03 Roots of StringsRoots of Strings – The oud at the crossroad of Arabic, flamenco and Indian music
Nazih Borish
Analekta AN 2 9173 (analekta.com/en)

Syrian-born Nazih Borish is a respected oudist and composer. While establishing and running his Syrian oud school, this already-renowned artist began to expand and embrace a wide variety of musics, including Arabic, flamenco, blues and jazz. In 2016, Borish arrived in Canada, where he seamlessly continued his international work as a composer and performer. On this energized program of original compositions, Borish has collaborated with two equally accomplished and gifted artists: bassist Roberto Occhipinti and acclaimed world-music percussionist (darbuka, req, ketim and dahola) Joseph Khoury.  

Every well-produced track underscores the one-ness of mankind. From the most elemental bass notes of Mother Earth’s heart to the intensity of shared human emotional experience – this recording is a journey of profound meaning. The opening track, Nazihawand (Nahawand taksim), is a resonant, mystical composition… with sonic elements that are steeped in human experience – sounds from a timeless place, in a place-less time – eventually segueing into a wider, more languid sequence, punctuated in an inspired way by Occhipinti and Khoury.

The title track is heady with exotic spices, exploring the deep and ancient relationship between the indigenous music of Spain, Iberia, Portugal, the sub-Continent and the Arabian peninsula, followed by Ataba (Bayat taksim) – deeply moving, with rich, lustrous tones; the facile skill of Borish is breathtaking. I can hear this universal music echoing off the walls of the Blue Mosque, the Taj Mahal or Carnegie Hall! Ali Baba Dance is a stunner – and Damasrose (Rast samai) is a sensual, Masala-flavoured trip, displaying complex string technique by Borish, all the while expressing the subtleties of several different instruments of antiquity – even hints of the Japanese koto.

04 Ventus MachinaRoots
Ventus Machina
Leaf Music LM239 (leaf-music.ca)

Ventus Machina is a classical wind quintet based in New Brunswick which makes “excursions” into other genres. Roots is an inventive album containing arrangements of folk songs, fiddle tunes, Celtic music and a few iconic Canadian singer-songwriter staples. The majority of arrangements are by James Kalyn who plays clarinet and saxophone in the group. The album begins with Our Roots Medley which has five movements including an arrangement of some of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (The Goldberg “Variegations”), a Swedish folk song (Koppången) and Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Kalyn’s arrangements are complex and use the full acoustic and technical resources of the quintet to present a unique perspective on these diverse selections. The Goldberg Variegations” are quite contrapuntal, while Edmund Fitzgerald uses a majestic French horn to announce the theme amongst the other swirling instruments. 

Bird on the Wire has Kalyn playing bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, singing and using slap tongue techniques for rhythmic purposes. On Joni Mitchell’s The Circle Game the quintet is augmented by the Atlantic String Machine and a small children’s choir. For the three fiddle tunes, Traveller’s BreakdownDoin’ Repairs and Calm Before the Storm, they are joined by the composer Ray Legere, playing fiddle and mandolin, with Christian Goguen on guitar; the music gets lively. 

The underlying delight present throughout Roots is having familiar music reinvented in an unusual and intriguing context. This is Ventus Machina’s second album and I look forward to more musical adventures with them in the future.

Listen to 'Roots' Now in the Listening Room

05 In DIn D
Brooklyn Raga Massive
Independent (brooklynragamassive.org)

Terry Riley’s iconic minimalist composition In C (1964) is scored for an indeterminate number and kind of instrument or voice. A drone-like pulse on the note C synchronizing the ensemble guides its performance, while superimposed repeated phrases give the work a phasing effect. (Riley had been deeply influenced by his studies with Hindustani classical vocalist Pandit Pran Nath.)

Hailed as “Leaders of the Raga Renaissance” (The New Yorker), Brooklyn Raga Massive was founded in 2015 by sitar player and composer Neel Murgai. Given the diversity of instruments and musical backgrounds of the group, BRM chose Terry Riley’s adaptable In C to record in 2017. Then at Riley’s suggestion in 2020, BRM members took inspiration from In C’s form and composed a new work. It is interpreted by 25 musicians on the album In D, each of the three sections set to a different Hindustani raga (Indian classical melodic mode). Within that framework improvisational instrumental and vocal solos are balanced by effectively composed tutti passages and drum features. 

Musicians and instruments from numerous traditions playing together can prove a challenge; this album manages to avoid many of the pitfalls. Adding to the cultural diversity here, while there’s certainly an emphasis on the classical Indian soundworld, other traditions unexpectedly and delightfully come to the fore before receding back into the sonic prevalent texture. 

In recognition of the pandemic context the recording was made in, the three ragas were selected to “match the pandemic situation we now face. We plunged from our normal happy lives into darkness and [now] finally… we have hope.” The joyful communal sprit of In D gives me hope too.

Listen to 'In D' Now in the Listening Room

07 Intersystems#IV; Unfinished World
Intersystems
Waveshaper Media WSM-04CD (waveshapermedia.com)

Over 50 years since their last release, Intersystems return like a spectral transmission from the original psychedelic era. In the late 1960s, the Toronto multi-disciplinary art collective dedicated themselves to replicating hallucinogenic experiences. Architect Dik Zander, light sculptor Michael Hayden, poet Blake Parker and electronic musician John Mills-Cockell (known for his work with the bands Syrinx, Kensington Market and decades of soundtrack composition) constructed immersive installations aiming to overload each of the five senses. 

Intersystems’ trilogy of late 60s albums (Number One, Peachy and Free Psychedelic Poster Inside) have become canonized experimental classics, reissued as a lavish box set by Italian label Alga Marghen in 2015. The archival efforts of compiling this collection – alongside accompanying reissues of Syrinx and Mills-Cockell’s solo work – lit a spark of inspiration as Intersystems’ surviving members reunited for a new studio project. With the new album #IV, and its accompanying CD-only EP Unfinished World, they expand their legacy as luminaries of the Canadian avant-garde.

In a series of sessions at Hamilton’s famed Grant Avenue Studio, Hayden and Mills-Cockell conducted an electronic séance. Though Parker sadly passed away in 2007, they rendered the words of his poems with computerized vocalizations, drawing listeners into an uncanny valley. At times, these spookily lifelike voices take a cue from Parker’s deadpan delivery on Intersystems’ original albums. Elsewhere, their warped robotic gurgles sound like a sinister Max Headroom clone.

Mills-Cockell runs wild across a playground of vintage Moogs and Mellotrons, conjuring a vast expanse of effects. The sparse ambience of Revelation of the Birds casts an otherworldly glow over Parker’s surrealist poetry about avian conversation topics. In the two parts of Sonny Abilene, the narrator’s agitated delivery of nightmarish imagery combined with looping minor-key melodies is reminiscent of minimal wave outsider John Bender. 

The album concludes on an ominous note of acceptance with The End of the World, as swirling arpeggios drift across 12 minutes of dystopian poetry. In Parker’s vision of the apocalypse, human skins peel off like snakes, while bodies ascend into heaven on electric light. As Mills-Cockell once said, “If it wasn’t disturbing and profoundly weird, it wouldn’t be Intersystems.”

