12 RomeingCD006Rome-ing
Leimgruber; Willers; Curran; Spera
Leo Records CD LR 872 (leorecords.com)

Not a formal suite, but anything but formless jamming, the four interlocking improvisations that make up Rome-ing confirm creative unity among sophisticated musicians. Doyen of the quartet is American composer Alvin Curran, long a Rome resident, on piano and sampler. His associates are Swiss soprano/tenor saxophonist Urs Leimgruber, German guitarist Andreas Willers and Italian drummer Fabrizio Spera.

Although pioneered in the 1960s by Curran in MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva), his samples and Willers’s electronics are used sparingly. There are vague suggestions of a  sharing space with accelerating reed whistles and oud-like strums on Part III, while a sampled lyric soprano voice warbles intermittently throughout the disc often ornamenting the narrative when pressurized licks from anyone become too harsh.

Other than that, the creation unfolds logically with trilling reed split tones and tremolo keyboard runs defining the exposition, backed by twangs, buzzes and shakes from the guitarist and drummer. The nearly hour-long improvisation slows and calms at the end following a final bluesy detour from a horizontal saxophone line. Earlier sonic deviations and dissections make room for logical asides such as repeated tremolo patterns and swift glissandi from Curran; Leimgruber’s passages circular breathed to display strident whistles or Bronx cheer-like tongue stops; Willers’ strums and flanges; and Spera’s unforced clanks and clip clops. Narrowed when needed or expansive elsewhere, the ongoing suite sequences expose just enough unexpected motifs and timbral insertions to make the program consistently fascinating.

01 Gordon GrdinaSafar-E-Daroon
Gordon Grdina’s The Marrow
Songlines SGL2410-2 (songlines.com/release/safar-e-daroon)

Gordon Grdina draws on two distinct musical cultures, contemporary jazz and traditional Middle Eastern music; chooses musical partners from two different cities, Vancouver and New York; and realizes his musical visions on two distinct instruments, the electric guitar and the oud, a short-necked, fretless Middle Eastern lute. Among Grdina’s various ensembles, The Marrow is the one most strongly marked by Arabic and Persian sources; the musicians are Vancouverites (violinist Josh Zubot and percussionist Hamin Honari) and New Yorkers (bassist Mark Helias and cellist Hank Roberts); further, Grdina plays only oud in this band, making it a group of fretless strings and percussion with strong ties to the tonal inflections and compound rhythms of music that have stretched from the Eastern Mediterranean to India and Spain.

Safar-e-Daroon (inner journey) isn’t pure Eastern music (the journey East likely led for some by John Coltrane), and Western harmonic nuances supplement the focused modal intensity, but there’s a consistent emotional and spiritual dimension. Mini-con, a brooding Grdina theme launched by Helias, has a soaring improvisation by Zubot, while Roberts, one of jazz cello’s finest representatives, articulates the keening wail at the heart of Shamshir. Illumination is marked by the dense and subtle counterpoint of picked, bowed and plucked strings. 

The concluding Gabriel James, named for Grdina’s son and inspired by a moment when the two played together, has the composer strumming a harmonic pattern under the sustained strings’ melodies. It suggests the wide-open spaces of the North American West.

02 Beth Anne ColePerhaps the Gods of Love
Beth Anne Cole
Independent BAC103 (bethannecole.com) 

Aristotle, Horace and Longinus, all writing with passion on the art of poetry – and speaking in a forthright manner of art in the mimesis (adopting Plato’s word for the imitation) of life – have stressed, in no uncertain terms, that the rhythm of music and dance elevates the dramaturgy of art. It would seem that Beth Anne Cole declares her unstinting allegiance to those classic dictates and she appears do so with elemental facility. This is why we easily fall prey to her beguiling music.

Throughout her breathtaking recording, Perhaps the Gods of Love, Cole infuses the convention of song with an emotional intensity that can only be described as the poetry of feeling. This too seems instinctual, for she weaves recitation and singing together with one melodic invention inexorably following the other seamlessly; the instrumentation ornamenting the lyric and vice versa. 

Cole’s rendering of this music is striking; with perfect diction, intonation and expression – all this whilst singing Sailor (in English), La Fille de l’île (in French) and Amol iz Geven a Mayse (in Yiddish). In original work too, such as My Story of Ruth, Cole displays an inventiveness that comes from an uncommon understanding of character and emotion born of accuracy and sensitivity, all of which is framed in a judicious mix of traditional and modern expression. Throughout this recording, Cole’s instrument-playing cohort is fully attuned to her vision and artistry.

03 HoneywodHoneywood
Emilyn Stam and John David Williams
Independent (emilynandjohn.com) 

This toe-tapping, instrumental/folk 15-track release showcases the superb Ontario-based duo Emilyn Stam (five-string fiddle, piano accordion) and her husband John David Williams (clarinet, diatonic accordion) in both their original and their arranged traditional “balfolk” style tunes, a Western European Dutch, German and French style of folk dances such as waltzes, schottisches, rondeaux and mazurkas.

Great entertaining diverse musical feels throughout. Their tune J & C Mazurka opens with a reflective lead clarinet against fiddle plucks leading to a tight quiet duet. Their cover of the traditional Brittany tune Laridés features upbeat conversational fiddle/clarinet interludes, and clarinet octave shifts. Williams plays diatonic accordion with Stam’s fiddle in the lyrical, sensitive, tightly phrased cover of the traditional Dutch Marche de Roux/La Baigneuse (Marche/Waltz).

Five special guests add new colour to select tracks including upright bassist Alan Mackie’s deep low pitches in After the Snow/Autumn in the Valley (Schottische); and Nathan Smith’s great fiddling as Stam picks up the piano accordion to play backdrop grooves and doubling driving clarinet lines in Red Bay/The Stone Whale/Stukjes (Jig Chapelloise).

Stam and Williams play with joy, technique and superb musicianship. Honeywood is the Ontario town where Stam and Williams were married in 2017, and also where their first two Big Branch Festivals for balfolk were held. No festival this year due to the pandemic, but there is so much great music here to keep you dancing at home, and hopefully out and about soon!

Listen to 'Honeywood' Now in the Listening Room

01 GemingaOnce a rite of passage, solo outings for reed players have now become almost as commonplace in improvised music as jazz piano trio discs. At the same time, figuratively performing musically naked like that involves more than desire and technical skill. Cerebral planning as well as deciding which horn(s) to use, plus the suitability of the location’s acoustics are necessary as well. These new discs demonstrate how international reed players deal with the challenges.

Performing on Geminga (Creative Sources CS 637 CD creativesourcesrec.com), German Julius Gabriel uses the spatial dimensions of an ancient chapel in Montemor-o-Novo, Portugal to expand his improvisation on soprano, tenor and baritone saxophones. That means that sometimes not only is he creating a thematic line and a vibrated secondary commentary but echoes from the chapel add a third aural element. Hear this at work on the extended Asteroids, as lively tones spill from his tenor saxophone augmented by a lower-pitch continuum and, following an upwards pitch shift, are joined by moderated trills that seem to vibrate from a second distant tenor saxophone. During ten tracks, Gabriel works his way to Epicycles, the circular-breathed soprano sax finale. Characterized by a surge from presto to prestissimo, his tone extensions and detours sputter and soar irregularly and broadly, but never interrupting the narrative flow. Briefer tracks are displays of blindingly fast key percussion or, on Cave Moans, just that, with gravelly razzing wails reflected by the spatial situation suggesting the noise of cave people shouting into the void. Other pieces are more focused. The Nerves finds layered baritone saxophone reed vibrations moving from nephritic honks to altissimo squeaks while displaying split-tone fluctuations. Meanwhile Juju’s Dream confirms that running through reed changes and affiliated chamber echoes with the harshest and most jagged tenor sax buzzes can climax with screaming multiphonics without abandoning a straightforward hidden melody. Jagged and smooth, sweet and sour, Walk Down’s andante exposition overlaps a jumpy theme to renal slurs and splatters before sliding to a smooth final interchange.

