02_Andrew_Scott_QuartetNostalgia
The Andrew Scott Quintet meets Jon-Erik Kellso and Dan Block
Sackville SKCD2-2073

The bebop era saw the extended use of standard popular songs as the basis for new compositions based on the chord changes of the familiar themes.

“Nostalgia” takes this as its basic premise with a programme of compositions by musician/composers such as Tadd Dameron, Barney Kessel, Fats Navarro, Charlie Parker, Gigi Gryce, Zaid Nasser and one by leader Andrew Scott and Jake Wilkinson. Having said that, the first selection is Ben Webster’s Did You Call Her Today, his swing style variation on Rose Room, but for the rest of the album it’s bebop lines over familiar standard harmonies. If you are a jazz buff, see how many you can get right before looking at the liner notes!

Pianist Mark Eisenman, bassist Pat Collins and drummer Joel Haynes integrate beautifully and Mark contributes some outstanding solos, while Andrew Scott is equally comfortable playing unison lines, comping or stretching out on a solo.

Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and clarinettist Dan Block, although of a later generation, have chosen to follow in the steps of the great early innovators and both play with lyrical concept, creative ideas and the playing skills to make it all come together. As John Norris rightly states in his accompanying notes, they are indeed real jazz musicians.  This CD is a welcome addition and upholds the well earned stellar reputation of Sackville Records.

Jim Galloway

01_Canadian_Jazz_QuartetJust Friends
Canadian Jazz Quartet

Cornerstone CRST CD 133

The Canadian Jazz Quartet (Gary Benson, guitar, Frank Wright, vibraphone, Duncan Hopkins, bass and Don Vickery, drums) has been an important part of the Canadian scene since 1987 - important because they have maintained a musical philosophy of playing great standards and making music that swings. Individually they are all talented, experienced soloists and as a group they blend beautifully. For this recording, the CJQ invited three guests to contribute one number each. Trombonist Alastair Kay gives a virtuoso performance on Memories of You, master flutist Bill McBirnie adds a Latin touch with Blue Bossa and Mike Murley on tenor sax romps through the title track, Just Friends. The remaining titles make up a cross-section of great standards and show tunes ranging from Gershwin’s Embraceable You to Clifford Brown’s Joy Spring.

This album also gives an all too rare opportunity for the playing of guitarist Gary Benson and vibes player Frank Wright to be heard by a wider audience. Frank’s rendition of Where Are You, for example, is a thing of beauty and just listen to how Gary glides through Have You Met Miss Jones. The DDs, (Hopkins and Vickery), make the whole thing swing like the pendulum of a finely oiled clock as well as contributing some fine solos.

All told “Just Friends” is an excellent example of discriminating taste and musicality and will occupy a pleasurable hour of any day or evening.

Jim Galloway

06_Ancia NAXOSShort Stories - American music for saxophone quartet
Ancia Saxophone Quartet
Naxos 8.559616
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Borrowing from popular music has almost defined American “classical” music since the time of Ives, and the Ancia Saxophone Quartet has compiled a disc of commissions and favourites that capture Twentieth Century America.

The Chorale from Ives’ String Quartet No. 1 opens this disc, which also includes the third movement of his Fourth Symphony. Ives would have embraced the organ-like sound of the saxophone quartet for his collage of hymns.

The influence of Elliott Carter can be seen in Fred Sturm’s Picasso Cubed (a reworking of a Coleman Hawkins improvisation, perhaps as seen through a kaleidoscope), and in David Bixler’s Heptagon (seven short jazzy Webernesque movements). Accordionist Dee Langley joins for Elusive Dreams, where composer Carleton Macy demonstrates how well the instrument blends with saxophones.

The minimalist movement is represented by Michael Torke’s July. Written one hundred years after the Ives, Torke also likes to borrow from popular music: “Whenever I am drawn to a particular… pop song, I scratch my head and think, ‘I like that, how could I use it?’”

