02 Taiko torontoToronto Taiko Tales
Nagata Shachu
Independent KNE013 (nagatashachu.com)

On several occasions I’ve written about the Toronto group Nagata Shachu in my WholeNote World Music column. “Nagata Shachu is one of our city’s musical treasures,” I wrote in one, “…its performances invariably filled with a high level of ensemble musicianship coupled with mental and corporeal discipline.”

Canadian-born percussionist Kiyoshi Nagata, the group’s founding artistic director, has composed and performed taiko-based music for theatre, film, dance and radio. He’s also collaborated with musicians practising many genres of music, including most recently the Toronto Tabla Ensemble.

Nagata Shachu’s Blu-ray release Toronto Taiko Tales shows the group in top form. The concert video footage shot in 2016 at Aki Studio Theatre, in Toronto’s core Regent Park neighbourhood, not only captures the group’s usual lofty musicking but also its inventive choreography. In that category I include playful deployment of drumsticks, and intense physicality in performance, all attractively captured in medium shots, close-ups and in clear audio.

The well-crafted compositions are by Kiyoshi Nagata and associate artistic director Aki Takahashi, who is also the founder of the Japanese folk ensemble ten ten. Takahashi offers a welcome palate cleanser in contrast to Nagata Shachu’s drum-centric repertoire, with a moving rendition of her song Zare Shamisen, which she sings accompanying herself on the shamisen.

I also enjoyed the peaceful footage of Toronto’s natural landscape as it passes though the seasons, artfully interspersed throughout the video. It’s a welcome reminder of the rhythms of nature pulsating in the multicultural city we all call home.

03 Danielle BasselsWhat About Wool Wishbags
Denielle Bassels
Independent DEN001 (reverbnation.com/deniellebasselsquintet)

Denielle Bassels is a fresh new voice on the Toronto scene. This is despite the fact that she borrows from some well-established styles like trad jazz and gypsy jazz. Yet her songwriting and singing approach make it all sound rather modern and at times surreal. Bassels’ appealing voice is reminiscent of a few indie pop singers, like Corrine Bailey Rae and Feist, who have had an influence on the latest generation of vocalists. And her solid range and technique serve the tunes well.

The arrangements and instrumentation also lend a fun quirkiness: ukulele, percussion, clarinet, horns and violin bounce along through most of the tunes. Bassels’ writing and production partner Mike Mathieson plays a number of the instruments and joins core rhythm players Andy Mac, guitar, Scott Hunter, bass, and Joe Ryan, drums.

The songwriting is consistently upbeat throughout, or at least has a veneer of positivity, despite a few thought-provoking lyrics. Spiders Kiss is a 3/4 time, Euro-tinged lament with a je ne regrette rien attitude and Silly Lion seems to be about betrayal, but it’s hard to fathom. The title track has a wacky, stayed-too-long-at-the-carnival feel to it. Perhaps the best approach to What About Wool Wishbags is to not take the words too literally and simply enjoy the album as a light-hearted lark.

05 Qu4rtzA Cappella 101
Qw4rtz
Analekta AN 2 8860 (analekta.com)

Members of Qw4rtz, Louis Alexandre Beauchemin, François Pothier Bouchard, Philippe Courchesne Leboeuf and François Dubé, began singing together in the boys’ choir of Les Petits Chanteurs de Trois-Rivières and burst fully realized onto the professional stage in 2010. With the release of their debut CD, this remarkably skilled a cappella vocal quartet has presented the listener with an irresistible potpourri of musical motifs, including material from the worlds of jazzy-pop, alternative/indie, rap as well as their own takes on classic French Chanson. Not since Blossom Dearie’s Blue Stars of Paris has such a superb, Francophone vocal ensemble emerged (a cappella or otherwise).

Clearly influenced by groups as diverse as The Four Seasons and Manhattan Transfer as well as musical theatre, these talented artists see no stylistic boundaries and specialize in blurring the lines. Qw4rtz’s two tenors, frequently arranged in unison, effortless contrapuntal commitment and solid, relentless bass lines, lend a dynamism to all of the clever and complex arrangements found here.

The 13-track CD kicks off with the bombastic Julie – Les Coocs and segues into the delightful Fais-moi un show de boucane (Give Me a Show of Smoke). Nearly unbearably beautiful are Hymne à l’amour (Hymn to Love), written by the “Little Sparrow” herself, the great Edith Piaf, and her protégé Charles Aznevour’s Emmenez-moi (Take Me). A rollicking and joyful stand-out, Boum boum boum/Elle me dit (Boom Boom Boom/She Tells Me) is guaranteed to please, as is the emotional and energetic closer, Papaoutai.

06 Hogtown BrassIntroducing…
Hogtown Brass Quintet
Independent (hogtownbrass.com)

This short disc (23 minutes) by the Hogtown Brass Quintet reinforces my enthusiasm from their concert last year at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church’s Lunchtime Chamber Music series. As the name suggests, these Hogtowners combine excellence with wit, in a tasty six-piece program featuring compositions and arrangements by trombonist RJ Satchithananthan. His inventive, Spanish-inflected Solea and bluesish Stray Goat avoid clichés of their styles, taking off in unexpected directions as the latter’s title suggests. As a composition student I was advised not to use “too much tuba” in a brass quintet. Tubist Andrew Nowry belies that nostrum with well-controlled dynamics and endurance in Solea and an exuberant solo in Stray Goat.

The setting of Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered features Satchithananthan’s own lyrical trombone. With light syncopated staccatos and interlocking accompaniment figures from trumpeters Tristan Tye and Matthew Ross, Nowry’s agile tuba bass line and Jason Austin’s sustained horn background gluing it all together, this is fun and first-rate work. An arrangement of Mascagni’s Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana by Satchithananthan works surprisingly well because of the players’ sensitive shaping of melodies distributed among instruments.

Of two pieces arranged by others, J.S. Bach’s difficult Contrapunctus IX from The Art of Fugue sounds well on brass, but there are a few places where intonation or evenness could be better. After the disc’s close with an affecting A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, I was left awaiting more from the Hogtown Brass Quintet!

07 Blue VerdunBlue Verdun
Quinn Bachand’s Brishen
Beacon Ridge Productions CP102 (quinnbachand.com)

Review

Quinn Bachand is an old soul in a 21-year-old body. Or maybe he’s a time traveller from the ’30s who’s simply (and successfully) channelling the gypsy-jazz souls of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli. Whatever the case, Victoria, BC’s multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist Bachand is a seriously impressive young artist.

Blue Verdun, Bachand’s second album with his group, Brishen, is an unabashed celebration of all things swing, and a showcase for Bachand’s exceptional musicianship and versatility. With Bachand on  violin, guitar, banjo, bass guitar, lapsteel and vocals, along with Brishen bandmates Connor Stewart (horns), Maude Bastien (drums), Paul Van Dyke (bass) and Béatrix Méthé (vocal harmony), Blue Verdun takes us on a magical romp through the musical landscapes of gypsy jazz and Western swing.

Remarkably, save for one track the tunes are all Bachand’s – inspired, fresh takes on old traditions, demonstrating a profound respect for that marvellous music of “yesteryear.” Moreover, Bachand clearly relishes this stuff and, as is apparent on every track, is determined to help keep it relevant and alive. The album is a joy. Reinhardt and Grappelli are never far from mind, but it’s Bachand’s masterful performances on his lilting Cheyenne (Quit Your Talkin’) and virtuosic Swing ’96 that take centre stage. I swear I heard hints of a young Chet Baker (singing) on Fading Light, and of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World on Lonely Star, attesting to Bachand’s having done his homework. He has also made it nearly impossible to remember that he is only 21!

08 Kobo TownWhere the Galleon Sank
Kobo Town
Stonetree Records ‎ST-302 (stonetreerecords.com)

Calypso: with roots in African, European and Caribbean rhythms, melodies and instrumentation, the highly hybrid music genre originated last century in Trinidad and Tobago. The music made by the JUNO-nominated Toronto-based band Kobo Town, founded in 2004 by Trinidadian-Canadian songwriter and singer Drew Gonsalves, illustrates calypso’s evolution in the 21st century, staying relevant with global audiences.

