03_rufus_choiA Musical Journey
Rufus Choi
Cambria CD-1188

An eclectic program of piano music played by the Korean-American pianist Rufus Choi is featured on this Cambria label CD, music described in the notes by the artist as “in the grand romantic style”. Choi is a graduate of both the Juilliard School and the Musik Hochschule in Hanover, Germany. He was a first prize winner at the inaugural Jose Iturbi International Music Competition in Los Angeles in 2007.

The disc opens with Four Chorale Preludes by Bach as arranged by Ferruccio Busoni. These are tasteful adaptations - indeed, Busoni was a brilliant arranger, and the pieces sound as convincing for solo keyboard as they do for chorus. Yet as successful as Choi is at capturing the mood of noble grandeur, I have the impression that he is more at home with the type of piece that follows - the Rachmaninoff Piano Sonata #2 from 1913. This is music of exceptional difficulty, requiring formidable technique. Happily, Choi rises to the challenge admirably, tossing off the difficulties with apparent ease, while at the same time, approaching the quieter, more introspective passages with great sensitivity.

Admittedly, I’ve never been a big fan of Liszt’s transcriptions of music by other composers – too much tinsel and glitter, and often too many notes! Having said that, there are two such compositions featured here, a piece by Chopin titled Meine Freuden from his Chants Polonais Op.74, and Schumann’s popular Widmung. Once again, Choi seems in his element, both in these and in the concluding work, the famous Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No, 2, a technical tour de force. Here he pulls out all the stops, and delivers an impressive performance, in true command of the music at all times. A most satisfying musical journey indeed, by a young artist on the threshold of a promising career.

05_sa_chenRachmaninov - 6 Etudes;
Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition;
A Night on Bald Mountain
Sa Chen
PentaTone PTC 5186 355
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The name of pianist Sa Chen is perhaps unfamiliar to most music-lovers today, but will undoubtedly become more famous in years or even months to come, judging from the prodigious talents exhibited on this new SACD of Russian music on the PentaTone label. Born in Chongqing, China, Sa Chen began her musical studies at the Sichuan Conservatory, and she later continued at London’s Guildhall School and the Hochschule für Musik in Hanover. Although she has been the recipient of prizes from age 14 onward, it was at the International Chopin Competition in 2000 and later at the Van Cliburn Competition, that her reputation was secured. A critic once wrote: “Fleet- fingered pianists are a dime a dozen today – where are the musicians?” From the haunting opening measures of the Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableau Op.33 No.2, it’s clear that Sa Chen is a musician of the first-rank, one who combines a flawless technique with an innate musicality. She presents 6 Etudes in all, drawn from Opp.33 and 39, and throughout, her playing is marked by a delicacy of shading with never a moment of bravura for its own sake.

As equally demanding as the Etudes-Tableaux is A Night on Bald Mountain, Modest Mussorgsky’s first major work for orchestra - a tale of spirits, witchcraft, and bells tolling at dawn, a sort of 19th century Thriller, 90 years before Michael Jackson. The piano transcription is as difficult as it sounds, and Sa Chen approaches the music with a splendid panache. Nevertheless, in my opinion, she leaves the best until last, with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition from 1874. Inspired by a group of paintings by Victor Hartmann, the work encompasses a myriad of contrasting moods, and Sa Chen captures them all effortlessly, thereby bringing to a close this most satisfying disc.

06_ames_piano_quartetComplete Dorian Recordings 1989-2009
Ames Piano Quartet
Dorian Sono Luminus DSL-90908
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Founded in Ames, Iowa, in 1976, and currently the resident chamber music ensemble at Iowa State University, the Ames is that rarity in the chamber music world - a designated and permanent piano quartet. Only pianist William David remains from the original line-up, but with just one personnel change in the past 20 years the group’s unanimity of thought and interpretation is very evident.

Apart from three CDs of 20th-century works on the Albany label, the Ames has recorded almost exclusively for Dorian, with a repertoire of French, German, Czech and Russian piano quartets from the Romantic era through the mid-1900s. All 7 Dorian CDs are included in this box set, together with a bonus CD of the Chausson and Saint-Saëns quartets originally issued by the Musical Heritage Society in 1989.

The Dorian discs cover the three Brahms piano quartets, the two by both Fauré and Dvorak, and the single opuses of Schumann, Richard Strauss, Widor, Taneyev, Paul Juon, Suk, Novak and Martinu. An effective arrangement of Borodin’s Polovetsian Dances by Iowa State alumnus Geoffrey Wilcken completes the Russian CD, although it’s completely ignored in the otherwise comprehensive booklet notes.