06 Annabelle ChvostekString of Pearls
Annabelle Chvostek
Independent (annabellemusic.com)

It has been six years since JUNO-nominated, versatile singer/songwriter Annabelle Chvostek released a recording. The reason being is that Chvostek suffered significant hearing loss, the result of a massive feedback blast during a soundcheck. This would be a challenging experience for anyone – let alone a musician. This new CD is a direct result of Chvostek’s desire to create a project that would be enjoyable and accessible to those with hearing loss – and in keeping with this directive, she decided to produce an alternate monaural version of the recording specifically for people with hearing issues, available digitally at annabellechvostek.bandcamp.com. 

There are three co-producers on String of Pearls: Chvostek, David Travers-Smith and Fernando Rosa, two of whom are hearing impaired. Rosa was born deaf in one ear, and by 2015 Chvostek was also. Through his brilliant engineering (and excellent hearing), Travers-Smith has created crisp, bright, satisfying digital tracks in stereo, and also in monophonic sound, a modality long gone but lovingly repurposed to allow people to experience the music in a new, authentic way. Joining Chvostek on this journey is a large cast of uber-talented characters, including violinist Drew Jurecka, guitarists Debi Botos and Tak Arikushi, vibraphonist Mark Duggan, bassist Rachel Melas and drummer Tony Spina. 

The majority of the material here was written by Chvostek, with the exception of a tasty Tom Waits tune, Just the Right Bullets, rendered with a highly creative “High Noon” horn-bandoneon-percussion-laden interpretation. The title track boasts a clever lyric that eloquently explains Chvostek’s journey, with a bit of a nod to the Boswell Sisters. Huge standouts include Je T’ai Vue Hier Soir (I Saw You Last Night) – an unabashed love song, performed in gorgeous, sibilant French and perfectly presented in a “Hot Club de France” style. Violinist Jurecka shines here, out-Grappelli-ing Grappelli! Also the sumptuous Firefly (You Just Love), replete with a delicious arrangement and equally delicious performances from Chvostek and the ensemble. Easily, this recording is one of the most enchanting and innovative of the year.

Assembled since the first significant 78s were collected in one package, the boxed set has traditionally been used to celebrate important anniversaries or extensive projects. CD collections are the same, with these improvised music sets aurally illuminating various programs.

Hemphill 00 boxThe most meaningful collection is the seven CDs that make up Julius Hemphill The Boyé Mufti-National Crusade for Harmony – Archive Recordings 1977-2007 (New World Records 80825-2 newworldrecords.org). Consisting of 53 previously unreleased tracks, the box presents a full picture of composer and saxophonist Hemphill (1938- 1995), who was a member of the St. Louis Black Artists Group and founder of the World Saxophone Quartet. Hemphill is represented not only by numerous combo sessions with fellow sound innovators, but also by a disc of his chamber music compositions as well as multimedia creations involving solo saxophone forays and spoken word. While other tunes of his are interpreted by pianist Ursula Oppens and the Daedalus String Quartet, a more memorable compositional program on Disc 4 is of two pieces Hemphill conducted played by improvisers using traditional orchestral instruments and without solos. Slotted among Baroque, blues and bop, the tracks include achingly melodic motifs plus timbral extensions into multiphonics and swing that are unique. Roi Boyé Solo and Text is an entire disc dedicated to the vernacular trickster character the saxophonist developed in theatrical presentations where his horns comment on verbalized themes extended with Malinké Elliott’s recitation of the poetry of K.Curtis Lyle. With the rhymes personifying a variety of inner city St. Louis characters from shouting preacher to mumbling hustler, Hemphill’s flute or soprano and alto saxophone lines offer either measured cadences as affirmation or use screech mould, triple tonguing plus the addition of miscellaneous percussion to rhythmically solidify the urban imagery and underline the barbed explosiveness of the situation. 

However, it was as an improviser, composer and arranger that Hemphill’s identity was solidified, and these skills are expressed in cultivated and unique fashion involving numerous ensembles on the other five CDs. Hemphill’s best-known associates, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette, joined the saxophonist and longtime musical partner, trumpeter Baikida Carroll, in 1979 for one concert. Known for affiliations with Keith Jarrett and Miles Davis, the bassist and drummer easily respond to Hemphill’s music, as percussion rolls and ruffs and stentorian string plucks smack and swipe alongside light-toned grainy brass smears and an unbroken line of reed shrills. Mirrors’ squirming exposition opens up for a jumping tempo-shattering snare-and-cymbal solo without upsetting the piece’s ambulating balance. Meanwhile, the concluding Would Boogie is defined by the title as a drum backbeat; walking bass lines match lockstep horn animation which splinters the theme into atom-sized reed bites and splayed brass flutters and then reconstructs it. This down-home quality is further emphasized with two groups on CD 6 which include electric bassists and guitarists. Pops and splatters from Jerome Harris’ electric bass evolve in tandem with Hemphill’s sax squeaks or flute trills as six duo selections become harsher and more pressurized. A similar intensity is expressed when bop meet blues on Pigskin, as Jack Wilkins’ echoing guitar licks and drummer Michael Carvin’s power backbeat add mainstream swing to the saxophonist’s astringent exploration. One/Waltz/Time+ projects the group’s multiple identities as guitarists Allan Jaffe’s and Nels Cline’s blues-rock twangs and frails connect with Hemphill’s shifting split tones, moving the piece from the hotel ballroom to the honky tonk. 

Country blues energy coupled with urban experimentation also enlivens the multiple bands that Hemphill led under different names featured on Discs 1 and 3. Usually including Carroll, Dimples: The Fat Lady on Parade is unique because the trumpeter’s strangled blows and the saxophonist’s foaming glissandi are moderated when joined by John Carter’s nasal clarinet tones. With the woodwind’s gentle trilling taking on the storytelling role, Hemphill’s soprano creates a sweet obbligato. As sprightly harmonies then unite over drummer Alex Cline’s ambulatory beat, the narrative resembles the topsy-turvy echoes of a retreating circus band. Cline and Carroll are part of the trio called The Janus Company on Disc 3 where boppy themes do-si-do among the band members. Spectacular drum rumbles enliven #4 as Hemphill’s supple cries buzz across the sequence while Carroll’s capillary screeches vibrate to a Pop Goes the Weasel burlesque until the two horns finally harmonize. Cellist Abdul Wadud joins the trio for a finger-snapping version of Dogon A.D., one of the saxophonist’s best-known compositions. Including guitar-like frails from Wadud, high-pitched bugling from the trumpet and a hearty drum backbeat, this variant combines a march rhythm, blues notes and splintered multiphonics. Wadud, who was on the saxophonist’s first recording, also partners Hemphill on Disc 2’s six tracks. Exemplary selections such as Syntax and Downstairs demonstrate how much energy and expression two simpatico players can generate. Hemphill’s alto saxophone curls out nearly ceaseless sound variations using techniques that range from Charlie Parker-like brusqueness to extended runs of doits, split tones and flattement. Meanwhile the cellist bends notes to not only propel the beat, but also to twang a pinched continuum that cements jagged detours and tone experiments into a connective narrative.

