02_sicsic

 Schumann - Kreisleriana; Fantasie

Henri-Paul Sicsic

(www.henripaulsicsic.com)

For those who believe, the bible tells us that the Lord created the world in six days – it took Robert Schumann only four to write his famous piano set Kreisleriana in 1838, not bad for a mere mortal! The equally famous Fantasie Op.17 - arguably his most famous piano work - took considerably longer, almost two years from conception to completion. Both pieces require extraordinary technique, a deeply rooted sensitivity, and most importantly, a keen understanding of Schumann’s own complex personality. Fortunately, all these qualities are in abundance in this recording featuring French-born pianist Henri-Paul Sicsic, released on a private label. Originally from Nice, Sicsic studied in his native city where he was awarded a first prize with highest honours in piano, a first prize in chamber–music, and a diploma in orchestral conducting. Between 1986 and 1992, he taught at Rice University, Houston, and then at the University of British Columbia before accepting a position with the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music in 2007.

Schumann wrote of his Kreisleriana: “My music seems so wonderfully complicated, for all its simplicity.” Indeed, the set is truly a study in contrasts, as emotionally complex as Schumann himself. Not surprisingly, Sicsic rises to the challenges admirably – how effectively he conveys the contrasting moods within, playing with a solid self-assurance, while treating the more languid movements with a quiet introspection. Similarly, his treatment of the Fantasie is always boldly coloured, from the noble and grand opening measures to the tender finale, music clearly written with his beloved Clara in mind. In all, this is a fine performance by an artist the Music Faculty should be rightly proud to have on staff!

Richard Haskell

Concert Note: Henri-Paul Sicsic joins Jacques Israelievitch, Teng Li and Shauna Rolston for piano quartets by Chausson and Fauré in a Faculty Recital at Walter Hall on February 6. The quartet can be heard live in a preview showcase at noon on February 3rd on Classical 96.3 FM.

 

 

 

 Debussy - Preludes for Piano Books 1 & 2

Ivan Ilic

PARATY 108.105

We are fortunate to have this recording come out this particular time. Although Debussy’s Preludes have been recorded a number of times previously, I find this issue far more successful. Many earlier releases have been discontinued or suffer from outdated recording quality or somewhat unengaged playing. This new high quality disc on the French Paraty label played on a magnificent Steinway by young American artist of Serbian origin, Ivan Ilic, is now an outstanding recommendation.

Debussy, like his predecessor Chopin whom he admired tremendously, also wrote 24 preludes in two books. While Chopin’s Preludes are short pieces of emotional states and based on varying techniques, Debussy’s Preludes invoke impressions of an imaginary universe and are generally longer and more complex than Chopin’s. Nature, in form of water, fog, winds and landscapes figure heavily, but some capricious humour and dances also occur.

Due to the many images of varying moods, impressions and atmospheres, it requires a pianist of phenomenal technique, utmost sensitivity and playing with élan, colour, restrained but pronounced emotional engagement and an extraordinary imagination. All these are presented here in abundance, with the natural resonances of the Steinway just as Debussy intended it. Each piece has its own atmosphere and structure that the pianist never fails to bring out. As random examples, Ce qu’a vu le Vent d’Ouest is a very dynamic piece simulating the powerful, menacing wind, perhaps the loudest in the series, but even here the pianist never pounds the piano. It comes as a breathtaking climax. Or La Cathedrale engloutie with its archaic harmonies and long sustained pedal notes suggesting the texture of deep water. I could go on…

Janos Gardonyi

Concert Note: Ivan Ilic performs music of Debussy and Canadian premières of works by Brian Current, Keeril Makan and John Metcalf at Glenn Gould Studio on February 19.

03_debussy

 

 

 

04_homage

 Homage

James Ehnes

ONYX 4038

David Fulton has spent years assembling an astonishing collection of instruments by the great Cremonese makers, and Canadian violinist James Ehnes has selected nine violins - 6 Stradivari, 2 Guarneri ‘del Gesu’ and a Pietro Guarneri - and three violas for a dazzling recital programme designed to showcase the specific qualities of each instrument. Several, like the 1709 Stradivari ‘La Pucelle’, have never been recorded before, and one - the 1715 Stradivari ‘Marsick’ - has been Ehnes’ concert instrument since 1999. Seven different bows from Fulton’s equally superb collection of bows by Tourte and Peccatte were used in the recording, each hand-picked to complement the strengths of the particular instrument.