02 Anche

While Gabriel divides his reed attention three ways, Montreal’s Yves Charuest concentrates on the alto saxophone and spotlights the exploratory nature of his solos in the title of his CD, Le Territoire de l’Anche (Small Scale Music SSM-022 smallscalemusic.bandcamp.com). Concurrently his preoccupation is with high-pitched textures. Moving from a whisper to a scream on Arundo Donax, Adorno Don’t Ask, Charuest’s tongue-slapping variables and shrill whistles are dissected into terse peeps and screech passages at the edge of hearing using only stiff percussive breath. Subsequently, on Exquisite Corpus Callosum, he unearths slurry and slippery theme variations of temporal and timbral activity with a series of tongue stops, sliding from low pitches to elevated trills without upsetting andante motion. Charuest also uses barely there reed bites and tongue stabs to vibrate a secondary theme that is both spiky and stimulating. All together his tracks are terse, tart and throbbing and also expand the properties of the saxophone’s metal body, as exhalation digs textures from the body tube that owe nothing to reed or mouthpiece. He can also approximate mellow with connective slurs as on Rohrwurm. But his usual strategies involve moving timbres from shrill to shriller. Although these continuous eviscerated honks and piercing squeaks make the architecture of a tune like Interstitial Defect seem like a merry-go-round of musical motifs endlessly rotating, circular breathing leads to tone extensions not limitations. By the concluding Anémophile, as tongue slaps and whistles presage varied textures, he’s made a convincing case for the validity of brief, strident, metal-accented pitches as the basis for profoundly distinctive improvisations. 

03 Monkey

Dividing her sonic explorations in two, French soprano saxophonist Alexandra Grimal has put out the monkey in the abstract garden (Ovni OVB 0003 alexandragrimal.com) a two-CD set of which only Disc 1 is of concern. The second features her abstract vocalizing further altered and processed by Benjamin Lévy’s electronics. However, it’s her nine solo soprano saxophone variations on Ma that are fascinating. Dedicated to the intervals between and among notes, she projects a moderated tone, uses more pauses and stops than any of the other soloists here, in improvisations that are calm and dulcet without being cloying. With the tracks fluid, the sole dissident texture occurs at the beginning of Ma 5, coincidentally the shortest track, where an initial reed squeak soon settles into a horizontal patterning with an unbroken tone. More characteristic are improvisations where adagio peeps and trills curve into brief timbral emphasis, never losing exhilarating mellowness. Happily, to avoid sameness, the lengthiest instances of this allow for more development. Ma 8, for instance, emphasizes reed lowing and accelerating peeps as pauses lengthen between tongue flutters as the track slows down to largo. Eventually, as individual breaths lengthen each time they’re heard, a squeaking motif distinguishes this showcase from the other tracks. Ma 3 is also memorable, since the logically projected tongue stops and curlicue trills introduce a sequence where high and low pitches alternate so that it appears as if a ghostly second saxophonist is answering the primary reed projections.

04 Marco

Solo reed revelations aren’t limited to saxophonists. A couple of clarinetists, Belgian Ben Bertrand and Italian Marco Colonna, are involved in similar programs, but with effects and electronics prominent as well. More animated and atonal of the two are the sounds on Colonna’s Fili (Niafunken nfk 007 niafunken.com). Playing clarinet and bass clarinet and using extended techniques and effects to overdub, dissect and multiply timbres, Colonna creates an unprecedented program. Like an actor in a one-person play, he takes all the parts himself and frequently interacts with his sonic Colonna’ssubterranean snorts from different instruments before culminating in a horizontal finale of a lone upturned trill.

05 ManesA divergence into differently defined textures, Belgian Ben Bertrand uses his bass clarinet and numerous effects machines to stretch his improvisations on Manes (Stroom/Les albums claus STRLP-038/LAC015 lesalbumclaus.bandcamp.com) so that they relate to techno and ambient music. Most distinctively, Incantation 3 defines this lower-case strategy. Reed respirations coupled with expressive sine waves create repetitive tones that vibrate rhythmically as clarion clarinet trills soar across the sound field for a deconstructed but measured exposition. Even as they blow airily these dissected trills retain their reed identity, but elsewhere the processing and extended techniques create passages that sound nothing like the tones a clarinet produces. Although overdubbed glissandi to create clarinet ensembles produce unique reed buzzes, the addition of the disembodied voice of Claire Vailler on the concluding The Manmaipo merely puts into bolder relief Bertrand’s achievement. Distinctively, this allows for the creation of altissimo and chalumeau register pitches to engage in a distinctive call and response between themselves.