Recording dates are not listed, but despite the 20-year span there is a remarkable consistency in the exceptionally high performance level, as indeed there is in the sound of the recordings themselves, which are always warm, resonant and beautifully balanced. At under $50, this is an outstanding set.

02_elgar_schnittkeElgar & Schnittke - Viola Concertos
David Aaron Carpenter; Philharmonia

Orchestra; Christoph Eschenbach
Ondine ODE 1153-2
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I sometimes find the transcription of concertos hard to justify, suspecting that the motivation is possibly more practical than musical, and aimed primarily at increasing the repertoire.

If ever a recording ought to blow that feeling away, it’s this transcription of the Elgar Cello Concerto for viola. Viola concertos are pretty thin on the ground, and when the great virtuoso Lionel Tertis made his transcription in 1928 Elgar not only gave it his full approval but also conducted the first major performance with Tertis in 1930.

David Aaron Carpenter is a wonderful talent, and has built on Tertis’ transcription for this, his own arrangement, which he feels is “more attuned to what Elgar originally wrote.” He doesn’t say how, but no matter - the cello and viola share a tonal quality that makes this a natural progression, and in this marvellous performance the concerto remains a moving and supremely satisfying work.

The year of Elgar’s death - 1934 - was also that of Schnittke’s birth. His viola concerto was completed in 1958, only ten days before the major stroke that left him partially paralysed, and the work consequently had great personal significance for him. It’s a stunning, albeit dark, passionate and introspective work, clearly influenced by Shostakovich and also by Berg. Carpenter calls it “harrowing” and “emotionally draining”, and it’s easy to see - and hear - why.

A great recorded sound and top-drawer performances from Carpenter, Eschenbach and the Philharmonia make this an outstanding disc.

03_shostakovichShostakovich - Symphonies 1 & 15
Mariinsky Orchestra; Valery Gergiev
Mariinsky MAR0502
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The Mariinsky Theatre has followed the lead of The London and Chicago Symphonies, the Concertgebouw and other orchestras by creating their own, independent recording label. Their first release, Shostakovich’s opera The Nose (MAR0501, SACD/CD), was received with enthusiasm by the critics. They also have a HD video of their electrifying mounting of both Le Sacre du Printemps and l’Oiseau de Feu employing the original choreography and costuming as witnessed at their notorious Paris premieres (MARIINSKY/BelAir DVD, BAC041), reviewed in the September issue.

In the First Symphony Gergiev looks beyond Shostakovich’s precocious ideas and exuberant optimistic orchestration and finds a rather mature work by a prodigious composer. This is not to suggest that the interpretation is in any way anachronistic. Determining the composer’s mental attitude behind this or that composition, passage or reference remains a popular exercise among the pundits that, except in some rare cases, hasn’t produced a certain, or even approximate, QED. There is no better example than the 15th Symphony with its quotes from other composers, Rossini and Wagner, and allusions from other works. What is the sense in this symphonic autobiography and what does each reference and quotation mean? Whatever it may be, we hear what we wish to hear, like a musical Rorschach test.

This performance of the 15th is a distinguished interpretation that, if listened to and not overheard while otherwise occupied (text messaging seems to be today’s universal pre-occupation), leaves the listener sated and, perhaps, somewhat introspective. Such eloquent, empathetic, and searching performances as these do not just happen. They are the result of the artist getting inside the score and not simply on top of it. This was totally unexpected because here Gergiev reveals these immeasurable qualities that are missing from his earlier Philips CDs of Shostakovich symphonies, Four through Nine, recorded live between 1994 and 2002.

The astonishingly dynamic recording from hushed, barely whispered passages to unfettered outbursts, all in a realistic acoustic, is a credit to the ubiquitous, independent producer James Mallinson.

After, in fact, while, listening to these two familiar symphonies I hoped that this disc presages a complete cycle from this cast recorded in their own theatre.

04_rautavaaraEinojuhani Rautavaara - 12 Concertos
Various artists; Helsinki Philharmonic
Orchestra
; Leif Segerstam
Ondine ODE 1156-2Q

Finland’s enterprising Ondine label has faithfully recorded the music of the eminent composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (born 1928 in Helsinki) for decades and has assembled from their extensive catalogue of his works this immensely valuable collectors’ edition of four discs documenting a dozen concertos composed by him over the past 30 years. All of the recordings were supervised by the composer and feature outstanding soloists accompanied in most cases by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of the redoubtable Leif Segerstam.