Jennifer Higdon – who is popular now in the orchestral world – wrote the title track, Short Stories, for the Ancia Quartet. Each picturesque movement invokes a film while listening. Higdon knows each instrument, and writes very well for saxophone quartet.

The American Classics Series on NAXOS continues to record a wide range of music and artists, and Ancia’s disc is an enjoyable listen.

Wallace Halladay

05_kleiberg_concertiTreble & Bass - concertos by Ståle Kleiberg
Marianne Thorsen; Göran Sjölin; Trondheim Symfoniorkester; Daniel Reuss
Lindberg Lyd AS 2L59SACD
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The Norwegian composer Ståle Kleiberg was born in Stavanger in 1958 and now lives in Trondheim. Several of his works have been commissioned by the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra, including the two excellent Concertos recorded here featuring Trondheim native Marianne Thorsen on violin and the orchestra’s Swedish principal bass player Göran Sjölin, sensitively accompanied by conductor Daniel Reuss and the excellent Trondheim ensemble.

Kleiberg’s two string concertos are both cast in a traditional three movement fast-slow-fast framework yet exhibit a very individual melodic approach that is remarkably compelling. Restricting himself for the most part to easily comprehensible two part counterpoint, Kleiberg composes long lines of chromatically inflected strands of ever-evolving melodies that captivate the listener through a process of seamless organic metamorphoses. Decidedly post-modern in their allegiance to tonality, these concertos exhibit highly effective and idiomatic string writing. This is especially evident in his double bass concerto. For such a burly fellow, the soul of the contrabass is at heart rather melancholy, intimate and a bit clumsy, and a real challenge to compose for. Soloist Sjölin performs miracles in the many extended passages in the highest register and is rock-solid in his performance of the luminous sections composed entirely from the natural harmonics of the instrument. There’s never a dull moment in either of these eminently accessible works. Highly recommended.

Daniel Foley

04_secluded_gardenLorenzo Palomo - My Secluded Garden
Maria Bayo; Pepe Romero; Romero Guitar Quartet; Seville Royal Symphony Orchestra; Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos
Naxos 8.572139
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The two glorious vocal collections by Spanish contemporary composer Lorenzo Palomo feature many influences from traditional Spanish, Sephardic or Arab roots to more modern day contemporary and quasi jazz tonalities. The rich tonal colours and harmonies are only surpassed by the ever present musical “surprise” lurking around every corner.

The eleven songs comprising My Secluded Garden are composed to the Spanish love poems of Celedonio Romero, the late “grand maestro of the guitar”. Love with all its surprises offers Palomo the opportunity to superimpose the above mentioned styles. Soprano Maria Bayo’s voice is occasionally too shrill but she is confident in her attitude, while guitarist Pepe Romero (Celedonio’s son) provides a perfect backdrop. Callen los pinos, is the melodic gem of the collection with an unforgettable fortissimo climax and a sudden sweet ending.

Love is still the lyric theme in Madrigal and Five Sephardic Songs. The composer sets the traditional texts to a more uniform musical influence, this time the melodies of Jewish songs. Now Bayo’s voice is rich and deep, her intonation flawless, while the guitar setting allows Romero to display his mastery.

Concierto de Cienfuegos for four guitars and orchestra is given a superb rendition by The Romero Guitar Quartet and the Seville Royal Symphony Orchestra. With many musical surprises, this three movement work with Spanish flavours is easy on the ears though deeply rooted in contemporary harmonies and rhythmic variations.

The biggest surprise of the day however was how much I enjoyed “My Secluded Garden” and Lorenzo Palomo’s music. Ole!

Tiina Kiik

03_korngoldKorngold - Violin Concerto
Philippe Quint; Orquestr Sinfoinica de Mineria; Carlos Miguel Prieto
Naxos 8.570791
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Erich Wolfgang Korngold is now chiefly remembered for his outstanding Hollywood movie scores of the late 1930s and early 1940s, but 20 years earlier he had been an established and much-admired young prodigy in Europe, even managing to impress Mahler with his music when only 9 years old. His return to a completely changed European concert scene after the Second World War failed to repeat his earlier successes, however, and he died, scarcely remembered, in 1957.

