05 Vlatkovich FiveFive of Us
Michael Vlatkovich; 5 Winds
pfMENTUM PFM CD 130 (pfmentum.com)

Gathering four of Toronto’s most accomplished horn players to collaborate on his 5 Winds Suite and other compositions, American trombonist Michael Vlatkovich recorded this disc at Array Space, producing sounds that recall both a disciplined concert band and a freeform improvising ensemble.

Dividing the presentation so that the higher-pitched trumpets of Lina Allemano and Nicole Rampersaud are contrapuntally stacked against darker timbres from David Mott’s and Peter Lutek’s saxophones, the trombonist challenges or harmonizes with each group in turn, lowing snarls when called for and shrilling flutter tones when necessary. Working through call-and-response sections as well as individual solo spots, the crafty arrangements are particularly notable on the suite. Sophisticatedly layered to highlight individual voices, a climax of sorts arrives with Part 5: Five. Mott’s baritone saxophone sighs move from melodious harmony to screaming intensity as the muted brass tones bolster the background. Although top-of-range cries and slurs dominate, dissonance never upsets forward motion.

Similar strategies underline the other sequences. On the introductory Please Help Me I’m Blowing Bubbles, for instance, Vlatkovich’s airy slides harmonize with descending reed amplifications. Later, after the five experiments with variants of split tones, slurs and shakes, the concluding For The Protection of Yourself and Others You’ll Need to Wear Your Space Suit is bouncy and boisterous but balanced despite shuddering capillary brassiness and reed glossolalia. Four of the five musicians may come from a different country, but exemplary improvising within crafty arrangements knows no boundaries.

06 Peter EldridgeSomewhere
Peter Eldridge; Kenny Werner
Rosebud Music (petereldridge.com)

Consummate vocalist, composer and lyricist, Peter Eldridge has joined forces with arguably one of the finest jazz pianist/composers of his (or any other) generation, Kenny Werner, to co-produce a contemporary album of breathtaking beauty. The project boasts not only some fine original tunes, but also a sprinkling of some much loved popular standards – all rendered with fine rhythm section work by Werner on piano, Matt Aronoff on bass and Yoron Israel on drums. Eldridge’s rich, nuanced vocals and sumptuous orchestral arrangements (skillfully arranged for The Fantastical String Orchestra by Werner and conductor/cellist Eugene Friesen) make this a formidable CD.

Things kick off with the Eddie Arnold hit, You Don’t Know Me. Eldridge’s silky baritone takes command of this gorgeous standard, which is lusciously wrapped in acoustic strings and supported by the supple spine of Werner’s inspired piano work. Another outstanding selection is That Which Can’t Be Explained, with music and lyrics by Eldridge. This sensitive ballad has a lovely, poetic lyric and a pleasingly complex melodic line. Eldridge effortlessly takes the listener along for the ride on a deep emotional journey… this is a hit song in search of a hit Broadway show!

Additionally, the Bernstein/Sondheim title track/medley is a major stunner, and begins with a haunting a cappella voice, followed by solo piano, which gently enfolds Eldridge throughout. A brilliant orchestral segue leads to the second part of the medley, A Time for Love, which features exquisite harp and string section work, and of course Johnny Mandel’s incomparable melody.

Without question, the artistry of Eldridge and Werner make Somewhere one of the most exceptional recordings that I have had the privilege to experience this year.

07 Pete McGuiness OrchAlong for the Ride
The Pete McGuinness Jazz Orchestra
Summit Records DCD 747 (summitrecords.com)

With the release of his third big-band CD, multiple Grammy-nominated composer, arranger, producer, trombonist and vocalist Pete McGuinness has certainly grabbed the golden ring. This is a fine recording featuring tasty standards, beautifully-constructed original compositions, inspired and contemporary arrangements by McGuinness and skilled performances by some of New York City’s most gifted musicians. All arrangements here are by McGuinness, and the recording kicks off with the Charles Strouse depression-era hit Put on a Happy Face. The track is the perfect, snappy, up-tempo opener, with a beautifully recorded big band sound (no easy task) and a buoyant and facile tenor solo from Tom Christensen.

The creative take on the late Michel Legrand’s You Must Believe in Spring is a total delight. McGuiness scats over melodic lines, and also performs the lyric with great emotion and perfect intonation, while pianist Mike Holober propels this gorgeous tune and arrangement through and around all of its beautiful changes. Of special note is Aftermath. With a moving brass choir opening, this original has its origins in an assignment once given to McGuinness by Bob Brookmeyer at the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop. Essentially an expanded tone poem about the loss of McGuinness’ close friend, this contemporary piece features Dave Pietro’s incredible (and indelible) soprano solo, which morphs into a wail of pain, grief and frustration (as well as other fine-tuned emotional states).

An additional standout is the McGuinness composition, Point of Departure – a dynamic arrangement that displays a full-throttle, big band sound – just as it should be – with Rob Middleton shining on tenor, as does Bill Mobley on trumpet.

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08 Trance MapCrepescule in Nickelsdorf
Evan Parker; Matthew Wright; Trance Map+
Intakt CD329 (intaktrec.ch)

In the 1970s, English saxophonist Evan Parker began developing and combining a series of extended techniques, including circular breathing, false fingerings, harmonics and multiphonics, eventually creating sustained improvisations that could simultaneously suggest flocks of birds and keyboard works by Terry Riley. Eventually he combined these processes with multi-tracking and electronic musicians, further mutating and extending the materials. Between 2008 and 2011, Parker worked with composer/sampling artist/turntablist Matthew Wright to construct a piece using materials from Parker’s collection of recordings, resulting in Trance Map. In 2017, the original materials became the basis for the group heard here, Trance Map+, which adds bassist Adam Linson, turntablist John Coxon and Ashley Wales, all three employing electronics.

This performance from the Austrian festival Konfrontationen 2017 is as complex and engaging a performance as one may hear from the world of improvised music, a maze of sound in which different sounds come to the fore, most frequently Parker’s soprano but the others as well, whether foregrounding the ambient bass rumble of heavy amplification or the subtle harmonics of Linson’s bass.

At the beginning, there’s a passage of bird song in the foreground, a literal trace from Parker’s recordings. That sample of the natural world floats into the soprano’s mechanical world. Then the mirror worlds of Crepuscule unfold, combine and shift: saxophone and bass, bird chirp and insect song, oscillator blip and needle scratch, tease and confound the ear, mutating into and beyond one another’s identities.

09 VoyageVoyage and Homecoming
George Lewis; Roscoe Mitchell
RogueArt ROG 0086 (roguart.com) 

A mostly trio session featuring only two musicians, this CD is defined that way because Voyager, its more-than-25-minute centrepiece, features close interaction among veteran improvisers, trombonist George Lewis and saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, and an acoustic Disklavier piano programmed by Lewis’ interactive Voyager software.

Reacting to the sounds generated by the horn players, the piano’s recital-ready introduction soon develops splintered and syncopated cadenzas and clusters which, during the sequence development, accompanies first the trombonist’s expansive pumps and then the alto saxophonist’s bluesy extended line. Obviously never outpacing the humans, the piano accompaniment moves from dynamic glissandi to jolts and jumps, making common cause with Mitchell’s thin reed snarls and Lewis’ plunger blats. The polyphonic climax arrives as the three sound layers intersect at top volume, but with individual contributions very audible.

While the concluding Homecoming is a classic duet between trombone and soprano saxophone, Qunata, the debut track, has Mitchell’s sopranino saxophone carving out a place for its shrill peeps and gaunt trills from the concentrated synthesized samples and inflated granular warbles produced by Lewis’ laptop. Working up to a textural program that could be the soundtrack for a film on cosmic exploration, the track ends with a programmed voice repeating “unable to continue.” That sly electroacoustic joke doesn’t characterize a disc that auspiciously offers profound instances of how man and machine can cooperate musically.

10 BleyWhen Will the Blues Leave
Paul Bley; Gary Peacock; Paul Motian
ECM 2642 (ecmrecords.com)

Previously unreleased, this 1999 recital finds pianist Paul Bley (1932-2016), drummer Paul Motian (1931-2011) and bassist Gary Peacock (b. 1935) at the height of their mature mutual powers. This Lugano-recorded set is particularly notable since concentration is on the pianist’s infrequently exposed compositions.

