourire (1989), which premiered  December 5, 1991, as Messiaen’s exquisite contribution to the bicentenary of Mozart’s death. The recording concludes with the original orchestral version of the lengthy, supremely Catholic devotional tone poem L’Ascension – Quatre méditations symphoniques (1932/33); the later 1934 version, with a different third movement, is a well-known crown jewel of the organ repertoire. 

Järvi maintains an excellent command of the orchestra throughout. The dense harmonies projected by the Zürich strings are sublime and expertly balanced, the percussion section is impressively resonant and solo passages are outstanding. A very fine job indeed by the recording team, sourced from live performances from January and April 2019.

03 Ginastera HarpGinastera – Harp Concerto Op.25
Sidsel Walstad; Norwegian Radio Orchestra; Miguel Harth-Bedoya
LAWO LWC1182 (naxosdirect.com/)

Astor Piazzolla may be more celebrated a musical figure in contemporary Argentina, but Alberto Ginastera is perhaps its most exalted composer. His career spanned almost 50 years (1934-1983). Through all three phases – objective nationalism, subjective nationalism and neo-expressionism – Ginastera remained the greatest exponent of the Argentinean gauchesco tradition which holds that the gaucho – a native, landless horseman – is the icon of Argentina. In the last decade or so of his life, the composer’s appeal was so great, his influence stretched into many musical styles including jazz and so-called progressive rock.

The selections on this disc, featuring harpist Sidsel Walstad and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, are emblematic of Ginastera’s great gift for creating epic compositions that evoke Argentinean music and dance traditions. These he skillfully integrated into classical forms contemporaneous with the 20th century. Romanticism is never very far away, of course, and this is clear from both Harp Concerto, Opus 25 and the 12 Variaciones concertantes, Op.23. 

Both Walstad and the orchestra deliver fine performances of two of Ginastera’s eminently paradigmatic works. Walstad’s playing is eloquently dreamy and distinctively ripe in tone. Her performance, based on the 1968 revision (also performed by Nicanor Zabaleta), is scintillating. The orchestra, under Harth-Bedoya’s baton is stunning. What musicians across the board deliver is startlingly fresh and alive.

04 Villa Lobos concertosHeitor Villa-Lobos – Guitar Concerto; Harmonica Concerto
Manuel Barrueco; José Staneck; OSESP Ensemble; São Paulo Symphony Orchestra; Giancarlo Guerrero
Naxos 8.574018 (naxos.com)

The composer Heitor Villa-Lobos is to Brazil what Bach and Beethoven are to Germany, Liszt is to Hungary and Chopin to Poland. Uniquely, Villa-Lobos also became the cellist who played many other instruments, including guitar, on which he achieved a remarkable facility. Virtuosity across many instruments also became one of Villa-Lobos’ strong suits. Burle Marx, the conductor and close friend once asked Villa-Lobos if there was anything he did not play. “Only oboe,” was the reply; but when the two met shortly afterwards, Villa-Lobos was well on his way to mastering that instrument too.

Villa-Lobos’ Guitar Concerto was commissioned by Andrés Segovia in 1951; (performed in February 1956). It is different from the bright colours and seductive melodies of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. But it is highly virtuosic, emotional, and explores a range of techniques including glissandi, arpeggiation and harmonics. The Harmonica Concerto is emblematic of Villa-Lobos’ cross-instrument virtuosity. The appropriately numinous Sexteto místico is imaginatively poetic and the rhapsodic and sensual Quinteto instrumental is typical of the composer’s ability to communicate with feverish Brazilian passion.

The São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Giancarlo Guerrero, is in exquisite form throughout, as is the OSESP Ensemble. The warmth of guitarist Manuel Barrueco’s playing – like his tone and touch – is eminently suited to Villa-Lobos’ work. Harmonica wizard José Staneck’s performance is utterly unforgettable for his ability to communicate Brazilian saudade on so tiny, albeit exquisitely chromatic, an instrument.

