03 Florien HoefnerColdwater Stories
Florian Hoefner
Origin Records 82740 (originarts.com)

The songs of Coldwater Stories by pianist Florian Hoefner seem to run one into the other, and despite the sometimes pronounced silences which form part of the music, the sound is continuous. This is just like the icy waters of the Atlantic Sea off the coast of Newfoundland, “tumbling in harness,” as Dylan Thomas once said singing from the Welsh coast. Wearing his profoundly lyrical skin comfortably, Hoefner’s own poetry can also be chameleonic as he invents new harmonies and chords that are tantamount to reinventing tonality itself, as in Iceberg 1 and Iceberg 2.

There, as elsewhere on his Coldwater Stories, the pianist begins to explore a compositional/improvisational process that avoids conventional thematic development, instead moving its material through constantly-shifting harmonic backgrounds – impression seeming to matter more than direction. A great example of this celebrated vagueness is heard in the sophistication of The Way of Water. Meanwhile, Sunrise Bay is sublimely evocative music and is at times played at such perfect pianissimo that it comes closest to being hammerless piano.

But Hoefner never completely renounces traditional tonality and form, even as he cultivates an utterly contemporary pianistic persona. His songs – for they are such works – The Great Auk and Green Gardens are shimmering and seductive and come from the moment of reconciliation. Hoefner is in his element here, revelling in the opulence of new songs of the sea, performed on the piano in all of its orchestral sonorities.

04 Janis StepransAjivtal
Janis Steprans Quintet
Effendi Records FND145
(effendirecords.com)

The album title, Ajivtal, is Latvija (Latvia) spelled backwards and is inspired not only by the music of Janis Steprans’ ancestors who came from there but also by Sonny Rollins’ Airegin, which is Nigeria spelled backwards. Steprans’ own sense of melodic sense, though, is more rooted in the lyrical leaping of Charlie Parker. You won’t find any of the 1.2 million Latvian texts or any of the 30,000 melodies that still survive in the Baltic state’s traditional music. However, in the high and lonesome melodic, almost mystical hum of Steprans’ soprano and alto saxophones, the low throaty rasp of his tenor and even the voluptuous, woody bleat of his clarinet there are indeed faint echoes of the lyrical dainas, the drone vocal styles, and even a hint of Baltic psaltery.

The textural and rhythmic tightness of Steprans’ writing and the intensity of his playing give the performance of this repertoire a compressed timbre, which, despite digital technology, makes it sound like something fulsome and almost analogue. Compositionally as well as in terms of performance – especially in group dynamics – there is a knitted pattern that emerges as the music unfolds its undulating melodies in the saxophone-guitar-piano contrapuntal progressions. Flowing rhythms inform the exquisite Ajivtal and Chambre No.5. Meanwhile, the pulsing bass throughout and the climbing reed and wind lines bloom in Suite de Thèmes Lettons, and in Un Autre Original there is a glorious headlong celebration of instrumental virtuosity.

05 Simon MillerdLessons and Fairytales
Simon Millerd
Songlines SGL 1622-2 (songlines.com)

Canada has produced some particularly lyrical trumpeters, most notably the late Kenny Wheeler and the distinguished BC native, Ingrid Jensen. Simon Millerd is a young Montrealer whose pensive lines and subtle expressiveness seem particularly indebted to Wheeler at this point in his career, as well as to the Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen, another musician whose work is filled with a clear, Northern light.

Millerd’s primary support here comes from a German group, the Pablo Held Trio, a group he first played with in 2011 and which includes pianist Held, bassist Robert Landfermann and drummer Jonas Burgwinkel. It’s a spare and lucid group, effectively setting off Millerd’s quietly intense horn. Millerd plays regularly in the band Nomad, consisting of McGill University jazz program graduates, and other members appear here in effective guest spots, the most notable contributions coming from tenor saxophonist Mike Bjella, whose engaging force is an effective counterfoil to Millerd’s approach.

Millerd acted as his own producer and he may have tried to do too much, from adding thickening synthesizer on one track to working his way through nine tunes in 44 minutes. He also employs the (mostly) wordless vocals of Emma Frank on five tracks, a device just too derivative of Wheeler’s distinguished work with Norma Winstone. Millerd’s best moment is the concluding Tale of Jonas and the Dragon, a sprightly seven-minute outing for just Millerd and the trio, with fine upwardly spiralling trumpet lines.

06 Aruan OrtizCub(an)ism
Aruán Ortiz
Intakt Records CD 290/2017 (intaktrec.ch)

Aruán Ortiz is a mid-40s pianist who plays contemporary improvised music – alright, jazz – in traditions that are at once folkloric and modernist, rooted in an Afro-Haitian, Cuban tradition that has then mingled with several significant cultural transformations: his acknowledgements include Toussaint Louverture, who 200 years ago led the first successful slave uprising in the Western hemisphere (jazz buffs might fact-check the birth name of trumpeter Donald Byrd); cubist painters Picasso and Braque; the Cuban musicologist and novelist of genius, Alejo Carpentier; pianist-composers Cage, Nancarrow and Cowell; and free jazz icons like Roscoe Mitchell and Andrew Cyrille.

That’s a lot to say, let alone carry, but Ortiz does it with determined grace, welling passion and taut execution. He plays ten original compositions here, many informed by polyrhythms and counterpoint, complex patterns that move insistently to new ground. The longest work, Cuban Cubism, is a suite of contrasting parts; Monochrome (Yubá) matches contrasting keyboard patterns, one part prepared, the other customary; the brief Dominant Force is a charging polyrhythmic pattern that links jazz piano from Fats Waller to Andrew Hill in a singular gesture.

Cuban jazz piano often emphasizes the island’s historical and cultural links to 19th-century European Romanticism, opting for a decorative, even glib style. Ortiz is different, matching the primal energies of Chano Pozo and the radical fictions of Charpentier with the revolutionary visions afoot in 20th-century European and American cultures. In the process, he creates heady, invigorating music.

07 MalcommodesLes Malcommodes invitent …
Les Malcommodes
Effendi Records FND147
(effendirecords.com)

In 2010, Montreal pianist/composer Félix Stüssi created the jazz trio Les Malcommodes, comprising himself, bassist Daniel Lessard and drummer Pierre Tanguay. When Stüssi turned 50 he decided to start a new project and added other players to the mix – Sonia Johnson, Ray Anderson, Jean Derome, André Leroux and Jacques Kuba Séguin. Though they had not really played together before, Stüssi admired these musicians. The resulting 2016 music recorded here is exciting, happy, tight-ensemble playing which, though mainly based in tonal jazz sounds, also leaps into other musical styles with ease and musicality.

Stüssi sets the musical stage with his piano stylings in the opening track Fore-Bley, a tribute to the late, great Canadian jazz pianist Paul Bley. The following Bley On! features short unaccompanied solos by each musician interspersed with full band sections. This is followed by more sonic explorations in duets and band sections. Especially noteworthy is Derome’s brilliant flute playing against Tanguay’s witty drums, and Johnson’s rich vocal tone in Debout Au Bout du Bout-Du-Banc. Great Lessard bass solo in the opening of I Can See Your Rainbow. Way too much listening fun in the two-minute Jungle Chat where the musicians hang up their jazz hats briefly to squawk and tweet like jungle beasts until they break into the more toe-tapping melodies and grooves of Anderson’s Monkey Talk.

Recording quality is great. Jam-packed with jazzy musical sounds, this is smart music performed by even smarter musicians.

08 ERR GuitarERR Guitar
Elliott Sharp with Mary Halvorson and Marc Ribot
Intakt CD 281 (intaktrec.ch)

Composer, bandleader, multi-instrumentalist, Elliott Sharp is a musician hard to classify, with equal proficiency in blues-rock, improvisation and new music. Here he concentrates on his main instrument, the guitar, on a dozen solos, duos and a trio with fellow pickers Mary Halvorson and Marc Ribot. Oddly enough, Sharp and Ribot, who specialize in more agitated sounds, both turn almost folksy in duets on Wobbly, Sinistre and Oronym. Although their chess game-like moves are both subtle and spiky on Sinistre, it’s the last track which is most distinctive. Here, one guitarist’s legato finger-picking tries to surmount the other’s canine yapping-like plucked onslaughts, until relaxed string undulations are replaced by a multiplicity of crying buzzes. Blanketing drones dominate the three Halvorson duets, with the strokes on Shredding Light so thin they break into electronic flanges. Slurred fingering and guitar-neck taps enliven both parts of Sequola, although a blanket of buzzes can’t disguise intricate dual connections.

Sharp’s solo work, however, is the most representative. Nektone for instance swiftly unites Delta bottleneck picking and outer-space-like multiphonics without fissure. Meanwhile, Kernel Panic knits together so many passing chords that it’s almost opaque. Then suddenly, with no hint of overdubbing, there seem to be two guitar lines travelling in opposite directions – one with rumbling organ-like ostinato, the other snapping out arena-sized distortion. That he manages to tame these opposites into a reassuring ending that is true to narrative, logical and conclusive, is another tribute to Sharp’s multi-talents.