Rautavaara’s extant series of concertos (though a recent percussion concerto has yet to be recorded) begins with the 1968 Cello Concerto, heard here in a performance by Marko Ylönen, and extends to the lengthy 2001 Clarinet Concerto in a masterful performance by its dedicatee Richard Stoltzman. My personal favourites include the stunningly evocative 1972 Concerto for Birds and Orchestra “Cantus Arcticus”, which amalgamates the composer’s own field recordings of the waterfowl of northern Finland in a halo of shimmering orchestral sound, and two compositions from 1977, the kaleidoscopic scoring and stream-of-consciousness impunity of the single movement Concerto for Organ, Brass Quintet and Symphonic Winds with Kari Jussila the soloist and Elmar Oliveira’s affectionate account of the capricious mood swings of the Violin Concerto. The collection also includes a lively Flute Concerto with Patrick Gallois, a succinct Ballad and prolix Concerto for harp, and an uncanny Concerto for Double Bass.

Rautavaara’s three Piano Concertos, the first two performed by Ralf Gothoni with the Leipzig and Bavarian Radio Symphony orchestras and the third performed and conducted from the keyboard by Vladimir Ashkenazy in Helsinki, provide an excellent overview of the composer’s stylistic evolution over the decades. Considered by many as one of the greatest musical figures in Finland after Jean Sibelius, Rautavaara’s compositions are infused by a rich palette of expression that consistently reward the listener while remaining admirably contemporary in their approach. All the selections feature excellent production values and constitute a loving tribute to this important composer’s considerable achievements.

05_bradyworksMy 20th Century
Tim Brady; Bradyworks;
Quatuor Molinari
ambiences magnétiques AM 189 CD-DVD

Canadian composer and innovative guitarist Tim Brady has created music in a huge range of genres and I was wondering what to expect in his new double disc release. The back cover states it clearly enough: “My 20th Century: A music/video/theatre narrative in 4 works”. The attractive package contains an audio CD and a DVD of the work, thus neatly representing the opus’ various aspects.

Didn’t someone once claim that the 20th century was the century of the guitar? The first two works here serve as homage to two of the past century’s iconic electric guitarists, whom one assumes are composer Brady’s guitar heroes too. The jazz great Charlie Christian’s famous Solo Flight (1941) is radically re-constructed in a post-modernist manner for a small ensemble in Traces; Brady’s own electric guitar riffs adding a fuzzy-toned note of 20th century angst.

Strumming (Hommage à John Lennon) is perhaps the most approachable work presented here, informed by a clear slowly unfolding structure and propelled by frequent dramatic timbral and metric shifts. One especially catchy composite meter: 4/4 + 2/4 + 3/16 caught the ear of this happy metric camper.

The third work is scored for a string quartet with an electronic soundscape, while the fourth features a “virtual string quartet” plus piano, saxophone, percussion and electric guitar. I found #4, Double Quartet (Hommage à Dmitri Chostakovitch), particularly engaging throughout its three movements. The elegiac movement An Infinity of Four with images from the siege of Leningrad was particularly moving.

With the future of the audio CD in question, could this sort of combined video + audio disc package become common even for purely music projects?

Concert note: New Music Concerts hosts the Toronto stop on Tim Brady’s national “My 20th Century” tour with the Bradyworks ensemble and videographers Martin Messier and Oana Suteu at Isabel Bader Theatre on October 17.

01_UglyBeautiesUgly Beauties
Marilyn Lerner; Matt Brubeck;
Nick Fraser
ambiences magnétiques AM 187 CD
(www.actuellecd.com)

This is perceptive chamber improvisation which while finely tuned never loses its spiky edge. The sound of this co-op trio depends on the melding of individual talents. Drummer Nick Fraser colors and amplifies the music rather than settling for mere accompaniment. Cellist Matt Brubeck takes full advantage of his instrument’s dual properties with tremolo quivers sharing space with plucked ostinatos. As she does with her other projects, ranging from Klezmer bands to Queen Mab’s New music, pianist Marilyn Lerner exposes in equal measure staccato swing, lyrical meditations and dissonant inside-piano explorations.

Each trio member composes, although of the 15 tracks, four are group improvisations, while Lerner wrote or co-wrote eight. Two of her compositions highlight her versatility. Like its namesake Harold Lloyd jerks, and jumps, as Lerner swings out with kinetic key fanning as the others scramble Keystone Kops-like behind her. In contrast, Figure and Ground aches with Eastern European melancholy, with the piano theme quickening from adagio to andante as Brubeck alters his harmonic responses to fit.

All strategies are put to good use on tracks such as Zoetrope, an instant composition. As the cellist’s semi-classical spiccato evolves to wide octave leaps, Fraser creates an easy pulse with brushes and Lerner sounds low-frequency patterns as well as recoils from the soundboard. Finally all three combine for an episode of stretched, jagged chording.