Once a rite of passage, solo outings for reed players have now become almost as commonplace in improvised music as jazz piano trio discs. At the same time, figuratively performing musically naked like that involves more than desire and technical skill. Cerebral planning as well as deciding which horn(s) to use, plus the suitability of the location’s acoustics are necessary as well. These new discs demonstrate how international reed players deal with the challenges.
Performing on Geminga (Creative Sources CS 637 CD creativesourcesrec.com), German Julius Gabriel uses the spatial dimensions of an ancient chapel in Montemor-o-Novo, Portugal to expand his improvisation on soprano, tenor and baritone saxophones. That means that sometimes not only is he creating a thematic line and a vibrated secondary commentary but echoes from the chapel add a third aural element. Hear this at work on the extended Asteroids, as lively tones spill from his tenor saxophone augmented by a lower-pitch continuum and, following an upwards pitch shift, are joined by moderated trills that seem to vibrate from a second distant tenor saxophone. During ten tracks, Gabriel works his way to Epicycles, the circular-breathed soprano sax finale. Characterized by a surge from presto to prestissimo, his tone extensions and detours sputter and soar irregularly and broadly, but never interrupting the narrative flow. Briefer tracks are displays of blindingly fast key percussion or, on Cave Moans, just that, with gravelly razzing wails reflected by the spatial situation suggesting the noise of cave people shouting into the void. Other pieces are more focused. The Nerves finds layered baritone saxophone reed vibrations moving from nephritic honks to altissimo squeaks while displaying split-tone fluctuations. Meanwhile Juju’s Dream confirms that running through reed changes and affiliated chamber echoes with the harshest and most jagged tenor sax buzzes can climax with screaming multiphonics without abandoning a straightforward hidden melody. Jagged and smooth, sweet and sour, Walk Down’s andante exposition overlaps a jumpy theme to renal slurs and splatters before sliding to a smooth final interchange.
While Gabriel divides his reed attention three ways, Montreal’s Yves Charuest concentrates on the alto saxophone and spotlights the exploratory nature of his solos in the title of his CD, Le Territoire de l’Anche (Small Scale Music SSM-022 smallscalemusic.bandcamp.com). Concurrently his preoccupation is with high-pitched textures. Moving from a whisper to a scream on Arundo Donax, Adorno Don’t Ask, Charuest’s tongue-slapping variables and shrill whistles are dissected into terse peeps and screech passages at the edge of hearing using only stiff percussive breath. Subsequently, on Exquisite Corpus Callosum, he unearths slurry and slippery theme variations of temporal and timbral activity with a series of tongue stops, sliding from low pitches to elevated trills without upsetting andante motion. Charuest also uses barely there reed bites and tongue stabs to vibrate a secondary theme that is both spiky and stimulating. All together his tracks are terse, tart and throbbing and also expand the properties of the saxophone’s metal body, as exhalation digs textures from the body tube that owe nothing to reed or mouthpiece. He can also approximate mellow with connective slurs as on Rohrwurm. But his usual strategies involve moving timbres from shrill to shriller. Although these continuous eviscerated honks and piercing squeaks make the architecture of a tune like Interstitial Defect seem like a merry-go-round of musical motifs endlessly rotating, circular breathing leads to tone extensions not limitations. By the concluding Anémophile, as tongue slaps and whistles presage varied textures, he’s made a convincing case for the validity of brief, strident, metal-accented pitches as the basis for profoundly distinctive improvisations. 
Dividing her sonic explorations in two, French soprano saxophonist Alexandra Grimal has put out the monkey in the abstract garden (Ovni OVB 0003 alexandragrimal.com), a two-CD set of which only Disc 1 is of concern. The second features her abstract vocalizing further altered and processed by Benjamin Lévy’s electronics. However, it’s her nine solo soprano saxophone variations on Ma that are fascinating. Dedicated to the intervals between and among notes, she projects a moderated tone, uses more pauses and stops than any of the other soloists here, in improvisations that are calm and dulcet without being cloying. With the tracks fluid, the sole dissident texture occurs at the beginning of Ma 5, coincidentally the shortest track, where an initial reed squeak soon settles into a horizontal patterning with an unbroken tone. More characteristic are improvisations where adagio peeps and trills curve into brief timbral emphasis, never losing exhilarating mellowness. Happily, to avoid sameness, the lengthiest instances of this allow for more development. Ma 8, for instance, emphasizes reed lowing and accelerating peeps as pauses lengthen between tongue flutters as the track slows down to largo. Eventually, as individual breaths lengthen each time they’re heard, a squeaking motif distinguishes this showcase from the other tracks. Ma 3 is also memorable, since the logically projected tongue stops and curlicue trills introduce a sequence where high and low pitches alternate so that it appears as if a ghostly second saxophonist is answering the primary reed projections.
Solo reed revelations aren’t limited to saxophonists. A couple of clarinetists, Belgian Ben Bertrand and Italian Marco Colonna, are involved in similar programs, but with effects and electronics prominent as well. More animated and atonal of the two are the sounds on Colonna’s Fili (Niafunken nfk 007 niafunken.com). Playing clarinet and bass clarinet and using extended techniques and effects to overdub, dissect and multiply timbres, Colonna creates an unprecedented program. Like an actor in a one-person play, he takes all the parts himself and frequently interacts with his sonic doppelgangers. On Pane, for instance, a low-pitched tongue-slap beat is harmonized with treble reed lines until a single clarinet breaks out from the group to propel the klezmer-like theme forward with squeaks and splats until the line is so deemphasized that it fades away. Sos Berbos on the other hand plays with the rhythm created by key percussion and nasal exhalation, followed by an interlude from a ghostly clarinet trio whose output interacts as each reflects the other’s tones, climaxing with layered slurs from both high and low-pitched reeds. Sometimes, as on A Matita, the sequences fly by with kinetic multiphonics concentrated into stacked polyphony. Or, on Farina e Pianto, the exposition suddenly changes course as a solo clarinet sounds two calming rustic tones simultaneously as low-pitched reed pressure moves up the scale with intermittent squeals. Probably the track which best reflects Colonna’s multi-pronged reed strategy is Pietra. On it, soft-drink-bottle-cap-opening pops projected by tongue slaps presage a series of clarion bites and subterranean snorts from different instruments before culminating in a horizontal finale of a lone upturned trill.
A divergence into differently defined textures, Belgian Ben Bertrand uses his bass clarinet and numerous effects machines to stretch his improvisations on Manes (Stroom/Les albums claus STRLP-038/LAC015 lesalbumclaus.bandcamp.com) so that they relate to techno and ambient music. Most distinctively, Incantation 3 defines this lower-case strategy. Reed respirations coupled with expressive sine waves create repetitive tones that vibrate rhythmically as clarion clarinet trills soar across the sound field for a deconstructed but measured exposition. Even as they blow airily these dissected trills retain their reed identity, but elsewhere the processing and extended techniques create passages that sound nothing like the tones a clarinet produces. Although overdubbed glissandi to create clarinet ensembles produce unique reed buzzes, the addition of the disembodied voice of Claire Vailler on the concluding The Manmaipo merely puts into bolder relief Bertrand’s achievement. Distinctively, this allows for the creation of altissimo and chalumeau register pitches to engage in a distinctive call and response between themselves.
Electronics aside, each of these reed players has produced individual and exceptional solo works. As their varied programs demonstrate, there’s also still scope for others to engender particular responses to the solo reed challenge. 

 

British pianist Solomon Cutner, who had a natural talent for the piano, was born in London on August 9, 1902. He was the seventh child of musical parents of German-Jewish and Polish-Jewish extraction and began to play the family piano aged five. He made his debut, of sorts, aged seven, in his father’s tailor shop playing his own arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. He became a pupil of Mathilde Verne, herself a former pupil of no less than Clara Schumann. He learned well. As did she. She tied him to a five-year contract with her company and toured him as “Solomon, the Child Prodigy.” Solomon made his real debut in Queen’s Hall in 1911. In 1914, the 12-year-old played Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto at the Proms. Proms founder, Sir Henry Wood insisted that he continue his studies and he made it to Paris where he studied with Marcel Dupré and others. He appeared in the United States in 1926 and again in 1939. During WWII and after, he played for the Allied troops around the world including Australia and New Zealand.

Solomon was a mighty talent whose brilliant recordings produced by English Columbia and His Master’s Voice, EMI were treasured by discerning music lovers everywhere who appreciated his artistry and technique. He first recorded in 1929. He was in the midst of recording the complete cycle of Beethoven sonatas for EMI Records when he suffered a devastating stroke in 1956, which paralyzed his right arm. He never recorded or performed in public again, but lived on for another 32 years, dying in 1988 in London.

01 SolomonThe recordings that Profil selected for the collection Solomon – Concertos, Sonatas and Pieces (Profil PH20032 naxosdirect.com/search/881488200324) cover repertoire from J.S. Bach to Sir Arthur Bliss and include concertos, duos and solo works all in the best HMV/Columbia sound. There is not a single performance that is anything less than individual and many that surprise. On CD8 is the most welcome first recording of the unique and devilishly difficult 1938 piano concerto by Bliss, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. The Bliss concerto was written specifically for the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and the familiar gestures of the grand Romantic manner were calculated to please audiences of the day. Listening to Solomon play the poetic Grieg concerto that follows, conducted by Herbert Menges, the listener can only but marvel at how, in the first movement, the keys could be depressed so gently and still be making the notes. That disc concludes with two pieces by Brahms, the Intermezzo in B-flat Minor, Op.117 No.2 and the Rhapsody in G Minor, Op.79 No.2 in definitive performances. As may be expected by now, this listener is attuned to expect Solomon’s articulation and clarity, and so, Schumann’s Carnaval is unusually fresh. On CD5, The Beethoven “Archduke Trio with Henry Holst (violin) and Anthony Pini (cello) follows the Brahms Piano Sonata No.3 Op.5. CD6 contains three of Beethoven’s most loved piano sonatas, Pathétique, Moonlight and Appassionata. To put the icing on the cake, cellist Gregor Piatigorsky joins Solomon for the Cello Sonata No.5, Op.102 No.2

What a shock on CD7 when the stentorian Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra conducted by Walter Susskind lashes out following Scriabin’s Concerto in F-sharp Minor and Tchaikovsky’s First, both conducted by Isssay Dobrowen. 

On these ten discs, there are concertos by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Scriabin and Bliss of course, in addition to a multitude of piano works by Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Chopin. The sound throughout this valuable collection is utterly true, particularly the piano solos, a tribute to EMI’s people and whoever did the transfers to disc for Profil.

02 Orfeo UltimateThis year the German label Orfeo is celebrating its 40th anniversary of issuing significant recordings of live performances given by various artists that were not made available elsewhere. Devout collectors who look beyond the well-known labels may well own, or know of, some of the treasures in the Orfeo catalogue. Orfeo has chosen a collection featuring 20 Soloists and Conductors and 20 Legendary Voices and issued them all on two CDs as Orfeo 40th Anniversary Edition – 40 Ultimate Recordings (Orfeo ORF-C200032 naxosdirect.com/search/4011790200323). The soloists and conductors disc running just seconds short of 80 minutes contains Wolfgang Sawallisch in the overture to The Magic Flute, Otto Klemperer in Bach’s Overture No.3 in D Major; Carlos Kleiber in the Adagio from Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony; Wilhelm Furtwängler in the finale of the Haydn Symphony No.88; Rafael Kubelik conducts Rudolf Serkin in the Adagio from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.2; etc. etc. The generous program continues with performances featuring Gerhard Oppitz, Andris Nelsons; Oleg Maisenberg, Neeme Järvi; Vaclav Neumann and the music goes on… Sir Thomas Beecham would have called this pleasing program not “lollipops” but “bonbons.” 