His Violin Concerto, though, has never left the repertoire, probably because it so successfully combines both of Korngold’s musical worlds. Written in 1945 at the behest of Bronislaw Huberman and premiered by Heifetz in 1947, it is a rich and tuneful late-Romantic work, at times strongly reminiscent of the Barber concerto, with the main themes in all three movements taken from the composer’s own film scores.

Philippe Quint is, as usual, in wonderful form in a warm and beautifully recorded performance. If you don’t yet know his brilliant playing, then take advantage of the great Naxos price to discover it now!

Two early orchestral works complete the CD. Overture to a Drama, from 1911, was the first work the 14-year-old Korngold orchestrated on his own; the influence of Mahler is clearly apparent. The Much Ado About Nothing Suite dates from 1918, and is perhaps better-known in the arrangement the composer made for violin and piano, also available on Naxos.

Terry Robbins

02_kissin_prokofievProkofiev - Piano Concertos 2 & 3
Evgeny Kissin; Philharmonia Orchestra; Vladimir Ashkenazy
EMI Classics 2 64536 2
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For his third release on the EMI label super-star pianist Evgeny Kissin finds himself in convivial company with a program of Prokofiev concertos conducted by his compatriot Vladimir Ashkenazy. Prokofiev’s Second Concerto is new to Kissin’s extensive discography and will no doubt be eagerly sought out by his many fans. There is no question that his steely technique is up to the task of this technically demanding work with its crushing, heaven-storming passages, though there is poetry as well in his relatively restrained, rubato-inflected opening movement. Alas, the London-based Philharmonia Orchestra has seen better days, and Ashkenazy’s direction is, perhaps understandably as he has famously recorded all of Prokofiev’s concertos himself, exceedingly deferential to the soloist. The EMI recording balances the piano far to the fore, with unrealistic results, while excessive filtering meant to obliterate audience noises in these spliced-together concert performances create a rather dry, bass-deficient ambience.

The album also features Kissin’s third recording of Prokofiev’s ever-popular Third Concerto, following previous discs dating from his earlier contracts with RCA and Deutsche Grammophon. Again, fans of the pianist may care to invest in this newer, curiously humourless version, though Kissin’s earlier Abbado-led Berlin Philharmonic DG recording features a superior orchestra and more sensitive direction. Even better, seek out the classic Martha Argerich performance with these same forces, which remains far more compelling.

Daniel Foley

01_StravinskyStravinsky and the Ballet Russes - The Firebird; The Rite of Spring
The Mariinsky Orchestra and Ballet;
Valery Gergiev
BelAir classiques DVD BAC041
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This is an outstanding and important document of an historic event. The celebrated riot that occurred on the 6th of May, 1913 during the first performance of the new ballet, Le Sacre du Printemps was the expression by the outraged audience at being assaulted visually and aurally by Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. A year earlier Diaghilev had delighted them with a work commissioned from Ravel, Daphnis et Chloë, choreographed by Michel Fokine. Earlier Vaslav Nijinsky had caused a minor riot with his languid, homo-erotic vision of Debussy’s Prelude à l’apres-midi d’un faune, which he was obliged to secretly choreograph in his room. But Le Sacre was something new, unheard of and unexpected in every respect. Pounding and brutal rhythms with rapid time changes drove the dancers to unrefined movements and inelegant poses. In a complete reversal of the usual order of things, Le Sacre began with the music for which a storyline had to be devised. It became the rites of an ancient Slavic tribe attempting to alter their destiny. The night of May 6, 1913 was the beginning of the end of Le Belle Epoch. WW1 didn’t help.