Ugly Beauty may be an oxymoron, but in this case the emphasis is more on the noun than the adjective.

Concert note: Marilyn Lerner’s Queen Mab Trio joins forces with Barnyard Drama for an evening of improvisation at the Music Gallery October 2.

New jazz guitar releases are waning, compensated by a tsunami of albums from female singers. Fortunately piano mines are in full production – here’s a quartet of recent entries.

01_mombacho Start with Mike Janzen. Raised and classically trained on the Prairies, talents honed at U of T, he’s settled in Toronto now after a history with the Winnipeg Symphony plus a taste for rock, funk, folk and church music. Janzen plays piano and organ, with a dash of Rhodes, on Mombâcho (Signpost Music SP43-02 www.mikejanzen.ca), his sophomore follow to “Beginnings”. I wish he’d played more organ on these mostly original compositions. Where he’s most effective are the opening Around The Block (piano and organ), the title tune (organ alone) and then a delightful makeover of the movie hit Mrs Robinson where Janzen again doubles. With organ he’s forceful and effective, more à la Lonnie Smith than grits ‘n gravy Jimmy Smith. Big assists come from imaginative bass maestro George Koller and drummers Davide DiRenzo, Ben Riley and young Larnell Lewis. The leader also recruits tenorman Phil Dwyer and guitarist Kevin Breit to heighten lush textures but they’re not absolutely essential. Neither are the string section nor the leader’s strained Chet Baker/Willie Nelson influenced vocals. What’s enthralling is Janzen’s writing, woven with wit and inventiveness, and his playing’s sheer exuberance. His songs have catchy dance-floor hooks like Swankometer and are smartly arranged – plus there’s a deep core of spirituality in his emotional attack, which perhaps explains the meaning of life suggested by the album title. He can also caress keys with clarity on Where It Goes, but fusion-styled Trail Runner definitely doesn’t belong in dentists’ waiting rooms. This felicitous mix of funky chords and deep groove is well worth seeking.

02_julie_lamontagneAn equally welcome surprise is the Julie Lamontagne Trio recording Now What (Justin Time JTR 8535-2 www.julielamontagne.com). The Montrealer has a big Quebec following after work with Radio Canada and pop artists Isabelle Boulay and Bruno Pelletier, but her jazz chops are well established with sympathetic trio-mates Richard Irwin (bass) and Dave Watts (drums). For five of her eight creations she’s brought in American tenor saxist Donny McCaslin and the result is every bit as auspicious as her debut disc “Facing The Truth”, his horn adding heft to a gaggle of pleasing hard-hitters such as the 10 minutes-plus opener Desillusionée. Lamontagne’s a strong performer and arranger, incorporating the complexities of a Fred Hersch with the flair and drive of Lorraine Desmarais. Note her boppish abstract concoction Lost In The Cycle, where her soloing is fleet yet keyboard touch light and lilting. The title piece’s quiet opening soon erupts into a power churn while K.O. and Damn ratchet up the tension, underscore the rampant surprise elements and point to dramatic jazz crammed with joyous spirit.

03_amanda_tosoffWhite Rock, B.C.’s pianist Amanda Tosoff fields her quartet on Wait And See (Cellar Live CL081208 www.cellarlive.com). To West Coast A-listers in her group, saxophonist Evan Arntzen, bass Sean Cronin and drummer Morgan Childs, she’s added ubiquitous trumpeter Brad Turner, who always pumps up energy levels. He’s needed here. She’s composed 9 of 10 tracks for a percussive approach but at times this is more efficient than inspiring, somewhat too polite. The opener’s called Soaring but it doesn’t - yet repeated hearing yields the sense of well-organized balance, deftly shaped melody, all within the subtle deployment of jazz convention. Tosoff won big this year when her team carried off the Grand Prix de Jazz at the Montreal Jazz Festival over 10 finalists - which means at least a new recording. In addition, she and Childs are expected to work in Toronto this winter.

04_dick_hymanAmerican Dick Hyman at 76, with more than 100 albums to his credit, is also the performer of ragtime albums as Knuckles O’Toole, creator of scores for art forms such as Woody Allen films and much more. His solo offering In Concert At The Old Mill (Sackville SACD2) is a 12-song masterpiece through which he conjures the storied past of jazz in the styles of trailblazers such as Fats Waller (lively takes on Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Honeysuckle Rose), Gershwin and even John Lennon (Blackbird). Hyman is a versatile exploiter of what’s good about earlier music, and he tosses in a pair of his own, Ocean Languor done in Duke Ellington style and Pass It Along à la Teddy Wilson. You’ll hear lots of bouncing stride, sustained brilliance and dazzling examinations of harmony, melody and swing. The audience loved it. So will you.