The accompanying 20 Legendary Voices belong to 20 males and females singing mostly arias from operas by Rossini, Spohr, Gluck, Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, Wagner, Cilea, Bizet, Richard Strauss, Gounod, Moniuszko and the rest of the usual suspects. The voices belong to Agnes Baltsa, Jessye Norman, Kurt Moll, Julia Varady, Edita Gruberová, Carl Bergonzi, Lucia Popp, Michael Volle and others. Each of these discs is a perfect example of putting together an educated and harmonious, never-a-dull-moment program.

03 Orfeo ConductorsThe other offering for this Orfeo anniversary year is the ten-CD Orfeo 40th Anniversary Edition – Legendary Conductors (Orfeo ORF-C200011 naxosdirect.com/search/4011790200118) featuring 11 maestros directing complete performances of 16 masterpieces, recorded live from 1961 through 1991. Rather than choosing a few examples which amounts to deciding what not to mention, here are the entries. Karl Bohm: Schubert Second and Ein Heldenleben. Wolfgang Sawallisch: Bruckner Fifth. Carlos Kleiber: Beethoven Fourth. Dimitri Mitropoulos: Prokofiev Fifth. Hans Knappertsbusch: Beethoven Coriolan Overture and Third Symphony. Otto Klemperer: Brahms Third and Beethoven Seventh . Ferenc Fricsay: Tchaikovsky Sixth. Herbert von Karajan: Beethoven Ninth (VSO, 1955). Sergiu Celibidache: Les Preludes (Liszt) and Brahms First. Sir John Barbirolli: Brahms Second and Vaughan Williams Sixth. Wilhelm Furtwängler: Bruckner Fourth. 

These live recordings of the SWS Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna Symphony Orchestras are full bodied and richly detailed and if there were such an absolute, the performances may be considered definitive.

04 Edward CowieEdward Cowie – Concerto for Orchestra; Clarinet Concert No.2
Alan Hacker; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Howard Williams
Metier msv 92108 (naxosdirect.com/search/809730210822)

Hearing Edward Cowie’s Clarinet Concerto is like opening the door into a room where a glorious family tragedy is unfolding; one can observe the mayhem without interrupting it. Three abrupt fortissimo pitches in the low brass and timpani, from lower to higher, initiate the action with an interrogative accusation presupposing the worst possible answer. And the arguments devolve.

Clarinetist Alan Hacker, with his excellent technique, portrays an articulate yet seemingly incoherent character. At the midpoint, the centre of this labyrinth, one encounters the motivation behind the arduous musical journey of the past century: nostalgia for tonality, and a sinking suspicion that we can’t get it back. Carl Nielsen described, in his own clarinet concerto, the disintegration of a personality; my sense is that Cowie is doing something similar in a more daring vein. In fact, the composer is inspired by natural settings, most especially the ocean. Perhaps the coda conveys the end of a storm, and not what I hear: dénouement following personal crisis.

The second piece on the disc is the Concerto for Orchestra. As in the introduction of the other work, Cowie favours jangle and jolt, though here with somewhat less of the latter. Following the introductory passage is an extremely virtuosic section for all the woodwinds, then the brass interrupt to announce a matching answer from the strings. Cowie’s strokes are clear and precise, his expression of sound via the orchestra, confident. He reminds me of Alfred Schnittke in his exploitation of quasi-tuned percussion instruments to undermine the security of pitch to which we are so accustomed. 

The material lasts just under 45 minutes in total. The recording was made in 1983-84, by the excellent Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under Howard Williams and was originally issued on LP by Hyperion.

05 Neil Swainson49th Parallel
Neil Swainson Quintet
Reel to Real RTRCD004 (cellarlive.com/collections/all) 

Bassist Neil Swainson has been a significant figure in Toronto jazz for over 40 years. During that time, he has released one recording under his own name, 49th Parallel, in 1988. The style is mid-60s Blue Note post-bop, announced immediately in a frontline made up of two of the style’s stars, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson and trumpeter Woody Shaw, musicians with few peers even in New York. Swainson had toured with Shaw and appeared on two of his recordings, a source for the empathy evident here. Two Toronto musicians deserving of much wider recognition, pianist Gary Williamson and drummer Jerry Fuller, make up the rest of the band.

Swainson crafted most of the compositions, solid idiomatic material that catches fire in the hands of this short-lived band. The session gives the Canadian contingent rare opportunities to shine at the highest levels. Swainson, as leader, gets to solo out of customary order, sometimes coming to the fore as first or second soloist, highlighting his inventive, articulate playing rather than leaving it a closing afterthought. Williamson was a fine soloist, and he also had a gift for multi-dimensional support. Port of Spain, a lyrical feature for Shaw, finds Williamson still adding energetic, expansive detail to the trumpeter’s final theme statement. Fuller gives and takes inspiration with Henderson, fuelling the saxophonist’s kinetic, bouncing lines on Southern Exposure.

This is a distinguished session, one that definitely merits its reissue on both CD and LP.

Listen to '49th Parallel' Now in the Listening Room

As The WholeNote celebrates the stellar achievement of 25 years of publication, I note that the DISCoveries section has entered its own 20th year. There have been a number of changes since our first modest column back in July 2001 with just 13 discs reviewed by eight writers. In the interim we’re had contributions from 125 reviewers and, with the current issue, have covered more than 8,800 CDs and DVDs. In recent years we’ve seen an enormous growth in the number of independent releases, physical and digital, primarily by jazz and contemporary artists, as evidenced in our burgeoning Jazz & Improvised and Modern & Contemporary sections. But all sectors remain very active and we receive two or three times the number of discs we actually have room to cover. A large part of my job entails collating and prioritizing the enormous number of releases that arrive each month. It’s a daunting but satisfying task, especially when it comes to matching selected titles with appropriate writers, some of whom have particular interests and specialities and some who constantly amaze me with the breadth of their knowledge and eclecticism. 

Looking back at the first edition of DISCoveries it was interesting to note that Bruce Surtees’ first review was of an EMI reissue of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra under the direction of János Ferencsik. In his Rimsky-Korsakov review further on in these pages Bruce relates an anecdote about advice given to a fledgling record producer: “Look for the composition that has the most recordings and make one more.” I chuckled when I realized that Bruce has reviewed 12 different recordings of Gurrelieder for The WholeNote, evidence that the old adage still applies. But Gurrelieder is far from the most reviewed title in our archives. Other greatest hits include The Goldberg Variations tied with Das Lied von der Erde and Winterreise at 18 versions each, Bach’s Six Suites for Solo Cello (15), Mahler’s Symphony No.2 (12), the complete Der Ring des Nibelungen and Pictures at an Exhibition (11), and Le Sacre du Printemps and Symphony Pathétique with ten…

I took a bit of a cheap way out last issue writing, “What to say about yet another recording of the Bach Cello Suites?” in regards to Alisa Weilerstein’s release. I’m about to do it again with Yo-Yo Ma The Bach Project (Cmajor 754408 naxosdirect.com), but in this instance I feel excused by the fact that Ma does the talking for me. The two-DVD set includes one with an outdoor concert performance of all six Bach suites and a separate disc of Ma speaking about Bach, the suites, and their importance in his own life. It’s quite an extraordinary extrapolation of his thoughts about Bach as scientist and psychologist/philosopher. He is very articulate and thoughtful, and his ideas are both intriguing and enlightening. 