05 Tyler NickelChristopher Tyler Nickel – Music for Woodwind Choirs
Various Artists
Centrediscs CMCCD 27019

The two large works on this CD, both composed in 2017, are Suite for Two Oboes and Two English Horns and Symphony for Flute Choir. Each is performed by a group of superb Canadian musicians, conducted by Clyde Mitchell, music director of the Lions Gate Sinfonia and former associate principal horn in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. The performances are, to my ears, flawless and vital.

Nickel’s music is full of life: imagination, invention, variation – a deep understanding of the craft of composition. The artistry, for example, of the opening movement of the Suite, is evident from the first notes: the same note played three times on the English horns, to which the oboes reply with a five-note motif on three pitches. This is just the beginning of a journey, which leads us through an episode of melodic development and several contrapuntal episodes – in the complexities of which we never feel lost – and then back to a satisfying recapitulation. This is composition at its best – arresting and masterful.

The Symphony for Flute Choir brings comparable invention: in the first movement Nickel develops what sounds like an atonal theme – an engaging one – into 12 minutes of music, always interesting and all derived from this one short theme. In the second movement I was struck by Nickel’s extraordinary melodic flair, a satisfying blend of repetition and variation.

I hope there will be live performances of these wonderful works in the not-too-distant future!

06 Schwartkopf DetachDetach
Angela Schwarzkopf
Redshift Records TK472

Often, new music, as much as that term is understood within the worlds of jazz or art music, is put forward to provoke, to be forward thinking, or to be purposefully progressive. Among the many adjectives most frequently used to describe this interesting genre, beautiful and serene are, arguably, not often heard. That is, however, not the case with Detach, the debut recording from Toronto-based harpist Angela Schwarzkopf on Redshift Records. Her sublime instrumental touch and skillful manipulation of dynamics successfully draw in and activate listenership. With the extremely capable accompaniment featuring vibraphonists Michelle Colton and Étienne Levesque, Schwarzkopf highlights and bring to life a number of compositions by new and notable contemporary Canadian composers Monica Pearce, Cecilia Livingston, Patrick Arteaga, Mark Nerenberg, Elisha Denburg and Kevin Lau. 

There is an intriguing programmatic arc to this recording. After an initial bold musical statement, Detach moves slowly and gently through the rest of Pearce’s attach/detach before traversing a tremendous terrain of harmonic and rhythmic complexity. Compositional nuance and sophistication abound, as well as wide-ranging dynamics, before ending, after a 15-minute tour de force reading of Lau’s Castles in the Sand, with an arpeggiated cascading melodic line on solo harp. 

This recording is indeed progressive, forward-thinking and modern, but it is simultaneously engagingly listenable, melodic and beautiful. Congratulations to the Ontario Arts Council for having the good sense to support these important voices in contemporary Canadian music, and to Schwarzkopf and the vibraphonists for creating such a fine recording. Picking up on the hopeful success of this debut, I trust there will be more to come. 

07 Zosha di CastriZosha Di Castri – Tachitipo
Various Artists
New Focus Recordings FCR 227 (newfocusrecordings.com)

Right from the beginning of her career, Canadian composer Zosha Di Castri has been stirring up great enthusiasm – and some controversy. This recording, the first devoted solely to her compositions, offers up the altogether worthwhile experience of entering Di Castri’s adventurous sound world. 

There is a lot going on in these works, with their constant shifts in mood and texture. But the inventive details add up to much more than a series of engaging episodes. Each work is tautly structured, creating an invigorating momentum. Above all, these works are inescapably moving, whether on a personal level, or when confronting the global issues that concern Di Castri. 

The best moments are the most unexpected. Take the burst of reflectiveness at the end of the title work Tachipito. Or the way the explosive glissandi in Quartet No.1 are interrupted by magical other-worldly harmonics. In Dux, virtuosic passages of unprompted rhapsodizing create a reassuring dream state. In Cortège, from 2010 the earliest composition here, the repetition of the opening motif throughout creates a poignant sense of longing. 

Each work is played by a different set of musicians. The array of performers gathered here is truly exceptional, from solo pianist Julia Den Boer playing Dux to the 13 musicians of the Talea Ensemble under Lorraine Vaillancourt performing Cortège.

Di Castri’s fresh, imaginative voice carries forward the vital lineage of the avant-garde at its most enjoyable. With these works she manages to both challenge and delight.