In addition to a CD, the ONYX release includes a 100-minute DVD which features the entire 21-piece CD recital, with Ehnes describing the instrument and its qualities before each track, plus selection options and a 30-minute Extras chapter that includes the audio comparison tracks from the CD and extended commentary clips by Ehnes and Fulton.

Ehnes hardly moves when he plays, but the close-up camerawork still manages to make it difficult to see exactly what he’s doing at times, especially his deceptively effortless bowing. The filming of the instruments is beautiful, though, and Ehnes is in spectacular form, with the opening track, Bazzini’s La Ronde des Lutins, worth the price of the set on its own.

The violinist remarks in his outstanding booklet notes that “the difference in tone between instruments is often very subtle indeed”, especially when it’s the same player, of course, and it will take a professional ear to identify significant differences between the instruments. Still, a wonderful record of a remarkable project.

Terry Robbins

 

 

 

 Sibelius - Compositions for Piano

Heidi Saario

Independent

(www.CDBaby.com/heidisaario)

As a young boy, I used to delight in leafing though my grandmother’s old sheet-music from the 1920s, and one piece I recall in particular was the Sibelius Romance Op.24 #9. I can still envision it – the heavy yellowed score with the bright orange cover, and the title in a bold black script across the front. Admittedly, I had forgotten all about the piece until I came across it on this disc of piano music by Sibelius played by Heidi Saario on the Aspasia label. A native of Finland, Saario moved to Canada six years ago in order to undertake graduate-work at the Glenn Gould School. Since completing her studies, she has made a determined effort to promote the piano music of Sibelius, a genre too often overlooked. After all, the composer is much better known for his vibrant and nationalist tone-poems and symphonies than for his small output for the piano.

In the past, certain critics have dismissed Sibelius’ piano works as nothing more than salon-music. Unfair! While perhaps not great, these miniatures nevertheless seem well-crafted, containing a charm all their own, and as such, have much to offer the listener. What is particularly striking is the wide variety of moods achieved on a relatively small scale. These range from the gentle introspection of the Berceuse Op.104 #1 to the robust virtuosity of the finale from the Piano Sonata in F major. Saarios’s playing is polished and self-assured, at all times displaying a real affinity for the music. Is it the Nordic blood? Quite possibly - for although these pieces cannot honestly take their place beside those by a Beethoven or a Chopin, her elegant and heartfelt interpretation makes them particularly endearing, and well worth investigating. Recommended.

Richard Haskell

05_saario

 

 

 

 

 

01_be_thou_my_vision

 Be Thou My Vision

Oriana Women’s Choir; William Brown

Independent WRC8-8072

While this fifth recording by Oriana consists of popular hymns, anthems and psalm settings, it is a treat to hear them set for women’s voices with six new arrangements commissioned by the choir by John Beckwith, Eleanor Daley, Derek Holman, Leonard Enns, Jon Washburn and Ruth Watson Henderson. Added to the stellar list of Canadian composers represented on this CD are psalm settings by Srul Irving Glick, two of which are sung in Hebrew. The women’s voices blend superbly and this repertoire is performed with skilful beauty thanks to the direction of William Brown, with expert accompaniment by James Bourne on piano or Michael Bloss on organ. Two absolute gems stand out on this recording: Fairest Lord Jesus arranged by Leonard Enns and All Things Bright and Beautiful in an arrangement by Mack Wilberg. Both employ the services of Leslie Newman, flute and Clare Scholtz, oboe with parts creatively interwoven through the fabric of these well-known melodies. Add to that the light-hearted There’s a Little Wheel A-Turnin’ in my Heart (arr. Robert A. Harris) and a heartfelt Kumbaya (arr. Paul Sjolund) at the end of the recording; this is an offering sure to inspire the spirit.

Dianne Wells

 

 Bellini - La Sonnambula

Bartoli; Flórez; D’Arcangelo; Orchestra La Scintilla; Alessandro De Marchi

Decca 478 1084

The raison d’être of any recording of Bellini’s La Sonnambula, one of the most charming bel canto operas, is a great coloratura soprano. This recording offers something different – a great coloratura mezzo. Cecilia Bartoli is a remarkable singer, commanding a huge range, stunning agility, and overwhelming dramatic inclinations. But her idiosyncratic mannerisms – excessive breathiness, quiet cooing noises, heavily aspirated coloratura – are cloying, especially when she is allowed to indulge in them as often as here. While she makes great efforts to lighten and soften her voice, her rich mezzo with its tightly-wound vibrato is the wrong colour for the sleepwalking Amina. And transposing three scenes down to accommodate her lower range makes the recording more about Bartoli than Bellini.