01 The Bach ProjectThe website bach.yo-yoma.com tells us that “In August 2018, Yo-Yo Ma began a two-year journey to perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s six suites for solo cello in 36 locations around the world, music that is among the first he ever learned when he began playing the cello at age four. The project is motivated not only by his six-decade relationship with the music, but also by Bach’s ability to speak to our shared humanity at a time when our civic conversation is so often focused on division. For Yo-Yo, Bach’s 300-hundred-year-old music is one extraordinary example of how culture connects us and can help us to imagine and build a better future, but he believes there are many, many more. And for Yo-Yo, culture includes not just the arts, but everything that helps us to understand our environment, each other, and ourselves, from music and literature to science and food. The Bach Project explores and celebrates all the ways that culture makes us stronger as individuals, as communities, as a society, and as a planet. Alongside each concert, Yo-Yo and his team partner with artists and culture makers, cultural and community organizations, and leaders from across sectors to design conversations, collaborations, and performances. These public events and creative experiences are different in every location; they aspire to local relevance and global significance; they demonstrate culture’s power to create positive change; they inspire new relationships, connect partners across locations, and ask us all to keep culture at the centre of our efforts to build a shared future.” 

This DVD set is Ma’s fourth release of the suites. The first dates back to 1983 on vinyl for Columbia Records and subsequently released on CD. I don’t think it has ever been out of print. The second was his reimagining of them in collaboration with artists from a variety of fields for the TV series Inspired by Bach produced by Toronto’s Rhombus Media in 1997, later released on DVD by Sony Classical. It is a lasting legacy of this series that the city acquired The Toronto Music Garden, on the waterfront, designed by Julie Moir Messervy when plans to build it in Boston fell through. The third iteration was a studio recording in 2018 released on CD by Sony as Six Evolutions – Bach: Cello Suites

This CD release was a direct precursor to The Bach Project represented here by live concert footage of one of the 36 recitals that took place between 2018 and 2020 over six continents featuring Ma’s current interpretation of the suites. It was recorded on June 30, 2019 in the open air at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a stone Roman theatre structure completed in 161 CE on the southwest slope of the Acropolis of Athens, Greece. The set is stunning with the stage backlit by a wash of purple light on the Acropolis and the surrounding terraces filled to their 5,000 seat capacity in the evening darkness. The audience is silent, in rapt attention until breaking into thunderous applause at the end of each suite. 

The DVD is edited so that we hear the entire cycle without breaks (although there are cues for each movement for selective viewing). In a way this is a shame because during the applause after each suite we see Ma bend down to pick up a microphone to address the audience, but never get to hear what he says. This is especially unfortunate after the second suite, because during the last movement the audio is interrupted by a strange metallic noise that is unexplained in the booklet. With the help of the distributor’s publicist – thanks Paula Mlyn – I was able to find out that, as sometimes happens on a hot summer night, it was not a mechanical sound but actually a cicada that had landed on the microphone. Knowing that put me in mind of Josquin’s El grillo è buon cantore, one of my favourite Renaissance madrigals. Now I know that a cricket and a cicada are not the same thing, but I think this cicada, inspired by the music, was aspiring to be a “good singer” as the song says. We can see Ma smiling in recognition at the sound as he continues undaunted and undistracted through the final two minutes of the gigue, but I would dearly like to know what he shared with the audience after that! Obviously the show went on with no retake and we are presented with an outstanding non-stop performance of nearly two and a half hours of music, played flawlessly from memory.
It was during my years as a music programmer at CJRT-FM that I became familiar with Josquin’s madrigal, and also at that time that I got to meet Yo-Yo Ma. The occasion was the filming of Atom Egoyan’s Sarabande, the dramatic film of the Suite No.4 from the Inspired by Bach series. I heard there was a call for extras for the scenes that were being shot at The Royal Conservatory and I was happy to find myself chosen. In the holding room in the morning the charming cellist appeared and introduced himself to each extra, mostly RCM students, and asked something about each of us. There were shoots both morning and afternoon, and over the lunch hour he welcomed many of the cello students to play his cherished instrument, which I believe was the 1712 Davidoff Stradivarius. What a kind and generous soul. At the end of the day he turned up in holding again and not only spoke to everyone, but actually remembered what he had learned about us earlier in the day. He is truly a remarkable and gracious man, and I’ll let him have the last word. “The shared understanding that culture generates in these divisive times can bind us together as one world, and guide us to political and economic decisions that benefit the entire species. We are all cultural beings – let’s explore how culture connects us and can help to shape a better future.”

02 Her Own WingsAmerican Gabriela Lena Frank (b.1972) is currently composer-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra who will premiere a major orchestral work of hers in 2021. Featured on the Washington Post’s list of the “Top 35 women composers in classical music,” Frank was also 2017 composer-in-residence at the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival. Her Own Wings (brightshiny.ninja/her-own-wings) grew out of this collaboration, and includes the world premiere recording of Milagros (2010), plus Frank’s acclaimed string quartet, Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout

Identity has always been at the centre of her music. Born in California to a mother of mixed Peruvian/Chinese ancestry and a father of Lithuanian/Jewish descent, Frank explores her multicultural heritage through her compositions. Comprised of eight short movements for string quartet, Milagros was inspired by Frank’s mother’s Peruvian homeland. She writes: “It has been a remarkable, often difficult, yet always joyous experience for me to visit, again and again, this small Andean nation that is home to not only foggy desert coasts but also Amazonian wetlands. Usually a religious and marvellous occurrence, milagro here refers to the sights and sounds of Peru’s daily life, both past and present, which I’ve stumbled upon in my travels. While probably ordinary to others, to me, as a gringa-latina, they are quietly miraculous.” Composed in 2001, Leyendas draws inspiration from the idea of mestizaje as envisioned by the Peruvian writer José María Arguedas, where cultures can coexist without the subjugation of one by the other. As such, this piece mixes elements from the Western classical and Andean folk music traditions.

Recorded in the unique acoustic of a winery barrel room, the performers are Willamette Festival founders Sasha Callahan (violin) and Leo Eguchi (cello) who are joined by violinists Greg Ewer (Milagros) and Megumi Stohs Lewis (Leyendas), and violist Bradley Ottesen. The warmth and clarity of the recording combined with these stunning and nuanced performances makes this a disc to treasure.  

03 Koan Quartet largerThe Koan Quartet has just released its debut recording, J.M. Beyer – String Quartet IV (koanquartet.bandcamp.com). Johanna Magdalena Beyer was a German-American composer born in Leipzig in 1888. The quartet’s website tells us that she was an important experimental composer of the 1930s who worked closely with Henry Cowell, Percy Grainger and Ruth Crawford, and wrote the first known work scored for electronic instruments by a female composer (Music of the Spheres, 1938). Beyer died of ALS in 1944 and her work would have been completely forgotten were it not for Frog Peak, a composers’ collective, who made her scores available through research and volunteer score copying. There is no record of String Quartet IV having been performed within Beyer’s lifetime. It is composed in a very intimate, almost post-Romantic style which differs from some of the other works in her collection. 

Koan Quartet, a subset of the Los Angeles experimental performance group Southland Ensemble, brings years of experience presenting thoughtful and meticulously researched performances of rarely heard works to their interpretation. This is an important addition to our understanding of a significant and nearly forgotten voice. The music is playful at times, with hints of children’s melodies, but also dark and contemplative, especially in the second movement. The performance is well balanced and the recorded sound pristine. 

Bang on a Can was founded in 1987 by three American composers who remain its artistic directors: Julia Wolfe, David Lang and Michael Gordon. During the current COVID-19 crisis, particularly devastating in New York City, the renowned Bang on a Can Marathon, a celebration of the best and latest contemporary music from the Big Apple, has migrated to the internet, morphing from an annual live event into periodic streaming blasts. There have been three six-hour iterations so far (May 3, June 14 and August 16) and plans are to continue these online activities until performances for live audiences can fully resume. You can stay apprised of future events at bangonacan.org

Michael Gordon – Anonymous Man
The Crossing; Donald Nally
Cantaloupe Music CA 21154 (cantaloupemusic.com)

Meredith Monk - ..M…EM..O.R…Y ….G.A….ME….
Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble; Bang on a Can All-Stars
Cantaloupe Music 21153 (cantaloupemusic.com)

Singing in the Dead of Night
Eighth Blackbird
Cedille Records CDR 90000195 (cedillerecords.org)

David Lang – Love Fail
Lorelei Ensemble; Beth Will
Cantaloupe Music 21158 (cantaloupemusic.com)

David Lang – Love Fail
Quince Ensemble
Innova 056 (innova.mu)

The human voice, one of the first instruments in our world (there are likely others, such as interstellar “noise”), has rarely been glorified in better circumstances than in the five recordings mentioned above. Perhaps this is because in all of the recordings in question the purest of sound – that of the human voice – has been pushed to both define exactly what it means to give praise to the arts melodically, harmonically and rhythmically. But each of these works also redefines polyphony – within the continuum of music – in the grand manner. Coincidentally (or perhaps not at all) members of the ineffably brilliant musical New York City cooperative, Bang on a Can, have been associated with each of the recordings and this means, of course, that you can expect the unexpected in the most sublime sense of the term.