09 SquaremealA Square Meal
Atrito-Afeito
Atrito-Afeito 007 (atrito-afeito.com)

As the equivalent of topping gooey Québécois poutine with piquant Portuguese sausage, this square meal is hard-edged and free-form, combining the talents of Montrealers, pianist Karoline Leblanc and drummer Paul J. Ferreira Lopes with Lisbon residents, trumpeter Luís Vicente and Hugo Antunes. Throughout, the quartet members function as master chefs for whom cooking Iberian-Canadian fare is commonplace.

With A Square Meal’s flavoursome main courses, spiky extended feasts, and sonic appetizers and desserts of the same quality, the tracks are spiced with slick piano glissandi, sifted trumpet whinnies, rounded double-bass plops and drums hammered with the efficiency of a meat tenderizer. Although infused with extended techniques, these splintered and kinetic courses also have a base of rib-sticking home cooking, since melodic slices are present throughout. Leblanc, for instance, may appear to be cramming too many notes into a tremolo outpouring, but like a seasoned cook that output fits succulently. The quartet’s replication of agile line cooking is most apparent on the 23-minute Creature Comforts. Open-ended with welcoming piano chords and a languid shuffle beat from the drummer, the narrative is swiftly shaded and sharpened with aggressive, double-tongued brass rasps, paced by string crackles from the bassist and active drum smacks. Just when it appears that Vicente can’t slur any more dissonant tones from his instrument, Leblanc’s steady comping pushes the trumpeter to mid-range blowing and joins him to return to the near-romantic theme of the beginning. A Square Meal may be unusual fare, but it’s undoubtedly musically nourishing.

01 Edge of Time Bone FlutesThe Edge of Time – Paleolithic Bone Flutes of France & Germany
Anna Friederike Potengowski; Georg Wiland Wagner
Delphian DCD34185
(delphianrecords.co.uk)

Toward the end of the last Ice Age modern humans began to settle Europe. From fragmentary cave finds and a few complete instruments, it appears that as early as 40,000 years ago these people made and played flutes of various kinds, primarily fashioned from hollow bird bones. These prehistoric flutes could well be the oldest known musical instruments fashioned by human hands. As such they represent the oldest evidence of music production, so closely associated with our species, on our blue planet.

Reconstructing these ancient flutes, and re-imagining their music, is problematic at its core, yet this contested terrain is precisely where the 16 tracks on The Edge of Time – Paleolithic Bone Flutes of France and Germany takes a stand. Classically trained German flutist Anna Friederike Potengowski began to study the four reconstructed bone flutes used on this album and their possible playing techniques in 2010 and formed VentOs with percussionist and composer Georg Wieland Wagner.

Their program of compositions and improvisations reflects an aesthetic deeply rooted in European classical music, the heritage of the two performer/composers. It’s seen in the choices of music vocabulary, extended instrumental techniques, breathing, phrasing and general performance practice. No surprise then that the flutes as played by Potengowski generally closely adhere to tones in the modern standard 12-tones-per-octave scheme, pitched at A=440 Hz.

Make no mistake however; Potengowski gives virtuoso performances on her instruments. Echoing melodies (the original flutes were all found stashed in caves), bird-like calls and breathy nature sounds are sometimes performed solo, but in most cases are accompanied by Wagner splashing water against stones, rustling grasses, chanting and playing marimba arpeggios and bombastic tympani rhythms. The longest, and for me the most successful, complete work is a performance of John Cage’s Ryoanji (1983-85) score, a haunting study of breathy glissandi by all four bone flutes and two insistent, though asymmetrically beating, stone flints. Yet I still wonder how the music played on these flutes might have sounded in the hands of their Ice Age creators.

02 Beyond the PaleRuckus
Beyond the Pale
Borealis Records BCD245 (borealisrecords.com)

The acoustic Eurofolk ensemble, Beyond the Pale, has been an important voice on the world music scene in Toronto for nearly 20 years. Known for their ability to blend genres in interesting ways, the group continues on that path with their fourth release, Ruckus, their first in eight years.

Instrumental mastery is a hallmark of the album but it comes through in the musicians’ – Bret Higgins (bass), Aleksandar Gajic (violin), Milos Popovic (accordion), Eric Stein (mandolin), Martin van de Ven (clarinets) and Bogdan Djukic and Max Sennit (percussion) – heartfelt and cohesive playing rather than a lot of show-offy, lightning speed runs. That said, there are some displays of virtuosity here and there that really dazzle.

The disc contains a mix of traditional and original compositions, with most of the band members contributing originals in true ensemble fashion. The songs alternate between plaintive ballads and rousing dance and celebration songs. Being a sucker for a low clarinet, the opening track, Atlas Revolt, grabbed me right off the bat. Ruckus in Ralja with its evocation of dance halls of Eastern Europe and the moody restraint of Andale are other standouts.

The instrumentation is essentially the same throughout and although using a variety of techniques and approaches brings some distinctiveness, I have to say that about halfway through the album the songs started to sound somewhat the same. But fans of this style of music will no doubt find plenty to enjoy and will revel in the soundscape of the “Old World,” in the hands of inventive “New World” musicians.

03 An DanAn Dàn – Gaelic Songs for a Modern World
Mary Ann Kennedy
ARC Music EUCD 2737 (arcmusic.co.uk)

On this inspired recording, Glasgow gal Mary Ann Kennedy wears a number of exquisite hats, including vocalist, pianist, composer, arranger, lyricist and co-executive producer. The CD title, An Dàn, translates as A Song or perhaps the more apropos A Destiny. The project is comprised of 11 brilliantly arranged songs – some ancient, some contemporary – and all rendered in flawless Scots-Gaelic, with an array of traditional instruments and thrilling vocals in tow. It’s not necessary to be a Gaelic speaker to appreciate this collection, as the sheer musicality and emotional depth of the project transcend any cultural or linguistic barriers. An Dàn is a marvelous affirmation of the survival of Gaelic languages – even in the face of the most oppressive 19th-century imperialism and near cultural genocide.

The opening track, Seinn, Horo, Seinn (Sing!) is rife with gorgeous string lines as well as Kennedy’s lovely, diaphanous, pitch-pure, soaring soprano. Next up is Óran do dh’lain Dómhnallach (Song for John MacDonald) which features a poem by the 20th-century Gaelic literary giant, Irig MacDonald. Gaels have a real poetic tradition of both eulogy and elegy, and nowhere on the CD is this more evident than on this composition. A tribal, male chorus adds to the track, reflecting MacDonald’s postwar life in Ghana and South Africa. Kennedy wrote the song in that tradition, and she also utilizes a sample of a vocal sequence from the Tswana and Sotho Voices.

Dàn Ur do Fhlóraidh NicNill (A New Song for Flora MacNeil) is arranged with sophistication and dissonance, and invokes ancient, Iron Age musical motifs. Finlay Wells’ light and clear guitar work is enhanced by Jarlath Henderson’s pipes – and with the addition of the strings, a sort of Celtic wall of sound is created. Two other standouts include Grádh Geal Mo Chridhe (My True Love) – a complex and masterfully produced track featuring superb choral segments and Air Leathad Slèibhe (On a Hill-land Slope) with lyrics by another 20th-century Gaelic literary giant, George Campbell Hay. This heady tune conjures up a vision of ancient Celtic settlements enveloped in mist and magic, as well as deeply-rooted spiritual connections to Mother Earth and reverence for her cycles.

01 Woman sCD006Marketing considerations aside, how best can a musician mark an important milestone or significant creativity? With recorded music the result is usually multiple discs. In honor of French bassist Joëlle Léandre’s recent 60th birthday for instance, there’s A Woman’s Work … (NotTwo MW950-2 notwo.com), an eight-disc boxed set. Almost six hours of music, the 42 tracks were recorded between 2005 and 2016, comprising one solo disc and the rest intense interaction with such associates as trumpeter Jean-Luc Cappozzo, tenor saxophonist Evan Parker, violist Mat Maneri, guitarist Fred Frith, percussionist Zlatko Kaučič, pianists Agustí Fernández or Irène Schweizer and vocalists Lauren Newton or Maggie Nicols. With improvisers from six different countries working alongside, the bassist’s charm, humor, vigour and adaptability are highlighted.