02_viking_vacationVikings on Vacation
Ensemble Polaris
Bisma Bosma Records BBR002
(www.ensemblepolaris.com)

Self-described Arctic fusion band Ensemble Polaris takes a well deserved sonic break from its usual Northern Exposure with “Vikings on Vacation”. As the hilarious cover art so aptly displays, the dour Viking horsemen are melting on the beach. And while they may not be headed Due South - superb renditions of Swedish folk material are still a main focus - the choice of tracks by such non northern stars as Nino Rota and local Torontonians conjure up more of an international musical pastiche.

Band member Kirk Elliott contributes Cod’s Anatomy, a five part suite of short melodies written after a trip to sunny Newfoundland. Many styles are visited here with the Reel from Doran House a toe tapping joie de vivre. Guest composer Andrew Downing’s You Lovely Island is outstanding. Inspired by some melodies from West Side Story’s America, the piece allows the ensemble a chance to prove that they are more than just another folk music band. This is Leonard Bernstein on the rocks with its lilting melodies and rhythm. Member Debashis Sinha’s Emil Goes to Market is a world music piece originally written for Maza Mezé given in a joyful Polaris rendition.

Our musical vacationers are more laid back in their performances this time. The group plays with care, precision and creativity. However, considering the skills and musicality of the players, more spontaneous improvisation would have been a welcome addition.

“Vikings on Vacation” is great music to enjoy whether you are travelling the world or just taking a short holiday on the veranda.

Concert note: Ensemble Polaris celebrates the release of “Vikings on Vacation” in concert at the Music Gallery/Church of Saint George the Martyr on Friday October 16.

03_amanda_martinezAmor
Amanda Martinez
Independent (www.amandamartinez.ca
)

Amanda Martinez is in love. Marriage and a new baby have coloured her already sweet disposition and prompted her to produce this tribute to the promise that life holds, called, of course, “Amor”. With her long-time guitarist Kevin Laliberté and newer collaborator, husband and bass player Drew Birston, Martinez traverses the borders between various Latin musics, pop and jazz. Flamenco is the chief influencer, rearing its exotic head on Gitana, an ode to a gypsy dancer, and Te Prometo, a sort of mellow At Last by way of the Mediterranean. Cuban bandmates Chendy Leon (percussion) and Alexander Brown (trumpet) get to show off their roots on Tómalo and Martinez’s Mexican heritage asserts itself on Alma Mia. Throughout, she channels the gorgeous Mexicana cantora, Lila Downs. Although Martinez doesn’t have the guts and throatiness that distinguish Downs, her trademark straddling of chest and head voice is there and reinterpreted appealingly by Martinez’s pretty mezzo. It takes a lot of confidence to sing a song that has been covered often and performed perfectly, as is the case with Cucurrucucú Paloma and in particular, Caetano Veloso’s version of it, (if you’ve never heard it, do yourself a favour and seek it out on YouTube) but Martinez does her own beautiful, heartrending version here, appropriately ending the record with a reminder that love has its painful side, too.

Concert note: Amanda Martinez’s CD release concert is at the newly opened Koerner Hall on October 23.

04_ancient_egyptian_qanunThe Art of the Early Egyptian Qanun,
Vol. 2
Traditional Arabic Music Ensemble
Independent (www.georgedimitrisawa.com
)

This album is the sequel to an album of the same name, without the volume number, since at the time no one had forecast the incredible audience response that buoyed The Traditional Arabic Music Ensemble to grace us with more of the same. The first album came out in the spring of 2008, and notably garnered the 2009 Juno Award for World Music Album of the Year. This time George Sawa, Toronto’s own Egyptian music expert has put together, along with his colleagues, Suzanne Meyers Sawa and Raymond Sarweh, what I feel to be perhaps a stronger offering than the first. If not stronger, then certainly more mature. This is evident right off the top with the first cut, Raqset Sayyed Mohammed stretching over the ten-minute mark and offering a rich and varied array of musical textures within a unified whole.

I literally kept playing this album over and over: the music doesn’t get tired, it doesn’t get stale. It doesn’t even have what some might call “the same sound”, referring to an idiomatic Arabic ‘world music sound’. The energy is fresh and the deep resonance of the percussion drives the listener to yearn for more. If there was an over-riding flavour of this group’s creative output, it would be authenticity. Sawa has gone to great lengths to virtually resurrect an exact replica of a period instrument that is most likely unique in the world. Two thumbs up! Do I hear a trilogy in the offing?