Musicians such as Meredith Monk, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang are – together and separately – proverbial forces of nature. They represent everything that is transcendent about human vocalastics. Impossible leaps in register, manipulating breathing whether nasal, throat or diaphragmatic, weaving voices (using harmony and electronic manipulation) into diaphanous musical fabrics of breathtaking beauty or simply singing with lustrous simplicity and honesty are just some of their many phenomenal characteristics. And then there is the interpretation – or sometimes using the non-interpretation of the works to deliver the finest quality of music and musicianship – which catches us off guard. This is something that happens across all of the works and recordings in question. 

01 Michael Gordon

Michael Gordon’s Anonymous Man deals with the existential loneliness of community. The music describes both the discovery and effects that something like that could have on the human sensibilities. Gordon’s work comprises the music and accompanying narratives that, when sung solo or in ensemble, speak to the existential angst of Gordon’s character as the Anonymous Man. The music startles and the words constantly enliven it through their beautifully bizarre and almost neurotic sensitivity to feeling and experience. The musicians of The Crossing, conducted by Donald Nally, capture all of Gordon’s angst by investing the music with just the right amount of drama and emotion – which is also often delightfully deadpan. The textural light and shade of music in On That Terrible Beautiful Morning is perfectly judged in terms of both phrasing and intonation.

02 Meredith MonkMeredith Monk’s work on Memory Game is a traversal through the topographical landscape of the mind and is somehow viewed through the spatial and the horological. Just as you would need a small leap of imagination to see hour in horology, but could nail the meaning by envisioning the study of time and the art of making timepieces, in Monk’s case you are drawn forwards and backwards in time by playing the proverbial Memory Game. The members of Bang on a Can bring with them instruments to evoke a kind of musical séance in the fullest and most magical sense of things supernatural and brilliantly entertaining. In these nine pieces the listener is led slowly through subtly changing mental-musical scenery. There are often deliberately comical (spoken, sung and instrumental) effects. Slowly, like a brilliant jigsaw puzzle these brightly coloured musical fragments evoke a Memory Game that is dismantled and reassembled in constantly hypnotic patterns. 

03 Eighth BlackbirdThe eighth stanza of Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird describes metaphorical antecedents of the dizzying exploits of the ensemble Eighth Blackbird who make music by means of “…noble accents/and inescapable rhythms…” While not strictly speaking a vocal recording, the album, Singing in the Dead of Night, is certainly creatively and evocatively a singing one. Although it is David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon of the formidable group Bang on a Can, who have splintered the iconic Beatles song, Blackbird, by reimagining it in five fractured segments of the original lyric in a somewhat darker realm than its original creation, Eighth Blackbird must also be credited with its most magical reconstruction. Instruments – specifically the exquisite manner in which they have been played – don’t simply recreate the whispers, murmurs, moans and groans of the human voice as well as the proverbial flutterings of the blackbird of the Beatles song, but, in fact, propel the music into a proverbial orbit. 

04 David Lang LoreleiFinally, David Lang’s deeply introspective almost operatic meditation Love Fail fuels the endeavours of two accomplished chamber groups – the Lorelei Ensemble and the Quince Ensemble. The release of both concurrently is probably a coincidence but to imagine that this fact may not do either release any favours would be a fallacy. Both releases are superb and recommend themselves for different reasons. The Lorelei’s a cappella version affects with a performance that is forthright and deeply moving; unravelling in the ensemble’s wonderfully flexible approach, creating imagery that befits something of great density and import as well as something delicate and light.

05 David Lang QuinceQuince Ensemble’s performance adds minimalist instrumentation and is equally profound, bringing wonderful shape and motion to the simpler pieces and musical clarity to the most dense. 

Together these five recordings offer a rare and uplifting musical repast in this time of great consternation and stress.

01 Dana Zemtsov Anna Fedorova SilhouettesThe compositions by French and non-French composers on Silhouettes, the new CD from violist Dana Zemstov and pianist Anna Fedorova (Channel Classics CCS 42320 channelclassics.com) purportedly were all inspired by French poetry, a link that seems tenuous at best and in some cases non-existent, but when there’s playing as rapturous and ravishing as this, who cares?

The 1919 Sonata by Rebecca Clarke opens the CD, and what an opening it is – flowing, passionate, intense and finely nuanced playing from both players in a gem of a work that combines Debussy and Ravel influences with an English mood. The “French connection” is a quote from Alfred de Musset that Clarke wrote on the opening page.

The first of three effective transcriptions of short pieces by Debussy – La plus que lente – precedes the 2007 Suite Op.51 by Netherlands composer Arne Werkman, its Allemande, Branle, Pavane and Tarantella movements providing Baroque form for modern musical content. Debussy’s Clair de lune is followed by Darius Milhaud’s four-movement Sonata No.1 Op.240 from 1944, another work that glances back at the Baroque style. Based on unpublished and anonymous themes of the 18th century, it has a really lovely third movement Air, later arranged by the composer for viola and orchestra. The rhapsodic and impassioned 1906 Concert Piece by the Romanian composer George Enescu precedes the final Debussy transcription, Beau Soir, providing a beautiful ending to an outstanding CD. 

Both performers have technique, tone and musicality in abundance, but it’s a long time since I’ve heard such beautiful viola playing in particular, Zemstov displaying a wide range of tonal colour without any hint of the nasal quality that you sometimes encounter in viola recitals.

02 MILLER PORFIRIS DUOThere’s more excellent duo work featuring viola on Threaded Sky, the new CD from the Miller-Porfiris Duo of violinist Anton Miller and violist Rita Porfiris (millerporfirisduo.org/store). Their Divertimenti CD was enthusiastically reviewed here in May 2017, and this latest recital of short works easily lives up to the same standard.

Three works by American composer Augusta Read Thomas – her complete violin-viola duo music – form the first half of the disc. Rumi Settings was written in 2001, its four movements – Dramatic, Resonant arpeggio, Suspended and Graceful and Passionate – inspired by the 13th-century Persian poet. Double Helix from 2011 was originally for two violins; Silent Moon was premiered in 2006.

Krzysztof Penderecki’s Ciaconna in Memoria Giovanni Paolo II from 2005 was the last movement of his Polish Requiem, a work that took 25 years to complete. Originally for string orchestra it was transcribed for violin and viola by the composer in 2009, the Miller-Porfiris Duo returning some of the omitted voices to the transcription here. Angel Fire by the Asian-American composer Bright Sheng has four movements, the third based on a Chinese folk song.

Finally, the very brief The Weight of Shadows from 2019, by the Iranian-American composer Mani Mirzaee, uses santoor mallets and not bows to produce sound, bouncing the light Persian hammers on the strings with a dulcimer-like effect.

03 Violins of HopeNiv Ashkenazi: Violins of Hope is a celebration of the artistic and educational project founded by Israeli luthier Amnon Weinstein and his son Avshalom in which instruments that were owned by Jewish musicians before and during the Holocaust are restored and played in the best concert halls by the world’s best players, the latter including Shlomo Mintz and Daniel Hope (Albany Records TROY1810 albanyrecords.com).