NotTwo 00 boxAnother box set celebrates not one man’s musical vision but those of 13 musicians and the record label that disseminates their works. After releasing adventurous music for 20 years, in 2018 Krakow’s Not Two label organized a three-day-anniversary celebration in the Polish village of Wleń featuring players who regularly record for it. Not Two … but Twenty Festival (NotTwo MW 1000-2 nottwo.com) is a five-CD box that preserves those performances. They consist of different combinations featuring saxophonists Mikołaj Trzaska of Poland, Peter Brötzmann from Germany, Ken Vandermark from the US and Swede Mats Gustafsson; bassists Barry Guy of the UK, Joëlle Léandre from France and Pole Rafał Mazur; drummers Paal Nilssen-Love from Norway and Zlatko Kaučič from Slovenia; plus Swiss violinist Maya Homburger, American trombonist Steve Swell, Swedish tubist Per-Âke Holmlander and Catalan pianist Agustí Fernández. 

Ranging in length from four minutes to over 20, none of the 28 tracks disappoint, with a few more outstanding than others. Demonstrating inventive flair for instance, Léandre is in her element whether it’s in a trio with Swell and Fernandez, a quartet with Guy, Kaučič and Swell or going one-on-one with Guy or Trzaska. The quartet set demonstrates that resonating pumps from two sophisticated bass players can stretch enough horizontal and splayed patterns to either provoke or accompany as many crashing percussion or slurring tailgate brassy smears as the others can produce. Swell’s almost ceaseless scooping tones and Fernández’s metronomic keyboard vibrations set up a trio challenge at even greater length, but Léandre’s concentrated string stropping with tandem vocalizing is so powerful and percussive that her string buzzing consolidates the exposition from allegro interaction to andante solidity. Solo, her string traction is such that she can create speed-of-light spiccato jolts from the bass’ highest-pitched strings with the same textural innovation with which she pushes the narrative with bottom-aimed sul tasto stops, all the while spanking the instrument’s wood and verbally gulping and crowing additional onomatopoetic colour. Her duet with Guy shows both in top form(s) as they harmonize or test one another, constantly switching arco and pizzicato roles, splintering shrill notes or modulating deeper pitched ones, so intermittent melodies share space with pressurized movement. 

Baritone saxophonist Gustafsson constantly challenges clarinetist Vandermark or alto saxophonist Trzaska in their meetings, but in each instance the reeds are part of an additional kaleidoscopic brass or percussion-affiliated canvas. With the clarinetist, contrapuntal reed trills and bites become shriller and more dissonant as Swell and Holmlander spread cascading burbles below them until all four reach screeching concordance. With Trzaska, Mazur and the tubist creating a continuum, double saxophone flutters can turn into barely there tongue slaps and whistles as flatulent brass quakes and sliding bass string crackles intersect to propel the narrative. Meanwhile, the Brötzmann, Guy and Kaučič meeting can be contrasted with the Gustafsson, Mazur and Nilssen-Love trio. The German saxist’s distinctive nephritic cry is met by the drummer’s calculated splashes and shatters as the bassist keeps the program chromatic. Each time the saxophonist spears unexpected split tones from his horn, Guy produces connective stops while adding further grainy character along with Kaučič’s cymbal rubs. But when Guy’s subsequently powerful string pulls threaten to unbalance the exposition and push it to dissonance, it’s Brötzmann’s unexpected elaboration of a snatch of Sentimental Journey that launches the three into a near-swinging finale. 

There’s no comparable respite with the other trio whose combination of reed glossolalia, sluicing string runs from Mazur and thumping drumming suggest heavy metal as much as free jazz. When Nilssen-Love repeatedly pummels his kit and the bassist strums rhythmic ambulation, Gustafsson’s timbral screeches and basso honks rest comfortably among the vibrations below. The set is appropriately concluded with a brief finale with all the musicians expressing group excitement from, and appreciation of, the proceedings as they spill out an organized free-for-all that humorously and abruptly ends. However the standout performance is a four-part dialogue among Fernández, Guy, Mazur and Kaučič. Creating a kinetic yet horizontal pulse, the bass work moors the exposition as the drummer decorates it with cymbal colours and drum pops while the pianist tinkles out a floating canter with sharper theme variations. The storytelling is further enshrined as kinetic piano lines join wide bass string pulses to slow down the allegro narrative to a cumulative responsive finale.

 Some innovating musicians need and deserve more than a single disc with which to express their far-ranging talents. These box sets show this can be effectively done.

01 KentnerLouis Kentner Plays
Louis Kentner
Profil/Hänssler PH20085 10 CDs (naxosdirect.com/search/ph2008)

Pianist Louis Kentner was born on July 19, 1905 in Karwin, then a part of Austrian Silesia, now Karvina in the Czech Republic. His parents were of Hungarian origin and named their son Lajos. Having later settled in London, in most modern biographies he appears as a British pianist and composer.

Kentner was highly gifted musically and from 1911/12 he studied at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest where he first came to attention with a concert performance of Chopin. At the Academy he studied piano with Arnold Székely, chamber music with Leo Weiner and composition with Hans Koessler and Zoltán Kodály. 

He made his official debut in 1915 and began concert tours in European cities attracting attention with his interpretations of Chopin and Liszt. He won the Chopin Prize in Warsaw and the Liszt Prize in Budapest. In 1933 he gave the first Hungarian performance of the Bartók Second Piano Concerto (with Otto Klemperer) and in 1946 the first performance in Europe of the Third Concerto under Sir Adrian Boult.

Kentner had settled in London in 1935 and was given British citizenship in 1946. Audiences were unstinting in their appreciation of his Mozart and he also gave radio performances of complete cycles of Beethoven and Schubert sonatas. He had a keen interest in Baroque music, especially Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier

Looking through Kentner’s repertoire on these ten discs poses the usual question, what to play first? Here are the composers: Brahms, Bartók, Walton, Balakirev, Dvořák, Liszt, Bach, Mozart, Ravel, Beethoven, Hubay and Chausson. Assisting artists are Yehudi Menuhin, Gaspar Cassadó, the Pascal Quartet, the Philharmonia and BBC Symphony Orchestras, Adrian Boult and Harry Blech. As Kentner enjoyed a reputation for his Liszt, there is of course the B Minor Sonata recorded in 1937. Wagner found this work to be “beautiful beyond all conception,” and Kentner takes this to heart in the last two pensive and reflective sections of this one-movement masterpiece. 

There is also a disc of 15 short Liszt delights including Un Sospiro, La Campanella and Gnomerneigen. Yehudi Menuhin is heard in Bach’s Six Violin Sonatas BWV1014/1019. Also with Menuhin is the Walton Violin Sonata recorded in 1950. The Bartók Third Concerto is here with Boult and the BBC Symphony. The rest are not all the usual suspects found in such collections and this one is certainly worth investigating. 

Kentner had a recognizable sound that identifies his playing throughout this unique collection.

02 MoravecIvan Moravec Edition
Ivan Moravec; Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields
Hänssler CLASSIC HC 20084 4 CDs (naxosdirect.com/search/hc20084)

It was only recently that we raved about an 11CD Ivan Moravec set, Portrait, published by Supraphon, of incomparable performances from their and others’ archives of solos and concertos. Every performance on those discs remains a treasure. This new 4CD set from Hänssler is headlined by four Mozart concertos in collaboration with Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. It begins with No.20 in D Minor K466 which is meltingly beautiful in every respect, both performance and recording. This is followed by No.23 in A Major K488, and on disc two Nos.24 in C Minor K491 and 25 in C Major K503.The recordings were made in the Henry Wood Hall in 1997 and 1995. CD three contains sonatas by Haydn and Janáček, Chopin’s Preludes 17 to 24 and a couple of (presumably) encores by Debussy and Chopin, all recorded at the 2000 Prague Festival. The fourth CD finds Moravec in the Academy of Arts and Letters in NYC playing the Chopin Funeral March Sonata and half a dozen Chopin favourites rising to a triumphant Polonaise No.7 Op.61. Another stellar collection from the Moravec vaults.