01_daugherty1Michael Daugherty is an American composer, born in 1954, who writes fetching symphonic works that bear such names as Metropolis Symphony and Bizzaro, both once available on an Argo CD. Daugherty is not a towering figure in the pantheon of composers but his compositions are meticulously constructed, brilliantly scored and instantly pleasing, inviting repeated hearings. Daugherty was the Detroit Symphony’s Composer-in-Residence for four years and Naxos has issued three works recorded during public performances given by the Detroit Symphony under Neeme Järvi (Naxos 8.559372). The opening work, a violin concerto, Fire and Blood (2003), is a cross between Leroy Anderson and John Williams. This attractive, light classical opus was inspired by the murals of Diego Rivera in the Detroit Institute for the Arts. The soloist in this premier performance is Ida Kavafian. Next comes MotorCity Triptych (2000) followed by Raise the Roof (2003) scored for tympani and orchestra. All three works are vibrantly orchestrated and in these performances, dating from 2001 and 2003. Everyone involved seems to be having a good time.

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02_daugherty2Here is an ideal place to alert collectors to a new Daugherty CD that returns Metropolis Symphony to the catalogue in a brand new performance by the Nashville Orchestra conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero (Naxos 8.559635). The five movement piece, inspired by the Superman comic strip is tour-de-force for orchestra and a challenge for conductor and engineer alike to keep the instrumental balances intact and yet have every voice heard. How well they succeed is demonstrated in the first movement, Lex, an exhilarating moto perpetuo, the like of which you’ve never heard before. In fact, when I first heard the Zinman/Baltimore version on Argo some 15 years ago I thought that “Lex” referred to Lexington Avenue (who reads liner notes!) and it fitted perfectly... the non-stop, inexhaustible pulse of the city, the hustle and bustle of people and machines punctuated by police whistles from all directions. Krypton; MXYZPTIK; Oh, Lois!; and the Red Cape Tango follow. The Red Cape Tango is a whimsical set of treatments of the Dies Irae to a tango rhythm. On the same disc and new to the catalogue is Deus ex Machina, a piano concerto inspired by trains of the past and the future written in 2007. All this benefits from a state-of-the-art recording. Recommended to all except music lovers with hang-ups.

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m

03_verklarte_nachtVerklärte Nacht, Transfigured Night, is Schoenberg’s most often performed work. And so it should be, whether heard as the original string sextet or in the composer’s arrangement for orchestra. In 1996 Deutsch Harmonia Mundi issued a fascinating CD, now deleted, entitled Transfiguration which included Verklärte Nacht played by the Smithsonian Chamber Players led by cellist Kenneth Slowik. There is no more impeccable, ardent and probing recorded performance, be it sextet or orchestra, than this sextet version. Now a new performance by Kenneth Slowik and the Smithsonian Chamber Players featuring an all Schoenberg program is available on a two disc set from Dorian Sono Luminus (DSL-90909, CD+DVD). As expected, the playing is exemplary in the brand new recording of the sextet followed by Chamber Symphony No.1, opus 9 played by the 15 member chamber orchestra under Slowik’s direction. The second disc is a fascinating and informative DVD with films exploring the origin of Verklärte Nacht, contemporary influences and appreciations of the work by distinguished musicians and heads of associated institutions; also its place in the arts’ world of the fin-de-siècle, concluding with a video of the CD performance. The image of the performance is in a sort of sepia-toned color film, softly focused. Bonuses include the origins of the Smithsonian and the Schoenberg Library and its present disposition. The packaging includes the text and translation of Richard Dehmel’s poem Verklärte Nacht and the name of each of the instrumentalists and DVD participants but is otherwise lacking in program notes and recording dates. Also the timings quoted for the two works are transposed. Nevertheless, highly recommended.

An earlier Smithsonian Chamber Players under Kenneth Slowik recording of interest is the Schoenberg/Rainer Riehn transcription of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, recorded in 2007 in Quebec. This outstanding performance and recording documents the collaboration of Smithsonians and The Santa Fe Pro Musica and features Russell Braun and John Elwes (DOR 90322).


Finally, there is a 92 minute video portrait of Herbert von Karajan that shows the iconic conductor, warts and all (DG DVD 0734392). KARAJAN, a film by Robert Dornhelm, proves to be the most interesting, informative and thorough of the many Karajan DVD biographies. Here are historic films, interviews with colleagues, commenting on the many facets of conductor’s career from his rise to his final days and death. We hear from Solti, Schwarzkopf, Mutter, Ozawa, Janowitz, Kollo, Ludwig, Rattle, Thiemann, and others. There are many rehearsals, always serious but sometimes making his point with humour. The production ends with a falcon high in the air over the mountains. Although it is not mentioned here, Karajan once said that he wished to “come back” as a falcon. Highly recommended to those interested in the subject.