No transpositions are needed for tenor Juan Diego Flórez, who gives one of the finest performances of Elvino on record. Flórez sails through this difficult part with accuracy and élan, confirming his reputation as the finest bel canto tenor on stage today. Ildebrando D’Arcangelo gives a warm, commanding performance as Rodolfo, though the smaller roles are taken by singers of lesser talents. The Orchestra La Scintilla of the Zurich Opera House provides authentic period instrument accompaniment, and is beautifully conducted by Alessandro De Marchi. Though there is much here to enjoy, those looking for a recording of the opera in modern sound would be better off with Natalie Dessay in the title role on a recent Virgin Records release.

Seth Estrin

Concert Note: Orchestra La Scintilla accompanies Cecilia Bartoli in a program celebrating the life and art of the great 19th century opera singer Maria Malibran, a superstar of her era and inspiration for such composers as Rossini and Donizetti, at Roy Thomson Hall on March 1.

03_sonambula

 

04_birtwistle_minotaur

 Harrison Birtwistle - The Minotaur

Tomlinson; Reuter; Rice; Watts; Langridge; Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus; Antonio Pappano

OpusArte OA 1000 D

Harrison Birtwistle’s most recent opera created a sensation when it was premiered at London’s Royal Opera House last spring. This DVD, recorded during the run, shows why – and why Birtwistle is generally considered the leading composer of his generation in England.

In this telling of the ancient Greek myth, the Minotaur - half human, half beast – develops a soul. By the end, he comes to realize that he must die unloved because his actions are so vile. As John Tomlinson sang the Minotaur’s dying aria, I actually felt sympathy for this lonely guy just looking for love – Tomlinson’s acting is as riveting as his singing.

Ariadne is not merely devious here. She is complicit in her half-brother’s murderous rampages. She does help Theseus into the labyrinth to kill the Minotaur, but only after the beast has dispatched the twelve young Innocents sent from Athens as annual tribute. And not without bargaining with Theseus – the robust Johan Reuter – to take her away with him. Christine Rice’s nuanced performance justifies the composer keeping Ariadne on stage for the whole opera.

Birtwistle’s pacing is expert. His angular but lyrical vocal lines have a natural flow, and he sets David Harsent’s poetic libretto so that the voices can project over the colourful, often violent orchestrations. The staging is powerful, although during the graphic on-stage rape and slaughter of the youths I did wish I was seeing this opera from a seat in the Royal Opera House instead of up close on this DVD.

It is heartening – and rare – to be able to watch a composer and librettist come on stage to accept cheering curtain calls. When Theseus claims that only the shedding of blood can stop bloodshed, little does he understand how futile that is. This landmark production reminds us how opera can so effectively provide searing commentary on our times.

Pamela Margles

 

 

 

 

 

 


01_messiaen

02a_rostropovich

02b_mork

02c_wispelwey

02d_haimovitz 02e_djokic_britten 03_kevin_fox

To jump to a review, just click the above CD covers.


December 2008 marked the 100th birthdays of two very significant 20th century composers, Olivier Messiaen and Elliott Carter. Carter is still very much alive and continues to make significant contributions to the repertoire. You can read Pamela Margles’ comments on some of his recent works in her review of Ursula Oppens’ recording of his complete (at least to this date) piano works elsewhere in these pages, and next month we will feature a review of Toronto’s New Music Concerts centenary tribute to the American master. As for Messiaen, who died in 1991, there is a wealth of material being released to celebrate his centennial. I would highly recommend La Fête des belles eaux, a new Ensemble d’Ondes de Montréal release (ATMA ACD2 2621). This work is scored for six ondes Martenot, one of the first commercially produced electronic instruments, and one which Messiaen used extensively. Due to the rarity of the ondes this breathtaking work is seldom performed. In addition the CD includes four Feuillets inédits (late, unpublished works) for ondes and piano performed by Estelle Lemire and Louise Bessette and an arrangement of the first movement of Ravel’s String Quartet for four ondes Martenot. I find the haunting sound of the ondes particularly well-suited to Ravel. 01_messiaen

02b_mork


02a_rostropovich

We are still four years away from Benjamin Britten’s Centenary year, but Bruce Surtees’ Old Wine in New Bottles column in this issue brought to mind my own favourite pieces of this British master. In February 2002 I wrote in these pages: “Two recent recordings of Benjamin Britten’s complete works for solo cello are welcome additions to the available discography of these highly regarded but all too rarely heard masterpieces. All three solo suites were written for Mstislav Rostropovich … [and] with this in mind, all subsequent recordings must be measured against Rostropovich’s classic 1968 Decca performance, marvellously remastered for CD release in 1989. I’m pleased to report that both of the current releases pass muster with flying colours… Both the Norwegian Truls Mørk (Virgin Classics 45399) and Dutchman Peter Wispelwey (Channel Classics CCS 17198) bring a wealth of technique and experience to their interpretations, and they both seem to have made these pieces their own.”