01 Richards QuintetThree Quintets by Peter Müller
Richards Wind Quintet
Crystal Records CD252 (crystalrecords.com)

This recording of Johann Peter Müller’s Wind Quintets has just been digitally remastered after its initial release back in 1976. Although a pastor by profession, Müller (Germany, 1791-1877) was also an avid composer, writing a substantial number of works including two operas, some organ preludes, string quintets and these three wind quintets.

All three are beautiful and charming, showcasing the best of the classical style. Müller had a deep understanding of the strengths of each wind instrument as well as how they blend together, creating works that are both virtuosic and perfectly balanced.

These works are performed expertly by the Richards Wind Quintet: Israel Borouchoff, flute; Daniel Stolper, oboe; Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr, clarinet; Edgar Kirk, bassoon; and Douglas Campbell, horn.  One of the first resident wind quintets in the United States, they toured around North America from 1948 to the late 1980s, proudly representing Michigan State University and the wind quintet form as a whole.

02 Christopher LeubaSonatas for Horn and Piano
Christopher Leuba; Kevin Aanerud
Crystal Records CD372 (crystalrecords.com)

Why resurrect a recording of horn and piano duets almost 50 years after it was first released? It is factual that the horn – the French horn as we know it today – is a mainstay in orchestral performance, woodwind quintets and chamber jazz settings, but true virtuosos are few and far between. The late Gunther Schuller comes to mind, as does John Clark, Vincent Chancey, Canada’s Jeff Nelsen, Sarah Willis who’s celebrated as being the first female brass player in the revered Berlin Philharmonic and of course Toronto’s own late, great Joan Watson, principal of the COC Orchestra and founder of True North Brass.  

But what bearing should any of this have on Sonatas for Horn and Piano, a 1977 recording by the late Christopher Leuba? Biographically speaking, Leuba was first horn in Fritz Reiner’s Chicago Symphony and appeared with the Philharmonica Hungarica under Antal Doráti. Leuba was also a noted pedagogue and his Study of Musical Intonation is considered Bach-like in its importance: “the definitive work mathematically describing true, or just, intonation, in comparison to the tempered scale.” Which brings us to this recording.

Leuba truly practices what he once proverbially preached on these Sonatas for Horn and Piano by American composers John Verrall, Halsey Stevens and Paul Tufts. None of this music is considered – in our frame of reference – famous. But each is singularly eloquent; perhaps even a perfect example of how a French horn ought to sound when the spotlight is turned on it. Pianist Kevin Aanerud gently eggs Leuba on throughout, making for an utterly memorable performance.

01 ŽibuoklėODE1386 2Saudade is the name of a new album of orchestral works by Lithuanian-American composer Žibuoklė Martinaitytė, and of the most recent composition included on the disc (Ondine ODE 1386-2 naxosdirect.com/search/ode+1386-2). According to Martinaitytė, the Portuguese word saudade means “a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing […] sad and happy feelings together […]. For the last decade this thread of longing has been woven into my life, colouring all experiences.” It is a sentiment which I’m sure most of us have been feeling during the past year of lockdown and isolation, so it is interesting that the four works presented were all written in the half dozen years before COVID reared its ugly head. Although evoking stark landscapes, there is a wonderful lushness to the music, which seems to grow inherently out of initial quiet in vast arcs of sustained tones and tremolos, occasionally erupting like bubbles exploding from some primordial soup. The music builds and recedes in many-textured layers with no melodies per se, just shifting colours that draw us in with a sense of yearning. Of particular note is the Chiaroscuro Trilogy (2017) for piano and orchestra that holds us enthralled throughout its three movements played without pause – Tunnel, Meteors and Darkness of Light. Gabrielius Alekna is the soloist with the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra. The other works are performed by the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra, Giedrė Šlekytė conducting throughout.

02 Mirror Lysander TrioMartinaitytė mentions that one of the works on her disc was inspired by the films Cloud Atlas and The Hours (both based on books) as well as Italo Calvino’s postmodernist novel If on a winter’s night a traveller. I would not normally mention a CD that we have previously reviewed, but I found myself intrigued last month by Adam Sherkin’s review of the Lysander Trio disc mirrors (First Hand Records FHR11 lysandertrio.com). Specifically it was Reinaldo Moya’s Ghostwritten Variations that caught my attention, featuring “reimagined” music of fictional composers from four novels: Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus; David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas mentioned above; Richard Powers’ Orfeo; and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Memory of Whiteness, only the last of which I hadn’t read. With time on my hands I decided to explore this 1985 novel set in a distant future of interplanetary travel and habitation, where the universe is controlled by an enormous synthetic orchestra and its master. Although I found Ghostwritten Variations less than convincing as a depiction of music by these invented composers, it was an interesting premise and a well-crafted result. I actually found the 2010 trio, An den Wassern zu Babel by William David Cooper with its retro-expressionist sensibility, perhaps a more convincing example of what Mann’s character Adrian Leverkühn, loosely based on Arnold Schoenberg, might have written. That being said, I was happy to spend time with this well-performed survey of recent piano trios by contemporary American composers. 

03 Star Makers FragmentsMusic again led me to literature in the next instance, Taylor Brook’s Star Maker Fragments, commissioned and performed by the TAK Ensemble (takensemble.bandcamp.com/album/star-maker-fragments). I had not previously read Olaf Stapleton’s 1937 speculative fiction novel involving transcendental interstellar and time travel, and the melding of the narrator’s mind with other sentient beings (of all shapes and sizes) from other planets and other galaxies, in a story that encompassed the entire history of the universe. It’s also about galactic consciousness(es) and the creator – Star Maker – told from the perspective of a pacifist philosophy from a time when Europe was headed, seemingly inevitably, toward global conflict. Brook has excerpted fragments of the book for his text, which is narrated by the group’s soprano, Charlotte Mundy, accompanied by flute, bass clarinet, violin and percussion, with electronics by the composer. The piece was written explicitly for recording, making extensive use of multi-tracking, processing, sound synthesis and field recordings, but may also be performed in concert with ensemble and live electronics once COVID is a thing of the past. It is a very convincing encapsulation of the striking landmark book, lasting about 45 minutes and followed by an instrumental postlude. If you’re not familiar with Star Maker, this provides an intriguing introduction to the SF classic, whose more famous admirers include H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Brian Aldiss, Doris Lessing, Stanisław Lem and Jorge Luis Borges, who called it “a prodigious novel.” Recommended.