A lively run-through of Mazatlan begins the showcase, as nuanced keyboard strategies pulsate and pause with unexpected sonic detours while a sinewy tandem dialogue is established with Peacock. Meanwhile Motian’s shattered clanks help juice Bley’s unexpected bursts of low-pitched emphasis and swelling timbres which recap the head. Not known for funkiness, Bley still invests Told You So with a tranche of walking blues even as he fragments the narrative with bent notes and expansive tonal quivers. The selections also encompass a relaxed, impressionistic and balanced variant of I Loves You, Porgy, taken at a moderate tempo. As well, the bassist’s subtly low-pitched string swipes and pulls alternate with vigorous, lightning-quick patterning when playing his own Moor.

Trio skills are best expressed on the Ornette Coleman-composed title track, With the pianist’s swift glissandi changing the exposition’s speed and pitch nearly every bar, the performance intensifies once drum rim shots and rattles combine with bass thwacks to emphasize the melody. Yet even as the trio collectively descends the scale to hit a groove, the originality of the tune – and by extension Bley’s conception of it – are confirmed when the ending lacks a conventional pattern completion. Twenty years on, the disc’s vigour and intensity still echo.

01 Canadian HitsCanadian Hits: Unplugged
Saint John String Quartet
Leaf Music LM227 (leaf-music.ca)

Here is another innovative recording by the New Brunswick-based St. John String Quartet, one that recasts well-known Canadian songs in adept string arrangements by Rebecca Pellett. These songs are familiar to us with vocals plus the reverberant long-decaying tones of guitars, bass, pedaled piano and added studio production. So it is an arranger’s challenge to create satisfying textures with only four bowed instruments! Lots of pizzicato is one way to sustain the background, as in the arrangement of Francis by Béatrice Martin (Coeur de pirate). Evoking the simple group vocal sound of Stan Rogers’ Northwest Passage is another way. Percussive effects on the string instruments add equivalent interest and authenticity to Knocking at the Door (Arkells) and the heavy slog of Spring to Come (Digging Roots). The latter’s humour is topped by a tastefully tongue-in cheek Miss Chatelaine (k.d. lang) in tango rhythm with amusing string slides, all dissolving into fairy dust at the end…

But the true elixir of this disc’s arranging by under-billed Pellett is in the eloquence of River (Joni Mitchell) and the Celtic sound of If You Could Read My Mind (Gordon Lightfoot). And leader/violinist David Adams, violinist Danielle Sametz, violist Christopher Buckley and cellist Sonja Adams certainly surpass the mere “unplugged hits” world here! A sound world bathed in long non-vibrato tones, harmonics and emotionally text-conscious melody-playing, here seems to be an ideal realized by players and arranger alike.

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02 Koziol BrennanI’ll Be Seeing You
Andrea Koziol; Bill Brennan
Independent AK-BB-01 (andreaandbill.com)

I’ll Be Seeing You, a sharp selection from the jazz songbook, features Toronto vocalist Andrea Koziol and Newfoundland pianist Bill Brennan. They cover 13 of some of the best-known standards – sprinkled with their own songs – with nimble interpretative panache and sure musical taste. Toronto A-lister-musicians Andrew Downing on bass and cello and guitarist Joel Schwartz provide a firm foundation, plus a sympathetic harmonic and melodic framework.  

Koziol’s interpretations are assured and tone perfect. I was stuck by her attentiveness to the lyrical meaning of the intro verse in older songs like Fly Me to the Moon. In Stevie Wonder’s strutting funky Tell Me Something Good she purrs, growls and ghosts her tone in several amazing ways. Is she perhaps channeling her inner Chaka Khan?

Koziol and Brennan generously share the musical spotlight, reminding us that their friendship reaches back several decades. That generosity of spirit extends to Schwartz. He gets a lovely sustained-tone lyrical electric guitar solo in Randy Newman’s moody, thoughtful ballad I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.

Brennan’s piano work avoids cliché while nailing the feel of ballad, gospel, funk or up-tempo swing. He weaves unhurried, protracted extensions to songs like Tea for Two, moving far afield from harmonic home base, and provides exciting melodic and harmonic twists to Annie Ross’ vocalese classic Twisted.

I’ll Be Seeing You launched with concerts in Ontario and Newfoundland this summer. Judging from the glow emanating from this album I look forward to hearing Koziol and Brennan live in the near future.

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03 In a LandscapeIn a Landscape
California Guitar Trio; Montreal Guitar Trio
Independent (mg3.ca)

Among small chamber groups, the combination of two, three or even four guitars is not all that uncommon. So what about six guitars? Surely a guitar sextet is a little out of the ordinary, yet that’s what we have here on this disc, titled In a Landscape, featuring the combined forces of the California and Montreal Guitar Trios. While both ensembles have long-established reputations in their own right, the decision to perform together as a single group evolved from a chance meeting at an Oregon music conference ten years ago and since then, they haven’t looked back.

Just as the combination of six guitars may be a little unusual, so is the music they present on this recording. Indeed, the musicians have always shared a determination to “push the boundaries” with respect to repertoire, and this philosophy is evident in the all-too-brief 40-minute program.

Opening with the rhythmic New Horizons by MGT member Glenn Lévesque, it’s clear that these musicians enjoy playing together – what a warm and satisfying sound they produce! Flashy virtuosity for its own sake is decidedly absent – instead what we hear is sensitive and well-crafted interplay among the performers. Furthermore, the eclectic program is a remarkable study in contrasts. Arrangements of Radiohead’s Weird Fishes and David Bowie’s Space Oddity with vocals by ensemble members are juxtaposed with the moody and mysterious title track by John Cage (as arranged by Sébastien Dufour) while the mercurial Magneto – composed by Dufour – is an infectious essay in Latino brilliance.

For such a comparatively short program, In a Landscape covers a lot of ground, and does so with solid musicianship – mixed with some good-natured humour – throughout. This CD is an attractive landscape indeed, one that leaves the listener wanting more.

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04 Gordon SheardA New Day
Gordon Sheard and Sinal Aberto
Independent GSM003 (gordonsheard.ca)

As a self-described “Brazilian music freak,” it’s no surprise that Toronto jazz musician, educator and ethnomusicologist, Gord Sheard, has a group dedicated to playing Brazilian style music, Sinal Aberto. The name translates as “open signal” or “green light” and is a play on a Chico Buarque album called Sinal Fechado (closed signal/red light) made during an oppressive political time in Brazil (of which they’ve had many). So artistic freedom is the overarching sensibility for Sinal Aberto, and it shows in this beautiful collection of songs. 

With a level of musicianship you’d expect from the top players in the country – Mark Kelso on drums and George Koller on bass, Sheard on piano – the band deftly blends jazz and Brazilian sounds (plus a few R&B and Afro-Caribbean elements) for a sound all their own. A New Day is mostly original songs written by Sheard with lyrics by Rio de Janeiro-native Luanda Jones, who features prominently on the album as the singer, too. 

The album opens on a hopeful note with Samba de Primavera which, fittingly, speaks of being free and open to new experiences. (All of the songs are sung in Portuguese and many of them are helpfully translated to English in the CD booklet.) I love the energy and Jones’ virtuosic vocal gymnastics on Forrocatu, which combines Northern Brazilian forro and maracatu rhythms at top speed and is somewhat reminiscent, to these ears anyway, of the great composer, Hermeto Pascoal. The beautiful and poetic title song, Mais um Dia, is another standout track. Bossa nova fans won’t be disappointed as the band has imaginatively covered a couple of classics, including a soul-tinged version of my favourite, Dindi. The album is available from CD Baby: store.cdbaby.com/cd/gordonsheardsinalaberto.

05 Spinning in the WheelSpinning in the Wheel
Projeto Arcomusical
National Sawdust Tracks NS-028 (nationalsawdust.org)

Projeto Arcomusical is “a world music sextet reimagining the Afro-Brazilian berimbau through unique and powerful chamber music.” Spinning in the Wheel is the second album by this Decalb, Illinois-based sextet co-founded by American composers, percussionists and berimbau-ists Gregory Beyer and Alexis C. Lamb.