02c_wispelwey

02d_haimovitz Rostropovich himself never recorded the third suite in which Britten incorporated several Russian melodies. My first exposure to that piece was through a 1995 recording featuring a young Israeli-born cellist Matt Haimovitz who Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School described as “probably the greatest talent I have ever taught”. At 17 Haimovitz signed an exclusive recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon and several of his recordings of standard and non-standard repertoire won international awards over the next 12 years. Three of those discs have been re-issued on DG’s budget “Trio” line. The 20th Century Cello (80004505) now comprises 3 CDs and almost 4 hours of music including all three Benjamin Britten Cello Suites along with important works by Crumb, Kodaly, Dutilleux, Henze, Berio, Ligeti and many others.
02e_djokic_britten


I’m here to tell you now that the playing field has become even more crowded with the new ATMA (ACD2 2524) release of the Britten Cello Suites performed by Denise Djokic. This Halifax native who comes from a large musical family – her father Philippe is a former concertmaster of Symphony Nova Scotia - was at the tender age of 21 named by MacLean’s as one of “25 Young Canadians who are changing our World”, and by ELLE as one of “Canada’s 30 most Powerful Women”. Djokic has shown a strong affinity for modern repertoire; in her debut recording of music by Barber, Martinu and Britten (Suite No.3) for Sony Classical which won an East Coast Music Award for Best Classical Recording in 2002, and the subsequent “Folklore” on Endeavour Classics which included works by Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky, Janacek and Cassadó. On the current ATMA release, recorded at Domaine Forget last February, the cellist revisits Britten’s third suite with even more confidence and aplomb than the Sony recording from six years earlier, and adds brilliant performances of the first and second suites to complete the set. With this recording Djokic proves herself to be living up to the high expectations generated in her formative years.



My final selection for the month combines the cello playing, singing and song-writing skills of multi-talented local musician Kevin Fox. The self-stated purpose of Songs for Cello & Voice (www.kevinfox.ca) was to produce a pop record which would feature only Fox’s voice and cello. There is some overdubbing involved, but nevertheless the result is a stunning achievement. Comprised of eight original compositions and two covers - Kate Bush’s Army Dreamer’s and the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams (are made of this) - the collection rises above usual “pop” fare with its thoughtful lyrics, sparse orchestration and pure, unadorned vocal stylings. The diverse offerings touch on swing, doo-wop and straight ahead pop with a fine balance of melodic flair and emotional expression. The instrumental final track cleverly invokes memories of such iconic cello pieces as Saint-Saëns’ The Swan and Bach’s solo suites without seeming unduly derivative. This is a very refreshing disc.


03_kevin_fox

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: The WholeNote, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4. We also welcome your input via our website, www.thewholenote.com.

David Olds

DISCoveries Editor

discoveries@thewholenote.com








50_dresden

Dresden

by Lord Berners

forward by Peter Dickinson

Turtle Point Press & Helen Marx Books

134 pages, paper; $9.95 US

British composer Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson was decidedly eccentric - even among his notoriously odd fellow British aristocrats. He was famous for dyeing the pigeons on his ancestral estate in bright colours (aided by the woman who became Stravinsky’s second wife) and keeping a clavichord in his chauffer-driven Rolls Royce. But in fact he devoted his life to artistic activity, especially after 1918, when he inherited a title, money and estates from his uncle and became the fourteenth Lord Berners.

Berners was a fine and entertaining writer. His paintings sold well. Songs like Come on Algernon were popular. His ballet scores were commissioned by Diaghilev and set by Balanchine and Ashton, and his chamber works are still performed. He even shows up in novels, including his own Far From the Madding War (included in Collected Tales and Fantasies (Turtle Point)), as Lord FitzCricket, and his friend Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love as Lord Merlin.

Dresden is the fourth installment of Berners’ autobiography. Like his songs, this volume is short but eloquent. It covers a period starting in 1901,when he was eighteen, and went to Germany to study for diplomatic service. He was a remarkably cultivated, observant and enthusiastic young man. “When first Richard Strauss swam in to my ken,’ he writes, ‘I could think of little else. The sight of a Richard Strauss score in a shop window was like meeting the beloved one at a street corner.” Although he thinks about writing a play when trying to write music, and, when working on the play, thinks about painting, he was by no means, even then, a mere dilettante. We see the formation of an imaginative and original early 20th century composer with a refreshingly modernist outlook.