Solo on CD 6 from 2005, Léandre’s improvisations are as mesmerizing as they are mystifying. Consisting of bow slaps resonating with woody ballast, her circular attack is solipsistic enough to confirm its singularity, but so alive with twists that she sometimes seems pleasantly taken aback by what’s produced. As she plucks or saws her strings, at points she could be two bull fiddlers working in counterpoint. The climax is reached on the final track when, like a marathoner getting an energy boost, she extends still further, working some romantic beauty into her arco splays, while at the same time mocking it with vocalizing ranging from guttural growls to bel-canto gurgles. As unlike as a chocolate chip sundae and a tofu pudding, the bassist’s two 2016 vocal duets are equally valid. Eight performances with the American Newton on CD3 are the most traditional. With silky voice, the singer hopscotches among scat, lullabies, octave jumps and keening cries, as Léandre’s mischievous side appears. Besides sharpened slices that create spiccato echoes, she verbalizes an ironic obbligato to Newton’s singing. Under her breath, Léandre bawls out unexpected noises that are sly without being disruptive. Léandre, the Swiss Schweizer and the Scot Nicols have been Les Diaboliques for more than 25 years, and their performance on CD1 is cohesive, since Léandre’s disruptive tendencies can’t dominate when the others are textural dissectors as well. The showdown is mostly Léandre-Nicols, with the bull fiddler mumbling and projecting mercurial string buzzes as a divergent sideshow to the vocalist. More stream of consciousness than self-involved, Nicols could be playing all parts in a radio play, encompassing crone cackling, infant cries, feline purrs and canine yelps. Sliding from brouhaha to babble, she opens up the performance enough for instrumental virtuosity to make her vocal gymnastics stand out. More concentrated levels of instrumental dexterity are the main thrusts of Léandre’s 2011 meeting with Maneri on CD2; her match-up with Frith in 2016 on CD5; her 2015 tête-à-tête with Cappozzo (CD4); and the meeting of minds with Kaučič from 2015 (CDs 7 and 8). Frith’s alt-rock background makes that duo the most distinctive, if not the most frustrating. Committed to knob twisting, Frith sashays among rock, country and outer-space-like tones. Léandre’s acoustically dynamic thrusts almost dare him to use his mechanized equipment to gain the upper hand, then volley back any pattern he emits. More simpatico, Maneri’s mastery of the viola means that both he and the bassist can challenge one other while emphasizing the woodiness of their instruments. The result coordinates improvisational freedom, pre-modern string shading, and 20th-century aleatory patterns. So relaxed that he almost limits his contributions to cymbals, Kaučič’s dances a pas de deux with the bassist, matching her mercurial stops and inventive guitar-like twangs with bell-like resonation plus supple metal slides. From that same date, when Fernández and Parker join the drummer and bassist, jazz-oriented intersections are glimpsed, palimpsest-like, along with free improvisation. The saxophonist builds up to a staccato narrative, which Léandre hurries along with tremolo buzzes and arco strokes. Fernández’s piano pressure is so dense that he could be playing boogie-woogie. Illuminatingly, Léandre’s most satisfied improvising is alongside Cappozzo. With jazz-like allusions, the warmth communicated by intertwining brass and string textures allows the two to switch forefront and backing roles from one to the other without breaches, making room for Arcadian and ambulatory motions. Outputting chromatic expositions in graceful arcs, Cappozzo’s self-possessed playing calms the bassist’s frenetic instrumental and verbal asides, creating a cumulative sound that is profound and polished.

02a TitanCD021Brazilian tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman takes a different route. If Léandre has built a single dwelling, Perelman is more like a developer putting different styles of edifices in designated areas. With frenetic bites of Free Jazz extravagance, Perelman presents his rhapsodic interface with American pianist Matthew Shipp in seven volumes titled The Art of Perelman-Shipp (leorecords.com),Vol. 1 – Titan (CD LR 794); Vol. 2 – Tarvos (CD LR 795); Vol. 3 – Pandora (CD LR 796); Vol. 4 – Hyperion (CD LR 797); Vol. 5 – Rhea (CD LR 798); Vol. 6 – Saturn (CD LR 786) and Vol. 7– Dione (CD LR 799). Only Saturn is a duo, with the others featuring the two plus, on different discs, bassists William Parker or Michael Bisio, and drummers Andrew Cyrille, Bobby Kapp or Whit Dickey.

02b TarvosCD007To get a handle on the Perelman-Shipp discs recorded between August and November 2016, first consider Saturn. The result of more than 20 years of musical cross-fertilization, the untitled improvisations show the duo’s comfort level, with Perelman at times eschewing his usual altissimo ladder-climbing for a breathy tone and burlesquing avant-garde solemnity by shoehorning a quote from Heart and Soul into his solo on track one. While the reedist’s unique mixture of whining split tones, intense triple tonguing and theatricality at the climax stays intact, it’s framed by whimsical comping from Shipp, which calmly advances while showcasing skills like suddenly pedalling into the piano’s darker regions or maintaining a steadying pace, as Perelman wrings every extension from each reed outburst. Titan, which adds Parker to the duo and Hyperion, where Bisio completes the trio, feature similar communication, since Bisio is part of the pianist’s band, while Parker and Shipp are longtime collaborators. Parker creates a percussive undertow that expands the saxophonist’s expression, as he follows him through pitch variations and unexpected quickening and decelerating of the narratives. Vigour distinguishes the nearly 20-minute final track as Parker’s vibrant arco pumping surrounds the others’ explorations. 02c PandoraCD004At times Shipp creates a stream of high-frequency key-clipping in tandem with Perelman’s overt overblowing, while elsewhere the saxophonist and bassist bond, allowing each pattern suggested by one to be completed and improved on by the other. If Parker’s work is the stuff of high drama, then Bisio’s style is playful enough to be sitcom-ready. The bassist’s peppy interface is used in a connective fashion, though he also steps forward with tonal variations. His bowing on Part 8 adds to tremolo piano lines and high reed pitches to cement a moderate and mystical theme, while his pizzicato sluices on Part 9 push the action along so that the saxophonist’s squeals resemble cowboy yodels.

02d HyperionCD022Cyrille on Dione and Kapp on Tarvos possess contrasting drum philosophies. Cyrille brings a staccato drive to his accompaniment, where unruffled, positioned beats unite the others’ emotional excesses into a logical narrative. This is obvious on Part 6 when beside jerky piano runs, intermittent percussion clip-clops push reed squeaks from altissimo to moderato. On Part 8, the drummer’s motivating shuffle is such that what begins as a keyboard gallop turns to straight-ahead swing, with even the saxophonist’s tone balladic. Hard-toned and sharp where Cyrille is restrained, Kapp is upfront with his crackling strategies as early as Tarvos’ first track. By the final tune, his textural prodding, encompassing bass drum chopping and cymbal reverb, creates a situation swinging enough to make Shipp’s keyboard-blurring cross tones and Perelman’s peeps and dribbling smears bond animatedly.

02e RheaCD020Culmination of this musical equivalent of Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, where situations change shadings depending on the book, are Pandora and Rhea. Dickey makes a quartet with Perelman, Shipp and Parker on the first disc and with Perelman-Shipp-Bisio on the second. The Parker-Dickey team helps maintain the tumultuous level of action that is Perelman-Shipp’s specialty. This framing on tunes like Track 6 means that Perelman’s consistent altissimo exploration and narrowing yelps fit perfectly. He even shoves a lick from Cherokee into his descending slurs. Freed from the rhythmic function, Shipp has space to indulge in impressionistic reprises, as on Track 3 where the reedist’s exposition spends more time in lower-case description than showy tongue smears. Rhea’s tracks intersect even more notably. 02f SaturnCD006At over 16 minutes in length, the first track could be a suite in itself. Backed by double bass thumps and the pianist’s tempo-defining runs, Perelman’s introduction is thematic and descriptive. He recaps the head with elevated power in the final sequence atop an assembly line of drum accents.

02g DioneCD005Projects like these are reminiscent of the fact that whether you buy chocolates by the box or individually you can only savour one at a time. For maximum appreciation, this parsimony in consumption should be applied to both the boxed set and the CD series. 

It was no longer piano playing, it was music, released from all earthly weight, music in its purest form, in a harmony that can be imported only by one who was no longer of this world.

That quote is from conductor Herbert von Karajan speaking of Dinu Lipatti, universally regarded as one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century.

Constantin “Dinu” Lipatti was born in Bucharest, Romania in 1917. His father, who had studied with Pablo de Sarasate and Carl Flesch, played the violin and his mother was an accomplished pianist. His godfather was the esteemed violinist and composer George Enescu, for whom, as fate would have it, Lipatti was to become a future partner in concerts and recordings. Lipatti’s mother is quoted as saying that Dinu (as she affectionately called him) “could play the piano before he had learned to smile.” Reportedly, he played a minuet by Mozart at his own belated baptism. At the age of four he gave concerts for charity and began to compose. He studied with Florica Musicescu at the Bucharest Conservatoire. In June 1930 at a concert in the Bucharest Opera given by the best pupils from the Conservatoire, he performed the Grieg Piano Concerto to an enthusiastic audience. Two years later he won prizes for his own compositions, a Sonatina for piano and a Sonatina for violin and piano. In the same year he was awarded a Grand Prize for a symphonic suite, Les Tziganes. In 1933 he finished second at the Vienna International Piano Competition. The controversial decision led jurist Alfred Cortot to resign in protest. In Paris he studied with Cortot and, who else but Nadia Boulanger. At his first public concert in May 1935, a few days after the death of his friend and teacher Paul Dukas, Lipatti opened the program with the Myra Hess transcription of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, as his very first public performance of any piece as an adult.