If you buy this DVD, as you really should, be sure to watch and absorb the bonus features, including an interview with art historian Kenneth Archer and Millicent Dodson whose re-construction of Nijinsky’s undocumented choreography was certainly a labour of love. This is a fascinating account as Dodson outlines and particularises on the search for documents, evidence, and people to illuminate this seemingly impossible task. Along with that, the costumes, their colors and the scenery presented further enigma. We also witness Dodson and Archer supervising the 120 hours of rehearsals in St. Petersburg. Now, one can grasp what is happening on the stage featuring up to 47 dancers, often with individual choreographic roles. The huge Kirov Orchestra under Gergiev plays with extraordinary vehemence and savagery, the like of which one would never hear in an orchestral concert. It certainly works here.

Also included is The Firebird, presented as originally staged with the choreography of Michel Fokine and the sets designed by Fokine, Alexander Golovin and Leon Bakst. These live performances were captured in high definition, wide screen video. The extraordinarily wide dynamic range is thrilling in 5.1 audio.

Bruce Surtees

Editor’s Note: See Old Wine in New Bottles elsewhere in these pages for a newly released version of Le Sacre du Printemps from a conductor admired by the composer.

04_french_flute_chamberFrench Flute Chamber Music
Mirage Quintet
Naxos 8.570444

I’m not sure how “real” the Mirage Quintet is – a quick Google of the name reveals no references to concerts performed anywhere, and the ensemble’s discography seems to consist entirely of this recording.

But never mind. Even if the group is just a mirage, its players are all fine musicians: Canada’s reigning flutist, Robert Aitken; leading studio musician and Aitken’s long-time recital partner, harpist Erica Goodman; violinist Jacques Israelievitch, recently retired as concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; and violist Teng Li and cellist Winona Zelenka, both current principals of that orchestra.

The music is also quite fine: several works are thoroughly impressionistic in style, others are touched with neo-classicism, but all are very French. CD collectors shouldn’t be discouraged if some of the early 20th-century compositions recorded here are unfamiliar.

Marcel Tournier was himself a harpist, as his lush writing for the instrument suggests. But his Op.34 Suite isn’t just a showpiece for the harp; it’s true chamber music, with a sophisticated interplay of instrumental forces. I particularly like the way the Mirage players dig into the final movement’s big, emphatic chords with an expansive sweep.

Similarly, Florent Schmitt’s Suite en rocaille Op. 84 is an elegant work – although there’s an edgy urgency in the second and fourth movements. And Gabriel Pierné’s Variations libres et finale derives an archaic quality from the composer’s use of the Lydian mode. Jean Françaix’s Quintette is a charming piece; and so is Roussel’s Sérénade Op. 30, although its instrumental effects and harmonic leanings also give it a quirky, modernist quality.

This isn’t the deepest music ever written – it’s a little too suave to be profound. But it is enjoyable, and very well performed.

Colin Eatock

03_berlin_recitalThe Berlin Recital
Gidon Kremer; Martha Argerich
EMI Classics 6 93999 2

The first thing that strikes you about this 2CD set, recorded in concert at the Berlin Philharmonie in December 2006, is the obvious disparity between the two featured composers, Schumann and Bartok. The links suggested in the booklet notes - two pianist-composers who wrote for every musical genre and were both interested in musical education - are unconvincing and tenuous at best, but what does make these two an interesting pairing is not their supposed similarities but their clear and contrasting differences.

Each is represented by a sonata for violin and piano - No.2 of Schumann, No.1 of Bartok - and a solo work - Bartok’s solo violin sonata for Kremer and Schumann’s Kinderszenen for Argerich.

The duo works could not be more different in sound or style, with Schumann’s conservative approach treating the somewhat subdued violin as part of the overall texture, while Bartok treats the two instruments independently, making great technical demands of the players. Kremer and Argerich have been performing together for many years (they recorded the Schumann sonatas for DGG in 1986) and it shows - they clearly think and feel as one.