Keeping it real, Gonsalves named his band after the Kobo Town neighborhood in Port-of-Spain, its putative place of origin. Early in life he was attracted by the allure of calypso music as well as by its charismatic bards, relating that he “was blown away by the cleverness and the wit of these calypsonians and also their engaging interplay with the audience.”

The very assured album Where the Galleon Sank places the poetic narrative of Gonsalves’ lyrics front and centre. And his music also shows respect to the roots of calypso, while at the same time inventively mixing other Caribbean music influences including ska, dancehall reggae and dub. It’s all narrated by his rich Trini-accented voice and layered acoustic-centred instrumentation. The supporting horn section of trumpet, trombone, and the meaty baritone sax lines played by Linsey Wellman particularly caught my ear.

Gonsalves has addressed his idiosyncratic – to a certain degree made-in-Canada – take on the received calypso tradition. “It is calypso inspired and derived, but it’s a conscious departure from the way it developed back home… For me, the calypsonian is a singing newspaperman…with an attitude halfway between court jester and griot.”

For me, much of Where the Galleon Sank qualifies for my definition of “infectious music.”

 

Although the keyboard may challenge it for top spot, the guitar may be the most popular musical instrument in the world. Think of any genre from pop to so-called classical and there’s a six-string player associated with it. Especially when electrified, the guitar’s adaptability gives it this popularity, and nowhere is this more evident than in improvised music. These five guitarists, matched with musicians playing five different instruments, demonstrate this.

01 LePageCD0061Cheating a bit, Québécois guitarist René Lussier and clarinetist Robert Marcel Lepage have the backing of Quatuor Bozzini on some selections of Chants et Danses…with Strings! (Tour de Bras TDB 900019 CD tourdebras.com), but all the strings do is create backgrounds from which Lepage and Lussier’s sounds rise like the contours of a raised-relief map. Wedded to folk and blues, Lussier makes use of long-lined strumming or curt bottleneck-like phrasing to make his point on tracks such as Comment faire de l’argent avec une clarinette where Lepage’s riposte varies from Morse code-like bites to trills. On Le sextour hors position, any strings-added romantic inferences are quickly swept aside by catgut flanges and buzzing reed vibrations, with the guitarist outputting countrified mandolin-like twangs from his instrument and the clarinetist specializing in an unvarying flat-line solo. With Chants et Danses’ 13 tracks specific to its time and place, the tunes which most clearly highlight the duo’s individuality and societal concerns are those such as Vers un capitalisme à visage humain, which works string whacking and reed bites into a jazz-like call and response; or Comment garder le feu sacré sans brûler son capital, where a near light-music introduction is subverted by multiphonic bedlam with the clarinet horking and snuffling like an elderly man with asthma and Lussier’s heightened string rubs sounding as though created by sandpaper instead of fingers. The sonic narrative on track ten, whose 18-word title begins with Comment remettre l’éthique en politique… sums up the duo’s interaction most succulently, politically and meaningfully. While Lussier’s bottle-neck whines may upset the exposition, Lepage’s moderato lines ensure the track is as buoyant as it is discordant.

02 MucheCD0051In a divergent relationship with a horn and the guitar are two Köln-based improvisers, trombonist Matthias Muche and guitarist Nicola L. Hein, whose five extended improvisations on 7000 Eichen (JazzWerkstatt JW171 jazzwerkstatt.eu) are dedicated to German sculptor, installation and performance artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986). Only as programmatic as Chants et Danses, the duets here are more representational in title than application. However, Beuys’ Fluxus-affiliated disdain for convention could have influenced them. Like sculptures that reveal antithetical aspects when viewed from different angles, Muche and Hein are more interested in what seemingly non-brass-like and non-string-like timbres their instruments can produce, rather than conventional tones. This is where the guitar’s adaptability is exhibited. Throughout, using thumb pops, hand taps and slurred fingering, Hein’s rhythmic accompaniment could be from percussion, instead of from a stringed instrument. As on the introductory Stahlwille, though, he can still take a shrill undulating solo with the crunch of Johnny Ramone and the tautness of Sonny Sharrock. As for Muche, like any auto racer, he’s unafraid of speed, buzzing out one set of arpeggiated notes after another. Not only does he bend grace notes with brassy adroitness, but on tracks such as Zwitschern he digs deep into the instrument’s bottom range. At the same time, his relay-race-like concept ranges from staccato to slur, as if he’s manipulating two trombones; this is showcased best on Dick Vermummt. 7000 Eichen’s defining track is the last: Künstlerhaus II. The architectural plans for this “second artist’s house” gives the duo almost 15 minutes to cogitate. Over a backdrop of patterning from Hein as pervasive as the sound of a hamster’s wheel, Muche outputs crying, plunger and burbling tremors which intensify as the piece evolves. Reaching a climax when ringing flanges and strums from Hein match Muche’s emotional release in the track’s penultimate minutes, a detour into a grotesque variant on Taps leads to one perfect growly note which both output simultaneously, as if reaching mutual euphoric satisfaction.

03 NoiseCD0081Euphoria is the main attribute you ascribe to Noise from the Neighbours (Setola di Maiale SM3160 setoladimaiale.net), with the performance more concerned with fun than ferocity. Still, Italian guitarist Enzo Rocco and tenor and baritone saxophonist/bass clarinetist Carlo Actis Dato are sophisticated comedians, never letting guffaws get in the way of musical excellence. With their frenetic string chording, fluid reed vibrations and overblowing, plus frantic melodies, they could be court jesters, but like those clowns they also speak the truth. That’s why a series of tarantella-like tracks are followed by Briciole, where bent plucks from Rocco and rugged honks from Dato add up to an Italian blues. This transition from silly to serious and back again permeates the album, reaching its zenith on the extended Kumano. As the saxophonist bellows a low-pitched continuum, the guitarist contorts his string technique to sound like a sitar or a banjo. Later adding a blues sensibility, the two are like halves of a walnut, keeping the rhythm going as Rocco scrapes at his strings and Dato blows animated air every which way. The following La Ronda del Visconte has a jolly, circular and instantly memorable melody. This convivial noise goes on for all 12 tracks, ending with Rumbabamba confirming the duo’s smarts. It begins low-key and cool and ends with pointed rasgueado strums, plus tongue slaps and guffaws from the reedist.

04 ShadowsCD0041More pointed and stinging is Shadowscores (Creative Sources CS 368 CD creativesourcesrec.com), since Berlin-based guitarist Olaf Rupp and cellist Ulrike Brand’s improvisations emphasize harsher interactions. Despite supposed limitations in tone, the two, like scientists who discover a new compound by ignoring convention, come up with a series of multi-sectional works whose performance minimizes electronic and acoustic property as well as the gap between foreground and background. A track such as Moorkolk, where Brand sequences parts that could have come from a multi-cello sonata and Rupp scratches and scampers with withdrawn pressure, proves the duo’s capability to improvise at the slowest possible tempo, while  tracks such as Labeling Approach and Quellmoor demonstrate the exact opposite. Soon after Brand’s Paganini-styled spiccato creates a vivid exposition on the first tune, Rupp’s knob-twisting reveals a thumping ostinato that resembles cymbal crashes. Off-handed picking and string buzzing from the cellist is lubricated by rubs and tugs by the guitarist, leading to rugged below-the-bridge responses from Brand and, eventually, multiphonic flanges from Rupp. (All this while maintaining the theme on top of the cellist’s shifting continuum.) Any of Brand’s attempts at long-string romanticism on Quellmoor are quickly subverted by rocket-like interjections from Rupp. Moving forward and back like square dancers, the two continuously change places, with scrubs and plucks from Brand meeting string twangs or barks from Rupp. Rupp sneaks in the odd rock riff, and Brand adds some passages that would be elegant if not so high-pitched and strained. Chamber music with a difference, these improvisations show what conventional instruments are capable of when utilized to their limits.