Listen to 'Taylor Brook’s Star Maker Fragments' Now in the Listening Room

04 Michael Peter Olsen Yearning FlowI sometimes multi-task, listening to music while reading. Pretty much anything with lyrics, especially narration, is off limits, because I cannot deal with words in my ears and words on the page at the same time. This meant not listening to Star Maker Fragments while reading the book, but I did find some music that seemed a perfect match to those interstellar wanderings, Toronto composer Michael Peter Olsen’s Yearning Flow (handdrawndracula.com/artists/michael-peter-olsen). Olsen plays electric and acoustic cello with electronics throughout, and is joined by guests on four of the six tracks: Chris Evans, synth guitar on MoonMist; Todor Kobakov, modular synth on 7 Days; Brandon Lim, bass guitar on Ours; and Merival, in a beautiful vocalese duet with cello, on Cloud Parade. In addition to providing a marvellous soundtrack for the transcendental journeying mentioned above, Yearning Flow ​is evocative and visual, “a sonically deep album that layers ambient textures with tension and release,” that also rewards concentrated listening. Perfect music for sitting in the dark and letting your mind go. 

05a Self Portrait with Russian PianoBrought to my attention by WholeNote reader and old high-school chum Doug Walker, Self Portrait with Russian Piano by Wolf Wondratschek is a compelling story of the narrator’s friendship with a fictional Soviet pianist Suvorin, and Suvorin’s own friendship with real-life cellist Heinrich Schiff (even including Schiff’s recipe for caramelizing onions!). I find it interesting that a book about a pianist speaks of piano repertoire in only general terms, but when it comes to Schiff and the cello it gets specific, mentioning Beethoven’s cellos sonatas and Triple Concerto. This led me to search out Schiff’s performance of the Cello Sonata in A Major Op.69 on YouTube – his recordings of the five sonatas seemingly having fallen out of the catalogue – and to a brand new CD with the Beethoven Triple Concerto in C Major Op.56 featuring Isabelle Faust, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Alexander Melnikov and the Freiburger Barockorchester, conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado (Harmonia Mundi HMM902419 store.harmoniamundi.com).

05b Beethoven TripleIt had been several decades since I last listened to the “Triple” and it was a real treat to have occasion to revisit it, especially played by such amazing performers. The balance between the soloists and period orchestra (presumably supplemented from its Baroque size to the forces Beethoven would have had available at the time) is perfect, and the simpatico communion between violin, cello and piano is palpable. The album also includes a surprisingly full-bodied rendering of Beethoven’s piano trio arrangement of the Symphony No.2 in D Major, Op.36. Quite a feast for the ears! 

06 Schoenberg TrioPiano trios seem to be a recurring theme this month and next on the agenda is a new recording of Eduard Steuermann’s 1932 arrangement of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht Op.4 with Trio Karénine on La Nuit Transfiguré (Mirare MIR554 mirare.fr/catalogue). Originally composed for string sextet in 1899, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) is considered Schoenberg’s first important work, and incidentally it was Pierre Boulez’s Domaine Musical recording of the original version that provided my introduction to the music of this icon of the 20th century. Predating his development of the 12-tone system, this piece is a dense example of Expressionist art with the dramatic, and sometimes lugubrious, string textures full of Romantic angst. Although a purely instrumental work, it explores – verse by verse – a poem by Richard Dehmel in which a woman is walking with her lover, but is pregnant by another man. She is worried about the ramifications, but ultimately the beauty of the evening and the intensity of their love triumph. This tone poem departs from the tradition established by Liszt and later perfected by Richard Strauss, in that it is for chamber forces, not full orchestra. Trio Karénine’s performance is intense and convincing, with the “orchestral” piano part conceived by Steuermann ably filling in for the missing strings. The CD also includes Tristia, Liszt’s 1880 trio arrangement of the solo piano work, Vallée d’Obermann S. 723c, and Schumann’s Six Studies in Canonic Form for pedal piano, Op.56 as transcribed by Theodor Kirchner.

07 Verklarte NachtSteuermann’s is not the only arrangement of Transfigured Night; Schoenberg himself expanded it for string orchestra including contrabass (adding to the abovementioned lugubriousness) in 1917, and again for similar forces in 1943, by which time the Austrian composer had moved to America. Verklärte Nacht, a new album from Chandos featuring the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Edward Gardner (CHSA 5243 naxosdirect.com/search/chsa+5243), includes this last arrangement, plus German orchestral songs by Franz Lehár, Oskar Fried and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Lehár’s Fieber (Fever) is the dramatic story of a young officer in hospital after suffering wounds on the battlefield early in WWI, as was the case of the composer’s younger brother Anton. It is markedly different from the music of The Merry Widow and other operettas for which Lehár is renowned, although momentary hints of the waltz composer peek through. Fried’s 1901 Verklärte Nacht is based on the same text that inspired Schoenberg, in this instance using Dehmel’s words, sung by mezzo-soprano (Christine Rice) and tenor (Stuart Skelton). It is a quasi-operatic scene in post-Wagnerian style, of which Fried said in later years: “I myself find it too beautiful; I am drowning in this music.” Korngold composed his four Lieder des Abschieds (Songs of Farewell) in 1920- 21, soon after his opera Die tote Stadt, when he was still in Vienna. It is the most tonal work on offer here (Fried’s self-assessment notwithstanding), gorgeously sung by Skelton, whose full heldentenor is impressive throughout the vocal works on the disc, well matched by Rice in the Fried. 

08 Fremb bin ich EingezogenSpeaking of arrangements, or in this case adaptations, regular readers will know that I am enamoured of Schubert’s Winterreise in just about any shape or form. Other than Bach’s Goldberg Variations I don’t know of any work that has been interpreted in so many ways, for so many instruments. Perhaps the most unusual version I had encountered until now was Philippe Sly and Le Chimera Project’s Klezmer/Roma rendition recorded for Analekta and later performed live for Toronto audiences at Koerner Hall in 2020, shortly before the lockdown. This has now been surpassed by a new disc from the Asambura-Ensemble, founded in Hannover in 2013 to interpret classical music in dialogue with non-European perspectives. Fremd bin ich Eingezogen (Decurio DEC-004 decur.io) is subtitled Winterreise interkulturell and it connects Schubert with Persian poems and music in an intriguing mélange that provides a multicultural gloss on the original text and accompaniment. The vocal soloists are Yannick Spanier (German) and Mehdi Saie (Persian), and the orchestration is a mix of Western and Eastern instruments: piano; violin; viola; cello; contrabass; flutes; clarinets; guitar; santoor; oud; tar; marimba; djembe; riq and dumbek. The title translates to “I arrived a stranger,” the opening line of Gute Nacht, the first song of the Winterreise cycle, and it embodies the spirit of the project as stated in the booklet, “…in view of the homelessness of so many refugees.” It is a haunting and evocative reinterpretation of a timeless classic, firmly rooting it in the troubled 21st century. A stunning addition to my Winterreise collection. 

09a akikos piano coverTwo Japanese piano concertos complete this month’s column, Dai Fujikura’s Piano Concerto No.4 “Akiko’s Piano” (daifujikura.com/#shop) and Toshio Hosokawa’s Lotus under the moonlight on Hosokawa / Mozart (ECM New Series 2624 ecmrecords.com/shop)

Fujikura tells us that his ”special piano concerto was written for and dedicated to the Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra’s Peace and Music Ambassador, Martha Argerich. […] In Hiroshima, there is a piano that survived the atomic bomb, the smashed glass window from the blast is still stuck to the piano’s body. This piano belonged to a 19-year-old girl, Akiko […] who was working as a mobilized student, when the atomic bomb was dropped. She walked and swam, as the bridge had been destroyed, to her home where her parents were that day. Then, the next day, she died [of radiation poisoning] in her parents’ arms.” In this recoding, two pianos are used; a grand piano for the body of the work, and then the cadenza at the end of the concerto is played on Akiko’s Piano, the piano that survived the bombing. Fujikura says “To express such a universal theme of ‘music for peace’ the piece should portray that most personal, smallest point of view. I think that is the most powerful way, and only music can achieve this.” I think he has done so admirably. The soloist is Mami Hagiwara and the Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Tatsuya Shimono.