01a Lipatti 100Dinu Lipatti, the 100th Anniversary Edition (Profil PH17011, 12 CDs) contains his entire published EMI recordings, for whom he was an exclusive artist, together with a few rarities from the BBC, Bucharest and elsewhere. Profil has set out the recordings – solos, duets, concertos, etc. – chronologically, starting from the Paris sessions in 1936 through to his final concert in Besançon in 1950. Included are works of Bach, Bartók, Brahms, Chopin, Fauré, Grieg, Lipatti, Liszt, Mozart, Ravel, Scarlatti and Schumann. Colleagues appearing with him include George Enescu, Ernest Ansermet, Eduard van Beinum, Herbert von Karajan, Alceo Galliera, Nadia Boulanger, Hans von Benda and Otto Ackermann. Note the absence of Beethoven, whose works were in his repertoire. As a matter of interest, he was asked to record the Emperor Concerto and he declined because he felt that he was not ready… stating that he required four years of preparation time! The ninth disc contains the Mozart Piano Concerto No.21, with Lipatti playing the cadenzas that he had composed in 1945. It was recorded live in Lucerne on August 23, 1950, conducted by Karajan with the Festival Orchestra. From February 22 of the same fateful year there is a live performance of the Schumann Piano Concerto from Geneva, with Ansermet and the Suisse Romande. His interpretation is very different from the celebrated 1948 recording with Karajan, particularly his introspection in the first movement.

The 12th disc is devoted to his final recital on September 16, 1950 at the Besançon International Music Festival. He was in extremely poor condition, severely weakened from chronic suffering from Hodgkin’s disease, with which he was finally diagnosed in 1947. Against the advice of his wife Madeleine and his doctor, he insisted on playing. He played Bach’s Partita No.1, BWV825, Mozart’s Piano Sonata No.8, K310 and Schubert Impromptus D899 Nos.2 and 3. Last on the program were the 14 Chopin Waltzes. He was simply too weak to play the final Waltz, Op.34, No.1 but played instead Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, which was not, however, recorded. The beautiful irony was that the last piece he was to play was the first piece in his first concert. For this disc, the 13 waltzes are followed by his prior recording of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. Dinu Lipatti died three months later in Geneva, aged 33.

There was nothing routine about Lipatti’s playing. He filled the notes with life, evidenced by these exemplary performances that graced the catalogues over the years, all mono of course, and hearing them again re-ignited the initial enthusiasm. Sensitive newcomers who pay attention should be equally impressed.

01b Lipatti ineditsFootnote: If you are interested, a set from Archiphon, Dinu Lipatti – Les Inédits (ARC-112-113, 2CDs) contains some choice and rare performances from several sources including the BBC. There is also a unique performance of his Symphonie Concertante for two pianos and orchestra. Recorded in concert in Geneva on September 14, 1951, one year after his death, it is played by his widow Madeleine Lipatti and Béla Siki, with the orchestra of the Suisse Romande conducted by Ansermet. This tape was from Siki’s private collection.

02 TrovatoreThere is now a DVD of the celebrated 1978 performance of Il Trovatore recorded live in the Vienna State Opera (Arthaus Musik 109334). The opera was a great favorite of Herbert von Karajan who, in this case, not only conducted but, as was his want, was responsible for the stage direction. This performance is “steeped in scandal.” There are many different accounts of the following incident but according to the liner notes: “Franco Bonisolli was originally cast in the role of Manrico but abandoned the company during a rehearsal where the public had been admitted entry, and, after throwing his sword at the conductor, left the stage in a fury, to be later replaced by Plácido Domingo.” The rest of the outstanding cast are Piero Cappuccilli (Il Conte di Luna), Raina Kabaivanska (Leonora), Fiorenza Cossotto (Azucena), José van Dam (Ferrando), Maria Venuti (Inez), Heinz Zednik (Ruiz), Karl Caslavsky (an old gypsy) and Ewald Aichberger (a messenger). Domingo is in full control of his scenes; Kabaivanska was a Karajan favourite at the time and one can clearly hear why. In truth, every soloist named above is perfectly cast and exemplary in their roles.

Watching the plot unfold is quite a different experience from only hearing it. The sets were designed by Teo Otto, and the costumes by Georges Wakhewitsch. Some, in fact a lot, of credit for what we see must go to the late Günther Schneider-Siemssen, who edited the ORF video for TV. Schneider-Siemssen was responsible for opulent, realistic sets that were seen in opera houses around the world. It was he who created the unforgettable sets for the Met’s Ring Cycles (available on DVD) that played every four years through the 1980s. However, for this production he acted only as editor. He died in 2015 at the age of 88. I must assume that he could not edit out the singers stepping right out of character and taking a bow after what seems like every big duet. Was that the custom of the day? Bottom line: this is an outstanding performance and, distracting bows notwithstanding, a no-complaints video.

01 MessiaenCanadian soprano Jane Archibald’s international career continues to flourish with recent and upcoming performances in leading roles at the Met, Opéra national de Paris, La Scala, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, and opera houses in Düsseldorf, Munich, Zürich, Santa Fe and Madrid, plus a tour with the English Concert as Armida in Handel’s Rinaldo. Here at home, Archibald is the Canadian Opera Company’s Artist in Residence for the coming season, featured in Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and Other Short Fables and as Zdenka in the COC’s premiere production of Strauss’ Arabella, which opens at the Four Seasons Centre on October 5.

Primarily known for her interest in the Baroque and classical eras – her discography includes music of Charpentier, Vivaldi, Haydn and Mozart – Archibald has also been known to venture bravely into the 20th century, as witnessed by the latest release from the Seattle Symphony. Continuing its own commitment to the music of our time, and in particular modern French repertoire, following three recordings of works by Henri Dutilleux, Ludovic Morlot leads the orchestra in seminal pieces by Olivier Messiaen (SSM1016 seattlesymphony.org). A relatively early work, Poèmes pour Mi, dates from 1936. Originally written for soprano and piano, the work appeared in an orchestral version the following year and was Messiaen’s first vocal work to be orchestrated. It was dedicated to his first wife, violinist Claire Delbos; “Mi” (as in “do, re, mi”), corresponding to the highest string, E, on the violin, was his nickname for her. As with all of his vocal settings, the texts are by the composer. Archibald’s clear, pure soprano voice is particularly well suited to this deeply personal work that explores the spiritual aspects of marriage. It is rarely heard in its orchestral version, and in fact this recording is a first for my own extensive Messiaen collection.

The song cycle is nicely complemented by another pivotal vocal work, Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine from 1944, following Messiaen’s release from a German prison camp in Silesia where he composed the Quatuor pour la fin du temps. The Liturgies were written for high male voices (the Northwest Boychoir in this recording) and an orchestra featuring Messiaen’s signature sounds of obbligato ondes Martenot and piano, played here by Cynthia Millar and Michael Brown respectively. All involved perform with distinction under Morlot’s direction in this significant addition to both the orchestra’s and Messiaen’s discography.

02 Herald TribuneHaving just mentioned Messiaen’s Quatuor, I will use it to segué to the next disc that caught my attention over the summer, Composer-Critics of the New York Herald Tribune (Other Minds OM 1024-2
otherminds.org)
. The outer Chorale movements of Lou Harrison’s Suite for Cello and Harp (1949) put me in mind of the Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus for solo cello and piano in Messiaen’s iconic work, not in a derivative sense, but rather in their meditative sensibility. Harrison (1917-2003) is one of five composers featured on this intriguing disc, which includes program notes and an extensive essay by another pioneering figure of American art music, Charles Amirkhanian, and two articles by the Herald Tribune’s chief critic Virgil Thomson. The more-than-50-page booklet is an important artifact in its own right, not only giving context to the music, but painting an intriguing picture of a time quite unlike our own, when art music was treated seriously, and prominently, by mainstream media.

Thomson’s own witty Capital Capitals, on a text by the inimitable Gertrude Stein, is included along with works by novelist/composer Paul Bowles, Australian-born Peggy Glanville-Hicks and a man who arguably had the biggest influence on our basic understanding of the very nature of what constitutes music, John Cage. Thomson’s 1927 setting of the tongue-twisting text, which riffs on CAPITAL LETTERS and Capital Cities, is scored for four alternating male voices and piano. It is the earliest work presented, with Glanville-Hicks’ craggy Sonata for Piano and Percussion (1951-52) with its, perhaps inevitable, echoes of Bartók, the most recent. Bowles is represented by the tongue-in-cheek Music for a Farce (1938) for clarinet, trumpet, percussion and piano, and Cage by the quietly haunting, and now iconic, String Quartet in Four Parts (1949-50) performed by the New Music String Quartet.