05 KontaktCD0031The story is similar with Kontaktchemie (Boomslang LC 09496 traps.at), as Swiss guitarist Christy Doran and Belgian drummer Alfred Vogel demonstrate the versatility of common jazz or rock music configurations. Of course, their setup is less than traditional since Doran also uses an FX box, whose sound-card input adds effects, while Vogel has a double drum set and an electronic Octopad with patches allowing for sound triggering, modulation and pitch blending. Throughout it appears as if the two spend time deciding whether their function is outputting the most hushed free music or the most grandiose jazz-rock. But while tracks are sometimes noisy, heavy-metal head-bangers will be disappointed. The changes appear Janus-like on most tracks. Fremdeinwirkung begins with slippery moves up the guitar neck, followed by drumming clanks and clatter, which eventually turn into faster cascades joined by flying flanges and intimation of an electric bass line. The key track in this style is Das Gelbe vom Ei, where a feeling of late-night summer silence is interrupted first by percussion clanks, detailed guitar theme exposition and finally a moderated drum backbeat - the perfect verdant backing for string storytelling. With spacey sounds available from the add-ons, which often take the form of organ-like patterning, Kontaktchemie actually comes across as the most traditional of these discs, since psychedelia is now part of the tradition. Aus Zwei wird Eins, the final track, even includes a throwback-to-the-sixties sonic jape. After four minutes of guitar rasps and drum shuffles accelerating to a freak-out climax, ten minutes of silence follow, then suddenly an additional nine minutes of free form improvising becomes audible with buttery slides and drones from Doran, plus crackles and clips forged into a steady beat by Vogel. That track title translates as “From Two Will Be One.” On evidence of the complementary creativity on all these discs, it could be applied to any session here.

 

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra as a body does not appoint a music director in the sense of, say, the Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle, the Boston Symphony and Andris Nelsons or the Toronto Symphony and Peter Oundjian where the maestro moulds the orchestra to his preferences. One only has to look at the Boston Symphony. Under Monteux and Munch it was a French-sounding orchestra, but Ozawa wanted a German orchestra, which he achieved at the expense of losing the concertmaster who resigned in protest. Think back to the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, whose imprint was on every performance regardless of who was on the podium. By contrast, in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, music directors are guests invited by the players, who are all drawn from the ranks of, and continue to be permanent members of, the Vienna State Opera.

Some time ago The WholeNote’s publisher David Perlman and I interviewed Clemens Hellsberg, retiring chairman of the Vienna Philharmonic, in his hotel suite. I remarked that the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic is most often unmistakable and as far back as I could remember it has always sounded like the Vienna Philharmonic. Hellsberg was only too delighted to agree and explained why. The players are well aware of this and maintain the highest standards so that after a musician leaves the orchestra his or her replacement is chosen by the orchestra’s elected board. Candidates are selected from players with at least three years’ experience playing in opera and ballet and who are well aware of the orchestra’s heritage and responsibility. Many of the orchestra’s instruments, in particular the winds, are made especially for them to produce the traditional timbre. As for their string sound, Hellsberg told us that they do not look to musicians from Germany because, as I recall, they do not have the Viennese sensibilities. Hungarians are most likely to be a match.

01 Vienna POTo honour their 175th anniversary, Deutsche Grammophon has compiled a program of outstanding performances selected from half a century of recordings, 1951 to 2004, of works from Beethoven to Weber conducted by maestros from Wilhelm Furtwangler to Christian Thielemann: Wiener Philharmoniker 175th Anniversary Edition (DG 4797090, 44 CDs and one DVD). Each disc is sleeved in a replica of the original issue with a printed spine. The CDs are arranged by composer, making the selection of a work easy. Looking only for an artist will take a little longer. Some recordings are from the ORF (Austrian Radio) archives. There is no duplication of repertoire. It was said of Bruno Walter that he could make any orchestra sound like the Vienna Philharmonic, but here he is with the Vienna Philharmonic in November 1955. Recorded by the ORF in treasured live performances in fine sound, here are Mozart’s Prague Symphony and his friend Mahler’s Fourth with Hilde Gueden. Another conductor no longer with us is Karl Bohm, who is heard in Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music and Symphonies 38 through 41, also some Waltzes and Polkas by the Strauss family. The late Pierre Boulez helms the Mahler Fifth and the Bruckner Eighth, both from 1966. Leonard Bernstein has only two discs, Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth and the Haydn Symphonies 88 and 92. James Levine does better with the four Brahms symphonies, Tragic Overture and the Alto Rhapsody (Anne Sofie von Otter), Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, Posthorn Serenade, Smetana’s complete Ma Vlast and music from The Bartered Bride plus suites from The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. Mention must be made of the Brahms Symphonies: except for the First which was recorded live in Salzburg in 1993, the rest were recorded live in the Musikverein in 1994/95. Collectively these are superlative performances, a very rewarding meeting of two cultures, each drawing out the very best of the other.

Von Karajan has four discs: the Brahms German Requiem, the Dvořák Eighth Symphony, the Mozart Requiem and a Wagner disc with Tannhäuser Overture, Siegfried Idyll and the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan. Surprised to see no Richard Strauss from Karajan, but the repertoire is safe in the hands of Thielemann, Maazel and Previn. Sorry to see Kubelik with only the Beethoven Seventh. Anyhow, there’s lots more gems in this box, including the DVD of the joyous 1989 New Year’s concert conducted by Carlos Kleiber. Check the entire contents at arkivmusic.com.

02 KremerBGidon Kremer is the violinist who was much talked about in 1982 for a recording he made of the Beethoven Violin Concerto playing new cadenzas by Alfred Schnittke. Opinion was that the writing was outrageously anachronistic and that it disfigured the work of the master who would not - could not - write such un-music. Few laid some guilt on conductor Neville Marriner. That was 35 years ago and no one talks about it today. You can listen to that recording in the recently issued boxed set Gidon Kremer Complete Concerto Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon (DG 4796316) containing 22 CDs, each sleeved in original cover art.

Although Kremer had won important competitions, he did not enjoy the recognition that he felt he deserved. He certainly was a master with a fine technique but somewhat lacking in feeling. However, he overcame that as he played with Marta Argerich, Kim Kashkashian, Hélène Grimaud and others. His career blossomed after he was discovered by von Karajan, who recorded the Brahms Violin Concerto with him in 1976. As I recall, the performance with the Berlin Philharmonic on EMI was a rather wooden affair. Nevertheless Kremer’s career took off, and he went on to champion esoteric works by composers of the day in addition to playing and recording the standard repertoire. This 22-CD set houses acknowledged performances with the world’s great orchestras and conductors of the well-known concertos and concerted works by Bach, Bartók, Berg, Beethoven, Brahms, Chausson, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Milhaud, Mozart, Paganini, Schubert, Schumann, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky (Maazel, BPO) and Vivaldi. In addition there is a unique collection of performances of concertos by many of the worthiest 20th-century composers, including Philip Glass, Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina, Ned Rorem, Arthur Lourié, Arvo Pärt, Giya Kancheli and quite a few more. Check arkivmusic.com for the full details of this distinctive collection.

As an aside, one of my very favourite recordings, one which I listen to often, is the transcription of the Shostakovich 15th Symphony for violin, cello, piano, celesta and percussion played by Kremer and his Kremerata Musica on DG. It is absolutely stunning in every respect. When I was in the business, I sold it with a money back guarantee, and never once did a copy come back. Just checked Amazon US, and it is available under US$20 on a DG twofer as filler on a Shostakovich/Barshai set.

03 Domingo Best WishesBest Wishes from Plácido Domingo is a well-made presentation box containing three DVDs of two complete operas starring the charismatic tenor in two of the 120 operas in which he has appeared over his operatic career (Arthaus Musik 109327). No, not Puccini or Verdi but Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, recorded live in Vienna in 1986, and Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine live from San Francisco in 1988. In the Ponchielli he sings Enzo with Eva Marton as Gioconda and Matteo Manuguerra as Barnaba. The orchestra, chorus and ballet of the Vienna State Opera is conducted by Adam Fischer. L’Africaine (on two DVDs) stars Domingo as Vasco da Gama, Shirley Verrett as Sélika, Ann Swenson as Inès Ruth and Justino Diaz as Nélesko. The orchestra, chorus and ballet of the San Francisco Opera are conducted by Maurizio Arena. The performances are self-recommending, and the quality of the video is in keeping with the standard of the time.