Violinist Ashkenazi and accompanist and fellow Juilliard graduate Matthew Graybil first became involved with Violins of Hope in 2017, and Ashkenazi is the only violinist to hold an instrument from the collection – in this case an early 20th-century Eastern European or German violin – on long-term loan. For this CD he chose Jewish repertoire that covers the instrument’s lifetime.

Robert Dauber’s Serenade (1942) makes a beautiful opening to an excellent recital that comprises Bloch’s Nigun (1923), John Williams’ Theme from Schindler’s List, Julius Chajes’ The Chassid (1939), Sharon Farber’s recent Bestemming: Triumph, Szymon Laks’ Trois pièces de concert (1935), George Perlman’s Dance of the Rebbitzen (1929), Ravel’s Kaddisch (1914) and Ben-Haim’s Berceuse sfaradite (1945) and Three Songs Without Words (1952).

It’s easy to understand why the Weinstein family has such trust and faith in Ashkenazi’s commitment and performance: he clearly has an emotional bond with this instrument, lending all of these short pieces a beautifully distinctive and idiomatic sound.

04 Napoleonian GuitarWorld-premiere recordings of French Romantic guitar sonatas by Antoine de Lhoyer, Louis-Ange Carpentras and Alexandre Alfred Rougeon-Beauclair are featured on Napoleonian Guitar Sonatas, with Montreal guitarist Pascal Valois (Centaur CRC 3733 naxosdirect.com).

Valois is dedicated to reviving enthusiasm for the guitar’s role during the Romantic era, performing 19th-century repertoire on period instruments and employing contemporary stylistic practices, including improvised ornaments and cadenzas. One such practice here is that of not using right-hand fingernails, the bare fingertips resulting in a much softer and smoother sound. The guitar used is a French model built in the late 1820s by the Mirecourt luthier Cabasse-Bernard.

While the Carpentras Sonate brillante Op.1 (1816) and the Rougeon-Beauclair Sonate Op.4 No.1 are both for guitar solo, in the two de Lhoyer Sonates pour la guitare avec un violon obligé Op.17 (c.1801) Valois is joined by Montreal violinist Jacques-André Houle. The violin, though, tends to distract from, rather than enhance the guitar writing, especially being set so far back in the balance – presumably not to overwhelm the softer instrument. 

Valois’ playing is accomplished, clean and sensitive throughout music that offers a fascinating insight into the early 19th-century classical guitar world. 

05 Max RegerThe Diogenes Quartett is the central ensemble on the new CD Max Reger Clarinet Quintet & String Sextet, being joined by clarinettist Thorsten Johanns in the Clarinet Quintet in A Major Op.146 and by violist Roland Glassl and cellist Wen-Sinn Yang in the String Sextet in F Major Op.118 (cpo 555 340-2 naxosdirect.com).

Despite the advanced tonal nature of his music, Reger had a strong affinity with earlier musical eras in addition to his deep Romantic roots, and the equivalent works by Mozart and Brahms were clearly the inspiration for his own Clarinet Quintet. Despite being completed in 1915 the work shows no influence of the Great War, a contemporary review of the October 1916 premiere referencing “the deep, holy peace of a mild autumn evening, which the last rays of the setting sun dress in gold.” Shades of Brahms indeed.

The large, complex String Sextet from 1910 is full of the features that have tended to make Reger’s music misunderstood and under-appreciated over the years, but is a deeply satisfying work with a really beautiful slow movement.

Playing throughout is of the highest quality on a terrific CD.

06 Schubert SkaervedThere’s another CD of the Franz Schubert 3 Sonatas (1816), this time with violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved and Julian Perkins on square piano (Athene ath 23208 naxosdirect.com).

Skærved always excels not only in his playing but also in his exploration of and critical approach to the original musical sources, and this CD is no different, with 12 pages of fascinatingly detailed and informative notes illuminating every aspect of the performances. The German violin is by Leopold Widhalm I (1722-1776) with a very early Tourte bow probably from around 1770-80. The square piano is by Clementi & Co., London, 1812.

Skærved’s playing here is warmer than in some of his period performances; he’s not afraid to use vibrato, but a clear sense of period style is always present. The keyboard obviously lacks the fuller sound we might be accustomed to, but the tonal subtlety and nuance more than compensate. The performers admit to viewing the score as “a map that offers options rather than answers,” resulting in some interesting choices on repeats and frequent moments of surprise, particularly at the end of the Sonata No.2 in A Minor where, following the short, sharp final violin chords, the piano resonance is left to die away for fully 13 seconds.

07 Edward CowiePeter Sheppard Skærved is also the first violinist in the Kreutzer Quartet, the performers on Edward Cowie: Three Quartets & A Solo, a new CD of music by the multi-disciplined English composer born in 1943 (Métier Records msv 28603 naxosdirect.com).

An author, lecturer, academic, visual artist, natural scientist, conductor and composer with two doctorates including studies in physics and mathematics, Cowie produces music which is a fusion of science, the natural world and visual arts. “I am more inspired,” he says, “by natural history than by musical history.”

Certainly the natural world is central to the quartets here: the two single-movement works, No.1 “Dungeness Nocturnes” from 1969 and No.2 “Crystal Dances” from 1977, and the four-movement No.6 “The Four Winds” from 2012, with the North, East, South and West winds representing the four seasons. It’s difficult music to describe, with an obviously contemporary sound but not completely dissonant despite a general lack of melodies and overtly tonal writing, and with a scurrying, restless feel that invokes insects and birds and is quite nocturnal at times.

The solo work GAD was written in 2017 for Skærved at his request, and addresses the composer’s almost lifelong suffering from generalized anxiety disorder.

All you need to know about the performances is that Cowie says that “no composer could ever be served, illuminated and translated by better or more brilliantly insightful players than the Kreutzer Quartet.”

08 Robin StevensAnother British composer whose name and music seem new to me is represented on Robin Stevens String Quartets & String Quintet, with the Behn Quartet and cellist Timothée Botbol (Divine Art dda 25203 naxosdirect.com).

For Stevens (b.1958), the String Quintet in C Minor from 1980-81 was his first major composition, revised in 2018 for this recording. It features lush melodic writing with a truly lovely slow movement. As the composer notes, “unconscious references to, and near-quotes from, 20th-century music abound.”

In his early 30s Stevens was stricken with post-viral fatigue, a debilitating illness that kept him out of work for 17 years and limited his compositional activity to experimental miniatures. On regaining full health in 2007 he began a PhD in Composition, producing a major work in each of his six post-graduate years. The single-movement String Quartet No.1 uses “a handful of ideas, which are subjected to contrapuntal development of considerable complexity” in a work of “unremittingly dissonant harmonic language.” The String Quartet No.2, “Three Portraits” has three continuous sections – Impulsive One, God-Seeker and Arguer – followed by a brief Epilogue.

A bequest has enabled Stevens to begin recording his considerable catalogue of works; if future performances are of the same high quality as these then his music will certainly be well served.

09 Lawrence Power BBC Philharmonic Orchestra Martyn Brabbins MacMillan Symphony No.4 Viola ConcertoFinally, if you’re interested in contemporary concertos for viola then you should know that the latest CD of music by the Scottish composer James MacMillan, Symphony No.4 & Viola Concerto, features soloist Lawrence Power with the BBC Philharmonic under Martyn Brabbins in a terrific performance of the concerto written for Power in 2013 (Hyperion CDA 68317 hyperion-records.co.uk).

It’s a three-movement work with an ominous, uneasy first movement, a central movement of a devotional character with a lovely main theme and occasional “primal sreeam” outbursts and a sparkling finale with decided hints of Barber’s Violin Concerto at the end.

It’s a significant addition to the contemporary repertoire and discography. 

02 Beethoven LiederBeethoven – Lieder; Songs
Matthias Goerne; Jan Lisiecki
Deutsche Grammophon 483835 (deutschegrammophon.com/en)

A new disc featuring baritone Matthias Goerne and pianist Jan Lisiecki is a heartily welcomed release in what has become a much-curtailed Beethoven anniversary year. This album showcases oft-neglected songs: music that is sometimes given a wide berth by performers opting for more standard cycles from the lieder repertoire. But unlikely corners of the repertoire require unlikely artistic partners as champions and this recital is a case in point for such declarations.