What makes his memoir especially delightful is Berners’ highly evolved self-awareness. We get no hint of his flamboyant homosexuality, which is hardly surprising given the repressive laws in Britain when this was written, a few years before his death in 1950. But we do get suggestions of the depression – which he here calls ‘accidie’ – which plagued him in later life and apparently contributed to his creativity.

50_mozartMozart’s Operas: A Companion

By Mary Hunter

Yale University Press

280 pages, photos; $35.00 US

There’s certainly no dearth of books on Mozart’s operas, But Mary Hunter’s companion stands out for its ability to appeal to both aficionados and those just starting to explore the operas. True, her plot summaries can easily be found elsewhere. And while she assumes that readers don’t know the meaning of basic concepts like ‘aria’ and ‘recitative’, a frequently misused term like ‘rococo’ is left unexplained. Indeed, some of her definitions are not very helpful, such as describing ‘castrati’ as ‘castrated men’.

But when it comes to the history and meaning of the operas, Hunter offers informed and thought-provoking insights. Her thorough knowledge of all things Mozartean – not just the operas - illuminates this study. Her emphasis not only on Mozart’s setting of voices but also his use of the orchestra provides fruitful perspectives on Mozart’s ability to bring the librettos to life.

Opera-goers will especially appreciate Hunter’s examination of performance values as documented in historical accounts, recordings, film and video. She looks at the existing theatres where Mozart’s operas were first performed, as well as at audiences of the times, who would bring servants to cook and serve food during the performance. Needless to say, audiences tended towards ‘boisterous inattentiveness.’

Although Hunter has criticisms of director-centered performances, she emphasizes the benefits of modernizing operas. ‘If Mozart and his librettists’ characters are made to live and act in circumstances that the audience deeply recognizes, it makes Mozart an essentially modern man,’ she writes. Further, by updating Mozart’s operas, ‘every age has found its own meaning in them.’

The text is clearly laid out, with each opera discussed in a separate chapter. On each page the chapter heading is placed clearly at the top – an obvious but too-rare conven-ience for readers.

50_berliozBerlioz: Scenes From The Life And Work

edited by Peter Bloom

University of Rochester Press

270 pages, musical examples; $75.00 US

For those of us whose passion for the music of Berlioz is greater than his usual position in music history would warrant, this collection of twelve essays holds special appeal. For one thing, rather than merely offering analyses of individual works, it examines the place of his music in his own time and milieu. The emphasis on his writings about music throws light on both the music and the man.

Editor Peter Bloom has gathered essays from the heavyweights of Berlioz scholarship to pin down what makes Berlioz unique. Cultural historian Jacques Barzun, whose pioneering two volume biography Berlioz and the Romantic Century revolutionized the study of Berlioz’s music when it was published almost sixty years ago, sets the tone for this collection by linking Berlioz’s music with his life and his writings. It’s not, as is often said, his use of descriptive titles, most notably in Symphonie fantastique, that makes his music sound like no-one else’s. “Nobody but the tone-deaf”, writes Barzun, “could believe a piece of music could tell a story.” Instead, for Barzun, it’s his use of melody as a structural element that defines him.

Gérard Condé, like Berlioz both a critic and composer, reveals Berlioz’s “astonishing capacity to find equivalents in speech to the subjective effects produced by the music.” In this way he accentuates why something is done in the music rather than how it’s done.

David Cairns, translator of Berlioz’s Memoirs and author of his own biography of Berlioz, recalls how he first encountered Berlioz through the Memoirs. Cairns quotes Berlioz’s dying words, “They are finally going to play my music,” to show that he never lost his irrepressible playfulness. But Bloom, who has also written a biography of Berlioz, underscores how crotchety and spiteful Berlioz could be as well. In fact, it would seem, Berlioz needed enemies to stimulate his writing. In his Memoirs he says farewell to his friends by writing “I curse you and hope to forget you before I die.”

Through their evident passion for Berlioz, the contributors to this book all communicate their conviction that Berlioz is, as Bloom puts it, “a contender, one of the B’s, one of the best.”


The Toronto Symphony Orchestra performs The Damnation of Faust by Berlioz on February 26 and 28 at 8.00 in Roy Thomson Hall.

Back to top