09b Hosokawa MozartHosokawa’s concerto was commissioned by the Nordeutscher Rundfunk for the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. The composer was asked to select a favourite Mozart concerto and write a work for the same instrumentation. He chose the Concerto in A Major K488, and used the “beautiful slow movement” in F-sharp Minor as his point of departure. Hosokawa says “Of all flowers, the lotus blossom is the most highly valued in Buddhism. Many statues of the Buddha show him standing on a lotus blossom. […] In my concerto, the piano symbolizes the lotus flower (human) and the orchestra the surrounding water and universe. […] The work does not depict the lotus flower quietly but rather tries to express the mysterious energy of the universe that flows into the blossoming of the flower.” For this purpose, Hosokawa has supplemented the orchestra with percussion instruments; dramatic bass drum explosions and the gentle tinkling of bells and chimes. He dedicated the work to Momo Kodama who premiered it in Hamburg in 2006. Her performance here is from the Japanese premiere, recorded later that same year, with Seiji Ozawa conducting his Mito Chamber Orchestra. As at the premiere, the recording pairs Lotus under the moonlight with Kodama’s performance of the Mozart Piano Concerto in A Major that inspired it. 

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01 TapeoThe Canadian duo of cellist Cameron Crozman and pianist Philip Chiu is in fine form on Tapeo, a delightful recital of popular Spanish pieces (ATMA Classique ACD2 2820 atmaclassique.com/en).

Crozman says that he fell in love with Spain the moment he first stepped into the Tapeo tapas bar on his first day in Barcelona, and when the Canada Council awarded him the loan of the “El Tiburon” cello from around 1769 attributed to the Spanish maker Joannes Guillami he knew he had to make a recording honouring its Spanish origins. Crozman describes the resulting CD as his own “tapas party” of short, diverse Spanish pieces.

Included are Cassadó’s Requiebros, de Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole, Ravel’s Pièce en forme de Habañera and Alborada del Gracioso, Turina’s Polimnia-Nocturno, Granados’ Intermezzo from Goyescas, Albéniz’s Asturias (Leyenda), Ginastera’s Triste, Estrellita by the Mexican Manuel Ponce and Chants oubliés by the Chilean-Canadian Alberto Guerrero.

The gentle warmth of the Guillami cello’s tone is perfect for this material, with both performers providing beautifully nuanced playing in a top-quality CD.

Listen to 'Tapeo' Now in the Listening Room

02 Weinberg ConcertoViolinist Gidon Kremer continues his passionate promotion of the previously neglected music of Shostakovich’s close friend and compatriot with Mieczysław Weinberg Violin Concerto, a live performance of the Concerto in G Minor Op.67 recorded in Leipzig in February 2020 as part of a series of concerts marking the composer’s 2019 centenary; Daniele Gatti conducts the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (Accentus Music ACC30518 accentus.com/discs/518).

Weinberg completed the four-movement concerto in 1959 at the end of a particularly creative phase. Written six years after the death of Stalin, it’s essentially a warmly lyrical work with spikier moments that clearly shows his musical relationship with Shostakovich, albeit without the sense of tension and utter despair that often haunted the latter’s compositions in the Stalin era.

Kremer is joined by Madara Petersone, the leader of his Kremerata Baltica ensemble, in a studio recording of the terrific three-movement Sonata for Two Violins Op.69, also from 1959. 

03 Il Cannone CoverIn October 2019 the Italian-American violinist Francesca Dego was given the honour of performing Paganini’s Concerto No.1 in Genoa on Paganini’s 1743 Guarneri del Gesù “il Cannone” violin, after which she was allowed to record with the instrument in Genoa Town Hall, where it is permanently housed and guarded by a six-person security detail. The result is Il Cannone: Francesca Dego plays Paganini’s Violin, where she is accompanied by her regular recital partner Francesca Leonardi in a program of works that pay homage to the famous virtuoso (Chandos CHAN 20223 chandos.net/products/catalogue/CHAN%2020223).

Four of the works here are for solo violin: Kreisler’s Recitativo and Scherzo-Caprice; John Corigliano’s The Red Violin Caprices; Carlo Boccadoro’s Come d’autunno; and Schnittke’s tough and quite abrasive A Paganini.

The works with piano are Clochette (Kreisler’s arrangement of La Campanella), Rossini’s Un mot à Paganini, and two works, in particular, that showcase the instrument’s glorious singing quality: Boccadoro’s arrangement of Paganini’s Cantabile and Szymanowski’s Trois Caprices de Paganini. The sweeping melodic phrases, the sweetness and strength in the highest register and the crystal-clear harmonics in these settings of Caprices Nos. 20, 21 and 24 complete a dazzling CD.

04 Schubert DaskalakisWith Franz Schubert Music for Violin II violinist Ariadne Daskalakis and Paolo Giacometti, on fortepiano, complete their survey of Schubert’s music for violin using a historical approach aimed at understanding the framework of Schubert’s time (BIS-2373 bis.se).

The Rondo in B Minor Op.70 D895 “Rondeau brillant” from 1826 provides a strong opening to the disc, bringing appropriately bright and clear playing from Daskalakis, the full recorded resonance allowing the fortepiano to sound warm and not at all dry.

Two of the three Sonatas Op.137 from 1816 (published by Diabelli in 1836 as Sonatinas) are here, No.1 in D Major D384 and No.2 in A Minor D385 drawing terrific playing from both performers, with lovely definition and dynamics in the former and very effective passages in the latter where Daskalakis uses no vibrato. The Duo Sonata in A Major Op.162 D574 from 1817 completes a fascinating CD, full of expansive, visceral music-making.

The fortepiano is by Salvatore Lagrassa from around 1815, so exactly contemporary with the music here, and the violin is a 1754 Guadagnini with gut strings and a classical bridge. The instruments are tuned to 430 Hz.

05 Raphael Pidoux Beethoven Op.5Two instruments from the Paris Musée de la musique provide a fascinating sound on Beethoven Cello Sonatas Op.5, with Raphaël Pidoux playing a 1734 cello by Pietro Guarneri of Venice and Tanguy de Williencourt playing an 1855 piano by Carl Gulius Gebauhr (Harmonia Mundi HMM 902410 store.harmoniamundi.com/format/635912-beethoven-cello-sonatas-op-5).

Both sonatas – No.1 in F Major and No.2 in G Minor – have no slow movement, the two-movement form in each being essentially Adagio – Allegro and Rondo – Allegro. Dedicated to Frederick William II, King of Prussia (himself an accomplished cellist), they were written in 1796 when Beethoven was in Berlin. Despite being published by Artaria in 1797 as sonatas for keyboard “with an obligato cello” they are the first duos to treat both instruments equally, the booklet essay noting their “brilliant writing, ambition and ample dimensions.”