The solo works, too, are simply light years apart. Both receive outstanding performances here, but Kremer’s stunning playing in the fiendishly difficult Bartok really steals the show.

Audience presence is apparent before and after each work, but thankfully never for a moment during the performances.

Two Kreisler encores, Liebeslied and Schon Rosmarin, round out this attractively-priced set.

Terry Robbins

02_grieg_pianoGrieg - Sonata; Lyrical Pieces;

Holberg Suite
Derek Yaple-Schobert
XXI XXI-CD 2 1604

Claude Debussy once referred to the piano music of Edvard Grieg as “pink bon bons filled with snow.” Today this seems an unkind description, for generations of pianists have delighted in these small gems (myself included), and rightly so – Grieg was a supreme miniaturist, easily capturing a wide range of moods on a small canvas.

This new CD featuring pianist Derek Yaple-Schobert on the XXI label, is a delight, and offers a thoughtfully-chosen program of Grieg’s piano music, ranging from the familiar to the less well-known. A native of Montreal, Yaple-Schobert (who bears an eerie physical resemblance to the young Grieg himself) has long had an affinity with music by Nordic composers, having studied in both Denmark and Sweden. Here, he opens not with one of the small pieces, but with Grieg’s Sonata in E minor, an early work from 1865. The playing is confident and boldly self-assured, as befits the impassioned mood of the music. More lyrical – and certainly more familiar – are Shepherd Boy and Notturno from the Six Lyrical Pieces Op.54 (the entire set is included) which Yaple-Schobert treats with great finesse. By contrast, the March of the Trolls, a quick-paced rustic dance with its ostinato rhythms provides him an opportunity to demonstrate an impressive technique.

One of Grieg’s most familiar and popular pieces, the Holberg Suite has been heard so often in its version for string orchestra that we tend to forget that it originally began as a solo piano piece. In Yaple-Schobert’s capable hands, the neo-Baroque spirit comes through admirably, and from the beginning, he has no trouble in convincing us that this music is as well suited to the solo keyboard as it is to a string orchestra. So I would say gratulerer (congratulations) to Mr. Yaple-Schobert on a fine recording. Bon bons filled with snow? I think not!

Richard Haskell

01_Mahler_BeethovenBeethoven - Piano Concerto No.1;

Mahler - Symphony No.1

Margarita Höhenrieder; Staatskapelle Dresden; Fabio Luisi

EuroArts DVD 2057718

Margarita Höhenrieder is one of those artists who have the personality, intellect and intellectual insight to enhance a sparkling performance. Her playing has refreshing spontaneity and contagious enthusiasm to spare. Not to mention her absolute technical command. Listening to and watching her play the concerto on this disc is a great treat to the extent that I have enjoyed playing it several times over the past week and shall do so again next week. After years of hearing this concerto, my favourite of the five, I find this performance to be refreshing and newly enjoyable throughout. Luisi and his orchestra are inspired to be on the same wavelength.

Luisi took over the Dresden opera in 2004 and the orchestra 2007. The Staatskapelle Dresden is now among the handful of greatest orchestras around. The Mahler First, another long-time favourite, is given a powerful performance that is delivered with uncommon simplicity. What initially seems to be a low key approach is in fact a great Mahlerian triumph with a coda that must be seen and heard to be believed. Impeccable timing and phrasing are trademarks of this conductor as witness his recordings with the MDR Orchestra of several Mahler symphonies and recently the major symphonic works of Richard Strauss with the Staatskapelle Dresden on RCA.

These performances were recorded live in the Philharmonie in Gasteig, Munich on April 9, 2008. Enthusiastically recommended.

Bruce Surtees

03_don_giovanniMozart - Don Giovanni
Simon Keenlyside; Kyle Ketelsen; Eric Halfvarson; Marina Poplavskaya; Royal Opera; Charles Mackerras
OpusArte OA 1009 D

Francesca Zambello’s brilliant production of 2002 has stood the test of time and this eagerly anticipated film was well worth the wait.