08 Mercer SistersOur Strength, Our Song
Akemi Mercer-Niewoehner; Rachel Mercer
Centrediscs CMCCD 27719

In a recent issue of The WholeNote, David Jaeger wrote at length about cellist Rachel Mercer. Jaeger produced this new release with Rachel and her violinist sister Akemi Mercer-Niewoehner playing six duo works by Canadian women composers. 

Violet Archer’s Four Duets for Violin and Cello (1979) is a four-movement work composed “especially” for violinist Tom Rolston and his then 12-year-old cellist-daughter Shauna. Family fun galore, as the opening Brooding movement starts with a slightly grim low-pitched cello mood leading to a more reassuring violin line. Love the upbeat plucks in the dramatic Paean fourth movement. More tonal rhythmic sounds in Jean Coulthard’s Duo Sonata for Violin & Cello (1989) as repeated patterns and plucks unite this orchestral-sounding piece. Barbara Monk Feldman‘s Pour un nuage violet (1998) is a welcome change of pace with nature-inspired subtle rhythmic original sounds.

The Mercer sisters are phenomenal in their passionate performances of their commissioned works. Rebekah Cummings’ Our Strength, Our Song (2018) features conversational counterpoint, high and low staccatos, and dynamic shifts written in traditional Bulgarian folk-singing style. Jocelyn Morlock’s (2019) Serpentine Paths’ use of intense sound effects like high violin and low cello pitch contrasts, fast intense and slower passages, is a race to the performance finish line! Alice Ping Yee Ho’s Kagura Fantasy (2018) is an exciting listen with contemporary string effects, theatrical feel, dance-like sections and Asiatic folk-music influences.

The Mercer sisters are inspirational to both musicians and families alike.

09 Focus guitar duoFocus
Adam Cicchillitti; Steve Cowan
Analekta AN 2 8792 (analekta.com/en)

Canadian guitarists/friends Adam Cicchillitti and Steve Cowan formed this duo in 2015. Their dedication to performing, commissioning and collaborating with living composers from contemporary classical to popular music styles is heard here in five works by Canadian composers.

A wide cross-section of styles can be heard. The duo’s Canada Council commission Focus (2018) by Harry Stafylakis is a unique mix of pop, jazz, and classical. The first movement is more pop-sounding while the more classical second movement, based on a theme from Beethoven’s seventh symphony, opens with a single-pitch melody and develops through contrapuntal writing to a strumming rock-like closing. Andrew Staniland’s Brazilian-inspired Choro: the Joyful Lament for Villa-Lobos (2017) is a virtuosic rhythmic work. Cicchillitti and Cowan’s 2017 arrangement of José Evangelista’s five-movement Retazos (2010) is impressionistic, with reflective, haunting, mellow tonal melodies and contrasting florid fast runs. Their commission Ombres et lumières (2017) by Patrick Roux has a grief-stricken lyrical first movement and a contrasting faster rock-groove-flavoured second movement. Originally for two harps, composer Jason Noble impeccably arranged his more atonal programmatic two-movement River and Cave for the duo in 2018. The opening water rippling effect is achieved by delicate repeated pattern playing. The slower low-cave section emulates cave echo effects with lower strums, longer silences and staccato drips. 

Cicchillitti and Cowan are fabulous duo guitarists who perform together to perfection in all styles. No wonder this recording is on CBC’s Top 20 Canadian Classical Albums of 2019!

10 Boston CommissionsBoston Symphony Commissions – Timo Andres; Eric Nathan; Sean Shepherd; George Tsontakis
Boston Symphony Orchestra; Andris Nelsons
Naxos 8.559874 (naxos.com)

Four recent (2016-2017) works by American composers receive their premiere recordings on this disc.

The episodic structure of the brightly scored, 11-minute Everything Happens So Much by Timo Andres (b.1985) suggests, as per its title, a variety of things happening, as in a play, film or ballet. Similarly, the colourful episodes of another 11-minute piece, the space of a door by Eric Nathan (b.1983), also hint at a sequence of unseen events. Both of these compositions seem, to me, not quite self-sufficient, yet well-suited as soundtracks for something to be watched.