Two works inspired by Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte complete the disc: Beethoven’s 1801 Seven Variations on “Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen” WoO46 and the Nocturne “Souvenirs de la Flûte enchantée” from 1825 by pianist Camille Pleyel and cellist Charles-Nicolas Baudiot.

06 Haydn London Haydn QuartetThe London Haydn Quartet reaches volume nine in its ongoing set of the complete string quartets of Joseph Haydn with Haydn String Quartets Op.76, a 2CD set priced as a single disc (Hyperion CDA 68335 hyperion-records.co.uk/a.asp?a=A1711).

The six quartets – No. 1 in G Major, No.2 in D Minor “Fifths,” No.3 in C Major “Emperor,” No.4 in B-flat Major “Sunrise,” No.5 in D Major “Largo” and No.6 in E-flat Major – date from 1797 when Haydn was at the height of his creative powers in his string quartet writing; “no set of 18th century string quartets,” notes the excellent booklet essay, “is so wide-ranging in expression, or so heedless of the structural norms of the time.

Using the 1799 editions published by Longman, Clementi & Co. of London and Artaria of Vienna, the players show the same outstanding qualities – the faultless intonation on gut strings, the range of nuances and dynamics, the perfect ensemble feel – that have resulted in this series of quite superb period performances garnering rave reviews. 

07 ModiglianiThe Haydn “Fifths” quartet also turns up on Haydn – Bartók – Mozart, the new CD from the Quatuor Modigliani that features three works that each bear witness to a turning point in the lives of their composers and the advent of new horizons (Mirare MIR506 en.modiglianiquartet.com).

Haydn’s String Quartet in D Minor Op.76 No.2 was written when he was free from his service at the Esterházy estate and was the toast of Vienna after his two hugely successful trips to England. The opening tempo is markedly faster than on The London Haydn Quartet CD, but even with the accent more on lightness and clarity there’s no lack of emotional depth.

The political situation in Hungary at the end of the Great War badly hindered Bartók’s folk music research and deeply affected him; he wrote very little until an outpouring of piano music in 1926. The following year saw his String Quartet No.3 Sz.85, the shortest of his six quartets but the one that heralded his mature style.

Mozart’s String Quartet No.19 in C Major K465 “Dissonance” dates from 1785, and is the last of the six quartets Mozart dedicated to Haydn, whose Op.33 quartets he had heard after arriving in Vienna in 1781. Study of the music of Bach and Handel at that time resulted in a more marked presence of counterpoint in Mozart’s music.

There’s outstanding playing throughout the CD, but the Mozart, in particular, is absolutely beautiful, with clarity and warmth and a crystal-clear Allegro final movement.

08 Vagh HolmboeWith Vagn Holmboe String Quartets Vol.1 Denmark’s Nightingale String Quartet embarks on what promises to be an outstanding set of quartets by the Danish composer who lived from 1909 to 1996 (Dacapo 8.226212 dacapo-records.dk/en).

Holmboe wrote quartets throughout his life and completed over 30, 22 of which are in his official catalogue. Although his lasting role model was Haydn, Bartók’s quartets also became a big influence.

Holmboe had already written ten unpublished quartets before his three-movement String Quartet No.1 Op.46 from 1949, subtitled In memoriam Béla Bartók. The other two works on this first volume are the five-movement String Quartet No.3 Op.48, also from 1949, and the four-movement String Quartet No.15 Op.135 from 1978, its third movement Funèbre very much of Shostakovich’s sound world.

Interestingly – in 2010 – Dacapo, Denmark’s national record label, issued a 7CD box set of the complete 22 Holmboe quartets, apparently assembled from individual issues from the late 1990s and performed by the Kontra Quartet, who “enjoyed a close collaboration with the composer.” This new project promises “fresh, new performances that support the idea that the deeper you dig into Holmboe’s music, the more you find.”

The terrific performances here certainly make a great start. 

09 Strauss ChamberThe Oculi Ensemble is a flexible string ensemble comprised primarily of members of leading string quartets and dedicated to exploring string repertoire for two to seven players. Metamorphosen – Strauss Chamber Works is their debut CD as a stand-alone ensemble (Champs Hill Records CHRCD155 champshillrecords.co.uk).

The Prelude to the opera Capriccio Op.85 from 1940-41 opens the disc, followed by two works for string quartet: the extremely brief fragment Quartettsatz in E-flat Major TRV85 from 1879 (recorded with the permission of the Strauss family) and the String Quartet in A Major from 1880. Three brief works for piano quartet follow: Ständchen from the early 1880s; Festmarsch AV178 from November 1886; and the Two Pieces AV182 – Arabischer Tanz and Liebesliedchen from 1893.

The title track completes the CD. Commissioned for 23 solo strings, Metamorphosen wasn’t finished until after the February 1945 Allied bombing raid that destroyed Strauss’ beloved Dresden, Strauss completing a draft short-score for seven solo strings that March. That manuscript was rediscovered in Switzerland in 1990 and edited for performance by cellist Rudolf Leopold in 1994. Impassioned playing, recorded in the excellent acoustics of the Music Room at Champs Hill, West Sussex, ends a highly commendable CD.

10 Jupiter Jasper QuartetsThe excellent new CD by the Jupiter and Jasper String Quartets, music by Mendelssohn – Visconti – Golijov simply abounds with familial relationships, three Freivogel siblings (a brother and two sisters) and two spouses making for a remarkably close connection between the two ensembles (Marquis 81613 marquisclassics.com/index.html). 

A luminous opening to the Mendelssohn Octet in E-flat Major Op.20 sets the tone for a simply thrilling performance – vibrant, pulsating and dynamic with a dancing Scherzo and a sweeping Presto finale.

Dan Visconti’s quite beautiful Eternal Breath, envisioned as a work that would involve their four children and their musical spouses, was commissioned in 2011 by the Freivogel parents (who also funded the recording) for their 40th wedding anniversary. Originally for three violins, a viola, three cellos and a drone box, it is heard here in the later adaptation with a second viola replacing the third cello.

Osvaldo Golijov’s two-movement Last Round from 1996 is a tribute to Astor Piazzolla, the octet being joined by a string bass in Last Round – Movido, urgente and Muertes del Angel, the whole work described by Golijov as “an idealized bandoneón.”

01 Michelangelos MadrigalMichelangelo’s Madrigal
Kate Macoboy; Robert Meunier
Etcetera KTC 1623 (etcetera-records.com)

Through this CD, Australian Kate Macoboy and Canadian Robert Meunier, who now reside in London, England attempt to restore Italian madrigal composers to their true position as some of the leading exponents of the medium. They even find time for some sensuous lute solos from the same group of composers.

In a CD of 19 tracks, it is difficult to single out the most emotive compositions, but Macoboy’s interpretation of Pesenti’s Aime, ch’io moro has a languorous, almost haunting, quality to it which is reminiscent of the greatest Italian madrigalists of the later stages of the Renaissance. It is difficult from this CD to imagine that these Italian composers were somehow overshadowed by their colleagues elsewhere in Europe. Poignantly, Ben mi credea passar mio tempo homai is not only pensive and moving because of its music but it benefits from the poetry of a certain Petrarch – and was still overlooked by contemporary audiences!