13 Jimmie GiuffreBremen & Stuttgart 1961
Jimmy Giuffre 3
Emanem 5208 (emanemdisc.com)

Arguably one of improvised music’s most underappreciated pioneer groups, clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre’s trio of the early 1960s with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow, toured infrequently, made poorly selling LPs and finally called it quits when a door gig yielded the members 35 cents each. Yet more than a half-century later the foundations of sophisticated chamber jazz characterized by Keith Jarrett and the dissemination of now-classic Carla Bley compositions can be traced back to the trio.

Mostly cleanly recorded by German radio during a 1961 tour, this two-and-a-half hour, 26-track, 2-CD set collects material previously released on separate discs, plus six unreleased tracks and two bagatelles from a New York date earlier in the year. New tracks, including Thelonious Monk’s Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues and Ornette Coleman’s Compassion for P.B. are piano-bass duets with Bley’s nimble interpretations the equivalent of putting these advanced concepts into a blender ending up with sonic smoothies that are low calorie even as they preserve motion and cunning. Giuffre’s almost exclusively contralto- and higher-pitched clarinet make compositions like his own Cry, Want seem excessively piercing. But Swallow’s solid thumping and Bley’s sprightly chording, as well as the reedist’s innate sense of swing, mitigate most musical alienation.

Two versions of C. Bley’s Jesús Maria, P. Bley’s Carla and Giuffre’s Cry, Want, Venture and Whirrrr confirm how the trio’s cohesive timbre-mingling allows the members to create radical variants on those then brand-new pieces, the last of which is performed hard and heavy in one city, fleet and ambulatory in the other. Meanwhile Venture is an unpretentious instance of two-part invention in a jazz context with each player balancing entrances and exits around a steadying continuum. Tellingly both renditions of the clarinetist’s Suite for Germany skip through variables of speed and near stasis, with piano-string plucks and elongated reed tones confirming the stillness and strength of an improvisational concept more than slightly ahead of its time.

Review

01 Plante Tango borealLet me start with a disclaimer: I don’t get opera; I don’t like tango; and cabaret is not my cup of tea. That being said, imagine my surprise to find that the disc which has been getting the most play on my system this month is a cabaret-style “tango opera” by Denis Plante. La Bibliothèque-Interdite (ATMA ACD2 2752) features actor-singer Sébastian Ricard and Plante’s ensemble Tango Boréal in a tale set in the dark days of mid-20th-century Argentina.

“The odyssey began,” Plante tells us, “with a concert […] by Les Violons du Roy, the Tango Boréal Trio and actor Sébastian Ricard. Its theme: Jorge Luis Borges. I had been commissioned to write tangos to accompany the poetry of Argentina’s great literary figure for the production. Sébastian Ricard captivated the audience as, pacing like a caged tiger, he played several roles […] One year later I suggested to Sébastian that we continue the experiment in musical theater by creating an original show, La Bibliothèque-Interdite [The Forbidden Library]. I wanted to present an impressionistic portrait of tango at the end of that Infamous Decade [which began in 1930 with the military coup that overthrew President Hipólito Yrigoyen and lasted until 1943 when another coup resulted in the rise of Juan Perón]. I have long been fascinated by this period – and by the fact that, sometimes risking their lives, it was the gaucho minstrels and tango enthusiasts, the payadores and the tangueros, who first denounced the rise of the fascists…”

Plante has created a libretto that is “a confession, a life story and ideological speech” sung by a fictional poet. Although this character sprung from the composer’s imagination, it is also based on stories told by his father-in-law Alfredo Monetta, “an Argentinian exile who barely escaped the genocide of the dirty war of 1976.” He goes on to say “Other memories are my own. I discovered the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires in dramatic and violent circumstances: blinded by tear gas during the crisis of the pot-banging protests of December 2001.”

So what does this all sound like? It begins with Eden, a languidly nostalgic song – I often dreamed of a library with secret doors…it was my childhood and my destiny: I became a poet – that gives way to Inspecteur Barracuda, a harder-edged portrait of the prince of the renegades, the nabob of tango. [Translations mine.] There are 16 contrasting movements, each with their own story from Icarus’ Descent and a Bestiary to ruminations on departures, memory, silence and life. The instrumentation is simple and clean, featuring bandonéon (Plante), nylon-string guitar and charango (David Jacques) and acoustic bass (Ian Simpson), with occasional added percussion and small chorus. Stylistically it is a pastiche, as freely admitted by Plante, with moods that vary from ballad to narrative to dance-like, including of course more than a fair share of tango.

What struck me most however was the clarity of Ricard’s vocals. I studied French throughout public and high school plus several post-secondary summer immersions, and although I cannot carry on a fluid conversation in la belle langue, I am able to read fairly sophisticated texts en français (my summers always include reading a least one French novel in the original). But listening to art songs or popular music in French I often have trouble following the lyrics. So I was immediately hooked when I realized that I could understand la plupart of what Ricard was singing, thanks to his clear diction and to Plante’s careful setting of the texts. I was reminded of the vocal writing of John Weinzweig, oh not in the musical language, but in the careful selection of words that could be clearly understood when sung.

The booklet notes include a dedication paragraph and, as quoted in part above, a “Diary of Creation” by Denis Plante, a foreword by Sébastien Ricard, a poem by Brigitte Haentjens and artists’ biographies, all in both official languages. Strangely the libretto only appears in French, leaving me glad of all those years I put in building my vocabulaire. Highly recommended.

02 All Over the MapMy next selection takes us All Over the Map with Steve Kirby’s Oceanic Jazz Orchestra (stevekirbymusic.com). Winnipeg-based composer and bassist Kirby has himself been “all over the map” having worked with such luminaries as Elvin Jones, Wynton Marsalis, Cyrus Chestnut, Abbey Lincoln and Joe Lovano, to name but a few, before re-locating from New York City in 2003. He currently serves as Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Manitoba, director of the U of M Summer Jazz Camp, artistic director of the Izzy Asper Jazz Performances and editor of dig! magazine. The disc’s production is also a well-travelled affair, having been recorded at Toronto’s Canterbury Sound and Winnipeg’s Paintbox and Musirex studios, and mixed in New York.

The ten tracks, all penned by Kirby, explore a plethora of styles and geographies but never stray from jazz’s mainstream. Assiniboine traverses the complexity of Manitoba’s famous winding river using a relatively small but lively sampling of the orchestra’s instrumentation, just eight players, with Curtis Nowosad’s drums, Warren Wolf’s vibraphone and Jon Gordon’s soprano saxophone particularly prominent. Boissevain, another Manitoba landmark, is a ballad with alto flute (Shannon Kristjanson) added to the mix and Mike Eckert’s pedal steel and Will Bonness’ piano featured in the “celestial” finale. Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster Gwen Hoebig exercises her fiddle chops in Duende’s Dance, a lively swing with high vocalise from Anna-Lisa Kirby and Heitha Forsyth.

Each of the tracks has full musician credits and a program note by Kirby, but I don’t know what to make of the title Health Sciences Hypertension Clinic which he says is part of his Winnipeg Suite. Although busy with what could perhaps be construed as hyperactivity, I don’t hear the “frenzied pressure” mentioned in the note. Be that as it may, A Change of Plans adds a mellow change of pace, nylon-string guitar and gentle lyric by Anna-Lisa Kirby over a bossa-nova rhythm. Electronic textures provided by Örjan Sandred with pedal steel, violin, soprano sax and piccolo contribute to the glacial timbres featured in Qallupilluit, which depicts an Inuit tale “in which parents terrify their children with threats of mystical sea creatures that live under the ice..” Peter Lutek’s bassoon intro to Dance of the Carapace sets the stage for a lilting rollick that includes an extended vibraphone solo and a star turn for trumpeter Derrick Gardner.