48_MusicalExoticism

Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections
by Ralph P. Locke
Cambridge University Press
440 pages, photos, musical examples; $110.95

In this rewarding study, Ralph Locke offers a broad-ranging approach to the use of exotic elements in western music. For Locke, who teaches at the Eastman School of Music, it’s not just a matter of examining the notes of a score. Nor is it sufficient to study the context of a work. Equally important are factors like “the particulars of a given performance and the musical and cultural preparation of a given listener.”

By uncovering an expanded range of meanings, Locke’s analysis makes a work with exotic content “more durably enjoyable, continuingly relevant, and perhaps, by the very strength of its musical imagination, healthily problematic.” I can’t think of a work that wouldn’t benefit from such an approach, but nonetheless it pays rich dividends here.

Starting in the baroque with Rameau’s Les Indes galantes, he unearths political issues like colonialism, tyranny, nationalism, and racism, as well as cultural issues like the relationship between folk music and art music. He shows how, in Madame Butterfly (coming up in the COC’s fall season) Puccini used Japanese folk  tunes – or what he thought to be Japanese folk-tunes – to make Cio-Cio San  “one of the most richly realized characters in the operatic repertoire.”  Similarly Locke illustrates how Bizet’s handling of Spanish, Cuban and Gypsy-flamenco themes  becomes part of the dramatic structure of Carmen (also on the COC’s fall roster).

Though his main focus is on opera, Locke also looks at  piano works like Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies and Chopin’s Mazurkas, orchestral works, jazz, popular songs and Broadway musicals like West Side Story (now on stage at Stratford).

Locke’s ultimate concern is how to produce a work with ethnic or exotic colour most effectively. When controversial opera directors like Calixto Bieito relocate an opera, they are in effect removing the exotic elements. And when a contemporary composer like the Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov “merges all too readily the different chosen materials” he is treating a work as if it were “capable, somewhat like a food-processing machine, of smoothing out stubborn  tensions between nations and peoples.” For Locke, the solution is “not to rip it apart and rewrite it to suit our own ideas, nor to refuse to perform it, but to get to know it better, contend with its original content and messages, and think about its implications for today.”

48_John Arpin cover_b&wJohn Arpin, Keyboard Virtuoso
by Robert Popple
Dundurn Press
358 pages, photos; $26.00

Pianist John Arpin could play anything, from opera arias with Maureen Forrester, and  his own jazz arrangements with a big band, to solo rags. Yet he never achieved the kind of reputation he deserved, even at home in Toronto. Perhaps it was because he  played in so many styles, though biographer Robert Popple blames ineffective marketing, bad luck with insolvent recording companies and a too-gentle personality.

Popple, whose friendship with Arpin dates back over fifty years, is unstinting in his admiration. His familiarity with Arpin’s life makes for lively anecdotes, especially about Arpin’s numerous entanglements with women, many of whom were musicians.

But that closeness with his subject leads Popple to lay on descriptions of Arpin’s genius too thickly. “No other Canadian,” he writes, “has matched his stupendous musical reach – either in breadth or depth, nor has, arguably, any other keyboard musician worldwide.” Then he  continues to call Arpin “gifted” or “excellent and proficient” at every turn.

The best material comes directly from Arpin’s own comments, based on Popple’s extensive conversations with him before he died in 2007. Popple quotes them often, and annotates them meticulously in his endnotes. About Glenn Gould, a friend from student days at the Royal Conservatory, Arpin says, “He wasn’t welded in a rigid way to the strict, mechanical setting of the notes that the composer wrote. He’d try things, experiment a lot, and he was constantly analyzing the music, trying to get inside the composer’s mind, always trying to imagine ‘What was he thinking?’ But he couldn’t play anything that wasn’t classical, written right there in front of him.”

We meet  interesting figures from the Canadian classical and jazz worlds, like Victor Di Bello, John Arab, Percy Faith, and Ruth Lowe, but we learn little about them. And John  Weinzweig is identified merely as a “teacher at the Royal Conservatory of Music”, and American composer  Ferde Grofé is referred to as ‘Ferdy Grope’

This is a lively and sympathetic portrait of a seminal figure in Canadian music. Popple’s ability to convey what is special about Arpin’s music led me – to my delight – to listen to Arpin’s recordings of Scott Joplin.