A member of the musical bow family found around the world, the Brazilian berimbau is an essential accompaniment of capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art combining elements of dance, acrobatics and instrumental and vocal music. At first glance a simple instrument, the berimbau has at least six distinct parts. It includes a wooden bow and steel string, a beater to strike the string with, a small stone or coin pressed against the string to change the pitch, a gourd-like shell secured to the berimbau amplifying/modulating the string in conjunction with the player’s body, and a small rattle held in the stick hand. Using all these sound modifiers the berimbau is capable of a large range of expression, especially when several musicians are involved. Arcomusical’s six berimbaus allow the production of an extended number of tones making possible extended-range melodies, harmonies and spatial effects. In only a few years it has toured widely and commissioned over 30 new scores.

Chief among them is Roda (2016) by American composer Elliot Cole. An engaging and impressive four-movement, 20-minute work, it’s the most substantial musical statement on Spinning in the Wheel.

I was initially drawn to the novelty of Arcomusical’s instrumentation, but after just a few minutes of listening to Spinning in the Wheel I found its music clearly conceived and passionately performed.

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Although the sentiment conjured up by the phrase, “poetry and jazz,” is one of scruffy beatniks intoning verse to the accompaniment of a stoned bongo player, the intersection of poetry and improvised music has a longer history. As far back as the 1920s poets like Langston Hughes integrated jazz energy into their work and subsequent interaction involved whole groups of literary and musical types, with notable instances in San Francisco, Liverpool and Vancouver up until the present day. Some of the discs here extend the idea of sounds complementing words, while others work on the more difficult task of integrating both elements.

01 NabatovA particularly fascinating instance of this is Readings Gileya Revisited (Leo CD LR 856 leorecords.com). On it, Russian-born, Cologne-based pianist Simon Nabatov has created musical settings for poems from members of the Gilya group, a Russian Futurist movement that thrived just before, and for a time, after the Russian Revolution. The pianist’s associates are Germans, reedist Frank Gratkowski and electronics master, Marcus Schmickler, American drummer Gerry Hemingway and most importantly, Dutch vocalist Jaap Blonk. While Schmickler’s skills are used sparingly, as on the penultimate track where granular synthesis and processing deconstruct a sample of one of the original Futurist’s recitations, and then are superseded by resounding pattering from the drummer. In another instance, on A Kiss in the Frost oscillated aviary echoes share space with Blonk’s double-tracked theatrical recitation of a Futurist poem, completed by reed buzzes and piano patterns. But the nub of creativity is most thoroughly expressed in the ways in which Blonk’s phrases plus piano-reed-and-percussion sounds interact as equals. For instance the gargles and yells that express the budding of Spring are met by hard keyboard comping and drum pops following an introduction of ethereal flute puffs. Imagist stanzas that warble and plead are extended with reed bites and press rolls on And Could You?, while harmonized keyboard tinkles and formalistic clarinet trills do as much to define the theme of Palindrome as matched nonsense syllables from Blonk. Most crucially, with the boisterous dynamics that characterize Shokretyts, composer Nabatov and the others confirm that Futurism is as much an instrumental as a vocal art. After Blonk intones “when people die they sing songs,” Gratkowski’s tenor saxophone response is almost (Stan) Getzian in its lyricism, although it’s followed by dynamic key crunches and sprays of notes from the pianist, and bass drum pounding and wild-boar-like snorts and altissimo screams from the saxophonist, until all four shout out the track title. As the players’ instruments replicate the syllables, Blonk intones them to complete the poem.

02 BigTentApproaching the idea differently, American trio Big Tent, with pianist/vocalist Jerome Kitzke, bassist Steve Rust and percussionist Harvey Sorgen add poems by Beat forefather Lawrence Ferlinghetti among the trio’s advanced improvisations on I Am Waiting (NotTwo MW 989-2 nottwo.com). Kitzke’s low-key, tongue-in-check recitation makes clear the contemporary relevance of this sardonic mid-20th-century verse. For instance, the exaggerations turned on their head in I Am Waiting “for the rebirth of wonder” including Elvis Presley and Billy Graham changing places, are underlined with swelling bass string pumps and alternating splashing or tinkling piano chords. Meanwhile a bop fable about Christ, Sometime during Eternity, uses banjo-like twanging to signal Jesus as “real dead” and stentorian plucks to contrast his teaching with the subsequent ignoring of it by his so-called followers. Without words the trio’s improvising is also nuanced. Facing kinetic drum rolls and piano string strums on Trio in a Bottle, Rust constructs a sequence that vibrates from the bass’ scroll to its spike. Kitzke bends tones and patterns in the kinetic exposition that is Blues Afield, harmonized with the bassist’s stylized pings. Meanwhile ground bass lines and mid-range keyboard swing on Sweet for the Eternal Spring giving Sorgen space to boisterously roll out sprays of percussion power, advancing the theme rhythmically and finally calming it with paradiddles.

03 PneumaA more difficult stanza interpretation is expressed on Pneuma’s Who Has Seen the Wind? (Songlines SGL 1629-2 songlines.com). Not only does Montreal-based vocalist Ayelet Rose Gottlieb personalize the often-translated (by herself) words of Japanese, Iranian and English poets, but her only accompaniment is the three clarinets of Vancouver’s François Houle and Americans, James Falzone and Michael Winograd. With one clarinetist usually playing chalumeau for continuum, Gottlieb confidently cycles through moods ranging from wistful to lighthearted, with her lyric soprano harmonized and used as much as an instrument as the woodwinds. This is particularly obvious on the suite of brief Japanese poems where a single image or mood is conveyed by the timbre of Gottlieb’s voice rather than the words. Another instance is Passing Through/Lament for Harry, honouring her deceased grandfather, where emotion is expressed by melodic warbling linked to coloratura clarinet peeps and trills. In the same way, the impressionistic title track, from a poem by Christina Rossetti, harmonizes the clarinets in a near-baroque manner. The melded timbres flutter up the scale, but not enough to detract from the poem’s gentle imagery. In contrast James Joyce’s Alone brings out emphasized melisma as Gottlieb swallows the lyrics with low tones as the clarinets move upwards. Trembling/Light is an erotic poem, but that may be masked as the response to her vocalization is thumping tongue stopping and echoes from the bass clarinet. Finally Neither You Nor I/Conversation with Ora, which she composed after the death of a close friend, is no dirge but a defiant celebration where the melody moves via bird-like trills and tongue slaps from the clarinets, until voice and reeds join for a jocular up-tempo final stanza.

04 TapscottThere are suggestions of spiritual singing from Pneuma and an equivalent instance of turning ecclesiastical words and music into a secular form on Why Don’t You Listen? (Dark Tree DT (RS) 11 darktree-records.com) by Horace Tapscott/Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra and the Great Voice of UGMAA. Los Angeles-based pianist Tapscott’s nonet expresses its characteristic message on this 73-minute concert, not only through his highly rhythmic arrangements utilizing three double basses and three percussionists, but through songs performed by the l2-member UGMAA. In its vocal blends the choir, whose initials mean Union of God’s Musicians and Artists Ascension, bring the sound of a sophisticated gospel ensemble to the selections. But divergence occurs since the word-poetry isn’t on sacred texts, but instead, variously salutes a Nigerian musician known for his struggle against dictatorship (Fela Kuti); provides an object lesson of the accomplishments of jazz heroes (Why Don’t You Listen?) and praises the mother continent itself (Little Africa). The most accomplished achievement is the second tune, where singing over a captivating rhythmic groove, the voices invest the listing of innovators with the same sincerity a church choir would bring to the scriptures, emotionally extending the words with melisma and hocketing, as boisterous, sinewy solos from the pianist, saxophonist Michael Session and drummer Donald Dean are interspaced like extra voices. When choir director Dwight Tribble ends the extended track with near-R&B testifying, the spiritual link between improvised music and Black empowerment is complete. Tapscott’s worldly arrangements, which combine exploratory sounds and grounded beats, characterize the non-vocal parts of the disc, with the slippery blats of trombonist Phil Ranelin and Session’s soaring slurs particularly impassioned.