Such a pleasure to see a modern production of the complete score without the current trend of Euro-trash modernization, updating and inserting outrageous “new ideas” that pass for inventiveness. This performance is traditional in a sense, but full of imagination and inspiration. A revolving stage is simple and versatile with a curved wall that acts as a trompe l’oeil forming a false perspective of a magnificent renaissance hall for the first act finale. Generally the stage direction aims to clarify the sometimes confusing story and to show the hero in an unsympathetic light while the women are treated with compassion.

Apart from being a visual triumph it is also a wonderful musical performance. This opera requires eight soloists of the highest order, not always possible but here pretty well achieved. Simon Keenlyside is an outrageous and irreverent Don in fine voice and with his sidekick Kyle Ketelsen (Leporello) accentuates the comedy with an excellent vocal and dramatic performance. Among the ladies, all of them memorable, perhaps Joyce DiDonato (Donna Elvira), a highly accomplished singer, stands out the most. Ramon Vargas here is tested as Don Ottavio with splendid results. Robert Gleadow of the COC makes an effective Masetto with his fine deep baritone voice.

But the real success is Sir Charles Mackerras. Now in his 80’s, he is a great conductor and scholar whose achievements are too many to mention, an advocate of period instruments and Mozart specialist (how can we forget his series of Mozart symphonies on Telarc). We can only admire how he springs his orchestra into life with a beautifully detailed, well paced and crisp sounding performance.

Janos Gardonyi

02_elektra_gardenfixElektra’s Garden
Elektra Women’s Choir;

Morna Edmundson & Diane Loomer

Independent EWC0901 (www.elektra.ca)

 

 

 

03_victoria_scholars

Distant Voices
Victoria Scholars
Independent VSR 1002

(www.victoriascholars.ca)

Two Canadian choral releases arrive on the scene at the same time as natural companions: one, an ensemble of all men’s voices, the other, all women’s. The Victoria Scholars are an all-male Toronto group led by Jerzy Cichocki. Their new CD features works by Canadian composers, both secular and sacred. The Elektra Women’s Choir, is based in Vancouver and co-conducted on this recording by Morna Edmundson and Diane Loomer. Their new recording features secular songs from around the world with largely Canadian arrangements.

`Elektra’s tone is light and playful, featuring arrangements of English, Hebrew, Finnish, Spanish, and French selections with some interesting settings of folksongs and poetry. The choir sings with an airy and child-like tone very suitable to the chosen repertoire.

`“Distant Voices” finds its sweetness in Srul Irving Glick’s settings of The Song of Songs, gorgeously enhanced by David Hetherington’s cello. The choir shines in introducing its dark and mystical element with the dramatic title piece by Tomas Dusatko, a 14-minute journey from chaos to reverence. Commissioned by the choir, the skilful execution of this piece is no mean feat. Although also admirably performed, I felt that Imant Raminsh’s Ave verum corpus loses some of its natural shimmer without the full range of male and female voices, though interesting to note is that Elektra has performed this work in its SSAA version.

Dianne Wells

01_fleurs_du_malLes Fleurs du Mal - De Fauré à Ferre
Marc Boucher; Olivier Godin
XXI XXI-CD 2 1590

“Les Fleurs du Mal” (Flowers of Evil), the seminal collection of poems by the French poet Baudelaire, is over 150 years old and it remains an almost inexhaustible source for French song composers. In fact, no less than 30 composers, ranging from Fauré to Debussy to Duparc to Ferre used this poetry as a basis for song cycles and individual masterpieces. All of them were no doubt fascinated by the groundbreaking nature of Baudelaire’s poetry but also to the phrasing lending itself so naturally to musical interpretations. Montreal–based collaborators Marc Boucher and Olivier Godin have undertaken the task of sifting through the mountain of possible options, to come up with 18 songs that are quintessential French Fleurs du mal.