48_TenorTenor: History of a Voice
by John Potter
Yale University Press
316 pages, photos; $35.00 US

In 1837, tenor Gilbert-Louis Duprez stunned the audience at the Paris Opera by singing a performance of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell -  including the famous high C’s – in full chest voice. As John Potter writes in this fascinating history of the tenor voice, “This was the point of no return for tenors, a change in the very nature of the voice and a defining characteristic of the best (and worst) tenor singing ever since.” It also precipitated one of the most tragic episodes in operatic history. Potter chronicles how the great Adolphe Nourrit, who had premiered the role, and whose singing Rossini actually preferred, attempted to remake his voice to compete with Duprez. He ended up committing suicide at age thirty-seven.

Potter is a tenor himself. He sang for years with the innovative Hilliard Ensemble and recently recorded Dowland with saxophone accompaniment. He traces the development of the tenor voice from its earliest documented origins in twelfth century church music, through the increasingly virtuosic demands on tenors due to the influence of the castrati, with their lightness and agility.  Since the demise of the castrati, Duprez’s breakthrough, and the development of recordings, operatic tenors have been expected to fill huge opera houses with ringing high notes.

Inevitably most of Potter’s focus is on opera singers, as he highlights the contributions of significant singers of the past and present. including Canadians  Léopold Simoneau, Jon Vickers, Ermanno Mauro and Ben Heppner.

He  looks at such recent phenomena as ‘stadium tenors’, writing that “if you start your career in stadiums, the chances of a retreat into an actual opera theatre are rather remote, as Mario Lanza found (ultimately to his cost).” Even though he appreciates each member of the Three Tenors individually, as an ensemble, he writes, they “reinforced the tendency for the public to be offered a very limited musical diet, anthologized in the form of a ‘greatest hits’ collection, with none of the vagaries of operatic plots or the contortions of recitative to contend with.” On the other hand, early music tenors occupy “one of the few areas in which creative singers can have the expectation of a career outside the realm of opera,” in spite of what he refers to in an endnote to a Handel aria as “the bland offerings of the twenty-first century early music movement.”


02_Melody_GardotMy One and Only Thrill
Melody Gardot
Verve B001256302

Melody Gardot is a powerful new presence on the North American jazz/pop scene. I was enchanted by her live performance at the Toronto jazz festival (see my blog) and am pleased to hear that her charisma and ability to draw in a listener with her intimate vocal delivery has translated beautifully to recording. Her strong songwriting skills — developed while recovering from a serious traffic accident that left her sensitive to light and relying on a cane to walk — are what set her apart from the herd of young jazz singers content to rework old standards. Her unique voice is a contrast of styles with its fast vibrato hinting at the old world, à la Piaf, and her controlled, up close on the mic nuance adding an of-the-moment Leslie Feist style. Her phrasing is all her own, especially on the gorgeous title track, with its laid bare, confessional lyrics: “Birds may cease to spread their wings / Winters may envelope springs / But it don’t matter, it don’t matter ‘cause / When I’m with you / My whole world stands still / You’re my one and only thrill.”

It’s interesting to note what a little record label clout can do for a girl, as a long line-up of horn, string and rhythm section players grace the album, including such heavyweights as Vinnie Colaiuta and Larry Klein. Harmonically rich strings, masterfully arranged and conducted by Vince Mendoza, provide a soundscape that enhances without overpowering. But Gardot holds her own by doing all the guitar and piano work on the disc, and adds some charming bossa nova-style lilt to the only cover on the recording, Over the Rainbow. Expect big things from Ms. Gardot.

Cathy Riches

01_snow_queenClassical Fairy Tales - Patrick Cardy’s
The Snow Queen & The Little Mermaid
Angela Fusco; Alex Baran; Chamber

Music Society of Mississauga; Peggy Hill
CMSM Concert Theatre for Kids

(
www.chambermusicmississauga.org)

Two compositions by the late and much loved Carleton University music professor Patrick Cardy are featured on this new release. Based on two familiar Hans Christian Anderson children’s stories, Cardy has woven his narrative and music into a palette of word and sound painting, suspense, and musical colours.

The Snow Queen is scored for string quartet and narrator. Angela Fusco gives a convincing performance in telling the saga of lost little boy, and the little girl who loves him so. Her clear diction and amusing character voices highlight her rendering of eternal love to a backdrop of strings. On occasion the music is a wee bit too commercial for my liking, but thankfully these instances are few and far between.

The Little Mermaid has Fusco joined by the excellent Alex Baran in narration. The musical score is stronger here, with the mixed musical ensemble more in the forefront, especially in the gripping track The Sea Witch. The narration and music are equal partners here, probably creating rejoicing in “the distant realms of heaven”, the powerful closing line of this interesting work.

Applause to violinist, producer and CMSM Concert Theatre of Kids Artistic Director Peggy Hills for fulfilling her promise to the late composer that she would record The Snow Queen. Along with The Little Mermaid, this is music for both the young and young at heart.

Tiina Kiik

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