Upon first listening I did not realize the recordings were historic, as the sound is convincingly pristine. But they are all monophonic and were originally issued by Columbia Records between 1953 and 1955 on the Modern American Music Series. Reproduced under license from Sony, this Other Minds release is a welcome addition to my understanding of mid-century American music and culture. The booklet also includes the strikingly modern cover art from the four original LPs.

03 Arion EnsembleAlthough recorded in 2014, Rebelles Baroques (EMCCD7777, early-music.com) is the most recent recording of Montreal’s Arion Orchestre Baroque to come my way. Featuring music of Quantz and Telemann, it focuses on two composers who developed and perfected the goûts réunis style of the early-to-mid 18th century, integrating French and Italian approaches into German music. While simply referred to as rebels in the disc’s title, the booklet essay calls Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Joachim (J.J.) Quantz “Delightful Rebels” (“Charmants Rebelles” in Jacques-André Houle’s original French) which seems to incorporate both the elegance of the music and the fact that Quantz and Telemann had to fight against family prejudices to follow their chosen musical paths. Telemann was expected to become a clergyman like his father, while Quantz’s family trade was blacksmithing. Both overcame the odds to follow their own dreams and to our benefit the rest, as they say, is history.

Telemann (1681-1767) is the senior of the two, and his output spans virtually all musical genres. It seems most of his instrumental music dates from before 1740 and in the case of the three concertos included here, likely before 1721 for presentation in Frankfurt by the collegium musicum of the Frauenstein society of which he was the director. The first is a concerto grosso for strings and continuo featuring the whole group, with Alexander Weimann directing from the harpsichord. The second has the distinction of being the first concerto written for viola, and Jean-Louis Blouin shines in a surprisingly busy and ornately ornamented solo part. The third is a lovely flute concerto with an opening reminiscent of birds awakening at first light. Like all of the Telemann concertos included here, it is in four movements as in the earlier sonata di chiesa form, rather than the Italian-style three movements. All of the movements, including the stately Largo, are flowing and dancelike.

Quantz (1697-1773) was, like Telemann, a multi-instrumentalist, but most prized for his flute playing. He was flute tutor and composer to Frederik the Great of Prussia, as of 1741 composing exclusively for the musical king (for whom Bach wrote the famed Musical Offering). He is represented by two (three-movement) concertos which bookend the disc, one for solo flute and one for two flutists, Arion stalwart Claire Guimond who is joined Alexa Raine-Wright, a renowned soloist and regular member of Infusion Baroque and Flûte Alors. The two trade lines seamlessly and work in perfect harmony throughout, especially in the Presto finale which brings this engaging disc to a rousing close.

Review

04 Songs ShanitesThe next disc also comes out of Quebec, but that’s about where any resemblance ends. I first thought that Sea Songs & Shanties (ATMA ACD2 2749) was a departure for La Nef (la-nef.com) but I now realize that in their more-than-two-and-a-half-decade history La Nef has encompassed a wealth of styles from “early music, the music of oral traditions, world music, experimental and contemporary approaches to musical creation.”

This current project is under the direction of eclectic singer Seán Dagher, himself as at home in an Irish pub as in many musical traditions from Medieval and Baroque through contemporary folk. Dagher tells us: “These songs did not start out as music to be heard. These were songs to sing, songs to help with the work, songs to pass the time. Their original functions influenced the way they are built […] as call and response songs: a whole crew can learn a song from one man in the first instants he’s singing it. They are sung rhythmically, so the hauling is most efficient. Or they are sung freely, as if to fill the long days and evenings spent together. These songs are spread by oral trading, creating many variants and variations.”

This tradition was brought home to me earlier this summer when I came upon a version of the song I had grown up believing was called Sloop John B. As I found out from Tom Lewis’ rendition of the original Nassau Bound, the Beach Boys “left out the [most interesting] parts.” That, in combination with re-visiting a disc I wrote about last year, by Chaim Tannenbaum, which includes a duet with Loudon Wainwright on the traditional tune Paddy Doyle, primed the pump for my appreciation of this Irish-tinged maritime journey with La Nef.

The disc opens gently with Leave Her, Johnny, with sparse cittern accompaniment that gradually adds more voices, bass and flute and grows to a full finish replete with bosun’s whistle, wave sounds and seagull cries. As the disc progresses through drinking songs and laments, cautionary tales of press gangs and ship wrecks, welcoming tunes like Over the Hills and Far Away and Haul on the Bowline, we are drawn into the myriad moods of the seafarer. It’s at times randy and rugged, so strap yourself to the mast and prepare for adventure. But be forewarned, like shades of the John B: “I hate to sail on this rotten tub; No grog allowed and rotten grub,” so pack a lunch!

05 MAE TrioI have written on several occasions in these pages about “my favourite band,” the newgrass-flavoured Joy Kills Sorrow, and lamented their demise. Since they disbanded a couple of years ago I have been on the lookout for a successor to comfort me. Although not as instrumentally virtuosic, over the summer I had the pleasure of hearing a group from Australia that went a long way towards filling that void: The MAE Trio, three young women the initials of whose given names (Maggie, Anita and Elsie) provide the acronym of their trio’s name. When my wife and I saw them at the Burdock, they played violin, mandolin, guitar, banjo and cello between them, and produced some sweet high harmonies on mostly original material. One of the songs, Haul Away, is a quasi-sea shanty, but I don’t think that alone explains my infatuation – I left the gig humming the title track of their latest release Take Care, Take Cover (Creative Victoria Records) and am very glad to have taken a copy home with me.

Evidently this was their second trip to Canada (and second Burdock appearance) and although it may be a while before they return – throughout September and October these world travellers have shows in Ireland and various places in the UK – you can sample material, and buy the CD, on their website (themaetrio.com).

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

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com

04 Songs Shanites

Sea Songs & Shanties
La Nef
ATMA ACD2 2749

Review

The following is an excerpt from Editor's Corner (September 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.

The next disc also comes out of Quebec, but that’s about where any resemblance ends. I first thought that Sea Songs & Shanties (ATMA ACD2 2749) was a departure for La Nef (la-nef.com) but I now realize that in their more-than-two-and-a-half-decade history La Nef has encompassed a wealth of styles from “early music, the music of oral traditions, world music, experimental and contemporary approaches to musical creation.”

This current project is under the direction of eclectic singer Seán Dagher, himself as at home in an Irish pub as in many musical traditions from Medieval and Baroque through contemporary folk. Dagher tells us: “These songs did not start out as music to be heard. These were songs to sing, songs to help with the work, songs to pass the time. Their original functions influenced the way they are built […] as call and response songs: a whole crew can learn a song from one man in the first instants he’s singing it. They are sung rhythmically, so the hauling is most efficient. Or they are sung freely, as if to fill the long days and evenings spent together. These songs are spread by oral trading, creating many variants and variations.”

This tradition was brought home to me earlier this summer when I came upon a version of the song I had grown up believing was called Sloop John B. As I found out from Tom Lewis’ rendition of the original Nassau Bound, the Beach Boys “left out the [most interesting] parts.” That, in combination with re-visiting a disc I wrote about last year, by Chaim Tannenbaum, which includes a duet with Loudon Wainwright on the traditional tune Paddy Doyle, primed the pump for my appreciation of this Irish-tinged maritime journey with La Nef.

The disc opens gently with Leave Her, Johnny, with sparse cittern accompaniment that gradually adds more voices, bass and flute and grows to a full finish replete with bosun’s whistle, wave sounds and seagull cries. As the disc progresses through drinking songs and laments, cautionary tales of press gangs and ship wrecks, welcoming tunes like Over the Hills and Far Away and Haul on the Bowline, we are drawn into the myriad moods of the seafarer. It’s at times randy and rugged, so strap yourself to the mast and prepare for adventure. But be forewarned, like shades of the John B: “I hate to sail on this rotten tub; No grog allowed and rotten grub,” so pack a lunch!

01 Barton Pine PaganiniAmerican violinist Rachel Barton Pine follows up her outstanding Testament issue of the complete Bach Solo Partitas & Sonatas with another wonderful 2CD set of solo violin works, this time Bel Canto Paganini: 24 Caprices and other Works for Solo Violin (Avie AV2374).

In her excellent booklet essay Pine quite rightly stresses the musicality of these remarkable pieces, and not just the technical aspects. Paganini was greatly admired by his operatic contemporaries, with Rossini, Verdi and Bellini all considering his compositions to be fully in the bel canto Italian vocal style, and Pine’s interpretations always stress the melodic content. There’s never a hint of anything but complete mastery of the technical issues either.

In addition to the 24 Caprices Op.1 three other Paganini solo works are here: the astonishing Introduction and Variations in G Major Op.38 on Paisiello’s “Nel cor più non mi sento; the brief Duo merveille Op.6 “Duet for One; and the Caprice d’adieu Op.68. Pine’s playing leaves you simply breathless.