The most strident piece is the one that provides social commentary and protest, both timely and historical. Tulsa is a collage of black voices decrying the abuses and atrocities committed against African-Americans throughout history. I don’t feel it is my place to comment, but the power of the piece speaks for itself. There is a good clip on YouTube where Kirby discusses the background and context of Tusla; well worth viewing.

The disc does not end in anger, but rather with an optimistic anthem. A Speck of Dust “was inspired by Carl Sagan, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and my dream of a peace festival” says Kirby. With its lyric A speck of dust out in space/became the home for this whole human race/ […] On the surface we are different there are many of us/Deep within our hearts we are all the same “it’s an invitation to lose imaginary boundaries.” A valuable message indeed.

03 Joe Sullivan Big BandI have the one sheet (press release) and program notes for Unfamiliar Surroundings by the Joe Sullivan Big Band (Perry Lake Records joesullivan.ca) but I can’t figure out why it’s called that. Trumpeter/composer/arranger Sullivan is obviously totally at home in the context of both the band and the music, and titles of the three original suites that comprise the 2-CD set don’t suggest anything exotic. This is mainstream jazz in top form, and the dozen and a half players involved, including such journeymen as Rémi Bolduc, Al McLean, André Leroux, André White and Lorne Lofsky, all seem totally comfortable in their ensemble and solo roles.

Sullivan, a Franco-Ontarian who hails from Timmins, studied classical trumpet at the University of Ottawa before pursuing jazz studies at Berklee and the New England Conservatory. Since then (1987) he has made his home in Montreal where he teaches jazz composition, arranging and trumpet at McGill University and directs the McGill Jazz Orchestra. In addition to his own activities (which include seven previous CDs) he has served as conductor and arranger with the Kirk MacDonald Jazz Orchestra, has been a member of the Vic Vogel Big Band for some 25 years and has appeared as a trumpet soloist with the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal.

October Suite, which opens the first disc, begins with a Prelude that starts quietly before a rousing chorus from the whole ensemble that leads to extended solos by pianist White and guitarist Lofsky. Off Kilter begins with unison brass figures giving way to a tenor solo from McLean and bass solo from Alec Walkington. In Let’s Go, drummer Dave Laing gets his turn to come to the fore in a solo that swells and breaks like waves upon the shore eventually ebbing behind ebullient brass that in turn give way to the trombone of Jean-Nicolas Trottier in a virtuoso display of dexterity. After more rousing tutti choruses the trombone eventually returns to gradually calm things down and bring the suite full circle to a peaceful end.

Suite Laurentides is another three-movement work: The Grackle, featuring a delightful flugelhorn solo from Sullivan, surprisingly lyrical for a bird that is known mostly for its croak, followed by a growly tenor outing from Mclean; Nightfall, expectedly dark with musing baritone from Jean Fréchette and contemplative piano from White; and the concluding movement which gives the album its title and I suppose answers my initial question, although the upbeat closer still doesn’t break new ground. In Sullivan’s defense I will concede that “unfamiliar surroundings” does not necessarily imply uncharted territory.

The second disc contains the five movement Suite Montage: The Waiting Game; A Lullaby; Montage #3; The Captain’s Log; and Refuge. This latter features another solo by Sullivan and Lofsky’s mellow guitar over a sparse rhythm section before the orchestra enters for the quiet conclusion of a gorgeous set. I just wish there were some descriptive notes to give a clue to the intriguing titles.

04 DuffmusiqThe final disc this month sounds like vintage guitar-based R&B, although Duffmusiq’s Soulleash (duffmusiq.com) consists of 11 original tracks of (presumably) recent vintage. Damir Demirovic, a.k.a. Duffmusiq, was born and educated (classical violin, piano and theory, and later guitar and saxophone) in Serbia before moving to Toronto in 2002 to study music production and studio engineering at the Harris Institute. Since that time he has worked as a producer and studio musician and has developed a successful career composing for film and television.

Soulleash is his first solo album and on it he displays a multitude of talents, composing both the music and lyrics, producing and mixing the recording and playing a host of instruments. Most prominent is his distinctively smooth guitar style, reminiscent of George Benson and Wes Montgomery. He is joined by some fine musicians including Alexis Baro (trumpet), Anthony Brancati (keyboards), Alex Sekulovski (drums) and Sam Heineman (Hammond organ). Of special note however are the vocalists who are featured on several tracks, a vocalise by Vania Margani on the opening Interlude Solitude, Christine Hamilton on After Midnight, Wade O. Brown on My Only Love and Party People where he is joined by Quisha Wint and Gyles, Lisa Michelle on the title track, plus Jeff Eagar and rapper Jin Brown on Solace. It’s kind of a retro offering, but I mean that in a good way. It takes me back to my clubbing days in the 1970s grooving to Billy Reed and the Street People, Dollars (Mary Margaret O’Hara’s band) and Rough Trade. Nice memories. Thanks Duffmusiq!

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

01 Plante Tango borealLa Bibliothèque-Interdite – Denis Plante
Sébastian Ricard & Tango Boréal
ATMA ACD2 2752

Review

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

Let me start with a disclaimer: I don’t get opera; I don’t like tango; and cabaret is not my cup of tea. That being said, imagine my surprise to find that the disc which has been getting the most play on my system this month is a cabaret-style “tango opera” by Denis PlanteLa Bibliothèque-Interdite (ATMA ACD2 2752) features actor-singer Sébastian Ricard and Plante’s ensemble Tango Boréal in a tale set in the dark days of mid-20th-century Argentina.

“The odyssey began,” Plante tells us, “with a concert […] by Les Violons du Roy, the Tango Boréal Trio and actor Sébastian Ricard. Its theme: Jorge Luis Borges. I had been commissioned to write tangos to accompany the poetry of Argentina’s great literary figure for the production. Sébastian Ricard captivated the audience as, pacing like a caged tiger, he played several roles […] One year later I suggested to Sébastian that we continue the experiment in musical theater by creating an original show, La Bibliothèque-Interdite [The Forbidden Library]. I wanted to present an impressionistic portrait of tango at the end of that Infamous Decade [which began in 1930 with the military coup that overthrew President Hipólito Yrigoyen and lasted until 1943 when another coup resulted in the rise of Juan Perón]. I have long been fascinated by this period – and by the fact that, sometimes risking their lives, it was the gaucho minstrels and tango enthusiasts, the payadores and the tangueros, who first denounced the rise of the fascists…”

Plante has created a libretto that is “a confession, a life story and ideological speech” sung by a fictional poet. Although this character sprung from the composer’s imagination, it is also based on stories told by his father-in-law Alfredo Monetta, “an Argentinian exile who barely escaped the genocide of the dirty war of 1976.” He goes on to say “Other memories are my own. I discovered the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires in dramatic and violent circumstances: blinded by tear gas during the crisis of the pot-banging protests of December 2001.”

So what does this all sound like? It begins with Eden, a languidly nostalgic song – I often dreamed of a library with secret doors…it was my childhood and my destiny: I became a poet – that gives way to Inspecteur Barracuda, a harder-edged portrait of the prince of the renegades, the nabob of tango. [Translations mine.] There are 16 contrasting movements, each with their own story from Icarus’ Descent and a Bestiary to ruminations on departures, memory, silence and life. The instrumentation is simple and clean, featuring bandonéon (Plante), nylon-string guitar and charango (David Jacques) and acoustic bass (Ian Simpson), with occasional added percussion and small chorus. Stylistically it is a pastiche, as freely admitted by Plante, with moods that vary from ballad to narrative to dance-like, including of course more than a fair share of tango.

What struck me most however was the clarity of Ricard’s vocals. I studied French throughout public and high school plus several post-secondary summer immersions, and although I cannot carry on a fluid conversation in la belle langue, I am able to read fairly sophisticated texts en français (my summers always include reading a least one French novel in the original). But listening to art songs or popular music in French I often have trouble following the lyrics. So I was immediately hooked when I realized that I could understand la plupart of what Ricard was singing, thanks to his clear diction and to Plante’s careful setting of the texts. I was reminded of the vocal writing of John Weinzweig, oh not in the musical language, but in the careful selection of words that could be clearly understood when sung.