The 13-minute Express Abstractionism by Sean Shepherd (b.1979) invites visual accompaniment by its very nature. In four movements inspired by artists Alexander Calder, Gerhard Richter, Wassily Kandinsky, Lee Krasner and Piet Mondrian, Shepherd’s quirky, cleverly scored music would be even more persuasive if performed together with projected slides of the artists’ works.

The longest (24 minutes) and most substantial music on the disc, needing no visual support, is by the oldest and best-established of the composers, George Tsontakis (b.1951), visiting composer in 2008 at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music. His four-movement Sonnets – Tone Poems for English Horn and Orchestra, inspired by Shakespeare, is a lyrical, moody gem, its solo part beautifully played by the BSO’s Robert Sheena. It’s an English horn player’s worthy alternative to Sibelius’ Swan of Tuonela, which it closely resembles in overall impact, though boasting Tsontakis’ individual, memorable melodic expressivity.

01 Murley Taking Flight 01Taking Flight
Mike Murley
Cornerstone Records CRST CD 150 (cornerstonerecordings.com)

Around 1998, saxophonist Mike Murley formed a trio with guitarist Ed Bickert and bassist Steve Wallace. The group only endured until Bickert’s 2001 retirement, but it represented a high point for chamber jazz: a debut CD, Live at the Senator, won the 2002 JUNO for best jazz recording; Test of Time, a later release of 1999 material, won the 2013 JUNO. The spirit of the group has found continuing life in the Murley Trio with Wallace and guitarist Reg Schwager. Taking Flight adds the superb expatriate Canadian pianist Renee Rosnes to the mix, with Jim Vivian substituting for Wallace on four of nine tracks. The group emphasizes the quiet end of the dynamic spectrum, but it does so with resilient firmness and determined invention.

The group covers a spectrum that’s tailor-made to its gifts. The late Kenny Wheeler, both partner and inspiration, is represented by Winter Suite and Phrase 3, models of introspective collaboration. The former begins with just Murley’s tenor, before it’s joined by Rosnes’ floating accompaniment. Wayne Shorter’s Penelope has its own evanescent glow, and the spinning lines of Charlie Parker’s Bird Feathers feels Tristano-like in this context, emphasized by Rosnes’ rapid invention. 

The CD concludes with Nikolaus Brodszky’s I’ll Never Stop Loving You, played by the trio of Murley, Schwager and Wallace and dedicated to the memory of Ed Bickert, who passed away a couple of weeks before this March 2019 recording session. No tribute could be more fitting.

02 Marilyn LernerIntention
Marilyn Lerner; Ken Filiano; Lou Grassi
NotTwo MW995-2 (nottwo.com)

Marilyn Lerner is one of Canada’s most creative pianists, from ventures into klezmer to the avant-garde playfulness of Queen Mab Trio with Lori Freedman and Ig Henneman. Her most intense and inventive project, though, may well be the longstanding and virtuosic trio with two veteran New York free jazz musicians, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Lou Grassi. The group’s first CD, Arms Wide Open, was recorded in a Brooklyn studio in 2008. The next two ‒ Live in Madrid (2012) and Live at Edgefest (2013) ‒ documented festival appearances. Intention comes from a 2018 New York concert with the trio achieving ever higher levels of empathetic creation. 

Taking a conversational approach, there’s a certain pointillist playfulness to the sound-oriented Plink Plunk, complete with hand drums, isolated piano string plucking and sudden bass glissandi; but even in this mode the group is a dynamic collective, suddenly mustering episodes of dense interactivity. Each musician might open a dialogue with a solo foray, a series of suggestions and motifs, as Grassi does in his multi-directional opening to No Farewell. Before long the group is embroiled in another collective composition, in this case a particularly pensive episode, a layering of distinct yet interactive parts, distinguished by bright piano trebles, rich arco bass and varied metal percussion.

While jazz piano trios once resolved into pianos with accompaniment, Lerner, Filiano and Grassi are full partners, the trio pressing dialogue into meteorological events, the tempestuous, the torrential and often the impending.