05 GoldbergAdding another twist to this theme is Bay area clarinetist Ben Goldberg’s Good Day for Cloud Fishing (Pyroclastic PRO 5 pyroclasticrecords.com). Here Goldberg, trumpeter Ron Miles and guitarist Nels Cline improvise on Goldberg’s compositions inspired by Dean Young’s verse. Present at the recording session, Young wrote new poems influenced by the music. A set of entry and exit poems are included in the package. Designed as three separate art pieces, it’s fascinating to try to work out linkages. Overall, the exit poems seem to reflect the sounds more directly than the music reflects the verse that inspired it. For instance, the clash and clatter of distorted guitar licks, reed flutters and trumpet growls lead Young to mix musical and literal metaphors on Section 8 instead of the string of plaints on the Sub Club Punch Card that is its entry poem. Or the herky-jerky guitar clinks which underscore the high-pitched trumpet and low-pitched contra-alto clarinet blowing in ambulatory reflection on Dandelion Brainstem winnows to coloratura reed smears and string plinks by the finale, though the mordant imagery of the exit poem Corpse Pose further extends the metaphor. Putting aside the search, you can appreciate Young’s turn of phrase on 24 poems. Fittingly as well, compositions and interpretations stand as notable music on their own and are carefully modulated to build on each player’s skills. With tracks varying from boisterous near-oom pah pah instances of almost pre-modern swing with string licks that could come from a ukulele harmonized with trumpet smears (Phantom Pains/Crow Hop) to experiments which meld clarinet glissandi and gliding guitar distortions into a stretched but not broken narrative on Surprised Again By Rain/How’d You Get Here there’s no questioning the music’s power. After all, doesn’t this double artistic expression properly define each of these sessions? 

01 OzawaWhen Seiji Ozawa took over the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1973, his was not a new name to Toronto concertgoers as he had been music director of the Toronto Symphony from 1965 to 1969. I warmly remember one of his very first concerts here in which he conducted the Fauré Ballade Op.19 for piano and orchestra with his wife, pianist Kyoko Edo wearing a kimono. Rather charming. In Boston, although he had studied and worked with Charles Munch, Ozawa began turning the Boston Symphony from a French orchestra under Munch and Monteux, into a heavier-sounding German orchestra. Members of the orchestra were not happy at all about this and expressed their displeasure openly. In fact, the orchestra’s internationally recognized and esteemed concertmaster/assistant conductor, Joseph Silverstein eventually resigned in protest. DG has gathered all their Ozawa recordings, mainly with the Boston Symphony, also the Berlin Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony. Seiji Ozawa Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon (DG 4836484, 50 CDs deutschegraommophon.com) is the result.

The repertoire is varied and colourful across the orchestral spectrum from Bartók to Ambroise Thomas. Collectors may be relieved to know there are no Beethoven symphonies, no complete Brahms cycle, no Mozart nor Rachmaninoff symphonies nor a complete Tchaikovsky. I’m thinking that these are staples already in one’s collection. What is here are illuminated performances of selected concertos featuring soloists Anne-Sophie Mutter, Christoph Eschenbach, Itzhak Perlman, Krystian Zimerman, Joseph Silverstein, Rostropovich, Yundi Li and Gidon Kremer, together with first-desk soloists from the orchestra. Orchestral favorites from the repertoire that enjoy standing ovation performances include Symphonie fantastique, Brahms First and Second Symphonies, Mahler’s First Symphony, Gaité Parisienne, a dozen popular favourites by Ravel including a ravishing Daphnis et Chloé with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Pictures at an Exhibition and Respighi’s Roman trilogy, an opulent Scheherazade and lots of Tchaikovsky including the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. There are also Prokofiev’s complete symphonies, his Romeo and Juliet and more. And there is one complete opera! Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann recorded in Paris in 1986 with the Orchestre National de France. This effervescent, never-a-dull-moment, performance stars Plácido Domingo as Hoffmann; Edita Gruberova as Olympia, Antonia and Guilietta. James Morris is Miracle, Christa Ludwig is heard as the voice of Olympia.

Not every one of the 50 CDs contains a definitive performance of the work therein and some miss the mark entirely. This glowing collection happily defines the often-used term, Music for Pleasure, and as such is a great success and should keep giving joy to the listener.

02 FigaroI had intended only to sample the sound of a first CD release of the February 6, 1961 performance of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus recorded in performance by the BBC in London’s Royal Festival Hall (ICA CLASSICS, ICAC 5157, 2 CDs naxosdirect.com). Time passed and I had listened to every last note on the two CDs, totally immersed in the genius of Mozart … his ineffable genius. Where did it come from? The soloists in this were, as Count Almaviva, Ernest Blanc; the countess was Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Susanna was Elisabeth Söderström. Figaro was Fernando Corena and Teresa Berganza was Cherubino.

Fascinating and informative liner notes describe the evolution of Giulini’s Figaro and an appreciation of the rest of the cast that includes Edda Vincenzi, Georgio Tadeo, Hugues Cuénod, Heather Harper and Piero Cappuccilli. This is a very special performance, a must for a Mozart lover, cleanly preserved in mono. Incidentally, there is a set of CDs from Walhall with substantially the same cast recorded live in 1971. It originated in the Royal Albert Hall. It does not display the brio of the RFH performance. Nor the fine recording.

03 BeechamAnother new release from ICA is a 3-CD boxed set of first CD releases of some interesting works conducted in typical flamboyant style by Sir Thomas Beecham (ICA ICAC 5168, 3 CDs naxosdirect.com). Briefly, for the benefit of those readers who don’t know the name, Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) was recognized and respected worldwide as a very special conductor and a wit. He first appeared on the podium in 1905 conducting London’s Queen’s Hall Orchestra. He was knighted in 1916. He was highly esteemed for his Richard Strauss, Mozart, Sibelius and Haydn, and championed and edited Delius. All his many recordings were best sellers everywhere. His concerts often included shorter works which he called “Lollipops” and his one-liner witticisms are still quoted. Regard each of the three discs as a concert. CD1 opens with Chabrier’s Gwendoline Overture, then Franck’s Le Chasseur Maudit; Gretry’s ballet Zémíre et Azor and the G-Minor Symphony by Lalo. The second disc has only three works; Etienne-Nicolas Méhul’s Second Symphony; Saint-Saëns ballet music from Samson et Dalila including the Bacchanale and finally Delius’ North Country Sketches. CD3 has the Balakirev First Symphony and Richard Strauss’ Ballet Suite from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. These are all BBC recordings made between 1952 and 1959 in various venues for later use and foreign broadcasts. The two orchestras heard on these recordings are the BBC Symphony and the Royal Philharmonic, the orchestra founded in 1946 by the affluent Beecham because he could not return to the London Philharmonic where he reigned before WW2. If you don’t know some of the works in the package, this may be an ideal way to expand your musical horizons.

A few years ago, SOMM released six CDs of previously unissued recordings of Edward Elgar in astounding new restorations by Lani Spahr. Spahr was given access to Elgar’s private library of test pressings that had been sent to the composer by HMV for approval. Whether he approved them or not, they remained in Elgar’s possession and are now archived by the Elgar Society. There were two sets issued, Elgar Remastered on four discs (SOMMCD 261-4) followed by Elgar Rediscovered on two discs (SOMMCD 0167). Included was Elgar conducting his two symphonies and cello concerto, all heard, thanks to Mr. Spahr, in genuine stereo played by Beatrice Harrison with Elgar conducting. Two fascinating collections, the 2-CD set being the more desirable.

04 Elgar from AmericaSpahr follows up with more Elgar on Elgar from America Vol.1 (SOMM ARIADNE 5005 naxosdirect.com). Arturo Toscanini is heard in a previously unreleased performance of the Enigma Variations live from an NBC Symphony concert on November 5, 1949. There are already other Toscanini Enigmas in the catalogue, from June 3, 1935 with the BBC symphony and also with the NBC. New to the catalogue is this 1949 performance and the sound is surprisingly vivid and articulate. The performance is interesting and devoid of any sentimentality in the Nimrod variations (played today to respect a death). Two valuable performances with the New York Philharmonic also occupy this disc, the Cello Concerto conducted by Sir John Barbirolli played with flair by Gregor Piatigorsky (1940) and Falstaff, a Symphonic Study in C Minor conducted by Artur Rodzinski (1943). Altogether, a satisfying release. 