Boucher’s baritone, a resonant and beautiful instrument, tackles Baudelaire’s lyrics with the required romanticism and intensity. His history of collaborating with Godin results in a seamless, almost telepathic connection, where the piano and voice mesh perfectly, embracing the Baudelairian idiom. This may well be the reference recording of “Les Fleurs du Mal”, however eclectic the selections might be.

Robert Tomas

01_beyond_the_paleAs the summer draws to a close one of the first significant events of the new season is the eighth annual Small World Music Festival which takes place September 24 through October 4. A highlight will be the October 1 performance by Toronto klezmer-fusion masters Beyond the Pale at the Lula Lounge. The band’s new album Postcards (Borealis BCD197 www.beyondthepale.net) is an eclectic collection of traditional material in new arrangements and original tunes by various members of the band, notably violin/violist Aleksandar Gajic, mandolin and cimbalom player Eric Stein and clarinettist Martin van de Ven. Milos Popovic, accordion, Bret Higgins, double bass, and Bogdan Djukic on violin and percussion, complete the mix, but among the most effective tracks are three on which the band is joined by vocalist Vira Lozinski. Lozinski is one of the leading voices in the new generation of singers cultivating Yiddish traditions in Israel and she provides a real sense of authenticity and is a perfect complement to the impeccable instrumetal musicianship displayed throughout this fine recording.

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02_something_in_the_airSomething in the Air is a selection of flute music from Alison Melville’s Bird Project. Well-known for her virtuosity on recorders and baroque flutes this CD (Verdandi Music 0906 www.alisonmelville.com/bird) provides a glimpse into a number of other aspects of Melville’s world. Still performing on recorders and traverso, for the most part this repertoire is far from what we’d expect from a baroque specialist. The disc opens with Linda C. Smith’s tranquil Magnolia which segues seamlessly into Ben Grossman’s The Ill Fated Ornithopter, which in turn morphs into Melville’s take on Hildegard von Bingen’s O ignis spiritus and then a free improvisation between Melville’s flute and Grossman’s hurdy-gurdy. The third performer involved in the recording is narrator Kathleen Kajioka who is first heard reciting Lorna Crozier’s Tafelmusik-commissioned poem If Bach were a bird overlaid upon a traditional Shanghai opera melody and followed by a recorder rendition of Bach’s Gavotte from BWV 1006. This is just a taste of the eclectic delights on offer throughout this disc. Other jewels include two “Bento boxes” comprised of Japanese Haiku interspersed with improvised instrumental sections; Ben Grossman’s electronic Birdddub and unusual baroque selections including Jakob van Eyck’s The Little English Nightingale and the anonymous Bird Fancier’s Delight from 1717 in which we are presented with pieces to teach to wild birds - five ditties intended for the instruction of nightingales, canaries, starlings, woodlarks and parrots. Concert note: The Bird Project will present two concerts and a guided nature walk at Todmorden Mills Heritage Museum and Arts Centre, beginning at noon on September 19.

I must confess I don’t quite know what to make of the latest Centrediscs release, P*P (CMCCD 15009) from Toronto’s Toca Loca. This unusual ensemble – Gregory Oh and Simon Docking, pianos and Aiyun Huang, percussion – is a relative newcomer on the Toronto contemporary scene. But since its inception in 2001 Toca Loca has established itself as a vibrant and dynamic force to be reckoned with. High performance standards and the ensemble’s international reach has resulted in some of the most memorable and entertaining performances of serious, and seriously witty, contemporary music in Toronto in recent years. Although they have worked with some of the country’s finest young singers, for this project all the vocals – and vocalisms – are provided by the members of the ensemble. There is no singing per se, but certainly a lot of recitation, declamation and exclamation – well, yelling actually. The strident tone is set by the opening track, Canadian performance artist Myra Davies’ No Time, a clever take on a common modern circumstance performed at breakneck speed by Gregory Oh. Most of the other works are by “serious” composers of Toca Loca’s generation – 30 to 40 something – including Aaron Gervais, Juliet Palmer, Andrew Staniland, Veronika Krausas, Erik Ross and Nicole Lizée. Perhaps the most disturbing is Staniland’s Made in China which is given 2 distinctly different interpretations in male and female renditions, although alt-pop singer-songwriter Laura Barrett’s Robot Ponies runs a close second, for very different reasons. Quinsin Nachoff’s Toca Loca juxtaposes piano with Fender Rhodes and vibraphone in a world that spans jazz and pop inflection to create something at once familiar and “wondrous strange”, something that could be said of this whole disc. But what’s with the packaging? The 20 page booklet contains only minimal program notes and no biographical material but does include a graphic novel of sorts which at time of writing still remains a mystery to me.