Finally, in acknowledgement of Paganini’s profound influence on her, Pine adds her own brilliant Introduction, Theme and Variations on “God Defend New Zealand” which she wrote in 2000 for the end of her first tour of New Zealand. If you didn’t know, you would swear it was by Paganini. It’s a dazzling end to a remarkable set.

02 Esther Yoo TchaikovskyThe outstanding American-Korean violinist Esther Yoo follows up her terrific debut Deutsche Grammophon CD of the Sibelius and Glazunov concertos with another outstanding collaboration with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra on the same label, this time featuring works for violin and orchestra by Tchaikovsky (481 5032).

It should come as no surprise, given Ashkenazy’s involvement, that all the performances here display a marked sensitivity and an innate empathy for the music. The Violin Concerto is the main work here, of course, and the measured, unhurried opening signals an approach that continues throughout the work, although there is never a lack of passion when needed.

The high performance standard is maintained throughout the remaining works on the disc. The two pieces from Swan Lake – the Pas de Deux from Act 1 and the Danse Russe from Act 3 – are both original violin solos from the ballet score, and not transcriptions or arrangements. The poignant Sérénade mélancolique in B flat Minor, Op.26 was the composer’s first major work for violin and orchestra. The really lovely Valse-Scherzo Op.34 and the Glazunov orchestration of the Mélodie – the last of the three pieces that comprise Souvenir d’un lieu cher, Op.42 – complete another outstanding CD from these artists.

03 Shostakovich GubaidulinaThe Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma is the soloist on Shostakovich/Gubaidulina, her second CD on the Challenge Classics label and featuring the former’s Violin Concerto No.1 in A Minor, Op.77 and the latter’s In tempus praesens. The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by James Gaffigan in the Shostakovich and by Reinbert de Leeuw in the Gubaidulina (CC72681).

It’s an impressive performance of the Shostakovich, a deeply personal work written a few years after the end of the Second World War but temporarily shelved when the composer was once again vilified by the Communist Party in 1948; it didn’t receive its premiere until 1955. Lamsma is terrific throughout.

Sofia Gubaidulina’s In tempus praesens is her second violin concerto, an extended single-movement work written for Anne-Sophie Mutter in 2007. A work of extreme contrasts that demands great virtuosity from the soloist, it is scored for a large orchestra that does not include first or second violins, giving the soloist unchallenged freedom in the higher string register. Lamsma handles every challenge quite superbly.

The Shostakovich is a studio recording from 2016, while the Gubaidulina was recorded live in concert at the Royal Concertgebouw, Amsterdam in October 2011. The Netherlands orchestra provides excellent support in both instances.

04 Sarah ChristianGegenwelten (Contrasting Worlds) is the debut CD from the German violinist Sarah Christian, accompanied by the Armenian pianist Lilit Grigoryan in a recital of works by Prokofiev and Schubert (Genuin GEN 17472).

If 27 seems to be a rather late age for a debut CD then in this particular case it was certainly worth the wait; there is a clear and undeniable maturity to both Christian’s playing and her interpretations of the Prokofiev Sonata No.1 in F Minor, Op.80 and the Schubert Fantasie in C Major, D934. The Prokofiev sonata has a dark, ominous opening movement, a strikingly strong second movement, an ethereal slow movement and a tense and desolate final Allegrissimo, all making for a memorable performance.

The Schubert Fantasie is ostensibly an extended single-movement work, but in fact consists of four loosely connected sections played without a break. Again, it’s a beautifully balanced performance, with a finely nuanced opening that sets the tone for everything that follows.

Both players are in tremendous form here, and the recorded sound is outstanding. In the publicity blurb Christian says that “When playing, I really feel everything there is to feel.” That doesn’t always come through on a recording, but on this exemplary debut disc it most certainly does.

05 Beethoven Sonatas with fortepianoI didn’t see the first two volumes of the ongoing cycle of the complete Beethoven Sonatas for Fortepiano and Violin on period instruments, featuring violinist Susanna Ogata and Ian Watson on the fortepiano, but Volume 3 (CORO Connections COR16154) of the four-CD series certainly makes me wish that I had.

The works here are the three sonatas published in 1803 as Opus 30: No.6 in A Major; No.7 in C Minor; and No.8 in G Major. The fortepiano obviously lacks the power of a modern grand piano but more than compensates for this with its range of tonal colour and acoustic variation. Ogata uses gut strings and a period bow, with the resulting warmer sound perfectly complementing the keyboard and creating a sound world imbued with what The Strad magazine, in its review of Volume 2, called “a clarity rarely achieved.”

There are some outstanding sets of the complete sonatas available with modern keyboard – the Ibragimova/Tiberghien and Duo Concertante issues, for instance – but if you still harbour any doubts about the effectiveness of performing these sonatas with fortepiano then this CD series should simply blow them away.

06 Boyd meets Girlboyd meets girl sees the American cellist Laura Metcalf paired with her husband, the Australian guitarist Rupert Boyd, in a really terrific selection of pieces for cello and guitar (Sono Luminus DSL-92217).

The three-movement Reflexões No.6 by Bolivian composer Jaime Zenamon is a lovely work, full of rich and sonorous cello lines and some rapid guitar work, all beautifully handled by the duo. The Allegretto Comodo, the first movement of the Sonata for Cello and Guitar by the Brazilian composer Radamés Gnattali, is the only other work written specifically for cello and guitar; it’s another terrific piece.

Apart from Ross Edwards’ beautiful Arafura Arioso, arranged especially for the duo by the Australian composer, all the other tracks on the CD are arrangements by Boyd and Metcalf. Fauré’s Pavane Op.50, four of Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, Astor Piazzolla’s Café 1930 (originally for flute and guitar) and de Falla’s Siete Canciones Populares Españolas are all extremely effective in these arrangements, but none more so than the quite stunning and ethereal Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Pärt, played by Metcalf at the original violin pitch over Boyd’s beautifully controlled guitar work. The final track is the duo’s arrangement of Human Nature, the Steve Porcaro and John Bettis song from Michael Jackson’s 1982 Thriller album.

A warm and resonant recorded sound quality complements a superb CD that is an absolute delight from beginning to end.

07 Emerson Britten DowlandGiven the affinities between Benjamin Britten and his predecessor Henry Purcell it comes as no surprise to see their music paired on Chaconnes and Fantasias – Music of Britten and Purcell, the latest CD from the Emerson String Quartet, celebrating its 40th anniversary (Decca Gold B0026509-02).

Purcell’s Chacony in G Minor appeared in the same manuscript as the Fantazias (Purcell’s spelling) and is played here in Britten’s performing edition. It’s a full-blooded performance, with quite heavy vibrato. The Fantazias Nos.6 in F Major, 8 in D Minor, 10 in E Minor and 11 in G Major are more idiomatic, with very little vibrato and the dissonant clashes clearly defined. In company with Britten’s music they sound decidedly modern.

Sandwiched in the middle of the Fantazias is a terrific performance of Britten’s String Quartet No.2 in C Major, Op.36 from 1945, the first performance of which took place in London on the exact 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death. Moreover, the Chacony final movement is modelled on Purcell’s own Chacony.

Another immensely satisfying performance, this time of Britten’s String Quartet No.3 in G Major, Op.94, a fascinating and highly personal work written in late 1975 just a year before his death, completes an outstanding disc.

08 Harberg WolpertPremiere recordings of two very accessible 21st-century Viola Concertos by Amanda Harberg and Max Wolpert are featured on a new Naxos CD in their American Classics series, with the American violist Brett Deubner accompanied by the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra under Linus Lerner (8.559840).

Both works were written for Deubner, who has had more than 30 concertos dedicated to him. John Corigliano said of Amanda Harberg that she “writes truly beautiful music,” and her Concerto from 2011/12 more than supports that view, with a soaring and strongly rhythmical first movement described as a meditation on flight, a simply beautiful Aria middle movement and an energetic and joyful finale.

Wolpert’s Viola Concerto No.1, “Giants” reflects the composer’s fascination with ancient musical traditions and fable and legend as well as his extensive work in musical theatre. The three movements are Father Time, The Golden Harp and the Balkan-flavoured Dance of the Cloud Women.

Also on the disc is Harberg’s short Elegy from 2007, written for violin and piano and played here in the composer’s excellent arrangement for viola and string orchestra.

Deubner is clearly in his element with these very attractive works.

09 Robert BeaserThe American guitarist Eliot Fisk met the composer Robert Beaser in 1972 when they were both at Yale, and two of the works that resulted from their long friendship are featured on Robert Beaser Guitar Concerto, with José Serebrier conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (LINN CKD528).

The concerto is an immediately attractive eclectic three-movement work; in the dazzling Phrygian Pick third movement Beaser combines the traditional Andalusian flamenco technique with American bluegrass style. Fisk’s performance is simply brilliant. It’s an outstanding concerto, and a significant addition to the guitar repertoire.