05 FricsayFerenc Fricsay conducts Rossini, Strauss, Kódaly, Ravel, Honegger, Zimmermann (SWR CLASSIC, 19070CD, mono naxosdirect.com). New recordings, well, unpublished ones, conducted by Ferenc Fricsay are always a source of pleasure for his admirers. Most recent is the complete evening’s concert with the Südfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester, Stuttgart, in the Villa Berg, from October 10, 1955.The audience (and now us) was treated to a program of enjoyable light classics. The evening started off with Rossini’s overture to the seldom-heard, The Journey to Reims followed by Richard Strauss’ Burleske, for piano and orchestra played by Margrit Weber. Kodály’s Dances from Galánta were followed by Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Cabocio from his ballet suite Alagoana. Weber returned for Honegger’s Concertino for Piano and Orchestra. A high-spirited performance of Ravel’s Boléro was the rousing finale to the evening’s program. That orchestra and other radio orchestras of the day and since are brilliant ensembles, being at least the equal of the “philharmonics.” The audience in this live recording is unheard and the dynamic sound is excellent. 

From 1984 until 1991 I was the host of Transfigured Night on CKLN-FM, a weekly contemporary music program that originally aired in the overnight slot from 2am, but eventually moved to a more civilized 10pm start. During that period I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing many of the important practitioners in the field brought to town by the likes of the Music Gallery, New Music Concerts, Esprit Orchestra and Arraymusic. One of the most memorable characters was the pianist and erstwhile ballroom dancer Yvar Mikhashoff, whose International Tango Project resulted in some 127 commissions. I met Yvar when he was in Toronto performing selections from the project at the Music Gallery in 1987, and again when he was the featured soloist with New Music Concerts at the Premiere Dance Theatre in 1990, performing works by Henry Brant, Alvin Curran and Nils Vigeland. As an aside I would mention that this latter concert was the occasion of the now internationally renowned soprano Barbara Hannigan’s first professional engagement, an obbligato role in Brant’s Inside Track, for two mixed ensembles and piano. 

01 Tangos for YvarMikhashoff, who died at 52 in 1993, left a legacy that has been taken up by American pianist Hanna Shybayeva on Tangos for Yvar (Grand Piano GP794 naxosdirect.com). Shybayeva has constructed a varied and compelling program of 18 selections, mostly written for Mikhashoff, but concluding with her own arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s classic Libertango. Strangely, and without explanation that I can find, she also includes Stefan Wolpe’s 1927 Tango. While this is a good match for the rest of the project in its interpretation of the iconic dance form, and at three and a half minutes falling midway in the duration range of the commissions, its composition more than half a century before the project began surely deserves some note. There is a vast stylistic range presented here, from Chester Biscardi’s evocative Incitation to Desire, one of the earliest commissions and one of the least overtly reminiscent of the tango’s distinctive rhythm, to the serial approach of Milton Babbitt’s It Takes Twelve to Tango, the minimalism of Tom Johnson’s Tango, the moto perpetuo of Scott Pender’s Tango: Ms. Jackson Dances for the People (referencing Janet Jackson’s What Have You Done For Me Lately) and Frederic Rzewski’s rhythmic, lilting, Steptangle. Of local note is Douglas Finch’s Tango, one of four Canadian works commissioned for the marathon Music Gallery performance mentioned above, a five-part affair including 50 tangos and a slide show of Mikhashoff in full splendour from his bygone ballroom days.

As satisfying as this collection is, it leaves me wanting more. I’m very curious about what some of the composers mentioned, but not included here, came up with in response to Mikhashoff’s challenge. For instance, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Oliver Knussen and Canadian icon John Weinzweig (also commissioned by the Music Gallery for the marathon). Dare I hope for a Volume Two?

02 DinaridesThe tango’s most familiar feature is the use of accordion, or more accurately, the South American variant the bandoneon, so it is surprising to find such an extensive collection as mentioned above without that distinctive instrument. We make up for that here with a disc of transcriptions for accordion, violin and clarinet of mostly familiar music from Eastern Europe, including such staples as two Hungarian Dances by Brahms, a Chopin Mazurka and Smetana’s Die Moldau in a very effective trio reduction. Tales from the Dinarides features Michael Bridge, Guillaume Tardif and Kornel Wolak and was released by the University of Alberta’s Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies (WIR06 michaelbridgemusic.com/store). Recipient of the Lieutenant-Governor of Alberta’s Emerging Artist Award, Bridge is currently in the Doctor of Musical Arts with Performance Emphasis on Accordion program at the University of Toronto, where for the second year in a row he has won the Joseph and Frances Macerollo Accordion Scholarship. He is no stranger to these pages where reviews of his group, Ladom, have appeared previously. At time of writing, the Bridge/Tardif/Wolak trio is on tour in Europe, having just finished concerts in Ukraine and Poland.

The title of the disc is taken from a 2016 work by prolific Tartar-Canadian composer Airat Ichmouratov which is the centrepiece of the album and the only piece written specifically for this instrumental combination. As with much of his work, the inspiration comes from the Jewish folk traditions of Central Europe, in this case the traditional singing and dancing styles of the Dinaric Alps region (Dinarides). The notes tell us that “Using a water whistle, the composer first introduces a bird in a call-and-answer episode with stunning ganga singing from Croatia. The bird then flies over mountains and valleys, observing neighbouring communities […] field songs and […] village dances [from] Bosnia, Slovenia, Serbia and Albania, until the athletic klezmer style animates everyone in a fast dance punctuated with a cheering ‘Hey!’”

The disc also includes Bridge’s striking adaptation of Brahms’ Rondo alla Zingarese and the trio’s transcription of Lutosławski’s Five Dance Preludes based on Polish folk rhythms, originally scored for clarinet and piano. The playing is animated throughout, although there is room for a bit more nuance from the clarinet.

Listen to 'Tales from the Dinarides' Now in the Listening Room

03 WajnbergThree composers seemingly unfamiliar to me populate the next disc. Produced by the Polish Ministry of Culture, Wajnberg/Tansman/Czajkowski (Accord ACD 247-2 naxosdirect.com) features the Wajnberg Trio performing music by three Polish-born composers active in the mid-20th century. I said the composers were unfamiliar to me, but in the case of the first, Mieczysław Wajnberg, it is actually just the spelling that threw me. AKA Vaynberg and Vainberg, it seems that the composer Weinberg (1919-1996) who escaped the Nazis in 1939 and spent the rest of his life in Russia, becoming a close friend of Shostakovich, was Wajnberg in his homeland. His music has been recorded with increasing frequency in recent years and has appeared here in review on numerous occasions. Wajnberg is represented by the 1945 Piano Trio, Op.24, which like much of his music is quite reminiscent of Shostakovich, especially in its more boisterous moments. For anyone who enjoys this – as I do – there is nothing here to disappoint.

Aleksander Tansman is actually a name I know as a result of my New Music Concerts colleague Robert Aitken serving on an Aleksander Tansman Festival competition jury in the Polish city of Łódź one year when flute was the instrument in focus, but his music was not familiar to me. Tansman (1897-1986) was born and raised in Łódź during the era when Poland did not exist as an independent state, being part of Tsarist Russia. After completing his studies, he moved to France in 1919 and fell under the spell of Stravinsky, Ravel and members of Les Six, embracing the modernist styles of Paris as a welcome change from the conservative scene in his homeland. Evidently the young Polish virtuoso pianist and composer made quite an impression and forged a career in the neo-Classical style. The trio here, in its premiere recording, dates from 1938, the year before Tansman fled Europe to escape the Nazi invasion. He spent the war years in Los Angeles where he scored a number of Hollywood films and in 1946 he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, for Paris Underground. He returned to France after the war, and although some of his later works reflect his Polish and Jewish roots, he never moved back to his homeland.