The booklet notes include a dedication paragraph and, as quoted in part above, a “Diary of Creation” by Denis Plante, a foreword by Sébastien Ricard, a poem by Brigitte Haentjens and artists’ biographies, all in both official languages. Strangely the libretto only appears in French, leaving me glad of all those years I put in building my vocabulaire. Highly recommended.

Review

01 Hope SeasonsFor Seasons is the new CD from violinist Daniel Hope with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra and 11 individual collaborators (Deutsche Grammophon 479 6922). The album’s title is carefully chosen, as the disc contains not only Hope’s first recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons but also 12 short pieces linked to the months of the year, a concept Hope came up with 20 years ago and which he calls a very personal celebration of the seasons.

It’s fascinating to see how the Vivaldi concertos retain their freshness despite what seems like a neverending series of new recordings. The performances here are simply lovely – crisp, clean and warm, with some brilliant playing from Hope and an excellent continuo sound from the harpsichord, theorbo and baroque guitar. It’s another terrific interpretation to add to the already extensive list.

The rest of the CD is an absolute delight, although the connections with the months of the year – if they exist at all – are somewhat tenuous. Only Aphex Twin’s Avril 14th, Tchaikovsky’s June, Chilly Gonzales’ Les doutes d’août and Kurt Weill’s September Song are specifically linked to the appropriate month, with the remainder of the brief tracks apparently intended to convey the feelings and emotions associated with the changing seasons.

No matter, for they’re all real winners, with the January of Nils Frahm’s beautiful Ambre and the December of Chilly Gonzales’ Wintermezzo framing music by Rameau, Max Richter, Robert Schumann, Bach and his contemporary Johann Molter, and a particularly striking improvisation on Amazing Grace with Dom Bouffard on electric guitar. The Zurich Chamber Orchestra provides the accompaniment on four of the tracks. Hope’s lovely solo violin arrangement of Brahms’ Lullaby, Guten Abend, gut’ Nacht, provides a beautiful close to an outstanding CD.

The CD booklet, incidentally, includes the accompanying artwork produced by 12 visual artists in response “to the music and to the seasons” in Hope’s For Seasons project.

Review

02 Rachmaninov TriosAnother terrific Deutsche Grammophon CD, PREGHIERA Rachmaninov: Piano Trios features outstanding playing by violinist Gidon Kremer (celebrating his 70th birthday with this release), cellist Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė and pianist Daniil Trifonov (479 6979).

The CD’s title is taken from the opening track, Fritz Kreisler’s Preghiera, a violin and piano collaboration between Kreisler and Rachmaninoff that reworked the Adagio sostenuto from the composer’s Piano Concerto No.2. It’s a short but beautiful work that serves as an effective curtain-raiser to the two piano trio works.

Dedicated to “the memory of a great artist,” the Trio élégiaque No.2 in D Minor was Rachmaninoff’s response to the death of Tchaikovsky, whom he revered; it was started on the very day of Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893. Rachmaninoff said that all his thoughts, feelings and powers were devoted to it, that he tormented himself the entire time and was “ill in spirit.” Those sentiments are certainly reflected in the music, for this is a large-scale work written in what the booklet notes call “a musical idiom of almost unbridled emotionality.” The performance here is outstanding, perfectly capturing the melancholy and passion of the work and with a particularly ravishing piano sound.

The Trio élégiaque No.1 in G Minor is a short, one-movement student work that again features a prominent role for the piano and that offers more than a hint of Rachmaninoff’s mature elegiac style. Another fine performance rounds out a top-notch CD.

03 Rachmaninoff violin pianoThe Kreisler Preghiera turns up again in Rachmaninoff Complete Works & Transcriptions for Violin & Piano, a simply stunning CD from the American violinist Annelle K. Gregory and the Russian pianist Alexander Sinchuk (Bridge 9481).

From the opening bars of the Romance in A Minor, a very early student work when the composer was scarcely into his teens, it’s clear that this is going to be a very special album. Gregory has a quite gorgeous tone, is absolutely secure technically and plays with power, richness and assurance. Sinchuk matches her every step of the way.

And what music this is to display such deeply glowing and emotional playing! Given that 17 of the 20 tracks are arrangements or transcriptions it feels like Rachmaninoff’s Greatest Bits at times, but with performances like these, who cares? Rachmaninoff wrote only three pieces for violin and piano – the opening unpublished track, which remained unknown until 1951, and the Deux Morceaux de Salon Op.6; of the transcriptions here from other sources six are by Jascha Heifetz and five are by Fritz Kreisler.

The Preghiera is perhaps a bit more rhapsodic than Kremer’s version, the latter’s feeling more like the prayer suggested by the title, but both are simply beautiful interpretations. There’s a lovely Vocalise in an arrangement by the early-20th-century Russian-American violinist Mikhail Press, whose students included the legendary Dorothy DeLay, and Kreisler’s transcription of the 18th Variation from the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini brings a dazzling CD to an end.

04 Miller PorfirrisThere is more superb string playing on Divertimenti, the new CD from the Miller-Porfiris Duo (millerporfirisduo.org) of violinist Anton Miller and violist Rita Porfiris featuring duos by Robert Fuchs, Ernst Toch and Bohuslav Martinů. The players, who met at Juilliard over 20 years ago, have been playing together since 2005, and you would have to go a long way to hear better duet playing than this.

Fuchs died in 1927, and consequently did not experience the growing Nazi influence in Austria in the 1930s. His students included Erich Korngold and Alexander Zemlinsky (both of whom fled Nazi Europe for the United States) and Gustav Mahler. His 12 Duette Op.60 date from 1898, when Fuchs was on the faculty of the Vienna Conservatory, and are beautifully crafted short pieces redolent of Vienna in the years before the Great War.

Toch was born in Vienna and entered Fuchs’ composition classes at the Conservatory in 1900 at the age of 12. He emigrated to the United States in 1934, settling in Los Angeles and writing numerous film scores. His Divertimento Op.37 No.2 for Violin and Viola is a short (under ten minutes) three-movement work with a brilliant Vivace molto that packs a real punch. Porfiris quite rightly notes the work’s “expressive dissonance and frenetic energy.”

Martinů also emigrated to the United States, in his case in 1941 after being blacklisted by the Nazis in France. He was successful in America, but never really felt happy or settled, finally returning to Europe in 1956. His Duo No.2 for Violin and Viola H.331 was written in 1950, and is a bright, melodic three-movement work with decided Czech rhythms.

Miller and Porfiris are in great form throughout the CD, both playing with a warm, rich tone and with a clarity, spirit and brightness that serves these delightful works perfectly.

05 Russian GiantsThe husband and wife team of violist Yuri Gandelsman and pianist Janna Gandelsman are the performers on Russian Giants, a CD of works by Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Mieczysław Weinberg and Igor Stravinsky (Blue Griffin BGR 413).

Prokofiev’s Suite from Romeo and Juliet is a selection of six short pieces from the composer’s Ten Pieces from “Romeo and Juliet” Op.75 for solo piano, which was extracted from the ballet score between its composition in 1935 and its premiere in 1938; the transcriptions for viola and piano were made by Prokofiev’s contemporary Vadim Borisovsky, the founding violist of the famed Beethoven Quartet.

Shostakovich’s Sonata for Viola and Piano Op.147 was the last work the composer completed, mostly written in his hospital bed as he lay dying of lung cancer in the summer of 1975. Replete with references to the composer’s own works as well as to those of other composers, the music belies Shostakovich’s weakened physical condition, its harmonic ambiguity finally resolving with a quiet C-Major ending that the composer called “radiance.”

Weinberg was a close friend of Shostakovich and much influenced by him; indeed, his 1945 Sonata for Clarinet and Piano Op.28, heard here in its official viola version, makes specific references to the latter’s music in the opening movement. Weinberg’s Jewish heritage is clearly felt in the middle movement.