The solo guitar work Notes on a Southern Sky was influenced by the folk music of Latin America in general and Venezuela in particular. Again, the clarity, agility and tonal variation of Fisk’s playing are quite stunning.

Two orchestral works complete the disc: the superb tone poem Evening Prayer, aptly described as demonstrating the melodic and harmonic beauty which characterises Beaser’s style; and Ground O, Beaser’s own 2011 orchestration of a movement from an earlier work written within a month of the tragic events in New York in September 2001. The RSNO performance under Serebrier is outstanding, particularly in the Evening Prayer.

10 Well Tempered ClavierJ.S. Bach’s two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier have influenced composers since their creation, with both Mozart and Beethoven scoring some of the pieces for string quartet. In the 2CD set J. S. Bach The Well-Tempered Clavier Book One For String Quartet Nicholas Kitchen, the first violin of the Borromeo String Quartet, has finally fulfilled a long-held desire with his transcription of the music for string quartet (living archive LABSQ 101).

The process clearly produced some surprises and challenges for Kitchen and his fellow quartet members as they developed the project, but the end result is extremely satisfying, both musically and emotionally. Kitchen acknowledges that playing the 48 pieces brought the quartet into “a rarified listening-scape,” where the extreme demands on the players’ need to listen to each other resulted in “a clearer understanding of what is really the essence of musical meaning and spirit.”

Luckily, it has also resulted in an engrossing listening experience for all of us.

11 PermutationsThe English violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen plays two solo pieces written by her younger sister Freya Waley-Cohen on Permutations (Signum Classics SIGCD496).

Permutations is a touring artwork project developed by the sisters and the architectural designers Andrew Skulina and Finbarr O’Dempsey, with Freya writing several different musical characters for both six-part violin consort and for solo violin. The performance setting is “a set of six chambers which spatially distribute the six recorded violin parts… but also give the listener the opportunity to change the acoustic properties and level of isolation for each part. Handing a certain level of artistic and creative power over to the listener was the guiding force in the creation of the artwork.”

For this recording Waley-Cohen decided to take back that power and present Permutations in perfectly balanced ensemble. The individual characters are clearly identifiable in the excellent stereo setup, and one can’t help but wonder what the effect of the original physical setting must be, given how effective and engrossing the recorded version is.

While writing Permutations Waley-Cohen wrote two other works using some of its musical characters; one of them, Unveil for solo violin, is included here.

At less than 28 minutes this is not a substantial CD, but what it lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality. Tamsin Waley-Cohen’s playing is exemplary.

12 Paul ChiharaTake the A Train (Bridge Records 9488) is Volume 3 of the eclectic music of the 79-year-old American composer Paul Chihara, whose wide experience includes extensive work for movies and television.

The Gavin String Trio performs the String Trio from 1985, and Jerome Lowenthal is the soloist in the fascinating Bagatelles – Twice Seven Haiku for Piano from 2010. The Girl from Yerevan is an attractive piece from 2014, played here by guitarist David Starobin, violinist Movses Pogossian and violist Paul Coletti.

The final work is a real knockout: the three-movement Ellington Fantasy performed by the Lark String Quartet. Duke Ellington’s I’m Beginning to See the Light is a great opener; the arrangement of Sophisticated Lady is quite stunning, and the CD’s title track provides a great jazzy ending to an excellent disc.

13 Mozart BeethovenAnd finally, violinist Boris Abramov and cellist Carmine Miranda combine their talents on Mozart/Beethoven Violin and Cello Duets (Navona Records NV6118).

None of the music here is in its original form. Mozart’s Two Duos for Violin and Cello are arrangements of the Duos for Violin and Viola in G Major, K423 and B flat Major, K424, both written as a favour to Michael Haydn to complete a set of six duos he was writing for the Archbishop of Salzburg. The Beethoven work is an arrangement of the Three Duos for Clarinet and Bassoon, WoO27, a set of duets that were probably early works influenced by the Mozart duos but may possibly be spurious.

With their warm tone and nice phrasing Abramov and Miranda make a good case for these versions of the works, although the music itself doesn’t allow for a great deal of dynamic range.

01 Goodyear RavelStewart Goodyear’s newest recording, Ravel – Stewart Goodyear (Orchid Classics ORC 100061) is the product of a lifelong affection for Ravel’s music that began at age five. Goodyear admits that it has taken a long time to immerse himself in the composer’s works and reach a point where he was ready to begin recording his music. He plans, in fact, to record all of Ravel’s works for piano.

What Goodyear demonstrates at the keyboard is that he is willing to take his time playing this music. It’s not so much a slower pace than a willingness to open the breathing spaces much wider than many pianists do. These suspended moments of time cumulatively lift the music to an ethereal state where Ravel’s impressionistic figures, the arpeggios and chordal clusters, are perceived more as emotion than sound. Oiseaux tristes and La vallée des cloches are powerful examples of this Goodyear effect.

Goodyear also reveals an innate ability to home in on a melody. Ravel makes this fairly straightforward, sometimes just having it played in simple octaves. But Goodyear has a way of drawing the notes out of the swirling harmonies that sets them within easy reach of the ear. It’s a matter of touch – and Ravel’s keyboard language requires absolute mastery of the technique.

Scarbo, from Gaspard de la nuit, is the dark and somewhat maniacal side of Ravel’s work. Here too, Goodyear proves his technical control is never outrun by the demands of the music.

If Goodyear’s intention to record all the Ravel piano works comes to fruition, there will be something wonderful to anticipate.

Review

02 Jean Willy KunzJean-Willy Kunz is the first organist in residence of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. His debut solo recording Jean-Willy Kunz au grand orgue Pierre-Béique (ATMA ACD2 2747) contains the requisite Toccatas along with some skillfully chosen works that make this recording thoroughly entertaining.

Among the standards in the list is the Toccata from Widor’s Organ Symphony No.5. For the sake of acoustic clarity, Kunz takes this at a slightly slower pace than is often heard, so the piece comes across cleanly but still powerfully. Vierne’s Carillon de Westminster Op.54, No.6 builds beautifully to a towering and thrilling finish. Another impressive work is Maxime Goulet’s Citius, altius, fortius! in which Kunz showcases the organ’s solo and chorus reeds, and mixtures.

The CD’s highlight is Kunz’s own arrangement of Saint-Saëns Le Carnival des animaux. The colouristic potential of this symphonically planned concert instrument is exploited in each of the 15 movements. L’Éléphant, appropriately portrayed by the deepest register pedal pipes, will shake your speakers, while Le Coucou au fond des bois uses a small reed stop to sound the familiar two-note call.

It’s an excellent recording with perfect repertoire choices and brilliant playing.

03 ExordiumOrganist Erik Simmons has recorded seven CDs by American composer and organist Carson Cooman. The latest, Exordium – Music for Organ by Carson Cooman (Divine Art dda 25154) is a wide selection of Cooman’s works designed to showcase the main organ of the Cathédral Notre-Dame de Saint-Omer in northern France. The recording uses the Hauptwerk system, which digitally records the instrument note by note, storing the data in a sound library from which a performance and recording can be made anywhere, rather than in the confines of the church. The authenticity of this recording technology is impressive, creating a final product that is indistinguishable from a recording made in the original venue.

The original organ in the cathedral dates from 1717 and underwent a major restoration in the mid-19th century. Its casework is renowned as one of the most beautiful in Europe.

Many of the works on this recording use the highly coloured smaller stops or combinations of them to demonstrate the intimacy of such a large instrument. Small solo reeds and flutes are richly coloured and beautifully carry the solo melodies.

By contrast, the big divisions set close to full organ are magnificent as shown in the opening track Exordium and again in the closing selection, a fantasy on Veni Creator Spiritus. Cooman’s works are skillfully written with a contemporary harmonic sensibility that always yields to the melody. Simmons understands this and faithfully brings this great Baroque instrument into the service of a 21st-century composer.

Review

04 Bach Art of FugueDuo Stephanie & Saar have taken a novel approach to their latest recording project Bach – The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080 (New Focus Recordings FCR181). Taking advantage of their duo nature, they perform some selections as four hands, some as two pianos and the simpler two-voice canons as solos.

The sheer weight of the genius behind the music makes focusing on any other aspect of the performance nearly impossible. As one of Bach’s final utterances, unfinished at that, it reveals the ability of this composer to think about musical development forwards, backwards, inverted, expanded and contracted, and most often in some combination of these.
In this respect the work is very much like the Goldberg Variations, where a good performance quickly yields to the content of the music while the performer is lost to the larger presence of the art form.
The Duo Stephanie & Saar (their first names) are highly disciplined and always turn their skills to the contrapuntal possibilities Bach has laid out in the score, regardless of whether it’s for two voices or four. They keep expression to a polite minimum, revealing the beauty of the growing complexity in the larger fugues.