Andrzej Czajkowski (André Tchaikovsky) was born Robert Andrzej Krauthammer in 1935. He adopted his later name after escaping the Warsaw ghetto in 1942 with his grandmother and remained in hiding for the remainder of the war. After completing piano studies in Łódź, Warsaw and Brussels, in 1957 he gave a series of successful recitals in Paris and later went on to record with some of the who’s who of conductors of the day, including Böhm, Doráti, Giulini, Mitropoulos and Reiner. He also had some composition lessons with Nadia Boulanger and wrote a number of works that have begun to be acknowledged in the current century, including the opera The Merchant of Venice which was not produced until 2013, some three decades after his death. This is the world premiere of the two-movement Trio Notturno, Op.6 which dates from 1978. Also first performed posthumously, it is reminiscent of Viennese Expressionism, particularly the music of Alban Berg.

The members of the Wajnberg Trio – Piotr Sałajczyk, piano, Szymon Kreszowiec, violin and Arkadiusz Dobrowolski, cello – share a passion for the life and music of their namesake and draw their repertoire primarily from 20th-century Polish composers. The trio made its debut at the 2016 edition of the Tansman Festival. This is their first recording and a very welcome addition to my understanding of the modern piano trio repertoire. 

04 Shank HagedornThe Shank-Hagedorn Duo – Leslie Shank, violin and viola; Joseph Hagedorn, guitar – is a Minneapolis-based wife-and-husband team for whom much of the music on At Home and Abroad (innova 021 innova.mu) was composed. Although innova is the label of the American Composers Forum, not all the composers represented on this disc are American. Among the most intriguing works presented are Three Pieces by Finnish free-bass accordionist Maria Kalaniemi, arranged by Hagerdorn. The first, Slingerdansin, is jig-like with many characteristic “hookings” in the violin part which does a convincing Hardanger fiddle impersonation. Tähdet Taivahalla is a mournful ballad. I enjoyed watching Kalaniemi perform the original version on YouTube, and I find this string transcription quite convincing. Sofias Flykt returns to the world of quirky fiddle rhythms. I was dancing in my seat until I was confounded by its complexity.

American David Lang composed gift as a belated wedding present to “one of his oldest friends, Leslie.” It’s a lovely, gentle and contemplative tribute. Alf Houkom says there is “no program for Serenade, neither narrative, emotional or theoretical. Serenade is simply acknowledgement of the pleasure evinced by Leslie and Joe when making music together.” Born in 1935, David Hahn is a generation older than the rest of the composers here. His playful W Is for Weasel dates from 2003 and is in four movements, including an Estampie in alternating seven-eight and five-eight time inspired by the early medieval dance form, and a set of variations on Pop! Goes the Weasel. Chilean guitarist/composer Javier Contreras contributes Suite for Violin and Guitar in six movements, each embodying a different Latin American dance rhythm. For the opening track, Music in Four Sharps by Ian Krouse, the guitar and violin are joined by Stephanie Arado, violin, Tom Turner, viola, and Laura Sewell, cello, to complete the string quartet required for an extended exploration of John Dowland’s Frog Galliard. Like in the original, Krouse uses no accidentals, sticking with the seven notes of the E-Major scale; hence the title. Personally I found the 15-minute duration longer than I wanted to devote to those seven notes, but I must commend him for staying in the character of the piece.

We invite submissions. CDs, DVDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com

01 Innovators scanThe UK’s Benyounes Quartet members celebrate ten years of performing together with Innovators: Bartók-Beethoven-Debussy, a CD featuring three quartets that they feel were both innovative and influential (Champs Hill Records CHRCD147
champshillrecords.co.uk).

Bartók’s String Quartet No.2 was written between 1915 and 1917 and clearly shows the direction in which his folk music studies were leading him. In this case it was not only his research in Hungary but in particular a 1913 visit to North Africa to record Arab and Berber music that was clearly a major influence.

Beethoven’s String Quartet No.11 in F Minor Op.95 “Serioso” is from 1810; the shortest of his quartets, the sense of struggle and drama is enhanced by the unusually condensed and tense nature of the musical argument.

Debussy’s String Quartet in G Minor Op.10 is from 1893 when he was first starting to become known in Paris, and already serves notice on how his harmonic colouring would transform French music and set a new path for the 20th century.

There’s impassioned playing throughout, with electrifying pacing, outstanding dynamics and superb individual and ensemble playing.

02 Bartok ArcadiaAll six Bartók quartets are available on Bartók Complete String Quartets in performances by the Romanian Arcadia Quartet (Chandos CHAN 10992(2)
naxosdirect.com).

The quartet members, who live in Transylvania, a region that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the Great War and proved a fertile ground in Bartók’s folk music research, feel that the folk music influence goes beyond merely providing compositional material here, citing even the most abstract moments in the quartets as ones when the listener is “carried away into a world of mysticism, magic and philosophical reflection.”

Their playing is consequently more contemplative and perhaps less abrasive than that of the Benyounes, but is no less committed for that. It’s clearly music that has a deep significance for this ensemble.

03 WirenThe four extant string quartets of the Swedish composer Dag Wirén (No.1 was withdrawn) are presented on Wirén String Quartets Nos.2-5 in performances by the Wirén Quartet (Naxos 8.573588 naxos.com).

String Quartets No.2, Op.9 from 1935 and No.3, Op.18, completed in 1945, both support the composer’s stated aim to write music “which appealed directly to rather than challenging the listener,” although No.3 reflects Wirén’s extensive revision of his compositional technique.

String Quartet No.4, Op.28 from 1953 is a darker work with shades of Shostakovich and Sibelius, while No.5, Op.41 from 1970 was written only a few years before Wirén’s retirement as a composer, its three short movements ending with an air more of resignation than celebration.

04 Hartmann scanThe German composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann was 28 when Hitler became Chancellor in 1933 but, unlike many artists, stayed in Germany, refusing all cooperation with the Nazis and virtually guaranteeing his exclusion from official German musical life. The two string quartets which bookended his life in this period, String Quartet No.1 “Carillon” from 1933 and String Quartet No.2 from 1945-48 are featured on Hartmann with Poland’s Airis String Quartet (Accord ACD 245-2 naxosdirect.com).

Replete with allusions to a variety of influences (jazz elements, Jewish melodies and Hungarian folk music, especially that of Bartók) the music is essentially tonal but so strongly chromatic that a key centre rarely seems established. They’re quite different and strikingly individual works, redolent of stress and anxiety in time of conflict.

In 1942 Hartmann studied with Anton Webern, and the latter’s quite lovely Langsamer Satz from 1905 completes the CD.

05 ShostakovichIn 1938 Dmitri Shostakovich wrote the first page of what turned into his String Quartet No.1 in C Major Op.49 as an exercise with no intention of finishing it. Captivated by the process, however, he completed the full quartet in less than two months. It’s included on Shostakovich String Quartets Nos.1, 2 & 7, the latest CD from the UK-based Carducci String Quartet (Signum Classics SIGCD559 naxosdirect.com).

The String Quartet No.2 in A Major Op.68 from 1944 is a much larger and more ambitious work, but it’s the terse String Quartet No.7 in F-sharp Minor Op.108 from 1960 that despite its brevity (just over 12 minutes) has the most typical Shostakovich quartet sound.

The Carducci Quartet has performed complete cycles of the Shostakovich quartets and has previously recorded quartets numbers 4, 8 and 11 for Signum Classics. It’s not clear if this new release is part of an ongoing complete recording of the cycle, but such a set would be warmly welcomed.

06 GoreckiIf you only know the music of Henryk Górecki from the astonishingly successful Dawn Upshaw recording of his Symphony No.3: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs then the music on Górecki Complete String Quartets 1 (Naxos 8.573919 naxos.com) may come as something of a shock. 

Górecki wrote three quartets for the Kronos Quartet: No.1 Op.62 “Already it is Dusk” in 1988; No.2 Op.64 “Quasi una fantasia” in 1991 and No.3 Op.67 . . . songs to be sung in the mid-1990s. The first two, along with the early string trio Genesis I: Elementi Op.19, No.1 from 1962 are performed with full-blooded commitment by the UK’s Tippett Quartet. The single-movement first quartet and – in particular – the string trio are a tough listen, the booklet notes referencing extended playing techniques, assaultive gestures, note clusters, chord sequences of real vehemence and writing that exploits the timbral extremes of the ensemble.