03 Local TalentHigienôpolis
James Hill’s Local Talent
Projectwhatever Records (projectwhatever.com)

Local Talent is the newest project from James Hill, a Toronto-based pianist who has surely and steadily established a presence for himself on the national music scene. In many ways, Local Talent’s debut release, Higienópolis, is a continuation and expansion of the work that Hill has done in two other notable Canadian groups: the jazz trio Autobahn, with drummer Ian Wright and saxophonist Jeff LaRochelle, and the hip-hop/jazz band BADBADNOTGOOD, with whom Hill has played for the past several years. Wright is back in the drum throne on Higienópolis; rounding out the trio is bassist Rich Brown, who, at this point in his career, may be Canada’s preeminent voice on the electric bass. 

Higienópolis begins with the title track, a mixed-metre affair that unfolds carefully over the song’s six-minute runtime. Busy, snare-drum-driven sections are juxtaposed with compelling solo piano passages, whose sparseness becomes expansive through the intelligent application of reverb and other time-based effects. When a solo does start, halfway through the song, it seems like a welcome inevitability, rather than a demonstration of athletic prowess. 

Local Talent’s commitment to patience, as demonstrated both in Hill’s compositions and in the band members’ individual artistic choices, is one of Higienópolis’ most charming features. At its best, as on the title track, on The Silent Cry, and on Sailing At Night, the album evokes a sense of theatre, of the familiar refracted and re-presented as something new. Highly recommended. 

04 Eric St LaurentBliss Station
Eric St-Laurent
Katzenmusik KM10 (ericst-laurent.com)

Toronto-based guitarist Eric St-Laurent’s new album, Bliss Station, is a continuation and expansion of the work that he has done on past releases, including Dale and Ruby, both of which feature his longstanding trio of bassist Jordan O’Connor and percussionist Michel DeQuevedo. Both DeQuevedo and O’Connor join St-Laurent on Bliss Station, as does trumpeter and pianist Sebastian Studnitzky. 

Though drums are more common in guitar trio/quartet settings, Bliss Station benefits from swapping out a drum kit for DeQuevedo’s percussion (as on previous outings). Of the many effects that this exchange produces, the most prominent is that of intimacy: without cymbals, snare and bass drum splashed across the sonic spectrum, the acoustic nuances of each instrument become more clear, and small moments acquire greater weight. Another, more subtle effect, the rhythmic interplay between band members, comes to the fore. St-Laurent plays the guitar with deep metrical commitment, whether on melodies, supportive riffs, chords or solos. Bliss Station’s title track provides a great example of this, as St-Laurent moves through melodic statements and a solo with a propulsive, unerring sense of momentum. The funky Mustard Arizona is no different, though it is also remarkable for Studnitzky’s ability to make his trumpet sound nearly as breathy and understated as a flute. 

The fun of Bliss Station is in the band’s interactivity, as well as in the sense of immediacy, fun and rhythmic joy that the performances succeed in evoking. 

05 TertioLa Mince Ligne
MCM (tertioband.com)

This was the first time this writer had come across up-and-coming, jazz-rock fusion group Tertio; and what a great discovery it turned out to be. The Montreal-based collective truly has their own distinctive style that is absolutely refreshing and pleasing to listen to. Drum and bass grooves for days, unique and interesting synthesizer work, fantastic trumpet riffs and catchy guitar melodies, come together to make this record a contemporary jazz, rock and even funk journey that will have any listener wanting to tap their foot or bop along. 

More With Less starts off the record with a positively groovy track that showcases their distinct blend of “modern jazz, urban rhythms and the raw energy of rock” which they are known for. New One showcases soaring trumpet melodies courtesy of Andy King and a soulful, stellar guitar solo by Vincent Duhaime Perrault who is also credited with composing all of the group’s pieces. La truffe incorporates a positively funky and enthralling electric bass solo in which very apparent talent is showcased. Throughout the record, drummer Eric Thibodeau, bassist Alex Lefaivre and keyboardist Paul Shrofel provide the perfect backing to each piece, moving the melodies along with captivating chords and a constant, catchy rhythm. For those wanting a great and much needed pick-me-up within these dreary and grey winter days, this album is ideal for you. Truly a newer band worth keeping an eye out for.

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