The two-disc set is one you know you’ll play many times, waiting to find newly revealed truths.

05 Kit Armstrong GoldbergA new video release, Kit Armstrong performs Bach’s Goldberg Variations and its predecessors (Unitel 741608), is a must-watch for Goldberg fans. Armstrong performs live at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam and plays a lengthy program that includes some stylistically related works by Byrd, Sweelinck and John Bull’s Thirty Variations on the theme “Walsingham. It’s clear at this point that Armstrong is brilliant at his period ornamentation. His trills are fast and tirelessly perfect.

Once into the Bach Goldberg Variations, after the opening aria, there’s no doubt that Armstrong is going to play this his way – unhurriedly. The first variation comes as a surprise in its deliberate, more relaxed speed. But what emerges at the same time is Armstrong’s knack for boldly pulling out melodies from the left hand, especially where the hands cross over. It’s intriguing to hear lines more familiar in the background come to the fore this way.

Armstrong is also fairly free with his rubato and sometimes applies it only in one hand, while the other moves ahead hoping its partner will catch up. It’s a thoroughly pianistic approach that impresses the audience, whose attention never wavers for a moment.

The final aria is quiet and powerfully intense as Armstrong completes it pianissimo, with a lengthy ritard holding the crowd breathless until he rises from the keyboard.

06 Scarlatti SusiNicholas Susi has just released his first recording Scarlatti Now (nicholas-susi.com), with a clever program that mixes eight Scarlatti Sonatas with Rossini, Ravel, Berio and Liszt. Susi claims that Italy is the country that gave birth to the piano then promptly turned its back on it, leaving us with a solid Germanic tradition to our keyboard thinking. His intention is to underscore the connections between Scarlatti’s keyboard style and later works, arguing that Scarlatti’s sonatas had invited future composers to think about the keyboard in ways he had already begun to explore. He describes the elements of Scarlatti’s keyboard style as “the wiry, the spastic, the risky” but he also admires them for their “variety, quirkiness and downright catchiness.”

Scarlatti’s runs, ubiquitous ornaments and often rapid-fire note repetitions are familiar elements of his writing. Susi finds these in the chatter of Figaro’s Cavatina from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, the fluid writing of Ravel’s Une barque sur l’océan and Liszt’s transcription of Rossini’s La danza.

Susi is a gifted technician who executes the myriad ornaments in the sonatas with crispness and ease. The clarity of his playing is a delight to hear. His transitions to contemporary works by Berio and Sciarrino are not as difficult as they might promise in the track listing. He is an innovative musician and aggressive thinker with a gift for keyboard brilliance. With a freshly minted doctorate of music under his belt, he now needs to appear on a major label.

07 Haydn 6 BavouzetWith Haydn – Piano Sonatas, Vol.6 (Chandos 10942), Jean Efflam-Bavouzet has now neared the halfway point in his project to record all the Haydn piano sonatas. Clearly not intent on doing this in chronological order, Bavouzet is programming his discs for artistic interest and balance.

This disc contains five sonatas, all in major keys. The earliest is the Sonata No.11 (Hob.XVI:2) from sometime around 1760. At this point, the keyboard sonata is still in its early evolutionary form and has far more in common with its Baroque harpsichord antecedents than anything that followed. The changes in Haydn’s works are subtle and occur slowly over many years. Bavouzet follows this early work with the latest one, Sonata No.43 (Hob.XVI:28) where the final movement provides the best contrast for showing how Haydn’s thinking became more complex.

Prior to this recording project, Bavouzet finished the complete cycle of the Beethoven sonatas. He describes his renewed appreciation of Haydn’s considerably shorter thematic ideas than those of Beethoven and points out the impact this had on his approach to the music. His touch is light and articulation is impeccable. Lightly pedaled, if at all, the voice parts are clear and the sparse harmonies are completely transparent.

Because Haydn gave almost no performance indications in his scores, Bavouzet takes great freedom in applying tempi and dynamics. His choices are carefully considered and a mark of both his artistry and scholarship. Like its predecessors, Volume 6 is consistently excellent throughout.

08 Pal EidePål Eide has chosen a perfect title for his recording Grey Clouds (CDKlassisk cdk 1143). He contrasts the melancholy of twilight in works by Liszt and Debussy against even darker forebodings in the music of Stravinsky and Ravel. His playing is deeply personal and anything but grey.
Beginning with Liszt’s two similarly titled works La lugubre gondola, Eide sets a stage where the ambiguity of twilight becomes a surprisingly peaceful experience. He expands this through Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau, La cathédrale engloutie and Claire de lune.

The contrast of threatening darkness comes from Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. Le gibet is especially haunting, with its repeating note emerging from Ravel’s clustered harmonies.

Eide moves his program back toward the twilight with Stravinsky’s Three Pieces from Petrouchka. His measured approach, if slower than most performances, gives both Danse russe and La semaine grasse an ominous weight. As if to place an “amen” at the end of his recording, Eide gives an exquisite performance of Liszt’s Consolation No.3.

It’s a thoughtful and effective program, beautifully played. Eide has made just two recordings but his abilities suggest he should do more.

09 a la russeAlexandre Kantorow looks knowingly from the cover of his new recording À la russe (BIS 2150) as if to invite listeners into the world of the Russian soul. Here, things are dimly lit, especially where Rachmaninoff is concerned. His Piano Sonata No.1 in D Minor Op.28 is a study in high dynamic contrast in the outer movements and deep introspection in the middle movement. Kantorow is obviously at home with this music and what he projects from the keyboard is powerfully seductive.

The tenderness of Kantorow’s performance of two excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s 18 Morceaux Op.72 would be difficult to match. It’s heartbreakingly hesitant and vulnerable. The composer’s Scherzo à la Russe is equally remarkable, though for different reasons. Here, Kantorow is virtuosic master of the great and the small. The power of his playing in the final measures echoes the dynamism and strength of his execution in the three excerpts of Stravinsky’s L’Oiseaux de Feu. This 1928 piano transcription is relentless in its technical demands. Undaunted, Kantorow delivers a blazing performance of the Danse infernale and the Finale.

Balakirev’s Islamey Op.18 concludes the disc with another virtuosic display of impossibly quick repetitions separated by stretches of languorous repose. Kantorow is a superb colourist who possesses a technique capable of anything these Russian composers have required. This super audio CD is pure pleasure from start to finish.

10 Bernstein soloIn anticipation of the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth in 1918, Andrew Cooperstock has released Leonard Bernstein – Complete Solo Works for Piano (Bridge 948 SA/B). The two-disc set is a comprehensive collection of keyboard compositions and arrangements spanning Bernstein’s career. It contains the first recording of the complete Bridal Suite for piano four hands. Disc one presents all 29 of the Anniversaries he composed for his friends and family. The dedicatees include his daughter Nina, Serge and Nathalie Koussevitsky, Lukas Foss, Stephen Sondheim and many others. Cooperstock does a splendid job in capturing the deeply personal and affectionate tribute that each of these portrays.

Disc two contains the balance of the Bernstein piano repertoire. Four Sabras, rarely heard, are particularly entertaining for the colourful characters with which he imbues each one. Cooperstock excels in the piano arrangement of Aaron Copland’s El Salón México. Fully in control of the piece’s technical demands, he captures the work’s fiery spirit, bringing it to a powerful and frenzied conclusion.

Cooperstock takes advantage of studio technology to play both piano parts of the Bridal Suite. It’s a collection of short, witty pieces that he performs with obvious relish and good humour.

The Leonard Bernstein at 100 project is a timely and instructive look at a musical giant through his work at the keyboard.

11 Satie 1Nicolas Horvath has released the first volume in his latest project, Satie – Complete Piano Works 1 (Grand Piano GP 761). His project takes advantage of the newest and most extensively corrected edition of Satie’s piano music by Salabert (Milan). Horvath has also chosen to record the repertoire up to 1897 on Cosima Wagner’s 1881 Erard, in an effort to create the kind of piano sound that Satie would have known and expected. The CD program includes two world premiere recordings of short works and nine others from the newly revised edition.

The notes to this CD contain some very fine historical autobiographical material that reminds the reader of how extraordinary Satie was. His music is never really contrapuntal or even impressionistic. He establishes an atmosphere of mysticism with pulsating chords against melodies that feel modal and something akin to Asian or Middle Eastern.

Horvath does a splendid job in presenting this unusual repertoire. The four Ogives are almost entirely vertical and hymn-like in their replication of plainchant. Said to have been inspired by the Gothic arches of a neighbouring church, these are perhaps unlike most of Satie’s other music. There’s also a fascinating, if short, monodic piece titled Leit-Motiv du “Panthée”. Chanson hongroise is barely more than half a minute but contains curious and tantalizing touches of Bartók.

With volumes two and three already designed and ready for release soon, Satie collectors will be eager to snap them from the shelves when they appear.

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