The four-movement Quartet No.2 is more accessible, with clear influences of Beethoven and Shostakovich, but the familiar juxtaposition of consonance and dissonance is still present.

07 GudmenssenscanThe Nordic String Quartet is the ensemble in Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen Complete String Quartets Vol.1 (Dacapo 8.226217 naxosdirect.com), world premiere recordings of the first six of the Danish composer’s 14 quartets written between 1959 and 2013.

The works are predominantly quite brief. The first three are all from 1959: String Quartet No.1 is a single-movement Andante of less than nine minutes; the four movements of No.2 “Quartetto Facile” total less than 12 minutes; No.3 “Five Small Studies” doesn’t reach five minutes – small studies indeed!

String Quartets No.4 (1967), No.5 “Step by Step” (1982-86 revised 2003) and No.6 “Parting” (1983) are all single movements ranging from six to 19 minutes in length.

The music is difficult to describe, but touches on a wide range of influences – Bartók, Stravinsky, serialism, minimalism, Ligeti – while always maintaining an individual character. It will be interesting to hear what the later quartets are like.

08 Mozart Alexander scanVolume 2 of Apotheosis: Mozart, the Alexander String Quartet series of the late chamber works and featuring the Piano Quartets, was reviewed here last October, but Volume 1 The Final Quartets has only just been released (Foghorn Classics FCL2016 foghornclassics.com). The four works on the two-CD set are the String Quartet in D Major K499 “Hoffmeister” and the three Prussian Quartets in D Major K575, B-flat Major K589 and F Major K590. 

The quartet’s violist Paul Yarbrough describes the works as having “beauty, clarity, communication of the highest order, and – above all – balance.” It’s also an excellent description of the simply lovely playing here. Volume 3 – the Clarinet Quintet and the String Quintets – promises to be a terrific conclusion to an outstanding series.

09 Mozart QuintetsIn the meantime, Germany’s Klenke Quartett is joined by violist Harald Schoneweg on Mozart The String Quintets, a quite beautiful three-CD issue that sets a very high standard (Accentus Music ACC80467 accentus.com). Having already recorded the complete Mozart string quartets, the Klenke Quartett saw the recording of the six quintets – No.1 in B-flat Major K174, No.2 in C Minor K406, No.3 in C Major K515, No.4 in G Minor K516, No.5 in D Major K593 and No.6 in E-flat Major K614 – as a logical continuation. 

Phrasing, the use of vibrato, and articulation are based on historically informed performance techniques, and contribute to the ensemble’s superb clarity, sensitivity and an innate understanding of the richness and wide-ranging emotional moods of these wonderful works.

10 Brahms scanThe New Zealand String Quartet is joined by violist Maria Lambros in Brahms String Quintets Nos.1 and 2, a recording that completes their three albums of Brahms chamber music for Naxos (8.573455 naxos.com).

The quintets, No.1 in F Major Op.88 from 1882 and No.2 in G major Op.111 from 1890, are relatively late works, with the choice of viola as the additional instrument bringing a warmth and richness to the inner texture that creates a perfect soundscape for Brahms’ characteristic feel of autumnal reflection and nostalgic yearning.

The CD was recorded in the resonant acoustics of St. Anne’s Anglican Church in Toronto by the ever-reliable team of Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver.

11 OnslowThere’s more string quintet playing – this time with a double bass instead of a second viola – on Georges Onslow String Quintets Vol.3, with the Elan Quintet playing String Quintets No.28 in G Minor Op.72 and No.29 in E-flat Major Op.73 (Naxos 8.573887 naxos.com).

Onslow, born in France in 1784 to a French mother and English father, wrote 36 string quartets and 34 string quintets, music that was stylistically more German than French. Published in 1849 towards the end of Onslow’s life, the two quintets here are early Romantic works with clear hints of Schubert and Mendelssohn. The addition of the double bass to the string quartet produces a chamber orchestra feel, adding depth without ever being too prominent.

It’s really lovely music – warm, inventive, humorous and extremely well-written – by a musician who clearly knew his craft. The Elan Quartet’s performances of these charming works are highly enjoyable.

12 Mendelsson Concert and String SymphoniesHenry Raudales is the soloist and conductor of the Münchner Rundfunkorchester on Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy Concerto for Violin & Strings in D Minor and String Symphonies Nos.I-VI (BR Klassik 900324 naxosdirect.com). 

Written when the composer was only 13, the concerto remained virtually unknown until Yehudi Menuhin revived it in 1951. It’s a lovely work, full of the lightness and agility so typical of Mendelssohn’s later works, and performed here with equal lightness, agility and dynamic nuance by all concerned.

The six String Symphonies from 1821 (when the composer was only 12 years old!) are the first half of the 12 that Mendelssohn wrote between 1821 and 1823. Thanks to his studying composition with Carl Friedrich Zelter, the symphonies are modelled on those of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, whose Hamburg Symphonies had created the three-movement form for string orchestra. Again, the works remained in manuscript form until being rediscovered in 1950. 

Stylish performances complete a delightful CD.

13 Rubert BoydThe Guitar is the third solo album from the Australian guitarist Rupert Boyd, and pays homage to the instrument’s ability to embrace a truly wide range of repertoire (Sono Luminus DSL-92231
sonoluminus.com).

Only two works on the CD – Fernando Sor’s Introduction and Variations on a Theme by Mozart and Leo Brouwer’s ten brief Estudios Sencillos I-X – were originally written for the guitar, although the Suite in E Major BWV1006a was Bach’s own reworking of his Partita No.3 for Solo Violin, and A Closed World of Fine Feelings is Australian composer Graeme Koehne’s reworking of his own solo piano piece.

Arrangements of two pieces by Antônio Carlos Jobim – Felicidade and Estrada Branca – open the disc, and arrangements of Astor Piazzolla’s Milonga del Angel and La Muerte del Angel followed by Boyd’s own lovely arrangement of John Lennon’s Julia close it.

It’s a nicely balanced program that always holds your interest and has much to offer, with clean, resonant and idiomatic playing throughout. 

01 GoodyearStewart Goodyear’s performance on his new recording Gershwin/Goodyear (Orchid Classics, ORC100100, orchidclassics.com) sizzles with high energy from start to finish. The disc presents two compositions by Goodyear in addition to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Half of Goodyear’s family has roots in Trinidad where he describes experiencing his first Carnival and being spellbound by its diverse rhythms and music. The five-movement suite for piano and orchestra, titled Callaloo, is a brilliant and impressive example of Goodyear’s composing and orchestration skills. 

The Piano Sonata is an early work from Goodyear’s late teens. And although he admits it reflects some teenage hubris, the Sonata nevertheless carries Goodyear’s virtuosic stamp on both its writing and performance. He’s an inspired artist with a great deal to say.

The Chineke! Orchestra, led by Wayne Marshall, collaborates beautifully with Goodyear. Extraordinary playing, superb recording and engineering make this one of the most exciting discs released this year. Definitely a must-have!

02 BernsteinMichele Tozzetti’s new disc Bernstein – Complete Solo Piano Music (Piano Classics, PCL10174, naxosdirect.com) joins the few others who have taken on the challenge of this repertoire. There’s just enough solo piano material by Bernstein to fill a CD, so the project has tempted a handful of brave artists. All have discovered, however, that the composer, pianist, conductor was a complex individual and access to his music has been challenging. 

Tozzetti understands that Bernstein’s language marked him as a staunch modernist and populist. He was edgy and evolutionary but not revolutionary. His writing is never entirely without reference to some core principle of music as a contemporary individual would understand it. And Tozzetti consistently seeks out the melodic and rhythmic element to confirm this. Many of these short pieces bear the names of those to whom the works are dedicated or at least those whose impressions they reflect. Occasional ones like Aaron Copland seem to have content that makes reference to their work, but much of that remains for Tozzetti to decide.

This is quite possibly the most thoughtful and well played conception of this music to date.

03 Luke WelchLuke Welch’s third recording The Return (lukewelch.ca) presents the Beethoven Sonata in A-flat Major Op.26 and Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op.26. Welch is no stranger to the Schumann repertoire having recorded Kinderszenen on one of his earlier discs. There’s a strong and natural fit for him with this composer’s language whose harmonies he seems to understand profoundly. He’s especially persuasive in the Romanze where he moves carefully with the gentleness of Schumann’s melodic line before leaping into the Scherzino with a perfectly balletic lightness. 