04_leesThanks to Naxos I may remember 2009 as “the summer of the string quartet”, with new releases by several intriguing and lesser known 20th century composers. The Cypress Quartet’s recording of Benjamin Lees’ String Quartets Nos. 1, 5 and 6 (8.559628) is a great introduction to the chamber music of a composer better known for Grammy nominated larger works, Symphony No. 5 and the Violin Concerto. The quartets date from 1952, 2002 and 2005 and give a good idea of where Lees was coming from – he was 28 when the first quartet was written – and where is now. Interestingly, the fifth was written for the Cypress Quartet’s “Call and Response” series, where a composer is asked to create a work influenced by two standard quartet pieces which would be performed alongside the premiere, in this case quartets of Shostakovich and Britten. The lyricism of this work is juxtaposed with the more abrasive Sixth Quartet.
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05_gan-ruTouted as China’s “first avant-garde composer”, Ge Gan-Ru is a name which I had not encountered before the release of Fall of Baghdad – String Quartets Nos. 1, 4 and 5 (Naxos 8.570603) performed by ModernWorks. Born in Shanghai in 1954, his violin studies were interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. In 1974 when the Shanghai Conservatory re-opened he returned, switching his major to composition three years later. His first major work, Yi Feng (Lost Style) for “radically detuned cello”, was received with consternation and criticism, but established him as a pioneer. This was followed by his first string quartet Fu (Prose-Poem) which was a work-in-progress when he was invited to New York to study with Chou Wen-chung at Columbia University in 1982. Fu was picked up by the Kronos Quartet shortly after its completion and Ge went on to receive his doctorate from Columbia in 1991 and continues to live in the USA. This CD presents distinctly different quartets from 1983 (Fu), 1998 (Angel Suite) and 2007 (The Fall of Baghdad), providing glimpses into the development of this multi-faceted and culturally innovative composer.
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06_ginasteraBetter known, but still not a household name, is the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. Although considered one of the most important South American composers, his reputation has been overshadowed by his student Astor Piazzolla and perhaps his brightest moment in the sun was Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s 1973 recording of Toccata, an adaptation of the finale from Ginastera’s first piano concerto, on “Brain Salad Surgery”. Welcome then is the Ensö Quartet’s recording of the Complete String Quartets (8.570780). Dating from 1948, 1968 and 1973 the three quartets span much of Ginastera’s creative career. For the final work the quartet is joined by soprano Lucy Shelton in three of the five movements which feature texts by Juan Ramón Jiménez and Federico Garcia Lorca.


07_villa_lobosSpeaking of South American composers, five years ago in this column I mentioned that the Cuarteto Latinoamericano recordings of the Complete String Quartets of Heitor Villa-Lobos originally released on Dorian had been re-issued on the budget Brilliant label. I am now pleased to report that Dorian has been reincarnated as Dorian sono luminus and those recordings have been re-released as a 6 CD set (DSL-90904) with a new bonus DVD featuring video of the first string quartet and the Cuarteto members discussing the importance of Villa-Lobos and his cycle of 17 string quartets. Priced at about $6 a disc this is a set to treasure.
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David Olds

DISCoveries Editor

discoveries@thewholenote.com



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