Stravinsky’s brief Elegy for Solo Viola was written in 1944 on a commission from the Pro Arte Quartet violist Germain Prévost in memory of the group’s founding first violinist Alphonse Onnou, who had died earlier that year.

There is fine playing throughout the CD from both players, although the tone of Gandelsman’s1748 Paolo Testore viola doesn’t seem to have quite the dynamic range that it did on his 2012 Hindemith CD. Balance and recorded sound are excellent.

06 Offenbach DuosLagniappe! (the Louisiana Cajun French word for a bonus gift or something extra) is the seventh volume in the series of Offenbach Cello Duets from Human Metronome (humanmetronome.com), this one featuring the Duets Op.19 Nos.1-3 and Op.20 Nos.1-3 in performances by Paul Christopher and his student Milovan Paz (HMP 107-2016).

Offenbach was a virtuoso cellist who earned his living as a performer before establishing himself as a composer. He produced three sets of cello duets, usually of increasing technical difficulty: Op.19-21 and 34 (École de Violoncelle); Op.49-54 (Cours méthodique); and Op.78. The complete Op.49-54 was covered in five of the first six CDs – the final volume was reviewed in this column last September – with Op.21 being included on a separate volume. Christopher notes that they haven’t yet found all of the music for Op.34, so there may well be an eighth CD in the future. I can’t find any mention of a recording of Op.78 anywhere.

Don’t be misled or discouraged by the use of titles like School and Method: these works may have had pedagogical intent behind their composition, but they are full of the melodic invention and beauty that made Offenbach’s operettas such a success, and can – and should – stand alone as concert recital pieces.

Christopher and Paz play as superbly and have as much fun as they did on the previous volume, where Christopher said that he felt the duets “transcend their original purpose and are the high water mark for the cello duets genre.” Everything here continues to support that view.

This whole series adds up to a pure delight for cellists of all ages and abilities.

01 Hope SeasonsFor Seasons
Daniel Hope; Zurich Chamber Orchestra
Deutsche Grammophon 479 6922

Review

The following review is an excerpt from Strings Attached (May 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.

For Seasons is the new CD from violinist Daniel Hope with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra and 11 individual collaborators (Deutsche Grammophon 479 6922). The album’s title is carefully chosen, as the disc contains not only Hope’s first recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons but also 12 short pieces linked to the months of the year, a concept Hope came up with 20 years ago and which he calls a very personal celebration of the seasons.

It’s fascinating to see how the Vivaldi concertos retain their freshness despite what seems like a neverending series of new recordings. The performances here are simply lovely – crisp, clean and warm, with some brilliant playing from Hope and an excellent continuo sound from the harpsichord, theorbo and baroque guitar. It’s another terrific interpretation to add to the already extensive list.

The rest of the CD is an absolute delight, although the connections with the months of the year – if they exist at all – are somewhat tenuous. Only Aphex Twin’s Avril 14th, Tchaikovsky’s June, Chilly Gonzales’ Les doutes d’août and Kurt Weill’s September Song are specifically linked to the appropriate month, with the remainder of the brief tracks apparently intended to convey the feelings and emotions associated with the changing seasons.

No matter, for they’re all real winners, with the January of Nils Frahm’s beautiful Ambre and the December of Chilly Gonzales’ Wintermezzo framing music by Rameau, Max Richter, Robert Schumann, Bach and his contemporary Johann Molter, and a particularly striking improvisation on Amazing Grace with Dom Bouffard on electric guitar. The Zurich Chamber Orchestra provides the accompaniment on four of the tracks. Hope’s lovely solo violin arrangement of Brahms’ Lullaby, Guten Abend, gut’ Nacht, provides a beautiful close to an outstanding CD.

The CD booklet, incidentally, includes the accompanying artwork produced by 12 visual artists in response “to the music and to the seasons” in Hope’s For Seasons project.

02 Rachmaninov TriosPREGHIERA Rachmaninov: Piano Trios
Gidon Kremer, Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė, Daniil Trifonov
Deutsche Grammophon 479 6979

Review

The following review is an excerpt from Strings Attached (May 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.

Another terrific Deutsche Grammophon CD, PREGHIERA Rachmaninov: Piano Trios features outstanding playing by violinist Gidon Kremer (celebrating his 70th birthday with this release), cellist Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė and pianist Daniil Trifonov (479 6979).

The CD’s title is taken from the opening track, Fritz Kreisler’s Preghiera, a violin and piano collaboration between Kreisler and Rachmaninoff that reworked the Adagio sostenuto from the composer’s Piano Concerto No.2. It’s a short but beautiful work that serves as an effective curtain-raiser to the two piano trio works.

Dedicated to “the memory of a great artist,” the Trio élégiaque No.2 in D Minor was Rachmaninoff’s response to the death of Tchaikovsky, whom he revered; it was started on the very day of Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893. Rachmaninoff said that all his thoughts, feelings and powers were devoted to it, that he tormented himself the entire time and was “ill in spirit.” Those sentiments are certainly reflected in the music, for this is a large-scale work written in what the booklet notes call “a musical idiom of almost unbridled emotionality.” The performance here is outstanding, perfectly capturing the melancholy and passion of the work and with a particularly ravishing piano sound.

The Trio élégiaque No.1 in G Minor is a short, one-movement student work that again features a prominent role for the piano and that offers more than a hint of Rachmaninoff’s mature elegiac style. Another fine performance rounds out a top-notch CD.

Review

01 Chopin LisieskiOne of Canada’s brightest young talents is Jan Lisiecki. The Calgary-born pianist has been astonishing audiences since his orchestral debut at age 9. Now 22, his list of international performances with major orchestras and conductors grows yearly. His newest recording Chopin: Works for Piano & Orchestra, NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, Krzysztof Urbanski (DG 479 6824) is his fourth for Deutsche Grammophon.

Lisiecki’s playing is unerringly precise with a lightness of touch that gives him astonishing tonal control, speed and clarity. He approaches Chopin with calm introspective depth unusual for an artist so young. The Nocturne in C-sharp Minor Op.Posth. demonstrates this with its mellow left-hand accompaniment of a brighter line in the right. Lisiecki’s finish is astonishing in its balanced perfection.

Every track on this CD is extraordinary. But what really emerges as the showpiece is the set of Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Op.2. Speed, technique, astonishing rapid octaves and other devilish Chopinesque devices make this performance an example of genius running joyously amok.

Lisiecki plays beautifully with orchestra. A natural ease keeps him in step with the ensemble through the Rondo à la Krakowiak in F Major Op.14 and the Andante Spianato & Grand Polonaise Brillante Op.22.

Almost all of this disc also appears as part of DG’s 20-CD set The Complete Chopin, featuring Lisiecki along with other performers.

Review

02 SokolovGrigory Sokolov is legendary for his rejection of celebrity. He gives no interviews and for some years now has stopped performing with orchestras. He also dislikes and avoids recording studios. It’s something of an achievement therefore, for Deutsche Grammophon to have obtained Sokolov’s agreement to reissue two live performances from 2005 and 1995 in Mozart, Rachmaninov Concertos & “A Conversation That Never Was” A Film by Nadia Zhdanova (DG CD/DVD479 7015). The addition of the film (on DVD) makes this set unusual. Zhdanova interviews Sokolov’s friends and colleagues and adds newly found archival material to create a portrait of this very private and sometimes reclusive artist.

The Mozart Piano Concerto No.23 in A Major K488 is the more recent performance. Recorded in 2005 in Salzburg with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Trevor Pinnock, it’s an intimate reading with Sokolov’s characteristic crisp, clear staccatos punctuating the opening of the final movement.

The other performance is with the BBC Philharmonic at the Royal Albert Hall in 1995. The Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No.3 in D Minor Op.30 is loved by audiences and equally feared by pianists for its technical challenges. The speed at which Sokolov takes the opening of the final movement is scarcely believable. The same rapid repeats of chordal passages appear in the first movement, where Sokolov gives the piano such a pounding that some notes in the upper register begin slipping out of tune and make for a few interesting effects as the performance proceeds without a pause to correct the matter. Still, the scale of Sokolov’s interpretive conception is awesome and often startling.