Goerne (b.1967) is, doubtless, one of the most considerate, insightful and committed lieder singers of his generation. He seems to veritably live and breathe this repertoire, always delivering an incredible depth of expression and narrative. Lisiecki (b.1995), while not especially known for his collaborative activities, brings a similar brand of devotion to his art, embracing – with equal measure – the composer whom he interprets, and the listener to whom he performs. This is the common ground between Goerne and Lisiecki and proves an ideal starting point for a wondrous creative match.

Character and conviction are paramount to the poetry and the expression thereof in these songs. Goerne commands every turn and surprise as the well-seasoned pro that he is. Lisiecki follows suit, offering his own arsenal of colours and tonal insights within some rather off-the-beaten-path piano parts. Lisiecki plays the supportive role, never overpowering nor taking the reins too willfully. It’s everything one could look for in a supportive musical partner. Thrilling results indeed, as “youth and experience unite.”

03 Fernand CortezGaspare Spontini – Fernand Cortez
Schmunck; Voulgaridou; Lombardo; Margheri; Ferri Durà; Orchestra e Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino; Jean-Luc Tingaud
Dynamic DYN-37868 (naxosdirect.com)

In 1803, the 28-year-old Gasparo Spontini, having already composed 15 operas (!) in his native Italy, moved to Paris. There, as “Gaspare,” he became a favourite of Napoleon and Josephine, who commissioned Fernand Cortez (1809) as wartime propaganda. The contra-historical libretto by Étienne De Jouy and Joseph-Alphonse d’Esménard depicted Cortez as a Napoleon-like heroic conqueror, benevolently “liberating” the “oppressed” Mexican people while rescuing his lover, the Mexican princess Amazily, and his brother Alvar as they were about to be sacrificed by the Mexican High Priest.

Fernand Cortez was a sensational hit, soon performed throughout Europe. In 1817, Spontini revised it, shifting scenes and adding the role of Montezuma. Today, however, the once-celebrated composer and his 24 operas are all but forgotten. This 2019 Florence production of the original version was its first staging in nearly two centuries.

Heading the excellent cast are steely toned tenor Dario Schmunck (Cortez), the thrilling chocolate-voiced soprano Alexia Voulgaridou (Amazily), tenors David Ferri Durà (Alvar) and Luca Lombardo (Amazily’s warrior-chieftain brother Telasco), baritone Gianluca Margheri (Cortez’s comrade-in-arms Moralez) and bass-baritone André Courville (High Priest).

Conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud propels the energized score throughout the opera’s three hours, including two extended ballet sequences. In its dramatic vocal lines, bold orchestration, epic scenario, considerable length and vivid imagery (the Spaniards’ historically appropriate silver-grey armour contrasting with the Mexicans’ colourful costumes), Fernand Cortez anticipated the operas of Berlioz (who admired it) and Meyerbeer. It’s an important – and entertaining! – operatic landmark.

04 Verdi BoccanegraVerdi – Simon Boccanegra
Luca Salsi; Marina Rebeka; René Pape; Charles Castronovo; Wiener Philharmoniker; Valery Gergiev
Unitel 802608 (naxosdirect.com)

Verdi’s 21st opera about a 14th-century corsair who became Doge of Genoa had a difficult time. It failed at its 1857 premiere but Verdi never to give up, revised it drastically for La Scala in 1881 where it was vindicated, but the opera never caught on with the public until 1977 thanks to Claudio Abbado and the stereo era. This present reincarnation is from the hands of German director Andreas Kriegenburg who brought it into the present with its political turmoil, civil unrest, urban chaos etc., featuring people dressed uniformly in dark suits running around with smartphones. The set is architectonic, stark and monumental in black and white and fills the wide stage of the Grosses Festspielhaus admirably while creating a sinister and foreboding effect. Now and again we catch a glimpse of the Ligurian Sea in blue that’s picked up in the colour of Amelia’s dress, the only colour in the set.

Conductor Valery Gergiev, to whom the director dedicated the show, concentrates on the inner life and conflicts of each character and the lyricism of the music, although the latter gathers excitement and tremendous dynamics especially in the council chamber scenea gripping focal point of the opera featuring Verdi’s masterful ensemble writing. The cast is superb: Luca Salsi is a strong but conflicted Simon Boccanegra with a warm lyrical voice. His pianissimo singing of the word figlia after the famous Recognition Duet is quite incredible. As his daughter Amelia, Polish soprano sensation Marina Rebeka, is a genuine treat and very strong in the high registers. American tenor Charles Castronovo is a youthful, passionate Adorno, her lover. Basso profundo René Pape, as Simon’s nemesis, is a dignified, noble Fiesco, with an impressive vocal range.

A memorable musical experience with strong emotional impact.

06 Mahler Lied Budapest Festival OrchestraMahler – Das Lied von der Erde
Gerhild Romberger; Robert Dean Smith; Budapest Festival Orchestra; Iván Fischer
Channel Classics CCS SA 40020 (prestomusic.com)

“Is it really bearable? Will it not drive people to self-destruction?” Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) asked of Bruno Walter in 1909 concerning his latest work, Das Lied von der Erde. In truth, few works of art are so life affirming as this supposed “final farewell,” especially so when it receives such a compelling interpretation as we have here from the incomparable Budapest Festival Orchestra in this stunningly well-produced studio recording. Scored for large orchestra and two vocal soloists, it is in all but name Mahler’s Ninth, and, as he presaged at the time due to his ill health, possibly final symphony. The vocal soloists include the American Heldentenor Robert Dean Smith, who shows some evident strain in the heavily scored Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde that opens the work (not an unusual occurrence in this taxing movement). Elsewhere he is much more at ease, lending a winsome charm to the delicate Von der Jugend and convincingly swaggering his way through Der Trunkene im Frühling. The German contralto Gerhild Romberger, best known for her lieder and oratorio performances, sings with a subtle intensity and purity of tone well suited to her more intimate selections, including the autumnal Der Einsame im Herbst, a rollickingly lively Von der Schönheit and the prolonged and deeply moving finale, Der Abschied. This album brings Iván Fischer’s estimable survey of the Mahler symphonies to a close, with the notable and deliberate omission of the Eighth and incomplete Tenth symphonies. 

07 Zemlinsky ZwergZemlinsky – Der Zwerg
Philip; Tsallagova; Magee; Mehnert; Orchestra and Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin; Donald Runnicles
Naxos 2.110657 (naxosdirect.com)

Watching Alexander von Zemlinsky’s one-act opera Der Zwerg (The Dwarf; 1921), I was soon persuaded of his dramatically relevant gifts: attractive melodic contours, compelling dialogue and ensembles, enchanting orchestration. This DVD features strong individual and group contributions, plus Tobias Kratzer’s innovative staging. The latter includes an added Prologue with Arnold Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene (1930) music, adding historical and biographical context.

Given the plot of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale The Birthday of the Infanta, one expects the unexpected; the Dwarf is a surprise “birthday present” to entertain the Infanta Donna Clara who ends up both playing with and mocking him. In Kratzer’s modern-dress version the Dwarf exists in two guises: a singer/composer (tenor David Butt Philip) and a speaking actor of small size (played by Mick Morris Mehnert). This choice is highly effective, with brilliant coodination between the two cast members, and also with two women leads who have to interact precisely with each. Vocally, I was taken with both Philip and stellar soprano Elena Tsallagova as Donna Clara, while the warmth and concern her attendant Ghita (Emily Magee) conveys contrasted effectively. I recommend the women’s fine flower chorus with glittering harp and percussion near the opening; soon trendy choristers are manouvering their pink phones to take selfies with the Infanta! Later, music-induced feelings warm between the Infanta and the Dwarf; do not miss Zemlinsky’s soaring lyricism as vocal lines and complex instrumental harmonies entwine.

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