Then there is the lute playing. While it is once again difficult to select a personal favourite from these pieces, Da Milano’s Fantasia 42 has a soothing and intricate quality ably brought out by Meunier. But this CD is really about its soprano. For the full range and power of Macoboy’s singing skills, listen to Bartolomeo Tromboncino’s Per dolor me bagno il viso, with its plaintive demands on both singer and instrumentalist.

Listen to 'Michelangelo’s Madrigal' Now in the Listening Room

02 Beethoven LeonoreBeethoven – Leonore (original 1805 version)
Nathalie Paulin; Jean-Michel Richer; Opera Lafayette; Ryan Brown
Naxos 2.110674 (naxosdirect.com/search/2110674)

Staging the very first (1805) version of Beethoven’s only opera, then still referred to as Leonore, begs some questions: Why now, in its three-act format, when the maestro himself revised it and reduced it to two-acts, when Leonore failed twice before finally getting the recognition it deserved in 1814 and that as a considerably revamped Fidelio?

You will find several answers in the meticulously detailed booklet notes by Nizam Kettaneh, co-executive producer of this performance. A more compelling historical reason comes from Beethoven himself who, while forever wrestling with a political-philosophical credo, quite fittingly continued to refer to the opera using its full, preferred, name: Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe. The original production may also have been shortened for political and commercial rather than purely artistic reasons; after all, it first played to a French audience which reportedly didn’t care much for German opera. Thus Beethoven may have reacted by making the 19th-century version of what composers today might call a “radio-friendly edit.” 

And then there’s this compelling performance itself. At the hands of Opera Lafayette, Leonore flares to life as if for the first time. Ryan Brown conducts the opera with a muscular fervour to proclaim the youthfulness of Beethoven’s masterpiece. Jean-Michel Richer’s Florestan is splendid and Nathalie Paulin’s Leonore/Fidelio is breathtaking. The prisoner’s chorus is soul-stirring. Best of all, the themes of unselfish love, loyalty, courage, sacrifice and heroic endurance all shine brilliantly throughout.

03 Schuberts WomenSchubert’s Women
Klaudia Tandl; Gabriele Jacoby; Niall Kinsella
Gramola 99223 (gramola.at)

In his songs, Schubert reveals uncanny empathy for women – not just for the Romantic ideal of the eternal feminine, but for authentic, individual women. Irish pianist Niall Kinsella has put together this program of songs to feature some of those complex women Schubert was drawn to, from Goethe’s Gretchen and Mignon to Kosegarten’s Louisa and Schiller’s Thekla.  Austrian mezzo-soprano Klaudia Tandl voices their thoughts and feelings with both tenderness and drama. Austrian actor Gabriele Jacoby’s recitations of texts are rich with colour and insight, though it can be jarring to encounter them interspersed among the songs.

In the narrative songs, Tandl uses her considerable expressive powers to convey the vivid atmosphere Schubert evokes. Goethe’s ballad Der Fischer tells of a seductive water nymph who lures a fisherman into her deadly waters. Tandl captures the jaunty but chilling atmosphere, while Kinsella delves into Schubert’s endlessly inventive images of swelling, surging water.

But Tandl is at her most moving when Schubert is directly describing the characters’ own suffering and joys in the first person. In Die junge Nonne, a young nun describes the turbulent longings which lead her to rapturous visions of the divine. Kinsella conjures up storms and church bells, while Tandl achieves sublimity with the closing repeated “Alleluia.”

Tandl and Kinsella’s perspective is so fresh and fruitful; I’m looking forward to hearing more of Schubert’s women-focused songs from them – especially the 12 songs he set to texts by women poets.

04 Tristan und IsoldeWagner – Tristan und Isolde
Juyeon Song; Roy Cornelius Smith; Ostrava Opera Men’s Chorus; Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra; Robert Reimer
Navona Records nv6321 (navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6321)

It’s a plausible idea to remove opera from the opera house to the concert stage. It makes it more accessible to the public, much less expensive and musically just as satisfying. (I recall seeing Nabucco for the first time in New York, Carnegie Hall, with Tito Gobbi and Elena Suliotis in concert form and still treasure the memory). In this instance, Tristan und Isolde was performed in concert under the aegis of the Claude Heater Foundation of San Francisco at the Penderecki Cultural Center in Poland with the forces noted above. And what a performance! Thanks to Facebook I actually saw excerpts from it on a wide stage with the full symphony orchestra and soloists all at the same level and a large screen behind with projected images following the mood of each scene.

The result is this audio recording with young singers, largely unknown, and a wonderful orchestra from the nearby Czech Republic enthusiastically and passionately conducted by Robert Reimer, an up-and-coming young German conductor, well known and already very successful in Europe.

Tristan was sung by American heldentenor Roy Cornelius Smith with amazing vocal power and total emotional involvement shaping the difficult, strenuous role. Isolde is a big surprise: largely unknown Korean dramatic soprano Juyeon Song, a petite figure but what a voice! A vocal powerhouse with secure high notes; a strong and passionate Isolde. Just listen to her angry outbursts of indignation in the first act, the impatient longing when awaiting Tristan for their secret tryst, the sheer ecstasy of their first embrace and that wonderful love duet with waves of passion that never wants to end! South African mezzo, Tamara Gallo, a thoroughly convincing Brangäne, shines in her soliloquy warning the lovers of the coming danger, and American basso John Paul Huckle as King Marke is perfect as the wronged husband. Excellent spacious sound favours the singers. An impressive new issue, highly recommended.

05 Alex EddingtonA Present from a Small Distant World: Vocal Music by Alex Eddington
Kristin Mueller-Heaslip; Daniel Ramjattan; Jennifer Tran; Joseph Ferretti; Elaine Lau; Alex Eddington
Redshift Records TK483 (alexeddington.com)

Toronto composer Alex Eddington made a splash in 2004, winning a SOCAN Award for his cheekily titled monodrama Death to the Butterfly Dictator! (libretto by Kristin Mueller-Heaslip). His ambitious vocal-focused debut album A Present from a Small Distant World is as unorthodox and in some ways just as cheeky. 

Eddington’s work embraces orchestral and choral music to electroacoustics, on the way adding period instruments and steel pan ensemble to his catalogue. And like much of Eddington’s oeuvre A Present from a Small Distant World can certainly be branded eclectic. It consists of six art songs composed between 2008 and 2020 authoritatively sung by soprano Mueller-Heaslip, plus three aphoristic acoustic guitar-centred interludes, sensitively played by Daniel Ramjattan, disrupted by spacey, Morse coded electronics by Eddington.

One of the album’s leitmotifs is interstellar communication. Its inspiration is revealed in the title track where Mueller-Heaslip sings part of Jimmy Carter’s 1977 speech that launched the Voyager spacecraft. Onboard was the Golden Record, a phonographic metal disc with a cross-section of the words, images and music of humanity. Explains Eddington, “… there is something wonderful about sending greetings hurtling outward,” even though chances they will be intercepted are slim.

The last track, INTERSTELLAR, To the Makers of Music (text: inscribed by hand on the abovementioned Golden Record) neatly brings together all the elements previously presented – (multi-tracked) vocals, guitar and electronics – atmospherically summing up Eddington’s vision of music drifting through time and space toward an unseen audience.

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