The Beethoven tracks, that include a couple of Rondos Op.51 in addition to the sonata, demonstrate Welch’s affinity for the core of the classical repertoire, the discipline and balanced expression that these composers need to be convincingly played.

04 SustainSustain (Navona Records, NV6207, navonarecords.com) is a multi-composer and multi-performer recording project featuring piano, marimbas, vibraphone and some percussion. Five composers, two pianists and numerous other musicians present a rich and intriguing exploration of music bound together by the shared ability to initiate, shape and sustain sound from a keyboard, or keyboard-like instrument.

Sixteen Lines Circling a Square by Robert E. Thomas is a sonically fascinating piece in its performance by Matt Sharrock who plays both marimba and vibraphone. Solstice Introspect by Daniel Adams is written for three vibraphones and percussion, and portrays some of the mystique surrounding the annual winter event. John A. Carollo’s Piano Suite No.9 – Memories of Liszt is equally clever for its emotional and occasional musical references to Liszt.

It’s an ambitious project with a very rich program and well worth the listen.

05 Goldstone and ClemmovOh to have been a fly on the wall in that New York room in 1928 when George Gershwin played his Rhapsody in Blue for Maurice Ravel. The evening encounter is rich with anecdotes but Ravel’s brush with American music and Harlem jazz made a lasting impression that emerged repeatedly in his writing of that period. Gershwin, Ravel (Divine Art, DDA25055, divineartrecords.com) is a tribute to the works of these two composers for piano duet and two pianos. Piano duo Goldstone and Clemmow recorded these tracks over the decade 1997-2007 and their re-release in this repertoire compilation is a reminder of how their performances will be missed since the death of Anthony Goldstone two years ago.

There is such full engagement and energy in all this playing. The Rhapsody in Blue is the original version for two pianos and seems in no way diminished from its orchestral scoring. The same is true of I Got Rhythm, also in its original two-piano version. As in all their recordings, Goldstone and Clemmow never falter. They breathe and play as a single mind, whether at one keyboard or two. The disc’s closing track is perhaps both the most novel and amazing. Ravel’s version of Bolero for piano duet (that’s four hands at one very crowded keyboard) is simply impossible to imagine as it unfolds. 

06 ScarlattiIt’s always great fun to hear how Scarlatti is going to emerge from under the fingers of a newly recorded pianist. Soyeon Kate Lee’s recording Scarlatti – Complete Keyboard Sonatas Vol.21 (Naxos 8.573795, naxos.com) makes the unhurried point that there may be more to consider in these sonatas than traditionally meets the ear. Scarlatti wrote 555 sonatas in single movements, of which Lee has chosen 17 for this recording.

Taking time to explore ideas and never saying anything twice in the same way are key elements of Lee’s fresh voice in these works. She also takes a comfortably light Romantic touch to potential dance-like rhythms, giving the bass line a chance to lead rhythmically. Lee is especially adept at using the colour and dynamic potential of the piano to make more of these than Scarlatti might have imagined at the harpsichord. She plays with great care and consideration for the disciplined way in which Scarlatti crafted these pieces but applies her playful imagination to each one, polishing it into a unique gem.

07 Federico ColliFederico Colli’s latest recording J.S. Bach Italian Concerto, Partita IV, Bach/Busoni Chaconne (Chandos CHAN 20079, naxosdirect.com) explores new depths of introspection in Bach’s keyboard writing. Colli plays with all the requisite technical articulation and dynamic sensitivity that modern tastes expect in this repertoire. But he adds something strikingly unique: Colli has mastered the craft of small-voice playing. This is a keyboard utterance far below conventional pianissimo, using the gentlest of key touch, barely bringing the hammers against the strings and thereby creating a remarkable tone. Moreover, Colli seems to have the quantum ability to slow the passage of time when he does this. It’s altogether remarkable. Used strategically throughout the Partita No.4 and the slow movement of the Italian Concerto, it enhances his midrange voice and gives his fortissimos overwhelming presence. 

The combined effect of this playing style is most concentrated in the Busoni transcription of the Chaconne from Partita No.2 BWV1004 where Colli forms Bach’s most beautiful ideas slowly and minutely in time and space before letting them supernova into the immensity of Busoni’s towering chords. An unforgettable experience.

08 ChaminadeMark Viner’s recording Cécile Chaminade – Piano Music (Piano Classics PCL10164, naxosdirect.com) is a beautiful and exquisitely performed addition to his discography. Chaminade’s music is now more widely performed and admired than it was in her day. The late 19th and early 20th centuries afforded little opportunity for women to pursue careers as composers and concert performers. Still, Chaminade persevered and achieved some recognition throughout her native France. Her music is rich with textures and ideas and Viner embraces these with a remarkable fluency as if her language were his own. The opening Pierrette air de ballet Op.41 is instantly captivating and Viner brings the same impish energy to successive works in the program. The highlight of the disc may, however, be the unassuming Méditation from the 6 Romances sans paroles, Op.76. Here Viner lingers on critical phrases and gently emphasizes lush harmonies that offer a glimpse into Chaminade’s world.

09 Chun WangInternational piano competitions often award winners recording opportunities to help advance their careers. A new release, Chun Wang – 2017 Winner Jaén Prize International Piano Competition, Laureate Series (Naxos 8.573945 naxos.com) presents the winning piano recital of this Spanish competition. The concert recording quickly demonstrates why Wang won the 20,000 euro prize. His performance is spectacular. It reveals an inherent artistic intelligence that comes across as a natural affinity for whatever repertoire he plays. 

The recital program opens with Ravel’s Jeux d’eau in which Wang’s legato playing ideally captures the fluid character of the work. Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major closes the recital and provides astonishing musical and technical contrast to the earlier work. Between these two, Wang plays two of Bolcom’s 12 New Etudes, Bartók’s Out of Doors, and Fantasia, a required contemporary piece by a Spanish composer, Josué Bonnín de Góngora. 

There’s an edge-of-the-seat excitement that builds throughout this recital. Stakes are high, as are the audience expectations, and the pressure is palpable. Chun Wang delivers with confidence and flawless playing. A winner.

10 Roberto Loreggian BachRoberto Loreggian has released a three-disc set of Bach Violin Sonatas & Partitas, Cello Suites – Transcribed for harpsichord by Gustav Leonhardt (Brilliant Classics 95757, naxosdirect.com). Among the items are many that are as familiar for Bach’s own keyboard transcriptions of them as they are for their original solo forms. Bach himself realized keyboard versions of his numerous solo instrumental compositions and freely cross-pollinated his works with borrowed ideas. The documented instances of this practice led Leonhardt to devote a decade to writing his transcriptions for harpsichord based on considerable research and study. His obvious grasp of Bach’s keyboard language, harmony and counterpoint informed his approach to transcribing this repertoire.

The project may, at first hearing, seem tidy and academic, but encountering the familiar in a new voice has a subtle, arresting effect and compels fresh thinking about new discoveries. Harpsichordist Roberto Loreggian plays a modern Italian copy of an early 17th-century Flemish instrument.

11 French Suite KitCraig Swanson presents a persuasive argument for an imaginative experiment in his new recording The French Suite Kit (thefrenchsuitekit.com). Citing others like Glenn Gould, who have mused about the role of the listener and the how technology affects the way listeners participate in music, Swanson has recorded a “Kit” from which listeners can build their own performance through a mix-and-match process.

Most of the movements in the Bach French Suite No.4 in E-flat Major BWV815 appear in three or four different versions. Speed is the most obvious variable, but Swanson also alters the amount of ornamentation, shifts between two major published editions, and observes some repeats while omitting others. The objective is to offer a collection of component parts for a listener to custom build a performance that suits the preference of the moment. Moreover, Swanson’s experiment posits that there cannot ever be a definitive performance of anything. Too many things can change in the performer’s mind and the listener’s perception to make any music universally right forever.

Swanson’s intriguing ideas offer a lot to play with both musically and intellectually. 

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