03 Ives ConcordThomas Hell has tackled a work with a stormy critical past, in his new recording Ives Concord Sonata (Piano Classics PCL 0112). Subtitled Concord, Mass. 1840-1860, Ives wanted to reflect the changing tide of American literary and philosophical thought in the mid-19th century. Each of the four movements carries the name of a significant figure of the period: Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts, Thoreau. The work is quite large requiring nearly 50 minutes to perform.

Hell provides some useful thoughts on his approach to this piece. Given Elliott Carter’s early criticism of its lack of form, Hell describes the sonata’s components and how its disparate elements actually hold it together. This intellectual commitment to the work is what sustains Hell’s performance through the daunting challenge of the first two movements. The technical demands are considerable. Hell even claims a few of the pages could be the most difficult in all the piano literature.

Ives enjoyed making musical references in this sonata, alluding to material from Beethoven to Stephen Foster along with a little ragtime. It’s a rich work and a challenge to deliver. Hell has a very solid understanding of what Ives is doing, and the benefit of having spent a good deal of time considering it. His real task, however, is to make much of it accessible to the listener at first hearing. On that count he exceeds expectations. Hell plays with dexterity, intention and focus. His grasp of the material is obvious and his ability to convey it is compelling.

04 Andrew TysonAndrew Tyson takes on an enormous task in his latest disc, Ravel, Scriabin – Miroirs, (Alpha Classics Alpha 277). His objective is to give voice to composers wandering through the universe of free-flowing impressionism in search of transcendence over their instrument and its musical forms.

Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No.3 is the first challenge with its daunting stream of keyboard consciousness. The writing is replete with countless inner voices and Tyson masterfully brings them each to the surface for their brief appearance. It’s an amazing technique and quite magical in its effect. Tyson is never completely bound by any rhythmic strictures. He’s clearly at ease with the ebb and flow of Scriabin’s language, even in the second and fourth movements, where stronger tempos dominate.

Ravel’s Miroirs calls for more containment and Tyson senses this innately. His restraint is subtle yet his playing as seductive as ever. His command of colour is remarkable. The Bechstein used in the recording surrenders harp-like glissandos throughout his playing of Noctuelles. La vallée des cloches, similarly, is exquisite for its distant, mellow echoes and brighter tolls.

Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No.10 Op.70 concludes the disc’s program. It’s Scriabin’s final published work in the form. Tyson recaptures the mysticism of the earlier work on the recording and takes it even further. His execution is fluid and unbroken. His playing is passionate and ethereal. He’s a truly gifted artist with an extraordinary bond to this repertoire.

05 Beth LevinBeth Levin has a distinctive and unmistakable presence at the keyboard. Her newest recording, Bright Circle – Schubert, Brahms, Del Tredici (Navona Records NV 6074) demonstrates how her nearly pedal-less playing can open new perspectives on standard repertoire. Her performance of Schubert’s Piano Sonata No.20 D959 is a good example of how a drier sound benefits the musical material by reducing sustained background harmonies. The resulting clarity emphasizes the core elements of Schubert’s ideas as well as allowing other nuances to emerge unimpeded. The third movement Scherzo is a terrific example of how Levin is able to reset our expectations of familiar material using a relaxed tempo and crisp articulation. This may well have been how early pianos sounded, with their lower string tension and shorter resonance times.

Levin is, nevertheless, a deeply expressive player who never misses an opportunity for dynamic contrast and tonal shading. In the Brahms Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel Op.24, Levin uses her light pedalling to great effect in keeping the inner voices of the closing fugue wonderfully accessible. Other variations, No.2 and No.4 in particular, are perfectly supported by an economical and tasteful application of sustained legato playing.

The CD concludes with David Del Tredici’s Ode to Music. Schubert’s often sung An die Musik is the thematic kernel of this work. Del Tredici apparently offered to transcribe a favourite piece for the Dorian Wind Quintet, who responded with the choice of the Schubert Lied. Once completed, the transcription was further transcribed for keyboard by one of Del Tredici’s friends who was so impressed that he wanted his own version for piano performance. While it begins conventionally, the work evolves quickly into its contemporary iteration but does so without ever letting go of its strong Romantic impulse.

Review

06 Benelli Mosell RachmaninovWith a handful of recordings already in her discography, 30-year-old Italian pianist Vanessa Benelli Mosell has now added her orchestral debut with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2, Corelli Variations (Decca 481 393). The concerto is a staple in the repertoire. The sheer beauty of Rachmaninoff’s writing makes it a good choice for a young performer breaking into the market. The real test of this work is, however, the second movement and it’s here that Mosell truly proves herself as a musician. This movement is much less dense than the outer ones and leaves the performer quite exposed with sparse lines and slow tempos. What holds this movement together for Mosell is the honesty of her playing. Nothing’s contrived. Her phrasings are straightforward but clearly the product of much thought. She and Rachmaninoff are the perfect match.

The disc also includes Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op.42. The 20 variations are an extremely demanding set to perform. Mosell plays through them with impressive ease, meeting every demand for big powerful sound as well as the deepest introspection. It’s obvious she has invested a great deal in her interpretation and the impact is even more profound than her performance of the Concerto No.2. It’s quite surprising that the small filler piece on the recording’s program steals the show so convincingly.

07 Willscher OrganOrganist Carson Cooman brings another hi-tech pipe organ recording to the market with his new release Andreas Willscher, Organ Symphony No.5 (Divine Art dda 25150). This CD is another performance using the Hauptwerk system whereby digital samples of entire pipe organs and their acoustics are played back from stored memory in live performance at a location other than the original site. In other words, not in the church where the organ resides.

The authenticity of the sound produced through this method is indistinguishable from a recording made in the church, in this case, the Laurenskerk, Rotterdam, Netherlands. The instrument recorded is a Danish build of 1973 by Marcussen & Son.

Cooman has chosen to record the 12-movement Organ Symphony No.5 by German organist and composer Andreas Willscher. It’s a substantial work of 73 minutes and rich with colourful registrations and dynamic effect. Its mildly programmatic subject is “Of Francis’ Preaching about Holy Poverty.” The four movements marked Allegro are each brilliant and thrilling, with bold pedal lines that need durable speakers to deliver them without distortion. The quietest movements are equally impressive for the reverberant space around their sounds. The symphony’s longest movement is half silence, set between long held chords. A meditative injunction comes with this movement and listeners should be prepared.

These Hauptwerk projects are important for the access they offer to instruments whose onsite recording costs would otherwise leave them unheard. Cooman has made an excellent choice of combining instrument and repertoire.

01 Chopin LisieskiChopin: Works for Piano & Orchestra
Jan Lisiecki; NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, Krzysztof Urbanski
DG 479 6824

Review

The following review is an excerpt from Keyed In (May 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.

One of Canada’s brightest young talents is Jan Lisiecki. The Calgary-born pianist has been astonishing audiences since his orchestral debut at age 9. Now 22, his list of international performances with major orchestras and conductors grows yearly. His newest recording Chopin: Works for Piano & Orchestra, NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, Krzysztof Urbanski (DG 479 6824) is his fourth for Deutsche Grammophon.

Lisiecki’s playing is unerringly precise with a lightness of touch that gives him astonishing tonal control, speed and clarity. He approaches Chopin with calm introspective depth unusual for an artist so young. The Nocturne in C-sharp Minor Op.Posth. demonstrates this with its mellow left-hand accompaniment of a brighter line in the right. Lisiecki’s finish is astonishing in its balanced perfection.

Every track on this CD is extraordinary. But what really emerges as the showpiece is the set of Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Op.2. Speed, technique, astonishing rapid octaves and other devilish Chopinesque devices make this performance an example of genius running joyously amok.

Lisiecki plays beautifully with orchestra. A natural ease keeps him in step with the ensemble through the Rondo à la Krakowiak in F Major Op.14 and the Andante Spianato & Grand Polonaise Brillante Op.22.

Almost all of this disc also appears as part of DG’s 20-CD set The Complete Chopin, featuring Lisiecki along with other performers.

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